Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Relationships are skin deep these days

Facialists (beauticians who do  facials) are like 21st century boyfriends. I had this epiphany when I was lying flat on my back, both eyes blinded by two wet cotton pads, listening to the soothing sound of ocean waves while being tended to by a facialist whose name I had absolutely no idea of. There have been too many new facialists over the past year and frankly, I’ve lost count.

There’s one thing which I look forward to everytime when I’m home is a visit to my facial spa; that one sacred place where I get to relax for three uninterrupted hours. But as I laid there yesterday, I realised that I don’t even know the name or face of this new girl who attended to me and felt bad instantly. After all, it’s only fair that one should know the name of the person who almost always manage to make you feel good.

Anyway, I got into thinking; facialists are like boyfriends. They come and they go. Some are good, but mostly bad. For instance, I had one who was so critical of my face. Sure, I am big enough to admit that I don’t have a good complexion, but honey, there’s no need to spell out every single flaw I have. If we all have great skin, you won’t be there in the first place.

Then, there was one who needed reassurance all the time. Is the pressure all right? Am I hurting you? Does this feel OK? OMG! Enough with the questions already! If you stick around long enough, you’ll know what I like. Geez! But still, these ones are not as bad as those who like to inflict pain on you. Oh yeah, I’m talking about those who extract your acne with a bit too much vigour. Damn it! It’s my face, honey. Not a gold mine. The harder you dig, it ain’t gold that is going to pop out.

There’s also the type who is over-zealous when it comes to talking and doesn’t know when she has crossed over the boundary of my own space. What about the ones who are so limp when doing the lymphatic massage that you “don’t feel anything?” Yeah, you know that type of boyfriends I’m referring to.

Anyway, as I said before, not all boyfriends are bad. I miss my first facialist, Ms. Kwan who attended to me for a period of time. She was very attentive and very generous. She would attend to other problem area beyond my face on her own initiative. And Nicky, loved her. She knew exactly what I like without crossing any border. Sadly, they both left. The good ones always seem to leave.

So, it seems that relationships are more or less the same these days. It wasn’t too long ago when most people have longer relationships. Now, they just come and go like my facialists and the more experiences we have, the more we tend to compare them. Unless they get better and better, we often end up reminiscing about the good ones who are probably giving another lucky woman a lot of happiness right now.

Well, on the bright side, at least we’ll have young and beautiful skin at the end of all these facial sessions.

p/s: This applies to men too but since I’m a woman, I’m writing from a woman’s perspective.

p/p/s: In case anyone wonders, the metaphorical examples do not represent my own personal life. :)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Who are these people?!

It has been a love-hate relationship for me whenever I go to Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur at night. In the past 5-8 years, I’ve noticed a group of people operating illegal parking services along the stretches of restaurants, bars and clubs in Telawi area. If you frequent the area, you’ll know that it’s close to impossible to find a parking spot around that commercial area without having to pay a hefty parking fee in Bangsar Village I and II.

Since I live close to Bangsar, I usually shop, eat and socialise with my friends there. However, it has become such a nuisance for me everytime I am lucky enough to find a parking spot along one of those roads at night. Since they are public roads, one has to pay a decent parking fee through a vending machine which charges about 20-50cents an hour and after 6pm, it’s free. But since it’s Bangsar, it’s never free after 7pm because a bunch of men have started making business out of it and who are these people?! Nobody knows because nobody seems to question them.

About a year ago, I was meeting some friends in La Bodega for dinner and by some miracle, I found a parking space just right across the restaurant. (Whenever I manage to find a parking lot close to where I am going, I feel sad giving up the space when I’m done and that shows how grateful I am towards such small miracle!) As I turned off my car engine, a man approached me and demanded RM10 for parking fee.  If there is one thing which bothers me, it’s extortion and that night, I decided not to give in to such illegal demand, although it’s only RM10. So needless to say, I got into a squabble with the man and I didn’t make any effort to be polite. So was the man. The bottom line was, I just walked off without giving him anything.

When I reached the restaurant, I asked to talk to the manager to enquire about the parking business operating outside the restaurant. He told me that the business is illegal and there’s nothing anyone can do. They have reported to the police a couple of times but nothing has been done. What a great surprise, eh?

I must confess that throughout dinner, I was occupied with the thought of someone slashing my car tyres or scratching my car. Being alone, the thought of driving back to my apartment with the possibility of a flat tyre left me feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. At the same time, the feeling of being at the mercy of people who think they can do whatever they want made me angry and unrepentant.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to my district assemblywoman, highlighting the problem but I guess she has more important things to do than my petty squabble with people who are trying to make a living. For me, that was still besides the point. The fact that this bunch of people just stand there at night and all they do is help direct your parking (as if I won’t be able to park my car unless someone is there to help me!) and then ask for RM10. It’s very different from jockey service, mind you. It’s flat on easy and illegal business. With the number of cars parked there every night, I’m sure they earn more than 100% of profit margin after subtracting the bribe they pay the police.

This happened a couple of times more and the latest one was just a few days ago. Again, I was relentless and yet the same feeling of paranoia and discomfort occupied me the whole night.

Truly, I’m just fed up with how things are. I realise that this is just a petty issue but in the end, it just boils down to how our whole law enforcement system doesn’t work and how people are often threatened into submission because we know deep down that the system doesn’t work and hence, we’re on our own. It’s us against these thugs.

I wish that more people will not give in to these so-called parking attendants. Once they realise that they can’t make money out of it, hopefully they will disappear and let us have our right to free parking space without feeling hassled and insecure. Bangsar is already a prime target for petty crime without the need to pay for a miracle.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Conversations with the Lebanese

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Lebanon is an unmistakably beautiful country and at the same time, painfully aching as you look at the scattered pockmarks on old buildings in downtown Beirut which still bears the historical scars of persistently long civil war and international conflict with Israel. Although it has enjoyed relative peace in the last few years, security remains a visible concern as seen in the many military checkpoints all over the country.

Before I went to Lebanon a week ago, I was given the impression that the country is divided into two religious factions; Christians in the north and Muslims in the south. Beirut, which is situated in the middle, carries a mixture of both. However, when I was there, I didn’t feel such significant division although I only managed to travel to the north due to time constraint. In fact, while in Tripoli, which is close to the north bordering with Syria, I felt that it was a pre-dominantly Muslim region. To be honest, it was difficult to tell the differences between the Christians and Muslims except for the tell-tale headscarves worn by a number of Muslim women there.

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While I was completely astounded by the breathtaking beauty of Byblos, the rustic charm of Tripoli and the humbling experience of being in the ancient Roman temple ruins of Baalbek, it was the Lebanese people who have intrigued me the most and will definitely leave a lasting impression on me. The Lonely Planet guidebook was a major disappointment in terms of providing practical advices and directions in Beirut; it failed to warn that the chances of being killed in Lebanon by reckless taxi drivers are higher than being bombed or kidnapped by religious fundamentalists. Going about in Beirut was frustrating  as the locals didn’t seem familiar with the roads or places recommended by the book. Nevertheless, the Lonely Planet gave a true account of the hospitality and warmness of the people, which I have often found similarly ironical in other post-conflict countries that I have been.

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I also found that Lebanese people are chatty by nature as many whom I have met seemed eager to share conversations even when they don’t speak English at all. Taxi drivers often rumbled on in Arabic much to my amusement. I particularly like the faces of elderly Lebanese men which seemed to carry well-defined lines of wisdom, kind eyes and sparkling smiles which are all symbols of the Lebanese spirit, unhampered by the years of  wars. I was rather taken by the waiters at the Blue Note, a jazz bar in Beirut. One look at them made me wonder about the stories of their lives.

I was privileged to be in Harissa, situated high above the Jounieh Bay, on Easter Sunday. As one of the biggest celebrations in Lebanon, many Lebanese flocked to the infamous white-painted bronze statue of the Virgin of Lebanon. What was most interesting as I stood waiting in a long queue to get on the cable car was the number of Muslim Lebanese partaking in the celebration. How did I know they were Muslims? Well, I asked some of them although it was obvious by the way the women were dressed, bearing in mind that some Christians women do wear the headscarves too.

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Coming from a country where Muslims are not allowed to enter churches, Christian gospel music CDs and tapes are compelled to bear a label clearly indicating that they are for non-Muslims only; and of course with the latest controversies over Muslims practising yoga and non-Muslims using the word Allah, I felt the urge to talk to some of the Lebanese in Harissa. So instead of visiting the churches, I went around to talk to some random people I met. My questions that ranged from “Are you a Muslim or Christian? Why do you come to participate in the Easter celebration? Are the Christians happy to see you here (to Muslims)? What do you call God in your language? (to Christians)” raised some eyebrows as many were probably surprised by my “interrogation”.

It was definitely not an easy task due to the language barrier which was a pity, but in general I got the sense that they didn’t see this as such a big deal at all. I managed to talk to a Christian man from Beirut briefly before proceeding to find a Muslim for a different perspective. I stumbled across an elderly woman seeking refuge from the sun underneath a tree near the statue alone. She looked Muslim as she was wearing one of those loose black robe and head scarf.  I tried to strike up a conversation with her but she didn’t speak English nor French. However, she appeared friendly and eager to talk and she gestured me to wait for someone to come along to help with the translation. After waiting for about 10 minutes, a young couple approached the woman and the man was none other than the Christian man from Beirut.

He looked at me and said, “It’s you again. I see that you’re still going around interviewing people.” I grinned and told him that I was interested to speak with the kind and warm looking woman sitting by my side. He revealed that the elderly woman is his mother-in-law and the pretty and charming young woman by his side is his Muslim wife. I felt as if I had hit the jackpot in my quest to understand the religious dynamics in Lebanon.

He told me that his wife and him didn’t have to convert their religions when they got married. His mother-in-law explained that she took her daughter to live in Harissa with the nuns for 6 months when the latter was a baby. Although I couldn’t get any further explanation as to what prompted her to do that, she said that she doesn’t feel her faith being threatened at all by celebrating Easter with the other Lebanese Christians. In fact, she believes that there is only one God; whether it is Jesus or Allah. The man had earlier on told me that although in general, the Christians refer to God as Jesus, Allah is an acceptable term for it means God in Arabic. In fact, he looked appalled when I asked whether the Muslims are offended by the Christian’s usage of the name Allah.

After I thanked them for taking the time to talk to me, the man said to me, “My mother-in-law would like to invite you to our house in Beirut.” It would have been a lovely experience but since my friend and I had a tight itinerary planned for our short stay in Lebanon, I turned down the invitation politely.

In Harissa, I also asked two Muslim youths who came with a large group of highly excited and energetic friends about their own experiences for Easter. In my limited French, I managed to gather that they come to visit Harissa during Easter every two years. The girl told me that she likes to come and see the crowd of people in the beautiful church which overlooks the Jounieh Bay. It was more of the atmosphere which she enjoys but I suspect that it was the steep cable car ride that excites them more than anything else!

I have to admit that it was a highly refreshing and mind opening experience in Harissa. It made me wonder whether such seemingly harmonious and “un-hegemonious” cultural exchanges between the two main religious groups in Lebanon are felt only on the surface since the country has been seized by civil wars often triggered by religious quest for power and dominance. I sort of found the answer in my conversations with two Lebanese on my way back to Malaysia on the MAS EK157 flight.

The conversations were completely unintentional since I don’t normally like to talk to strangers on the plane but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I managed to understand more about the politics in Lebanon. As the flight was about to take off, sitting across the aisle on my right was a man sitting alone on a two-passenger seat. With his palms clasped together in front of his face, he whispered a silent prayer which ended with a sign of the cross. When I turned to my left, separating us by two vacant seats, a man was performing salah by making prostrating movements on his seat and turning his head to the right and then left. During all my frequent travel, it was the first time that I have witnessed anyone performing their prayers so earnestly before a journey. The strange thing was how my trip to Lebanon has ended in such a “symbolic” manner as I was often haunted, if not obsessed by the complexity of the Arab world, particularly those with a vibrant mixture of religious faiths.

As I took out my Lonely Planet book to read more about the historical background of Lebanon, the man across the aisle turned to me and asked, “Are you a journalist?”, much to my surprise. I said no but quickly asked, “Are you Lebanese?” As soon as he said yes, I asked him whether I could talk to him about the political situation in Lebanon since the country is holding a general election on 7 June 2009. His eyes sparkled immediately and he said, “Of course. You can ask me anything. Please come and sit over here and we can talk all the way to Dubai.”

He introduced himself as Sami S and he is part of the millions of Lebanese diaspora who fled the country during the 15 years of civil war from 1975-1990.  He has been working in Dubai for the past 10 years but visits his family in Beirut regularly. Although he confessed that he misses Lebanon, he is not ready to return home yet. While talking to Sami, I feel a sense of hopelessness in him in terms of the political situation and government in Lebanon, something which I completely understand as Malaysian.

I have learned that the election in Lebanon this year is particularly interesting with some new changes to the electoral law, in its attempt to be more transparent. For instance, for the first time in Lebanon, the election will be held for only one day and the indelible ink will be used. However, it will still practise a confessionalism system of government which means parliamentary seats are distributed proportionally among religious communities. Lebanon is a country which boasts 18 different religious sects with the Christian Maronites, Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shia as the three major religions.  The absence of a uniform ballot paper has caused a major controversy among those who really want to see a political change in the country.

When I asked Sami whether he will vote during the election, he said that remote voting is not allowed but some political parties have offered to pay for the travel expenses of those who are living abroad to vote on election day. This led me to ask him whether he thought the election will be democratic. His answer was, “No, it will not be 100% democratic. Politics in Lebanon is about having allies. Whoever has the most support from countries like Syria, Iran will win the election.”

When asked how he views the politicians in Lebanon (even at the mention of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who was assassinated in 2005), he reflectively said, “Imagine a man who gives everything to a woman and then expects and treats her as a slave. That’s how our politicians are.” While doing a quick background check on Hariri on wikipedia, it states that Hariri is responsible for rebuilding much of Lebanon after the civil war but also the widespread corruption that caused a sizable damage to the country’s economy.

Unfortunately the conversation had to end when we reached Dubai but not without Sami, in true Lebanese hospitality offered to take me around Dubai when I visit next.

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As I continued my next leg of journey, I went back to my seat and unorthodoxly stroke up a conversation with Azzam S from Tripoli. I was delighted to talk to him as I had the opportunity to visit his charming hometown just a day ago. Surprisingly, Tripoli seemed to be the only area that provided an atmosphere of an election frenzy in the places I had been in Lebanon. Large posters of electoral candidates were dominating the whole town. I showed Azzam the countless number of photos I took of the posters and asked him  about the bespectacled bald man whose face was by far more visible than the rest. He told me he is Najib Mikati, a Muslim Sunni, who is running for a parliamentary seat for Tripoli and when I told him that this candidate is obviously very rich and most likely going to win the election since money equals power, he laughed and said, “You got that from just being in Tripoli for one day? If you stay longer, you can run for the election too!”

When I asked Azzam whether people tend to vote along the line of religion, he said no. I remain sceptical with his answer especially when he informed me that the new electoral law now ensure that the parliamentary ratio stands at 3:3:3 for Christians, Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shia. In the words of a Lebanese journalist, “The Shias have Hassan Nasrallah (who is the head of Hezbollah), the Sunni Saad Hariri and the Druze Walid Junblatt. The Christians however, have many prominent figures fighting for the Lebanese’ attention”, it’s difficult to think that religious blindness will be in order at the ballot box.

“They destroy and we build.”  He sounded bizarrely confident – as if the country Israel was destroying and the country we were rebuilding were two different places. Other such examples are plentiful, all showing that the real failure lies not in an inability to express oneself clearly, but in the underlying logic which years of hardship and horror have made us intimately familiar.

Hassan Daoud, They Destroy and We Build from the book Lebanon, Lebanon

Unlike Sami, Azzam owns his own business in Tripoli and will never dream of leaving his country. He said that the sense of community and family living is too strong for him and he will miss that a lot if he were to emigrate somewhere else. While he was as unoptimistic as Sami about the future of Lebanon, he has resorted to living each day as it is. As he shrugged and said, “Who knows? Tomorrow there may be violence in Lebanon but that’s how we have lived for a long time. We’re used to it,” I feel a sense of sadness but at the same time admiration towards those who have steadfastly pursued their own lives in the midst of great uncertainty.


I suppose Azzam is able to count his blessings when compared to the hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians stuck in Lebanon after the creation of an Israeli state in 1948. These Palestinians are not given citizenship, not allowed to own properties and leave the country. For Azzam, this is totally ridiculous. According to him, “If these Palestinians are allowed to live as any other normal Lebanese, they will help to boost the economy as many of them are actually hardworking and rich.”

Azzam ultimately revealed a wisdom already known by some but unfortunately not shared by the majority of people. When I told him how pleasantly surprised I was to see Muslims and Christians celebrating Easter together, he shrugged and said, “That’s how we have been living together for years and why not? We all have the same God. Lebanese people don’t really care what religion we are. It’s the people in power and politics that divide us. Otherwise, we just want to get on with our life.”

Finally, when I asked him what he thinks about the substantial number of Jews living in Lebanon, who, according to the Lonely Planet, try to keep a low profile, he said, “It’s not the Jews we are against, it’s Zionism. Nothing to do with Judaism.  We welcome them like any other people.”


p/s: Since the politics in Lebanon is extremely complex, I’m not able to articulate them here. If you’re interested to know more, please check out this blog at which provides regular updates on the election in Lebanon.

Friday, April 3, 2009

33 years of no regrets

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A girl complained, “I’ve been short-sighted since I was 9!” A dwarf, not to be outdone replied, “I’ve been short since I was 9. How’s that?”

Another girl complained, “Damn, I’m 33. That’s old!” Her friend replied, “That was how old Jesus was when he was crucified on the cross.”

I’m soon approaching 33 and it somehow got me into thinking how little I’ve achieved, especially during the last four prosaic years when I first  became unemployed. I’ve gone through few ups and many downs but when I look at the “imaginary” conversations above, I realise that I should still count the many blessings I have. So, in view that I’m turning 33 soon, I’m going to indulge myself by sharing some of these blessings with you.

I’ve always considered myself as a late bloomer. Either that, or I had a cavalier outlook in life. I didn’t start reading the newspaper until I was in my 20s. While some of my friends were more grounded and knew what they wanted to do with their lives 10 years ago, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do exactly. It wasn’t until recently when I discover that of all the things I’ve done, one thing has remained constant; my love for writing.

Writing has somehow being a great comfort to me in the last few years. I definitely don’t think that I’m a good writer but at least it has kept me sane and interested in global affairs. When I first started this blog less than a year ago, it was out of sheer frustration. It was my way of keeping myself occupied but now, it has become a habit, rather than a coping mechanism. When I don’t blog for a few days, I literally feel my fingers itching to type something. So, this is one of the blessings I am grateful for.

While growing up, I’ve heard my Father said these words many times (he still says it from time to time), “You know, I was never a bright student and neither am I a man of many words. People often think that I’m stupid because I don’t talk a lot and I’m convinced of that myself. But I am hardworking and I live a simple life.” I thank my father for his honesty and for showing me that being stupid is not the end of the world because the older I get, the more I realize how much I’ve inherited his traits. I don’t think I’m a bright person and I was definitely a mediocre student. The only time I did well in school was when I was much younger but that was a result of hard work and discipline.

I’m very often intimidated by bright people and if I’m around them, I retreat quickly into my shell. And like my Father, I don’t talk and I’m not sure whether these people think I’m stupid or not. But the point is, I don’t pretend that I know it all or lie my way through. I try to stay true to myself and try my best to do the right thing and for that, I thank my father for being that role model in my life.

When I was 6 years old, my Mother enrolled me for ballet classes. She thought it was important for a girl to cultivate an interest in cultural activities. My Mother devotes her whole life playing a huge supporting role in the family. She accompanied each step I took when I was a child and I never truly appreciated that until an incident which happened so many years ago.

It was the very day when I took my first grade ballet examination. We carpooled with a few other girls and their mothers. That morning, my Mother had painstakingly dressed me up in my blue leotard and pink tights. It was not an easy task trying to keep a 6- year old girl still while she gently stretched out the creases on the tights while I protested in discomfort. Then, she tied my hair up securely into a neat bun.

Once we finished the exam, we piled into the car and my Mother was sitting on the front passenger seat. Feeling relieved, I quickly undressed my tights and threw it rudely over to the front and landed on my Mother’s head. I was to feel sorry for doing that once we arrived home. My Mother pulled me aside and she literally screamed at me (if I remember well, I received a few slaps as well). That day, she taught me the value of respecting other people. True and behold, in many aspects of my life, I have always made the conscious effort not to humiliate or disrespect someone, especially in public of course.

I see my Mother as a forward thinking woman who is trapped in the wrong generation. She has a remarkable spirit for life and yet in reality, she remains modest and simple in her daily routine of taking care of us. In a way, it is as if she accepts her destiny as a housewife but will not cease to provide encouragement to others who are able to embrace the things which she is not able to have. She is also one of the biggest supporters in regards to the empowerment of women. When I became older, she makes me believe that I’m able to do anything I want if I set my mind to it but at the same time, she continually humbles me if she thinks that I am way over my head. So, I am blessed to have her as a Mother.

Now, I do not have many friends and sometimes the few friends I have often joked about how they can count the number of friends I have with their fingers. I’m selective of the people I spend my time with and will not apologize for that. However, those who have remained as my friends might find this as a compliment; if you made it this far, it shows that I value your friendship and think highly of you. I thank them for sharing their lives with me and help me to become the person I am today.

I think nobody has ever been so hard on me, as much as my husband. If I need to hear the truth, he is the best person to go to. He’s never the type who will tell me that I look good in something which I’m obviously not. He doesn’t see me as a helpless and incapable woman and hence will never ever sugar coat things for me. Above all, he detests any sign of weakness and dependency habit I might have. For this, he forces me to remain independent, make my own decisions and hence allow me to be my self. Sometimes I hate his guts but when I have the time to reflect, I realize that his actions clearly show that he doesn’t own me and for this, I’m eternally thankful.

For my 33rd birthday, my husband is giving me the ticket to go on a holiday in Beirut with two of my girlfriends (one whom I haven’t seen for a long time), and yes, he is generous that way. So, overall, I do have many things to be thankful for and although I haven’t achieved anything which I would like to at this juncture, I’m grateful that I was able to spend my 33 years with no regrets (as one friend aptly put it recently).

If you’re stuck at that crossroad where you start to feel that life has been a real bitch, try to think about the dwarf and Jesus (of course many other things apply as well). In the end, we all need some perspectives and it’s how you live your life that will make the difference. After all, 33 is just a number.