In Other Wor(l)ds: Monica in Lebanon


Monica at a Turkish palace just outside of Beirut.


Tomorrow I’m heading off on a two-week vacation, so I’ll be disconnected from the blogging world. In the meantime, enjoy this fascinating insight into life in Beirut, and maybe scroll through a few more in the series. Also, have you liked this blog’s Facebook page yet? Are you following my posts on Twitter? ;) Thanks a billion, and now onto the good stuff!

Monica Dreitcer, 23, graduated as a Middle East and North Africa Studies major and Anthropology minor from Scripps College in May 2013, and has now taken a 90 degree turn to work as an administrative assistant with a non-profit that provides training and technical assistance to community health centers. She’s now considering getting a joint Masters in Nursing and Public Health. In 2012 she did a study abroad in Lebanon, spending five months at the American University of Beirut.

On Choosing Lebanon: I was taking Arabic in college and hoped to strengthen my (completely absent) speaking skills, so therefore going to the Middle East made sense. I had my eye on Lebanon, largely because of its incredible history. It’s a fascinating place, snugly fit between Israel/Palestine, Syria, and the Mediterranean Sea. My studies had drawn me to the Israel/Palestine conflict and the issues of nationalism and refugeehood. Lebanon is a very small country with a population of about 3 million, but around 400,000 of those residents are Palestinian refugees, most of who have been barred from citizenship and state welfare systems, including education.


Lebanon’s beautiful coastline

On Communication: This sounds silly, but the biggest culture shock was the communication, and I don’t mean language. 1. Email: I was trying to get ahold of different organizations to volunteer or intern with and so few local nonprofits used their email. It just does not have the same power as it does in the States. 2. Phones: having a phone is expensive in Beirut, especially if you do not have a contract and are just paying per call or per text. Everything had to be said succinctly and carefully, to keep phone usage to a minimum. 3. Head nods: Instead of shaking their heads to tell you “no,” the Lebanese tend to “nod” their head up. I frequently mistook that for “yes.” You just have to remember: the nod down is yes and the nod up is no. It’s usually accompanied by a click of the tongue, but when I couldn’t hear that, I was incredibly confused.

On Safety: Beirut is a VERY safe city. There are low crime rates. Unlike LA, London, or even San Francisco, there are rarely muggings or petty theft. It was generally safe to walk across the city at 2 a.m., keeping in mind guidelines that you would follow in any city. In 2008, there had been an outbreak of bombings and the country broke into a short war. All Americans and many other foreigners were evacuated during those months. That was the issue I had to worry about. But no one seemed concerned. There were whispers of the conflict in Syria affecting Lebanon, but nothing had happened so far and everyone I spoke with who had lived in Beirut or was from Beirut was not worried.


A typical street in Beirut.

On Arabic: I had already taken two years of Arabic before I left to study abroad in Lebanon, but it was not much help. Arabic is not only one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, but its written and spoken forms are also vastly different. Spoken Arabic varies in every Arabic-speaking country, and is so different that someone who is used to Egyptian Arabic, for instance, will be almost lost in Beirut. If someone spoke the written language (Classic Arabic), it would be equivalent to someone in San Francisco trying to communicate with Shakespearean English.

Sadly, that was the Arabic I had been taught. My grammar was awesome, but that didn’t help me when people started to laugh at the way I spoke. I learned a little bit of spoken Arabic while I was there. I could navigate a taxi and exchange pleasantries. I was unable to take both spoken and written Arabic for class and chose written—I wish I had pursued the dialect.

On Favorite Sites: Qadisha “Valley of the Saints” was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It is an amazing valley that is full of monasteries. These monasteries have been around for hundreds of years. It’s a two hour drive from Beirut and once you enter the valley, you have to know where you’re going or it’s easy to get lost. There are not many signs or directions, so I relied on the travel book I had. If you are interested in Christian history or monks, then it’s definitely a place to visit. There were monasteries that my Dad, a professor of spirituality, has read about and studied. Some had been rebuilt while others practically were a part of the valley and sunk into the walls of the valley.


Qadisha Valley — you can see how the monastery almost melts into the valley wall

On The Importance of Connections: A word that I love in Arabic is wasta. It means both “birth control” and “connections.” There was a big emphasis on connections and networking in Beirut. It you did not have wasta, there was very little chance that you would get a job. It was about who you know, even more so than in the States, it seemed. The daughters of a woman I interviewed was worried about her upcoming graduation because even though she had amazing grades and was a business major, she did not think she would get a job because she didn’t have wasta. It’s a very important part of the cultural dynamics and business structures. That same girl told me a saying, “You need wasta to get wasta,” meaning that a woman needs birth control in order to have any hope of developing connections that will lead to a job. She was 21 and she knew if she got pregnant anytime soon, her hopes of running her own business would most likely not become reality.

On Volunteering: Apart from studying, I volunteered once a week by teaching English at a small non-profit that had recently lost all of its funding and was unable to employ teachers. My students were Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian. Teaching English was incredibly hard because 1. My Arabic was not great, 2. English makes very little sense grammatically, 3. All the students were at different levels and wanted to learn different things, and 4. I simply had not taught before and was not sure how to do so. The ten or so women in my class were all in their thirties and forties. Some were there because they wanted to learn something new; others to improve their job prospects; and some because their children were learning English in school and they wanted to be able to help them out. One woman told me that English was her son’s favorite lesson and she wanted to be able to support him and connect with him over the subject.


Helping to paint a mural at a school in a Palestinian refugee camp

On the Hijab (Veils): A very common stereotype among Westerners is that women are disempowered because of their hijab (veil). This is an incredibly complex issue. Most Americans don’t realize that, first of all, the veil is worn by different religious sects in different ways and in different regions (a Sunni woman in the Gulf may not wear her veil the same way as a Sunni Palestinian woman in Lebanon or even a Sunni Lebanese woman in Beirut). And women in Lebanon all wore the veil very differently; some covered their whole bodies, including their faces, and others only covered their hair. The most amusing thing to me was that you would frequently see a woman wearing the veil over her hair, but also wearing a skintight outfit that revealed her every curve, and navigating the uneven Beirut streets wearing 5-inch heels.

People need to check themselves when their thoughts turn to the “poor,” “oppressed” women who wear the veil, because each woman’s experience is different, and we cannot pretend to understand the complexities.

On Religion: Additionally, I also don’t believe people understand the complex religions of the Middle East. In Lebanon alone there are 18 religious sects. Christians hold the majority of power in the country (only Christians are allowed to be President), Sunni Muslims have the next seat of power (they can be Prime Minister), and the Shi’a Muslims have the third level of power in the government (they can be elected as Speaker of Parliament). One must acknowledge the variety of religions and religious sects in order to more fully understand a region. There is a tendency tendency to group the whole “Middle East” as one area, but it is religiously, culturally, and linguistically very diverse.

On Lebanon Today: I do not think I would choose to study abroad in Lebanon right now at present. And that is completely my choice; there are a lot of expats who still live there and have lived there for years and will not leave because the situation always sounds worse from afar than it really is. Due to the conflict in Syria, Lebanon has started to experience some violence. There have been a few car bombs and shootings across the country, but most of the violence is on the border with Syria, where tensions are highest. In the last month I was in Beirut, I was told that things were changing. My roommate’s mother said that crime was increasing, especially in Beirut, and it had never been a problem before. My last week there, a friend and I walked by a corner that was covered in blood: two Syrian men had gotten in a fight over the conflict and one had stabbed the other. It was shocking—this type of thing just didn’t used to happen in Beirut.

There are huge numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now, which is changing the dynamic of the country. The Palestinian refugees are worried because an additional set of refugees means their chances of getting jobs is even more slim. The Lebanese government has refused to allow the refugees any type of residence, either permanent or long-term temporary. There was an article a few weeks back that said Ikea had developed temporary tents for the refugees, but the Lebanese government refused to let the refugees use them in Lebanon, because they believe people would end up staying indefinitely. It’s a confusing time that has no clear answers or solutions. Lebanon simply doesn’t seem to have the resources for so many people—it’s a country of just 3 million, so a few hundred thousand refugees makes a difference.


Ruins of a huge Roman temple in Baalbek, Lebanon

Thank you so much, Monica! You’re background in Middle Eastern studies and your insight into the religion and politics there is fascinating to read about.  

In Other Wor(l)ds is a series of interviews with young women who have lived, traveled, or worked for an extensive period of time OUTSIDE of Europe and the U.S., since the travel posts on A Thing For Wor(l)ds tend to be a bit Euro-focused. (I’m based in Spain, after all :)