Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Anthropology of ‘Public’ Transportation in Beirut and its Surroundings: GETTING AROUND BEIRUT

Public transportation in Beirut and its Surroundings is actually quite good, but does require a little bit of getting used to.  The purpose of this post is to offer the newbie to Beirut some useful information on getting around Beirut and its northern suburbs.

How to get around Beirut?  You simply stand on the side of the road (the busier, the better), and look to make eye contact with drivers – usually they will have taxi signs visible, but many will not. DO NOT WAVE YOUR HAND, that will indicate to the driver you are an idiot.  JUST STAND, and make eye contact.   The driver will slow down …you should lower your head a bit and tell the driver where you want to go. Examples include: “Rawsha,” al-Malla, Sodeco, Downtown, Cemayza, Hamra Mustashfa Rum, Mar Mikhail, Zarif, Sanayeh, Saluumi, Sinn al-Fiil, al-Mathaf, Dawrah, al-Port, AUB,” and so on.  These are all ‘nodes’ in the Beirut sense.   They are more or less agreed-upon locations, that all drivers in the city will know about.  You are going to want to tell them the closest ‘node’ to where you want to go.   You do not say “biddi aruu7 3 Sinn al-Fiil”… You do not even say “a3 Sinn al-Fil”  (to Sinn al-Fiil)…. You just say “ Sinn al-Fil). 

Thus, whenever you go anywhere, always ask someone (what do I tell the driver to get to “X Y or Z”).  This goes for getting to restaurants, bars, archives, libraries, universities, and anything else you want to go to.  You need to know the ‘node.’  The actual name of place will only become relevant if he asks you his next question (which he usually will, “wenn biddak?”) where do you want to get off?  You could tell him something like “the Starbucks” or “bi-qalb Hamra” (in the center of Hamra).  Or he will frequently tell you he’s only going to drop you off at the Mafraq (intersection), and you have to walk the rest of the way. (This is common for destinations like Cemayza, where the drivers don’t like to enter to due traffic.

The driver then has a few options.  Sometimes he will drive away.   Sometimes he will say “itla3” or “tla3” that means the price is 2000 ($1.33), and you get in the car.  Sometime he will just nod his head, and pull over, which also means he’s willing to take you, and it also means the price is 2000.  There is no discussion over the price, it is a completely silent agreement.  For foreigners, this can be a very strange thing, who are always trained to “agree” upon a price before getting into a cab.   In Beirut, it’s exactly the opposite. If you ask qaddesh?, and try to “agree” upon a price, then you will almost certainly get ripped off.  Essentially what you are telling the driver is, “I’m an idiot, I have no idea how the system works, please take all my money.”   

Always pay the driver AT THE END OF THE RIDE.  ALWAYS.  This avoids confusion, insofar as sometimes, if you pay at the beginning, he’ll try to ask you for money AGAIN at the end of the ride and pretend as if you hadn’t paid him.  Remember, Beirut taxi drivers will always try to cheat you.  Always.

If the driver accepts your offer, this means he’s obligated to get you within a block or two or of the ‘node’ you mention.  But the driver is never on your team.  He will always try to pick people up all along the way.  Sometimes this can be frustrating for you, especially if he picks up a few people, then goes quite far out of the way before you get dropped off.  It’s fucking annoying.  But that’s a service.   

Or, the other thing that can happen, is that you get into a car with people already in the car, who might be going in an absurdly out of the way direction for you, but the driver still wants his next service ride (i.e., the standard 2000) after he drops off his current riders.  You get fucked over again, and miss your connection bus to Tripoli at 7:20.  This can also happen and it’s fucking annoying.

But remember one thing as well, the price for a standard ride is always elfayn (2000), which is called a “service”.  (1.33dolars).  IF THE DRIVER WANTS MORE THAN THAT, HE IS REQUIRED TO SPECIFY AT THE OUTSET.  If he tries to get more than 2000 from you at the end of your ride (not having specified the amount AT THE BEGINNING), punch the bastard in the face and stab his tires with you pocket knife and start cursing at him in Russian. 

Now, if the driver wants more than 2000, he can say ‘servicayn’ which means two services, which is 4000 (2.66dollars).  He can also say Taxi, which is a flat rate of 10,000 ($6.66).  But remember that the price is always negotiable, such that if you see he’s empty, he rejects you, and starts to drive away, you can always shout out “servicayn” or, if you are really in a rush, “taxi.”  Most drivers will always take a taxi, unless you have an absurd request like take me from Rawsha to Mar Mustashfa at 5pm.  If that is your case, then he might say something like qaddesh?  When the price is so high as to be beyond the normal scale (2,000-10,000) – the driver will ask YOU how much your willing to pay for that ride.  You can say 15dollars, you can say 15,000 (recall that there is a fixed rate between dollars and Lebanese money, 15thousand = 10 dollars.  And both are legal tender, always.)

You can always get extremely lucky, and be in Rawsha, trying to get to Ashrafiyya, and coincidentally stop a taxi already going although over there.  But that’s rare.  Often times you can walk for 10 minutes, get yourself in a good place, like at the bottom of Sanayeh – great place to stand!  Guys going everywhere from there.
Now, that is how the taxis work. 

You also have mini buses.  Mini buses take exact routes.  You don’t tell a mini bus where you want to go, you ask him where he’s going .  To be honest I didn’t take very many minibuses, because they are not particularly convenient, and usually require you to walk further distances, and they are crowded and uncomfortable, and, of course, they are half the price: for only 1000, you can go very far distances.  Even you need to get to dawrah, for instance, there are a great many services to go in that direction, such as from Sanayeh, or mafraq cemayza, and many other ‘mini buses’ that go in various directions to various places, such as one from Dawrah to the Airport.  You are thinking, Dawrah to the Airport?  That’s far.  But that’s a minibus, and that’s a lucratinve fucking business.  Those things will fill up instantly, one after the other, 9 people squished into a tiny mini van, departing every few minutes.  Mostly working class men going from North of Beirut, where they probably work, to where they live, in the Palestinian camps by the airport, an area popularly known as ‘dahyeh’

Getting Around NORTH OF BEIRUT

Go to the Northern Bus Stop of the Beurt, Charles Hilu [pronounced SHARL HILU, no S].  So there are two lanes of traffic, as you can see in the photo.  Each company will have there own slot at the bus station.  Note to all travelers, there are no venders within a 5-10 walk of the bus station.  They were al thrown out by the government, so remember to bring a bottle of water, because, if you’re going to the north, Tripoli, for instance, you’ll be without food or water for a few hours, depending on traffic. 

Each company has a guy who will sit on the cement railing that divides the two sides of the highway.  One lane is for local traffic, where fancy cars will roll up and drop off entire families (seemingly Syrians).   These guys who sit on the cement railing are paid, as I see it, to do three things.  First, they are to prevent riders from getting snagged up by the other companies.  I saw this happen once, and it’s not a pretty site.  A White Jeep with faint orange and yellow lettering will slow down as he passes Charles Hilu.  Obviously, he’s trying to snatch up someone heading to Sham [Damascus].  The cement-sitter is guarding to make sure this doesn’t happen.  If the White Jeep succeeds, the cement-sitters start cursing up a storm. 

This is why, also, whenever they see someone, male, youngish, carring a small duffle bag, with cheap or raggedy clothing, and some scruffy facial hair [me for instance]--- walking towards the bus station, the guys at Charles Hilu descend like a plague of locusts upon you: ‘3 Sham ‘3 Sham ‘3Sham??????  They are very persuasive businessmen, but somehow  I managed to resist.  So demand for ‘3Sham is extremely competitive, as the drop in demand must have certainly driven many drivers out of business.  I’m sure this used to be a thriving business before Syria descended into madness, but now it must be all but shattered.  For who is going to Sham these days?

Anyways, how to get to the north?  Best way is to go the Charles Hilu on a bus to Tripoli.  Air conditioning, and he doesn't stop every 5 seconds to pick up riders.  You can also go to Dawrah and get on a mini-bus, but these things stop every 5 seconds... and will wait like 5 minutes at every overpass and walking bridge and exit to try and pick up passengers, and drive will slowly... so take the Charles Hilu bus to Tripoli, and bus make sure you tell the driver where you want to get off.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Historicizing the Ten Plagues: Hail, Locusts, Darkness and Mass Death

 The locust swarms that attacked Egypt and Israel this past week have perked the ears of farmers, agronomists and a few Orthodox Yemenite Jews on the hunt for a crunchy kosher treat, but not many others.  Most of us don’t think much about locusts these days.  We have pesticides that do most of thinking—or rather killing—for us. 

But this wasn’t always the case.  Locusts have been at the heart and soul of the region’s history since time immemorial.  References to locusts are littered throughout the Bible, most infamously, in the story of the ten plagues:

“Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.”

Now, a little anecdote to share at your Passover Seder that may just turn some heads: what leads to locust plagues?  The locusts that attacked Egypt as recorded in the Bible—and again this past week—typically live a life of solitude in the mass desert expanse stretching from Morocco in the West to the Bay of Bengal in East.  Most of the time, the vast majority of their eggs—which can number in the many dozens—will die in the dry desert sand, an inhospitable environment for the yet unhatched ovular shaped pods.  But, with enough rain, the desert sand turns moist, and the pods turn into locusts.  That same rain will also give birth to scattered patches of desert vegetation, something the baby locusts will need for food and shelter to grow winged-bodies big and strong enough to carry them out of the desert and lay pillage to anything and everything green throughout the plains and fields of North, West and East Africa, the Levant, Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

Now, look back at plague number seven: hail.  Coincidence, I think not. 

Now, turn to plague number nine: darkness.   What could possibly lead to an extended period of darkness?  Locusts!  As Reuters reported on Wednesday last week, “locust clouds darkened [the] skies.”  Indeed, anyone familiar with the annals of the history of locusts—an admittedly small number of people—will agree that this is the single most common description in the historical record. 

Consider, for instance, the single worst locust attack recorded in modern Middle East history, a plague of cataclysmic proportions that befell Greater Syria during World War I.

The New Zealand staff corps stationed at the Suez Canal noted in mid-March 1915, almost exactly 98 years ago—that  “flying about two feet above the ground, and reaching to a height that could not be estimated, these insects came from the desert, making towards the cultivations … wherever one looked were locusts as far as the eye could see.  One was given the impression that a huge dark veil hung over the earth.”

Antun Yamin, a eye-witness from Lebanon, made much the same observation: “On the 9th of April [1915] we could not see the sun that day. Gigantic locusts blocked out all vision, and light became darkness…for an entire week they blocked out all sunlight.” 

And my personal favorite, Wasif Jawhariyya, a Jerusalemite musician and Ottoman conscript who left us his voluminous memoirs, recalled gazing at the sky in Jerusalem and seeing nothing but locusts.  “We could not see the sun at all.  The evanescent locusts looked like dense clouds in the air.” 

Hail leads to locust plagues.  Locusts plagues leads to darkness.  How about the death of first-born?  Historians, I imagine, will struggle with this one. 

What is clear, however, is that locusts have always been an important cause of famine – and hence mass death – in the region.  This was certainly the case in 1915, remembered by survivors as ‘Am al-Jarad (the year of the locust, in Arabic). The locusts, with their insatiable appetites, devoured virtually all of the region’s foodstuffs, including olive groves, fruits, vegetables, fodder fields, almonds, barely and cereals.  By the end of World War I, some 500,000 people had perished throughout the Greater Syria region (1/7th of the population)—in large measure, because the locusts ate all the bloody food. 

So perhaps what was later interpreted as the death of the first-born was simply a mass famine, something entirely plausible based on what we know about locust attacks.

So, if your in Israel/Palestine or Egypt and looking to spice up your Seder: snatch up a few locusts and surprise the little buggers who find afikoman with a treat that almost certainly bring history to life!  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Israeli Stand-up comedy and the Rise of Uri Hizkiya

So this post isn't directly related to East Jerusalem, but it fits the broader goal of introducing English-speaking audiences to important personalities in the city, and more broadly, Israel and Palestine.  Today's discussion will center around a rising star in the arena of Israeli Stand-up Comedy: Uri Hezkiya (אורי חזקיה.)

The first thing your going to do when you see the title of this post is wiki the guy.  The reason I know that is because that is precisely what I did when I sat down to write this post.  I wikied the bastard, except he didn't have an English language page, you have to find him under אורי חזקיה. So maybe someone can copy and paste some of this shit here into the wiki page. Only they'de be citing an unreliable "blog."  Fuck em.

Thanks to the Hebrew wiki page we can learn a great deal about his upbringing, his early childhood, his earliest gigs and his military service in the Air Force, all very typical a nice Jewish Ashkenazi boy from North Tel Aviv.

Today the guy has become an Israeli sensation, an Israeli Jerry Seinfeld.  As the kind Israeli wiki contributors have shared for us, he has won the "man of year" award by Israel's leading magazine for Youth, מעריב לנוער (Ma'ariv Le-Noar), an apparently popular Israeli weekly magazine.

Hizkiye's humor is every day humor.  What differentiates Uri from Jerry is that Uri's situations are Israeli every day situations situations: Tel Aviv parking, Aroma Coffee, going on a 2-year trip to India, leaving a plate of dirty humous in the sink, and so on.  I would call the humor reaching to as broad an Israeli audience as possibile.  No nitches.  You know, for instance, how you prepare a coffee for a friend.  You are in the kitchen.  You see those three bins: sugar, coffee and tea.  You open the tea, there's coffee, you open the coffee, there's tea, you open the sugar, there's laundry detergent.  Then, you reach for a spoon to mix the sugar.   Ohh, glorrrrriously, there's a clean spoon!!!  Glod Bless. No need to wash.  Now, all you can think about it which mug is mine as which is his.  Ani, ezkor, smol ze she-loooooo.  (the left  cup is his).... You start singing it to yourself.... smol ve shelooooooooo......smol ze she-loooooooo.....(that's Uri singing) You pick up your drinks, and half way to the living room until you realize, and ohhhh noooo...... Od Lo Irbavti (I forgot to stir!).

His own co-hosts clearly acknowledge his popularity.  Shalom Asiyag, the host of show, even asked him once in the free talk segment they do after someone does some stand-up what's it's like being a hot shot these days.  Getting invited to so many parties and shit.

But it is the everyday humor that Uri excels at.  The kind where you make fun of the little things in life.  You're at a party, and you girlfriend rings.  What's up?!? Who you with?? You start going through the names... of the people in the circle, Shmolik, Rivka, Uri....

(Meanwhile, everyone stops their conversations to listen in on the delightful pleasantries of another couples intamacy.( Ok, that was my addition).

Back to Hezkiya:  He's going through the names of everyone in the circle.  Out of the corner of his eye he spots someone who's name he is suppose to know, but has obviously forgotton.  Nu.... Ani Amur lizkor et kulam?  Am I going to start naming everyone here?!?  We've all been there.  It's Seinfeld humor (although one wonders how much Seinfeld Uri could have watched as a kid.  His Israeli accent in his English is pretty epic--for instance, when we breaks out into singing American pop music.

What makes Uri Hezkiya so good is that he knows how to stay on a topic long enough to keep the story going.  This a common problem for people just getting started in stand-up comedy.  A story should not swerve in different directions, jump from topic to topic or proceed at rapidly varyingpaces and pauses.  The audience must develop momentum, build-ups, references to prior jokes, a bigger story to tell.  Think Chris Rock and gun control.  Rrecall the 5 dollar bullets.  I'd pop a cap in your ass--if I could afford it.   Uri has all of that.  We get a good 6-7 minutes on a single topic.

Take, for instance, the whole process of asking for directions to a stranger while trying to find a friend's house party.  Mi ze tipus she-yodeah???  How can he 'look like' he's the right person to ask?  Once, did you ever see a guy with a cloud above his head that read: I know what da fuck is up!  Then he continues with his story about getting lost.  We've all gotten lost driving to a friend's house party.  Uri excels at the punchlines and the big themes.

Your walking up the staircase to your house (i.e. in a 5 story apartment building).  You smell some amazing Mizrakhi house wife preparing a feast for the wedding of a third cousin.  You smell the Russians baking some delicious pork chops... you walk into your house.  There's your dad, his ass on the floor reading a newspaper, mekapel cleminta (pealing a clementine).  Wassssuuupppp?  How was school?????  How's Shmulik doing?  (that's you laughing while he's saying wasssuuupppp???)  Youre dad, staring at you as you walk in dying for something yummy and getting a clementine in return (Jaffa is famous for its Oranges)/  Uri let's you ride out your laughter naturally.

Some of humor is really Israeli.  Tizenabi?  Where the fuck is Tizenabi?  Has anyone ever been to Tizenabi?  Mishehu ba-kahal yodeh eifo ze tizenabi?  I, of course, had never heard of Tizenabi--thank you expert linguist Dror Weil for his assistance.  I think the best translation to English is: where the fuck is But Fucking Egypt?  Has anyone ever been to But Fucking Egypt?  At least that's how B.F.E. was used in white suburban Detroit middle-school slang in the late 1990s.  

Khas ve-khalila... where the hell did it come from?  Who the fuck are khas and khalila?  So how about we just starting making shit up.  Katz ve-garjuba.  I suppose this is just one of those things you have to be a native speaker to find funny.  I really hope nothing bad happens to him on his trip to India, "katz ve-garjuba.

Whatever the case may be, for the past three years Uri has been the star of one of if not the most successful comedy shows in Israel, called צחוק מהעבודה (tzhok me-ha-avodah).  And there seems to be no doubt among the viewers that Uri is the funniest of the bunch.  The audiences laugh a lot more when Uri performs.  His stand-up blows away that of the other co-hosts ,ליטל שוורץ  קובי מימון, שחר חסון, ארז שלום.  Don't get me wrong, I think all of these guys are reasonably funny, and certainly have their strong spots.  So does the show's host, שלום אסייג (Shalom Asiyag), a more established figure in the annals of Israeli stand-up comedy--a household name approximating perhaps an Edie Murphy, Tom Hanks or Robin Williams.  Again, Asiyag has no English language wiki page either, neither do away of the other popular Israeli television personalities mentioned in this article.  Go watch some Uri and translate the bloddy wiki pages to English!