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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ramadan Cannon

The last minute before Iftar in Tartous is a moment of intense anticipation. Fathers with their children wait in the cool of the day at the northern side of the Kornish (The sea esplanade) to watch the firing of the cannon. A 2" cast iron tube is inserted in a barrel filled with sand and a dynamite bomb of some sort is placed inside the tube (mortar like). The cannon man (as he's known) keeps an eye on the Baladiet Mosque Minaret for the signal (Green fluorescent lights) to light a cigarette, take a short drag and puts the wick on fire. With the explosion comes the words from the Muezzin: Allah Akbar (God is Greatest) indicating the end of fasting and everyone hurries home to grab their first bite after long hours of waiting with the rest of the family at the Iftar table.
Just another day of Ramadan 2006 in Tartous, Syria.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Shorba, Fattouch & Fatteh

Every town in Syria, as well as other Arab and Islamic countries have their own unique Ramadan Dishes. In Tartous, no Ramadan table is right without the omnipresence of 3 dishes:
Shorba (soup)
Fattouch (a salad)
Fatteh (chickpeas with sesame paste)
These are prerequisites for the Iftar of any and all families. Of course there will always be a main entrée or more in addition to the threesome above and they are always welcomed extras.

Shorba (soup): Any kind of soup will do really. We especially like the angel hair (thin spaghetti) soup with tomato sauce and meat balls. The preparation is straight forward. The ground beef is shaped like small balls and fried in butter until golden brown. Tomato sauce, water and broth are brought to a boil and then the meat added. Salt, pepper and spices are used as per preference. Once the mélange is boiling, heat is reduced to a minimum, the short thin spaghetti is added and the pot covered over low heat for an hour or so. Stirring occasionally will insure that all the ingredients are getting well mixed. Just when the cannon is fired signaling sunset and the Muezzin chants Allah Akbar (we’ll talk about the cannon and the Muezzin next time) the hot soup is brought to the table. After a refreshingly misty glass of water, drunk straight up, the soup is the first thing to lubricate the esophagus and dilate it to make it ready to receive more goods.

Fattouch: is a salad well known in the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine). There might be some local variations in this culinary masterpiece, but this is how we do it in Tartous. I’m going to help you prepare a plate of Fattouch for four or five people. Fattouch is a mixture of parsley, portulaca (any green stuff if you can’t find it can serve as an alternative= lettuce for instance), fresh green mint, tomatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers, radish, bread crumbs, grenadine molasses, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, Sumac (optional if you can’t find it) and finally salt & pepper.
Parsley (1 handful), portulaca (2 handfuls) and fresh green mint (1 handful) are thoroughly washed, picked (the seam removed) and soaked in salt and water during the preparation of the other ingredients.
Two tomatoes are cut in chunks the size of (see picture).
Two Cucumbers are sliced about 1/4” thick.
Radishes (1 handful) are peeled in a spiral fashion so that parts of them become white and others red (this is simply more appealing to the eye). Cut them in smaller pieces (see picture).
Pita bread crumbs are prepared in one of two ways (either fried in oil or for the more health conscious simply dry heated in the oven until light golden brown. (1 pita bread 8” diameter cut in small stamp size chunks).
One medium-sized onion, thinly sliced (see picture).
Two cloves of garlic, crushed soft.
Place the bread crumbs in the salad bowl you’re going to present on the table. In a separate bowl, mix two tablespoons of grenadine molasses (sold in most delicatessen shops in the west) with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the juice of two medium-sized lemons, 1 tablespoon white vinegar and garlic.
Keep all the vegetables unmixed and separate until ready to serve. Remove the portulaca, parsley and fresh green mint from the salted water and then mix them along with all the veggies, place them on top of the bread and mix them well while adding the grenadine molasses/olive oil/lemon juice/vinegar/garlic dressing (the bread is to be mixed with the other ingredients). Add sumac, salt and pepper as per taste. For those who had never tried Fattouch before, give it a try and you’ll never eat salad any other way afterward.

Fatteh: is a dish of soft-boiled chickpeas, bread crumbs and a dressing made of sesame paste (Tehiné), plain salted yogurt, lemon juice and garlic all topped off with delicious melted butter with fried pine nuts. Some parsley and grenadine are sprayed for the aesthetic effect (optional).
To be completely honest, in Tartous we buy the cooked chickpeas and the dressing ready from the small popular (Fool & Hommos restaurants, see 1st picture above). If you live in the west, ready cooked chickpeas in cans are sold in many supermarkets. You would need to throw away the water in the can and boil them in fresh water and until very tender and soft. The required time depends on the pre-cooked condition they were in but they should real soft (ulmost mushy). The sesame paste (Tehiné) is also sold in specialty stores everywhere. 1/2 cup needs to be diluted with lemon juice (1 squeezed lemon) and some plain yogurt (2 full tablespoons) until it has the fluidity of paint (not thicker). Two cloves of crushed garlic are added to this dressing.

The crumbs of bread (same as in Fattouch) are placed at the bottom of the bowl. The hot chickpeas are spread evenly on top (1 12 oz can) and some, not all, of the hot water used for boiling is added. The sesame paste dressing is spread on top with the back of a spoon in a layer of roughly ½ “. Finally 1 tablespoon of hot and melted butter with some pine nuts is splashed on top with some parsley, red pepper and grenadine for decoration.

What I have just described above are the must ingredients of a Tartoussi Ramadan Iftar. Please note that these dishes are prepared out of Ramadan as well. They would, however, together meet every single day of the entire month.

If you’re fasting while reading this post, I hope I was able to tease your taste buds.
Iftar Hani (Bon Appétit).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ramadan 101

For the Non-Muslim readers, unfamiliar with Ramadan, I will give a quick introduction to one of the holiest Islamic occasions. I will keep it simple and would not go into the full religious details since I do not consider myself qualified in that sense. One thing I most certainly need to emphasize, that this post is indented to give a general idea about one of the five pillars of Islam (Fasting) and not as a religious lesson. There are many blogs out there written by people far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of religion and faith. They will certainly serve better in providing more precise guidelines. The five pillars of Islam are:

1. Al-Shahada (The Testimony of Faith) which is the declaration that there is none worthy of worship except Allah (God) and that Muhammad (PBUH) is His last messenger.
2. Al-Salat (Prayer) establishing of the five daily Prayers.
3. Al-Zakat (Almsgiving) which is generally 2.5% of the total savings for a rich person working in trade or industry, and 10% or 20% of the annual produce for agriculturists. This money or produce is distributed among the poor.
4. Al-Sawm (Fasting) during the month of Ramadan.
5. Al-Hajj (The Pilgrimage to Mecca) this is done during the month of Zu al-Hijja, and is compulsory once in a lifetime for one who has the ability to do it. If the Muslim is in ill health or in debt, he or she is not required to perform Hajj.

Most Muslims around the world live, like everybody else, by the Gregorian calendar. However, all of their religious occasions use another calendar called the Hijri. This lunar calendar starts with the year Muhammad (PBUH) migrated from Mecca to Medina (Hijra = Migration). Currently we are in the year 1427 Hijri. There are 12 lunar months in the 354-day Hijri year. A lunar month is roughly 29.5 days and it is agreed that a lunar month is considered either 29 or 30 days, depending on actual observation of the moon. Be that as it may, the Hijri year makes one complete cycle every 33 solar years (being roughly 12 days shorter). This year, the 1st day of Ramadan fell on the 22nd or 23rd of September, so next year (2007) the 1st day of Ramadan will be around the 10th of September. Every lunar Islamic month has a name (Muharram, Safar, Rabi’ I, Rabi’ II, Jumada I, Jumada II, Rajab, Shaaban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Zu al-Qi’dah and Zu al-Hijja).

The Quran was revealed to Muhammad (PBUH) during the month of Ramadan thus it became the holiest month for Muslims. The fundamental ritual of worship in Ramadan is fasting (abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset). During the day, a fasting Muslim would absolutely eat and drink nothing whatsoever. In addition to culinary deprivation, a Muslim should also abstain from sex during the same hours. Bad temper, foul language and other bad human ailments should be avoided altogether day or night. Immediately when the sun sets, it is Iftar (Dinner) time. Families would gather around the table and enjoy some of the best dishes and sweetened drinks reserved for this month. Even Muslims who drink alcohol will refrain from any intake during the entire month.
In the evenings, neighbors, friends and families socialize. It is also a period of reflection and worship and many followers will interrupt sleep with intervals of prayer and reading of the Quran. Before sunrise, the family will again gather around Sohour (a light meal) to eat and drink until the last possible moment in preparation for the next day ahead.
In the posts to follow I will try to project images from Ramadan in Tartous. Some of these are shared by all Muslims everywhere else. Others are unique to this small geographic area. I will try to describe some Ramadan dishes, folklore rituals and other small matters which make anyplace a home to its inhabitans.
Ramadan Karim (A Generous Ramadan) to each and every one of you.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ramadan Mubarak

To my family, here and there
To my friends, around the globe
To my fellow bloggers, anear and afar
To my casual readers, mountains or oceans away...

A time to get closer to God and to ourselves within
Thirty days to share with the less fortunate, not just a bite to eat, but a life to live
Four weeks to forgive and forget
A month to reflect on deeds past and hopes to come
A moon phase to pray for everlasting peace

I wish you all a very Generous Ramadan

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Paradise, As Far As The Eye Can See

I kid you not. The title above is the name of a restaurant, 35 km northeast of Tartous. If you think that the owner is out of his mind, think twice. First, you’d better take a look at the imbedded video. I think you will agree that the name is very appropriate.

They were three, a cynic, an historian and a blogger. Their schedules agreed that they were all free for the afternoon. A little bit after 2:00PM, and after an exhilarating 40 minute drive, they reached their destination- Paradise As Far As The Eye Can See (Jannat 3a Mad El-Nazar). It was sweltering hot in Tartous but once they took their seats at the 600 meter (~1970 ft) altitude shivers ran through their backs. They’d better get to the business at hand without hesitation. A great, simple, fresh, delicious Mezza was immediately served along with a full bottle of home-made Arak (the best they’ve had in years).

After a couple of rounds of the magical elixir (made of refreshing aniseed and white grapes) and tiny bites from salads and appetizers, the cynic asked the other two if they’ve read the “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. It turned out that all three of them were just about halfway through. For the next 4 hours (the time it took them to consummate their lunch and their bottle), they discussed the read part of the novel. They all agreed that it doesn’t matter how it ends. They didn’t even consider discussing the fictional part.

The cynic’s line of thought was that indeed not only the church but all “organized” religions had and continue to suppress information and mislead people. The historian wholeheartedly believed that the Knights Templar had hid the Sangreal documents (the Holy Grail) in the dungeon of the old city of Tartous during their lengthy stay there before moving their treasure to France in the early 1300s. He even substantiated his claim with a myriad of sources after his lifelong obsession (and knowledge) of the history of Tartous. The blogger interjected here and there, rightfully claiming that there is absolutely no contradiction between believing in the one and only God while knowing only too well that men of the cloth (of all colors and shapes) have been screwing humanity since the earliest advent of Religion.

Next time this blogger posts, he will write about the holy month of Ramadan in Tartous. This average person, among many others, had never believed that there is any contradiction as far as his spiritual life is concerned.

To reach Paradise, As Far As The Eye Can See, please follow the directions at the end of my post The Little Village of Kamsieh. Once you get there, the easiest way to find the restaurant is to keep asking locals for the next 5 km. Don't worry, you'll get there.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Solar Energy & Haifa Wehbe

On my first trip to the beautiful island of Cyprus in 1986, the second thing to catch my eye, after the stunning rendezvous of mountain and sea, was the omnipresent solar panels for water heating on the roofs of buildings.
I inquired then, and was told that solar energy for water heating was required by law and that it was a part of the building code.
I had spent 11 days during that first visit, mostly in Larnaca, Limassol and Aya Napa. I also had a chance to spend a nice afternoon in Nicosia. To get there from Larnaca, I followed a picturesque mountain road to the inlands. Everywhere I went, the panels haunted me. These Cypriots knew something long before many others around the sunny Mediterranean knew, the real value of the sun.

Twenty years later, here in Tartous, barely 90 km to the east of Cyprus, the satellite dishes on the roofs of our buildings outnumber the solar heating systems by a ratio of 100 to 1. I have been following up on this subject for quiet some time. All over Syria, the least used source for heating water is the sun. In rural areas, people prefer to burn wood or if they feel like upgrading they would buy a diesel fuel burning contraption to heat their water. In cities and major urban areas heating water is accomplished through:

44% Burning of diesel fuel (direct)
40% Electricity
10% Diesel fuel Burner/boiler central heating systems
4% Propane gas
2% Solar energy

Now with this kind of numbers, you would confuse Syria with Siberia or other oil rich regions of the northern latitudes where there’s plenty of fossil fuel and too little sunshine. The truth of the matter is that Syria is not an oil producing country and that according to most recent statistics enjoys 306 sunny days per year. That’s right; the sun alone can heat water in our houses for all but 59 days per year that is 10 months out of 12.

There are different systems available on the market varying in sophistication, efficiency and cost. I will describe the typical, locally manufactured, simple and cheap system. It also happens that this is the system most suitable for the needs of the average family. A typical system would require a couple of hours of sunshine to provide 300 liter of water at (+55°C = 130°F). A simple system means zero maintenance and no operating know-how required. Such a system would sell for about SP30,000 or roughly US$600. For a family of five, the recommended capacity of 300 liter is ideal.

The basic solar heating system consists primarily of a series of panels and an insulated 300 liter water tank. Supply water is fed to the higher tank from one side which in turn is connected to the lowest part of the inclined heating panels. There are usually 3 connected panels of about 2 sq.m. each. The individual panel is a rectangular box measuring roughly 1 by 2 m with a height of 15 cm (6”). The 3 panels are laid side by side at an angle of 45° facing south (depending on the location’s latitude) so that they absorb as much of the sun’s rays for the longest possible time. The bottom of the box is a thin metallic reservoir painted in black. The box is covered by glass and firmly sealed. When the rays of the sun hit the black surface the water inside is heated rapidly. The glass permits the sunrays and traps the heat inside exactly like a greenhouse does. The enclosed volume of air can get very hot indeed and further accelerates the heating of the water within the black thin reservoir. The panels are connected from the top back to the 300 liter insulated tank. Following the basic laws of nature, as water is heated it becomes lighter and travels to the higher tank. The colder water in the tank, being heavier, moves by its own accord to the lower part of the system or to the panels. This flow of water will continue until the temperature is one and the same at the panels and in the tank, or scientifically speaking until the system reaches equilibrium. The discharge outlet, the one that goes into the house itself (baths and kitchen) is usually located on the other side of the tank, opposite to the supply feed and the connection to the panels. A water mixer in the bathroom receives and mixes this hot water with the cold water supply as per preference and the user enjoys absolutely free hot water. As long as the sun shines it will continue to heat the water. After sunset, the hot water inside the insulated tank can and will last, depending on use until the next morning. So not only are we getting free hot water, we are also getting it around the clock. The system also includes an electrical heating element inside the insulated tank for those 59 cloudy days where the sun does not shine enough to heat the water.

A system such as the one described above has an average life expectancy of 15 to 20 years depending on the quality of manufacturing before corrosion and the elements take the better hold of it. It would be wise then to either replace it all or carry out a total refurbishing. So the average cost for heating the water needed by a family of five is roughly US$40 per year. The electrical alternative costs at least 500% more, the diesel burner/boiler 350%.

I have not even mentioned the positive impact on the environment if everybody switched to solar energy. What bothers me most, however, is that acquiring a building permit in any Syrian locale requires approved plans from the Order of Syrian Engineers. The required drawings include architectural, civil, mechanical and electrical scaled drawings. The Order of Engineer requests the mechanical drawing to be a schematic of a heating system: burner/boiler/radiators known locally as Chauffage. Can you imagine that! In a country where we have more sunshine than even government bullshit, there is no legislation, no mandate, no law, no code addressing the need to utilize cheap solar energy.

Cyprus didn’t only open my eyes to its own beauty but made me realize “even more” the stupidity and the awkwardness of our approach to the most simple of issues. We have the kind of government which can enforce almost anything. I mean at one time, long gone by now, we were forced to buy car mats when we purchased a Barada refrigerator from the Mouassaseh (The Government retail Outlet Store). Would it be that difficult really to make it mandatory to install solar heating systems on the roofs of buildings? It will go something like this: if you want to buy a dish for satellite TV viewing you’d have to also buy a solar water heating system. Only then can we enjoy the likes of Haifa, Dana and Dominique and take a hot shower. Oops, I guess what’s needed afterward is a cold shower. That explains why we don’t make enough use of the abundant solar energy over here and around.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Island of Arwad

“And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad.” Genesis (X, 18)

Arvad: (Phoenician/Biblical), Arados: (Greek), Aradus: (Latin), Arwad: (Arabic), Ezziré: (Local Arwadi/Tartoussi Dialects)

So it was told that St. Paul built the first church honoring the Virgin Mary on a hill facing the magnificent island (in today’s Tartous) and left by sea. He rested for a while (undetermined period) in Arvad, before finally setting sails to Rome.

As I approach Tartous from the east, the sense of urgency reaches a higher plateau. The smell of the sea greets me with the westerly breeze. I can lick the salt off my lips but I am still ill at ease. I need to see it with my own eyes. Just as I pass that final obtrusive hill… There it is Arwad the eternal island floating regally in the endless blue.

Arwad is the sole inhabited island in Syria. It’s roughly rectangular in shape, measuring 800 m x 300 m. To get there, one boards a ferry from the little Mill Port (Marfa’ Al-Tahoun) in Tartous. The 2.5 km distance usually takes from 15 to 20 minutes in a traditional motor-boat Arwadi Felucca. Over recent years, the island has become one of the best known tourist destinations in Syria for the locals. Busloads of school children and visitors from all over Syria park by the little harbor on the esplanade (Cornish) of Tartous. Their primary destination is the small open seafood restaurants on the island. To appreciate the true history of Arwad, a sightseer should avoid weekends and national holidays. The place is simply too damn crowded then.

The Canaanites were the first to settle in the island in the second millennium. Later, it was taken by the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III during one of his military campaigns in Syria. The Phoenicians would then make it their main base for a series of settlements on the Lebanese-Syrian coast extending all the way to Jableh to the north (25 km south of Lattakia) and almost to Homs eastward (to Husn Suleiman). Along with Tyre (Sour) in south Lebanon, Arwad was best known for its seafaring and highly skilled people who truly ruled the waves of the Mediterranean. In the fifth century BC, Arwad succumbed to the Assyrians and the Achaemenid Persians. The Arvadites fought along the Xerxes at the battle of Salamis-Herodotus VII in 480 BC. As the troubled history of this long fought-over land continued, the island retained some political independence during the reign of King Gerostratos in 333 BC when he offered his allegiance to Alexander. It would later lose this special status when it sided with Pompey in the civil war of 46 BC, and, later in 41 BC when the envoy of Mark Antony sent to demand the return of Cleopatra’s brother was burned alive by the islanders. During the Roman rule, the role of Arwad as the leading center was further eroded and prominence was gradually given to Tartous. The last crusaders to leave the east, the Templars, made their final exit from Arwad in 1302.

It is difficult to fathom the extraordinary history of Arwad after a couple of hours visit to this fascinating island. What went wrong? What war, what calamity had befallen this little spot, one of the earliest cradles of the Phoenicians. After surviving millennia of successive civilizations and hordes of conquerors almost intact, Arwad succumbed to wicked and, at best, idiotic official meddling to become one of the worse touristic* nightmares in Syria. I don’t have to rely on old black & white pictures to remember the splendor of its past even. I only have to go back in memory to when I was a young lad growing up by the sea. Arwad was a gem. We would go, a whole bunch of kids, by ferry to the island to enjoy the crystal blue water and the diving for oysters and sea urchins. Afterward, we would all gather on an outcrop of rocks protruding from the sea at the southeastern corner of the island, sharing our raw loot and hungrily scoffing it together.

Arwad is a slum. The General Department of Antiquity has declared the whole island a historic site. That would have been nice if they knew what the hell they are talking about. The department’s only significant and terribly detrimental accomplishment was to put a ban on any form of construction. The islanders could not even restore their own deteriorating homes. Window shutters would fall down, parts of walls would crack and the idiot bureaucrats would still insist that this preventive measure is preserving the island architectural heritage. All development has been frozen for the last 25 years without any alternative plan of action. So in their endeavor to preserve the stone, they did irreplaceable social and economic damage to the, roughly 5,000 inhabitants who remained hostages to the whims of a bureaucratic department. Those Arwadis who left and settled in Tartous went on to become among the richest. Their inherited seafaring dexterity led them into acquiring the lion’s share of the modern Syrian merchant fleet. The economy of Tartous is, again, striving thanks to the Arwadites.

As I was growing up, Arwad (Ezziré as we so affectionately call it) has always been an omnipresent fact of life. I had never seen a sea without it. I still look for my island whenever I’m standing on the shore of a strange sea or ocean. The majestic blue crown does not look right without its jewel. The sea is not a sea without Arwad.

* The word touristic is one of the most abused words of the English language by Official Syria. A hotel is touristic, a restaurant, a tent, a public bath, a secluded beach, even a toilet is touristic. When I read this word in a brochure or an advertisement describing a place, I immediately know, without the shadow of a doubt, that someone did something entirely stupid to the place and fucked it up so bad. Touristic: beware of this word!

To view more pictures of Arwad and of Tartous, please visit my Flickr Page.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Műnchner Tag to a Tartoussi

My friend Karin wanted to get back at me after I tagged her last week. She assembled some 10 very straightforward questions and threw them in my face. However, hidden between the lines is her desire to learn more about "moi" and the other poor souls she chose to tag. The questions might look simple but they have ulterior motives. Thank you Karin for tagging me. Here's what you wanted to know (probably a little bit more as well).

1) Was there any incident in your life which you feel, influenced you in particular?

Any life is a result of a series of incidences. Stepping on thorns agonized, smelling roses satisfied, eating honey fulfilled, fumbling down scared, climbing up tired, mopping sweat, shaking off dirt, drinking from a spring, floating in a sea, tending a cut to heal, shaken with cold, estranged in emptiness, I’ve been through it all on the different trails that got me to where I am right now. Some of these incidents might be deeply buried in my subconscious (i.e. a boarding school) or as obvious and painful as the loss of my mother. What made me a different man, however, was becoming a father.

2) What are you afraid of? Please name at least ONE example!

I’m afraid for my children more than anything else in the world. I’m not a worrier at all. But, when I’m not feeling normal and am looking for something further to drag me down with it, I worry about my kids. I usually succeed in shaking it off as quickly as it hits me.

3) Is there any nature-event, you particularly like (i.e. thunderstorm, rain, snow ect.)?

I love fall and winter and I love how nature manifests itself during these seasons. A thunderstorm has a magical way of comforting me. Rain excites all of my senses, I love the sound, the smell, the site, the taste and the feel of rain on my face. I get the weird urge to don my raincoat and step out in the rain to go SHOPPING. I usually hate shopping for anything. However, once it’s raining, I like to walk in the evening streets and stare at the stores’ fronts for something to buy. I would buy whatever can be enjoyed back in the shelter of my home (a book, a bottle of wine or a toy most probably).

4) What kind of sport (if any) are you fond of or even actively pursue?

I am a great fan of European Football. I watch all the major leagues and probably have a favorite club in each. I was a goalie once. Now I’m more into Foosball (I have a full regulation size table in my basement where I enjoy playing with friends). I love Formula 1 and am a great admirer of Michael Schumacher. I am an avid hunter. I also love to watch women playing sports, in particular (Tennis and Volleyball are my favorites). I like the flying miniskirts and the sweaty tight shorts, really.

5) Do you easily get nervous or upset? "Blow up"?

Ah, I don’t like this one because sometimes I do. What’s bothering me is that I wasn’t like that before. I’m a very easy going type of person, but more and more I tend to need to get some steam out. Nothing of the serious stuff, I would just blow smoke. In reality, I’m a very peaceful person. I’m even faster at forgiving and forgetting.

6) Do you dread getting older? Feel the biological clock ticking?

I don’t dread aging but I don’t like some of the usual symptoms that go along with it. The chances in personality and perspective are what worry me. Everywhere I look I find that older people usually hold a mysterious grudge. There’s always something to complain about. Somebody needs to take the blame. I’m afraid of turning out to be like that.

7) Are you more a city-person or prefere the country-side?

I’m the furthest thing form a city-person. Even Tartous is too big for my taste. I love the countryside. I love open and empty spaces. To wake up in the middle of nowhere, to step out of the front door naked or semi-naked (I don’t want to scare away the wildlife) to yawn and stretch. My right place is outdoors without a roof over my head.

8) Do you allow any kind of fashion to rule over your taste?

No way. I’m the antithesis of fashion. I’m one of the worst dressed people I know. But, these people don’t know my secret. I wear the most comfortable clothes and shoes in the world. Summer clothing should be just decent but as little as possible. For the cold, of course I have a favorite coat, something that I will continue wearing for years. Anyway, I'm so handsome if I were a sharp dresser too I would've been an overkill.

9) Are you more on the introverted or extroverted side?

My mood is affected by where I am. If I’m at a place which I consider comfortable, I am a very open person and the opposite is definitely true. Same with people of course.

10) If you'd have to characterize yourself with one sentence - what would you say?

I am a very honest and simple man who made more choices than he would’ve cared to but still found himself happy in the end.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tartous - A Quick Tour

Tartous, Syria is a quiet city on the eastern Mediterranean 248km northwest of Damascus. Combining the beauty of endless sandy beaches and picturesque mountains, Tartous is a must visit for the traveller of Syria.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I Had Head

In the waning heat of summer, thirteen friends coveted a reunion before time and space disperse them again into the four corners of the world. Real Tartoussis, hard working men of different pursuits, driven by the same ambition that impelled their Phoenician ancestors to go out and see the world, were to meet. A dinner table was chosen in a deep valley buried somewhere between the mountains of Tartous.

It was my turn to host. I was asked to make it memorable. Some of them I will not see in years, leaving country and kin and heading out to Martinique, to the China Sea, to the Persian Gulf, to Italy, to unknown wharfs and beyond. What we all had in common, in addition to a life binding friendship, is our eternal love for Tartous.

"Something they shall never forget, that’s what they asked for, when I proposed the invitation."

The first time I had head was, of all places, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at a Greek restaurant called the Parthenon. That was a long time ago, when I was a wanderer still, before I made it back to harbor. Having head is just my way of playing with words to make them gentler, although a little naughtier. I need to prepare some readers to what’s coming next, mildly and without coercion. Although eating the head of a butchered animal is ordinary and considered a delicacy in many countries, I had my first chance to try it out in America. It was fantastic and delicious. The Greeks have one of the finest cuisines in the world. I always found their entrées exceptionally scrumptious. They are familiar yet with a twist. The familiarity comes from our being neighbors sharing the same sea and sun. The twist comes from the subtleties of customs and pedigree.

I had to enlist the help of a gifted glutton, a dear friend and an invited guest for the evening. “How many sheep heads do we need to feed all of us?” I asked, “I want to surprise them all with heads.” Without hesitation, without giving it a second thought, he said: “We need one head only. It will sure surprise them as hell. We need one bull’s head.” It was early morning yet; he hung up the phone telling me to leave it to him. He will take care of it. He sure did, and a couple of hours later he called again. The head was gorgeous, he assured me. It was already skinned and cleaned. The meat weighs only 6 kg after the process. So, and in prudent maneuver on his part, he went ahead and bought an additional tongue weighing 2 kg. He reckoned that 8 kg (~18 lbs.) of meat, cooked in a big pot of Burghul and Hommos should be just about right for thirteen hungry lads. “Of course”, he continued, “you should order a full Mezza. We don’t want unbuckled belts at the end. A bucket of plain yogurt, a couple of watermelons and some sweet Herisseh should be just about right." And right he was.

The meat had to be sent soonest to the village for the lengthy cooking process required. I called the chef in the valley where the banquet was to take place. A strike of luck, he was in Tartous buying provisions for his little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Thank God for mobile phones. We held a 3-way conference, the chef, the glutton and me. We spoke in code, and I set up the meeting for them. The chef’s pickup was approaching from the north in one of the narrower streets of Tartous. My friend’s taxi intercepted from the south. With discretion and efficiency the drop was made. Few words uttered over the wireless network. We shall be there at 2100 hour. We want the whole place. Close the restaurant down at 2030. Hang the “Reserved" sign on the outer door and carry out what’s need to be done.

Our dinner wasn’t over before midnight. The meat was cooked over firewood, slowly turning into the tenderest veal this side of the Mediterranean. Beyond words, we enjoyed the company of men. The feast was outlandish to a few of us who never had head before. Arak and beer flowed in rivers and springs. Sandals taken off, shirts unbuttoned, belts unbuckled, stomachs filled and hearts warmed. Friendship, the everlasting kind was the bond that brought us together.

We will have an encore in a month or two. Some of us won’t be here. Others might arrive from distant lands and seas. We will find something unforgettable to do. Again!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why Do I Write in English?

As a comment to one of my posts, Anonymous asked:

“… do you find it normal to blog only in English? Best Syrian blogs are written in English, although this is great for exchanging ideas with other people all over the world, I think this will diminish their importance as a tool for change in our to know your point of view.”

I replied with what I thought at the time to be an appropriate comment of my own. Later that night, in bed, and before I surrounded to slumber creeping in on me, I gave it a second thought. Indeed why am I writing in English, my second language. Is it simply that I can write better in English than my native Arabic or is it my subconscious quest for vanity stirring me after a larger audience?

I am as comfortable writing in Arabic as I am in English. I definitely type quicker in English but I’m in no way living in the fast lane. I have ample time on my hand and can afford the luxury of typing with two digits only. I also relish the finesse, the intrigue and subtlety of Arabic as much as I admire the directness, efficiency and the imagism of English. Am I a different person when I think and write in English? In a way. Am I a more tolerant, open and restrained human being? Certainly.

I am a more accountable person in English. Therefore, I normally avoid sensitive and controversial issues. I have my own obligations, doctrines and loyalties. When it comes to Syria, I am a very patriotic person and my priorities, which might seem a little awkward to some of my patriotic liberal fellow countrymen, are very clear to me. Under no circumstances do I jeopardize what I believe to be in my country’s interests. Presently, our best interest does not lie in exposing our internal differences and political problems to the rest of the world. If we expect “the rest of the world” to help us achieve our aspirations then we are really mistaken. The right changes must and will only come from within. It might take a long time to do so but this is the only way my “limited” vision sees it. Although my true nature as a peace loving person might be masked by my indoctrinated stand on war and peace, this is indeed my true Arabic identity. I am longing for the day when an honorable and just peace prevails. However, and until then, I consider myself to be in a state of war. I am not talking about past, present or future governments here or on the other side. I am talking about my person. Ever since I can remember, my enemy has been working diligently on tarnishing my image; the way neutrals see me as an Arab and as a Muslim. My enemy has succeeded in portraying me as a hardliner fundamentalist at best or as a blood thirsty terrorist at worst. Millions like me have been lumped together as a lurking danger to Western civilization. I was born a Muslim and it’s a great religion of which I am proud. It suits me very well. What many outsiders hear and read about Islam might not be true after all. Even if a group of devoted Muslims insist that the rigidity, the strictness and the absolute commitment to tradition is what Islam is all about and that a true follower has to take it or leave it, I simply disagree with them. I am as much a Muslim as they are. I daresay that I consider myself a part of the silent majority rather than the “moral” majority of Islam.

Although the previous section was written in English it was a joint venture between the two key languages occupying my psyche. As a matter of fact, I am seeking a larger audience. The majority of Arab internet users have a passing knowledge in English. They constitute a potential readership. A large proportion of the world population on the internet has to handle English more than its own native language. They too are potential readers. I usually think in the language I’m writing or speaking with. I am fortunate to have reached this stage in English. Although I humbly claim that I know one or two more languages, I have not and will probably never be able to think in them while putting them to any good use.

Despite the labyrinth being further complicated by the juxtaposition of two languages in my brain, there is only one me in the end. I am the one writing. I am an honest man and I have never used my finger to secrete myself behind. I’ve always put it to better use, around a pen or on the keyboard.

Monday, September 04, 2006

I am Tagging Everyone

I would like to tag every single reader of my blog. If you feel up to it, post these questions along with your replies on your blog and drop me a comment here so that I go and read what you have to say. Consider it a personal invitation to get to know each other more intimately. If you find one or more of the following questions of no value, it would be my mistake not yours. Thank you.

1. Which is the single best post you’ve read on any blog? Please provide link.

2. Which is the best post you’ve written? Which is your worst? Please provide links.

3. How about a place you’ve never been to but would very much like to see.

4. If you were a member of the opposite sex, what would you have done differently?

5. Do you remember a childhood recurrent dream or nightmare? Good or bad, tell us about it.

6. Make me laugh or make me cry, put your words to use.

7. Do you regret the unfulfilled dreams, the inaccessible roads, the uncharted lands?

8. What is a friend to you? And what are you to a friend?

9. T.S. Eliot measured his life with coffee spoons, how about you?

10. Write your own epitaph, or if that is too hard, how would you like your epitaph to read?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Tagged by a Friend

My dear friend Karin tagged me. I didn't have any idea what it meant at first. I though she's after my body. But then she explained. She posted questions and I had to answer them. So here we go Karin. I will surprise you with my tag...

Q- Are you happy/satisfied with your blog with its content and look?

A- Sometimes I feel good about a particular post. Sometime I don’t. The look I don’t care much about. I want my blog to be as easy to read as possible. That’s what I care about most.

Q- Does your family know about your blog?

A- They all know about it. Do they read it? That’s a different question. Sometimes they do though.

Q- Do you feel embarrassed to let your friends know about your blog or you just consider it as a private thing?

A- I’m not easily embarrassed. I’m the kind of person who might, just might, be uncomfortable in front of strangers. But embarrassed in front of my friends! Never.

Q- Did blogs cause positive changes in your thoughts?

A- Of course. I enjoy reading the blogs of others as much as I enjoy writing mine. Even if I don’t agree with the argument of a fellow blogger, the exchange of ideas and opinions is always beneficial.

Q- Do you only open the blogs of those who comment on your blog or you love to go and discover more by yourself?

A- I have several links on my blog and these are the ones I start my day with. Then, I usually check on quickly to see if anybody has something “new” to say. And, when I’ve finished working for the day, I try my luck with some random picking of a few blogs. I stumble on real gems every once in a while.

Q- What does visitors counter mean to you? Do you care about putting it in your blog?

A- I like to know how many people read my blog. The counter also helps me confirm that a particular post wasn’t that great after all. I like the fact that my readers have increased steadily since I first started blogging. These numbers I consider as a private kick in the butt or a tap on the shoulder.

Q- Did you try to imagine your fellow bloggers and give them real pictures?

A- Those I care to read, certainly. The guys are often burly and the girls extremely sexy.

Q- Admit. Do you think there is a real benefit for blogging?

A- It’s a hobby at least. I also appreciate the fact that I can publish my posts and that there are actually people out there, who might or might not know me personally, but still make a daily visit and either read or skim through my words. I feel honored by the comments my readers leave. They didn’t only dedicate part of their time to read me, but they also took the trouble of commenting. If from nothing else, I’m benefiting in this aspect.

Q- Do you think that bloggers society is isolated from real world or interacts with events?

A- Not at all. Every person who writes, whether personal scribbles or a deep anthology on the meaning of life is contributing in his/her own way to the pop culture of today, eventually to the history of mankind.

Q- Does criticism annoy you or do you feel it's a normal thing?

A- Criticism doesn’t annoy me. Critical people annoy me.

Q- Do you fear of some political blogs and avoid them?

A- There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I avoid many political blogs because, see above answer: Critical people annoy me.

Q- Did you get shocked by the arrest of some bloggers?

A- I think every human being has the right to say what’s on his/her mind without fear of being arrested, harassed, molested or ridiculed.

Q- Did you think about what will happen to your blog after you die?

A- It occurred to me, sure. I was thinking about the thousands of personal files on my PC. Then my thoughts took me to who will be able to start my PC without the password if I’m dead. Then came the contemplation of how would a reader who doesn’t personally know me ever hear of my death. I think this is more funny than sad.

Q- What do you like to hear? What's the song you like to put its link in your blog?

A- I love the music theme of M*A*S*H. It takes me to personal times and places. It’s my ringtone on my mobile phone and I wouldn’t mind it to be the background music of my blog. There are a few songs I never tire of hearing: Hotel California (Eagles), Father & Son (Cat Stevens), Dust in the Wind (Kansas), Home by the Sea (Genesis), Hey You (Pink Floyd), Nights in White Satin (Moody Blues), The Best of Times (Styx), Child in Time (Deep Purple) and a few more…

Q- Five bloogers to be the next "victims"?

A- I will do it soon, with my own questions tough, stay tuned.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Mavericks of Technology

My office window is literally an opening to the little universe around me. At times of little or no work, I find myself staring aimlessly at the outside world. So it came as a shock to me when I counted over twenty satellite dishes in a range of a stone throw from my desk. Three decades ago, these dishes could only be seen in space observatories or science fiction movies. Now they are so commonplace that the apathetic eye could see hundreds of them without registering any impression.

Thousands of viewing choices are accessible to any one individual in the world today. Sadly, many of the more useful channels are encrypted so that a certain amount of hard-earned cash needs to be spent for the privilege of viewing. In days gone by, the high seas were the theater of battles between “legitimate” carriers and pirates. Technology revived these terms, although the nomenclature is dictated by the “haves” as opposed to the “have-nots”. Real pirates, in my opinion, are in it solely for the money. The Internet, however, has diminished their profit. The argument about pirating, especially when it comes to “software and digital media” has always been one-sided. Remember, money talks, and very loudly. Yet, pirates, or mavericks if we want to use a less biased term, persist. There is a simple reason behind this fact and that is they are performing a needed function.

Presently, many of these rebels are driven not by monetary benefit but rather by the challenge of breaking the code, so to speak. Millions of PC users around the world could’ve never entered the digital revolution were it not for pirated software. Lawyers and copyright zealots could argue all they want about loss of revenue and eventually higher costs, but the simple and plain truth is that piracy has broadened the base and allowed disadvantaged groups to get on the bandwagon. Let’s face it, software is ridiculously expensive and beyond the reach of the majority of humanity. In Damascus, a small underground store (it is literally underground and located in a tunnel) is frequented by Westerners from different diplomatic missions. They buy tons of software for virtually a fraction of the original cost. It’s not only the poor who endorse free software but the rich as well, as long as they don’t get caught that is. In the satellite TV business, the operators give a choice. The viewer could either watch stupid shit and get bombarded with advertisement for free, or pay a premium fee for a good movie, a top level football game or a worthwhile documentary. These channels use the latest in encryption technology to insure that nobody gets a free ride. The laws devised by highly paid solicitors are in favor of the broadcasters. Like it or not, rich or poor, everyone has to abide.

Thus came about a new breed of pirates, or mavericks, on the world scene. They might be nerds, but they were able to break the damn code and bring about almost free unrestricted digital viewing to the masses. The smart cards have been cracked and counterfeit circuitry is sold for less than 10% of the retail value, which just about covers the cost of the hardware plus a small profit. To my delight, I found user groups on the Internet where free exchange of codes is rampant. Is it wrong if Paramount or Disney makes less money? Is it immoral if a bunch of out-of-work manual laborers could sit in a humble café by the sea and watch Jean Claude Van Dam beating the shit out of a dozen bad guys for free? Despite all the precautions, despite the threats of legal action, despite and despite, we were able to watch the Germany 2006 World Football Cup without paying a dime. As far as I’m concerned, information should always remain free. Equal access should be the law. The world wouldn’t stop if some lobbyists should find themselves unemployed. They can, as a matter of fact, join the out-of-work laborers in the little café and watch a good martial art movie. Julia Roberts shouldn’t be terribly upset if her fee goes down from 20 million dollars to say one million per movie. May be she’ll work harder and longer to maintain her present lifestyle, and figure. A stupid idiot with a microphone makes more money than a brain surgeon. A Ragheb Alama or a Haifa Wehbe earns more per year than Nizar Kabbani or Nazek Al-Malaika had probably made in an entire lifetime, simply because their kind of “art” is more suitable for digital media. The argument that the quality of the arts would plummet if high monetary compensation is not insured is baseless. Van Gogh died poor and had no idea that years after his death art collectors would make millions upon millions from his paintings.

ADSL is making headway in the third world and is becoming the preferred method to access the Internet. This will insure inexpensive and extremely fast communication. Multimedia, music, movies and international phone calls with video-conferencing at dirt cheap prices are the new wave in the digital revolution. Why, one wonders, would the giant companies hang their own gallows and undermine their huge profits of today. Wonder no more. If they don’t do it, somebody else with motives beyond financial gains would. So they figure they can get away with a few sacks of money in the first couple of years before, again, the code is broken. This would continue for some time until total and uniform saturation is achieved. Meanwhile, we could feel guilty and pay whatever we’re asked to, or seek other alternatives and join the rebels on the fringe of the established norms.

Viva La Revolución!