posted in: Lebanon | 2

Just two or three doors down the street from our apartment block is the Evergreen.  Unlike most of the bars in Beirut, which are open-fronted, or at least with huge plate-glass windows, it more closely resembles an English pub.  It has a wooden front door, meaning you actually have to open it in order to find out what is inside. Jeromie (one of the other volunteers) and I discovered that we had both been intrigued by what we might find, so one night, along with Mahmoud, long-time friend of Jusoor, we pushed it open.

It turned out to be quite like an English pub on the inside as well: a narrow saloon with a bar along one side, and decorated with a rich collection of nick-nacks from all over the world. It also boasted a dartboard, squeezed into a corner by the door.  There were some welcome additional attractions: every beer automatically arrives with complementary nuts, crisps, breadsticks and a small bowl of raw vegetables, all very tasty.

Crucially, however, the main attraction is the owner and landlord, named Amigo.  He has a personality as big as a bus, and gives the warmest of welcomes; he soon becomes a friend.

Incidentally, that first visit turned into quite an experience. A couple of games of darts, a couple of beers, a couple of shots… and no distance at all to stagger home. I’m just off now to pay another visit.

Kan ya ma kan

posted in: Lebanon | 3

The title of this post (and the play) means “Once upon a time” in Arabic, and would be the title of our blogsite rather than Kwasuka Sukela, its Zulu equivalent, if Val could work out how to change it. Doesn’t seem like rocket science to me, but what do I know?

Back to work today after a relaxing and enjoyable weekend, and a daunting prospect after the departure of our excellent Jordanian assistants, Zaid and Louzan. The day did indeed start pretty shakily: we were late arriving on the bus, so had no opportunity to rearrange the furniture to represent the performance space, or clear the deskful of stuff from last week’s activities, so opportunities for distraction abounded. What is more, to begin with we had no Arabic-speaking support, which made things… challenging.

We are now teaching all four lessons, first team teaching, then splitting for periods 3 & 4. While this gives us more rehearsal time, we were concerned about our ability to sustain the children’s attention.

But we didn’t need to worry as Raghad, the headteacher’ daughter, was assigned to us to start with, and she was a great help. Then Bassil turned up to help Val during his free lesson. And the lesson in which Avo joined us (giving up his break) and acting as interpreter/narrator/assistant director, was a real rehearsal: great progress being made and the kids enjoying themselves. Nothing like the sorry excuse for a rehearsal that I had managed earlier.

Love letters

posted in: Lebanon | 5

Before coming to Lebanon, I was a social media virgin, resolutely resisting all its advances. But we were advised that it would be a sensible, practical move while here to be on WhatsApp, and so I allowed myself to be deflowered.

It certainly has its advantages. It allows you to find out what is going on, rather than being a social pariah, and to make (and just as frequently break) arrangements – we would not have enjoyed, or even know about, the beers at Coop d’Etat without it. Let alone the practicalities – eg who is teaching what, and when. But, oh the downside! Oh, What’sApp, how I do not love thee; let me count the ways.

  1. The desperate, relentless, mind-blowing triviality. Not just the GIFs and the video clips, but the jokes and the barbs and the putdowns and the awesomes. Frequently hugely entertaining, there’s no denying.  But all that time, dripping away…
  2. Its assault upon language. Not just the LOLs (let alone the LOOOOOLs) but the rns, the wtfs, the use of as second person singular, the HAHAHAs. I know why, of course I do (see “Mechanics” below) but to see the language of Shakespeare (let alone JK Rowling) bastardised in such a way. And as for those little yellow faces with their ridiculous expressions…
  3. The mechanics (see also “Texting”). I am what I believe is called a “pecker”, phone in one hand, forefinger of the other jabbing away, desperately trying to locate one tiny square and not any of its neighbours (and all too often failing.) I hear that the human body is changing, evolving in a single generation, and that the opposable thumb, which some say elevates us above the vast majority of our animal brethren, is changing its physical shape. And it takes so blinking long to say anything!
  4. Perhaps above all is the way it changes people into gadflies, changing their minds in an instant, not committing to anything. People sometimes ask how we managed to do anything before mobile phones, when the answer is simple: we made arrangements and kept to them. I remember my dad in London and my uncle in Norfolk arranging for us all to meet in a pub halfway between.  And we did. Once you were out of the house, and its phone in the hallway, that was it.

And yet. And yet.

There is no denying WA’s insidious, addictive attraction.  The desperate desire not to miss anything, the security of being one of the herd, the frequently witty contributions that make me LOL (aaagh!) It creeps up on you. And I am as guilty as anyone else (Val too) of stopping whatever else I am doing whenever I hear that funny little whistling tune, and reaching for the phone.

It’s been fun – a holiday romance, a summer fling. But it can’t last, and I don’t want it to. When I get back to England I shall divorce myself from WA (or more likely get Val to do it for me, since I don’t know how) and return to being cheerfully, happily, blissfully out of touch at the bottom of the garden.

War and Peace

posted in: Lebanon | 4

Friday, the end of the week and school finished a little early for afternoon prayers and the weekend.

Lebanon is a secular country (not Muslim as I had assumed) with Christian-Muslim power sharing: parliamentary seats split 50/50 with a Christian President. Based originally on the population census of 1932, calls to amend the balance to reflect the percieved increase in the Muslim population have been resisted.

Regions across the country have quite different demographics. For example, Baalbek (last weekend’s outing) is predominantly Shia. While there, we took the opportunity to visit the exquisitely ornate mosque (in contrast Sunni mosques are plainer). We ‘girls’ donned long, black ‘Harry Potter’-like abeyas and went through security (I was asked to turn on my camera). Inside the main courtyard, it was surprising to find not only a couple of shops to buy prayer mats etc, but also an ice-cream stand.

We handed over our shoes and entered the women’s side of the mosque, which was not only beautiful, but also delightfully cool and pleasant, a few women praying, other groups of women sitting on the floor chatting, small children playing. A very tranquil place, apparently used as a social space between prayer times.

Back in the courtyard we rejoined the men. Most surprising of all, there was a separate hall containing a Hezbollah exhibition of various weaponry from (both sides of) the 2006 invasion, along with graphic posters, models and maps. The town of Baalbek was heavily targeted during the war and feelings obviously still run high. An eye-opening contrast of war and peace.

On the road again

posted in: Lebanon | 1

One of the drawbacks of our stay here (maybe the only drawback, actually) is that we have to be long-distance commuters. There is no sensible place for us to stay in the Bekaa, and additionally that would cut the volunteers off from Beirut’s various attractions. A coach picks us up each morning at 6.45, luckily for Val and me from right outside our apartment block, and drops us at the school just before 9. The return journey is even longer, as the bus has to negotiate the city rush hour – no easy matter given  Beirut’s narrow streets.

The traffic here is not as scarily anarchic as in some countries – they obey the traffic lights, and mostly stick to their own side of the road (except for the motor-scooters, who go where they want). But beyond that, it is every man (and woman – plenty of women drivers here) for themselves. Pull straight out from junctions, overtake whenever (vaguely) possible and force oncoming traffic to squeeze over, create additional lanes on the inside, outside, middle, wherever there’s room, or even if there isn’t…

It’s as though every driver is in a huge game of chicken, and he who hesitates is lost. The merest sign of weakness, or concern for your paintwork, and the other driver has nosed in front. Or across. Or whatever. Giving way? That’s for wimps.

As for pedestrians, much the same applies: you step into the road with the blind faith that the driver would probably rather not hit you.

Roll over Beethoven

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Well, I’m astonished. I am a music teacher. In 3 days, our theatre project groups are making amazing sounds out of almost nothing. Each lesson the children become an orchestra; I am their conductor.

My ideas are all stolen – being a conductor comes from talking to Mary, from her years of experience in orchestras with both good and bad conductors. Given the language barrier I decided I had to become one of the former – to make as much progress as possible while I have our Jordanian assistants to help explain the basic concepts (they will be gone next week).

I started with laughing and crying (soft -> loud -> soft etc, the kids love this). Animal noises were more challenging – the children tend to copy, so if one decides to be a cat, they all become cats. Trying to encourage them to be different animals was a challenge at first, but when they got it, they made a cacophony of sounds. This was leading up to sellers in the market place – the king opens his window overlooking the market, the sound grows as he opens the window and stops abruptly as he slams it shut. Wow – when it works it’s fantastic.

Introducing instruments was more challenging – at first an empty water bottle each containing a little rice (lids taped down to avoid ‘accidents’). I made a huge mistake with the first group, introducing them immediately to holding the bottle in one hand and banging it on the other palm. Of course, they all found it much more fun to bang them on their heads, the floor, chairs, against each others’ bottle. Chaos! End of exercise, Val crumbles into a mess, sweating, no idea what to do next. Thankfully, Lauzan to my rescue, she led the remaining 10 mins and I was off the hook. Another attempt with the second group next lesson – success! Rule: no banging, only shaking. They were superb.

Tomorrow, I am taking in the set of percussion instruments and recorders – wish me luck.

I believe in miracles

posted in: Lebanon | 1

My apologies for yesterday’s post, which was unnecessarily downbeat; I was tired, a bit off-colour (I’ll spare you the details) and – despite all the warnings we’d been given – rather disappointed. I am supposed to be the professional after all, so NOT running the perfect drama lesson was inevitably galling.

Today was a considerable step up. We played Zip Zap Boing (I play that with everyone), tried out portraying some emotions, and then some stock characters – kings/queens and servants, before putting them into a (much simplified) story. With the help of Zaid and Christina, two of the Dubai / Jordanian volunteers, I demonstrated the idea first. The pupils tend to copy pretty directly, lacking the confidence to express their own ideas, and I’d rather they had a more sophisticated model to work from. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to perform, and that’s not something to be lightly dismissed.

The king/servant motif also occurs in one of the plays, so that’s a bonus. However, despite the satisfaction I feel with the progress made in just one day, the idea that we can put together a public performance of a scripted play is, frankly, pie in the sky. Still, we have another two and a half weeks and hey, miracles happen.

The only way is up

posted in: Lebanon | 3

Today we met the children for the first time. I’ve taught plenty of worse classes in my time, but it certainly wasn’t easy. At one stage, I found myself dripping with sweat, and that had nothing to do with the temperature.

The main problem is communication. I speak one word of Arabic – thank you – and their functional English understanding seems to range from very little to none at all. Not being able to give them clear instructions, nor to give feedback on how to improve, is a real difficulty.  Fortunately, I was assisted by two volunteers from Dubai, Zaid and Luzan, here on a slightly different programme, and they were able to translate, but they are only here for one week.  After that…

Val and I are working in parallel, me doing drama, her music, with two groups and two classrooms, and then we switch and repeat. Each group has its own personality, and we agreed – actually it was quite clear – that one is far more focused than the other.

So far as I can tell, they are very uncertain about the whole concept of drama. Rehearsal, performance, repetition, focus are all having to be introduced from a low base level.  Still, as the song says, the only way is up.

Photo: (c) Jusoor 2016 Annual Report, www.jusoorsyria.com


posted in: Lebanon | 1

The end of our first week and the volunteer group chose Baalbek (the ancient city of Heliopolis) for our weekend outing, to see the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. I am ashamed to say that until we were heading to Lebanon, I had never heard of Baalbek, or any of the other magnificent ancient sites here. We were not disappointed – it easily matched any site I have visited in Rome, Greece, Turkey or Egypt; regardless of the heat and a rather dispassionate guide, we were bowled over by the sheer size and scale of the place.

To a certain extent, evolution of the ancient site has mirrored the history of the country: the fertile and strategically positioned Bekaa valley has been subject to occupation over the millennia by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Ottoman rulers. In addition to the odd earthquake, each invading new-comer stamped their own cultural, religious, economic and military mark on the place, including most recently plaques in the temple of Bacchus commemorating the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898, who initiated an archaeological team to carry out restoration work. This century, the site is said to have received collateral damage from air strikes on the region during the 2006 Lebanon war (more on this later). Against the trend, it seems that only the French (who ruled Syria and Lebanon from the 1st World War until 1943) left the site to its own devices.

Thankfully (for the time being) Baalbek remains a fitting tribute to Lebanese culture.

Night fever

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Val and I are by some measure the oldest volunteers in the group, and up till now we have not joined in with any of the informal social activities. We do not, however, want to come across as anti-social, or, for that matter, old, so when the word went out that a small group was heading out for a beer, we tagged along.

Nine of us headed across town to the Coop D’etat, a lively rooftop bar, dominated by a set of huge steel girders holding up a skyline billboard for bottled water. The music was great, a mix of R & B and rock, and after a beer or two, (and then a margarita or two) we were all dancing. I know, I am too old for such behaviour, but I had a great time – we all did.

The following night, a meal was arranged at a local restaurant, and a slightly smaller group, including Val and me, headed out. It was a true banquet, with three courses, and delicious, but far too much, especially for people with our clear-your-plate upbringing.

There was also live traditional music, possibly even louder than the night before, provided by a six-piece band, and fronted by a lead singer (pictured with Chris below) who scarcely looked the part: he was small, middle-aged, dressed in a crumpled suit. However, he was also not only a magnificent singer, but also a hugely charismatic presence, rousing the young crowd to a shouting, stamping, yelling, dancing fever. The whole place rocked.

Hovsep, our organiser and co-ordinator, rates Lebanese night-life as very special – open, progressive, varied. I agree – Beirut at least is a city that knows how to party.