Friday, March 28, 2008

Wilders' movie Fitna released

Yesterday evening, Dutch MP Geert Wilders has released his movie Fitna (mirror). The movie had already generated plenty of hype before the release because of its expected anti-Muslim and anti-Koran theme. After watching the movie, however, to this viewer, it seems to contain little to upset Muslims. That's good news for the Dutch living in the Middle East.

The movie is a collection of old images of Muslim terrorists' actions. So we again see the attack on the World Trade Center, now with dramatic recordings of phone calls from people trapped within the building to their loved ones, we see masked men decapitating one of their hostages, imams calling for destruction of all non-believers and so on, and so on. It's a 15 minute recap of these kind of events that happened during the last few years.

Sure, these are shocking images, but it gets quite boring after a while. We have seen it before, there's nothing new here.

In between, he has inserted violent passages of the Koran, like a call to kill all the enemies of the Muslim faith, etc. A Muslim expert made an interesting comment yesterday on Dutch TV by saying that Wilders has copied the exact style of the Al Quaeda recruiting tapes, as these tapes have a similar mix of violent images and references to the Koran.

At the end, Wilders shows the Koran, then the image fades to black and you hear the sound of a page being ripped out. To avoid any misunderstanding, this is followed by the statement that the sound was made by ripping a page out of a phone book. Wilders then states that he will leave it up to the Muslims to remove all the hateful passages of the Koran.

The only "shocking" element of the movie is that Geert Wilders seems to equate the Muslim faith with all these terrible terroristic events. That's as intelligent as holding all Christians responsible for blood baths by the IRA in Northern Ireland, or blaming all the Christians for the killing of doctors who perform abortions in the USA.

Other than that, the movie doesn't bring any new insight to the table. It doesn't try to formulate a solution to the violence by fanatics, and perhaps worst of all for Wilders, he might find that many Muslims would join him in condemning the violence and the hijacking of their faith.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No flag at Dutch embassy: more questions

After fellow blogger Harald Doornbosch broke the news that the Dutch embassy in Beirut is no longer showing the Dutch flag at their location, it has become a somewhat hot topic in the Netherlands, especially when Holland's most popular shocklog GeenStijl wrote about it.

According to the respected website, they haven't been flagging since March 13, 2008. However, it seems this information is wrong: a picture taken by me on Wednesday January 8, 2008 from the Dutch embassy shows that no flag was visible at that time! See picture below. I didn't notice it before, but after coming back from my trip to the States, I checked my photo archive for this picture and yup, sure enough: no flag!

Photo 1: No Dutch flag as early as January 8.

What's even more striking is that apparantly a simple flag is too much, while the building is prominently called The Netherlands Tower. Ask any taxi driver for this location, and he will drive you there. It is a well-known tower in Beirut and it used to host the head office of ABN-AMRO bank, one of the few western banks that were operating in Lebanon. As such, the Bank, and the Dutch with it, gained a lot of popularity among the Lebanese for being here while the going was tough.

Photo 2: "Quick: hide the flag, no one will know we're here!"

Another strange thing was the closing down of the embassy two weeks ago. All members of the Dutch community received a message saying that the Dutch embassy would be closed due to "security concerns" on Thursday March 13 and Friday March 14. They sent out the SMS late Wednesday night, so there was no more time to call them and ask for clarifications or guidance as to what precautions to take. Definitely not a helpful move. Why not simply say the embassy was closed for renovation or something equally vague?

To me, it's kind of strange to see the panic (?) striking at the Dutch embassy, especially since during the July War with Israel, the staff and ambassador were exemplary cool-headed and efficient. Perhaps it's the expected anti-Koran movie made by one of the Dutch MPs that got everyone riled? Harald checked other Dutch embassies in the Muslim world and none of them have removed the flag. So why be the exception?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Road trip details

Thanks to the logic of America's layout of roads, it's quite easy to describe the roads taken. Below I have summed up my drive through the southern states by mentioning the road and direction.

Start in Jacksonville, Florida. From there:

Route 1, North
(Entering Georgia)
Route 23, North
Route 135 North
Route 221, North
Interstate 16, West, turning into Interstate 75, West
Interstate 20, West, all the way to Dallas, Texas, passing through Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Missisippi and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Upon reaching Dallas, Texas, I took Interstate 35, South to Austin, Texas.
At Austin, I took Highway 290 East to Houston, Texas.
From there, it was Interstate 10 all the way east back to Jacksonville, Florida, driving via New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama and Tallahassee, Florida.

To sum it up:
Jacksonville, Fl., 1N - 23N - 135N - 221N - 16W - 75W - 20W - 35S - 290E - 10E - Jacksonville, Fl.

The occasional detour I took is not included in the above list. Like trying to find David Koresh' farm in Waco, Texas...couldn't locate it alas.

Total miles: 2748
Total time: 4 days of driving and 1 day of shopping anywhere I saw a Ross or Target :-)

America’s best kept secret

Most visitors to the USA might miss out its best kept secret since they don’t spend all day in their cars listening to AM radio. My trip, however, consisted mostly of driving around and that allowed for plenty of time for listening to that good old AM radio. Radio these days is FM, which will give you good quality, stereo sound programs. But for the best kept secret, all that fancy stuff is not needed.

For those who haven’t guessed it by now (that’s why it’s such a secret!) I’m talking about talk radio. The concept of talk radio is simple: put a man, somehow it’s always a man, in front of a mike and let him rant without end. The host has to fill up three hours every day until the next host comes on the air. As you might imagine, this stretched out formula takes quite a lot of skill to keep the listener entertained. Especially since the topics don’t really vary all that much.

One trick they use is to talk really slooowww with long .....pauses .....between .....words. Another trick is to talk slow and repeat all sentences at least three times. Sometimes by using different wordings, but more often by saying "Yes folks, .....heard ......right .....", followed by the exact same statement.

Some talk show hosts also have TV programs on CNN or Fox TV and it's amazing to see the difference: on TV, they talk as fast as they can to cram in a record amount of information in between the commercials.

Most, if not all, of the presenters are pretty hard core right wing, which translates into being against big government, which in turn means being against taxes. There is a caveat though: while being against big government, they sure are in favor of a strong government. Put simply: they are against raising taxes for useless stuff like social welfare programs, but they don’t mind spending record amounts on the army.

Another interesting contrast exists in the sense that talk show hosts, despite being against big government, applaud the government spying on its citizens. At least once per hour, some host makes a reference to those spineless democrats who are against extending the Patriot Act, e.g., It’s quite interesting to notice that right wingers don’t trust their government when it comes to taxes, but their distrust melts away in the face of law enforcement. This would obviously beg the question why anyone would trust the government with their safety if they don't trust it with their money, but that's a question better not asked.

Although at first, these right-wing talk show hosts hardly make any sense, after listening to them for a couple of days pretty much non-stop while driving around, you cannot but begin to appreciate the power of brainwashing. Partly this is due to the fact that in between their extreme messages, they also put a lot of good stuff, like self reliance, working hard, being decent. In other words, they like to refer to the old American values that enabled the settlers to build up a life in an often hostile environment.

Another reason for this brainwashing is that the talk shows play on a sense of group feeling. It’s pretty common to greet the host with the saying ‘You are a Good American!’, upon which he returns this compliment. I was hoping that some Abdallah would call in to see if he was also greeted a Good American, but unfortunately, most callers are white, blue eyed Americans.

What is interesting is that a caller’s comments are usually the starting point for yet another tirade, without ever referring back to the caller. I suspect they disconnect the caller as soon as he finished his question or comment. It seems the last thing they want is a discussion with their listeners.

The callers seem to be just fodder for the host to feel even further justified in his anger at the world. Also, by far most callers are fully in agreement with whatever the host is saying. There is hardly and discord between the host and the caller.

So why did I listen to this all day long? For one thing, there’s hardly an alternative: left-wing talk show radio doesn’t exist in the states I visited during my four day trip (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) and listening to regular radio is something I can do back home just as well. So in order to live the “American Experience”, there’s only one thing to listen to while driving: the never-ending tirades of Rush Limbaugh and his friends.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Andre Rieu on PBS

Non-Dutch readers, please ignore this posting, but readers in the vicinity of Jacksonville, Fl., pay attention. It's just that I was flipping through the channels on the TV in the hotel room and to my suprise there was Andre Rieu on PBS with a Dutch concert of his. Now, PBS is known for high-brow artsy-fartsy programming and, interesting enough, Andre Rieu is the opposite.

He's the conductor of an orchestra that plays mostly Strauss waltzes and has contributed greatly to making classical music more accessible. In Holland, e.g., he has the reputation of targeting people who have no clue about classical music. So how does he get them to come?

Well, by creating an ambiance that can only be described by this typical Dutch word 'gezellig'. It's the type of classical concert where you can dance the waltz in between your seats, you can hum along or get involved in a polonaise and there's lot of visual entertainment to enjoy as well. He has combined the normally boring and stiff way people listen to classical music with showbiz and it works: the people love it.

He must be making it big in America as well now that 'our' Andre will perform in Jacksonville, Florida on April 25th for the second time in as many years. It's almost sold-out according to the TV program, so if you're close and want to see this Dutch phenomenon, you'd better hurry.

Supersize me

One thing that keeps on striking me here in America is how fat some people are. It’s not just the typical overweight you see everywhere in the world. No, here you see people who are really, truly, ugly huge. Like this 20-something black woman having lunch at a diner. She was sitting alone at a table and in front of her were three burgers piled up, two portions of fries, at least 1 liter of Cola and a bucket (literally) of chicken wings…

Call me naive or call me spoiled by the Lebanese refined ways of eating, but so many Americans don’t eat, they simply gobble, devour and chomp their food down as much and as fast as they can. To be honest, the diners and other fast food restaurant do an excellent job in providing the right dining experience: portions are much larger than anywhere else in the world. Even a Big Mac, which is supposed to be equal across the globe, is significantly larger in the USA.

Also, while fast food is not necessarily cheap (you spend easily up to 10 USD per meal), the super size options usually are. For a dollar or less you can almost double your portion of fries, get a double-layered hamburger or get that extra large portion of chicken wings. Like other shopping, the Americans are experts in making you buy more. It’s just so damn tempting.

When it comes to brand name clothes, it’s obviously a good thing to purchase your Ralph Lauren polo shirt for 19.99 instead of 69.99. Things are different though when you’re “convinced” into buying all those extra calories and cholesterol at discount prices.

Does it have to be like this? Well, one thing is sure, it’s easier to change your own eating habits than it is to convince all the McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFC’s of this world to scale down their portions. Luckily, for the food-conscious tourist, there are ways to get out of America weighing the same as when you came in.

The best thing I found was is to stick to kids menus. You might get the occasional strange look, but trust you me, those children portions are large enough for an adult.

Another option is to try out the salads. They are usually excellent. Keep in mind not to finish your plate when ordering a salad. The portions might be healthy but they’re still huge nonetheless.

Don’t be too freakish about your health, though. That won’t work in the USA. Every now and then you simply have to let go and indulge in an 18 oz (that’s over 500 gram!) burger with melted Swiss cheese on top and comes with fries. This would be after you’ve finished your bucket of Chicken wings with blue cheese. As for desert, be sure not to miss some huge piece of cake. Simply scan the menu for something chocolaty and you can’t go wrong in the land of plenty.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

My err May God protect America

One thing you can’t help but noticing in the south of America is the overwhelming presence of churches. Even in Riyadh you won’t find so many places of worship. For some reason or another, the churches are often clustered together. As a result, you can easily drive by 5 or more churches all located right next to each other, which makes them even more visible.

Honestly, the nuances between each and every church are too refined for me to comprehend and the names of the various communities don’t help much either to clarify any difference there might be. In fact, the names are rather confusing since they’re sometimes almost similar to each other, such as “Baptist Missionary Association of America” next to the “National Missionary Baptist Convention of America”… and so on and so on.

Another thing you can see a lot these days before Easter, are huge crosses people put in their gardens. Typically you see three crosses in imitation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, and like all things in America: bigger is better.

It almost seems a competition with Christmas when people decorate their homes and gardens as well. But somehow I got the feeling that the people who put these huge, solemn crosses in their gardens are not the ones who put a cute little…err…huge (remember, America!) Rudolph up on their rooftop. They just don’t seem to be the happy-go-lucky people. But hey, whatever works for you, right?

Most churches also have a big sign in their front yard with either a scripture or they have come up with a statement of their own. The latter are not to be missed: “You will only truly live after you truly die!” (Prince, anyone?), “Be ready for tomorrow, pray today!”. My favorite was a sign that looked like a movie billboard: “COMING SOON: JESUS!”

The sheer presence of so many churches might seem oppressive, but in fact, all those different churches make one message perfectly clear: there is hardly agreement on anything and that leaves room for personal choices. It’s too bad I don’t have a camera with me since it could have perfectly illustrated this point: two same bumper stickers “What would Jesus drive?” I saw on two different cars: an energy-conscious Toyota Prius and a truly huge gas-guzzling Ford Explorer.

It’s always fascinating to see how people interpret God’s intention with us and it goes to show the old wisdom that all thinking about above comes from below. One can only pray that all these different Gods will protect this unique country of America.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The American Dream

As mentioned in my previous posting, I am currently in the United States for a conference in Jacksonville, Florida, which I combine with a few days of vacation driving around in the south of America. Before I left to the USA, I promised myself not to blog, to take a break, but then I entered a Burger King…

After leaving the motel right next to the airport of Jacksonville, I reached the state of Georgia some 30 minutes later. Due to jet lag, I wasn’t too hungry when I woke up, but we all know never to drive on an empty stomach. A good moment to pull over and find a place to eat. Well, that’s easy in America: pretty much any highway exit you take will offer you a wide choice of fast food options.

In my case, I could choose between a Burger King, a McDonald’s, a Subway, a Wendy’s and one more, which I forgot. Without really giving it a second thought, I went to the Burger King and ordered an omelet burger and a large coffee. That sure would get my systems going!

While waiting for the burger, an afro-American was talking loudly to his colleagues. He looked pretty old already, had gray hair and as far as I could tell, he was responsible for cleaning up the dishes. There’s something sad to see elderly working jobs like this, but that’s quite common in the USA. Must be the ugly side of capitalism. Like, many times you see grandpa’s and grandma’s behind the counter taking your order.

Anyway, the guy was going on and on about his daughter: “Can you believe it? I sure can’t, no sir, not me, nah-uh. My o w n d a u g h t e r! What was she thinking?!”. The way he was talking, it was unclear if he was laughing or crying, sometimes these two emotions are difficult to tell apart.

Intrigued, I listened on. “Y’know, I told her, better be careful here, always think ahead….oh boy, was I wrong or what??...she always told me to trust her in her choices, but that ain’t easy for a dad, no sir. I told her to just go Georgia State (a university, RB), but she wouldn’t want to”

By now, I was figuring she must be either pregnant with the boyfriend quitting on her, dropping out of school or something equally bad. Good thing the burger was large and the coffee still hot. I wanted to hear how this would finish.

“She was always smart, y’know, always knew better than her dad. Can you believe it I’ve never been so proud of her, except the day she was born? My girl going to Harvard Law School!!”

Wow! Wow, indeed! “Welcome to America” I was thinking to myself. The American Dream still comes true for some. Here we have a black young woman, daughter of a dishwasher at the local Burger King somewhere in a poor town in the south of Georgia…being accepted into Harvard and on her way to become a successful legal expert…

Well, you can see that despite all my promises not to blog, this story was just too good to ignore.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Away from keyboard

As you might have noticed, I haven't been blogging for a week now. This is because I am enjoying a nice stay in the USA: a conference combined with some vacation time which I use to explore the southern states: rented a car and drove from Jacksonville, Florida, via Atlanta to Dallas, then heading back to Jacksonville via Route 10 (Houston, New Orleans, etc). So no Lebanon for this week and the next.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A rough weekend

Just when you think the coming period will be relatively quiet, two disturbing events took place the last few days: the deployment of the U.S.S. Cole warship just outside Lebanese waters and the call for immediate evacuation of all Saudi Arabian citizens by their government, followed by a similar call by the Kuwaiti government, but they were quick to deny this.

What to think of the arrival of the U.S.S. Cole? Does America really believe that this aggressive act will scare Hezbollah/Damascus into compliance? It could, if America would be prepared to actually use the military might of the U.S.S. Cole, but that’s highly unlikely. Right now, it seems yet another misread of the Arab situation by the Americans who can’t stop believing that peace does not necessarily come from the end of a gun.

It is worrisome that the U.S.S. Cole arrived shortly after the new American ambassador, Mrs. Michele Sison, set foot on Lebanese soil, leading to speculations that she has been huffing and puffing for this boat to demonstrate she’s one tough cookie. Not a very surprising approach obviously, since she has been appointed by a government that feels Iraq is a great success. In any case, her statement upon arrival in Beirut a few weeks ago that America rejects foreign interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs is quite ironic in hindsight.

All throughout her predecessor’s presence in Lebanon, nothing like this has ever happened, which would indicate a change of course: America is willing to get tougher and who knows, perhaps Bush is looking for a way to leave a mark on history before his presidency is over. He might be considering for a way to go down in a blaze of glory. But again, the USA won’t scare anyone if they’re not willing to use the U.S.S. Cole. What’s even worse, they undermined the position of acting president Siniora who was the first to deny having asked for the boat.

Another speculation was that the U.S.S. Cole was sent to the shores of Lebanon to assist during a possible evacuation. Adding fuel to the fire was the call for immediate evacuation by the Saudi Arabian embassy just a day later, followed by a similar call from the Kuwait’s. The latter denied having asked for evacuation, but that didn’t really make people feel good.

America and the Holy Kingdom are very close, so do they know something was going down? I doubt it since America would be the first to advise its citizens to leave. Since they have not done that (yet), it seems there is no clear indication of possible violence, other than the threats against the Saudis.

It’s good to realize that such threats would be most likely coming from extremist Sunni militants and thus would have nothing to do with Hezbollah, Syria or Iran. Then again, it’s quite human to rationalize away any threat. Just look at the statement of Lebanese foreign minister Tariq Mitri who declared that the threat is targeted only against the Saudi’s.

Right, the rest of us can stay here and party on.