In Ali's Hands, Tripoli's Heritage Shines

Saturday, December 31, 2005 | Tripoli, Lebanon (map)

A young baker's assistant hustles his precarious load through Tripoli's narrow market streets.
The next day, Julian and Emma were both out of commission with a strong cold, but Julian told me to go ahead with our planned visit to Tripoli on my own. Having already spent a few days exploring Beirut, I obliged, and picked up a bus bound for the northern port near the Syrian border.

In Tripoli, I picked my way across the Old City, which reminded me strongly of Aleppo, its Syrian cousin a few hundred kilometers to the northeast. It was still early in the morning when I reached the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles (قلعة سان جيل), a towering castle named for the leader of the First Crusade who oversaw its construction around 1100 AD. Much of the castle was largely intact, and unlike the castles in Syria, this one was well restored and the grass lawns of its inner courtyards well tended. The citadel offered a view over the Old City and the sea in one direction and a river valley in the other, with snow-topped mountains in the distance.

Baalbek, Home to History and Hezbollah

Friday, December 30, 2005 | Baalbek, Lebanon (map)

Many of the fine details in the ruins are preserved today, along with inscriptions marking eons of construction and conquest.
After Beirut, Baalbek is perhaps Lebanon's second most famous tourist destination. On the day after Christmas, Julian, Emma, and I woke early to make the trip to the Beqaa Valley (سهل البقاع) to see the ruins of Baalbek (بعلبك), a once mighty Roman metropolis and current World Heritage Site.

On a street by our hotel, we flagged down a friendly, near-toothless taxi driver named Abu Ahmed. Rather than wrangle with buses all day, we decided to pay him the US$80 he asked to chauffeur us.

The drive to Baalbek took some two hours, and first led us over the mountains which lie inland from Beirut. The range was covered in snow and buried deeply in the clouds, so the going was definitely a little hair-raising, as we had been warned. Abu Ahmed slid his way over the mountains, however, and through many army checkpoints, none of which ever asked us to stop.

Down in the valley the weather was brisk but the ground free of snow. At the gate to the ruins, we

Tyre & Sidon: Seafood and Sightseeing in Southern Lebanon

Thursday, December 29, 2005 | Saida, Lebanon (map)

Sidon's Sea Castle (قلعة البحر) is in remarkably good condition considering how precarious is its location.
We spent Christmas morning winding southward along the Lebanese coast in a half-filled minibus, with a crisp rain blowing off the Mediterranean. With the beach in sight, plentiful palm trees, aquamarine water, and the mild air, it hardly seemed like Christmas day, I mused. But then again, we are practically in the Holy Land; this is probably more like the original day than any "White Christmas" back in the States.

Julian, Emma, and I disembarked at the southern port of Tyre (صور), some 30km north of the Israeli border, and ate a seafood lunch in a cozy restaurant by the harbor. Outside the window, fishermen mended their nets along the docks.

Hopped up on cold medicine, Julian was borderline delirious and not much use in navigating the town's markets after lunch. Luckily, Lebanon is probably the one country in the world where the

On Christmas Eve, Exploring Beirut by Day and by Night

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon (map)

Some streets in the Lebanese capital were decked with Christmas lights, a welcome sight for me and other homesick travelers.
Last night I snapped up in bed at the sound of a huge explosion, sure that our hotel was being bombed. A moment later, another. Then the raindrops started. I breathed a sigh of relief and sunk back into my bed—it was just thunder. With all the bombings that still go on here in Beirut, I guess I'm just nervous.

This morning Julian and I ignored the rain and decided to explore some different parts of Beirut. We visited the American University, and found the campus quite beautiful even in this weather. We also toured the National Museum, which was full of Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Crusader era statues, coins, pottery, tombs, and other artifacts. The older Phoenician objects often had heiroglyphics, evidence of ancient Egypt's extensive influence on life and trade here in Lebanon in the first several millennia BC.

Hooked on Phoenicia: A Week in Lebanon

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon (map)

In Beirut, some buildings are no more than empty husks, pitted with the signs of war, while other have been wholly rebuilt.
Since I last saw him in Damascus, my friend Julian and I had been trying to find a chance to get together before I returned to the States. We settled on a week in Lebanon around Christmas, when his fiancée Emma would be visiting.

A few days before the holiday, the three of us met at Talal's New Hotel, a small backpacker joint in Beirut's Gemmayzeh neighborhood, and promptly headed out for some mezzeh (often described as "Lebanese tapas"). We caught up on each other's news, and I tried to digest what little of Beirut I had seen in my route from the airport to the hotel to the restaurant.

* * *

Back during my freshman year, my friend Mahmud invited me to his Arabic class for a screening of West Beyrouth (بيروت الغربية). One of my all-time favorites, the beautiful film tells the story of three

Dispatches from Daily Life in Amman

Sunday, December 18, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

Myself, our teacher Najah, and two classmates, Anders the Dane and Umit the Turk.
In my last days here in Amman, I just want to share with everyone back home what some of my daily experiences are like here in Jordan's capital.

As I've written before, on the surface Amman looks a lot like an American suburb, but daily life in this culture is different (even if it's not as different as I might like). I've learned to adapt in part, but not yet to feel at home—or even as happy as I did in Damascus.

Learning Arabic is the main reason I'm here, and thus the main focus of my days, which I spend at the University of Jordan's Arabic Language Center, home to the foreign students, local Arabic teachers, and a few curious Jordanian students who come to make foreign friends and practice their English. A rotating bunch of classmates and I eat lunch each day at the university cafeteria, or sometimes at an

"What's Greater Than God?": Notes on Religion in Jordan

Friday, December 16, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

A modernist mosque in downtown Amman.
Here in Jordan, just beside the Holy Land, religion is everywhere. Islam and spirituality pervade daily life. Discussing and reflecting on this theme has been particularly interesting while living with a Christian family in an almost entirely Muslim country. Living under the roof of a prominent Melkite Catholic priest who runs a center dedicated to promoting interfaith coexistence makes it even more interesting.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, provoked lots of conversations on faith. Despite not being Muslim or living with a Muslim family, I decided to fast for the full month, as I had done on my own last year at Georgetown.

The fasting was made more difficult by the Haddads' bewilderment at my decision. "But, wait... you're not Muslim. Why would you do that to yourself?" was my host siblings' reaction. I explained that, no, I was indeed not Muslim, but that I enjoyed the challenge of the experience, and the feeling of solidarity with everyone around me. (Well, everyone except of course for the small