A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for September, 2007

muscle-shirts and big wheels: Tatari culture in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 30, 2007

Ah, another Sunday afternoon in Beirut. The power just came back on, after a long three hours off, and I am typing away to the sound of gunfire. Some others in the neighborhood must share my love of shopping – and they have obviously been on quite an arms buying spree.

Usually people around here wait until dusk to start firing their pistols, rifles, and semi-automatics, but this weekend they’ve been starting around 2:00. (They fire up, so its not too alarming.) Who knows – maybe they’re as annoyed about the power outages as I am. And – my goodness, did someone just fire a cannon? – its been very educational for me. I can now distinguish between any number of weapon discharge noises.

Anyway – on to today’s post. G has expanded my Arabic vocabulary greatly, but the first and certainly most frequently-used term I learned from him is “tatari”.

Yes, “tatari” as in “Tatar-like” – but not exactly like the Crimea’s Tatars of old, who tended to look like this:

elbise.jpg

(Thanks to the Crimean Tatar Home Page for this image.)

In Lebanese Arabic, “tatari” describes what an older generation in the US might call greaser culture: gel-slicked hair, tight shirts on men (and teased hair on women). G and friends use it to describe anyone behaving tackily, whether ordering from Barbar or calling a girl “2ashta”. And like in the US, tatari culture comes complete with wheels: mopeds with extra-loud mufflers; beater sedans with spoilers and booming stereos; and customized muscle cars – like this one:

tatar-mobile.jpg

This guy used to park on a side street in my neighborhood, but obviously he prefers to have a higher profile. Now he parks his mega-jeep (even when standing on the sidewalk, the tops of its tires come to my sternum) on a major artery leading to AUB. Yes, he wants to get noticed.

And on days that he doesn’t feel like driving the whole jeep around, he has another option: a customized motorbike, decorated in the same orange tiger-stripe pattern and housed in the trunk space of the jeep.

Its a bit much for me, although I do like his exuberance. And – looking on the bright side – I’m happy to say that his jeep has no gunrack :).

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Posted in Beirut | Leave a Comment »

coming to America: region-specific pop-up ads

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 28, 2007

The pop-up blocker I use works quite well most of the time – sparing me who knows how many unwanted advertisements. And the pop-up ads that do slip through are often more than entertaining enough to make up for the minor annoyance of deleting them.

They also give me a better appreciation for how finely tuned the art of online advertising has become. The more sophisticated ad generators recognize my IP address as coming from the Middle East, and tailor their pop-ups accordingly.

Hence, the pop-ups I receive often look something like this:

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Yes – that’s right. This is an advertisement targeting Arabic speakers who hope to come to the United States, telling them that the US government is promising that 50,000 applicants will obtain a green card. I didn’t click through to see where the pop-up would take me, but I imagine that it goes to one of the many sites that promise to help would-be emigrants with the green card lottery application process.

I’m not in the market for a green card, of course – but I wish best of luck to those who are. As a nation of immigrants, we could stand to be a bit more welcoming to those eager to join us.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic | Leave a Comment »

season’s greetings: Ramadan and the zeal for charity

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 27, 2007

Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiyya (The Islamic House of Orphans), also known as Social Welfare Institutions in Lebanon, is one of Muslim Lebanon’s longest-running charitable organizations. I see its schoolbuses on the roads and read about its various fundraisers here and there – including an early summer feature in Cedar Wings, Middle East Airlines’ in-flight magazine.

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As the name suggests, Dar al-Aytam is a Muslim charity, although its website drops the “al-Islamiyya” and the only reference to “Islam” I can find on the English-language site is its “commitment to the humanitarian principles of Islam such as justice, tolerance and abhorrence of confessionalism and sectarianism.” I’m not sure whether Dar al-Aytam helps non-Muslims – or whether non-Muslims would seek it out for help even if help were offered. Like most things here, charity seems to be religiously segregated, and I doubt that the Christian charities go overboard helping non-Christians (or even Christians of differing denominations) either.

Regardless, I live in a Muslim neighborhood and Ramadan is definitely the time for charities like Dar al-Aytam to solicit donations – and I am a willing donor. I was raised by parents who taught us to donate to any reasonable cause – whether by buying popcorn from the Cub Scouts, cookies from the Girl Scouts or sending a check to the local food pantry. So when my doorbell rang this afternoon, I was happy to bring out my wallet.

I’m sorry, the man at the door said when I presented him with a crisp Lebanese note, shaking his head. It is not enough.

What? I said, raising my eyebrows and thinking “what happened to “beggars can’t be choosers” or “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”?

You do not understand, he said. Perhaps you do not understand English very well.

I raised my eyebrows again. The concierge, who was standing nearby, started to laugh. And really – how often in Beirut does anyone suggest that I don’t speak English? It was pretty funny.

It is very expensive to take care of orphans, the man told me, pulling out an album of photos. For each one it costs $2,000 per month. You must give $2,000.

I do understand that children are expensive – that’s why in the United States they count as tax deductions. But I’m fairly expensive, too – and I couldn’t spend $2,000 on myself in one month in Beirut if I tried.

I’m sorry, I said, but I will not give you $2,000.

He sighed and filled out the Dar al-Aytam donor receipt for the amount I had given him. And then – ensuring that he had the final word – he removed the sticker he had placed on my door frame, which would indicate to other solicitors that I had donated already. If God loves a cheerful giver I suggest His workers on earth look elsewhere for the next day or two, until I get over my sticker-less fit of pique!

Posted in Beirut, childhood, family, Islam, Lebanon | 3 Comments »

full of sound and fury: Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 25, 2007

One of my former schools is in the news this week in a big way: for inviting Iranian president Ahmadinejad to speak at its World Leaders Forum. Like many New York schools, Columbia capitalizes on the UN’s annual summit as an opportunity to bring prominent global leaders to campus. A few years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin came to Morningside Heights, and the campus rooftops were filled with snipers – quite a sight for Manhattan.

Many of Columbia’s invitees are controversial – but perhaps none so much as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This marks the second time the university has invited him to speak – although last year, the invitation was withdrawn. (For a conservative take on that story, see the New York Sun’s coverage, including this article.)

This time, the university went ahead with the event as planned – and I think it did so for good reason. Men like Ahmadinejad live in little bubbles of their own creation. Putting them before an audience uncowed by their power and unenamoured of their politics forces them to address a less artificial public sphere than that which they encounter in their home countries.

Before the forum, Columbia president Lee Bollinger sent this letter to students and faculty, outlining his rationale for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak – and to answer questions from his audience:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I would like to share a few thoughts about today’s appearance of
President Ahmadinejad at our World Leaders Forum. I know this is a matter of deep concern for many in our University community and
beyond. I want to say first and foremost how proud I am of
Columbia, especially our students, as we discuss, debate and plan
for this highly visible event.

I ask that each of us make special efforts to respect the different
views people have about the event and to recognize the different
ways it affects members of our community. For many reasons, this
will demand the best of each of us to live up to the best of
Columbia’s traditions.

For the School of International and Public Affairs, which developed
the idea for this forum as the commencement to a year-long
examination of 30 years of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this is an
important educational experience for training future leaders to
confront the world as it is — a world that includes far too many
brutal, anti-democratic and repressive regimes. For the rest of us,
this occasion is not only about the speaker but quite centrally
about us — about who we are as a nation and what universities can
be in our society.

I would like just to repeat what I have said earlier: It is vitally
important for a university to protect the right of our schools, our
deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even
odious.

But it should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we
deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the
weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about
the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical
premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable
when we open the public forum to their voices.

The great majority of student leaders with whom I met last week
affirmed their belief that this event, however controversial, is
consistent with the values of academic freedom we share at the
center of university life. I fully support, indeed I celebrate, the
right to peacefully demonstrate and engage in a dialogue about this
event and this speaker, as I understand a wide coalition of our
student groups are planning for today. That such a forum and such
public criticism of President Ahmadinejad’s statements and policies
could not safely take place on a university campus in Iran today
sharpens the point of what we do here. The kind of freedom that
will be on display at Columbia has always been and remains today
our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes
everywhere in the world. This is the power and example of America
at its best.

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger

If I had been in New York, I doubt I would have gone – I’m not good with confrontation, and I don’t like crowds. But I’m delighted that Columbia made good on its invitation – and all the more so since it resulted in such gems as Ahmadinejad’s “wishful thinking” comment about gays in Iran, which my aunt has posted as a video link on her website.

Update, September 29, 2007:

Having read the text of Bollinger’s ‘welcoming’ speech I do agree with Abu Owlfish that Bollinger erred on the side of grandstanding rather than statesmanship. I do wonder why – and suspect it might have something to do with last year, when Bollinger rescinded the invitation that then-SIPA dean Lisa Anderson had extended to Ahmadinejad. Perhaps he felt pressure – self-imposed if nothing else – to be “strong”, both in seeing through this year’s invitation and making it clear that he did so as a critic.

In any case, I note in today’s Daily Star that Ahmadinejad is comfortable with the idea that President Bush could make a similar appearance in Iran:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently addressed an American university in a somewhat stormy session, says that if US President George W. Bush would like to make a speech at an Iranian university he would authorize it. In a statement to state television during his visit to Latin America, the Iranian leader said: “If their president [Bush] wishes to come, we authorize him to make a speech” at an Iranian university.Ahmadinejad was asked by an Iranian television journalist if he would agree to “American politicians” making a speech as he had been able to do at Columbia University during his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

I’m sure Bush will be there on the next plane.

Posted in Americans, Iran, media | 2 Comments »

the bag lady

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 24, 2007

Do you have a bag I can borrow? G asked the other night, burdened with assorted bottles of ranch dressing, Tylenol cold products and other goodies brought back from the US.

Of course, I yelled from the salon. There’s one in the kitchen. Do you see it?

You’ve got to be kidding, G called back. No way am I taking that bag.

Well. I like the bag, but in G’s defense, his next stop was an all-guys poker game.

There should be other bags in the cupboard by the refrigerator, I said.

For a few moments, I heard the sounds of plastic shuffling, and then:

ARE YOU SERIOUS? G called. You brought bags from TARGET back to Lebanon?

Errgh. We all have our quirks. When I travel, I wrap my toiletries in ziplock bags, and my shoes and clothing in plastic shopping bags. And yes, I do end up lining my trash cans with US shopping bags for the first month. A bit weird, but … you know … all the comforts of home :D.

Posted in Iowa | 4 Comments »

saving us from our own greed: the US Embassy in Kuwait

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 24, 2007

As usual, the US embassy here in Lebanon has had nothing to say to its citizens regarding last week’s bombing. Oh well. At least other US embassies around the region keep me up-to-date on critical issues like personal safety and … work scams. This came last week from the Embassy in Kuwait:

International Work Offer Scam

Recently US military contractors in Kuwait received offers by individuals claiming they can obtain an employment visa and residency permit for Dakar, Senegal. These offers appear to be scams. One person paid a large fee to an agency called Zenith Travel for a visa and residency permit to work for a company named Calpine Group Limited. This is contrary to normal procedures—Senegalese visas can only be provided directly by the Ministry of Interior, and Americans working in Senegal usually obtain the visa from the Ministry once they are resident there. Information about how to apply for a Residence Permit in Senegal can be found at: http://dakar.usembassy.gov/service/living-in-senegal-and-guinea-bissau/senegalese-residence-permit.html

Anyone considering working in Senegal or any foreign country should thoroughly investigate the job offer. Other common scams involve internet dating, inheritance, and money-laundering and are often initiated through the internet. For more information on scams, visit the State Department website at: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_3155.html.

I have several things to say about this warning. First, are there really that many Kuwait-based US contractors looking for work in Senegal? Things must be _really_ bad in Iraq. Second, don’t these people apply the “an email from the crown prince of Nigeria” test to these offers before accepting them? And third, who am I to complain? After all, the US Embassy in Kuwait continues to show much greater concern for my well-being than the US Embassy here. So please, keep the warden messages coming!

Posted in Americans, Kuwait | Leave a Comment »

sad days in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 20, 2007

Yesterday was a beautiful late summer day – hot but not too humid, with a light breeze blowing fresh air through the streets. It was a beautiful day – until it wasn’t.

For the first half hour, the only television crew on the scene of the explosion was OTV. LBC and Future (and a bit later, Manar) played OTV’s footage; none of the networks’ commentators had much to say, beyond “we have no information and no details”. The footage was very stark – one set of cars burning on the left, and another burning across the way on the right.

For the first fifteen minutes, there wasn’t even the crowd that usually forms – just ten or twenty dazed men walking around singly or in groups of two or three. A few held their mobile phones up to take photographs; others moved semi-aimlessly between the burning cars. To me they all appeared to be at least somewhat in shock – not callously avoiding the wounded and dead, just unsure what to do.

As the camera panned from right to left, it dipped and – I think unintentionally, as the rest of OTV’s footage had no gratuitous victim shots – caught a man lying on his back on the ground. He was covered in blood – streams of it dripped down his face, his torso, and his arms – and he was waving his arms above his head. I don’t think he could get to his feet, and I hope that someone came out of his/her daze to help him.

And I hope that Lebanon’s politicians come out of their own dazes – or perhaps hazes is the better term – and build a stronger future for this country than it seems to have from today’s vantage point. Days like yesterday seem to both tear people apart and to make them harder – or maybe indifferent – and neither is healthy.
My friend M called this morning, asking whether I knew if all businesses are supposed to close today. Her husband is out of town and their employees are telling her that they should have today off. Banks are closed, and schools, but everyone else I know is working. And while their desire to mourn a fellow Phalangist might be touching, I remember that in June my office mates commemorated Walid Eido’s assassination by spending the ‘day of mourning’ at the beach.

As for me, I’ve spent the morning tidying up my apartment, emptying those massive suitcases and trying out a new bedspread – one of many from my parents’ nearly inexhaustible supply (thanks, Mom!).

bedspread-close-up.jpg

And this afternoon I’m planning to tidy myself up, head (or at least eyes) to toes. Its another beautiful day here – one whose sunshine and warmth must feel barbaric to those whose families were torn apart by yesterday’s bombing.

Posted in Beirut, explosion, family, Lebanon, media, politics | 1 Comment »

powering up in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 19, 2007

I returned to Beirut last night with two very heavy pieces of luggage.

Wow, G said when I unzipped the first one. Thank God customs didn’t search your bag. They would have charged you for all the Big Red for sure.

I don’t know about that. I only brought … well … ten 10-packs. So – ahem – 100 packs of gum. I guess I can see how Customs might have raised an eyebrow at my claim of ‘for individual use’.

My apartment is much as I left it, with the happy deletion of not one but two rats, ugh. And I learned this morning that I have come back in time for the last hurrah of the summer power cuts.

The power cuts are a universal issue these days, and Beirut still has it better than most of the country. We lose power for three hours in the morning, while most areas outside Beirut are without power for eight, ten, twelve hours a day.

Even when our power is on, my apartment often loses power. Why? Oh, because … my apartment, the apartment next door and the building elevator are all on the same circuit. The reason why is a long story involving the previous occupant, an elderly woman who never paid her electric bill and the Lebanese electric utility company, EDL, which insists that the bill be paid before turning on my apartment’s electric line.

As a result, I spend a good amount of time resetting the fusebox. Its a simple process, but not a hugely pleasant one.

First, I go to the fuse “cage”, located next to the elevator base. I swing the handle left to unlock it, then right again so the door can open. I imagine that the two-step process is unintentional (I think the handle is meant to be parallel with the floor, not with the door), but I like the child-proofing result.

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This is what I see when I open the cage door:

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(It was a bit intimidating the first time.)

And this is what I stand on to reach our fuse box:

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I open the metal cover and reset the fuse box – ours is the one on the top right.

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… And then I return to making tea or turning on the kitchen light or whatever set the fuses off this time!

Posted in Beirut, home, humor, Lebanon, photography | 1 Comment »

Lebanon where you least expect it

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 16, 2007

My mother’s family is filled with female bookworms: my grandmother, my aunts, my sister and I – all love to read. Wherever we go, we find books to buy – even at Costco, where my mother and I were last week. My mother bought this book, which I quickly spirited away to read before leaving Iowa:

sanctuary.jpg

Khoury is a Lebanese-Brit, I think, although he might be Lebanese-American. He writes thrillers – well, thrillers up until the denouement, which he hasn’t yet figured out how to make truly thrilling. But his books are enjoyable reads – sometimes for unexpected reasons.

The Sanctuary is set primarily in Lebanon in October 2006, when the country was first struggling to recover from the bomb attacks of the summer war. For those who know the country – and Beirut especially – the book offers delightful localisms, like references to AUB’s sea gate, as well as homages to local beliefs, like the omnipresence of the CIA.

And even those localisms that are off the mark are entertaining, if sometimes in a laughter-that-catches-in-the-throat type of way. For example, one young American geneticist is housed at the Hobeish ‘police’ station west of AUB overnight after her mother, an archaeologist and long-time AUB professor, is abducted. She blames her sleepless night there on how noisy the station was, thanks to a constant flow of “bookings”. So it was the noise of ordinary criminals being booked that kept her awake, rather than the screams of those up on the fourth floor? Khoury’s normalization of a station known for activities other than standard policing is funny – until it isn’t.

Khoury’s novel intersects with real life in another curious way: gene research. The book’s young geneticist has come to Lebanon on a research project financed by the Hariri Foundation – one intended to map the genes of the ancient Phoenicians. The Hariri Foundation hopes that the project’s results would show that Lebanese of all faiths have Phoenician ancestry, making Phoenicianism a basis for a common national identity. This would be a big improvement – thus far, claiming Phoenician ancestry has been a Lebanese Christian tactic in the larger (and rather Israeli) struggle to ‘prove’ that Lebanon is theirs.

According to a very recent Reuters article, there is a project underway to map the Phoenician genes – even if the Hariri Foundation isn’t involved:

In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts
By Tom Perry

BYBLOS, Lebanon (Reuters) – A Lebanese scientist following the genetic footprint of the ancient Phoenicians says he has traced their modern-day descendants, but stumbled into an old controversy about identity in his country.

Geneticist Pierre Zalloua has charted the spread of the Phoenicians out of the eastern Mediterranean by identifying an ancient type of DNA which some Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians share with Maltese, Spaniards and Tunisians.

A seafaring civilization which reached its zenith between 1200 and 800 BC, the Phoenicians’ earliest cities included Byblos, Tyre and Sidon on Lebanon’s coast.

But their link to Lebanon, whose borders were drawn as recently as 1920, has long been a subject of controversy in a country split between an array of religious communities. “Negotiating these waters is a very delicate job,” Zalloua said.

Seeking to set themselves apart from their Muslim compatriots, some Lebanese Christians have drawn on the Phoenician past to try to forge an identity separate from the prevailing Arab culture.

“Whenever I use the word ‘Phoenician’, people say ‘this guy is trying to say we are not Arabs’,” said Zalloua, himself a Christian. But after five years of research, the scientist says his work has shown what Lebanese have in common. “We had a great history — let’s look at it,” he said.

The genetic marker which identifies descendants of the ancient Levantines is found among members of all of Lebanon’s religious communities, he said. “It’s a story that can actually unite Lebanon much more than anything else.”

The marker, known as the J2 haplogroup, was found in an unusually high proportion among Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians tested by Zalloua during more than five years of research. He tested 1,000 people in the region.

FROM LEBANON TO SPAIN

“The further south you go, the less likely you are to see this marker. The further north and the further inland you go, the less you see of this marker. It is very Levantine,” he said.

The same marker was found in unusually high proportions on other parts of the Mediterranean coast where the Phoenicians are known to have established colonies, such as Carthage in today’s Tunisia.

“It’s abundantly present in the Iberian peninsula,” Zalloua added. In Malta, the ancient DNA type was found in an extremely high 30 percent of samples, he said.

“We are seeing a pattern of expansion out of the Levant area along the maritime routes the Phoenicians used,” he said.

The J2 haplogroup has been dated using a calculation based on the rate at which DNA mutates. The fewer the mutations on any given type of DNA, the older it is.

“Our calculation estimates it at roughly 12,000 years old, plus or minus 5,000 years. It’s an old haplogroup and we are pretty sure it originated in this area,” he said.

Many Lebanese were keen to take part in the research, giving either a blood sample or a cheek swab so DNA could be extracted from their cells.

“They wanted to see if they are actually old Levantine or not. This area has been mixed through invasions. It has been a crossroads of many populations,” Zalloua said.

Albert Akl, 61, took part out of curiosity about his ancestry. Tests showed he had the J2 haplogroup.

“UNIFYING FORCE”

“We belong to this area — we are not passers-by,” said Akl, an engineer. Although Phoenician history should be a source of pride for Lebanese, Akl said its importance should not be blown out of proportion in today’s Lebanon.

“It carries no big meaning,” said Akl, adding that he views himself as “Lebanese, Arab and Christian — in that order”.

The research has thrown up surprise results for some.

Zalloua tested his own DNA and found a type common in India and Iran. Another participant, Joseph Tabat, got an unusual result.

“I was always intrigued as to why I look different to the rest of the guys in high school,” he said. “I’m a red-head with freckles.” Tabat’s DNA matched types found in France and Spain, perhaps a sign that one of his ancestors was a European who arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades.

“Many of the people who think they are Phoenicians are not — like me,” he said. “I’d like to see a high percentage of Lebanese going through this experience. I think it would be a unifying force and not a divisive one.”

Posted in Americans, Beirut, books, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

enabling the disabled

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 8, 2007

(Readers, be forewarned: this post has nothing to do with Lebanon, which – like most of the Middle East – makes no provisions for handicapped access to any space, public or private.)

The other day, while out shopping the September sales, my mother and I noticed that one of our favorite off-price shops had re-done its signage – including its “handicapped access” sign.

Most handicapped signs look like this:

handicapped.jpg

I had never given much thought to the message these signs might send until I saw the new sign:

active-handicap.jpg

What an empowering sign this is. The old one shows a passive wheelchair rider, being pushed or relying on an electric chair to move around. The new sign shows a wheelchair user – or maybe even a wheelchairer, in the way that a person on a bike becomes a biker. Not only is he/she pushing themselves, but you can see the motion thanks to the curved lines.

My uncle was in a wheelchair for thirty years. I love this sign.

Posted in Americans, art, Iowa | 7 Comments »