Saturday, May 31, 2008

A big farewell

My father-in-law's funeral is now over after four long and tiring and emotional days. I'm writing this sitting in the Emirates lounge in Dubai on my way to a consulting engagement in Johannesburg that I was supposed to start last week.

On Tuesday the family received condolences at home. Most of the visitors were relatives and close friends so it was quite comforting to receive them. The day was complicated only by the jet lag (we arrived in Beirut after 26 hours of travelling at 4 am and people started coming by around 10 am) and the fact that we had nothing to wear since Etihad had decided not to transfer our luggage in Abu Dhabi (to be the subject of another post I promise you).

Wednesday was the service and burial which took place at one of the churches in the family's home village (now a Beirut suburb) which fittingly we visited last October and which my father-in-law was instrumental in restoring after the civil war. The service led by the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut was conducted in Arabic so I didn't understand any of it, but I found it beautiful nonetheless.

Here's a photo I took of the church on that visit last October not knowing we'd soon be back there under such sad circumstances.

Viewing the body was harrowing but necessary to help us accept that he really is gone and burying my father-in-law alongside his parents in the family crypt was very emotional. So this was definitely the hardest day.

On Thursday the family continued receiving condolences in the salon attached to the church. The process consisted of us sitting in this large room from 10 am to 7 pm, standing to receive visitors and shaking their hands or kissing them on the cheeks (three times).

The visitors would then sit for some period of time (I'm sure the duration of their stay was carefully calculated according to some protocol but I didn't manage to figure out the algorithm) before repeating the process on their way out. This is quite a Middle Eastern thing to do. You'll often see photos of Arab political meetings where everyone is sitting around a room like this.

The process was repeated on Friday in a downtown location where fewer family and more political leaders visited. So I've now shaken the hands and kissed the cheeks of a sufficient proportion of Beirut's residents that I feel ready to run for a seat in the Lebanese parliament.

I always knew that my father-in-law was a man of some prominence in Beirut but I hadn't really appreciated how widely he was known and respected in the local community and in political and business circles.

I also knew that he'd maintained good relations with the Shiite community which is notable enough in a country renown for sectarian strife, but they really went out of their way to pay him respect; hanging banners farewelling him in the street; Shiite leaders coming to pay their condolences; and the overwhelmingly Shiite residents lining the streets and the Shiite shopkeepers closing their stores as the coffin was carried from the church to the cemetery.

Monday, May 26, 2008

One wedding and a funeral

On Saturday we attended the wedding of my cousin Kirralee (“Lil”) held on the beach at Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. The weather was perfect for an outdoor wedding and it was a great opportunity to catch up with my parents and brother, some of my uncles and aunts and my New Zealand-based cousins. I like to think of myself as a fairly practical person but I like the big rituals; they generally emphasise the very best in human nature.

Unfortunately towards the end of the reception I received one of those phone calls that everyone dreads–news that my father-in-law Youssef Matta had suffered a heart attack and with no warning and no reprieve was taken from us. Telling my wife that she had lost her beloved father was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Now we’re making the long journey with heavy hearts from Brisbane to Beirut for the funeral.

In the twenty plus years I knew him my initial feelings of intimidation became love, and for my wife, to whom family is everything, he was a central figure in her life. Fortunately we had the opportunity to spend a week with him in Beirut in October last year and my wife visited him again in January.

As sad as I feel, the hardest part of this is knowing how deeply my darling wife Marie feels the loss and being able to do nothing to ease her suffering apart from simply being there. We have a difficult process to go through in the next few days with the funeral and associated Middle Eastern mourning rituals. Then, as they say, life goes on. But when you lose a loved one it will never be quite the same.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Return to Manila

This week we went to Manila in the Philippines where I had my first overseas job in late 1999, supposedly for ten weeks but I ended up having a series of contracts there throughout 2000 and 2001.

That was just the beginning of our continuing international adventure, but regular readers will know that we get back Brisbane frequently. In fact my Mum once told me she sees me more now that I live overseas than when I lived in Australia.

My last visit to Manila was in late 2003 (by which time we were living in Singapore) so I was interested to see if anything had changed in five years. The verdict? Not much. The traffic still makes getting around a nightmare; the air is still very smoggy; the hot and humid weather was a useful reminder of why I love Steamboat’s cool, dry climate so much; and corrupt oligarchs (think Russia without the oil) are still trying to run the country into the ground.

But the good things – the wonderful optimism and joie de vivre of the Filipino people – haven’t changed either. Not to mention the world’s juiciest but least stringy mangoes available almost year round for a pittance.

I’m not sure I’d want to spend a whole lot of time there again (and Marie is sure that she wouldn’t, so that settles that), especially when there are still so many other places waiting to be experienced, but I was reminded of why I enjoyed the experience so much the first time round.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Yesterday we visited my sister who lives in Springbrook, right in the rainforest about 50 metres from the National Park.

After lunch and coffee (and cake), my nephew Julian and I decided to walk the Twin Falls circuit, although with my young and fit nephew it was more like a forced march than a walk; the National Parks' information says allow two hours but we did it in 57 minutes, including the additional 750 metres from the end of the trail back to my sister's house.

The walk starts at the top of an escarpment where there are sweeping views of the Gold Coast.

The first part goes along the top of these cliffs.

But the best part comes after you've descended to the bottom of the cliffs where the path passes through the fissures in the rocks on the way down. That's my nephew Julian disappearing into the rocks.

Then the walk takes you through a lush rainforest past and behind two waterfalls (hence the name Twin Falls).

Here's the track from the GPS unit.

I would highly recommend it, but please note the warning from the National Parks' website:

DANGER: Sheer cliffs and waterfalls. One slip could be fatal — serious injury or death may result from walking near the edge. Keep to the track. Supervise children closely.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Music download

I made my first online music purchase yesterday. Two things came together to make this possible.

First, online music stores (like Amazon, which is the one I used) are now providing music in the non-proprietary MP3 format.

Second, they are now making online music available without DRM (Digital Rights Management), an evil scheme designed to hobble your listening and dreamed up by the devil himself (with a little help from his minions in the major music labels).

I've been waiting for these developments because in a field where technology is still developing it seems crazy to me to be spending money on music in ways that lock you in to a particular vendor (e.g. Apple or Microsoft) or a particular device thus preventing you from later on using music on devices that haven't yet been invented and in ways that haven't even been imagined.

So I'm happy now, because my wife will often buy a CD just to get one song she likes. It's so much better to be able to pay 99 cents and download just the song she's after.