Saturday, October 30, 2021

Thanks a million...

 “What do you mean: Go on TV? I can’t go on TV. I don’t want to go on TV.”

“But Ma’am, you applied to be on the show. You beat tremendous odds just to get a call back, and then you went through the test, got short listed, tested again, got shorter listed, and you knew all along that the ultimate goal of this process was to play for a million on Television.

“Now, I’m telling you: You made it. We will fly you to Beirut and you will have your chance to win that Million.”

“No way I go on TV. I consider myself a winner already.”

“But Ma’am, you are really good with this trivia business. You have a real good chance at going all the way.”

“No Way. Thank you, but no way I go on TV.”


For a few weeks in 2008, I was Saint Peter. The pearly gates were equipped with metal detectors. Heaven was three floors under street level. Heaven was the glamorous and glittery studio that hosted the taping of the Arabic Edition of The Million Dollar Carrot.    

Actually, the massive former right-wing Christian militiaman, who stared you down as you walked through the metal detector at the entrance of the studio facilities, fits more the image of Saint Peter. I think his job was to diffuse bombs with an intimidating stare. Also, the elevator’s alleged destination was minus-three, but to this day I cannot confirm where it actually takes you. It was by far the smoothest elevator ride I’d ever taken, and thus it was hard to know for sure whether it was going up or down. It might have moving sideways, diagonally, or even teleporting. The only thing I know is that we got off when the display read “-3”, and that was where we taped the Million Dollar Carrot.

I was in charge of casting contestants to chase that carrot.

The one hour primetime slot during which the show would air had enough minutes for an average of three contestants playing the game, opening and closing credits, the host introducing the contestants and explaining the game, promotional plugs, and of course commercial breaks during which some of highest priced thirty-second slots would be played. So the visible part of the process of a contestant going all the way and winning the million lasts around 15 minutes of television airtime. 

[Insert Tip of the Iceberg cliché here. Or better yet, let’s make it a carrot cliché]

But that’s just the visible leafy part of the carrot. Carrots as we all know are invisible roots that grow underground, or in this case on the fourth floor of an office building 12 kilometers south of minus-three.   

The invisible process starts months earlier in that faraway office. From the outside you can still see a couple of bullet holes marking the facade of the office building. It is not too far-fetched to think that it was Saint Peter’s militia that left its mark there 3 decades earlier. The office is in the Ras Beirut district, which at the time these bullets were fired used to be under the military control of an alliance of militias that were fighting against Saint Peter. 

Inside the office, the only thing that remained from that era was the asbestos. I had convinced myself that if you’re informed about the presence of carcinogens in the air your nose will know to filter them out. This hypothesis has yet to be scientifically disproven, and it is what keeps me frequenting smokey bars. 

It was a world away from the studio though. It was neither glamorous, nor glittery. My office had bare white walls, a cheap desk, a telephone, a headset, and a desktop computer whose ON/OFF button had a 50% success rate on a good day. Also unlike the studio, the office had a window, and mostly survived on natural light. That window just happened to look into the hearse exit on the backside of a major hospital. Coffins do not leave hospitals through the front door; it’s just bad for business.

The production budget for the show that particular season allowed for two one-million winners. A third one-million winner would be just bad for business. There are actually insurance policies taken out just in case an accidental third million is won, but I didn’t have to worry about that. My job was to bring in as many potential million winners as possible. It was always going to be a long-shot to win the Million despite the tagline of the show that made it seem only a few multiple-choice answers away. The process has morphed over the years and adapted to the changing technology and geography of the show. In 2008, the potential of making money off of the SMS habits of a mass viewership was lucrative. Therefore, the first step to the million was to send a simple SMS that often cost a fraction of one unit of the currency currently printed in your country; tip jar coins basically. The SMS contained a name, a number that represented the candidate’s claimed age, and a word that is what people would use to answer the overused question: “So, what do you do in life?”

These 3 pieces of data along with the phone number and country from where the SMS originated would end up in a massive spreadsheet. My job was to look at that spreadsheet, call as many of the numbers as I could, and bring in as many potential million winners as possible. I wasn’t alone. We were a team of three, but no matter how long we worked and how much caffeine or other performance enhancers you pumped into the team, there was less than a 10% chance that you’d ever get a call from The Million Dollar Carrot team. 

The call included a trivia quiz, some personal questions, and a bit of random chit-chat. Those who get perfect scores on the multiple screening tests would automatically make it on the show. However, there were less than 10 of those at the end of the casting process, and we needed around 80 contestants for the entire season. Here’s where judgment on the other criteria kicks in. This judgment comes from some personal questions and a bit random chit-chat.

Most of the perfect scores are eager to get on the show as it represents a real chance for a significant financial gain. Except we all know that the carrot doesn’t always work. The exchange I started this story with was with one of these perfect scores. She was a woman from Saudi Arabia. She was one of the most impressive trivia whizzes I spoke to, and I spoke to many. She answered every question I asked her correctly. But I never got to ask her the question I really wanted to know the answer to. Perhaps, I didn’t do it because it wasn’t professional or maybe because I already knew the answer. She was a woman from Saudi Arabia. 


Perfect Score. A Woman. Saudi Arabia. These were pretty much the criteria for casting.     

Perfect score is a no brainer.  

The men on the spreadsheet outnumbered the women by a good 5-to-1 ratio. I’m sure there is a good anthropological explanation for that ratio, but as far as TV casting was concerned we needed to make sure the number of those who made it on air was evenly split between the two pre-postgenderism sexes. That meant that women had a 5-times better chance to get the initial call. After that, the merit tests were the same and there was no drop-off in qualifications in the pool of female candidates as opposed to their male counterparts.

There was a considerable drop-off, however, if you compared regional casting results. Candidates from the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on average performed way below average. Perhaps there was a cultural bias in the set of questions used to quiz the aspiring millionaires. It mattered not. A good chunk of the viewership and most of the advertising revenue of the show came from the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We needed to cast Saudis on the show. We could not alienate viewers. Sportsmanship is confiscated by the ‘roided up Saint Peter at the door. Being Saudi automatically gave you an unfair advantage over nationals of other countries in reaching the Lit Seat.

Some might call it the Hot Seat, but Television is about light and not temperature. Also, I can assure you, having sat in that chair, that the temperature even under the powerful studio lights is near freezing. You cannot risk sweat on TV for it reflects light and creates a glare that messes with the image. Also it makes sense to call it the Lit seat as it is surrounded by 150 unlit seats. These are reserved for the studio audience. The studio audience applauds and cheers on cue. They are also paid $10 a head.          

The studio audience arrives at the studio facilities on 3 buses that travel between 70 and 120 kilometers to reach “minus three”. They are herded to their seats by a condescending contractor that delivers studio audiences according to the specs demanded by the show. With the lights on the foreground their unlit silhouettes become merely a patterned wallpaper; wallpaper that applauds and cheers on cue. As a client, you just give the contractor your pattern preference: youthful, business casual dress, average girth, uniform height, and so on.

“I’m a farmer and I do this in the off season,” said one studio audience member as he sipped a coffee between shows. “We do 2 shows in a day. That’s $40 for my wife and me. In some shows we get to see famous singers that we’ll never get to see in Akkar (an impoverished rural area in northern Lebanon). On this show, we get to learn stuff. The host is so smart.” 

“And good-looking,” added the wife.


“Is he as handsome in person as he is on TV?” 

I heard this question many times during the casting process. “He dyes his hair!” I would scream in my head. He also reads his lines off of a teleprompter. He might be smart and handsome, but he definitely is not what you see on TV. Gameshows may be portrayed as unscripted and spontaneous television. However, great effort is put in to avoid surprises. Contestants rehearse walking onto the set and sitting on the Lit Seat. They have a practice run so they don’t freeze under the lights. Winning the million is rehearsed to test the confetti machines. The confetti is then swept up and tossed, although it looked perfectly recyclable to me as it is impossible to tell used confetti from new confetti. Contestants time in the chair is estimated based on their casting scores. Idle chatter is increased and decreased according to the airtime needs. 

We would tape 2 shows a day that would air weeks later. During that period of time, the tapes of the show are worked on for hours to create the manicured final product. Beyond the hair dye and the faux-knowledge that he’s fed, any gaffes by the host that may hurt his authoritative image are edited out. On the show, contestants would sometimes seek the help of a friend via phone. On air, the process is smooth and the friend always answers after 2 or 3 rings. In the chaotic control room where the attempt to connect with the friend takes place, this process sometime takes many minutes that feel like hours. During these minutes, exchanges like these have happened:

-“Mishaal needs your help on the Million Dollar Carrot.”


-“Noof needs your help on…”

“I changed my mind, I don’t want to help her anymore.”

-“Samir needs your help…”

“Can you call back in ten minutes?”

-“You have reached the voicemail box of….”


These awkward pauses are edited out.

In the control room, as well as in the editing suite, the vocabulary used by the team consists purely of words that cannot be said on air. It’s probably subconscious overcompensation.

At the 250,000 level, two questions away from the million, the executive producer seeks help from a friend. As the show breaks for commercials and dramatic build up, the network’s top brass confer, assess the contestant, and make the call on how hard the last 2 questions should be: fairly hard or impossibly hard. A starstruck young auditor from a multinational accounting firm is present at all times. 

It’s television and ratings decide.

The woman from Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly have gotten a fair chance. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Riad Salameh’s Ponzi

Every now and then I try to put my finance degree to use, but never for my own financial benefit for some reason. It caught my attention that Lebanese state-issued Eurobonds, which are bonds issued by a state (Lebanon in this case) in a foreign currency (USD in this case) to raise cash for state spending (let your imagination run wild in this case), are trading well below their face value, which means that if you buy these bonds on the market now you will get higher returns than initially promised by the issuing entity. The return on your investment right now would be over 20% per year, unless of course that issuing government defaults.

The fact that they are trading so low means that market speculators foresee a high risk of default, which means the government won’t settle the bond when it’s due, won’t pay the full amount due, or even won’t pay at all. To put this in perspective, many Ponzi schemers won’t dare to promise returns of over 20% for they might push their potential investors/victims to start questioning their methods. Heck, many Ponzi schemers here are probably shitting their pants that their fools might ask to cash out their money so that they can throw it into the Lebanese Eurobond fire.

There’s an investment theory that is taught at Business Schools called “The Biggest Fool Theory”, which basically says it’s ok to be a fool and pay for something a lot more than it’s worth as long as there is a bigger fool out there who is willing to pay you more than what you paid for it.

Years ago a Lebanese restauranteur, who illegally occupies seafront public properties and was getting some $30 a meal from the Lebanese state to deliver Taouk sandwiches to the displaced in Sanayeh park during the 2006 war, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an auction for “premium cellphone numbers”. He was then quoted saying: “We are running out of real estate in Lebanon, and phone numbers are the next investment frontier.” Needless to say, he was the biggest fool in the premium cellphone number market.

Soon after that incidents, many of this wiz’s restaurants shut down, save for a rent-free spot courtesy of Solidere, which is another example of Lebanese genius business acumen at work. This company, Rafiq Hariri’s second biggest heist after his public debt scheme, is losing at Monopoly while playing alone. It keeps drawing the “Go to Jail, Do not Pass Go, Do not collect $200” card, which could be seen as just bad luck, except they also print the cards. It takes a special kind of inept to lose at a game where you’re playing alone and you tweak the rules in your favor whenever you feel like it. The tax-exempted Solidere was supposed to be the shining jewel of the neoliberal economic project implemented in postwar Lebanon.

Nothing embodies the Lebanese economy going up in smoke like the recently levied tax on Argilehs. The Lebanese government's Cheech and Chong solution is to tax a bong served in a restaurant that doesn’t pay rent to a landlord that doesn’t pay taxes. Talk about putting out an Amazonian wildfire by blowing at it as if it were birthday candles.

Speaking of, Lebanon’s central bank chief Riad Salameh earlier this month completed his 26th year on the job. He says there’s nothing to worry about; your money is safe with him. 

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Cancel Byblos

Lost in all the Church vs Middle-Upper class liberties’ bubble fight last week was the fact that the Byblos Festival (and all other regional -read sectarian quotas- festivals) and all of its concerts are subsidized by the bankrupt Lebanese state. At a time where the President of this failed Republic is calling for sacrifices, people from all over Lebanon are contributing to fund a Yo Yo Ma concert, whose tickets cost between $65 and $125, or 14%-28% of Lebanese minimum wage, per ticket. 

I would share the sums of  how much exactly does the Ministry of Tourism pump into the festivals’ coffers  every year, but that information is not on the Ministry’s website. Actually, the latest news about Festivals on the Ministry’s website are from 2015.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for subsidizing the arts and making them more accessible to the people. But as it stands the Ministry of Tourism subsidies are nothing but slush funds distributed among the ruling elite that fund instagrammable moments for those who can afford to dish out a few hundred dollars to attend a concert. 

So no matter which abstract concept won, the Church’s “Jesus” or the Rights Bubble’s “Freedom of Speech”, there are only absolute losers when it comes to the net tangible costs of this battle, unless your name is Yo-Yo Ma of course.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bags of Money

I’ve missed many money making opportunities over the years. When I was a recent MBA graduate in Miami I had a brief stint working in the Florida mortgage market. This was circa 2004 and none of what was going on made sense. Already risky mortgages were encouraged to refinance at a lower interest rate increasing exposure in the process. I felt something was amiss, but how could everyone be wrong. I was in my 20s, so I wasn’t arrogant enough at the time to bet against the market. Betting on the entire US real estate market to fail is not something they’re allowed to hint at in US business schools, which adhere to the Buy! Buy! Buy! credo. There was a movie made about someone who was smarter and more arrogant than me at that time: The Big Short. He made millions. I, on the other hand, have had a million lousy jobs. 

Almost a decade later, in my 30s, I was freelancing in the nascent gig economy and a client offered to pay me in Bitcoin instead of going through the bank transfer hassle. My choice was to take 100 Bitcoin(s) (can a computer code be plural?)  or just under 3,000 USD. I opted for the Benjamins, Baby!

I’m in my 40s now and I will not miss another opportunity to make millions. Lebanon is on the verge of collapse and there’s no way to reverse that path. Since I’m not friends with Riad Salameh in order for him cut me in on one of his schemes, I have to earn my millions through Lebanese business ingenuity and I have the idea that will make it happen: Sandbags and more.

The economic collapse is imminent and some type of war (or a bunch of mini individualized wars to cover all tastes) will surely ensue, unless you really believe the dolts who just spent six months trying to hash up a budget are going to lead the country to safety. For those who missed the last war, sandbags are stacked in front of windows and storefronts to shield against stray bullets and shrapnel. Snipers also love to operate from behind stacks of sandbags. Militiamen, militiawomen, and militiagenderfluidpeople at checkpoints cower behind sandbags to avoid sniper fire, and so on. Sandbags sell fast during war, so you better get your hands on a stack early. Now if you fail to act fast or sandbags are just not your thing, don’t worry, Sandbags and More will have something that fits you: a body bag. Of course, all our bags are biodegradable. Militias might be bloodthirsty, but they are definitely more rational than environmilitants. 

So who wants to invest*?

*We accept every kind of currency, cryptocurrency,  and even (one might say especially) crypt currency as long as it doesn't have Riad Salameh's signature on it.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Einmal ist Keinmal

There's no denying that there is a high that comes from the street. It's a natural high, unlike what the pee-sniffing authorities would like you to believe. But there is also a tendency to romanticize street protests and to give the illusion that people spontaneously mobilize in a response to a stimulus. While the garbage pile up in the city is both visually and olfactory stimulating, street protests are organized events with multiple mobilizing groups. As the Beirut protests continue, the make up and size of the groups behind the mobilization are becoming clearer. 

The leftist groups on the ground make up a good chunk of the mobilization and they are probably the majority if you count in the entire spectrum of left from Trotskyites to the Saudi-loyal "Left." Many of the leftist "coordinators" (apparently leader has a become a taboo word) claim to be aware that many of the other main groups on the ground and the ones being pushed to "coordinate above the rest" by establishment mass media are not going to deliver the change that is sought by them. But their argument is that word is now to the street and you have to be on the street to steer the mobilization your way. Incorruptible figures like Hanna Ghareeb and Charbel Nahas are invoked as insurance against the movement being taken in the "wrong" direction of globalized neoliberalism–or "depoliticization"–that promotes self-interest and individualism. It's not an Ego problem with some of the organizers; it's a political one. 

That's not to mention the possibility of whole movement being co-opted by the ruling feudal oligarchy, which remains the most likely outcome. Yes they are corrupt, but they have offered the people something to gain their loyalties. They are people and not sheep as many in the protests keep referring to them, and the fact that the feudal and sectarian party is more appealing to them than the alternatives is a more of a condemnation of their foes than it is of them. 

The continued failure to erode the sectarian divisions by leftist secular forces is because their activity over the past couple of decades has been largely limited to attempts at seizing opportunities created by circumstances. The abysmal performance of the ruling parties–like in today's garbage crisis–is an example of such an opportunity. Rarely, if ever, is this opportunity of their own making though, and there is always a sense of now-or-never-opportunism. The famous German saying "Einmal ist Keinmal" basically means that if something happens only once then it might as well not happen at all. Jumping on an opportunity created by your foes might lead to accidental gains, but only when you're making these opportunities you are in control and you can celebrate accumulated gains. Revolution is not a shout, it's a way of life.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Weekend Activism

Tropical storms and hurricanes are given names for easier tracking. The names also serve an accounting purpose as insurance companies treat named storms differently. They have higher deductibles as some can be very costly in this line of business. A lot of money exchanges hands at hurricane wind speeds during natural disasters, which means the accounting audits are "temporarily" overlooked and we end up with instances where half a billion dollars slated for Haiti earthquake relief end up building 6 flimsy houses. In the case of hurricanes, names are recycled every so many years. In some cases where the storm's damage crosses a certain threshold the name is retired. The same name technique is used in other fields where financial auditing may be needed.

Some NGO projects may in themselves be more damaging than many a natural disaster. Now if we want to rate NGO storms on the same scale that tropical storms are rated on (the Saffir-Simpson scale), then what has hit Lebanon in the last couple of decades is definitely a Category 5 hurricane.  Recent years have seen a rise in NGO named campaigns. Blame El Niño. Also the convenience of the hashtag makes the campaign names easily trackable. The CVs of NGO campaigners applying for funding include such hashtags to boost their donation worthy credentials. Trainings provided by civil society advocates teach a step-by-step guide on how to act in the case of a "cause." The 2015 summer garbage crisis was gold for seasoned scavengers… It's a textbook case for an opportunistic cause.

Today's international-funder-preferred activists are against the ideological -isms. But this form of activism is the worst of the -isms. They fulfill their -ism solely by being active. Maintaining a status quo works in favor of those with accumulated experiences and techniques on how to be apolitically active. You can recycle a campaign every so often as is. Shockingly, the non-results are always the same too. Tracking the success of campaigns is essential to accumulate experience and gains with political aims. Any half-serious political movement cannot overlook that. However, "politics are bad" and "all politicians are equally shit" are repeated by the depoliticized NGO activists. Empty slogans of unity are invoked. The cycle has been repeated many times over the past decade and it always ends with no gains; except if you measure gains by the NGO grants to some individuals. Some old campaign names are retired because they cross a certain threshold of notoriety (see the campaign against sectarianism of the Spring 2011 collection). But it's 2015, and NGO-bred depoliticization has more of a foothold today and thus the stakes are much lower. Visibility is always prioritized in NGO-friendly movements because they need to be tracked and audited. In these depoliticized campaigns, street protest becomes a goal rather than a means to achieve a goal. Despite the demands being minimal, today's movement like all previous hashtaggable ones will fail at achieving anything substantial. They will create real disillusion for a new generation of enthusiastic youth, and this is likely by design.

This is not to advocate inaction, but inaction is always better than action that is doomed to fail. Political action is a must, but serious political action tends to be invisible...except when necessary. Results should be more visible than activity: Resultivism over Activism. It should be more earthquake than a stinky wind.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Good riddance to his excellence

There’s nothing wrong for someone in a position of authority to be humble. As rare as that might sound, there are actually numerous examples of humility in power. However, there is a not so fine line between genuinely humble and outright hypocrite. Tom Fletcher, who goes by the title of her majesty’s ambassador, is unmistakably the latter. This diplomat was deployed to Beirut in 2011. His predecessor, Frances Guy, might have been genuinely humble… or at least as genuinely humble as a representative of a Crown may be. Genuineness actually may have ended her career, but more on that later.

In all fairness to humble Tom, the word humble is being redefined by generation selfie. A “look at me” era is upon us, and the empire and its Ambassadors have to adapt. The new crop of the Queen’s servants is all equipped with the look-at-me plugin. Look at her majesty’s ambassador in Cairo for example. Beirut might get him next, or any of his douchey clown clones. Basically, someone at the Foreign Office in London decided the new faces of the ever-shrinking empire have to sound like an insecure teenager. Tom Fletcher excelled at doing just that; tweeting his way to a like-minded audience and keeping it simple and dumb. But adolescent hormones play with your ego and sometimes push you to pop out of your twitter bubble exposing your ignorance and hypocrisy. Tweeting your love for hummus is one thing, but making political statements is another.

In an inane video exchange with satirist Karl Sharro, Fletcher quipped that her majesty’s constables would pick up Sharro. Fletcher of course was bragging that his country is superior when it comes to freedom of expression and that shit countries like Lebanon should follow their example. Oh how we'd love to be like thee…   

Of course, Fletcher chose to conveniently ignore that her majesty’s constables are constantly silencing journalists. While Fletcher was yapping in Beirut, UK authorities raided the offices of the Guardian and shredded hard drives. Heathrow authorities used anti-terrorism excuses to hold David Miranda. Oh, and do you remember Fletcher’s predecessor? She was silenced by her majesty’s censors when she expressed genuine human sentiment after a man she met while doing her job died. Frances Guy is no longer an Ambassador by the way.

Also, her majesty’s constable have had a street in London under siege as part of their war on WikiLeaks. Speaking of WikiLeaks, Look-at-me Fletcher seems to have wanted to be noticed from a young age. Look at young Tom passing petty information to the US embassy in Paris. But hey, petty informers grow up and become big...ambassadors.

Well, he wanted to be naked.

What else did Tom Fletcher preach about?

In one publicity stunt he wanted to show the natives how not to be racist. He did so by “trading places” in front of TV cameras with Ethiopian Kalkiden, or is it Kalkedan, or is it Kalkidan. She has no last name. I’m sure if she applied for a visa to visit her majesty’s kingdom her misspelled first name would suffice.

Fletcher cares about the borders his openly colonialist predecessors drew. The closeted colonialist loves Scotland, but loves Lebanese consumption a lot more. At the end of the day he’s a servant of an empire of monarchs and oligarchs.

Tom Fletcher, your empire is a relic. Its decaying components should replace the looted artifacts that sit as trophies in London museums. From Palestine to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and beyond. Stop loving us so much. You snooty colonizers have brought the world nothing but blood and pain.  

Your silly protocol states that you bow to your masters with class.

Well, with all the crass of a commoner I say:

Fuck their Majesty!

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...