Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Letter form 16 November 2001


Hi

Remember that it is just as easy to kill a thread by over-feeding as by starvation. Be glad that we are as sporadic as we are! Given the passage of time, only more of the same is happening. Aidan continues to be popular with all, form the butcher to the bookstore owner to all the girls on campus. Students tell me that they have fun with my assignment, although they take a long time to do, so I gave them a week off from homework. And, mom insists on buying jewelry and eveningwear for Jetti to make her feel as loved as the other in-laws. Samer is getting engaged next week, so now mom will have to daughters-in-law in addition to her three sons-in-law. Of course Jetti hates jewels and is reluctant to get clothes while in her current inflated state of girth, but maybe with the help of a tailor we can get something alterable. Not my headache.


How surprising that Thanksgiving is upon us again so soon. Jetti wants to host something at our new house, and we have an invitation from the Provost to a dinner at his house. I suspect the Provost's dinner will be on a Saturday, which leaves Thursday free for Jetti to play hostess for the first time. We have our fake hardwood floors and artfully repainted walls now, and curtains will arrive today. We exchanged our university-owned living room furniture for a less bulky set to make room for our old couch, and we will probably get the new stuff from AUB by next Monday, although the prognosis is bleak for delivery of our shipment from the US before Thanksgiving. The ship has already unloaded our belongings at the port, but the paperwork from the Lebanese Consulate in LA is still pending. They claimed I did not send them a copy of my green card when I mailed the packing list in September. They had just sat on the file and waited for my call, which I made last Friday. Monday I faxed them the missing copy, so maybe I'll have the packing list in two weeks, maybe three. And without that notarized, legalized list, the AUB fixers cannot clear the container from customs. So we wile away the time working on cutting, painting and installing molding on the walls of our empty living room.


I hope you too will discover the joys of entertaining. Hopefully and especially as part of a couple. How is Delphine, by the way? I wonder if she felt bad about the comment I made in your hotel room in Stowe about how I always considered her a physically warm and hug-friendly person. I later thought that I might have somehow either negated her own self-image in that regard, or maybe publicized something that was not appropriate for the audience. I did not give the matter much thought, but I have occasionally wondered why she was no longer in touch.


I do not know what to say about Afghanistan. I am reading "A Peace to End All Peace" about the end of the Ottoman Empire right now. The more I read about recent history, the more I realize how little things have changed. What used to be said and published in the days of overt colonialism is still being thought and acted upon today. I therefore value more than ever before the modicum of genuine universal humanist sentiment that echoes around in democratic debate. Most of the language is co-opted by sophisticated spin-savvy crypto-supremacist thinkers, but I cannot let go of my faith that some people of some real power really regard our part of the world as peers and equals, not as perpetual charges to the powerful. I wonder if your estimation of the darkening and hardening of American public opinion is based on a shift in the segment of the population that you are observing. I was initially more taken aback because I heard what the Limbaughs and Savages and Dr. Phyllis's of daytime talk radio were saying and what their callers were saying back. Those people do exist and do have a say in how your country is run, including actual (as opposed to publicly pronounced and possibly originally intended) selection of targets for military hostile action.


I cannot agree with you about the possible benevolence of Soviet colonialism in Afghanistan. They wanted first to mould the population in their image, and only second to heal and educate. My guiding principle in understanding human affairs is that people are people, so I shun any analysis that attributes political and popular decisions to mass hysteria, cultural inscrutableness, or inherited irrationality. People react badly to things they consider bad for them. Afghanis fought Russians because they wanted to keep their national identity. They are just as rational as the US foreign policy wonks who wanted to keep Russia from expanding, or as the Russian planning committees which wanted this expansion. Most horribly, I cannot stand the pronouncements of Israeli-paid public relations minders who propagate the idea that Arabs fight Zionist expansion because of an irrational hatred for Jews. Duh, here I go again. On to more pleasant topics:


Do give my love to Taylors and their guests. If you can convince Jeff to dial in to his AOL chat, maybe we can actually exchange live greetings at a pre-agreed time. Did you folks go off daylight saving time yet? If not, then I can come in at midnight and you'd have 6 pm. If you do "Fall Back" before the 22nd, then I'd still come in at midnight and you'd have 5 pm. Either way, what do you say?



Update from 6 October 2001


Dear Friends,

I finally got around to it - a diary entry for one day in my life as Assistant Professor of Engineering Management.


I could see the minute hand of my watch through half-closed eyes. It was at the top notch - on the hour. But which hour? If it's 8:00 am, then I'm late for my 8:00 am lecture. I squint and see that it's actually 6:00 am. I can sleep for another 20 minutes or so if I am going to have enough time to prepare a lecture between 7 and 8. I look around. Jetti seems to have once again eaten something that did not agree with her, and hence was sleeping in the other room to be closer to the bathroom. She has baby Zane, who breastfeeds in his sleep. Aidan has also left his room, and, in his usual 2-year-old value-maximizing way, was occupying all the space vacated by the two of them, sleeping sideways with his feet against my chest.


During the 20-minute nap, which drags on to 30 minutes, I repeatedly reassure myself that it is not 8 instead of 6. We were either too sleepy or too hot last night to close the windows, and now it was raining and cold. This finally impels me to get up and start closing windows at 6:30. I decide that this will be the day to write the long-promised diary for Kate. I have two hours between my 8-9 lecture and the 11:20 doctor's appointment where Zane will get his first vaccinations. That should get me started. I had planned to work on a paper due April 22nd for a July 15th conference in Italy, but the provost's secretary had called on Tuesday saying that I will not get funding to go to that conference.


Since for once I am up before Aidan, I have the luxury of taking a morningtime shower. I have to pick Aidan's bath toys up from the tub, and hunt for a sliver of soap that he has not dissolved for fun the day before. The late April rains outside attest to the richness of Lebanon's water resources. Being at AUB is a double bonus because we actually have a water distribution system that has not been ravaged by petty politics and amoral urban planning. I take a nice long shower without worrying (as I would outside at my parents') about running out of water.


What do I think of in the shower? I try to figure out why I am so worried about the events in the Palestinian cities. I philosophize in the shower (hey, it's more quiet than singing, except for those of you who wind up getting my emails on the topic) that the progress of humankind since the industrial revolution owed a lot to the widening perception that there is justice, rule of law, and individual accountability. In other words, I can only work at my full productivity when I am allowed to stop worrying that someone may either 1) assault me with impunity because there is no law, or 2) assault me with impunity because his person is above the law, or 3) assault me in retaliation of someone else's wrongdoing.


Even when all of the above principle were not operating, as long as enough people believed that they were, progress was possible. Now, hearing that 3 million Palestinians were individually suffering for the actions of a few thousand who had killed 300, I feel personally threatened. When terrorist bombs were going off in Beirut, I knew that I only had a one in 10,000 chance of being affected, so I could go on even when everyone else was panicking. But now, ....


My shower ended before I could articulate my thought. I decide to wear a tie for the first time in a month, since I am going to need a nice shirt to wear under the rain jacket. Nice shirts look cheap when the collar is open, and a closed collar without a tie evokes fundamentalism. On my way out, I grab a slice of the BEST sourdough bread this side of San Francisco, the product of several months of trial and error in our kitchen. It is still good.


The rain has stopped and the view of the Mediterranean on my 5-minute walk to the office is priceless. I idly wonder if I will have trouble getting into the building. I have the outdoor key, but I do not carry it. The concept of master keys is not unheard of here, but I guess it is a "special topic" in locksmith school, and few ever take it. I have a key to the office, a key to the corridor outside the office, a key to the faculty-only elevator, and a key to my mailbox. Not carrying the outside door key is my only silent protest against this medievalism.


Door is open. I get to the office at 7:15, and wonder if I should start the diary now before preparing my lecture. NO..... Must...... Have..... Willpower..... It's no use, I start compiling the list of names to receive the email. On autopilot, I fire up BBC-online, and laugh out loud at the headline: " The authorities in Milan are investigating why a light aircraft flew into the city's largest skyscraper, killing three people."


Three people died, I should not laugh. But the headline is comical. A new meme has entered the collective conscious. Well, time to do the lecture. I am learning this material as I go on, and I found a topic not in the book that I think they should cover, so I have to make some notes from another text. It's OK - I cover the material for the 5 or 6 students who are there. Do I have a moral duty, since the material is not in the textbook, to produce written notes for the 2 or 3 who are not in today? Or should I be lazy and not ask any exam questions on the topic? Can't decide, so I get on with the diary.


I have already told my graduate class that their term project will be a virtual construction project game, where they will play different contractors and I will play God. Many asked of more clarification because they wanted to know how to structure their teams. So one of my tasks for today is to flesh out my own thoughts to email to the class. I'm designing this course as I go along, so this exercise will be useful for me as well as for them. Another task is to investigate how I can teach in summer to earn some money, given that I still plan to travel to the US from June 21st to June 15th. I send out a couple of emails. It is now 10:20, and I realize that if this is to be a complete diary of today, the diary entry will read "today I sat down and wrote the words you see before you." Zeno's paradox (The spell checker wanted to make this Zane's Paradix but I did not share its sense of humor). Instead, I resolve to finish by 11:00. So, to make a full-day's worth of adventures, Let me tell you about the last time we went to get vaccinations.


We had made two appointments, one for Aidan's 2-year and one for Zane's 2-month check-up. We had forgotten which was Wednesday and which was Friday, so we decided to trek it up the hill (a flight of about 200 stairs) together. Vicky, the nanny, will then take the child who is not getting shots for a walk, and mommy and daddy will be there to comfort the one who is. I got home from my office 10 minutes before the appointment and find that Vicky and Aidan are still out and Jetti and Zane were still not dressed. I call Vicky at the house where Aidan has his play date and ask her to meet us up at the infirmary, grab Zane, and run up the hillside stairs to avoid having to wait a whole hour due to a missed appointment. Up at the infirmary, the nurse tells me it is Aidan's appointment. So I have to wait for them after all.


A pharmaceuticals sales rep sneaks in to see the doctor ahead of us. Not a patient, hence less wait time. We go in, and we show the doctor the vaccines we bought with her prescription from last time. Jetti wanted to get the US standard vaccines, which are not covered by our Lebanese health insurance, and the doctor was nice enough to give us the US list and a prescription for its contents. Well, what do you know, we forgot to bring Aidan's vaccination record, and no one can remember which shots are for Zane and which are for Aidan. In addition, the Diphtheria, Tetanus, acellular Pertussis (DTaP) vaccine that Jetti was so keen to get because it has a three-in-a-million complication rate instead of three in one hundred thousand for the old "DTP" vaccine was not what the pharmacist had given her! She only had a "DT", for Diphtheria and Tetanus, with no Pertussis component at all. She was mad because she clearly asked in English for the correct vaccine, but she was also sort-of happy because no one had had to get shots that day.


After we leave the doctor's office, I volunteer to go to the pharmacy myself, since I can speak Arabic with the Pharmacist and, more importantly, since I could read the fine print in English on the box. I took Aidan, who felt like a longer walk. The pharmacist heard my complaint, sent in the guy to replace my DT-VAX box, and promptly produced a DTP vaccine. I immediately pointed out to the "DTaP" on the prescription, and quickly obtained a refund (of US $1.25) for the vaccine that I had no use for. "Try the hospital pharmacy" they said.


I walked down the hill to campus, pulling Aidan away from tempting store displays of "oosh" and "bo" (shoes and balls) and a newly fascinating object, which I taught him to call "bade" (rollerblade). He was not giving as much of a hard time chasing after "bike" and "ban" (mopeds and minivans) while we navigated the two crowded streets. Once on campus, he wanted to play with a "tat" and look at a "beeg nook" (cat and snail - don't ask me how it became "nook".)


We got home and did not find anyone. I decided to get the new vaccine from a pharmacy I knew down the seashore road. Best way to get there: bicycle. I entice Aidan with cries of "big ba-bye, big bike" to keep him from wandering off and doing any damage. I move the plastic lawn furniture from our front balcony, where the adult bicycles are hanging from two pulleys on the ceiling. I bring down the bike and wheel it to the corridor outside our second-story apartment. I then get the baby trailer from the balcony and put it next the the bike. Somehow, while I am changing into a T-shirt, Aidan gets his baby tricycle stuck between the two massive objects now in the corridor outside out door, and he trips the bike's kick-stand. He spends the next minute holding up the bike that is about to fall on him, and crying "daddy, daddy". Strong baby. Note to self: always check before assuming that "daddy daddy" is a call for a playmate instead of a cry for help.


So off we go, baby in trailer, me on bicycle, scores of people on the sidewalk smiling at the unique sight of a consumer product not regularly imported into their third world nation. Cars too, but let's not get into that. The first pharmacy does not have it, but he know where to get any vaccine: another pharmacy at the top of the hill. Shift into low gear and climb climb climb. On the way, I see another pharmacy and wonder if they might have it, but it is too steep to park the bike and trailer. One guy offers to help me climb on the foot high sidewalk to park sideways. I do not want to block the whole sidewalk like one of the uncivilized cars I had to navigate around. Instead I ask for directions to the pharmacy whose name I have, and he says it's two more blocks uphill. By time I get there and ask for DTaP (which they have, at $14) I am ready to black out. Out of shape. I have to sit down to avoid falling down. I assume that part of my condition is due to dehydration, and they were kind enough to give me a drink of water.


Well, the rest is a bit of a blur. I could not go back home through campus because they do not allow bicycle traffic on their roads. The way I had come would have required an uphill portion which I was not ready to take on.So I had to finish a clock-wise circumnavigation of campus. No big deal, except that the elementary school next to the campus gate I need to get to was letting out just then. Had I been in a car, I would have preferred to take a 2-hour circular drive before going home rather than be stuck in the parent-child pick-up traffic. - and I did not mean that in a NAMBLA sense . In a bike, I decided to risk it. It took almost no time to get to the alleyway where the school was. There, with one car parked on the left sidewalk and one on the right sidewalk and one on the road, there was barely room for the bike and trailer to sqeeze by. Until, that is, we got trapped behind a late model Cadillac. Not quite pink, but light in color. And they of course were going even more slowly than the next car because both the driver and the passenger had to keep watching for scrape potential on the side view mirrors as the passed all the parked cars.


Luckily, by then, Aidan was asleep in his 5-point harness, so I took it easy and waited for he Cadillac. At one intersection, we decided to pull out and let an irate black Mercedes SUV through. The lady inside it now had to wait for the pink Cadillac, which was somewhat more insulated against her honking. We made it home 15 minutes later. I dropped the sleeping AIdan in his bed, made sure mommy and baby did not need anything, and walked back to the office to catch up with my grading.


The End

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