Nothing else but...

I feel really bad about abandoning my digital child - this very blog. Nope, its not twitter, Facebook or Poken that has taken over my life, and it has nothing to do with a writer’s block either.
Most of all, I feel really bad because I have promised many, that I would keep this blog alive. 
But then again, I’m busy scrambling my gray matter these days – trying to remember what I learnt from the advertising greats like Jeremy Bullmore, Richard Fowler and Brian Searle-Tripp at Ogilvy, long, long time ago. I’m trying to put together a series of presentations so that I could train my team – unfortunately it is not such an easy task. The thing is, advertising has evolved to become the art of communication; the world is changing so fast today that even Facebook has become a “traditional” medium. I feel I am too ‘old’ to keep up with this marathon – sometimes all I want to do is to sit under a coconut tree on a beautiful Sri Lankan beach, sip a nice Old Reserve with Wild Elephant, put my legs up and enjoy the gorgeous sunset to the rhythm of the waves slashing against the white sands.
Instead, I spend most of my time in a land where restaurants have two entrances: one for the “Single men” and the other for the “families” and women. My time in this country has become such a regular affair that I cannot even call my blog “Life in Taprobane” anymore – it might as well be re-christened as “Life in-between Mecca and Medina” I suppose.
Not that I have a miserable life here - compared to most who live in Saudi Arabia.
I have access to alcohol - albeit a bottle costs nearly 300 US dollars. I see women in bikinis if I peep from my front window at home. I live in a heavily fortified “compound” that’s similar to what’s seen in the movie “the Kingdom.” Every time I come home, I stop at the first gate manned by private security as well as the Army. Various warnings including “No Photos” and “Turn off the Headlights” stare at my face until a security guard scans the vehicle and raises the barrier. I usually wave at the guy and zig-zag through a maze of concrete barricades along a barbed-wire fenced wall, to the main gate where a guard sitting behind a bullet-proof window recognises me and presses a few buttons to lower the steel barrier as I wait for the red light to turn green. There’s another gate that opens immediately after the barrier, then I weave through another concrete jungle, bump over the humps at every 50 yards and slowly get to my home sweet home where I have unrestricted internet access and a bottle of Vodka in the fridge.
Yes, the internet is censored to the public in the Kingdom and it is the “world outside the compound” that bothers me.
There is a notice on our office door proclaiming that “Women Work Here” – and it reminds me of the signs we often see at home: “Beware of the Dog.”
There are times that I find myself alone in an empty elevator, simple because some of the Saudi women refuse to enter because “there is a man inside.” I feel like a leper – but I know it is their loss, not mine. I KNOW they don’t get much opportunity to spend time with guys like me – so even a nano-second lost is a time gone to waste. For them. Besides, my breath could impregnate women – yes I have that gift – I guess that must be what those women are thinking.
The social barricades here are unimaginable and unbelievable, women who live in Sri Lanka have absolutely no idea how blessed are they to be born in such a beautiful country. According to the The World Economic Forum Gender Equality Survey, women in Sri Lanka are treated better than the Australians, Canadians and even the Americans. Sri Lanka ranks at the 16 place, Saudi Arabia of course somewhere at the very bottom, barely keeping up with Chad, Mali and Benin.
Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. Most women are at the mercy of their driver, even if they had to buy a Panadol for a headache (and, a woman needs a lot of those in this country!). They pay his salary, but the driver has the right to “pray” five times a day and the employer has to wait, no matter how important her needs are.
There are quite a few, well-educated Saudi women who are joining the mainstream employment. These are the progressive women who know how to remain ‘progressive’ within the cultural and social norms, but the society isn’t ready for this. We have a client who employees around ten to fifteen thousand people across the Kingdom, but their head office does not have a single toilet dedicated for women. But, on the surface, this organisation is one of the most modern, forward-thinking businesses in the country that encourages the young Saudi females to lead the change. This is a minor detail compared to the other frustrations women have to put-up everyday at their workplace. Saudi men DO NOT look at a woman’s eyes when they talk to her – even in meetings and I find that very irritating. If she is friendly, they mis-read her. If she keeps her distance, they think she is a bitch. Some of them completely ignore her, as if she doesn’t exist. The religious extremism is so deep-rooted in their minds, they act as if they don’t have mothers or sisters.
Saudi women are not allowed to be seen in public without a chaperone, they cannot travel without a male custodian, they are not allowed to represent themselves at a government office, in a police station or a Court without the male guardian. They cannot open a bank account for themselves on their own, even if they are employed and earning their own income. Rights of women, do not exist here.
The society segregates the men and the women, they are not allowed to mix and mingle. We don’t usually ask our Saudi colleagues about their fiancés or wives – asking about someone else’s wife is like having an affair with her it seems. But, however, the lingerie shops in the Kingdom are manned by men who are allowed to measure a woman’s cup-size and talk to her about her underwear at length  – because women are not allowed to work in shopping malls. Such is the beauty of this bowl of spaghetti of a country – they are all confused in their own religious laws and taboos.
The other day, while chit-chatting about life of a woman in this country, one of my Saudi female friends put it in proper perspective: for a Saudi man, a woman is nothing else but a pussy!
*2012 UPDATE: The government encourages Saudi women joining the retail trade and now there are women serving at lingerie shops, cosmetics stores, supermarkets and even some restaurants.


Who Wants to See Mine?

Apparently, that IS the case: you show yours, on your anniversary.

Amongst the others, the drummer in the high tower did it recently, so did Cerno, our own random girl Pseudo and Chavie - the guy on the run.

Which means, there is no escape – I have to show mine.

Sorry I’m late, completely forgot that I turned five, 10 days ago. I think I’ll blame Jessica - my gorgeous wing-man. Sorry, wing-woman. Oops, the wing-person.

And, I also realised that I haven’t answered my first comment on the first post. What a shame.

Sorry. Once again.


I’m a Sucker for Sad Stories

It’s Friday. The equivalent of Sunday in the other parts of the world. I got out of bed well past noon, had a cup of coffee and made a few calls to the ones that are dear to my heart.

Wandered around my little ‘house’ in my shorts and settled down to watch the American Idol Season 10 auditions.

There’s a girl from Kosovo who gets the nod. Her parents are delighted. The Idol does a little recap of the War in Yugoslavia and I think of home. And war.

While I disagree with Sirasa TV copying the Idol, I salute the fact that these talent shows give hope to the hopeless people. Some of their sad stories bring tears to my eyes.

Especially this one:

I just love this girl. I love her voice, and most of all, her courage.


“I will die today, so Egypt can live tomorrow”

“I will die today, so Egypt can live tomorrow” read a placard held by one of the protesters in Tahrir Square as I sat in front of my computer for the second consecutive day. A stream of pictures – of people waving flags and chanting – flashed nonstop on the television screen a couple of meters away from my desk. I was keen on knowing how my Egyptian friends looked at the unfolding drama, through their Facebook status messages and twitter feeds.

I was eager to know what was going to happen.

Then, there was the news of Mubarak’s address to the nation. But, alas, after a much-awaited speech, the Farewell Friday dawned with much anger and huge disappointment.

It was the third Friday, 18th consecutive day, for the thousands of protesters. As the day wearied away, I began to attend to other domestic affairs, losing interest in the on-going saga. I watched the Egyptians in Saudi Arabia, praising Mubarak and his 30-year regime on television.

The revolution seemed going nowhere.

I remember Hussain. My copywriter, a good 15 years ago, in Dubai. He had just joined the agency as my team-mate; it was his first time in the real world of advertising. We were pitching for KFC business. Sitting opposite in my office, he would occasionally pause to light his pipe and we would wander in to conversations that took me to the mysterious past of the Nile civilization. We would brag about our pasts and heritage, share our thoughts and agree on alien invasions – for one obvious reason: the intelligent people who built the pyramids or the flying machine that took Ravana to India, no longer existed. They were abducted: there was no other way to explain the common stupidity that prevailed in our countries. The chaos, the madness and the people’s optimism to rise beyond adversity, brought Egypt and my Paradise closer to each other. Hussain and I became very good friends. We had ancient civilizations to boast about and Western Empires to blame on everything that went wrong.

Sometimes, in the middle of a sentence that he was crafting, Hussain would stop to protest. “I cannot lie about this lump of lard. It’s unhealthy, horrible and shouldn’t be sold to kids. How dare you’d expect me to say that KFC is finger likin’ good..?” he would grumble.

Like many thousands of people who gathered at Tahrir Square today, my Egyptian friend was a God-fearing man. I had to brain-wash him and nurse him back to the deceitful and manipulative world of advertising, in many such occasions.

Then I remember the pretty ones from our network. Rezan and Yosr carried the evidence that Cleopatra or Nefertiti were, in fact, real people. They were gorgeous, beautiful people, inside and out.

Maya, Heba, Rania... my colleagues of yesteryear – they are very much like the Sri Lankans. They are happy people, who have learned to be optimistic amidst the constraints and restrictions. We faced common threats, we behaved in similar fashion in many ways. If their car bumped in to another – which is a common occurrence in jam-packed Cairo – they wouldn’t even bother getting the police involved. Their cops were as ‘good’ as ours.

In the last few days, leading to the events that brought down Hosni Mubarak, there was some unbelievable spirit of solidarity building up. The youth of the Arab World was with the people of Egypt. One of my dearest friends wrote “Viva La Revoluciona!!!” on her wall while another friend of mine sat sleepless throughout the nights, waiting for the change to happen. These were young Saudi women, supporting a cause. “I’m proud of my brothers and sisters of Egypt” read another message. There were many millions of similar sentiments expressed in Arabic, on Facebook, YouTube and every imaginable mode of communication.

Egypt, needed change.

And change has come to Egypt. In a most unprecedented manner, with minimum blood-shed, a revolution has taken place right before our eyes.

In the God-fearing, system-abiding, Arab World, this is much more significant than anywhere else.

“There are many lessons behind the days, long hours, and the events that took us all through what seemed like a never ending emotional roller coaster... FAITH!! We never have to loose FAITH in JUSTICE, we need to take all those lessons along to next stage :)” – wrote one of my Egyptian friends, on her wall as fireworks lit up the night sky in Tahrir Square.

The picture is ‘stolen’ from here: http://kalamu.posterous.com/


Advertising: Graphic Design vs Art Direction

Advertising, is a mysterious business. In my mind at least, advertising is an industry that no longer exists – it has evolved to become the business – or rather the art of – communication.

In this mysteriously attractive industry, there are people with fancy titles. When I was an art director, my parents could not understand what it meant or what I did for a living. All I could say was that my dad was pissed at the fact that his would-have-been-engineer-son had become a hippie, a total disgrace to the family.

When I proudly presented my first ever job that was published, he was even more crossed and quite disappointedly remarked that he didn’t send his son to the best school in the country to do that kind of thing for a living.

I didn’t see my parents for about 3 years thereafter.

Nope, I didn’t leave the country, but in my rebellious heart I didn’t find a reason to visit them – even for the new year holidays.

Yes, I could be an arse, sometimes. But, that attitude helped me immensely in the business, in the years to come.

Anyhow, there is a huge misconception about the titles in this business. In many places, Graphic Designers get automatically promoted to Art Directors, sometimes by virtue of their presence in the agency, long enough.

Art Direction requires a different skill set to that of a designer. There are many who successfully acquire the above, but some fail miserably.

Here’s an example of an ad that appeared in one of the industry magazines in the Middle East, clearly done by a designer:

The same ad, if it were to be given a touch of quick “art direction” below:


Corned Beef

There was some fashion do in Colombo last evening and my wife got a free ticket. Thousands of miles and some time zones away from Paradise, I was bored staring at a computer screen that had a dimmed screen with a message that read “User Not Online.” Of course I knew she was not online, but sometimes, you just want to click the dial button for the heck of it. I think it is very manly to keep trying such things – like pressing the elevator button that is already pressed, knowing that’s already pressed by the man standing right in front of you.

Men do weird stuff like that, while women would just shut the computer and walk away to do their nails, or something much more fascinating – like yapping about Monica Bellucci’s cleavage with their besties.

So I was bored. And homesick.

I was hungry.

I was too lazy to drive-through my usual last resort in nourishment – and sustenance – the place where a clown sits in the front bench. I’m sick of the big macs, the royales and the big tasty ones. I usually buy a whole meal, pour the cola down the kitchen sink, eat the fries and forget the burger: two sachets of ketchup mixed with one sachet of mayo makes an amazing dip for the fries. By the way, I haven’t seen them serving mayo at McDonalds in paradise - have you?

Anyhow. So I was hungry. Men come from a hunting and camping background – so I followed my instincts and decided to hunt for my prey, right within the perimeter of my kitchen. Mind you my humble abode is not a mansion with a huge kitchen that houses an army – its just a single bedroom joint where kitchen accommodates just one person. Not more, not less. While rummaging and foraging, I found an old can of corned beef, a quarter of a cabbage; and I knew there was some leftover rice in the fridge from the afternoon. So, I chopped-up some onions, garlic, and the cabbage that had been living in my fridge for a while. One more week and I would have had to adopt the cabbage or christen it with a suitable name.

Moments later, the lights were turned off, some candles were lit and yours truly was cooking a romantic meal for one, to the tune of Nina Simone and her Tomato Collection.

It was rather a quick one, but was much better than the pizzas, burgers and the localized Indian food available around the corner. I couldn’t say otherwise, for obvious reasons.

Enjoyed my meal all alone, while watching some silly movie that I didn’t even pay much attention to. It would have been fantastic if I had a bottle of wine and some female company, but sometimes, life doesn’t let you enjoy the luxuries every single day of your life.

So this morning, while chatting to my charming wife, I shared my culinary adventure with her.

“What kind of a meal was that..?” was her prompt response, followed by a hearty laugh, and I am still wondering what’s wrong with eating corned beef and cabbage à la Sri Lankan style, with some rice.

I am not at all disheartened by the reaction from the Minister of Domestic Affairs, I’m going to sell the recipe to Harpo’s or Barefoot as some fusion food – all I need is a fancy name that sells itself. :)


Dear Anonymous...

Dear Anon (and not so anon),

I was feeling like sh*t today, and then I saw your comment appear on my iPhone. I’m sorry I have let you down - I feel horrible for not updating my blog in a while.

Not that I didn’t want to, but every time I sat down with my laptop to write something down, I hit a wall. There were many brilliant topics - they sounded brilliant in my head but looked like crap once I gathered them in words. Creative block, I assume. Had so much to say, simply didn’t know how.

Sometimes, words don’t come easy.

Hopefully, I will start writing again and keep this blog updated regularly. I have also promised my young (and gorgeous) prodigy, my señorita, that I will start writing again – so I have to keep her happy most of all.

Yes, it has been a while.

Yes, I missed you, terribly.

Yes, I missed reading your thoughts and blabber. Forgive me.

Once in a while I managed to randomly take a peek at your blogs – left a note here and there – but if I haven’t been fair or consistent, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be selective or choosy in reading your blogs or leaving behind any comments, it was a random act that perfectly suited the available 5-10-minute-slot in my hectic life.

So, I was busy. I travelled quite a bit. Went to Lebanon quite a few times for work – shot some beautiful commercials and partied like a pornstar. I was in and out of Sri Lanka – my paradise – almost a couple of times every month too. First, it was my little daughter who came back to live in Sri Lanka; you know how hard it is to find a suitable school and arrange everything in the middle of the year... Her relocation meant a lot of groundwork and sacrifice on a personal level, but then again, family comes first.

Then it was my dad.

Thank God – and thank you for all your wishes and prayers – he has recovered remarkably and now he is back on his feet again. It was just God’s way of asking him to slow down, it was also a moment for me to realize the value of life and appreciate the little things that we take for granted, everyday.

Dear Anon, thank you. Thank you for snapping me out of my miserable mood today and making me do something that I haven’t done in a while.

Hopefully, I will find my words and ways, again, and often.

Happy 2011 to you too.