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Friday, December 31, 2010

Year of the Cliff-Diving Bull

In the final hours I lure my raw feelings and trap them in an amber bottle. I nurse them with tenderness, lull them with the etherizing smoke of a Cuban cigar then watch them bleed through the tip of a pen. I run my fingers through the wavy hair of a year gasping for one last breath. Naked, I stand in the cold on top of a steep rock. The view is awesome as I carry 2010 precariously close to the precipice. You've been my year, I softly whisper, staring at eternity whirling in her sleepy eyes. I kiss her softly and lay her to rest. Then I tiptoe forward to the very edge, raise my arms high above my head and, like a cocked bow releasing its feathered arrow, I jump off the cliff, soul first. I dive toward the blue sea. At long last I'm free.

The world around remains enslaved by the folly of mad men and women. The lust for power, greed and tyranny dictate the day to day existence, the very destiny of the exasperated masses. The oppressed were further tormented while those living under the illusion of freedom went on with their lives unperturbed. The hungry, the homeless and the poor were stripped naked of their dignity by the cheapness of the rich. Generations aspiring for human honor and personal liberty suffocated from the obnoxiousness of fetid traditions and the defunct morality of ideas long dead. Is it about the world I'm writing or is it about me?

I bullied my way forward like a raging bull in an Andalusian plaza de toros. The smell of blood and urine and earth mixed together, filling my nostrils with the pungence of life and death. Torn between encouraging cheers and dispiriting shouts the arena turned red in my eyes. The matador was a small man like most. He would not stand a chance if it weren't for his picador on horseback and the gang of banderilleros stabbing my back with barbed sticks. Men who hide behind shiny pretense are bereft of courage while honor lies under the hoofs of the beast. Another swig followed by a long drag and the red lessened. I was walking upright again, crossing yet another bridge and burning it like others before. There was an open field ahead and way in the distance the silhouette of a forest emerged and drew my horizon. I walked on.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When the Sea Turned Blue

A 2,700 years old legend

It was a breezeless autumn dawn. Old waves fondled the sand, frothed then withdrew silently offshore. The yawning sun haloed the hills and drew the silhouette of a single mast against the fading darkness. A ship with sagging ropes stood motionless in the bay. Not a bird flew nor a fish swam. Only a man wading ankle deep in the white sea(1) lent life to the desolation while his village lay sleeping behind. 'Adon, son of Hanno, grandson of Yutpan the fisherman, reached the edge of the outcrop, crouched then waited.

'Adon lived in an obscure crossroads on the eastern coast of the middle of the earth(2). His hut was one of twenty on the out-skirts of Amrit and less than a prsha(3) to the north. More villagers worked in this great city as servants for the Amorites(4) or as peasants in the fields than fishermen. Yet Amrit with all of its glory and splendor was overshadowed by the island kingdom of Arvad(5), home of shipwrights, seafarers and mariners whose indestructible ships plowed the waves and ruled the seas. From his perch 'Adon glanced toward the tiny island still shrouded in morning mist then focused on the water below. The spear rested lightly on his thighs while his eyes penetrated the depth in search of movement. He caught the silvery flicker at the corner of his field of vision and before the bass had a chance to see him ‘Adon’s spear pierced through its flesh. More light seeped from the east as he lowered his body to the water line and retrieved spear and fish.

The shrieks of seagulls bounced and echoed off the walls of the narrow alleys awakening Melita(6) from her sleep. A narrow door at the corner of her room led to an elevated garden. She walked out and climbed a few steps to the tower then emerged on a landing with a commanding view of the island. Arvad measured 800 by 500 paces in all. Yet on that balmy morning it was the throne of the most powerful maritime kingdom in the world. Melita shepherded the vagrant strands of her wavy hair and tied them back in a ponytail. She gazed at the mainland’s coastline stretching till eternity. Tears swelled in her blue eyes for she will soon see her land no more. Ashtar, one of her father’s most magnificent ships, was moored on the beach across. Anguish tore at Melita’s heart and she sobbed.


The king’s envoys conscribed hundreds of men from the realm. From Ugarit to Tyre, they were brought to Arvad then shipped to Krit(7). King Danel Baal had forged a new alliance with the Kritians and was sending support troops to join in the war against the People from the North. In a gesture of good will, he gave his only daughter, Princess Melita, in marriage to the King of Krit. Seven of the strongest men were handpicked to escort the princess on her voyage and to man the ship. Ashtar laden with gifts of gold and dyes and glass and wine stayed on anchor not far from the sacred hill. King Danel Baal and Princess Melita landed ashore at noon coming from the island. The high priestess of the temple chanted invocations in a hymn to Hadad and Atargatis(8). Save Melita from the perils of land and sea, she prayed. Bless her and her husband-to-be with the offspring to fill the western islands and the Levant with the wise and the heroic. The throngs from mountain and plain converged near the bay to bid their princess farewell. The blood of a hundred sacrificial goats flowed into the sea as Melita kissed her father’s hand and walked ahead of her guard. ‘Adon sitting on his rock watched the proceedings with quiet resentment. While the masses shoved and pushed to get a glimpse of the royals he was annoyed that all the fish were scared off. The king and his daughter robbed him of his daily living. That was the extent of his true feelings. Her head held high, Melita walked steadily on the gangway. She turned one last time to impregnate her mind with an undying image of her Levant. Fighting the impulse to watch and losing, ‘Adon looked in Melita’s direction. His bitter expression morphed into a stupefied stare when he saw her beautiful eyes flooding then two teardrops running down her cheeks. She boarded the ship and disappeared. His heart broke in pieces leaving a void in his chest. The sail caught a warm easterly wind, the wood creaked, her bow heaved then Ashtar took to the sea.

Melita stayed in her cabin till night fell on the ship. The food and wine that were brought to her earlier remained untouched. From the small window on the port side she saw the moon dancing with the gentle swell. Then without warning, low almost imperceptible sounds brought her out of her reverie. A soft whoosh, a faint rustle, a muffled gasp, a dull thud stabbed the silence in succession before the door opened. A wet naked man, save for a puny piece of clothing, stood in a puddle of water in the middle of her tight quarters. He held a dagger which caught a ray of light from the lantern overhead. It gleamed savagely, dripping blood from the tip of its blade. Melita recognized the wild almost inhuman stare. This is the man who looked at me with loathing. His eyes were the last thing I saw of home. He had swam all afternoon and well into the night following the ship. He already killed some or all of my guards and now he wants to kill me. “What did I do to deserve such a fate?”, the princess asked, not a hint of fear in her voice. The man knelt on one knee looking straight in her eyes, then in a subdued voice he spoke: “You cried your Highness and no man alive, not your father the king nor a stranger from the other side of my sea makes my princess cry and gets away with it. I already killed the men and threw them to the dogs of the deep. I am here to bring you back.”

Melita and ‘Adon swam side by side. Tears flowed from the eyes of Melita dyeing the white sea blue. By morning they landed on a desolate rocky islet. In the distance, her beloved Arvad scratched the horizon. ‘Adon’s hut was not terribly far and lay hidden behind the skyline of Amrit to the north and east.

They were lost at sea in the legends of my land but Melita and ‘Adon never left the rock of Hbas(9) where they loved each other till the last day of their life. Their many children, handsome, strong and with eyes the color of olives and of the sea returned to the sacred hill and built Tartous. This is the story of my city told by a descendant of these two eternal lovers . Believe it... or not.


1 white sea: The Mediterranean is still called the White Middle Sea in Arabic (Al Bahr Al Abyad Al Moutwasset)
2 middle of the earth: Literally the Mediterranean
3 prsha: A Syriac word meaning a one hour ride on horseback
4 Amorites: One of many Semitic peoples who inhabited the Levant and established the city of Amrit, 7 km to the south of modern Tartous
5 Arvad: The island of Arwad, Arvad is its original Phoenician name
6 Melita: A Phoenician female name meaning safe harbor
7 Krit: Today, the island of Crete in Greece
8 Hadad and Atargatis: 2 ancient Syrian (Phoenician deities) read about them here and here
9 Hbas: A small uninhabited rocky islet off the coast of Tartous and at 8 km to the southwest

Thursday, December 02, 2010

National Geographic Magazine Arabic Edition

On  a long gone day in the summer of 1976 I flipped the pages of my first National Geographic magazine. Although my English proficiency was rudimentary the superb photography transcended the language barrier. It took me over a month to read and partially understand every article in that issue and by the time I finished my determination to improve my English intensified. Reading, which later became my favorite pastime and pursuit, started then and never ended.

Besides my formal academic training, I owe my early education to National Geographic magazine in great part. Along with the National Geographic Channel (NGC) it became my prime source of non-fiction erudition. As a graduate teaching assistant in the States I was fortunate that my designated office contained the department’s archives of the magazine. I spent hours on end reading avariciously about geography, anthropology, history and the physical sciences and staring dreamily at the photographs from distant lands and galaxies. On lonely nights and as a bedtime diversion I turned to reading fiction and my intellectual fate was sealed by my mid-twenties.

In October of 2010, 122 years after the first issue was published in 1888 the 33rd Arabic Edition  of the magazine finally saw the light of day. It followed the inauguration of National Geographic Abu Dhabi TV channel earlier this year. This free-to-air satellite channel is, in my opinion, the UAE’s greatest contribution to the Arab speaking World. For the first time I refrain from cursing their petrodollars and am obliged to give them a thumbs-up. After flooding the market with cheapish rubbish in the form of “entertainment” magazines the decision to publish something of substance and value is greatly appreciated albeit being late. While the 3rd issue (December 2010) was released today there remains a significant problem in distribution. Hopefully the publishers, given enough time, can overcome this very serious matter. As far as I understand the Arabic Edition is being printed in small quantities awaiting further market evaluation. The online subscription page is unusable since instead of providing an e-payment option I was “promised” that a representative shall contact me. I was not able to acquire the first October issue and managed with difficulty to find the second one in Beirut. If these logistic hurdles are adequately overcome National Geographic Magazine in Arabic could become a compelling source of education for a new generation of Arab speakers.

My two younger kids and I are already fighting over reading priority of the single issue we have at home. It is a dream of mine that National Geographic TV and magazine impregnate their minds with the light of knowledge, fill their hearts with the desire to discover the unknown, goad them into asking questions without fear of retribution and propel them to challenge their egocentric sense of decency. It is as important to learn that we are not alone on this planet as it is to speculate that we are not the only sentient beings in the universe. Young Arab men and women deserve at least that chance.