Thursday, October 11, 2007

"L'auberge rouge" is empty...

"L'auberge rouge" is empty... I can't hear a sound and I don't see a silhouette walking back and forth while on the phone!!!

Seeing you for the last time in my room, resting in my bed was very hard...but I was so hopeful... Your eyes... those eyes that said ten thousand words... and that smile that was hiding so much pain... As usual, you were so strong... so considerate... you worried so much about the others but never about yourself... I told you to wait till my return but you had to go... You had to let go and you took that last flight to a beautiful unknown...

We were all over the place together... from Bangkok to LA... from Capetown to Vancouver... but never to Lebanon... YOUR Lebanon that I SO wanted to see through your eyes... that I promised to do it with you... The closest we got to it was through Fairouz's voice and Majida's lyrics (magical concert moments that I shared with you). I still can't listen to those CD's but I know that with every song I'll think of you and for every new one of our famous "translations" I'll have a smile for you...

Fairouz is screaming "Waynoun" and Majida is choking with " Bakkir Falleit"... and I'm roaming in an empty red place!!!

Mounir Kattan

Monday, October 8, 2007

Serge is now in a better place

I have been a fan of Blog Trotter for the past months. I am very saddened by the news that Serge has passed away. I am sorry and deeply affected by it. I was just a reader, and always found witty and entertaining his thoughts.

Hope you find resignation and have faith Serge is now in a better place.


Saturday, October 6, 2007

Die Gedanken sind frei!

When you were 17 and I was 16 (a year before moving to Canada), we went to the Goethe Institute in Beirut to learn German. I can’t recall how many times we used to sing “Die Gedanken sind frei” on our way to school, a popular old German song celebrating the freedom of thoughts. This is the song, which I will always associate with you in my heart:

Die Gedanken sind frei
My thoughts freely flower,
My thoughts give me power
No scholar can map them,
No hunter can trap them,
No man can deny:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Firas, your voice echoes in my ears right now. Between my tears, I smile remembering how you once turned this meaningful lyric into a funny (but still very appropriate) version.

Free like a bird (as in the song), you lived your short life to its full extent, realizing so many great things in such little time! As you lived (fully, intensely), you passed away by flying in a rush to the after-life.

Brilliant, talented, loving, caring, courageous, crazy, and so handsome! You touched so many lives Firas. Not only you make us all proud, we are grateful because you made an amazing contribution to make our world a better place.

I am honoured to be your friend, Firas. Thank you for the wonderful memories in Montreal for several years. I love you so much. The last time you called me in Toronto, I told you so, adding to it “please don’t forget.” I hope you won’t.

I promise that I will always pray for (and be in touch with) your family. My heart goes to your parents and sister, to all your relatives, friends, and loved ones wherever they are, whoever they are.

You will be missed greatly… but most importantly, you will always be remembered! Love prevails and, yes I strongly believe that it can even transcend death. By keeping your memory alive, you will always be alive in our hearts.

Rest and fly in peace, my dear friend.

Rima Azar

Je ne t'oublierai jamais...

Sergitos, tu es parti d’un coup en laissant un vide immense dans ma vie. Tu étais le frère, l’ami, l’explorateur, l’aventurier, qui m’a fait découvrir tellement de choses : le Liban, Fairouz, Zaatar w Zeit, la poutine et les plaisirs simples de la vie. Tu étais l’homme de toutes les contradictions, doux et rebelle, sensible et fonceur, fidèle et nomade. Je garderai à jamais au fond de moi les moments inoubliables qu’on a partagés ensemble, une partie de toi qui brillera dans ma mémoire pour toujours.

J’en veux à la vie, cruelle et belle qui t’a tout donné, qui t’a tout repris, comme ça, pour rien. Pourtant tu l’avais tant aimée la vie, et si bien vécue, comme si tu savais qu’elle te sera un jour arrachée. Elle t’a concédé en maigre consolation le droit de partir vite, comme tu l’aurais souhaité, entouré de tes proches, nimbé d’amour, dans la chaleur de ton appartement de fortune dans un Montréal automnal, avant le grand froid que tu détestais tant.

Je ne t’oublierai jamais. Tu me manques déjà terriblement, tu me manqueras toujours énormément. Bon voyage mon ami. Que les cieux te soient cléments.
Mario Khoury

Soudain tu changes d'adverbe

Je te connais jeune... très jeune. Serge... très Firas. Audacieux... très audacieux. Téméraire... très téméraire. Brillant... très brillant. Universel... très universel. Resplendissant... très resplendissant. Affable... très affable. Soudain tu changes d'adverbe : tu pars vite... trop vite !
Jean-Marc Zéhil

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Parti pour un ailleurs lointain

Il est parti sans faire de bruit. Une folie passagère l'a emporté un soir d'automne ordinaire. Le vent a soufflé sur ses paupières alourdies par la poussière du jour. Un râle nordique a compliqué ses réflexes volontaires. Montréal s'est assombri d'un coup à 23.20 h. Une vie s'est éteinte dans une chambre aux rideaux fleuris, au 23ème étage d'une tour pétrifiée. Il gisait inerte sur un lit d'hôpital désarticulé, le visage émacié, les lèvres noires de dépit, les yeux mi-clos. Il est parti trop tôt, avant minuit, pressé comme un voyageur qui aurait eu peur de rater le dernier train pour un ailleurs lointain.
Robert Chidiac
Montréal- Canada

Friday, September 28, 2007

He hung up his trotting shoes…

On September 28, 2007, at exactly 11.20 pm, the Globetrotter (aka Sergitos) decided to embark on his last journey. He was diagnosed with liver cancer during a two-week vacation in the States and Canada. His five-week stay in North America turned into one last struggle for survival. At the end of the day, he decided not to fight anymore. So he hung up his trotting shoes, walking barefoot towards his last destination.
Robert Chidiac

Sunday, July 22, 2007

We search....dogs!

At this checkpoint, English speaking people, will expect to be sniffed by a dog looking for traces of explosives. However if you are an Arabic speaker, you will send your dog to be searched.

I finally managed to snap a pic of this sign that what obviously lost in translation. And this won't be the only translation problem one will have at this particular checkpoint. Spanish speakers will go through much faster as they will be able to communicate with the soldiers manning it: mostly Peruvian personnel who can barely say three words in Ingles...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tell me what color you are...

...and I’ll tell you where you can go. This is neither pre-democracy South Africa, nor pre-civil rights USA. Welcome to post-Saddam Iraq. For those whose PC sensitivities are already raised, calm down: I am not discussing skin color, but badge color. In post-2003 Iraq, to be able to move around and have access to some areas, one needs a different array of ID’s giving their holder certain privileges. It was one of the first things I noticed when I landed in Baghdad: a pouch hanging from people’s neck, or in the case of the macho ones, wrapped around their biceps, with all types of ID’s in them. Most of these protective cases have an embroided Iraqi flag, with messages ranging from “US Embassy Baghdad”, to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. It didn’t take too long for me to discover the meanings of the rainbow range of colors, and to find out the advantages and disadvantages of each one of them.

Baghdad's center of power today is based in the ex-Green Zone, now International Zone or IZ. Once a safe area in a city gone mad, it is today the target of multiple mortar attacks. Not to worry too much about it though: with a population density as low as the Antarctic, very few of the projectiles cause casualties. Many public servants working for the new Iraqi government are fortunate enough to live in the blessing of almost uninterrupted electricity, water and cleaner environment.

So who can go to the Green Zone? This where comes the famous badge, and the color one can get. Lets start with our hosts, the masters of the house: residents get obviously get a badge. One have to mention that many original residents were squeezed out with no compensation and very short notice. Families of newly elected MP's and government employees quickly replaced them. The best badge an Iraqi can get is the Blue stripe MNFI(Multi National Forces Iraq). It is strictly reserved for high level officials and MPs. Next in line, is the Brown MNFI. This one gives its holders the privilege to access the Saint of Saints, aka the Green Zone, without being searched, and can even escort people in. NATO and Coalition countries nationals get this badge automatically. However, other nationalities, including Iraqis, can only get it after a convincing justification from their job. Next in line is the Orange MNFI for Arab nationals and other developing world nationals. Those can access the IZ after being subjected to a search, and they don't have the escort privileges. I can also briefly mention the Yellow MNFI which is for private security personnel to escort "clients" to and out of the IZ

At the bottom of the color range, comes the Red stripe MNFI: this is issued to the common mortals, Iraqis who happen not to live in the IZ nor to have a high necessity to access it. What makes me feel the irony of the situation is that me, as a Canadian with a Brown badge, can escort an Iraqi to this area of HIS capital, when am a guest in HIS own country. Why are Iraqis so disenchanted with their newly found freedom? Go figure!

Above the rainbow colors, comes the golden standard, which I nicknamed the “Open Sesame” badge: “I have a DoD” would tell you their holders with a certain note of disdain in their voice. Department of Defense contractors, who are US citizens, get this ultimate magic key. For them, no Ministry is out of bounds. The Republican Palace which became the US Embassy, while the biggest US Embassy in the world is being built along the bank of the Tigris, is their favorite place of meeting. They even had a Starbucks open in one of the halls of the Palace. I wonder how Iraqis feel when they see G.I.’s hanging out in the middle of what was the symbol of the Republic, drinking lattes and listening to their IPod. I'm not even from here and I found it highly revolting and profoundly humiliating.

Freedom came to Iraq, we hear. Freedom of what Iraqis ask? The years to come will be revealing, and the controversy will carry on for generations to come.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

She came, she sang and she conquered...

The columns of Jupiter were out of bound, and the courtyard of Beiteddine was deserted. This didn’t stop our Ambassador to the Stars to conquer yet another prestigious set. On the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the century, her crystal voice tickled the Athenian night and caressed the columns of the Acropolis. Our very own Fairouz, now in her seventh decade, stood in front of 5,000 spectators and lifted their minds and souls on the rhythms they grew up listening to, and abandoned them in the familiar settings of their childhood. The magic still make miracles!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Between Iraq and a hard place

Almost two months now since I arrived in Baghdad. As a guest in this land, I was looking forward to meet Iraqis and talk to them. To hear their side of the story, if they had any. Instead, I found myself mixing with expats from all over and a number of returning Iraqis. Each of them having found himself here for an ideal, a profit or a mix of both. However, being interned in Alicatraz puts all of us in quarantine from the rest of Iraq, a kind of bubble distorting our vision of the city: here I was in the heart of Baghdad, yet I was still getting the story about Iraq from...TV (sigh).

When we first arrived in the compound, we were issued our uniform (not a striped one: just the protective gear for "our" own safety). We also had to wear our tags in order to walk within the walls of Alicatraz: at least they were not tattooed on our arm, but talk about a Yellow Star revisited. Last but not least, we were kindly asked not to "mix" with the local guards, because "they" are here only for our protection, "they" should not know any details about us, because "they" might pass the information to someone who might want to harm us. Nevertheless, I looked at the guards and the few Iraqi colleagues coming from outside as my only potential insight for a snapshot of daily life in Baghdad. As true Middle-Easterns, their hospitality had no limits, and behind the sad veiled look in their eyes, you could sense this "rage de vivre", despite all the hardships of liberation. Bonds started growing from a simple smile, to a gentle "Sabah el kheir" (good morning in Arabic), to a vigourous handshake and from there, quickly to sharing food, jokes and stories: those precious stories.

The daily lives of Iraqis started slowly unravelling. Not one of them was spared the horror of the daily bloodshed. Not one of them did not lose a loved one either forever, or to the safe haven of a peaceful country. Still, behind that deep, penetrating look, one could sense that they were ready to live and forgive, put the past behind, for the sake of winning their lives back. Many still thought they were living a nightmare out of which they will hopefully wake up any minute and resume a normal life.

Having gone through a somehow similar situation in Beirut during the war, I felt I could relate more to their stories. A conversation will typically end with the innocently thrown following question: "So what do you think? Was it better under Saddam, or is it better now?". I am sure most of us -foreigners- at some point have thrown this question like a dagger tickeling an unhealed wound. Let the first of us who did not ask it hit me with the first stone (-says Jesus). Those of us who opposed the American "occupation" of Iraq, do it for self-satisfaction. For the sake of telling themselves "I knew that!"; while those who supported the "liberation" of Iraq want to hear someone telling them "My life is better now" just for the sake of free self-gratification.

Did any of us ever think what the limited choice of answers meant to the person answering it? We are basically asking them to say if they prefer being brutalised by a dictator, or blown-up by terrorists. We instantly make them aware that freedom is nowhere to be seen in the equation. That they can either have security, but permanent fear of being jailed, or have no security and no freedom. That they can only choose between worst and worse. That they are stuck between Iraq and a hard place. Then off we go with our lives, and here they stay with no way out.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A blast from the past!

Today, I was taken a quarter century back just by looking at the coffee table in one of the numerous Iraqi ministries I have been visiting in the last few weeks. I had flash-backs of my mother asking me suddenly to go to the grocer and buy a pack of Winston because "Emm Tony is coming and we run out of her brand of cigarettes". (Yes! A 10 year old can buy cigarettes in about freedom!). Back then, the cigarette tray was part of the furniture, along with half a dozen ashtrays. I have noticed lately it disappeared from Lebanese living rooms. It is now politically (or should I say socially) incorrect to offer "poison" to our visitors (don't take it as a complaint) Am I opening the door to a round of arguments and counter-arguments between smokers and non-smokers, pro-smoking and anti-(nazi as R would say)smokers? I know am happy to go drinking and dancing in a smoke-free environment in one of the cities from the growing list of smoke-free places of the world. At least I don't smell like an ashtray after going back home. My own guilty pleasure? At some point I used to find sexy the flavour of a kiss with a smoker. We all know at least one smoker who argues that they smoke because they want to, not because they cannot stop: Discuss!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ali-Catraz vs Hotel Rwanda

If anyone asked me before if I will be able to spend time in a confined space, and give up my “independence and sovereignty”, I would have said “No way Jose!” It is now my third week in this place and time is flying. Being in a cocoon, surrounded by events just behind “the wall” that we can only learn about on CNN…this is a crazy concept. No major incidents happened –yet- but we hear explosions, bullets and helicopters flying continuously. We are made to believe that “outside” it is the law of the jungle and a no go zone. How can we believe this when the 100 or so ICs (see list below) leave everyday to go home and come back every morning? When we discuss it with them, they talk to us of a city struggling to continue normally with life…shops open for business, traffic jams, schools full of students. Despite everything, Baghdad lives. People tend to overcome everything in the hope that tomorrow will be better.

Back to the inside, I had already nicknamed this place Ali-Catraz: now am having second thoughts. The other day we had to participate in a drill simulating an attack on the compound. Each of us had to gather in the designated safe space at the sounding of the sirens and wait for the PSDs to come and direct us to safety. All goes well up to the point when the PSD team arrives and looks at the people gathered in the safe place (the second floor of a two floor villa), and says: “Clients only to the second floor, other people downstairs in the kitchen”. When I ask why upstairs for some and downstairs for others, the answer is in case of an attack by insurgents, it is easier to protect us when we are upstairs, as attackers will need to fight them first before getting upstairs. What about the people in the kitchen? Well, the answer is simple: ICs can be in the danger zone, but “clients” cannot. Their job is to protect the clients first (of which there are a few Iraqis holding other passports) then…if it works, they can also save the locals. This brought back to my mind images of Hotel Rwanda. A foreigner’s life is more valuable than any local. I saw scenes of us being rushed to helicopters while people we work with everyday are left behind to their fate…so: what do you think? Ali-Catraz or Hotel Rwanda?

P.S: During the last security briefing, we were handed out a list of acronyms. Here is a few of the oddest ones:

IC – Iraqi civilian
AMZ- Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (thought he is gone)
PSD- Private Security Detail
UB- Unidentified Body
IZ- International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone)
HVT- High Value Target (us in other words)
FRE- Former Regime Elements
CPX- Complex attack – Two or more weapon system

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Baghdad attempt No2: Bingo!

Sunday 29 April. Marka Airport in Amman. Quick check-in and am waiting for the US Air Force flight to Baghdad. About 3 hours later, a c-130 lands. All 41 of us get loaded in a bus and we get into the metal bird from the back. Looks exactly like photos in the press of Marines being moved in and out of combat zones. Four rows of people facing each other in two corridors the length of the plane. There will be no chicken nor beef on this flight. Just earplugs to save your ears. Looking at the wires and tubes I got even more amazed at the science of lifting a heavy thing up in the air with people in it. I still wonder looking at planes standing on the tarmac about the miracle of flying them: they really look clumsy like a chicken and a chicken doesn’t fly!

Another two hours flying but I can’t see anything out this time. Just watching the soldiers getting ready for landing by sitting each at a window and staring down: I wonder if they see anyone getting ready to shoot, do they have the time to do anything about this? Better not think about that!

As soon as we touch down, in the typical middle-eastern tradition (not applause, the other one), a couple of people stand up while the plane is still moving. One shout from a soldier and the two guilty people are terrified into sitting down. We all leave the plane in a semi-circle line moving to the left of the plane. At the same time another line of people waiting on the tarmac start moving in the same shape towards the plane. The whole thing was very surreal: in the middle of a sand storm and through the haze, we were moved to the waiting tents. Less than 20 minutes later, after one question from a US official on how long I will be, my passport is given back to me. My escort is ready to pick me up. The helmet and the bullet proof vest are issued. A team of great South African guys is making sure we get to destination in one piece. Good to have a familiar accent greet me on my first trip to Baghdad (well, second trip). I even get the grand tour (from the vehicle): Camp Victory, Saddam’s Palace, Green Zone, the big mosque. Next stop, the compound which I have now officially baptized “Alicatraz”.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


After three days doing nothing in Amman besides resting and relaxing, I rented a car and drove to Petra. What a difference good service makes: I called Avis which was supposed to be open at 7:30am around 8:30am. A sleepy voice tells me he will be at the office around 9. Good in a way: time for breakfast. The car is there only at 10. It is dirty. The ashtray is full of cigarettes. The tank is empty. Welcome to the Middle-East.

The drive to Petra is fast. I land in the middle of hoards of school children visiting Petra to vote for it to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The place is magical. It is a wonder, but I wonder why it is not being treated as such. Kids are all over the place climbing on the rocks. There are enough cans and empty bottles to move the Dead Sea back to the Mediterranean Sea. Shopkeepers selling ugly souvenirs are squatting different areas in the valley. The signs are not clear and there is no specific circuit to follow! It doesn’t take lots of effort to make this jewel shine! It is truly beautiful.

On the way back from Petra, a police check-point explains to me in sign language that two policeman are looking for a lift to Amman. I was not in a talking mood and decided to pretend I don’t speak Arabic. It was sign language all the way to Amman. The funny part was when one of them explained to the other what I was saying. He never got it right and the stories were always different. I laughed thinking how many times when I really did not speak a language and told a story, what did the person get out of it! We tend to assume that whatever we say is understood: definitely not the case! For example when we were talking about football, I tried to say that the World cup in 2010 will be where I live in South Africa. His eyes shined and he starts explaining to his colleague: “This guy plays for his home team and he is number 10”. The other tells him: “You did not understand. He is saying that he supports African teams not European teams”. Well done boys!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Baghdad attempt No1

Wednesday 24 April. QAIA again. I board on Jessica, an RJ Boeing for the long awaited trip to Baghdad. I was surprised by the mix of people. About half of the passengers were Iraqi, and the rest expats. Most had around their neck tag holders with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” written on. If Iraqis are happy with their new found freedom, am not sure! I won’t venture and get to conclusions. I will have 12 months to chat it up with the locals. Saddam vs Democracy: who do you vote for? Well, at least you can vote for it nowadays. Two hours over the desert before Baghdad appears. The Tigris running through well planned streets and lots of trees. The weirdest landing ever: the plane starts circling around the airport before finally landing. It is not safe for planes to approach the airport in a conventional way. The insurgents are watching and they would love to shoot down a big bird. Ouch! We get off the plane and onboard a bus. Get whisked into the main terminal. I wait in the non-Iraqis line up. I get told that my letter is not enough for a visa. As soon as I found my bag on the belt (about 40 minutes later), I got escorted to the upper floor and had to wait in the departure hall: destination Amman. For the first time in my life I was a deportee. In a country were the average person is dying (literally) to get out, they still look at you with a straight face and tell you “You can’t come in”! Back to Amman I check in the Intercontinental again. I just found out that I will only fly on Sunday on a MilAir flight to Baghdad. Glad for the paid rest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Break in Beirut

In Beirut for a weekend or more: will the city be alive, or will it be in a coma caused by bickering politicians? And Beirut is alive and well. The streets were packed on Friday night, and everyone was out and about. The no-man’s land is back in the downtown area, but it ain’t a green line no more: closer to a yellow and orange line. I was glad to rediscover B-018 which had a needed face-lift. Fifteen years later it is still the best place by far in da city. A bit too cold to go to the beach. As always the stay was too short. Glad I had the chance to ride the big girl and make sure she is in shape.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Another stop

Transit in Amman for 4 hours! Do I really wanna spend 4 hours in dull QAIA* (Queen Alia International Airport)?? The hell no! One phone call and am on the way to meet some friends in Amman for drinks. The city has changed for the better since I last came here. A mix of Iraqi expats (refugees?) and Gulf Arabs investers.

The funniest thing? The taxi Passengers bill of rights! (photo attached, but not clear). Here is the transcript:

Vehicle Information Driver
Passengers bill of rights and responsibilities

1- Loading and unloading are not allowed except in des ignited places
2- Smoking and throwing litter from the vehicle are prphibited (No Spell check in Amman!)
3- Radio and cassette player prohibited with annoying form (What’s a cassette again?)
4- Driver is fully familiar with the rote and Should reach the final destination in each trip

Am glad to know that the taxi should reach the final destination IN each trip. One would think that in most countries it is on every other trip that taxis actually reach their final destination.

En route

First stop in Legoland. Enough time to escape the busy Dubai airport and the floods of transit passengers. Zeina just landed from Geneva and will meet me for breakfast. Every time I leave this airport to the city, the theme park is getting bigger! Biggest man made island, tallest sky scraper, busiest airport…not to mention the hottest climate, the worst traffic, the highest number of malls per capita, the smallest number of pedestrian streets anywhere in the world! Welcome to DBX where everything is a mirage. What would that stop be without Zaatar w Zeit’s good breakfast! Nice to see you Zeina and good luck with your search for a new job… En route for Amman!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ta Ta Suid Afrika…

I have been getting ready for it mentally since I took the decision, but it is still not easy. Abandoning the lekker compound of Killarney Park for the compound of “Ali-Catraz” won’t be as easy as I thought. Bye bye fabulous dinners between 120 and 118. I will miss the magical gatherings of the Who’s who in Johannesburg at 119.

Of course, I only started preparations the night before D-Day, but what’s new? Leaving for a year or leaving for a week, it is all the same after all!

Thanks Deb for assisting in my madness. You are used to it by now. And May for rushing me to O.R. Tambo. Above all: my biological father’s support during the last few years (has it been 6 or 7 years dad?). All set now to go and check die kak in Iraq!