Lebanon, Syria, Jordan

Its been several weeks since my last blog as I continued my visit to the Middle Eastsans computer—so I will use this final blog (until the next journeys) to reflect my experiences.

From Beirut, where I conducted a second training for Center Nassim, one of Lebanon’s torture treatment programs, we traveled to Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Amman, Petra, Wadi Ram, Aqaba, and The Dead Sea. Each of these ancient places left a visceral imprint on me—there is so much history in this part of the world.It is hard to find words to describe the sensate level experience of being in each of these sites—because it feels holy. My body experiences a stillness that seems to exist outside of the details of time and locale.At one point, as I listened to the echoes of the dead sea’s waves pounding Jordan’s beaches on a particularly breezy day, I experienced my torso as a chamber. The sound of the ocean was neither outside nor inside. It was everywhere,a micro-cosmic and macro-cosmic song permeating time-space-matter-place and certainly geopolitical boundaries.Occasionally, a heaviness/sadness weighed inside me, like I feel when I listen to someone I love cry.

I mused over her name—The Dead Sea.I asked several people why this ancient body of saline fluid is named this, and everyone’s reply is that “its dead”. How can someplace so old and constant and moving be dead? I remember Yemaya, oceanic Mother of the world, who cries tears when her children suffer. These may be the oldest tears on our planet, and I sense that they are still being cried.

The arcs, curves, carvings and colors of Petra are magnificent.This is a place where body as earth, flesh as earth, is vivid.Moments of that visceral stillness are punctuated by the noise and movement of the many visitors who hike in and out daily. The red-brown-beige stone evokes softness of form inside and out. The temples carved into rock wall had an empty quality, for me—again, stillness inside, this time much quieter.Perhaps history remains more silent with all the outer activity.

In Wadi Ram we stayed at a non-touristy Bedouin camp for a night.The day was cool and the night—blessed by one of the first rains in years—was very cold! The stars, which were already covering the sky in a wash of light and shimmer by 7 pm, soon surrendered to a thick fuzzy mass of fogginess, which became icy cold drops. Piles of blankets, a fire, an endless supply of tea, and story after story of human and sand and camel and desert and scorpion and snake filled the deep blue/black space of a nighttime free of man made lights and sounds with a sense of how important this place is for the Bedouin. The land here is state land, available for Bedouin community members wishing to stay connected to tradition, or, make a few bucks from eager tourists looking for an unusual and (more or less) rugged experience. Camels are fascinating—I had the privilege of holding gaze with several who stopped their sideways chomping long enough to meet my eyes. I was told they are grumpier in winter due to the cold, so couldn’t pet them, as I wanted to. I had not previously contemplated the cuteness of camels, but they are up there now in terms of animal adorableness. Their faces seem to marry the elegance of horse with the character of hippopotamus, giving them (in my experience) a rather comical appearance.

In Aqaba, we visited a point on the red sea where the boundaries of Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are all visible.Not a marking on the earth, or in the sea; a fluid landscape and blissfully warm sea so crystal clear that we could see the brightly colored fish dancing through the coral. And, in this same place, 4 countries whose relationship(s) (or lack thereof) can only be described as complex, strained, and at times,hostile, converge into a seascape of beauty and calm.I imagine sitting in a forum where the earth sea can tell her version of the stories and histories of this land, alongside each country that has a home here. How different they might all be.

Damascus –the oldest continuously inhabited city–amazed me. The endless windy streets and sagging ancient buildings are the embodiment of mystery. Walking the souks and streets of the old city (as in Aleppo) daytime or nighttime is like walking a mystery. Ancient gates that may have welcomed Jesus or Mohammed,that certainly welcomed Romans and Phoenicians and members of many long-gone civilizations, welcome visitors. One can wander streets that criss cross in an endless and complex array of possibilities and end up each time finding a street never walked before and crossing the same point many times.Being someone who is geo-socio-politically defined as an American, I had never learned much about Syria and will only say here that any ideas or perceptions I arrived there with are dismissed. We were often invited into the warmth of people’s homes and hearts for tea; at least twice a day someone stopped to ask where we were from and to express delight and interest at our response;at least 100 times a day I heard the words “Welcome.” The barriers that so many of us are taught to live and breathe and think into can evaporate in simple human word, kindness and curiosity.

En route to Palmyra we passed several signs for Bagdad, which at one point was a mere 100 miles away. These roads are quiet now, as they are only opened periodically for trucks and cars needing to get supplies or people through.The temptation to turn onto that road and drive South East was strong, a curiosity in my belly and brain; what would I arrive to if I turned this car right and headed in this direction?War is only an hour away, and everything here is empty brown desert, a few camels accompanied by local Bedouin, a few rest stops for tea or coffee.

The ruins at Palmyra are vast and enough is intact that I felt I could sense the old city. Increased energy in my belly and lungs and eyes – maybe the years of people moving, gladiators fighting, silks and wools trading, merchants and performers and conquerors.I wonder if as many people visit as once lived here and interacted with this spacious landscape? How many foot prints are on each original cobblestone?

Lebanon also houses ancient cities—we visited Baalbek and Byblos. It became my practice to find a place to be still and listen with all my senses for “news of the earth.” I keep encountering the same curiosity: each of these places has a name and many histories and has been fought over, surrendered, conquered, disputed, inhabited (some still are) and meanwhile the earth maybe change shape a little, landscapes shift according to the imprint of human, but where do all these lines and borders and time periods go when I just listen to the land?

An old road to Bagdad, an ancient sea between two countries that at times have been enemies, ruins that survived ages and are now marked with scars from bombings as recent as 1975 or 1981 or 2006.No where did I find this demarcation of past and present more vivid than in Beirut, where the old souk is now home to H&M, Roberto Cavalli, Ellie Saab, and D&G, where bright, shiny new buildings top the bombed out remains of not so old buildings, where the scars of wars exist alongside fresh modernity, lively commerce and culture, and a spirit that I will describe aspassionately defiant. Perhaps that is only an observers impression; I did however experience my feet as a little livelierand my belly, lungs, brain as vibratory with awakeness.I also touched into a heavier somber sensation when I passedempty mortar scarred buildings, reminders ofrecent and very recent wars. Speaking with a good,Lebanese friend last night I asked ifmost Lebanese people believe they can live fighting-free for awhile, and he said “we hope so—but nobody knows. Its always there.”

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