Tree Cities of the East

*Trying out something new with some (very honest) personal reflections, a short story and poems on the trees in three Middle Eastern cities, while I reflect on living in Beirut for four months.*

EGYPT

The island of trees. I have a new obsession with trees. It started on Lord Kitchener’s Island in the middle of Aswan, Egypt. Taking a boat from the Nubian village where we were staying and saying goodbye to the sheep that had followed us, we rode to a small island where this figure from colonial times had co-opted an island for himself and planted tree seeds from all around the world. There were Brazilian walking palms, mango trees from India, even Oak trees. After initially avoiding the helpful welcome from one of the gardeners – as the prospect of negotiating the super likely bakshish-tip made us a bit Britishly uncomfortable – we gave in to the gardener’s explanation of this incredible biological experiment. He passed us velvety leaves that changed colour as you moved them, leaves that smelled like all the best fruit in the world and showed us the roots of trees older than anyone alive today. On this island I became aware of the nature-deficiency I had been feeling living in Beirut, where most nature is privately owned and often requires an entrance fee. I resolved to become as knowledgeable on trees as that Egyptian gardener.

The Nile. We had traveled from Cairo to Aswan by sleeper train that followed the Nile as its route. Having heard about the Nile since being very little, this river has something magical about it. This is made even better when you can spy out of a train window and see the many types of buzzing Egyptian towns crossing railway lines and the brilliant Iftar dinners being held along them.

Oppose the roads
of Cairo and flow
train down the nile
mile upon mile
nile after nile
flow me to your former
glory, your glory still
glorying high

donkey camel donkey
motorbike
men with their
sharp outlines
eyes inside
tuc-tuc
truck truck
banatrees fertilised
peeca peering
at the veiled women
their upturned-bell lines
on the other side

black palmtree shadows
against the night sky
my imaginations
chuck-uh-choo-chooing
side by side

all ride
for a small bakshish
not for free
a fair price for an extra pack
of cocktail juicy

Lebanon as ‘developing country. We arrived to Cairo, welcomed by a killer heat wave at Ramadan. When realising this meant that everything (including the cool hipster bars where I had planned to meet like-minded Egyptians) would be shut, I thought we had made a bit of a mistake. On leaving Beirut, Ramadan was of course also in full swing, but even in the Muslim areas of the city there were still plenty of opportunities to buy a ‘manouche’ (breakfast-pizza!) and find relief from the sun in a café that hipster-London would be jealous of. But we adapted. During the day we hid from the sun on our balcony overlooking the beautiful sandy yellow city. Then in the evening we would join the crowds buying Iftar bits on the markets. Sharing from giant vats of Sobba and Thoem (the sugary drinks to break Iftar with) before heading to one of the cafés where people would be sat with their food and drink in front of them in silence, waiting for the call to prayer. Once this rang, all movement began again as you would watch your neighbour on one side drain his drink in one, the other quickly lighting a cigarette while taking a bite of pizza and another closing her eyes to say thanks before tucking in. It was great to be a part of this month and I have such respect for everyone who can sustain fasting in that heat!

Going from Lebanon to Egypt, with comparisons as few as differences were many, it was fun realising even more the nuances of Lebanon as a country caught between Europe and the East. Even more so when, during an interview with a notable Egyptian, he commented on the situation of Lebanon. The notable was complementing the generosity and hospitality of the Lebanese people even though they were, in his words, a part of “such a poor developing country.” Straight away my mind went into attack: “what is this man talking about?” I thought of all the four-by-fours, haute couture and education that gets flaunted on the streets of Beirut and how, for me, it had been a comparable place to Amsterdam, Berlin and London. Somehow though his words followed me back to Beirut.

LEBANON

The first trees I noticed, were square. They line the streets of the coolest neighbourhoods in Mar Michael, Gemayze and Geitaowi. I watched them get their trim by four guys on make-shift ladders, dropping the big branches on people sipping their cappuccinos on the terraces. I assumed they must be inspired by Paris where similar squarely-cut, manicured trees can be found on the Champs d’Elysees. In these areas especially, people do not greet each other with the Arabic ‘Marhaba’ or ‘Sabagh el-Ghair.’ They say Bonjour. The doubling-response ‘Bonjourain’ and Merci, meaning that my Arabic teacher needed to teach us French as well as Arabic for us to get around and make friends. On a number of occasions, when I was explaining for instance to the nice man in the shoe shop that I was studying Arabic, I would receive a glimpse at how much certain people disliked their mother-tongue and indeed are actively taught to leave it behind with most schooling in Lebanon being predominantly in French and English.

When people tire of Beirut street theatre, they go up to the mountains. So the words of the notable Egyptian followed me back to Beirut. And as I returned, a new perspective of the street as performance space formed. I had always been impressed by the sense of style straight from French Vogue of all those on the streets of Northern Beirut. And every time you overheard a conversation it seemed to be about something meaningful in at least three languages (the word ‘Bourgeois’ was definitely a favourite). I’m sure that one of the reasons that visitors to Beirut love it (besides the food) is you can’t help but feel cool in the middle of a group of Beirutis. It was also remarkable how so many people could be driving what are obviously super expensive cars and afford nosejobs, boobjobs, full bod jobs in a country that is still rebuilding itself after a civil war and is suffering from being the neighbour of the Syrian war. As I sat among groups of Beirutis, also working freelance in cafés, their screens filled with design programmes and their calls about important deadlines, I figured that today’s remote working culture must be fuelling a pretty decent lifestyle. Until I heard about the loans, mostly from the US, that allow people to life the lifestyle in anticipation of being able to afford the lifestyle they know from traveling the world. Returning to Beirut from Egypt, I started to notice the cracks more. The cars, bars and people on the street are beautiful, but with the public sector missing, infrastructure decaying all around, including any building that isn’t a recent luxury new build. I started to see the streets of Beirut as a performance space. We were all there, performing our lives as if we were in New York, Berlin or London. Discussing politics, society and economics. But away from the cafes, realities are different.

Five thousand lira for entry to the sea
ahlain wa sahlain you’ll get your
beach lounger for free
How welcome we will make you be
with food in abundance
for a ten thousand lira chair fee

Bass what? Shoe? What can we do?
Ma fi government to take care of yours and you

See our mafia
no drugs do they sell
sit on the bus to
hear them yell
or watch garbage become
a valuable commodity
under their
smelly monopoly

Bass what? Shoe? What can we do?
Ma fi government to take care of yours and you

Ok, it wasn’t plan A
but it’s a good plan B
so knock down that history!
a nice highrise for those Syrian refugees
and Saudis to play swapsie

Bass what? Shoe? Just trust the plan
Capitalism’s invisible hand
will look out for our country’s
demand

                             

When people tire of their life on streets under rows of square trees or trying to access privatised nature and sea, they head to the beautiful mountains, where the famous Lebanese cedar trees rule.

Tall Stick Men of Shouf. We took a taxi with a group of friends to the Shouf Mountain Reserve in Southern Lebanon. Looking out of the window as we neared, we saw open plains with some of the tallest trees I had ever seen.

Long trunks solidly rooted in the ground. Branches reaching high in the sky. Forming not the usual solid circular or triangular bushy shape, but two arms stretching West and East, the tree topped by a fluffy peak. Here stand the Tall Stick Mean of Shouf. Immobile a thousand years after the Great Tree Migration, ignited when the smaller cedar trees started to complain that the Tall Stick Men were taking all of their sunrays. Even though the cedar trees strongly outnumbered them. The negative sentiments poisoned the soil and made the Tall Stick Men restless for a solution. So the decision was made that the Tall Stick Men would bundle their leaves and move to the open valley planes in the curve at the bottom of the mountains, sacrificing their all-seeing view. Once settled in the planes, they found that each generation of tree babies got taller and taller as they competed with the Shouf mountain to reach the sun. A thousand years later, we could see how the top branches of the Tall Stick Men reach the cedars. The trees now enjoy a happy coexistence side by side on the same level.

TURKEY

Felt like Europe and made me think of my own uninformed opinion. Just as landing in Cairo had been a shock of sand and dust, so was landing in Istanbul a shock of trees and European-ness. Istanbul is beautiful with its different areas separated by massive rivers and rather than individual trees impressing on us, now it was the sheer number forming big furry green framings around most of the tourist sites. We came to a vegan café where they had created a special menu for Pride week and were hanging up a rainbow flag. Excitedly, I asked the owner whether there was going to be a Pride march in Istanbul. She answered that even though it would not be as big as before, they were planning a small one in the hipster area of town. This is not Istanbul as I had anticipated. When you have spent a significant amount of time away from home, reverse culture shock is always to be expected, but I did not expect it to hit as soon as Turkey. Coming to Turkey felt like coming back to Europe. Everything felt more familiar. I walked away thinking back to university days when we would have discussions on whether Turkey should be allowed to join the EU. I joined in these discussions, having never been to Turkey and knowing very little about it as a country. Now I can see a bit better how it is a country, like Lebanon, very much caught between ‘the West’ and an idea of the East. Between secularism and a religious state, in history and culture. But then of course there is politics. Only four days after leaving Istanbul we heard that the Pride march had been attacked by police with rubber bullets.

Ultimately, alongside trees, the main trend. Whether it was marching for Women’s Rights and for Domestic Workers Rights in Beirut or making a great new friend in a Syrian student who would return home to Damascus every weekend – I realised how little I knew and how much I had supposed. When we joined an anti-Racism march for the rights of domestic workers I was worried we would get stopped by the police or harassed by people alongside the road. What I found instead is that this march was one of the best organised, best received protests I had ever been on. While walking we found people hanging out of their windows applauding us. When the heavens opened and buckets of rain came down on the amazingly intersectional crowd that formed the Women’s March, we built a roof of umbrellas and together sheltered while walking. I really enjoyed getting to know this corner of the Middle East better, also through studying its beautiful language and meeting its neighbours. All I can say for now is the Middle East is made up of lots of different trees.

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