Saturday, July 30, 2005

A Conference in Venice – Part Two!


A superficial account of my heretical banality

Will I be allowed to travel this time, or will they come up with some new excuse? This was the thought that kept bustling in my head all through the ride to the airport. But, surprise, surprise, things went somewhat smoothly at the Syrian end. Somewhat!

“So, your mother is Muna Wassef?” Exclaimed the airport security officer having entered my name into the computer! Then he froze momentarily, he had just noticed the security warning next to my name. So, Muna Wassef’s son is a criminal! He must have thought to himself. Still, since there was no travel ban, he could do nothing but let me proceed to the departure gate, while he worked on the text of the telegram he needed to send to whatever security apparatus was watching my moves these days. Methinks General Dashing does not trust me anymore. Methinks he ha a point.

Khawla was calling me every 10 seconds to make sure I am all right. I had my laptop with me, I had my camera. But somehow nothing felt right. I didn’t know where to put my passport while juggling the mobile in one hand and everything else in the other.

Still, I stood in the line waiting to board, but it was finally my turn, and the security guard asked for my boarding pass, I couldn’t find it. And so, it was back to the airline counter, I was told. But on the way there, and while I was till trying to juggle six different items in two hands, my genial security officer who loves my Mom stuck the boarding pass in my face: “You forgot your boarding pass.” Really? Oh well…

Armed with the Pass, I proceed to board the damn plane, while assuring Khawla, who was following the whole development on the mobile, that indeed everything went relatively smoothly and that I will be boarding the plane now and I would not cheat on her with some Italian floozy. Damn! It’s really nice to have someone that still thinks you’re sexy and attractive, even when your belly continues to grow rebelliously, not to mention your second chin, and Viagra seems in the offing in the not-so-distant future. (Ah the legacy of a few short years of dissidence in a Middle Eastern country. Ain’t life grand)?

It was my first time on Air France, and it went OK. But Charles de Gaul, oh what a Cauchemar it turned out to be!

I had less than an hour to make the connection to Venice, and Charles de Gaul is humongous. So, I sped-walk through the various terminals, I dodged haggard looking passengers and airport workers, I asked for directions from the charming and ever so cooperative French civil servants, and finally, I found myself at the right security gate. I passed smoothly. I only had to take off my belt for inspection, and then, for crying out loud, where is my damn mobile?

Damn, what did I do with it after the last call from Khawla? I called her back, then… I hung the unit on my belt and did not put it back in my backpack as I usually do. I couldn’t find an aisle seat this time and had to settle for a window seat. There were two people now sitting next to me and more people boarding the plane, there was no way I can go out and reach for my bag. I had to wait. So I hung the damn mobile on my belt and collapsed in my seat and forgot the whole thing. The mobile must have slipped from my belt and fell somewhere.

Well, I still had 40 minutes, enough time to at least report the incident. So, I ran back to Terminal E.

One hour later, I am still sitting with a very cooperative and charming French civil servant assuring me that they would do everything they can to find my mobile, that is, after I sign a certain form for the second time.

I signed the damn form, and headed back to Terminal F, where another charming blah blah books me on the 3 o’clock flight, and assures me that my luggage will make it to the new airplane. Oh yeah, and democracy will flourish in the ME by yearend.

Khawla had warned me that if I continued to hang my mobile on my belt it will be lost one day. Damn know-it-all women, damn them all to hell, and back. So they can tell us if it’s really any different from here. Anyway, they somehow play a role in turning their own nonsensical warnings into some kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So they can gloat.

“Fancy meeting you here!” Said the familiar face. Oh, well, that wasn’t too surprising really. I always run into people I know at airport terminals, all going to the same conference or workshop of course.

I rant a little about what happened, about what has been happening for the last few months, we mourn the stupidity of our leaders, the growth of Islamism, our continued irrelevance as liberals. Then we board the plane.

At Marco Polo’s airport, everything went as I had expected. My luggage did not arrive. So, I reported the matter to the Lost & Found people, who proved to be genuinely cooperative and promised to do all they can, blah blah blah blah.

Half an hour later, as we had to wait for more participants to come, we boarded a bus that took us to a dock where we waited for another half hour. Then we boarded a boat that took us on a beautiful 45 minutes journey to the Island of Lido. At Lido, we boarded yet another bus that finally took us to our respective hotels. My hotel, Buon Pesce, was in a quite area on the waterfront, a romantic location for an absolutely romanceless event, in which a certain haggard Syrian, who now had only about 30 minutes to get ready for dinner at the local monastery, will have to take part while feeling absolutely disgusted with himself.

So, I called Khawla and told her how I felt and she threw me a few words of sympathy in between the usual song and dance about my absentmindedness and the troubles I keep getting myself into. Then, I showered, wore the same goddamn clothes I had on, and went to dinner where I ranted on and on about my growing misfortune in the world.

Next day, I attended the opening of the conference, in the same goddamn clothes that I felt like tearing off me, except that no one, I’d wager, would have enjoyed that particular act, and the only person who might have was far away in Damascus feeling pissed off with me.

But I was wearing a pink shirt for crying out loud, a lousy pink shirt. I mean, it’s OK, in my book at least, to wear a stupid pink shirt while traveling, but not when you’re attending the official opening of a goddamn conference surrounded by all sorts of important people (or by people who think they are important), at a time when image is everything? I mean, what Emma Bonino is going to say about it? You know, let’s support that man in the pink shirt in his struggle for reform in his country? He seems serious and credible, if not seriously credible.

This aside, I had many acquaintances in this conference, and there was a lot of people that I wanted to know. So, I commiserated, pink shirt and all, with all and sundry, during the mini-breaks. And I smiled and I ranted and I joked. But, I just couldn’t take part in the actual discussions, as I usually do. I mean, Political Pluralism and Electoral Processes in the Broader Middle East and North Africa, what’s a Syrian to say about that?

Besides, my sweaty pink shirt, my lost luggage, my lost mobile, my far-away wife who should have been here with me (I am in Venice after all), all made me rather somber.

But, when I returned to the hotel to freshen up after lunch, lo and behold my luggage was there. A damper: the keys to the lock, which I had to submit to the airport authorities so they can inspect my luggage, had not been returned. So what? Break the goddamn lock.

So, I broke the goddamn lock. I showered. I fixed my hair, I wore new clothes: grey stripped flax pants, white cotton shirt. Oh yeah, I am happening now.

Still, I had nothing to contribute to the evening’s discussions. I am still a Syrian under all these clothes. The evening session was over at seven. There was still plenty of sunlight around, and we were all invited to jump on a boat to be taken to some Venetian island for dinner.

So, here I was sitting on the deck talking to someone I have been corresponding with for a while, but never met face-to-face before, a really nice fellow from Palestine, when, lo and behold, it started to rain, and we’re talking buckets. Most people managed to run for cover, but I, along with three or four hapless participants, had no place to go. We were drenched. Drenched? No. Violated. Raped.

For there I was, thirty minutes later, looking like a sewer rat, dinning with a bunch of nicely dressed people in one of Venice’s most elegant restaurants. Oh yeah, I am happening now.