Mystery of the Fugitive Corn Cart

Ever stumble upon an old email, and with it, a flood of memories? The Corn Cart Mystery is one such mail. I cannot believe this was nearly 10 years ago! Plenty has changed in that time, but ironically, I find myself once again teaching fourth grade in a country with corrupt politics, crummy police, and shit that falls apart. 

I’m trying to figure out this most peculiar mystery. It reads just like the title of one of the novels that is so popular amongst my fourth graders: 

The Mystery of the Fugitive Corn Cart

Every other night, when I go out for a gelato down the street, or tasty zata’a manouche with the works from Snack Faysal, I notice a corn cart in front of the police station. It’s not so odd that a vendor would have a wheeled cart just for the sale of corn, or that it would be parked in front of the police station most nights of the week.  What’s weird is this:

a.  There’s never a corn vendor at the stand. The stand stands alone.  

b.  It is a different corn stand every time.  

c.  If I walk by the police station after a certain late hour, usually 3 am or so, the corn stand has been smashed to bits. Cobs, kernels, bits of wood, and a large, slashed umbrella lay scattered across the street as taxis speed around its sad remains.  

 d.  By the next morning, all evidence of the corn stand’s last stand has disappeared. No trace left behind, not even the trampled sludge that one would expect to see underneath a desecrated corn stand.   

So here’s what I envision:  

The corn mafia is alive and well within the ranks of the Beiruti police. I picture some cop coming up to a poor schmuck selling corn on the Corniche (see what I did there?) and giving him the shakedown.  

“We run the corn racket in this town, pallie. Pay up, or you can kiss your sweet corn goodbye. We can be downright salty people to deal with, so don’t try to butter us up. I swear to god we will pop you.”  The vendor tries to reason with the officer, but he brushes off the pleas.

“Sorry, it’s strictly business. I work for Don Corn-leone.”

I then picture one of their high powered SUV’s barrelling down the Corniche, lights flashing, corn stand in tow, bouncing along behind it, all the way back to headquarters. Once there, they leave it on the curb for public shaming, then invite belligerent AUB college kids over to lay waste to the corn shack. The remains are “disappeared” by dawn.        

Sorry for all the silly puns, but I thought the politics of this country needed some comedy. Everything you just read is true, except for the parts I made up.  

There’s been a lot of talk about the elections. From the suits in government to the street sweepers outside Burger King, nobody at any level of the social ladder knows what to expect. For those of you in the US that don’t listen religiously to Al Jazeera, the Lebanese elections are upon us, but it’s a far cry from what we see in America. An elective board makes a decision on the behalf of the people to determine the next leader of the country. The whole process is greased to a nauseating degree by money, religion, and empty promises. Hmm…. actually, I guess it’s pretty much how we do it in the US after all.   

The notable exception is how this election has been delayed and delayed and delayed, leaving everyone pretty nervous. The delay comes because there is no Parliament assembled right now to finalize the process. They’re either boycotting themselves (you read that correctly), or hiding out, since certain anti-Syrian members tend to encounter some rather nasty accidents that involve exploding cars. The head-in-the-sand policy has been working for about two months now, but the deadline is approaching. After Nov. 24, I believe, if no leader is elected, there will be a military coup, as dictated by the national constitution. Not the sort of coup you see on CNN though, with the shooting and the mortar shells, but more like what we’ll see in the US around 2008. One party replaces another, and everybody goes to work the next morning as usual. The only difference is the new leader of Lebanon will wear military fatigues.  

If my language seems unconvincingly confident there, you’re right. This is the pitch I’ve been given by the admins of my school, as well as the locals who’ve lived here for years. They’ve had military coups before. I do believe that in the short term, we won’t see any significant developments. But in the long term, no telling.  And the locals do tend to have more pessimistic predictions for the long term. 

 So in the meantime we wait. 

I had my head tied around this stuff on the way home today. I was walking up the 379 steps from my school to the flats, mind clouded with thoughts of a guy announcing his presidency with victory shots fired into the sky, when I approached Bliss Street. Absently checking to my left for oncoming traffic and right for scooters driving against traffic, I stepped into the road and came within a hair’s breadth of a taxi driving 30 mph in reverse.  Must say, never in my life suspected I’d need to watch for reverse cabbie hazards, but now I will check every time. 

Just goes to show, just when I think I understand this place, I’m reminded that I really don’t know jack.  

I have adjusted pretty well though. I wake up around 5am with the call to prayer. I get some Arabic coffee on the boil, then take a nap in my shower for awhile. Then it’s off to school, where I’m still learning much about the craft every day. More on that sometime in the future. I have a student teacher now. He just sort of showed up, and now follows me around everywhere. Stay at school for 12 hours or so, then trudge home, where I nod off to some juvenile fiction.  

Right now, the marching band of IC is playing their field, as they’ve entered the regional championships for fütball.  They may suck as our academic rivals, but they have a hell of an athletic program.  Meanwhile, the drums are drowned out by the evening call to prayer. It’s like a surreal version of my childhood… hearing the drum majors practice from Greenwave Stadium, while the church organs from St. John’s shared the air.  

Well, that’s about it from my end. Thanksgiving parallels with Lebanese Independence Day this week, so we’re going to shoot some really fun fireworks off the roof… the kind that are probably illegal even in Mexico. If I don’t get another one of these emails off by week’s end, I wish you all a happy Turkey Day. I’ll be travelling to Syria for the holiday, so if you don’t hear from me in two weeks, call the State Department.  

It was painful to read the second half. I knew so little about the international education game back then, so little about how to be a sensible foreigner. I had no idea that my days in Lebanon were numbered. No idea that the people I met in Lebanon would remain as some of my dearest friends today. Or that I was falling in love with one woman and falling out with another. Or that my trip to Syria was the last time I’ll ever be able to see that country the way it used to be. 

And if you told me that a man named Barack Hussein Obama would soon be president, I’d have assumed we were still talking about Lebanon. 

That last paragraph is a classic “Hey y’all, watch this!” moment. How did I not know that launching military grade fireworks from the roof of our apartment building at the peak of a volatile political crisis was a foolish idea?


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