Monday, September 1, 2014

Lebanon Notebook: Two Visits with A Warlord and Kingmaker

Funny thing.  You travel the wide world and you find sometimes that people in far off corners have some of the same ideas as those back home.

I’ve been in Lebanon this month, working on a feature documentary, “Wild is the Spring,” about Christians of the Middle East in aftermath of The Arab Spring.  The film is intended for theatrical release and broadcast in the US, UK and elsewhere, and I’m making it with my friend Adla Massoud, a producer at Skynews in New York.  While in Lebanon, I interviewed the remarkable Walid Jumblatt, the rare person who can simultaneously mercurial (working a dozen angles) and also phlegmatic (feeling the profound weight of the world.  He is also is both a tribal leader (of the Druze) and a former war lord while leading, as well, a Progressive Socialist Party.

The last time I interviewed Jumblatt I was traveling with a pack of writers that included journalists Christopher Hitchens, as well as travel writer-turned-novelist Lawrence Osborne.  That day, the great man, receiving us at his castle in the Chouf mountains an hour and a half above Beirut, served a wonderful lunch of Lebanese meze and roast lamb, with wine from his own vineyard. 

After lunch, he gave our group a tour of his office.  I was particularly taken by his reading material, and his choice of paperweight (see picture below). 


On return to our hotels we found that Jumblatt had sent us Jeroboams of his Kefraya wine.  Sometime during that weekend Osborne, wine-fueled, was inspired to recount for us the story that in time he elaborated to create his acclaimed novel “The Forgiven.”  Meanwhile, later in the day after that lunch Hitchens and cohorts ventured out on Hamra Street, a perambulation that lead to a confrontation with some local political thugs who delivered a beat-down culminating in their stomping on the Hitch’s writing (and smoking and drinking) hand.  In mock-epic style, that episode became nicknamed by pundits “The Battle of Beirut,” and Hitchens himself recounted it in great style, with erudite historical and cultural asides, in Vanity Fair.  (That story can be found among the links below.)

On the occasion of my recent visit, just last week, Jumblatt received Adla, myself, and our crew at his palace in the Hamra distract of East Beirut… not far from the location of “The Battle.”  Jumblatt was preceded into the receiving hall by his faithful Shar Pei named Oscar, who gave everyone a good and friendly sniff (presumably Oscar does double duty as both attention magnet and back-up security screener).


On camera and under the lights, Jumblatt immediately turned serious, offering not the hospitable mien of our earlier encounter. Instead, ever the canny politician and ever aware aware of our film’s western audience, while glowering at this interviewer positioned (or hiding) behind the camera, Jumblatt proceeded with a blistering attack on the Obama administration’s Syria policy. 

More surprising… our interview was in a sense a twenty minute elaboration of exactly what Hillary Clinton had said just two weeks earlier.  In short, Jumblatt attributed the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the long chaos in that country, directly to Western (and especially American) disengagement from the Middle East.

Needless to say, Jumblatt sent us no Jeroboams of wine that evening.

I’m left wondering: Do the Warlord/Socialist leader and the presumptive leading Democratic presidential candidate compare notes?

One should be careful about attributing too much authority on matters of American policy to a foreign politician, even regarding matters in their own backyard.  Besides, what I said to those friends in Lebanon who complained about this administration’s foreign policy was that if you don’t like its direction today, just wait six months and it will be completely different. 

Jumblatt himself, nicknamed “The Weather Vane,” has been prone to similar seemingly capricious shifts.  As a leader representing a small constituency (Druze make up just 5% of Lebanon’s voters) he has periodically shifted between the March 14th coalition (who benefit from Saudi support) and the March 8th coalition (of which Iran-backed Hezbollah is a leading member).  As the swing vote, he has been able for some two decades to play “king-maker.”

In the meantime, things are afoot in the region, and there are hints that a tectonic and profound redrawing of alliances is under way. 

The unlikely axis of Saudi/Egypt/Israel seems now poised to come out of the shadows and go public. 

And then at the beginning of this week, Iranian tanks entered in Kurdish Iraq.  That’s right, the US has stood by while Iranian tanks formally entered Iraq, and those tanks are fighting on the same side as their some-time enemy, the Kurds.  What’s more, US, Syrian and Iranian planes flew sorties against the so-called Islamic State. 

Looked at one way, the Sunni/Shiite cold war we've seen the last few years… or rather decades or even centuries… has in the Arab heartland turned hot and become surprisingly triangular.

Read Hillary Clinton’s critique of the Obama administration’s Syria policy HERE

Keep in mind of course, that HRC was herself part of that administration, and indeed the Secretary of State as the so-called Arab Spring, and then the Syria crisis, began.

Read Christopher Hitchens’s account of the “Battle of Beirut,” in Vanity Fair HERE

And keep in mind that despite the mock epic nickname for that incident, he and his cohorts were in real danger, both then and for the remainder of their stay.

Read about Iran’s entry into Kurdish Iraq HERE.

Read Walid Jumblatt’s own account for Now Lebanon of a recent and much more cordial recent encounter when he and Oscar received another group of foreign visitors, HERE.













Friday, August 22, 2014

On Mackerel, Fish in General, and the Wonder that is Harissa

I was in Lebanon last week and spent a happy afternoon killing two hours before sunset on the rooftop of The Albergo Hotel, consuming an enormous bottle of San Pellegrino water, an Almasa beer, and some of the best roast almonds and pistachios, both dusted with sea salt.

When back home, I mentioned this, a favorite moment from the trip, to a friend trapped at his writing desk in upstate New York and he emailed to say this made him hungry for pistachios, which he loved.

I do too, whether plain, in baklava, or used in a main. I commented that I once had roast grouper encrusted with pistachios.  

My novelist friend said I shouldn't eat grouper, not sustainable, almost all gone.

I have no idea whether this is true, and suspect he just wanted to deny me the pleasant memory, but I protested that it had been years ago, there were plenty around at the time.

In any case, that afternoon, at the fish monger in North London I asked for some mackerel, four filets.  They were fat fish and their eyes were clear so I knew they were fresh.  They were also cheap, six quid for four servings.  We should all eat more mackerel, an underrated fish.  They're plentiful, and cheap, and have all those good oils that make your brain grow.  

I made my mackerel for dinner with harissa, a spicey pepper paste from Tunisia that is sometimes served alongside couscous.  I'm using harissa in lots of things now, putting it on salmon and chicken.  I suppose you could roast nuts with some harissa to sharpen them.

In any case, this was my dinner on return.

Spicy Mackerel with Bread-crumbs

Mackerel - four fillets
Harissa - a big dollop
Breadcrumbs - 100 g?
Olive oil
A lemon

Rinse the mackerel and pat it dry.  Spread the harissa, a thin covering, on the flesh side, then roll the fillets in bread crumbs.  Over a medium heat, place skin side down in a frying pan coated with olive oil. Cook for two or three minutes, then flip them and cook for another one or two.

Serve with a wedge of lemon.  

We served them with steamed green beens and a salad.  They'd also go well with spinach.  

With that, we drank a full-bodied Spanish red from near Valencia, on special offer at the wine store just down the street.  I'd have been happy also with shiraz or even a rose.




Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Simin Behbahani, an Unacknowledged Legislator of Iran

A fine tribute this week by Sohrab Ahmari on the poet Simin Behbahani, dubbed the Lioness of Tehran.  She was 82, nearly blind, but the regime still felt compelled to slap a travel ban upon her.

For a lesson in the power of artists to shake despots, consider the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani. The Islamic Republic four years ago imposed a travel ban on her in retaliation for poems she'd written denouncing Tehran's crackdown on the 2009 Green uprising.

She was 82 and nearly blind, yet she was barred from boarding a France-bound plane and interrogated through the night in March 2010. Behbahani died Tuesday from respiratory illness.

Behbahani's poems are routinely memorized and quoted in Iran. "In more than a thousand years of Iranian literature, it is unprecedented for a woman to have reached this level of national recognition during her lifetime," notes her English translator, Farzaneh Milani, in an essay on Behbahani's work. She was popularly dubbed the "Lioness of Iran."

Born in 1927 in Tehran, at the dawn of the Pahlavi dynasty, she published her first poem at age 14. Persian poetry was at the time undergoing a revolution of sorts, and Behbahani eventually came to lead its vanguard, alongside the likes of Nima Yooshij, Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad.

In their work, idyllic wineries and star-crossed lovers were replaced by serious social and psychological themes and portraits of everyday life. [...]
Behbahani's most-beloved ghazal, widely anthologized in the West, was published soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"My Country, I Will Build You Again" expressed the fragile optimism of a nation still convinced that it had just staged a democratic revolt—not one to usher in a new Islamist dark age. Its opening couplet:

My country, I will build you again,

If need be, with bricks made from my life.

A tip of the hat then to Simin Behbahani, another "Unacknowledged Legislator."

Read the whole fine article by Ahmari "in" the Wall Street Journal HERE.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In the Age of Obama... Where is the Love?

I remember back in 2008 the musical artist Will.i.am produced a viral and powerful campaign video on behalf of then-Senator Barack Obama's presidential bid.

That makes it all the more surprising that Will.i.am has now released a song by his group The Black Eyed Peas that is in its way a powerful critique of our time in this, the era of President Obama.

The song is entitled "Where is the Love?" and it seems already immensely and immediately popular, with more than eighty million Youtube plays.

Both abroad and at home our nation now feels farther away from the promise of peace and unity we looked forward to back in 2008.  This Black Eyed Peas' song, then, couldn't be more timely.  Below are some of that song's lyrics, along with my brief commentary.  Mid-way in this post comes the video, which I encourage all Main Point readers to watch carefully while reading these lyrics.

What’s wrong with the world, mama?
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas.
I think the whole world addicted to the drama,
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma

 How true.


Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA, the big CIA,
The Bloods and the Crips and the KKK.
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate.
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you have hate then you’re bound to get irate.

Seems a possible reference to events in Ferguson, Missouri, but is really a general and timeless truth.


Madness is what you demonstrate,
And that’s exactly how anger works and operates.
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight

People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek?





Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
‘Cause people got me questionin’
Where is the love?

It just ain’t the same, always unchanged.
New days are strange, is the world insane?

Nations droppin’ bombs
Chemical gasses fill in’ lungs of little ones.
Presumably a reference here to one of the conflicts in Middle East in the last year, with red lines drawn, crossed, ignored, etc...


A war is goin’ on but the reasons undercover
The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug
If you never know truth then you never know love

Where’s the love, y’all?
(I don’t know)
Where’s the truth, y’all?

(I don’t know)

Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria.


A point that always bears repeating.

Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema.
Whatever happened to the values of humanity?
Whatever happened to the fairness and equality?

Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity.

Sing with me y’all:
One, one world.
Something’s wrong with it
Something’s wrong with the world.


We only got
(One world, one world)
That’s all we got
(One world, one world).


The ending of the video provides a beautiful moment, so I'll hope you all will watch to the end.


UPDATE: A friend has pointed out that the song "Where Is The Love?" was released in 2003.  Well, yes, I suppose that's true, but it's more fun to think of it as released this month.



















The Beatles... and Style

Over at top style blog A Continuous Lean, Jake Gallagher opines on the style of John, Paul, George and Ringo after the break up of The Beatles.

The post is smart, with great photo research, but the clothes the fab four are depicted wearing are awful.

I much prefer their style from a few years before the break-up, during the era of their albums "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul."  As below... 








Commenting on the ACL post, Anthony Teasdale, the Editor of Umbrella magazine, says the epitome of their style for that era can be seen in the video for the song "Rain."  As below...




Do go visit the post ACL post HERE.

And look in on Teasale's Umbrella HERE.