27 February 2011

Why are you living in Tabarbour and not in west Amman? Not that there is anything wrong with your choice but most of the expatriates live in the western part of the city.

Thanks for taking time to submit a question! There are several reasons, actually. Foremost is the fact that I was so taken with the flat itself that I didn't take time to reflect on the remoteness of the location. I moved here after living for one year at Al-Rabieh. I was put off that area because of the heavy security presence and the weekly Friday gathering of security and special forces personnel in front of our building to protect the Israeli embassy from "possible problems" following prayers every week. I was less than one block from that embassy. I chose, long before coming here, not to live amongst expatriates because I wanted to experience life as the Jordanians experience it rather than living in an insular community with limited exposure to Arabs. The experience has been both enlightening and very satisfying. I would recommend it to any expatriate. I have had some contacts with members of the expatriate community and sadly, none of them has been good. The few expats I have met "appear" to view the locals as something to be tolerated rather than embraced. Each of them preferred the company of other expats at the expense of experiencing life in the "Arab way". Hopefully, my experience was unique and not representative of the expat community, but it left a bad taste and I have since avoided most fellow expats.


Ask me anything


Ask me anything http://formspring.me/olbigjim

25 February 2011

Will Jordan Show The Way To Real Reform?

Friday, 25th February 2011

Friday morning. The early morning light is warm and bright with promise of a beautiful day in Amman, Jordan. In just a few hours the noon prayers will begin.

Sun rising over Amman
Fridays, the first day of weekend, have become “The” day. Because it is not a working day, Friday typically sees the largest protest demonstrations right across the Arab World. Even during the massive protests in Egypt, Fridays saw a huge increase in the number of protesters in the streets and at Tahrir Square.

Friday prayers at Al-Husseini Mosque, Downtown Amman
In Amman today the protesters are expected to number in the hundreds of thousands. The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front have joined the protests. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Libya our protests are not demanding a change of regime. Our monarch is too well respected and loved for that to happen. The people of Jordan are demanding reform of the current modus operandi in the government. Historically, the government has been rife with corruption. Nothing could be accomplished without spreading bribes, sometimes lavish bribes. “Wasta” is the order of the day in almost all activities in Jordan. Wasta can be loosely translated as ‘clout’ or ‘who you know’ and is necessary when trying to get things done. Wasta is not unknown in the West, of course but it is pervasive in the Arab World.

The corruption in Jordanian government has affected the poorer population in the form of higher food prices and costs of living in general. In the areas most stricken with poverty the effect has been devastating. Most people in these areas must attempt to provide shelter, food, warmth and clothing to their families on an income of 150-200 ($200-280) dinars per month. Given the price of food, fuel and rent the family head is faced with insurmountable obstacles. Struggling each day to earn a living they are given constant reminders of the “other” Amman. Large, imported gas-guzzling SUVs zipping past on their way to the high-end shopping malls and expensive restaurants inspire anger and resentment. “Mashallah”, a man will say when he observes someone who is doing so well, who is so wealthy he can afford such things. It is a sort of prayer of praise meaning “God wills it”. It is meant to ward off envy, a cardinal sin in Islam. Despite the prayers, how can one help feeling resentment when he works himself into an early grave with little more than a rag and a bone to show for his efforts when the majority of his well-to-do countrymen achieved their status through corruption and wasta?

The fact that the corruption and wasta are institutionalized in the government makes it an even more bitter pill to swallow. The result? You are seeing it today. All across the Arab World and northern Africa the resentments are rising to the surface like the bubbles from yeast. It is alive and growing and being demonstrated in the age-old way people have shown their anger and disappointment; by taking to the streets and demanding change.

That the change will come is a given. The real question, for Jordan, is how that reform will be accomplished. Will His Majesty follow through on his promises and ensure his orders to the Prime Minister are obeyed? Will the Prime Minister ensure his cabinet are working toward the elimination of corruption and nepotism and wasta from the halls of Parliament? Will the election laws be amended in such a way as to ensure real representation of all the people of Jordan?

I don’t know a single Jordanian who is not part of one of the stronger tribes who feels he has any voice in the government. The elections, while completely mysterious to me, are said to be set up in such a way as to favor the tribal factions who control most of the money and commerce. With such a system in place, what trickles down to the poor neighborhoods and refugee camps? From my observation, not very much.

His Majesty, King Abdullah II recently sacked his government and appointed a new Prime Minister. On Sunday, 20th February he met with the Executive, Legislative and Judicial heads and members and left them with some strong words. He expects them to serve the people by communicating with them and putting their interests above anything else.

HM King Abdullah II
Regarding corruption, His Majesty said “I have directed the government to instruct the Anti-Corruption Commission to keep open its doors to receive any complaint of suspected corruption, so that such complaint is investigated and referred to the judiciary to hold accountable all those found guilty. The government is also required to enhance all anti-corruption mechanisms and agencies so that they can carry out their duties with the highest degree of proficiency and efficiency.” He further stated that he expected that when the People have questions “there should be clear answers to each and every question asked.”

He also told his government he wants “real and quick reform” in order to avoid wasted opportunities by officials because of fear of change and reluctance to move forward in order to “guard their own interests” and “I will not allow that to happen again.”

The King said that the government should drop the old and often used phrase “I have instructions from above” to avoid taking decisions. “There is nothing called ‘instructions from above’” he reminded them. He also warned the government that the interests, security, dignity and future of his people are above all other considerations and if he detects a failure to protect those rights he, himself will step in to safeguard them. “These rights are my top priority and they are a red line that I will not allow anyone to cross…”.

As a finish to his speech, the King admonished the government to work on “real reform” of the political process, “particularly the Election Law.”

Will the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan show the way for the rest of the Arab World? Will we prove that regime reform can be accomplished without bloodshed? I sincerely hope we will. God be with us!

Al-Wehdat refugee camp

Modern home in Amman

Poor family in refugee camp

Posh Amman neighborhood

Trying to earn a living

Villa for rent, $11,000 per year

Young delivery boy

Upmarket City Mall

Poor kids in refugee camp

Mecca Mall, another upmarket shopping venue

Boy in Jerash's Gaza refugee camp

Starbucks in City Mall

Refugee neighborhood

24 February 2011

Libya's Travail

Seeing the Libyan regime come unraveled over the past few days has been like watching a train wreck. I want to look away, but somehow I just can’t drag my eyes and ears away from it. The drama and tragedy surrounding the entire revolution is offset by Qaddafi himself. He has become the comic relief in a performance that is sometimes overwhelming in its intensity. People are being savagely attacked by large calibre artillery wielded by ruthless loyalists and hired foreign mercenaries. Diplomats round the world are denouncing their leader and defecting. The police force has abandoned him and gone home, refusing to take up arms against their countrymen.
The larger tribes that have supported Qaddafi in the past have pulled away from him, one by one; even his own tribe. Now it appears that even family members, such as a cousin are defecting and denouncing Qaddafi's madness. Despite his historical bribes, scare tactics and blackmail to retain their loyalty they are all declaring opposition to his regime. The three pillars of his rule, tribal, military and diplomatic have crumbled around him. Now, it appears Qaddafi is losing his sanity in addition to his rule.

It was widely believed that Libya was immune to the democratic fever spreading across the Arab World simply because of his reputation for brutality. Political Islam, both moderate and radical has been systematically destroyed following the Islamist rebellion in the late 1990s in Cyrenaica. In 1973 “direct popular democracy” was declared and the jamahiriyah (state of the masses) was born.

Not even the army was above suspicion. The officer corps was tightly controlled and closely monitored for possible disloyalty. Little wonder that army units were amongst the first to disavow loyalty to the regime.

Protesters managed to commandeer a tank from mercenaries at Benghazi airport. Amongst the items found inside were bottles of vodka. Most were empty. Looking at the inside of the tank, it was a right mess. Spent rounds and heavy artillery cannisters were strewn about the ground around the tank; evidence of a heated battle. The mercenaries, black Africans, have been imported from Guinea and Nigeria. Some reports say adverts had been spotted in both countries offering to pay up to 2000 USD per day for mercenaries.

Tripoli, the capital, is going to be the most difficult to liberate. Qaddafi's sons have concentrated their militias there and there will be, without doubt, a great deal of blood shed in that operation. Given the apparent loyalty of the sons and their armed henchmen, Qaddafi is well able to order extreme violence in defence of “his” capital as he loses his grip on sanity.

Countries from around the globe; China, Turkey, France, United Kingdom and Jordan among others are working frantically to repatriate their citizens. Most are declining to make strong statements against the Gaddafi regime until they are certain they have managed to get their citizens out.

In Az Zawiyah, Qaddafi forces even fired on a mosque with anti-aircraft weapons in an attempt to kill protesters.

Both Qaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam are repeating the same refrain again and again. Lies are being spread about Libya by Al Jazeera and other foreign media outlets. He refers most often to Al Jazeera because they are an Arabic paper and he proclaims shock that brothers would attack him and tell lies about him. Today, 24th February Qaddafi telephoned a 37 minute statement to state television. It had been reported that he would appear live as he had a couple of days ago. Like the speech he gave two days ago he ranted and raved, comparing himself to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in that he was only a symbolic leader. The unrest in the country was again blamed on al-Qaeda arming drugged teenagers. He further claimed that married people with families and good jobs weren’t part of the protests and that no one past the age of 20 was involved. He observed that “people with any brains won’t take part in these protests.” Later in his speech he said “It's obvious now that this issue has been led by al-Qaeda ...get control of your children, keep them at home". After listening to about half of it, I stopped. The raves were becoming more and more lunatic by the second, not to mention almost unintelligble.

Secretary Clinton has been dispatched to Geneva for a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting at the weekend. She will also speak with allied foreign ministers. When announcing Clinton’s trip, Obama said “It is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice.” In his first statement on the Libyan affair, he also allowed that the suffering and bloodshed is “outrageous” and “unacceptable”. He has ordered his national security team to prepare a full range of options to deal with the crisis.

When Qaddafi is gone, and he almost surely will be gone soon, it will be interesting to see who emerges as a new leader of the oil rich country. Given the insular nature of the regime, no real contenders actually exist. Only the Muslim Brotherhood and a few extremist Islamic groups are actually inside the country. It’s difficult to imagine the Libyan people would allow any extremist group to take charge after the 42 years of repression they have experienced. The Brotherhood might be a contender, but based on what I saw and heard from them during the Egyptian revolution I’m not certain they have any interest in assuming the role of leading post-Qaddafi Libya. What is certain is that the EU and USA will do their best to insert their fingers into the pie in order to ensure a continued profit from Libyan oil.

18 February 2011

The Attack on the Egyptian Ancients

Akhenaten making an offering

During the eighteen days of protests in Cairo a 16-year-old boy walked past a garbage bin near the Egyptian National Museum and saw a very surprising item lying on the ground. He picked it up and took it home to show his mother who in turn, called her brother Dr Sabry Abdel Rahman. Dr Rahman is a professor at American University in Cairo. As soon as he saw the discovery he contacted the Ministry of  State for Antiquities Affairs to hand over the priceless statue of Pharoah Akhenaten.

As if it were any piece of trash, the 3,300 year old artefact showing Akhenaten wearing a blue crown and holding an offering table lay near the bin. Fortunately, the statue was intact except for the offering table that was found to be still inside the museum. It is one of the very few statues from the Amarna Period that have been discovered. The damage suffered by the statue was said to be very minor and it will be one of the first artefacts to be cleaned and restored.

Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) was the son of Amenhotep III and the most likely candidate for father of Tutankhamun. He is famed as the heretic pharaoh who established the capital in Amarna and introduced a monotheistic religion for the sun god Aten that overthrew the pantheon of the gods.  After his death Egypt returned to the traditional religion. Akhenaten’s name, images and traces of his reign were obliterated.

According to Dr Sahi Hawass, the thieves broke into the museum through the windowed roof and entered by rapelling down ropes. They were reportedly looking for gold and “red mercury” which is, according to Egyptian myths, said to be a magical substance used by the ancients in mummification. They smashed an empty New Kingdom coffin and thirteen display cases.

One of the thieves fell onto this display

In all, eighteen objects were stolen that include two gilded wood statues of King Tutankhamun. So far, four objects have been found. They include the statue of Akhenaten, a statue of the goddess Menkaret carrying Tutankhamun, the heart scarab and shabti of Yuya.

Mask of Yuya

To add insult to injury, other archaeological sites have been looted. The tomb of Hetep-Ka in Saqqara was broken into and the false door was stolen along with other objects stored in the tomb. In Abusire a portion of the false door was stolen from Re-Hotep’s tomb. It was also discovered that the seals on the magazines in Saqqara, including the one near the pyramid of Teti, and the one at Cairo University had been broken. The magazines were used to store large blocks and small artefacts.

The two mummified heads that were determined not to be those of Yuya and Tjuya, the great-grandparents of King Tutankhamun as originally feared. After extensive investigation it is believed that they were non-royal unknowns that had been stored inside a lab and used to test CT equipment.

The senseless and wanton destruction of priceless antiquities in the context of the protests is a complete mystery to me. Thankfully, several of the thieves were apprehended by protesters and policemen in the area and held for detainment by the army. Thereafter, protesters continued to guard the museum. This speaks to the peaceful intentions of the protesters and to the rightful pride in their culture and heritage. It is hoped that the perpetrators of this crime will be punished to the full extent of the law and that the museum will upgrade their security to ensure another incident like this never occurs.

14 February 2011

Benihana Japanese Restaurant


My Benihana Experience

A few days back I posted about Benihana opening up at the Avenues and yesterday night I decided to pass by with Nat and try it out. The service wasn t too bad for a restaurant that’s just been open for a few days and the staff were really friendly. The restaurant itself is made up of islands and bars with a grill in the middle of each one. You sit around the grill and the chef will come to your table and prepare the food right in front of you which makes things entertaining. It’s actually why I prefer sitting at the bar in Japanese restaurants in general, since you can talk to the chef and watch them put your dish together. The problem with my experience last night though was with the food, it was disappointing to say the least.

We ordered beef negimayaki for starters followed by an Orange Blossom maki and a Hibachi Chicken. The negimaki arrived looking good and was probably the best thing we had there even though I prefer Maki’s negimaki which has a richer teriyaki sauce. The Orange Blossom was very ordinary, wouldn’t order it again. Now the Hibachi chicken which is basically grilled chicken, that was the worst. The chicken was very chewy (I could swear it was undercooked if not raw) and tasted terrible. Even after I had the chef add some more teriyaki sauce in hopes of improving the taste it didn’t work. I tried to dip it into the sauces that came with the chicken but it was hard to figure out if they were actually making things worse or not. Nat only ate one piece of chicken and left the rest while I needed my protein since I’m on a strict diet and forced myself to eat my whole plate (I can do that) but the after taste was really bad. Even the rice and the veggies that came with it tasted bad AND were under cooked. Once we left I considered picking up a frozen yogurt from Pinkberry even though I hate frozen yogurts but I just needed something to get rid of the aftertaste. A few moments later we ended up at Chocolate Bar ordering the gooey chocolate cake (bye bye diet).

I shot the two videos [video one and video two] above of the chef preparing our meal. Benihana are known for the live shows they perform when preparing your dish so I was expecting to see [This] but ended up with the above. Would I go back to Benihana? No I wouldn’t. Their sashimi and maki s are pretty cheap (KD1.5 for 5 pieces of Salmon sashimi for example) but there are two other Japanese restaurants at the Avenues, Wasabi and Maki, and I would prefer either one of those to Benihana.

The above post is a reproduction of Mark Makhoul’s original post on his blog 2:48AM. Mark, a blogger living in Kuwait, is now the subject of a $18,000 lawsuit filed by the Kuwaiti franchisee of global Japanese restaurant chain Benihana. Mark’s crime? Posting a mildly critical restaurant review on his blog, 2:48AM. A frank but even-handed review, even if negative, does not warrant legal action and that this is not how global brands like Benihana should engage with bloggers.
Despite a massive outcry on blogs, social and mainstream media, both Benihana in Kuwait and Benihana of Tokyo, the New-York based franchisor, have steadfastly refused comment and the court case is, as of the time of writing, still set to commence on 8 March 2011.
Benihana in Kuwait first deleted critical comments from its Facebook page and then blocked anyone who had been outspoken against them. Benihana of Tokyo has not replied to a single request made using the contact form on its website, despite a promise to return comments within 24 hours. Neither has it responded to calls on this from bloggers and journalists.
We are defending bloggers’ rights to freedom of expression.
We believe that suing a consumer for expressing an opinion is totally unacceptable. We believe that a company arrogant enough to ignore the very real expressed concerns of thousands of consumers is arrogant enough to think it can press ahead with this suit – one which would set a very worrying precedent for Middle East bloggers. We want to send a clear message out – that today’s consumer has the right to express an opinion online – whether that be satisfaction or dissatisfaction – without fear of bullying and litigation from companies.
Consequently, today, 14 February 2011, bloggers are posting a copy of Mark’s original My Benihana Experience post to their own blogs and Facebook pages.
In an effort to highlight both Mark’s predicament and Benihana’s apparent keenness to sue bloggers, friends of Mark and fellow bloggers around the world can join us in re-posting a copy of Mark’s original Benihana post today. They sued him – will they sue all of us?
It’s not too late to join us! The day is young…
You can follow the hashtag #BenihanaKUW on Twitter and Like the Boycott Benihana Kuwait page on Facebook.

11 February 2011


Ask me anything http://formspring.me/olbigjim

have you ever seen a movie with a red-necked preacher?

Lordamercy I sure have! My Ol' Darlin' friend and I thought we might get crucified when we got outside the cinema because we laughed at him so much! The Apostle was the movie!

Ask me anything

Egypt Rises From The Ashes

The last 24 hours, to say the least, have been a roller coaster ride for the Arab world. Mubarak said he will step down. Then he said he won’t; and he didn’t. The reaction in Egypt was fury as they waved their shoes (a huge insult) toward his image on the television screen set up in Tahrir Square. We in the rest of the Levant were also furious. But more than anger, we felt a deep sympathy and compassion for the Egyptian people, many of whom have lived their entire lives under this iron-fisted tyrant. Every conversation was inevitably peppered with the question “what now?”

Even as we asked the question, the answer came to us from Al Jazeera, God bless ‘em. The protesters had decided to form groups and march on the state television station and the presidential palace. No one was allowed in or out of the TV station as the 10,000 plus Egyptians stood guard round it. The crowds at the presidential palace grew and then grew some more. Everyone knew that the Presidential Guard were standing watch at the fence and in and around the palace. We were all concerned that the appearance of the protesters would evoke gunfire from the Guard. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

All night the protesters continued standing, marching, chanting in Tahrir Square, at the TV station and at the palace. As the night wore on the crowds in all three places swelled into the tens of thousands as Egyptians came out of their homes and joined them. As the sun began his ascent into the sky a high ranking officer of the Presidential Guard appeared at the fence. He suddenly lobbed something into the crowd! It was a bottle of water. He followed that with a packet of biscuits. I’m not sure how much water and food went over the fence, but in my mind at least the tension reduced just a bit. The Guard were sympathetic with the citizens! During the morning at least three helicopters landed at the palace. It is believed, at least by this writer that one of those choppers whisked him off to Sharm al Sheik to hide in his palatial villa beside the Red Sea.

Al Jazeera reported that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were meeting with Mubarak and Suleiman among others throughout the night. Suddenly we got news that the President would be making a statement to the nation “shortly”. Everyone in the Middle East waited for more than one hour, barely daring to breathe as we waited for the statement. At 1801 (GMT +2) Omar Suleiman appeared on state television and delivered a 30 second speech announcing Mubarak has relinquished the presidency. As I watched him deliver those few words I saw something in his face. He seemed petulant. Like a child from whom you have taken a favorite toy. In my mind I could imagine him thinking “I was this damned close to being president and he snatched it away!”

The reaction all round Egypt was one of jubilation. Everywhere people were smiling as the tears of joy streamed down their cheeks. All round the Arab world the cheers went up. Thousands of people from here in Amman converged on the Egyptian embassy in Amman to celebrate the end of a long and bad dream. In Tahrir Square and Alexandria, in Suez and all parts of Egypt every citizen of Egypt was dancing with joy and looking forward to a new and shiny future for their beloved Egypt.
Meanwhile, the assets Mubarak had stashed away in a Swiss bank were frozen. Likewise several Ministers’ assets have also been frozen and they have been forbidden to leave the country. At least one I’ve heard about tried to leave anyway only to be turned back.

What does the future hold for Egypt? Of course it’s an unanswerable question at this point. But all signs point to a proud new and more prosperous nation. After seeing what they can do, I doubt another dictator can put these magnificent people under his thumb again. 

May God be with them.