35-year-old pine tree comes down

The 98-foot-high pine tree (30 meters) in our garden was chopped down today after my mother decided it had become a danger to us and our neighbors.
More than 30-years-old, our pine tree towered above us with its many branches and pine cones, that used to fall on our grounds and also on our neighbor’s property. We often have small, localized wind storms that knock over many trees in Brasilia, so there was the real danger of this tree being blown over, or at the very least losing some large branches in strong winds.
Tiao, the man we hired to cut it down, first lopped off the top 20-feet. Once that was done, he made a large cut near the base of the tree. Ropes were attached to the tree in order to pull it down in the right direction. The first round of tugging on the tree by three men made the tree sway but not come down. It took the added strength of our maid Silvania and another guy to finally bring the tree down. I’ll miss the tree and the pretty cones it produced.

Pipocada, peeing and Beyoncé in Salvador’s Carnaval

“TAKE OFF your shirt now!” yelled my partner Thiago over the sounds of revelers dancing and enjoying themselves to the music of the trio eléctricos passing by.

We were in the middle of Carnaval in Salvador, Bahia, last February, trying to make our way up through the crowds on the coastal road in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood of the city.

“Everyone is looking at our abadás, so take it off!” Thiago explained. He had already swiftly taken off his black and white tank top, otherwise known as an abadá in Portuguese. I struggled with my Mardi Gras beads, and when Thiago saw that I couldn’t extricate myself from them fast enough, he just yanked down on them sharply until they snapped. I quickly took my tank top off, and off we went up the hill, bare-chested but slightly less frightened of being jumped for our abadás.

Every trio eléctrico and camarote, or VIP lounge area, had a different abadá for every day of the seven days of Carnaval in Salvador. This was the easiest and fastest way to see who had paid the required hefty fees to dance behind the musical floats in the Carnaval parade or watch from the safety of the camarotes, where beer flowed freely.  Those who could not afford to pay for either had to make do standing on the sidelines of the parade route, squeezed between thousands of people who were often rowdy and many times erupted into fights. These people are referred to in slang Portuguese as the pipocada, or the popcorn, a reference to how they look like corn being popped as they jump up and down to the sounds of axé music.

After twenty minutes of relentlessly pushing our way through the excited crowds of revelers, we finally arrived at our camarote, tired and slightly dazed at having survived the madding crowds.

****

LUCKILY, we arrived in Salvador from Brasilia a few days before the actual Carnaval parades kicked off, which meant we had some time to explore the city and get our bearings. It was my first time in Salvador, the first capital of Brazil and the old port where most of Brazil’s slaves arrived from Africa to work on sugar cane plantations here. For Thiago, this was to be his fourth Carnaval in Salvador, which comforted me by knowing that at least one of us knew the city already.

The historic neighborhood of Pelorinho, with its cobbled streets, historic buildings and colonial churches, was the most interesting for me. Guidebooks claim that there are 365 colonial churches in Salvador, one for every day of the year!

A ghoulish fact of the Pelorinho’s past came to my attention as I leafed through a lavish coffee-table book on Salvador in our hotel room. It said, in almost nonchalant terms, that slaves who misbehaved in colonial times were often strung up in public squares in the district and whipped as a warning to other to slaves not to misbehave.

Brazil was one of the last countries in the world to outlaw slavery in 1888. The fact that Salvador was the port of entry of so many African slaves into the country, means that the city to this day remains the most important center of Brazilian-African culture in the nation.

****

THE NIGHT before Thiago and I went to see the Beyoncé concert at the exhibition center out by the airport, we were eating dinner in the Pelorinho district when I noticed several strikingly beautiful black American women and men who were also eating in the same restaurant.

“Look Thiago,” I said. “Don’t you think these are musicians and backup singers for Beyoncé?”

And sure enough the next night at the concert, we recognized several of them on the stage with Beyoncé.

****

URINATING in public becomes a major issue during Carnaval in Salvador. Thousands of people dancing in the streets at the same time, while swilling down rivers of ice cold beer, leads to one insurmountable problem: Too much pee and not enough public bathrooms.

The city of Salvador tries to cope by putting up chemical toilets along the various parade routes, but this year they were never enough and many times were locked shut.

On one occasion, both Thiago and I had to pee at the same time when we were dancing with a trio eléctrico. In order to battle our way through the pipocada crowd to get to a bathroom and return in one piece, we asked one of the burly security guards if he would escort us on this mission. He readily agreed, and we followed him as he carved a path through the pulsating human river of people in front of us.

After walking through several blocks of side streets, and still not finding any chemical toilets, we finally stopped and just did as others were already doing and peed on the gate of a house on one of the side streets. Once relieved, we were escorted back to the parade, and we gave the guard a generous tip for his help. I can only imagine how horrifying it must be for women who find themselves in a similar predicament. If I were female and dancing in Carnaval, I would avoid drinking most any kind of liquid. The danger there, of course, with the heat and humidity, is keeling over from heat exhaustion and dehydration!

Hip replacements, moving to Georgia and chocolate-dipped strawberries at the Qatar national day

ON FRIDAY night my mom and I went to the Qatar national day reception at the Naval Club in Brasilia. The club is beautiful, with a huge swimming pool and cascading waterfalls that lead down to the main function hall at the shore of the Paranoa Lake.

The invitation arrived a week earlier addressed as usual to “Sr. Rasheed Abualsamh e mae”, which tickled my mother no end. Driving up to the entrance of the club, military police waved us in when I stopped to ask if we were going in the right direction. Free valet parking right at the entrance took the drudgery of having to find a parking place and walking down the slope to the venue.

Now, the invitation said full regalia/national dress, which was obviously totally lost on many of the Brazilian female guests, some of whom arrived as if straight from their offices or else were shockingly too casual. I spied two women wearing sleeveless dresses, which I thought was totally inappropriate for such a formal event given by a conservative Muslim nation. But then Brazil is a country where women often wear short-shorts and skimpy tops to school and to work, so nothing much here shocks me anymore.

The waiters at this affair were quite aggressive and kept asking us every 30-seconds or so if we wanted another soft drink, cod fish salad, or a couscous salad with shrimp, which they were carrying around the room on trays.

“This looks just like the same food they had at another event I went to recently,” my mother observed as we plunged into our cod fish salad.

“They must be using the same caterers,” I said.

Huge maroon and white flower displays were placed at the center of all the round tables that were set for dinner. Video screens had images of a Qatari man displayed vertically which was strange, and a small area had been set-up to serve dates and Arabic coffee.

An elderly Brazilian woman with hair dyed a deep maroon-red color waved at my mother and hobbled over with the aid of a cane to say hello to her.

“Is Estelle on vacation?” she asked my mother. When she noticed my mother’s puzzlement, she added, “you know the American ambassador’s wife.”

“Oh I don’t know,” my mom said.

“But you are American and are a member of the American Women’s Club aren’t you?” she protested.

“Yes, but I’m not a close friend of the ambassadress,” my mom tried to explain.

It seems she had had a hip replacement, and explained to us that her unoperated leg was hurting now because of the extra pressure she put on it after her other hip was operated on.

To kick off the event the Brazilian national anthem was played, forcing all of us to stand up. And they played the full, extended version of the anthem, which most Brazilians don’t even do nowadays. The ambassador and his Spanish wife stood on a stage facing their guests while the anthems played. When the Qatari one was played, the ambassadress sang along heartily, and near the end of it the recording of the song abruptly stopped and we heard her mellifluous voice continue singing for a few words.

“She should have sung the anthem acapella,” I whispered to my mom.

After the Qatari’s envoy’s speech delivered in Portuguese, and a raffle of tickets to Qatar and souvenir nicknacks, of which we won a bag, we rushed over to the dinner buffet and were disappointed by the food. “The food was much better last year, wasn’t it?” I said to my mother, and she readily agreed. I had some ravioli stuffed with dried tomatoes and another pasta dish, taking advantage of the fact that I was off of my usual low-carbohydrate diet that I follow during the week.

After eating I went over to say hello to an Iraqi friend who also graduated from the American School here, though many years after I did. She has been working as an assistant at the Embassy of Georgia here, and half-way into our conversation she stunned me when she said that her parents and herself had decided to move to Georgia in March.

“Georgia? Why Georgia?!” I asked, failing to see any connection between them and that former territory of the Soviet Union. It isn’t even an Arab country.

“No, I mean Jordan,” she explained.

“Oh, as in Amman, Jordan, right?” I said.

“Exactly!” she replied.

Which is a totally logical choice for them. Several of her aunts, a grandmother and various other relatives live there, along with at least one million Iraqis who have fled Iraq since the 2003 invasion by the United States.

Shortly after 9pm, with no sign of dessert being served, my mother and I made our way to the exit to go home, stopping at the little coffee bar at the exit where my mom had a cafezinho and I dipped strawberries into a vat of melted chocolate.

People think that diplomatic receptions are glamorous and exciting, but the truth is rather more mundane. The best parts for me were people-watching and talking to my Iraqi friend. The rest quite frankly was rather a bore.

Brasilia sunsets, fires and flowers



The headache-inducing heat of Arabia

JEDDAH — I used to always make fun of Saudis who were wealthy enough to escape the blistering summer heat of Arabia. But on this trip back to Saudi Arabia, I finally realized why they do it: They don’t want to have the horrible headaches that the unrelenting heat produces.

Yesterday morning, I foolishly decided to walk from the Red Sea Palace Hotel to the Corniche Center and then on to the Mahmal Shopping Center. The walk only took five minutes, but with the temperature in the 40s, that was enough to leave me with a blazing headache that lasted the whole day.
I told my friend Thiago before I left Brazil on this trip that I always got diarrhea when I lived in Saudi, and he said that it was probably because of the combination of extreme heat of the outdoors and the extreme cold of air-conditioning in cars and buildings. He’s probably right.
My friend Angelo kindly gave me two Advils, which helped turn my headache into a dull throb, but I was still left feeling slightly unwell the whole day.
Now that I think about it, I was a Panadol addict when I lived in Jeddah. I had constant headaches the whole year round, as did my friend Marvin. We used to buy boxes of the stuff in all of its variations: Extra, long-lasting, for sinuses, sleep-inducing, you name it, we popped it!
When I arrived in Jeddah on this trip I sent messages to various Saudi friends that I was in town and wanted to see them. One told me that she was in Los Angeles doing a summer course, another said she was in London and the other friend’s mobile was shut off. Good for them, they’ll certainly be healthier and headache-free far from the heat of Arabia.

Tropical flowers, a watercolor and Kuwaiti kabsa

LAST Thursday, December 3, I attended the annual Christmas bazaar of the American International Club of Brasilia at the Portuguese Embassy.

My mother has been a member of this club for many years, so I decided to tag along this year since I had never been before. The club was founded in 1971, when Brasilia was only 11 years old. It’s original name was American Women’s Club of Brasilia, but that was changed a few years ago to accommodate the husbands of diplomats who were posted to the Brazilian capital and wanted to be members of the group.

The bazaar was a slightly interesting mishmash of a bake sale cum jewelry and embroidery sale. Tables were set up to display the goods of both club members and outside vendors. I bought a beautiful arrangement of tropical flowers grown right here in the Distrito Federal in Brazlândia for only R$15 (around $8.60).

I also got a beautiful watercolor of a cashew tree for R$80 ($46) painted by Therese von Behr, a talented artist originally from Romania and who has been living in Brasilia for many years. I also won a jar of Marmite from the UK in the raffle section. Unfortunately, although I do like the saltiness of the dark brown yeast spread, I cannot eat it because it will inflame the gout I have in my left ankle.

What really caught my attention though, was the Asian section of the bazaar that had steamed Chinese dumplings, Indonesian dishes and a rice, kabsa dish from Kuwait. A Brazilian man came in bearing the Kuwaiti dish. I looked in vain for a Kuwaiti woman accompanying him and later had to laugh and point out to my mom that a Brazilian maid in a well-pressed uniform was standing next to the Kuwaiti dish ready to serve anyone a plate of the good-looking dish for R$5 a pop.

“How typical of Kuwaitis,” I told my mom, chuckling. “They can’t even be bothered to show up, instead they send their dish with a maid!”

With that we called it a day and left with our goodies to have lunch at the Gilberto Salamão shopping center in the Lago Sul.



Looking for my father

I STOOD in the middle of the Islamic section of the Campo da Boa Esperança cemetery in Brasilia last Friday and looked for my father’s grave. My cousin Yasser was visiting from Saudi Arabia and he wanted to pray for “Uncle Mohamed” as he put it.

Tomorrow, December 2, will be the one year anniversary of his passing. I still remember the day we buried my dad: It was raining like mad and there were small rivers of mud as we placed his cotton-wrapped body into a hole in the ground and workers sealed it off with a concrete slab on top.

But now a year later I couldn’t remember exactly where we had placed him. I walked around the other grave markers, beautiful pieces of dark granite slabs and engraved markers with the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and some with quotations from the Holy Qur’an. There were several unmarked graves, but I still could not figure out which one was my father’s. In my grief on the day he died and that we buried him, my mind had been a blank on noticing such things.

“That’s normal,” said Valdete, a Brazilian friend, when I tell her later on the phone that I couldn’t remember where we had placed my dad. “You were so upset with grief. It’s normal not to remember such details.”

The Islamic section of the Brasilia cemetery is fenced off from the rest of the cemetery and a large marble pillar with a golden crescent on the top stands at the entrance to the section next to a huge cement sign that says “Cemitério Islamico”. When I had stopped at the cemetery’s administration office at the entrance to ask them if they knew where my father was buried, an employee had handed me a map to the whole place and showed me how to reach the section where Muslims were buried. He was sorry he told me, but only the Islamic Center of Brasilia would be able to tell me where my dad was resting. Ironically, the map showed the “Israelites”, or Jews, as being buried just a short distance away from the Muslims, the bodies of Catholics separating the two.

Just like the Jews, Muslims are not supposed to put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. At the entrance to the cemetery I saw a woman selling a huge wreath of flowers, so I stopped, just out of curiosity, to ask her how much.

“One hundred and fifty reais,” she said, quoting an absurd price. “And I can write anything you want on it.” I politely declined.

The lack of a marker for my dad’s grave does not mean that my mother and I have forgotten him. Far from it. There are pictures of him all over our house, and little reminders that he was with us until just recently. Boxes of his books are in the spare bedroom of my little house, as are brand new pairs of cotton underwear still packaged that my dad used to like to buy in large quantities.

I had been reminding my mother over the past year that we should visit my dad at the cemetery and make sure his grave is okay.

“Don’t say ‘visit’,” my mom finally snapped at me one day in more of a weary tone than an angry one. “He’s gone to another place now and that’s not him in the cemetery.”

I’ve always been the more sentimental one of the family, so worrying if his grave were okay and planning a marker for him came naturally to me.

Not finding my father’s place in the cemetery spared me any tears this time, though I did feel a little tightness in my throat when I stood next to Yasser as he prayed, standing up, for my dad, reciting the Al-Fatiha verse from the Qur’an. I drew comfort from the fact that a blood relative came all the way from Saudi Arabia and was praying for my departed father and his soul.

When my father had died we had washed his body at the Islamic Center and then prayed over his body at the mosque. But there were no relatives there except for myself and my mom. I would have felt much more comfort if all of his relatives had been there to pray and grieve with me.

I now have to find out exactly where he is buried and have a nice granite cover and marker made up for him. That’s the least I can do for his memory.

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