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Sunday, October 26, 2008


“La bellezza è la somma delle parti per cui niente necessita di essere modificato,aggiunto o rimosso."

"Beauty is a summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing is needed to be added, taken away or altered." Italian Impressionist Painter, Elio Carletti (1925-1980)

I first heard this phrase spoken in English by the character Cris Johnson in the American movie Next (played and produced by Nicholas Cage).

For years I struggled to beckon my thoughts to define beauty in such a perfectly exact, easily poised and brilliantly minimal sequence of words. I always fell long. Simplicity has proven a most formidable mountain to conquer and this is precisely why we can rant forever over the triviality of life and time but yield in saintly silence to the innocent laugh of a child or the mystifying summons in the eyes of a strange woman.

I sit on a solitary rock by my sea and gaze at the setting sun dissolving in the quenching quiver of the horizon. I comb my hair back with the tips of my fingers and roll my head toward the sky where flocks of hovering kites flutter their rainbow tails in the unseen salty draughts. Tethered to the hands of playful boys and girls, the kites sway enticingly with the wind. With their free hands the kids hold ice-cream cones and popcorn bags. Their blue jeans and colorful t-shirts soiled with dirt and chocolate, they laugh out loud in stubborn defiance to worried mothers, in blissful ignorance of things to come.

I am in love with beauty and I feel embittered that I can depict my feelings toward the generality or peculiarity of being with ease yet remain eluded by the most splendid manifestation of the universe. I flatter myself when I write about women as I definitely am not divine enough to add, take away or alter what they are. Women are such a perfect expression of substance, form and incongruity whether through creation or evolution. They are fragile, ferocious, intelligent, gorgeous, wicked, quixotic, sensible, giving and sparing at the same time. A man like that, even in the eye of a woman, is a deranged psychopath. I love that women surprise me with their predictability and hold me at bay while obliging my vanity.

I follow a creek upstream. The chirps of a lonely chukar partridge summoning his harem echo against the sides of the gorge. I step on a broken twig; the bird clears its throat and quiets down. Two surprised figures emerge from the thickets by the spring. The two young lovers might have been taking their eternal and private vows when I intruded. They shyly cross my path and I barely have time to detect the glistening reflection of the dusky sky running down their guiltless eyes. They hug again at a distance then fade in the dark and rife foliage.

The longer I write the more likely I am going to add to, take away from or alter what is simply beautiful. Hush!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Of Guilty, Disenchanted and Dazzling Women and Cities

Some of us take pride in having photographic memory and never forgetting a face or a name. I’m not like that you know. Casual encounters do not deeply register or leave a trace on my psyche. It has been extremely embarrassing at times when someone would remind me that we’ve met some years ago and goes on describing the exact setting of the “alleged” meeting. Judging from my bewilderment or insouciance, as he might deem, he may reach the conclusion that I’m either a fool or a condescending bastard. Unfortunately, it’s getting worse with the passage of time, especially my short-term memory. I either remember a particular occurrence with vivid and colorful details or barely have any recollection that it ever took place in my life.

Women and cities are normally exempted from this involuntary eclipse of the mind. Nature has endowed me with extra-large brain cells to store the sight, the smell, the sound, the taste and the feel of women and cities. I am a very lucky man as I don’t really have bad memories of women. Perhaps a few things went wrong over the years, but nothing that might cause embarrassment or remorse on my side or theirs. I need to add that I haven’t truly been close to that many anyway so I’d better remember each and everyone fondly and with the utmost of affection. I have some ghastly experiences in a few cities but they were, in general, independent of the place. They could’ve happened anywhere and to anyone. So it goes again that I have no real regrets about the cities I’ve been to. Sure, there are some I didn’t like but it serves no particular purpose to reminisce about what we're not fond of. Until now that is, which brings us to the beginning of our story.

It has been a fascinating week. I was slowly getting myself in travel mode as I was scheduled to leave to Amsterdam for a two-day conference. But on one dark night, as I was having dinner with a bunch of friends up in the mountains near Tartous I received a call that not only I would have to go to Rome first but that I would have to fly out of Beirut. Not two days later as previously planned but on the next day!

I arrived in Beirut late in the evening after a 2-hour drive from Tartous. By most accounts, Beirut is a gem, a unique cosmopolitan city of unmatched beauty and inspiration. To tell you the truth though, I never thought so much of her. I can’t fit in in Beirut where I have the nagging feeling that I’m in a heartless place. She’s a city who pretends to tolerate me but doesn’t like who I truly am. Beirut is an unloving city with a perpetual identity crisis even to her own inhabitants who have different mental maps of her based on sectarian coordinates. At one time during its celebrated modern history it provided an intellectual and political haven to all but only because other Arab cities were run by obsessive-compulsive and tyrannical regimes. This early fling with a pseudo-democracy, at a time when all her sisters were unabashedly struggling under the heavy load of despotism, made her derisive and pompous. What a shame, had she only learned a lesson or two in humility, things would have been different. Beirut today is a narcissistic and neurotic city, shifting loyalties, fostering hate and suspicion among dwellers on opposite sides of the same street. Like a once beautiful woman marred by a long scar running down her face, Beirut needs to come to terms with her own reality. She has to learn how to forgive and forget before she finds herself again. She has to accept that a great part of past faults, mistakes and blunders were hers and hers alone, all along. I opened the door of the Captain’s Cabin, an old restaurant, turned pub, on a side street of Al-Hamra and walked in. Had I been blind-folded I would’ve had no idea of where I was. I ordered a cold Almaza beer and sat at a corner alone. The beer was refreshing and cold. The atmosphere was stale and heavy. There were two women sitting nearby who could not make up their minds on what language to stick to to carry out their loud conversation. English, French then English again. They would get out of synch and inadvertently slip into Arabic before they would catch themselves and amend. A tall westerner of undetermined origin and age was standing in the middle of the small room, laughing hoarsely and begging for more attention. He was surrounded by two or three doting local chicks of mediocre beauty. A graying man sat at the bar, sipping his whiskey in silent thoughts. A girl, raring to go, gave me a look from across the room. "Nah", she must’ve thought, too old for her or not particularly her type. She shifted focus in search of a more interesting companion amongst the faces in the crowd. A mix of rock music, good and bad, reverberated in the corners. Only the man with the white hair looked real. Because he was real he had to forget what was going on around him. He was a disenchanted Beirutian, so I liked to think, overwhelmed by the unmerciful abuse his city has suffered on the hand of time. At 4:20 in the morning I left Beirut with no regrets but with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the duty free at the airport, a solitary testament of my brief call. The Alitalia plane took off and headed west toward Rome, the center of the known universe for a significant part of our recorded human history. I was harsh on Beirut you would think and assume that I will flip completely once I start writing about Rome. Not so I am afraid. I am not done badmouthing cities of inveterate reputations yet. Let me go on.

One of the most un-Italian traits of the dolce vita, in addition to the obstinately obsolete style of football, is the Italian national airline. Alitalia is without the slightest shadow of a doubt one of the worst in the business. I flew on four miserable flights during this trip of mine and was served with the same horrendous cold turkey sandwich. The airplanes were noisy, the service inferior and the Fiumicino airport in Rome a nightmare. I am one who enjoys his idle layovers in airports but Rome’s international doesn’t give the traveler any chance or possibility of having a good time. I jumped in a waiting cab and gave my hotel address to the driver who sped up toward the ancient capital of the world. It was 7:30 in the morning. I had one affair to attend to in Rome and I was done by ten o’clock. The Grand Ritz Hotel was in the northern part of town, an old establishment catering to American senior citizens traveling to Italy in flocks. I put on my walking shoes and headed in the general direction of Piazza di Spagna. It was a fine Saturday morning with vigorously fresh air. When I reached the Piazza hundreds of sightseers and tourist were already there. Under normal circumstances I avoid crowded venues and feel itchy in the bestial rush of the hordes stampeding from one site to the next for the sole purpose of being there. Soon enough my annoyance started creeping up on me and I found myself snaking through side streets and narrow alleys for evasion.

I located a small restaurant and sat at a table in the confined yard. The place was lively with conversation and having decided that these were probably some of my finest moments in Rome so far I ordered lunch. Primo e secondo, vino e cappucino have finally caught up with me after all these years of traveling to Italy. I simply needed an unfussy bite to eat and a cold beer to drink. The waiter presented me with a plain cheese sandwich, a Peroni and a cynical look. I gathered my will again and wandered the vias and the piazzas for the rest of the day. I watched the swarms of enthusiastic tourists clicking their cameras and further immortalizing statues of naked muscular men with hanging testicles and small penises. An hour or so before sunset I stopped again for a bite and another beer, a Moretti this time then walked back unhurriedly to the hotel where I slept the evening and night away. I wasn’t really disappointed in Rome but rather unimpressed. She reminded me of Zsa Zsa Gabor (b. 1917), the Hungarian-born American actress who was stunningly beautiful at one time. But nine marriages and the attrition of over ninety years had left their conspicuous toll. I found Rome a disenchanted city living the glories of her past and void of novel originality. The Italians, more Mediterranean than continental Europeans, suffer from our same Levantine infliction. They seem to be stuck in time while the rest of the world has moved forward in strides.

I briskly stepped out of the train carrying me from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam Centraal in less than twenty minutes. As I emerged from the underground station and took in my first panoramic look of the cityscape I immediately fell in love. I spent three days in Amsterdam and like a man madly in love with a stunningly beautiful woman I remember every little thing about her. I had imagined Amsterdam as a woman of aloof disposition, a flaxen with exceptional beauty, large breasts and pinkish nipples. How she turned out, however, is a thousand folds more intriguing. Immigrants came from everywhere, from Suriname, Indonesia, the West Indies, Turkey, Morocco, Italy and Spain and settled down to become part of the city’s identity. Her nipples had turned darker over the past two hundred years but certainly not less striking and tantalizing. Her breasts were smaller and firmer, her legs skinnier and taller, her hair wilder, her spirit livelier, her love more copious. Amsterdam decided at one point in her colorful history to shun aside all pretensions of chastity and conceited morality. She opened up and exposed to the world what goes on in every city in the shadows of dark shame and guilt. Prostitution and soft drugs are in no way degrading to the magnificent Dutch mindset.

I strolled the narrow passageways of the Red Light District where prostitutes display their mouthwatering bodies to the thousands of hungry eyes. I exchanged a word or two with a few of them and had a laugh and many smiles. No remorse, no guilt, no disgrace but a better understanding of true human nature. The tangy smell of marijuana filled the night air in the crowded Dam Square and the amber sparkle of frosty glasses of beer glittered with promises and assumptions. I lunched and dined around the city and experimented with Indonesian, Argentinean, Dutch and some of the best Italian pasta I’ve ever eaten anywhere, Italy included. Amsterdam permeated my skin and I reveled in an ecstatic abandon of Pilsner and light lager. Each restaurant and café promoted and served its preferred beer and I took every chance to sample a wide variety of drafts such as but not limited to Palm, Amstel, Heineken and Grolsch.
I dined in a boat and sipped South African wine while gliding through the canals of this magical city. I rode her trains, busses and trams and was besotted with her bicycles and the crisp yet relaxed pace of her ephemeral visitors and lifelong dwellers.

I know I have to go back there one day, hopefully with my wife and kids. Amsterdam broke all the taboos of the past and present and became a guiltless city where anything and everything goes, very much like Paradise. She has gone beyond morality, ethics and religion and is thriving in a higher form of humane conscience. I want them to see her with their own eyes and leave it to them to reach their own conclusions.
A week went by in the intangible silence between two successive heartbeats. A Week to remember in the arms of three cities.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

History of Beer

The discoveries of bread and beer, it’s been argued, were the prime catalysts in the rise of civilization. Since by bread alone man cannot live, beer was indeed the original nutrition for the spirit and mind. The initial outbursts of inventiveness and creativity which radiated from the land between the two rivers then swept the entire world only came about after our ancestors learned how to properly consume this natural form of alcohol. Too much was certainly as bad as not drinking at all, a formula which still holds absolutely true millennia later. This is, ladies and gentlemen, the beginning of our written legacy.
Beer traces back its origins to the 6th millennium BC to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. The Sumerians made reference to beer in their very first writings (clever people the Sumerians). The Hymn to Ninkasi of 1800BC, found in its entirety at the end of this article, is the oldest recipe for making beer in recorded history. Ninkasi is the Sumerian goddess of beer and the brew mistress of the gods (I told you that the Sumerians were smart). Beer, being the final product of natural fermentation, was discovered rather than invented. The Sumerians baked the grain they harvested in order to make it last in storage. It was found that the sweetest variety of grains if left and forgotten then moistened and eaten uplifted the wits of our grandfathers and made them jolly. We were indeed the first people to get intoxicated and in due course the masterminds of wild and fun partying. At least 3600 years before the 16-day world renowned Oktoberfest festival of Munich and Bavaria was initiated (1818) we were already getting drunk year round. It goes beyond doubt that the earliest pickup lines such as:
-If I told you that you had a great body, would you hold it against me?
-So, do you like fat guys with no money?
-If I were to ask you for sex, would your answer be the same as the answer to this question?
and lamer ones still were invented between the Tigris and the Euphrates. When we, illustrious Levantines, remember our past and rightfully take pride in our colorful history, we should go all the way back without the slightest of hesitation. Drinking is a part of our true identity and as thus guilt and shame should not be allowed to obscure our vision even for those who chose to defy nature by becoming self-prescribed abstainers.
The Babylonians followed in the footstep of their forerunners and improved on the manmade processing while simultaneously the Fellaheen (peasants) along the River Nile of ancient Egypt added dates to the brew, just like they still do today, to improve on its taste. Hammurabi, the Babylonian king and the first lawmaker in history by all accounts decreed that the daily ration of beer per individual is to be based on his social standing. It varied from 2 liters for a manual laborer to 5 liters for a high priest. With the rise of the Roman Empire, beer continued to spread and infiltrated the outer reaches of the realm. The bigoted and narrow minded Romans considered beer to be the choice of Barbarians and stuck to their wine (no more their discovery than our Arak is). They called it Bacchus and claimed it to be the favorite drinks of the gods. Tacitus wrote of the Germans: "To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine". Yeah right, the haughty Italians ended up making Fiats while the savage Germans contrived Beemers and Mercedes-Benzes.
By the Middle Ages beer developed radically in monastery breweries. Those wise olden priests didn’t engage in beer brewing for profit but rather to liven up their frugal diet. Since the consumption of fluids didn’t break their perpetual fast, a pious monk was allowed as much as 5 liters per day. Damn, who needs to eat anyway? That would’ve been just about the perfect time to join the church. I’ve kept a mental note about it, if I’m ever to travel back through time I’d choose the 1350’s and commit myself to becoming a monk for the rest of my short yet happy life. Brewing beer slowly yet surely progressed on the hands of these men of the cloth and eventually they started producing more beer than they could consume. The first pubs were established by the monasteries and soon enough shady men of politics, dukes and princes, saw the tremendous potential of money in the beer “business”. This hugely popular drink became taxable under Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437). Christian clerics of that era, bless their souls, greatly contributed to the fine art of brewing. Thanks to them, beer started to look and taste so much like the golden elixir of today. Hops were used for the first time to enhance the flavor in the Brabant monasteries somewhere in today’s Belgium. King Gambrinus, still revered today as the patron saint of beer, jubilantly bellowed on a happy night: "In life be I called Gambrinus, King of Flanders and Brabant. I have made malt from barley and first conceived of the brewing of beer. Hence, the brewers can say they have a king as master brewer."
In the 1500’s, Hamburg alone boasted 600 breweries and with the passage of time, Friedrich Wilhelm (1688-1740), King of Prussia, established his celebrated “Tobacco Council”, what in essence is an early format of a group of “drinking buddies”. Beer lovers gained an avid and influential supporter now that the church reversed its position on drinking. Rest in peace beloved king, my friends and I always remember you when we salute our Sumerian ancestors. "Kass Friedrich Ibn Wilhelm", we roar in euphoria after a few Bavarian cold ones.
In 1835, the first German railroad was inaugurated, connecting Nürnberg to Fürth. The first cargo transported on board was, well, two barrels of beer. With the invention of refrigeration by Carl von Linde (1842-1934), beer became seasonally independent. Should I go on… beer won the world over in a heartbeat and has successfully become the most globally consumed alcoholic beverage. There’s hardly a country where beer is not brewed. Even under the tyrannical, oppressive and cruel despotism of the House of Saud (who prefer to drink Scotch from the high-heeled shoes of blonde prostitutes over any other form of drink) ingenious beer lovers prepare their brew in their bathtubs at home. We in Syria have 2 local brands of beer. I would suggest that you give them a try, if you haven’t already done so, out of curiosity. From a scale of 0 to 10, I would give Al-Shark and Barada a grade of anywhere from 0 to 5. The strangest thing is that the taste is not consistent and varies from bottle to bottle, from the terrible to the mediocre. However, once you learn that these two brands of beer are produced by the public sector (meaning the government) you should wonder no more. An analphabet government official can barely tie his shoes let alone supervise and run a brewery. You would’ve thought that with the new opening up of the market, the erection of hundreds of factories and the introduction of dozens of new industries someone will have the balls to start a beer brewing plant. But my tobacco council and I know better. The new breed of Syrian investors (businessmen) and despite the fact that they might be heavy drinkers themselves, hide behind their middle finger (the same one they stick up the general public’s ass). They court the government and bed the religious establishment. These patrons of modernization are accumulating such horrendous profits, bribing their ardent bearded supporters and basking in their blessings. What the hell am I talking about? Screw them.
It’s time for a beer. Cheers.

The Hymn to Ninkasi
Translated by Miguel Civil

Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
Borne of the flowing water,
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished its great walls for you,
Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
She finished it's walls for you,

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] - honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.