Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mid Summer Blues

I'm not in the mood to think let alone write about a serious topic. I've been uninspired for a fortnight which is only normal for this time of the year. I suppose that the heat influences me in a similar way menstruation affects women. Sluggish, exasperated, blotchy and cranky I feel. You might wonder why in the hell I'm blotchy. Well, it's the closest phonetically similar adjective I could conjure to bitchy without threatening my masculinity. Accordingly, I've been feeling very blotchy lately.
With that in mind, it's next to impossible to see or conjure beautiful images. Even while lying down at a perfectly appropriate low vantage point on a sandy beach, watching a heavenly flock of bikinied chicks passing by, my sight is inevitably raped by the swarms of balding, pot-bellied, ugly and hairy men roaming the seaside. I’m doomed.
Less than a year ago the entire Arab World was experiencing a phenomenon called Bab Al-Hara. The 30-episode Ramadani Syrian TV drama won every conceivable critical acclaim and popular accolade. It tells a story of a Damascene neighborhood under the French occupation between the two world wars. Even our bitter neighbors, the Israelis initiated an unprecedented research on the possible causes and plausible effects of this series runaway and huge success. They arguably were worried about the well-liked demeanors of Abu Issam and Abu Shehab and the underlying message of the show. The remote chance that their worst fears could come true loomed ominously in their dark horizon. Could the Arabs, God Forbids (not our Allah but their real Lord), ever unite and rally together behind a potential Abu Shehab one day. That will be either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of Western civilization, they fathomed. And, they were worried. Little did they know that come summer their worst fears would prove nothing but grossly exaggerated and unfounded presumptions.


Arabs, all of them, are experiencing a new and even more admirable sensation, the 150-episode Turkish TV series Gumus, a soap opera about the daily lives and affairs of a wealthy family in modern secular Istanbul. The name has been changed to Nour in the mega hit Arabicized version. It has been dubbed in Shami Arabic (Damascene accent) and the net effect is stupendous. Never in the history of drama, never under the influence of any culture or civilization or of their total absence, never had a work of genius or of idiocy (including but not limited to all established religions) affected millions in such a short span like Nour did. Men, balding, pot-bellied, ugly and hairy are falling in love with Mohanad the leading male character, played by Kivanç Tatlitug. Rebellious wives are shedding years of submissiveness and demanding divorce at gunpoint. Cocksure yet sedate husbands are turning into raving maniacs by slashing their whorish wives with knives. Women are turning into multi-orgasmic beasts while Viagra has all but disappeared off the shelves due to the gigantic demand of impotently small men. Everybody wants to rip Mohanad’s clothes apart with a very small minority lusting after the other characters including Safiya and Fikri. What did those Turks do to our unsuspecting people? If we'd ever thought that the Ottoman days were over we’d better think again. They have just returned triumphantly. When Nour finally killed Abdine (the bad ass character) all hell broke loose in the island of Arwad. People came out the alleys and offered sweets and Baklavas. They hugged and kissed and congratulated each other. In one of the more fashionable neighborhoods of Tartous, where the nouveau rich are as rampant as shit is in underground sewage, drum beaters were brought from the Gipsy camp on the outskirts of town, fireworks brightened the sky while a convoy of Mercedeses, Beemers and Hummers slached the dark of night with screeching wheels and loud music. Jubilation at last!


I wonder what those Israeli researchers and journalists are thinking about now. Are they lamenting the wasted time they had spent on Bab Al Hara or are they worried anew that a tsunami of oversexed and under-satisfied Arab women and men might attack their promised land and fuck themselves to death on crowded busses and busy malls.
Didn't I start off by clearly stating that I'm not in the mood to write. I also told you that the heat makes me blotchy.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Melancholy Man

And the laughter of little children on the other side of the street above wafted through the small window, faded then died. Silence, nothing but silence.

At one time or another, we all suffer from Earworms. The term was invented by Professor James J. Kellaris, PhD, of the University of Cincinnati. It refers to songs, jingles and tunes which somehow assault the unsuspecting mind and get stuck there. A mild attack might last for an hour or two, a whole day perhaps. When a certain song becomes a hit and is incessantly being played on different media its metamorphosis into an earworm is often a collective yet short-lived experience. We are constantly coerced to sing it along. However, as soon as the hit is replaced by another ephemeral piece of senseless art we just forget all about it.
A more subtle and personal form of infliction is set off by association. Any sensory stimulus, such as a sight, a sound or a smell might trigger a dormant memory and by doing so instigates a complicated chain reaction. All of a sudden, an earworm with hazy lyrics takes over the brain entirely. If the worm survives overnight it often implies that someway, somehow, a Pandora's Box has been inadvertently opened.
I've been a keen fan of the Moody Blues since the early 80's. Back then, I bought all of their released LP's and ritually engrossed myself in their inimitable music. For the unfortunate kids who read me and are unlettered about the Moody Blues, I can reverently introduce them as an English Rock band from Birmingham founded by Michael Pinder and Ray Thomas in 1964. They were later joined by Graeme Edge, John Lodge and Justin Hayward and together were credited with the early development of Progressive Rock (a fusion of Rock and more Classical forms of music). They are still active as of the writing of this post. Less than two years ago I discovered LimeWire a free source of music download on the Internet and compiled my own collection. I've burned an MP3 CD of my favorites for the car and downloaded them to my phone's memory card. My album contains three or four Moody Blues' hits but somehow Melancholy Man had evaded my flimsy memory.
I was sitting alone in my little private space underground, staring at the washed-out and discolored instants of frozen time captured in some old photos and hung on the wall. I stared at the faces of friends and loved ones I've lost along the way. Then my gaze was fixed at a print of my friend Nabil and me, standing side by side, laughing so confidently as if we were forever young, beyond reach and out of harm's way. My vision blurred and the words assaulted me breaking the silence after the dying laughter from far away. I've been churning them in my head, words, intoxicating words...

I'm a melancholy man, that's what I am,
All the world surrounds me, and my feet are on the ground.
I'm a very lonely man, doing what I can,
All the world astounds me and I think I understand
That we're going to keep growing, wait and see.

When all the stars are falling down
Into the sea and on the ground,
And angry voices carry on the wind,
A beam of light will fill your head
And you'll remember what's been said
By all the good men this world's ever known.
Another man is what you'll see,
Who looks like you and looks like me,
And yet somehow he will not feel the same,
His life caught up in misery,
he doesn't think like you and me,

cause he can't see what you and I can see.


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Monday, July 07, 2008

The Barber of Tartous


The first impression I leave on people is that I 'm a tiny bit more interesting and different from the hordes. I really am not. Like most men, I am a creature of habit. I'm as boring as the guy next door, probably more if you ask my kids. Even my seemingly interesting volatility is, in due course, banal and predictable. What sets me apart, or so I'd like to believe and transmit, is my obdurate loyalty.
I've been cutting my hair for the last 22 years on the hands and with the scissors of the same barber, Abu Ali. This is not so unique in the world of men, especially those who require low or no maintenance like me. I still remember my first haircut. The moment was immortalized by my mother, rest her soul. I was about four perhaps with long and curly hair colored like fields of wheat in early summer. Mom thought that I was the handsomest kid in the world and she probably was right (I don't know what happened as the years went by though). She called our family photographer and asked him to document the occasion. Abdul Karim, the assistant pharmacist took me on his black Chinese Phoenix bicycle to Mahmoud the barber. It was customary to carry a passenger on a bicycle by seating him sideways on the crossbar. From that position and right at the apex of the only steep climb on the way (between Cinema Al-Nejmeh and Cinema Al-Amir, both distant memories from the past) I stuck my foot in between the spokes of the front wheel. I wailed like an owl being harassed by a penguin of the same gender while Abdul Karim laid spread on the sidewalk with blood running from his nose and lip. He didn't pause with me later for the black and white photograph but he continued to take me places until I was old enough to prowl Tartous on my own bike.
Years flew past in the blink of an eye, over forty of them. I crossed the Atlantic to America and drove and flew all over the place but only managed to frequent one barbershop or perhaps two. Like clockwork, and except for a period of time when I let go of everything including my hair (a beta version of Yazan), I went to the barbershop once a month. I never requested any particular style for my haircut. I would just sit on the barber's chair and passively accept whatever creativity or inanity the trainee's dexterity or clumsiness produced. Occasionally God would put in a nice word on my behalf with the angels and I would end up in the hands of a buxom apprentice. But in real life you can't win them all unless you cheat. Eventually my scalp would get caressed by a gay trainee. I think the bald spot in the back of my head is the result of such moments of torment.
In 1986 I came back to Tartous. My first impulse was of course to continue with Mahmoud as my barber. I was surprised when I saw that the building where his shop was located had been replaced by a big hole in the ground. A modern 6-story office building was to be erected on site and Mahmoud was taking a break. I had to make a quick moral decision, one that will affect me for the rest of my life. I would either have to wait until the construction of the new building reaches the ground level and the barbershop reopened, a 4 to 5 months period at least. Or, I had to find me a new barber. Decency and shyness prevented me from choosing one of the nearby alternatives. The well-established barbers knew my father and me and the fact that we were Mahmoud's clients. "So now that Mahmoud doesn't have his shop you came to us", they would think if I approached them. The newcomers were too trendy for my taste with the word Salon instead of Barber on the neon-lighted sign and posters of fashionable male faggots all over the damn place (I don't give a shit if this is politically incorrect, male models are faggots as far as I'm concerned).
Like an outcast I rode my bike to the furthest southern edge of town. I lived on Al-Mina St. back then, very near to the port which defined Tartous northern border. Near the Ghamka River, I found Abu Ali's barbershop which was, and still is, the furthest shop from my neighborhood. The man never saw my face before and assumed that I must've been one of those dumb tourists who cut their hair anywhere on a whim. He should've known better back then as he's been cutting my hair since. I have visited Abu Ali exactly (22 x12 = 264 times). Fares has been escorting me reluctantly for the last 6 years, much to his chagrin. I promised him that when he's old enough to go about the city alone he can choose his own barber. For the time being, however, he has to succumb to the quirks of his old man. Of course Mahmoud reopened his shop a few months later back in 1986 but I was already committed to Abu Ali. He's been my primary source of news, local and international, for the last 2 decades. He specializes in Lebanese politics, a subject which had always put me to sleep instantaneously. I have made my own vows very early in our association that I will never disagree with him. I really don't give a horse's ass about local, Middle Eastern and international affairs so I see no point in disagreeing on a subject which after all, he is a glib expert on. We always talk about the weather, the high cost of living, Al 3arsat Al Arab and the prices of real estate in Tartous. I never told Abu Ali how I like my haircut but I reckon that as my hair had thinned over the years he's been cropping it shorter and shorter. My haircut takes 10 to 15 minutes maximum with all the talking and gesturing. With Fares, Abu Ali needs twice as long as he's bombarded by special requests for modifications and adjustments. Damn, he's barely eight years old and already way more sophisticated than me.
The other day Abu Ali confessed something which really made me very happy. Before opening shop in Tartous he had worked for years in Tripoli, Lebanon. When I first visited him in the early spring of 1986 he had just moved in. I am his oldest client, he told me. "I still remember when you walked in for the very first time", he said. "I thought you were a tourist." "When you came in one month later, I inquired whether you had moved into our neighborhood." "Less than a year later, I knew that we are friends for life." "What do you think about this Akhou'l Sharmouta Junblatt?", he angrily asked switching gears. "kiss Immo", I blissfully replied as I faded into a deliciously hedonistic short nap.