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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Everything You Wanted to Know about Arak and More

It was a rainy October afternoon. The wind was gusting and my office window resembled the windshield of a speeding car with broken wipers. I was lost in thought when the phone rang and took me out of my reverie. It was my friend Majed, hailing from “Saeen”, his little village in the middle of nowhere. “It’s time”, he simply said, “come early in the morning and bring a friend”.

Majed had already gathered enough firewood to start a bonfire. The old copper still (Karkeh) was in the woods, a couple of hundred yards from his house. And, he had just returned from Damascus where he bought the anise (Yansoun) from the spice market (Bzourieh). It’s moonshine time!

Before I go on, let me give you more information than you ever need about my favorite drink. Arak is the perfect companion for Mezza and the ritual calls for a small glass to be used only once. Each successive drink is poured in a new glass, Arak first, followed by cold water then finally ice is added as per preference.

Arak literally means “sweat” in Arabic because the still sweats and drips the liquid. There are other variants of Arak in countries around the Mediterranean. Raki in Turkey, Ouzo in Greece, Mastika in Macedonia, Anesone in Italy, Pastis in France and Ojén in Spain, just to name a few but not all. Our Arak is unique to the Eastern Mediterranean, namely to Syria and Lebanon as it contains no added sugar at all. Arak is also produced in other Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt. However, in Iraq it’s distilled from date juice (Tamer) and from raisins (Zibib) in Egypt.

Geber (Jaber Ibn Hayyan 721-815) the Muslim chemist invented the first still called alembic (Inbiq). This is a very important landmark in the history of alcoholic beverages. Before Geber, the entire world drank fermenting spirits (wine, beer …etc.) as opposed to distilled alcohol (Vodka, Whiskey…etc.). The invention was used to produce perfumes and Kohl (Arabian eye shadow) by the Arabs and they carried it with them to Spain. The Europeans soon enough started producing Kohl on their own and made the natural transition to alcohol. This is where the word comes from Al Kohl = Alcohol. The Mediterranean Syrian and Lebanese were a little smarter from the beginning though and they put the Inbiq = Still = Karkeh to good use as soon as they laid their hands on one. Their mountains and valleys produced plenty of grapes. No irrigation, just basic loving tender care and the ideal Mediterranean climate helped them produce the greatest sweet golden grapes, perfect for Arak.

The alcohol by volume for Arak is ideally between 53 to 60%. It is colorless but magically turns milky-white when mixed with water at a ratio ranging from ¼ to ½ . This is due to the presence of anise. The distillation of Arak is performed in two stages, or sometimes three (Mtallat). The harvested sweet golden grapes are squeezed and left fermenting in barrels for 3 weeks. The grapes and their juices along with a small quantity of pine coal at the bottom of the Karkeh (to act as a filter and absorb any undesirable smell caused by the release of CO2 during the fermentation process) undergo the first distillation process. The alcohol is drawn and rests in new barrels waiting for the second and crucial distillation process. This 2nd stage is when anise is mixed with the drawn alcohol. The quality and quantity of anise are as important as a good vineyard. The Karkeh is placed over a very feeble fire, just enough to cause the alcohol to evaporate (80°C) without the water then condensate at the end of the long neck into a steady, yet very weak crystal clear stream. This process is aided by a steady flow of cold water on the upper part of the still. The first gallon or so of the batch is thrown away since it contains ethylene and might be dangerous. The last couple of liters of the batch are also useless since the alcohol is almost all but gone and murky water starts coming out. Although it is not crucial to repeat the process a third time, it is done only to raise the alcohol by volume level to its maximum value.

I need to mention one final point of utmost importance as an avid Arak lover. The Lebanese commercial variety is by no means better than the Syrian one. The packaging and bottling in Lebanon are more appealing and definitely better. But take one of the very top and expensive Lebanese brands (say Fakra, Ksara, Kefraya) and compare it to the ubiquitous Syrian Mimas or Rayan. There is a fundamental difference; the Syrian anise in the Syrian Arak is of a much higher quality than the Cypriot or Turkish anise imported to Lebanon. As for vineyards, the Homs area alone produces twice as much as all of Lebanon. In the end, no Lebanese or Syrian commercial distillery can match the homemade spirit prepared for personal consumption with love and care. The best homemade Arak, Syrian or Lebanese, is only obtained when real Damascene anise (from the Sa’sa’ = سعسع region) is used.

We jumped in the car early the next morning. The rain had stopped, but the sky remained gray and damp with looming and menacing clouds. They were waiting for us at a little ravine, Majed and his father. We parked the vehicle off road, hid it from prying eyes and walked the final muddy track that lead us to a little shed in the middle of a clearing flanked by walnut trees. Hanging nearby on a branch was a leg of lamb. We sat in the near perfect silence listening to the sound of dew drops dripping from yellowed leaves and the slim stream of Arak pouring in the jug of glass. Abu Majed brought forward some raw fluid from the lip of the still for us to drink and savor. Damn, it is good! We each cut a piece of meat and toyed with it over the feeble fire. The sheep was young and a hint of flames made its succulent juices flow. It tasted just perfect with a lingering smoky tang. Our hosts didn’t take any risk. They were sure we won’t go thirsty or hungry well into the evening. With an abundance of Tannour bread, fresh green olives, shanklish, meat and the noblest of liquors in the world, we slowly consumed our lazy day. Late in the afternoon we were all happy, stupid and fat. Majed yet had another trick up his sleeve. From a wicker basket, he produced the most delicious giant Baklavas (Sh3aybiyat) stuffed with honey and walnuts. I’m not certain whether I wished that all of my friends were there with me, but I must’ve.

The sun dipped behind the mountain. Abu Majed had to stay a while longer for his shift. His son walked us to the car. He would rest for a couple of hours before relieving his father. If we’re alive same time next year, we would do it again we agreed. Majed handed my friend and me 2 transitory bottles of Arak. My jug would be ready for me next time I see him at his restaurant in the village. Meanwhile, I’m back at my office, staring from my window at the trees as they’re shedding their leaves in the cold afternoon gust. October, forever!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Storm in Bmalke

View from my balcony in Bmalke on a clear morning

It was a serene evening. The sky was dotted with millions of shiny stars and a soft wind was blowing from the sea. Earlier in the day, it had rained sporadically, but as soon as the sun had set, the whole mood was that of tranquility and peace. I’ve been waiting for this evening for at least a month. I missed Bmalke, where we have a summer home, and was very excited that we’re going to spend the night over. The general consensus among the others who share their lives with me was that of indifference, if I don’t want to be blunt and say reluctance. I steered the car east and stepped on the pedal driving through the early night. They were quiet, all of them. I could sense that they'd rather stay in Tartous tonight. Why ruin it though. Why ask them "again" and hear about their alleged sacrifices and how good they’ve been treating me. I reverted to silence and enjoyed the light breeze from the window. Secretly, I was thinking to myself that in a little while, and after the hubbub of arriving to a deserted house would die, I’d sit in my comfortable chair, sip on a glass of Scotch on the Rocks, smoke my second cigarette of the day and eat the salted peanuts I secretly brought. I was smiling and glad that it was too dark for them to see my face. While I was making that final steep right turn into the village, I nervously perceived, along with the other occupants of the car that it was raining gingerly. “Naaah, think nothing of it”, I told the family. “As a matter of fact, this splash of rain will bring out the smells of the good earth. We’re very lucky indeed”, I added.
I reached the gate, unfastened my seatbelt and placed my foot down on the asphalt. It was at that exact moment that the order from Upstairs was sent: “Let there be rain!” I ran to the garage door and manually opened it (yes we’re backward over here, we haven’t heard of automatic garage doors). I made it back to the car like a wet sponge. I was drenched. Once inside the garage, my passengers disembarked and waited for me to do something, sly looks of disdain forming on their faces. “Don’t worry”, I yelled as joyfully as I could muster, “I’ll run downstairs and open the door for you. Just wait a minute”. The total distance, including the exposed stairs in the garden leading downstairs to the house, is probably less than 30 meters. I ran it, blinded by the heaviest rain I’ve seen in my life, and made it soaking wet to the front door. I inserted the key, turned it, opened the door, switched on the light and readied myself to convey the good news. My mouth was half open when lightening struck. The power was gone. Hail, the size of golf balls, started pounding around me and what must’ve been a series of 20 or 30 lightening bolts in the span of a few minutes ensued. All hell broke loose. I could hear way in the distance a girl howling like a wolf. She was crying, but trust me, it was the ugliest most irritating voice to come out of a human. An adult female voice was letting go of a stream of vocabulary similar to what we see in comic strips (#!~…x#*!@{^@@@). Two other kids were shouting in unison and I didn’t know who’s who. I felt as if I were on the set of a disaster movie. I couldn’t move, let alone try to soothe them. My cries were lost in the storm, but make no mistake, I could hear them well enough for shivers to run through my back. They sounded as if they were ready to skin me alive. I stumbled over a candle and lit the doorway with it, then, I made another heroic dash to the utility shed. In the darkness, I was finally able to bring the little generator to life. Looking like a wet heavily stepped over floor mat, I arrived to the garage to bring them the good news, “I… I.. restored power”, I mumbled feebly. Four pairs of eyes were looking angrily at me, as if I conspired with God Almighty to ruin their evening. They cornered me and bombarded me with yet another rivulet of cuss words. “Take us back… TaKE uS baCk Now Wla (Wla being a demeaning way of calling someone in Tartoussi) .” I really pitied myself. I was brooding over my options, and fast. A quick decision was in dire need before I loose total control of the situation. Looking deeply hurt and taking advantage of the rain droplets on my face (may be I can make them look like my own tears, I thought), I said: “OK, wait here in the safety and comfort of the garage. I’ll go downstairs again, bring back all the stuff I took with me on my first run… the 2 heavy nightbags I carried and almost hurt myself when I almost slipped on the wet steps. You just wait, I need to shut the doors, turn off the lights then retire the generator. It might take me a while, cause I wouldn’t be able to see well in the utility shed after the power goes off again. I need to be careful and I might need to make more than one trip you know… You just stay here cozy and warm… I’ll be back… Ya Allah”. “Come on say it damn it. Say we’re coming down with you”, I was fuming under my breath.
It finally came, “Oh for heaven’s sake, we’ll stay, but you’ll pay for it…” That was OmFares, and believe me I paid and will keep paying for it for as long as I shall live. As soon as we were all safely in and I closed the door behind us, the generator quit. It ran out of gas. Cries of anger and shouts of dismay reverberated in loud harmony with thunder. But, really, who gives a damn! I was sitting, wet clothes and all, on my favorite chair, slowly sipping the amber fluid, puffing smoke in the darkness and munching on the salted peanuts, totally absorbed in a state of elated ecstasy.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Happy Eid Fitr

Happy Eid Fitr to Each & Every One of You كل عام وأنتم بخير- فطر مبارك

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ramadan Blues

A street in the old section of Tartous (Al-Barrieh) an hour or two before Iftar time

After all is said and done, I will miss Ramadan. I personally have to admit that I've got really tired in the last week. I look forward my life returning to normal. I've had very little and disrupted sleep over the last month. Before it even started, I was advised to eat dinner at least a couple of hours before going to bed. In Ramadan, that was virtually impossible. I was continuously uncomfortable but not to the point of really complaining about it all the time. I felt underpowered in the mornings and totally drained in the afternoons. After Iftar, I was a useless lump. I went out to spend time with friends very rarely, just three or four times at the most. My efficiency at the office had decreased dramatically, while many of the European associates I work with have absolutely no idea what's going on with me and Ramadan. When something needs to be done, I just had to do it. If it had taken me an hour to complete a task before, in Ramadan it took me just about the whole day.

At the Iftar Table, Shorba, Fattoush, Fatteh, Hommos & Kebbeh Nayeh

To top it all, and to make my life as miserable as possible, my laptop decided to quit on me in the middle of a very busy day. It is still changing laps from one technician to the other. I need my hundreds of files and so far they have not been able to retrieve them for me. I learned my lesson the very hard way. After thirteen years of using the PC and after preaching and advocating to anyone within earshot the importance of backing up data regularly, I failed to do so myself. It's amazing how much trust we put in technology. An unexpected failure becomes truly a disaster. I am working with a surrogate PC and my feelings are exactly the same as if I have been on a bad date for one week but can't get myself out of it. I miss my laptop, the dozens of thoughts I have written when in the mood to post later at my leisure, the hundreds of photos I've taken since my last backup. I miss my desktop just the way I always liked it with a picture of a gorgeous woman gracing it and changing her every few days. Eventually, I will get over it and start again, matching my laptop's personality with mine.

Ateyef Asafiri with cream filling and grated pistachios

Ramadan made me humble, more tolerant, more accepting. Despite the nuisances, it feels great that the less fortunate would be able to celebrate the coming Eid Al-Fitr, thanks to the generosity and contributions of the more fortunate. My eleven year old princess was able to fast every single day of the entire month. This has boosted her self confidence so high that I can readily notice that she had matured within this short time frame. The daily Iftar with my dad at our table has meant so much for all of us and had brought us closer. My not going out with the guys and my slow production cycle at work meant that the kids and Omfares got more of me. Whether this is good or bad, I leave to them.

A box of dried fruits, always present on the coffee table in the living room after Iftar

Three more days before Eid Al-Fitr. I wish each and every one of you, Muslim or not a very Happy Eid. The spirit of this Eid is to thank. We thank our fellow humans for the opportunity to help or being helped. We thank our family and friends for being there for us when we need them. And, we thank God for taking the time to bring us to this world to witness the splendor and joy of life. Struggling, aspiring, reaching, enjoying… whatever phase we are in right now, life is still worth living.
The pictures I include with this post are nothing special but a small reminder of a month gone. Again Happy Eid and God Bless!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Waiting for the Eid

Less than a week to go before Eid Al-Fitr ushers Ramadan away. This is a 3-day celebration after the one month of fasting. Eid simply means Holiday and the word Fitr is the antonym of Seyam (Fasting). So an approximate translation is the "Holiday of the Breaking of the Fast = Holiday of Eating".

Indeed many people start eating with a vengeance. There will be one feast per day for three consecutive days. Normally, and as far as I'm concerned, we would have lunch at my dad's on the first day. It's always Wara2 3inab (Stuffed Grape Leaves, I will try to post a recipe of this majestic dish in due time). On the second day, we go to my mother-in-law's. There, it would be Kobbeh Meshwieh 3al Fa7em (Barbequed Kobbeh), and a fish feast which includes Samak Meshwi, Samak Me2li and Samke 7arrah (grilled and fried fish and a specialty called Hot Fish: cooked in a hot & spicy sauce along with walnut). On the third day, we would normally go out for lunch in some restaurant near or around Tartous.

Basically speaking, most Levantines (Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Jordanians) celebrate Eid Al-Fitr in a very similar fashion to the above with minor variations in the menu details.

But what had gotten over me to start all this talk about food one week early, you may wonder. The truth of the matter is that the last week of Ramadan for all the fasting kids (and on this point I'm still a kid) goes by very slowly. Time seems to stand still. The irregular eating habits have taken their toll by now. The sleepless nights, the protracted TV watching, the somber moments of reflection, the deprivation of being alone have all conspired into making one act more like a zombie in the morning and a stick of dynamite in the afternoon. There's only Food on our minds. One hour before sunset and it becomes dangerous even to argue with one's own kids. They might attack unprovoked. One must also avoid saying "hello" to the stern faces passing the streets. Even if one knows them well and thinks that they are really nice folks, they should be avoided at all cost during these last days of Ramadan. If one feels the urgent need to socialize, he or she must wait until after Iftar.

It's also the peak of the shopping frenzy by now. Clothing stores are crowded with women shoppers and this time they are not just looking, they are serious. A nice garment, if picked by two hands simultaneously could be the bell needed to start a round of fighting. There will be hair pulling, biting, kicking and mud wrestling (the last one is just a personal wish). "Avoid the crowds at all cost and don't buy anything that needs standing in line" is my motto for this period. Truth is: Don't go out anywhere and don't stay in either. Strangers are as dangerous as wife and kids these days. If I can't go to the beach as is the case today due to weather, I hide in my office. I sometimes dread that a client might walk in and ask me to actually work!

There's one more person sharing the office with me and that is my secretary. I can write books on the subject of secretaries but this is not the time or space for that. Sometime in the future, I promise. Suffice it to say that I'm getting along very well with mine during Ramadan. I just took her picture (this minute) and I'll post it along.

This will give you an idea on how and why we are getting along so nicely. A little bit more than three hours to go before Iftar. With no football game on TV until 6:30PM it's going to be one hell of an afternoon for me and for anyone who crosses my path.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Farewell to Ramadan

The moon of Ramadan has reached its fourth and final quarter. Seven or eight more days then it's gone. Another year has passed for me. I feel the passage of time with the departure of Ramadan. Every evening, after the Isha prayer, the loudspeakers on the minarets of Tartous blast with farewell songs to the holy month.
Then, one neighborhood at a time during the last ten days or so, a group of young men roam the streets at around 2:00 in the morning, singing in unity with the beating of a drum, the songs we've memorized since we were little kids.
So long Ramadan!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Swimming in October

Summer leaves me drained emotionally and physically. I loath the heat, the sweating and the hiding within the confines of an air conditioned room. I part company with both my motorcycle and bicycle during the dead of summer and instead move around in a four-wheeled cage. I suspend my nightly 30-minute walk around the park. My reading slows down, my intellect is put on hold. The only two viable options for me, when work permits, is to go either to the beach or up the mountains to cool down. In the summer, I am more of the mountain type. I’d rather spend the whole three hot months there. But family and job don’t share my disposition and a compromise is often negotiated on a day to day basis.

October is my favorite month. I’m most active in the fall. I also get in the mood for some serious thinking. Most importantly, this is the time I truly enjoy being all alone.
This year, with the concurrence of October and Ramadan, my regular flow of events has been diverted off its usual course. Normally, I would take every opportunity to jump on my bike during this period of perfect weather. Last year, I went on riding my motorcycle every Ramadan afternoon for a couple of hours. I chose a random destination everyday through the twisting mountain roads and tracks. On the hour mark, I’d head back in a general westerly direction to find myself near Tartous on either of its two sides, north or south. I used to make it home a few minutes before the cannon, although not always. When I joined the family at the Iftar table, I’d be met with the disapproving eyes of wife and children. “Allah Yehdih” = “May God guide him to what’s best” would be written all over their faces.

Unfortunately this year, on doctor’s orders, I have to avoid the long bike rides. For the younger ones who are reading this, it would be a little difficult to explain, but the older we get the harder we are to maintain. A big pot hole in the middle of the road has more damaging effect on my back than on my twenty-year old Yamaha. So, also on doctor’s orders, I channeled my energy into swimming, everyday swimming that is. I’ll let you in on a little Tartoussi secret. October is the best month of the year to truly enjoy the beach and the sea. The crowds are gone, the winds calm down and the water is crystal clear. I normally swim year round, skipping only when it’s raining or windy. Nah, I am not a macho tough guy, I just wear a wetsuit when the cold starts biting.

So now you know that I love October. But I also happen to have a secret mistress. Her name is November and I can’t wait any longer for her arrival.

I have taken a few pictures of the beautiful deserted beach and posted them on My Flickr for you to enjoy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Mousahher of Ramadan

I have already given a superficial idea to non-Muslims about Ramadan. The underlying and fundamental premise of Ramadan is that of compassion and sharing. When we go hungry and thirsty we should be able to associate more readily with the underprivileged and poor. For many people around the world, hunger and thirst are facts of life. In that sense, Ramadan is intended to catalyze a purging and humbling effect on the psyches and souls of practitioners.

So, with the setting sun, the Muezzin chants Allah Akbar and a cannon is fired simultaneously for all to hear. It’s the end of fasting for the day and Muslims celebrate their achievement by sharing a generous table with family, neighbors and the needy. No Muslim should sleep on a full stomach if a neighbor is hungry. In Ramadan this assertion is brought forward and to a higher level. For financially able Muslims this is the perfect time to give their alms to the poor in the form of cash and/or food portions. Absolutely no one should go to bed without having had a decent meal. If that were to happen, then the entire (community) is to blame.

After the main meal of Iftar at sunset, fasting Muslims socialize in the evening and well into the night. Many choose the comfort and privacy of their own homes, while others enjoy the heightened abundance of nightlife alternatives in cafés, restaurants and tents.

Later, a couple of hours before sunrise it’s time for the last meal, the Sohour. Around 2:00AM, a solitary figure carrying a large drum appears at the corner of the block. He is called the “Mousahher”= the man who wakes people up so that they can eat and drink before the start of another day. We are indeed very lucky in Tartous since we still enjoy this long established tradition. I hear that in many other cities in Syria and abroad it has all but disappeared. The Mousahher would walk the streets, beating his drum, yelling out the names of the occupants of the buildings he’s passing. Some chants are more elaborate than others, but not in Tartous. For as long as I can remember, the Mousahher would simply yell something like:
“Ya Ahmad Wahidou Allah” = (Hey Ahmad, declare that God is One and Only). Tradition had it that only the names of men and boys were yelled out. That has changed in recent years and proud fathers would tell the Mousahher about the names of the newly born boys and girls to include in his nightly repertoire.

I have tried to video capture our Mousahher Abu Ali for the last few nights without success. Finally, I left our balcony on the second floor as soon as I heard him coming and waited for him down in the street. When he emerged around the corner, I told him that I want to take his picture and he was very glad with the opportunity. I believe the attached footage is Abu Ali’s first video clip. Nevertheless, I hope I was able to convey the essence of the experience. For the fasting ones around the world, I pray that Abu Ali was able to bring you memories from years gone by. If this is the first time you hear about this long established Islamic tradition, just think about the Mousahher as the counterpart of Santa Close. He’s a real man who volunteers for this privilege (rather than job) for one month every year. Whether poor or not, he would share the alms handed over from the neighborhood with the needy and less fortunate.

Kids would urge their parents to let them stay up to see the Musahher at least once or twice during the holy month. Parents would oblige and do so on the weekend when there is no school the next day. I have no idea how many Mousahhers cover Tartous today. When I was a young boy, there were only two or three in town. Although I am not certain, there must be many more today. They are volunteers, roaming the streets and alleys of Tartous every night of Ramadan, beating their drums, urging people to declare that God is One and Only.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Fairuz in Tartous

If I prided myself on having made a few friends through this blog, I’m risking it all with this newest and most absurd post. However, I have a lump in my throat. I need to get it out. I’m suffocating. I need to speak up, unabashed. I hate Fairuz!
My earliest memory of Fairuz is that of an old 78 rpm vinyl record. If I’m not mistaken, the song was “Ya 3akida Al-7ajibayni” (Yea, Frowning Eyebrows). For God’s sake, can you imagine such a stupid title for a song. I hated her there and then. Her high pitched voice got on my nerves. Worse, as I grew up, if I were to hear Fairuz in the morning, my whole day would go into shambles. Black cats never bothered me. Passing under a ladder, opening an umbrella inside a room, Friday the 13th, a hooting owl, a screaming raven. Nope. Fairuz in the morning, oh shit! I would be jinxed all day long. Luckily though, I was able to control my environment for most of my adult life and avoided her screeching voice as best as I could. But then, she was forced on me more often than I cared to. There was a certain time, when traveling to Damascus by bus (Karnak) was almost the only option for me and everybody else. It was a painful and agonizing three hours and thirty minutes trip, and guess what! Fairuz would be screaming in her thin, piping and irritating voice for the entire duration of the ride. I would arrive to Damascus with the most terrible migraine. I would see dots floating by (more so if I closed my eyes). I would become overly sensitive to light and I would choose a dark and quiet place where I can rest for the remainder of the day to lick my mental wounds away from all. There was also one more excruciating period in my life and that was when I served in the army for 30 consecutive months. As soon as I landed home after returning from the United States, I joined the army. No, no, I didn’t get shot or anything. I never even saw the enemy. But, for the six months boot camp in the cold Syrian desert north of Homs, they would brutally wake us, poor souls, at five thirty in the morning on the most annoying of all noises ever produced by a human-made device: Fairuz blasting on a half a dozen sound horns satanically distributed among the building structures which comprised our military camp.
What is it really with Fairuz? OK, it’s acceptable that the Lebanese, who usually make a big deal out of everything, hail Fairuz and call her their Ambassador to the Stars. But what about us in Syria! Why do we have to revere her? There’s a very appropriate Damascene proverb which certainly applies: (لا وجه حلو ولا طيز ناعمة) La Wajeh Helou Wala Teez Naemeh = No beautiful face, no smooth ass. Do excuse me please; I lose all sense when I speak of the mass infatuation with Fairuz.
Propane gas is used in Syria for cooking. There is no utility service providing an underground network to serve users. Instead, propane gas is distributed by private vendors in what is called locally a bottle of gas (cylinder). Years ago, a mule drawn carriage would be laid full of gas cylinders. The vendor, with a wrench key in hand would use it as a drumstick and knock on the cylinders producing a very disturbing clinking noise. Housewives would hear the commotion, step out on balconies and call the “traveling salesman”. He would then park his carriage and bring up the gas cylinder on his shoulder and make the exchange, replacing one empty and spare cylinder with a full one. Times have changed and gas is distributed today by small trucks using the same annoying advertising method, usually with a kid sitting in the back handling the drumming. Tartous, being a unique poetic city decided to do something about it. Seven years ago, a new mayor and city council, all avid fans of Fairuz, passed the strangest law in Syria. Gas vendors can only advertise their passage in a neighborhood and their product by playing a tape of Fairuz on a loudspeaker. The tape plays endlessly, and when Fairuz is heard out loud in the streets, housewives will step on balconies to summon the gas cylinder vendor. I made a clip for your eyes and ears only. By coincidence, two separate pickup trucks, on two different days, were playing the same song (Ana Mish Sawda Bas Al-Layl Sawadni Bi Jnaho) = I’m Not Black But the Night Blackened Me With Its Wing. Just reading these words is more than a justification to present to all my critics. At least now, you should be able to understand why I hate Fairuz.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Something About Me

I started blogging on April 24th, 2006. Since then, I have posted fifty eight diverse entries. First and foremost, I am happy to have had the opportunity to tell you stories about Tartous during these past five months. Some of my posts included glimpses of my personal life, but always in a vague sort of way. I was lacking in conviction that this aspect is of any interest to anyone who read my words. However, a few, a very few readers, asked me to write something about myself. As Ali the Expat puts it:
“… your writing style made me very curious about the education, life, and experiences you’ve had. Hence, I ask you to dedicate an entry to describe those sides.”
I need to be brief with this one from fear of boring everyone to death. So fasten your seatbelts, we’re cleared for takeoff…

I followed my heart when I made that decision to return home twenty years ago. I was in my prime with opportunities abound. My earliest childhood dream of flying had been fulfilled. I was working as a professional commercial pilot with my eyes set on the airlines. Two years prior, I have completed my Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and had already started on my PhD as a teaching assistant at the university. When I went for the flying job interview, my prospective employer asked me what was I to do with the doctoral program I had had already started. My answer was straight and flat. “You are offering me the opportunity to fly”, I said. “I wouldn’t let any title or degree takes that away from me.”

So I flew!

My little office was a cockpit in the air shuttling the airspace of the southern United States. New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Miami and many other smaller but no less wonderful American cities were my playground. In the evenings, with flying buddies over a cold beer, or with a girlfriend and a glass of wine, I would always express my amazement and disbelief that I was actually getting paid fulfilling my dream. I logged hundreds of hours of flying time, taught several students (most of whom are airline pilots today), delivered many shiny airplanes to small airstrips and flew countless corporate clients to business meetings and secluded cottages with favorite secretaries.

Then came that unforgettable flight with my mother as my copilot. I had to deliver a brand-new airplane to a client in Miami. My mother at the time was staying with me in Lafayette, Louisiana. She was leaving back to Syria in a a matter of weeks. First though, she wanted to visit with my sister in Florida. I was exuberant, thinking of flying her myself the next day. Although she had flown with me on numerous occasions before, I knew that this one would be a flight to remember.

Late in the evening, sitting side by side, watching television in my small bachelor apartment, she spoke softly as she sipped her tea:
Why don’t you come back home?.. You’ve been away most of your life. I wouldn’t be living forever, you know... My dream is to have you near me… To see you married… To hold your children one day…”

I didn’t offer an answer. She didn’t wait for any.

I tossed in bed for an hour or two. Deep inside, I knew that this is decision time. There was a right turn and there was a left turn. There wasn’t any straight road ahead. The last time I took a left turn was two years earlier, when I decided to stay in the United States and work there. Another left turn was much more complicated this time. I had no idea how many years would pass, if ever, before I would even consider asking the question again: “Why don’t I go back home?” I was making my way to the crest of the wave of my advancing career. The further I would climb the tougher it would be to stop, retrace my steps and make that right turn and head back to Tartous. Too much was at stake. Like an athlete contemplating an early retirement while still ahead, I made up my mind and slept very well after all.

I left alone to the airport early in the morning to meet with my boss. He was more of a friend and he listened very intently. “Should you change your mind”, he said, “you’re always welcome to return.” We shook hands, patted shoulders and hugged. It was the last time I saw him, rest his soul.

In the crisp and cool early afternoon air, at 11000 ft altitude, Air Traffic Control cleared me to make a right turn and follow an easterly heading. I told mom that I’m returning home with her. She was the happiest woman in the word. She laughed and cried. She silently prayed.

I went back after a couple of days to Louisiana, celebrated my last New Year Eve with friends and bid them farewell. After eight years and eight days in America, I packed my stuff and left. Up until then, I had spent more than fourteen years away from home. I have been several times since to the United States but always as a visitor. Most of my friends are there and we never severed the rope of friendship that tied us together.

Here I am in Tartous, twenty years later, sitting in my own private office, an architectural & consultancy practice, reminiscing over my wonderful days in Lafayette, remembering my late mother who had passed away seven years ago. I still fly to Europe regularly on business, but only in a back seat, I’m afraid. I got married, and my mother had her chance to hold my two daughters. My boy, Fares, she had never met. He was born one year after her departure. I look back into the past as much as I look forward into the future. Could I have done it differently? Possibly! Do I have regrets? Not really!

People who know me always express their surprise on how easy I fitted back in again. Myself, I was never surprised. “With your background, with your potential, with your dreams… How could you have ever taken that decision?” they would ask. As Bugs Bunny would have said: How come you didn’t take that left turn at Albuquerque?

In all honesty, it wasn’t that hard. That one flight in the crisp and cool early afternoon air at 11000ft with my mother by my side was worth it all… and much more.