23.9.17

Early Memories - Lebanon - Beauty is in the eye of the rifle holder

Mount Lebanon - Jabal Lebnan - Le Mont Liban
Summer of 1991

My new friend Rabie' and myself were very close in age, his father said he had brought him along to entertain him. I was happy to finally see a kid near my age, it felt more normal to talk to him than to the adults. The restaurant had large terrace that connected to a small playground where kids could go play. We were to go play and leave adults to their own thing, so we stepped out.

"It is my first time here" I proclaimed to Rabie' trying to get him to talk to me. "Baba brings me here often, he has to work." I wondered why he thought his father was working in this restaurant; he wondered why I talked funny.

"I don't talk funny, in Jordan almost everybody talks similar to me." I explained as best I could. "So you are not form here? That is why!" Rabie' understood and he seemed to want to ask a million question as the same time. "Baba told me that the Palestinians ruined your country too. Is that true? Is your mother alive? How long did the war last in Jordan?" He blurted out in rapid succession before he could help himself. I realized that I had just bitten more than I can chew and so I just said "Yes!" to nothing in specific.

What did he mean by my country? How can Palestinians ruin my country? Didn't he mean Israelis? What does my mother have to do with all of this? So many questions popped into my little head and I knew I couldn't process them.

In hindsight, the conversation was between a young Jordanian kid of Palestinian heritage who never even heard of any conflict between the two components of his upbringing and a young Lebanese kid whose father was poisoning his impressionable mind with war stories about how bad the Palestinians were.

After an hour of goofing and playing around, I found something interesting in the dirt. It was a pendant with a picture engraved on it. I ran back to Rabie' to show him what I found, the lady on the pendant looked like the lady at dinner table and I told him so. He said she looked like the "Virgin" but I knew that couldn't be true.

We went back indoors to give the pendant to an adult. Rabie was telling his father that I found a pendant with the "Virgin" on it and I was telling my mother to give it to the lady sitting across the table. "Why do you think I should give it to her?" She asked and I had to admit that she looked a lot like her.

"Listen to this: Radi thinks Antoinette looks like the Virgin Mary, he thought it was her pendant." My mother announced to the table. I squealed in embarrassment while hiding my head in the seat cushion. Everyone thought it was cute, Antoinette seemed proud of herself all of a sudden. I just couldn't help but wonder who is this "Virgin" everyone keeps mentioning. I knew I should ask my father later on, he probably knew her as well.

I was so embarrassed and told my mother to ask Rabie's mother to have him go back with me to the playground. "I'll ask Rabie' after dinner, don't mention his mother for now"  my mother whispered back.

The dinner table was opulent, the Levantine Mezze as varied as the people surrounding the table. My father never seemed to stop working, although he seemed to have fun while at it. The only way I knew he was working is when he pulled his business card holder out of his pocket. He seemed to be able to carry a conversation with all the other adults. My conversations with Rabie' were a lot less fruitful.

Our chaperone was introducing my father to an endless array of Messieurs, "Abu"s and "Estaz"s. I was watching my father fire off a few jokes and tales that made everyone around the table seem enchanted.

I was again told to go and play with Rabie outside, I thought the playground looked rather aged and I told him so. "Before the war, we had many playgrounds, they were big too!" Rabie' replied and I knew this wasn't coming from him, he was just repeating what adults were telling him. "Did you live in Lebanon before the war?" I asked back, being an expat in the UAE, I assumed his family would have taken him to another country to live.

"I was born in the war, but then my mother lived with us back then, this was before the Palestinians  and Israelis gave her to God." Rabie' confidently answered, like he had rehearsed that line a million times.

"Israel took my country took my father's country too." I retorted, since my mother told me not to discuss his mother.
"It was the most beautiful country in the world." I said confidently, knowing what I said to be a fact.
"Lebanon was the most beautiful country in the world!" countered Rabie', he seemed shocked that I had the audacity to challenge the conventional wisdom.
"No! It was Palestine and I know it! If you don't believe me ask Rabab!" I motioned to my sister who had told me about our old country Palestine.

Rabie' instead ran to his father inside the restaurant and asked: "Wasn't Lebanon the most beautiful country in the world, Baba, before the Palestinians came in?"
Silence loomed until I said: "Palestine was the most beautiful country in the world until the Israelis came in!" looking at my father for buttress.

The adults all kept their tongues to themselves, until my father tactfully replied. "Switzerland is the most beautiful country in the world, it always was and will be." To which the adults laughed in relief from an awkward silence that was making them hold their breaths. Rabie' didn't understand what was going on.

"If it wasn't for the Palestinians, Lebanon would have been much more beautiful that Switzerland or whatever." He insisted. To which his father immediately yelled back " A'ib!". A world roughly translated as "shame on you," but most kids understand it to mean that you should just be quite because you said something you shouldn't have.

"Pardon Monsieur Khalil, I apologize from you" Rabie''s father addresses my father, "his uncle and mother where killed in East Beirut by the Fedayeen, he just doesn't know any better." I felt bad for Rabie' he seemed too young to have lost his mother. I also learnt that Rabab -my eldest sister- probably didn't know everything. She was a fan of those very same Fedayeen -Palestinian Guerrilla fighters- that had killed Rabie''s mother.

My father smiled and nodded and took the whole thing in stride, he probably knew that this thing was bigger than any of those on the table.

Driving back from the mountain in the evening, "They were with the Katayeb (Phalanges) in the war, didn't you see the sticker on his car?" My father asked rhetorically. "That triangular tree cut into three with the brown trapezoid, that is the Phalanges' flag, it was the same one they sprayed on bodies in Sabra and Shatila. They are not so innocent themselves!" My father explained to my mother who felt bad for the kid, she resignedly uttered: "How sad!"

"How sad!" was all she could come up with as the Sabra and Shatila was a massacre -genocide even- committed by the people of Rabie''s mother upon the people of my mother. It was sad because innocents were paying the price of yet another war they didn't choose. My mother lived through the 1970's events in Jordan, that was another "How sad!" moment to her.

The grey areas in Middle Eastern politics were always confusing to the layman, more so when they divided across sectarian, religious or partisan lines. Emotions ran judgement and not common sense.

Those words, Phalanges, Sabra, Shatila, East Beirut, West Beirut, Fedayeen, even A'ib turned out to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma. They stuck to my mind as a kid and it took years for me to understand what they meant. They still shape the Middle East of today.

Pity the nation is a good book to start if you are interested in the dizzying state of affairs that is Lebanon

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
-Kahlil Gibran

Peace, Out!

2.6.17

Early Memories - Beirut - as we landed

Beirut
Summer of 1991


It was another summer vacation, this time my father promised it will be different. I was a young kid and the airplane descending on the Lebanese capital was the highlight of the short flight. The scenery from the airplane window was captivating to everyone. On the one-side there was an endless view of the Mediterranean, on the other was a cascading hill of green trees and white stone building.


I made a mental note of the Cyrus and Cedar trees that dominated the view from airplane windows. I also noted that many people were far too excited to be landing, my family included. I was almost sure that this was another Cyprus when the stairs approached the airplane.

At the airport was a rather chunky man, who looked like a 1970s mafioso. He wore his shirt with too many buttons undone, a gold necklace added to his fashion statement. The shirt looked like cheap silk, to complement the look, he stood by a Mercedes-Benz.

This was our chaperone for this trip. My father's favourite way to travel was to have someone arranged on arrival. To take of all the little nuisances that come with travel. "Mr. Qanso sends his regards, we will meet him in the next few days."

"Cyprus was flatter"was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the terrain on the side of the street. "Cyprus had better streets, this is more like Jordan"

A few minutes of our drive to the hotel passed and I started noticing the holes in the building. "What are those holes?" I asked my father. The sturdy man offered a first of his rather simplistic answers. "Because of the war, Ammo, this was a front-line." Ammo is the favourite term of endearment in the Levant when talking to kids, it translates to Uncle and is used to address both kids by adults and vice-versa

“What’s a front-line, Baba?” I had to ask, knowing that it had to do with war and addressing my father. I didn’t appreciate the simplistic answers that I got that aimed to silence me. "The green-line, Ammo, divided the area where the Christians were from the Muslims." With a large exhale, the man continued "May God never return those days"

I knew that this was my sign to remain quite. My father nodded to get me back to my seat. Unrelenting, I added, "It is hot". It was hot and the car did not seem to have an air conditioner. My siblings were all either half-asleep or just quite for the long drive up the mountain.
"Do you know why they called it the Green Line, Monsieur Khalil?" The man added after a few minutes of silence. "I heard that trees grew along it because of the lack of people." My father added in wonderment tone as if to question some common wisdom. "Correct, Monsieur Khalil, some trees were as tall as buildings and they had sprang out of the concrete."

3.7.16

A day in a fasting Amman

Every once in a while, especially in Ramadan, I like to take my car through Amman, in Arabic we call it"

سلي صيامك

Meaning "Entertain your Fast." It is one of the modernist additions to Ramadan, the otherwise religious month, it basically is killing hours before the breakfast at sunset. While normally, I would try to stay away from fasting mobs who are driving on low-sugar, low-caffeine and low-nicotine. A deadly combination in our culture,

Still, it is an exercise in self-discipline and a way to train your self on the value and virtue of patience. This time, I was on a chore to visit a unique venture of the Jordan River Foundation called "Al Karma Kitchen," I couldn't find a page for them online, however, here is a youtube video.

After calling the number for directions and having the polite and courteous lady lead me to the general neighborhood where the were, she ended with "Now it gets tricky, it is better if you ask around"

I was only a hundred meters or so away and I asked two men sitting on the corner of the street, they managed to point the building out. I wondered how many such men are "entertaining their fast" in these old hills of Amman

In a very meager building in the Middle of the old Amman Hilly area of "Jabal Al Natheef" you will find a slightly-better up-kept building, with a security guard in the front. Considering that the workers are all female, it looked like someone has actually concentrated some effort to create a friendly working atmosphere.

In order to disarm the guard that didn't like me taking pictures, I went straight to him and asked where the entrance is. He pointed to the metal door and said "Knock there, they will open it."

Clumsily, I attempted to open the door assuming it was a place of work. I was mistaken, this was a women's kitchen and men where locked out.

AL KARMA KITCHEN mamoul
I heard a lady behind the door saying "How I am going to open for him," I heard the same voice from the phone call yell, "This place is a mess!"

Slightly opening the metal door, the modestly covered lady kept me clear of entering the assuredly messy kitchen, and passed me my order. Paid for and received there was a few pleasantries exchanged and the door was locked. I could tell there was a very busy hive in the background and not much time can be spared this season to chit-chat.

My box of Eid Mamoul in hand, I went back to the car, with much time to spare before Iftar, so I decided to get lost in the old hills of Amman, something I hadn't done in a few years. See, the old hills of Amman are reminiscent of an older, simpler time. The kids still run around outdoors, and there are still shops that are built underneath houses. You can still find communal stairs and you can always spot where someone has botched an expansion here or there.

Solar Panel on rooftops in Old Amman, next to steep stairs
The houses grow with time, both with inhabitants and onto alleys and modernity stepped it, but the pastels of the earth refused to be quite.

You can tell that some of the old building's "architects" had a balcony here, but then six children later, the balcony was added to the house on this level. On the lower level, there still stands a balcony, although the view it overlooks is some bricks and mortar that lay in ruinous abandonment.

Solar Panel were added here or there in order to soften the blow of the monthly burden that is the utility bill, while others built a small coop to grow a few hens and get fresh eggs in the morrow.


Amman City Hall
In the distance lays the monstrosity that is the city hall, spacious and clean cut, contrasting to the clutter that is Amman.

Beautiful in isolation, an oddity in inclusion to the hills from which it derives its name and purpose.

I pity the missed opportunity to create something truly Ammanite, in flavor, in unison. The architects had created something in stone, which truly aspires to be newly Ammani, however, its clean lines and perfect curves are not anything near the evolution of the surrounding.

Decorations
Then back to the layperson streets, it seemed everyone was anticipating Eid, maybe not with overly priced and perfectly manufactured  Mamoul. Rather, I suspect there will be a flurry of baking going on in the next two days.

Simple decorations unified neighborhoods, and created a clear opportunity to the tourist-resident of Amman. While I reside in Amman, the few kilometers that separate us, can make me feel like a tourist in my own town.

More importantly, the genuine residents of Amman, will always have their close-knit neighborhoods where they truly reside, as a collective , not as a collection of individuals.

I believe there are lessons to be learnt on how to uphold the values of communities and how to manage non-linear growth. The ingenious nature of the old hills' inhabitants has many lessons for those who wish to learn and build (or unfortunately rebuild) Amman of tommorow
 
Amman Decorations

8.12.15

A minority in my own town

Today was just one of those days that has to be recorded, I don't know why, but it has to be recorded.

First I took my baby daughter to get her vaccines , a "Hexa Vaccine", which I really, really didn't want to because I read somewhere that some babies die because of it! Which is the exact opposite of what you want to read about a vaccine. 

We were also planning a "Rota Virus Vaccine," which has a chance to cause her intestines to collapse like a -you couldn't make this stuff up- telescope,  However remote the chance, you still don't want to hear about it!

With that in mind I walk into the health center -partially renovated by USAID funds- this morning and process our turn and pay the dues. A few minutes later, we get called into a room, and the pediatrician looks at our paperwork and tells her assistant that there are many Jordanians visiting the center today. 

Semantics dictate that the deduced norm is: not to have many Jordanians on any given day. I laughed and asked, and yes that center was usually overwhelmed with Syrians, because "they are the ones with all the kids." In an instant there was a range of emotions running through me.

I was proud that the center in sweileh is among many that have been trying to offer Syrian refugees in Jordan a chance at decent medical attention while running away from their war-torn country. Immediately followed by a -probably unnecessary- fear from over population or changing demographics,then a second later by need to act. 

I wanted to do something, the war in Syria has gone on long enough, surely these refugees deserve to go home, if only we could do something. Maybe the Jordanian government and people should back one of the sides, perhaps the resistance, or the regime. Anybody, to conclude the bloodshed and help tip the scales.

The resistance shouldn't be helped because we don't want the weapons to reach ISIS, or is that what the regime wants us to think. Are there true freedom fighters? or Are they all just terrorists? The regime has shed thousands of lives, damages countless areas and communities because it wants to stay in power and doesn't believe in freedom, or is that what the resistance wants us to believe. Are there not external forces trying to manipulate the resistance and damage Syria? Are these opposition forces not traitors by conspiring with outside forces? 

I don't know, but it needs to stop!

It was expected with the influx of refugees from Iraq, that there will pop-up some restaurants with a slightly tilted menu, or eateries that cater almost exclusively to a different tongue palette. But to have a waiter in one of the oldest restaurants in Amman (Jabri) call one of my favorite dishes by its Iraqi name Dolmah, was a bit too much, especially since he was Egyptian and the Egyptian name is very similar to the local name. Isn't it time that an inclusive democracy happens in Iraq, or maybe another Saddam comes in and settles the place down, either way, shouldn't Iraqis have a better life than trying to carve out an existence in the foreign cities of the world. 

Later in the day, I walked into the Civil Status and Passports Department(CSPD), in their new(ish) offices, to get a passport for my baby girl, walking up-to the front desk, I show the clerk my paperwork and he asks me one surprising question. "Are you Jordanian?"

Ofcourse, I am, am I not? I mean, the whole deal with this building was to provide paperwork to Jordanians and of-course some minorities who live here, but mainly Jordanians, no?

Well, it turns out that "Yes," is not a sufficient answer, I was further prodded on with " Jordanian Jordanian?" and yet again my head nodding and my feverish "Yes," didn't do it, I had to get asked a third time "Jordanian and a national number" which immediately brought more meaning to the words he was asking. 

See in Jordan, a national ID number gives you a 5-year passport, while those with ties to Palestine and claims on other identities have 2-year passports that require much more intensive paperwork and a much more time-consuming process. Others still have different claims and get different identification documents which could have burdensome procedures. This all warrants more visits to the CSPD.

Obviously, therefore, the majority of people visiting the CSPD would not be "Jordanian Jordanian" as the clerk so eloquently put it. They even have whole floors to their affairs. I felt bad for those too, and I wanted someone to act, if Syria had taken long enough and Iraq needs a solution then Palestine is ridiculous. Maybe then Amman will be inhabited by a large majority of Jordanians and foreigners will be a novelty again and Ammanis will stop their xenophobia and go back to their xenophilia for which they were once famous.

21.11.15

Guest Post - Sustenance of this aviation growth in the Middle East

This post was written for Stick and Rudder Blog

There is a a certain "je ne sais quoi" about Middle Eastern Aviation, Who is the largest operator of the behemoth Double-Decker that is the A380? Emirates. How about the B777? also Emirates. Then what about the B787-9? Etihad will be that guy in a few years. The A350? That honor goes to none other than Qatar Airways. So what does that mean to the region?

That is an audacious ambition, which is new to everybody across the aviation value chain, growth in aviation is usually much more gradual and organic, there is no model to copy from on how to double, triple or quadruple an airline in 10 years, nor is there such a guide for coping with such growth.

Airports

Abu Dhabi home to Etihad with a design capacity of 40 Million Pax (passengers), Dubai home to Emirates is already at 75 million capacity and Doha home to Qatar is planning to accommodate 50 million Pax, and Dubai are already building and operating DWC airport with initially 5 million pax and a long term target of 80-120 million Pax per year. All those airports are all within 200 Nautical Miles of each other.
This is similar to having LAX (Los Angeles), ORD (Chicago O'Hare) and JFK (New York) all fitted in the area between New York and Washington!

All three big hubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, are fairly busy. Dubai being an extreme example of operating near capacity on its two runways. However, keep that in mind, all three airports have only two runways each. Think about that for a second, out of the top 5 airports in the world, only Heathrow and Dubai have two runways each.

Hartsfield-Jackson has 5, Haneda has 4, Beijing has 3. Dubai manged to outgrow Heathrow because of the amount of A380s it has coming in and out and the longer operating hours. Even in the top 10, Paris has 4, the Americans (Dallas and Chicago) have 8 and 9 while Los Angeles has 4, but that is just a different model of airports, you will need to go to the bottom of the top 10 to find airports like Hong Kong or Bangkok where two runways can be used efficiently to move that many airplanes.

The airports are all fairly recent, Doha's new airport having just opened up last year, and Dubai latest concourse is being built, Abu Dhabi's new terminal is still delayed but should open up in 2017-2018 and DWC is still a big question mark, but we are already hearing the airlines complaining that these will be capacity constrained and that satellites will be needed to meet that demand.


Airspace

The three airports will always need top class equipment, Air Traffic COntrollers (ATCOs) and infrastructure that is cutting edge to meet all that forecast demand. ATCOs are already an issue, some parts of the operation is being outsourced to folks like NATS, and their salaries are making it harder to retain them in adjacent countries, which is causing a rise in salaries; this is eventually causing a rise in the charges that these and other airlines pay.
The immediate surrounding region is presently facing pressure to cope with the number and size of aircraft that is moving in and out, Iran and Saudi are being pushed to redesign and work with the airlines to move away from the old designs that were implemented to meet traffic moving between Asia and Europe.

Infrastructure

The nominal infrastructure comprised of Airports, Runways, Navaids, etc... is there because it can be bought; the more important aspects are the process. Weather forecasts in the region are notoriously inaccurate, the disruption management processes are big playbooks, however, when push comes to shove, havoc rules. Processes are the biggest enablers in aviation, and each stakeholders in the value chain has hordes of manuals and checklists that will satisfy any audit or check, but adds no value when you really need it.

This region is obsessed with bigger, better, larger, longer, that it forgets that sometimes just sustaining the status quo is actually a pretty tedious task, doing it with a decent ROI is actually a great feat, that is not what we see in this part of the world. Growth is being done for the sake of growth and for the sake of diversifying investments.

Meanwhile, it is going to be a fun ten years if we remain in the aviation sector in the region.

29.8.14

On Responsibility and Authority and their kinship to Accountability

I really waited before I wrote this because I couldn't believe we had reached the end of the story, but apparently we have. A few days ago, the Jordanian Lower House of Parliament passed for it's part a constitutional amendment that effectively recreated the Ministry of Defense (MoD) as a separate entity and allowed it to secede from the civilian Prime Ministry (PM). Possibly, to allow a man in uniform to hold that responsibility.

It also gave His Majesty the power to install a military regime within the regime by allowing him to appoint the leader of the military establishment and the head of the General Intelligence Department. The new thing wasn't the power as all who observe the situation in Jordan agree, as his majesty holds de facto powers all over the place; it was the act of formalizing that power and having it held firmly in the constitution. 

I will refrain from commenting on how the amendment to the constitution managed to pass the Lower House in three days, while lesser regulations get stuck in the deliberations for months. I will also let go the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people's representative rubber-stamped such a gross violation of the people's rights; this is to be expected when the electorate continue to agree that they vote for people based not on programs, agendas, political or partisan affiliation but rather on trivial basis such as clan and tribe or simply based on promises of services.

My comment is going to focus on a little bit of myth-busting. Namely, those who are "plus royaliste que le roi". I cannot accept that there are a select few that try to perpetuate the myth that the constitutional amendment was pushed through for the right reasons.

The royaliste insist that this amendment guarantees the exclusion of the military from political games that will ensue when political parties start forming goverments. Allow me to systematically debunk this myth

A) The responsibility for maintaining the unity and security of the homeland in the Westminster system -which the Jordanian system was molded after- rests with the PM, he leads his cabinet to that goal.

B) The professional military which we are all proud of has the duty to remain clear of the political game and has the responsibility to stay within the boundaries of its scope. This runs quite well in the United Kingdom and I don't see why we need to reinvent the wheel, especially since we accepted the Westminster system as a reference in the first place. The military should be able to resist any pressure from the MoD to interfere in politics.

C) The civilian PM has a civilian MoD who preferably is a Member of Parliament (MP) and therefore has been sworn to uphold the constitution and consequently is accountable to the courts of law and the courts of public opinion. This accountability will provide the necessary constraints to prevent the MoD from using the military outside its scope.

Another myth insists that this authority is a management technique that allows His Majesty to be a safe guard for democracy while keeping the option available for His Majesty to consult with the PM on his selections.

A) Anyone with the most basic education in management will understand that responsibility should come hand-in-hand with authority. If the PM didn't hire the military and intelligence top brass and if the PM cannot fire them, how will the PM be able to manage them and be held responsible for their actions?

B) The constitution should be modeled in a manner that allows checks and balances in all its aspects and should be able to protect the country from any one centre of power to hold to much much of it.
The issue isn't what powers we want or do not want to give King Abdullah II, but rather what powers the office of the King should or should not hold. There is a clear distinction to be made.

C) Democracry should not need so many safe guards and so many years to be activated. The American Constitution did not mandate a maximum number of terms that a president can run for until after FDR won four terms. Let us start with a decent election law and a decent parliamentary government and then if something is wrong let us fix it.

Finally, there has been tens of Royal families in the world that have tried to rule indefinitely and totally and have failed, the only way we can sustain our beloved system is to model it after the most effective governments systems in the world. 

Peace, out

18.6.14

Photographic Mode.

A moment to be captured was presented to me and I couldn't help but capture it.

Climbing in the skies over the river Rhine (Rhein), I could see to the left a network of contrails. And to the right some clouds against a backdrop of blue.

I had to post.