20 May, 2010

Urbanisation and our health

Did six thousand years of urbanisation improve or worsen our health. I have written this blog post on the Red Cross and Red Crescent Campaign blog.


And those would be your 500 words for the day.

18 April, 2010

Let's Rock n' Roll

In this past week, something has awakened the old rocker in me. It might have been that I had to restore my laptop and download my music to iTunes again, that was when I decided that my cluttered library is preventing me from actually listening to music. I forced myself to fill it with only five albums and put in more only once I have listened to them enough times, the choice was difficult!

I decided after contemplating for a couple of hours (yes I seem to have a lot of time on my hands) on a list that included:
AC/DC: Back in Black
B.B. King and Eric Clapton: Riding with the King
The Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
Bob Dylan: Greatest Hits
Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand
Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin I
Metallica: The Black Album
The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street

You will have noticed that I have cheated, it was like picking your favourite child, and I have left many of my children abandoned in a lonely hard disk drive. Those abandoned included my extensive collection of jazz, all the blues, and more rock and roll. When I finally gazed at my music for the coming days, I could not help but wonder what made me include only rock and metal on my iPod!

I haven’t always been a big fan of rock, actually, coming from Syria and growing up in the nineties, Arabic pop music was all we listened to with the odd old English song on the second Syrian TV channel with Lionel Richie or Madonna in a 10 years old music video. I was only introduced to rock when I was in university by Fateh and his gang.

Fateh was one of the more eccentric students in the school of medicine in Damascus. He had long hair, wore rock bands t-shirts, and talked about nothing but Slayer, Metallica, and Sepultura; to add to the wackiness, he was an two metres tall Goliath with a baby face you just couldn’t take seriously when he was trying to act like a bad ass.

He became a good friend, we knew that there is no way we could reconcile our differences in almost anything, let alone music; but he made me listen to a large dose to my taste of heavy metal. I told him that I did not like the aggression and pessimism of the music, he told me that I did not understand it.

Only years later, I read the lyrics of Master of Puppets and it blew me away. They were talking about drugs, and not in a fond way either. The song is a chilling image of how drugs take over a person’s life and turns him into a slave, and it is probably the most effective and original anti-drug message I know of. I wish more health messages we create can be as popular as this one.

This lead me to listen to much more rock beyond my old time beloved Beatles, and threw me in a sea of great music. Now, I run to Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle and Paradise City, keep awake on long drives with AC/DC live album, and even relax with Nirvana.

Rania told me today when I tried to force her to listen to Led Zeppelin’s album that she actually liked the music but hated that they shouted all the time; she preferred less screeching and more singing. She is right normally, but I think that some things have to be screamed out loud and that St. Anger has to find an outlet in our lives that uses headphones rather than fists, but that is only me.

Thank you Fateh, you’re the man.

And here are your (more than) 500 words for today.

04 April, 2010


If eternal judgement turns to be anything but a myth, I can see how it goes with me. God, in his infinite wisdom, would ask me what good have I done with my life, frown, and whisper something to an angel on his left side who will hand me a key with a number. I would walk an endless corridor and open the door with the matching number only to see my own custom-made hell, a nightclub.

 Laterna used to be a bar in the heart of Damascus where disillusioned leftist politicos would sit down, drink a beer, and contemplate what they could have done better to change the world; a shabby place that could not be closer to Orwell’s Chestnut Tree CafĂ©.

Things have changed in Damascus since, the Laterna doesn’t exist anymore and the little space before it is now a valet parking for our new society. I went there tonight on my last night in town for a fun evening out in what is now known by the velvet society of Damascus as the Chillo nightclub.

I sipped my Red Bull vodka and looked around the scarcely lit hall that used to listen to political discussions and ambitious unrealistic plans only to see the nouveaux riches of the city dancing to unimaginably horrid remixed fast-paced music. I sat there under the tuned-to-Siberia air-conditioner while my internal organs received the shock waves of the amplified beats and my brain cells died of the over stimulation of the sound and light thinking that if those men had such enthusiasm going to a gym they wouldn’t be that fat.

What made the evening even more comical, and disturbing, is that it was held by a charity that used the alcohol money to ‘buy clothes for the poor’ as I was told. Which means that good deeds needed to go through the barman to make sense and that all the fat cats there were getting drunk in the middle of the week for a good reason. All is OK then.

All that aside, I still cannot see the point behind going to a night-club! What makes people actually believe that the hellish, dark, noisy, crowded dungeon is entertainment worth paying for? The dancing of the drunk, the music that is only worthy of torture chambers, or the overpriced alcohol? I am not sure I am in the right, or any, mental state to attempt an answer.

People who need that much fuss to believe they are entertained have simply not been introduced to a good book, a worthy movie, or an interesting conversation. To be in a place with other people you like and not be able to exchange two sentences because of the noise is simply a waste of time, even after four vodkas. Why do people do it then, I am not sure. If anyone knows, please enlighten me.

In the meanwhile, do not go to the Chillo, or any nightclub for that matter, you have been warned!

And here are your 500 words for today.

30 March, 2010


There is an essential difference among countries, and I am not talking here about geography, history, language, culture, politics, or any of your usual factors! I am talking about differences in traffic in particular.

After driving, and being driven around, in a few dozen countries, I can almost categorise peoples by their driving habits. And despite your scowl about using stereotypes, I will try to argue this from a cultural point of view. Climate, history, and beliefs affect how peoples dress and interact; they surely affect how people drive.

I lived in Geneva for four years now, I have been as Switzernised as a Middle Eastern can be; Now, I am tight on rules, punctual to the millisecond, clean my desk to obsession, and hold votes with Rania on dinners. My Syrian side still lives in me though; the hotheaded, passionate, argumentative, slightly chaotic persona is ready to get out at the first call. Reconciling the two has been a hard job.

Les Genevois drive their cars with the same manners they live their lives, they signal on every turn even inside an empty parking lot, never exceed 50 kilometres an hour, and always stop for a pedestrian to cross even if they would miss their save-the-world-economy-and-get-even-richer meeting in their private bank.

Syrians will drive even faster if they weren’t in a hurry, try to kill a daring pedestrian who didn’t respect cars’ ultimate priority, never signal even if their lives depended on it, and break traffic rules as a national hobby. But why?

I have looked at driving in countries I have visited in my quest to answer this very question. I have found that Italians will park in unassigned places, French will drive fast if they know they wouldn’t be caught, Germans will drive even faster even if their cars cannot handle it, Indonesians will never look the other direction before they take a turn on their motorcycles, and Nigerians will use their mobile phones while driving even if they didn’t have much to say.

Without much quantitative evidence, it seems that the worse the socio-economic status of a country, the worse people drive its cars. Proving this might have to wait until Professor Rosling adds a driving quality indicator to his GapMinder. But this doesn’t account, I believe, for all the variations. This is a call for further research and opinions!

Syria has introduced much stricter traffic code recently, with higher fines and clearer rules. This, to my pleasure, has made traffic much slower on Damascus streets. So we conclude that fear of punishment improves driving quality. But then, the scene today on the streets of Damascus is still the same one that used to prevail a couple of years ago but in slow motion.

It might be that punishment, police, and fines are not enough. Things might need to be extended beyond that, into creating a culture of respecting rules and abiding by a social code. This will take a generation, maybe two, and will cost us much of our rebellious heritage, but it might be worth it.

I will struggle my way back home through the busy streets of Damascus, and imagine the day when a taxi driver will not try kill me when I do not clear his way really fast.

And here are your 500 words for today.

28 March, 2010


My father hated travelling. He used to have anxiety attacks every time he had to travel. His domesticated nature, coupled with inability to use the internet to research his destination, transportation, or hotels made it a tough experience for him to go through. But he was a different person when he came back from one of his rare trips, he would spend hours telling stories about places he went to and people he met.

I am happy I didn’t take after my father in his travel anxieties. My job takes me to many places and every trip is a pleasure. The parts of travelling people hate like airports, unknown places, and different food and languages I find fascinating. I am right at home in airport lounges and thoroughly enjoy foreign food.

Many people I know have problems sleeping in new beds, this they find most difficult about travelling. Hotel beds are comfortable but not friendly, they might be the loneliest place you can be. I manage that with a strict routine of always unpacking even if I am in a hotel for one night, calculated messiness, watching BBC news several times over, and a little telephone conversation with Rania before I go to sleep if time zones allow. That, and the fact that I am a fast sleeper make hotel beds tolerable.

The one aspect of travelling I still dread every time is packing. The many trips taught me to pack light and take only essentials but I still find myself delaying the packing until the last possible minute. I have always wanted to make a checklist of things I have to take on a trip but never actually got into writing the damn thing on paper so I still use my mental list.

Here are some packing principles I find useful, although they are still short of an actual list:

  • A suitcase will always have a place for one more item, trust me.
  • Shirts are meant to make you look more elegant, that will not happen if they are wrinkled. Take extra care folding button down shirts.
  • No one needs seven pairs of shoes for a week’s trip.
  • Calculate the number of days you are travelling including the actual flying days then:
  • Take as many tops as you have days with 20% extra for spelled sauces and rainy days changes.
  • Take only 30% pairs of trousers as you have days (9 days = 3 pairs).
  • There is no such thing as too many underwear or socks.
  • Check the weather in your destination and take your clothes according to the weather there; never assume you know how it is going to be. I have frozen my ass off in Addis Ababa on a 12 hour stop because I assumed Africa is always hot.
  • Take a tie, there is always a chance you will meet someone important.
  • Take some snacks in your hand luggage, I starved while looking at restaurants in Amsterdam airport because I didn’t have any cash and my credit cards didn’t work because they only accepted cards with 4 digit passwords.
  • Hence, always take cash, Dollars and Euros will do almost anywhere.
  • Cables are your lifeline, finding a Nokia charger might be easy, but one for a Blackberry is much harder to find.
  • This is from Rania’s book, always dress elegantly for your trip. Check-in people are much more likely to upgrade you to business class if you are well dressed. When it happens, it is worth it.
  • If you cannot sleep on a plane never forget your iPod, book, magazine, good memories, and sense of humour.

Go travel, enjoy it, and know that whatever trip you think is hard used to take days or weeks on a horse, ship, or walking.

And here are your (more than) 500 words for today.

25 March, 2010

Getting stuffed

I will be home in Damascus in 72 hours and I cannot wait. Like many Syrians in foreign lands, going home every year is a tradition when many interesting things happen; we meet the family, hang out with friends, do needed paperwork, and most importantly, get stuffed with mothers’ food.

My mother starts listing meals she will cook for me weeks before my arrival. She calls, suggests recipes, argue about how to cook them, listen to my requests, and then ignore them and do whatever she pleases. If one thing is certain, it is that I will have to go back to my pre-diet trousers and relax my belt a notch.

For us, Levantine food lovers blessed with mothers and mothers-in-law who make heavenly dishes, this will fulfil the urge for the week we spend with them, maybe for a few weeks later when we can still taste the spices in our mouths. But what about the other 50 weeks of the year?

Do not despair, there are solutions!

Cooking might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and cooking some Syrian recipes is particularly complicated, just think of attempting to make Kibbeh balls in perfect identical shape and stuff it and you will know what I mean. However, it is not that hard to make some of the most delicious and famous Syrian recipes. A beautiful dish of Hummus will only take basic ingredients, a food blender, and 20 minutes, and Voila!

Many other dishes can be made easily, those will cure craving and make great snacks and meals for your non-Middle Eastern friends. This is particularly easy with Middle Eastern ingredients available around the world in specialised grocery stores and big supermarkets.

One of the best places to find Syrian recipes, and I acknowledge being biased here, is a wonderful blog written by my oldest friend. On his blog, he calls himself Kano which is good for anonymity and a nice reminder of our childhood when we used to play Mortal Combat on his Nintendo. Kano was the name of the character he always played.

Kano wakes up every morning in London and goes to a hospital where he performs surgeries. Unlike me, he continued his clinical career, wears a tie, and looks as doctors should. But in the evenings, in his kitchen/lair, he sheds the doctors skin and unleashes the chef. He cooks, experiments, creates, takes pictures, and writes recipes hundreds of people wait to read about and try.

Everyone has a talent, Kano’s talent is food. He can know taste of recipes that are still an idea in his head, and he can make food that reminds me of my childhood and help me show people that the Middle East is not about wars, bombs, and protests; but about culture, food, art, and history.

Among the millions of blogs flying in the ether, a few are worth reading, some are even worth going back to, and even less blogs keep you on your toes waiting for the next posting. This is what the Syrian Foodie does.

For the other 50 weeks of the year, thank you Kano!

And here are your 500 words for today.

23 March, 2010

The Shining

What makes a good movie? Why would anyone pay a good 20 Swiss francs for a blu-ray copy of a 30 years old film?

That is what I did today, and I have a good reason. Rania has not seen “the Shining”, and I decided that 20 francs is a small price to pay to save the universe from that serious flaw. It is not for me, it is for the survival of future generations

People who come to our apartment share the same comment, “wow, you have many movies”, and I do have. I watch much less movies now than I did a few years back, but I still keep my DVDs displayed on shelves with pride. How can I not?

I always say that I have a good taste in books and an indiscriminate taste in movies. A book, I think, is a huge investment in time and emotions while a movie is much less so. A book a solitary act of commitment to the ideas and craftsmanship of a writer, the willingness to spend hours arguing with them on subjects that are in many cases central to our lives; a book is like a mini-marriage. That is why I spend a long time reading reviews, looking at covers, learning about authors, and hardly ever buy from an airport bookshop, marriages hard without the precautions you know.

A movie, on the other hand, is more like a quickie. I want an instant, fulfilling surge of adrenaline/emotions/fear/love/interest (scratch off as appropriate) that can take me through an uneventful day. I am not trying to undermine motion pictures by the metaphor, after all, one-night-stands can be great!

While my willingness to see any movie is unlimited – if we agree that musicals are not movies, of course – there is a lasting impression only some movies leave you with. It is not about story, lines, camerawork, or the beauty of the female character; it is that vague quality where I can see myself in the words or actions of a character so remote and impossible it is even more true.

Think of it, what man cannot find consolation in the words of Master Yoda: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” or understand the words of Eddie Temple: “You're born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you're up in the rarefied atmosphere and you've forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake son.” Eddie, I trust you, and I will be up there where there’s no shit one day.

But tonight I will watch the Shining and get distracted because Rania will be on the other side of the couch curled in fear. I will hold her and remind her its just a movie, then pray that the piles of work tomorrow will not drive me into a Jack Torrance style frenzy in the office.

And here are your 500 words for today.