Thursday, April 23, 2009


St. Anita arrived as promised at our Doha apartment at 5:30 am yesterday morning, as cheerful and pleasant as ever and bearing yet another gift: an Arabic cookbook complete with recipe for "my" lemon mint drink! Shukran, Anita, for so many kindnesses.

The highlight from our flight from Doha was when the passengers burst into spontaneous applause upon the plane's landing. I thought maybe it was the pilot's first flight, but our hosts explained that was a very Lebanese tradition.

Hospitality is the keyword in the Middle East and we felt the Lebanese love from the minute we walked through the customs gate. There were the Grissom girls (well, Ed, too) waiting for us:

From the second we saw these dear new friends, we were all instant dear old friends. They whisked us and our luggage to their car and through the busy, narrow streets of this beautiful city. The tiny Parisian style elevator in their building meant we rode up in shifts, but that gave Neil and I each more opportunity to enjoy the signs of welcome they'd posted in the elevator.

We unpacked a bit and snacked a bit

the berries are "toots" and the yellow fruit akadinyas

these are almonds in their first stage
and then walked with them to pick up the youngest Grissom from school, then it was back to the apartment (with its stunning view of the sea)

and a table groaning with a Lebanese feast, prepared by Elizabeth,with help from her neighbors.

When we were beyond stuffed, we strolled along the Corniche, inhaling the fresh sea air, and then freshened up for a reception at the home of the President of the International College (the school I was there to visit). We met many of the teachers as well as the president's dogs, Chloe and Lucy. From there, we headed downtown for a light snack before turning in for the night. We snuck in a tiny bit of sightseeing, peeking in the newly restored St. George Orthodox Church.
Hariri Mosque in downtown Beirut

Sunset from the apartment
This morning I woke to the 4:30 am call to prayer, the first time I'd heard that prayer since coming to the Middle East -- I never heard it while we were in Qatar. I dozed off again and soon it was time to be up and out the door to the International College, just a short walk away. The school is in a building that formerly housed the British Consulate complete with bomb shelter , which is where the auditorium is and which is where I gave my presentation -- a first for me. The kids were so receptive and polite while I talked and then peppered me with thoughtful, profound questions afterward.
the students in discussion about Hattie
of the usual questions I get -- how many books have you written, etc -- I was asked about themes and symbolism and romance. The second presentation had more French speaking students so I worry that some of them couldn't get everything I was saying, but, again, we had a great time.

The best part of the school visit was sharing lunch with a smaller group of students who had me in tears at many points. One student, while discussing the theme of anti-German prejudice in Hattie Big Sky, noted that in that story people were singled out for where they'd come from but, in Beirut, people were singled out for where they lived now. I was asked about the symbolism of the quilts, about why I'd left Uncle Chester's past so mysterious and what purpose Chase served in the story. It was fabulous and I was completely honored by the care and thoughtful way these students had read my book. I am still amazed to think that this particularly American book had themes that spoke to these students half-way across the world.

I reluctantly left the school, with a full heart and a signing pen that ran completely out of ink. Mr. Random House will be so happy to know that HBS was a sell-out in Beirut!

Our afternoon was spent sight-seeing in Bylbos, where we wandered around a Crusaders' Castle abloom with wild flowers and built on the site of five prior civilizations,

browsed through a souq and ate fresh fish (you pick the fish you want to eat out of a tank!) before heading back, tired and full of wonderful memories.

PS We're laughing this morning as we sit together talking, overlooking the sea and remembering Neil's attempt at ordering a falafel sandwich: calling it fal-fa-lal.

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