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Monday, August 27, 2007

Desimplifying the Tartoussi Wedding

Tartous, the dreamy little town by the sea is no more. It has physically mutated over the last three decades into a pathetic jungle of concrete. Moreover, on the social and cultural levels, the sweeping changes have been more colossal. By and large, we are no longer the cheerful seculars, open-minded Mediterraneans, provincial-metropolitans and discoverers-adapters of colorful ways of life. We were a unique and distinct group, transcending socioeconomic lines, facing the mysterious sea and always seeking the exotic delights lying beyond. We grew up in a Joie de Vivre ambiance unhindered by class, free of political guilt and insouciant to mass religious indoctrination. We heard the politicians and preachers like everybody else but we never listened to them. We lived and let live on the most basic human level, unshielded, unconcerned and unprepared to come face to face with overwhelming political hysteria and collective religious zealotry. So it came about that I belong to the last generation of a dying bread, called the real Tartoussis.

While the bleak picture I drew in my prologue is not exclusive to Tartous, I prefer to remain within the comfortable geographical confines of my beloved city. I am certain that “culture”, in its fundamental essence, has fallen victim to the marauding waves of globalization. Those who can still claim that they come from an unchanged small town, anywhere in the world, might be the last fortunate survivors. I wish them and their cities the best of luck. Yet, these folks are normally so passive and naive; they would not realize the scope of the danger until it is too late.

With that in mind, what has become of our simple Tartoussi wedding? Why has it been replaced by cloned versions from the hinterland, from landlocked Syrian cities and even from as afar as the Arabian Desert? Worse yet, where did these whorish, malformed, ostentatious and lavish wedding banquets held by Neo Tartoussis come from?

Traditionally, young men left Tartous immediately after high school. The choice to leave is a common trait among dwellers of coastal cities the world over, whether to expand their horizons or to travel the sea for a few years (in Tartoussi – Msafar bil Ba7er = Traveling the sea, literally means working on a ship in any capacity). With either some money or knowledge under their belts, the men returned and got engaged to their sweethearts for a year or more until they could stand alone on their own two feet. They courted openly in Tartous under the watchful eyes of loving parents and the benevolent gaze of an accepting society. When the time came to get married, both families, neighbors and personal friends celebrated the cozy wedding party together. It was a party where everybody knew everybody else. Men and women either mingled with reserved respect or kept to their own, yet under one roof, or the open sky as the case might be. It was not an occasion to invite business relations or “prominent” members of society (we were still very fortunate then as we didn’t have prominent assholes yet). Tartous did not practice segregated religious rituals or hybrid prostituted banquets until more recent times. More often than not, the official registration of the marriage took place a week or fortnight before the wedding ceremony. A notary public from the civil registrar came to the house of the bride and went through the motions (Islamic in this case) without a Sheikh in sight and declared the couple husband and wife according to the Sunnah of Mohamad (PBOH). And that was the end of that, no Mawled (a segregated religious chanting ritual), no Khitbet Niswan (a fruity engagement party celebrated by crazy women and noisy children) and no Kitab Rijal (a somber and boring affair attended exclusively by grave looking men). A Tartoussi wedding was very much like a traditional Greek, a Southern Italian or an Andalusian wedding, a casual and simple affair, full of fun and in harmony with the gentle waves washing the golden sands of a magical city.

Our way of life has been under relentless attack long before the Neo Conservatives decided to join in with their own sick version of constructive chaos. Read me well and make no second guess about my intention. Judeo-Christian Neo Conservatives and Neo Islamists are two sides of the same single coin. Pure Islamic traditions did neither interfere nor attempt to end our Mediterranean social fabric. Neo Islamists, on the other hand, have been undermining our entire Levant culture for the past 30 years. They came to prominence primarily due to the repeated failures of the sinister despotism of the entire Arab world. The Neo Islamists are advocating their own brand of Islam, one that leaves little or no space for personal freedom of choice. The Neo Conservatives see a future Middle East where McDonalds are built over the rubbles of mosques that were, once upon a time, centers of enlightenment, tolerance and knowledge. In short, both Neos don’t give a fuck about the original Tartoussi wedding and seek to erase it from our living memory.

Did I write this article just so I can lament the loss of the nuptials of the olden days? I leave that entirely up to you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How I Feel

I shot this clip at an art exhibition in Venice, Italy during my visit of June 07. I don't remember the name of the artist who designed the manikin (one of many each doing a senseless act over and over again). However, this one striked me the most. It did not move me at all. It stopped me in my track.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Put Something Exciting Between Your Legs

Being the simple man I gladly admit to be, I would like to write about one of my benign pleasures. I want to start from the very beginning. Prior to my “arguably” early infatuation with the Big 3 (the Tic, the Tac and the Toc) and even before I started dreaming of Flying, motorcycles captivated me with an inextinguishable ardor, an abundance of exhilaration, an irresistible sense of independence and an absolute, unlimited, unending rush of private freedom.

It would be totally inaccurate to write that I grew up around motorcycles. Not a single person in my entire family had owned or ever ridden a motorbike. However, I did find my way to be on or around them very early on. One of the unsolved riddles of my childhood is the way my father and mother had let me made these radical choices, totally ignoring complaints and consternation of the omnipresent extended family. I was the blackest of black sheep, and in a way, I still am.

Amongst my earliest auditory memories is the whining noise of a two-cycle 50cc puny motorcycle engine buzzing below the balcony of my home by the sea. I would rush out to get a glimpse of a Simson or a Balkan screaming down Al Mina St. at the awesome speed of 60 km per hour. Most of you have never probably heard of a Simson, let alone a Balkan. The Simson, such as the one in the picture above was originally manufactured in East Germany in the 1960's. A few dozen units were sold in Syria. The Bulgarian Balkan (1958-1975) had a more streamlined body and was my favorite of the two. It took me forever on the web to find this single photo (below) of the exact model that was prevalent in Tartous back in the mid 1960's. I feel deprived for not having the chance to have ever ridden either. Yeah, I'm this sort of guy.

Some wilder beasts made their way to Lattakia around the same period and started operating as taxis.

Matchless, BSA and Triumph were the top choices and proved themselves on the streets roaring wildly and flexing their powerful muscles (up to 500cc single cylinder four stroke engines).

Believe it or not, over 40 years later, some of these British beauties are still serving commuters to villages around Lattakia.

I was able to spot a few in still immaculate and mint conditions. Regretfully, I have missed the opportunity to buy a gorgeous Triumph when the opportunity presented itself some years ago.

I first soloed on a 1964 Lambretta (above) a few months before my eleventh birthday. The bike was too heavy to control from a stationary position. Someone would lean it on the sidewalk for me. I would then engage 1st gear, rev the engine up and surge forward in a frenzied heave. To stop I would approach the sidewalk at a slight angle as if I were docking a boat and make the final contact with the sidewalk as smoothly as possible. By the way I started driving a car at roughly the same time. Tartous was a much quieter town then and there were no more than 2 or 3 policemen. The streets were practically void of cars and I had free reign over the neighborhood. But no car ever impressed me. Cars are cages on wheels and they are adequate for a group of 3 or more to get from point A to point B. It never made any sense to admire a comfortable, expensive and shiny horse carriage more than a beautiful stallion. So it is with cars and motorcycles.

I had my chance to ride a wide variety of bikes and scooters over those early years, European and Japanese. I loved the Vespa despite of its nerdish looks. "Sembra una vespa!" ("It reminds me of a wasp!") Enrico Piaggio, the president of the company exclaimed when he first laid eyes on one. It would later become the most successful scooter in history and a pop culture icon. The obvious reasons of course include comfort, storage space, ease of handling and relative protection from the elements. The Japanese were swiftly moving to take over and I got my chances with your run of the mill Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis. I had suffered from too many minor accidents and mishaps to keep track of but it was never the bike’s mistake. It was always mine, in one way or another. Yet the learning curve follows only this example as far as motorcycles are concerned. You have to take your fall then get up again, improving, honing your skills, learning to respect the machine but never to fear it. Before I left to America, I was already very comfortable in the saddle.

On the back roads of southwestern Louisiana I got my first chance to meet face to face with the beast. A Harley-Davidson in its native environment is probably the most harmonious machine ever built by man. As I look back toward those happy years I feel disturbed when a Harley is taken out of its context. Riding a Harley anywhere else in the world is sacrilegious. God and man meant it to roam freely in the USA and nowhere else. No biking experience ever comes close to riding a Harley on America’s open highways and I had the privilege of riding in Lousiana, Texas, Arizona, California and Arkansas. I snapped my right knee on a Harley once but I was a riding in the back. The rider upfront was busted up pretty bad and was hospitalized. He's been in hospital so many times since, and somehow I always manage to be by his side.

On my trips to Europe the sight of a Harley lumbering along the rows of dull looking and efficiently compact cars gets on my nerves. The few captured Harleys in Lebanon and Syria caused me even more pain. If I were an American president, I would never allow the export of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The truth of the matter is that a Harley is incapable of competing with either the European or Japanese brands. These are much more efficient, more reliable, safer and faster bikes. Simply put, whether I draw fire or not, a Honda is a better machine than a Harley. But this absolute truth loses its meaning on American ground, where the Harley is deservedly the king of the road.

I have been riding a 1986, 250cc Yamaha to work for more years than I care to count. But I have been riding some other impressive machines on the mountain roads of Tartous as well.

The 4-cylinder 750cc Honda Magna is hard to beat. I have no idea how the Japanese packed so much pleasure essence in its loins. It breathes in and out rhythmically like an Olympian Marathon runner. Give it some throttle and it’ll take your breath away. Recently, I started a love affair with a 600cc Honda Silver Wing scooter.

At first I felt a little embarrassed to get back to not only a scooter, but worse yet, a scooter with automatic transmission. However, after a couple of long rides with friends, my body thanked me and begged me to get one of them. It sure doesn’t offer the pure and naked pleasure of a real bike but it’s so god-damn comfortable it would be absolutely hypocrite not to admit it. I think I can do without the broken ribs and twisted fingers, without the burnt hands and dirty nails, without the dead bugs on my teeth and the maddening rain assaulting my face like cold needles.

You might all think that I’m getting too old for this shit. You’re wrong kids. I have my eyes and heart set on a Honda Forza Z. It’s a little lighter than the Silver Wing and this is exactly what I truly need. Alas, it doesn't come with the girl though.

"Too old my ass, go ahead, put something exciting between your legs!"

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Man Who Fell On Mersin

I’ve been away. I haven’t deserted my blog for such length ever since its conception. As a matter of fact I haven’t been away from a PC for over a week since 1993. I have a good alibi though, I was on vacation.

For the first time in over three years, Om Fares, the kids and I all went on vacation together. We left Tartous on the morning of Thursday the 2nd and headed to the port of Lattakia. There, we boarded a ferry boat and sailed away to Mersin, Turkey. It took the 270-passenger catamaran a little bit under four hours to cross the 95 nautical miles. Come early evening, we were riding in Ugur’s taxi to the Hilton in the quiet Mediterranean city (Ugur is the Cabby’s name, and since I like to put a name on a face, "what is your name?" was my first question on my first time visit to Turkey).

While waiting in the modest passenger terminal at the port of Lattakia I was taking in phone calls from the office. There was one more important email I needed to reply to. Much to the chagrin of Om Fares and the kids, I took my laptop out and started typing away. Like all addicts of modern technology, I derive so much satisfaction from the fact that my ultraportable Vaio has a built in GSM receiver, WILAN, WWAN and the bullshit list goes on and on… However, when I saw the look on their faces and guessed at their whispers, I pushed the Send button and uttered my promise. As long as we are on vacation I would not touch the damn thing, read my email or even post on my blog. “Promise?”, Fares asked. “Promise”, I replied.

Mersin proved to be a perfect choice. Temperatures were soaring all over. The family mutually agreed on not wanting to go around places but to rather stay in one city. As far as I was concerned, all I dreamed of was to sit in the shade by a body of water (a stunning swimming pool), read a good book (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and sip my misty drink (Vodka with anything). The little ones were just ecstatic to spend so much time in my company and to swim all day. Om Fares and Diana couldn’t ask for more than to be able to get away from the three of us and maraud the shops and markets of Mersin. An excellent status quo was reached during the daylight hours and later on in the evening when we would all regroup, we would experience the little joys of a family vacation.

That’s my first visit to Turkey and I need to give credit where it’s due. Mersin is such a nice place and only a stone throw away from Tartous. Knowing this city intimately, as I’ve done over the last few days, is akin to having an affair with your beautiful neighbor. The city is extremely clean and peaceful for its size. People are very polite and courteous although a very few speak Arabic. To my surprise, almost no one outside the bounds of the hotel speak any English. This might sound strange until you realize that Mersin is not a tourist destination in the first place. Many excursions out of Syria in particular pass through Mersin for an overnight stay at the most. This simply means that Mersin is so unique because it has not been exploited yet.

On the other hand, Turkey is not the cheap country we all thought it was. Prices are much steeper than in Syria. They are very similar to those of Lebanon, if not a little more. The only reasonable thing we happily paid for was the great rate we secured at the Hilton before leaving. The hotel is simply fantastic and first class. At US$80.00 a night, per double room, breakfast included, this price is less than half of what you’d pay at the Sheraton in Damascus. And, I need to add that the standard of service is much higher as well.

We ate a little bit of everything. The kids, as all aliens from outer space, preferred the fast food variety. I had spent so much time by the pool I really didn’t care much about what I would have for lunch or dinner. We had a couple of nice experiences with local food, once in the center at Sabah, a traditional Turkish joint, and then in a small wooden hut by the beach. Late at night we would go out for a walk on the pedestrian-only esplanade by the sea. I have no idea how long this seafront path stretches out. I had walked in either direction away from the hotel for over an hour but there seemed to be no end.

We came back yesterday (Thursday the 9th), in the same ferry boat. I’m so happy I’ve been able to take my mind and body away from work. I’m ever so grateful to have this wonderful opportunity to spend this quality time with my family as I haven’t had the chance to do so recently. I have been bitching about my need for a vacation and I finally was able to get it. I don’t think the therapeutic effects will last long after our return but let’s put it this way, if I hadn’t stopped and taken this time off right when I did the consequences would’ve been dire. I was on the verge of strangling a few people, or was it the other way around; a few people were on the verge of strangling me.

Next time around we visit Turkey it would be in the comfort and convenience of our own car. We intend to continue north in our pilgrimage to this beautiful and hospitable country. May be all the way to Istanbul! May be for a couple of weeks! It was good to be away. It’s good to be back.