Monday was our first work day, and things were challenging. We are working with far fewer people from the finance organization than we thought we would be. As a result, this feels a lot less like a workshop and a lot more like a consultation. However, our prepared materials were for a formal workshop, so we have had to adapt. Nevertheless, as the session on Monday progressed, I felt great working with our counterpart at the organization. He told me that while we were discussing the intricacies of start-up lending one of the main challenges finally dawned on him. He said that he didn’t know why it took me coming all the way from the States, but it finally dawned on him. That’s great, from my point of view. It makes everything worth it, especially if he can use his new perspective to help people in Lebanon.
The organization that brought us over here, the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, has been great. They treat us very well, and our “handlers” (I only jokingly call them that – they are professional project specialists) are friendly and coordinate our transportation and food. The food has been a excellent. The varied use of herbs, spices, fruits, and other ingredients has enchanted me. I have a fairly strict ‘food belongs in bellies, not Instagram’ rule, but I may need to get some #MedDeli up there to make all of my followers jealous.
Today was a holiday, so we did not work. Instead, we went up the coast and saw a few sites. First, were the absolutely colossal Jeita Grottoes. Second was a cable car ride (actually our second of the day) up to Harîssa, which has a tall Virgin Mary statue looking out over the Mediterranean and Beirut to the south. Last, was Byblos, a port city with one of the longest histories in human civilization. It was settled in prehistoric times, and has been controlled by every civilization ever to have crossed the Middle East, including the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Hittites, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and the French, before Lebanon became independent. The major remaining structure was the fortress built by the Crusaders.
While in Byblos, hearing about the trading history of the area, it dawned on me that for a very long time, Lebanon (and the Levant in general) was the center of the world. Europeans did not know much about what lay beyond the Mediterranean. The Silk Road had many termini, but their general direction was the Levant. The Levant also has direct access to Africa, making it the “center of the world” for a long time.
I am learning tons about Lebanon, the Middle-East, Arabic culture, and the economy of Lebanon and the region. It is all fascinating to me, and impresses upon me how very ignorant we are in the United States. It makes me wonder, maybe the powers that be over my country want perpetual distress in the Middle East. So long as we can control their streams of oil, then strife and under-development is actually desirable for our country. If there were peace and prosperity then an ascendant Middle East could threaten American hegemony and extract better terms for everything that they provide for the rest of the world. Once again, the Middle East could become the center of the world.
Jeita has a strict no photography policy, so I got these from Google Images, although they fail to do justice to the sheer scale of these caves: