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Monday, December 29, 2008


From Drop Box

“For over 20 years Israel has expanded by force of arms. After every stage in this expansion Israel has appealed to “reason” and has suggested “negotiations”. This is the traditional role of the imperial power, because it wishes to consolidate with the least difficulty what it has already taken by violence. Every new conquest becomes the new basis of the proposed negotiation from strength, which ignores the injustice of the previous aggression. The aggression committed by Israel must be condemned, not only because no state has the right to annexe foreign territory, but because every expansion is an experiment to discover how much more aggression the world will tolerate.”

Bertrand Russell, 1970

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Boxing Day Shopping in Tartous

I've already posted pictures from the vegetable market in Tartous. Even if I run the risk of repeating myself, the orgy of colors and forms deserves a second look. On the morning of Dec. 26th, clueless as to what we're going to have for lunch, we marauded the open Souk El Khedra on the southern side of town. We triumphantly returned with more than a dozen bags of fresh fruits and veggies and these delicious photos below (taken with my Nokia mobile phone).

Hot Peppers & Fava Beans Drop Box

Oranges, Green Beans, Cucumbers & Corn Drop Box

Apples, Avocados, Kiwifruits & Eggplants Drop Box

All sorts of Apples, Tangerines, Yellow Carrots, Garlic, Mushrooms & Chestnuts Drop Box

Radish, Green Onions, Spinach Beets, Spinach, Parsley & Mint Drop Box

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lost Village

"The digital revolution changed us forever. We take many of the modern amenities and conveniences for granted. Man has all but become a slave to technology. The onslaught of the drastic changes brought about by this new age is calamitous in scale. Yet in all disasters there’s at least a sole survivor:
Om Al Tanafes Al – Fow’a."

I didn’t write this uncanny introduction on my own. It’s rather my translated version of the prologue to a 27- episode Syrian comedy show called, appropriately enough, Day’a Day’aa (Lost Village). The name of this place is Om Al Tanafes Al-Fow'a. The series started airing a few months back on Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel before other TV stations tagged along. It gradually picked momentum and in due course gained phenomenal success all over Syria. In the coastal region in particular, Lost Village has gathered a huge following of fans. Its key to success and humor lies in the fact that, and for the first time, it uses a local form of Lattakian dialect. Even the Tartoussi neighbors, who inherently abhor the atrocious Lattakian tongue, fell in love with the show.

Ass'ad and Judi

Now let me clear a couple of important matters. The show itself might prove irrelevant as far as my non-Syrian readers are concerned but please bear with me and don’t get disheartened yet. I promise to make it up by taking you on an interesting journey. Then I have to mention the critical reviews, which by and large, were all inauspicious toward the show. Too vulgar, crude, weird and provincial sense of humor, they claimed. However, we all know for a fact that by and large most critics are botched writers, painters, poets, chefs or artists. At a certain point in their creative careers they failed to stop taking themselves too seriously which is perhaps the only road to brilliance and originality. Instead of creating they reverted to passing judgment on the creativity of others. They became, for lack of a more decent word, bitter assholes who can’t grasp the beauty of minimalism.

Lost Village was written by Dr. Mamdouh Hmadeh and directed by Al-Layth Hajjo. Om Al Tanafes Al Fow’a is a small village in the amazing and picturesque countryside of Lattakia where time had stood still. The few inhabitants of this miniature rural community all play central roles in the show. However, the main two characters are Ass’ad and Judi (played by Nidal Sijri and Bassem Yakhour), two friends-for-life whose knowledge of the outside world equals that of mine in rap music and cubic painting. Gergos Jbara, Zuhair Ramadan, Toulay Haroun and Abdul Nasser Saraqbi are members in a cast of extremely funny actors who had perfected the Lattakian dialect up to a very suspicious extent.

It must come as no surprise that I felt awfully itchy not to go and take a look at the location where the show was shot in its entirety. Om Al Tanafes Al Fow’a’s real name is Al Samra (The Brunette), a tiny village at a 9 km distance to the west of Kasab and a couple of hundred meters south of the Turkish border. This is certainly the most stunning place in all of Syria. I have been around Al Samra on a few occasions before. Twelve summers ago, in the company of three biker friends, I camped in the thick forests of the region overnight. It was like a homecoming for me, except that now this forgotten piece of heaven has become a household name all over the country.

We left Tartous on a Friday morning and made it to Lattakia (90 km to the north) in a little over 45 minutes. Then we headed in a northeasterly direction climbing steadily up the mountains. Driving through endlessly gorgeous orange groves at first then through denser and denser hills covered with pine, fur and laurel trees we reached Lake Balloran.

Lake Balloran

We parked on the side of the road and feasted on the beauty of the scenery with hungry eyes. Further ahead a simple handwritten sign with the word عسل (Honey) grabbed my attention. I rolled the window on the right side of the car down and the smell of fresh Mana’eesh Bi Zaatar and Bi Jebneh (Thyme & Olive Oil pies and White Cheese Pies) assaulted my passengers’ and my nose. The fire in the Tannour was blazing and the attending woman beamed at us with a huge smile and kind eyes. We hurriedly aborted the car and took refuge on a table in the outdoors under a whicker cover.


This place, like a dozen or more on the way up, is family owned and operated. Abu Ali brought the tea service while his wife Om Ali, helped by one of her young daughters, prepared the pies. It was a once-in-a-lifetime memorable breakfast with food that defies description, hospitality that rebels at logic and goodness that betrays a deeply ingrained generosity. These folks might be economically classifiable as poor but for the life of me I have never met a more loving couple, a happier bunch of kids, a more spectacularly functional family or a richer group of people in their dignity and sufficiency.

Mana'eesh bi Zaatar

After I had my fill of pies and tea I walked into the Dekkan (one room in the house transformed into a small grocery store) and asked Abu Ali if he still had any honey for sale. He brought forward a dusty 1 kg jar, the only one left, from a higher shelf behind. "This is the last one of the season", he confessed. "It’s pure Ajram Assal" (عسل عجرم Heather Honey from the Genus Calluna). He produced a straw and dipped it ever so lightly in the open jar. “Here, try it. It’s untouched by humans”. “No Abu Ali, I don’t want to. There’s nothing around this land of yours or beyond to add to your honey which won't make it even better”. He gleamed at my words of compliment and trust and, unasked, reduced his price. “You’ve made my day with your words, "Abu… Shou Bil Salameh" (the father of whom may I ask)? “Abu Fares min Tartous”, I replied as I proudly pointed a finger toward Fares, who was joyfully playing like a freed bird amongst the trees. “You still have to try it though,” plunging that straw further into the honey jar. I swear to you dear reader, not even Nancy Ajram could’ve tasted as delicious as this Honey Ajram. My eyes rolled upward to heaven in ecstasy.


An hour later we resumed our ascend to Kasab at 1725 m altitude. The sky was impeccably blue and the air chilly and crisp. A man was tending a fence and I asked him for directions to Al Samra. He replied with a delightful Armenian accent: “Everybody is going to the Lost Village today, what’s wrong with you people!” Yet he smiled and showed me the way.

Day'a Day'aa - Lost Village

The road was narrow and steep. We were descending fast into a …. valley. A valley unlike any I have ever seen before. Two mountain peaks loomed off to our right and left and sloped sharply to meet each other at a little distance ahead where their feet joined in the azure sea. The mountain to the right was in Turkey while the one on the left and the road itself belonged to Syria. The scene was breathtaking and I had to pull to the side again. We brought our collars higher around our chins and stood mesmerized and awestruck. The cold seemed to be that of another planet. The sun peaked at her zenith but even she seemed to be burning ever more cleanly.

Moukhtar's House

The first house from the show was a little further down the road. It was the Mekhtar’s house, Abdul Salam Al Beeseh (played by Zuheir Ramadan). There was a row of cars, bumper to bumper, parked on the side and people roaming the road, like us, enthralled by the eternal beauty of this magical place. We walked by each of the familiar houses with a quiet throng as if on pilgrimage to another world. My dad, my sister, my wife, my son and I felt elated. Deep inside I was worried though. What could become of this secluded and forgotten village with the constant offensive of tourists like us? I silently prayed for the natives and their good earth not to lose what has become so rare and precious. I prayed that they don’t drop their innocence for another way of life which has already proven ephemeral and pointless.

Ass'ad House

We had a great yet simple lunch at a restaurant called Al Rabwe on the outskirts of Kasab then made it into the town center by sunset. My passengers wanted to do a little shopping in this mostly Armenian town. From previous visits I knew of a wonderful shop where local items, hard to find anywhere else, are sold. Kasab is most famous for special delicacies and her Laurel Soap, which they have perfected into a fine art. Their soap is prepared with olive oil and laurel leaves in its most plain form. However, a huge array of various blends are produced and sold. I ended up buying laurel soap with rose water, with honey, with flower essence and with musk. My olfactory sense was at a total loss inside this store. We also bought Zaatar (Thyme), Rahat Holkum (Loukoum), Malban stuffed with walnuts and pistachios, herbal tea and spices.

Laurel Soap

It was only fitting for such a wonderful day to end on a sublime note. We drove back in full moonlight and although I was eager to get home as quickly as possible I didn’t push hard. Images and aromas of the good food we brought danced in my head for a quiet dinner. The warmth of a scented bath with a thousand floating laurel leaves beckoned at me. I made good on my reveries once I got home and slept to dream even beyond.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Venezia in Nudo

For a whole week the thick fog shrouded the city of Venice and crushed her spirit. In the aftermath of a grievous tidal flooding the temperature hovered around 3ºC and a light drizzle relentlessly molested the asphyxiated alleys. As I landed in Marco Polo airport on Monday, the 1st of December 2008, Venice was drowning under a 156 cm (5’1”) tidal surge, the worst since 1986 and the fourth highest ever in the city’s recorded history.
I, too, was sinking and my soul besieged by the triviality of being, the futility of struggle and the absurdity of reality. As I chatted with well-dressed colleagues from across the Mediterranean in a brazenly flaunting meeting room, exchanging pleasantries and munching delectably fresh croissants, hundreds of innocent lives were being consumed by Cholera in Zimbabwe. We shook heads, all of us, and commiserated sympathetically before the taking of a final round of a most exquisite espresso caffè. Then pokerfaced, we sat down to business.

I was chained to a desk with a silk tie for most of my stay and I had very little opportunity to be alone outside the confines of my hotel room. After yet another boisterous dinner I would wearily lean on the tiled wall and let the deluge of the steamy hot shower wash my body while my solitude scrubbed in vain to cleanse my conscience. I would slump into bed oblivious to the incessant repartee of frivolity on Italian television and dream of sleeping.

A little after midday in an office in Venice, having just returned from an errand on a berthed Syrian ship in Chioggia (a port 50 km south of Venice), I put on my coat and strolled along a soggy pier in the Porto di Venezia. I was told that there is an obscure eastern entrance not that far to the back. Five minutes out and hands in pockets I emerged in a clearing on the campus of the Venezia Istituto Universitario di Architettura. Then, and as if on cue, the fog lifted and the voluptuous sun emerged shamelessly from behind her veil. All of a sudden, what was and later returned to be a miserable day became a glorious one.

I followed the small flocks of lively students as they too surfaced from study halls and left their gloomy burdens behind. It was lunch hour, probably my favorite time in Italy since it gave the locals the only chance on weekdays not to take themselves too seriously. We went through a labyrinth of narrow alleys, climbed nameless (as far as I’m concerned) bridges then reached an open court basking in the sunlight called the Campo Santa Margherita.

I left the young and restless and wondered aimlessly a little longer. A hundred meters or so down a random cobblestone pathway I stared at the unassuming entrance of a restaurant called Osteria Do Farai. Little did I know that I was to embark on a superb culinary best-kept-little-secret of gli Veneziani. I relied on my sternly limited Italian and my exceptionally acute common sense and ordered an Insalata di Frutti di Mare Veneziana (Venetian Seafood Salad), Spaghetti con Conchiglie (spaghetti with clams, wedge shells and mussels) and half a liter of their in-house white wine. I ate in silence and treated every single bite and sip with tenderness and compassion. I could’ve finished my meal in less than 30 minutes but that was not an option I was willing to take. Instead I was deliberately slow and I exchanged glances with other diners, lonely or in pairs, sitting around the diminutive tables. My waitress, well the only waitress in the house, was a friendly woman in her late fifties. She handled me as she did everybody else with amicable familiarity and kindness. I consumed an hour of my life in Do Farai but it was time well spent and the seafood amongst the best I’ve had in my travels or at home. The sun had dipped below the silhouette of the colored Venetian landscape when I finally walked out. I buttoned my coat and walked against the cold westerly breeze consuming the rest of the afternoon.

Venezia floats on an archipelago of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. The population of the entire commune of Venezia, which includes Mestre and Marghera on the mainland, is about 272,000. The historic center or the “island” of Venice itself is called home by 62,000 people. By all accounts it’s considered as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It certainly is inimitable and unique. No matter how earthly we have chosen to become, if we find ourselves in a quiet moment alone in Venice, wings of fancy will carry us beyond the here and now.

I’ve been to Venice more times than I can remember and my infatuation with her had always been that of a sailor with a memorable scarlet woman in a distant harbor. Yet this last visit left me tender and more caring. I wasn’t a faceless tourist in the crowds on the inexorable pilgrimage to the Piazza San Marco. As a matter of fact I didn’t go anywhere near the usual sightseers’ shrines. Instead I lingered in the obscure and less traveled back alleys where I came face to face with a city inhabited by real people, studying or working, walking or eating and then later sleeping in a three dimensional world behind the tinted facades of the quaint buildings.

Night fell ever so quickly and the fog invaded all the spaces, sneaked through keyholes and closed any last chance of escape. Feeble street lights resisted the darkness without conviction then succumbed. I was nearly running out of breath when I reached the docks. Clueless as to its origin, the sound of a solitary fog bell echoed against the wharfs along the waterfront where I stood in wonder. An old cabbie leaned against his taxi smoking a cigarette at the docks. I took my seat in the front and he skillfully maneuvered the car in the blind all the way to my hotel on terra firma. "Buona sera", we said in chorus before I waived him with my hand. The car was instantly swallowed by the thick brume as I in turn disappeared in a dimly lit foyer. I climbed the flight of stairs to my room and locked the door behind me. I lay naked in bed switching TV channels. More died of cholera that day, of explosions and fires, of sieges and hunger, of human cruelty and injustice. I waited motionless, staring into the darkness, for the alarm clock to whisk me back to the pettiness of existence, the vainness of resistance and the mockery of truth. "Venezia, I shall return".