The Magic of Christmas Commercials

It was the early 80’s and we used to gather around and watch ITN every evening. Television was new and it was a fascination. There were no commercials, we saw Baccara perform “Yes sir, I can boogie” a few times a day in between programs. And there were fish swimming across the screen endlessly, if the break was too long. Television was ad-less, and Noeline Honter read the news.

Then came a few commercials. I remember the “Khairaz? Kotahena, Kotahena...” ad and the Anchor ad with Rosy Senanayake. She was Mrs World, but my eyes were set on Brooke Shileds. I watched Blue Lagoon at Rio quite a few times in uniform –like any good school boy from Colombo.

But most of all, amongst the handful of ads that ran, I remember the classic Coca-Cola ‘Hilltop’ Commercial.

Many years later, I found a career in advertising and my life was surrounded by commercials. But every time I think of a Christmas ad, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke...” echoes in my head. The tune is so catchy, often I find myself swinging my head like an Indian waiter in a London restaurant.

I guess I’m a sucker for “feel-good” commercials.

In my career as an ad-man, I had the good fortune of working with some world-class directors. Amongst them, is Eric Will, who directed this Christmas commercial for Orange.

The first time I saw it, I wanted to see it again. I knew there was little ‘something’ about the ad, but I couldn’t see it at once.

Then, I found the little magic of this commercial. Did you see it?


Time is Now. To look at your Breasts.

There were boobs everywhere in Lebanon. Staring at you from all over the place. In supermarkets, in busy streets, looking at you from behind news stands. There were huge ones and tiny ones. And every size in between.

And they were pink.

Aah the wonder of typography. With a simple twist, the Arabic letter “n” in the headline is crafted to fit where it fits best – delivering a memorable message. Pity that we don’t see much attention paid to typography in Paradise.

The headline translates to “it is time” (time is now) and this is the key visual of a breast cancer awareness campaign currently running in Lebanon. From huge billboards to tiny handouts at supermarkets, this is everywhere these days.

For an Arabic country, this is a daring approach. But then again, if they wanted attention, they certainly got mine.


Background: For decades, the subject of breast cancer has been considered unmentionable amongst families in the Arab World. According to National Cancer Registry, Breast Cancer accounts for 38.2% of all cancer cases in Lebanon..! To know more, please visit the campaign website here.


Memories of Lebanon...

I sat in the butt-freezing cold, staring at the distance. There’s at least an hour before the sunrise. The cold breeze sweeping across the lake went piercing through my skin and chilled my bones. It must have been around five degrees, but the breeze made it feel like sub-zero.

The misty haze was slowly clearing away from the vast plateau that stood beyond the waterfront. The lake was slowly turning from a dull gray to a beautiful transparent blue shade that reminded me of Farah’s eyes. She was gorgeous. Her gray-blue eyes were mesmerising.

There is something magical about the Middle-Eastern women.

They are blessed with the ivory skin and the black hair – a beautiful combination that appeals to most men from the Paradise isle.

Black hair on ivory skin. Exotic. To say the least.

Farah was one of the receptionists at the hotel we were staying. She must have been in her early twenties, if not barely out of her teens. We knew that she existed only at the time of our departure; our all-day adventures in Beirut kept us away from the daytime staff. Next thing we see is Farah signing off from work and a black Mercedes SLK arriving at her footstep. When you are gorgeous, you are never going to walk in your life. Ever.

Salah gets me a nice and hot Arabic coffee, and breaks my train of thoughts. He tells me in Arabic that there are cheese manaeesh and zatar for breakfast, if I’m feeling peckish. I’m in no mood for any food but the warmth of the tiny coffee cup helps. I wish I had a pack of Davidoff Lights in my pocket like the good old days.

I love these unusual adventures. I love the randomness in life. I like being in the middle of nowhere, being close to nature. The vast emptiness around me reminds me how insignificant I am, in the grand scheme of things.

Lebanon is a tiny country that is abundant in natural beauty. Just like our little paradise home. Within a couple of hours from the warm and sunny Beirut, one could end up in the misty mountains where the snow-covered peaks make ideal skii slopes in Winter.

I try to remember the last time I was in this region. I remember driving through this valley with Fadi in his red Chevy listening to Celine Dion duet with Barbara Streisand for the first time. Not that I’m a huge fan of the Canadian diva, but the memory of that drive through this beautiful land is still stuck in my mind. That Christmas, I bought myself Angela Dimitriou’s “Margarites” from Beirut, and left the rest of the world to buy Celine Dion.

I also remember Nabil’s stories of their Defender getting stuck in the mud in this very same region and how they had to leave it for a couple of days till the rain ceased, before it was pulled out with the help of a big yellow Cat.

Its funny how a stranger in a strange land feels somewhat homely when there are memories that connect the two.

I’ve been to Lebanon quite a few times since 1996 and I kind of like this place. The only thing that I hate though is, whenever I introduce myself, most of the Lebanese ask me “kohomada?” with a smile. Either they, or their kids, have been brought up by a maid from Paradise.

I hate when the world classifies Sri Lanka as the country where the maids come from.


BOA. All Pets. Fish and Reptiles.

I’m in Beirut. It’s way past lunchtime. I’m sitting in a little-old restaurant – a well kept secret in time. The tiny place is dim and quiet, except for the occasional shout that gets the kitchen staff busy with the order. There are no florescent lights that bathe the place in white light. Instead, there’s natural sunlight slowly creeping through the ally.

I see a middle-aged Lebanese woman sitting by the window, patiently waiting. For food, or company, I wonder for a moment. There is a white VW Golf Mk1 parked outside, just in front of a shiny new BMW M3.

“BOA. All Pets. Fish + Reptiles” reads a signboard on the shop across the window. “10,000 LL for Picture with Snake” says another sign. I see green lattice-like windows above the pet shop. The building looks old and the windows remind me of the old Dutch buildings in Galle.

“Tick, tock, tick, tock...” a fashionably dressed young Lebanese girl trots past the window. For a moment, I wish I were sitting by the window. 90% of the Lebanese women are very pretty, according to my expat-friend, the expert of feminine beauty. The remaining 10% it seems, are simply drop-dead-gorgeous. All I can think of, at this very moment, is food – and nothing else. Feminine beauty could wait, but I laugh out loud and nod in agreement.

Sitting here, Beirut feels very real. It feels very different from the newly-built pebbled streets, high-end cafés, designer shops and downtown in general.

The shop owner comes along, greets us and distributes the hand-written Arabic menu. I look at the decorative handout and wonder why the menu is not printed. Apparently, nothing much has changed in this place since the humble beginning. Two generations later, the menu is still hand-written by the owner cum cashier cum head-waiter, every single morning.

A few minutes later, I overhear the man himself translating the menu to the Japanese family sitting at the table behind us. This is a legendary place that is often mentioned in travel guides. The pictures that adorn the walls tell me that the tourists pick this tiny place over fancy restaurants downtown, perhaps for the bragging rights.

While we get ready to experience the true spirit of Lebanese cuisine, the usual appetisers arrive on the table. The Olives, the mint leaves, spring onions, radish, pickles, hommus, moutabbel, tabouleh and the Arabic bread.

I decide to skip the Arak and settle for water. Brewed from Aniseed, Arak is an alcoholic beverage that usually takes a prominent place in a typical Lebanese lunch table. The clear brew turns milky and cloudy as it gets diluted in water – just like pouring Dettol in water.

We decide to settle for Molokhia – a rice and meat dish that is garnished with nuts and topped with Corchorus (like spinach) soup – as the main dish. Molokhia is a stew, but this restaurant serves the rice, meat and the stew separately for us to mix them ourselves to match our taste. Apparently, that is the “proper” way to serve the dish. An Arabic desert follows and we top up the meal with a Moroccan-mint tea.

As we wander back in to the narrow lane, leaving yet another Lebanese experience behind, I think of home. Good food, great ambience, and Boa reminds me of home. Masthana, the old canteen that used to be besides Raheema’s, in particular.