A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for February, 2007

Beirut by any other name: beer pong debates in Lebanon?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 28, 2007

Last night I saw The Queen with Charles (who wrote about our fellow movie goers at Chou – infijar?). I tend to drag my feet at going to the cinema but the film was quite good. Charles proved to be a very amiable cinema companion, although he did insist on our finding “our” seats, despite the almost total emptiness of the theatre. I understood, though – I like to be anchored, too.

The best part of the Tuesday movie night might have been the walk home. We walked west on “Charles’s street”, Avenue Charles Malik, whose other name, Hikmeh (Wisdom), referenced a character trait that was not our strong suit. Walking through downtown was easy, but getting back to the west side involved several rather undignified fence and guard rail scalings. The city was beautiful by night, though, as it always is. We both deeply regretted our camera-less states.

BEFORE all this, though, I went for drinks in Gemmayze with G – a delightful evening of laughter and wide-ranging conversation. Our talk took a sudden turn from politics to sports, about which I know nothing. I soon learned that the owner of the vodka & seven keeping company with my Ksara rouge was quite an expert in … table tennis.

Wait. Do you mean ping pong? I asked, sitting up in my seat. Fantastic, I thought. Now my darkest, most potentially awkward question about life in Beirut can finally be answered.

Err, I began eloquently. So … you know … I mean … do you … do people … does one … mmm … is beer pong played here at all?

You mean ping pong, but with beer? G asked. How does that work, exactly?

Mmmm, I replied, Its a game of doubles with cups of beer and with funny distinctions made about hitting the rim versus sinking the ball into the cup. Oh, and … there’s a variation, called beirut.

Wikipedia, the current go-to site for relatively accurate first-dip research, has a brief post on beer pong here, although it lists beirut as an alternate name for the same game.

When I was in school, beirut was a slightly different game, involving more cups and no paddles. “Pyramids” of plastic cups half-filled with beer were placed on each side of the net, and players competed by attempting to “sink” the ball into a cup.

Why “beirut”? Because the sinking was like the fall of a missile, or a bomb. Hence the awkwardness: US college students have co-opted the site of a long, brutal, and bloody civil war for Thursday latenights.

I have for a long time wondered whether beirut the game had entered the consciousness of twenty- and thirty-something American raised Lebanese (and also whether they found it funny, or offensive). Wondered, but been too shy to ask until G’s fortuitous table tennis side showed itself.

*** I should note that as a non beer-drinker, beer pong and beirut were games I watched from the sidelines. White Russian or Midori Sour pong would have been more to my sweet-tooth tastes.

Also, things seem to have changed since my college days. Judging from the recent spate of articles in college newspapers and college oriented websites, beirut has become the standard form of beer pong. See for example Beer Pong vs. Beirut, or Naming the Game: Beer Pong or Beirut.


Posted in Americans, beer, Beirut, college, friends, garbage, news, words | 3 Comments »

Self-Esteem in Lebanon: “Are You Unique?”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 28, 2007

I love French English – I love the delightful malapropisms that the deceptive similarities between our two tongues engenders.

I have several French friends who are always proposing to me, because in French, “je te propose” does not mean “will you marry me” but “I suggest”, as in “I suggest we have lunch at Shamiyyat rather than Marrouche today”.

They can also be rather demanding, as “je te demande” in French means “I ask you”, not “I demand of you”.

Perhaps I love Lebanon so much because French English comes so often into play in daily life. Sometimes, though, the linguistic crossover trips me up.

Last spring I was invited for drinks by a friend of a friend. I had met him the previous weekend and he suggested coffee one morning, since my gym was near his office. Rather mysteriously, morning coffee morphed into evening drinks, and I met him at Pacifico that Thursday evening.

We had a lovely time chatting, despite his protestations that “my English is very weak”.

Suddenly, though, he asked a question that threw me utterly into confusion: “little diamond, are you unique?”

I knew what he meant – was I “une enfant unique”, an only child (or “la fille unique”, the only daughter).

I also knew that I had to say no. After all, I do have a sister, and my parents have a dog who believes that he is at least our equal, if not above us in the family hierarchy.

But I grew up in the United States, where, following our customs of good parenting, my parents told my sister and I again and again that we were utterly unique – special and irreplaceable. How I could I say no? How could I deny that I was indeed unique and special?

I choked a little as I said “no”, feeling my self-esteem wither and my inner child start to wail. Noticing my distress, he patted my hand and mumbled something comforting about how complicated family relationships can be.

They can indeed, but in this case the only complication was the tantrum being thrown by my childhood self :-).

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, childhood, family, French, friends, Lebanon, parenting, words | 5 Comments »

speaking as an American

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 26, 2007

I traced Intlxpatr‘s book meme back to her source: the Pearl Lady, whose “about” page includes a delightful little quiz:

What American accent do you have?

Unsurprisingly, I have what the quiz terms a “Midland” accent. We call it a “midwestern accent” in my part of the country – the Midlands are for Britain :-).

On an unrelated note, I am pasting in a photograph I took Saturday morning of the latest of Lebanon’s many billboards. This one is also red, but apparently neither the “I love life” (government) red nor the “I love life in colors” (opposition) red.

Conveniently for my photograph, it is the red of the house behind it and the “no stopping” sign in the foreground.


The billboard is printed in English, not Arabic, and says:

111 for 11

What do the Lebanese really want?

Posted in Americans, Beirut, family, friends, Iowa, Lebanon, photography, women, words | 9 Comments »

Sunday in the mountains with St. Charbel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 26, 2007

Yesterday was still rainy – a cold pelting rain accompanied by biting winds. It would have been a good stay-at-home-and-drink-tea day, but I was invited to join some friends on a trip to Deir Mar Charbel, St. Charbel’s monastery up in Annaya, in the Lebanon mountains.

Once we began climbing up into the mountains, a thick fog joined the rain and wind. It was difficult to see much beyond the car, but happily I am a serene passenger, oblivious to hairpin turns, skidding tires, and dangerously deep puddles. For me the weather only made the monastery and the saint’s hermitage all the more magical.

The rain was coming down too hard for me to stand outside and take photographs of the buildings themselves (even with one of my new and very much appreciated umbrellas!), but I did take a few photographs from various overhangs.



These two above were taken through the iron slats of an open passageway at the hermitage.


This photo I took near the monastery proper – its a guesthouse, or restaurant, or something. The building is nice, but what really struck me were the trees.



Another view near the monastery.


and a misty view into the mountains …

After leaving the monastery we went down to Jounieh and had lunch at a lovely seaside restaurant, where we watched the waves crash wildly into the shore.

Two of us ordered argilehs, which presented a rather unexpected political dilemma when we were given our plastic mouthpieces. My tablemate was given orange – the color of Aoun. Don’t you have other colors? she asked the argileh man. Sorry, he told her.

I was given a choice: orange or … red. I went with the latter – its not often that an American gets the chance to safely try out an affiliation with Communism!

Posted in Americans, Arabic, holidays, Lebanon, photography, religion, tourism, travel, umbrellas, weather | Leave a Comment »

bookish in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2007

My aunt, Intlxpatr, has tagged all her readers with a book meme. In general I am not a fan of tag (I can find plenty to write about on the streets of Beirut, all far more interesting posts than any about my own likes and dislikes), but … I love books. And I love my aunt :-).

Hardback or paperback? For traveling, I prefer paperback. For academic books I wish to keep forever, hardback.

Amazon or bricks and mortar? Amazon’s used book sellers, although I often find good books on Ebay and sometimes even on walmart.com. I use allbookstores.com as my trawler. And yes, in the US I am a major 1/2 Price Books patron. In fact, I stocked up on plane reads at the one in Seattle (“our” store) before I came to Beirut in January. We are all bookish in our family – even my grandmother braved the icy roads (and my driving) to come along in search of her own treasures.

Barnes & Noble or Borders? Mmmm … Amazon, again, although I do like the sales racks at both stores. Barnes & Noble carries Crane’s stationery, and when they have a sale, there are wonderful treasures to be found.

Bookmark or dog-ear? I used to dog-ear, especially books I was presenting or writing on. But usually I bookmark with whatever’s to hand, and often forget to remove the mark when done. My books are littered with airplane tickets and other detritus. (For this reason I have had to stop marking my pages with dollars and other currency notes :-)!)

Alphabetize by author, by title, or random? Hmm. Most of my books are in storage, but I used to have them filed by author, regardless of subject, with a separate section for fiction. Fiction was filed by size – my New York apartment was too small to permit anything more logical.

Keep, throw away, or sell? Fiction: I give my books away, except for a very few (10%? 20%) I keep. If a book involves me to the extent that I cry over it, I keep it. Non-fiction: I keep, even if it is bad. Bad books provide good examples, too.

Keep dust jacket or toss it? I’ve never really considered this before. I think I keep it, unless it has torn.

Read with dust jacket or remove it? Again, I haven’t thought this out consciously. Looking at the books I have here, I would say that I read with it on, and keep it on.

Short story or novel? Novel. Short stories drive me nuts.

Collection or anthology? I choose option 3: the novel. I object to short anything – too much emotional investment for too little return.

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? Where are the questions about Middle East authors …?

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks? I try to stop at chapter breaks, because it makes returning to the book easier.

‘It was a dark and stormy night’ or ‘Once upon a time’? I prefer contemporary fiction, but if the second option is a historical monograph, I choose it.

Buy or borrow? Buy. I only borrow under duress – I worry that I will ruin the book and be ashamed to return it.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation, or browse? All three :-).

Tidy ending or cliffhanger? Is there a third option? I don’t like endings that are too tidy, but I want some resolution.

Morning, afternoon, or night-time reading? Afternoon or night-time. Mornings I am too anxious about being productive to want to read.

Standalone or series? Both.

Favorite series? Hmmm. I don’t have one, so perhaps I prefer standalones after all :-).

Posted in Americans, books, women, words | Leave a Comment »

books around the world, one flight at a time (iv)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2007

Serendipity enters one’s life when one least expects it.

Yesterday I took advantage of a long layover at Heathrow to wander slowly through Borders’ aisles. Many books called my name, but only one found its way into my carry-on bag: Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House.


In the tradition of A Year in Provence and other similar books, The Caliph’s House tells of Shah’s experience relocating to Morocco, buying an old riad in Casablanca, and restoring it – or at least restoring it to inhabitability.

I began reading with the assumption that Shah was a British subject of Indian (Muslim) heritage, based largely on his name (Tahir means “pure” in Arabic) and his wife’s (Rachana, an Indian Hindu name and one, incidentally, shared by one of my favorite college professors.

Soon, however, Shah disclosed that he was Afghani British, not Indian. Hmm, I thought.

He mentioned his father’s regret at having raised his children in a quiet English town rather than in the Hindu Kush, where he had spent his own childhood. Interesting, I thought. Sounds a bit familiar.

Finally, he noted that Morocco held particular fascination for him because his father’s father had moved their after the death of his wife, a Scottish aristocrat known as Bobo. Ahaaaa, I thought. I know who you are!

Tahir Shah is the brother of Saira Shah, whose book The Storyteller’s Daughter started my books around the world posts.

The book was good on its own – a well crafted read and a thoughtful narrative made all the more interesting by the fact that Shah was neither a total newcomer to Morocco nor a complete outsider (he might not be Arab, or Berber, but as a Muslim and a sayyid he is certainly within the community of the faithful).

My reading of The Caliph’s House drew extra richness from all I had learned about the Shahs’ family from The Storyteller’s Daughter. I love literary families – the way individual family members’ memories resonate with one another’s, even when they do not agree. (For example, I think no one should read Edward Said’s Out of Place without also reading his sister Jean Said Makdisi’s Mother, Teta, and Me.)

I read The Caliph’s House all in one gulp, bookended by two venti Starbucks teas, as my layover flew by.

Posted in Afghanistan, Americans, books, home, India, London, Morocco, mosque, religion, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

Beirut up close

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2007

“Close” is one of my favorite adjectives to use when describing the spring and summer morning air in Beirut.

Wordreference.com defines close in many ways; among them is the 15th adjectival use of the word:

stuffy, airless, unaired

lacking fresh air

“the dreadfully close atmosphere”

This morning, the air was close and thick with humidity, admitting no breeze or other breath of air. The air tells me that spring is here, already.

One week’s absence brings surprising changes. The building I pass each morning, which has languished in the early stages of a tear-down for nearly two months, is suddenly gone:


The heart-bomb graffiti I wrote about last week has been white-washed, at least on the building I photographed. The image is still visible, but only as a ghost of its former self.

The I love life campaign continues to provide fodder for more commercial interests:


I do love a good sale, but these take-offs strike me as being in poor taste.

The sea view was equally heavy today, although I found a good spot from which to capture both the water and the corniche:


Posted in Americans, Beirut, Lebanon, media, photography, words | 2 Comments »

Molto Bene: Q8 in Italy

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 21, 2007

Last night my father and I had supper with the Abu Owlfishes (my mother spent the evening trying to corral their unruly suburb into some semblance of order, by outlining a “comprehensive plan” to guide its development for the next decade).

Um Owlfish, who spent the evening sipping Norwegian sparkling water (yes – Norwegian water in Iowa. it was as much as mystery to us as we imagine it must be to the bottlers.), captured our beverage collection with her fountain pen while we lingered over coffee, and has now kindly posted her drawing at Printperson’s Journal.

At one point during a wide-ranging conversation whose topics ranged from water investment funds to rowboat maintenance (perhaps the evening did have a unifying theme: water & other liquids), the Owlfishes mentioned that one of Italy’s major gas station chains is Kuwaiti: Q8 Italia.


I had no idea and, since my command of Italian is really more a command of ancient Latin leavened with modern French, I had to search a bit further afield to find more information on the company. I found it on the website of a company called BEA, a software company (which describes itself a bit more eloquently as a world leader in enterprise infrastructure software, delivering powerful standards-based platforms for building enterprise applications and managing Service-Oriented Architectures even in heterogeneous IT environments. I have no idea what all that means, but I do know what software is.).

BEA developed a “unified integration platform” for Q8 Italia and cites the project as one of its customer case studies, all of which are, happily, written in English.

Its Customer Brief described Q8 Italia as follows:

Kuwait Petroleum International, under its ‘Q8 Sails’ brand, refines and markets fuel, lubricants, and other petroleum derivatives to a diverse customer base across Europe. 

With more than approximately 5,000 retail service stations (around  2,800 of them in Italy) as well as direct sales operations delivering fuel and heating oil to domestic and international users, Q8 is a well known, respected, and trusted supplier and business partner.

Kuwait Petroleum employs more than 7,000 staff worldwide; in Italy the company has more than 700 staff.

What Q8 Italia doesn’t have, according to the Owlfishes, is a pun that works well in Italian.

In English, Q8 sounds a lot like Kuwait: que-eight. In Italian, Abu Owlfish pointed out, Q8 sounds like coo-otto. Not like Kuwait at all!

Posted in Americans, blogging, childhood, family, food, friends, home, Iowa, Italy, Kuwait | 4 Comments »

well begun is half done: Israel’s excavations near the Haram al-Sharif

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 21, 2007

BBC News’ website has posted a series of photographs of the Haram al-Sharif & the Temple Mount, with explanatory captions.

The text accompanying the last photograph made me want to throw up my hands:

Just inside the gate Israeli excavations continue. Plans for the actual repair work have been put off as Israeli officials seek to convince Muslims around the world that no damage is being done to Islamic interest at the site.

There are a few farm-friendly expressions I would like to invoke in response:

Beginning excavating WITHOUT first mounting a PR campaign to explain their purpose and scope to the world’s (or at least Palestine’s) Muslims is like putting the cart before the horse.

Conversely, trying to convince the world’s Muslims that no damage is being done now, after the initial excavations sparked such fear and passion, is like closing the barn door after the horse is gone.

I imagine that the excavations are exactly as described, and that the men and women working on them have carefully and professionally considered ways to excavate and repair without harming the Haram al-Sharif.

What I do not understand is why the Israeli officials in charge did not mount a PR initiative at the outset.

As Mary Poppins said, Well begun is half done.

Poorly begun, on the other hand, is worse than not having done anything at all.

Meanwhile photograph six showed this image:


The caption reads (somehow with a straight face):

Muslim protesters gathered for a peaceful protest on 8 February 2007 at the Dung Gate. Goading them, the orthodox Jewish man on the left demonstrates his belly dancing skills.

That man does not look like he is goading anyone, except into laughter.

Posted in Islam, Israel, neighbors, news, Palestine, politics, religion | 2 Comments »

Travel Lebanon: touring the country in 1965

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 21, 2007

This may come as a surprise, but I love books. I love getting lost in a story, and I love learning from what I read.

While I do not collect old books in the classic sense – first editions, signed copies, etc. – I do collect certain types of old books.

I love old travel guides – seeing the way in which countries I know today were presented for visitors’ consumption 20, 40, 80 years ago.

When I arrived home on Saturday, my latest guide (a very welcome Ebay purchase) was waiting for me:




Travel Lebanon was published in 1965 by the Librarie du Liban. 42 years ago the country was very different: no civil war, no Hizbullah, no Israeli occupation. Its difficult for me to even look at the country map provided without “reading” the names of towns (Sidon, Jounieh) and regions (the Bekaa) in the context of their contemporary associations.

The book is fascinating for several reasons – not least because it is a pre-civil war guide that does not describe Lebanon as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Its author, Kay Showker, is an American born to a Lebanese father. She had lived in Beirut for several years by the time she wrote Travel Lebanon, and I suspect that she knew just how hollow that phrase was.

One of the things that makes this guidebook so interesting to me is the way it weights the city in terms of its interest for visitors (and expatriates – the guide addresses both).

Look at this city map:


Notice where all the activity is?



All the sites of interest are on the west side – Achrafiyyeh is almost entirely blank:


West Beirut’s attractions go beyond the religious, of course – it has the ocean and AUB (perhaps a French-language guide would have found more of note in Francophone Achrafiyyeh).

Still, though – it brought to mind something my friend L had reported another friend saying: “Foreigners who come to Beirut always want to live with Muslims”.

Maybe that’s just because the Muslim neighborhoods are more interesting. East Beirut may have the bars, but West Beirut has the theatres (and, pre-war, the cinemas).

Travel Lebanon has many other gems to offer, such as this description of the Phoenicia Hotel:



And, of course, this lovely photograph of “Lebanese beauties in their native costumes”. So this is what Lebanese women looked like before plastic surgery and mini-skirts:


Posted in Americans, Beirut, books, Lebanon, tourism, travel, words | 5 Comments »