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After moving to Philadelphia in 1982, I quickly discovered McGlinchey’s, home of the 50-cent draft of Rolling Rock, and Bacchanal, where there were poetry readings on Mondays. When I had a few extra bucks, I also treated myself to a chopped liver sandwich at the original Latimer Deli, or a meatloaf and mashed potato dinner at a now-disappeared diner on 11th and Locust.

When I took a girl to Latimer, she smilingly said, “I’ll try that too,” but after the messy, putative crime was shamelessly produced, the cornered victim simply twisted her pretty face, “What is this?! It looks like chicken shit!” She did eat it.

Later, I’d have many fond memories of diners across America, in Cheyenne, Denver, Saint Paul, Saint Louis, Des Moines, Detroit, Joliet, Bellows Falls, Scranton, Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah, El Paso, San Antonio, Reno and Wolf Point, etc., though I’m still traumatized by the fraudulent chicken fried steak I somehow managed to ingest, waste not, want not, at an otherwise charming diner in McCook, Nebraska.

With its futuristic signs, chrome plated walls, colored neons, cozy booths, democratic counters, no-nonsense waitresses and ample portions of comfort food, the American diner is both wholesome yet sexy, down-to-earth yet cool, especially to foreigners, for most have only seen such eateries in glammed-up Hollywood films like Swingers, Grease, True Romance and Pulp Fiction, etc.

For the educated, the Swiss-born Robert Frank’s diners will always mesmerize, and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is as iconic an image of America as any. Stark alienation has never looked so good.

In any foreign city, sooner or later I’d look for an American diner, because, it’s only natural, man, I couldn’t help but crave some breakfast sausage, home fries or a legitimate cheeseburger. Plus, I wanted to see how American culture had been translated, distilled or refracted, an ongoing investigation.

Living for four months in Busan, I’d take a two-hour train ride to Waegwan, just to enjoy Country Restaurant’s all-American menu, as expertly prepared by a Filipina cook. Facing Camp Carrol’s main gate, its clientele was almost exclusively young American soldiers, with most of them black or Hispanic.

Its South Korean owner had just enough English to banter. Overhearing a female soldier say, “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he jumped in, “Alcohol, kill virus!” Later, as she and her friends were leaving, he shouted, “Merry Christmas!” It was mid-May. “Happy New Year!” she hollered back.

Country Restaurant wasn’t quite a diner, however.

In Pyeongtaek, though, I thought I had found the real MacKay. From the outside, I could see a jukebox and a black waitress, and even its name resonated personally.

Barging into Rocky’s, I blubbered, “This looks like a real diner!” I was more than ready to kiss her feet, or at least hug her thick thighs.

“Huh?”

“I said this looks like a real diner!”

She showed no comprehension.

“Uh, are you American?”

“No.”

What’s another disappointment in a life filled with them? Rocky’s Crosley jukebox was merely decorative. Its burger was pretty damn good, though.

Five hundred words into this article, you’re probably wondering, “What the hell does all this have to do with the bait-and-switch title?! Have I been jewed again?” Watch your anti-Semitic language! Be patient. I know you’re running out of time.

Here in Tirana, the closest I’ve found to a diner is Stephen Center. With its pancakes, huevos rancheros, BLT, chef salad, bacon cheeseburger, tuna melt, beef burrito and fried chicken, etc., it’s as down home as you’re going to get in the Balkans, and this is Albania, remember, a country so isolated 30 years ago, it was tagged the North Korea of Europe.

All its cutesy signs are so knowing, they couldn’t have put up by non-Americans, and sure enough, Stephen Center is owned by an American couple. Here as soon as Albania reopened in the early 90’s, they’re missionaries.

Their evangelism is evident through Stephen Center’s Christian messages, placed here and there, and even on the sugar packets, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life—John 3, 16.”

In Washington DC many moons ago, I used to frequent Scholl’s, a cafeteria with a Christian message at each table. Whatever, man, the food was good enough, and super cheap, though often overcooked, to accommodate its mostly elderly, thus dentally challenged, patrons.

Stephen Center’s Christianity, though, is ultra specific.

Done with a satisfying Santa Fe omelet, I decided to order a pot of tea and read a free magazine or two, from a rack by the door. Through large windows, blessed sunlight warmed us all, down to each smirking microbe. It was a beautiful day.

You won’t believe this, but so many elegant and dignified individuals kept walking by. Seeing a baby stroller being pushed across the street, I felt an unreasonable fear for the infant’s safety. Trusting her guardian completely, she innocently raised both hands, as if in triumph. Another astonishing day awaited her.

Opening Word—from Jerusalem, I was greeted by its editor, Jurgen Buhler, who informed me that, despite Covid-19, “Our staff decided to stay [in Israel] and we ended up packing thousands of Passover boxes, delivering groceries for the elderly and, at the Haifa Home, our Christian staff and volunteers were the only ones allowed to care for the 70 Holocaust survivors living there […] Meantime, we brought over 550 Russian and Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helped cover the extra cost of their two-week quarantine upon arrival, all in cooperation with the Jewish Agency.”

 
• Category: History • Tags: American Media, Christianity, Holocaust 

Though long-inhabited, Tirana never became a city until after World War II. In 1938, it had but 38,000 people. Further, its architectural heritage has been much destroyed during the Communist decades, so there are almost no historical churches or mosques left.

A striking exception is the Et’hem Bey Mosque, completed in 1821. Only shuttered by Enver Hoxha, it was not razed. When it was reopened without permission in 1991, thousands of people converged there to pray. Its walls and dome are lushly covered with mosaics depicting landscapes and plant motifs. Elegantly proportioned, it’s a gorgeous mosque. Turkey is financing its restoration. Nearby, a much bigger mosque, also funded by Turkey, is being built.

Since the Et’hem Bey occupies one corner of Skanderbeg Square, I see it almost every day. A vast, unobstructed space like a parade ground, Skanderbeg was where thousands of solemnly dressed Albanians knelt, with their heads bowed, to mourn Stalin’s death in 1953. There in 1991, a 32-feet-high statue of Enver Hoxha was toppled, while the dictator’s portraits and books curled, blackened and ashened in bonfires, to much bitter jubilation.

Just off Skanderbeg is Café Flora. Opened in the 1930’s, it’s one of Tirana’s oldest, though you wouldn’t know it by its slick and sterile appearance. Surely, it’s no longer the establishment described by Ismail Kadar in his 2009 novel, The Girl in Exile.

Under vague yet worrying government scrutiny, a playwright arranged to meet one of his investigators at Café Flora, for an exploratory, informal chat. Maybe it wasn’t the brightest idea, “What am I letting myself in for? he asked himself as he passed the marble colonnade of the Palace of Culture, his mind dogged by the thought that he was going like a lamb to the slaughter.”

Entering, the playwright was momentarily surprised to find the investigator at his favorite table. What a coincidence, he thought, but of course, “The investigator would know as well as he did where he liked to sit. As all Tirana knew, the Flora came second after the Dajti for microphones under the tables.”

As the watched watched the watcher for clues to why he was being watched, they talked like ordinary acquaintances, but of course, there was nothing normal about their conversation, or Café Flora, Tirana and Albania of that era. One man was totally at the mercy of the other, and it didn’t matter that, up to that point, he had been a playwright much esteemed by the Party.

With total power, the Party, or more specifically, Enver Hoxha, could just change his mind, and decide that a thoroughly loyal servant or longstanding comrade is an enemy. This apparently happened to Mehmet Shehu, Hoxha’s right hand man. Expected by all to succeed the ailing dictator by 1981, Shehu suddenly died, supposedly by suicide, then came the preposterous announcement that Shehu had long been an agent of the CIA, KGB, British and Yugoslavs. Hoxha also sent Shehu’s widow and two sons to prison, where one committed suicide.

Of course, Shehu didn’t rise to the top of the Communist hierarchy by being such a nice guy. Shehu in 1961, “Whoever disagrees with our leadership in any respect, will get spat in the face, punched on the chin, and, if necessary, a bullet in his head.” Shehu certainly got one.

Six years after Hoxha’s death, his wife, Nexhmije, was arrested for embezzlement. Jailed for just five years, she had it easy. Albanians knew all about her pompous, extravagant lifestyle, which was standard for the elite of every Communist country, but why should anyone be surprised? What’s the use of power if one can’t gorge, or exact terrible revenge against each offense, no matter how slight or imaginary?

Though the US is well on its way towards totalitarianism, it’s only half-erected, as proven by the half-assed skirmishes among its politicos. When Trump threatened to arrest Hillary, for example, he was only kidding, and they both knew it, for they’re in the same bed. As for rigged elections, Kerry, too, only jokingly dawdled with the hanging chad diddle. After being screwed by Hillary, Sanders beamingly endorsed her top shelf, naked strap-on.

At this stage, it’s only flag football, or, more accurately, fag football. Despite all the hollering, prancing and pansy pantsing, no hitting is allowed. See any blood?

The US is also missing its Great Dear Leader, with Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump afforded only brief cameos as cabana boys in chief. Here in Albania, Hoxha ruled for 40 years! Next door in Yugoslavia, Tito reigned for 37! Think about that.

Narcissistic ogres, they loved themselves to death. Such type will always be adored and worshipped by the infantile, hankering for their uber daddy, but luckily for the US, the country should disintegrate before such a savior appears.

In The Albanians, Miranda Vickers describes Hoxha’s 1946 visit to Belgrade, where he was “shocked by Tito’s arrogance and elitism.” Intending to swallow up Albania, Tito had to show who was boss, “Tito wore a white marshal’s uniform with a gold-embroidered collar and matching cuffs, and abundant medal ribbons on his chest to complement the stars on his epaulettes—this ensemble being completed by a huge sparkling diamond ring on his finger. Hoxha felt offended, humiliated and probably exceedingly jealous of all this excessive and ostentatious display, following so soon after the austere misery of the wartime struggle from which both he and Tito had just emerged.”

Conflict or even open war among Communist nations should prove, even to dumbshits, that nationalism is always a factor, no matter what your brainwashed or lying professor told you.

With such a recent past of abject poverty, physical isolation, mental suffocation and widespread state terror, it’s no wonder Albanians have worked hard to remake their society, to give it a new, cosmopolitan sheen that’s almost entirely free of nostalgia, for there isn’t much to fondly remember.

Of course, Tirana also looks new because nearly all its businesses could only appear after the collapse of Communism. Street after street, all the cafés, restaurants, bars and shops seem uniformly new, with each piece of furniture just installed, and the walls freshly painted and without memories. There are no black-and-white photos of long-dead patrons in any bar, no quirky painting forgotten in a corner. By October of 1994, there were just five restaurants in the entire city!

When the past is evoked, it’s nearly always imported, and why not? Since movies, TV shows and songs also become memories, you can modify your past, sort of, by lifting someone else’s media.

Near me, there’s the Vital Café. Among its framed images is Lewis Hine’s 1910 photo of boys smoking, Uncle Sam with “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY,” Manhattan Bridge as seen from Brooklyn, a pencil drawing of the Statue of Liberty, and a generic photo of a Lisbon streetcar. There’s no image of Albania.

 
• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Albania, Communism, Hitler, Holocaust, Jews 

The older you get, the more likely you are to ramble, or, to put it more delicately, to improvise quite freely, incoherently or repetitively, the more you’ll sound like Sun Ra on acid, in short.

Warning label out of the way, I must talk about dogs, to start with.

In Egypt, they’re everywhere, but nearly all are strays. Never petted nor allowed indoors, they find warmth on the heated metal of parked or abandoned cars. Like Egyptian sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, cats and even herons, they eat garbage, which in Egypt is quite plentiful, everywhere. From birth to death, they live a most unnatural existence, not unlike humans.

Eternally hounded, they look at you with pitiful eyes and don’t even dare to whimper. Only once did Egyptian dogs bark at me, and that was in Cairo’s City of the Dead. Among the lowest of that society, these creatures seemed less wretched.

With its quiet, uncluttered streets and often grand, dignified structures, The City of the Dead is perhaps Cairo’s most pleasant neighborhood. Incredibly, it’s also very affordable. Paying no rent, the living coexist, quite peacefully, with the long-dead, inside abandoned tombs.

Since the dead don’t drive, parking isn’t a problem, but they definitely do enjoy coffee, at least in moderation. Relaxing at a City of the Dead café, I was vaguely hoping some long departed broad would show up. Well decomposed, she had had enough time to deconstruct herself, thus come to some self-understanding, if not wisdom, after a conversation or two with God, perhaps. If in hell, she could finally see the Devil without disguise. Her conquered, done with, he could laughingly confide to her all his tricks.

Plus, to her eyes, I would be considered young, fresh meat.

Even with minimal foot traffic, the City of the Dead still has its beggars, so I gave some cheerful, white bearded guy, sitting on the ground, enough for lunch.

Speaking of which, I just had my first cheeseburger in Tirana. Most promisingly, it came with what looked like dill pickles, but, oy vey iz mir, these were merely thinly sliced cucumber!

As a bonafide Jew, as proven by this T-shirt, dearly purchased in Vientiane, Laos, there’s no way I’m going to put up with this gasly insult! It’s like being slapped six million times! And where, pray tell, is their Holocaust Memorial Museum? There’s not even a synagogue here. I don’t care that Albanians fought against both Mussolini and Hitler, these people are obviously brazen Nazis!

Italian culture is common here. Everywhere, pizza, pasta and calzoni are sold. Albanian prosciutto is not quite Italian quality, but good enough. Standing in a bakery, I’m staring at rolls called tartarughe [turtles] and rosette, just like in il bel paese, and a croissant here is also a brioche.

Every language is a collective poem, with each grunt or exhalation an inspired moment, once upon a time or just yesterday. Take the Albanian makina. Derived from the Italian macchina, it means machine or car, but car as merely machine is very childish, of course, if not ridiculous, but that’s its charm, just like the Spanish tienda means tent or store.

Call me biased, but the cutest along that line is the Vietnamese for crocodile, cá sấu, which literally means ugly fish.

Man plays with language, for it’s his most available toy, and costs nothing, except loss of employment, prison or even death, if he’s corralled inside a Satanic system. Worse off than dogs in a necropolis, he can’t even bark.

Smile, you’re not quite there yet, but watch your back.

If you consider death as the total erasure of reality, then its eclipse is always a partial death, so how dark has your noon become?

As I waver between turtles and rosettes, Fred Buscaglione is belting, “Guarda che luna! Guarda che mare!” From this night, without you, I must remain. OK, Fred.

During those suffocating decades of Enver Hoxha’s Communism, Italian radio broadcasts, heard surreptitiously, were all Albanians had of the outside world.

In return, Albania beamed its Stalinist and Maoist messages towards Italians, but such relentless hammering and sickling wasn’t too popular, so music had to be interspersed.

In December of 1972, Hoxha have had enough of this diluted nonsense, so he ordered Radio Tirana’s directors, composers and singers sent to internment camps, along with their families.

Few things are as weird as a Communist song and dance routine, for it is most awkwardly pistoned by rigid, coerced emotions. No spontaneity is allowed, not even an impromptu smile.

I witnessed this firsthand at a North Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh, where the stiffly pretty waitresses wore the most plastic faces as they gutted out shlock rock or pop numbers. Their guitar, bass and drum playing was adroit, but as anyone with a soul must know, precise muscle twitching alone doesn’t make music. It was torture, especially for them.

Granted, to be civilized is to compose and choreograph yourself constantly, but under a totalitarian regime, this imperative is pushed to an insane degree, at all time, even when you’re alone, for Big Brother has been implanted inside your skull.

Everyone is always watching everyone else, and himself, for ideological deviations. A single thought crime can finish you off. No playfulness is allowed. Hyper conscious, your mind eats itself.

Even with your children, you must always be on guard, for they have been well indoctrinated, day after day at school, to detect and denounce heretics.

In Tirana, the former headquarters of the secret police has been turned into a museum, House of Leaves. Here, thousands were taken to be interrogated, often under torture. Like its innocent name, this sinister place has been mostly scrubbed of its terror.

In one room, though, there are photographs of political prisoners on trial. Violated, humiliated and hopelessly doomed, their faces show fear or abjection, of course, but also a stubborn dignity, with more than a hint of disbelief, as in how can such savagery occur in a land they so love and think they know so well?

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Egypt 

I’m in downtown Tirana. My 7th floor room has a fridge, desk, three chairs and a wardrobe. There’s also an electric kettle, which is useful not just for hot beverages, but instant noodles and soups. Heat is love.

My private bathroom is clean and new, with plenty of hot water, and strong shower jets. My wide window affords a panorama of tenements backstopped by a mountain range. Each dawn, a soft, considerate sun rises, cheering my prospect. On my wall, there’s a nice kitschy painting of snow-capped, craggy peaks.

For all these privileges, I pay just $427 for four weeks.

Although my landlady speaks no English, there’s no problem. Tiny, pleasant and hushed, she’s in the next room. Walking by her door, I can barely hear her television murmuring, if she’s there. In her 60’s, she’s as scatterbrained as me.

When I paid her at check in, she looked perplexed, before remembering she had left her money purse under my mattress. Fishing it out, she giggled at her own battiness. Still amused at herself, the old bird handed me my change in leks.

With suppressed excitement slightly tinged with dread, I should lift the mattress to see what else she has forgotten? There’s liable to be anything, from a broken comb, to tangled hair, to a mummified mermaid. In Egypt, where I was just at, you can book a fully furnished apartment, wink, wink, and get your musty cellar hosed out by the en suite maid.

Leaving Cairo was more eventful than necessary. An airport employee asked repeatedly for a tip just for lifting my backpack and duffle bag onto the luggage scanner, although I had told him specifically not to, for who needs such a service? Although it was only a minor shakedown, I didn’t pay him.

Two security guys then spent five minutes examining my three hard-drives, with one demanding I checked them in. After I firmly balked at this, he backed of.

At passport control, an officer steered me to another who said I had to pay $23 for overstaying my visa. After I explained that Egyptian laws allowed visitors to overstay for up to two weeks without being fined, both officers cracked up and promptly let me through. Guffawing along, I merely blurted, “I loved Egypt so much, I had to stay another week!”

Don’t get me wrong. Ordinary Egyptians were fine. On subways, strangers would offer me their seats, since they couldn’t stand to see such a white-haired guy standing with his eyes shut. (I often close them to focus or just rest.) Cairo’s streets invigorated me, and its architecture is second to none, though awfully decayed, as I’ve already stated.

What’s wrong with Egypt, above all, is its government. As established by Nasser, it is a police state dominated by the military, with socialist policies that have wrecked its economy.

Since Nasser gave the poor free bread, free land and practically free rent, he was hugely popular among them, but by chasing out the enterprising class, Nasser destroyed Egypt’s development.

Promising a job to every college graduate, Nasser created a huge bureaucracy of state employees who did almost nothing. His universal welfare triggered a huge population explosion, so now, there are over 100 million Egyptians on a land meant for a fraction of that.

Nasser’s revolutionary zeal also led him to intervene in Yemen, a catastrophe that drained his treasury and weakened his army, but the great, charismatic man with plenty of bon mots couldn’t see this, obviously, for he kept on threatening Israel most bombastically. Only a spectacularly humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War could puncture Nasser’s hubris.

Arriving in Cairo just before New Year, I noticed many armed soldiers, and even armored vehicles, around Tahrir Square. This was a preventive measure against crowd disturbance or terrorism during the holiday, I thought, but the military never left. It’s there, 24/7, primarily to prevent fresh protests against the government.

A clerk at my hotel was jailed for a month just for snapping photos of a protest, but luckily, he wasn’t abused while locked up, a too common practice there.

Twice, I was accosted by armed cops, one with an assault rifle, for merely taking photos of Coptic churches. Outside Faisal Metro Station, an un-uniformed cop grabbed my camera after I had snapped some funky food stand. He then forced me to follow him inside to see his supervisor. In Alexandria, an angry cop told me to stop photographing a tenement.

Seeing a smiling Sisi often, I couldn’t help but photograph his face at butcher stalls, a laundry service, draped on a hotel, inside a subway station, over a café, another café, a snack and soft drink stand, at a machine part dealer, a coffee and tea store, clothing store, behind a vegetable stand, by a garage, stuck to a tenement, on the side of a truck, outside a spice shop, paired with the Sphinx, saluting himself, and here shaking hands with the always clueless Pope Francis.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Albania 

Flying into Egypt, I was given a one-month visa, which I got right at the airport for a small fee. One is allowed to overstay for two weeks, however, so I’ll likely take advantage of this. I’m getting more comfortable in Cairo, and why not?

In any unknown neighborhood, you must figure out where you can drink coffee, eat affordably and buy the basics, and if you’re partial to green bottles with cheery labels, where you can get buzzed for just a slurry song.

A conservative Muslim country, Egypt is not exactly a bar hopping paradise, but there are hoppy joints. Being right downtown, I have options.

Since my hotel receptionist is an Armenian, he has no qualms about boozing, “But I don’t really socialize. Prices have gone up. I go home and stay home.” He lives near the Giza Metro Station.

“Let’s go to Stella!” My treat, of course, except I haven’t been able to find it. It has no sign.

Although alcohol consumption is allowed, it must be discreet, so no loud music or butt flossed bartenders, such as they have in even frostbitten Michigan. Nothing like Hooters, in short. (Hey, there’s an untapped market here. Go for it!) Most of Egypt is bone dry.

Prowling around looking for elusive Stella, I have been approached by unctuous strangers who began their pitch with “my friend.” In any country, it’s never a good sign.

When I replied to a dark, scrunchy faced man in English, he blurted, “Ah, you’re an American! My wife is from the Windy City.” Yeah, right. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.” I wanted to see where this was leading.

“Fantastic! I’m an artist.”

“Really?”

“Yes. My studio is right there.” He pointed. “Let me show you.”

Following this fellow, I was led into a small souvenir shop jammed with miniature pyramids, sphinx, cats, nefertitties, pharaonic icons luridly painted on supposedly papyrus and body oils with exotic or concupiscent names, such as you’d find in American ghettoes. There’s none tagged “Barack Obama,” however.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

Uncapping Cleopatra’s Secret, he held it to my nose. “Nice?”

I shrugged.

“It’s for at night,” he grinned.

For most contemporaries, Cleopatra doesn’t conjure up Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Dryden’s All For Love, but a naked Elizabeth Taylor submerged to her cleavage in a sumptuous marble bathtub, or getting a voluptuous back rub. That queen, too, is history, for “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” wrote some antisemitic white dude. Don’t read him!

This Cairo man was an exceedingly minor hustler. In Skopje, North Macedonia, I ran into a very short man who was wandering around wearing a USA cap. In perfect, accent-free and colloquial English, he explained that he had just been robbed by five Gypsies in Ohrid. Though they had taken his IDs, three credit cards, $40, new iPhone and passport, he still had a wallet, first red flag, which he pulled out to show me a photo of an exceedingly gorgeous blonde in a US Army uniform, second red flag. As if to explain why he was so tiny, he said he had been a jockey in Louisville for three years, where he saw nine other jockeys die in violent wrecks, third red flag. As if to snuff out suspicions he wasn’t really a Yank, he said he could name all “44 US presidents, with even their middle names,” and he actually rattled them off, in order, as we were walking along the Vardar. I’m not going to nitpick and say there were actually 45 American prezzes, but the final red flag was when he said his father owned 50 industrial supply stores, one in every state, and that’s just ridiculous, amigo. Still, it was a very impressive performance, so when he asked for $10 halfway through, to get the cheapest hotel room until his wife sends him cash the next morning, I readily coughed up. Plus, there was an outside chance he was genuine, for he hadn’t mentioned the 50 stores in 50 states. Hell, it would be disgraceful to deny a fellow American in trouble ten lousy bucks.

Searching for Stella, I serendipitously discovered Horreya, so that’s where I am now, having my first beer in more than three weeks, a personal record. Stella is Egypt’s only beer brand. First brewed in 1897, it’s a respectable lager, just a notch below Beer Lao. The only other choice is Heineken, so no, thanks.

Horreya is a tall ceilinged, spacious room with long-stemmed, three-bladed ceiling fans and large, multi-paneled windows, so you can clearly hear car horns and motorcycle vooms above the low roar of conversations. There’s no music, thankfully. The hummus-colored walls are decorated with shaped mirrors and a sign from nearly a century ago, “Votre Boisson PRÉFÉRÉ/ VIMTO.” The light is naked neon, such as you find at bus stations.

There’s a tin ashtray at each table. After spitting on the floor, a nattily dressed young man rubbed out the sputum with his shoe. The waiter patrols the floor with bottles ready to be dispensed, and adroitly opened with a quick flick of his wrist. Most patrons are men. Just now, though, some matronly broad just ambled past me. Ten feet away sits a fierce eyed, sharp chinned and tightly smiling beauty, with her cigarette, beer and bearded, prematurely balding boyfriend.

Behind a square column are two joined tables of possible Americans, judging not just by their faces, but body language. Pudgy and pasty, they may be professors at the American University here, but who knows? Perhaps they’re Cornhusker offensive linemen from the mid-80’s, here on a quirky reunion.

“Hey dudes, let’s go to Cairo!”

“Man, that’s just a pissy little village! My sister lives right on the corner of Mecca and Alexandria, near the Baptist Church. There ain’t nothing in Cairo but the Medina Coffee Shop…”

“I don’t mean Cairo, Nebraska, dumbshit! I mean Cairo, Egypt!” So here they are.

An Egyptian Mau lurks, frowns, eyes you with hope and resentment then bounces away. In Muslim countries, stray dogs don’t wander indoors, but cats do. In Cairo, I spot them often inside metro stations, sometimes nibbling from small plates. At Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, I encountered meowing pussies, licking themselves most indecorously.

Horreya means liberty, by the way, and that’s apt, for it is an oasis of license in a culture that generally shuns alcohol. The Koran (2:219), “They ask you about intoxicants and gambling. Say, ‘There is gross sin in them, and some benefits for people, but their sinfulness outweighs their benefit.’” True enough, so get shitfaced responsibly, and don’t gamble.

For 1,375 years, Egypt has been Muslim, but not entirely, for there are significant Christian communities here, with beautiful, well-maintained churches, 500 in Cairo alone, some of them huge.

For thousands of years before the Muslim conquest, Egyptians downed more beer than Bavarians, Brits, Koreans or whomever else you could think of. In fact, they were one of the first brewers. The oldest large-scale brewery anywhere was in Nekhen, Egypt. In 3600BC, it cranked out the equivalence of 650 bottles a day. In 2580BC, a laborer at the Giza Pyramids was allotted four to five liters of beer daily. (When I was housepainting in Philly, our boss, Joe, only gave us one bottle of Samuel Adams at quitting time!)

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Egypt 

It’s nearly impossible for me to write here. The streets beckon, and I’m a street rat, for sure.

Right this moment, I could be in that bitsy Bab Al Louq café, having my first cup while watching people and traffic swarm by, or I could be on the subway, heading to Al Azbakiyyah, with its thousands of street stands flogging everything. Many have a tiny, tinny speaker looping the same pitch. Layered, they become a minimalist symphony of mutually cancelled come-ons.

Yesterday morning, I poked around Bab El-Wazir, with its centuries-old mosques all magnificent yet decaying. Passing that of Ibn Tulun, completed in 879 thus the oldest in Africa, I marveled at its Tower of Babel-like minaret, but I’m not really drawn to great sights. Small surprises hold me, and there is an infinity of them, for people are so delightfully fresh. At best, we’re here to amuse each other.

Entering a highway entrance ramp, a bus had to slow, thus allowing a middle-aged man to jump off, which he performed athletically. Out, he started to curse, his fist waving, at the disappearing vehicle. With it gone, he turned to an unrelated bus to continue his invectives, his middle finger wagging.

For ladies, old folks, cripples and perhaps foreigners, Cairene buses do come to a full stop. Wearing old brown shoes on his hands, a young man with lame legs dove off a bus and scuttled away, his face a foot off the ground.

In an alley, I puzzled over the statue of a white woman in a turquoise colored gown, her shoulders bare, her hair flowing. Egyptians chicks don’t flounce around like that.

Just like in Vietnam, people watching is a pastime, so many cafe patrons face the street. Unlike in Vietnam, many coffee houses keep their lights off during the day, so in the semi dark, men can more easily contemplate, brood or just space out, in silence or with music barely audible. Besides car horns, noise pollution is a serious problem, though many young tuk-tuk drivers do boom mahraganat beats as they drive by.

Twice I’ve been to Giza, and having walked for several hours through it each day, I can vouch there are no pyramids or Sphinxes there, only ragged sheep, stray dogs and cats, grim tenements with exposed bricks, lots of garbage in the middle of streets, invigorating markets, warm, smiling people, welcoming cafes and a Gannt El Moslem Nursery where your lucky toddler can learn since, math, English, Duetsh or Frech. It is sic, sic and sic.

All those who claim to have seen pyramids or a Sphinx in Giza are likely to believe in UFO, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and other nonsense. Else, they were presented with holograms or even cardboard facsimiles. Had they merely stepped to the side, they could clearly see their precious “pyramids” were laughably two-dimensional. Don’t waste your time arguing with such clowns!

Remember those ancient days when you had to unfold an unwieldy map in the middle of a strange city to figure out where you were, thus looking even more out-of-place? With Google Maps on smartphones, even the dumbest ditz knows exactly where she is now, at all time. Here in Cairo, I have neither map, working phone nor guidebook, for it’s bracing to be lost. Exposed, I plow. The sun gives me directions, and I generally know where the Nile is. Back in my hotel room, I consult Google Maps.

With the Covid situation dragging on, I’m on an open-ended trip, so it’s best to be frugal. My seventh-floor room costs $23 a night, and my hotel is only thirty seconds walking from Tahrir Square. The bedsheet is too small to be tucked under the mattress. The square shower head sprays water sideways onto the bathroom floor. The elevator door doesn’t close, but if you’re dumb enough to stick hour hand or head out when it’s moving, you’re clearly hankering for heaven.

With business slow, they’ve given me a room with three beds. The last time this happened was in Zgorzelec, Poland. That hotel was so cheap, I started to wonder if I had booked a shared room by mistake. I went to sleep half expecting strangers to barge in at any moment.

In Cairo, I have a balcony to dry my laundry and even a midget fridge, which I’ve unplugged, for it’s a tad too noisy. On the back of the building, I face grimy walls with louvered windows, and covered walkways littered with broken furniture, plastic laundry baskets and half dead potted plants. With so much car exhaust plus dust from some nearby desert, Cairene air is always hazy.

Across the street, there’s a closet sized-store that sells a large bottle of water or a small cup of Turkish coffee for only 32 cents. Half a block away is an overpriced McDonald’s, so I generally pig out on koftas, kebabs and chicken panne at Gad, a short stroll east. Yesterday, its music was Koranic verses broadcast over the radio. Muslim or Christian, Egyptians are intensely religious.

Like Vietnamese, Egyptians also eat pigeons, so I tried it at Gad. Stuffed with rice, it was tasty enough, its dark meat rich and firm. Since a pigeon is no turkey, there’s barely enough protein for a cat, however. Still, they’re easy to raise, even in cities, so that’s something to keep in mind as your income tanks further.

Despite lax entry requirements, there are almost no tourists here, for nearly everyone is economically squeezed, if not kneecapped, with much foreboding. Who knows what’s next?

In twelve days of roaming, I’ve encountered only a dozen whites and five Orientals. All over, I’ve been greeted with “welcome” by regular Egyptians, with some shouting “Ni hao!” thinking I’m Chinese. Turning a corner, I ran into an older man who suddenly clasped his hands together and bowed, kung fu movie style, while mumbling something in Arabic.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Egypt 

It’s cold yet sunny on this Christmas morning. Standing outside, I’m surrounded by a squadron of winged insects. Dots of light, they hover and meander in air tirelessly. Like drunk pinballs, they jerk, dance and bounce down invisible grooves, and around unseen obstacles. No, they’re more like ponderous thoughts. (Your jumped-up synapses are but flying insects.) Now and then, each would dart decisively, like a jabbing boxer unleashing a right cross or hook, but for what purpose, I have no idea, being no insect, not even a very stupid one.

After nearly three weeks in Beirut, I’m back in southern Lebanon, in a village where life is still tranquil, and signs of obvious economic or social distress are nonexistent, unlike in the capital. Extended families ensure no one starves, or goes without shoes.

The day after I returned, there was collective mourning, however, for a 22-year-old native son had just been martyred in Syria. Within half a day, his body had been brought back, and banners and posters bearing his handsome portrait went up.

At dawn, speakers broadcast a plangent prayer, and this went on, episodically, throughout the day. On foot or in cars, mourners converged on the funeral, with some children dressed in military uniforms. They’re all proud to honor one of their own. With so many Hezbollah fighters clustered, security was airtight.

A community can’t survive if no one is willing to die defending its values.

As if to reinforce this most obvious, yet still often forgotten, truism, I just received a most incisive email from a Lebanese-American, Frank Isabelle.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Isabelle has been lucky enough to spend many “restful and carefree summers” in his ancestral Lebanon. At the entrance to his grandmother’s village, there’s a mural, “Salima, the village of the resistor Ghassan Saeed, welcomes all.”

Isabelle:

Who is this man Ghassan Saeed? Frustrated with what he felt was a tepid response to the Jewish occupation of Lebanon, Ghassan and his fellow countrymen organized an informal cell to engage in resistance activities. Acting of their own initiative, and without any support from the all too numerous militias of civil war Lebanon, Ghassan was eventually imprisoned in an ambush while his comrade Pierre attained martyrdom. Today, Ghassan works as a mechanic.

Is it possible to imagine such a noble and pithy sentiment adorning the entrance of an American suburb? Of course not. For Americans, nothing seems more natural, more scientific than allowing their life to be rationalized for them. They not only live at the end of history, they also love nothing more than gloating over their static, passive existence. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where people are proud to be so aggressively babied. But that’s the way it is with Americans.

Too harsh? Hardly. Cowering offensive lineman-sized babies can certainly use a few Younghoe Koo kicks in the ass, to jumpstart them, finally, into battle against their Jewish occupation.

First, though, they must give a shit about their village, hood or subdivision. Isabelle:

Communal life breeds sensitive people. That is why so many poets and martyrs are found among the ranks of the Lebanese, while pornstars and petty thieves are a dime a dozen in the vapid consumerist wasteland of 21st century America […] Every nook and cranny of our [Lebanese] village was crafted by our ancestors, and the trajectory and inertia of our common heritage feels almost inevitable. Each generation adds another level to our living quarters, or expands the garden a little more, or dedicates a new roadside shrine.

All day on Lebanese television, there are scenes of exuberant or somber Christmas celebrations in Lebanon and Syria, and it’s impossible to not be moved by reverent images of Biblical sites, historical churches, lovingly restored frescoes, children praying at home or Holy Communion taken in magnificent settings.

In Muslim-majority Lebanon, folks of whatever faith, or none at all, still retain enough of an innate sense of decency to not put up with any Christmas-capped talking turd or psycho Santas slashing innocents. Unlike in Israel, Christians are not spat on here. Meanwhile, Americans have long been conditioned to laugh at, and even pay for, their own degradation.

 

Most may think of Lebanon as a land of sectarian violence, with religious militias slaughtering each other, but coexistence has actually been the norm. Ancient Christian villages abut Muslim ones.

A short drive away from me is Anqoun. With its large portraits of Nasrallah and 25 martyrs who died expelling Jews, you know you’re in Hezbollah country, but just five minutes away is Maghdoucheh, the most sacred Christian site in Lebanon. Its resilience is worth examining.

The Christians of Maghdoucheh count themselves among the earliest. Saint Paul and Jesus preached in nearby Sidon, visible down the hill.

In 326AD, Saint Helena summoned a Maghdouchian to Constantinople, for she had heard about a sacred cave in faraway Phoenicia. There, the Virgin Mary had sheltered as her son preached, locals believed. Finding the Maghdouchian’s account convincing, Saint Helena sent an icon of the Madonna with baby Jesus to Maghdoucheh, where it still is today, locals believe, inside the cave.

For a millennium, both cave and icon disappeared. After the Muslim conquest, Magdouchians fled to Zahle and Zouk, each a day’s hike away. Abandoning their village, they covered their sacred grotto with earth, rocks and vines.

Returning 900 years later, they could no longer find it, however. Another century passed before the cave was rediscovered, by accident, when a kid goat fell into a hole in the ground. Thrilled, Magdouchians placed their icon inside a new chapel, but twice, it returned by itself to the cave, locals believe, so there it was the other day. In the soft yellow light, three women prayed to it.

Outside the cave, there’s a marble statue of a sitting Madonna, with a plexiglass sign behind her, in French, Arabic and English, “I’m waiting for my children.”

No sightseer, I had been to Magdoucheh a dozen times, but only to visit Abou Jihad “King of the Drink” Liquor Store. This is also Ali the driver’s favorite pilgrimage.

With Ali translating, I asked the 60-ish owner how long she had lived in Magdoucheh? Looking surprised, she answered, “All my life! My grandmother was here, and my grandmother’s grandmother.” On her wall was a mock but life-sized M-16, and two fake pistols, as decorations.

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Hezbollah, Israel, Lebanon 

Yesterday at Chicken Company, a man said I was a cross between Mr. Magoo and Pat Morita, of The Karate Kid fame. If I’m not compared to a freshly perforated corpse, I’m complimented. Chowing out with his hijabed wife and mewing toddler, dude was perfectly groomed, with each black hair impossibly sculpted.

What can I tell you, I love fried chicken, so Chicken Company is the best restaurant in the world. “EAT CHICKEN CO AS IF YOU WERE TO DIE TOMORROW,” blares an English diktat on its wall. Don’t be fooled by its formica, fast-food harshness, or the polyester outfits of its associates, this is fine dining, sez moi.

Eating cheap fried chicken on a bridge under a slight drizzle in New Orleans has to be one of my most satisfying memories. Travel worn, I was a mess.

Granted, Chicken Company’s rice, roll and french fries are rather blasé, but, doggone it, perfection must always be tempered, tinted or farted upon by at least a smear of crap, to remind us we’re still on earth.

 

Draped along the Mediterranean, Beirut is a legendary city with Roman, Crusader and Ottoman ruins, French colonial buildings and dozens of bars with history, thus character, so I should be elated, but I’m in a serious funk, man, because this elegant place is so sadistically degraded. The last time I felt this way was in Kiev in 2016, because Ukraine, too, was going through war and economic collapse.

There are too many beggars here. Men, women, old, young, some trailing kids or lugging a baby, they are all neatly dressed, thus still dignified. Most know only one English phrase, “one thousand,” meaning 66 cents at the official rate, but just 15 cents in purchasing value. The cheapest sandwich costs 4,000.

After I had already given a woman several thousands, she hounded me for two more blocks, tugging my arm at times, until I gave a bit more. Today’s Beirut reminds me of Saigon two decades ago.

Wandering around, boys under ten try to sell stems of flowers. Teenaged boys offer shoeshines with a soft-spoken “please” in English. Old men and women push facial tissues to cars at intersections. Near the bus and van terminal, I walked by a little girl sitting by herself, on cardboard. On a leafy median strip facing a hospital, I encountered a black African mother, with two kids, relaxing on stacked mattresses, their home.

Even the well-heeled are being squeezed. With capital controls, only so much can be withdrawn each week. Since this causes all sorts of problems, some have vented their rage on banks. Earlier this year, dozens in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli were torched, so now, many banks are boarded up, with just a door slot, or even steel plated. These flat surfaces only invite more angry graffiti, and look at this smashed ATM, with red paint splattered on it. The handsome central bank is defaced with black curses, some quite high up, which means the vandal had to climb on its steel grills, perhaps. Its two surveillance cameras failed to deter.

Armed with assault rifles, soldiers guard government buildings, embassies and even some banks, mosques and churches. They man roadblocks. Armored vehicles are casually parked at certain corners. After a while, you hardly notice the concrete barriers, concrete sentry boxes, concrete pill boxes, anti-tank barriers, boom barriers and razor barb wire, for they’re just part of this urbanscape, along with the trendy cafes and hipster bars. Steel, concrete or plastic barriers are arrayed in front of buildings or stores to shoo away car bombs.

At the Al-Omari Grand Mosque, I stared at a pushed-in window, with its aluminum frame concave, its glasses broken, and several of its wooden panels, with their cool, modernist slits, simply blown away. Before it was converted into a mosque in 1291, this was a church built by Crusaders in the 11th century.

The port explosion four months ago damaged thousands of homes and businesses, including 165 hotels, with most still not reopened. At the five-star Le Gray, there’s a large banner, “STANDING STRONG / TOGETHER WE SHALL RISE AGAIN / SEE YOU SOON.” Most nearby luxury shops are shuttered. Entire streets are barricaded by razor wire-topped concrete slabs, to keep out looters. The misleadingly-named Beirut Souks shopping center is a ghost town. The poorest can’t even replace their blasted doors.

 

In all of Lebanon, there was just one Vietnamese restaurant, Le Hanoi, so I called, just to make sure it was still open, but all I heard was recorded piano music.

Days later, I found myself walking in that direction, so why not, I kept going, even under a slackening hailstorm. Drenched, I was finally at that address, but Le Hanoi was still awol, so I called again. Presto, a man answered!

“Are you open today, brother?” I said in Vietnamese.

“Yes, we are.”

Wonderful! I beamed. “I’m standing right at the corner, but I don’t see your restaurant.”

Oddly, he said nothing for several seconds. When I heard a man’s voice again, I repeated, “I’m at the corner, brother, but I don’t see your restaurant.”

“Wrong number,” this second man said in English.

“Oh, I’m sorry!”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Israel, Lebanon, Middle East 

Traveling is not just a shifting of the body, but a reorientation of the mind, so here in Lebanon, I can’t help but think about Islam, because I’m surrounded by Muslims, and the fajr call to prayer wakes me each dawn.

Iran’s most advanced missiles are called Fajr, by the way, a mere coincidence, I’m sure. Dispatched to Hezbollah, they have been used to rouse Jews.

Before Lebanon, I was in North Macedonia, and there, my friend Alex would refer to Muslim calls to prayer as “Tarzan five times a day.” As a Christian, Alex resents Muslim encroachment onto his physical or mental space. There is a turf war there, with churches and mosques springing up to assert each camp’s territories. Some old churches are even marked by new giant crosses to declare, “We’re still here.”

In 2016, Israel banned three East Jerusalem mosques from broadcasting their fajr calls to prayer. Netanyahu explained, “I cannot count the times—they are simply too numerous—that citizens have turned to me from all parts of Israeli society, from all religions, with complaints about the noise and suffering caused to them by the excessive noise coming to them from the public address systems of houses of prayer.”

Being in Lebanon forces me to think even harder about Israel, naturally, and not just because Jewish jets fly over my head several times a day. For two generations already, Lebanon has been warped and menaced by Jews, when not outright destroyed by them, with its cities bombed and civilians massacred. In every village or neighborhood, there are public portraits of men, mostly young, who died fighting Jews, and the closer you get to Occupied Palestine, the more numerous these faces appear.

Once the jewel of the Middle East, Beirut is still dynamic, incredibly, though much battered, with Beirutshima the latest assault against it. Gloating over their likely handiwork, Jews rejoiced at that calamity. As with the Holocaust and 9/11, the truth will come out, because it can’t be smothered forever by Jews with their meaningless charge of “anti-Semitism.”

There is no buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, just a concrete wall or, even more incredibly, a wire fence. From Lebanon, I can see Jewish farms, orchards and houses, but no soldiers, or even people, just a yellow tractor moving in the distance.

At these dicey settlements, the laborers tend to be dark Ethiopians and Yemenis, for Ashkenazim just aren’t desperate enough, though they will be soon, God willing. With a second passport, many are already prepared to become your neighbors.

On the Lebanese side, houses, shops and cafes rush right up to the border. As Jews keep out of sight, Lebanese go on with life.

The border wall is filled with murals and graffiti, with several depictions of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and there’s even a model of it at a traffic circle, next to the wall. A smoking tank painted by “Sara” is accompanied by this taunt, “Merkava / Pride of Israel.” There’s a portrait of a saluting Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. In southern Lebanon, this Shiite Party of God is the de facto government.

In Aadaysit Marjaayoun, there’s a billboard showing the Iraqi Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iranian Qasem Soleimani and the Lebanese Imad Mughniyeh. The first two were assassinated by the USA, the last by Israel. The Jewish state is a stone’s throw away.

Even standing on tiptoes, I can’t see Jerusalem. I’m heartbroken. I came to Lebanon primarily to board a cheap van from Sidon to Jerusalem, and inshallah, perhaps that can still happen, and not next year but by Christmas.

In 621, Mohammed was carried from Mecca to Jerusalem by a buraq, a winged animal that’s smaller than a mule and larger than a donkey. As if that isn’t cool enough, that same night

Mohammed also met Adam, Idris, Moses, Jesus, Abraham and Allah Himself, on different tiers of heaven. (God was on the 7th floor.)

Mosh’s conduct is most fascinating. When Mohammed told Moses that Allah had commanded 50 daily prayers for Islam, the Jew boss urged the first Muslim to haggle it down to 25, then five, but even that was deemed too onerous, so go back and Jew Allah some more, Mosh urged. Mohammed couldn’t do it, “Now I feel shy of asking my Lord again.”

 

In Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky mentions an Ivan Kramskoi painting, “The Contemplator,” with its solitary figure standing in the cold, transfixed.

The master then riffs, “If you nudged him, he would give a start and look at you as if he had just woken up, but without understanding anything. It’s true that he would come to himself at once, and yet, if he were asked what he had been thinking about while standing there, he would most likely not remember, but would most likely keep hidden away in himself the impression he had been under while contemplating. These impressions are dear to him, and he is most likely storing them up imperceptibly and even without realizing it—why and what for, he does not know either; perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

After endless contemplation, and a lifetime of hoarding impressions, the thoughtful man springs into action by destroying his past and going to Jerusalem, where he will be saved, or so he thinks. According to the Midrash, God Himself must go there before entering heaven, “I will not come into the city of Jerusalem that is above until I first come into the city of Jerusalem that is below.” Is there a greater geographical idée fixe?

After trekking 2,000 miles, 13,000 Crusaders reached Jerusalem in 1099. After an eight-day siege, they entered it to slaughter roughly 40,000 Muslims, Jews and even Christians. Kill them all and so forth.

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Crusades, Israel, Lebanon 

From this elevated village, you can see the ocean on clear days. So close, it’s only three hours away by foot. For millennia, traders passed by that ridge, right there, on their journey from Sidon to Damascus.

Sidon’s souq is gloriously intact. Once entered, it’s impossible to not get lost for hours, and maybe even permanently. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that citizens of every country have been swallowed by this ancient warren, but don’t worry, they’re fine, if not home. It’s an Italo Calvino’s kind of a maze.

The souq’s winding passages often darken and shrink to accommodate only wide-eyed shorties. Wandering past, over and under centuries-old stone blocks, you are cushily embraced by the mother of all wombs or tombs, history itself.

Under multiple arches, a brightly hijabed woman steps into sunlight. Two girls, one in pajamas, stand on tiptoes to peek inside a 17th century mosque’s barred window. With so much bending over, women shouldn’t pray near men, it is reasoned.

Inside hovel-sized shops are clothing, furniture, nuts, vegetables, meat, potato chips and sodas, but no Almaza, Beirut Beer, arak or any other alcohol. Men cut hair beneath hushed TVs. Boys shoot pool or sit, zombielike, in front of video games. Eateries dish up tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, bulgur or pizza. Ambling, a coffee seller makes castanets-like sounds with his metal clappers.

Images of a smiling Yasser Arafat, often young and movie-star dashing, dot this souq. For all his missteps and ultimate failure, Arafat is an enduring symbol of Palestinian resistance to Jews, so he’s reverently displayed on many Sidon walls, fridges and coolers.

Lest you think Sidon is all historical and picturesque, I should stress that much of it is banal, modern and even crass. There are two McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Hardee’s, a KFC and a Popeye’s Fried Chicken. At the last, I learnt that “The Trinity” is no eternal mystery but merely “a Cajun combination of bell pepper, celery and onion […] used in Popeye’s gravy, gumbo and jambalaya.”

There are more Mercedes Benzes in Lebanon than just about anywhere else, but they’re not gleaming and spiffy. Decades-old, some are just puttied and duct-taped junks over stubbornly functioning engines.

 

After three weeks in southern Lebanon, I’ve only walked through Sidon twice. Al hamdullilah, I am a country boy, if only temporarily.

Tonight, there’s a wedding in the next village, on the opposite hill. Can’t you hear the tabla, tambourine, flute and violin? Open your window to let that communal, surging joy flush away your misery and bitterness. Notice how nearly all their houses are dark? The entire village is at that wedding, naturally.

In their lurid and sequined abayas, girls on high heels will totter home to change outfits all evening long, so they can reappear, again and again, even more beautiful. Weddings are about the only occasions where maidens can showcase themselves to potential suitors. The young men, too, are resplendent.

(Yes, I’m way too klutzy for the dabke. Tripping over myself, I’d drag the whole line down. With my arms and legs flailing, I’d kick both bride and groom.)

Old enough, surely you remember the Saturday night dances in all these villages? They were canceled by the war and haven’t returned. Alcohol in public places disappeared, too. Personally, I think it’s a shame.

Not everything is lost. There’s still poetry, though more often, it’s declaimed on television and not at a village cafe. At least there’s no Snoop Doggy Dogg blaring from passing cars.

It’s quiet here. Now and then, there are gunshots, but it’s only a hunter, targeting birds. A few times daily, Jewish jets may thunder above the clouds. Stray dogs in heat bark before dawn, and as pale light washes over the sky, the first prayer call wakes and soothes us all.

This morning, we also hear the muezzin announcing a neighbor has just died. Diagnosed with stomach cancer just a month ago, Aleyna was only forty-years-old. Yesterday, she sounded and looked perfectly fine, but such is life. She never married.

In case you’re wondering why women are banned from this village’s funerals, it’s because they had the jarring habit of tearing their clothes off before hurling themselves into the burial pit. Enough, it was sensibly decided. When the deceased is safely interred, women can wail away at the grave.

With running water and washing machines, women are getting soft, we can agree. Only half a century ago, they had no problem walking half a mile down the hill to fetch water from the well, then trudge back up, with a heavy jar on their head, their back military straight, lips smiling, with barely a grunt escaping. When it’s time to give birth, they just squat.

Water is a painful subject around here. After Jews stole the Golan Heights, they diverted much of its water to themselves, thus crippling scores of Arab villages in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

In Occupied Palestine, Jews have destroyed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees. Palestinians harvesting olives are shot at by Jews with impunity. Jews wreck goyim’s livelihood and heritage, when not uprooting or slaughtering them. Honed on genocide, they can’t help it. Just look out your window.

 

Three weeks in Lebanon and I’ve already been to Beirut more times than half the people in this village. Consider Soheil, for example. With a wife and five children, this 36-year-old gardener has seven mouths to feed daily, so why would he go anywhere? He’s visited Beirut maybe twice.

A woman of roughly the same age was hired to clean an apartment in Beirut, so she went there for the first time. Coming and going, she looked but didn’t say much. Was there anything she wanted to see? The airport, she mousily answered, so fine, she was driven there. Seeing airplanes landing, taking off or just parked was so delightful, she was even emboldened afterwards to ask for music on the car radio.

Though I’ve spoken often of being grounded, they simply are, so who’s better equipped moving forward? Who’s more content? Do you have a village to speak of? Do you want one?

Like me, your next village may be your first, if you can reach it.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Lebanon 
Linh Dinh
About Linh Dinh

Born in Vietnam in 1963, Linh Dinh came to the US in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). He has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. He is also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. His writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and he has been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US, and has also published widely in Vietnamese.