A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for April, 2007

Deus ex machina: pious mobile phones

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 30, 2007

Succumbing to the same spring-time phone buying fever that I fell prey to (and victim of a similar yikes-my-phone-no-longer-works incident), a colleague of mine bought a new phone this morning.

H chose the new i-mate, a hugely impressive phone/PDA/wireless handheld that comes with an equally impressive price.

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Wow, I thought. I hope that phone comes with some amazing bells and whistles.

To be honest, I was somewhat hoping that the new phone would get up and dance – or at the very least, offer to make tea. What it did instead was equally entertaining.

The first hint should have come from its preferred language. This d*** thing is all in Arabic, H said. We’re in Beirut – why not have English as the default language?

Good point – and one that puzzles me whenever I dial a mobile number only to hear the phone company’s recorded message that the phone is off, or hear “Laddaykum dollarain” – “you have two dollars” (or one, or 24 cents – whatever remains of my pre-paid phone credit).

In Lebanon, where a significant percentage of the population speaks a second and/or third language all the digital mobile phone company messages are in Arabic – and only in Arabic.

In Syria, where a small minority of the population speaks a second and/or third language, all the digital mobile phone company messages are in Arabic and English. What’s more, you as an individual user can choose the language in which you wish to receive messages relating specifically to your account.

Not to mention that calling and sms rates in Syria are a fraction of what they are in Lebanon. Oh, and the internet is better there, too.

Back to H and the new i-mate. A helpful Arabic-speaking IT-inclined soul was pressed into service to change the phone’s language to English.

Well, you can lead a phone to water, but … you can’t make it drink (and certainly not vodka, as I learned).

Fifteen or twenty minutes after the i-mate “learned” English, a sonorous – and loud – rendition of the call to prayer began filling the room.

Yes, indeed. It turns out that the new i-mate is Muslim – and very devout. H’s efforts to stop the adhan were in vain: the i-mate continued with the full adhan before retreating into pious silence.

What is this? H asked. Just because I give my location as Beirut, the phone assumes I’m Muslim?

Ten minutes or so later, we had the answer, as the i-mate came to life once more.

This time, it began reciting from the Qur’an.

What am I going to do with this? H asked.

Mmmmm, I said. Perhaps you could call the shop and ask about exchanging it for the secular version?

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, friends, humor, Islam, Lebanon, media, music, neighbors, Qur'an, religion | 4 Comments »

like water for mezzeh: lunch in the chouf

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2007

Last Sunday’s drive through the Chouf took us through lovely Deir al-Qamar, M’s village (which my friend R terms rather less romantically “my ancestral thing-y”). I ought to have taken photographs, but all my artistic efforts on the way up had made me carsick. By the time we reached the checkpoint on the way to Mukhtara, I was delighted to have the chance to stop for a bit.

The soldiers solemnly took M’s and T’s ID cards, as well as the car’s registration. When T told me to get out my passport, one said: bas al-shabab. Only the guys [literally, the youths]. Someday a woman will commit a terrible act of terrorism in this region, and the shockwaves will be monumental. Until then, though, I am happy to keep my passport in my (uninspected) handbag.

Once the soldiers saw T’s ID, their manner changed. From Xxxxx? they asked, smiling. Yes, T replied, grinning back at them. Ana walad al-balad – literally, I am a child of the country, but in this case meaning more Yes, I am from around here. With a local in the car, they judged us no threat to Jumblatt, Mukhtara’s most famous (and most likely to be targeted for assassination) resident, and waved us on.

Of course, we weren’t headed to Jumblatt’s palace, but rather to a well known restaurant nearby. The restaurant is a complex of buildings and terraces, built into the rocky mountainside, with a waterfall cascading down in the back.

This photo looks back towards the entrance from the main front courtyard:

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This photograph was the view we had during lunch, from our table at one of the lower (and quieter) terraces:

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These two show the waterfall:

 

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The food was incredibly delicious, and our table was enlivened by the presence of the two cousins who now tend the restaurant, which their grandfather began decades ago. T’s good friends from university days, they kept the dishes (and the arak, for anise lovers) coming to our table.

It was a lovely day, marred for me only by one small cross-cultural difficulty – one that crops up now and again, particularly in nice but more traditional restaurants like this one and the ones I know in Damascus.

In the United States, restaurant bathrooms are quite strictly divided by sex. Men and boys use the men’s restrooml; women and girls use the women’s. Bathroom attendants, when they exist, work in the gender-appropriate restroom.

Here, however, it is quite common to find an adolescent boy as the bathroom attendant covering both bathrooms. While I understand in my head that there is nothing inherently creepy about having a fourteen year old boy come in to the women’s restroom to hand me a towel, I can’t shake my American sense of “my space is being violated”.

I can’t shake it, but I do try to compensate with an extra generous tip!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, beer, Beirut, citizenship, Druze, economics, friends, holidays, Lebanon, mountains, time, tourism, travel, vanity, weather, women | 1 Comment »

Dollar democratization: niche marketing and American Muslims

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 28, 2007

Today’s New York Times business section includes a very interesting piece on US companies and their growing willingness to treat American Muslims as a niche market.

The article suggests that this niche market is being conceived in ethnic as well as religious terms, much as the Hispanic market has been. American Muslims are people with recent immigrant backgrounds.

I’m not so sure that this is true – as a former subscriber to Azizah, the American Muslim women’s magazine it mentions, I can attest that many if not most of the women profiled in Azizah‘s pages are American-born converts.

They are passionate and sincere believers, but their Islam is somewhat eclectic and not based in an immigrant ethnicity.

This is how Azizah describes itself:

 

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I have no objection to niche marketing grounded in religion – its nothing new for the United States, and I am hopeful that Ramadan-centered advertising will help mainstream American Muslims in the same way that Passover and Hanukah advertising has for American Jews.

And if the first generation of these ads focuses on American Muslims with recent ties to a natal country, fine. But I imagine that the second generation will focus on the American-born, US-raised Muslims of all backgrounds that make the United States’ Muslim community so rich.

Rewriting the Ad Rules for Muslim-Americans

For years, few advertisers in the United States have dared to reach out to Muslims.

Either they did not see much potential for sales or they feared a political backlash. And there were practical reasons: American Muslims come from so many ethnic backgrounds that their only common ground is their religion, a subject most marketers avoid.

That is beginning to change. Consumer companies and advertising executives are focusing on ways to use the cultural aspects of the Muslim religion to help sell their products.

Grocers and consumer product companies are considering ways to adapt their goods to Muslim rules, which forbid among other things, gelatin and pig fat, which is often used in cosmetics and cleaning products. Retailers are looking into providing more conservative skirts, even during the summer months, and mainstream advertisers are planning to place some commercials on the satellite channels that Muslims often watch.

Marketing to Muslims carries some risks. But advertising executives, used to dividing American consumers into every sort of category, say that ignoring this group — estimated to be about five million to eight million people, and growing fast — would be like missing the Hispanic market in the 1990s.

“I think Muslims have had to draw into themselves,” said Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of JWT, a large advertising agency in the WPP Group that plans to encourage clients like Johnson & Johnson and Unilever to market to American Muslims. “It puts an increased burden on a marketer post-9/11 to say, ‘Look, we understand.’ ”

Companies in the Detroit area, where there is a dense population of Muslims, are leading the change. A McDonald’s there serves halal Chicken McNuggets; Walgreens has Arabic signs in its aisles. And now, Ikea, which recently opened a store in the suburb of Canton, Mich., that has had trouble attracting as many Muslim customers as it had hoped, has been touring local homes and talking to Muslims to figure out their needs.

The store there plans to sell decorations for Ramadan next fall and is adding halal meat to its restaurant menu, or meat that is prepared according to Islamic law. Catalogs in Arabic are being planned, and female Muslim employees are expected to be given an Ikea-branded hijab, to wear over their head if they wish.

Marketing to Muslims is, of course, mostly intended to increase sales, but advertising has also long been a mirror of changes in society.

Ms. Salzman pointed to ads in the 1960s that featured Jewish products like Levy’s rye bread, which, she said, helped bring that group more into mainstream advertising. She also noted that ads from companies like McDonald’s in the early 1990s portrayed busy mothers who admitted that they did not cook every night like their mothers did.

“Marketers have actually helped us to rewrite the rules about what we’re comfortable with,” she said.

Because the Census Bureau does not ask about religion, there is no authoritative count of Muslims in America. Some Muslim organizations provide estimates as high as 10 million. Others say it could be as low as three million.

Whatever the number, many Muslims have clustered in areas that include Orange County, Calif.; Houston; the state of Georgia; northern Virginia; New York City and Long Island; and the Detroit area.

Over the last few months, JWT conducted a large study of Muslims in the United States and Britain to determine whether they would be receptive to specialized advertising. There were 835 people in the United States study. Muslim Americans spend about $170 billion on consumer products, JWT estimates; this figure is expected to grow rapidly as the population expands and younger Muslims build careers.

Ms. Salzman said the study found that Muslims were buying many standard products but that they felt excluded from mainstream advertising. In particular, she said, they wanted companies to recognize their holidays.

Ms. Salzman said JWT had little trouble surveying Muslims in Britain, but found it had to clarify at the start of each phone call in the United States that it was not calling from a government agency.

Over the next few weeks, JWT plans to reach out to the chief executives of all of its major clients, including JetBlue, the Ford Motor Company and HSBC, to encourage them to market to Muslims in the United States and Britain.

“These advertisers have been in the Middle East and in the Far East Muslim countries for decades, so they’re already dealing with the Muslim market,” said Tayyibah Taylor, publisher and editor in chief of Azizah magazine, a Muslim-focused magazine in Atlanta. “They just haven’t been dealing with the Muslim marketer here at home.”

Almas Abbasi, a radiologist in Long Island who was one of the people interviewed by JWT, said she would be grateful for advertising that included Muslims.

“If Ramadan starts, and you see an ad in the newspaper saying, ‘Happy Ramadan, here’s a special in our store,’ everyone will run to that store,” she said.

Her daughter, Shaheen Magsi, a senior at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, N.Y., said her family turned off their cable television three years ago after seeing too many negative stereotypes about Muslims. She said she quickly grew tired of telling people at school that, no, she did not agree with Osama bin Laden.

“It’d be really good to say, ‘Oh, there’s a Muslim on TV, and they’re portraying something good other than Muslims killing people,’ ” she said.

Just what approach companies should take to reach Muslims is far from clear. The market is diverse, including African-Americans, South Asians, Caucasians and people from the Middle East, as well as people who are more or less conservative in their religious views. American Muslims disagree about whether the Muslim women in ads should wear the hijab, for instance.

Nationwide Financial Services has already been advertising to people from Pakistan and India, who are often Muslim. But it prefers to focus on their country of origin, said Tariq Khan, Nationwide’s vice president of market development and diversity.

Still, religion is culturally relevant at times, he said, and Nationwide may run ads in print publications in June that feature Hindu and Muslim weddings.

Rizwan Jamil, director of beverages at Unilever in Pakistan, said Unilever often ran promotions there for Lipton tea and custard powders during Muslim holidays, using bright and festive packaging, and discounts. These sorts of gestures would appeal to a broad swath of Muslims in the United States, he said, without setting off discussions about religion.

“It’s just like when you’re advertising something for Christmas,” Mr. Jamil said. “You’re not talking about Christians or Christianity. You’re talking about Christmas, the event. I would be careful — to the extent that I used religion. I wouldn’t shout it out. I wouldn’t shout out to the world that ‘I’m talking to Muslims.’ ”

There is a genuine fear about how to market to Muslims — and whether to do so — at many big companies, executives at Muslim-focused media outlets and organizations said.

“United States companies don’t want to risk alienating their domestic consumers,” said Nasser Beydoun, chairman of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn, Mich., which is working with Ikea, Wal-Mart and Comcast to develop strategies to reach Muslim consumers. Other companies like Frito-Lay and Kodak have recently considered marketing to Muslims.

Publishers of Muslim women’s magazines, like Azizah and Muslim Girl Magazine, said they had to dispel advertisers’ concerns that they would feature articles that were radical or political.

Bridges TV, a cable and satellite network, has changed its sales pitch to make advertisers more comfortable. When it was introduced in 2004, Bridges TV presented itself as a Muslim television network, but lately the network has been having better luck labeling itself as “bridging the West and East,” said Mohamed Numan-Ali, the network’s advertising manager. Brands like Ford, Lunesta and Lincoln have signed on as advertisers, he said.

On the other hand, some Muslim-focused media companies that are courting advertisers highlight religion as their strength. Executives at QTV, a new satellite network centered around the Koran, tell advertisers that the focus on religion is what keeps its viewers tuning in, often five times a day for prayer calls.

Companies that advertise on QTV should not worry about backlash, said Mahmood Ahmad, president of Digital Broadcasting Network Inc., which produces QTV, because “Fox News viewers are not watching QTV anyway.” He added, “QTV is the safest place to be because they won’t know.”

Advertising on satellite channels popular with Muslims and in the publications that focus on them would be inexpensive compared with mainstream media and might be highly effective because so few companies reach out to this group.

“People would flock to it,” said Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a nonprofit group based in New York. “They would say ‘I can’t believe I’m being validated by Macy’s. I can’t believe I’m being validated by Whole Foods.’ ”

Even in mainstream advertising, companies may win over customers by including Muslims in some ads, said Razaq Baloch, a partner in Spicy Banana, an ad agency specializing in reaching customers from India and Pakistan.

Alia Fouz, a Palestinian-American who lives near the Ikea in Canton, said she never felt that ads were addressing her as a Muslim when she was growing up in Virginia. Sitting in the Ikea snack bar with her young son, she said ads that included American Muslims would grab her — and her son’s — attention.

“We should be included,” Ms. Fouz said. “We live here.”

Posted in advertising, Americans, citizenship, economics, religion, research, words | Leave a Comment »

“happy family”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2007

In our family, “happy family” is a code word that refers to the way in which stress can overtake even the most joyous family occasions.

In December 1996 we all gathered in Portland, Oregon for my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday. With our family, a gathering of that size involves not only a large number of people, but also a large number of opinions, most more than a bit larger-than-life.

By the time the Chinese restaurant dinner reception began, feathers had been ruffled all around, over everything from how much my great-uncle should be allowed to drink to where each guest should sit.

Adopting a technique that would serve us well for years to come, we four cousins found a table to the side, away from the direct vision of any impassioned adult in search of affirmation and/or aid (except for the great-uncle, whose stops at our table provided ample opportunity to determine that in the end, no drinks limit had been set for him).

Dishes arrived at our table one by one, as they did for all the guests. But just wait, the waitstaff would tell us as they deposited another. There is a special dish – it is coming.

We ate and ate, with no sign of the special dish but many signs of vexed mothers, aunts, grandparents, and assorted others (and a few too many long speeches).

Finally, when we were stuffed and ready for the meal to be cleared, the special dish arrived.

This is it, the waitress told us, the Happy Family.

I hope we waited til she had gone before bursting into laughter, but my memory is too vague. What I do remember is laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe – as first my father and then other family members came by to see what on earth was so funny.

Happy Family, we gasped – and they laughed too. We are a happy family, poorly timed Chinese dishes aside :-).

34 years ago today, my parents started our own happy family with a night wedding in Heidelberg Castle.

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(link stolen shamelessly from Heidelberg’s tourism website)

Last year my sister and I celebrated the occasion with a theme: “33 things that remind us of you”. The items ranged from a bottle of Piesporter (the wine they drank with my grandparents the night my parents announced their engagement) to lime salt potato chips (my mother) and Jujyfruits (my father).

My sister was in Seattle, but I was there for the occasion and arranged the “33 things” in the lower level living room:

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Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad, with love always

Posted in Americans, family, Germany, holidays, home, Iowa, parenting, time | 2 Comments »

All the news you can use: Lebanese geography

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 26, 2007

Last night I fell asleep to the whirring sounds of helicopters on patrol. Tonight I am wondering who could think it appropriate to kill a 12 year old boy. Lebanon isn’t Iraq – I cannot but think, Pollyanna-like, that there is some reason other than politics for this.

There are several strange things about the coverage of the kidnapping & murder of these two. In the United States, the two victims would be described as a “boy” (12 years old), or perhaps an “adolescent”, and a “man” (25 years old).

Here, the two are described collectively as “youths” or “boys”. As a translation from Arabic, it makes sense – every male under the age of 40 is a “youth” (shab). As social commentary, its a bit … distressing.

International media coverage has been equally idiosyncratic, though regarding a different aspect of the story – the place where their bodies were found: Jadra.

BBC describes the location as “in the hills south-east of Beirut”.

The Jerusalem Post and other sources cite an Associated Press report that describes the location as “near a roadside south of Beirut” and Jadra as a city “just north of the southern port city of Sidon”.

Monsters & Critics reprints a Deutsche Presse Agentur article that says the bodies were found in “an area south-east of Beirut” and describes Jadra as being “in the Chouf Mountains”.

Jadra is south-east of Beirut, north of Sidon, and in the Chouf. Its a small country.

What I don’t like about the international media’s constant use of Beirut as a reference is the way it makes it seem that the city takes the brunt of every event.

For me the evening was as usual – and the streets were not deserted, as some reports suggested – at least, they were not deserted in my part of town.

Posted in Iowa | Leave a Comment »

more chouf’ing in the chouf

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 26, 2007

Having so impressed myself with my photographic artistry with the me-in-the-rearview-mirror photos, I decided to try photographing the Chouf looking over the back of M’s car.

This one isn’t so bad:

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With this one I think I went a bit too far – it looks like I’m about to fall out of the car:

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Druze, family, friends, holidays, Iowa, Lebanon, mountains, photography, time, tourism, travel, weather, women | Leave a Comment »

de-streamed in Kuwait

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 25, 2007

Kuwait popped into my life again today, much to my surprise.

While looking into news of a recent censorship issue on Kuwait One, I came across the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information website.

I clicked through to it, expecting to find contact information for Ministry personnel and perhaps some additional information on the story I was following.

Instead, I saw a bit box running across the lower half of the page, with the text:

تم إيقاف خدمة بث قنوات الإذاعة والتلفزيون

على الإنترنت

حتى إشعار أخر

 

Audio & Video Streaming is stopped

until further notice

Is this true? Is it no longer possible to stream radio and television content over the internet in Kuwait?

Ohhh, these small Gulf countries and their large autocratic aspirations.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Arabic, blogging, Kuwait, media, politics, research, traffic, travel, words | 5 Comments »

Writing With a Purpose: Eyebrow-Raising Warden Messages

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 24, 2007

Thanks to my visits to my aunt and uncle, I seem to be permanently ensconced on the American Embassy of Kuwait’s warden mailing list.

As a result, I get a steady stream of announcements relating to personal security in the Gulf, Asia (for US Kuwaiti residents looking to vacation in Thailand, I assume), and Iraq. Bookworm that I am, I read them all.

Every so often a warden message comes through that makes me wonder – as this one did today.

I don’t think this was sent merely as a general reminder. There must be a number of Americans in Kuwait who have had some serious recent alcohol and narcotics run-ins with the local authorities.

Embassy of the United States of America

Kuwait City, Kuwait
April 24, 2007

MEMORANDUM

To: All American Wardens

From: Consular Section

Subject: Warden Notice 2007 – 6

Please circulate the following message without additions or omissions immediately to all American citizens within your area of responsibility:

Please note that there are 2 messages integrated within this notice.

Message One:

Begin text.

The United States Embassy in Kuwait City wishes to remind all American citizens that throughout their stay in the State of Kuwait they are subject to local laws. In addition, please be reminded that alcohol and narcotics are prohibited in Kuwait and that those arrested for possession or trade of those substances are dealt with harshly by Kuwaiti law enforcement.
The Embassy cannot intervene to free Americans who have been arrested, nor can it represent Americans at trial, give legal advice or pay legal fees and/or fines with U.S. Government funds.
However, American citizens do have the right to meet with a consular officer from the U.S. Embassy. A consular officer can, among other things provide you with a list of attorneys, assist with notifying family members of the arrest, and ensure equal treatment in accordance with local law.

If you are arrested, you should request access to your consular officer at the earliest opportunity. The U.S. Embassy is staffed twenty-four hours a day and can be reached at 259-1001.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, citizenship, Kuwait, nightlife, politics, words | Leave a Comment »

dressed for success

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 24, 2007

Every morning I pass a set of security barricades, manned by a changing array of soldiers in uniform.

The degree of security they provide is also constantly changing. Many days, I pass through with nothing more than a “good morning”. On others, they ask to look in my bag.

This would be a good idea, if I carried just one bag. However, I carry two: gym and handbag. Why those who want to inspect my bags content themselves with one is a mystery to me; why when doing so their “search” consists of me unzipping the bag half-way is equally baffling.

And troubling – if they are this blase with me, they must be the same with other foreigners. And where is it written that Arabs alone pose a danger to Lebanon?

Anyway – enough sound and fury. What these searches most often provide are occasions for laughter.

Last Friday an eager soldier asked to see my gym bag. I unzipped it, showing that the top-most item was … a bag of freshly baked Arabic bread.

Puzzled, he looked at the bread – then looked at me. Sahtein, he said, laughing. Bon appetit.

3Ala 2albak, I replied, grinning. To you as well [literally, on your heart].

I bet it took two seconds for the story of the strange bread-toting foreigner to make the round of his barracks.

On Monday, a soldier asked to see my handbag.

I should explain here that Beirut’s weather has been rather unpredictable of late. Its spring, after all – and so I plan accordingly, bringing extra tops, a sweater, and an umbrella wherever I go.

Hence when Monday’s soldier asked to see my handbag, I began by first pulling off the cardigan I had laid on top, then the long-sleeved shirt I had brought in case the weather was cool but not sweater-cold, and finally the scarf I had packed because, well, I like scarves.

Amused by my display of sartorial excess, the soldier asked me: kilo tiyab? Is it all clothing?

I felt like a bag lady, carrying my wardrobe wherever I went. Especially since the fact that I carry a gym bag makes the Lebanese I know hoot with laughter.

You’d better be careful, G told me. Pretty soon people are going to start making fun of you for carrying that thing around. 

Right.

Meanwhile in other Diamond fashion news I note that my drunken-phone replacement is now officially available for sale here:

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Simple beauty, at a high-tech twenty-million gadgets’ price. I’m such a sucker for bright sparkly objects :-).

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Dubai, economics, fashion, humor, Iowa, Lebanon, media, vanity, women | Leave a Comment »

chouf’ing myself in the chouf

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 23, 2007

Yesterday I went to the Chouf with three friends – my first trip there ever (I am a terrible tourist.)

I had to look it up on a country map before we left to know where we were going. I had thought north; instead, we went south and then east. So much for my attempts to defy the stereotype of Americans as hopeless with geography.

As we drove up the mountain I decided to experiment with more artistic photographs than my usual ‘touristic’ shots.

My mother, who is a terrific photographer, took beautiful photographs of a trip to the badlands that she and my father made this fall. She has stunning shots of the terrain – all taken from their convertible, with her smiling face and camera visible through the passenger side rear view mirror.

So, inspired as always by my mama, here are two photos from yesterday’s drive:

 

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Posted in Americans, Beirut, citizenship, Druze, family, friends, holidays, Lebanon, mountains, music, photography, tourism, travel, weather | 1 Comment »