Count Your Blessings (instead of Sheep)

When I’m worried and I can’t sleep

 I count my blessings instead of sheep

 And I fall asleep

Counting my blessings

     — Irving Berlin (sung by Bing Crosby)

Car bombs in eastern Lebanon, street-fighting in Tripoli, one million refugees in a county of four million. With all that is happening here in Lebanon and the surrounding region, counting one’s blessings suddenly becomes really easy.

An intact family? Check. A roof over my head? Check. A good school for my children? Check. Adequate medical care? Check. Enough food for everyone? An abundance really.

I am family/shelter/education/health/food-blessed.

Fitting then, to share some of that abundance with the hunger-relief initiative foodblessed.

I first heard of foodblessed when my kids’ school organized a food drive for their benefit last spring. Foodblessed works in a number of ways to support hungry families and individuals:

  • soup kitchens in Beirut that provide hot meals
  • home delivery of meals to AIDS patients
  • delivery of food boxes to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese

The organization is entirely volunteer-operated, and when they put out a call for volunteers at the beginning of this year, I decided to join them at one of the soup kitchens not far from my home. Every Thursday I serve up rice and stew (or spaghetti with meat sauce, or traditional Lebanese dishes such as kibbeh) to somewhere between 25 and 40 hungry folks. Another volunteer hands out salad, another dessert, and one of the nuns from the church that lends the space for lunch hands out silverware and bread.



I’m happy to give an hour and a half of my time each week. As is typical when volunteering, I get much more than I give. I get the chance to practice my Arabic, to get to know lots of people (both clients and fellow volunteers) that I wouldn’t otherwise meet, and I get to feel like I am doing something, no matter how small, in the face of the ever-growing crisis for those in need in Lebanon.

April 12 is Global Day of Service, and my alma mater, Boston University, encourages its alumni to participate in a service event in some way during the month of April. There haven’t been service events anywhere I’ve lived in the past decade, so this year I decided to take matters into my own hands, and offered to be the volunteer event leader in Lebanon. I am now in the throes of a food drive, and on April 5, I will join with other BU alumni, our friends and families, to pack up food boxes for hungry families and individuals.

You may have already seen one of my appeals – via email, Facebook or Twitter. Forgive me if I’m being redundant. But I wanted to share a little more about what I’m doing and why. And if this post makes you think of your own blessings, take a minute to count them.

If you find that you have enough to go around, maybe you can consider sharing one:

http://www.volunteerforever.com/volunteer_profile/amy-robertson




foodblessed recently delivered 50 boxes of food to Syrian refugees outside of Arsal in northeast Lebanon, in a no-man’s land beyond where international agencies can safely travel.

Photo credits: Ruth Moucharafieh

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Beirut Essential Reading (Part II)

Here is Part II of the reading list I’ve compiled over the past two years in my effort to get to know my new home in Beirut a bit better. My previous post covered culture, memoirs and other non-fiction (including a graphic novel), while this post will point you to literary fiction, guidebooks and books for children that have helped me to familiarize myself (and my family) with our home in the Middle East. As in my previous post, the gems are marked with an asterisk.

Literary Fiction

* Beirut Blues by Hanan Al-Shaykh (1996)

Sidestepping the traditional story-telling format, Beirut Blues is composed of a series of ten letters from its protagonist Asmahan to the people and places she loves – including her grandmother, her lover, her city (Beirut). The book is not a straight-forward account of Lebanon’s civil war, but its stories paint a picture of the war’s effect on the people (both collectively and individually), the land, and the city of Beirut. Currently resident in London, Al-Shaykh is one of Lebanon’s best-known modern-day writers.


Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf (2007)

Some of these stories are by previously-published authors while others introduced newer writers onto the scene – and the stories are, as one might imagine, a bit disparate and uneven. However, it is the dissimilarity itself that adds value to this book, as it defies stereotypes of the modern Lebanese woman by offering a variety of perspectives. The editor is assistant professor of English and creative writing at the highly-regarded American University of Beirut.


De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (2006)

Two childhood friends, Bassim and George, come into adulthood during the Lebanese civil war. One ends up joining a militia, while the other dreams of escaping abroad. De Niro’s Game earned critical acclaim in Canada and Ireland, but I found myself agreeing with reviewers who found that the final section of the book, which takes place outside of Lebanon, loses steam.


Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (1999)

Described as “a powerful allegory for the struggles and anarchy that have beset [Lebanon] for the last half-century,” Ports of Call tells the story of Ossyane, a Turkish-Lebanese nobleman, including his marriage to a Jewish woman named Clara, from whom he is separated for many years because of their respective cultures, a world war, and the later (1948) Arab-Israeli War. The narrator of the story is a third person to whom Ossyane recounts his life, and it is perhaps this choice by Maalouf that keeps the story from fully drawing in the reader. Maalouf is another of Lebanon’s foremost modern writers, and as Ports of Call is the first of his novels to be set in twentieth-century Lebanon, it is well worth reading.

* Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (2010)

Elegant and moving multi-generational story of a Palestinian family that is displaced from their home at the creation of Israel in 1948, and moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Narrated by Amal, the granddaughter of the old village patriarch, the story stretches from the village where her grandfather grew up to Jenin, the refugee camp where she was born, to Jerusalem, where she was housed when orphaned, Beirut, where she became a newlywed, to Philadelphia, where she studied and worked, back to Jenin, when she brings her own daughter for a visit.

Guides


* Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut! By Warren Singh-Bartlett (2010)

Always entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this compilation of factoids about Lebanese life and culture is a must-have for anyone newly arriving to the country.

* Living Lebanon by Saskia Nout (2013)

The most recent guide to Lebanon on bookshelves, and with the kind of information that a resident needs as opposed to just a tourist – like driving directions, and a deft explanation of the convoluted political system. Nout is a Dutch expatriate. While the guide is not easily available outside of Lebanon, it can be easily found in a bookshop upon arrival.

For Children

Sitt Sobhiyeh and the Quest for the White Horse  * Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse, by Karim Al-Dahdah (2013)

The charming tale of Farida, a young girl that travels the world in search of a white horse whose appearance will mean that all the village girls will have a happy marriage. What Farida learns on her search for the horse, and what the village girls learn in Farida’s absence, is a tale of discovery and self-empowerment. The book is bilingual Arabic/English, and the illustrations are lovely. (This book added to post on March 24, 2014.)

* Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird (2008)

This novel tells the story of 10-year-old Ayesha during the civil war. Her grandmother desperately needs medicine that is available only from her doctor on the other side of Beirut’s infamous “Green Line”, and Ayesha dares to get it for her. The death of Ayesha’s mother at the beginning of the story may be upsetting for younger/more sensitive children, but it is not dwelt upon, and ultimately, it is a story of the triumph of human spirit and what a spunky young girl can achieve. Laird lived with her husband and infant son close to Beirut’s notorious “Green Line” during 1977.


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (2012)

This beautifully illustrated book introduces colors through a Muslim lens, from the blue hijab (head covering) to the silver coins for the zakat (alms) box. Suitable for families of any faith that wish to introduce cultural awareness to their younger children.


Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (1992)

Ten-year-old Sami has grown up during Lebanon’s civil war, going to school and helping his mother with chores when he can, and living in his uncle’s basement when the fighting flares up. One day, the children march for peace, and Sami knows that when another chance comes, he will march again. Well-written, and good for sparking discussion between children and their parents or teachers. For children living in Beirut today, however, with the war in neighboring Syria, the story probably will hit a bit too close to home.

On My Bookshelf

No reading list should ever be complete, because there are always more good books out there to read. Here is the next one on my list. While I can’t tell you yet what I think of it, renowned author Amy Tan has written an absolutely glowing review of it on Amazon.com, and you don’t need me to top that – take her word for it and go out and get this book.

* The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (2008)

Hakawati means storyteller, and Osama’s dying grandfather is one. When Osama returns to Beirut in 2003, after many years in America, to sit vigil at his grandfather’s deathbed, stories begin to unfold. According to the back cover, “an Arabian Nights for this century,” and described by an Amazon reviewer as full of tales of “love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skullduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else.”

After a gloriously sunny Saturday, the rain returned to Beirut yesterday. No problem. I’ve still got plenty on my shelf to read.