Moving back to Lebanon felt a lot like coming home. I had a friend picking me up at the airport, two friends offering me places to stay and kind of knew my roommates beforehand. And while my first instincts have been to speak Spanish instead of Arabic (mas grande ≠ kteeir), I have some grasp on the language.
After two years of bouncing around from Lebanon to the Dominican and back again, this feels great. New York will always feel like home and therefore be easy to slip back and forth between, but to feel like I am coming home in a foreign country with no family and new(ish) friends? That is awesome.
[not a beach but fairly nice to hit up during my first 24 hours in Beirut.]
That being said there are a few things I have forgotten about Lebanon. The good, the bad and the ugly. Yella, as they say:
1) Crossing the street
Man oh man. I totally forgot the chaos that is Lebanese traffic and streets. No rules and no fear. The few street lights that exist in Beirut operate under a different set of rules: green means speed, yellow means speed and red means slow down, maybe.
Since there are no crosswalks or stoplights and the traffic rarely stops, it is scary to cross the street. The technique consists of crossing one lane at a time and being ok with standing in the middle of the road with cars on both sides. It takes balls. My co-workers have been helping me get used to it again and I think after one week back I am crossing like a Beiruti… maybe.
There are a million kinds of nuts to eat in Lebanon. You can buy peanuts roasted, toasted or salted. Pistachios with the shell or without. Almonds candied, salted, fried or plain. And they are all delicious and super cheap. Like $2 for a tub of Almonds cheap.
And when you get tired of your boring nuts, then you can head off in a whole direction of nut mixes— roasted, sated, covered, spiced, fried and then mixed all together. They even have these little things call “Crichies” which are fried something and to die for. Nuts for days people.
No one in Beirut uses street names. Locations are given by neighborhood and landmark, as in, go to Geitawi hospital in Geitawi, turn down the alley way and then go right to the house with the green door. I remember having panic attacks about getting to places on time when first time I moved here, but now I am much more relaxed about the idea of asking for directions and getting lost. And being late.
4) Water shortages
I would not recommend moving to this beautiful country in the fall. The weather might be top-notch - sunny 80s during the day and cool 70s at night - but the water shortages are real. And annoying. It has been so bad at my apartment that I joined the gym just to shower. #noshame
The picture above is of a water truck that goes around and, for a price, fills up resident’s water tanks. The Lebanese are nothing if not resourceful.
5) Arabic/English/French and back again
While I knew that Lebanon is a county that boasts one national language (Arabic) and two widely used languages (French, English) I completely forgot how amazing it is to see people switch between three languages seamlessly. For example, at my office, we speak English with some Arabic thrown in. At my gym, some numbers are in French and some are in English. On the street, everyone speaks Arabic but then they will try to switch to your language, so depending on if they think you are French or American, will try their hand at either. It is both beguiling and humbling.
My first night back was a Sunday, but as it was eid, a big Muslim holiday, everyone was out and about. The bars in Mik Mikhael, a neighborhood close to me, were packed- people pouring over into the sidewalks and onto the streets, Almazas in one hand and cigarettes in the other, with live music playing loudly from two of the bars in the vicinity. For a city of 1 million, Beirut kills it with the nightlife. Masbout.
That’s it for now. Here is a lovely picture of my neighborhood in Beirut. I missed this style of apartments.
It is funny seeing them now and remember how exotic I once thought they were. When I first landed, I told my mom Beirut was dirtier than I remembered. It is nice to know I love this city even when not idealizing it.
It was different then. You could be standing by a burned-out lot, waiting for no one and nothing, not even for a lonely red bus. You’d be just there, studying the rubble of a building along Avenue C. Charred bricks and shrieking plasterboard, a bathtub naked on its side, and through its drain, a lone sunflower, sulfuric yellow and furred like a honeybee screwing upward toward a whirling yellow sun.
Whew! What an impressive opening paragraph. The sense of looking backwards in time, the gritty setting, the psychological outlook of the novel are all set-up here, in three quick lines. Beyond that, Tuten manages to cross-purpose verbs and adjectives so well - the shrieking plasterboard, the naked bathtub, the sulfuric sunflower. All these unlikely descriptions don’t jar the reader, as they might under a less-deft hand, and instead instill this sense of old New York and Alphabet City- forgotten, desolate and harsh. Plus, ending with a metaphor about a sunflower and a bumblebee.. talk about a tired, dead horse but somehow he ends up imbuing this sense of sex and grime. Well done.
The book continues in this vein of desolation and grit, flashing back and forth between Van Gogh’s 1890s France and New York City, circa 1900s. The main character is an 18 year old morphine addict time traveler named Ursula and while all of this sounds fairly zany, Tuten’s strong prose allows the reader to make leaps of faith inside the narrative.
Once you are on board with the idea of time travel meets historical fiction, Tuten then moves into writing about mental illness, from the perspective of the mental ill aka Van Gogh. While many novels avoid the subject all together, Tuten tackles it in a lyrical, refreshing way by allowing the reader in Van Gogh’s consciousness. While Van Gogh is narrating, objects grow when they are not supposed to and paranoid delusions are full-force. The prose grows increasingly fraught and tense as the novels continues, mimicking the devolution of Van Gogh’s mind, which culminates in the painter’s suicide.
The other difficult subject matter that Tuten tackles in this short novel is writing about art. Now, Tuten’s work is informed by art in general so that he would discuss art is not unlikely, but the way he does it is extremely well-executed. Although he describes Van Gogh’s paintings throughout the novel, focusing on lines and color, the reader never feels compelled to look at a rendering of the painting in question, instead finding it sufficient to experience the art through words only. It is almost as if Tuten writes the paintings.
All in all, a great read and highly recommended for anyone even slightly interested in the avant-garde.
In this week’s installment of Bookends The New York Times asks the question: Can a book ever change a reader’s life for the worse?
[so I went to hong kong 4 years ago and have all these awesome pictures. this is the tian tan buddha, on lantau island. although the buddha part was pretty touristic, the island is beautiful and fairly remote. think water buffalo wandering the streets, clam digging at the beaches, jungle everywhere.]
It is a great question. Firstly, because I love anything that advocates the power of books. People talk about social media or movies or video games poisoning the minds of kids today and while yes, reading is an AMAZING hobby, to say that it can’t be bad is to say that it is somehow less influential.
Part of me fears that as reading becomes, in the eyes of others, more of a hobby for betterment rather than a way to unwind and relax, we might move towards books that only serve purposes: novels with positive plots and outcomes, stories that teach lessons or self-help books. And while I was a huge fan of Aesop’s Fables (the ultimate self-help book), I don’t like the idea of all my reading being positive. Some books have terrible moral values or tragic ends, the hero doesn’t always win. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary comes to mind. And even though that book is a comment on women’s rights and the lack of agency in a woman’s life, Emma Bovary was no peach. By any stretch of the imagination.
So I would say yes. Let our books change us. For better or for worse. Bring it.
Taking a page (har-har) out of the Strand’s tumblr I am going to start posting quotes from books that I am reading. I have been keeping a quote booklet for the past five years or so, and figure this will keep me curating further.
She was the kind of girlfriend God gives you young, so you’ll know the loss the rest of your life.
Right up there with Bob Dylan’s Sara lyrics: “So easy to look at, so hard to define.”
As for the book, I adored it. The weird thing was, I was not expecting to like it at all, partly because it was SO POPULAR in 2009. I know, I am a snob.
But, after living in the DR I felt like I needed to check out Diaz because he is Dominican-American. And let me just say, OH EM JEEEE. Not only was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao compelling from a narrative standpoint, but Diaz wove heavy bits of heavy Dominican history in quite adeptly. Plus, the way he uses slang and switches perspective throughout was top-notch… Bottom line, Diaz is amazing.