Monday, April 30, 2012

And I'm Off

Tomorrow I'm on a flight back to New Orleans. I looked at my ticket and realized I made quite the novice traveling mistake. My flight from Beirut lands at 8pm Monday and my next flight out to Canada doesn't leave until 10am Tuesday morning. Without credit cards and only a couple dollar's I've stolen from friend's couch cushions and powder room cash, I will be spending 14 uncomfortable hours in the Franfurt airport. Just like the good ol' Thailand backpacking days. Where I would book the cheapest ticket I could find usually spending the night in the Newark airport trying desperately to keep warm enough to nap for a couple hours on a bench. The trauma of which is still the reason I carry a sweatshirt, an overly large scarf that can double as a blanket, and snacks while flying, even on a trip that lasts only an hour or two. 

It's been a slow few final days. Hussein is in school so Monday, Wednesday and Fridays I spend many hours at a cafe reading and writing while he is in class. I spent all of Friday writing and rewriting a terrible Op-Ed for GP. I can pen a couple sentences on my travels but writing an Op-Ed for a large newspaper is not where my skills lay. Hussein is very stressed about his final project which will determine whether he finally graduates from university and which he has barely started. His family invited us to a dinner yesterday but instead of heading back south where large posters of Syrian President Assad are plastered everywhere, we spent the day touring the National Museum and looking for Sami's car. Sam is the Editor for Lebanon Executive magazine. I read one of his columns yesterday and it was scathing against the government.

The National Museum looked like the lobby of New York's Museum of Art. Its perfectly square two levels of all grey marble. Or maybe its the Chicago Museum of Art it reminds me of. I'm not sure, maybe it's just the same boring old museum feel I'm thinking of. Within the walls are artifacts found around Lebanon, including vases and jewelry from 5th century BC. Sami made the obvious comment, "In the US, you see shit that is 200 years old in museums and they are in aw. This vase is from 500 years before the birth of christ!", but nonetheless all that stuff really is from the beginning of civilization.

What we all found funny or infuritating often at once, was that most artifacts held only a minimum of description. Vase. Beirut. I'll post some photos of the title cards later, but the truth is that when someone wants to build a parking lot they end up pulling up some ancient building and no one in the country knows what is it.  The crumbs of the progress of civilization lays before every footstep without much notice in this city. Sami was so angry about the lack of not only Lebanese people at the museum but also any understanding by the Museum's curators of what they are displaying. I thought the most interesting was the planning drafts of greek style theaters and temples made of stone. I guess when you are an architect before the invention of architecture drafting paper, stone is the obvious choice.

After the Museum we drove around Hamra, the hipster neighbhorhood we've spent most of our time. (No there are actual hipsters here, thank fucking god) But in actuality that is what Hamra is, great small hip bars with good bartenders and lots of interesting food choices. The music spills out into the streets at all hours of the evening and the same folk visit the same bars everyday. They are just missing pairs of Toms, big black empty eyeglasses, and minimualists bikes locked to every street sign. On Friday we (Hussein, Sami, Maurice, Steve, and Olli) met in Hamra for a couple drinks. Hussein and I left early. At the end of the night Sami and Maurice decided for once to night drive home drunk out of their minds, but had forgotten to remember where they had parked the car. Hussein, Sami, and I drove around and around and around yesterday looking for it. We found it blocked into a handicap spot two blocks from the bar.

The traffic: I keep trying to wrap my head around the traffic. At first I didn't think much of it. Not busier than Manhattan, less chaotic than Bangkok, but something was off here. I just haven't figured out what it is. Why aren't there more car crashes? Where are the lines on the streets to distinguish lanes? And why do cars suddenly park on the highway? I guess the better question is why do cars double park suddenly on the highway when a line of cars behind them must squeeze past to continue down the road? During the war there were many car bombs and so the police and people became afraid when cars did such a thing. Though it never stopped a non-terrorist driver from parking at the edge of a busy intersection when no other parking spot could be found.

The trend became that you left a business card or a slip of paper on the dashboard so the police or owners of any other car you were blocking could reach you. What didn't happen during these car bombs was the end of parking illegal in the middle of the street and intersections. I've tried to take photos of these impromptu parking spots, but I'm afraid they don't truly show off the situation.

Speaking of traffic. I finally drove in the city! This is my first time driving in another country and especially a crazy screaming match of traffic jam. Fortunately, it was 2am and there were barely a car around. Hussein and I began comparing traffic jams personifying them to characters we develop. During the day Hamra is a grumpy old man pissed off that his favorite futbal team had lost while at night it is a loverly dressed lady headed to dinner. One day earlier this week we were stopped behind a van with many screaming children. The driver door kept opening and foot would appear to be pushing the van. Hussein screamed in Arabic lifting his fist and closing the points of his fingers together like he was grabbing a pinch of salt for dinner. He said here you drive i'll push the fucking van. But as soon as I was going to jump out the car a motorbike appeared to our left raced directly in front of us and pushed the van with his foot. The driver closed door and gunned the engine as the motorbike pushed the van up a small hill. Eventually whatever had stopped working began again in the van and the traffic was back up to speed. This traffic jam: A frustrated father just trying to get his kids home from school so he can get some rest.

Alright I'm off. 4pm and finally headed out. Ghallia's children spent the night last night and we had a great brunch together. A house full of teenagers!! Though the line to the bathroom was hours long, there was lots of good conversation. When they left the oldest asked, are you on twitter? I'll follow you. let's keep in touch.

Reneé Claire

Friday, April 27, 2012

More on the Comic

 I received this question from a friend who has been receiving my emails on Lebanon: 

So I "liked" their group on FB and got the pictures of the protest. Were you there by any chance? I checked out everyone in the background. I found it surprising that they cAn have that FB page when they are so limited with free speech to be jailed for underwear\comedy. Very interesting to see how the comics case turns out.

Here is my one sided, slightly misinformed answer to SC.

You can like the group to support him on Facebook here:

Edmond was never arrested or asked to explain his situation, he was simply ordered to prison. He will saw the judge this past Wednesday. I'm not sure how common this is, but over the past couple months several artists have been arrested or charged and sent to jail. There is a recent crackdown on this community.

I didn't attend the protest unfortunately. I was planning on going but a lunch time glass of wine turned into being dropped off at Hussein's apartment at 4am by his good friends Sammi and Steve after he had gone home hours before, but Sammi did make it. No idea how that was possible. Obviously more use to this lifestyle than I am. I was out for about two days.

So there were 60 people that showed for a rally in front of the courthouse. They have gotten massive news coverage including French and British media. I think a couple things are happening here. One it has been only a decade or so since the civil war ended, with a string of political assassinations in the early 2000's. However when the civil war ended, the warlords took over the highest political positions. So really there was no change in power, simply the ending of violence. Second, the old guard remains in power with a underground group of religious leaders secretly calling the shots out of the public domain. That's what they think happened here. The judge was called by a cleric of some sort that holds power and was able to get Edmond summoned and sentenced outside of the rule of law using antiquated laws that are no longer enforced and really just need to swept from the books. On top of this, are the people who were very young during the war and have grown up exposed to the internet, social change in other countries, and who reject a more conservative government that cracks down on artists like in this case.

Lebanon has always been a very fashionable and liberal place, but regressed when the Muslims and Christians were fighting over boundaries and power for thirty years. So I think there is an internal struggle happening. Young artists embracing their history of freedom satirizing an aging power dynamic. The aging power dynamic unaware that its time has come.  Unfortunately, the country has a serious brain drain. The most educated are leaving for Europe and the States, frustrated and disheartened by how long it takes to make change.

I think one of the most interesting parts of what has come out of the civil war is the lengths those in power have taken to make it look like real change has happened. The Prime Minister can only be one religious sect, the President another, the heads of Ministries still different sects. On the outside it looks like they are working hard to equalize religious power, but I think instead this alienates people. No one in Hussein's family could ever Prime Minister, but not because of work ethic but because they are the wrong religion in the name of religious freedom. But its things like what is happening with the comic that pushes those boundaries eventually. I think the Occupy Movements and Arab Spring have encouraged many who were frustrated to speak out without as much fear as activists once had here when the violence was raging.

Last night Edmond, the comic, did a skype interview with MTV (not the music station, but it is a local CNN-type station). The interviewer asked him if he was afraid to go to prison. He said that when he first heard about it he was terrified, but at the rally so many people came out to support him including other artists who have been arrested recently. And now he isn't afraid, He feels supported and this event seems meaningful to him now. 

Ghallia helping Edmond get ready for his MTV interview via Skype

So because of the public outcry generated by my friends Ghallia and Ziad (who are former Greenpeace Ocean campaigners), the judge decided to continue the case until May 30. They are now willing to hear the full story of what happened that night, instead of just throwing him into prison as was first discussed. Public pressure works!

The next steps for this campaign is for folks around the Middle East to send in photos of how the culture has changed. Showing that though there are laws on the books about morality, they are not modern and need to be thrown out and the people can not be judged on outdated laws that no longer represent the culture. There are so many instances within Lebanon where you see two worlds collide. For example, down by the seaside there is a swimming pool where women go topless or in bikinis directly next to women swimming in full clothes and a women's only pool where women wear headscarfs. 

Reneé Claire

Maurice, the Comic, and the Movie Star

my blog posts are emails that I've been sending to close friends about my trip. Here is the second one.

I'm finally over my jetlag which meant that last night I got massively drunk, was hungover all day, and probably going to fall asleep as early as I have been with the jetlag.

Yesterday we went to the Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve. I've uploaded all of my photos to my flickr account. Since I only got a camera charger on Saturday afternoon and was in bed most of today, I don't have any photos besides from the hike yesterday. You can check them out here.

The hike was great. Not too difficult, but enough to get the blood going. Quiet with perfect weather. I wore long sleeve shirt and never had to put on a jacket though we found snow in several places. I even drank from the origin of a spring at the top. Blissful!

As we were driving up the mountain Hussein almost drove off the side when he saw a sign that stated caution: landmines. Ziad, one of the people whose home I am staying in, said that oh yes, during the war the military had put landmines all around the cedar reserve in order to protect it. The Cedar tree is over harvested and the governments is trying to protect it. If you look at a Lebanese flag, it is the cedar in the middle.

Maurice: Maurice is one of Hussein's closest friends. He is a stout wild hair loud Arab with a black girlfriend from Houston who works at the UN office in town. At first meeting he embraced me and kissed me and told me I was beautiful. It's quite lovely meeting Maurice. We ran into him last night at a dance club that only played 1960's and 70's music. A lot of bars in Europe do the same. You can't beat dancing to Superstitious and Preacher's Son with a bunch of Lebanese. Though it turns out there were a number of Americans in this group many from Houston oddly enough. Several of Hussein's friends are moving to the states this coming year and they have all vowed to visit me in New Orleans. I always spread the gospel. 

Maurice, Sammi and Myself

Upon seeing me arrive in the club, Maurice grabbed me and kissed me and told me I was beautiful. He pulled me on the couch to sit next him and chatted me up. Then introduced me to everyone before pulling me off the couch to dance. Seriously the only appropriated way to be greeted. Maurice and his girlfriend Christina are moving to Philly in August. Maurice is going to get his MBA at UPenn.

On Saturday Hussein and I spent a couple hours sitting on Maurice and Christina's balcony. Soaking up the sun and drinking beer with lime juice and salt. My new favorite summertime cocktail. Another of my favorite new things is carrot sticks sprinkled with lime juice and salt. It is offered during socializing, before meals and with cocktails at bars. Much better than chips or nuts like in the states.

The comic: We returned home last night around 2am to a living room full. A friend of Ziad and Ghallia's (his girlfriend who also lives here) were helping build a facebook page for a friend, Edmond, who was recently sentenced to a month in prison for showing his Superman underwear during a fundraiser for children's heart disease. There are all these old laws on the books that are starting to be enforced. Their friend is so sad and so scared to go to prison. Ziad and Ghallia are organizing a protest on Wednesday outside the courthouse where he has to face the judge again to get the sentence thrown out. I of course was very drunk and played the fool when I returned home. But that's just the way it goes. Hopefully I will attend the protest on Wednesday. Since his joke included boxer shorts, there is a thought of asking everyone to bring a pair with them to show the absurdity of the situation.

The movie star: I have been so lucky to be invited to friends' families' homes for lunch over the past week. Lunch with family is a several hour affair with a large roast, many sides, dessert, and coffee. On Friday after meeting Ghallia's mother and Aunts for a second time my food coma lasted hours where I was questioned by many if I was ill.

Ghallia's father passed away three years ago from a sudden heart attack. Her parents had gotten married when they were really young and her mother was devastated. She had a very hard time dealing with the lost of her spouse. After some time passed her kids pressured her to move on and since they are very wealthy and she didn't have to worry about money, this was an opportunity to follow dreams that had been interrupted by raising a family. She had always wanted to act. So through a friend of a friend she landed a part in a local movie that went to Cannes last year. Ghallia's mother strutted her stuff on the Cannes red carpet and has made three other films.

She is now mulling around an idea to produce a film of her own. She has had 50 young men offer marriage to her since her husband died. Maybe this is exaggerated, maybe not. She is quite charming. And she wants to make a film about the mindset of young men who like older women. I think its great!

One of Ghallia's Aunt's recently had a stroke that ended up taking the lower part of left leg. She is speaking but sometimes only nonsense. I've had this conversation many times over the past seventeen years, but sometimes the worst thing about a stroke is surviving it. Ziad said that Ghallia's aunt is really struggling with having to depend on other people for her very survival now. She was independent before, lived alone and didn't exactly need people to do things for her. Now she lives with her sister and can't even go to the bathroom by herself. It was tough to see her though she was obviously happy.

Of course I can't help but think about mom's stroke in 1996 and her most recent one that took her life. (Not that everything brings me back to that anyway) In 1996 mom struggled so much with being told to give up her car keys while her brain healed and not being able to communicate after having taught English for so many years and being such an avid reader. But there is some peace that she doesn't have to do that again. Meeting Ghallia's Aunt though did remind me that it could have been much worse.

Refusing to end on that note . . . . One thing that I do love about the city is the coffee shops. It is very much a cafe lifestyle. Tomorrow I will start taking photos of the shop I love the most, including the mobile carts, which are really just large bookcases on wheels with storage on the bottom half and an espresso machine on the top part. I have yet to see a bicycle coffee cart though.

Reneé Claire

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Because Comedy is Not a Crime

Of course a case of civil liberties emerges within the house I am staying in Lebanon.


Support Lebanese Comedians Rawya Al Chab and Edmond Haddad claim back their Freedom of Speech!

We’re going to Jail, Stay tuned!

On November 30, 2011, Comedian Edmond Haddad and Actress Rawya Al Chab were sentenced to serve one month in jail. In the name of the Lebanese people, the sentence was based on Article 532 of the penal code.

It referred to an opinion press article published days after Rawya, Edmond and many friends hosted a charitable comedy night on December 23, 2009. Their “crime” using on stage “indecent” “humor” “terminology” and “gestures”.

The Money collected was donated to the Brave Heart Fund.

Today, Rawya and Edmond face their Appeal hearing in order to claim back their freedom of speech!

Because Comedy is not a crime.
Because Justice was based on tabloids’ reports.
Because We do not live under Taliban yet.

Prison might be fun, but it’s a matter of principle… We count on YOU to spread the word; to friends, colleagues, neighbors… Join us and show your support at Court: Wednesday April 25, 2012 at the Beirut Justice Palace (Adlieh) at 9:00 AM.


We are asking folks to bring a pair of boxers for the comedians to sign. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Little Langston

My favorite poet is Langston Hughes. I, don't really like poetry at all, I find it full of ego and patronizing, but I like me some Langston. I reread my Langston Hughes reader often. It is full of coffee stains and pen strokes and highlighter marks and post its to direct me straight to my favorites, even from afar. I brought some poems with me to Lebanon. Here are a couple I read today.

Summer Night
The sounds
Of the Harlem night
Drop one by one into stillness.
The last player-piano is closed.
The last victrola ceases with the
"Jazz Boy Blues."
The Last crying baby sleeps
And the night becomes
Still as a whispering heartbeat.
I toss
Without rest in the darkness,
Weary as the tired night,
My soul
Empty as the silence,
Empty with a vague,
Aching emptines,
Needing someone,

I toss without rest
In the darkness
Until the new dawn,
Wan and pale,
Descends like a white mist
Into the court-yard.

My old man's a while old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?

Also, we should do something about that climate change thing. It might make our coffee disappear, which would be bad for my future business endeavors, and my tolerance for other human beings, which is already low. on the good days.

Tomorrow is a hike in the Cedar forest, lunch at Ziad's parents house, a puppet show, and maybe some sunset yoga by candlelight on a rooftop terrace (of course its some hippey from California that hosts). I also bought a new camera battery so lots of photos to be taken soon!

Renee Claire

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Wallet, The Wedding, and The Walrus

The wallet: I arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday afternoon. It wouldn't be a trip if there wasn't some chaos. I lost my wallet somewhere between Washington DC and Beruit. Luckily it was in Germany, where there is no such thing as chaos and the wallet (a beautiful tan hobo might I add) is being mailed back to NOLA today. A stewardess found it. Because I am smart and was going to Lebanon and basically more terrified than usual I separated out my passport and $500 in cash (my bribe money to get myself on the first plane out of here in case another war starts) in a different place. So all I lost were my LA ID, some credit cards, $40 and my moms' prayer cards (which we have hundreds of anyway, but would have been nice to have them here with me).

The city reminds me of a unique mix of Lima and Barcelona. The driving is mad, but nothing compared to Bangkok or New York City. Hussein has crazy road rage, but like all men won't admit it and then yells at me when I mention that maybe chasing another car at 120 kmph flashing his lights waving his fist and screaming obscenties in Arabic isn't the best use of our time together. But then again maybe me giggling during this doesn't help the situation either.

Hussein calls this the city of unfinished business. Almost every street and building look like they are in the middle of being built. Streets have ghosts of construction past and if there were traffic laws you wouldn't be criticized for not recognizing them. Whole families on motobikes go the wrong way up streets and cops chat up women while tens of cars run red lights in front of them. The military with very large machine guns are posted all over the city. Seems the people don't trust the police so the military is indefinitely deployed, including on regular protests of mothers mourning the lost of their sons in a city square. Thousands of boys were kidnapped during the war in the 90's and have yet to return. The mothers of these sons host weekly protests for information. It is very similar to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. We drove past them on the way from the airport. The military was in full riot gear ready to pounce.

The wedding: We arrived at Hussein's family's house yesterday afternoon. I slept till noon, if you can believe it. Not knowing that Hussein had already made plans for us to leave the house early that day. Oh well. When do I ever sleep till noon?! Anyways, he is from the south and in the mountains. His family house is rather large and has an amazing view. His father has built a second floor for Hussein to return to when he has finished traveling and settles down. I don't see that ever happening. But his father is waiting for Hussein to built it out how he wants it, so the house has become a permanent construction site. In the distance you can see an old castle built by the romans and taken by the crusaders. I think its a museum now and foreigners need a special pass in order to visit. At the top you can see into Isreal and Sryia. I'm hoping to visit this weekend. His family moved from Sarafand on the Mediterranean to Kfar Tibnet 12 years ago. The wedding of his sister was in Nabatieh at this super cool reception hall.

 We were the first to arrive at the wedding so the family could welcome everyone. Immediately men of the family were asking if Hussein and I were already married. That is if they spoke to me and shook my hand. Many men refused to shake my hand and put their hand over their heart instead, but the women were all very friendly. I think more shocked to see an American at their small (300 people) wedding reception in the mountains. People were in all kinds of dress. From the fancy ball gown to silver lame and hot pink headscarves to jeans and dirty t-shirts. Once everyone arrived the couple was brought in through a crazy dance performance with smoke and a dance floor that rose up to better show off the dancing newly married couple. It was amazing! Of course, my camera battery is dead and I didn't bring a charger. Will search that out today. I forced Hussein to give me his phone so I could take photos with that. He didn't want me to take any photos, but I very sternly said listen buddy hand it over or get hurt.

All of his sisters and brothers (there are 7 siblings total) were super friendly to me and made sure I was never alone when Hussein went to say hello to other family members. All spoke some English. His parents have forgotten a lot, but we communicated anyway. The youngest brother is 16 and wants to travel after high school and very excitedly asked if they would see me again as we were headed out. The youngest sister is studying graphic design in college but wants to be a photographer. And the oldest sister is married with two kids and one on the way. Everyone is full of joy. They laughed and teased each other and made jokes constantly.

So the wedding continued with dance performances of traditional Lebanese dances with swords and lots of colorful tulle and fancy music. And of course with the strobe multi-colored lit up dance floor that also rises to the ceiling. It was basically like being in the middle of a Lebanese Saturday Night Fever. There were even indoor fireworks that surrounded the couple as they danced in the air! I was very nervous that her enormous (and very heavy) wedding dress was going up in flames. Remember: there is no such thing as indoor fireworks. I can't believe I forgot my camera charger!!!

Today Hussein has an exam, which he is studying for right now. I will probably go for a run, but there are for real hills here. Not sure the plan for the next couple days. Maybe a hike in the mountains. I also met a guy from Houston who has been living in Washington DC for the past 8 years on the plane into Beruit. He recently quit his job and was moving to Lebanon to be with his reporter girlfriend, but she broke up with him right before he arrived on Wednesday. His ticket was already bought and he had already left his job, so he came anyway. He was so sweet. When I realized I lost my wallet, he offered to stay with me until my friend arrived and wanted to give me cash to get by. He waited with me while I contacted the airline  and walked out of the gates with me.  Amazing how you always run into sweet people when you need it. Hopefully we will hang out this weekend. I'm interested to see how he is doing.

Reneé Claire

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Impossible

I'll admit I never thought I would see the day when Aung San Suu Kyi would be elected to office AND give her Noble Peace Prize speech. I guess I'm the asshole here. 

Arrived in Lebanon earlier today but not without the organized chaos that follows closely behind me. Somewhere between Washington DC and Beruit via Frankfort I lost my wallet. Luckily I had kept all of my cash and my passport in a different place. Thank you years of traveling solo. Besides being able to say "this little cafe reminds of that night I spent in Sophia wondering in the snow looking for a hostel", I know how to protect some things in case other things go missing.  Oh well.

So sleepy. Must go to bed.

Renee Claire

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I think Beau is finally starting to adjust to his new home.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Happy Resurrection Day!

oh Cops for Christ . . . I had a neighbor growing up in Coral Springs, Florida that called my parents when I flipped him off. In classic Blanchard family style, they called me out of my room and questioned me about the incident and then started laughing. Surprise I didn't grow up in a house with much structure or discipline. He then later waved hello one Easter morning yelling Happy Resurrection Day. He use to hold Cops for Christ meetings at his house. s.c.a.r.y.

Anyways, sometime late last year I posted a blog about the differences between men and women in the workplace. I talked about how its common for women (or just me) to think that we are just lucky to be where we are, that we don't have any special talent or skills or that we've fooled the folks around us into believing that we do have talent or knowledge or skills. Completely the opposite of men who often times believe that every word out of their mouth is pure brilliance. Here is another good article from a Facebook engineer who is saying something similar.

And my favorite for the day about how people who have low effort thinking often hold conservative politics.