From Beirut to Baghdad

Dear Friends,

I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to send news about my life and movements in the Middle East. For several months I was brought to the edge of sanity through Arabic instruction. Arabic. Turns out, not an easy language. Who knew? I still can hardly string a sentence together.

Though my Arabic language program was less than a success, the American University of Beirut where I was studying was a pleasant place to do so — familiar and foreign. Imagine Ottoman architects under the direction of (wait for it) Presbyterian missionaries building dormitories and faculties of a symmetry and arrangement which in Ohio would be instantly recognizable as a land-grant college campus but which here, on a sandy red peninsula called Ras Beirut — the Head of Beirut — look out through Turkish arches and patterned fountains surrounded not by ivy and maple but bougainvillea and boab, cedar and eucalyptus, tumbling down to the ancient and polluted sea.

I live in Achrafiye, the bourgeois Frenchy part of town just over the Green Line in Christian East Beirut. I chose this less for sectarian reasons, and more because I’m a stone’s throw from the main nightclub district, Rue Monot. I keep myself in shabby Orientalist splendor in the last unrenovated building on the block, the top floor above a mom and pop drug store — Pharmacie Yared. If you can ignore the stray cats, the lack of air conditioning, the ant colonies, and the unreliable “plumbing,” its a gracious place, where there are seemingly always guests (thanks to my roommate, the world’s friendliest German graduate student) always a chess game, always the potential for a cookout. In the evening, on the roof, we drink beer as the bats come out, as Filipino maids take to the balconies around us, and as the sun sets through water tanks and illegal television cables, the call to payer sounds, first the Sunnis below and beyond in West Beirut, and then Shia in the mosques that weren’t cleansed from the ridge above us, echoing and responding to each other, a muzzein slam every night.

I’m doing ok. I’m still happy to call Beirut home, but its limitations are more apparent. Yes, the womenfolk are gorgeous, and I’ve had no problems going native. I was quickly adopted by the entire female workforce of the Leo Burnet Worldwide advertising agency’s local office, several of whose members (describing themselves as “budding stylists”) offered to give me a makeover. Unfortunately I took they suggestion rather badly, so we’ll never know exactly what they had in mind. “Well, you could have better jeans” was as far as they got.

On the other hand, no one here “dates.” Almost all unmarried women live at home. They just fool around in cars until their early 20′s and then get married. I have a 28-year-old friend whose mother is making her lie and say she’s 26. The mother wanted her to say she’s 24 but when you live in the same town where you were born its hard to lop 4 years off your life without anyone noticing.

Since classes ended this summer, I’ve been struggling to get myself set up and get operational. I still haven’t been able to get an Internet connection and land line, which makes being a reporter complicated.

And Lebanon is a country smaller than Connecticut with a stagnant economy, and stagnant politics — it’s still semi-occupied by Syria and propped up with Saudi money. So the keys to Lebanon are elsewhere right now. Interesting things are going to happen here, but not until they happen somewhere else first. Plenty of journalists live in town though — they set up camp here and work wherever there’s action. So that’s what I’m getting ready to do.

Had a somewhat pointless September — continuously planning and delaying a trip to Baghdad. My parents, en route to Greece and Italy, came for a four-day visit, which was quite welcome but also unnerving considering they aren’t thrilled with my plans for Iraq. The visit felt like something between an intervention and a sendoff. Almost immediately afterwards, my partner for the journey to Iraq bowed out, I threw my back out, and then came down with the flu. I’m on the mend, and should be leaving this week, but inaction is always more exhausting than action.

Conditions in Baghdad are of course less than ideal. I’ve been trying to line up a job where I’ll be working around people who know what they’re doing and will be there when I need them. But that’s hard to do without my actually being there. I’ve found plenty of editors in New York or London who will take stories but not responsibility (or, more to the point, liability.) The hope is that by showing up in all the key hotel bars, I’ll get taken on by one of the larger organizations. Have promising contacts with the AP, The WSJ, the Times, and some others.

One of the tricks is getting there. I’ll be heading to Amman, which has become the main staging point for getting in and out. With all the UN staff leaving, it will also be a good spot to get information and talk to people. Car convoys leave regularly, but are also carjacked regularly, sometimes in collusion with the drivers. I’ve got the name of a reliable one, but I also may take the plane. There are no commercial flights, but for a hefty fee you can try for a free seat on one of the NGO charters. Since traffic is largely in the other direction these days, it should be easy to find one. The problem then is finding a safe ride from the airport to the hotel.

Anyway, I’m sorry I’ve never done much with my website or any mass e-mail updates. Most of what I could have sent out would have been along the usual jocular lines — “So there I was, surrounded by…” — and though you’ll be glad to know that I have picked up plenty of that kind of material (some things don’t change) I haven’t really wanted to give the accidental journalist schtick again, especially since I’ve got some potentially serious shit ahead of me. But hopefully I’ll soon be able to send along something useful from a place about which we are all concerned.

Yours, Andrew

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