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  • prequel

    "Top blog/Renato Obeid's World/Today's pick: This rambling weblog is worth reading not so much for its satirical posts but more for its insight into the minutiae of life in Lebanon, including the etiquette of road accidents and how to hire a taxi.” -Jane Perrone, The Guardian

    Thursday, January 20, 2005  
    Just woke up to find myself awake waiting for myself to wake up.
    I know it doesn’t make much sense but that’s what it felt like.It happens every now and then.

    A link on the MSN Singapore homepage invites us to “Donate to the Disaster” (tsunami).
    So I sent a cup of saltwater – it’s no tsunami but every drop adds up.

    6:30 am

    Tuesday, January 18, 2005  
    A Japanese restaurant called Tsunami opened in a suburb of Beirut just before Christmas.
    Although it preceded the deadly tsunamis, it has since come in for a lot of criticism for alleged insensitivity in light of the Boxing Day disaster.Not by me though – I quite like Sri Lankan food.

    3:45 pm

    Monday, January 17, 2005  

    I couldn’t be bothered thinking one up but there’s got to be an Irish joke in there somewhere.
    So, I’m outsourcing the jokes to you.
    This is a trial run for further outsourcing whereby I will identify and point out potential joke sectors to readers who will tailor provide accompanying jokes to their liking.A sort of build your own joke kit.

    8:45 pm

    Sunday, January 16, 2005  
    Just saw Samuel L Jackson on CNN spruiking his latest film, “In My Country” - about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.I can’t wait to see Hollywood’s depiction of the TRC – “you want the Truth and Reconciliation? You can’t handle the Truth and Reconciliation!”

    12:00 am

    Saturday, January 15, 2005  
    - night of the long walks

    Just got back from a walk to Jounieh.
    The weather’s quite mild for this time of year, so I was quite hot by the time I got there.
    Despite that, I “had” to close the taxi window during the ride back up here because the taxi driver said I should as I’d been sweating and would suffer a “strike of the wind” (direct translation from Arabic of a purported malady blamed for everything from colds to JFK’s assassination) and I didn’t want to offend his animist sensibilities (he’s only nominally Christian).
    There’s a fear of the elements here bordering on animism.
    Local superstitions include: you can’t go outside if you’ve had a shower (I find it hilarious that grown adults will tell you ‘’I can’t go out now because I just had a shower’’ and not be jokingly imitating Borat at the same time), can’t drink something cold in winter (especially if you’ve got a cold), you have to wear a singlet at all times of the year (I myself have submitted to that – although I did put up a fight at first but resistance is futile), you must drink a glass of room temperature water before going outdoors in winter and, the big one, NO DRAUGHTS!
    I heard so much carrying-on about draughts over the years that I finally decided to create one – by opening my balcony door and the kitchen balcony door at the other side of my apartment (the Christian south of level 2 as opposed to the animist north, the other apartment, where my parents are) I manufactured my very own crosswind and now harness wind spirits to ventilate the apartment for an hour in the morning in winter and cool the place in summer.
    And it works – we practically have two climate zones on the second floor here.
    It’s nature’s own air-conditioning – “refugees”, visitors from the animist north that I occasionally bring over to cool off, remark on the difference and ask me if I’ve actually got the air-conditioning on.
    The northern sector is a zero-gravity environment due to lack of oxygen - just like in outer space, you have to hold on to things to prevent yourself from floating away.
    I’m quite responsible about it though – I warn animist visitors (mainly mum) that there are wind spirits about and offer to turn off the crosswind for them.
    I tease mum about how she must be so conflicted over the fighting in Southern Sudan – torn between supporting the Muslim North and the animist South.
    How’s that for conflicting loyalties!
    Sometimes when looking after my young cousins I get quite confused trying to remember who’s just had a bath thus can’t go outside, who’s got a cold thus can’t drink something cold, who can’t eat no lean, who can’t eat no fat! And end up getting them mixed up – “you can’t have a cold drink young man, you’ve just had a bath!”
    It just shows that children will believe anything their parents inculcate into them.
    It’s just a bit weird and unnatural to see children, who are meant to be carefree and impulsive, acting like old people.
    A friend of mine told me she overheard her grandmother and her friends trying to ascertain how she (the grandmother) had caught a cold and eventually determined that it must have been a “strike of the wind” when she opened the freezer.
    Who knows – it may very well of been.
    Maybe if you believe in it so much it will happen.
    Just like some Aborigines in Australia will lay down and die when an elder ''points the bone'' at them.
    When you combine this animism with cargo cult science (add that to the cargo cult culture, education, democracy, judiciary etc often practiced here) you get specious ‘’medicine’’ practiced with an almost religious intensity.
    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – there might be a kernel of scientific truth in these idée fixe (e.g. if you roll around naked in the snow you’ll catch hypothermia) but whatever speck of truth that existed is magnified and distorted and blown out of all proprtion to the extent that it becomes a fetish.
    Literally worshipping at the altar of ignorance.
    And this often backfires on its ignorant practitioners – one of the reasons people get more colds in winter is, not because of the elements they’re trying to protect themselves from, but ironically because, out of fear of these elements, they batten down the hatches hermetically sealing their houses and sealing in germs along with that.
    Simply put, one of the reasons people have more colds in winter is not because there are more germs around in winter (there aren’t) but because people ventilate their houses less in winter.
    This fear of the elements is counterintuitive and counter-evolutionary – we would not be alive or have evolved in our environment if something as elemental as wind (it’s everywhere!) was detrimental to our well-being and existence.
    And if you think I’m being a bit harsh, bear in mind that lack of oxygen in a house of slavishly half closed windows (as if that was some magical formula to guard against the wind spirits) in the middle of summer does that to you.
    Caffeine is another good example.
    Many people tell me the obvious, that caffeine is a stimulant and is thus not advisable for insomniacs but don’t realize that most things that you ingest are stimulants – anything that nourishes stimulates, after all isn’t that what nourishment is?
    Besides if caffeine can keep you up for twenty four hours or more, as often happens with me, then it’s a miracle substance.
    Insomnia, in my opinion, is often an act of God, not that God is keeping you awake but that it is so random and unpredictable that if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen regardless of any external factors or anything you do or don’t do.
    There are times when I’ve drunk a Red Bull or two to stay awake and then fallen asleep soon after.
    The only thing about so-called energy drinks that keeps you awake is the price – ‘’I paid that much for jumped-up cola!?’’.
    By the way, when I say “my apartment”, I’m not implying that it’s entirely mine – it’s my brother and sister’s too but they’re not in Lebanon at the moment (unfortunately).
    In their absence, I have appointed myself Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries (their rooms) and keep an eye on them.
    I also use my sister’s room as my walk-in closet and my brother’s room as my “powder room” - where I spray on my deodorant (I’m not going to spray that crap in my room!).
    It used to be vice-versa, brother’s room closet and sister’s room powder room, but my brother visited last summer so I had to get my stuff out of his room before he came.
    When my sister visits, I’ll do another switcheroo and switch them back again.
    But, as I said, I do look after the rooms too – I once killed a spider in my sister’s room!
    There you go!
    I can confess all of this with impunity and immunity because none of my family and friends read this anyway and if they do, it’ll be well worth it just to have them aboard.
    Also with a clear conscience because we’re very close - how else could you explain my brother using my toothbrush?
    When he can, my brother uses my toothbrush to freak me out (he tells me after he’s used it).
    So, whenever he’s around I hide my toothbrush in a very safe and secure place (I can’t, you’ll understand, disclose in which bank’s vault) and put up a decoy toothbrush in the bathroom.
    Someone who doesn’t know my brother will wonder why I don’t do the same to him.
    The answer to that is that he just doesn’t care!
    E.g. I tried implying that I’d done all sorts of things to some orange juice I’d got for him and he just didn’t care!
    Anyway, how can you fight someone who’s not afraid of using somebody else’s toothbrush!?!
    It’s like the dilemma of fighting modern terrorism – how do you fight someone who isn’t afraid of dying?
    He also thinks it’s funny to move my pillow.
    When I make my bed, the pillow has to be in the exact center of the bed.
    I’ve developed quite an eye for this and quite some accuracy – once or twice I’ve measured the distances afterwards, as a sort of quality control just to make sure my calibration was right, and it has indeed been spot on (give or take half a centimeter or so which is well within my permissible margin of error).
    Suffice to say, this is not easy and can take up to five minutes to do sometimes.
    Once I had a fight with my brother and went back to my room later to find that he had moved my pillow as a form of revenge.
    I factor in and cost in one pillow movement a day when he’s here but anything more than that is beyond the pail.
    Whilst I’m divulging my eccentricities, I can also reveal that I have a special book for killing mosquitoes.
    No, not an actual instruction manual on how to kill mosquitoes (which someone once thought I meant when I told them about it) but a book that I have selected as the exclusive book I use to smash mosquitoes with.
    It is Henry James’s The Europeans - not my favorite book as you’ve probably gathered.
    I don’t think it’s a mosquito’s favourite book either.
    I salve my conscience over my “mosquitocide” with the fact that it is a very literary end (literally) for a mosquito and that they’re not subjected to the whole book, as I was, but only the “ending” (I use the back cover - “This book is about…SPLAT!”).
    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing for mosquitoes around here.

    I never actually sit down and watch television but will see what’s on whilst having a cigarette or snack.
    Today I came across the Lebanese version of Star Academy (the second season of which started a week ago).
    Like all other reality TV shows, it appears to me to solely consist of people sitting around on couches eating apples.
    I don’t get it.
    I hadn’t realized that there was such a big demand for programs depicting people sitting around on couches eating apples.
    Who would have thought?

    3.45 am
    I’m ten minutes into my second walk to Jounieh this evening.
    I would have preferred to have caught a service up to Daroun and then walked the half an hour back down to my place but that didn’t transpire.
    Although I did stop a service just outside my place but declined it because the four (including the driver) youngish men in it looked a bit dodgy to me.
    What sealed it was that the driver side door and the left side rear door were opened seemingly in synchronization as soon as they stopped the car.
    What are they - commandos or something?
    “Woof, woof…”
    Talk to the dictaphone buddy!
    What is it about dogs and this stretch of road?
    They’re all over the place – every restaurant has a dog.
    It’s like bloody China.
    I’ve just passed some more dogs, two dogs in the same establishment actually.
    They’re meant to be guard dogs but what is it exactly that they’re guarding – plastic chairs and tables, a secret manouchie recipe?
    Twenty minutes into the walk, just past Bkerke now, and I’m already out of breath – I got to smoke more.
    Twenty-five minutes and all’s fine – still trying to out walk and escape my insomnia.
    It’s not easy – you have to get up very early in the morning to beat insomnia.
    Actually, maybe I hit the nail right on the head.
    Maybe that’s exactly what it takes – getting up early, thus being able to sleep.
    Logical but not guaranteed – insomnia doesn’t play by any rules.
    It’s pretty crafty and tricky too – it will often fool you by telling you that you’re tired and that it’s okay to go to sleep now, only to jump you when you lie down to go to sleep.
    I feel like some of those characters in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel that walked to another village to escape an insomnia plague in their village.
    Well I haven’t seen any evidence of an insomnia plague in this village.
    Except for those dogs and chickens crowing in the background.
    I don’t know why Lebanese chickens crow at night – don’t they know what time it is?
    They ought to listen to the radio more – that’s all you hear on the radio these days.
    All over the place there are paths snaking down from the main road and I’ve contemplated taking some of them to get down quicker but I don’t trust them – maybe I’ll walk down one of them for five minutes and end up in a private driveway or in China.
    Nope – I’m not falling for that one.
    Thirty-five minutes on and my faith in dogs has just been restored – I’ve met three friendly dogs, two Maltese and one mongrel, and they appear to have decided to accompany me (maybe they can’t sleep too).
    I don’t know whether that’s a very good idea – I don’t want them to get lost but dogs can’t get lost can they?
    So, I’ve become a sort of pied piper to the village dogs.
    The two Maltese have dropped out but the mongrel is still in the race – “you do realize that you’ll have to walk back up don’t you, I can’t very well take you back up in the taxi with me can I?”
    I feel guilty dragging this dog along with me but he seems happy, nobody’s forced him.
    Lost him – he’s just dropped out.
    This must be the delineation of his territory.
    And to think that I thought that he was some sort of Scooby Doo dog who was going to stick with me and help me solve mysteries.
    “You want the truth? – You can’t handle the truth!”
    Fifty minutes finds me on flat land – walking though the side streets of Jounieh to get to the central square to catch a taxi back up.
    I’m whispering because I’m on hobo alert – this is the street where the hobo lives and seeing a hobo, by very definition, has no fixed address, he may not be in the exact same place I encountered him yesterday (prior to that, I’d seen him somewhere else on this street).
    So I have to be on my guard and presume that he could be anywhere.
    Just passed him now and he’s sound asleep – “shhh, don’t wake up the hobo”.
    Just left hobo street.
    Just arrived at my destination having walked for an hour.
    Another hobo**, a friendly one having a coffee and a cigarette at the taxi rank, greeted me with “welcome Father” (mistaking me for a priest).
    It’s not the first time, that’s happened.
    Have to wait a little while for the owner’s son (who’s on duty tonight) to materialize – someone at the snack place that the taxi scion has just opened next door has gone off to the nearby “Super Nightclub” to get him.
    I had always thought that a “Super Nightclub” was a really good nightclub (super!) but it’s not – it’s a sanitized whorehouse staffed mainly by Eastern Europeans.
    He rushes out soon after, telling me that he’d been “delivering an order”.
    Yeah right – is that what they call it these days?
    Since when do delivery boys wear a shirt, tie and blazer?

    I ended up going for another (third) walk after that one at around 7.00am.
    Man – it was like an all night shuttle service between Harisa and Jounieh!
    Even the dogs couldn’t keep up with me.
    Which is no mean feat considering that they spend all their lives just walking around (from what I can fathom).
    Obviously my insomnia chose not to accompany me on those walks but rather to wait for me at home instead.
    I finally got to sleep at around 10.30 am after my insomnia excused itself – it had a gig to do on the other side of the world (Seoul I believe).

    *My younger cousin once asked me what time I ended up getting to sleep the previous day and I told him “you don’t want to know”.
    His older brother chimed in with “don’t tell him, he’ll be frightened”
    **The taxi drivers tell me that he used to be very rich but squandered all his money gambling – the typical romanticized hobo legend.

    12:00 am

    Friday, January 14, 2005  
    Towards the end of my “sleepwalk” to Jounieh, some hobo I hadn’t noticed sleeping in a doorway frightened the life out of me.
    He started shouting “get away from here, get away from here!”
    Which I could have sworn I’d already done without his prompting – having been about twenty meters past him when he started screaming it.
    That’s why I looked around to see if he was “talking to me” and I ascertained that he must have been because “I’m the only one here”.Maybe he thought I was competition muscling in on his territory – with my beard, tracksuit and old but comfortable peashooter jacket I must look like a hobo.

    12:00 am

    Thursday, January 13, 2005  
    I'm no sports fan, let alone a fan of polo, but I was very alarmed to hear on the radio today that the World Health Organization is mounting a campaign to eradicate polo of all things!
    Surely there are more important and relevant things for the WHO to do - what about eradicating polio!?!

    2:45 pm

    Thursday, January 06, 2005  
    One of the scarier moments in my life was during Israel's1996 Grapes of Wrath* incursion into Lebanon when I was freelancing as an interpreter (stranger things have happened) and consultant for an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio correspondent.
    We were traveling to the afflicted South everyday and the Israelis were targeting in their blockade of the theatre of war the one unbuilt-up stretch of road, about a kilometer long, leading to the South.
    Off the coast was an Israeli gunboat taking random potshots at southbound vehicles using that stretch of highway.
    The driver sped-up as we approached, as almost everybody else did, but the correspondent told him not to, that how fast you were going didn’t make a difference for one of the world’s most advanced armies.
    She was right – the side of the road was littered with the wreckage of cars, most of them not victims of Israeli fire but of car crashes caused by speeding.
    In the South, we interviewed an old farmer who tearfully told us that one of his cows had been killed by an Israeli bomb – quite sad but at least it was kosher.
    I don’t get it – aren’t cows supposed to be killed (unless they’re dairy cows or pet cows)?
    We went to another badly hit village and spoke to the residents, the Hezbollah, etc and visited, in their home, the family of a Hezbollah fighter who had just been killed.
    The father told us that he had twelve more children and “Inshallah (God willing) they would all be martyred too”.
    “Inshallah” I replied (the customary response in Arab society to someone who wishes for something).
    This village, the residents told us, was famous for its poetry and its panel beating.
    We were accompanied by an American journalist pretending to be a Canadian** and another American journalist not pretending to be another nationality and agreed amongst ourselves that it was a good thing to have something practical to fallback on in case the poetry didn’t work out.
    Although my first translation of “panel beating” did cause some confusion amongst the assembled press corps – we were interviewing some off-duty Hezbollah fighters and asked them what they did in ordinary life.
    They told me that they were panel beaters and I translated it back.
    Only the ABC lady understood this British/Australian term, the Americans didn’t and asked what I meant, so the ABC lady and I were explaining that panel beating is a term for beating out the panels of cars and having an animated discussion about this with the bemused Americans whilst the Hezbollah looked on.
    On our last day in the South (Saturday, the day after the campaign had ended), we got stuck in a huge traffic jam going there – stuck amongst the reverse exodus back home of hundreds of thousands of Southerners in cars, buses and trucks laden with mattresses and boxes and luggage returning from their refuge in Beirut.
    Coincidently, it was like the exodus scene in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
    Both lanes of the highway had been commandeered for the purpose.
    On that last day we asked some man whether the Hezbollah would disband after an eventual Israeli withdrawal and he replied, “we’ll see”
    We shall indeed.
    And that “we’ll see” is exactly what I’m afraid of.

    *The Israelis have such righteous sounding names for their campaigns and the Lebanese collected the set – fortunately we were spared other John Steinbeck titles (there was no Of Mice and Men campaign for example).
    **Being Canadian came in handy when mobs of men were showing us the American manufacturers mark on spent Israeli weapon shells and screaming “made in USA, made in USA, made in USA!”

    The first Israeli incursion I witnessed was Operation Accountability in 1993.
    I was staying at my uncle’s house in the North perched atop a mountain some six hundred meters above sea level overlooking Tripoli and commanding views of most of the North and parts of Syria.
    In the early hours of the morning, the Israelis attacked a coastal Palestinian refugee camp and a factory on the on the outskirts of Tripoli (just beneath us at the foot of the mountain)
    We had a bird’s eye view and it was the first time I had ever seen warfare – one image that sticks in my mind is that of a building being hit by a missile, followed by blinding orange flash and a bang.
    I won’t say that it was just like a movie because it wasn’t – it was just like the news, which it was.
    I felt like I was watching CNN.
    Most of us are so used to seeing “life” through the unreal prism of television, cinema and other media that when something real happens right before our very eyes we instantly equate it to that unreality (the only “reality” we know).
    We’re always watching TV even when we’re not.
    We’ve become “intelligent” machines that reflect back to the world the distorted reflection that we’ve absorbed from our monocular master.
    Television is the most dangerous household appliance as far as I’m concerned.
    I know of a newly married young man who, abondoning the marital bedroom, set up camp on a mattress in the living room and sleeps there, with his bride, because he claims that he can only fall asleep while watching television.
    His bride must be asking herself, “To whom is he really married to?”
    Scarier than being attacked by the Israeli’s was being “defended” by the Syrians – there was no electricity at the time so some soldiers from the Syrian radar base, about one hundred meters down the mountain, ran up to the house and asked us to switch on the generator (there was no mains electricity at the time so they took their power from us).
    Recieving no satisfaction (the guard told them that it could only be turned on with my uncle's permision and he was asleep), they, and some other Syrian soldiers from another base that was also on the property (just outside the front door) joined my maiden cousins and I watching proceedings from one of the balconies.
    My teenage cousin said that she was afraid and one of the Syrian soldiers told her “don’t worry, we’re here to protect you”.
    She replied, unironically, “Well, protect us” (looking down at the pandemonium on the coast).
    The next day my cousins and I piled into a Range Rover and went down to Tripoli to see the damage close-up.
    Realizing the most of Tripoli looked like it had just been bombed anyway, thus it was impossible to find what we were looking for, we went back home and spent the rest of the day flying down the mountain on bikes and being ferried back up by the chauffer to do it all over again.
    From another mountain, Harisa, I’d occasionally see other Israeli operations in action and the Lebanese army replying with hopelessly inadequate World War Two era anti-aircraft guns.

    If you think that being an American in Hezbollah territory is a bit dicey, then spare a thought for my friend Nathalie Hobeika who went to the lawless autonomous Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el Helweh in the South to report on one of the violent intra-factional wars that flare-up there every now and then.
    Dangerous enough as it is but not made any easier when you share the same family name of the alleged foreman of the 1982 Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camp massacres.
    Although not related to Eli Hobeika*, just sharing the same family name is more than enough in this clannish society.
    How else can you explain another friend of mine being regularly asked to accompany a young man from her village on his trips up to their village in the early post-war years?
    It’s a lot easier for a young man who just happens to share the exact same name and village of origin of an imprisoned militia leader to negotiate checkpoints when accompanied by a female companion.
    Nathalie felt a lot safer on another trip to the South when she was working as an interpreter for a visiting delegation of foreign parliamentarians.
    Accompanied by the cavalcade of police and army that are a requisite part of any political expedition in Lebanon, they certainly didn’t encounter much resistance as they sped along with sirens blazing and the lead police jeep clearing the path for them with the ubiquitous refrain of “to the right, to the right!” shouted at any motorists in their way.
    Until that is they came across a cow standing of the middle of the road and not, it seemed, intent on going neither right nor left.
    Slightly different situation then the usual situation of ordering motorists to the right hand side of the road, but it didn’t engender any sort of different approach by the irate policemen – “to the right, to the right!” he screamed at poor Bessie.

    *Eli Harvey Oswald (I once heard him likening his situation to be that of Lee Harvey Oswald during an television interview) always protested his innocence, maintaining that the Israeli’s framed him.
    Prophetic comparison – he was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut in 2002 just days before he was due to testify against Ariel Sharon at a court case in Belgium brought about by families of massacre victims.

    2:30 pm

    Wednesday, January 05, 2005  
    Ten days have elapsed since the Asian tsunamis and the international community remains slow to respond – office workers from New York to Sydney have been left high and dry, without one joke or email (that I know of) circling the world.
    It’s simply not good enough!
    Comedians and emailers can and must do better – who can forget the way jokesters immediately swung into action after the Bhopal and space shuttle disasters?

    1:52 pm

    Saturday, January 01, 2005  
    - Smoke more
    - 1559

    9:00 pm

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