A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for December, 2007

DIY, Lebanese-style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 31, 2007

Sporty Diamond and her husband, Dr. Fenway, have given me two beautiful little paintings recently – one for my birthday in November, and one for Christmas. They are small enough that I brought them back to Beirut with me, and now will need to hang them.

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This pear painting was for my birthday – painted by a local Waukee artist.

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The cow jumps over the moon painting was done by a woman who works at Pike Place Market – Sporty D got one for each of us.

In my New York apartment, that would have been a simple matter. I would have gotten out my electric drill (don’t laugh – in fact, I had two for a while, meaning that I had roughly one drill for every 150 square feet :P) and installed brackets. It would have been a five minute job, including time for a quick jaunt to my neighborhood hardware store to get the brackets I needed.

I don’t have a drill here in Beirut, and nor does my landlord. When I need to hang something (like the three clocks that hang in my salon: one on Beirut time, one on Iowa time, and one on Seattle time), I ask him, and he makes an appointment with the drill man.

The drill man, whose name I am embarrassed to admit I do not know, comes to my apartment, looks at what I want to hang and where I want to hang it, and drills holes more or less where I want them. In the case of the clocks, which I wanted to hang in a vertical column, it was a bit less at first – hence the wall behind the clocks has 7 holes rather than three.

With these paintings, I imagine it will be easier – they are each small enough to require an equally small wall to hang on so they do not get dwarfed. As to where they hang on those walls, I am flexible. Below the ceiling, above my belly button – any place in that range will be fine.

What won’t be any easier will be the big chunk of DIY pride I will have to swallow before I can speak to my landlord without gagging. I liked being able to drill my own bracket holes – I liked the feeling of capability it gave me. But sitting on my pride means un-hung paintings. Pass the seasonings, please – I have a lot of swallowing to do!

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, art, Beirut, home | 1 Comment »

coming home

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 30, 2007

I arrived back in Beirut this afternoon, on the Middle East Airlines flight from Paris. Ordinarily, I hate flying MEA. The attendants are nice, but rarely up to the task of managing the egos of their passengers.

For example, on my flight out of Beirut last week, the woman seated behind me decided that I was not allowed to recline my seat. When shoving my seat forward proved ineffective – and telling me “you cannot put your seat back” equally so – she called a flight attendant. (I do try not to be unreasonable – I don’t put my seat back when meals are served, and I don’t put it back all the way during daytime flights or when the person behind me is particularly long-legged. But the seats are made to recline …)

It took the personal intervention of the purser to … well … if not convince her … at least bring the active shoving down to a manageable series of kicks. And no, she wasn’t a teenager – in fact, the two teenage children accompanying her were much better behaved. I’m not one to praise the world’s airlines for shortening the pitch of their seats, but I don’t think it beyond the pale to try to catch a few zzzz’s on a 2 am flight.

What really makes me roll my eyes about MEA flights, though, is the fact that everyone claps when the plane lands. I am all for clapping when the pilot has done an exceptional job – I clapped heartily in July 2001, when the plane I was on made a successful emergency landing in Detroit after losing its mechanical brain. And I clapped long and hard in November 1996 when my post-Thanksgiving flight landed, skidding but safe, on our third approach into Albany during a white-out blizzard. But clapping for every ordinary landing? This is the outcome I expect for a commercial flight. Otherwise, what’s the point of having pilot’s licenses?

So I was delightfully surprised this afternoon when no one clapped. Besides myself and one newly hired professional basketball player from Rhode Island (who unfortunately could not pronounce the name of his new team), the plane was full of Lebanese from Venezuela and other points south. Perhaps their years abroad have made them more discerning flyers.

Anyway, bravo aleikon, fellow flyers! I arrived back home to find that karma once again dictated that I should arrive on a 3-6 power cut day. So I started my unpacking by candlelight, which might have been more romantic if I were less of a klutz.

Once the power came back on, I spent a few minutes picking up everything that had fallen while I roamed around in the dark, and a few more minutes sorting out everything that I had “put away” in the wrong place. I’m still missing a bottle of Whole Foods’ organic peanut sauce – I’ve checked my toiletries supply, my laundry pile, and the kitchen shelves, but it is nowhere to be found. Its alright, though. Based on years of past experience with my own absent-mindedness, I am confident that it will turn up, when (and certainly where) I least expect it.

I also decided to try out my new surge protector, a very welcome Christmas gift from Santa.

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The idea is that I plug this into the wall and it will protect up to five appliances from the surges of electrical power that occur when the power goes off, comes on, or has any number of daily hiccups.

But the surge protector has a three-prong plug, and my electrical sockets (which are dual North American/European and 220v) only take two-pronged plugs. So I plugged the protector into a universal converter, plugged the two together into the wall, and BOOM.

It wasn’t exactly a surge, and it certainly wasn’t protection – it blew my apartment’s fuses and the general fuse for the building’s floor, to boot. I guess Beirut’s power supply has a mind of its own 😛 .

Posted in Beirut, childhood, Lebanon, Paris, travel, vanity, women, words | Leave a Comment »

too funny

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 29, 2007

This morning I received an invitation to participate in a conference whose focus is answering the following question: Do Arab women have a sense of humor?

Does laughing at the very idea of this conference prove they do :P?

After a lovely week in Seattle, I’m returning to Beirut tomorrow, heartened by the news that I will not miss the next presidential election, as it has once again been postponed. Good to know that the country’s politicians haven’t lost their spark in my absence, and that I will have recovered from my West-to-East jet lag by the time they postpone the next session.

Thanks to the ESL’ly titled Facebook quiz Which Lebanese politician you are I see that if I were one of Lebanon’s marquee politicians, I would be Michel Aoun, or Micheal Oun, as the quiz spells it. Apparently my love of the color blue was not enough to counter my preference for non-sectarian elections and my preference to appear on television “just to deliver a massage to other parties”. Massage TV – I love it.

And it could have been worse. I see that my friend T is Walid Jumblatt. T spends a considerable amount of time at Haigazian, whose neighborhood is steadily being engulfed by Jumblatts and their security protection.  T’s Christmas is on the 6th – maybe a Druze cap would make a good stocking stuffer! 

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, women, words | 1 Comment »

Seattle smells and other odds & ends

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 28, 2007

I smell marijuana, my mother said on Christmas Eve as we walked down the stairwell in the retirement condo in which my grandmother lives.

I smell peanut butter, I said, thinking that this was a more likely smell for a small building full of people whose average age exceeds 75.

What are you two talking about? my father asked. Since he was the one stuck carrying the bags of trash from our Christmas Eve dinner down to the outside dumpster, I imagine that his nose was having an entirely different experience.

Ahh, Christmas with the family – so many moments of unanticipated laughter!

Today, of course, the news was grim – not from Lebanon, but from Pakistan. I wonder whether I would have had the courage that Benazir Bhutto had, to return to Pakistan knowing that she would be a target of “fundamentalists” (which increasingly seems like a convenient cover for Musharref).

My father and I watched the news this morning as we worked out at the gym, and read from the scroll that protesters were shouting “Killer, Killer, Musharref”. I don’t know Urdu, but I do know that it takes many words from Arabic. In Arabic, “muqatil” is one word for “killer” (the simpler is “qatil”). “Mughatil” is assassin, a difference of one letter: qaf versus ghayn. In Iran, people pronounce the qaf as a ghayn, so that “Qur’an” is pronounced as “Ghur’an”.

So I’m guessing that what they were chanting was “muqatil, muqatil, Musharref”, which has a better “ring” to it than “qatil, qatil, Musharref”. And I’m also guessing that they were playing on the killer-assassin connection. Guessing, but by no means sure. What I am sure of is that Pakistan has lost someone who put her life at risk in order to serve her country – unlike its current president, who expects the country to serve him.

And to illustrate the cliche that life goes on despite tragedy, my parents & I spent the morning running errands around town, with thanks to:

A sweet Russian tailor, who is kindly altering some too-long jeans and silk trousers (since the alternative, that I grow six inches, is appealing but unlikely).

Target, which provided a much-needed 4×6 rug for my foyer that has the dual virtues of being cheap and fluffy enough to muffle the sounds of my concierge’s deep-throated Sri Lankan spitting.

Bed Bath & Beyond, which prompted my mother to install some bath-time fun for my grandmother’s guest bathroom:

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Yes – feet-shaped anti-slip mats for the tub. I’ll let you know how they work after my next shower.

Posted in Arabic, explosion, family, holidays, home, parenting | 2 Comments »

Merry Christmas from the land of 24-hour power

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 26, 2007

I have been off the blogging grid for the past few days, ever since arriving back in Seattle for the holidays. The delights of uninterrupted power and drinking water have been too distracting – I just walk around open-mouthed at all the lights I can turn on, the heating that remains constant, the fact that I can drink from any tap in the house. Woo-hoo 🙂

And in my spare time, I have had some fun (and some funny) adventures. Last Saturday I went on a walking tour of Seattle’s Art Deco architecture with J, a friend from college days. We both waxed a bit New York-nostalgic when the tour guide compared the Seattle Tower to its design “cousin”, the Empire State Building. And we both wished that Seattle wasn’t quite so rainy that day, since unlike the actual tourists on the tour, neither of us had brought an umbrella.

On Sunday night, we had dinner with the H’s at Flying Fish, a seafood (obviously …) restaurant in Belltown. My tuna was delicious, but some of the dishes were for more adventurous fish eaters, like ono and monkfish (“like mackerel but less oily”, explained the server). M soldiered bravely through an adult plate of steamed clam pasta (“I didn’t eat one piece of seaweed”, M announced proudly at the end, ignoring the fact that prying clams from their shells would have turned off most children of the same age) while my sister recounted the saga of our arrival.

Upon reaching Seattle’s downtown, we were rear-ended by a Lincoln Navigator whose driver turned a deaf ear to my father’s “please stop reversing so you don’t hit us” honking. After exchanging insurance information and business cards, we drove off.

Can you believe he’s from Iowa? my sister, who had gotten out to take photos of our fender (and type the information on her Q Phone, since none of us had a pen). The driver’s parents live in a town near my parents’ suburb, surprising him so much that he dropped my father’s business card. Its not all that often that two Iowans have a car accident in downtown Seattle.

What surprised us was the fact that my brother-in-law knew his name.

Are you serious? he asked. He’s a sports star.

So, there you have it: Merry Christmas from the land of functional government, 24-hour power, and white athletes from Iowa. Its snowing here – big beautiful flakes dripping down from the sky – and I’ve just been asked to bring in more Riesling. Happy holidays to you all, and see you back in Beirut for New Year’s Eve!

Posted in Beirut, family, holidays, Seattle | 2 Comments »

don’t bank on it: more about banking in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 20, 2007

Last night I had a drink with a friend whose latest professional ambition is to own a bank.

To own a bank, but not to run it, as I learned when I suggested that operating a bank might require a background in … well, … banking.

Oh no, Diamond, my friend said. I will hire someone to run it. I prefer always to have a proxy.

A great deal of newspaper ink and political rhetoric has been expended in warning that Lebanon is in danger of becoming the site for a proxy confrontation between the US and Syria, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or any other pairing of likely suspects. I’m surprised the word retains any positive connotations here.

If my friend does succeed in buying a Lebanese bank, I have some suggestions thanks to my experiences with BLOM.

Like, don’t build computing systems so fragile that they can go down for extended periods of time. A few weeks ago, I stopped by my local branch to transfer money to one of my US accounts. (“Of course”, I cannot do this online.)

I’m sorry, the teller told me, but our system is down.

So I should come back when – in an hour? I asked.

No, she said firmly. Not today. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after.

Right. This is the bank that is Lebanon’s big success story. Maybe what sets BLOM apart is that other banks’ computer systems go down for weeks at a time?

Posted in Beirut, economics, friends, Lebanon, time | 1 Comment »

Feast of the Sacrifice

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 19, 2007

Its Eid in Lebanon today, at least for Sunnis. (Shi’a will celebrate the start of the holiday tomorrow. The two sects are usually a day apart, the product of a long-standing feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Who knows – perhaps the new rapprochement will mean a non-sectarian moon sighting one day!)

And Eid for Sunnis means Eid for all, at least in terms of official holidays. I have two days off from work, and many – although not all – shops are closed. The salon where I go for pedicures is located in lower Gemmayze, though – and I’m hoping its hyper-Christian location means that they will be open for business tomorrow so I can have fresh toes for the holidays.

I left my house this morning just in time to be stopped by a massive cavalcade of tinted-window SUVs, carrying some special someones to the downtown mosques for Eid morning prayers. Three white Land Cruisers, three beige Yukons, two motorcycle cops and one ISF car with its back windows open so its passengers could scan for … what … the IED’ed car that just blew up the SUVs in front of them?

No visible machine guns, no anti-IED Big Mac containers on the SUVs’ roofs. I’m not exactly a counter-terrorism expert, and I doubt that any of Lebanon’s usual suspects would want to assassinate a major political figure on Eid, but … perhaps the zu3ama here should ask the US to send some real security advisers over here, rather than the NSA.

Anyway. The caravan ended, trailed by a rather embarrassed looking royal blue Jeep Grand Cherokee – some poor civilian stuck taking the same route, with much less fanfare – and I continued on my way.

This is the big Eid, the feast that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (for Christians and Jews, that son was Isaac; for Muslims, Ismail). Its hard on the Muslim world’s sheep population, but a great celebration for humans.

As a result, fireworks and other booming noisemakers started going off a little after 12:30 this afternoon – not an official display, I imagine, since they’re not all that visible in broad daylight :), but celebratory nonetheless.

I’ve stocked up on my own holiday fireworks collection – except that these firecrackers are used INDOORS, on birthday cakes.

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Imagining sparklers? Think again. Each of these is like a small blowtorch – enough firepower to finish off a creme brulee or a New York studio.

Eid Mubarak and Merry Christmas with love and fire extinguishers for all 🙂

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, explosion, holidays, Islam, religion | 3 Comments »

“you are very small for what you do”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 18, 2007

My current work visa excites much more interest from Lebanon’s bureaucratic apparatus than my previous one. When I last “traveled” (which is what Lebanese say for trips outside the country), I learned that I ought to factor in more time to pass through emigration, not to mention the check-out line at the duty-free Virgin Megastore.

My visa includes not only the separate, laminated card I carry around, but also a full page of a handwritten description of my job in my US passport. Its shorter than a novel, longer than a letter, and rather poetic – and every Arabic-reading official to whom I give my passport devotes his full attention to it.

Or, perhaps I should say, devotes his full attention to it and my photograph. In the opinions of most Lebanese officials, what I do and what I look like are a poor match.

You know, the emigration official told me after flipping back and forth from photo to description and back again, you are very small for what you do.

In Arabic, “small” and “big” are used conversationally for “younger” and “older”. It works in English as well – kind of. For example, I am Sporty Diamond’s “big sister” and if there were three of us, the third sister could be the “little sister”. But a giggle escapes me every time I hear her described as my “small sister”.

It makes her sound like a miniature version – the portable, pocket-sized sister, suitable for travel and small apartments :D.

Anyway – I knew that the emigration official meant that I look young for what I do. But I am a bit on the small side, at least for Americans. And I’m pretty amused by the idea that I am also a pocket-sized professional.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, family, health, travel, vanity, words | Leave a Comment »

snail goo

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 17, 2007

Lebanon is facing so many important issues right now: political, economic, social. For example, as I walked to work today the sudden appearance of a tank parked at the intersection I cross reminded me that today is yet another election day in Lebanon.

But today the country will have to look after itself, for I have more pressing concerns.

My home is being invaded by snails.

I’ve mentioned my slow-moving neighbors before – every so often one or two climbs its way up my building’s walls, and once I looked up from my computer to find one perched on my interior wall. The climbing instinct, I suppose.

This weekend, I noticed that an entire snail colony was making its leisurely way up my north-facing outside wall. I don’t mind snails when they stay outside, but there were at least ten. I was starting to feel a bit out-numbered, but I tried not to let paranoia get the better of me.

But yesterday morning paranoia turned to panic. I went to my mudroom to put in a load of laundry, and noticed that the floor had long shiny streaks on it. AS DID MY CLOTHING.

I had been goo-ed. Ugh. Happily, I have a ready supply of rubber gloves. As I gathered a load of darks, something round and heavy fell onto the floor: a large, rather sheepish-looking snail.

I frowned. The snail curled in around itself.

I’m sorry, I told it, but this is just too gross for me.

And I am sure that this snail is now building a happy life in my garden, after a brief airborne journey from my mudroom window to its new home.

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Posted in animals, Beirut, bugs, home, humor, neighbors | 6 Comments »

Teach your children well

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 16, 2007

It happened again – twice last weekend, in fact.

The first time, I was shopping at the local grocery store. I was standing in the housewares aisle debating whether to buy some locally made items as stocking stuffers, when a young girl ran past.

She was around eight years old, a charming brunette in a dress and wire-frame glasses. She was out on a shopping excursion with her dad, and she was having a ball. As she ran past me in search of something or other, she called back a continuous stream of Arabic chatter to her father, who answered her with a big smile in his voice.

Then he saw me, and suddenly the unsolved problem of Lebanese identity reared its ugly head. He switched to English mid-sentence, and I watched as his daughter’s step faltered.

She half-turned, clearly wondering why her father had suddenly changed languages – not simply adding a word or two of English, but making a definite switch. I wondered as well, but I doubt we reached the same conclusion.

Why do Lebanese people care so much about demonstrating their language skills in front of foreigners? This man and his daughter weren’t speaking with me. I’ve never seen them before, and I am certainly in no position to judge their language abilities.

Nor did I appear to be anyone of particular substance, pawing through the mug assortment in grotty braid and gym clothes, in hopes of finding the Starbucks mugs I had seen there several weeks previously (yes, real Starbucks mugs although judging by the $2 price tags I doubt that Starbucks sanctioned their sale). Why did he care whether I knew that the two of them can speak English – and why place so little value on Arabic?

The same thing happened the following day. I stopped in the women’s locker room on my way out of the gym. As I stopped to say hello to the attendant, I could hear a mother talking to her children in the lounge area – talking in Arabic.

The mother was seated on the couch with her toddler son, trying to put him in a sweater. His older sister – three, four years old – was across the room, changing the channels on the television. As I walked in, the mother looked up at me and … suddenly switched to English.

The little boy dropped his arms and looked up at her, confused. The girl stepped back from the television and turned toward the couch, surprised. When they noticed me and made the connection, I cringed.

What lesson are these parents teaching their children?

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, childhood, education, family, London, parenting, words | 3 Comments »