I've got the Beirut Blues

By Claude Salhani

Culture Vulture: I've got the Beirut Blues


WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 -- While doing research on the Internet earlier this week, I stumbled across a reference to my junior high school. Previous attempts to locate former classmates had never shed positive results, as the school -- an American Catholic school in Beirut -- was demolished at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

The war, which continued for 19 years, helped scatter most of my friends to the far corners of the planet. Finding any of them became a real challenge.

The Internet link led to another, then another, and as a cyber-Inspector Clouseau, I followed a trail of clues until I discovered a Web site set up by a group of kids that I used to hang around with in high school.

(Well, they were kids when I knew them in the mid-1960s).

My initial reaction was one of elation! I had discovered a gold mine of clues and information, e-mail addresses and photographs of friend and acquaintances that I had not heard of, from, or about, in more than 30 years.

I spent a good hour combing the site, looking at current headshots of people I knew three decades earlier, back when their heads were covered with long hair. (Mine used to come down to my shoulders.)

At first glance, these looked nothing like my old chums, people I used to hang out with at the "Milk Bar," (seriously) and "Uncle Sam's," or go dancing with at "La Fin du Monde," "Your Father's Moustache," and the "Revolution."

On the site was a collection of old black-and-white snapshots and names that had almost entirely disappeared from my memory. Some were of friends I hadn't even thought about in years, other photos were of local rock 'n' roll bands from that era, all trying to look like the Rolling Stones, or The Animals.

In those wonderful days of youthful insouciance, before the harsh realities of such trivial items as health insurance, mortgages, and taxes got hold of us like some dreaded disease, life seemed extremely simple. Our priorities were sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

On the sex side, we never really got as much as we would have liked, or pretended to. At least I didn't. Drugs -- well, this was the wild '60s and Lebanese hash was prevalent, making some of our generation experiment more than others, but among the merry gang I hung around with, there were never any hard drugs, and alcohol was never, ever an issue.

Of course the big thing was rock 'n' roll. And of that, there was plenty.

After all, this was pre-civil war Beirut when the Lebanese capital was easily on a par with Monte Carlo for its beauty, easy living, safety and joie de vivre. The Lebanese liked to call their land the Switzerland of the Middle East. The place did attract many international bankers, spies and many other suspicious characters.

So hesitantly at first, I fired off my first e-mail to the "Web master," a guy who used to be known as "Blondie," because of his straight long blonde hair. (In the early 1960s, during the music and love revolution, everyone wanted to look like Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, or Jim Morrison.)

Along with my e-mail, I included, as requested, a current photo of myself.

My message to Blondie was a cautious introductory email, saying something like, "I don't know if you even remember me ..." After all, Blondie was a few years older than me (I think he must have been two or three years older at most) but more important, he was far more "cool" than I ever was.

Blondie today lives in Paris and, because of the time difference, it took more than 12 hours for his reply to reach me.

"Of course I remember you," his return e-mail started, "but you lost a lot of hair!"

Later that night, I was so excited of hooking up with so many old faces, that I couldn't fall asleep. Shortly after midnight, I jumped out of bed and connected back to the homepage. I spent several hours reminiscing, comparing old faces to their current ones. It was like trying to put a complicated puzzle together. The years are never kind. They stole away the innocence we enjoyed and replaced them with graying and receding hairlines, excess pounds, and bags under the eyes.

Among the many names on the list one in particular one jumped out at me. Ian Copeland, brother of drummer Stewart Copeland, who along with Sting, formed the group "Police." After their breakup, Stewart went on to write numerous film scores.

Like in a movie flashback, my mind suddenly drifted back to the early 1960s when I had my own band, the "Wichita Vortex Sutra," so named after a poem written by Allen Ginsberg.

One night -- I think it might have been New Year's Eve -- we landed a big gig at the in-place of the time, a seedy disco called "La Fin du Monde" (the end of the world). But just a few hours before we were due on stage, disaster struck. Our drummer found himself grounded by his mother because of his failing school grades!

Frantically, we scrambled around looking for a replacement, when someone mentioned that Stewart Copeland, whose father, by the way, turned out to be the CIA's top man in the Middle East, was a "fairly good drummer."

I called Stewart at home, and he accepted to play with us. I think this might have been his first public performance. He astonished everyone, played an amazing drum solo and won the admiration of the audience. I remember him placing a bed sheet over the drum set in order to get "a different sound." We earned about $6 each that night.

Drifting back from my reverie, I continued to explore the site. There was Christine, as beautiful as I remembered her, tall and lanky, striding into the "Revolution" and dancing the night away. I think the most courage I ever mustered was to mutter a meek "hello" to her. Now she has a daughter who is almost as old as she used to be. As Georges Moustaki, a famed French folk singer and poet once sang, "Your daughter is 20 years old, how time quickly flies by Madame, yesterday she was still so young, and her first torments are your first facial lines, Madame, and also your first worries."

Some of the faces I had to scrutinize closely, playing that faded memory tape over and over, digging them up from the confines of my mind. Soon, the names and events started to ooze out. The recollections came slowly at first, then like a flood they gathered momentum. One memory brought out another, and another until the ghosts of the past were dancing inside my head the rest of the night.

I was swimming in memories.

There is Janet, as beautiful as ever. (I used to have a crush on her when I was 15). We exchanged e-mail, trying to compact 30 years of lives -- marriages, divorces, children, tragedies -- the ups and downs of everyday lives in a simple few lines of cold e-mail.

"Where have all the years gone," she asks? Indeed.

But as I continued my exploration of the site, the news was not all good. I learned of the premature death of Charlie, another of the "older boys."

"Charlie left us to ride the wind on Christmas 1999," the site explained.

And later, yet, more sad news: the passing away of another friend of old, Janet's sister Shelagh. I remembered her as a happy, kind, and lively person I used to run into at parties around town.

Time, that old enemy, is never kind. As Moustaki goes on to sing ... "Spring leaves you behind."


Claude Salhani, Editor of UPI's Life and Mind Section, grew up in the "good old Beirut."


Scourge of 'Islam Experts'

By: Claude Salhani Source: iViews Jan 25, 2010 4 Comments Category: Americas, Life & Society Views: 4646

One of the negative by-products of the 9/11 attacks is the emergence of hordes of self-proclaimed experts on intricately complex issues such as the Middle East, Islam and terrorism.

In fact being an 'expert' in one of the above-mentioned topics has become something of a lucrative industry for some. The problem arising from this new - or perhaps not so new - phenomenon is that some people, even some intelligent people (and at times some intelligence people) start to believe the rot that is disseminated by these 'experts.' A method used is to take an element of truth and mix it with fabrications and the two become intertwined and difficult to separate. Repeat a falsehood often enough and it becomes the truth - or at least it appears to be, especially to those who don't know better. Josef Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, perfected this fine art.

What pushed me to write this column is an article titled 'Is a Nice Muslim a Good Muslim?', written by a Bill Warner, someone who was described to me as a 'serious scholar of Islam.'

I was aghast at what I read and told the friend who relayed the article that people like that scare me as much as the Islamist fascists. What the article does is take extracts of the Koran and uses them to justify that there can be no such thing as a nice Muslim. According to the article, one is either a Muslim or is not. One either follows the principles of Islam, or does not, and therefore is not a Muslim. Says the 'expert:' 'However, the truth is that a Muslim' is not always a Muslim. When they do not follow Islamic doctrine, they are no longer a Muslim, but are kafir (non-Muslim).' In fact a kafir is a non-believer. Very rarely would a Muslim be considered a kafir, except if he cursed the prophet or insulted the Koran. Rather, he would be considered a 'murtad.' (Heretic)


One can argue that similar rules apply to the Catholic Church; you either believe in the teachings of the Church, including the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the virgin birth, or you don't. There is no pick and choose when it comes to religion. Any religion. Of course one can comb through the Koran and find pages upon pages that incite Muslims to violence and look upon the rest of the world as non-believers. But can the same not be said of the Bible? The Old Testament is packed with chapters of a God who urging his people to war, to kill and to show no mercy towards their enemies.

One can make a similar argument about Catholicism when the Church went about killing non-believers (kafirs?) by the thousands during the Spanish Inquisition. And what about the Christians who slaughtered Africans and Native Americans and native South Americans because they were considered to be heathens?' There seems to be an inverse relationship between how vociferous believers are in claiming that their religion is peaceful and how peaceful their religion actually is,' writes Austin Cline regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Free thought Alliance, and a lecturer on religion and religious violence. 'Christians can be especially critical of how Muslims keep insisting that Islam is a "religion of peace" despite the extensive world-wide violence being committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Such Christians seem to want to insist that theirs is the real "religion of peace," said Mr. Cline.

Yet history shows us that Christians can be as ruthless as others. The Cathar War in 1209 when the pope based in Avignon waged a crusade against the Cathars in southern France is but one example. When asked how they could recognize Catholics from Cathars as the crusaders were about to assault the city of Beziers, Arnaud Amalric, the papal legate and inquisitor sent by Pope Innocent III is reported to have said, ' Kill them all, God will sort his own.' ('Kill them all, Let God sort them out,' emerged during the Vietnam War.) Amalric was also responsible for the mass burning alive of "many heretics and many fair women" at Casseneuil;" and for the slaughter at Beziers of some 20,000 men, women and children, in what was termed an "exercise of Christian charity."

I do not claim to be a scholar although I have lectured at several universities in North America. I was published in scores of international newspapers and respected journals and appear on more than 40 radio and television channels as a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs; as a journalist I have covered the Middle East and its associated problems for the good part of 30 years, more than half that time based in the region, and with the exception of two countries, I have visited every country in the Middle East multiple times.

As such I can claim to know Muslims fairly well - good and bad ones. I grew up with Muslims. I went to school with Muslims. I socialised with Muslims. During my late teen years when I stopped going to church my best friend at the time, a Sunni Muslim (and my Jewish girlfriend) would each grab me by an arm and force me into church to please my mother. During my junior high school days when economic times were tough and the Christian grocer down the road refused my mother credit, it was the Muslim and the Druze restaurant owner and the green grocer next door who gave us credit.

This is not an apology for the bad things happening in the world being committed by bad Muslims. There are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims. Lumping all Muslims in the same basket with the rotten few is short-sighted, plain wrong and does a disservice to mankind.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and author of two books on the Middle East.

Disclaimer The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity.