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Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I stood watching intently, and amused, as she attempted to peel the ripe Sabbar. The juices ran down her fingers to her delicate wrists and bits of the peel covered the place at the table where she stood. She was determined to do it herself. That was part of what I loved about her, her determination, which, at times, bordered on a hard-headed stubbornness. Although she had seen it in the streets of Damascus, she had never eaten the sweet fruit in her life. Here, it was everywhere, a delicacy we took for granted. However, as soon as her lovely hands held one for the first time, I saw the pear in an entirely new light.

We had been out walking. I was showing her the area around where I grew up. She marveled at the number of cacti, Sabbara trees, as she called them, that were along the road. They were handsomely laden with their brilliant red or yellow pears. When I told her they were edible, the Saber, as we call them here, she insisted that we pick some and I, enthusiastic to share everything with her, carefully pulled them from their prickly nests. I took off my shirt and created a sac of sorts in which to carry them home. She giggled nervously after I cursed several times from receiving a poke or two, but she continued to cheer me on as if I were navigating an obstacle course. My pride would never allow me to pick less than ten and, after I caught her admiring my bare torso with a mischievous little grin, I continued on as long as I could.

I rolled the fruits from my shirt onto the kitchen table. There were at least twenty. I stood for a moment and admired my harvest until I caught sight of her hand moving in to fetch one. "No, habibti!" She pulled her hand back in alarm. I immediately put my arm around her slender shoulders and warned her about the nasty thorns. They were small but insidious, and caused great discomfort if they got under the skin. Naturally I knew this from years of experience, from having them embedded in my hands and arms. But I couldn't knowingly expose her to anything unpleasant. The only thing I wanted her to remember about Sabbar was the luscious taste...and me picking them without my shirt. So I washed each of them and removed as many of the thorns as I could without actually peeling them.

She insisted on using a potato peeler and somehow I couldn't bring myself to stop her. "I don't want to cut out too much of the good fruit. I tend to gouge things with knives." She told me confidently and with a look in her eyes that suggested I'd better not try to stop her. She tentatively peeled away the outer skin and then used a knife to chop off each end of the fruit. It took everything in me not to chuckle or to move in to show her the proper way. She was adorable in her awkwardness, so I bit my tongue.

When she cut off the ends she discovered the spines. At first she wasn't sure what to make of them. She muttered to herself as she inspected it by removing one of them. As she did, the rest of the outer skin pulled away revealing the edible fruit. I saw the light go on; her beautiful eyes sparkled with delight. "Ah ha!" Then the scolding. "Why didn't you tell me?!" Instead of answering I gently removed the well peeled pear from her hand and took a bite. Her eyes turned stormy as she watched my mouth envelop almost half of it but before she could reprimand me I put the rest of it to her lips. She took a small bite and let the juices and pulp roll around in her mouth. Her eyes immediately quieted as the pleasure of the taste registered on her tongue. "Sahha."

I sat down and quickly peeled more of them. I selfishly needed her to eat at least one more. I cut the fruit into small pieces and asked her to sit by me. With my fingers I placed each piece on her tongue after she had chewed and swallowed the one before. I watched her enjoying the sweetness, her lips moving sensually as she chewed. I gazed longingly as she swallowed, following each lump as it moved through her throat and down her long, graceful neck. After she finished the last bite, I kissed her and savoured the sweetness of her mixed with the nectar of the Sabbar. It was the most heavenly combination. Suddenly I had the urge to harvest every tree in existence just so I could feed her one every day for the rest of our lives. But we had enough to last us a few days, and other, more burning, urges overtook us anyway...

I had wanted to show her everything about my life here. However, I quickly discovered that, in fact, through her, my life was reflected back to me in a refreshing new way. Just by being here, by being curious, by being her, she transformed the simple Sabbar into a delicious memory of that day, of her. I would never ever look at it or taste it in the same way again.

by Mariyah

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Zeitouns: From Jableh to Post-deluvian New Orleans

(This article is co-written by Abu Kareem of Levantine Dreamhouse and Abufares and posted simultaneously on both blogs)

By Abufares

There's a tomb at the far end of the Corniche in Jableh, Syria. It is the resting place of 23 year old Mohamad Zeitoun (1941-1964), by far the most accomplished Syrian athlete of all times. Mohamad died in a car accident while on his way to the Suez Canal in Egypt to participate in the International Canal Swimming Race.

The Zeitoun family came from Arwad, a small island off the coast of Tartous and the only inhabited one in Syria. The father, Haj Ahmad, was a master sailboat builder. He had witnessed family and friends perish in the treacherous waves of the unforgiving sea and wanted to offer his offspring an alternative life. Accordingly he moved to Jableh where he worked hard as a mason and brought up his sons into the business. The main concern of this simple man was to keep his family safe and away from the sea but fate, as it is often inclined to, had other ideas up its sleeve.

Mohamad Zeitoun, Syrian long distance swimmer, went on to become an international legend as 3 times World Champion (1960, 1961 and 1964). In 1959 his winning of the 40 km Nile Race in Egypt was nothing short of historic as he completed the final 10 km using one arm only due to injury. His 1961 world record in the Capri-Napoli International Swimming Marathon remained unbroken for many years as he swam the 38 km in 8 hours and 45 minutes, one full hour ahead of his nearest competitor. He crossed the 50 km Suez Canal Race in 12 hours and 3 minutes in 1963. Mohamad, who never had a coach, went on to win every single international event he participated in during his short-lived career. His brother Abdulwahab, a retired general, recalls how his father sent Mohamad to work as an apprentice blacksmith at 16. His boss had to make a custom 15 kg sledgehammer for him with a steel handle because he invariably kept breaking those made of wood. He was a powerful man who ultimately defied his father's will and couldn't keep away from the water. All of Jableh, including the father, gathered around the radio when Mohamad was racing and waited for the good news. A huge celebration would erupt upon the announcement of the expected result and the proud father would delightfully cry: Abaday, Allah Ywaf'o in his provincial Arwadi accent.

In 2005, 41 years later and halfway across the world, Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, Louisiana. Another son of Haj Ahmad Zeitoun makes the headlines and becomes an American Legend. Heroism runs in the family evidently but why not continue reading about this fascinating story through the words of my friend Abu Kareem of Levantine Dreamhouse.

By Abu Kareem

Few books published in the United States since 9/11 have sought to understand those on the receiving end of the war on terror. Always on prominent display at bookstores are books with sensational titles written by self appointed Middle East "experts" with ulterior motives or an axe to grind. Such books fed the national paranoia and along with the popular media provided cover for the Bush-Cheney years.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers shatters that mold.  The book is a biography of a Syrian immigrant, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, living in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina devastated the city.  Abdulrahman, a native of Arwad and Jableh, steps onto dry land in Houston after a ten-year wanderlust sailing the seven seas on commercial ships.  He makes his way to New Orleans where he settles down, marries an American woman and establishes a thriving business as a painting contractor.  A couple of days before Katrina strikes New Orleans, Abdulrahman sends his family away to safety and stays behind to look after his properties and his business. After Katrina's passage over New Orleans, the levies break and Abdulrahman's neighborhood is flooded. He retreats to the second floor of his house and retrieves an old canoe from the garage. Setting out by canoe intending to check on his business and properties, he instead finds himself rescuing elderly people trapped in their houses and feeding dogs abandoned by their owners. His wife's pleas to leave the city go unheeded as he feels duty bound to stay behind to help out. As Abdulrahman's American story unfolds, Eggers weaves in anecdotes from his past in Arwad and Jableh.  We learn much about his family of seafarers, his childhood in Arwad, the moonless nights he spent sardine fishing off the coast of Jableh and his attachment to his older, now deceased, brother, a world champion swimmer.  These anecdotes help the reader understand Abdulrahman's character, his inner strength and resolve bordering on stubbornness, his gentle piety, his devotion to his family, his dreams and ambitions and his deep sense of fairness. One cannot help but like this man.

The first half of the book recounting Abdulrahman's history is hopeful and heartwarming: an honest and hardworking immigrant thriving in his adoptive land.  Even in the midst of New Orleans' apocalyptic floods, our spirits are lifted by Abdulrahman's good deeds.  Soon, however, this American dream turns into a nightmare.

Instead of mounting a campaign to rescue the stranded citizens of New Orleans, the Bush administration, in true war-on-terror style, sets up a military siege of the city.  Thousands of heavily armed soldiers and private security guards -mercenaries in effect- are sent in.  As hundreds of citizens perish, the soldiers' first priority was to build a makeshift prison at the city's train station. Abdulrahman and three companions, two Americans and a Syrian, all of whom stayed behind hoping to ride out the storm, are arrested on suspicion of looting by overzealous soldiers armed to the teeth.  The Syrians are singled out as possible terrorists and all are detained in conditions that are a cross between Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.  Claustrophobic and nightmarish, the second half of the book is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration and the militaristic attitude that permeated everything it did and where national security paranoia trumped even the most basic civil rights of its own citizens. Perhaps what is most shocking about Zeitoun is how the horrific treatment of detainees in post-Katrina New Orleans went completely unreported by the national media at the time.

Eggers is a compelling storyteller and a careful journalist.  He researched and cross checked all the facts of the events described in the book.  He even traveled to Syria several times to meet the Zeitoun clan and learn about the coastal towns of Syria.  As a good journalist should, he avoids sentimentality, though his admiration for Abdulrahman, his wife Kathy and the whole Zeitoun clan is hard to hide. Abdulrahman comes across as an admirable human being, fair and idealistic, almost to a fault.  Even after his arrest and mistreatment, he stubbornly refuses to think ill of his fellow human beings, assuming that it is all a misunderstanding that will soon be resolved.  It is perhaps this quality that also made him so liked among his neighbors and why so many New Orleanians were ready to come to his defense.

Even after Bush's departure, the perception of a "clash of civilizations" lingers and ignorance and suspicion of Arabs and Muslims remains an issue in the United States. I therefore take it as a hopeful sign that Zeitoun, a book with a fairly narrow focus, made it to the New York Times best seller list last year.


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (English)
Lecture Abdulwahab Zeitoun 2008 (Arabic)
The Guardian: The Amazing True Story of Zeitoun 2010 (English)
Nass MBC Net 2010 (Arabic)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sea Side - A First Novel

I've been on a journey of self discovery for the last nine months. It all started in July 2009 when one of my favorite bloggers and my dearest friend Mariyah posted a simple and beautiful entry. For those of you who are not familiar with Mariyah, she is an exceptionally gifted writer from Damascus, who over the course of twenty six episodes told the story of her parents in the form of an inspiring and heart warming fairy tale. I asked her then if this Sea Side, as she called it, was going to be another Ghassan & Alexandra. Instead of giving a straight answer she invited me to join her in co-writing a story with the backdrop of the Syrian Coast. How could I ever say no to a beautiful lady like Mariayh?

Privately, however, I felt a little awkward. I've never written anything longer than a few pages. I've never written fiction. I've never written with another person. Yet my deepest desire had always been to write a novel someday. My problem was not one of lack of self-confidence but rather of lack of time. It's not an unfounded excuse on my part. Some people may indeed function better under pressure but I was not wired like that. I write when I'm happy, or at least unconcerned about the outside world and the mundane necessities of every-day's life. Had I been self-sufficient enough not to work yet to bring up three children in the best possible circumstances I would've not minded an early retirement from “employment” to devote my time to reading and writing. Mariyah's invitation was in no way a challenge but the motivation I lacked to give it a shot and thus our journey began.

We alternated in writing subsequent chapters while we maintained a disciplined routine. We published a new episode every Friday and we did not consult directly or agree in advance on a plot. Our story weaved its own way through our words and the four main characters were developed in almost real time. The fact that neither one of us had control over the flow of events meant that a high degree of unconscious mental coordination and an unspoken synergy have to come into play. We continued to surprise each other while enjoying ourselves to the fullest. I had never partnered with anyone before on a creative process and now that it's finally over I want Mariyah to know what a joy, what an honor and a complete emotional and intellectual alleviation she had brought me.

Sea Side takes place in and around Tartous. It's a romantic love story at best, something I never expected or anticipated that I might write someday. But to say anything less than that I'm very proud of it would be an understatement. This is the ever elusive first step and I took it after Mariyah extended her hand and led the way. Now I know for sure how much I want to write and I will unearth every bit of time to do just that.

I have to thank you Mariyah for being my companion by the Sea Side. I already miss Yazan, Yasmina and Youssef but I'm going to miss Amar most. Your words made her unimaginably beautiful while mine only mirrored your charming writing and elegant style. If I ever publish one day the writing of Sea Side will remain my most cherished memory of all. It is after all my first novel.

If I may Mariyah, I am going to ask you to do me a little favor. I want you to write, at your own time, a short story and grace my blog with it. This is of course an open invitation, with the key for you to keep. Come by any time and write here without even letting me know beforehand. Not only once but a hundred thousands times and more. My blog is your blog now and always.

Mariyah and I have set out to have fun but we ended up with much more than we bargained for. Accordingly I have to also thank our friends who commented there on Sea Side and kept us company for 38 consecutive weeks. No matter what our humble effort into writing our first novel turned out to be we have both gained your friendship. How in the world can I be happier?

Ghassan & Alexandra
Mariyah's Blog
Mariyah's Invitation

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Quattro Stagioni

Staying at the right hotel is the dividing line between a successful business trip and a memorable experience. When traveling in Europe my temporary residence is often a four-star or, occasionally, a five-star business hotel as close as possible to the venue where my meetings are to take place. I usually follow the advice of my hosts and when they offer to handle the reservation themselves I normally agree. These hotels are quite comfortable and provide efficient around the clock services. They and most of their clientele are sadly soulless though. I'm not always fortunate to run into a Fenella after all. Sigh!!!

On my third trip to the Netherlands over the last year I have learned my lesson well enough not to put my fate in the hands of efficient secretaries. Despite the inconvenience of changing accommodations for one night only I find myself opting for this choice more and more. The hell with the business suit and tie, the hygienic room in the middle of nowhere and the bar full of boring stiffs who talk only about work even when drunk. On my last night in a new city I'm moving my ass out of there in search of a cozy little place either in the heart of things or away from the screeching silence of the business environment.

March has been one of those months for me where I lived off my suitcase. Well, it's no longer a suitcase in the real sense of the word as I have become very apt at traveling light. I can handle any four or five-day trip now with a single carry-on and instead of waiting for my luggage to arrive on a maddeningly slow carousel I can have a head start on my first beer.

I spent a wonderful evening in the buzz of Amsterdam and a relaxing walk through her back alleys followed by a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast at the Avenue Hotel on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal Straat in the center of the city. After a brief interim in Tartous I found myself in Venice with one last free afternoon and a rainy sky. I had worked out of the port of Venice for two days and I really looked forward my alone time in a small suburb of Mestre called Zelarino. This is not the first time I stay at the Antico Moro, a three-star hotel built on the original structure of an 18th century palace owned by the Foscari Family and it hopefully won't be the last. I really relish the privacy and the placidity it offers after a couple of days of hard work. I waited the rain out in my pleasant room and listened to it tap-dancing on the shingles of the vaulted ceiling. Then I went out into the night and walked along the deserted main street to the sounds of bells from the chiesa di Santa Maria Immacolata. An hour of brisk walking changed my mind about not having dinner but all I could find were small ice cream parlors and the ubiquitous Italian cafes. I sought advice from the night clerk and he was rather surprised that I was asking for a good place to eat.

“This way prego.” I followed him to the back of the small lobby where he opened a door and I found myself stepping into the fantastic Sotto il Sogno, Pizzeria e Ristorante. The waitress asked: “Would you like meateh, fisheh or Pizza?” Since I was only familiar with the last one that's what I chose. Now don't get me wrong, I like a good pizza. I always thought that I offended my Italian colleagues and friends when I told them that the best pizza I've had was in Chicago. Accordingly I stopped saying that completely. They are sensitive those Italians you know and they take everything personally. I also never gave justice to Italian beer simply because, apparently, I was always taken to the wrong places.

I sat alone at my table facing the wood fired oven and watched the tall and skinny chef handling the dough. I always assumed a good cook must be fat, or has a full waste line at least. Very wrong assumption, I'm glad to admit. And, not only did this place look terrific but lo and behold they had a beer menu. I ordered an amber Rurale Birra. The waitress warned me: “But it is biggeh!”. I simply smiled at her and said: “Certo ... So” (Sure... I know).

It didn't turn out to be that big after all, a mere 750 cc any healthy boy like me should easily gulp down with a pizza. And, Ahhh, that brings us to the real stuff. I ate the best Quattro Stagioni, well really the best pizza ever, anywhere, anytime.

As I went outside for one last walk late at night, the buzz of Zelarino was no less magnificent than that of Amsterdam, a fitting end to a long stretch away from home. Did I mention that the beer was goooooood? Well it was and I can't wait for my next visit. When the petite waitress tells me that “it is biggeh the beer” I will answer, again with a grin on my face: “quindi si prega di fare loro due ” (Then please make them two).