Thursday, March 20, 2014

Guerrier du Clavier

A Magic School in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires 

I want to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

How cool would that be?

It's almost magical. 

You have this slick thing where you just want to stick your head, and then just like that you pull out a living creature out of its hole. 

I don't want to suit up, though. It seems like too much of a hassle. The getting dressed part is already too much, as you have a shirt with a trillion buttons, then a vest, and these pants that have two buttons on the inside and a hook on the outside. But even before getting there you have to make sure all the pieces of the suit are pressed and starched. If you go further back you have to carry all of these from the dry cleaners while making sure it all hangs above the ground.For some reason clothes coming out of the dry cleaner are longer than they actually are and always end up being dragged on the floor which forces you to U-turn right back to the cleaners to fix the damage. That cycle could go on for a while. Now, if you go even further back, you have to actually try the suit on and get all these measurements done so its hemmed properly. You stand there spread eagle while a man with pins in his mouth crouches down in the vicinity of your crotch. Pins hovering around in that area make me feel a bit uneasy.

Ok I'm not an idiot, I know the rabbit isn't born right there in the spotlight, Mr. Bean-style. I know it lives long before it is pulled out of the hat. Like any living thing it eats and drinks and needs a space to live in. It also shits. Maybe it's not the most high maintenance of pets but it does require some care. I'm not great at providing care. I once killed a pet cactus. It's too much of a responsibility to assume just so I can pull it out of the hat. Actually, you might need multiple rabbits because one rabbit might outgrow the hat and in that case you'd need a smaller rabbit. Rabbits are known to multiply quickly, so that shouldn't be a problem. Alternatively, you could starve the rabbit so it shrinks back to a proper size, but that would be too cruel. Well the whole ethics of raising rabbits in a cage in order to pull them out of a hat seem questionable because rabbits never consent to it. Although you might argue that these ears are by design begging to be yanked on. 

I'm guessing the suit and raising rabbits cost money. I can save on food if I eat the rabbits once their gig is up. Again, ethically questionable, but millions of rabbits end up in Paellas yearly, self-righteousness isn't going to change that one bit. What if I end up making a mean rabbit à-la-royale and gain weight? Suit adjustment means pins around crotch again. 

Fuck this, magic is hard work.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Buenos Aires' Two Hughs of Blues

One of the great perks about pretending to be a writer is that you can do any type of shit and call it research for a story.

Oh, sure I have a pathetic profile on a dating website, but it's only because I want to see how people react to creepy declarations of love. It's for a love novella I'm writing. 

"Stumbling home drunk at sunrise in a city where I don't speak the language" is the title of a travel series I plan to publish in 2065 – you should all be dead by then so none of you will hold me to that. 

I'm not stalking a celebrity, I just want to understand how the blues fans of Buenos Aires behave in the presence of their god – god with a small g, because God with the capital G is reserved for some dude coaching football in Dubai. 

So my stalking advisor told me that this blues musician is doing a radio show very close to where I was – just 39 blocks away to be exact.     

Bus drivers are on strike in Buenos Aires today, but that's irrelevant because I was practically in the same building as the radio station. 

At the entrance of the theater were the radio studio is there was a group of about 40 people of die-hard fans of this music genre that was popular a century ago in the southern united states. 

"T-Bone Walker or Deadric Malone?" I asked a young woman. 

"Como?!?!?!" was her answer. Perhaps, she was more of a purist and preferred the pre-war blues.

A woman with a Venezuelan flag said she didn't know what the blues were or who the dude was, but she wanted to take a picture for Venezuela!

I asked here, "Which Venezuela are you for, because there is a bit of a divide there?"

She said, "Look at me!" At that moment she used here right hand to highlight her silhouette. "Do I look like a Chavista?"

I faked confusion and asked, "I don't know. What does a Chavista look like?"

"Sucio! (Dirty!)" she said with a laugh. 

"What a #$%^!" I thought to myself. By the look on the face of the Argentinian woman standing next to me, whose lower jaw had dropped just below her ribcage, she was thinking the same thing. 

A group of three women was pleading with the bouncers to let them through the barricade. "Queremos casarnos!" (We want to get married!) was their plea. I guess this blues musician belongs to one of these cults that promote polygamy. Mormon? Muslim? 

I was intrigued, so I googled his name. It turns out the dude is British!! So, definitely a Muslim. 

Hugh Laurie without a limp. (Photo Credit: ME!!!)

But what is a Brit with a sarcasm-filled career doing singing the blues? He couldn't possibly be taking a piss at America. Could he?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Whose Rock is it anyway...

I spent last ten years of my life calling Beirut home. 
They were very eventful years and the archive of this blog can attest to that. While it is a personal blog, my person was mostly just present in the point of view.

But let me share something very personal. Of course, I will use it to get to a public issue, but of course I would do just that.

One of the most amazing experiences in my Beiruti decadent decade was one morning when I decided to go swim through the Rawshe rock. It was nothing like I imagined it though. 

Here's how I imagined it would go: 

I would walk down to the Daliyeh, where Beirutis have swam for generations. Park my towel, shirt and flipflops on the smooth rock shelfs that mark the border between Beirut and the Mediterranean sea. Dive gracefully over that border. Showcase my flawless butterfly stroke as I glide over the water towards The Beautiful Rock. Stop right in the middle of the hole in the rock, lie on my back and take in this majestic setting in a state of aquatic nirvana. An hour later, I would glide back triumphantly. Nod at the daliyeh divers with that smirk of accomplishment. Jog back up the hill and re-enter the concrete jungle atmosphere that is Beirut having cheated on its man-made cityness with its most natural landmark.

Here's how it actually went: 

I walked down to the Daliyeh, where Beiruti men have swam for generations. I parked my towel, shirt and flipflops on the ragged and slippery rock shelfs that mark the border between Beirut and the Mediterranean. I slipped and fell painfully on my butt ripping my swimming trunks in the process. I got up and pretended I'm fine, held on to a rope and used a makeshift ladder to slowly immerse myself in the waters of one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. I showcased my flawless butterfly stroke as I glided over the water for about 5 meters then switched over to whatever stroke would move me forward in the choppy sea. A wave threw me against The Beautiful Rock, which –as rocks tend to be– is full of pointy and sharp edges. I climbed onto a little shelf on the side of the rock and assess the damage my skin and flesh has suffered. I held on for dear life as waves try to knock me around. A few minutes later I decided to make a run for it. I huffed and puffed my way back against the current as blood streamed from my arms and legs, and I guess my back too judging by the burning feeling I had there. I didn't even see the daliyeh divers as my eyesight was getting blurry by the time I reached them. My flip flops broke as I struggled back up the hill.  I was so grateful the city had taxis that would drive a shoeless, muddied, and bloodied person home. 

Would I do it again…. abso-fucking-lutely!  Except, I wouldn't be able to. 

The Daliyeh – waterfront public property since life on earth started – is now a property of the Hariris. The fishermen and their families who lived there for generations were evicted and land will be "developed" into an exclusive resort. 

The people at Mashaa have done a great job documenting how Lebanese mafiosos have stolen the "Phoenician" sea...if you care to know more.

*Photo of demolished homes by Marwan Bou Haidar. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Oh My God! Look at the Poor People!

How do you parody poverty? I believe it's offensive to poor people not to make jokes about them because they're poor. Poverty deprives you of many material things but it shouldn't deprive you of a sense of humor. That's still free, even if comedy has been largely commercialized. Judging by some Hollywood "comedy" films I've seen lately, the comedy writing process has been pretty much robotized. 

In Rio's slums, poverty has been commercialized too. They call them Poverty Safaris. They are as disgusting as they sound. 

They are basically safari cars flanked by police escorts with sun-burnt tourists wearing carnival hats snapping photos of poor people with their instaphones. 

But those are not nearly as bad as the EuroAmerican-NGO activists who "volunteer" in Favelas. These have the audacity to brag that they are "fighting poverty."

I spent hours in the hilly alleys of Complexo do Alemão. I also rode the cable car that gives you an invasive bird-eye view of poor people's houses. 

When the 2016 Olympiad take place in Rio, the cameras focused on the Olympic stadium will not zoom out enough to show you this heavily populated area of the city. 

Three out of four people I told my name to had the same reaction: "Jamal?!  Millionaire!!!" I was puzzled at first, but then I realized it was a movie reference. Mumbai is 13,400 kilometers away from Rio.

People are conditioned to be afraid of the poor. "They steal!" I say if they were any good at stealing they wouldn't be poor. There you go, a cheap joke at poor people's expense. Of course, they can only afford cheap…. ok ok I'll stop.

Judging by the fortifications and barbwire they hide behind, the people who run the Igreja Catolica are the most scared of their poor neighbors. There are a lot of Igrejas around the favelas. Igreja Bautista, Igreja Evangelica, Igreja Adventista….They are the original NGOs after all. Two thousand years of exploiting and pacifying people in exchange for tax exemptions. It's God's will that 85 individuals control half the world's wealth. Coincidentally, these generous 85 tend to fund NGOs that fight poverty.

Speaking of Brainwashing, I too could not get over my own childhood legends. Sure, FIFA and the Brazilian government are destroying homes and displacing people to build parking lots for the World Cup, but I had to visit the Maracanã.

Now you would expect futebol fans to be energetic. But this kind of energy fills every corner of Rio from the shirtless alleys Complexo do Alemão to the shirtless shopping boulevard of Ipanema – shirts just aren't a thing in Rio –  and I think I figured out Brazil's secret.

While the rest of the world is splitting atoms over energy options, there is a clean, renewable, and potent energy source in Brazil…it's called Samba.

I'm convinced Samba originated as someone was trying to walk on the Hot sand of one of Rio's beaches. The rapid foot motion makes you hover over the ground and thus avoiding third-degree burns. It's a survival skill really.

Brazilians love to dance, and they're pretty damn good at it. Sure there is Samba, but I also witnessed something called Forró. Samba is pretty simple.. just let every muscle and bone in your body shake at warp speed. I said simple, not easy. Forró is more structured. Your feet move front and back, hips oscillate right and left, shoulders stay still, head slightly bobs up and down, and arms alternate between squeezing your partner hard enough that your spleens fuse into one and twirling your partner around with that centrifugal force seen in olympic hammer toss, but without letting them go.  Oh, and this is done on a dance floor packed with dozens of other couples doing the same thing. I stayed away from this because the only thing I could picture if I got in the middle was a tour-de-france peloton tumbling down the alps. 

I felt inadequate and thought I might challenge Brazilians to a Dabke-off, but I have no doubt that if they decide to Dabke it would take them about 30 seconds to out-jump and out-kick Abdel-Halim Caracalla in his prime.

May be continued...

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Go South, Young Man

In the mid-1990s, a Guatemalan songwriter released a song called Si el Norte Fuera El Sur. Ricardo Arjona takes a few jabs at North American mono-chromic – or money-chromic – culture and war-loving politics and plays with how things would be different if North was South. In the last line, Arjona concludes that if North was South, it would be the same shit. "Si el Norte fuera el Sur, sería la misma porquería."

I've been traveling in El Sur for the past 2+ months. I started in a country that is currently fighting off El Norte's imperial influence (Venezuela), and then moved on to countries that overthrew US-sponsored military dictatorships in the 1980's (Argentina and Brazil). It's quite amazing what people "left" to decide to their fates are capable of.

But the US learned a lesson in the 1980's and made sure that the alternatives to the dictatorships it sponsors in the oil-rich Middle East are created by them and scary enough to make people hang on to military tools – or bring them back to power in a "popular-coup".  That term sounded as a joke at first, but it's starting to sound like a popular joke.

The progress South American countries have made over the past 30 years puts them on track to bypass El Norte at some point in the future. At the pace the US keeps droning itself in its military-booted-foot, that future might be soon.

While the US war freak is juicing up on economic steroids, countries to its south are being built around self-sufficiency and sustainability.

When was the last time you heard the word sufficient in english? According to the google ngram tool, it's becoming extinct.

I know I'm oversimplifying and not really getting into the details and the problems of these countries. But in reality it's even much more basic than that. It's the societal mindset on which countries are built. Some countries decided to harvest human energy, while others are obsessed with fossils. 

Guess, who I'm betting on to have a better future? 

That's why I disagree with Arjona. It will not be la misma porquería.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Carnaval Propaganda (Part 1)

Rio along with the rest of the continent and other pockets around the world celebrate Carnaval this weekend.

Wednesday marks the start of lent, but at some point in history the revelry surpassed the piety involved with this event.

I must admit I left Rio before Carnaval, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me that the 2 weeks I spent there weren't Carnaval. But we'll get to Samba later. 

There's more to Rio de Janeiro than dancing, and that's saying a lot because dancing in Rio is HUGE.

Rio is the second biggest city in Brazil, and the 3rd biggest in South America and Southern hemisphere for that matter.

According to travel guides, the most advisable thing to do in Rio is to lock yourself in your room. Actually, it's not even advisable to leave the airport because the evil taxi drivers will rip you off. So by paranoid travel publishers standards, I cheated death about a million times during my stay.

I did feel unsafe a few times, but that was only because the drivers of city's buses are all aspiring to be the next Ayrton Senna – not Formula 1 champions, but rather just someone who dies for ramming a speeding vehicles into a wall. I don't blame them though, their buses do sound like they have jet engines installed on them.

Another problem with the bus system is that there really is no way to know which bus to take. Rio, a city of 7 or 8 million people, has 830 bus lines. In comparison, the more populous Buenos Aires has 190. So I guess there is some redundancy in the routes. In any case I have a personal issue with buses. I can never request a stop right. I either pull the chord way too prematurely, or way too late. If the bus ends up stopping within 3 kilometers of where I wanted it to stop I consider it a success. Even with that, my success rate is under 50%.

So I prefer the metro. In Rio I had an extra incentive to ride the metro. I fell in love with the female voice that makes the announcements. I know all she's saying is, "Next stop, Botafogo. Exit on the Right side of the Train." But damn it sounds so musical when she says it. Actually, all Brazilians sound like they're singing when they speak. The heavy enunciation of the vowels is what does it, but you need strong vocal chords and jaw muscles to pull it off. 

Not only do they sound nice, the Cariocas are genuinely nice people. Too nice. Annoyingly nice. 

They are so nice, that even when they kick you in the face they purposefully miss it. They call it Capoeira. 

I do speak Spanish, which I thought was close enough to Portuguese for me to survive. It's not enough. I couldn't have proper conversations with people. I even had trouble ordering food in some instances. Thankfully, Brazilians have a solution for that. 

Before getting into that, let me tell you one thing.

I hate the Bento Box. Food should not be compartmentalized. Foods of all kinds and colors should mix creating what in Arabic we call a Khabsa. The Bento Box is Culinary Apartheid. It's basically the Israel of food serving vessels.

The opposite of the Bento Box would be the Food by the Kilo, or Quilo, buffets. They are quite popular in Brazil. Pile it all on one Plate and weigh it. All food is equal in the eyes of the Cashier. 

To be continued…