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LESSONS FROM LEBANON

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I was watching midday BBC World News on August 4 when the visuals of an explosion were flashed on screen as ‘breaking news’. It was repeated several times with black billowing clouds suddenly engulfed and obliterated by a mushroom shaped huge expanse of white smoke with flames below rising higher. The noise was thunderous. It was the horrendous explosion in Beirut on 3 August.

Then I read the article in the New York Times the next day by Faysal Itani, deputy director at the Center for Global Policy and adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University. He is a Lebanese who worked in the country before migrating to the US. In the article he lays out “the incompetence, negligence and sheer bad luck” that allowed this disaster to happen. Reading it, parallels to Sri Lanka were apparent to me. I quote parts of his article below. Within the quotes you will find interpolations in parentheses reminding you of similar situations/incidents in our country. I point out similarities with fear invading me and hope they will be reduced if not obliterated with a powerful government newly installed. Obvious differences exist, of course, which I do not mention.

Similar to Sri Lanka, Lebanon is a developing emerging country with its economy mainly service-based on tourism, and imports outweighing exports. Oil and gas exploration were intensified in 2020. Very importantly a significant similarity exists that both countries have recently emerged from internal strife – our 28-year civil war and Lebanon’s multi-faceted civil strife from 1975 to 1990. This weakened institutions and the rule of law in both countries, compounded by simmering racial and religious tensions. Lebanon’s geopolitical position causes it to face more problems than us.

Consequences of explosion and

other disasters

Itani asks the pertinent question in the title of his article: “Why Did Lebanon Let a Bomb-in-Waiting Sit in a Warehouse for Six Years?” He replies his own question: “Yesterday’s explosion, which destroyed Beirut’s port, much of the city and countless lives, was the result of business as usual. Ports are prime real estate for political, criminal and militia factions. Multiple security agencies with different levels of competence and different political allegiances control various aspects of their operations.” (Parallel 1: so true about SL. Within the last eight years since the Mahinda Rajapaksa Magampura Port or simply – the Hambantota Harbour – was built, immense problems of debt servicing to the Chinese for the massive construction with no ships docking, resulted in leasing it out by the Yahapalanaya government. This was heavily criticized by the Rajapaksa faction. Now- what? Even the need to lease out parts of the Colombo Port are being fiercely protested. Recently a strong protest was mounted by port workers. We have hopes that under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa some sensible arrangements will ensue).

Writes Itani: “By all appearances the port disaster did not involve the usual suspects — Hezbollah, Israel, jihadist terrorism or the government of neighboring Syria. The truth seems to be both duller and more disturbing: decades of rot at every level of Lebanon’s institutions.” (Parallel 2: loss of confidence in our governments and slow destruction of systems such as rule of law. A much lauded attempt of correction of course was attempted with much approval and cheering in 2015 which failed abysmally, mostly due to clash of leading personalities. Corruption at all levels increased through the years. We too suffered jihadist terrorism last year).

“So far, Lebanese officials are in agreement about what happened, though it’s likely that more than one ‘official’ account will emerge. After all, this is Lebanon, a country deeply divided by politics, religion and history. But here is what we know as of now: some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate unloaded from a disabled vessel in 2014 had been stored in a port warehouse. Then yesterday, a welding accident ignited nearby fireworks — which caused the ammonium nitrate to explode” (Parallel 3: Loads of imported garbage lie in the port of Colombo and elsewhere expecting ‘return to sending country’. No action so far! Waiting for a blowup or polluting dispersal in the sea? Also that comment on being deeply divided is so true of our population by politics, race and religion, with power grabbed by the yellow robed and the latest hoisting of the idea of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy).

Further itemization of mismanagement in Lebanon by Itani goes thus: “And recruitment in the civilian bureaucracy is dictated by political or sectarian quotas. There is a pervasive culture of negligence, petty corruption and blame-shifting endemic to the Lebanese bureaucracy, all overseen by a political class defined by its incompetence and contempt for the public good.” (Parallel 4: Our public service is bursting at the seams due to recruitment of persons promoted by politicians. Hardly manageable in salary payments. Corruption, mismanagement, interference by politicians all across Sri Lankan systems, is pandemic. These are huge blots in the nation’s fabric, all too well seen but not remedied. Hope springs in optimistic hearts that the new government will curb its members and they will be made to work hard for the good of the country which is in a dire state due to previous political pests).

“The catastrophe, while exceptionally severe, is the result of business as usual in Lebanon.” (Parallel 5: The suicide bomb blasts of Easter Sunday 2019 by Muslim fanatics seems to be a result of ‘business as usual’ – going easy, taking things trivially, infighting and then passing the buck of blame. In spite of expressed apprehension and reliable warning, the non-cooperation of the then President and PM and thus lack of alertness on the part of others, innocents were killed; though it was preventable. Irresponsibility was starkly evident. President Gotabaya has sought help from the armed forces and given them high posts in the bureaucracy. Vice and terror are being eradicated. We hope it ends in security for all).

Itani also mentions disasters caused by failures in public services and a garbage crisis and environmental catastrophes. (Here is Parallel 6: a severe garbage crisis opened the eyes of Sri Lankans to haphazard dumping of solid waste when a mountain of dumped rubbish descended to cause many deaths in Meetotamulla. The garbage crisis is not solved as yet. Marine pollution goes on apace. It is mentioned that the Cabinet will be small – 26 to 30. That would surely have a single minister in charge of environmental issues and of forests, wild life, nature reserves et al so that both elephants and villagers could be spared death an injury and deforestation stemmed. The much prevalent passing the buck and top bureaucrats not making decisions MUST cease forthwith)

In Lebanon “The consequences of yesterday’s explosion will be even more serious than the immediate casualties and property damage. The main grain silo, which holds 85% of the country’s cereals, was destroyed. Even more, the port will no longer be able to receive goods. Lebanon imports 80% of what it consumes, including 90% of its staple wheat. (Our case is much less dire; we are to an extent self sufficient in rice and many imports are being banned – very good! But we have a fertilizer problem fermenting; agriculture and our farmers are not given due government attention nor are their grievances looked into and alleviation attempted. We hope, as promised, the new government will redress the issues faced by agriculture in this land and farmers helped).

Faysal Itani ends his article querying: “Will there be a revolution? An uprising of anger? … Yet there has never been more urgency for reform and accountability, beyond the likely scapegoating of mid-level officials. It is difficult to imagine such a concerted, sustained national movement because it has never materialized. But hunger and a collapse in health care may change that.  Yesterday’s explosion made clear that Lebanon is no longer a country where decent people can live secure and fulfilling lives.” The protests have already ignited in Lebanon. (Problem 7 with solution: Very relevant. Our country needs severe improvement; a creasing out of corruption and nepotism; a vast reduction in the perception of unlimited power believed in by politicians and Cabinet Ministers that has been exhibited in previous years. We have examples to look back to of the immediate years after independence when politicians acted as they should. Our hope is that the President, who is a disciplined person, will curb Ministers. The Prime Minister needs to be just and controlling too. Government servants must work honestly and there must not be undue influence on them by politicians. We are too tame a population to mass protest or rise up all together in anger. We earnestly hope that a just government will manage the country well and corruption will be wiped out. It can be done, and must be. All officials and politicians must work for the country and its people, not for a Party, family or themselves.

 



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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