I am sitting on a bench in Tripoli, trying to orient myself, when a man approaches and begins talking to me. He’s interesting, speaks of politics, and his English is impeccable, but I can barely get a breath in, much less a word. Thirty minutes later, we finally introduce ourselves properly.
I spend the entire day with Wallid as he generously shows me around his hometown of Tripoli. The streets are cobbled and narrow, the remains from the Crusaders are interesting, the old mosques are lovely. Still, the most fascinating part of the day is the jumble of ideas that stream out of Wallid’s mouth. I get the distinct feeling that fact often blurs into fiction, so I take his pronouncements with a grain of salt; however, what he says is always opinionated, well thought out, and captivating. Here’s a taste.
“Hezbollah is scared now. Hezbollah is allied with Syria and Iran and if Syria and Iran fall, then Hezbollah cannot stand.”
Wallid: “We have a saying here. Arab is garbage.”
Me: “Really? That's a saying?”
Wallid: “Yes because look at the Arab countries—we have oil, resources, skills, climate. But what are we doing with our resources? We have terrible leaders and we kill each other.”
“It's all mythology. Why should we treat the Greek mythology any different than Islamic or Christian mythology. Apollo, yeah, Moses, Jupiter, Jesus. They're all the same.”
“Last Friday in this mosque, yeah, the Sheikh was talking about Libya, about how it was a shame to get help from Europe and the West because they just want our oil. We should only accept help from the Arabic countries. Isn't that stupid? He's an idiot. The Arabic countries are all having our own struggles.”
Wallid: “Christians hate Jehovah's Witnesses. Do you know why?”
Me: “I wasn't aware that they do. In the U.S. it seems...”
Wallid: “They hate Jehovah's Witnesses because they're not Christian. They deny the cross, yeah. How can you deny the cross and call yourself a Christian? They say the cross is a symbol of the death of Jesus, but that's not true. It wasn't Jesus on the cross; it was his likeness. And his likeness was on the cross to erase the sins of mankind. They deny the cross! How can they be Christian?”
“In Lebanon, we don't hate Israel. We understand that they were only going after Palestinians and Hezbollah. We hate Hezbollah.”
“The whole Arabic world is changing now. Waking up, yeah. I just wonder why it took so long and if it’s too late.”
“In Tripoli we say, any man who owns pigeons is a liar. In fact in court, yeah, they won't listen to the testimony of someone who owns pigeons. Because the only way to get pigeons is to steal them.”
“The only religion in Lebanon is money. The sheikhs, the priests—they're all the same. They have villas in France and Italy. My friend is a sheikh and he hates America, but if he hates America why does he buy American cars? He says “Salaam aleikum” to the poor on the street, but only if there's someone watching him. He doesn't care about the poor; he has millions of dollars and only worships money.”
“They go to Saudi, yeah, they say they are so religious. They want to build a mosque, but they come back here to Lebanon and what do they build? A villa.”
[After seeing a dozens of soldiers walking the street] “Today is Sunday, yeah, so the soldiers are out just to make a statement. This is the day Christians go to Church and the army is making a statement. We protect the Christians. No one bothers them. Of course, no one ever bothers them. There's never a problem in Tripoli, never been a problem. But the army wants to make a statement anyways.”
“One pair of pigeons is worth $100. That’s why people steal them.”
“I have a friend who quit his job, a good job, so he could watch after his pigeons.”
Beirut, like all great cities, cannot be easily reconciled. At times it appears homogenous, as if its disparate parts—languages, politics, religions—have been shaken so thoroughly that only one culture emerges. But look at the city in a different light, stoop down and look from a different angle and that one Lebanese culture appears fractured.
This becomes apparent to me as I walk from neighborhood to neighborhood, starting in the predominantly Christian sector of Achrafiye where sun-darkened mechanics mingle with unpretentious and cosmopolitan 20-somethings, where a swank restaurant lies next to a bare-bones tailor shop specializing in modest, matronly clothing.
The crumbling but vibrant sector of Gemmayzeh sprawls next to Beirut’s golden downtown where mosques and churches are tucked away behind and in between giant, square, looming shops, where the streets are sparkling and clean, where not a single cobblestone is out of place. Here well-heeled women , beautiful and immaculate, totter from their cars into the nearest designer store while suited businessmen and women eat healthy lunches and watch the near-empty pedestrian streets.
But just when I started to notice how Beirut’s downtown out-Europeans many cities in Europe and how everyone I pass by is conversing in English, just then I begin to see scuttlings of a different downtown, an almost invisible downtown. It starts with the valet services and personal drivers—beautiful dark black men—then I pass a man whose cracked feet are slipped into tattered open sandals—a stark contrast to the polished leather and stilettoed shoes I see around me. I look up at him, a street cleaner in weathered clothes, his skin weathered and dark. Next I notice African women, their hair tightly braided, as they run errands and make deliveries from one shop to the next. Then I see construction workers wearing traditional red and white head scarves, learning later that these men come from Syria and wait at busy street corners for any available job.
I continue walking west toward the port and that’s when I notice, in the midst of a construction boom, a tall, abandoned, bullet-riddled building. From its location, I guess that it was the Hilton, a hotel with such a great vantage point of the city that it was used regularly by snipers during the war with Israel in 2006. Later, as I turn back, I notice more signs of war—in a statue filled with bullet holes, in other crumbling buildings.
I see the large new, blue-roofed Mohammed al-Amin mosque and next to it the Crusades-era St. George Cathedral. At the foot of the mosque is a sprawling tent, a place for citizens to pay their respects to the ex Prime Minister who was largely responsible for the rebuilding of downtown before he was killed by a car bomb in 2005. Though clearly some citizens respect his vision, others guess he may have been involved in the embezzlement of millions of dollars and they dislike the rebuilding, the whitewashing of Beirut’s downtown.
But these are just impressions of the city itself, of Beirut’s people I can say that everyone I’ve met speaks at least three languages: French, English, and Arabic and often switch between an Arabic which is littered with French phrases and words to a fluent English. The switch is seamless, not self-conscious. One language seems to glide into the other, each language chosen because it is better suited for expressing a particular idea or notion.
The taxi driver who helped me find my host’s flat, the corner shop owner who let me use his internet free of charge, the waiter in the falafel stand—people who in other countries would often be the most conservative citizens—here they speak fluent English and they speak fluent European-ese. They express ideas and notions which are at strict odds with the general impression of a Muslim, Middle Eastern country.
It’s hard to reconcile this Lebanon, this Beirut, with images seen on the news. It’s hard to understand how this city and its citizens were caught in the middle of a brief and explosive war only 4.5 years ago.
Fermented pickled turnip juice, deep blood-red and pungent.
That's one way to describe şalgam, a traditional Turkish drink which hails from Adana. Despite the description, it is a beloved drink, said to cut the fat of the famous Adana kebap and aid in digestion. It's a bit of an acquired taste (understatement!) but if you like kombucha or were one of those crazy kids who drank pickle juice straight from the jar, you'll probably enjoy şalgam as well.
Şalgam is made with fermented bulgur, turnips, and purple carrots to which salt and other seasonings are added. The whole process takes about two weeks from start to finish. If you are lucky enough to drink it fresh from a şalgamcı (şalgam seller and maker) it will be served in a big glass with a long slice of crunchy pickled purple carrot. You can order it sade (plain) or acılı (spicy), or if you're not in the Adana region, you can find it in just about every supermarket.
Stacked jars of turşu (pickles) and a rapidly disappearing glass of şalgam
Şalgam is served best cold and it hits the tongue with a little sparkle, a gentle fizz which is a byproduct of its fermentation. The taste is salty and sour and it kicks you in the stomach if you drink it too quickly, and once it's there, you can really feel it speeding up your digestion. It is a reputed cure for a hangover or a too-heavy meal, though I've never tried in for either. I simply find the taste refreshing and the metabolic boost gives me a bit of a natural rush.
I love Turkey. Have I mentioned that before? It's impossible to list the reasons, or even begin to explain them all and this often keeps me from writing about my experiences here. So instead of trying to summarize my feelings and my love for Turkey, I've written a bit about a (pretty typical) day I spent recently in Adana.
I went to a little restaurant which specializes in gözleme—something like the Turkish equivalent of a crepe. I ordered an ıspanklı, peynirsiz (cheeseless, with spinach) gözleme and as it was cooking, I chatted a bit with the owners. The wife asked me why my hair wasn't covered, telling me I should cover it according to Islam. When I told her and her husband that I wasn't religious, but do believe in God, he responded that I should become Muslim. I was taken aback by this, as in all my time in Turkey, this was the first anyone has ever said anything to me about converting to Islam or anything to me about covering my hair when I'm not in a mosque or other religious site. I even feel a bit hesitant to write about this occurrence lest it enforce a (in my opinion, false) stereotype of Turkish Muslims. So let me repeat again, this is the first time that anyone has ever said anything like this to me in Turkey. Often people will ask out of curiosity about my religion, and no matter how I answer, they smile; but in honesty, when I answer that I have no religion but do believe in God, their smiles broaden.
Now in sharp contrast to my conversation in the gözleme restaurant was my conversation with the photographer who took my passport photos. I sat by his computer and watched as he photoshopped the picture of the woman who had come in before me. He pointed to her head scarf and, with a disparaging look, told me it wasn't necessary, it wasn't important. He then pointed to her artificially red lips and copious makeup and asked why, if she wears the scarf does she feel the desire to wear so much makeup as well?
Then I watched as he photoshopped my passport photos, erasing the freckles on my face and smoothing out the darkness under my eyes. I laughed and told him it wasn't necessary; after all, there were just passport photos. “Önemli değil.” But we had a nice, if standard conversation about my travels, my time in Turkey, my new nephew. He invited me to drink something.
In Turkey, if you accept every invitation to drink çay, you will easily be downing seven, eight, nine glasses of çay each day. It is common practice, in just about every shop and in every home, to be offered something to drink and this drink never carries with it an obligation for anything else other than conversation. However, my tolerance for caffeine is getting lower, so I'm grateful that I am able to turn down the offers with an explanation. If I couldn't communicate why I was saying no, I might feel obliged to say yes for the sake of politeness.
Next I searched for cezerye to send back to my mama. Cezerye is similar in texture to Turkish delight, but is made with carrot puree which has been boiled down and down to bring out its natural sweetness. Usually some sugar is added, but not much. Depending on the quality, it can have a just sprinkling or a ton of pistachios, hazelnuts or walnuts crammed inside. I ducked into two şekerleme shops in my search for cezerye, and in both stores I was fed samples of just about everything. I'm normally not one to refuse free food (especially sweets) but I soon had to turn down some of the samples because I was just so very full. Despite their walls of sugary candies, şekerleme shops are also a source of high-energy and healthy snacks—snacks made of grape juice, mulberry molasses, hazelnuts, walnuts, coconut, and dates.
After the first şekerleme shop, I passed a man selling dates on the street. He offered me a taste and he mistook me for a Turk until I started stumbling a bit over my words. He complimented me on my Turkish, then warned me about some bad men, advising me that if anyone asked me to follow him alone somewhere I should refuse and stay far away. I thanked him and wondered if he thought I was dressed provocatively. “Çay içer misiniz?” he asked, but I politely turned him down.
In the second şekerleme shop, I chatted with the owner about his upcoming trip to Thailand. He asked me about the price of everything. I answered as best I could about cheap hotels and cheap food, but he kept saying that he had a lot of money because he had worked very hard and now wanted to really enjoy himself. Unfortunately for him, I couldn't give him a quote on the expensive hotels and restaurants. He also asked (I think out of curiosity only) the price of a prostitute. I had a nice chat with a few of the workers in the shop, got invited to lunch, to go out dancing on Saturday, and to stay at the home of the female shop worker and her sister. In Turkey, the line between hospitality and dating can be fuzzy for a female traveler, but that usually doesn't make the hospitality any less genuine and even the offers for dates are backed up with heartfelt kindness.
My last stop for the day before returning in the dolmuş was to a şalgam shop. Şalgam is a specialty of Adana and for many is quite an acquired taste. Before I describe what it is, let me say that if you like kombucha, you are likely more inclined to enjoy şalgam. Şalgam means turnip in Turkish, but the drink is more often made with pickled purple carrot juice (pickled alongside bulgur), to which some salt and spices have been added. You can find spicy and mild şalgam. I stopped at the şalgam shop to take some photos of this unique (and to my mind, delicious) drink and the beautiful jars of pickled turnips which accompanied it. The kind seller offered me a glass and I ordered it “acılı olsun” (spicy please) and as I drank it, we chatted and he asked what I was doing that night and requested I add him on Facebook. When I tried to pay, he refused.
As I rode in the dolmuş, I felt bolstered by the day, by the number of personal connections I had made, by the warmth and hospitality I had been shown at every turn. The sweetest thing of all was that there was nothing peculiar, nothing unusual about the day. Just another day as a traveler in Turkey.
The following is an excerpt from my journal which details a conversation with an unusually frank expat whom I met in Vietnam. Excerpt is the appropriate word here. Keep in mind these are just a few of my thoughts on the sex industry in Southeast Asia. I welcome any comments, perspectives, anecdotes.
“Later that night, I headed back to the shop and after a time, R and I got to talking. He was already a bit drunk—possibly more than a bit. He complained of the term ‘sex tourism’, revealing quite readily that he saw prostitutes. He railed against the feminists back in his Western home country who would hate what he was doing, defended simultaneously himself and his choices, called anyone who judged him harshly ‘fucking hypocrites’ and said they should travel before they judged him. As he spoke, he touched and jiggled his large, obese belly and said with a mix of humor and pathos, ‘Who wants to have sex with this?’
“But the thing that stood out the most was when he called himself ‘The Robin Hood of boom boom’. He elaborated, ‘I take money from the rich tourists [who patronize his shop] and distribute it among poor women and their families’.
“I was intrigued by his candor, and so took the opportunity to pepper him with questions. He actually generally saw the same women instead of spreading his, er, wealth amongst all the prostitutes in the area. He was quite unabashed about his choice and I found myself agreeing in part with what he said. We cannot outright condemn prostitution or outlaw it without giving these girls and boys other options to make good money and support their families. But I still cannot in conscience agree with his enthusiastic glorification of the profession. Nor do I fully understand those men who prefer to pay for sex, even if they can get laid on their own, with willing women.
“But maybe that’s just my ego speaking. I would like to believe that sex with a turned-on and enthusiastic woman would be better than sex with a prostitute, no matter how talented or how compliant she may be.”
Food in Vietnam, like most non-Western countries, is stubbornly regional. This means that a dish that is a specialty of one city in Vietnam will likely only be found in that city, and so it is with sau rieng banh pia. These mooncakes are local to Soc Trang in southern Vietnam, the Mekong Delta region. They are so stubbornly regional, that I struggled to find them again even in any other city in the Mekong Delta. The first time I encountered them was in a VVR (Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant) in Soc Trang after an acquaintance pointed them out as a local specialty. It only took one bite for me to become hooked.
I already knew of my undying love for durian, but fresh durian is a different beast from preserved, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with these banh pia. The pastry outside is flaky and mild-tasting so it doesn’t compete with the flavorful filling. Its role seems to be to provide a pleasant and light texture. The filling is a dense paste of green beans (yes, that’s the translation. I suspect they are just the inner peas themselves that have been cooked and mashed. Remember, in this part of the world, beans are just as often used in desserts as in savory dishes.) mixed with durian and sugar. The green peas themselves are not noticeable; they provide a subtle backdrop for the more intense flavor of the sweet and creamy durian.
How much do I love sau rieng banh pia chay? Enough that when I find myself in or near Vietnam, I will certainly be making a special trip to the Mekong Delta just for these mooncakes.
Bulgaria and Greece lie right next to each other. For some reason, this led me to believe they would have more in common besides a shared claim on Macedonia. What I found instead were two very different countries, cultures, cuisines, ethnicities, and languages.
In Bulgarian, as in many other Slavic languages, da means yes and ne means no. This much is straightforward. Where the confusion begins is the accompanying head movement. Bulgarians shake their heads from side to side to indicate da and nod their heads to indicate ne. Even after a few weeks in the country, I found myself befuddled by this.
Dancing the hora at a Bulgarian wedding
But the confusion began in earnest when I arrived in Greece and found that ohi means no and ne means yes. So in Greece, when someone nods her head and says “Ne”, she’s indicating an affirmative, whereas in Bulgaria, the same word and the same head movement mean exactly the opposite.