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Entries in Lebanon (4)

Monday
Jun032013

This is Lebanon

   One of my favorite photos from the Ḥarb Tammūz (The July War of 2006): Libanis getting down to business following another day of bombing by the Israeli Defense Force.

   Incidentally, Noam Chomsky had this to say of that war:

   "The standard Western version is that the July 2006 invasion was justified by legitimate outrage over capture of two Israeli soldiers at the border. The posture is cynical fraud. The US and Israel, and the West generally, have little objection to capture of soldiers, or even to the far more severe crime of kidnapping civilians (or of course to killing civilians). That had been Israeli practice in Lebanon for many years, and no one ever suggested that Israel should therefore be invaded and largely destroyed. Western cynicism was revealed with even more dramatic clarity as the current upsurge of violence erupted after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, on June 25. That too elicited huge outrage, and support for Israel's sharp escalation of its murderous assault on Gaza. The scale is reflected in casualties: in June, 36 Palestinian civilians were killed in Gaza; in July, the numbers more than quadrupled to over 170, dozens of them children. The posture of outrage was, again, cynical fraud, as demonstrated dramatically, and conclusively, by the reaction to Israel's kidnapping of two Gaza civilians, the Muamar brothers, one day before, on June 24. They disappeared into Israel's prison system, joining the hundreds of others imprisoned without charge -- hence kidnapped, as are many of those sentenced on dubious charges. There was some brief and dismissive mention of the kidnapping of the Muamar brothers, but no reaction, because such crimes are considered legitimate when carried out by “our side.” The idea that this crime would justify a murderous assault on Israel would have been regarded as a reversion to Nazism.

   "The distinction is clear, and familiar throughout history: to paraphrase Thucydides, the powerful are entitled to do as they wish, while the weak suffer as they must."

   From "On the US-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon", published in Al-Adab on August 19, 2006.

Friday
Mar152013

Long Lasting

   What is the deal with the poorest of poor in developing countries selling Chiclets of all things?

 

   Back when I was a college student in San Diego, my friends and I would often cross the border to drink in Tia Juana. Street children never failed to surround the gringos and try to unload whole boxes of the chewing gum on us. In Thailand, it was little different: one afternoon as I was sleeping on the beach, someone nudged me awake. Looking up to see who it was, I found a toothless old woman holding a box of mint Chiclets in front of my nose.

   “Uh, no tha . . . Oh, what the hell, give me two packs. No, no, only two. I don’t need so many. I, uh . . . Okay, okay. Give me the whole box. No! I don’t want two boxes . . .”

   This has happened to me so many times and in so many countries that I’m beginning to think that it might be the deliberate marketing strategy of Cadbury Adams.

 

   At the Roman ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, I was approached by a number of street vendors selling everything from camel rides to panama hats. There was even a dejected old man in filthy clothes trying half-heartedly to peddle, yes, you guessed it, Chiclets.

   It made me wonder if there was some kind of hierarchy among these miserable salesmen. At, or very near to, the bottom of it surely had to be the poor sap with the Chiclets.

 

   “Good morning everyone! We’ve got a busy day ahead of us. There’s a busload of Koreans coming in at ten, another busload of Japanese at eleven. Some Germans at a little after one in the afternoon. Ibrahim, you’re selling Chiclets today. Sammi, you’re in charge of the Panama hats. Hey, Yusuf! Get that camel away from the water coolers . . . Look, I don't give a flying fuck if it is thirsty, just keep the stupid beast away, hear? Any of the tourists catch sight of a camel drinking water from the cooler, and you can kiss your commission good-bye. Hasan, you’ll be selling . . . What's that, Ibrahim? Don't want to sell Chiclets again? I'm sorry to hear that, really sorry. But hey, if you’re not up to it, I suppose you can always sit on the sidewalk and panhandle with the rest of those sorry losers over there. Oh? What’s that, Ibrahim? You’re not crazy about that idea, either? Selling Chiclets will be fine by you, you say? Great! Now, stop wasting my fucking time and start selling some of that goddamn gum . . . Oh, for crying out loud, Yusuf. Yusuf! YUSUF! For Chrissake, what did I say about the camel and the water cooler? You what? That does it! Yusuf, you’ve got Chiclets duty today! Ibrahim, get back here! You've been promoted to camel. Yeah, yeah, don't mention it. Just keep it away from the cooler there."

Sunday
Jul082012

Stupid Wars

   I just got word from my mother that the ex-husband of one of my many nieces was shot by enemy fire in Afghanistan. His leg had to be amputated, making him one of about two hundred soldiers who will sacrifice a limb this year to Operation Enduring Freedom. (In 2011, 240 deployed troops had to have at least an arm or a leg amputated, compared with 205 in 2007, the height of the surge in Iraq, according to data published by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. For more, go here)

   Even though their marriage ended in divorce four years later, I still liked "Mikey".

   A good-natured Jewish boy from a working class background who had joined the Navy after high school, Mikey was stationed at the base in Sasebo when my niece met him. (She had been living with me here in Fukuoka.) Barely half a year later the two of them were married and living together in Washington D.C. A year and a half later in the summer of 2007, their wedding, a sumptuous affair unlike anything I had ever experienced, was held in Beirut.

   As I was the only one on our side of the family who knew Mikey, and more importantly because no one on his side was willing to risk traveling to Lebanon at a time when car-bombings and assassinations were once again commonplace in the country, the duty of being best man fell on me. I was more than happy to fill in.

Better times: me (far left) and Mikey (middle) with a relative and the priest before the wedding   Although Mikey was in the Navy, ostensibly training police dogs, he was sent to Bahrain a few years ago. And that was the last I heard from him.†† I didn't know he was serving in Afghanistan, let alone in a combat situation. But then, what can we say we really know about what is going on in that god-forsaken country? It has become another stupid war, not worth fighting anymore. And who pays the price? Not the fucking politicians who got us into it, nor the companies that reaped fabulous profits from the invasion. No, the ones who are paying for the folly of Bush and his Neocoms are the soldiers who shouldn't have been sent there in the first place. 

    Good luck to you, Mikey. You're still family to me.

 

    For more on casualty figures for Afghanistan, go here.

 

    My latest post, Mike Brodsky, updates and corrects this information. 

    †† By then my neice and he had divorced. The last time I saw either of them was in Oregon in the summer of 2008.

Wednesday
Sep282011

Sign o' the Times

   The other evening the doorbell rang. When I went to go see who it was, I found a balding salesman with an awful set of teeth. He had come to my door before several months earlier trying to hawk a membership to a chain of restaurants and probably assumed that I didn’t remember him from all the other salesmen that come a-knocking at my door. Or, perhaps he just didn’t remember me.

 

  That happens a lot--my remembering people but not being remembered in return, so much so, it used to get me down.

   I long suspected that the reason I was being forgotten was that I was failing to leave an impression strong enough on the people I met. Obviously, what I needed to do was to assert myself more. I needed to be a go-getter, a hustler with a powerful handshake and a ready smile! That is, at least, what my father used to grumble to me about when I was growing up. A niggling doubt has remained with me ever since. (Let's call it my legacy.)

   But, then, my wife offered up an alternative theory: “The reason people don’t remember you is because they’re not very bright. They simply haven’t got as good a memory as you do.”

   She said to me this after I had finally gotten ‘round to meeting a new friend of hers named Laura.

   The two of them had met a few months earlier at a local park where they had brought their children to play. Before long, they were meeting for coffee and having lunch together. One day, my wife showed me a picture of Laura and all the things she had mentioned about the woman came together.

   “I know her,” I said. “We met about ten years ago and chatted briefly. We were never friends, but we knew many of the same people. She might even know me.”

   “She said she didn’t.”

   “Did you show her a picture of me?”

   “Yes, and she said she still didn’t know me.”

   Granted, as the sexy, vivacious and outgoing Filipina that she was, Laura was going to leave more of an impression on people than a brooding and quiet undiscovered author like me ever would. Still, there really weren’t that many foreigners living in Fukuoka at the time. Even if we hadn’t met and chatted all those years ago, she could have at least remembered my face. Not the most handsome one, I suppose, but certainly not a monstrosity.

   So, be it.

   It goes without saying that I felt much better after my wife paid me that compliment and I can stand a little taller now when I meet someone for the second time who says, not as a question, but as a statement of presumed fact: “We haven’t met, have we?”

 

 

   So, the salesman at the door says he’s sorry to disturb me, but do you have time?

   I tell him I don’t.

   He continues speaking all the same. What has he got to lose?

   To my surprise, he does not have anything to sell me today. He is, instead, willing to pay good money for old jewelry.

   “Have you got any gold or platinum lying, say, in the back of a drawer or in your closet?”

   “’Fraid not,” I say, closing the door.

 

   Gold. Now, if you want to see something (choose the adjective most appropriate to your emotional and financial circumstance: amazing, shocking, exciting, disgusting, frightening, etc.), go check the meteoric rise in the price of the spot gold over the past five to ten years. Up and up and up she goes, when she’ll drop nobody knows. Those in the business of selling gold will have you believe that the price will continue to climb indefinitely. Maybe they’re right. Personally, I believe that so long as the economic situation remains unpredictable, investors will continue to purchase gold in lieu of other investments as a store of value, meaning the price will probably rise further. Some argue the price will rise as high as $2,300 per ounce this year. (It hovered around $1,800 earlier this month.) That said, buying gold as an “investment” doesn’t make much sense. As the Economist wrote in 2010, “it pays neither a dividend, like a share, nor a coupon, like a bond, nor a rent, like property.”

   Contrary to what I told the gold buyer, I do own gold. Quite a bit of it, actually, in bullion and coin. I started purchasing gold regularly about five years ago when prices were half what they are today. My reason for doing so was not as an investment--although it has been mildly entertaining to watch the price shoot up over the years--but rather as insurance.

   I am not so much a pessimist as I am wary. It is not inconceivable that Japan’s economy collapse one day under the weight of public debt and the yen loses much of its value, or that China decides to gain, by military force, access to the frozen methane or other natural gasses under the waters lying in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, or that a desperate North Korea lobs several Taepo Dong missiles at the country, or that Japan is incapacitated by another cataclysmic natural disaster. And, I don’t want to be stranded, unable to return to the States or wherever it is I would flee to, when that days comes. Hence the gold.

   Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes.

   In Lebanon, it is not unusual for families of means to keep a horde of cash in a variety of currencies (as well as AK47s and ammunition) in case civil war breaks out again--always a possibility--or Israel with its itchy trigger finger--decides to bomb. (Few people in the west are unaware of the frequency of Israeli air strikes against, and incursions into, the country.) Seeing how my relatives there prepared for such possibilities impressed me the last time I visited and I started thinking more seriously about my own family’s security.

 

   Another sign of the times came via a fax--yes, a fax--that arrived the very same evening. (The only reason I have a fax machine is because people still insist on sending documents that way.) It was sent by the Recruit company, a classified, publishing, and human resource giant here in Japan. Recruit publishes a number of magazines, one of which is Keiko to Manabu. Literally meaning “Lessons and Learning”, the title of the magazine is a homonym of a woman’s name, Keiko, and a Man’s name, Manabu, lending it, I suppose, a friendly ring. The magazine is published regionally and features ads for all kinds of schools. If you want to learn, for example, how to put on a kimono (what the Japanese call kitsuke) you just thumb through the magazine to that section and look at the schools listed there and call one up.

   I used to advertise in Keiko to Manabu. The first time I placed an ad in the magazine was about ten years ago. At the time, the only schools advertising in it were the major nation-wide Eikaiwa chains, such as Aeon, Geos, and Nova. Considering the cost of an ad, I could understand why. The cheapest ad, a dinky 1/8-page rectangle, cost about 70-80,000 yen per month.

   But, my business at the time was suffering and I needed to do something different to get new students as the method I had been using was no longer effective. (Too many people were imitating me.) So, biting the bullet, I took out a series of ads with the magazine and crossed my fingers.

   To my delight, the ad was a huge success so I continued using K&T for the next several years. Eventually, I managed to get the price down to 50,000 yen a month, which was still kind of expensive for a small operation like mine, but I could generally recoup the cost through new enrollment within a few months.

   But then five years or so ago, the effectiveness of the ad started to peter out. One of the problems was the Nova bankruptcy, which put a damper on the entire English-learning market, another was the number of other small school owners who were once again following my modest lead. And so, I pulled my ads. (Incidentally, I have since eschewed print media entirely, sticking to the Internet where I seem to once again have the edge over my competition.)

   In the years that I stopped advertising in K&T and a number of other magazines, I have watched with interest how the price of advertising in print media has come down, down, down. They can’t give the space away anymore. And that is what some of them do. One saleswoman called to say they had a space that had to be filled by tonight. How much, I asked. Ten thousand yen. “Ten thousand yen?" I said. "Deal!” I got three students out of that, two of whom studied for over three years, meaning a ten-thousand yen gamble on the advertising roulette table paid out over 25:1. Not bad.

   Yesterday evening’s fax from Keiko to Manabu made a tempting offer and for the first time in years I seriously considered once again placing an ad in the magazine. One month’s advertising fee only cost five thousand yen. Five thousand yen! (I spend that much money on a bottle of rum.) In addition, they were throwing in advertising space on their online site for free. Such space used to go for about twenty-thousand a month.

   In the end, I crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the garbage. Obviously, at prices that low the magazine no longer had the pull it once had. I might gain a student or two, yes, but I would probably gain five salesmen who would hound me into placing further ads in their magazine. No thanks.

   Let me tell you, as much as I like watching the TV series Mad Men, advertising is not a business I would like to be in today.