Aug 23, 2015

#YouReek in #Photography

I admit I was feeling so furious tapping my mouse and my keyboard buttons trying to scout the interweb to get a good reach of what's going on in my capital, in my country, a million kilometers away. Just like every other Lebanese expat around the globe, we were feeling the walls closing up on us, all stuck and struck with what we're seeing. It took me a while (til the morning after) to realize, though, how big and beautiful what happened was, and all that's still happening til this moment [Thousands protest against government in Beirut-TDS].

I'm not here to make a journalistic recap of the protest and its byproducts, I just felt, as a photographer and a Lebanese individual, who just couldn't make it there, that I'd share in one blogpost what my fellow photographers have captured, whether professional photographers or amateurs, during yesterday's escalating circle of events, in a way to show my appreciation towards what they did, the guts they had to stick by the protesters only to show what's really happening. I'll leave you to the photos that will mark Lebanon's history for years to come. Credits given in the caption.

©Patrick Mouzawak
©Patrick Mouzawak

©Patrick Mouzawak
An anti-government protestor passes a face mask to a soldier last night in downtown ‪#‎Beirut‬. A couple of protesters threw stones at the soldiers but were stopped by others. Lots of chants of what roughly translates as "God bless the army". Loud boos at points for the riot cops who were dousing protestors and soldiers alike in swathes of teargas ‪#‎Lebanon‬ ‪#‎trashcrisis‬ ‪#‎youreek‬ ‪#‎youstink‬
©Sam Tarling
An anti-government protestor holds a rock that he'll throw toward police in downtown ‪#‎Beirut‬, earlier tonight. ‪#‎Lebanon‬ ‪#‎youreek‬ ‪#‎youstink‬ ‪#‎trashcrisis‬ ‪#‎somuchmorethanjustatrashcrisis‬
©Sam Tarling
Riot police face off anti government protestors in downtown ‪#‎Beirut‬ tonight. ‪#‎youreek‬ ‪#‎youstink‬ ‪#‎Lebanon‬ ‪#‎trashcrisis‬ ‪#‎somuchmorethanjustatrashcrisis‬
©Sam Tarling
"Trash protest turns onto first non-sectarian demonstration in Lebanon in a decade. 22nd August 2015"
©Natalia Sancha
"Trash protest turns onto first non-sectarian demonstration in Lebanon in a decade. 22nd August 2015"
©Natalia Sancha
"Trash protest turns onto first non-sectarian demonstration in Lebanon in a decade. 22nd August 2015"
©Natalia Sancha
"I have a weakness for the Lebanese Army, but here their faces before a protester who asks if that bullet is yours...."
©Natalia Sancha
Protesters holding their hands up in a show of non-violence after the soldiers started opening fire.
©Nadim Kamel
©Rimal Abeed
©Rimal Abeed
©Rimal Abeed
No Comment
©Roland Ragi
Protesters creating a human wall to try and stop or at least slow down the armed forces from shooting at the crowds.
©Roland Ragi
Protesters Saluting the Lebanese Armed forces with the National Anthem
©Roland Ragi

Jul 18, 2015

Clowns for a Cause

Waking up today after -finally- a decent sleep shaking off the thrill of the last two days has left me in such an awe, not realizing anytime before the amount of encouragement we are receiving, the thumbs up and the curious ones wanting openly to join us next time. Long story short, as an immediate result of my early morning sluggishness, we had decided, we as in a bunch of fellow white-hearted friends, to carry on the clown flashmob habit that started in 2013 by Mutaz Salloum, as a concrete reaction to the horrible tremor that was taking place in Jabal Mohsen & Tebbaneh, both of which areas now are thankfully in a state of peace after a political resolute earlier last year. We invaded both towns regardless of the warnings and all the threats. They were a blast, a total success.

Fast forward to 2015, Maya Abas and a bunch of enthusiasts that gathered from all over the country, literally, had also taken their toll on both Haret el Tanak (literally the tin neighborhood) and Dahr el Moghor, both being some of the most underprivileged parts of the town, with little-to-no infrastructure, a higher margin of felonies and a continuous degradation of their inhabitants by -mostly- nonchalant politicians and their entourage.

I still rub my eyes not believing such people exist, those who came from Hermel, Beirut, Southern Lebanon, journalists, engineers, activists, mere students too, both Sunni and Shiaa Muslim, Christian and atheist, all in the name of spreading joy and never caring about labels. All of this wouldn't have happened to be honest, if it weren't for Maya Abas and her endless passion, and to her I'm nothing but thankful.

I leave you now with some footage of what happened yesterday.

Photo taken in Dahr el Moghor, courtesy of Maya

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Bilal

Courtesy of Maya

Courtesy of Akil

Courtesy of Maya

Courtesy of Maya

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Akil

Courtesy of Akil

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Mourad

Courtesy of Maya

Courtesy of Akil

Jun 20, 2015

Final Fantasy 7 Remake (and the big fuss about it)

Last week has been phenomenal to say the least, to all veteran gamers out there, especially my generation. Throats were burning with screams of disbelief, eyes were tearing down and hands were trembling and waving all at once, and for a very good reason. Final Fantasy VII, the legend of all video games, the masterpiece that was once what all young men and women were busy with ever since its release on PC in 1997, will witness the dreadfully-long-awaited remake in 2015-2016, using top notch technology with unbeatable graphics and the ever-reputable soundtrack scores.

What's with all the fuss about Final Fantasy VII though? Let me break it down for you.

It won't take a lot of google to know that FF7 is by far The Greatest Game of All Time and that is for very specific reasons. The operatic, labyrinthine and often wonderfully weird tale of eco-minded heroes out to save their living planet from corporate energy raiders proved the most popular in the series, selling over 10 million copies worldwide and raising the bar for all games of that era, and the ones to come. The Final Fantasy series is one of the most significant franchises in video game history, responsible for numerous games that were both profound and critically adored. The series is also a veritable road map for how console role-playing games have progressed through multiple console generations. Though fans of the franchise will argue until the last breath about which of the many great Final Fantasy games is the best, the name that frequently rises to the top of those discussions is the franchise's most influential game, Final Fantasy VII.

Reasons for that can be elaborated with ease:

  1. The Story: FF7 has by far the best, most captivating story ever embedded in a video game. The game juggles the player along the threads of love and hate, passion and desire, anger and affection, and the list goes on. If there's anything the makers of FF7 have excelled with, it would definitely be the story.
  2. The Music: Anything from the opening music, to the in-game sound clips, the redundantly joyful scores and to the fighting music, the overall operatically enchanting scores of FF7 left an eternal trace in the video games industry. Composed and produced by the renowned Nobuo Uematsu, who had chosen MIDI as format for the music at the time, the FF7 scores were arranged and played by an orchestra. The original music received highly positive reviews from critics, who found many of the tunes to be memorable and noted the emotional intensity of several of the tracks. Many tracks were also performed individually in concerts and have been highly appraised.
  3. The Characters: I would definitely confess the team who has done the effort to design and create all those characters is a team of all-stars, champs of their time. Starting out with the main character, Cloud Strife.
  4. The Graphics/Cinematics: The game's true wealth, and the most visual one, is no doubt in the graphics, and more importantly the cinematics for the time. FF7 made its debut on PC CD-Roms with fully-designed 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds. But it is arguably the FMV (Full Motion Videos) cinematics that are most often remembered, the length and power of which gave Final Fantasy VII its potency, and it's what remains at the core of its legacy even now.
  5. The Mini-Games/Quests.
  6. The World.
  7. The Gameplay/Mechanics.
  9. And the list goes on.
Cloud & Aerith
And if that is not enough to realize how impeccably galatically Final Fantasy major was, check this out. Recognized by fans the world over, Final Fantasy VII frequently graces the top of "fan favorites" lists, including the reader-driven GameFAQs' Best Character, Best Villain, and Best Game Ever summer poll contests, which have had Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, and Final Fantasy VII coming in at the top of their respective categories year after year. Square Enix, too, recognizes the series' potential and has built an entire universe of games around Final Fantasy VII. The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII consists of spin-off games in the same universe on a host of different platforms, as well as the Final Fantasy VII movie, Advent Children. There's no game that has a better chance of success than Final Fantasy VII, as it's the first franchise to kick off Square Enix's new experimental concept of "polymorphic content."

That is definitely - to me at least - what makes Final Fantasy VII the game of the century.

Jumping back to days ago when Square Enix rocked the entire world of RPG gaming and the entire fanbase of Final Fantasy world by intriguingly putting it to the world in a very theatrical and well played manner for the level of its audience: The Final Fantasy VII Remake is Officially Confirmed, bashing out all those who have been booing down the game along the years claiming the hopes of all fans to remain as merely dreams, and most importantly, reviving the hope of thousands and thousands of those teenage fans who grew up now 18 years later to become adults totally losing it at the E3 announcement after they have been, for years, secretly wishing for a Remake of the game that marked history for them. (I have personally seen the clip over 10 times, I still believe it's a sort of a dream).

I personally can never forget the endless nights I spent playing the game, the times I forgot to eat and the quests I would just take for the sake of filling up that insatiable satisfaction meter of mine at the time. 

As you may have expected, that whole generation of gamers all over the world had the eyes fixed to their screens while Sony was announcing the remake. I myself was close to flipping the desk off if it hadn't my laptop resting on it back then, goosebumps all over my body and eyes filling up with water, can never deny that at all. Feeling still in shock of what I had seen I ran out to YouTube to try and tap the waters, see if I was the only one. Here's some of what I have found:

As one Square Enix's Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase had declared earlier in 2014, and I quote:
“But should I ever take it on, it would have to be the biggest project I’ve done. My life work. So I would have to be as highly motivated as that to end up with something I’m very happy with. It’s a huge thing for me.”
I guess my work is done here, I'll just leave you to some of the reactions for what followed the announcement. 

May 7, 2015


Do you know that instant in which something is happening when all of a sudden you realize that this, in fact, is yet another unforgettable incident? You know that moment when you get goose bumps because you know, in the speck of that instant, that you’re on the verge of learning your next life lesson? Do you know what it feels like to see, touch and live a history book?

He held my hand so tight and didn't let go until he had finished talking. He uttered the words "your mother, your mother, your mother, your mother and then your father". His stuttering was the wake-up call that changed what that day was initially supposed to be.

I was asked by a close friend to join him along at his grandpa's place and take a few portraits. I admit, I was  moved by his initiative especially that I knew my friend well, and this just proved to me that what I had in mind about him was true: he's this compassionate creature that yearns to mark a trace in this disturbed world of ours. He had felt that his grandfather was feeling pretty low and uneasy, thought that a friend coming over with a camera in hand would cheer him up a tad. And so it happened.

Harout and Sevoog striking a pose.
His keys wouldn't unlock the main gate, it’s why he had to forcefully ring the bell and call out for Harout, his grandfather. That was when I first spotted the old man: A very handsome senior with an arching back and a wonderful, welcoming smile. He opened the door for us, greeted me in Arabic and asked for some time to put on his "teeth", all the while my friend was translating to me their conversation in Armenian. That time was enough for me to settle down in the living room and speculate the environment: the vintagey scent was enough to tell me what a treasure I had just found. The place was a tiny apartment, barely large enough for a couple, filled with old books perfectly sorted out on shelves throughout the flat. Each and every one of these books had their own stories to tell, obviously.

Sevoog, namely blacky in Armenian, his snobby cat with the arrogant looks stepped inside what seemed to be his territory, and myself being the intruder he was staring at, head to toe. In very loose and relaxed movements, he strolled around me marking his territory, telling me I’m in his kingdom, and showed me who’s boss around here. Sevoog seemed to be the only comforter of a lonely old man whose children pass by to check on every now and then. The cat was my little moments of entertainment before Harout came back with a tray of soda in his hands. It seems he regretted that I had took off my shoes, something perhaps unusual for him to have in his house. My friend and I rushed to take the cups so that he could relax and, personally, it was time for me to plunge in action.

At first, Nareg was a bit tentative to ask me to pay that visit. Little did he know about my timeless craving for shooting older people’s faces. The faces, the wrinkles, the fading smiles and the arching backs, each tells a story as vast as their lifetime. My intuition didn't fail me that afternoon; it was one out-of-this-world meeting. I was warned however, warned of the fact that I should avoid discussing the wife's passing away a few months ago. He was so attached to her, I was told, and the slightest memory could bring him down all over again. Little did I know that this woman had left us merely a couple months back, meant the world to this lonely man. This man who himself, surely feels as if he were left behind in this world, no matter how surrounded with people and faces it may seem to be. His courteous yet sad smile says it all: he had no reason to live anymore, or that’s what he might have been thinking indeed.

Just as any other Lebanese would treat their new guest, Harout started, with his rugged Arabic, a conversation through which he inquired about my job - whether I was happy with what I was doing at the moment. He was so courteous and well-mannered that I eventually felt home. It wasn't much before the conversation took a turn I hadn't foreseen. Harout found no other way but to lure me into talking about his deceased soulmate, his one and only companion, the colors of his life and the only person he had ever needed - it was all gone now. It felt like this was basically all he really wanted to talk about. For a split second it definitely felt like he was pulling out those emotions, the emotions he had stacked down the whole time, his way of avoiding the horrible shadow of old memories still present in each corner of that tiny house. His wife was literally everywhere, she was waving through the grains of dust covering that library, she was in the frames of every photo. She was doing the dishes and cleaning the bedroom, leaping around fixing this and tidying that, she was the one teaching Harout how to offer Soda to their guests. She was the smile that was taken away once and for all.

During the course of our conversation, I couldn't but exchange a few warm looks with Nareg, standing a couple feet across his grandpa looking at this old man like he had never done before. Harout is the kindest person I had ever met; he was literally apologizing for his heavy Armenian accent, his inability to move freely and be a better host, and what he considered to be a messy living room. I was smiling all along; what was happening that moment couldn't have been matched with anything truer that this. It was those moments when he spoke of his late wife, his smile was enough to brighten the corner of his house, the house that was somewhat shaded by the surrounding century-old trees.

In a sort of unexpected turn of events, I found us talking about my parents. Off the top of my head I started telling him of their divorce, of how I became man of the house at a young age, etc... He couldn't resist smiling and in no time reached out to hold my hand. I, all astonished, willingly stretched my arm and gave in my hand, waiting to see what Harout has in store for me. He grabbed it so firm that I instantly knew he meant business. He iterated the word "your mother" in Arabic four times before he mentioned my father. It was his gentle smile that was telling me not to hold any grudges at him, and to always reserve some space for love in my heart, not to hate anybody, for hate kills only its bearer. The look in his eyes was simply unforgettable. I asked his permission to take a photo, and here it was: A history changing photo.

In a split-second I started thinking to myself about how profoundly humane this person was, how kind and soft, how beautiful inside and out. He is a man of love and peace, and, asking around, found that he has been this man for his entire life, not only after his wife passed away. It was no wonder that this woman had fallen so madly and fondly in love with such a man at the time. In fact, he told me the story of how he met her, and of all the small things that make it story the most mundanely beautiful fairy tale ever.

Words were lazily pouring out of his lips describing how clear the images still were, even though he was as young as 7 years old back then. Harout was among the many refugees who had to flee Armenia during the war, and had found himself in Lebanon after his parents managed to smuggle him out. He was literally homeless back then, the reason why he eventually became an apprentice to the local butcher, turning the butchery into his home for some coming many years. He was eventually introduced to that butcher’s niece, Harout’s wife soon after. There is one way to putting it, Harout started out of nothing, literally nothing, no money, no parents, nothing; having his wife by his side was the first pillar into stepping foot in this life. They both managed to establish what can be called a prosperous life, a house and family even with the extremely few resources they had. That was the same house he had lived in since then, the same district in which he grew up, the one in which he learned most of the skills he knows today. It's as if Armenia street in Beirut was his world - everything he knew. It's as if all the scents he knew, all the colors he’d touched, all the tongues he’d heard and all the emotions he had danced with, existed only in that narrow street. It’s as if the only thing that was missing to remind him how tough life is, was the day when his wife, the mother and grandmother of so many beautiful souls, went into a coma 15 years ago, the coma that she strong-willingly fought and managed to wake up from against all odds. It wasn't until a handful 13 years later when it was time to say one last goodbye; all those struggles and fights with diseases have taken their toll on her in the end and Harout was left stranded there all by himself.

All of the above narration was written two years ago, right after I had met with Harout in 2013 during easter. Now that I had left the country, it was time to give Nareg one Skype call to catch up on things and learn how Harout's been doing lately. I couldn't be any happier: right in the middle of my call I learn that Harout is now one fully-loaded active old man, as never before. I guess we, the younger generations, still have got a lot to learn along the way. Here's to love and humanity.

Apr 11, 2015

Travel on budget: My take on Couchsurfing

Photo by
I had never seen it coming, in the middle of my chaotic arrangements prior to moving to UAE, that my few-years-old couchsurfing account would be one of the main factors for making it easier for me to enjoy it out there in the desert. Ras al Khaimah, the place I’m living in, is one of those lazy towns with moderate infrastructure, a few malls here and there, a fraction of the amount of cars/people you’d see in Dubai, and a whole lot of senior westerners and young expats, who thought it’s best to move to such a town, away from the extravaganza of Dubai, its horrible traffic and its insanely high real estate prices.

I might be mistaken to assume the whole world knows what couchsurfing is. Here’s a summary, as found on the website’s about section:
We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect. 
Travel the world
With Couchsurfing, you can stay with locals in every country on earth. Travel like a local, stay in someone's home and experience the world in a way money can't buy. 
Rediscover your city
There's a community of Couchsurfers near you. Many cities have weekly language exchanges, dance classes, hikes and dinners. Make new friends. 
Become a host
Give back and open your home to travelers. Learn about a new culture first-hand or practice a language. Make the world a little smaller; a little friendlier.
Did I mention it's also FREE?

The note I found at my door right after Piet and Jorien left my place.
In short, couchsurfing is your ticket to travelling the world without a single weary thought of how much you’d have to spend in motels. All it takes is basic ethics, common decency, some manners and big ass smile wherever you step foot at.

It wasn't long after I signed my rental contract that I got my first couchsurfing request in the emirates, it was Cyrill from Switzerland, the guy who’s taking a year off to finalize some pending projects and to discover himself by travelling to that part of the world, completely alone.

As an absolute introvert who made his way through this busy world that always manages to push you into spotlight with so many drawbacks and psychological repercussions, couchsurfing was absolutely one of the very few things that I ever did in my life, that provided me with the suitable environment to step out of my comfort zone, and see the whole world in that tiny spot I call my couch, all while helping me break down some of the ice that built up over the years, and giving me the superpower of being able to fully finish a conversation with somebody I never met before without that usually-awkward feeling. And for that, I’m nothing but thankful.

Cyrill upon leaving the apartment a while ago.
Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Morocco, France, Egypt, Belgium, Slovakia, Greece, Netherlands, and the list goes on. I've visited more countries in a few months than I could ever manage to visit in a year or two, and it just leave me in a huge awe. My house is a relatively large studio, which confines both my privacy/freedom and that of anybody I'm hosting. It's why I always tell I'm hosting for one night only, but always, always, end up offering them to stay another night.

What's even more heartwarming is their gifts. Anything from chocolate bars to airline pins, from turkish delights to a piece of handwriting on my door, it all feels so damn worth.

Hernani Cardoso showing me the path he'll be taking after leaving my place
To my surprise though, and after all that time and all the friends I have made, I realized one thing: I have never been a surfer myself before. I knew it's a totally different thing, I knew being a good host myself, with all the benefits that come with it, is not even nearly the same thing as being a surfer. However though, the world has its own way of matching things together, always. One day I found myself having to go to Dubai to shoot a concert that won't end before midnight, when there's obviously no buses to take me back to my place. I called out for all my friends and acquaintances over there but there was not a single confirmation. I was so close to either letting go of that concert or having to spend a fortune on taxis. It wasn't long before it hit me, and the next day I was couchsurfing at Fabien's place in Dubai, the French pilot who's recently joined CS. Funny enough, just like it was my first time surfing, it was his first time hosting!

They are cycling the world, sightseeing, travelling on low/zero budget, a family trying to enjoy their time together, seeing the world through a different perspective, talking to total strangers, renting a car around, they all manage to leave me in awe. There's so many times I wished I could just leave it all and be like Hernani, the 54-yr old Portuguese cyclist who sold everything he owned and decided he wanted to return a bicycle to his friend in china. Or like Konstantinos, the 50-something yr old greek cyclist, who got fed up of it all and decided to cycle to India. Or that Polish girl, K, who thought one day to leave everything that was providing her peace and comfort and hit the road around this part of the world. Or probably that family who constantly looks out for the cheapest tickets, and with full trust in the world, they just land there. The stories are endless, and I can't wait to see who's to step foot in my place in the future, and what kind of magic they have to their stories.

Couchsurfing in a way is a sort of a befriending machine, they step in your house total strangers, next thing you know you’re hugging your friends goodbye, not knowing when’s the time to meet again, nor even where.

All in all, I can't but feel utterly happy to know that, people, somewhere over there, are working hard to make this happen, to break all borders, to incorporate some positiveness in this world by making it easy for people to travel, make new friends, exchange experiences and inadvertently book yourself a place you're welcome, in the country of this or that couchsurfer, something you can't find anywhere else.

Here's to couchsurfing, and all you surfers and hosts out there.