Monday, February 23, 2009

The Cairo Blast

First of all, I was nowhere near the blast.  Everything I know comes from what I've been able to glean from the BBC and Al-Jazeera, so I'm not going to pretend to have any additional information that cannot be obtained from the media.  The available information is scant.

A bunch of us were out in another part of Cairo, also very popular with tourists, when one of us got a text from someone in London saying "heard about what happened, hope you're all okay."  It was the first we'd heard of anything happening.  After ascertaining what had happened with several more text messages, what surprised me the most was how blasé everyone seemed to be.  We noticed absolutely no increased security presence in the city, despite the fact that we were in an area densely populated with embassies, and we were sitting in a restaurant packed with tourists. For our part, aside from briefly exchanging theories about what had happened, who had perpetrated it and why, it was just another dinner out with friends.  Is this a function of growing up in the Mideast my whole life?  Was it because, in the grand scheme of things - between Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan... - this seemed minor (though this will come as no consolation to the victims and their families).  How desensitised are we becoming to these things?

Most information we have so far:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

BBC tackles Cairo Traffic

It's almost cute how indignant Christian Fraser seems to be over the traffic in this BBC report.  What's that?  Cars don't stop at a pedestrian crossing?  Oh mon Dieu!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Requiem for Saab

As the economic crises in which we are currently mired gradually worsened, one thought occurred to me: "what about Saab?!"*.  As the much larger mainstream automakers struggled to stay afloat, I knew the outlook for Saab looked grim.  The quirky little Swedish company always, inexplicably, played second-fiddle to its better-known compatriot competitor, Volvo, despite the fact that Saabs looked and performed better than the boring, boxy soccer-mom mobiles.  Saab was never a car with broad-based appeal.  Instead, the company relied on a small but passionate cadre of loyal followers.  I was one of them.

It was hardly love at first sight.  My first encounter with a Saab occurred when I was 9.  I had just arrived in Kuwait from Canada, and my father picked my mother, brother, and me up in an odd looking charcoal-grey hatchback.  "What kind of car is this?" I asked.  "It's a Saab, it's Swedish," came my dad's response.  I was unimpressed, and with good cause.  There seemed little to endear me to this odd and unconventional car, a 1988 Saab 9000i.  For starters, it was already 4 years old when I arrived in 1992, and the harsh Kuwaiti heat had not been kind to this Scandinavian car which was likely never intended for 50+ degree Celsius temperatures.  The roof lining was sagging because the glue holding it up had hardened, and the dashboard was beginning to crack.  The glove box was filled with screws and bolts which my dad had decided were "extras" after taking apart various parts of the car to repair himself (only the notoriously expensive Saab dealer was willing to touch the car to do repairs otherwise).  Perhaps most troublingly though, the family's quirky little Saab 9000 was different, and for a 9 year old desperately seeking social conformity, "different" equalled "bad."

Slowly but steadily, though, I began to see our Saab in a different light.  In its own junkyard dog kind of way, it was scruffy but lovable.  It was rough around the edges, no purebred Pomeranian, but rather a mutt with personality.  The more I learned about Saabs - their attention to ergonomics, the company's aviation past, etc. - the more I grew to appreciate ours. In 1996, time came to bid farewell to this car that I had learned to love.  It was therefore with much excitement that I came across a classified ad for a 1992 Saab 9000 in the newspaper.  We went to see it and found that it too was charcoal grey.  In fact, it was for all intents and purposes, the same car.  Saab had a habit of changing very little about their cars.  As my dad put it, "you can't improve upon perfection."  And it was damned near perfect.  We bought the car right there on the spot.

At this point the Saab had become my mom's car, my dad preferring his oversized boats of American cars.  He and I tried a little experiment. Unbeknownst to her, we switched out the old '88 with the '92 we'd just bought and replaced the keys on the key ring.  It took her a solid two weeks before she realized the difference.  The giveaway?  The old '88 had the hazard lights button on the steering column while the new one had it in the centre of the dash.  That humble little '92 Saab remained my favourite car until I left Kuwait in 2001.  It stayed with my dad for several years after that, my dad taking it out for a spin on weekends, until it came time for our second Saab to go out to greener pastures.    

Yesterday, Saab filed for "reorganization," Sweden's equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  GM had bought a 50% stake in Saab in 1989, seeking to fill a gap in its mid-luxury lineup.  For years it seemed as though Saab dodged the bullet of GM number crunchers who have historically been more interested in the bottom line than in imbuing any of their vehicles anything approaching individual personality. However, GM completed its takeover of Saab in 1999 and, tellingly, Saab has not posted a profit since 2001. 

I often speak of Saab having been my favourite car in the past tense.  Since GM's takeover, all those quirky little lovable attributes which earned Saab its loyal following were gradually phased out in a bid to give Saab mass-market appeal.  It seemed that GM had a similar outlook as my 9-year-old self: different = bad.  As Stephen Pope, chief global strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald, was quoted as saying in this BBC news article, GM "oversaw the destruction of the Swedish car company's soul."  Like Dr. Frankenstein, GM tried patching together parts from its various other brands to produce new Saabs, and the result was always, inevitably, a monster.  There was the Saab 9-3x, derisively called the Saabaru because, with the exception of about nine body panels tacked on to make it vaguely resemble a Saab, the car was for all intents and purposes a Subaru Impreza, a great car no doubt, but not a Saab by any stretch.  Perhaps even more catastrophic was the Saab 9-7x SUV, in actual fact just a Chevy Trailblazer in disguise.  It didn't fool many people though as I have to this day yet to see a single one on the street.

All of this fiddling meant that Saab purists gradually dropped out.  Meanwhile GM's attempts to capture greater market share with those who had perhaps never previously even heard of Saab failed.  No one was left to buy these once noble if not a little unusual cars.  It seems as though Saab and GM tired of each other as well.  GM wants to make Saab into an independent company by 2010, euphemism for wanting to shed the loss-making company.  For its part, becoming independent of GM is a core pillar of Saab's "reorganization" program proposed to the Swedish government, a tacit acknowledgement that, after dating for 10 years and being married for another 10, the marriage between Saab and GM just hasn't worked out.

In the current economic climate, the outlook for humble Saab looks bleak.  As people's wallets become ever lighter, they will choose tried-and-true over fresh and innovative, that's if they're going to be buying a car at all.  Who knows though, after shedding the dead weight that is GM, perhaps Saab will go back to basics, woo back its faithful followers who felt jilted by its flirtation with GM, and rise, phoenix-like out of the ashes.  For my part, I have yet to give up on my dream of owning a Saab - a real Saab. 

*note reference to the 1991 Bill Murray film "What About Bob?"