Friday, December 12, 2008

Beirut Bound - part 3

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

The last time I briefly drove through the Bekaa valley, it was a piece of hell - cars and trucks abandoned by the roadside, plumes of smoke, stench of explosives, Israeli jets flying overhead, and tired, hungry, terrified families fleeing to Syria on foot.

This was in the summer of 2006, during the Israel-Hezbollah war, in which Lebanon took the heaviest beating.

Hezbollah still runs the valley today (see Cairomaniac's account of our encounter), and the scene here is the polar opposite of Beirut - Hezbollah flags, posters celebrating "martyrs", lots of mosques, livestock, and covered women (if we see any at all).

This time, I was a tourist. But as we drove north along the valley, to Baalbek, Francois pointed at bridges under construction - Israel had blown them up to sever road links between Lebanon and Syria. Foreign aid money is now paying to rebuild them.

It takes about 3 hours to drive to Baalbek from Beirut. We were here to see the temples of Bacchus, and Jupiter - possibly some of the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I wonder what this is for...

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008 (seriously)
Ah, the things you find during a grocery run.

Beirut Bound - part 2

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

Francois, our driver, drove us up the coast on day 2, stopping for a bit to see the stunning Jeita Grotto on the way. Hugh Hefner has nothing on this baby. Sorry, no pictures, though. They frown on that sort of thing.

So, onward to the 7000-year old port of Byblos - probably my favourite part of the trip, and my first visit to a crusader castle.

Here's the evidence:

Beirut Bound - part 1

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

There have been a lot of holidays lately. The last big one was the end of Ramzan/Ramadan - the fasting month, and Suf & I, along with Dr. Vorg & NS, went up the street to Lebanon.

Our first stop - Beirut, the Paris of the middle east. Rich, beautiful, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan. Beirut is at once the playground of Saudi philanderers and the home of Hezbollah. I didn't take too many pictures of the city because I was so busy sampling the fare at one spectacular restaurant or another (lamb kofta in sour cherry sauce at Mayrig in Gemmayzeh - to die for).

But here's a shot that pretty much everyone takes.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Lately, I found my ringtone to be boring as hell. So I changed it to the show theme from Get Smart. I changed Sufia's to the theme from Hawaii Five-O (I know, we're showing our age).

Then I got this from a friend in London - it's part of a HIV prevention campaign in India, by the BBC World Service Trust. They want to do it by promoting condom use. And they have a ringtone! This is what it sounds like:

You can download the ringtone here. Let me know if you think I should put it on my phone.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

Around the end of our first week in Canada (back in July), Suf & I turned to each other as we sat by the water.

"Do you want to go back early?"

She'd read my mind. We were already missing Cairo like mad.

I stayed away from Khanundrum on purpose. We've been in Canada for the last few weeks, and I thought I should give the blog a break - not that we had much time to write anyway.

Our time here's been filled with silence, clean air, parking tickets, weddings, people, kids (who might be people), concerts and airplanes (let's see... at one point or another, one or both of us were in Saint John, St. Andrews, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Brampton, Missisauga, Erin, Saskatoon, and NYC).

We loved every single one of those places (well, except for Mississauga). But none of them are the crowded, noisy, polluted, ugly, wonderful city that we now call home, and have come to love.

"Yeah!" I said. "Let's go back early."

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Mummy Daddy

"So, what do you want?" Zahi Hawass thundered at my students.

They're a mix of Arab & American journalism students, who are here in Egypt (and later, Qatar) for a 3-week mideast journalism bootcamp. The course is made up of field trips and seminars. We were in Hawass' cavernous boardroom as part of an archeology field trip.

His official title is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of the Giza Pyramids Excavation. He would much rather be called Egypt's Indiana Jones, complete with the hat.

Today, no monument or artifact in this country can be officially "discovered" by anyone other than this man. If your donkey falls into a hole and you find an ancient tomb down there, you call Hawass' office. His convoy blazes to wherever you are, and he discovers whatever you've found. So, in Egypt, this man is pretty much every mummy's daddy.

"What are you here for?"

"Well, Dr. Hawass..." one of us offered an explanation, and the students began their questions:

"What role does archeology play in boosting tourism, and thereby driving the economy?"
"What kind of environmental concerns do you have when it comes to preserving antiquities?"
"Do you worry about terror threats against the ancient sites?"
"What's the difference between the status of women in ancient Egypt, and modern Egypt?"
"How come most of our excavations are undertaken by foreigners, and not Egyptians?"

Hawass was loud, outspoken, and almost flippant:

"Tourism is the enemy of archeologists... I want to make tickets more expensive..."
"People are ruining our heritage by bringing in so many millions of visitors..."
"I told George W. Bush that he cannot bring democracy to the Middle East... these people need dictators... who kill people every now and then... to preserve stability..."
"The woman should take care of the house first..."
"I am writing letters to congressmen... fighting with museums... to recover the Rosetta Stone... and so many other artifacts that were stolen from us..."

We went on for over an hour. One of my students had to change an hour-long tape in her camera. Each answer was a lecture, a litany, a lament. Long and strong.

I wanted to ask a question: "You say you're trying to recover stolen treasures. Given the current state of the Egyptian Museum, and the poor condition that most of the antiquities there are kept in (badly built cases, no climate control, no labels, etc. etc.), how would you preserve the stolen artifacts that might be returned to you?"

For once, the man was silent... and then the answer: "I am doing that now."
"That's it."
"That's it? That's your answer to my question?"
"Well, thank you for your time."

Applause, photographs, autographs.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Breathing Break: Hakuna Simba!

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

Willie and the other safari drivers in the Masai Mara were on edge for our first two days there. Nobody had seen a lion.

It's a safe bet that most people come to the Masai Mara to see lions. Hell, most people spend thousands of dollars on safaris, and if they don't see anything else except for lions, they will go home happy. Drivers like Willie take pride in finding lions for their clients.

It's hard to find lions in the spring, though - the Serengeti / Masai Mara grass is tall, and it rains frequently. So, for 2 nights, the talk at the drivers' dinner table centered around "hakuna simba." No lions. They took it personally.

But on the 3rd day, as we were wrapping up a giraffe, our CB radio began to squawk excitedly.

Kuja! (Look!)

Simba! Simba! Simba! Simba!

A mad rush across the Mara, with constant directions over the CB, led us to this big cat:

What I wasn't prepared for, were the paparazzi:

Photo copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008

For the next 45 minutes, camera shutters from 8 safari vans clicked with her every bored move.

The rest of the Mara thought we were the most ridiculous animals there. We barely noticed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Breathing Break: Kenya pt. 4

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

On day 2, we drove over to Buffalo Springs National Park. We got stuck in the mud, were charged by an elephant, and ate lunch on a hill overlooking herds of these guys. Enjoy:

Breathing Break: Kenya & the Dik-Dik

"The dik-diks... they are never alone," whispered Willie as our van crawled along the dirt road.
"And if one of them dies, the other won't live for too long."
I've been curious about the dik-dik ever since I read my friend Marie's book about her trip across Africa. They're elusive as hell, and will disappear before you can even say "dik-dik." I really wanted to photograph one for Marie, and tried a hundred times to click before they fled.
But perseverance has its payoffs, and I finally got mine. So here you go, Marie - meet Dik and Dik.
Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008


Photo copyright Sufia Lodhi 2008
I am interrupting this Kenya love-in to inform you all that today is my birthday.
I have turned 17 for the second time.
My sweet mama wrote in with a prayer. She wants god to make me a wise man.I am resisting the urge to write back ...
... maybe god has already answered her prayers.
That's it. Back to Kenya.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Breathing Break - Kenya Pt. 2

Photos & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

"We're going past mount Kenya now."
Willie, our driver, woke us up to see Kenya's tallest peak.
"Soon we will cross the equatah."

We had been driving for a couple of hours, heading to the Shaba National Reserve - about 300km north of Nairobi, where we were to spend 2 days at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge. Normally, we wouldn't be able to afford this palace in the wild. But these are special times in Kenya. The croc you see above was pretty much right outside our room window. Cairomaniac was convinced that crocs can jump, and issued many stern warnings for me to keep my distance. Obviously, she's watched a lot of When Animals Attack and not enough Animal Planet. Needless to say, the croc stayed put. Crikey!

When I tell people about crossing the equator, everybody asks about the water - does it change the direction of the flow when you flush the toilet? Sure enough, there's a guy by the equator sign with a jug of water and a plastic tub with a hole in the bottom.

"Would you like to see a demonstration?"
"No thanks."

I didn't want to pay money to see water go down a hole. Honestly, I'm not the least bit curious.

"Then maybe you can look in my shop? Buy something to keep us going? There have been no tourists lately."

Monday, May 12, 2008

Breathing Break: Kenya Pt. 1

Photographs & text copyright Yasir Khan 2008

I'm a bit late on this. But we got back from Kenya a couple of weeks ago.

People warned us not to go because of the recent political shitstorm. But tickets were cheap, and safari prices were down by almost 20% since people had cancelled their Kenyan vacations en masse. So we went... and had a great time - great food, clean air, and loads of silence. Not to mention loads of wildlife.

Kenyans were on their best behaviour.

Details and pictures coming soon. In the meantime, here's a short video of our trip, courtesy of Sony PS2:

Told you we had a great time. Stay tuned for more.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mugamma-thon: Running the Gauntlet

Cairomaniac had her first experience with Egyptian bureaucracy yesterday. She needed to get her visa transferred to her new passport, and went to the dreaded Mugamma.
What a trooper! I've never dared to go.
Read about it here.

UPDATE: I went to the Mugamma with Cairomaniac a couple of days after reading this. Boy, was I surprised. Lots of people, lots of paper, lots of rubber stamps, lots of windows to go to, and a handful of actual computers. But, in that ugly, big brother building, things seem to somehow work. Read her entry here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Above photograph by Cairomaniac. Rest by various journalists, including Per Bjorklund.

Khamsin sandstorms come quite abruptly. All of a sudden, it gets hot, and hard to breathe. You smell the sand in the air.

Sunday was one of those days. As the sky turned yellow, only 3 of my students showed up for class. The rest had taken the day off

The ones I did see at school were quite shaken.
"Three of my friends were standing on the sidewalk and were arrested."
"I don't know where my friends are."
"A riot cop told me to keep walking or face the consequences."

It started out as a day of protest by underpaid textile workers, against rising food prices and low wages. But it quickly became a storm of resentment against this country's government. People talked of organizing mass gatherings in public places across the country.

The Egyptian constitution permits protests. But according to the law, any gathering of more than five people could be considered illegal. And consequences can be brutal.

So, pop quiz: Wages are in the toilet, bread is becoming pricier by the day, your people are upset about it, and they want to let you know. What do you do?


Go here to read blogger Hossam El-Hamalawy's report.

All day Sunday, Cairo was crawling with riot police. Mind you, this is one of the most over-policed cities on the planet. But yesterday, they probably broke some police presence record.
Many protests were shut down before they began. The ones that did begin were gassed and beaten out of existence.

Many bloggers were pre-emptively arrested.

By the evening, the khamsin sandstorm had blown over, leaving behind a dust-coated city, a horrible aftertaste, and millions who still can't afford bread that still costs too much.

Update: It's not over yet. More here and here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

He's dead!

Quick! Somebody take the gun!!

No idea what I'm talking about? Read more.
And, if you have time to waste, read this.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pity the Fuul

Over a decade of journalism gives you bad habits. I've picked up a truckload.

For instance, we journalists are obsessed with the pithy phrase - the all-encompassing 2-3 word expression that we think crystallizes what we want to say. Like "the new normal", "terror links", "the Arab street", "the Arab world".

Here's a tall claim: there's no such thing as "the Arab world." This monolith doesn't exist. Why? Because everybody in the Middle East looks down upon everybody else.

The Kuwaitis don't like the Jordanians, who hate the Syrians, who dislike the Lebanese, who might not like Egyptians, etc. etc.

Almost nobody likes the Palestinians. And the Saudis? Well, they're god's gift to the world, and pretty much don't like anyone.

All of which begets humour like this:

A Saudi and an Egyptian are at the airport, waiting for their flights.
"You Egyptians," says the wealthy, white-robed Saudi, "are no better than animals."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, let me explain - what did you eat for breakfast?"
"Fuul," is the immediate answer.
"And for lunch?"
"Well... fuul."
"Hmm... er.... um... fuul?"
The Saudi leans back.
"So tell me, then, what separates you from the animals?"
"Ah, that's easy!" exclaims the Egyptian. "It's the Red Sea."

Fuul is the middle eastern poor man's food - mashed fava beans with olive oil and spices, eaten with bread. It's cheap (a fuul sandwich is about 10 cents), delicious, and sits in your stomach for the whole day.

Everybody has their own recipe - the Lebanese make it with garlic, lemon and parsley, the Egyptians add tomatoes and spice it up, the Syrians throw in some chick peas, some other folk add eggs or onions or tahini.

But the wonderful thing about fuul is that everybody enjoys everybody else's recipe. Maybe this is what will unite the... Arab world?

Friday, February 29, 2008


All text & photographs in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2008.

Finally found a store I can relate to.
Haven't gone in yet, but they probably have everything I will ever need.