A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for March, 2008

small-town Iowa’s Algerian roots

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 31, 2008

On Mondays around noon I try to catch up on the weekend’s email, including ones from family and friends. My father sent what turned out to be an absolutely fascinating feature piece from last Sunday’s Des Moines Register, source of “the news Iowa depends on”.

The feature traces the path that two men, one an Iowa native and one an Algerian-American, took from Boston to Elkader, Iowa, where they have opened a restaurant serving Midwestern staples (steak and pasta) with Algerian twists.

I love stories that show Iowa as a place that welcomes cultural diversity of all kinds, from couscous to gay couples. But what struck me was this:

[T]he Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack triggered new ideas. They had both grown weary of city life. And Boudouani began researching Islam. He learned that the first mosque in the United States was in Cedar Rapids and that there was an Iowa town named after a famous Muslim, Emir Abd-el-Kader.Abd-el-Kader was also from Algeria and, although exiled, helped Christians and Jews avoid persecution in Syria during the 1800s.

He sure was – and he sure did. I know quite a bit about Abd al-Qadir, having studied him in graduate school. But how on earth did the freedom-seeking, Sufi order-leading emir give his name to a small town in Iowa (whose name is pronounced “el-KAY-dur”)?

Here’s what Elkader’s official website says about its founding:

Elkader’s first permanent residents arrived in 1836 when Elisha Boardman and Horace Bronson settled on the banks of the Turkey River in Pony Hollow. Boardman established the first farm and together with other early settlers built the first schoolhouse. Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage laid out a plan for their community which was officially platted on June 22, 1846. They named the new village Elkader after Abd el-Kader, a young Algerian hero who led his people in a resistance to French colonialism between 1830 and 1847.

And the town has continued highlighting its Algerian heritage, especially after September 11 – at least according to a November 2001 Pacific News Service feature that described the town as “Proud of its Arab Namesake”:

ELKADER, IOWA–Nestled among the blue herons in the Turkey River Valley in northeastern Iowa, this hamlet couldn’t be farther from the deserts of Islamic Algeria. Snow flurries darken the last days of autumn; the maple trees have lost their leaves. American flags adorn a vibrant main street.But with 1,500 souls, Elkader’s tidy burg of Victorian houses and brick churches holds the distinction of being the only town in the United States named after an Islamic revolutionary. And it takes seriously its role as a model town for world diplomacy.

“Abd-el-Kader was the George Washington of Algeria,” Betty Walch tells visitors at the Carter House Museum. Walch stood recently in front of a display case of El-Kader memorabilia and portraits. An Algerian wool rug, sheared from a shipment of Iowa sheep sent to Algeria by a cadre of Girl Scouts, hangs on the wall.

You can continue reading the article here. As for me, I’ll be the one walking around Beirut today with a head puffed full of Iowalgerian pride :).

Posted in Iowa | 6 Comments »

tummy fantasies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 29, 2008

Its 9 pm and I’m starving, although fully entertained by the sound of H talking to Alfa’s customer service line (“I am a company client and you are the company. Yet you as the company representative can’t tell me how much you charge me per call per month?”).

I’m dreaming of the best tabbouleh I ever had in this country, last week at Dar al-Azraq (or “Dar l’Azraq”, as its Frenchy proprietors spell it).

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I can tell when food is really good because I start wishing for a big enough stomach to eat it all. And Dar al-Azraq’s food was indeed that good.

Instead, its a Casper & Gambini night for us – a local chain whose food is adequate, but whose phone staff seems to have trained with Alfa’s. Oh well – for the convenience of eating at home, all sacrifices are worthwhile :).

Posted in food | Leave a Comment »

Going local

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 28, 2008

Yesterday I stopped by an office building to run an errand. The elevator bank was directly across from the main staircase. Ordinarily, I would have taken the stairs – I like to walk, and I respect the environment. But my Save the Earth side peters out after the third floor of stairs, so I decided to take the elevator.

There were three people waiting for an elevator already, and none appeared to have just arrived. So when the elevator came, I was surprised to see not one but two women press the first floor (Lebanon operates on a European floor counting system) button.

I could have walked backwards up the staircase in less time than they spent waiting for the elevator. And neither of these women would have been the worse for a short workout.

When I lived in New York, there was one building whose elevators were always full. Whenever my friend N got on, he would look at the buttons pressed. If only a few were lit, he would say: Great – we’re going express.

But if multiple were pressed – particularly between the fourth and sixth floors, both of which offered easy stair access to other floors and to the street – he would say: Oh. Looks like we’re going local today.

I think of N’s comments whenever I get on an elevator here. Since very people here seem to share my if-its-under-three-floors-I-can-hoof-it belief, I spend a lot of time going local in elevators. And a lot of time hearing N’s words in my head, and trying not to giggle.

After all, few things empty an elevator faster than a passenger giggling exuberantly to herself – and I certainly don’t want to make anyone get out and walk!

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Posted in Beirut, elevator, New York | Leave a Comment »

Dunking & lounging: parents in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 27, 2008

Its a lovely Thursday evening at home – I’ve been out most nights this week, and am delighted for the chance to do nothing but catch up on exciting home projects like laundry and desk cleaning.

Yes, its a lovely Thursday evening at home – especially since I am enjoying the not-to-be-underestimated pleasures of a rat-free apartment 🙂 .

But I am also missing my parents, and fondly remembering the quirks of Beirut that struck them most.

The day after they arrived, my father was thrilled to discover that Dunkin’ Donuts has established a solid foothold here.

You won’t believe what I just thought I saw, he said. A college student carrying a Dunkin’ Donuts to-go cup.

Well, I was taking them around Ras Beirut at the time, so the college student part wasn’t too unbelievable. And H mentioned just last week that Dunkin’ Donuts is apparently the fastest growing franchise in Lebanon. So when I sent my parents back to their hotel while I stopped at home to toss in a load of laundry, my father had a little adventure of his own: he asked the concierge for walking directions to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

They didn’t have crullers, he reported later. (Yes, he’s a New England’er. For those of you wondering what a cruller is, you can find more information here. As for the pronunciation, real Northeasterners say it “krul’-ah”.)

But the Dunkin’ Donuts he found did have something more.

I wish I could have taken a photo, my father said. It was the perfect image: typical Dunkin’ Donuts franchise, but instead of a police car out front, it had a machine-gun toting soldier manning the turret of an APC.

Ah, Beirut :).

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(Advertisement taken from yesterday’s Daily Star. H must be right about the growth rate.)

As for my mother, she would definitely have gotten the “Army men like doughnuts too” photo. She turned out to have a wonderful knack for taking out her camera in front of almost every military installation we passed. And despite my paranoia and anxious “No, Mom!” cries, not one soldier raised a fuss. Perhaps she looked too intent on her photography – or perhaps they gave her a break because Friday was Mother’s Day :).

(I’ve had to hand my camera over to soldiers for taking photos in the wrong place before, and have had at least one friend hauled in for questioning, so it wasn’t gratuitous paranoia.)

My mother also wanted to do some shopping while they were here – she has fond memories of buying out the souks of Damascus. But after a trip to the artisanat (“well, I’m ready to move on”, she said after politely examining all the trinkets) and the ABC (“but I can get all this at home”, she said. Um, yes – and its cheaper. That’s why I save my shopping for the US.) she hit upon a new idea.

I’d like a really nice argileh, my mother announced one afternoon.

Now if there is anyone who truly embodies the American distaste for smoking, that person is my mother. So I tried to dissuade her.

You can buy those in the United States, too, I told her.

I don’t think so, she said. I’ve never seen one.

Well, said my father helpfully, perhaps you haven’t been hanging out in enough head shops.

But I see from her latest email that she did find a treasure – hip, modern, and distinctly Lebanese, and one that I can’t wait to borrow. On their way home, my parents stopped off in Boston so my father could get a real cruller … and visit our extended family, of course.

So when my mother emailed yesterday afternoon, she told me that she was packing up for Iowa – to the sounds of her latest CD purchase: Virgin Megastore’s Lebanese Lounge.

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Its not exactly an argileh, but it does sound good. You can hear samples here, and of course those of you in the Middle East can buy your own copy at your local Virgin store.

Miss you, Mom and Dad!

Posted in Americans, Beirut, family, Iowa, music | 1 Comment »

fun with taxi drivers

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 26, 2008

Most of my taxi rides are relatively silent affairs. I like to watch the city go by, and I’m not great at making small talk. But had I taken the possibilities of having parents in town more seriously, I would have spent last week talking away.

I realized my missed opportunities on Sunday morning, as I went from gym to church, where I was meeting my parents.

My taxi driver asked the usual “you speak Arabic but I can’t quite believe you’re from here” questions, like have you lived here long? No, I said. I don’t live here – I came from the gym. Not helpful, I could see him thinking.

He next asked where I work, and I told him. Its a fairly neutral sounding company, which hires both Lebanese and foreigners. Again, not helpful.

And finally, the clincher – he asked whether I would need a ride back when the church service finished.

Oh no, I said. Thank you, but I’m meeting my parents there.

Your parents? he asked.

Yes, I said. My mother and father.

Oh, he said, and then – silence.

His confusion reminded me of a service ride I took late last year, with a delightfully sweet driver. After speaking for a few minutes about the weather, the “situation” and the quirky Belgian man who had just exited the cab, the driver said:

Excuse me, but are you Lebanese?

No, I said, I’m American.

Oh, he sighed. Its so hard to tell these days. Lebanese people all look so different now – anyone could be Lebanese.

I’m not so sure about that, but I did sympathize with his frustration. It must be confusing to have so many Lebanese with one parent from abroad, and to have so many Lebanese who look and speak like they come from abroad themselves.

As for me, I enjoyed the brief moment of sounding like I was local, with Lebanese parents waiting impatiently for me to get to church.

But then my better nature prevailed – as did my cab driver’s curiosity.

Are you Lebanese? he asked.

No, I said. I’m American.

Ah, he said, relieved to have his sense of my foreign-ness confirmed. And we had a very pleasant rest of the ride!

Posted in Americans, family, Lebanon, tourism, words | 6 Comments »

hating Beirut (with Tuesday morning update)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 24, 2008

My parents left this morning, and since then two things have made me seriously consider buying a ticket and jumping ship on the next upgradeable flight out of here.

I lived in Manhattan for eight years and never once had a rat in my apartment. But today I find that I am on my third Beirut rat in nine months. There are rat feces all over my bedroom, and urine on my favorite chair.

And while I was scouring my apartment for possible rat hiding places, a three-inch spider crawled out from under one of H’s bags. So I unblocked the kitchen door and grabbed two cans of “all insect killer” from the cupboard below the sink.

Perhaps these sprays kill all other insects, but they did nothing to this spider. Here’s what finally worked: using one can’s bottom rim to slice the spider into bits. And yes, I did have to wait half an hour for its limbs to stop twitching before I could scoop them into the trash.

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I’m working from home today, and I can hear the rat slamming against the kitchen door every fifteen minutes or so, trying to get out. Thank God my mother left all her spare travel Kleenex packs with me – not quite as good as a hug, but better than using a shirtsleeve to wipe up all my tears.

I hate this city’s culture of irresponsibility. I hate the filth – metaphoric and physical – in which people choose to live. If Beirutis would act less like vermin’s best friends, throwing empty wrappers and coffee cups and God knows what other garbage onto the streets and sidewalks, perhaps the number of actual vermin would go down to a normal level.

Tuesday morning update:

When H came over yesterday evening, I warned him about the rat.

Its okay, he said. I don’t mind.

Its not the rat itself I’m warning you about, I said. Its me. I’m insanely grouchy – just wait until you see the blog post I wrote.

But H came over anyway, armed with logic and rationality.

There are rats everywhere, he said.

No there aren’t, I insisted. Not in people’s apartments. I don’t know anyone who has had a rat in their apartment in the United States.

I had a rat in my apartment when I lived in San Antonio, H said, furrowing his eyebrows in a sweet “please don’t say you hate this place – I’m from here” way.

Oh, I said, feeling the day’s self-righteousness slipping out of me. Okay.

Posted in animals, Beirut, bugs | 7 Comments »

weed(s) of the Bekaa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 23, 2008

During a recent Ebay stint, I came across a laugh-out-loud book title: Winnie Edgecombe’s 1959 Some Major Weeds of the North Bekaa.

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Edgecombe (and her husband Samuel) were professors of agriculture at AUB, whose university press published her book.

I couldn’t help myself – I laughed out loud when I saw Edgecombe’s book title. The Bekaa is indeed full of weeds – or, rather, of weed. It has an apparently well-earned reputation for growing vast quantities of high-quality marijuana.

But anyone hoping to pick up growing tips from this book will be sorely disappointed. I mentioned the book to an acquaintance who has worked with AUB for years. Before I finished telling her the title, she began to laugh.

Oh, that book, she said. Of course I know it. I think its the most boring book that the university has ever published.

So there you have it. Would-be weed growers, steer clear of this book!

Posted in academia, books, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

the still of morning

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 23, 2008

The weather has been beautiful this week – a perfect welcome to Beirut for my parents. Yesterday H took us on an afternoon driving tour of his area, which is filled with big houses, old houses, and beautiful mountain views. We saw lush valleys that I never knew existed here – an utterly different world from my urban existence here in Beirut.

The tour culminated in a delightful Lebanese barbeque at H’s parents’ house. My parents reduced the Abu H’s dogs to jelly (I doubt that either pooch has enjoyed such an orgy of fur rubbing in its life – my parents are serious dog people) as the chicken grilled and various salads appeared at the table almost by magic.

And now it is early morning – a beautiful Easter day. The birds began singing around 5, and I lay in bed drowsily listening to them until the promise of sunshine got me up at 5:30. Today we are Easter’ing with two of my very dearest friends – a very joyous way to celebrate what Arab Christians call “al-eid al-kabir”, the big holiday.

I took this photograph from just outside Beirut last weekend, at 6:15 am, when the morning light was just beginning to warm the city. One of the old appellations for Beirut was “Bride of the Sea” – and she certainly is a beautiful bride.

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Happy Easter to those of you celebrating, and happy beautiful spring day to everyone else :).

Posted in family, food, friends, holidays | 4 Comments »

the Virgin Mary, gatekeeper

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 22, 2008

I can read relatively quickly in Arabic and French, but when it comes to translating, my progress slows to a crawl. Translation is an art form, and a very laborious one at that. So I sympathize with translators when their efforts produce curious fruits – but I also enjoy them.

The old city of Jbeil has a small plaza whose four sides hold a church, a mosque, a shopping arcade and the Crusader castle. Its a beautiful space, but every time I see the church, I want to giggle.

The church connects to a vaulted stone gate through which you pass to reach the plaza. Logically, the church’s name reflects its location: in French, its name is “Our Lady of the Gate”. “Our Lady” – Notre Dame – is a fairly standard term for the Virgin Mary, so the church’s name offers information both about its location and its dedication to Mary.

For the English translation, some well-meaning soul has translated the Arabic sign literally. In English, the church’s name is: The Gate’s Lady.

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For me, “The Gate’s Lady” loses the resonance of the French – as well as the location (gate) and dedication (Mary, as opposed to any other lady) pointers.

And it reminds me of another “Lady”: “The Weed Lady”, an eccentrically run flower shop in my grandmother’s suburb.

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(Photo courtesy of this site.)

I make laugh-out-loud translation errors all the time, so I’m certainly not calling the kettle black here. But I do miss the resonance of “Our Lady of …”.

Posted in Lebanon, women, words | 1 Comment »

Byways of Byblos and other Jbeil gems

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 21, 2008

Today H suggested that we take my parents to Jbeil for lunch by the sea and a tour of the Bronze Age-to-Roman era ruins. I am a terrible tourist: I never make it out of Beirut myself, and am thus utterly incompetent when it comes to planning others’ out-of-town excursions. So my parents will have H to thank for whatever non-Beirut experience of Lebanon they have.

And what a wonderful experience today was: a respectable yet not overly long ramble through Jbeil’s ancient sites (“We believe in executive summaries when it comes to ruins”, my mother said after a brief pass through the castle), followed by a wander through the old shops and a lovely, embarrassment-of-riches lunch at Dar al-Azraq.

As we made our way through the shops, a book caught H’s eye.

That looks like something you’d like, he said. And it was: a 1964 copy of Bruce Conde’s Byways of Byblos.

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Why are they stopping? my mother asked my father.

They found an old guidebook, my father said. You know – its their thing.

It sure is – and this book was a bargain. For 5,000 Lebanese lira ($3.33) I have a new treasure to add to my collection – while the poor shopkeeper, who kept trying to interest us in aghabanis, has a new “What do foreigners really want to buy?” question to puzzle over.

When I got home last night, I googled Byways of Byblos for more information about the book and its author. And what a wealth of information there is about him.

No, M – Bruce Conde was not a spy. In fact, he had a long career as a Yemen-based correspondent for various philately publications.

Yes, that’s right: the Byblos aficionado was also a stamp expert. And some of his article appear quite intriguing to the non-specialist as well, like March 27, 1972’s “Sharjah’s coup will have philatelic repercussions; recalls first issue” from Linn’s Stamp News.

Odd as this may sound, it seems that Conde’s investigative philately reporting got him in trouble with the Yemeni government. After publishing several articles investing an alleged stamp racketeer named Mr. X, Conde was deported: in December 1959, Linn’s reported on “Bruce Conde, Linn’s Middle East Correspondent, Expelled From Yemen; Mr. ‘X’ Prime Suspect”.

I can only imagine the drama Conde’s deportation brought to the stamp world. If you would like to get a sense of the number of articles/editorials published about the story, you can read their titles here.

And if you thought that a guidebook-writing stamp journalist was a hoot, just wait until you read what else I learned about Mr. Conde. No, M – he wasn’t a spy.

Bruce Conde was the pen name of A. Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Conde. He was a French aristocrat from California who taught at AUB and wrote for the Daily Star before moving to Yemen and converting to Islam under the name Abdurrahman el Kindi, where he wrote for various philatelic publications.

That’s right. Doesn’t it make ordinary lives seem so … ordinary? Apparently it made his own life seem ordinary, too – because Prince Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Conde was born with a less illustrious name: Bruce Chalmers.

Here’s what one ‘historical fakes’ site has to say about him:

It appears that “prince Bruce”, born a U.S. citizen as Bruce Chalmers on December 5th, 1913, claims that he is descended from the princes of Condé and that his ancestor went to California before 1830. Mr Chalmers was the son of Thomas Hugh Buckingham Chalmers (born 1883 at Stockton, California, died 1917) and Margaret Bruce (born 1887 at Santa Cruz, California and died in 1913 five days after Bruce’s death). Margaret claimed descent from Louis I of France and Thomas claimed to be a descendant of the Stuarts. On June 29th, 1939, Bruce Chalmers obtained a judgment of the Superior Court for Alameda County, California, changing his last name to Bourbon-Condé. He served in the US Army Air Corps in W.W.II under the name Bourbon-Condé and in the Korean War on General Ridgeway’s staff and received the French Croix de Guerre. He attended the American University at Beirut and, after becoming involved with the Imam of the Yemen, surrendered his American citizenship.

And here is what another had to say:

an unnamed contributor to the July 1985 issue of the French monthly journal “l’Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et Curieux” … writes that while he was stationed in Japan from 1946 to 1949 as a member of the French liaison mission to the Supreme Allied Headquarters, he recalled an American friend mentioning a fellow American officer Major Bruce-Alfonso de Bourbon-Condé. His curiosity was aroused and he looked for an opportunity to meet the personage. Invited to a wedding in Osaka where he knew that the major would also be a guest, the French liaison officer made the trip from Tokyo to present his respects to “His Highness”. The confrontation took place among a small group of American friends he had thoroughly briefed on the Bourbon genealogy. The “prince” was in uniform but it seems that every accessory that he carried was strewn with fleurs-de-lys, his handkerchief, his cigarette case, his wallet and probably his socks and underwear. The liaison officer explained that as a Frenchman he was indeed honored but somewhat mystified to be introduced to His Highness, especially since the latter’s existence totally upset his notions of history: the last Condé having, to his knowledge, ended his days by hanging himself from the hasp of a window of the chateau at St.Leu in 1830.

The “prince” made no effort to deny it and said “actually my name is Smith (or Brown or Evans, it makes little difference) but, to make a long story short, my mother was the niece of someone who was the daughter-in-law of someone who was the friend of someone who was the mistress of the last Bourbon-Condé. Since the name is more romantic than Smith, I thought I would take it on.

Naturally. At least he had a sense of humor about it :).

The site also notes that
Another French witness, Mr.G. Dardaud, who was impressed by Condé, states that he met him when the latter was a young Arabic-speaking professor at the American University in Beirut in the 1950s. The professor, engrossed by the history of the Middle East, was also a journalist and wrote serious articles on the countries of the region for the English-language paper “Daily Star”.

I’ve had my doubts about both AUB’s and the Daily Star‘s hiring criteria, but I didn’t realize that they were an issue in the pre-war era as well.

At any rate, Conde returned to Beirut when he was deported from Yemen, and seems to have lived back and forth between the two countries until the civil war began here. He spent his final days in Tangiers, and died in 1992.

As for Jbeil itself, Conde claimed in his preface that his interest was piqued by revelation of a family connection:

“As a descendant of the family [who] built the castle and other Crusader structures of Jbeil, and [who] ruled this part of Lebanon for nearly 200 years, the writer, who now regarded Byblos as the old home place, again went all out for Crusader lore.”

In the 1100s, the daughter of a Crusader ruler of Byblos married the prince of Antioch and became the mother of the Prince of Cyprus, whose descendants became the ancestors of the House of Conde. Bruce Conde may have joked about his spurious nobility in private, but in print he claimed it unabashedly. Definitely not an ordinary man.

You can find additional information about Conde on philately listservers like the one here. And you can probably find additional copies of Byways of Byblos (or his other book, See Lebanon) on Ebay.

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, books, Lebanon, parenting, vanity, words | 10 Comments »