Boom Time for Lebanon’s Soothsayers



In the last of the video stories I produced in Lebanon, New York Times reporter Hassan Fattah and I met with a TV astrologer and a well-known psychic who are among numerous soothsayers and fortune tellers  followed closely by the public there.  Clairvoyants have become Lebanon’s unlikely political players in a country racked by sectarian tension and political instability.  To read Mr. Fattah’s story, click here.

Abu Craig Arrives

Early this morning — just after 3:30 — I heard a knock on the door. My father, breathless after walking up two flights of stairs with his bags (he got in the elevator that only goes to the 4th floor… I live on the sixth), had enlisted the aid of a Mcdonald’s delivery boy who had just dropped off some McFood to another tenant in the building, to help him get to my door.

I arranged for a driver to meet him at the airport and bring him directly here. I hoped Dad would take my advice and have the driver phone me in advance so I could meet them at the door, but he didn’t, so they caught me by surprise.

I was so glad to see he had made it safely.

Dad came inside and nearly collapsed in the chair, exhausted after more than 24 hours of travel. I gave him a beer and we chatted for a while — he told me how he had taken the train to central Amsterdam on his layover there.  After a half an hour or so, we went to bed. As I write this, he’s still sleeping — nine hours and counting.

Before you think I’m a bad son for not going to the airport to meet my septuagenarian father in person, you should know that I organized a meet and greet service to help him through immigration and customs.  He was well taken care of.  But I neglected to tell the person who was making the arrangements my dad’s name. Assuming my middle name was his first, she arranged for Weldon Duff to be met… not Willard. So dad was a little startled to see that name on a sign when he entered the airport hall (Weldon was my mom’s father’s name, but everyone called him Si — pronounced like sigh or Cy).

In Arabic, men often take the name of Abu (which means father) and that of the first born son. So, “Abu Craig” will spend the next ten days or so here with his ibn (son).

And I’ll post stories and photos as the father and son take in more of the sights of Egypt. We’ll hit the usual places in Cairo and make it down to the magnificent ruins of Abu Simbel, which were disassembled and saved from the floodwaters rising behind the Aswan High Dam in a marvel of engineering and archeological gumption.

More soon,

Craig (Ibn el-Willard)

Here’s a photo of mom, me and sis at the temple at Edfu.

Edfu with the gals

Lebanon in Crisis

woman in bint jbeil

When I first learned I would be spending nine months in the Middle East, I was very keen to spend some time in Lebanon. I had long heard it is a beautiful country, and that its capital, Beirut, is cosmopolitan and pleasant, having rebounded in style after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. But when war broke out again there last summer, and as a political crisis began in December and continues today, I wondered if I would make it.  Last week, I had a chance to visit the country with New York Times reporter Hassan Fattah.

We spent a week in Beirut and covered the current political crisis there, including some labor union rallies and the ongoing sit-in, with its tent city of protestors camped among acres of downtown real estate. We also traveled on two different days to see the status of rebuilding in the southern areas of the country hit hardest during last summer’s Israeli war.

Two of the video segments I put together along with Hassan are viewable on the New York Times website. You can see them via the following links:

Sayed in Bint Jbeil

Rebuilding Efforts Stalled in Lebanon.

Mohammed al-Seyed is among hundreds of residents who lived in the historic warrens of the town of Bint Jbail. And he says he’s ready to rebuild his family’s five homes destroyed in Israeli attacks last summer. But he’s been told it’s forbidden. Hassan M. Fattah explores why rebuilding efforts have stalled in some parts of southern Lebanon.

Class picture 1

Lebanon’s Missing Curriculum

Hassan Fattah meets with students at a suburban school in Beirut, Lebanon, who say their textbooks don’t give them the full story about the country’s recent history.

Mr. Ibrahim

Mr. Ibrahim rang my doorbell the day after I arrived in Cairo. He explained that he could get me beer. Or water. Or anything I needed in quantity. If I ever needed him, I should ring door 16.

A few days later, before I could think of what I’d need, or figure out which floor apartment sixteen was on, he rang again.

I looked through the peephole and saw him there in the same gray, tattered galibayya (the long dress traditionally worn by the poorer men in Egypt). His handshake was cool and moist. His nose, red and bulbous. His hair close shaven. A broad smile. And an approach that was all salesman, hand extended, grinning ear to ear.

We spoke in English, and he tabulated my order. A case of beer in bottles. Two cases of water. The price included a premium, which I assumed was his delivery charge.

The order came. The beer was in cans. He apologized.

Ibrahim made the rounds of AUC faculty who live in Zamalek, the designated “gopher.” A convenient service and his persistence is certainly dependable. At our weekly happy hour, other professors and I would talk about how he has inside information because he shows up at all of our places. Some believe he may have ties to state security, and he’s keeping an eye on us as he delivers booze and other sinful beverages to all of our homes.

Continue reading “Mr. Ibrahim”

Where Are You Looking?

laura looks up

The angle of the eyes is a barometer of attitude.

When we’re positive, things are looking up. When we’re blue, we’re looking down.

But looking down is a survival skill in Cairo.

The sidewalks are not contiguous pathways, more like obstacle courses where a smooth section will have low hanging branches followed by a meter or more drop when the sidewalk makes way for a steep driveway to an underground garage.

Nice people will put up plants in the way so you don’t tumble over the edge in the darkness on your walk home. The way around this is to walk in the street, which has even more hazards.

So, much of the time as I walk here, I’m on the lookout for foot traps. Pot holes. Sudden dropoffs. Uneven stones. Foot-high curbs. Pointy barbs of metal poking up from the concrete.

Charlie Brown had his kite-eating tree. I have my ankle trapping holes.


operation1If they had a Cairo version of the “operation” game, I’m certain it would have mostly wrenched ankles (and I don’t even want to know what the lungs would look like).

So I wear shoes with high tops – my Australian boots called Blundstones – even with a suit. And I keep my eyes on where I’m stepping.

When I walk in New York, I’m always looking ahead, seeing who or what I need to get around in order to continue the brisk pace of a guy on the go. When walking here, I spend so much time watching my feet and scanning all directions for oncoming traffic that I rarely look up.

Spending all that time looking down can’t help but affect your psyche. Like the gooky face mom always said was gonna stick if I didn’t stop, a downward cast can keep you down if you’re not careful.

But in Upper Egypt, things were clearly looking up.

philae wall

When you visit the great hypostyle hall in the temple of Karnak in Luxor, or gaze at the residual 3 thousand year-old paint on a ceiling of a place like Medinat Hebu, you’re forced to bend your neck back and gape. And the rewards are huge.

As my sister, mom and I floated down the Nile on the M/S Nile Symphony, making stops at the great Pharonic sites of ancient Egypt, our guide Rafik was often pointing above our heads. That’s where the gods are after all.


karnak obelisk kom omno pillar

Obelisks jut upward. Massive walls loom with bas reliefs of long lost deities. Columns arch overhead, supporting beams where strategic gaps directed shafts of light to shine on artwork depicting a god’s journey on a barque surrounded by servants and conquered armies turned slaves.


Mom and Rafik Rafik is a devout Coptic Christian and asked if he could call our group Angels. “Sure,” we agreed, not realizing that every place we went we’d be greeted with a call of “good morning, Angels!” “Over here Angels!” “Look at this Angels.” “Are all my angels here?”

On bus trips, Rafik took a break from his talks on Egyptology to quiz us with riddles or read precious verses, downloaded from the Internet, of rhymed couplets extolling the virtues of angels.

Continue reading “Where Are You Looking?”

Luxor, Egypt

Hatshepsut column with cliffs

Here are some images from Luxor, the first stop in our tour of upper Egypt. We visited the temple of Medinat Habu the day before we boarded a boat for a cruise. Rafik, the tour guide for the cruise, took us to Karnak and Luxor Temples, the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut.

Luxor head at night Hatshepsut Columns

Luxor at night with moon

Habu Temple 1 Habu Temple 2

Karnak carvings sunset

Habu Temple 3 Karnak Sunset

Acetone Painter

Karnak Sunset 2