A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for May, 2008

With love from Lebanese customs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 31, 2008

Its that time of year already: the weather has turned, and I’m feeling sticky already, at 8:00 am. I’m still trying to hold onto spring – I have the window open, rather than the air conditioning on – but I’m also making plans for summer.

And since we’re moving back to the US, making plans involves two activities I dread: packing and shipping. The packing isn’t so bad – its a good occasion to weed through the debris I’ve collected over my two and a half years here – but the shipping is not something I look forward to with any joy.

I remember helping M sort out her shipping three years ago, when she headed home from Damascus. Many men, many illustrations of different shipping options scratched onto different sheets of paper, and in the end … all the price quotes were remarkably similar. Go figure.

My own experiences with Lebanese shipping have been as a recipient, not as a sender, but that hasn’t made them any better. In February, my parents sent me a “care package” for Valentine’s Day.

It included a sweet hanging heart ornament:

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(“Who gave you that?” asked H suspiciously the other day, in a wonderful moment of “see it again for the very first time”. “My mother“, I told him. “Oh”, he said – and totally lost interest.)

And it included a package of Brach’s candy hearts from my father, his traditional Valentine’s Day gift to Sporty D and I since we were very little girls:

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The gifts were lovely, but the process of getting them was not. First, the numerous attempted deliveries. DHL would call me and we would agree on a time and place for their delivery-person to bring the package. He would then arrive several hours earlier or later, when I was no longer or not yet at my office/home.

He would leave a delivery notice, and I would call the head office to vent my irritation and arrange another delivery time.

Finally, I got the package – using the simple tactic of being in my office when I had said I would be away. Bingo: DHL arrived then.

But getting the package wasn’t the end of it. For the privilege of enjoying the $10 “thinking of you with love” package from my parents, I paid $26 in customs:

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Well, my father said cheerfully when I told him about it, that’s a third of what I paid to send those gifts to you – and I considered it a bargain.

Argh – he has a much more generous nature than I do. I’m hoping that his spirit has rubbed off on me – I think I’ll need it when I get the shipping bill!

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Posted in Beirut, Lebanon, travel | 5 Comments »

What’s in a name: a Hamra “super nightclub”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 30, 2008

 When not cataloguing the many signs of the SSNP’s continued presence in Hamra, I’ve been entertaining myself with other neighborhood sights.

In keeping with the “red” theme (red swastikas, red Hamra, red Le Rouge restaurant), I noticed that one of Hamra’s several “super nightclubs” advertises its presence at night with an open door and red lighting. Red light district, indeed!

The nightclub’s sign makes me laugh whenever I read it. In English, its the “Gold Finger” – conjuring up sophisticated images of James Bond, I suppose.

But in Arabic, its the “Cold Finger” – a term which sounds more in keeping with a visit to the doctor than with the pleasures of the flesh:

On the other hand, it certainly looks like its been in business for a very long time. Perhaps the name is actually an asset – after all, what do I know about marketing to super nightclub-patrons 🙂 ?

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, nightlife, words | 8 Comments »

the sounds of silence: Beirut without mopeds

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 28, 2008

Yesterday the Interior Ministry decided that mopeds, motorbikes and motorcycles were to be banned from the city’s streets, starting at 6 pm.

This happens every so often around the region – in fact, it may happen less in Lebanon than in Jordan or Syria, where motorcycles were believed to facilitate quick getaways for would-be assassins and other opposition activists.

In this case, the intent seems to be to prevent tensions from escalating, since the ban also includes “provocative motorcades” and flag-waving. Not the Lebanese flag, and not official motorcades, although they are often fairly provocative. The ban is against the unofficial, semi-impromptu processions of cars filled with young men, holding their party’s flag out the passenger window and honking like mad as they drive through neighborhoods affiliated with an opposing party.

When H and I went out to Gemmayze last night to celebrate my friend A’s birthday, the spectacle of watching the ISF impound motorbike after motorcycle bedazzled us all. As we drove home, we saw an ISF-owned flatbed truck parked on the side of the road near the end of Riyadh al Solh, half full of designer motorcycles – and with three more lined up next to it, waiting to be loaded.

Life without mopeds certainly has its advantages: less stressful driving, for one thing. Moped and motorbike drivers tend to drive in between cars, often heading in the opposite direction. And when there is a sidewalk, they tend to consider it their “lane”.

But mopeds and even motorcycles fill a real need in Beirut: they are the transportation of those who cannot afford cars, and want more independence than the bus or services system provides. I was told that the fine for driving one now is one million Lebanese pounds, or $670. Moped drivers can’t afford a fine this steep.

I feel deeply sympathetic to the young men whose investment and whose independence have suddenly been taken from them. But I must admit that I am enjoying the equally sudden silence in my neighborhood. Beirut’s mopeds are often shy on mufflers, and some drivers actually work to increase the vrrooom-vrrooom sound.

Without them and the flag-waving rah-rah boys, the night is much more tranquil.

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon | 5 Comments »

Riyadh al-Solh: May flowers, from Hizbullah

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 27, 2008

Last Friday afternoon, H needed to stop downtown to run an errand before we headed up to his parents for dinner – so I went with him. We both used to work near Parliament Square, and we went there last Wednesday night, so the new-old downtown wasn’t new to us.

But we still weren’t used to driving there.

Can we take Bank Street? H asked me.

I have no idea, I replied, unhelpfully.

Well, we could – and we could even park in one of the formerly khassa lil-khaymat lots.

While H did his thing, I admired the resurrection of Riyadh al-Solh Square. Here’s a general shot (wasn’t the sky beautiful that day?):

Notice the man in yellow off to the left in the photo above? He was one of about thirty Hizbullah-affiliated workers, busily sprucing up the square, the parking lot, and anything else that needed their attention. I saw parking lanes being repainted, walls being resurfaced, parking bumpers being reinstalled, and, of course, flowers being planted.

They must have been working all day. Here’s a small sample of the number of empty flower- and tree-pots I saw stacked behind the square:

I was amazed by how tidy they were. The stacks may not look very tidy, but given the number of flowers they planted, and the amount of topsoil they added, the area around Riyadh al-Solh was very clean. And I bet that they cleaned up everything before they left – this was a crew whose members clearly took pride in their work.

When I had finished ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the flora (I don’t have a particularly green thumb, but I come from a long line of women who do – and sometimes genetics gets the better of me) H pointed out that there seemed to be something more going on.

He was right: when the men finished their flower-planting, they carefully brought this tree over to rest near a hole that had been dug for it. But they didn’t plant it:

The tree had a little plaque on it stating (in Arabic) that it was a “tree of national unity”.

I have no idea who was planting the tree, but there was a big press conference on one side of the square, after which a whole bunch of men trooped over to this little tree and began, collectively, to plant it.

It was very sweet, although a little awkward – tree planting is not something that can be done by twenty men at one time, unless maybe the idea is that everyone helps by grabbing a branch.

I’m sure the men involved were all very important – but evidently none were as important as this cameraman, who appeared out of nowhere and then stood directly in my line of sight without so much as an “excuse me”:

Happily for me, he was soon shoo’ed away by one of the works crew supervisors, since he was standing right on top of the flowers they had planted.

Here’s a shot of the post-planting:

I have my doubts as to how long the national unity will last, but I hope that the tree puts down deep roots.

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, media, politics, words | 7 Comments »

fun with billboards: Aoun returns

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 25, 2008

Samir Geagea has given two press conferences in the past 24 hours, making him my new nominee to replace Talal Arslan as Lebanese politician most suited to the description of “pompous, without being dignified”. They both face stiff competition from every other Lebanese politician, though, so I may “award” the position on a revolving basis :).

But what Geagea’s mu2tamarayn remind me of is just how much I dislike him. I’ve been a bit anti-opposition during the past two weeks, thanks to the whole rude-teenage-boys-occupying-my neighborhood issue (no, not the SSNP Mobil ones – we had our own set in my area). But two press conferences from Geagea and suddenly I feel a strong need for citrus.

Luckily for me, the FPM’ers have just plastered the Christian suburbs with a series of brilliantly executed, graffiti-style billboards. Your opinion of their message will probably hinge largely on how much you share my affection for short older men with Napoleon complexes :), but the design and execution should still elicit (grudging) approval.

(The timing, on the other hand, is grounds for criticism. Could the FPM not have either put the billboards up before Sleiman’s image started to appear all over Metn Christendom, or after his election? As it stands now, many of these billboards look like the General is simply trying to elbow in on a little of Sleiman’s glory, since several of them appear right in the thick of a collection of Sleiman billboards. Napoleon complex, indeed!)

Here are photographs of two of them – one in close-up, so you can read the text, and one taken a bit further away:

I love these billboards. I love the authentic graffiti look they have, and I love the energy with which their words sprawl across the “wall” of their background.

Here’s what they say (and Tarek, resident advertising expert, if I am mis-interpreting this, please correct me!):

The text is two sentences, supposedly written at two different moments. The original is in orange, and its been edited and added to by a second graffiti artist, who writes in black.

The first sentence says: “Aoun is returning” – from his self-imposed exile in Paris, which he did in 2005.

The second sentence says: “Aoun has returned [i.e., brought back] participation to the country” – that he has brought Lebanon’s twenty million different political interests back to the table, ending the country’s political stalemate.

Well – that’s what I thought it said initially, until a committed Aouni told me otherwise. Apparently the black text isn’t about Doha: its about voter participation. The new electoral law evidently ensures that up to 70% of Lebanon’s Christians can now vote for their own representatives, which will encourage them to vote in increasing numbers. The billboard is still about participation, but at the voter level rather than the political party level.

I don’t agree with the idea that he deserves full credit – actually, I don’t agree with the idea of sectarian voting, period, so increasing Christian-on-Christian voting is a step backward as far as I am concerned. But I love these billboards for their textual and visual creativity. They break away from all the overdone, under-thought advertising that litters the highway. Less eye clutter: more Napoleon :).

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, politics, words | 4 Comments »

a day in the country

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 25, 2008

Last weekend, while the Doha negotiations were still underway, H and I decided that we needed to get away from it all. So we joined one of Lebanon’s many outdoors appreciation groups (Blue Carrot, Esprit Nomade, and Vamos Todos are the best known, but there are others) for a hike in the mountains.

It was a “typically Lebanese” hike in many ways: we waited 45 minutes after the scheduled departure date to make sure that the “group” had all arrived; we stopped for manoushe before starting our hike; and when we did start, we hiked for 10 minutes and stopped for 20, hiked for another 10 and stopped for 15, hiked for another 10 and then stopped for tea and coffee. (No, I’m not exaggerating – I was wearing a watch!)

But it was a convivial group and we enjoyed the much-needed dose of fresh air and sunshine – not to mention the hike leader, who knew a great deal about the region, and entertained us with bits of history and geography.

He also had a great sense of humor. As we passed an area covered in scrub flora and rocks of all sizes, he said: w hal manta2a ghaniye kteer bi ramal, with an utterly straight look on his face. It was a type of richness, I suppose – and his description made us all laugh.

View behind us as we started the first ascent:

View overlooking the Metn and/or Keserouan, I forget which (and as an American I claim no skill in geography):

It was a lovely day, and worth the two days of hobbling around that followed. Sore muscles and work-appropriate heels don’t mesh well together.

Posted in bugs, health, Lebanon, travel, weather, women | Leave a Comment »

fill `er up: the SSNP Mobil station

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 24, 2008

Woooooo-Hoooooo! I got it: a photograph of the SSNP-occupied abandoned Mobil station on Sidani Street:

Yes, that’s right: they have taken the old gas station, and they’re not giving it back! I understand that it has strategic value, if one wants to guard Sidani Street. But really: three teenage boys (two lounging on the old couch and one heading back into the old garage area) and a long-empty gas station. Is this the best the SSNP can do?

Earlier today H offered to make prints of some of these photographs, so we could use them to decorate our future apartment in New York. We’ve been talking about what we can take with us to remind us of Lebanon – and the idea of a SSNP-themed room is very tempting.

We can hang a “Rue Hamra” sign … put a big photograph of the new “Le Rouge” cafe … and hang photos of red flying swastikas everywhere. Home away from home, indeed.

In honor of our new “red” theme, I’m changing the color of my blog for the next few days. Rouge, red, rossa, roja, hamra2: enjoy!

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Lebanon, politics, words | 2 Comments »

poster boy for a new Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 23, 2008

Now that Michel Suleiman is really, truly, seriously-this-time going to be named president of Lebanon on Sunday, Lebanese flags and posters of him are popping up all over, and particularly in the Christian areas.

I took the four photos below while we were on the way to City Mall this afternoon. Seeing the Lebanese flag is a refreshing change from all the militia flags, and I do think that Suleiman’s “election” (presidents aren’t really elected here – don’t be fooled by the impassioned politician rhetoric!) is an important step.

But photographing him in his military uniform is a bit much. Top level civil servants are not allowed to serve as president until after having been ‘retired’ for at least two years. Suleiman’s presidency technically requires a constitutional amendment, although the latest news is that no amendment will be made, under the reasoning that his presidency comes at an exceptional time.

Maybe – although I would argue that in Lebanon most times are exceptional. And amendment or no, photographing him in military dress is a poor idea. This region has seen too many examples of what can happen when military and political power are combined – Lebanon shouldn’t be celebrating it.

Posted in Iowa | 5 Comments »

Syria: street safety

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 23, 2008

I’m pasting in a rather depressing warden message that arrived earlier this week from the US Embassy in Syria. I never worried about theft when I lived there – but I’m guessing that the dislocations of Syria’s economic liberalization are starting to make people more desperate.

As for the groping, I’ve been groped many times in Damascus – just as I have here in Beirut, in Gemmayze and Achrafieh. I admire these women for coming to the Embassy to complain – I always felt too embarrassed, and assumed that they would suspect my behavior or my clothing, rather than commiserating. I’m glad these women were braver than me.

SECURITY NOTICE

CRIME & HARASSMENT

The past two weeks have seen a rise in reports of crime and street harassment involving expatriate women:

· In late April, an elderly third-country expatriate woman was mugged as she exited her vehicle near her residence in Abu Roumaneh. The mugger, described as a well-dressed young man with a beard, punched the victim in the face before escaping with her purse.

· Last week, a similar incident was reported, again in the Abu Roumaneh area and involving an elderly female victim. The victim’s purse was stolen, and she suffered minor injuries when she was struck in the face during the encounter. It is not known whether the perpetrator was also responsible for the other mugging reported above.

· On Sunday evening (May 11) at 2015 hours, an American woman was groped by one of a group of teenagers as she walked near the POP internet café in the Shaalan area.

· On Thursday morning (May 15) at 0730 hours, an expatriate female walking along “canal street” in Malki was groped by a lone male.

Compared with similar-size cities around the world (including within the United States), Damascus remains a relatively low-crime environment. The two very different types of incidents reported above, however, are an important reminder that no large city is “crime free” and that even Damascus is subject to fluctuations in the local crime rate.

Unfortunately, even consistent good security practices provide no guarantee against crime. In the event you become the victim of a crime, please call the Embassy for assistance.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Syria, women | Leave a Comment »

downtown at dusk

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 22, 2008

By 4 pm yesterday afternoon, I had the impression that everyone and his brother was planning to head to Beirut’s decamping downtown as soon as they finished work. So when Charles Malik asked if H and I wanted to meet in Sahat al-Nejmeh for a coffee, I suggested that he make a reservation.

H was hungry, so instead we decided to have an early dinner in Gemmayze and save the downtown tour for dessert. (Even if the restaurants bring in fresh food, they haven’t served a full house of diners in 17 months, H said. I don’t think I can deal with that kind of chaos – I’m too hungry.) We picked CM up around 7:30 and headed east.

Traffic was light and moving normally on our side, but people heading west-bound had turned the right-hand two lanes into a Bliss Street-like illegal parking zone.

Um, do you mind if we loop around and stop to see the view from the bridge? H asked, hunger magically replaced by curiosity. Did we mind? I was cheering!

H chatted up a soldier stationed (in the loose sense of the term) on the bridge. CM took notes (this, coupled with the fact that he was dressed in a sport coat, made the teenage boys around us lean in. Clearly they thought that CM was Someone Important!). And I took pictures:

We stayed on the bridge for ten minutes or so – long enough to watch one de-camper take down the Tayyar flag that had hung from the odd-looking (modern art?) collection of rectangles. I held my breath while it was taken down – it seemed like one of those this-could-be-dangerous moments, had some partisan for either side decided to start cheering. But the people on the bridge and those on the streets below were both quiet and respectful.

After dinner we returned – this time to walk up Riyadh al-Solh and down through Maarad Street to Parliament Square. It was much fuller than at any time last year when I worked downtown – but there were many cafes still closed or half empty. I doubt we would have needed a reservation :).

I took a few photographs, which I will spare you as they all turned out to be variations on the theme of “dark and not interesting”. I think it will take a few days before all the shops and restaurants are open and running again – some must have closed up almost immediately after the sit-in began, like this Bisou store:

One of my colleagues said this morning that a big concert/re-opening is in the works for next week. If so, I hope its celebratory and not vindictive. I worked in downtown until last fall, and I would happily have gone shopping or to dinner had there been shops and restaurants open. It wasn’t a scary space during the sit-in – it was just a space empty of scared people.

Posted in Beirut, friends, Lebanon | 3 Comments »