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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Italian Job

My earliest stroll in Venice would be forever remembered. It was back in January 2000 on my first Italian job. I’ve been there many times since, but always look back fondly at that particular trip. My host, Franco, invited me to a superb seafood lunch which lasted more than a couple of hours. We had all kinds of fruits from the sea, cooked and uncooked in every conceivable Italian way. We consumed quite a bit of wine, and to top it off plunged into a hot dip comprised of olive oil and peppers of exotic origins and tastes. So, on we walked through the alleys of Venice, my host guiding me in the midst of the timeless city until we reached St. Marco, the main plaza where all the magic of the city emanates. Right in the middle of my rapture with the beautiful surroundings, I had to go. What I mean is that I had to go to the bathroom immediately. My host, too, looked uncomfortable, queasy and pale. It turned out that he had to GO as well. We started on a frantic run to the car, at least a couple of miles away. It’s unimaginably hard to sprint the narrow wet streets of Venice when you’re cold, and especially if you had to go. We made it in one piece (each) to the car and Franco really drove like a maniac in the drizzle, ignoring speed limit, courtesy to other drivers and all basic safety rules. We finally reached the offices of Franco’s company in downtown Mestre (the land part of Venice). There was no place to park! He double-parked and started running with me close behind on his heels. We blasted through the building and each occupied a VIP restroom. What a relief! I stayed long, real long. When I finally came out, I found that Franco was still in there. He came out a few minutes later looking jovial and self-possessed.
“Whateh youh likeh fore dinner”, he asked, “Pasta ore a special estake that ise the beste in the world”.
I really like Italians.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Gone Are the Olive Trees

Tartous lost her virginity toward the end of the sexual revolution, that is late 1960’s early 1970’s. Up until then, Tartous was still a very charming city-by-the-sea, surrounded and adorned by orange orchards and olive copses, called locally (Nawa3eer Laymoun & Basatin Zaytoun). The city was perpetually sweet-scented by orange blossom. Come evening in autumn or summer, a light easterly breeze stirred wilder roses and flowers on the nearby hills assaulting the leisurely quiet town with myriads of aromas.
I grew up when everybody knew everybody else. As kids, we would go swimming unattended anywhere on the beach. The sandy stretch had no start and no end. It was ours, and in the summer we would spend all of our waking hours there. We were only asked to come home at meal times. At dusk, men would sit at the Bayader Café (Ahwet Al Biader) exaggerating the number of quails they’ve shot, or the heroics of their hunting dogs (most of the pointer dogs had the names of Murjan and Wardo). Other perpetual topics were the olive season, good or bad; the fish catch, big or small; and the construction of the port by the Yugoslavian company. The women had their own café (Ahwet Al Neswan) where they met between sunset and evening “Maghrib and Isha” and watch TV. The cubic black & white Telefunken was perched high on a wooden pedestal in one corner of the café. They had a choice of one of two channels, Syrian TV from Damascus or Lebanese TV from Beirut. When one of the two channels showed Fahed Ballan the other would have Samira Tawfik. Om Kalthoum was a special treat, usually reserved for Thursday evening. The women would sit, talk, watch and smoke their arghilé in bliss and contentment. The arghilé in Tartous (also in Tripoli, Lebanon) was a strictly feminine accessory in those days. Men rolled their cigarettes from tobacco grown around in the nearby mountains. The more sophisticated smoked Kent or Lucky. Notice that I didn’t say, the rich, but rather sophisticated, a euphemism for pretentious (Mfazlakin).
In season, men would always go hunting on Friday. Quails, thrushes and mourning doves (Ferri, Semmon & Derghal) were abundant. One had to just step out of the city limits, walk about for a couple of hours and return with a bagful for the family’s dinner. There was always plenty to give to a neighbor who had become too old to go hunting himself. Going further up the coastal mountains, Chukar partridges (7ajal), rabbits and even gazelles were plentiful.
The only smoke or pollution Tartous had back then was from the chimney of the olive oil by-product producing plant (Ma3mal al-3arjoum). The leftovers after the processing of oil is called 3arjoum and was used to heat the homes of all Tartoussis. The family would gather around the open Mankal, cover the hazelnuts with the hot ashes and wait in turn to be fed by mother or father.
The port was the beginning of the end. Although, Tartous always had had a harbor the sheer gigantic size of the project meant that doom will eventually fall on the sleepy town. A basin that can accommodate at dozens of ocean going vessels needs at least a thousand trucks per day to load and unload. Just providing a parking space for these trucks meant that thousands and thousands of olive trees had to go. What naively started as the salvation of Tartous from its laid-back destiny is still going on in full swing today to accommodate not only the trucks but the warehouses, the yards, the commercial, administrative and industrial parasites and the housing for all the new comers.
Some of our elderly today are dismayed by the fact that we are buying olives and olive oil from Idlib. No offense to Idlib, but I can understand how these older Tartoussis get tears in their eyes. The liquid gold of Tartous, the best olive oil in the world, the one we ate with everything and in every meal is being replaced by generic shit from beyond the mountains.
Sadly enough, there’s nothing more to say. At least not till another day.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I call on all football fans in the Arab World, Syria and Tartous to speak up against and boycott ART (the monopoly and vicious mogul). God, don’t make them full! (Allah La Yshab3hon).
ART want us to pay to watch the Number 1 sport in the world. They’ve been spreading rumors throughout their extensive campaign that nobody, absolutely nobody, can broadcast the Germany 2006 World Cup to the Middle East region but ART. They’ve been relentless in their ear-deafening crusade, even terrorizing innocent football fans with threat of prison and/or castration if they, the fans, dare watch any game without paying to ART first the unfathomable fee of 13,000 Syrian Pounds. Some poor souls have succumbed to the blackmail, but many have not.
Don’t you worry my brothers and sisters in humanity and in football, someone (probably many) will screw ART bad and broadcast the WORLD CUP for FREE. We really don’t care if we’re going to hear a German commentator or a Sanskrit one. We want to watch football and have a wild fiesta. I promise my friends here in Tartous that I’m going to throw a wild party when the Cup starts on June 9th, 19:00 local time. FREE BEER EVERYONE!
Please make yourselves heard, on your blogs and everywhere else… “ART SUCKS”.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

in the mood

With the inevitable change of seasons, I become a little moody and the feeling that I am growing older nags at me. The spring-summer transition is particularly relentless in its offensive. I find it extremely intriguing that we don’t apprehend the importance of youth when we’re young. It takes an older person to appreciate the vigor, the delight, the splendor of being young. It takes a man in his forties, at least, to cherish the beauty of a pubescent maiden. By then it’s too late, even if willing, to consider the possibilities. This realization gives birth to the connoisseur with a discriminating taste and an appreciation of beauty, only to be grasped in the mind.
There is some sort of mismatch out there between the genders. This, I believe is a great obstacle in the face of the proper evolution of the species. Anyway, when I was a younger and more foolish man of say twenty or twenty-one, I fancied older women. These were the real ones, I thought. The way they dress and hold their heads, the way they talked and walked signified the essence of womanhood to my over-testosteroned brain cells. Now that the hormonal tide has subsided a little (or a lot) and I can see, smell, feel, taste and hear clearly, I’m closer to grasping the eternal but elusive truth. All men should be forty something and all babes should remain in their twenties.
A young lass absorbs the sun’s rays in her bosom and hides the moon between her hips. Her allure is mixed with a whiff of cinnamon and wild flowers. Her skin is velvety to the touch, hot and moist. The taste of her lips assaults like an avalanche of juicy oranges and delicious melons. In a light breeze, a few Mozart notes float by with the whisper of her silk dress clinging and sliding off her luscious thighs.
Here is the ultimate irony. One needs to be older to come up with shit like this.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Tom & Jerry

Tom was the new kid in town. His first day at the local high school was never to be forgotten. From the moment he stepped into the hallway, everybody noticed him. He was a handsome and athletic kid. He walked tall and proud, and the fact that he was very rich enhanced his special charisma and allure. On that very same day, he picked a couple of fights just to make his point. From then on he didn't normally go about beating other kids in school, unless he had too. It was well understood that nobody should piss him off. He minded his own business most of the time and was aloof from the daily problems that went on in any school. While he dated the pretty cheerleaders, the homely girls secretly dreamt of Tommy. Guys either hated him out of jealousy or respected him out of fear. Tom gave the impression that he had a very short fuse, so it was very sensible to stay out of his way.
One day a sickly young boy by the name of Jerry arrived on the scene. He never knew his father, and his mother was killed by a ruthless maniac who had cut her to pieces in a storm of rage. News of the horrible murder spread like fire and masked the other truth, that she had been a notorious killer with blood on her hands herself. So it came about that Jerry was a victim of circumstances.
Living in foster homes for most of his life, Jerry first kept to himself then slowly inched closer to Tom. Big Tom took pity on Jerry and brought him under his wing. Together, they formed a bizarre contrast. The little fellow was unsightly to say the least. Kids either avoided him or felt sorry for him, but they sure didn't want him around. Despite his handicap, Jerry inherited his mother's deviousness and her killer's conscience. The net result was a very dangerous wolf in sheep skin.
The friendship of Tom and Jerry grew up with them. It first started as a moral obligation for Tom, who despite his bullying appearance was a decent human being underneath. Soon enough, little Jerry started providing the big guy with alcohol, drugs and porno flicks. Although Tom could've had any woman he desired, he drowned in the abyss of sadomasochism, pedophilia and necrophilia. Jerry was having a devastating influence on all kids in the neighborhood. When he started stepping on the toes of others he was almost beaten to death if not for the intervention of Tom. Later on, Jerry took the initiative and started picking fights systematically and with resilience with the solid backing and support of his big friend.
Eventually they were grown men and they came out to the real world. Everybody was afraid of Tom but it was well known that Jerry “Shorty” was the one who's pulling all the strings. He controlled the police and organized crime. Tom was Shorty's shadow and bodyguard. Dependent on his master for the support of the nasty habits he had acquired and for keeping his dark secrets in the drawer, Tom became a very dangerous and violent slave. He roamed neighborhoods anear and afar and razed them on the hint of Shorty. In the brief instances when he came out of his daze, he almost appeared to be his magnificent old self again.

Life in the city went on with a heavy burden that was Shorty. No one dared talk, everyone looked the other way.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ayn Al Jawzat

Exactly 20 years ago, Ayn Al Jawzat at the village Sa’een became my favorite restaurant. It’s owned and managed by a very nice guy by the name of Majed. “Ayn Al Jawzat” is my refuge in times of joy and trouble. To drive to Sa’een you have to be really hungry. Although it’s only 20 km east of Tartous, the final 8 are a serpentine road twisting down a deep valley. The road is not for the faint of heart. If two cars are to meet, one of the drivers has to have the sense to completely stop and give the right of way to the other. Once you are there, however, the owner will personally welcome you at the front door near the spring. When it’s cold, he will gladly light up a fire for you. Comes summer, you will be lead outdoors, to a table in the shade of the giant Walnut tree (hence the name Ayn Al Jawzat = Spring of the Walnut Trees) The food is good, the service great and the price very decent. Now, don’t go expecting to find a 5-star joint. You go there, because you are a simple human being who happens to love to feast on a delicious Mezza , drink a Batha (1/4 liter) of homemade Arak and listen to Melhem Barakat. When you feel you’re halfway through the Mezza, ask for Farrouj 3al Fahem (Chicken on Coal: how about that for a translation!). For your sweet tooth, end it on a high note with a piece of Hreesse and a cup of coffee and stay there for an additional half an hour. Enjoy the stillness, feel the buzz and just plain fuck it all.

Driving Directions: from Tartous, drive east on the Dreikish road. Pass Bmalke (12 km) and continue for another 6 km. There is a fork in the road about 2 km out of Bmalke, ignore it and continue straight (don’t go left yet). Just when you reach a village by the name of Hbabe and near some large trees, look for a road forking to the left sharply, take it and drive for 2 km down the steep valley until you get to Sa’een. Ask anyone where Majed is. Enjoy your meal.
Yeah, one more thing, you can tell Majed that Abufares had sent you :-)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Block J

We’re swept away with the pace of modern life. We strive to follow up with the lead established by others, ignoring who we really are and were we came from. Such is the case with those known to fall under the biased Western word “the Third World”. If there ever was a First World, then we’re definitely “It”. But alas, money talks nowadays, and when the vast majority of people are familiar with Hollywood and Burger King, a very small minority have ever heard of the ancient cities of Ur and Ebla, let alone Tartous.
Circumstances placed me a few years back in the middle of a restoration project in the old city of Tartous. A Spanish team formed by architects and urban planners from the cities of Palma de Mallorca and Alicante paid a visit to Tartous. They wanted to take part in the restoration of one particular building, technically labeled “Block J”. A few days before their arrival, I had started a complete survey of the complex structure and had transformed my data into a 3D model in order to be able to generate all kinds of maps and a full rendering. During my work, I had learned a little about Block J, the part of it that’s above the ground anyway. It seems that this one structure was compiled during different epochs and is more like a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Just barely above street level the block is a mixed array of Byzantine and early Islamic architecture. In other words the foundations and the caves underneath the block date back to as early as 330 AD. Level one was completed and fortified by the Crusaders during their march to the “holy land “. The second level dates back to the Ottoman Empire over which the French added yet another plane during their occupation of Syria. Scattered around it and protruding from here and there are annexes built by the inhabitants of Block J and their descendents over the course of the building’s colorful history. The most amazing aspect about Block J is the fact that it has been inhabited continuously. Today, more than 40 families dwell within the walls of the block. How many deaths have these windows witnessed, how many births! The howls of slain soldiers dying far away from home and the whimpers of ancient tormented Tartousians still echo against the historic walls.
I had passed by this structure hundreds of times since early childhood. I had never gaving it a second look until I learned what I’ve just told you. Today, we’re in need of understanding our roots in this ever-changing world. With the globalization of a generic culture brought about by fast and cheap communications, we’re at risk of forgetting all about our origins. More kids in this part of the world now are familiar with Ronald McDonald than with Salah El-Din. Our cultural demise was brought about by our own hands. As we witness in fascination the giant steps the advanced countries of the world are taking, it’s only fair to remember that we had been there once upon a time. That was not meant to make us feel any better about the present state of affairs; it’s just a humble note that might go unheard in the loud Rap concert (Real Rock’n’Roll already gone) playing right now all around us. This too will be no more, one coming day.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Tribute to Ali Al-Badri

Ali Al Badri is in his mid sixties. He wakes up with the daily resurrection of the sun and sleeps an hour or two after it dies. He works on his 5-acre piece of land, 7 km south of the city. There, he has a small dilapidated shed with a tin roof. An olden army cot occupies one corner. A weathered handmade table and an odd assortment of wooden crates make up for the rest of the furnishing. Sharing one wall with the shed is a smaller lean-to where his animals live. Three or four dogs, along with a mule and some chickens, are the residents of this place and the companions of Ali. Even in the winter, when there's little he could do in the land, he sticks by his daily regimen. He kick-starts the cold 50cc engine of his puny bike to life, dons himself in a yellow mariner cloak and rides off in the drizzle and rain to his land by the sea. Over the course of fifty-two years, hot or cold, wet or dry, sick or fit, he had never missed but a few days. There was this time when his mother died late one summer night. He had to stay in town and attend the burial. He rode to his realm from the gates of the cemetery. His brothers would receive the mourners for three days. He has eight mouths to feed, and not his dead mother or all the kindly angels would do anything to help with the chores of the earth if he stayed behind. When his older son left for the army, he had to visit him one Friday. The bus trip took the best of five hours and he had to change vehicles a couple of times. When he finally made it to camp, he gave his son the contents of the straw basket; some sweets baked by mother, fresh country eggs and homemade bread. Three quarters of an hour later, Ali got up, fished a 500-pound bill from his pocket, stuck it in the kid’s hand, hugged him briefly and said goodbye. He made it too late into town to ride to his lot. So he slept with a feeling of remorse and concern for the animals and for the land. When there’s work to be done, he labors for hours on end. He plows the earth with the aid of the mule. He plants, irrigates and takes the weeds out with his bare hands. Then by mid-afternoon, he sits down on a crate or a nearby stump and rolls a cigarette. Over a cup of tea or matte, he listens to the BBC radio. This is the best time to visit with him and get some insights on the world of politics. The motives of America are stripped naked by his guiltless mind. The actions of the pawns and puppets are revealed and explained with fluidity and raw logic. If it were a particularly good day for him, he might offer his visitor a glass of Arak. If alone, he would shoulder his shotgun and go after a few quails. The dogs and their fleas would be terribly excited by then and would be jumping all over the place. The wind blows and the air reeks of primitive smells and the land by the sea is colored by allusions. Ali is a man who’s scratching life with dirty fingernails. He’s a poor man, but a content man and a happy one. He never had any formal education nor traveled abroad. He knows all there is to know. He does what needs to be done. Although he had never read a newspaper or anything else for that matter, Ali was a man of the world, his own world.
Ali Al-Badri passed away in March 0f this year, the land by the sea has lost him forever.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

To the Dead Sea & Back

I had just finished taking some pictures of Tartous off the highest building in town (The Shahine Tower: 16 stories up) when my cell phone rang.
"Can you be in Amman, Jordan tomorrow, the 8th of May?". There was an exhibition that I should attend and a client I should meet.... blah, blah, blah.
My colleague and I left Tartous around 9:00 AM, arrived in Damascus a little bit after 11:00, left the car at the Sheraton and drove by Taxi to Amman. 6 hours later we were in the Jordanian capitol with little time left for any business that day. It took us 4 hours to cover the 200 km trip because the Syrian-Jordanian border is annoying and embarrasing. To be honest to myself and to those who might stumble on this and actually read it, the problem is not with the Syrians. Since deep in my heart, I still believe in "One Arab Nation" above and beyond all, it is very sad to go through this useless and shameful experience.
In the evening, we were invited by the Austrian client/friend to a huge Gala taking place in a resort on the Dead Sea. We left Amman by bus for the 50 minutes ride and descended from 850 m altitude to 400 m below sea level. Although I could see little at night, the place looked magical and the setting absolutely terrific. The party was wild , the hospitality great and time just flew away. There was something, however, stabbing at my heart. It was very painful to look at the lights on the other side of the sea. We returned to the hotel after midnight and had a nightcap (more than one) until around 4:00 AM. I woke up with a slight hangover and went about my business in the exhibition until 3:00 PM, grabbed a bite and headed home. The way back was much easier since only 15 minutes were needed to cross into Syria (as opposed to 1 hour and 30 minutes to go into Jordan). I made it home around 9:00 PM.
This morning, the first thing I wanted to see was My Sea, the one that's still alive.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Boring & Humid

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the Tartoussi is one of a dying breed. The truth of the matter is that the real Tartoussi is one of a minority in his own town. Same thing can be said about the real New Yorker or the real Damascene. It’s just a demographic fact with an absence of prejudice.
Writing about one’s hometown is always difficult. One might bore others to death at any junction, or even worse offend them. No point in stating the obvious then.
Over the last few years, some striking ideas have been flying around regarding the future of Tartous. A few “sages” even go as far as saying that Tartous should be the commercial capitol of Syria. More realistic pens and mouths suggest that it should be transformed into a large free zone, “look at Dubai” they point out knowingly!
Frankly, I’m fed up. If Tartous needs anything, it is to regain its innocence. Too bad we can’t go back in time, because that’s what we really need. When I am fortunate to go places, especially around the Mediterranean and see for myself how some cities by-the-sea have maintained their small town charm, then I feel bad about mine. A case in point is the beautiful city of Alicante, Spain. Located about a 130 km south of Barcelona, the wise people of Alicante decided one day to give up on their commercial port and thus transformed it into a recreational harbor. What’s the point in competing with Barcelona, they reckoned. They reckoned right. To my eyes and soul, Alicante is a true jewel of the Mediterranean. Jbeil, Lebanon managed to do a little magical trick and became, again in my opinion, the most beautiful city in Lebanon. Keep it simple, they decided, keep it small.
What pisses me off is the fact that the future of Tartous is being discussed by everybody except us the “minority”. Just imagine some wise guys, sitting in Damascus and arguing over some scale model of the Tartous Sea Front (a project that we keep hearing about since time immemorial). Of these wise guys, the shoddier are the Tartoussis who have moved their asses to Damascus because Tartous is too “boring” or too “Humid”. They patronizingly speak of “their” hometown as if they know it best. If you don’t live here for one of the above two reasons [boring and/or humid], don’t butt in. As for the expatriate real Tartoussis who live abroad in search of their dreams, you were not meant by the previous comment. Tartous has been made by and is all about you.
And, as if it were not enough to have people discussing our future some 250 km away, the government send us one wave of stupid officials after the other. For the love of God, some of them can’t even swim, and they’re talking about harbors and marinas.
Just let it be please. Get your hand and mind off of it. Don’t bring in any more industry, don’t bring in commerce. Just don’t bring in anything. You want a city like Dubai, go to the fucking Syrian Desert, cross Palmyra and continue driving for 50 km in any direction. Build your dream city there. Build a cement factory, a fertilizer plant, a refinery, a power plant, a shithole. Whatever you like, go ahead and build it. Build a metro, two malls, three Arab Towers, an internet city, a Hollywood of the desert, just dream it up, build it and stay there. I promise to visit one day and feel awed with your grandiose achievements and marvelous feats of engineering and business sense.
Should I write more, I guess not.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Salma Ya Salama

If you were all Arabic-speaking folks, I would only have to write the lyrics of the very beautiful song “Salma Ya Salama” by Dalida (see below) and that would’ve been it. I mean I couldn’t improve on Sayed Darwish or whoever wrote it. That would’ve saved me the trouble of making up something new and definitely less elegant, and would’ve saved you from the nuisance of having to read it all. Suffice it to say, that Dalida’s song is about a woman who’s been everywhere, enjoying her life to the fullest. But after all the coming and going, and when her first love called, she chose to come back ‘cause there’s no place as lovely to one’s heart, mind and eyes as one’s home. I’ve been away in Italy for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed every moment thoroughly. True, I was on a job assignment but I had the chance to see (again) one of my best friends and meet his wonderful family (for the first time).
Still in the back of my mind, Tartous was the harbor in the vast ocean. Like a seafarer, I love sailing but long for the haven of an old and familiar wharf. I made it back around sunset. I rolled down the window of the cab speeding through the quiet streets of my city and took a long breath. My heart was laughing as I murmured to myself, “Salma Ya Salama”.

El-Dounia El-Kebira
WeBladha El-Ketira
Laffett, Laffett, Laffett
WeLamma Nadani
7oubbil Awalani
Sibt Kolo We Git
Web7ednou Tramet
We Ghannet
Salma Ya Salama
Ro7na Wgina Bel Salama