A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for March, 2007

heartbreak and shattered illusions

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 31, 2007

This is a difficult post to write, because it deals with the shattering of a very fondly held illusion of mine.

My neighborhood mosque, the one I love for the sonorous clarity of its muezzin’s voice, uses a … recording.

I had started to suspect this some time ago, but had been unwilling to face my suspicions head on and actually ask one of the groundskeepers.

Two Fridays evenings ago, on my way home from a coffee at Bardo, I heard the call to prayer – my favorite one – broadcasting from my mosque. Oh, how beautiful, I thought.

The call ended, and … suddenly began again – this time coming not from my mosque but from one further south.

I tried telling myself that the muezzin had somehow run from one mosque to the next, or that the second mosque was using a relay system to rebroadcast the call, but … in my heart I knew the truth.

To borrow a metaphor that switches from Islam to Christianity, and from the spiritual to the material register, it was like a child discovering that there is no Santa Claus.

At least the spirit of the call lives on, I told myself sadly, remembering a similar meant-to-be-comforting argument my mother had used about St. Nick as the spirit of Christmas.

Any remaining possibility of retaining my illusions about my mosque and “its” muezzin was destroyed during my shop through the Mall of the Emirates on Tuesday. As I hopped my way into a particularly tight pair of Levi’s,

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the Levistore, like the others, turned off its music so shoppers could hear the call to prayer being broadcast over the mall loudspeakers.

It was the same call to prayer: same voice, same intonation, same piercingly beautiful pitch.

I was heartbroken (though still composed enough to notice how well the new jeans fit). Apparently the spirit of Christmas … errr … the adhaan is not only not live, it is also not uniquely Lebanese.

The international character of Islam can be so disilllusioning sometimes.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Dubai, Islam, Lebanon, mosque, music, neighbors, Qur'an, religion, travel, tune, words | 1 Comment »

from New York to infinity

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 30, 2007

Open Skies, Emirates’ Airline’s in-flight magazine, was filled with advertisements for the many luxury high-rises currently under construction in Dubai.

I was enjoying paging through them, marveling at the array of necessary luxuries (maids’ quarters, bellmen) and the building names (Elite and Prestige are my favorite), when I saw this one:

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and caught my breath.

If you were a New Yorker five and a half years ago, you know this building.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed this building as the replacement for the World Trade Center.

It arches gracefully to the sky; and is lyrical without being sentimental.

After being accepted, plans for its construction were shelved after late-breaking concerns about its ability to withstand another September 11 attack. At the time, people speculated that safety concerns were merely an excuse to prevent the erection of a building whose arc reminded some of the way the twin towers crumpled before they fell.

I loved the building’s design; when it was subsequently taken up by Dubai real estate development firm Cayan as the Infinity Tower I had extremely mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the design should be realized. On the other, … this building for me has a very personal meaning.

I have seen renderings of it here and there, and each time I feel the same puncture; the same suck of air from my lungs.

Posted in al-Qaeda, Americans, Dubai, explosion, home, New York, time | Leave a Comment »

bright lights big city: Dubai by night

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 30, 2007

These photographs I took while returning to my hotel after drinks and sushi at Madinat Jumeirah with my friend S. The blurriness (due to the car’s speed) isn’t artistically ideal, but my inner auteur is tempted to describe it as my artiste’s way of conveying the speed and dynamism that is Dubai.

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This one is my favorite – I love the way the taxi zooming by highlights the motion of our two cars and the city itself.

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By the time I reached my hotel, I was ready to tuck in – worn out from all the motion and all the glowing buildings.

Posted in Americans, Dubai, family, photography, time, tourism, traffic, travel, women | Leave a Comment »

beyond the burj: Diamond in Sharjah

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 29, 2007

I spent the other night up in Sharjah, Dubai’s smaller (but growing) and more conservative cousin to the northeast.

(The emirate’s name is not properly sharjah but sharqah, reflecting its orientation. The transliteration as sharJah I think was the product of a double translation by an Egyptian or Jordanian Arabic speaker, who must have heard the Gulf pronunciation of “q” as “g” and re-interpreted as a “j”, since Egyptians and Jordanians pronounce the “j” as a “g”).

Sharjah reminds me of the Gulf I remember from the late 1990s and early 2000s – lots of small shops and dust. But it is growing – there are skyscrapers under construction wherever one looks.

I took these photos early yesterday morning while out for a walk.

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, Dubai, economics, photography, Sharjah, time, travel, weather | 2 Comments »

Running afoul of the morality police: Internet filtering in Dubai

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 28, 2007

This afternoon I typed in the url of a well-known Lebanese vineyard – a vineyard whose vintages were available by the bottle at the bar/resto where I dined with my friend S last night.

Instead of the vineyard’s homepage, this forbidding image popped up:

 

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What a gruesome – and very clear – image. I’d been caught, high-tech style, red-handed.

Mortified, and blushing not a little bit, I quickly tabbed away to another page. Having so enjoyed myself in Dubai thus far I certainly didn’t want to be accused of lowering the emirate’s morals.

Posted in Americans, Arab world | Leave a Comment »

From Beirut to the Burj: Diamond in Dubai

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 28, 2007

I have been spending the past few days in Dubai, one of the few Gulf cities I have never visited before. The city is fascinating – and in many ways I think I find it more intriguing coming from Beirut than coming from anywhere else.

Dubai to me is what Beirut could have been – the dynamic hub linking the Middle East to the rest of the world. Certainly it has a number of boondoggle projects, but on the whole … the energy is different here.

And so is the shopping. Yesterday afternoon I took a few hours off to visit the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai’s most famous mall. There are some big diamonds there.

I wasn’t interested in skiing – what I really needed were bath towels, which I found at the Carrefour – a massive, Wal-mart like shop with a full grocery store.

As I walked through Carrefour’s aisles, I began feeling rather … Syrian.

I love Syria, and I love Syrians. However, I also recognize the classic Syrian-in-Lebanon experience: big eyed, open-mouthed wandering through Beirut’s magic streets, marveling at the glamorous people and the incredible array of things to buy.

I’m American – I grew up with malls. However, after a few months in Beirut, coming to Dubai made me equally big eyed and open-mouthed. It wasn’t merely the variety of brands and styles of things available – it was the prices.

In Beirut, everything normal (including bath towels) is unnecessarily expensive – or of lesser quality – than in the US. Although the Mall of the Emirates certainly had fewer sale items than American malls, it did have a very American feel – and very American pricing.

As I shopped my shami way through the mall’s stores, a few Middle Eastern moments did keep me grounded enough to remember that I was in Dubai and not downtown Seattle.

I finally bought the launch copy of Harper’s Bazaar. When the cashier ran it through the scanner, it came up as Harper’s Bizarre. Well, fashion is a little bizarre sometimes – and so is Arabic English.

I also stopped at a pharmacy to pick up another over-the-counter prescription medication. (It may sound like I am quite the sickly one but these two pharmacy visits are total anomalies. Usually I am in embarrassingly good health.)

Would you like the three capsule option or the ten? the pharmacist asked me.

Oh, the three, I replied, thinking: better to get it over with quickly.

We do not have the three capsule option, he told me firmly.

Right, I thought. So why offer it then?

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Dubai, economics, fashion, health, Islam, media, Qur'an, tourism, travel, women, words | 1 Comment »

Isn’t it romantic? (ii)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 28, 2007

The other day I took a phone call while visiting an office in Beirut’s downtown. Having seen the office staff take their mobile phone calls out to the upper level balcony, I did the same.

After closing the door behind me I turned to find myself overlooking the Roman ruins undergoing semi-excavation on the east side of downtown’s Place de l’Etoile.

Where are you now? my caller asked.

After hearing my description of the view,  my caller’s Lebanese side emerged in full force. It sounds very romantic.

Ah, I thought. There’s that word again. (See Isn’t it romantic? for y first take on the Lebanese use of romantic.)

It was a beautiful view, and I did try to consider it romantic, in a standing-alone-rather-than-in-someone’s-arms way.

However, I soon tired of the rather strenous task of whispering sweet nothings in my own ear, and went back inside. I think I’m just too American to be a Lebanese romantic.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, friends, humor, Lebanon, romance, women, words | Leave a Comment »

doing things with words: mobile phone culture

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 27, 2007

Several years ago I remember being amused and impressed by the appearance of a new mobile phone shop at the top of Damascus’ Tiliyani neighborhood.

Its name to me epitomized the mobile phone culture emerging in the region (and everywhere else with high, per-minute calling rates): Missed Call.

The missed call is an intentionally placed call that rings once or twice – long enough to appear on the recipient’s mobile phone screen – and then stops. Its purpose is not to be answered but to communicate something more specific:

I’m here (in front of your building, at the restaurant, etc.).

Where are you? (for parents contacting their night owl children, friends wondering why another is late, etc.)

I’m thinking of you

etc.

More recently, I have noticed another evolution in mobile phone culture: the transformation of “missed call” into chat language.

Chat language – for MSN, for text messages, and sometimes for emails – is something I don’t always get.

For example, the correct, centuries-old abbreviation for “your” is “yr”. Nerdy academic that I am, this is what I use. Everyone else in the chat world, of course, uses “ur”.

But I love the chat word for missed call: miscal. Its an adorable shortening of the proper term, and the fact that a chat abbreviation has been created attests to the centrality of the missed call in mobile phone communication here.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, economics, fashion, friends, media, research, words | Leave a Comment »

spies like us: still more love among the Lebanese

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 26, 2007

Earlier this spring I went out on a date with a dashing Lebanese man in his late 30s.

We drove off in his late model sports car, me cringing a bit at the thought of what my Boston-born père would say about a car too “flashy” for Iowa, let alone old school New England.

It was a weekend night – cars were out, and so were the military checkpoints. As we settled into a long line of cars near Verdun, he began asking me about my time in the region: where had I been, what did I work, on, and … did I speak Hebrew.

Sigh.

People here do ask me this question from time to time. Somehow in Lebanon the region-wide assumption that the United States is run by a Jewish cabal has morphed into the belief that all Americans speak Hebrew.

In fact, I have one friend who “reassures” me from time to time, believing (I assume) that I am simply too shy to reveal my language skills.

Its okay with me that you speak Hebrew, Little Diamond, he tells me.

Argh.

Back to the date. Do you speak Hebrew? he asked.

No, I said.

No? he asked, and continued:

שָׁלוֹם.

מזל טוב.

Oh my GOD, I thought, horrified. I’m on a date with a Lebanese Mossad agent. AND WE’RE GOING THROUGH A MILITARY CHECKPOINT.

Mistaking my “this is definitely the worst date ever” look for one of interest, he continued:

Hebrew is a beautiful language, Diamond.

Should I jump out of the car and run? I thought. Is this the start to some kind of recruitment pitch? Half the people I meet think I am a spy anyway, just because I am American. NOW what will I say when people ask? Panicking, I asked myself: Why oh why did I say yes to this date?

Happily, cowardice prevailed and I remained seated.

You must understand, Diamond, my date went on, blissfully ignorant of my distress, Hebrew and Arabic are very similar languages. We are cousins, really; politics is all that separates us.

Turning to face me (a rather worryingly popular posture for drivers in this country), he said sadly: I would love to learn Hebrew. I have tried to find someone who will teach me, but it is very difficult.

Mmm, I thought. I bet it is. Who do you ask – returned members of the SLA?

I bought a book, he continued, hoping to teach myself, but it is quite difficult.

Oh my Lord, I thought. You certainly didn’t buy that book here. What if your bags had been searched at customs?

What do you think? he asked, finally. Do you think it is possible to learn Hebrew on my own?

Mmmm, I replied, non-committally. I can’t imagine learning Arabic on my own, and I suspect that Hebrew is much the same. But if you look online, you might find some good self-study programs on the twenty million websites dedicated to building a Jewish identity and love of Israel among today’s American youth.

Really?? he asked, again happily oblivious to my tone. Oh, wonderful. I will search for them.

Oh boy, I thought. I can only imagine what the Lebanese internet censors are going to make of this.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, friends, humor, Iowa, Israel, Lebanon, romance, travel, women, words | 3 Comments »

specific virtues: more love among the Lebanese

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 25, 2007

Spring is in the air in Lebanon, and my heart is filled with anticipation at the sartorial joys of the season. During the warm weather months, I dress almost exclusively in skirts. I love their clean lines and the way they hang – and, of course, the way they swish-swish-swish when I walk.

Here, I also love wearing skirts because they remind me of yet another treasured date conversation.

Little Diamond, my date said to me, looking very serious, you know, I like [names of our two mutual friends] very much, but I am different from them when it comes to women. They are skirt-chasers. Do you know what this means?

Yes of course, I began to reply, its a well-known English expression.

No no, he interjected. Let me explain.

Men like [our mutual friends] are skirt chasers. This means that when they see a woman in a short skirt, they chase after her and want to make love to her.

Interesting, I thought. I had no idea that our friends had such Pavlovian responses.

I, on the other hand, my date continued, am not a skirt-chaser. This means that I can see a woman in a short skirt and have no reaction.

Ahhhh haaa, I said, nodding as if what he had said made perfect sense.

Inside my head, of course, I was dying laughing, and wondering:

What happens when our friends and other skirt-chasers encounter a woman in a longer skirt?

What about trousers? Is there another category for men affected by the tight black trousers found in abundance here?

And

What on earth made him so proud of possessing a virtue of such limited application?

Posted in Americans, Beirut, humor, Lebanon, research, romance, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »