Gino’s Blog Interviews Maz Jobrani

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So, I had the honor of getting an exclusive interview with Maz Jobrani before his show for Sanad in Beirut on Sunday. The folks at the Hitlon Hotels in Lebanon were kind enough to invite me for lunch and an uncensored chat with a comedian I look up to and appreciate. Here’s our interview:

It’s not your first time here in Beirut, so, what do you think of our city?

I’ve been here a couple of times, but I never stayed long enough, you know, I have two kids at home and my schedule. My first time was with the Axis of Evil in 2007. We did like 5 shows, so they took us around, up into the mountains. We even tried to meet Hezbollah at one point! It was a crazy trip. Then another time, I came with my wife when my son was almost 2-years-old and we stayed in the beautiful Downtown Beirut.

I love Beirut, I think Beirut is amazing. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I really would love to spend more time here.

Have you partied in Beirut? Like, not just your shows, but our nightlife?

When we came with Axis of Evil, we did party! I didn’t know much about Lebanon and Beirut before coming here. I didn’t know the levels you guys take your parties to.

We went to a club called Crystal, it was a Wednesday, an off-day, and it was rock and roll, I mean not rock and roll music, but Techno or whatever. I look over and there’s chains coming from the ceiling and girls were holding those chains and like making out. It was crazy, and the guy turned to me and said, “Yeah, you should come Friday,” and I was like, it gets even crazier!

Yeah, the level of partying in Beirut is at another level. When I was in Beirut with my wife and kid before heading out to New York, our friends from there got in touch and told us they couldn’t wait for us to fly in to party hard. And I said, “this is the party capital, Beirut.” And my theory is that apart from the Lebanese I know being very much into living life and enjoying life, part of it has to do that with the Civil War, people just got tired of it. So, when fighting would break out in the streets, people would just say, let’s take it up to the mountains!”. There’s a resilience that the Lebanese people have, and I think it’s beautiful. You guys are some of the top partiers in the world, easy.

Your comedy can be categorized as observational, but for someone like me from Middle East, a lot of times it’s like it has a deeper message behind it. Would you say you do? And what message exactly?

I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy as a kid, and ultimately, I just wanted to be funny. And I think as I got into it though, and started to talk about being of Middle-Eastern descent, Iranian descent, and growing up in American, I think issues started coming up that were social and political. I think that if you can’t do comedy that has a message somewhere, you know, it doesn’t have to be obvious, but it’s got some political points in there, is my favorite type of comedy. You know, like you said, I’m also a fan of The Colbert Report as well as The Daily Show. But, also in the middle of my show, I do silly stuff. DL Hugley said this one time: “When you do comedy, it’s like giving people medicine but hiding it in orange juice, so they don’t taste it”

Many Americans aren’t aware of the discrimination of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim people, so my joke about the Arab family on the plane, or even people who look Muslim, it could be Christian Lebanese. So, when you tell them the joke, they laugh about it, but they also know, “hey, this is real”. So, it’s a way of delivering the news.

The region is in turmoil, as your jokes illustrate when you say “how do you know the Middle East is going crazy? When Beirut is the safest place there!”. Has that changed your jokes and shows?

I know the rest of the Middle East is going crazy when Lebanon is the most peaceful place in the region. A lot of times, it’s just what really hits me, like for example, I had a Syrian ask me, why don’t you do jokes about Syria. I said, well, I’ve never been to Syria. I don’t sit down and say, I have to write a joke about this topic. If it comes to me, it makes me laugh, then I do it. In light of the situation, I joke about learning to talk Arabic, and I say, if you just say the words you do know and throw in some food in the middle, people will think you speak it. Like, “Yalla, shawarma, yalla yalla, wallahi!” So, I was saying yalla, yalla, hurry, hurry, but you are always late. And Salam Alaykom, which is “may peace be upon you”, and then you go outside and start a war. So, no one is listening to anybody, and it’s a joke Arabs have laughed at.

It’s just about figuring out a light way to say it. I never make fun of the victims or people who are refugees. I think one of the jobs of comedy is to make fun of those in power, not those who don’t have power.

Are you a geek? We were talking about Star Wars earlier, so I had to ask!

I’ll be honest with you, I think I was a bit of a geek when I was younger. I was a big fan of comedy too, that’s why I ended up being a comedian. I don’t have the patience or maybe just lost interest in video games, so not anymore. I loved Star Wars, but didn’t really like the prequels, but when I saw the new trailer, I said, hey maybe I’ll go see the new one. I got excited. My son is 6 now, and I’m kinda waiting for the right age to watch Star Wars with him.

You don’t really distinguish between Persian and Arab, and focus on the Middle East being one kind of “front”. Is that true, and why?

I do, I always make jokes about how Arabs and Persians are different. The problem is that the US is so isolated, that if you don’t open your eyes, if you don’t travel, you’d think everyone’s the same. I used to joke about that, on how my US passport it says “born in Iran” and I’d joke about how some Arab countries like Kuwait don’t get along, and I’d get asked all these questions. Some Arab countries don’t even get along with each other, and I say, the whole area is not one country. I hear people say “just bomb the whole goddamn region”, and you go, “but they’re different countries, which are probably enemies”. Like the Bush administration going into Iraq, where a Sunni minority, was ruling a Shiite majority, and they expected to be greeted with flowers and once you remove the dictator, everyone would just get along (not that the dictator was any good!). But it’s this level of ignorance that is unbelievable. I remember when they were looking for Bin Laden, they asked a bunch of senators if Bin Laden was Shiite or Sunni, and they didn’t know!”

Lebanon has always been known for its free speech and liberal ideals, but recently, a crackdown on free speech and increased censorship is hurting that. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I’m really bothered by censorship. I think people should be allowed to say what they wanna say. I think there’s some of that going on the in the US as well. I think social media has made it so that if somebody is offended at all, they make a big deal out of it. If you have to limit your thoughts and ideas because you might offend somebody, I think a lot of artistic ideas would be pulled back and that’s bad. On the other side, I’m not with saying things just to provoke. With social media, everyone has a platform. Like, just to say something racist.

I hope Lebanon doesn’t go that way. I think it’s all political and they’re looking for excuses. I think it’s easier for me from the outside to say “just do your thing and don’t worry about it”, but ultimately, those who are trying to stop people from saying what they wanna say, is that we live in an information age. So, no matter what you say, whether you’re in China or Iran or Saudi Arabia or wherever, and you’re trying to block people from hearing or seeing things, hey man, it’s just one click away. It’s almost futile, a futile effort to stop people from saying what they wanna say. And I think a lot of regimes are realizing that young people wanna say what they wanna say, they want their freedom of speech, and the laws need to be fair.

I think the West has progressed a lot more than countries here in that aspect. In the US, I can go up on TV and make fun of the president. There are many countries here where I can’t make fun of the leadership. But that shows you the security of the system, cause the president of the US knows he’s not gonna be overthrown by my joke, whereas in some countries, they feel if you disrespect the leader, others might disrespect the leader and threaten the leadership. But, hey, if you’re secure in your leadership, and you’re fair, you shouldn’t worry about what people say.

I hope that freedom of speech progresses in the region. Online it will, it’s unstoppable. No matter how closed off the regime is, people know what’s going on.

One of the hardest things in comedy is knowing when it’s ok to joke about something, especially something tragic. How do you gauge that?

I’ve seen comedians do jokes about tragedies the same day, especially now with social media. I personally try to be very conscious of not making fun of any victims in any way. If a war were to break out, or like the cop killing in St Louis, I wouldn’t find myself making fun of Michael Brown. But, if the police chief says something ridiculous, you can make fun of that. The incident is so tragic, but you can make fun of something that was said that needs to be ridiculed.

This girl in Kuwait tweeted me after a joke I did after Boston bombing, how my first thought was, my heart goes out to all the victims, but how my second thought was, please don’t be Middle Eastern… Don’t be one of us. So, this girl in Kuwait thought it was offensive because people died, and I tried to explain in the 140 characters that I disagree, or else there’d be no comedy. It’s about making fun of the hypocritical things that come out of tragedy.

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Maz was awesome. He was a lot fun to be around, very knowledgeable about the world’s current affairs and very passionate about what he does. He’s starring in new feature film that will be released in 2015, and is releasing his book “I am not a Terrorist, but I’ve Played One on TV” in February.

10 Gorgeous Johnnie Walker Fire Graffiti for Lebanon

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So, I’m sure you all saw a photo or two on your newsfeeds, or on a billboard or LED screen somewhere in Beirut. I was lucky enough to be asked by the brilliant guys and gals behind the campaign to stand in the shot of my quote, and it was quite the experience.

There’s no photoshop. Just a really talented fire artist who can pull off each shot impeccably in mere minutes and just a handful of takes! I really love mine, and it was sorta nice to see my weird, alien/ghost self on a Karantina rooftop on billboards all over town and magazines. So, I thought I’d share the making-of hyperlapse video, and a few photos that I really liked. Check out the rest here and on the #KeepWalkingLebanon hashtag

 

Christmas Series: Beirut Chants Till December 23rd! And its Free

I love Classical music. Whether it’s one musician, a quartet, a choir a whole orchestra or all of the above. Christmas is an especially magical time for such performances in Beirut’s many, many historic churches.

For 7 years now, Beirut Chants has been bringing to life these churches with local and international acts of all kinds: choral, sacred music, chamber and philharmonic orchestra performances and appearances by international soloists.

It already started on December 1st, but will continue till the 23rd.

You can check out their complete schedule here. Also, I’ve taken the liberty of selecting a handful I think will be really worth your while:

Friday December 12

The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, at St Georges Maronite Cathedral in Downtown Beirut. I love the LPO, and their weekly performances in a church near USJ right off Monot Street. This is one Beirut Chant night I definitely will not miss. 8:00PM

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Monday December 15

Vadym Kholodenko in St Louis Capuchin Church (the one with the tall steeple everyone photographs with the mosque minarets in Downtown, right next to the Saraya). Kholodenko is the 2013 Gold Medalist of the Cliburn International Piano Competition. So, if you’re a fan of a grand piano on the altar of a gorgeous old church, then it’s a no-brainer. 8:00PM

Tuesday December 16

The 40-member Fayha Choir from Tripoli and its suburbs will be in the St. Elie Church in Kantari on Tuesday. It’s a beautiful sight and experience, from an amazing city with an unfairly tarnished reputation. You might know them from the Arabs Got Talent show too. So, if you’re into choirs, Kantari is where you wanna be on Tuesday at 8:00PM

Al Fayha' ChoirFriday December 19

The LPO joins forces with the choirs of the National Conservatory, the Antonine University & NDU and Soprano Felicitas Fuchs. This is one of the grandest Christmas concerts of the lineup, and if you miss the 12 December one, you aren’t allowed to miss this one. Starts at 8:00PM in the St Joseph Church in Monot.

There are plenty of other dates and musicians, including several children’s choirs and soloists. I just picked a handful that I’d like to go to myself.

Check the Beirut Chants Facebook page for more information!

6 Awesome Calligraffiti Pieces in Tripoli by Hayat Chaaban

Hayat Chaaban is a young street artist from Tripoli who I had the fortune of meeting during my latest visit to Tripoli. In a city damaged with the scars of conflict, crumbling under the weight of neglect and suffocating amid the posters of politicians that disfigure its charm, Hayat’s work lifts its spirits up just a little bit, while preserving its Arab culture and heritage.

Here are a few pieces I chose, and some captions underneath them translated from what Hayat has told me about them.

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ما أضيق العيش  لولا فسحة الفن 

which roughly translates to: “How cramped is living if it were not for a space for art”

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unnamed-2After her previous piece, the local sheikh of a nearby mosque asked Hayat if “she could do something about the abandoned building facing it.” The above is the result.

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“تحديت الموت وانبعثت من الرماد ” مكتبة السائح  هيك قالتلي

This piece is my absolute favorite of hers so far. It roughly translates to: “I faced death, and rose up from the ashes”. It was done near the door of Father Ibrahim Sarrouj’s iconic “Al Saeh Library”, which extremist islamist torched after several unsuccessful attempts and tried to kill Sarrouj’s assistant with a silencer-equipped gun…

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كن بلسماً إن صار دهرك أرقما, وحلاوة إن صار غيرك علقما
أيقظ شعورك بالمحبة إن غفا لولا الشعور الناس كانوا كالدمى

كنت عم إقرأ قصيده “إيليا أبو ماضي” كن بلسماً” وخطر ع بالي أبونا سروج، وشو صار ب مكتبة السائح. حبيت إترك ذكرة حلوه… شرحتلو فكرة الرسمة و حبها كتير

 علمنا أبونا نكون مسالمين مع يلي بيأزي، كلنا سبينا وما تركنا كلمه ع يلي حرقوا المكتبه، وأبونا كان الوحيد يلي ما قال كلمه سيئة، وأخر بيت الن, عالم بلا ضمير ,بلا شعور وبلا شي، مجرد دمى يتحكم فيها الجهل

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ويل لأمة  تكثر فيها  العقائد وتخلو من الدين – جبران خليل جبران 
على حيط مدرسة  في أبوسمرا
It’s a famous Gibran Khalil Gibran quote which roughly translates to: Woe upon a nation where ideologies are many, but religion is absent
Follow Hayat on Twitter

 

 

VEA: A Better Use for Old Tires in Lebanon [Hint: NOT Burning Them]

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The image above is almost an icon for Lebanon in recent history. Existential crisis? World Ward? Fight with your neighbor? Pissed Barca lost to Real? Let’s burn a tire! And even though I never really got the point or effectiveness of this act, I’ve come to terms with the fact Lebanese folks from all sects and walks of life will resort to this unhealthy, ugly and environmentally irresponsible act.

But, the guys at Vea Wear have decided to find something more useful and environmentally friendly: making designer items with old tire rubber. Jewel-encrusted clutches, duffle-bags, wallets and earrings among many other things you can find on their page. I’d think of getting myself a wallet if Najib hadn’t already bought me an awesome one already as a gift.

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It’s not just tire rubber btw, I’m sure all you Jack Daniels fans will love the soap dispenser they put together, and for all you vintage film buffs, their film candle handles.

The official launch is on the 8th of November at Beirut Souks, but I won’t be able to attend. So, lemme know how it goes!

30 Photos of an Abandoned Theme Park in Lebanon

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I love abandoned places. Most times, the tenants leave at a moment’s notice, so, it sort of freezes in time as nature reclaims it and it begins to crumble. This theme park hasn’t been abandoned too long, I believe 2-3 years ago. So, many of you might have memories of going there as children. It’s located near Hammanah, right off the Dahr El Baydar highway towards Mtein.

26 Ways Living in Lebanon Can Kill You: A – Arguileh

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First in a series by Noura Andrea Nassar titled “26 Ways Living in Lebanon Can Kill You”

Noura is a good friend, and I am a huge fan of her work. Her witty doodles always pack a good punch. You can find some she’s done for the blog here. Over the past few weeks though, her new series titled “26 Ways Living in Lebanon Can Kill You” has been especially good. Good enough for each to warrant a blog post in my honest opinion, so, today we’re starting with the letter “A” for Arguileh.

Law 174 banning smoking in indoor public spaces in Lebanon has all but died. Every venue has magically become classified as “outdoor” for some reason, despite having the stuff that usually characterize a place as “indoor”, you know, like a roof and walls and stuff. The only aspect of the law that is actually working, is that tobacco ads and sponsorships have completely stopped (meaning the money the tobacco companies used to pump into the market is gone, but their harmful effect is still ever-present almost everywhere).

Here’s an excerpt from a post on Arguileh smoking I wrote earlier this year:

1- 1 Hour Arguileh = 100-200 Cigarettes Smoke

The volume of smoke you get into your lungs during one hour of arguileh, is equal to the volume to anywhere between a hundred or two hundred cigarettes… So, just in terms of sheer amount and volume, you’re already in deep trouble if you’re smoking arguilehs…

2- 25 Times the Tar and 10 Times the CO

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3- Disease Transmission

Most arguileh smokers don’t own one themselves, and just rent it out at cafes or restaurants, or even have them delivered to their homes (a rising fad in Lebanon). This means that dozens, hundreds if not thousands of people will use the same smoking instrument. Usually, we add that little piece of plastic on the tip to be “hygienic” ( yes, I realize how this might come off as a euphemism to condom use). But, the tube itself is rarely, if ever cleaned, making respiratory diseases such as Tuberculosis fairly easily transmittable, and a friend in AUB was diagnosed with TB after a hookah session.

So, if the health hazards aren’t enough, then let your germophobe side convince you to stop.

Visit Beirut’s Newly Paint Up-ed Staircase!

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It’s the 7th time the Dizhayners have organized a Paint Up project in Beirut that transforms one of the city’s iconic, deteriorating staircases into an urban art masterpiece. The events are always fun, with volunteers from all over Lebanon joining in to finish the monumental task in just 6 hours.

This time though, Chad the Mad (Chady Abousleiman), one of my favorite street artists in Beirut, collaborated with them and added his awesome signature, surreal touch to the middle-section of the stairs. Meaning, it’s even more awesome than the other staircases we all love and know around Beirut, like the one in Mar Mikhail most Lebanese people have a profile picture or two on.

But, the staircase is supposed to undergo much-needed renovations “soon” (which hopefully isn’t anytime soon given the Lebanese government’s track record), and with other staircases being threatened by the monstrosity that is the Fouad Boutros Highway, these amazing, world-renowned stairs are a very endangered species.

So, make the most of them while we still have them, and participate in the next Paint Up event to help preserve these rare pedestrian lifelines in a city choked with useless, absurdly-priced cement skyscrapers with sidewalks that are not wheelchair-accessible and often serve as a parking spot instead of a safe pedestrian path.

The Azariyeh stairs are located here, and below is a screenshot of their location (the space-age looking thing on the right is ABC Ashrafieh for reference)

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Artist Saint Hoax is Lebanese! (CORRECTION: SYRIAN)

After more intel gathered, I apologize for the mistake. Saint Hoax is actually a Syrian, living in Lebanon. Sorry for the mix-up, but I’m sure we’re all as excited and proud!
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A series of shocking posters went viral online over the past couple of weeks. They featured Disney princesses like Ariel, Jasmine and Cinderella either beaten up Rihanna-style, or locked in a forceful embrace and kiss with their dads.

The point was to shift attention to the shocking numbers around sexual abuse, incest and rape around the world. 46% of minors who are raped are attacked by family members.

The posters are very powerful, in that they take the warped, often misogynistic portrayal of princesses in Disney movies, and makes it super-blunt instead of the subliminal messages that people usually attribute to these animated fairy tales.

I’ve confirmed that Saint Hoax is definitely Lebanese, but I won’t disclose any further information to respect the artist’s choice to remain anonymous. So, Saint Hoax, we are proud of you!

Check out the Saint Hoax Facebook page for a lot more epic pop-culture edits

Green Glass Recycling Initiative for Lebanon: Awesome, Affordable and Necessary

Every year, Lebanon goes through 71 million glass bottles of wine, beer and other beverages. Before the 2006 war, those bottles used to be gathered up and recycled in Lebanon’s only green glass factory. It was a tiny, yet important initiative in an otherwise environmentally oblivious Lebanon.

But, in 2006, IDF jets bombed the factory, and it was never rebuilt. That means 568 million glass bottles litter our landfills. These bottles take forever to degrade, and they’re a major fire hazard (as you all know sunlight + glass = bad, bad news for what’s left of our green areas in Lebanon).

However, the guys and gals behind Green Glass Recycling Initiative for Lebanon (GGRIL) have come up with a brilliant solution, and it looks very pretty too.

The ancient art of glass blowing was mastered by the Phoenicians, but today, the ancient craft is almost extinct, and one of the only places it still happens in Lebanon is in the town of Sarafand. GGRIL teamed up with the artisans there, and made sure they supply the artisans with the raw material they need: the glass bottles. In turn, the artisans transform them into wonderful products, from furniture to vases, bottles and glasses.

During the Beirut Design Week, Dina and I went to Plan BEY, and checked out the awesome products, and we ended up buying four glasses and a gorgeous bottle, for just 20USD. The glasses are gorgeous. They’re green and have the bubbles and imperfections that make it obvious they were hand-made, glass-blown individually. They were made by Lebanese artisans, using products that would have otherwise just helped fill our landfills. They’re also aesthetically unique, with every vase and glass and bottle different, since it’s not just one mold you pour stuff into.

Anyway, I really loved the GGRIL idea, and I think it’s going to be a regular gift choice for me from now on. Best part is, even the cool packaging is made from recycled paper in Lebanon. It creates jobs, affordable quality products, and helps recycle the gargantuan amount of waste Lebanon produces. Win, win, win.

Check out some photos, and don’t forget to check out their Facebook page here.