Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Three guys walk into a bar

The following pictures were taken by a good friend of mine, Ziad, while myself, Nadim and Chadi were having a very in-depth, serious conversation at Bricks, Hamra.

The captions are his own, I've arranged them as thought or speech bubbles. All the shots are unposed. He is a veritable photographic sniper. And I shall have my revenge.

Ladies, let this serve as an insight into the minds of bored boys men.

Never before has someone seen straight to the core of one of my Machiavellian schemes...

Any suggestions for the final speech bubble?

I remember what I was doing, it was quite vile.

Monday, 2 April 2012

On police and cars

I'm about to state a Lebanese truism:

Where there is a traffic jam there is a policeman. Or four.

Seemingly without rhyme or reason Lebanese traffic police don't actually do much beyond taking the place of traffic lights, or marshaling cars around, or more accurately through, roundabouts.

I've come to the conclusion that the ISF (Internal Security Forces) have a deep, institutionalized fear of traffic lights.

Rather than allow these heinous machines to do their (incredibly complex) job of regulating traffic flow, they instead have decided that Charbel and Ali are much better suited to the job.

The results? At rush hour, roundabouts are no longer roundabouts, they're actually junctions where three incoming roads are closed off while one is freed to move. Traffic lights become designated iPod playlist management / radio tuning areas while your friendly policeman (having stopped traffic from one direction, more often than not counter to the color of the lights) chats with the kaak (local bread to the foreigners) guy on the corner. Once you're through one set, the next is so overloaded with traffic that you're often better going on foot.

I remember one day a few years ago when the then minister of the interior claimed that he was going to solve Beirut's traffic problems by increasing the numbers of police on the streets ... By the end of the week my journey home had doubled in length.

Rather than enforce laws concerning speeding, dangerous driving, or seatbelt and cellphone usage (and Lebanon has a truly appalling road safety record) the ISF has decided that they must meet the threat of the traffic light / roundabout head on.

The problem is, dysfunctional as the Lebanese approach to navigating traffic lights and roundabouts is (when the police aren’t present), it actually works. Yes, there are lines, but they move. No, you don’t give way to motorists on the roundabout, when you enter you shove your way on, and out the other side. However, it works, quixotic as it might seem, traffic does flow.

My question is this:

Do the ISF fear erosion of their powers through the insidious spread of the traffic light, or the devious machinations of the roundabout?

Or, is it a case of having too many men and no idea how to use them?

If it's the latter, as I strongly suspect, might I suggest they send the surplus to the back office and have them work on the endless piles of paperwork in evidence at every ISF office I've ever visited?

Though I must admit, they do look very pretty with their lovely white gloves.

(Today's rant was brought to you by "roundabouts" Mkalles and Habtoor.)

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Party of God, paintball and a genuine appreciation for Almaza

Around two years ago I was sat with a group of friends in Gemmayze’s Le Rouge. It was an eclectic group, it usually is. One of us had flown in from out of town for a few days and was being unusually noncommittal when we invited him out for a few drinks the following night.

After some gentle persuasion he spilt the beans, he was in town for a story a friend was writing for GQ. Now, GQ’s a great magazine and everyone’s curiosity was peaked. Gradually, the story came out.

A friend of his had somehow managed to arrange a paintball match between a group of American journalists and a team of Hezbollah fighters, in the name of, a., the story, and b., the general furthering of American-Lebanese relations through sporting violence.

My friend was the key in arranging this little get together.

I first met Andrew Exum during the foreigner’s orientation sessions at AUB in 2004. He came across a little, read very, brash. We were asked to introduce ourselves and he stood up, “Hi, my name’s Andrew and I work for the C.I.A.” The Americans all laughed, the Arabs didn’t.

The next I heard of him was an interview with Maingate, AUB’s student rag. It was then that I, along with the rest of the school, learnt that he was an ex-US Army Ranger Captain, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he had a gallantry award, and that he’d authored a book. Oh, and he was attending CAMES, the centre for all the strange foreigners who come to AUB to learn about Middle Eastern politics, as was I.

Despite the odd start, the CIA joke wasn’t well received, Andrew soon became a close friend of mine. He favored public humiliation for anyone who failed to correctly conjugate their verbs in Monday morning’s Arabic flagellation class; he got into a heated argument with the head of AUB’s history department over small unit tactics; he called out Robert Fisk during a brown bag session over a typically unsupportable statement. I’ve lost count of the number of nights spent drinking Maker’s Mark, debating the qualities of Almaza or commiserating with him after Scotland got annihilated at the rugby. Again.

Exum (left) and some other drunken fool on my
balcony, Hamra, 2004, Almaza present and correct

In any case, he’s one of the good guys. A sharp, critical thinker when it comes to his day job, working on policy recommendations, a great, funny writer when it comes to his blog and above all, a lover of all things Lebanese. And one of my best men at my wedding.

Oh, and a great paintballer by all accounts.

Obviously, the article isn't to be taken too seriously.

Thanks to Joe for the heads up.

(GQ initially commissioned the piece.)

Monday, 23 January 2012

Cabin fever

So it finally happened to me …

After seven-ish years in Lebanon, I got stuck in an elevator during a power cut. It was coming; I’d ridden my luck for too long.

It was a couple of nights ago as I was coming home after dinner with my friends and a few après-food drinks (digestifs certainly isn’t the right word, far too sophisticated).

I’d timed it to perfection, I had ten minutes until the cut, or so I thought.

Now, my apartment block is (much to my shame, as it looks like some sort of festive bordello) the only one on the street yet to take down our Christmas lights, so a twinkling Santa assured me that there was power as I hurriedly hit the button for the second floor. Two seconds later, “Thump”. No. No. This doesn’t happen to me. OK. Damn. Wait. Beseech anyone who’ll listen. Hit the button again. No. Santa’s dead. There’s no kahraba.

And I wonder why my generator bills are so high...
Pic from here.

So, after I had reflected on my stupidity at ignoring my own rules (No.’s 2 and 29), and wishing I hadn’t had that final cigarette, I soon wondered how to entertain myself. After contemplating the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (contrary to what Douglas Adams will tell you, the answer’s cabbage and not 42), I was at a loss as to what to do.
But, I had my phone and thus 3G. While going through Google Reader I rapidly discovered that web comics, even the brilliant Happle Tea, get a tad tiresome when you’re sitting on your bag on the floor of an elevator underneath a shadowy effigy of the supposedly jolliest man on the planet. It occurred to me at that point how similar the names Santa and Satan are.

"Now, what have I got in my sack for you little Timmy?"
Pic from here. 
After flicking through any number of websites and listening to Britney’s greatest hits (… Baby One More Time stands the test of time), I resorted to having a chat with Siri, Apple’s much-maligned personal assistant. Now, Siri’s a wonderful thing, can do all sorts of useful tasks, but a brilliant conversationalist, she, or in my case, he, isn’t. Asked what he thought of Google, he just said he “Thought different”. He wouldn’t comment on Katy Perry’s divorce (yes, my time on the Internet had been well spent). When I asked him to “open the pod bay doors”, he became somewhat depressed and first bemoaned the fate of electronic personal assistants post-HAL 9000 and then threatened to report me to his union. When I told him I hated him he apologized and said he’d endeavour to do better in the future, before darkly promising to remember what I’d said. I gave up when he became confused, and somewhat defensive, over the issue of his gender. I expect to be found dead shortly, my iPhone having wedged itself in my brain.

The mark of the Devil.
Pic from here.

After several drawn games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to the heathens) I finally felt myself drifting off to sleep. No sooner had my chin hit my chest than the power came on. Springing gazelle-like (*ahem*) to the buttons and slamming my hand onto the nearest one, I muttered a quick prayer to whichever deity happened to be awake at the time, and finally arrived at my floor.

In bed I lay reflecting on a lucky escape. For some reason the power had only cut for around an hour. Not bad. Mental note: must remember Rule No.’s 2 and 29 in future. Falling asleep, the power cut again, the UPS went off, resulting in incessant, demonic wailing. Getting up to turn it off I released that my media centre was turned on. But I couldn’t turn on the TV to shut it down as I have a budget UPS that’d keel over dead at the thought of powering my old plasma screen. Sleepless in Beirut. Again.

Électricité du Liban, I hate you.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On beer bellies, vampires and dreams

My grandmother always told me that if you haven’t anything interesting to say, then it’s better to keep quiet. Accordingly, BritinBeirut has been dormant for a while.

However, something rather bizarre happened to me the other day.

Now, at this point it’s important to note the tone of this post from here on out – it’s written with my tongue very much in my cheek. Take it as read that this isn’t to be taken too seriously, I certainly didn’t at the time.


The other night I was at Dany’s, celebrating, firstly the presence of a friend from out of town, and secondly, having eaten the best steak I’ve found in Beirut to date, at Cru.

I was looking forward to having three margaritas too many and was hanging up my coat when two women approached me.

To cut to the chase, they were shooting a commercial to be aired on Russian TV and asked me if I was interested in modeling. Remember, this is all tongue in cheek.

Now, let me preface this … I’ve done a few shoots, but never on a commercial basis. My time in front of the camera has always been a favor to a friend who needs to flesh out (pardon the expression) their portfolio, or an informal shoot for my university department’s prospectus, that kind of thing. All very fun, not too serious, paid for in beer. I’ve always felt I had a face for radio. In any case, I’ve never really been in front of the camera before.

Also, there’s the issue of my body. Technically I am member of a gym. Technically. The head instructor stated that I must lead “a very sedentary lifestyle” when I first joined. He was right too... I’m writer by trade after all, too many glasses of wine and packs of cigarettes in front of my laptop. Suffice it to say that I frequently receive the old ‘pat on the stomach and “ahhh” routine’ from my female friends.

Wimp. Real men have kegs.
Image from here.

Plus, Russian TV? Really?

Anyway, the prospect of making a little extra margarita money is always welcome and, let’s face it, it was flattering… at least it would be so long as I didn’t have to get down to my imitation CK briefs... So I signed up and exchanged numbers.

The following evening I received an SMS telling me where they were. Not a problem, I knew the area and got there in good time, allowing for the fact I anticipated walking around in circles for a while.

What I found that night looked like the digs for local squatters. Broken windows, the door swinging in the wind and water running in rivers due to the driving rain. After convincing myself that the building was in fact empty, all the lights are off, I stuck my head into the nearest dukan (corner shop to the Brits out there) and asked for directions. Sure enough that’s the place, the guy even told me the right floor.

Step inside my lovely...
Photo from here.

Right, OK. Out comes the phone, on goes the torch and in I go. It’s at this point out an observation is necessary for the non-Lebanese reading this: Time and again you’ll get invited to someone’s house or to an office and you’ll often walk through a rundown neighborhood, electricity wires hanging off buildings, litter on the streets, ripped up roads, overflowing skips, etc., only to walk into said office or home to find a beautifully appointed / decorated interior; So at this point I wasn’t overly concerned… well, sort of… this was an upmarket part of Beirut and this was the only building of its kind…

I head up a few flights of stairs, get to the right floor and there’s nothing, it’s absolutely pitch black. Guided by my trusty phone light I head off down a long corridor, doors on each side, no signs anywhere and all a bit post-apocalyptic.

At this point I was reminded of those clichéd horror films the Scary Movie franchise made fun of. You know … the one where some girl (probably wearing next to nothing) gets lured to a deserted building and is found the following day in a plastic sack on the side of the road? Yeah. Well. I’m a big guy, but that just means they’d need a bigger sack… Given that I’d recently watched Let the Right One In, a Swedish movie about the undead, disembodiment and, strangely, the growing love between a weird little boy and his vampire girlfriend, I was beginning to think that I really shouldn’t have kicked the cat that morning.

Uh, yeah, you missed a bit. 
No, a little to the right...

Photo from here.

Anyway, finally I reach the right door and lo and behold, there’s the name of the production company! I might actually get the chance to start that ridiculously convoluted Japanese novel that’s been on my shelf for a while… Then “bang!” on come the lights and I’m blinking frantically, half expecting to hear shouts of “Achtung! Achtung!” followed by sporadic bursts of gunfire.

Eventually I can see again and five minutes later, as I’m still stood knocking on the door and my phone calls go unanswered, fears of twelve-year-old vampires flood back into my mind.

Finally the door opens and I’m led (through a very nicely decorated office I might add) to the audition room. There are the two women from the previous night. Perhaps my mother won’t be receiving a phone call after all.

Yes, we were going for minimalist
chic, we rather like it.

Picture taken from here (somewhere).

Now, a friend has subsequently told me that this is completely normal, but I stood there talking about myself (which despite having a blog is something I rarely do at length) to camera. And being told to smile. Hard. All the time. For around ten minutes. I’m a surly bastard from time to time and obviously the muscles weren’t in order as I was soon in pain.

Eventually we get to the meat of the casting: the “acting” part. Heh. Right. So here’s what they got me to “do”… Keep in mind that I’m the only one there … Imagination is required…

So, I walk into a city full of people, I’m carrying a Chinese lantern in front of me, the type you light and float into the sky. This lantern represents all my hopes and dreams. I look around, all the people have such a lantern and are carrying them like they are the most precious things in the world. Hesitantly, I have to float my lantern into the sky, following my dreams wherever they may go. Of course, I have to grin like an idiot at the same time. Oh, and there’s a little boy. And his lantern is bigger than mine, because apparently as you age, your dreams wither on the stalk and die (OK, that’s my interpretation of her fraught lantern-dream analogy, but still). He releases his lantern, we both stare as they float away, yadda, yadda, yadda, roll credits.

Chinese lanterns: Environmentally unfriendly and
the vehicle of bizarre analogies, all round evil.

Picture taken from here.

Of course, I’m grinning all the way through. “Follow my hand with your eyes, it represents the lantern, I want to feel the love, the passion”, “Think of your dreams, you’re a successful businessman”, “The little boy is so happy, he’s not worried!”

And did I mention this was an advert for chocolate…? The mind boggles.

I very much doubt that I’ll be receiving a call as a result of my debut (I really was awful). But if there’s anyone out there who’s doing an advert for something like insurance, or the importance of checking yourself for lumps on a regular basis, I can do a really serious face. Just don’t ask me to grin like a lunatic for thirty minutes on cue. Especially if there are lanterns involved. Or small Swedish vampire girls. Or if I’m in my undies.