A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for April, 2008

odds and ends

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 30, 2008

Its 8:30 am by the airport clock and not quite that hour by my body clock, so I’m killing time on my laptop until my next flight home to Beirut. Oh, and watching a self-important Indian man try to unplug the mobile phone I am charging in one of the available outlets. He reminds me of the Lebanese men who change the channel on the televisions at the gym without first asking whether I am watching (usually, yes). In a way its heartening to see that sexist, arrogant men are not exclusive to Lebanon.

I’m editing the photos I took this weekend, which led to the unhappy realization that I abandoned our Beiteddine jaunt without talking about the mosaics – especially this one:

See diamond? H said when we passed this mosaic. I told you Lebanon had lions and tigers back in ancient times

He did indeed, although to me this looks like a leopard. Still, I wouldn’t have been any more pleased to encounter a leopard on our Metn walk than a lion or tiger.

And this mosaic (in the same room as the houses of Lebanon and the lovely gunshot door) does look more tiger’y:

The scary beast mosaics were part of a massive collection of mosaics of all sizes, which filled the stables of the palace. Many were of animals – including a surprising number of chickens and roosters. Perhaps the Romans saw more in them than we do today?

Others were stunning geometric designs that to my eye looked incredibly modern, like this one:

According to a tri-lingual, rather outdated Xerox-behind-plastic wall text, the mosaics are all from a late antique Roman church excavated in 1987 from the sands of Jiyyeh:

On the one hand, its refreshing to know that Jiyyeh’s sands have been good for something more than beach clubs. On the other hand – why not build a museum around the mosaics in situ, as Jordan did with Madaba?

There must be more to this story – and there must be more to the story of the church, as well. There were a lot of mosaics in the Beiteddine stables. Not one, not two – upwards of 20 full floor pieces, and at least as many more smaller ones.

This church must have been the largest thing for miles around ancient Jiyyeh – and its trustees must have controlled a huge chunk of wealth, if they were able to afford the cost of commissioning so many stunning mosaics. I knew the late antique period was one of great richness, metaphorical and literal, but seeing its evidence at Beiteddine was eye-opening.

Posted in Arab world, art, church, Druze, Lebanon, photography, religion | 1 Comment »

“Don’t block the box” – Syrian style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2008

I love warden messages – especially when they include more than the usual boiler-plate about the State Department recommending that all Americans defer travel to – well, the rest of the world.

Today’s warden message is a total gem. It comes from the US Embassy in Syria, and announces the enforcement of a very assertive set of traffic laws. Here is the text of the message:

New Traffic Regulations in Syria

On May 01, 2008, the Syrian government will begin enforcement of new traffic regulations which were announced in January, 2008. Many of these regulations are designed to increase road safety for both vehicles and pedestrians, and call for fines and a “point system” for violations. The following is a partial summary. The full text in Arabic can be found at:

http://www.mot.gov.sy/index.php?d=177&id=597

Traffic Fines

Fines ranging from 500 to 10,000 Syrian lira (SYP) will be imposed for infractions such as:

· Children riding in the front seat or in the driver’s lap

· Tossing rubbish from vehicles while driving

· Playing loud music while driving through neighborhoods at night

· Failing to use directional signals when turning

· Reckless speed and changing of lanes

· Transporting items exceeding the body of the vehicle in a dangerous manner

· Using cellular phones (mobile phones) while driving

· Having a license plate with illegible numbers

· Allowing unlicensed drivers to drive the vehicle

· Passing other vehicles on corners, uphill slopes, tunnel, bridges and crossroads

· Driving without a valid insurance contract

· Not using safety belts in the front seat

· Not keeping a first aid (medical) kit in the vehicle

· Not keeping a fire extinguisher in the vehicle

· Driving with an expired license

Pedestrians may be fined 200 SYP for “jay-walking” — crossing the street not in the designated location or against the light.

I’m thrilled by these regulations – except for the jay-walking. The only city in the US that I remember enforcing jay-walking laws is Phoenix, AZ and its posh suburbs. I remember traveling there for a high school trip and being sternly warned by our chaperones not, on pain of incarceration and heavy fines, to cross against the light. And I remember thinking: this town must have every other possible issue under control if its government can afford to worry about pedestrian crossings

Using that same logic, I’m not sure the Syrian government should be focused on jay-walking just yet. Enforcing seat belt laws, requiring that children ride in the back seat, and punishing reckless driving are monumental tasks by themselves – and if the government’s enforcement is able to instill new driving habits in Syria’s drivers, it will be a great achievement. Save the jay-walking for another set of laws – and make sure that the next set includes a complementary law requiring drivers to stop at cross-walks if a pedestrian is there. Until that day, walking in Syria (and Lebanon) will continue to be the Hail Mary adventure that it is now.

One regulation that I don’t see is a drunk driving law. The number of drunk drivers in Syria and Lebanon must vastly exceed the proportionate number in the US – and when they drive drunk here, they drive very drunk. Pretending that drunk driving does not happen because these are Muslim-majority countries is no solution.

Finally, the new regulations include a very Manhattan-style point system. No word on whether any “don’t block the box” points are included in it, but the idea is the same:

In addition to fines, a “point system” has been developed to track repeat offenders. Each infraction carries a certain number of points, based on the severity of the infraction and the judgment of the official issuing the citation. The maximum number of points is sixteen (16). When someone reaches 16 points, the following rules apply:

· First instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for three months

· Second instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for six months and requirement to take a driving course

· Third instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for nine months and requirement to take a driving course

· Fourth instance of 16 points: cancellation of driving privileges, requirement to take a driving course and a new examination will be required to get a new driving license. Also, a new license cannot be obtained in less than one year.

Most Syrian drivers I know are conscientious, safe drivers already. As for the rest – and for Syrian society generally – I think the regulations are a great thing.

And I’m sure that they will be enforced assiduously – at least for the first week.

Posted in Iowa, Syria, traffic, words | 5 Comments »

pictures worth 1000 words

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2008

Last Thursday I skipped out of work early so that H and I could go see the Civil War posters exhibit at the children’s museum (Planet Discovery) downtown. And yes, we both did note the irony (or at least the questionable taste) of a children’s museum displaying posters produced by militia groups during the Civil War – as opposed to the fun exhibits that I remember delighting in at the Boston Children’s Museum when I was small.

Anyway. The exhibit was fascinating – well arranged, intelligently curated, and with an amazing array of posters. Today the streets are also covered with political posters – so for me it was fascinating to see the War-era ones.

The first section of the exhibit showed a selection of posters arranged chronologically by group – an X-axis of time, and a Y-axis of Christian, leftist, Sunni etc. militias:

The only use of “al-wa`d” I’d ever seen was the Hizbullah rebuilding campaign. Apparently in 1980 the term belonged to the Kataeb. Go figure :)!

The man in the top poster above is (of course) Bachir Gemayel, while the middle one commemorated the Sabra and Shatila massacres and was produced by a Palestinian-friendly militia.

The poster above is one of the early “Islamic Resistance” posters – pre-Hizbullah. I like it because it is so colorful – and even though my better self feels terrible about this, I keep thinking of it as the “Dance, Dance, Revolution” poster.

More later – time for one last Boston breakfast before heading home to Beirut :).

Posted in advertising, art, Beirut, Iowa, Lebanon, media, politics, words | 1 Comment »

squeaky cheese – coming to a grocery near you

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 28, 2008

H and I have made the decision to return to the US this summer. As we contemplate our “re-entry”, I have been tallying up what I will miss about Lebanon and what we look forward to about being in the states for a while.

Thanks to a stop at Whole Foods the other day with my parents, I no longer have to worry about missing my favorite cheese

Well, it does say Cyprus, but the two countries are such kissing cousins anyway that I’m sure it will taste fine. Can you hear me squeaking all the way from New England 🙂 ?

Posted in Americans, Beirut, dairy, food, Lebanon, travel | 4 Comments »

“no other explanation”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2008

When H and I entered Beiteddine’s interior courtyard, we found a mid-40s man assembling what tourists there were for a look into its reception halls. Since Lebanon’s independence, the living quarters of Beiteddine have been used as the president’s summer residence (yes, I know, I’m thinking the same thing: better hurry up and elect someone if the residence isn’t to sit empty all summer!), so the rooms are otherwise off-limits.

The reception halls were beautiful, with interiors that ranged from late 18th-century lacquered wood inlays with roses and other flora painted on them (as well as several rather primitive buildings), to an elaborate 1908 (? maybe 1904 – I can’t remember) extravaganza of mosaic, painting and stained glass windows.

(I don’t have any photos of these rooms, sorry – we weren’t encouraged to take photographs.)

The ceiling of one of the smaller halls in particular caught our eye. It was decorated with a series of six-pointed stars, large and small, and the theme was carried over into the wall panels as well. It even carried through to the hall’s more contemporary wooden doors, which I felt were fair game for a photo since they were 1) not antique and 2) technically in the courtyard:

We’ve been interested in the evolution of the six-pointed star from Muslim world decoration to Star of David – it seems to have been a “neutral” decoration here for much much longer than in Europe. Two older buildings in my neighborhood – late Ottoman or at best early Mandate period – have six-pointed star windows, but we don’t think that they were Jewish-owned buildings.

Ask him, I whispered to H as our guide motioned us towards another building. The man had kindly decided to overlook my obvious foreignness and speak to us both in Arabic, but I didn’t want to push my luck by actually asking him a question. Instead, I whispered commentary to H and he patiently passed my questions on.

But since the six pointed stars interest H too, he didn’t need my encouragement.

We’ve noticed that this room has a particular star decoration, H said diplomatically. Is there any reason for this?

The guide smiled kindly. Evidently he has heard this question before. Its a design for decoration, he said. Ma fi tafsir tani – there is no other explanation.

What I didn’t see in these halls was any prevalence of the five-pointed star that I associate with the Druze, although the late 20th century eternal flame sculpture in the main courtyard does have a five-pointed star as its base. I don’t know the history of that star, or when it became associated with the Druze. Perhaps it too is a 20th-century phenomenon.

Posted in Druze, Lebanon, travel | 4 Comments »

tourist photos

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2008

I’ve just arrived back to the US for a few days, with the usual SSSS “special” security treatment coming through Heathrow. Between jet lag and family stuff, I have much to do – so I’ll be quick about finishing our tour of Beiteddine.

The interior part/western wing, where the emir’s family lived, was stunning. Here is the entrance – a small taste of what lies inside:

This is the view through the door above:

The view is stunning, but also puzzling. The courtyard is puzzingly asymmetric: the fountain is off-center relative to the staircase, while another fountain (cut into the stone floor) points toward the doorway just visible at the left side of the photo above.

Asymmetry in palaces is something I rarely see. I think of additions as things that are added on to main building and fitted into the original scheme. But Beiteddine, whose original structure was built in the late 1700s, was added on and added on and added on until the outer view suggests a massive palace complex and the interior view suggests a creative, if not terribly coordinated, jumble.

This weekend’s jaunt to the US has allowed me to pick up the copy of Touring Lebanon I bought in March. It is just as enlightening – and as entertaining – as I had hoped. Without it, I would never have known that the staircase that leads to the courtyard above was known as the “tumbling stairs”, which Ward says was “named from a celebrated mishap when a sheep escaping barbeque butted an eminent pasha”.

I bet that sheep didn’t escape the butcher’s knife for long – a tumbled pasha sounds like a man out for revenge.

Its 9 pm and I’m desperately jet lagging, so I’ll close with a quiet photograph of the sun warming the stone floor of the walk to the stables, where the mosaics are house. What mosaics? you might ask. More on that tomorrow, when I’m better rested!

Posted in Druze, Lebanon, photography, travel | Leave a Comment »

a better door than a window

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 25, 2008

H and I started off our tour of Beiteddine a bit backwards. We wandered half-way down the open courtyard before doubling back to find the stairs up to the museum.

The second time, we walked inside – through a long interior space filled with human-size posters from Raymond Yazbeck’s latest book, which showcases traditional houses in Lebanon. The houses were lovely – each poster showed samples from a different town – but the posters left the impression that Lebanon has many stone houses, most of which look more or less the same.

What did impress us, deeply, was the very authentic wooden door nestled in between the posters:

Its definitely traditional, although not necessarily the image M. Yazbeck generally promotes through his lush depictions of Lebanese historiana. If I were to create a book around this door, I might try giving it a livelier title. Gun Cultures of the Chouf, perhaps?

Posted in books, Lebanon, photography, travel, words | Leave a Comment »

speaking truth to power

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 24, 2008

Earlier this week, a very interesting – not to mention distressing – story came to light. On March 30, UNIFIL trailed a suspicious vehicle carrying what appeared to be weapons and/or ammunition, but backed down when the drivers (and some others in a second vehicle) stepped out of the car and confronted the UNIFIL patrol with guns drawn.

Wondering who the drivers were?

Here’s what the Jerusalem Post said in an article titled “Hizbullah chases away UNIFIL monitors“:

Hizbullah gunmen chased away UNIFIL inspectors in south Lebanon who identified a truck carrying arms belonging to the guerrilla group, a report published twice a year by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon revealed Tuesday.

Here’s what Ha’aretz said in an article titled “UNIFIL finds Hezbollah arms; gunmen scatter peacekeepers“:

Armed Hezbollah militants warded off members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) last month when the peacekeepers discovered a truck carrying weapons and ammunition belonging to the Lebanon-based guerilla group. The incident was referred to briefly in a semi-yearly report submitted to the UN Security Council by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Readers of either article might understandably conclude that the latest UN report did indeed state that the gun-toting drivers were Hizbullah members.

Here’s what the Seventh Report to the UN on Security Council Resolution 1559 actually says:

24. During the night of 30th to 31st March 2008 a UNIFIL patrol encountered unidentified armed elements in its Area of Operation.This serious violation of resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1701 (2006) gives cause for concern and will be reported more fully in my next report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 (2006).

The specter of unidentified armed gunmen forcing UNIFIL to back down is terrifying, and deserves serious investigative reporting from serious journalists. The last thing we need here is another summer fighting hitherto-unknown extremist groups.

Instead of reporting the truth, Israeli journalists have chosen to fork their tongues and slither around it. Yes, there are many good reasons to criticize Hizbullah – but as the facts now stand, this isn’t one of them.

Shame on these men for abdicating their responsibilities as journalists. And shame on the US papers who picked up these stories without investigating them for accuracy first.

Posted in Beirut, Israel, Lebanon, media, politics, words | 1 Comment »

factory in the Chouf

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 24, 2008

After narrowly avoiding burning to death in a raging forest fire (well, not really – but doesn’t that sound so much more impressive than “driving past slowly with cameras out both front windows”), H and I continued on our way up into the Chouf.

As we cleared the initial incline, H pointed out an old factory nestled into the mountainside across the way:

Naturally, we slowed down once more so I could get a better photo:

With its smokestack and open floorplan – large rectangular room, rows of windows – it reminded me of many of the old factories in New England. And like them, it appeared to have outlived its original purpose.

When we rounded the bend and pulled up closer, we noticed that the upper floor windows had modern single-pane glass (more visible on the side windows than from this view):

I’m guessing that the factory was originally used for spinning silk, since the mountain areas became filled with mulberry tree/silkworm farms in the late 1800s. But we didn’t know what the factory could be used for today, until we asked the museum guide at Beiteddine.

Its used for wine-making, he told us. We think he meant wine storage, but still – go figure!

Posted in Beirut, economics, Lebanon, mountains, photography, travel | Leave a Comment »

fire in the Chouf

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 23, 2008

On Sunday, H and I drove to the Chouf to spend the afternoon at Beiteddine.

Just a few turns after the first checkpoint (thanks to Walid Jumblatt’s presence, the Chouf is peppered with checkpoints), we passed a raging wildfire.

We slowed down to take photos, as did the cars in front of and behind us. The flames were a bit frightening – six or eight feet tall, and looming somewhat ominously over us as we drove by.

Unfortunately, the photographs make the fire look pretty tame:

I tried zooming in, but the flames still appear only knee-high:

But really, it was an impressive fire. So impressive that we – ahem! – neglected to do anything useful, like call the fire department. There is a fire department in Lebanon, but I’m not sure how quickly they mobilize. Or how effective they are.

At any rate, we saw no human presence on the hillside. When we passed the fire on our way home, it had almost burned itself out – no thanks to us!

Posted in Lebanon, travel | 1 Comment »