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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blogging Syria

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for more than a year then you might remember that I wrote a lengthy essay on the occasion of its first anniversary. Two years have passed since I first started blogging but I promise not to make a big deal out of it this time. Instead I will share my thoughts about the phenomenon of blogging, for it still is an infant trend in this part of the world. I will focus on Syria yet it’s safe to assume that my thoughts, according to me, apply to our Arab brothers and neighbors (brotherhood might prove a nuisance and/or a burden to some of them).

Syrian bloggers have persisted because they are reading each other. I believe this is the only reason which has kept us going in addition to “enlightened and/or open-minded” international readers/bloggers. From my own observation during my tenure the number of non-Arabic Syrian blogs has increased moderately then eventually leveled off. The founders have been writing significantly less, if at all. The newcomers are naturally more enthusiastic and prolific, while those like me, who fall somewhere in the middle, are more parsimonious and frugal in the frequency of their postings. In my case, my career has taken a bend and has become more consuming of my energy and more demanding of my time. When I don’t make an entry for over a week guilt creeps up on me. Yet I never felt that blogging is a burden. On the contrary it’s indeed an exceptional delight. Despite very encouraging and sincere words of praise from fellow bloggers my writing is giving ME the greatest amount of joy.

There are many more Syrian blogs being written in Arabic today then say a year ago. They too failed to infiltrate the cultural scene in any significant way. I truly believe that some of the best contemporary writing in Syria is being published on the couple of hundreds blogs out there. When it comes to quality, autonomy, humor, insight and candor we do not have any real competition. Syria in print, be it through droning newspapers or incongruous magazines of various types, is nothing short of pathetic. Only in television drama are Syrian writers excelling and sweeping their traditional rivals into absurdity. Even if we glance at our more “liberated” neighbors’ contributions to the written word or chance to take a closer look at their audiovisual literary and artistic production we find very little to admire. I am not being arrogant but whether we know it or not, we the bloggers are the crème of the crème of the Syrian literary scene today. We still don’t possess a popular foundation, we still do not have a wide audience, we still are relatively unknown but we are IT and we’d better start appreciating our great potential.

Our work has not gone unnoticed as some of us might think. Blogspot was not blocked because two or three bloggers went too far. Blogging was and is regarded as a movement and we are all too aware of how movements are dealt with in the Arab world in general. Any progressive trend will be immediately met by two redoubtable adversaries, the political regime(s) and the religious institution(s). “Progressive” in my last sentence shouldn’t be considered as a mere adjective. It’s irreplaceable in the context of my argument. A spiritual yet humanly void trend is welcomed by the religious establishment and tolerated by the region’s governments. A politically nonsensical and obstinate position or a cowardly reptilian and compromising attitude are not only acceptable by the correlated regimes but are also praised during Friday Khoutbas and Sunday masses. A progressive trend is one which does not appeal to either of these two absolute obsoletes. Blogging as such, even in the presence of political conformists and religious subservients is a tidal wave of unpredictable behavior. Thus and despite various degrees of severity in dealing with bloggers, this emerging group of “intellectuals” constitute a clear and present danger to the torpid Arabic status quo.

In this respect, blogs written in Arabic could eventually instigate much needed social change before their counterparts written in foreign languages as long as they don't approach the reader from a patronizing vantage point. I for one write in English because I believe that my message (for lack of a more appropriate word) should be delivered to others. Even when I dive deep in the realm of the ridiculous or skim the essence of truth promoting Syria and its people, our heritage, our culture, our quintessence is my foremost objective. Syrian bloggers are writing about their personal experiences, their cities and villages, their likes and dislikes, music, love and sex. They are expressing their political opinions and religious inclinations, molding their dreams and ambitions in prose and poetry, voicing their disappointments and brandishing their hopes and aspirations. They are paving the road toward a new form of literary expression while writing about their Syria in a most formidable way. The absence of a large audience is not a true measure of impact and significance as I’m certain that Haifa Wehbeh has more fans and advocates than Marcel Khalifeh does. This, however, doesn’t change, add or detract from the fact that Haifa will eventually look like today’s Sabah while the perpetually limited audience of Marcel would continue to enjoy his unique brand of music.

We have a powerful medium in our hands. We are talented, full of potential and most notably we are not writing to make a living. Not that there is anything wrong with being a professional writer or author but what I meant was that we are writing for the right reason and that is because we love it. We have not made our presence felt yet but we ought to. We owe it to ourselves and to others to make a dent on more than one level. Basically, as I’ve indicated earlier, our complacency is a natural result to the fact that we have no competition in the form of the printed essay. Our government has taken every measure to marginalize us. The vast majority of people and most Syrian internet users are totally oblivious to blogging. This second group, for a starter, should be our immediate target audience. We should bridge the divide between Arabic and non-Arabic blogs and websites. There is a certain trace of suspicion, of aversion, if I may say so, between practitioners of Arabic and non-Arabic writing. Every single Syrian blog I’ve read and followed, with the exclusion of a very few, has something positive within its folds. But here we are, standing on either side of the river bank, too timid to take the first step, the all important initial plunge toward integration. I will be criticizing myself when I say that even the commentators are two distinct groups as I’ve rarely left a comment on a Syrian blog written in Arabic. It is understandable that some of us are masters of only a single language; however, this is not an absolute truth. Therefore, my resolution for this third year is to start getting more involved with blogs written in Arabic. It is not enough that I read them; I should start making a habit of commenting on them as well. I wouldn’t go as far as pledging to write in Arabic one day, although I see nothing wrong with that if a person has the knack, the time and the flair to pursue this ambitious double course.

I will put this matter to rest by appealing to all inactive or dormant bloggers to return. We are up to something and we should make every effort in continuing a very promising endeavor. We, at this juncture, might fall short of making an iconic impact on society but our inner circle is in dire need of both vertical and horizontal expansions. We should write more and to more people. The topics we choose to write about is not what really matters. As long as we don’t intentionally pursue silencing or patronizing those we disagree with we are on the right course. I’m a firm believer that not all words are created equal but in the end every single word counts. To create, to promote to build a body of literature we need plenty of spirit. I see a better future for all of us in blogging and I’m making an ultimate plea to all and especially to those with abundant talents and colorful stories to get into action again. I look forward writing for a third year in a row but more importantly I’m excited to keep reading your fabulous, enriching, inspiring and intellectually stimulating blogs.

Thank you all for being a part of “my” reading conscience.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Phoenician Gods & Meksayta

I woke up with the morning birds on a gorgeous Friday. Starving for fresh air, hungry for good food, famished for the outdoors, I showered in a jiffy and told Om Fares that I'm all ready.

"Ready for what you crazy fool, it's not even six yet. Let the kids be. Don't you dare wake them up. It's their day of…..f."

Too late! Like a deranged prisoner behind bars, I just had to break free.

"Let's get Msabha and Fool. Let's go to the vegetable market to buy all the green stuff on sale. Let's hit the mountains for a good old-fashioned B-B-Q lunch."

They utterly refused to join me on my Msabha & Fool quest. Om Fares reluctantly escorted me to the open market and the kids grudgingly joined us for our lunch ride at noon.

After procuring the fresh provisions we headed back home (more on the veggies later). The day started rather nicely, a plate of Msabha followed by another of Fool with onions, pickles, bread and unlimited refills of hot tea. Dazed and burping, I sat on the balcony to wear off the bucketing (تسطيل) effect. It took me a luxurious while to get on my feet again.

To Om Fares: "Come on 3youni (my eyes)". To the kids: "Yalla Habibati (my darlings). I'm driving you to a magical place".

"Have you noticed how nice he talks when he wants us to do something for him which we do not want to do in the first place?" That was kid #2 to kid #3. Kid #1 would not budge. There was no way on earth to convince her to come along.


I should've made that short joy trip to the town of Kadmous earlier this passing winter when the roofs of her quaint houses and her proud pine and Quercus trees were veiled by a light Hijab of untainted snow. Kadmous is the main center for 67 small villages and farms (pop. 30,000) spread out at an elevation of between 1000 – 1500 m. It lies 56 km northeast of Tartous in one of the most beautiful regions in Syria. It was named after the Phoenician God/King Cadmus (κάδμος in Greek). "What? Phoenician in Syria?" the eight-year old Fares asked in amazement. "Too much Star Academy", I told the wife. Then to Fares I explained:

The Phoenicians inhabited the Syrio-Lebanese coast from Ugarit to Tyre. And, just so you expand your narrow-minded horizon, you little LBC/Future brain-washed kiddo, Ugarit (a few miles north of Latakia) was the most splendid of all since Cadmus took along its Alphabet (the first ever invented by the human race) and sailed in search of his sister Europa (oh, oh, another Syrian apparently whose name was given to a whole continent no less). Legend has it that Cadmus eventually made landfall in Greece, where Zeus was holding Europa hostage. He ultimately taught them (the Greeks) the vowels and the letters. Should I say more little one. It all started from here, from this very ground we’re standing on with our own feet. That’s what we’ve given the world and that’s what you should always remember when someone asks you where you’re from.

We reached Fawanees (Lanterns) the small restaurant in the center of town recommended by a local friend in forty five minutes. We walked in the modestly yet tastefully furnished room and immediately liked it. "I am Abufares", I told the owner/waiter. "I’m a friend of Abu Hasan". "A Hundred welcome Ya Estaz (Master), any friend of Abu Hasan owns this place". We had a simple Mezza, the most scrumptious B-B-Q’d chicken and soft drinks for Om Fares and the kids. I deservedly imbibed a Batha (1/4 l.) of pure homemade Arak. "Sahha Ya Ghali (Health ye precious one)", the owner/waiter wished me. "Ala Albak Ya Habib (to your heart ye dear one)" I gulped my glass.

Getty Images

Lulled by fully satisfied bellies we quietly rode westward in the afternoon. Another brief stop by an old stone shed where the mouthwatering smell of fresh bread on the Tannour (an oven made of baked mud with an open top and fueled by dry olive wood) permeated the air. "You would not leave until you taste this Khebez b Flayfleh" (bread with hot red pepper paste) swore the old Tannour lady. God Almighty this is so delicious…indescribable.

Lucky beyond dreams I jumped back in the car with 20 breads and 2 kilos of mature Shanklish. "How could you eat more", queried Om Fares, "after the huge lunch we just had". "Relax Baby, we still have dinner ahead and I can’t wait to eat the Meksayta ( مقصيته ) we bought this morning".

As I was contemplating this post I made brief online inquiries to find out the English names of some local herbs and vegetables. For multi-lingual translation I depend on what is certainly the best international source provided by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Meksayta, however, eluded me. I very much doubt that Syrians who are not from the coastal region and most homebred Tartoussis know what Meksayta is. It’s a short-lived wild seasonal herb (spring), when cooked the right yet very simple way, turns to be one of the most delicious vegetarian food to exist on our green planet. An herbal expert might recognize it from the (above) photo and provide us with its proper scientific and English names. However, for now, it is Meksayta and I wish there was a way to make a giant bowl so that I invite all of you to taste it.

In our cock-crow marauding of the vegetable market, Om Fares and I bought some Chicory ( هندباء), Watercress ( قرة ) and Meksyata. Om Fares then cleaned them thoroughly with running water and drained them completely. After cutting them up in small pieces she Separately fried two chopped onions in ½ cup of virgin olive oil in a large pot until they turned into a very light gold tint. She then added the (salted) chicory, watercress and meksayta on top, mixed them well with the olive oil and onions, turned the heat down to minimum and covered them for an 1 ½ hour. That’s all it takes to cook this feast. An occasional mixing of the ingredients is not a bad idea but the most important thing is not to add any water. They will exude their own juices and the feeble fire will turn them into an unimaginable delicacy. Meksayta and her friends are served cold and eaten with pita or better yet tannour bread. I usually shower my plate with some hot olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice then mate each bite with a nibble of green onions. What more can I say; this is simply heaven on earth.

Just as it started with a bang the day ended in a grandiose fashion. The kids, having sacrificed (as they’d put it) their day off to indulge my sense of fun, demanded ice-cream. We rode together to Citysweet where we each chose our two balls of flavors. A couple of hours later I slowly drifted into sleep, happy with the choice(s) I made. You’re all eager to know, aren’t you?!

Blackberry and Galaxy Chocolate ice-cream.