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Friday, June 29, 2007

Alto Mare

A job, any job, must have non-monetary perks on the side, some pleasant tasks or surprises. If not, we might all run the risk of going bored then insane. When we make our living out of the sea, even us, desk jockeys, get the opportunity to go out in the field every once in a while. Although I rarely make port visits, when I do, it just feels like homecoming. You see, earlier on in my career I worked on site rather than in an office. And, one of the most rewarding tasks I was engaged in for over two years was that of a supervisor in an underwater construction project in the port of Tartous.
The phone call came in sometime last week. A new Italian Riva powerboat had arrived in town earlier. It’s sitting high and dry waiting for its maiden sailing. There are forms to be filled, approvals to be sought and piles of paperwork before the boat can even wets its propeller.

- Don’t worry, I said, I’ll put two of the guys from the office to work on it right away.
-Well that of course, but we also want you to insure its seaworthiness, we want you to…
They wanted me to take it for a spin.

It’s been a while, but over the years I’ve piloted more motorboats, of all sizes and shapes, than I can remember. On Wednesday morning, all documents were in order and as soon as I read the name under “Name of Vessel” the boat seized to be an It and became a She. I needed to get out of the office right away, out of my clothes in no more than 10 minutes. I should be with Alto Mare when the shore crane hoists her down the water. She should not be alone at the moment she floats on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, away from her Italian shore. I called a veteran captain of the sea; an active master of a 5,000 ton vessel on vacation in Tartous and told him what we have on hand. I’ll be there in 15 minutes, he answered. Before he hung up, I could hear his wife already complaining. Damn, how could women ever understand that men do not have to make sense all the time? That if a man receives a call from a friend while he’s having his “favorite” dish with his family and he replies that he’ll be there in 15 minutes it doesn’t mean that he’s having an affair with another woman. That a man could simply be in love with the sea.

I still have to go home and change, I still have to face my own Waterloo.
-@&% )^!** )#$$*# !@#%# )(^@! :-((( ……
I just know when not to reply.

On the way to the dock, in the back of a speeding car, I started flipping through her handbook (why don’t women come with a handbook). Impressive specs indeed! She’s a 28 footer, with a 240 hp Volvo Penta diesel engine, a top cruise speed of… wait, don’t get ahead of yourself, I thought, we’ll find out all that matters in a little while. Won’t we!
She looked nervous. Tethered and wobbling from side to side in the wake of a passing wooden boat, her slick white fiberglass body glistened in the sun. She seemed a little apprehensive, having all these people staring at her. There were at least a dozen onlookers eagerly waiting to hear her first roar. My friend, the professional sea captain, took her seriously and treated her with respect. We meticulously went over her start-up check list. While he fired her up I was looking in dismay at all the whistles and bells in front of me. A Global Positioning System came to life as soon as I touched a button and in a couple of minutes I’ve learned everything there is to learn about this fantastically designed electronic marvel. While an Arwadi apprentice (undoubtedly an old man of the sea one day) was untying her bow, I took a look at her cabin. A place for two to cuddle and sleep comfortably, a toilet for those long trips, a sound system, a folding table… but the smell of wood and leather was even more impressive. Those Italians know how to dress up a lady. I came up on deck. The captain had already put her in reverse while the hand went about tidying up the space around us and putting everything where it belongs. Leave the beer where it is, I told him, I’ll put it in the fridge myself.
Slowly at first, Alto Mare was put through her paces. Her inhibitions gave way to excitement and anticipation. Come on, she seemed to be yelling, let me show you what I’ve got. The sea was choppy and a steady wind was blowing from the southwest. Not the best of conditions but, a man got to do what a man got to do. As the skipper eased her throttle forward all the way he inevitably released the beast in her. She started picking up speed in the face of the onslaught of successive waves. We were as much flying as we were boating. Against the wind and handled by a master, Alto Mare reached 34 knots per hour (roughly 60 km). That’s not a speed to sneer at in the sea and after 3 hours of rough riding and a night of sleep there were more blue bruises all over my body to prove that a) I was not with another woman or b) I was beaten up by a jealous husband while I was with another woman.

We changed stations and I took her helm. Beyond words, that’s all. The exhilarating rush of speed, the refreshing spray of saltwater, the unforgiving sun, all the elements, together playing an impressive symphony. We circled the island of Arwad then headed toward the historical city of Amrit. From there we steered south then west to the small uninhabited island of Al Hbass. We dropped anchor, enjoyed a beer and a cigarette then took a dip in the crystal clear water. We moved again, toward the north, passing way behind Arwad, past the port of Tartous and onward to Bseereh, Rimal Zahabieh, Markieh, Al Khrab and making Banias visible we turned around and brought Alto Mare home to Tartous.

-She belongs here, I told her proud owner over the phone, and she’ll make you a very happy man.

-How long she needs to make it to Cyprus, he asked.

-Well, on a good morning with calm seas, four hours, give or take, I replied.

-Listen then, how about you come along sometime this summer, to Cyprus I mean.

-Why not, I said, all in the name of hard work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Eleven Days

As the wheels underneath the wings squeaked and kissed the hot tarmac in Damascus my voyage was drawing closer to an end. I stepped out in the sun and a whiff of home tickled my nose. Not yet, I thought, there’s still a dreary ride across a desert road before I finally make it to the shore of Tartous.

Eleven days, twelve flights, five cities, lonely nights in strange hotels, exasperating meetings around oak tables, luxurious meals in fine restaurants, dazzling looks of beautiful women and here I am again, back where I have started.

Traveling has always pleasantly surprised me. The anticipation before reaching a new city and the longing to return to mine. The things I would do, the places I would see, the people I would meet and the memories that will creep up on me before I surrender to sleep. Smells, tastes, textures, colors and feelings are fresh and hold my senses like a first encounter with a mysterious woman.

J’ai des mémoires de villes comme on a des mémoires d’amour”.

In Vienna, I ordered a chocolate ice-cream then stood motionless on the damp sidewalk when she looked up at me. She had the most beautiful blue eyes and I was completely under their spell. Rain drops were coming down my face. It was a brief encounter like my visit to this magical city this time around. I wanted to savor every millisecond it took her to scoop the chocolate before serving me. "I will return to Vienna one day and I will come around that corner where the horse carriage is waiting and hope that I will find you again. Will you still be selling ice-cream to strange men who disappear in the faceless crowd? Will you ever remember me? I came here 2 years ago", I would say, "and fell in love with your blue eyes but never said a word". A quick glance at my watch and I find myself sitting stiffly in the back of a cab speeding on its way to the airport.

I had more time in Athens. For two nights and one day it kept raining. I made it to my small room a little before three in the morning. My lot in life is to meet cities and women in the long shadows of night. The wakeup call came too early and I had to rush breakfast and wrestle with a long day of work ahead. In between meetings, my hosts and I shared an elegant lunch and later a gracious Greek dinner. With the free flow of wine and the enticing taste of well prepared Mediterranean fish inhibitions and ties were loosened and then removed. The company of men, after a day of hard work is so reassuringly familiar. I told my companion to drop me a couple of blocks away from the hotel. I needed to walk the streets of Athens to get her under my skin. To have, at least, a clear memory of her. I blinked my eyes and found myself in another taxi, heading to another airport with a slight hangover. On a flight to Rome, I was pampered by three gorgeous hostesses on Aegean Airlines. They spoiled me by their simple graceful presence. Then, she gently awakened me and told me to fasten my belt. The brunette with the shapely legs and sculptured body wanted me to get dressed!? Was it over already!? Only a midday dream, alas. "So you had a wild night in Athens", she said. "No, I just had an endearing reverie, and You, flawless Greek Goddess, along with your two friends, were the main stars".

Venice, or Venezia as she prefers to be called, and I go a long way. We first met seven years ago and since, like adulterers, we meet with an abundance of passion whenever we have a chance. We steal moments of happiness and intimacy. I stroll her alleys and touch her walls. I drink her Prosecco in the shades of timeless buildings. I smell her, ride her canals and take the whole of her in me until intoxicated. I love her, but always, after a night or two manage to walk out on her. I get back to the real life outside this enchanted city while she forgets me in the arms and hearts of other men. I sat behind a desk working with a bunch of young men and women in love with the sea, in an office strangely located in a renovated warehouse on an old wharf in the harbor. This is where I always feel like a seaman, year after year. The seagulls swept the sky around the quay behind me, perpetually searching and finding ill-fated fish. Where do the dead go in Venezia, where are the babies born? How can you ever come to terms with reality if you were brought to life here? Later, at dusk, I found the cemetery. One wrought iron gate in the midst of figurines of angels and saints was still open. I walked amid rows of graves where the dead are buried in the sinking city.

I woke up early in the morning and looked out of the window. So at last, I thought, this is Antwerp. I had used my imagination in vain to fathom what the famed port of Belgium might look like. I had not even come close in grasping the reality that the harbor extended over 60 km long, all the way to the Netherlands, while the city of Antwerp merely rested on an outstretched finger. Surrounded by splendid architecture of enduring beauty I took a walk to the nearby address. There they were and everywhere, Jewish men, Arab men, Indians and sharply dressed hordes going about their business. Whether it is the elusive shine of diamonds or the sirens of returning ships, they were all running in different directions in search of the same thing. I had my meetings and was guided around. Here’s the old dockside and there, where the more modern buildings of the city stood shoulder to shoulder, prostitutes of days bygone stalked the night picking up horny sailors. Yet Antwerp possessed an intangible splendor and class. As I was indulging myself in unsurpassed hospitality of a lunch that extended into a dinner in one of the finest restaurants in town, I remembered Maria. She sat with us during parts of the meetings earlier, but it was her walk, the well-formed contour of her perfect ass under the light linen pants that rendered me into a lump of jelly. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not in Antwerp, not from here to beyond the wall of China comes even close to match the exquisiteness, the loveliness of Maria’s Greek ass.

Then my suspicions were confirmed in Brussels. Belgians were among the most polite, the least obtrusive people I have come to meet in my travels. Practical like a pair of light linen pants yet full of life and purpose like Maria’s. Brussels is a striking city. Jan, the young taxi driver took me to the right places to consume what remained of the day before yet another flight. I had a couple of free hours on my hand and Jan asked me what I feel like doing. "I want to drink your beer, not just taste it, but really drink it. What’s your favorite Jan?", I asked. "Well Sir", he said, "we have over 360 brands of beer in Belgium and they are all great. I am a Leffe devotee but you might like to try"… "Duvel", I interrupted, "I want to have a cold Duvel". He thought that my choice was excellent. He did not know that I never had a Duvel before but that I always wanted, not to try, but to drink what is considered to be the best beer in the world. You, my dear reader might not know that but there are beer connoisseurs who have the same passion for their craft as their wine colleagues, although, I might add they are not as “tipsy”. In a small restaurant on the ground floor of the building where Victor Hugo lived in 1852, I drank my three Duvels with a hearty Belgian meal of meat and potatoes. Giselle, the waitress, was a full and robust young woman, incredibly sexy in her own unique kind of way. During and after the beers she just turned prettier and sexier. As I was leaving, I told her as much and she smiled at me while she leaned real close. "I know that, you devil of a man". "But listen, I am not that bad", I was going to say. She disappeared between the tables. "How was the devil?", Jan wanted to know. "What, how!…?" I blurred. "Relax", said the cabbie, "Duvel means Devil in a local dialect and that’s where the name came from".

I slept my way to the airport and throughout my flight back to Italy. Then another morning and I find myself in another bed, my bed. I am home in Tartous. Eleven days, twelve flights, five cities, lonely nights just passed in the blink of an eye. Two brief pages in the book of my life.

Check out some photos from my trip on my Flickr.

Friday, June 01, 2007


The present Syrian school system traces its origins to the French occupation period. Back in the 1940’s it was, no doubt, a great one, and those who had received their secondary school diploma then and later on into the early 1960’s were among the best high school graduates in the world. But since science and technology (and even literature) have not stood still but perpetually kept moving forward, any educational system must follow suit or risks becoming an obsolete and outdated burden on the minds of students and teachers alike. This is exactly where we are today in Syria with the Bakaloria National Exam, coming up on Sunday the 3rd of June.

This stringent, archaic and futile test is a make or break milestone in the lives of Syrian youth. At their final and 12th year of schooling they encounter the toughest obstacle of their entire lives. Here they are, at the tender age of 17 or 18, coming face to face with a dinosaur, which for all practical purposes should have become extinct by now. For the last year they have been reading and memorizing book after book totally lacking in imagination. They are not required to display any intelligence or creativity. As a matter of fact, the system discourages any personal inventiveness by heavily penalizing the student who strays out of the bounds of the one and only approved text. The punishment is exerted by the deduction of points, which in the end determine the future vocation and career of the applicant.

I will briefly describe the Syrian Bakaloria (Science Option) for the benefit of the lucky ones who have not gone through with this ordeal before. From June 3rd till the 25th, Syrian students will embark on a unified national exam. The questions are shrouded in secrecy and speculation runs rampant amongst students, teachers and parents as to their “nature”. Some teachers have made a good living out of guessing what the questions on any one particular subject will be for this year’s edition. The books have been revised very slowly over the years and the committees assigned to put forth the questions have to dig deep into their twisted minds and souls to come up with a new way of screwing up the kids. Bakaloria teachers in every single school of the country have lifted themselves up a pedestal, usually reserved for Nobel Prize Laureates. Over their entire careers, they have mastered a book or two to the point where they can probably read it backward. For this achievement, they have come to believe that they are the greatest gift to humanity. They will not waste their talents in the classroom of the free Syrian schools. Instead, they will give private lessons at their homes for exuberant fees. A well reputed mathematics Bakaloria teacher in Syria earns more than a competent physician, a profession deemed as the pinnacle of achievement by many students and parents alike.

The total exam score is 260 points and the grades are divided in the following manner:

Natural Science and Biology: 30
Religious Education: 20
English: 30
Mathematics: 60
National Socialist Education: 20
Arabic: 40
Physics: 40
Chemistry: 20

Total: 260

The grade for Religious Education is dropped from the total, but the students have to pass it anyway (if one fails in 2 subjects he or she has to repeat the entire year of agony and pain). Now, here comes the interesting part. A fortnight after the exam is over, the result is announced nationally. The grades achieved by a student determine what college he or she can attend and it goes something like this (exact numbers vary every year):

Medical School= 235/240
Pharmacy= 230/240
Dentistry= 225/240
Civil Engineering= 220/240

and so on downward a scale created by psychotic minds but which nevertheless has gained the validity of a true religion year after year of almost sacred adherence. So, and for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a particular student wanted to become a pharmacist when she grows up (she must be a little weird at 17) and studied hard and long for the entire year, took the Bakaloria exam and ended up with 229/240 instead of 230/240, then what you might ask. OK, very simple, repeat the damn year and hope that she gets one more stupid point on the National Socialist Education question, without losing any new point on something else, like Arabic poetry for instance. Am I serious, you bet I am, and you know I am. Well more recently, say in the last 4 or 5 years, a new option has become available in Syria, private universities. Are they a good option? Sure, they are great, if you have the money to pay your way. I would daresay that about 5% of the Syrian population can afford this option.

Here I am, at this junction in life when my eldest child, my sweetheart Diana, is less than 48 hours away from her Bakaloria exam. I’m sorry Diana for the Pharmacist joke but I couldn’t resist the temptation. To make matters a little bit more complicated, I’m leaving to Europe on business on the very first day she enters the examination room. I will hear from her on my way to the airport in Damascus how she fared on her Natural Science and Biology exam. By the time I return, she would have crossed the halfway point. Again, Diana, I’m sorry I wouldn’t be here beside you during this grueling period but you know that I have to go. I wish you, your friends and everybody out there taking the Bakaloria the best of luck. I also wish that someday, those in charge of the future of the younger generations come to their senses and turn the system upside down in Syria and wherever educational terrorism is still prevalent.

Only after going through 12 long years of bullshit will you ever appreciate Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.”

Until I'm back, or at the first opportunity I can blog again, I wish you all the best of times.