Stories from Afar & Up Close

Have you heard the plane?

Today, I was reminded of this story: It was the summer of 2001 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Yoweri Museveni had just been re-elected president of the republic, for the 4th time, and I was lucky enough to be present for the inaugural festivities. On an old airstrip, a rectangular empty space somewhere in the city, a stage was set up for the dignitaries: many leaders of African states, European ambassadors, several princes from Zimbabwe – even Muammar al Qadhafi came to present his well-wishes. On the rest of the field the ordinary Ugandans had gathered to watch the show, and I had joined them. I might very well have been the only white person among them. First there were speeches. Then more speeches. From where I was on the field, the stage was hardly visible, and most people were busier eating, drinking, making music and dancing than they were listening to the VIPs blabbering on stage. They had come for one thing, and one thing only: the air-show. It had been announced that the Ugandan air force would give acte de présence with the fastest machines of their fleet. And indeed, when the speeches were finally done and the formalities concluded, the sky began to rumble.

First there was one jet. Then another. They flew in opposite directions, leaving streaks of white clouds against the blue sky. They turned, quickly, roaring and thundering low over the people’s heads… An old man next to me was staring with his mouth opened wide. After a grand total of 6 rounds over the audience, the planes took off. The old man turned, took my hand and shook it wildly. With a look of pride in his eyes he said: 'now THAT’S technology!'


This Saturday, November 22nd, it is Independence Day in Lebanon. This means that Downtown is already partly blocked off in order to clean it of bombs because many politicians eligible for explosion will be gathered there for the military parade. It also means that the entire air fleet of the Lebanese military has been flying over Beirut the past few days: all 14 helicopters (8 big ones, 6 small ones) and no less than two Hawker Hunters.

Those Hawker Hunters are no joke. They were produced in the 1950s and purchased by the Lebanese president in 1958, only to be used a few times before rusting away or being sold to a museum. However, it seems that two of them have had a thorough check up and will be performing on Independence Day, for which they are currently practicing. The noise is unmistakable, rumbling like a coughing old man. My friends keep asking ‘have you heard the plane?’, proud like the old man in Uganda, because normally we hear nothing but the thundering noise of Israeli jets – usually the only jets in the Lebanese airspace. However, they often follow the question with ‘I hope it won’t try to break the sound-barrier, because it will probably break down into a thousand pieces if it does’. Apparently they don’t quite share the old man’s faith in technology. Either way, I wish everyone a happy Independence Day!