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Friday, July 28, 2006

The Blue Max

As I was growing up in the 70’s, the once-a-week excursion to the movies was a special treat. Tartous didn’t offer much in terms of entertainment then (or even now), especially in the winter. My friends and I would arrange to meet near the theater after or during school hours. We would go in raucously and act like the asshole teenagers we were. Besides watching the movies, making everybody else in the theater uncomfortable was our cruel delight.

So it came about one day that a movie came to town. It was titled “The Blue Max”, 1966. From word of mouth, we heard that Ursula Andress had her voluptuous body on display, and that her tits “almost” showed. Well of course her towel scene became an all-time classic and is a pinnacle in the delicate art of teasing. More importantly though, The Blue Max is probably one of the greatest aviation movies in the history of film making and it features some spectacular arial combat sequences. Little did I know, however, that this movie would change my life forever.

It was a movie about flying during the First World War. George Peppard plays the character of Bruno Stachel, a flyer from a middle class background, as opposed to the aristocracy, which formed most of the German Officer Corp at the time. He had to prove himself, first as a worthy officer and then, and more importantly, as an ace pilot. His nemesis, Willie von Klugermann, played by Jeremey Kemp, was an accomplished pilot, a German aristocrat and an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. The feud between Willie (pronounced Villy of course) and Stachel was purely about flying; although screwing Kaeti (Ursula Andress), Count von Klugermann’s wife, was a welcomed bonus. James Mason starred as the Count.

I shouldn’t go into the details of this great motion picture. I have so many favorite lines, however. When the commanding officer Heiderman, played by Karl Michael Vogler, asks Stachel: “Are you a good flyer?”, he simply answers: “I’m comfortable in the air.” Over the years, I must’ve seen The Blue Max over 30 times. My best friend Rick and I have memorized most of the lines, and would naturally flaunt this knowledge to each other and to whoever happens to be watching with us and suffering.

When I exited that theater in Tartous almost 30 years ago, I knew once and for all that there’s nothing else I ever wanted to do besides flying. I dreamt about it for years until it became a reality, a profession and an obsession. Rick and I flew over the bayous of Louisiana like Bruno and Willie did. Interstate 10 from Lafayette to Baton Rouge was our favorite battle field. We played between the east and west-bound bridges in the little Acrobat, and I really mean it when I say between the bridges. I still remember that gorgeous blonde in the convertible blue Corvette driving fast in the heat of the day. We approached her from the southwest and descended as low as our perverse minds allowed, then flew along. Her short tight black skirt exposed a beautiful shiny sweaty pair of legs, her hair flying in the wind, her nipples hard against the silky blouse (it could be that I’ve imagined this part), her eyes transfixed on us, less than a couple of hundred feet off to her right, her million dollar smile… boy, she was our Kaeti that afternoon. We skimmed the murky waters near Henderson and we landed that tail-dragger in places that may seem (and are) impossible. We redefined the term “short field landing” out of necessity and for simple showmanship. There’s even an aerial maneuver named after me, although I couldn’t and still can’t perform it. We didn’t shoot down any enemy but we did it all. We were both very “comfortable in the air”.

It ought to happen one day, you’re going to find yourself bored and looking through the titles at your local video store for some DVD to rent for the evening. Check out “The Blue Max”. And, if you don’t agree with me that this is one of the greatest productions, you will at least find the towel scene much more interesting and crafty than anything Hollywood has made since, silicone or not.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Words of Questionable Substance

More often than not, I find myself at a loss of a word. That doesn’t prevent me from exercising what I shine at, the ability to bullshit in time of mental draught. Come to think of it, I’m really not a thinker at all. I just pretend to be verbalizing an important bit of discourse when I have no idea what the hell I’m going to say next. Take for instance this very post. I’m plowing through it with no clear purpose yet. I honestly have nothing to say. I could scratch my head or another dear part of me and state that life without real friends isn’t worth living. I could then build on it and write an acceptable piece, which might even prove to the liking of a few of you. Or, I could embark on a perpendicular route and affirm that we’re basically alone and would continue to be so until the day we die. This track would put me on a lengthy course of a dissertation in bullshit. How about indulging you, and myself, in a philosophical debate on pleasure and pain! An extremely tasteless bad joke states that the pinnacle of pain is to slide naked on a very long razor blade using your (fill in the blanks) as brake pads [ouuuch]. On a lighter tone, or heavier from a gastronomical point of view, I could wet your appetite and arouse your taste buds with my late (very late) dinner excursion last night. The tender way I stirred the Lima beans (foul) over low heat, the slow pouring of the olive oil, the firm yet loving squeeze of lemon and the orgy of garlic, onions, tomatoes, fresh mint, Tabasco and salt & pepper. Then, I would eloquently describe the consummation, after much anticipation, of this midnight delight; the heartburn, the burping and the farting that ensued well into the wee hours of the morning.

Words give us the unlimited freedom to soar with the eagles or to fuck with the chickens. By creating words, people make themselves disparately into the like of Paolo Coelho or an Arabic journalist writing for a state owned newspaper. I assure you that I fall somewhere between these two extremes, now and always.

Did I really say something? You should’ve known better than to foresee anything of substance to come from a guy who eats Lima beans in the middle of the night then starts his day by telling senseless dirty jokes.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

I'll Be Back

I was never a person who gets turned on by politics.

I've looked over my blog and found that ever since the recent tragic events have started in Lebanon, I have been incapable of "personally" saying anything meaningful. As thus, I have opted to totally delete the posts which I have not written myself. This is My blog and I wouldn't want the atrocities committed against my people to affect how I think and what I write. I wouldn't want despair to invade this little personal space of mine.

There are other blogs out there which deal with this miserable and dirty aspect of humanity, objectively and subjectively.

The overwhelming feeling that I have an enemy (Israel and the US Government and NOT the American People) is part of who I am, and I am neither embarrassed or afraid to let it be known. I won't loose this feeling nor withdraw this statement until there is an "honorable and just peace" in the Middle East.

When the light at the end of the tunnel shimmers, I'll be back.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

أضعف الإيمان - اصمتوا

في هذه الظروف الصعبة، وفيما يستشهد أهلنا واخوتنا واولادنا في لبنان، وفيما تقوم آلة الحرب الاسرائيلية بتدميرمنظم ومقصود لوطن بأكمله، أطلب من جميع الأخوة العرب عموماً ومن السوريين خصوصاً الصلاة من أجل لبنان. كما أطلب من جميع المتفزلكين السياسيين، من كان منهم مختبأًً في بلده أو متشدقاً من خلف البحار أن يمارسوا أضعف الايمان وهو الصمت والتعاطف من القلب. من أراد تغيير نظاماً فهذا ليس وقته، ومن أراد أكل الهوى فلينتظر حتى تنته المعركة على الأقل. اعفونا من آرائكم أيها المنظرون السياسيون البارعون. إن المشكلة إن بعضكم قد صدق نفسه وصار له أتباع ربما، ولكن كل هذا الهراء ليس وقته. إذا كنتم لا تؤمنوا بالله حتى تتقوه، اتقوا ضميركم وانسانيتكم واصمتوا. وإذا ما زلتم تصرون ان الحق على حزب الله لأنه البادئ، والبادئ أظلم، سلمنا معكم وربما بقليل من فشة الخلق أننا اعدتينا على أولاد الحرام مرة واحدة على الأقل. الله يحميك يا لبنان والله يقصف عمرك يا اسرائيل

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Menshieh of Tartous

The museum of Tartous is bounded on its eastern side by a large garden of over 2000 square meters. I’ve checked with some of the city’s elderly and was told that as far as their memory served this area has always been a Café in a garden and it has always been called Al-Menshieh. The cadastral plan prepared by the French during their occupation of Syria in the 1920’s illustrates the presence of several trees (they are still there) and a garden. I have found an old b&w photo of the Menshieh dating to the mid 1940’s and it shows that even then it was used as a Café.

The Menshieh is owned by the City of Tartous (Al-Baladieh). Several entrepreneurs have rented and invested in the place from the 1940’s until 1983. Then, in their infinite wisdom and for some totally ridiculous reason, the Department of Antiquity and the City of Tartous conspired and closed it down. The Menshieh remained closed for 20 years and fell victim to neglect and idiocy. The Tartoussis were furious but who gives a shit.

Against the odds, a returning expatriate won a contract with the city and invested heavily in rehabilitating the premises. They tried to suffocate him with endless administrative red tape and crazy rules and regulations, but he stubbornly persisted. His triumph in the end was an event hailed by Tartoussis. Life has returned to the heart of the city. The Menshieh was reopened in 2003.

As a Café, Al-Menshieh is huge. It has more than 170 regular tables. On weekends and holidays, many more tables are brought in to accommodate the extra demand. Mainly due to its perfect location in the center of the city and also because of the beautiful surroundings, it has become one of the top recreational places for people, young and old alike. In the winter, it is shielded from the cold and wet westerly winds by the museum. In summertime, it is shaded from the heat by the giant eucalyptus and ficus trees. Although the Menshieh has two indoor structures, the preferred place to sit is outside.

Once you walk in the main gate from the east, you immediately sense the special and unique Tartoussi atmosphere. To your left is an elevated section, almost always reserved for women who come alone or in small groups to enjoy an arghile. I’m not talking about traditionally clothed women, au contraire, they are the closest thing Tartous has to “Desperate Housewives”. They come to the Menshieh dressed for the kill, so it seems. The regular middle-aged men who frequent the Menshieh every evening sit on the right side (north) of the main gate also on an elevated section. From there, they have a commanding view of who’s getting in and who’s going out, a moment of utmost importance for all the women, young and not so young to show their stuff.
On the far south end of the Café is a secluded and open large space taken normally by chastely dressed women and/or those with kids. The families, meaning a father, a mother and children prefer to head toward the northwestern part of this large garden and take a table there. Those who come mainly to eat will find their comfortable place in the small joint to the left of the entrance. Although food is served outdoors, inside you will have the feeling that you are in an intimate place. The diehard card players (they play Morto in Tartous) would head straight to the right and enter a green glassed-in structure. This is where the ambiance of a real Tartoussi Café is felt with a twist. There’s a pool table for those who still refuse to go home although it’s past midnight.
Right in front of the main gate, there is a large pond of water. It is surrounded by tables on all sides, and this is where the young (and the out-of-touch-with-reality middle-aged sit). Indeed, this is the heart of the place, this is where all the action is. The Menshieh is mainly a haven for the young beauty queens who settle between the giant trees in flocks. Therefore it’s also the ideal hanging place for the young men with the abnormally high hormonal levels. This section is most likely the source and the target of all the lewd Bluetooth messages flying around between the trees.

If you’re from Tartous, you already know all of the above. The Menshieh has long been considered as an established social institution. If you’re new in town, or in for a short visit, give it a try. During the day, it’s a very nice place to settle with a newspaper or to grab something to eat. In the evenings and even if you don’t like crowds, there ought to be some secluded table that will suit you. If you go there on weekends, don’t ask for solitude though, the Menshieh is a place to socialize, the Tartoussi way.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A One Hour Itinerary [Tartous - Al-Sawda & Back]

If I had one free hour on my hand and if the weather was suitable to ride, a possible itinerary is to leave Tartous from the north and head toward Al-Sawda, 12 km to the northeast. I ride by the Free Zone and continue straight on the old Tartous-Lattakia road. 3 km out, I reach a railroad crossing and a bridge over Nahr Al-Hsein (نهر الحصين).

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I stay on the old road until I arrive at the Dweir Taha sign and start my climb to the right. I stop on the side of the road anywhere and take a look back toward Tartous and may be have a cold beer.
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Time to move on again, so I continue my ascend till I reach Dweir Taha on a picturesque scenic road. I stop at the east end of the village, dismount and enjoy the unrestricted view in all directions.
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The cement factory is an out of place monstrosity in this otherwise serene backdrop.
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Now I’m 8 km out of Tartous in the village of Al-Breij and I pass by Cantia Hotel/Restaurant. It looks like a real nice place, but I’ve honestly never been in.
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Up ahead the road forks in two, and I sway to the left and step on it on the open stretch to Al-Sawda. Nothing much goes on during the day in this village, but on evenings and special holidays it would be teeming with life.
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I have great memories of this excursion as a teenager. In the winter time, it would have been possible to virtually stop anywhere on one of the many branching trails and wait for thrush (سمن) at sunset and hunt it en passant. In other seasons, these same trails offered great concealment for two love birds in a car. Olive trees are a blessing in "disguise".


Monday, July 03, 2006

The Tourists Are Coming

I encounter people who consider me a cynic on a daily basis. They think that I live in the past, unable to accept the tide of progress. So what, they argue, you lost the damn olive trees but we have dozens of cellular towers instead. You cannot go swimming wherever you please anymore, they tell me, but we’re going to have a couple of new marinas and five-star hotels. No point in reminiscing about a sandy beach stretching till eternity since we have the “Cornishe” where the sons and daughters of the wealthy can cruise and parade their latest model cars to the salutations of the police. Tartous was a stupid place “boring and humid” and now it’s on the right path to join the rest of the civilized world. The tourists are coming, they insist. They fault me because I want us to remain trapped in a time warp. Wake up, they yell in my ear, smell the roses, be happy, the tourists are coming, the tourists are coming...

I love progress, an essential for the coming tourists, and I’m not only talking about Tartous!

It’s great to have fine public hospitals and services.
Good roads to drive the fucking cars on.
Clean streets and operating traffic lights.
Neat buildings which abide by a code not written by deranged minds.
Playgrounds with safe slides and swings.
Hygienic bathrooms in restaurants and gas stations.
Waiters who use deodorants.
University students standing in line to pay for or to buy something.
Gentlemen walking the streets with purpose and pride.
Ladies showering before going to work.
Government employees not blowing smoke in your face while they serve you.
Street signs and street names.
People sitting in parks reading books, for god’s sake, and not drinking Matte.
Public buildings which do not smell like urine.

I cannot keep counting forever, otherwise I might really get cynical.

The first thing a helpless tourist may experience even before setting foot in Tartous is the stunning airport in Damascus? Where else can anyone see a porter and a uniformed policeman holding hands and/or leaning on a wall and staring at arriving passengers, bovinely smiling and cracking watermelon seeds with their front teeth??? The tourists are coming my ass…

Saturday, July 01, 2006

From Jambe To Tartous

Exactly 3 years ago, Rose arrived in Tartous coming from Jambe. I met her at the Kadmous bus station and took her home. She was a little girl of 22, very shy, very quiet. She had trusted her luck and left her home and family in search for a job. Her fate took her all the way from Jambe in Indonesia to Tartous in Syria.
She walked in our place a little intimidated yet very proud. Traveling all this distance to work for three years for an unknown employer is not a task which can be taken lightly by a man or a woman. In addition, she spoke little Arabic.
We asked her to rest for the day but she wouldn’t have any of it. I swear that she’s been working for 3 years without ever complaining. We would tell her to stop and take it easy for a while but she wouldn’t listen. Only when the kids begged her to she would put invented work aside and play with them.
We have moved from one apartment to another and Rose carried most of the burden of moving. She left the first place sparkling clean and kept the new one shining and smelling beautiful. During her tenure she had learned how to cook and became very good at preparing Sayadieh Bi Samak and Wara2 3inab.
She’s become a sister to the kids and they treated each other with love and affection. Through it all, and despite the fact that she was very happy with us, she missed her home. She once said that she cannot stop working because then she would have free time. What else would she think about if she had free time except her home with the mango and coconut trees in Jambe, her family and her little brother of two?
Rose had been a part of our family for three full years and when we finally drove her to the airport so that she goes back to Indonesia, our eyes were filled with tears. She said that she’ll miss us terribly but that she had to be with her family. We asked her to take good care of herself and to send us her wedding picture when she gets married.
Rose, we already miss you. Thank you, not merely for the great help you’ve been to us all, but also for being a part of our lives.
Thank you Rose.