A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for November, 2007

staying safe in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 30, 2007

Since returning to Lebanon last Saturday, I have received several reminders about personal safety. The US Embassy in Damascus sent me a copy of the November 23 Public Announcement: Lebanon, which warned Americans to “maintain a low profile in public and avoid predictable or habitual behavior”. Well, I’ve been predictably irritated at the US Embassy in Lebanon for maintaining its habitual failure to pass any of its public announcements, warnings or warden messages on to me … but since I haven’t rung up Awkar to see why, despite all my efforts, this is so, I think that at least I am keeping a low profile.

Meanwhile I received an email at work reminding me to carry both my work ID and my passport at all times. Like France, Lebanon requires every person to carry government-issued IDs at all times – but it does not require people to carry their work IDs as well. I’m sure the fine I might face for being caught without my ID would be annoying, but … I suspect the timing and the double-ID suggestion had more to do with the current political situation than with HR’s concern for my financial well-being.

This evening, I read an article written by Lieutenant Commander Trevor Leslie, a member of the New Zealand military team working to disarm the cluster bombs still littering south Lebanon. He and his team have chosen to put their own safety at risk in order to make life safer for the people of the south – a much more serious, and more noble, jeopardy than I ever face, ID or no.

“Stay safe” is the most common expression I’ve heard since arriving in Lebanon and are the last words spoken by Hani, our locally employed medic, prior to donning Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to conduct a Render Safe Procedure (RSP) on sub-munitions found in the contaminated sites dotted around this beautiful ancient country.

My cell-phone has that same message on its screen and those are the last words uttered between the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technicians from various agencies prior to loading up with explosives from the Chinese Battalion (CHINBAT) each morning. These words act as a daily reminder of the hazards of life in Lebanon.

Since the 34 day war concluded on 14 August 2006, cluster bombs have claimed the lives of approximately 30 – 40 locals and international workers and approximately 180 more have been maimed or disfigured.

A few hours before boarding the plane from New Zealand I was informed of the latest fatality – a British EOD operator working on a site next to ours near the Israeli border. Because of this accident that site is currently suspended, however us Kiwi’s will be opening it back up very soon to continue the clearance.

The Army Engineers and a Navy Diver have systematically searched lanes on land portioned into 50m x 50m tape lined boxes. My hat goes off to these boys many just past the age of 20.

Without a second thought they head the assault into un-cleared land with their metal detectors, camelbacks and a healthy dose of kiwi humour to cut into the monotony of 7 hours of solid searching daily. After 5 months and more than 120,000 square metres of searched land behind them I can see the job has worn them down but their conversation belies it, and laughter comes as easily as it did during the first few weeks.

The second Leading Diver is conducting the daily EOD and Demolitions checks, thankful for the respite from searching and anxious to initiate the firing sequence and hear the crack of another high order detonation, a pleasing sound to us all as it signifies a productive and safe end to another day of Battle Area Clearance and EOD for our team.

As you can imagine a lot enters my mind when making the lonely walk to ‘no mans land’ to RSP these sub-munitions. With the idle banter fading rapidly and the CP (Control Point) safely behind me I can now clearly see the sets of 3 marking pegs surrounding each individual sub-munitions.

All applicable safeties flash briefly in my mind and I check then recheck them to confirm all is well. Approach angle safe in accordance with the Jet hazard threat posed by the shape charge in each of the dual purpose munitions. A final check of PPE and clothing…A quick karakia….deep breath …sweet ….let’s roll.

Each RSP is conducted methodically, following the same basic procedures unfortunately as each cluster bomb has impacted differently each manual RSP can differ slightly and on several occasions the option to Blow in Place (BIP) is chosen as a safety measure noting the degraded nature and dangerous configuration of some sub-munitions. Once all items have been rendered safe with locations marked by GPS a final visual of the area is conducted before heading back to the CP where preparation is underway to detonate the days haul.

As an interesting contradiction explosives are commonly used to destroy explosive devices and this technique has been utilised effectively by EOD Operators for decades. However, in areas that cannot withstand a high order (eg. Queen St) a variety of other explosive and non-explosive techniques and tools are available to EOD Operators to render safe ordnance for removal and subsequent disposal.

Once all items have been successfully destroyed and the site is closed down then comes what I would term the most dangerous part of every day … the drive home. The nerves get worn down when dealing with roads in disrepair, no apparent driving rules and arrogant drivers who are oblivious to others. Thankfully I have spent the last 19 years in Auckland so am used to this traffic bedlam.

At time of writing, after 5 days of searching in November 07, 104 sub-munitions were located, rendered safe and moved for demolition. In total the NZDF Battle Area Clearance (BAC) Team has located, rendered safe and destroyed over 1700 sub-munitions since arriving in theatre in Feb 2007.

Here in Lebanon the weather is deteriorating as winter approaches. The days are shorter and darker. The sub munitions on the ground are mostly buried or partially buried and due to environmental exposure have become quite unstable and dangerous. The guys in-theatre experience, training and heightened vigilance more than mitigate the additional threat and I can safely state that all of the team are ready for the challenges the final quarter of the deployment has to offer.

We look forward to seeing you all early in 2008.

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Posted in Lebanon | 1 Comment »

keeping all secrets: banking in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 29, 2007

My current job pays me in local currency – local Lebanese currency, as opposed to local U S currency, which also circulates here.

Since I don’t want to truck around millions of Lebanese pounds in cash each month, I chose the “direct deposit” option, which required me to get a local bank account.

I’ve never had a foreign bank account before, so the idea was rather exciting. The reality was less so.

Excuse me, but are we waiting for something? I asked the account services representative after ten minutes of watching her tidy up her desk.

We are waiting to see whether it is allowed for you to have an account with us, she told me. Because you are foreign.

My father tells me that since the passage of the Patriot Act, banking in the US has become equally burdensome. But why a Lebanese bank would want to deter any foreigner bringing money into the country from opening an account – especially since the sector’s prospects are so dismal otherwise – was a mystery.

Perhaps I should have chosen a less successful bank. I went with BLOM, because it had been in the news recently for being the only bright spot in a dim sector (and because I appreciated BLOM’s efforts to transform Rifaat al Asad’s eyesore building in Abou Roumaneh into its flagship Damascus branch). Maybe a struggling bank would have been more eager to help.

At any rate, I was approved and am now the proud possessor of a Lebanese ATM card (“how do I choose my PIN?” “Choose? You do not choose. Here it is, in this envelope. No one chooses.”) and an old-school account:

“Can I bank online?” “Yes, you can see your bank account online, after you fill out a paper with us.”

“Can I convert my deposits into dollars online?” “No – you cannot convert them with this account. When you want to convert your deposit, you must come to this branch and we will open a second account for you.”

“Can I transfer money?” “Of course not. When you want to transfer money, you must come to this branch.”

Right. Well, I like history – and this account is certainly a step back into the past.

In addition to my type of account, the bank offers other accounts – including one enticingly titled the secret account.

What does this mean? I asked the account services person, while we sat waiting for my approval.

It means that it is a secret account, she told me, smiling.

But who is it secret from? I asked her, curious.

Everybody, she said, laughing. Even we cannot see whose account it is.

Before the Civil War, Lebanon’s promoters used to call it the Switzerland of the Middle East. Apparently at least in banking it still is :).

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Posted in Americans, Beirut, citizenship, Lebanon, time | 10 Comments »

thoughts from the diaspora

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 27, 2007

The city I visited last week has a sizable Lebanese population, stretching back into the 1920s and 1930s. Saying that I live in Beirut proved to be a good conversation starter.

My parents came from Lebanon in the 1940s, one man in his early 60s told me. Its a beautiful country.

It certainly is, I agreed.

But this whole thing with the presidential election is so sad, he continued.

It certainly is, I agreed, again. Here was a man who not only liked Lebanon, but also knew its current state.

You know, he continued, in my mind there’s really only one man who they should choose.

Really? I asked, curious. Who?

Well, he said, there’s only one man who cares about the country and the people, rather than his own interests: Bashir.

Ahhh, I said.

Ergh. What does one say in these situations?

Option one: You know, I think its a bit late for him.

Option two: I’m not sure whether you heard, but he died in 1982.

Option three: I’m not sure that electing a dead man is really the best option for moving Lebanon forward.

Guessing that this was a simple case of mistaken identity, rather than an indictment of the country’s leading politicos, I chose Option four:

I think you may mean his brother, Amin.

Poor Amin – he’s been president in his own right, but even now he suffers from Jacob-Have-I-Loved syndrome. And even when he held court during the summer’s Metn elections, it was Geagea the crowd called for, not him.

And poor Lebanon, when even those who grow up in truly democratic states persist in believing that “sheikhly” families are the best suited to rule their ancestral home.

Posted in family, Lebanon, politics | 1 Comment »

Is this a threat or a promise? Hamadeh guarantees “the continuity of public services”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2007

A news update from Now Lebanon: Minister Hamadeh: the government will ensure the continuity of public services.

Oh, thank goodness. I would miss the power cuts terribly if they were halted. Nonstop light, heat, and internet? Perish the thought.

And drinking water 24/7? I wouldn’t know what to do with all that water – even I can only drink so much tea.

(I’ve hyper-texted the update, but clicking through isn’t really worth the effort. NL’s commentary pieces are interesting, but the texts behind its news update headlines rarely add much to the header. In this case, the bulk of the update is political sniping from Hamadeh – the public services reference is an after-thought.)

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon | Leave a Comment »

the broken windows broken republic hypothesis

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2007

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I pass this luxury building every morning. Its maintenance men used to put the diesel hose away after each visit by the fuel truck, but last month they stopped. Apparently they no longer think it worth their while to take the hose out every morning – and apparently the residents do not complain about having an ugly black hose littering the entrance.

To me this is one of the more depressing signs of how low things have become here. Settling on a president is this week’s big issue, but it is not the only one.

Posted in Beirut | Leave a Comment »

making sense of Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 24, 2007

I feel sorry for the local US newscasters trying to keep up with events in Lebanon. While looking for updates on the situation, I found this transcript from Minot, North Dakota’s KXMC:

BEIRUT Lebanon (AP) Lebanon’s political situation has taken a confusing turn. President Emile Lahoud (ee-MEEL’ lah-HOOD”) has ordered the Army to take over security, saying the country is in “state of emergency.” The move comes just hours before Lahoud is to step down, with no successor. The government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora (foo-AHD’ sah-nee-OHR’-uh) says the declaration is unconstitutional.

Oh well – at least they aren’t still referring to him as Imad Lahoud. “Imad” is a name in Arabic, but it is also a title: colonel. And, to be fair, the situation in Lebanon is confusing.

And I’ll be there by tomorrow :).

Posted in Americans, Lebanon, media, politics | Leave a Comment »

exercising caution in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 23, 2007

As I have mentioned before, I never get the US Embassy in Lebanon’s warden messages. I rely on the US Embassy in Kuwait, which does an excellent job, and on the kindness of friends to pass along the warnings they receive.

After hearing from G that the embassy issued a warning last Friday, I got a bit peeved. I fired off an email to the Beirut American Citizens Services address, asking why I never receive these warnings. And I “signed up to receive all copies of Embassy warden notices” via the Beirut warden message listserver.

When a message came back to me almost immediately, I was delighted. Here was proof that the warden system was working: I subscribed and immediately was sent the latest warning.

When I looked at the email, however, my delight faded. This is how the email began:

PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT – WORLDWIDE CAUTION

1. This Public Announcement updates information on the
continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence
against Americans and interests overseas. This supersedes
the Worldwide Caution dated March 8, 2005 and expires on
February 2, 2006.

Yes, indeed. The Beirut warden listserver did not send me the Novemer 16, 2007 warden message – but it did keep me well advised of the State Department’s concerns in August 2005.

Posted in Americans, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

a palace fit for a pharaoh

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 22, 2007

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to tour my first Lebanese museum – and what a gem it is.

The Mouawad Museum is a private museum established by Robert Mouawad, a wealthy Lebanese businessman known for his gemstone dealings. In the mid 1990s, he purchased the Pharaon family mansion, an Italianate villa in Zokak al-Blatt, built in the 1890s and filled by Henri-Philippe Pharaon over the following decades with the interiors of some of Syria’s finest old houses.

 

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(Photo courtesy of the Mouawad Museum website – I saw it during the day, but isn’t it stunning at night?) 

Pharaon was a political figure and one of Lebanon’s original seven deputies – and is credited with designing the national flag.

He was also a racehorse owner and – if rumors be true – enjoyed amorous relations with many men, including the architect who oversaw the Orientalization of the Pharaon family home.

Eleanor Roosevelt met him and his wife during an official visit to Lebanon in 1952:

We had dinner at one of the most remarkable houses I ever seen, our host being Mrs. Henri Pharaon. On his vast acreage Mr. Pharaon has between 150 and 200 fine racing horses, the biggest stable in the whole Near East. He also showed me a most priceless Ninth Century copy of the Koran.

Mr. Pharaon’s house and his way of life, however, can hardly be typical of the average. He quite evidently is a man of political and financial power but also a man of great artistic taste.

Having survived the civil war (and kept his house intact by paying off the various militias), Pharaon’s last days were somewhat less pleasant. He was kicked out of the family home by his son, who had begun selling off the treasures his father had collected so painstakingly (including this 16th century “checkerboard carpet”, sold by Christie’s in 1990 and re-sold in 2001). Homeless, Pharaon took up permanent residence in the Carlton Hotel in Raouche, from which he traveled to the Goethe Institut and other cultural sites around the city. In 1993, at the age of 93, he was murdered in his hotel room along with his driver. (Pharaon’s son, no lover of antiques, sold the house to Mouawad, who had every piece cleaned and restored.)

I loved the museum – loved wandering through it and discovering each new treasure – painted wooden walls, Chinese porcelain, Delft tiles (apparently Syria was a huge export market …!), and more. I had a wonderful “tour guide” – a long-time Beirut resident who made the spaces come alive with stories.

Unfortunately for the museum, its location (at the end of Army Street) has cut down dramatically on the number of visitors it receives. But it is still open – and the soldiers at the checkpoint were quite friendly. You can go – and you can even drive there (or take a taxi). And thanks to the situation, museum parking is plentiful.

Posted in Beirut | 4 Comments »

greased lightnin’: flying while musical

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 22, 2007

I love musicals. From Oklahoma to West Side Story, I can sing along with almost all of them – even lesser known productions like Starlight Express. In my opinion, everyday life would be much improved if we all broke into a song and dance routine at least once a day – like a Bollywoodized version of reality.

My second flight leaving Beirut was a long one – and featured a retro-style flight experience: no individual televisions. For me it was fine – I often am too busy sleeping (or reading) to watch an in-flight movie. And, true to form, I slept right through the first film and into the second.

When I woke, I looked up and found … heaven, in movie form. For some reason, the second feature film on my flight was Grease. I dug around frantically for my earphones, plugged in and happily bopped my way from the end of “Summer Lovin'” to the closing number.

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When the movie ended, I sat back and steeled myself for the flight’s remaining hours. I had little hope that the third movie would prove as entertaining, so I put away my earphones and pulled out my book. But when the opening credits began to roll, I realized that the third in-flight movie was … Grease, again.

If the number of people on board my flight thrilled about watching Grease once was more than half the total passenger count, I would have been surprised. And if the number thrilled to watch Grease twice in a row was more than one, I would have been shocked.

But I was that geeky one – and I was delighted. And unsurprisingly, I have been humming songs from Grease ever since.

Posted in media, time, travel, words | 1 Comment »

Independence Day

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 21, 2007

On Thursday, Lebanon celebrates 64 years of independence – kind of. On November 22, 1943, Lebanon became a sovereign nation-state, effective January 1, 1944. However, the country’s French masters, perhaps reluctant to bid the Mediterranean au revoir, held on for three more years, until the British pressured them into turning de jure independence into de facto reality. They finally pulled out on December 31, 1946.

Its a confusing history – why is November 22 the official independence day, rather than January 1, 1944, or December 31, 1946? – and apparently no less so confusing for some Lebanese. I recently spoke to a group of students in their late teens – well-educated, active, engaged.

… and next Thursday is a holiday, I mentioned casually (this was last week, when the election was 1) scheduled for Tuesday and 2) a less frightening prospect).

It is? one asked. What for?

Horrified, I couldn’t think of a good explanation. Its your national day – Lebanon’s national day, I sputtered, wondering: why isn’t anyone else jumping in to explain?

Perhaps because the national history they learn looks something like this:

From 1516 to 1918 Lebanon was under the administrative rule and political sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the territory defined by the present-day boundaries became a state called “Grand –Liban” (Great Lebanon) by decree of General Gouraud, head of the French troops in the Levant. The state remained under French Mandate until November 26,1941. A constitution was adopted on May 25, 1926 establishing a democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government. Effective political independence of the Republic occurred on November 22, 1943 (Independence Day). In 1945 Lebanon became a founding member of the League of Arab states, then of the United Nations. Departure of the foreign troops then on the Republic’s territory was completed on December 31, 1946.

Over the next 30 years, Lebanon became a melting pot with a diverse cultural heritage. The instability in surrounding countries caused Lebanon to experience large waves of immigration from neighboring countries and attracted thousands of skilled laborers, entrepreneurs and intellectuals. The economic force of the Republic has mainly revolved around its entrepreneurs. In addition, Lebanon’s democratic traditions, attachment to freedom of speech and expression and its educated population enabled the Republic to become the cultural, academic and medical center of the region.

This fascinating bit of wishful thinking, elision, and simplification comes from the “Kids Only” section of the Lebanese Embassy to the United States’ website. “Over the next 30 years” takes the reader to 1976, after which …. nothing, evidently, happened worth mentioning. Denial: its not just a river in Egypt anymore.

For those who are aware of Lebanon’s independence day, there are actually several ways to celebrate it. 123 Greetings offers two nice e-cards, while edHelper has an entire teaching unit devoted to the day, suitable for students in grades 6-9.

And Nobelcom, the calling card service I use, is offering a 10% discount for Lebanon calling cards:

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I’d like to celebrate Lebanon’s independence day by welcoming in a new president and by resting secure in the knowledge that Lebanese people know their own history.

But both those desires seem unlikely to be realized. In the meantime, I’ll send e-cards and order new calling cards at a discounted rate.

Posted in education, Lebanon, politics | 4 Comments »