Thursday, March 31, 2011

making the best... of everything

"Here in Lebanon, the government does nothing for us. We don't have water, we don't have electricity, we don't have good healthcare. Ah... but we live a very good life. Do you want to know why? I'll tell you why."

Tummy full from a feast of all the best Arab foods - taboule, stuffed cabbage leaves, mujadera, mutabbel, kibbe sanieh, kibbe nayeh, rocket salad, fried potatoes, etc - we were sitting around the dinner table watching the men sink deep into an impassioned discussion of politics. It sounded to me like one of those treatments of the topic in which the men just wanted to argue. Well, at least one of the men had some stuff he really wanted to say.

Us women rolled our eyes and wondered if we should start our own conversation or clear the table. Then our hostess, my friend's aunt, looked me straight in the eyes and told me she was going to tell me why Lebanon is so great.

So I nodded and asked her to go on. You can't visit Lebanon and fail to notice that that even the wealthiest houses have problems accessing drinking water and electricity and Internet service providers. And sure, poverty is widespread. Even so, life in Lebanon is good! Good food, good restaurants and cafes, luxury all around.

She continued with a gleam of pride in her eyes: "It's because we help each other and we help ourselves. Our electricity cuts off several hours a day, so what do I do? I sign up for a shared generator with my neighbours. Sure, we pay a lot for that generator use, but that's what I put my money into; don't think I'm going to pay the government very much at all for the few hours of electricity they give me...

"Someone in the family is sick. We're not going to go to a public hospital and wait to get treated. No, we take them to private healthcare.

"A government employee's salary is, say, 350. But to rent a house large enough for a family of five or six people will cost 600. What do we do? Well, we go out and get other jobs! Work two or three jobs if you need to. Don't sit back and complain."

This was probably the first time in my life that I'd heard someone speak with contentment about lack of outside support. She was proud because she could make her own way - she and her family and her neighbours. It's not suffering, it's an opportunity.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Exerting control

I need to premise this story by pointing out that I really did have a lot of luggage, and I own up to that fact.


Today when I checked in to my flight, they found I was 15 kilos overweight. This was more than I'd expected, but not a lot more. After all, I was checking in with my whole life in three bags. The attendant said she'd have to charge me extra luggage, but would figure out some kind of discount. First she needed to weigh my carry-on, which came to a whopping 15 kilos in and of itself (more than double the allowed amount)! I don't know how that happened, except to recognise I did kind of put all the heavy stuff in there.

She said they have a very strict policy against heavy carry-ons, so I'd have to check some of that or leave some of it behind. Ouch! This is my life we're talking about! And while I did have bags inside of bags and could have just decreased my weight by ditching the suitcase, it was my best carry-on-sized case. In summary, after a bit of repacking, she said she'd charge me for only 20 kilos overweight instead of the 24 I should pay. I said that was not fair. I'd pay the 15 for checked bags but I had not received fair warning about the carry-on, and plus a little flexibility on the part of the airline was to be expected in a situation like this: I'd already paid ahead to take some extra luggage but it wasn't enough.

I pleaded her boss, who was the most unwavering Arab man I have EVER met.

So I pleaded with the poor girl again, and she was becoming a bit hard-nosed herself. She said that the rules are for my own safety and that's the most important thing.

How do you argue with that? Well, here's how.

I asked her how much time I had until the counter closed. She said 20 minutes, so I had to move fast. I proceeded to unpack and rearrange all of my stuff. All of it. One of my suitcases was banged up and ready for a new owner anyway, so I unpacked it and squeezed its contents into my carry-on and a backpack that was in my carry-on. Getting rid of the junked suitcase saved me 4+ kilos on its own. Also, using a backpack as a carry-on meant that they'd let me get away with more stuff - it doesn't look as heavy as a carry-on suitcase. The airline staff were shocked that I would forego the suitcase and offered to check it empty. (Huh?)

Here was the logic floating through my mind as I took over the check-in area floor: After all, this was for my own safety, so I should rearrange my stuff so as to keep myself and my fellow passengers safe, right?

In the end, I came down to the wire and was the last passenger checked in. By the end, the stubborn man was gone and only the women were left, and I was one of the club. They charged me for 10 kg instead of 20 and, yeah, offered to check the empty suitcase. They bode me farewells with smiles and encouraging words. I think maybe they were just scared of the man. Or they honoured my attempts to look out for safety.

Then! Once I was in the boarding lounge, one of these airline women came up to me and handed me a wad of coins. I'd forgotten I'd left some USD coins in a pocket of the bag. The porter who claimed the discarded suitcase had found them and turned them in! Wow!! She asked me what country they were from, how much they were worth, etc. I said she should keep some for her children and give the porter the rest to give to their children. What a beautiful last picture of Sue Dan to take with me.

As I pondered my own belligerence, I realised it was my little attempt to take control. Everything in my life seems to be spiralling, but don't even think of messing with my luggage allowance! It felt stupid, but it also felt good. And I saved 80 bucks. And bonded with the women.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back to roots

I've hung photos of my family on the wall behind my computer, so as I sit here typing I see their beautiful faces. We aren't a large family, but I think there's a lot of love among us. We don't see each other very often or do very much together, but I know that one of the greatest gifts in my life is the knowledge that I can count on them.

When I open my facebook, I see many beautiful friends, old and new. But some of them are like family, too... the ones I've known through family, or friends who became a part of my life during my student years, or people who God has thrown into my life at random moments and who have been faithful enough to stick around (even though I usually don't). Yes, these are my family.

I'm in a phase of transition - again - and I've set as my mantra that I won't live somewhere that I haven't lived before. I say this with some trepidation, because there's a big wide world out there to be found, and in my job, there are a lot of people to be helped in that big wide world.

But when I see the photos of my nephew and his parents, and my parents, and of my friends' children on the other side of the world, I remember that this is why. Relationships are like trees, growing on a foundation of strong roots. The more places I go and see, the more adventures I live... it's like I can almost see those roots shriveling up and withering away. I need to get back to those trees before their roots are gone entirely.

And as I sit here writing this, it hits me: my mantra is not as selfish as I have often feared it is. I often think that the needs of the world are so great: who am I to decide when I will and will not respond to those needs? But the tree analogy reminds me that fruit grows on trees. Good roots makes good fruit.

So I have said it before and now am putting it in writing: by God's grace, it's time to move back to somewhere I have lived before.

Monday, March 14, 2011

practical mercy

Yesterday's Sunday service was lovely, full of touching music and a thoughtful message.

It was also a special Sunday because it was the farewell for a family from the South that was returning home. Nowadays, families are returning South on a daily basis, but this family had lived here for more than 30 years. The husband has his projects, but this little ceremony was mostly in honour of the wife, who has volunteered tirelessly with hospitality, translation and all kinds of help. After other people gave their thanks and said their prayers for the departing family, they said their thanks back to the community. As the four of them stood there, tall and regal husband and wife, with sharp-looking preteen son and a baby granddaughter, we couldn't help but be inspired. I don't even know them and I feel like my heart is going with them, and I'm excited about the amazing things they will do back in their hometown.

The thing is, in the middle of their farewell, a man in his twenties or thirties wandered in off the street. The meeting area is airy and the doors are always open. Anyone on the street can see in, and anyone can come in. So this man wandered in to the front of the room, to the space in between the group and the family saying their goodbyes.

He held his hands up close to his face and wore the most pitiful expression you can imagine. It looked both well-trained and absolutely authentic. It looked like he had just seen a ghost and was crying out in pain. And it also told us that we wanted money - because he needed it.

Two men stood up and walked to the front. As the Southern couple continued their lovely words in front, the men gently tried to lead the man out of the building. He didn't move so they pushed and nudged and embraced him as they gently walked to the door. They left and talked with him on the street. I don't know what they said, but somehow I trust they said the right thing.

How do you come together, a congregation of people worshiping God, praying for friends and raising special collections for people in distress... and then dismiss a man who walks in and says he needs help?

I so admire those men for stepping up and talking to the intruder, but I don't wish it was me. And I really, really wonder what was said. How did they show God's love in a situation like that?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Practicing Writing Case Studies: The Wedding Story

Last week I promised to write about my colleague's wedding. It was quite an affair, albeit very different from my neighbour's wedding the week before.

The report writing which has taken up most of my fingers' energies is nearing an end, but it's not there yet. Today at work, I took a break from reports to develop a format for writing case studies. The case studies will be about women and youth and community leaders who make a difference in improving their communities. But I wanted an example to show my team how to fill out the form, and the first thing that came to mind was the wedding. So here is the completed case study about the wedding...

Who is this story about?
This is a story about Ali's wedding. Ali is 30 years old and he is a company driver. He is from the capital city. He has a large family - at the wedding we met 1 brother and 3 sisters and they mentioned others. We also met an older man who said he was Ali's father and an old woman who said she was Ali's mother. At the wedding there were a couple hundred of people. 4 cars full of company people - around 30 people from the company.

Where did this story happen?
The wedding was at his house. His house is in Hay Z, on the other side of the Nile. The houses are all brick and the roads are mostly sandy. His house was spacious. We sat in the two living rooms - one for men and one for women. They had some tents set up outside his house. They were basically coverings for the road outside his house. There was one for men and one for women, but most people were not covered by the tents.

What is the project?
I first met Ali when he picked me up at the airport on my VERY FIRST arrival in the capital city. He didn't meet me in the airport, he was outside. I saw him because of the company logo on the landcruiser. He was friendly and said he didn't come in because it was Iftar (Ramadan) and he wanted to have some water first.
Five days later he took me to the airport to leave for The Gen. He was very kind - gave me a going-away gift of a calabash bowl. He explained that that is what Sue dan ese use for drinking water or for eating food. It's waterproof and very sturdy. It was a touching gift as I departed into the unknown wild west of the Dar.
He is a friendly and helpful driver. Always has a smile on his face. I guess all of the staff know him and love him. At the wedding everyone was very happy for him and he was grinning the entire time as he danced around with everyone. He liked all the attention he got.

Describe the project strategy
  • Goal: Fit in at a Sue dan ese Wedding
  • Objectives: Congratulate Ali, Wear Sue dan ese clothing, Dance, Spend the afternoon with colleagues
  • Our partners were the rest of the company staff. We met at the office and drove together to the wedding, and we all sat together inside his house (everyone else was outside under the tents)
  • The beneficiaries were everyone in the wedding. A couple of hundred people.
  • We thought the wedding was the 4th but it ended up being on the 11th of March.

Why are you writing this case study?
Well, the most obvious change is that Ali got married. But we don't actually know that. We never met the bride. She would only come to his house for the nighttime portion of the wedding. So for all we know she doesn't actually exist.
I know that Ali spent a lot of time setting up a house for his bride, because I asked him about that. They were engaged for a long time. I'm not sure how long, and I'm not sure if he was previously engaged to someone else, but I know for sure that he has been wanting to get married for years.
He will not come to work for several weeks. I think Susie said it will be 5 weeks before he comes back. I guess that means I might not see him for a long time if I'm leaving for a while. I guess that also means I might not meet his wife for a long time, if ever.
His sisters seemed very proud. They seem to be a family of high achievers. At least one sister speaks English and her daughters are university, I guess.

Tell the story of the CHANGE.
I wonder if his bride was nervous or excited?
My three housemates all went out and bought Sue dan ese Taubes to wear to the wedding. I didn't know they were buying taubes and so I didn't go shopping with them. But it's ok, because they spent a lot of money and I had a culturally-appropriate dress to wear already. They didn't like my joke, but I said that I was a Sue dan ese girl with my three mothers, because my dress looked more like what the young women wear and theirs looked more like what the older women wear.
We had gone to a wedding the week before - our neighbour got married. I'm not sure if it was the bride or the groom who was our neighbour. I think maybe it was the groom. Anyway, that meant we already had a sense of what to expect and knew that women dress UP. On the other hand, this time we were going for the afternoon (food :) ) portion, and last week we went for the evening (dancing and Bride-Groom TOGETHER) portion. So I guess it's fair to say we were very overdressed this time.
All of us really wanted to celebrate a wedding with a colleague at some point during our time here. I was sad because I will miss my team member's wedding. We thought we would be gone before Ali's wedding but we weren't. He probably felt very special having so many company staff with him, since most of the Dar staff, including a dozen khawajas (foreigners), went.
So this is important because it is the first experience we had of a Sue dan ese wedding - of someone we knew. And we attended WITH people we knew. And it was a very home-grown wedding, in the community of the community.

Quote from an individual participating in the project.
"I danced and danced and danced!" said Ali, M, 30 years old. It was his wedding.

What did you LEARN that helped you succeed?
Community factors: He clearly had a very loving family. The women all bunched around us to dance with the khawaja girls. This made me feel like they were proud and humble and energetic, all at the same time.
Cultural factors: He was waving a gun around during part of the time he was dancing. We were all very glad he didn't actually shoot the gun. We've heard of people dying at weddings here.
Individual/group influences: Ali was very eager to get married, and very happy on his wedding day. The last few times I saw him at work he was wearing galabeya, and men here seem to wear their galabeyas if they see great fun on the horizon. So this was a big celebration for him and I'm sure he fought hard to make sure it happened.
Outside factors: Having his company family, including the expat staff, in his house must have affected the wedding. It made them look good? Or it added to the excitement of the day? Or it proved he had an employer with money? Or not. We were probably the most significant external factor, actually.
Most valuable part of project: Probably the actual marriage, which happened after we left.

Quote from a different community member who watched the project.
"I think our taubes were a hit!" One of the company girls, age XX, who attended the wedding.
"This is the first time - I don't think there will ever be a second time!" XXX, age XX, who attended the wedding from the company.
"Dance! Get up and Dance!" Ali's mother, age XX, who was the mother of the groom

What are areas where you want to improve?
The taube-wearing project needs to improve, since they were falling off all the time. I think probably wearing a taube for the first time to a wedding wasn't the best idea; it would have been better to practice on some other occasion. But I don't know what other occasion because they really are quite some thing to look at.
We didn't get to meet the bride. I think we should have tried to connive a way to meet the bride. It didn't fully feel like a wedding without a bride. However, our Sue dan ese colleagues were with us and they felt this was appropriate so I must accept their approach.

Describe photo 1
C.H. took the photo. Ali is dancing with a gun. It was taken at the wedding. It shows how happy he was, and the way they celebrate a wedding.

Friday, March 11, 2011

a boy and his little sister

A boy and a girl, brother and sister, around 12 years old and 9 years old. They were walking home from the market each with a bag of food in one hand. On this quiet weekend morning they seemed to be enjoying the wind and the sun, and each other.

As we walked down the deserted street, approaching each other, the three of us heard a painful screeching sound. Yelp! Yelp! Yelp! ... Yelp! Yelp! Yelp!

Our eyes followed the sound and landed on the sight of a little tiny black puppy, so bedraggled, wet and miserable looking that I'm not entirely sure it really was a puppy, clutching a mound of sand that was poking out from a puddle of water, like a tiny tropical island on a scale appropriate to a baby puppy.

The boy handed his bag to his little sister, walked over to the sand and the puddle and gently took the screaming pup into his two hands, then carried it over to the nearest solid ground he could find: a neighbour's driveway. He laid it down gently and rejoined his sister on the street.

The puppy resumed its yelping. Louder this time, perhaps. I am not an animal person; in fact, I may be the opposite. But my heart was twisting and turning and churning and shuddering with the pain expressed in the voice of this little creature.

Maybe something was wrong with his legs? He started walking, but excruciatingly slowly, and he kept screeching. Maybe he had almost drowned and was still in shock from pulling up out of the puddle of water?

Whatever it was, the boy's heartstrings were tugging too. In this land where dogs are nothing more than freakish street mongrels that bark at night and sleep all day, where animal rights is not even a phrase in people's vocabulary, I was in awe of this boy determined to be the cavalier, determined to save the day by helping a frightened little puppy.

He and his sister discussed options and I stared at the whole scene in silence. He decided to go find help. But at this time in the morning on a Friday, everyone is either asleep or at mosque so he found noone. There was nothing to be done but to come back, pick up the little critter, soaking wet and covered in sandy mud, and carry it home cradled in his arms.

As they headed home with their new pet, I went on my way and decided that I want to be inspired by this girl and her big brother. To stop and respond to needs, even if there is no logic to explain those needs. To let the heartstrings of my heart have a say in the actions taken by my brain.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

the man with the sewing machine

He is a black man. A very black man. When you look at him, the first thing you might notice is just how black he is. The reason his blackness is so striking is because his clothes are so white. He wears a full-length galabeya robe that is whiter than the brightest fluorescent light, and a pure white knit cap on his head.

How he keeps that galabeya so clean is a mystery to me every time that I walk past him with a scarf on my head, gripping it with one hand holding my skirt down with the other hend to fend off the sand and dust that swirls in the wind around me.

Whenever I walk past his corner, I see him there, sitting behind his pedal pump cast-iron sewing machine that is about as old as he is - very. Bags of white galabeyas and zippers sit piled behind him, along with a box of assorted bits of fabric and sewing supplies.

But I never actually talked to him until yesterday, when my friend wanted her taube... her bright-coloured woman's party robe... hemmed at the edges. She asked me to translate her instructions, but no translation was needed. With barely a glance, he took out the white zipper he was mending and replaced the white thread in the machine for red. He charged a fair price and was done in ten minutes. We sat on plastic coke bottle racks and watched him as he sewed a flawless straight line.

He didn't react at two foreign girls. He didn't try to take advantage of us. He didn't expect us to wait. He just got the job done.

As I write this for Imperfect Prose this week, I want to look to the man with the sewing machine as an example. Will I take what life brings me without reaction? Will I take pleasure in the things I do without seeking to eek out a little more for myself? Will I attend to the needs of others promptly? Will I care enough to get the job done with the kind of humble pride that drives a person to keep his clothes white against all odds?

Thank you, Imperfect Prose friends, for striving with me to be, humbly, the best we can be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

my fingers hurt...

...particularly my right index and middle fingers, to be specific. Those are the fingers that hit the h, y, n, m, j, u, k, i and comma on the keyboard. I'm not sure why those are the ones getting the most worn out, but they are.

This weekend, I was going to tell a great story about my first local wedding. Our neighbour got married and the wedding took place in a tent that was put up in the empty sandy lot right outside our house. The tent was complete with rugs, satiny walls and ceilings, air conditioning and... wait for it... wait for it... yes! Chandeliers!

But, alas, I have three reports to write this week. Three major reports requiring a lot of brain activity and pounding of fingers to keyboard. So, interesting stories on the blog are getting pushed down the priority list.

If I finish my reports quickly, though, great news! We have another wedding coming up this weekend so I can write a blog about my SECOND local wedding.