London Trip: Day 6: Padington Hotel – Natural History Museum – Persian Dinner

It is Friday.

A couple from Netherlands shared our hostel room.  They were friendly, liberal, and hated Trump.  They talked about the economy, and the growth taking place in Netherlands.  They spoke English with us, and it seems that English is the international language in Europe.  They said that Holland was booming.  They said that if you visited Holland, you should not only visit Amsterdam, for there are many beautiful cities and areas.

It dawned on me that we are now in the countdown for the final days in London.  Worse than that, it is the count down for my time with Walid.  I wanted to spend quality time with him during our last three days.  I also wanted him to be comfortable, since he is really uneasy in a hostel.  I wanted to have a private place where we can play Um Kalthoum at night, and sit and talk for hours while eating his wheat Loaves of Bread or his grapefruits.  “Make sure not to peel the white parts”, he would tell me. Continue reading “London Trip: Day 6: Padington Hotel – Natural History Museum – Persian Dinner”

London Trip: Day 5: Trafalgar Square – National Gallery – Big Ben

Sleeping on the upper bed, I woke up Thursday morning while Walid is playing the creepy man prank on me, staring at me real closely.  I missed his creepy man jokes.  He used to stand behind the door of my office when we worked in 2004 in a cellphone shop, and watch me in a creepy way, and pretend that he is hiding when I see him.  Sometimes it made me wonder if a psychological issue was really being manifested.  Thankfully, it was  just a prank all along.

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Walid is 10 years older than me, but he has the wisdom of a 100 years old philosopher. He grew up in Beirut Golden time, in an ocean of intellectual waves, when Beirut was the Paris of the East.  Then the intellectual waves became intellectual wars, and they in turn converted to real wars, and he lived the civil war in lebanon that started in 1975 day by day, the Israeli occupation that swept up to Beirut in 1982, till he left in the 90’s, and the civil war outlasted him till the year 1989, when it kind of ended with the Taif Accord, while the war with Israel continued till today.  He studied music in California, and a bunch of other things.  He is a professional guitarist, a well learned pianist, a great composer, and an accomplished poet in Arabic.  He is a reference and an expert in the Arabic Language with all its branches, Arabic Music, Arabic poetry, and fluent in English and French.  He also speaks Spanish, and some Russian and German.  He is also an Islamic scholar, and few of his friends declared him as Mujtahid.  Although it might have been a joke at certain times, but it really reflected his intellectual capability to infer the jurisprudence he needed for his daily life.

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Walid is also a radio producer, video producer, a TV host, a columnist, a chinese cuisine chef, a donut baker, an educator, and school administrator. Continue reading “London Trip: Day 5: Trafalgar Square – National Gallery – Big Ben”

London Trip: Day 4: British Library – Russell Square – British Museum – SOHO

Someone once said that the greatness of a city is in the proportion of its public places to its private ones.  The British Library is not only a library.  It is a celebration of knowledge.  It is a museum of the history of script.  It is a compositor of the great documents written in history.   It is London’s largest indoor public space.  It holds over 150 million items. Almost 14 million books, 824,101 serial titles, 351,116 manuscripts, 8,266, 276 philatelic items, 4,347,505 cartographic items, 1,607,885 music scores, and 6,000,000 sound recordings, and that makes it the second largest library in the world after the library of Congress.   It is also a conglomeration of awesome cafe’s and shops.  Thus, it is a great place for studying or working with its free wifi and 10’s of sitting spaces.  5 to 9 thousand people visit it a day. Continue reading “London Trip: Day 4: British Library – Russell Square – British Museum – SOHO”

London Trip – Day 3 – Imperial College – Science Museum – King’s Crossing

I am writing about my 3rd day in London, but today is the end of my last 5th day.  It will be hard to go back and recollect the 3rd day with its feelings since by now I feel the city has overwhelmed me emotionally.

On the morning of Tuesday, I woke up early, checked out, and left my bag at the Bell Desk for a pound, and headed to Hyde park. Our next destination is Natural History Museum in South Kensington.  We will cross Hyde park going there, so it makes sense to start at Hyde park’s Italian Fountain cafe.  I love this cafe.  It is the first one I experienced in London, and it feels like home to me now.  Just like the myth that chicks will think of you as their mother hen if you are the first person to see after they hatch.  That cafe was my mother hen.

I wrote, and sipped on the flat white that seems the most popular drink in London.  Another reason to love this city is that my drink, which is usually not even offered by most American cafes, and if offered, not written on the menu, is the most popular drink here.  I guess I have a London taste, or since most of the cafes in London are run by Italians, an Italian taste for that matter.

When Walid joined me, we strolled down one of the beautiful paths of Hyde park going South, on the bank of the Serpentine river. Magnificent monuments and sculptures marked the intersections of the park walking dirt roads, and dogs roamed freely.  I always saw a scene in the US when two dogs, leashed and walked by their owners, meet.  It always seemed like they want to kill or rape each other.  Seeing dogs roam freely in London, and then bark and approach each other when they meet, but yet not touch each other, made me think that the dog-leaching thing in the US is way overrated.

London is an ever non-ending beauty.  It is one large classical museum.  The architecture merges together producing chambers and chambers of Art and Architecture.  Then lined up under these magnificent 3-4 floor historical buildings, cafes, pubs, and restaurants, book stores, tea shops, and little shops, very neat and beautifully designed and decorated. I was impressed by most of the logos and type fonts.

In approaching the Natural History Museum, we passed by the Imperial College, and there, there was a farmer’s market in the middle of the day.  It didn’t make much sense since it was Tuesday, but it was a gorgeous coincident.  Authentic healthy Indian chutney food (street food), fresh beef burgers or kabab in a wrap full of fresh vegetables, cookies, fresh apple juice, pies, coffee, and line up of choices in small canopies.  I could not resist trying a sandwich, while Walid bought a loaf of wheat bread.  Yes, he was eating mostly like Jolvanjone from La Miserable. That’s what I called him every time he was eyeing a loaf of bread to buy. He would get some yogurt with it sometimes, and sometimes he would wrap it with some avocado and honey.  He ate like prophets, talked like philosophers, dressed like a 90’s teacher, and sang in the streets like a crazy person.  I loved every second with him.

Every time we walked through or in a university campus, he could not stop comparing the experience to the strenuous experience of passing through the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Beirut, Lebanon, and how a guard needed to check his student ID otherwise he would not be allowed in.

There was a long line to enter the magnificent Natural History Museum, but next to it were the Science museum which had no line.  It wasn’t on my plan, and I thought it is similar to Michigan Science Center or Ann Arbor Hands On Museum, which is basically few activities for kids to educate them about some sciencitifc facts. I was wrong.  The Science Museum was a magnificent two parts, each 4 floors museum, that covered the history of science, especially as related to British scienctists, from 15 century to today.  I ended up separating from Walid din the museum, and ended up staying till it closed at 5:30PM.

I then was invited to give a talk at a book store near Kings crossing area, and so we did pick a hostel next to the book store and reserved one night there, two beds, in a room of 4 beds.  The talk was titled: “Meetup with Wissam Charafeddine, cofounder of IRSHAD”.  I arrived there, and there were about 20 people sitting on chairs waiting, from different age groups and nationalities.  I was introduced by a Persian English host, and then I proceeded to talk about Islamic Reform, the story of IRSHAD, and my personal story.  After we were done, I was invited for dinner in an Italian restaurant near by, and had a great conversation with a friend from the Western Desert, a friend from Palestine, and a professor from Egypt.  All of them are English now off course.

That was my first night sleeping in a hostel.  I was convinced by the feasibility of using a hostel from my friend, Yousef Alqamoussi’s experience with hostels in Costa Rica.  You can read all about it at onechapterone.wordpress.com.  A shared rooms by a group of usually young travelers, and common rooms to intermingle and socialize, or work and eat.  Rooms are used usually only for sleeping.  Sometimes there are toilets and showers within the rooms, and sometimes there are general toilets and showers that are shared through out the hostel.  Although I was eyeing the Astor Hostels (there are 3 of them in London) to stay at, I didn’t reserve prior to my trip because I didn’t want to restrict my plans in a newly discovered city.

We stayed at the Key Stone hostel, next to King’s Crossing station.  It was also across from two things on my plan:  The King’s Crossing Bookstore, and the SHOP and DO Tea shop, which was rated as one of the best tea places in London.   Walid didn’t join me for dinner, and resorted back to the hostel to settle and pray.  As a practicing Muslim, he prays three times a day at least, 5 prayers.  So if you are not a Muslim, there are 5 muslim prayers a day: Fajr (morning), Dhuhur (noon), Asr (afternoon), Maghreb (Sunset), and Isha (night).  Each prayer is made of a number of physical activities or postures and sayings associated with them.  While each of the prayer has a strict interval to be prayed within, Dhuhur and Asr internvals can be combined into one, and Majrib and Isha can be combined into one, without needed excuse for Shia Muslims, and with a needed excuse for Sunni muslims.  In order for a Muslim to perform his/her prayer, they need to do Wudu (ritual washing), and have pure clothe (no impurities on it, and impurities are blood, semen, urine, excretion, pork, dog stuff, alcohol for some muslims, and infidel stuff for some muslims).  And only when you thought this can not get more complicated, listen to this:  Your wudhu is invalidated by using the bathroom, sleeping, farting, or passing out.  For ejaculation or sexual intercourse, Ghusul is required (basically taking a shower).

In Muslim countries, there are mosques or places designated for prayers everywhere.  It is also a common scene to see people stopping, lining up, and praying on congregation.  In the West, Muslims suffer through this practice, and often get into awkward situations.  And here is one of the most awkward ones I have every heard about that happened to Walid that night.

Walid prayed 5 times a day during our visit to London.  Keeping up with my plans, he prayed all over the place.  At Hyde Park, in Russel square, in the basement of restaurants, on the lawn of the National Gallery, at the Elizabeth fountains in front of the gates of her Majesty residence at Buckingham palace.  He prayed Jumaa prayer in a mosque in Paddington.  The guy who he asked about Jumaa prayer because he looked Muslim basically took him with him. The best place to pray off course was inside the hotel room.  Well, in the hostel room in this case.  We booked a room of 4 beds (two sets of bunk beds),  and when Walid entered the room, there was a couple already sleeping.  Trying to be as silent as possible, and not wanting to turn the light on, while also his phone was dead as usual, he went out of his way, to go get a flashlight so he would not wake up the other guests.  He used the toilet and washroom that were outside the room so he would not cause noise by using the ones in side the room.  Then he placed his prayer rug in the room, in silence, in the dark, and he started praying.  He read all the prayers in side his heart, and made all the moves with the utmost silence he could perform. Nevertheless, after leaving the room for 10 or 15 minutes after he finished his prayers, upon returning to the room, he found the two couples out.  We are talking at about 12 or 12:30AM.  Their beds are undone, lockers are emptied, their bags disappeared.  This mystery puzzled us for hours, trying to figure out what happened.  I asked the reception about them, and they said they don’t know anything about them leaving. We had a hypothesis that they were scared shitless by Walid prayers.  Maybe they have never seen something like that.  Maybe they have an Islamophobia, and I say that innocently, not out of bigotry by them, but perhaps out of ignorance.  At anycase, we decided that Walid would inform the other guests in the room of his performance of prayer before doing so and old explain to them the prayer so they are comfortable with what he is doing.  The next guests we shared the room with for the next two days were fine.  Carlos,  a Philipino English guy, and a couple from Netherlands the night after.

We slept, and it was not our half way through the trip, but we have experienced so much so far.

London Trip – Day 2 – Notting Hill – Portobello Market – Buckingham Palace and Unexpected Digressions

The dark eyed, hazel haired Italian Fountains Cafe server smiled at me as she sees me open my palm with a bunch of coins in them.  I figured out it is easier to just let them pick up the coins which they need rather than to try to hold each coin to the sun, investigate it to decipher out all the engravings, 15th century emblems, and the detailed ornamentation of the crown of her majesty, what denomination of a coin each is, before I do the math and give the right combination.

Then proceeded to sit on the patio overseeing the Italian Fountains in Hyde Park. The Italian Gardens is a 150 year old ornamental water garden located on the north side of Kensington Gardens in Hyde park.  It is believed to have been created as a gift from Prince Albert to his beloved Queen Victoria.  After my friend Walid joined me, we took a strol down the serpentine river, and stoped by the Kensington Palace, which is a 500 years old castle with so much history, the last of which is becoming the home of Princess Diana. Continue reading “London Trip – Day 2 – Notting Hill – Portobello Market – Buckingham Palace and Unexpected Digressions”

Khorfakkan, Red Bricks, and Mosques

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The word khor in Arabic means a cove … the little extension of water into land, as if the ocean has extended its tongue to lick something off the shore. The word fakkan is the dual form (in Arabic there is singular, plural, and dual forms for each word) of the word fakk which means a jaw. So the word Kharfakkan means the cove of the two jaws, which is what you will see if you look at an Aerial photo of this town.

Being 7 years old, the memory fails me to remember our first days in Khorfakkan except for the beautiful orange shingles covered villa we moved in that was a couple streets away from the beach.  We lived in that villa for few months before the construction of the new Bank building in which our new apartment awaited us.

Khorfakkan was a very small city at that time with no parks.  It had one of everything… one vegetables and fish market, one hotel (Holiday Inn at that time), one hospital, one police station, one fire department, one library, one port, one beach, one Lebanese restaurant, and one crazy homeless man who roamed the Corniche [The Dictionary defines Corniche as ‘a winding road cut into the side of a steep hill or along the face of a coastal cliff’ but it means in modern Arabia the beach board walk because, I guess, there is no Arabic word for that].  It had lots of mosques off course, just like everywhere in the Middle East.

You see in Islam, there is a tremendous reward and incentive for building a mosque.  It is narrated that the Prophet said:

“Whoever builds a masjid [mosque] for Allah [God], even if as small as a sandgrouse nest [a type of desert bird], or smaller, Allah builds a house for him in Paradise”,

which kind of guarantees entry into paradise (otherwise Paradise will be a ghost city with so many vacant houses whose owners are burning in hell!).  Also, it is one of the few things after a person’s death that keep on paying up rewards to the deceased … at a time, it is perceived, as most needed (read more about the Torture of the Grave – scary music cue).

Also, it is easy to build a mosque in Islam, since it is basically a non-decorated empty room. Actually, according to Islamic law, all a person have to do is name a piece of land as a mosque, and it becomes a mosque till the day of judgement.

Oh ya… and no one is allowed to change a status of a mosque and it is not owned by people once it becomes a mosque. It is owned by God, and we all know that no foreclosure is taking place there!  [Waly AlFaqih can change the status of a mosque since he represents God in Shia Islam and the Khalifeh in Sunni Islam]

Add to that a rule in Islam that a person has the right to pick a piece of land that is unused, nor in the way of anyone else, and fix it, and consider it his [This is called in Islamic Jurisprudence Ihya’ Al-Mawat (the Revival of the Dead Earth), and which the UAE government adhered to]… and you end up with an ever increasing number of mosques.

Mosques are community gathering centers.  Unlike churches, they are well lit. Conversations are encouraged after prayer, and kids always enjoy running in this empty big, usually well carpeted, well air-conditioned hall.  They play tag. Their minds and hearts open with the openness of space.  Their imagination flourishes with the lack of external stimulus other than arabesque designs, plant ornamentation, and maybe extravagant chandeliers.  Mosques played a big role in my childhood as you will see as we proceed.

The house we moved to in Khorfakkan, was right next to Abu Bakr Mosque … I mean about 5 meters next to the mosque.  The speakers of the mosque shaked the house at the time of Azan [vocal call for prayer] five times a day.  Unfortunately, the Azan guy had a really bad voice … but it was his job .. as assigned by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in UAE.

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You see in UAE, the Sheikh (head of monarchy … equivalent to a king) appoints all the ministers, and the ministers appoint all the positions, down to the Azan guy.  All mosques are run by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs And Endowments  which is appointed by the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs.  No one is allowed to preach or open their mouth in the mosque without approval of the ministry, and don’t waste your time, don’t try to get anything approved … because you will be tainted with conspiracy, and evicted of the country if you are not an expatriot.

But it is a great thing, because it does not allow for all the chaos of Islamic movements, speakers, extremists, and sectarianism. All preachers get the guidelines from the ministry, get their sermons pre approved, and then read it to the people.  I think that this is one of the secrets of success of the United Arab Emirates … it is the castration of Islam and the complete deprivation of political involvement of people.

Abu Bakr mosque next to my house had one Friday sermon which I heard over and over again for 6 years.  Well, if you live in my house, whether you go to Friday prayer or you don’t, you will hear the sermon.  In the bedroom, in the living room, in the shower, or sleeping with two pillows plugging your ear … you will hear the sermon!!!  And it is exactly the same sermon, word by word … and  I memorized it after hearing it for 1000’s of times.

At anycase, we moved from our house with the red bricks, orange shingled roof, to the house above the bank, next to Abu Bakr Mosque … and we lived there for 6 years!  That is from my grade 2 to 7.  My sister was born there. It is the city that shaped me forever!

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Memoir Part 3: Idols, Khor Fakkan, and Fujairah

We learnt Islam in schools from Kindergarten.  We memorized the short Surahs (chapters of Quran) and recited them like Christmas carols.  We heard short stories of the prophets and day dreamed about them.  And we studied the Seerah (personal history) of the Prophet at a very young age and it was our bed times stories or in some cases, fantasies.

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The story of Prophet Ibrahim destroying idols and leaving the ax on the biggest idol was depicted by illustrations such as this in children’s book.

One of these short stories is the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and how he destroyed the idols of his people during their festival, in which he pretended to be sick to be left behind.  Another story was the Prophet (the prophet here forth will mean Prophet Mohamad) destroying the idols surrounding Kaaba after the “Opening of Mecca” (the word opening – fateh in Arabic – is used for Islamic major conquest).

 

You have to be a son of a United Arab Emirates native male to be considered an Emiraty or to have the UAE citizenship.  An Emirati mother won’t do, nor is being born there.  It is a tribal society with all the pride and prejudice that come with its definition. Only about 11% of the country’s population are Emiratis.  The majority actually (0ver 50%) are a working class South Asian … that is Indian, Pakistani, Bangali, Afghani, and others.   We as foreigner Arabs were called “expatriates”. Most Emaratis and expatriates had servants, and so did we.  We had a servant whose name was Leila, from Sri Lanka.  In my opinion, it was just a modern form of slavery.  The abuse of human rights inscripted in the work contracts for those servants is shocking, although the economic value to them is great. 

 

At any case, Leila was a hindu, and I walked to her room with my brother Moe when in Ajman when I was about 7 years old, and found her kneeling down to one of the african antique wood sculptures my mom bought for our living room. She was practicing her religion, but given my little child indoctrination about idol worshipping infidels, and the influence of all the “idol destroying” heroes of my childhood, add to that a lack of education about tolerance, I found it an opportunity to do what Prophet Ibrahim did, and me and my brother Moe attacked the idols and smashed them across the wall, destroying them, and shouting “ALLAHU AKBAAAR”.

 

Leila cried, probably not because of our blasphemous act, but maybe because she thought she will get in trouble. My parents had a confidential talk with her. But then,   we had a good traditional warm from the oven slipper beating (Arabs don’t use grounding as punishment)  by our Mom for destroying her living room ornaments.  

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In 1982-1983,  a new branch of National Bank of Abu Dhabi was opening in a small village called Khorfakkan, and my father was promoted to be a branch president and requested to move to it.  A very important chapter of my childhood started in this small city surrounded and pushed by mountains into the dark blue of the Gulf of Oman.  I was moving to Grade 2, and my brother Moe was entering kindergarten.  There were no private schools in Khorfakkan.  The closest city with a private school (25 minutes drive) was Fujairah.  The tales of two cities unknown to most humans at that time started for me and my brother Moe.

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Memoir Part 2: Jesus, WOW, and Ajman

With a look of despair, Jesus looked down at me from his big wooden cross that was

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Abu Dhabi Rosary School Sisters

mounted on the wall next to the principal’s office at the Rosary School in Abu Dhabi. That was my first encounter with Christianity.  My parents, wanting to give me a better education, enlisted me for Kindergarten in 1980, into a catholic school that was known for its rigorous education.  The headmaster was a Lebanese nun, so my parents–being Lebanese themselves–got along really well with her.  I don’t recall anything afterwards except bleeding from my ear.

Oh, you want to know about that?! Ok, so at this point, this will turn PG-13, so if you have any children around, stop reading aloud (it would actually be weird if you are doing so!). Here is the story: I did something wrong.  I wrote the letter WOW in Arabic from bottom up (Yes! We do have a letter WOW in Arabic, and we also have a letter YAA!!!!, but you will never learn these cool letters because they come after the letters KKHAAA and TDHAAAD and GHghayn so you will probably give up early on in the Arabic alphabet before you get to them).  Apparently, there was an international agreement that I missed  that resolved to

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Rosary School in the 80’s

write  the WOW from top to bottom. I was called to the blackboard. I think that was the first public performance in my life.  After I finished writing the WOW, the teacher stared at me in anger! She fumed! I couldn’t understand why.  It is the first letter of my name, so I was sure I wrote the right letter.  –  She came up to me and snatched my ear with her fingers, pulled, twisted, and squeezed with the all the might that the Lord Jesus Christ has bestowed upon her.  Her fingernail went into my flesh and I bled.  Well, now I write my WOW from top to bottom, so well done Sister!  My father actually came to school and all I remember is his stance at the door with his black suit and his manly full moustache next to the headmaster, while the teacher apologized to me in front of the class.  I don’t know which experience was more traumatizing to me: the public ear-pinching or the public apology of my teacher who will continue to teach me for the rest of the year in humiliation!

As a branch manager of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, a newly expanding government bank in a newly formed country (1973 was the formation of the United Arab Emirates), my father had to move a lot, accepting promotions and managing new branches.

In 1981, we moved.

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Sand and beach … that is what fills my early childhood memories in a place called Ajman.  Amidst  that canvas of sand and salty beach under the scorching sun, I can barely recall other memories. They are all happy images of playing on the beach between the sand and the sun. I went to the Ajman Model Elementary School in first grade.  I recall nothing from the school, except my box of pencils and instruments that had the Arab World map on it.

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You see, we were raised with the notion that all  of the Arab World was one world which we were the citizens of. We have been submerged into concepts of Pan-Arabism and Islamic identity from childhood, and this was the way in which we perceived the world.  This ideal happy vision of one Arab world, with no borders,  intertwined itself like a vines over our innocence.  Both chattered together once we were at an age that required a passport.

Wait, I have a memory that I think I should not skip: of when I broke the idols and shouted “Allahu Akbar”.  Here is the story.

Memoir part 1: Electra, Blondes, and Snapchat

Electra …. My parents were living on a street called Electra when I was born in Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1976. Well, there is no such thing as winter if you are living the United Arab Emirates, but for the UAE residents, if  you are not getting a heat stroke, then it is probably Winter. The street name is probably the only memory I have kept from my parents talking about my birth.  It was, and still an interesting name to me.  Sounds electronic, psychedelic, minimalist, and perhaps little erotic. A kind of prolific name for my future. Electra is definitely not Arabic … and if it was a girl, it would be probably a blonde thin girl that looks like emmm… perhaps Uma Thurman.  

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There is a completely different stereotype of a blonde in the Middle East and a blonde in the U.S.  While, and I completely disagree with it, nevertheless I see the humor in it; The blonde in the US is a reference for that over privileged, unintelligent, blatantly stupid, overly confident, white girl.  In the Middle East, it is a reference for the Western beautiful classy sexy and clean, yes clean, woman.  There is an irrational obsession with love of blondes among my people in the Middle East. Although the contrast is high when you place a blonde, lets say next to Abdulrazak, a Bedouin friend of mine … but you rarely see it happen.  It remains a fantasy for the vast majority of the dreaming teenagers of Arabia.  People are always fascinated with the less familiar.

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I don’t remember much of my first 5 years old naturally … and recording a video at that time was something that only the TV station had a capability of doing.  If you could afford the heavy machine that is the video recorder at that time, you would have to pay a lot for it, carry it on your shoulder like a bazooka, and it will break soon… believe me … it will break.  I say that to the privileged Snapchat generation today who have no value given to the recorded media (hence it disappears in 24 hours forever).  The memory of their lives is what they preserve in form of videos and photos, and their brain memory will not keep up with time, and there is a value in one’s history and background.  Many of what we experience during our lives have its roots in our history and childhood, and sometimes it takes reflecting back all the way to understand ourselves today.  Well … just when taking videos and photos became readily available, kids now are choosing to take photos only that disappear.  Hence, if you ask a teenager today about any of his or her childhood pictures … they probably have none  … unless their parents have Facebook!  I will probably come back to hate more on Snapchat later on.  For now, let’s jump to the 80’s.