A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for June, 2008

credibility claims

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 29, 2008

Sorry for not posting yesterday. H arrived, at long last (well, six days, but it felt long), so I spent the morning in a frenzy of grocery shopping, errand running, and cleaning. (And no, for those family members who are wondering, I did not utilize my legendary “discovery” that rather than actually cleaning sink and tub surface, one could achieve the same visual effect much more quickly by simply wiping them with a Windex-doused paper towel. That discovery came when I was twelve – which was a looong time ago!)

And now that he is safely here, I can post about my newest gripe: loud upstairs neighbors. The apartment we have rented for the summer is charming, but the building’s stairs and floors are 100% wood, and they could use more installation. New Yorkers learn to tread lightly on their floors – and the upstairs neighbors are new to New York.

They are also night owls, or perhaps simply haven’t begun their day jobs yet. On Thursday night, they came in and out of the building: welcoming friends from 9:00 to 10:30 or so, and then returning at 2:00 when the bars closed. They weren’t intentionally loud – they weren’t playing loud music – but they were loud. Lots of standing in one area of the apartment and talking to people at the other end, and lots of stomping around on the floor.

Honestly, I can’t imagine what they were doing from 2:00 until 3:00 or so, when I finally found earplugs, that required so much movement. Aerobics? Long jump practice? Whatever it was, it was loud.

Over dinner on Friday with my friend S, I tried to explain what the noise was like. I didn’t want to sound like a weenie – after all, I lived in New York for nearly eight years before moving to Paris and then Beirut, so I’ve logged a lot of time in old brownstones. And I didn’t want to sound too finicky – after all, no one has much sympathy for “I’m a light sleeper” divas.

So I tried to prove my sleep credibility using the only example that came to mind.

I’m not the world’s heaviest sleeper, I told her. I do wake up when it thunders or something big happens. But I’m not the lightest, either. I sleep through gunfire all the time.

After S stopped laughing, she said:

Maybe that’s what you should say to them. “I’m sorry to be a pain, but your noise goes beyond my volleys-of-gunfire tolerance level.” I bet they’ve never heard that before.

I bet not. But I’m too worried about being known as the grouchy neighbor to really be serious about talking to them. And the idea of being known as the grouchy weird neighbor is even less appealing.

So I think I’ll gnash my teeth in silence for a bit, until my ears readjust themselves to accommodate both heavy foot-falls and post-zaim speech rat-a-tat-tats.

Its a different world, this city 🙂 .

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Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, friends, Lebanon, neighbors | 4 Comments »

Martha, Martha :)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 27, 2008

Yesterday evening I left work early to attend a cocktail party hosted by one of the many countries with missions in New York. I’m not the best at professional socializing – actually, I’m not very proficient at socializing with strangers in general. (I have to be careful how I say this – a few years ago, I realized that I had given a very wrong impression to my friend B. When I mentioned my trepidation regarding a large dinner party that I was attending one evening, she smiled and said: I know, I know. You don’t like other people. Argh.)

In the end, the cocktail party worked out beautifully. I came armed with a mental list of colleagues and organization partners to meet, and had good conversations with all of them. And I was in and out in under 40 minutes – my idea of a great professional evening.

I rode down in the elevator with another early leaver, who asked what my purpose for attending the cocktail had been.

What’s your background? he asked as we headed out into the humid evening.

Hmm. I’m used to answering that question in Lebanon, where it usually means Are you Arab? Do you have some blood connection to this region?

But I didn’t think that this was what he meant. So I fudged: I told him my position and the organization I now work for, and where I had gotten my degree. And then I added, “… and I just moved back here from Beirut.”

Wow, he said. I feel so much less interesting now.

Sigh. I had forgotten about this. I think of it as the Lebanon effect. I’m actually not that interesting – as I have noted before, I follow my aunt’s line that “we lead perfectly boring lives in interesting places”.

Well, maybe less “perfectly boring” in Beirut, but most days there were perfectly – and pleasantly – ordinary.

And my co-rider wasn’t un-interesting: he works for Martha Stewart (on the business side, not the chopping-and-dicing side).

Oh, I said. She’s becoming very popular in the Middle East.

And she is – I’ve heard women of all religious and class backgrounds wax enthusiastic about her show.

Really? he asked me, stopping dead on the street. Are you serious?

Absolutely. What other region has more appreciation for a well-turned out home?

I had no idea, he said, shaking his head. We have to get her over there, then.

If you hear talk of a Martha Stewart appearance on Kalam Nawaem, or a Martha Stewart-branded skyscraper going up in Dubai, you’ll know where the idea started 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, travel, words | 2 Comments »

nerd love: a day at the Silk Museum

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 26, 2008

What would you do if you had a free afternoon in Lebanon? There are so many options: beaching, shopping, cafe’ing, eating.

But if you were as nerdy as me, you would ask your boyfriend to take you to the national silk museum :).

Actually, it was partly H’s idea: he had seen an advertisement in the Hamra Domtex shop (which, despite its industrial-sounding name, sells nice fabrics) and thought that the museum was something I would enjoy.

The museum had also been running weekly advertisements in the Daily Star:

I do love silk, but I’m not convinced that learning more about its production would help me forget any serious worries. But with a hook like that, who could resist?

The museum was fascinating. I knew that Lebanon had been a major center for silk production starting in the mid-1800s, and that it had temporarily boosted the economy, while in the long run forcing large numbers of peasants into debt (or propelling them towards migration to the US and South America, in search of higher wages – in much the same way as Lebanese today leave for the Gulf).

But I didn’t know much about silkworms, the little creatures that actually produce silk threads. They are basically the caterpillar stage of the silkworm moth, and the silk thread is what they produce when spinning their cocoons. They go through five stages of growth, from little specks of baby worm to these behemoths (which are each about 2″ long):

Yes. Not the most attractive bugs in the world, but very interesting. One thing I had been told about the silkworms was that you can hear them eating. They eat constantly – we learned that they have special ducts on their bodies that breathe for the worms, so that they never have to stop munching to take a breath. And we could indeed hear them – a soft crunchcrunchcrunching of the chopped-up mulberry (toot) leaves that the museum staff provide for them.

This is what the cocoons look like when they have been spun and the worm is metamorphizing inside them:

Silk comes in several shades, ranging from white-white to a sharp lemon yellow. I’m not quite sure what determines the color variation – it has something to do with diet and something to do with climate, but I don’t know the details.

In order to unravel the cocoon, silk workers today and in the past use a series of hot and cold water baths. The hot water loosens the silk threads, and the cool does … err … something. Maybe its role is simply to cool the cocoons down enough to be picked up – I don’t remember. They then use a coarse brush to pick up the thread, and start unraveling, feeding the unraveled thread into a skein of three or four cocoon threads and winding it around a bobbin to be spun.

Our tour guide didn’t mention what happens to the metamorphizing worm during this process, but I don’t think the hot and cold baths, or the unraveling generally, is kind to them. But even “wild” silkworms have what seems to me to be an absolutely awful life.

After spending their worm-hood eating and molting, they labor to create a cocoon so they can transform into … not a beautiful butterfly, but a pale white moth. Its blind, and although it has wings, it cannot fly. The silkworm moth lives for roughly 24 hours, during which time it has to crawl around blindly in search of a mate.

As I said, its not a pleasant life in either case. But I loved learning more about a fabric whose origins had always been hazy to me.

(More about the rest of the museum in my next post!)

Posted in Beirut, bugs, Lebanon, silk, time, tourism, travel | 4 Comments »

hamburgers and leadership

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 25, 2008

When I was reading for my oral exams, I also needed books that could take my mind slightly away from my exam subjects. So I ended up reading a lot of wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) novels and memoirs relating in some way to the Middle East.

One of my absolute favorites was a rather hard-to-find 1960s novel about Khaleej college students in Cairo in the late 1950s, An Apartment Called Freedom (in Arabic I believe it is simply Shiqat al-Hurriyah). It follows the adventures of four young men, Sunni and Shia, wealthy and poor, who respond in different ways to the political and cultural freedom that Cairo offered.

Its a great book, and a terrific read – but its hard to find, and quite pricey. (Check out Amazon’s listing and you’ll understand what I mean – although there is a used copy available for $8.)

Anyway. My oral exams took place some time ago, and I haven’t thought much about Algosaibi since. I knew that he was a bit of a Renaissance man, and that he had done a stint in government service, and I knew that this was odd because his novels and poems were banned in Saudi Arabia – a case of love the sinner, hate the sin? But he had largely faded from my day-to-day consciousness.

This morning I read a curious little Reuters news article, and I knew it was the same man. Here’s the article:

RIYADH (Reuters Life!) – Saudi Arabia’s Labor Minister found a novel way of encouraging Saudis to take jobs they think are beneath them — by working as a waiter for three hours in a fast-food restaurant, newspapers reported on Tuesday.

Saudi media carried pictures of Ghazi Algosaibi, champion of the policy of “Saudisation” of the workforce, surprising customers in a popular restaurant in the city of Jeddah by serving up hamburgers in overalls and a cap.

“The beginning will always be tiring and difficult, but young people can realize their ambitions if they are persistent and work hard,” al-Watan reported Algosaibi as saying before kissing a Saudi worker on the head in appreciation.

Algosaibi, a poet and former ambassador to London, has fought an uphill battle against business and religious interests to attract more Saudis, including women, into employment.

Around a third of Saudi Arabia’s population of some 25 million are foreigners. The government is trying to diversify the economy away from reliance on oil receipts.

Many Saudis including graduates hope for work in the government bureaucracy and shun many menial jobs done by the large expatriate labor force.

Way to go, Minister Algosaibi! What a great role model – pitching in to show that there is nothing demeaning about honest work. This story reads a bit like a “news of the weird” piece – but I hope that readers recognize the value of Algosaibi’s “message”.

If you’re curious to know more about the poet-cum-minister, here’s what the Bahraini website Jihat al-Shi`r has to say about Algosaibi:

Saudi Arabian poet. Born in al-lhsa'(1940) in Eastern Saudi Arabia into a well to do and influential family, he had his early education in Bahrain, then obtained a B.A. in law from the University of Cairo in 1961. In 1964, he obtained an M.A. in international relations from the University of Southern California, and in 1970 obtained a Ph.D. in political science from the University of London. He had held important positions in his country’s government, becoming the Minister of Industry and Electricity (1976-1983), then Minister of Health (1983-1985). At present, he is Saudi Arabian ambassador to Bahrain. Dr. Gosaibi is widely read in literature, religious studies, and history and has been very active as poet, anthologist, and writer. He has at least twelve books in print, including Verses of Love (1975), You Are My Riyadb (1976), Fever (198o), and his lovely collection, Chosen Poems (198o). Despite his formal status, Gosaibi’s poetry, written with clear language and an eloquent style, reveals a deep involvement in Arab life and political experience, and reflects great love for simple beauty, innocence, and uncomplicated human relations in contrast to the pomp and flourish of the high life around him.

Posted in Arab world, politics, Saudi Arabia, vanity | 2 Comments »

qaff and double-qaff

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 24, 2008

Like many Arabic dialects, Lebanese Arabic does not pronounce the “qaff”. In written form, it is represented as a hamza or, more frequently, the number “2”, which is also how hamza’ed initial alifs (basically, any word beginning with an “a” or “i” sound) are written.

This is fine for people who can both speak Arabic and write it using Arabic script, but many younger Lebanese are not fully comfortable with the latter. They have gone to international or foreign-language schools, and if they work in any kind of white-collar position, they tend to do more reading and writing in English or French than in Arabic.

(This is all very interesting, some of you might be thinking, but why on earth is she going on about this?)

As a result of their education and their work, many younger Lebanese do not know whether an “a” or an “i” sound indicates a hamza’ed alif or a qaff. They know how words are pronounced and how they are written in Roman characters (Arabic chat script), but not how they are spelled in Arabic script.

(… still wondering, some of you may be thinking. Here’s the punchline:)

Last week, a Lebanese monk named Yacoub Haddad cleared the first hurdle to sainthood: beatification (not to be confused with beautification, which is what Hizbullah did to downtown after de-camping from it!). The achievement was marked with twenty million billboards and bannera, and a mega-mass on Sunday held just north of Martyrs’ Square. Here’s what last Saturday’s Daily Star had to say about the event:

BEIRUT: A Lebanese priest will take a step toward sainthood on Sunday, when the beatification of Father Yaaqoub Haddad Kabouchi will take place in Beirut’s Martyrs Square.

During his lifetime, Father Haddad – known as Qabouna Yaaqoub in Arabic – founded the Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Lebanon in 1933 as well as numerous hospitals, rest homes and schools throughout the country. (article continues here)

So. The saint-to-be appears to have two qaffs in his name. One of these is not correct.

In Lebanese Arabic, Father Haddad’s name is 2Abouna Ya2oub. The “2” in Ya2oub is a genuine qaff: Yaqoub becomes Jacob in English.

The “2” in 2Abouna is NOT a qaff. “Abou” means “father” in Arabic, and “Abouna” means “our father”. As all the posters, banners and billboards indicate, the title is spelled with an initial alif.

Anthony Elghossain is one of the Daily Star‘s good writers – but he is also young enough to have grown up without much exposure to written Arabic. Whether the error was his or the paper’s editors, it had me grinning as I read the paper at the gym last Saturday morning, half a world away from where I am now :).

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, media, words | 2 Comments »

signs that your new natour may understand the word “natour”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 23, 2008

In English, we say “turn off/on” for electrical appliances: he turns off the television before leaving the room; she turns on the computer to check her email; and of course, we all turn off (or on) lights.

In Arabic, “turn off/on” is rarely used, although I think the literal translation is a6fa2 al-nour. Instead, Arabic speakers open and close things: he closes the television before leaving the room; she opens the computer to check her email.

Judging by the sign on the basement door in our new apartment, I think the superintendent speaks our language:

I feel more at home already 🙂 .

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

morning mysteries

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 22, 2008

Guten morgen from Frankfurt airport, where I am happily ensconced with MacBook and tea from Starbucks (no product placement here :D). Having read through my collection of fashion magazines, I am now sorting through photos and catching up on emails.

On Friday morning I was half-way through my usual walk to the gym when suddenly I felt that I had been transported back to an Iowa prom. Turning onto the street in front of me was this:

A stretch Hummer limo at 6:30 AM on a week-day? I couldn’t believe it, and neither could the other pedestrians/car park workers. We all stared, Levant-style.

And we had ample time to do so, because the Hummo really couldn’t make the turn. It hemmed and hawed, backed and forthed – totally taking away whatever louche glamour a stretch SUV limo might otherwise have on a middle-class street during the wee hours of the work day.

Usually I pass one or two cars on this street during my walk – its still pretty early for most people. But when the limo finally made the turn, a line of nine cars followed it. To their credit, none of them had honked – but I bet that the drivers were less than enamored of this bit of Beirut’s nightlife culture suddenly inserting itself into their morning commute.

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon | 13 Comments »

lingering mysteries

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 21, 2008

This is my last night in Lebanon – tomorrow I fly back to New York, leaving poor H to deal with all the unfinished bits I’ve stuck him with, like Aramex’ing the stuff that just wouldn’t fit into my luggage. I thought I live low on the earthly possessions food chain, but 90 minutes of solid packing and “oops, forgot THIS thing too!” had H raising his eyebrows.

“Don’t worry babe – this will only take twenty minutes”, he said, smiling, as we pulled away from my building to head up to his parents’ house. Grrr. I hate being quoted when the quote demonstrates how manifestly wrong I’ve been.

Luckily for me, I had packed my little camera (I have two: a tourist pocket camera and the big “I am a super-geek” film-style one) in my handbag. As we drove, I realized that I was about to have one last chance to photograph a sight that has always made me curious: the Dbayeh-Tripoli/Antelias highway signs.

Here they are from afar:

And here is a closer view:

What. On. Earth. Happened. To. These. Signs?

They’re fairly far off the ground, so my initial theory that a semi caught them doesn’t seem likely.

Plus, the metal pieces below (which in the US are designed to hold lights that illuminate the signs at night – not sure what their purpose is here!) are bent, but not twisted into different shapes as I think would have happened had they been caught on a truck roof.

Since my first trip north out of Beirut, I have been wondering about these signs. What could have bent them: A localized tsunami? A grumpy giant? The old Geant mega-shopping cart?

As I turned my camera to “playback” to view the photos I had just taken, H looked at me and smiled.

I know, he said. Its a mystery to me, too.

H has one more week to figure it out – he joins me in New York next weekend. Of course, he may not have much time for sleuthing after dealing with all the “sweetie would you mind” errands I’ve pressed upon him.

So if not, I’m looking forward to puzzling through this and many other Lebanon mysteries on my next trip back here.

And in the meantime, I have a whole backlog of posts to publish, on everything from yin-yang balconies to excess qaff’ing :).

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon, research, rumors | 4 Comments »

things I will miss; or, “what’s in a name”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 21, 2008

I’ve had great luck with Levantine dry cleaners. In Damascus I went to Sno-White, a local franchise that delighted me by managing to have a shop near each of the apartments I lived in during my summers there. The men were at once deeply devout and warmly welcoming – I felt like a prodigal daughter each time I entered whichever shop I was frequenting.

And I adore my dry cleaner here. Its not a franchise but a one-man operation – he lives a few neighborhoods away, but his shop is a block away from my apartment. He is less effusive than the Sno-White’rs, but he is unfailingly gracious whenever I enter his shop.

I like my dry cleaner for his kindness and his warmth, and I also like him because he’s given me a new name:

Endilye isn’t my name – its not even particularly close to my name. To me it looks like a Japanese name, or maybe some old Turkish name made hip again. My name definitely fits neither category – so in some ways, Endilye is a step up. (I know this because when my parents were here in March, my mother started calling me Endilye.)

I’ll miss my Lebanon name when we’re back in the US, and I will miss the kind, polite man who gave it to me.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, words | 1 Comment »

a tree grows in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 21, 2008

When I last lived in New York, my mother ‘s old-school references to its boroughs used to entertain me greatly. Whenever I told her about visiting friends in Brooklyn, she would say, A tree grows there, I hear. And – sometimes against my will – her archly sage response made me laugh.

For those of you thinking, what? why is that funny? let me explain.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the title of a mid-century American novel about a young girl growing up in early 1900s Brooklyn. It has been on the curricula of middle and high school English classes ever since its publication – so even people like me, who never read it in school, have it in our cultural repertoire.

Since I haven’t read the book, I’m a bit sketchy on its details, but I do know that the tree in question is meant to be a symbol of resiliency: it, like the main character, grows and thrives despite all odds.

We’ve been watching this tree fight similar odds since its neighboring building was chopped away earlier this spring:

Yes, that tree is now standing on the literal edge of a precipice – but it still seems to be hanging on.

And whenever we pass it, I hear my mother’s voice and think: a tree grows in Beirut.

From Beirut to Brooklyn: we’ll be there next week!

(Another shot of the tree:

We’re not sure whether the lot on which the tree sits was built up, or the lot next to it was dug before the now-torn-down building was erected – but the contrast in elevation certainly is striking.)

Posted in Americans, Beirut, books, Lebanon, words | Leave a Comment »