Dubai Mini-History Lesson

It’s time for everyone’s favorite thing… history! I promise that this isn’t going to be nearly as in-depth or complicated as Lebanon’s history. I also realize that promising something is “less complicated than Lebanon’s history” is stupid because I could give a thorough walk-through of brain surgery, and it would still be less complicated than that.

Part of the reason this is guaranteed to be easier is because much of Dubai’s history is relatively unknown. There is evidence of settlements there as early as 3000BC, and then there’s close to nothing until the 1500s AD. So that saves us the review of a solid 4500 years of history.

Enjoy this selection of pictures from the Dubai History Museum that may or may not directly relate to what I’m talking about.

The first settlers in the area were probably nomadic cattle herders who started to explore agriculture and eventually managed to become successful date palm farmers. They settled next to Dubai Creek, right where the river meets the Persian Gulf. Fast forward 3500 years to the 500s AD and the settlement became a stop along a trade route linking modern-day Oman and Iraq.

Classic house with the big tower thing used to keep the house cool.

In the 1500s, there are writings from an Italian merchant talking about the pearling industry. Dubai had grown from an agricultural community to one built on fishing, pearl diving, shipbuilding, and support for the trade route that ran through the area.

Traditional ship outside of the history museum

These axes made me laugh. They’re definitely not for chopping wood! Though I can see how they might be useful in battle. Eek!

There was a time of conflict in the late 1700s/early 1800s. A new tribe settled in nearby Abu Dhabi, leading to frequent fighting between tribes. During this time, Dubai was a walled city. The economy took a hit because the fighting discouraged traders from coming through the area. In 1820, the British negotiated a maritime truce that allowed trade routes to reopen.

The Al Maktoum dynasty took control of Dubai in the 1830s. Under their leadership, the city began to grow. Expats were given tax exemption, and this led to a big increase in the number of foreign workers. The city and economy continued to grow around fishing, pearling, and trading. After the creation of fake pearls in the 1950s, the economy took a temporary dip until a new discovery: oil.

After this development, everything changed. The sheikh at the time, Sheikh Rashid, used the oil money to give Dubai what it needed to become a trade hub again. Dubai Creek was dredged and widened, and other necessary infrastructure projects were completed. Sheikh Rashid was wise and didn’t want Dubai to become completely reliant on oil.

Cruising along the widened and dredged Dubai Creek. On the bank, you can see some rebuilt “historic” structures in Dubai’s Heritage Village.

Wall fragment from when Dubai was a walled city during the tribal conflict years. This is one of the only actual old things that exists in Dubai.

Those little round things are shields… made of shark skin!

The museum talked about the different trades in historic Dubai, and these were illustrated with life-size models.

Some traditional musical instruments. The body of the one in the middle is made from a single piece of wood!

The United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971 and consists of seven emirates. Dubai is the second biggest by land area and the most populous emirate. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have the most political power in the country. The UAE currency, dirhams, was developed and it was tied to the US dollar in 1997. That means that the exchange rate between the two currencies stays the same, and as the US dollar gets stronger and weaker, the dirham does as well.

The first highrise was built in 1979, and that was just a small preview of what was to come. Since the 1990s, Dubai has been working to become a business hub and tourist destination. It has the world’s only 7-star hotel (how do you even get 7-stars if there are only 5 in existence? It seems like the rating system is kind of worthless once you can score better than perfect), the world’s tallest building (only for the moment though… the next one is already under construction in Saudi Arabia and will claim the title by 2020), the world’s largest shopping mall, crazy man-made islands, and a ton of other attractions and features that scream “luxury”.

All of those skyscrapers… brand new. This is at the Dubai Marina which says, “If you’re rich, this is the place for you!” (It doesn’t literally say that, but it might as well.)

The current sheikh, Sheikh Mohammed, has been in power since 2006, and much of the development toward and focus on increased tourism is due to his vision and the work started by his father, Sheikh Rashid. Things such as allowing foreigners to own property and work tax-free have been big draws to bring people in from around the world and make Dubai into a truly international city. Around 90% of its residents are foreigners!

The growth in Dubai over the last 40 years is pretty incredible. Think about the fact that ALL of those skyscrapers that dominate the skyline were built since 1979. Like whatttt? I remember that when I was in Shanghai, we watched a video comparing the development of New York City and Shanghai. For years and years and years, New York slowly grew vertically. It was a very gradual change. Meanwhile, during those same years and years and years, Shanghai was completely flat and flat and flat… until it started to boom. Then, in a snap, buildings shot up and quickly filled out the skyline… while New York stayed basically the same. Dubai’s growth has been at least that dramatic. It’s like everything just dropped out of the sky… the land is empty, you blink, and there’s an entire city in front of you.

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Welcome to Dubai!

Welcome to Dubai! Leaving Lebanon was sad, but that was buffered a bit by the fact that I still had an adventure ahead. I intentionally scheduled a long layover in Dubai so that I could leave the airport and check out the city. I was trying to get a normal length layover until I realized that the long one was cheaper, AND it gave me a chance to see something new. Score!

Before I get into what I did while I was there, let me tell you about some of my first impressions…

  1. Vertical city – Dubai claims to be a “vertical city”, and I guess to a certain extent, that’s true. There are a lot of VERY tall buildings. At the same time though, it’s also very horizontal. There will be a little patch of super tall buildings over here, then there’s an area of completely flat land, and then there’s another patch of tall buildings. It’s like if you took the center city areas of a bunch of cities and then put them near each other. Instead of seeming like one city, it’s more like a few weird, disconnected but nearby cities.

    Cluster of tall buildings. Flatness. Cluster of tall buildings.

  2. Not a city made for people – That sounds stupid, I know, but I mean that it’s really not pedestrian friendly. I always consider one of the great things about cities to be the fact that you don’t need a car. If you’re in the downtown area, you should be able to walk to all of the major things. In Dubai, there are places where it’s so hard to find a place to cross the street that you feel like you can’t even navigate the city on foot. It is also completely NOT bike friendly which is enough to make me immediately turn up my nose (I’m a bike snob, I know).

    This night shot is cool because you can so clearly see the roads. All of the orange light lines are street lights… doesn’t it seem wrong that so many of them are floating in a sea of darkness with no buildings near them?

  3. Public transit – As bad as the pedestrian situation is, the public transit really is good. I rode the metro, bus, and trolley while I was there, and all of them were impressive. They were clean and prompt and everything had a separate section for women only. The first time I went on the metro, I was going to just ride in the normal part… until I looked around the platform and realized that NO other women were standing near me. I moved to the women’s car, and I’m happy that I did because it was PACKED, and at least that way I didn’t have to be smushed up next to a bunch of smelly guys.
    The price of the public transit also wasn’t bad… a little over a dollar for a ride. I think that if you have a more permanent card, it’s even cheaper too.
    There are A LOT of rules on the metro. The number of things that you can get fined for is actually kind of impressive. There are penalties for eating, drinking, chewing gum, falsely pressing the emergency button, being a man in the women’s cabin… probably more that I’m forgetting. I don’t know how seriously they enforce the rules, but they exist.

    They make it very clear where the women’s car on the metro is.

  4. Shiny and new – Everything just seems… shiny. And surreal. And inauthentic. It’s like the whole city is trying too hard. For example, there’s this one part of the city that’s supposedly “historically preserved”. In Dubai that apparently means “rebuilt but in the old style”. The buildings are too tall. Everything is too new. It’s just too fill in the blank.

    This is supposed to be “old” Dubai… It is very clearly “new old” Dubai. How could I tell? Well, besides the fact that everything looked pristine, there were fire alarms and lights installed with no wiring exposed. Unless the pearl divers of old Dubai were way ahead of the rest of us in harnessing electricity, I don’t think those are original.

  5. Foreigners – There are foreigners everywhere. Tons of tourists, tons of foreigners who live there. If you were trying to guess where in the world you were just based on the people, I don’t know that the United Arab Emirates would even be top 15 on your list of guesses.
  6. English – On that note, you can speak English everywhere. When I was getting ready for my day in Dubai, I stumbled on some forums where people were asking if you needed to speak Arabic to be able to navigate Dubai easily. The answer was a resounding no. After being there, my answer is an even more resounding no. You can easily speak zero Arabic and have zero issues.
  7. When everything is impressive, nothing is – If you’re a genius and you work at a company filled with geniuses, is anyone a genius? Or are you all just average? Next question: If you’re an impressive skyscraper surrounded by a bunch of other impressive skyscrapers, are any of you impressive? Or are you all just normal? Dubai is filled with statement buildings. They are weird and funky, and in any other city, they would help to define the skyline. Instead, they’re surrounded by other weird and funky buildings that make them look normal. It’s almost a shame that anyone even bothers putting effort into their designs because it’s only a matter of time until there are more tall buildings on all sides, and you can’t even see the first building anymore. If you want to build a statement building and have anyone care, don’t build it in Dubai.

    Hidden away in this picture are two skyscrapers that I knew about before I went to Dubai, Princess Tower and Infinity Tower (since renamed, but I’m going to pretend not). If I hadn’t KNOWN that they were there, I wouldn’t have even looked twice. Infinity Tower is the twisty one to the left of the big block building on the right side of the picture, and Princess Tower is behind it with the round spaceship-like top. It’s the second tallest building in Dubai after the Burj Khalifa, but you’d never know because it looks dwarfed from this angle by all of the surrounding buildings.

  8. Construction – Remember when I said that there’s a lot of construction in Beirut? HAHAHA. That’s like child’s play compared to the construction happening in Dubai. Everywhere, there’s some sort of construction happening. It seems like it’s endless, and I seriously just don’t understand it. Which leads me to my next point…
  9. Confusing – This is a long one. Dubai confuses me in many ways.
    There are a few developers who are doing most of the construction in the city. They seem to just keep building more and more and more, and I don’t understand how it’s sustainable. Are they seriously making enough money that it’s worth it to keep building? Maybe this has changed, but I always think of Dubai as a ghost city where there’s a ton of empty property. The numbers have probably improved since back when Dubai was just starting to emerge, but I can’t imagine that everything could be full.
    This is going to sound like a direct contradiction of #7, but that’s part of the reason why this is going under the category of “confusing”. Dubai is filled with icon buildings and icon things in general (for example, the palm islands or the world map islands)… and then those iconic things might be right next to the most boring, uniform pop-up of skyscrapers ever. There were some skyscraper clusters where it looked like the architect got bored or fired after designing the first building, and every building after that was just slightly modified from the first. Maybe this one has 10 fewer floors. Maybe that one has one column of windows shifted slightly. Why build an army of buildings that all look the same and that are all seemingly empty?

    Have you ever seen a more boring group of skyscrapers? Just wait until you see them from the back…

    Okay, NOW have you ever seen a more boring group of skyscrapers? Seriously, how lazy can you be? B.O.R.I.N.G.

  10. Over-the-top – Everything. Nothing can be done halfway. If something is done, it will be the _______est. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. The world map islands are the most ridiculous collection of man-made islands (that’s a title that I just made up now, but I am extremely confident that it would hold up in front of a judge). The I-can’t-remember-the-name flower garden is the most absurd flower garden in the world. It’s like everything is super-sized whether that be in actual size or just in concept.

There are a few of my first impressions of the city, but if I’m being totally honest, none of those were surprises to me. I think it was about what I expected. That doesn’t make it any less weird, though, when you’re surrounded by tall buildings and there’s not a person in sight. There were moments when I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie or something, and I was the last human on earth. The city is built for SO many more people than live there. I wonder if it will ever grow into itself. Better question, if it DOES grow into itself, will there be enough capacity in the public transportation and roadways to accommodate those people?

Next, I’ll tell you a little bit about the history of Dubai and how it turned into the craziness that it is today. Maybe the history lesson will clear up some of your confusion regarding the mysterious existence of this wacky city… or maybe not.

Last Days in Beirut

The church at Antelias

Does it feel like we’ve been in Lebanon forever? It’s amazing how much you can pack into 9 days! All good things must come to an end though, and here we come (side note: I’ve just now decided that is a very dumb saying, and I’m not going to use it anymore. All it does it make you dread the “inevitable end” of the good). I spent my last couple of days wandering around Beirut, making sure everything was checked off my sightseeing list, and revisiting some of the things I saw with Badveli in the rain or the dark.

Maria and I went on an adventure to the “Etchmiadzin of Lebanon”. As a refresher, Etchmiadzin is like the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s where the Catholicos (the Armenian version of the Pope) sits… but of course, nothing is simple, so here’s another quick, complicated history lesson for you. When Armenia was under the control of the Seljuk Turks in the 1100s, the Catholicos ended up in Cilicia and set up camp there. A couple hundred year later, when the situation in Cilicia started to fall apart, a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin. The Cilicia Catholicos settled in Antelias, Lebanon, and now there are two Catholici, with the one in Etchmiadzin serving as the supreme Catholicos. The Catholicos of Cilicia is responsible for the Armenian Apostolic churches in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, and the Gulf countries.

The compound includes a cathedral, museum, library, the Catholicos’s residence, and a school for clergy. There’s also an Armenian Genocide memorial that includes sand and bones from Deir ez-Zor, the major “concentration camp” located in the Syrian desert. I put that in quotes because those words imply that there was something there, but it was just open, empty desert where people were sent to wait for death. There used to be a memorial and museum there, but those have since been destroyed in the Syrian war.

Chandelier party in the church at Antelias… hehe

Their mannequin nativity made me giggle

The building where all of the old Catholici are buried

Outside of the Armenian Genocide memorial

Inside the Armenian Genocide memorial

Plant. Covered. Walkways. ❤ ❤

The rest of my remaining adventures took place around Beirut. I started out my last day with a leisurely walk to downtown on Armenia Street (the name changes halfway, but we’ll just claim it all for Armenia). There are some cool alleyways that I had noticed earlier in the week and wanted to go back to check out more closely. Based on my walk, I’ve decided that every staircase should be painted, and every walkway should be covered with a canopy of plants. Those two things make everything look at least 100 million times cooler.

St. Elias… probably my favorite church from the outside. I tried to look inside, but it was under construction 😦

Stairs!

Seriously though, how much more fabulous do they look because of the paint?

These are the coolest ones

There’s some pretty fab graffiti too

Martyrs’ Monument

Once I made it into town, I paid a visit to Martyrs’ Square… and by “square” I mean “parking lot with a monument in the middle”. The square was the location of executions of Lebanese nationalists by the Ottomans and was thereafter known as “Martyrs’ Square”. The first statue was erected there in the 1930s, and it showed a Muslim woman and a Christian woman holding hands over a coffin. The current statue replaced that one in 1960. Martyrs’ Square was a place to gather, a place to demonstrate. During the civil war, it was right on the dividing line of the city, and the statue suffered a lot of damage. After the war, they decided to restore the statue and leave it with some of the war damage as a reminder. It has reclaimed its former position and now sits in the middle of two muddy parking lots. There are plans to rebuild the square, but they definitely haven’t come to fruition yet.

Street views

Pretty but deserted streets leading into the central square

Anddd empty…

Crusader Castle in Beirut… not quite in the same condition as the one in Byblos!

Yay for twinkle lights!

Another spot in the city that I visited with Badveli was the Beirut Souks. The name is misleading because “souks” implies that it’s a market, but it’s actually just a mall. Back in the day, it used to be a market. You know, one of those bustling, crowded, personality-filled markets. I love those places. The people-watching is always fabulous because they’re full of people with purpose. I think it’s cool when you’re in a place that seems like nothing but chaos to you, but when you look around at the people who clearly live and work there, they all know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. From the outside, it looks like chaos. To the people on the inside, it’s organized chaos.

When all of the post-war redevelopment of the city started, the old shop owners were offered money in exchange for their shops. The payouts weren’t fair, but with the compulsory purchase power held by the developers, people really didn’t have a choice. I think the new building is nice and all, but it’s just like any other shopping mall. There’s nothing “souk”y about it. They did keep the old streets as the layout for the new corridors, but like… come on. I wanted to hate the building because of what it represents, but I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy it a little bit. Especially since when I went with Badveli, it was all decorated for the holidays, and you know what a sucker I am for lights! It’s nothing unique though, that’s for sure. Essentially, it’s like any other mall you’ve ever been in.

Beirut Souks

This would be way more ordinary without the decorations

 

A building in Saifi Village, an upscale neighborhood in Beirut that was completely rebuilt after the war

More Saifi Village views

Hard at work

The final activity of my last day was a trip to a gallery, Beyt Amir. There’s a little café in the backyard, and we went there for lunch before checking out the show. Maria unfortunately had a lot of things to do at work, so that mostly left Badveli and me alone except for a quick few minutes during lunchtime.

The big thing at this gallery is a bunch of panorama-type pictures of Beirut at different points throughout history. There’s one from 1870, one before the war, one right after the war, and one modern day. Then, an artist did a drawing of what the 2052 Beirut might look like. At the café, the artist’s black and white panorama drawing has been split into pieces and it’s used for placemats! Each table also has coloring utensils at each table, sooooo they’re obviously telling you to color. Badveli and I were talking… and then we were coloring and talking… and then we were so into it that getting our food was almost an inconvenience because we had to stop coloring to eat.

I don’t know how long we sat at that table… but I do know that it was long enough for both of us to finish our masterpieces. It took stealing some markers and pencils from another table to make our dreams a reality, but we did it! It was only after we finished, took photos of our artwork, left them on the table, and went to the gallery that we realized we had colored a couple pieces of a bigger picture… and that our pictures fit next to each other! We rushed back to the table, and sure enough, they matched up perfectly! We found this to be extremely exciting and then obviously took a few more photos before going back to the gallery.

Our masterpieces. Whose is whose? (though I guess the last picture kind of gives it away)

Gate into the cafe

The exhibition was an interesting mix of things. There were the panoramas, plus some watercolors of old, damaged buildings from around the city. Those were cool because the surroundings were all just pen-drawn, and the building that was the focus was painted in watercolor. There were other things that were like little metal dioramas. They were showing war-damaged rooms and buildings but were kind of beautiful because of all the details and the lights that made them look like decorations. The building itself was also pretty. All in all, a great choice of lunch venue and afternoon perusal location.

Inside Beyt Amir

Isn’t this cool?? All of the details are crazy!

Me with my airplane kuftes

And just like that, my time in Lebanon ran out. Badveli, Maria, and I had our last supper, and before we knew it, Hovig was downstairs to take me to the airport. Maria, in a classic Armenian mother move, insisted that I pack kuftes for the road… because that’s such a normal airplane snack… I pretend to grumble in those situations, but it’s nice to feel the love that comes along with the food pressure because you know that you’re only being forced to take/eat food because you’re cared for and no one wants you to waste away (like that’s even possible in an Armenian household).

I was sad to leave, but I went with a full heart. Seriously, it was just the break I needed to refresh me and prepare me for the rest of my time in Armenia. It was nice to be around familiar people, eat familiar food (because the food in Armenia is NOT the Armenian food I’m used to, but the Middle Eastern and Armenian food in Lebanon are exactly what we ate growing up), spend time in familiar community, and just have a little time where I felt like I was truly at home.

I also took a stroll around the American University of Beirut’s campus. They have some really nice buildings! And lots of green space.

AUB greenery

If you keep your eyes open, you can find all sorts of hidden architectural gems in the city.

This is a pretty classic apartment building view. The curtains on the balconies help to keep out the rain and heat.

Mountains and Ministry

Another outside-of-Beirut adventure came about by chance. At church on Sunday, Maria bumped into an old friend who was visiting Lebanon for a few days. She was going out into a few villages the next day to see some Christian-run refugee schools, and their conversation resulted in an invitation for me to join!

The drive out of Beirut was beyond breathtaking. I took a few inadequate pictures out the car window before giving up and just looking with my eyes.

I was very interested to see the refugee situation in Lebanon and how it compares to Armenia. Before this, Armenia was my only real reference point, and that isn’t exactly a typical refugee scenario. One major difference is simply the number of people. In Armenia, a country of 3ish million people, the numbers we usually cite are that 22,000 refugees have come to Armenia, and 15,000 of those are still in the country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is estimated to have around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not to mention the almost 200,000 Palestinian refugees who have been there for decades now (though no one really knows the accurate numbers, so they could be higher or lower than these).

Another big difference I didn’t think much about beforehand is housing. I was answering some questions about the refugee situation in Armenia, and someone said, “What are the camps like?” I was a little thrown off and replied that there aren’t camps in Armenia. The person looked impressed by that fact, but I tried to clarify that that doesn’t mean Armenia really has its act together or that most refugees have decent living conditions. Maybe things are “better” for people here, but it doesn’t seem productive to use that word when the situations are just two varying levels of horrible.

One of the refugee camps from a distance. It’s a little tent city, and with the cold of winter (which can be decently cold despite being in Lebanon), a tent is definitely not an easy or comfortable living space.

There are estimates that as many as half of the school-age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon aren’t going to school. Despite many initiatives to change that, various challenges such as language barriers, transportation costs, and kids working to help support their families all contribute to keeping kids out of school.

We visited two out of the six total schools that this particular ministry operates. Between all six, they have about 1,600 kids enrolled! The principal at the first school explained that even though it’s a school run by Christians, they don’t explicitly teach the kids about Christianity. For a while at first, they just operated the school and gained the trust of the community. After that, they started talking a bit more about stories from the Bible and such, and they do teach Christian values.

Kids at the first school singing and dancing. They were all so excited to show off what they’ve learned.

She told a story about a boy from one of their schools. His father told him to go and steal some fruit, and the boy said that they learned at school that you’re not supposed to take things that don’t belong to you. The kid’s teacher went to see the father, explained what they’re teaching the kids about how to behave, and said that it only works if they’re also getting the same reinforcement at home. She told him that they needed to work together.

Now that the school has been around for a bit, they’re gaining people’s trust more and more. They’re bringing the parents in for meetings and getting them involved. Most of all, they’re just trying to show the people God’s love. They said that they’ve heard multiple times from the families they work with that the only people who treat them like they’re people and not animals are the Christians. That’s nice and I’m glad that the Christian community is treating people right, but honestly, that statement mostly just bothers me. They are people. Why is it so hard to treat them that way? Or better question, why is it so easy to not treat them that way?

One of the classrooms in the second school. The school is located in what looks like a very small strip mall. You can see the garage-type door on the opposite side of the room.

We have this horrible human habit of thinking that we deserve what we have, and if people are in unfortunate situations, it’s their fault. How do we have such undeserved, high opinions of ourselves? As if we deserve success and happiness because we’ve never done anything wrong in our whole lives, and they don’t because they definitely have done something that justifies their circumstances.

These people had lives back in Syria. They had businesses. They were teachers, writers, mechanics, artists, jewelers, shopkeepers. They didn’t start the war. Most of them didn’t want the war and would have been happy to keep on living life the way they were. They are just people who were caught in the middle of a conflict in their country. They deserve to live as much as any of us. They deserve to build lives and to be able to support their families. They deserve to be treated with love, respect, and dignity. How can you look at a person, know nothing about them, and think of them as less than you? Saying it like that makes it sound ridiculous… because it is. Somehow though, we manage to do it constantly.

Every time I hear someone talk about their experiences in Syria during the war, I get this weird mix of emotions. It’s the same thing I feel when Maria and Badveli talk about something that happened during the war in Beirut and they’re so matter-of-fact about it. “Well, this bus only ran to here, and then you walked to taxis over here but you had to be careful because of snipers, and then you drove to these buses here and you had to be careful again because other snipers, and then you got home!” I think I feel a combination of horrified and baffled because the words don’t match the tone. The words are horrific, and the tone is simply factual. It’s amazing what people can get used to. We can train ourselves to feel like almost anything is normal, even when it absolutely isn’t. People shouldn’t have to know what shelling sounds like or how to avoid getting sniped or what to do when bombs are being dropped on their neighborhood. Those are not things that should have to be accepted as part of “normal” life.

View from one of the schools.

Visiting those schools, it was hard to reconcile the knowledge of the horrible things those kids have lived through with the smiles on their faces. Part of that is because kids are amazingly resilient, and in these schools, part of it is definitely because of the teachers. It was immediately clear to me that the teachers are passionate about their work and that they love the kids. I was so impressed. I’ve seen a lot of teachers all over the world, and you can very quickly tell which ones see teaching as more than a job. They know that they can have a huge impact on the kids and who they will become, and they take that responsibility seriously. In all of them, I saw that look in their eyes where you know that they love those kids like their own. The students can feel it too, and every single kid in those schools was clearly thrilled to be there. Their families are still facing plenty of challenges, but for a few hours each day, they get to be regular kids who smile and laugh and play.

Kids at the second school taking a break from classes to sing, dance, and run around.

I’ve had some very unique opportunities this year to see the world from different angles. Some have been fun and beautiful and some have been sad and uncomfortable, but all of them have been equally important. Ignoring sad things doesn’t make them go away. Paying attention, letting yourself feel, and trying to understand are what lead to empathy. Empathy connects people. And paying attention usually also reveals hope because where there’s a problem, there are “ordinary” people working to fix it. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Anyway, I know this isn’t exactly my usual type of post. I’ve just been thinking a lot about these things recently, and my experience in Lebanon reinforced a lot of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. I’m still not completely sure what to do with them, but for now, they’re pushing me to see people and situations in a new way.

Here are a few more pretty mountain views 🙂

Byblos

I’ve already decided that I need to go back to Lebanon because there’s SO much more to see there (and because I had a great time hanging out with Badveli and Maria). I spent most of my time in Beirut, so I definitely have to go back to see the major sights that I didn’t get to outside of the city. Next time will be a cross-country tour… which sounds intense until you remember that it takes about 2 hours to drive across the country from west to east and maybe 6 from north to south.

HI, PRETTY WATER!

Anyway, we did get out of the city a couple of times, and one of those adventures was to Byblos (Jbail in Arabic)! Byblos is a coastal city north of Beirut. “They” say it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. “They” seem to say that about a lot of cities though, so I’m a little hesitant to listen to anyone who tries to claim that title. People in Armenia say that about Yerevan too, but there are a TON of waaay older cities than Yerevan. I guess that when you say it’s “one of the oldest”, there isn’t a clear place to draw the line. Convenient. Well then, I’m one of the oldest people in the world. I’m one of the tallest humans. I’m one of the coolest people in the universe. These all could very well be true as long as you stretch your imagination a little bit.

View of the city to the north of the castle

Wow okay, I got a little carried away with that. Like I was saying, pre-rant, Byblos is old. That certainly can’t be argued… Back in the day, Byblos was a fishing village until it turned into an important Phoenician port, shipping out the famous Lebanon cedars and more. It was known for both that and for fantastic shipbuilding. The city grew very wealthy due to its trade with Egypt, and it was heavily influenced by Egyptian culture. It’s also one of the Phoenician cities that gets a few shout-outs in the Bible (though that’s not exactly a good thing because it’s usually when one of God’s prophets is foretelling judgment on the city that will lead to its destruction or something to that effect).

That water though…

As Tyre became more and more important, Byblos became less and less and started to decline. It had a resurgence under Babylonian and Roman rule until almost fading out completely during Muslim rule. During the brief upswing, they exported a lot of papyrus. For this reason, the Greek word for book, biblio, came from the city’s Greek name. And the word for Bible came from the Greek word for book… so the Bible is kind of named after Byblos. After the Muslim conquest of Byblos, they cared so little about the city that they didn’t even bother fixing the things that were destroyed during their invasion. Byblos was nearly forgotten until the 1860s when it was brought back into the picture by a French historian (Ernest Renan).

Today, Byblos is becoming a more and more popular tourist destination because of its beaches, history, and beautiful setting.

Obsessed.

One of the restored “souk” streets in the city which basically just sells souvenirs and such now

The “modern” Christmas tree in Byblos. Hovig despised it. I thought it was kind of interesting.

Badveli asked one of his car-owning friends, Hovig, if he could drive us there, and thankfully he said yes. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Hovig has the same *brilliant* sense of humor as Badveli and I do, so all it took was a few corny jokes before it felt like we were old friends.

We went to the Crusader castle in the city, and I absolutely loved it. The castle was built in the 12th century by… you guessed it, the Crusaders. Besides the castle, there are also extensive ruins on the grounds. You can see the foundations of temples and dwellings and fortifications, and the actual castle has been restored to give you a better idea of what it was like in its former glory. It’s pretty cool because there are ruins from practically every part of Lebanon’s history… prehistoric dwellings, the Phoenician necropolis, Egyptian temples, Persian fortress, a Roman amphitheater, and more. The site is right on the coast, so there’s a beautiful view of the sea which is made even better by the fact that you can go all the way to the top of the castle to see it. I kept marveling at how pretty and blue the water is… and Badveli and Hovig responded by saying how gross and dirty it is because trash and stuff get dumped into it. Well excuuuuse me. I didn’t say it looked clean (though from afar it looked fine), I just said it looked pretty.

Entrance to the castle

Can you see me?

Me, Badveli, and Hovig on top of the castle

Badveli took over as the official “Lara in holes” photographer during the trip. Can you find me?We were at the castle until closing when a guy started aggressively blowing a whistle to get people to leave. I, of course at that very moment, was poking around a building on the site that I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be poking around. (My recent approach to sightseeing has been “do what you want until someone yells at you” because so often, things that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in the US are totally okay in other countries. If you limit yourself to the things you think would/should be allowed, you’ll probably miss out on something.) Since you get super jumpy when you think you’re doing something wrong (or at least I do), the instant the whistle started blowing, I was sure that it was someone whistling at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be. I’ve been to places (I can’t remember exactly where… Machu Picchu maybe?) where that’s the how the guards get your attention. I kind of spazzed and ran to what I deemed a more acceptable location before realizing that he wasn’t whistling at me. And of course, Badveli and Hovig laughed at me the entire time (to be fair, I deserved to be laughed at). Apparently not having learned my lesson about trying to look semi-normal, I then ran around like a lunatic, trying to see the couple of things we hadn’t gotten to yet before the whistle man kicked us out.

Poke poke poking around… this is just moments pre-whistle and spaz attack.

The castle from my illegal (but not actually) stop on the steps of that building

Egyptian obelisk temple that was relocated to this site to conserve it

Weird flower field

Looking south

We used the last hour or so of daylight to walk down to the harbor where Hovig was a helpful tour guide by showing me where you can see trash floating in the water. I chose to ignore it, not because I think it’s fine that the water is gross, but because I wanted to enjoy the illusion that the water was blue and pure and that humans weren’t doing what they do best and ruining nature.

Despite the garbage, it really was beautiful. There were some very nice rocks, and the sun was starting to set. Boats bobbed around in the harbor, surrounded by picturesque buildings. The air was that perfect, comfortable temperature, and a breeze was coming off the sea. We stayed there for a bit, me soaking in the beauty of the moment, Hovig looking in disgust at the dirty water, and Badveli most likely making a fantastic(ly bad) joke (Badveli – by bad I obviously mean good… but if not good, definitely funny… or at least cringe-worthy).

The harbor

Sunset!

Admiring the *clean* water

Okay, quiz time. What’s the best way to make a great day into a phenomenal day? The answer is ice cream. Always ice cream. On the ride back to Beirut, we stopped and got Arabic ice cream which is different because it uses flour made from orchids that helps keep it from melting and mastic tree resin to help stabilize it (whatever that all means). I’ll be honest, if you didn’t tell me that it wasn’t normal ice cream, I never would have known. It was delicious. We were supposed to just stop to pick up a container to bring back with us, but we obviously ate some there also (unless Maria is reading this… then that didn’t happen and we just did what we were told because we’re very good at following directions). Then, I ended up eating ice cream TWICE, and that’s how you make a phenomenal day into a historic day that will be remembered forever.

If you remember anything from my blog, let it be this: Ice cream makes everything better.

LOL

Chocolate and vanilla because I’m boring

Pigeon Rocks, Luna Park, and the Coast

When I finally awakened from my post-Christmas caroling coma… I wanted to go right back to sleep. But no! I had a set amount of time in Lebanon, and I had to make the most of it. By the time I managed to pull myself together, Maria was home from church with plans for us to check a few more things off our sightseeing list.

We hopped on the bus and went all the way to the western waterfront of the city where Badveli was waiting to meet us. Our first stop was the famous “Pigeon Rocks.” There isn’t too much to say about these… They’re a couple of big rock formations out in the water. They are definitely cool looking! And it was nice to be by the water. They probably look even cooler during the sunset, but we were there earlier in the day and saw the awesome sunset from elsewhere along the coast.

Apparently, people sometimes try to go through the hole in the big rock in boats. Like… come on. After watching the waves crash against the rocks and the water rush through the hole for about five seconds, I was convinced that that’s a terrible idea. I’m all about adventure and taking risks or whatever, but not when they’re stupid. Sorry, that was strongly worded and full of judgement. Let’s try again… As fun as it sounds to attempt to launch myself through a rocky hole in a little boat while waves try to smash me into tiny pieces, I think I’ll pass. (I don’t think that was any less judge-y… oh well, I tried.)

Pigeon rocks. Aren’t you tempted to brave the tunnel?

From there, we walked north and went for a nice stroll along the water. The weather, finally after three days of constant rain, was perfect. There’s nothing like the feeling of the sun warming your face, and the smell of the air reminded me of the beach back home. It was a snapshot of summer in the middle of winter, and what’s better than that? I’m sure it gets miserably hot during the summer months, but I was happy to enjoy the warmth while it was juuust right.

I’m sure it’s completely safe…

Our next stop was Luna Park, an amusement park right on the coast. Luna Park isn’t any sort of special name for that particular spot. More like it’s the generic name for “amusement park”. Fun fact: there are a ton of “Luna Parks” in existence. The name originally comes from Luna Park on Coney Island in New York, and it was borrowed by a few other developers who built amusement parks across the world. Now, in more countries than just Lebanon, saying “Luna Park” is the same as saying “amusement park”.

I wanted to go on the ferris wheel, something Badveli and Maria had never done before, probably because it’s another one of those “this ferris wheel has been here since before the beginning of time” situations.  But you know, remember how I was talking about risks and how some are worth taking? Terrifyingly old ferris wheels are almost ALWAYS worth it.

Since this isn’t exactly high season for the ferris wheel, there was no one else riding when we got on. That meant that we got an extended ride and went around like 5 times. I’m fairly certain the operator just started the ride, went and drank a cup of coffee, and then came back to stop it. We got a great view of the city and the water, and the ferris wheel had those cars that you can spin around and around until you feel like you’re going to throw up, so that was fun too. I was just happy that my brothers weren’t there with us because they’re known for spinning those things so fast that you can feel your stomach trying to leap out of your body… and so fast that everyone watching is almost positive that your car is going to disconnect from the ride and spin off into oblivion. Thankfully, our experience was slightly less dramatic than that, though still pretty great.

Ferris wheel party!

Photo credit to Badveli for this cool pic!

View from the ferris wheel

After the park, we kept walking along the water. It was such a pleasant night, and hearing the water crash up against the shore is always so calming. There was a spectacular sunset, and all of that put together was almost enough to make me forget that the first few days were filled with rain and rain and rain.

Can you spot the lighthouse?

Picture perfect!

Check out the water!! So blue! ❤

Sunset walk along the water.

Sunset!

It’s almost like the clouds were intentionally and perfectly arranged to make this look as cool as possible.

Armenian Christmas

After my day of trekking all over the universe with Badveli (you can read my last post HERE), all I wanted to do was sit on their comfy couch like a huge bum and go to sleep early. There was only one problem… it was Armenian Christmas Eve, and I was signed up to join the youth/young adult group in their overnight caroling. It’s a good thing that I really wanted to go because otherwise, I don’t know how I would have made it through the night. I took a 50ish minute nap when we got home and then dragged myself out of bed, feeling fresh, rested, and ready for some late-night singing! HA! That’s not true. I basically rolled out of bed and then zombied around for at least the next 45 minutes until my body woke up.

Family Christmas card

The main Beirut Christmas tree.

Unlike most of the other Christians in Lebanon, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6th. I’ll give you the five-second explanation of why that is… everyone used to celebrate on the 6th of January. In the Roman Empire, there was a pagan holiday celebrating the birth of the sun on the 25th of December. They changed it to the celebration of the birth of the Son (hehe) and left January 6th as the Epiphany, or the revelation of Christ as God in the flesh. Armenians celebrate the birth and revelation of Christ on the same day (which is why the Armenian Christmas greeting says, “Christ is born AND revealed”) because they weren’t part of the Roman Empire and didn’t have the same pagan holiday problem.

Anyway, like I was saying, most of the Christians in Lebanon celebrate on December 25th. Since there’s such a significant Armenian population though, they leave up the Christmas decorations until January 6th, and Badveli said that they even replay the Christmas programming on TV! Isn’t that cool? It was also nice for me because it meant that I got to see the Christmas decorations even though I didn’t get to Lebanon until January.

Here’s a light sculpture to rival the Yerevan ones!

Badveli and me inside the light sculpture

Speaking of Christmas decorations, we saw a ton of nativity scenes that didn’t quite get my stamp of approval. One thing that threw me off was that they were always in a cave instead of a barn-type structure like we usually show in the States. I didn’t have an issue with that, it was just interesting. Since I was with Badveli, of course that launched into a discussion about how we don’t actually know that it was a barn and it could have been a cave and it could have even been in a house because people often kept their animals inside their houses at night. Then that led to a discussion about how the way the Christmas story is told always makes it sound like a pregnant Mary was turned away from inn after inn by heartless innkeepers, but probably “there was no room for them” just means that there wasn’t an empty guest room, so they stayed in the living room with the animals which wasn’t a weird thing at the time. Yeah, I know. Brain cramp. I’ll stop.

Okay, back to the issue at hand… I did have one very big problem with most of them: scale. Picture this: a manger scene. Mary and Joseph. The wise men. A baby Jesus that is AT LEAST the size of Mary, if not larger. A sheep that is smaller than baby Jesus. The donkey that supposedly carried pregnant Mary for months and months is smaller than everything. I’m no expert, but a baby cannot be bigger than its mother. I know he’s God in human form and all, but that means he’s human… which means that at birth, he’s a normal baby size in relation to his mother. He is not bigger than a sheep. He is definitely not bigger than a donkey. He is definitely not bigger than a tree, unless that tree is just a seed. My favorite nativity looked like everyone in the congregation just brought in whatever animal figurines they had at home. It had some normal-sized sheep, some tiny ones, some plastic ones, some stuffed ones… I enjoyed it.

Look at baby Jesus. Look at everything else. THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

Christmas tree maze!

Wow so I’ve gotten veryyyy distracted. What was I talking about before I got all sidetracked? Do you even remember at this point? Oops. That’s right, caroling! So like I was saying long, long ago, I was signed up for Christmas Eve caroling. I guess this is something that all of the church youth groups do, and everyone seemed confused when I told them that I hadn’t been caroling in years, and midnight Christmas caroling isn’t really a thing at home. Basically this is how it works: the youth group is split into groups, each group is given a list of church members’ addresses, and they go from house to house caroling and getting donations. Unlike sane people who would do this during the day, we met at the church at 8PM(ish) and didn’t hit the road until about 9. We had something like 30 houses to visit and quickly fell into a rhythm of unloading ourselves from the van, getting buzzed into the building, singing a couple of songs, reciting a Bible verse, giving them the custom-made ornament that was this year’s gift, getting stuffed full of chocolates, and loading back into the van. I got so much chocolate that it was kind of like Christmas-style Halloween but with singing.

We went to a Christmas concert for an Armenian children’s choir. The director of this choir also directs another children’s choir in Artsakh!

I. Love. Lights.

Badveli and Maria promised me that I wouldn’t have any trouble communicating because the other youth (for them, youth means like teenage to 30) could all speak English. They were right, and it was almost depressing. Everyone could speak PERFECT English. Like accent-less English. The kids in my group were telling each other wordplay jokes in English. Once you know a language well enough to understand jokes that are only funny if you see the double meanings of the words that are used, I’d say you have a pretty solid grasp on it. Then, they’d switch effortlessly right back into Armenian. And they didn’t speak much Arabic that night, but they’re obviously all perfectly fluent in that too. Meanwhile, I’m like, “I kind of speak some Spanish (though not anymore since it’s completely confused with Armenian) and some Armenian… but Eastern Armenian, not Western which means I only understand like 20% of what you say instead of the 40% I would understand if you were speaking Eastern.” Talk about depressing.

Nothing like a beer bottle Christmas tree to get you in the holiday spirit!

Then, I had to attempt to sing Christmas carols in Armenian while reading fast enough to keep up. I did kind of okay… by the end, I was hitting maybe 90% of the words, so we’ll call that a win. I also didn’t realize until almost the last house of the night that most of my group thought I knew ZERO Armenian. I’m at least slightly better than that. A couple of the people in my group were joking about something in Armenian, and I chimed in in English. They all stared at me like I had 6 heads until someone said, “I thought you couldn’t speak Armenian.” HA! I explained that I’m learning and my Eastern is better than my Western but I can understand some and blah blah blah. I know it’s kind of stupid to be excited that I exceeded expectations when the expectations were so embarrassingly low, but hey, I’m going to take what I can get.

I also was apparently expected to fall asleep because “that’s what people do their first time out”. I can proudly say that I stayed awake the whole time, sang at every house, and once again exceeded the embarrassingly low expectations that were set for me.

This building wins.

By the time I got home and to bed, it was 6AM. Church was at 10AM, but Badveli and Maria told me that I could skip if I was too tired. I was going to try to go… until I set my alarm and my phone helpfully told me that my alarm was “set for 3 hours from now.” HAHAHAHAHAHA no chance. I reset it for noon instead, giving me a solid 6-hour night. Still ew, but infinitely better than 3 hours.