A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for July, 2008

“Could I speak with Palestine, please?”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 31, 2008

A fascinating Menassat article just appeared in my Google news alerts for Beirut, with the very welcome news that people in Lebanon can now make calls to +970 lines in the West Bank and Gaza. Calls to Israel (+972) have for years been banned in most Arab countries, as part of the general boycott of Israel. +970 calls have been a long-standing casualty of this ban – what good news that it has been rescinded.

Here’s the full text of the article:

BEIRUT, July 31, 2008 (MENASSAT) – There is a famous Lebanese song by the singer Sabah that goes like this: “Hello, hello, hello, Beirut? Please, dear, get me Beirut, and hurry up please!”

A Palestinian friend, Imad, was humming the tune over the phone when he called from Kuwait this week.

Like Amid, many Palestinians in Lebanon have been putting new words to the old tune in the past few days: “Hello, hello, hello, Palestine? Please dear, get me Palestine, and hurry up please!”

The reason is that the Lebanese government has officially lifted the ban on calls to the 970 country code this week, making it possible for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to call their relatives in historic Palestine for the first time in decades.

“I am thrilled with the news, but I cannot help feeling bad about all the years I spent in Beirut without being able to contact my family and relatives who are still in Palestine,” Imad said. “Still, better late than never.”

The 970 country code was established in 1993 and was issued to the Palestinian Authority which at the time was in control of both the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then, the Islamic Hamas party has taken control of the Gaza Strip, while President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party controls the West Bank. But the Hamas-Fatah split has apparently not affected the phone network.

Yesterday, MENASSAT was able for the first time to call its Gaza and West Bank correspondents on their 970 numbers. (The 972 numbers, which are also in use in Gaza and the West Bank, are still off-limits because they belong to the Israeli phone system.)

The Lebanese decision is a radical new development for the roughly 700,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon, who for decades have had to rely on alternative methods (international calling cards, call-back systems and the like) to call their relatives in historic Palestine.

The decision was announced on July 29 by Lebanon’s new Communications Minister, Jubran Basil. Sources confirmed that both the Ministry and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s embassy head in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, had been working on the deal for some time. According to the ministry, the logistics for lifting the ban were already in place; it was a lack of political will that held up the decision until now.

After the announcement, Palestinians throughout Lebanon rushed to call their relatives in the West Bank and Gaza.

Approved by Hezbollah

Despite the welcome news, political insiders told MENASSAT that the timing behind Basil’s announcement was purely political.

Some Lebanese newspapers said the minister consulted with both Lebanon’s newly elected president, Michael Sleiman, and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora shortly before his decision was announced.

It was a means of providing “political cover,” one source said, while others asserted that Basil would not have taken such a step without first consulting with Lebanon’s Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah.

For the same reason, the sources said, this decision could never have been taken under the former Communications Minister, Marwan Hmadeh, who belonged to the pro-Western parliamentary majority.

(Basil is a member of Michel Aoun’s FPM party which is allied with Hezbollah. He was appointed as part of a national unity government, which was formed after the Doha peace accord in May. Ironically, the May fighting was set off by a government attempt to investigate Hezbollah’s own secret telecommunications network.)

During a press conference this week, Basil sidestepped the political question. “I am not really sure of the reasons why the decision has been delayed for so long,” he said.

Now that Lebanon has lifted the ban, Syria is the only remaining country that doesn’t allow phone calls to the 970 country-code.

Hisham Debsy, media adviser for the PLO embassy in Lebanon, told MENASSAT, “There is no security or political justification for keeping the phones lines with Palestine dead. Resuming international calls has been one of the major demands discussed as part of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee, and was it was discussed with Prime Minister Siniora repeatedly.”

As to the timing of the decision, Debsy said, “All Palestinian requests take their time when discussed at the Lebanese political table. It seems every issue has to wait for the right circumstances to be solved.”

Debsy said this is a humanitarian issue first and foremost. “The 970 code has existed for 15 years, and it used by every other country in the world.”

Israel calling

The reactions from Palestinians have generally been positive, and official thanks from the PLO in Lebanon have been sent to the new Lebanese government and Prime Minister Siniora for his role in sponsoring the talks.

But Debsy bristled when asked about the possibility of security breaches in the telecommunications network now that the lines are reopened.

“You have to refer to the Lebanese government for this answer. Israel did not wait for the lines to reopen in order to hack into Lebanese land lines and mobile phones,” he said.

Indeed, even if it was impossible to call Israel/Palestine from Lebanon, it has always been possible to call Lebanon from Israel/Palestine.

Israel has recently taken advantage of that situation by bombarding Lebanese phone subscribers with automated voice messages.

In a repeat of a tactic also used during the 2006 war, residents in Beirut and South Lebanon received calls warning them against allowing Hezbollah to become a “state within the state” and promising “harsh retaliation” against any future assault by Hezbollah.

Just like in 2006, the Arabic voice on the other end of the line signed off with the words, “This is a warning from the State of Israel.”

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

a mandate mystery: Night Falls On Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 29, 2008

You said that you read two books this past weekend, my aunt noted. What was the second book?

Oops. I got so carried away with my post on Jamelie, Jamelie that I forgot about the second one – and it was a total gem. Frederick Highland’s Night Falls on Damascus is set in the mid-Mandate period of the early 1930s, and it tells the story of a Lebanese man, Nicolai Faraoun (whose mother was Russian – hence the curious spelling of his first name), a former Legionnaire who has recently been appointed chief of Damascus’ police forces. He’s a few other things besides, but I won’t ruin the narrative for any would-be readers – like you, Intlxpatr :)! – by revealing all so soon.

The story is good, the characters are well-drawn, and the setting … well … nothing can beat Damascus :). But what I loved best about this book was the way in which it read like a part of a much longer series. From the first page, I felt that I had entered a world that was already in motion – Highland handled the tricky issues of narrative exposition and background with incredible finesse. It was almost like watching a movie – except, of course, that the movie was entirely in my mind.

There were a few oddities – but most were oddities of time rather than authorial mis-understandings. I almost laughed out loud seeing the streets called “boulevards” – especially “Midhat Boulevard”, which locals today know as Midhat Pasha, and which tourists call al-sharia al-mustaqim, “the street called straight”.

(I know: that’s the name of the street in the Bible. But the Bible was published a long, long time ago – and since the 1870s, the street has been known as Midhat Pasha, after the reformist bureaucrat who modernized Ottoman law.)

I laughed, but at the same time I realized that during the Mandate era the French government probably did insist on referring to the city streets as “Baghdad Boulevard”. And of course there was no “Sahhat Yusuf al-Azmeh” then!

Highland maintains a website dedicated to the books he has written (several, although no other books set in Damascus, sadly!), with a page about Night Falls On Damascus that includes short essays he has written about Damascene food, the battle of Maysaloun and other Mandate-era events. You can visit it here.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, books, Damascus, family, French, Lebanon, media, politics, Syria, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

further adventures in semi-Arabic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2008

Its been a Lebanese weekend for H and I. (Well, with the exception of my Saturday walking tour.) He spent most of it working on a project due Monday morning by email to Beirut, and I spent it reading two books set there. And we both took a break yesterday afternoon for a delicious, laughter-filled lunch with the (adult) children of his parents’ neighbors back in Lebanon.

The first book I read was a biography of a Lebanese woman, Jamelie Boutros Shami, who had immigrated to the US in the 1930s to join her husband, a man from her village who had emigrated to the US some years previously. She was 16 when they married, and he was 28; but they lived apart for seven years while he tried to raise money for her ticket to the US.

Amazingly, their marriage seems to have survived the seven-year gap, and they lived and worked as a team, working to restore a total fixer-upper of a house while raising five children. Jamelie’s husband died relatively young, at 58, but she lived into her nineties, the hub of a rapidly expanding family network.

When she died, one of her daughters began to write her biography, or rather a biography-cum-collective memoir, integrating stories from all five of her children. The book is largely chronological, but it ends with short essays by various members of her family: three children, one daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren, all sharing some memory of their mother/-in-law/grandmother.

Its a sweet book, although it could use a bit more narrative juice – and Jamelie herself would come to life more if the narrative showed more of the vim and vinegar she clearly had, rather than simply iterating and re-iterating that she was a paragon of self-sacrifice. But it is a book published by family members for family members, so as an outside reader I am likely a welcome audience, but not the primary one.

What intrigued me most were the several Arabic words used throughout the book. Many, like “ma’amoul” and “aynee”, were close transliterations of Arabic terms. But others fell into the category of words I call “semi-Arabic”.

About a year and a half ago, I blogged about reading the memoirs of a several-generations-removed Lebanese-American woman, Snake Hips, which focused on how she discovered belly dancing. The book turned out to be just what I needed – engaging, personable, and filled with a few terms that the author described as Arabic, but which were total mysteries to me. One of these terms was “sakhtange”, which I finally deduced meant “sahtein”, or “bon appetit”.

Jamelie, Jamelie is filled with a similar mix of semi-Arabic words. Some are easy to sort out, like “bitlawa” (ba2lawa, or baklava) and “nat nat” (na3 na3, or mint), in which the “ayn” becomes a “taa” in the American English-speaking ears of Jamelie’s children. Or “mahadajan” (mahrajan, or festival), which is a funny word in Arabic too – I think its Persian originally.

Others are a bit more puzzling, like “nishka Allah”, which the author translates as “with God’s help”. Could this be “nishkur Allah”, and mean “we thank God”?

And one phrase totally stumps me: “bistrante aleichem”, which the author describes as a New Year’s Day greeting that means “success be with you”. I can see that “aleichem” is “3aleikum”, but “bistrante”? Someone with better puzzle-solving ability than I have, please help!

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

Beirut moments

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 26, 2008

This morning I went on a walking tour of our new neighborhood, sponsored by a local architectural preservation society. (H claimed work as an excuse, but I suspect that the 90-degree weather also played a factor in his decision. Its also cleaning time again in our apartment, so perhaps he was penning an ode to Lebanon’s housekeepers.)

The tour was definitely focused on Brooklyn, but for the alert tour-goer it did offer a few Beirut moments.

One, a similar “more is more” approach to electricity wires:

near the Gowanus ... or Gemmayzeh
near the Gowanus … or Gemmayzeh

And two, a shared “batten down the hatches” view of strangers:

"The enemy is everywhere"
“The enemy is everywhere”

I bet the guy who created that sign thinks I’m secretly a CIA agent, too 😛 .

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, home, laundry, Lebanon, photography, tourism, weather, words | Leave a Comment »

Palestine in vogue

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 24, 2008

In addition to books like Sami and the Time of the Troubles, which I mentioned yesterday, the magic boxes that my parents sent earlier this week also contained six months’ worth of magazines.

I love magazines. Well, not all magazines – I can do without the celebrity-chasing ones. But food magazines, travel magazines, and fashion magazines are all guilty pleasures – as in, I feel a bit guilty reading them rather than more substantive fare, but the pleasures are totally worth it.

The April 2008 Vogue included a feature on local beauty products from around the world, including a mention of olive oil from Palestine:

Woo-hoo Vogue! Its been my favorite fashion magazine since I was 13 and stumbled across old copies in my aunt Sparkle’s living room. I love the elegance of the clothing it showcases and the quality of the writing in its articles.

And I love its “fashion forward” matter-of-fact recognition of Palestine, too.

Posted in Americans, fashion, Israel, maps, Palestine, vanity, women, words | 3 Comments »

literary gems

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 23, 2008

Yesterday three big boxes of books, magazines, and clothing arrived from Iowa, courtesy of my very patient parents. (Actually, I think they were thrilled that I finally have a US address – I bet there are more boxes to follow, as they liberate the basement space that I have been i7tilal’ing since moving abroad several years ago. Its the muqawamat al-walidai, I guess :).)

In one of the boxes was a book I had found on Amazon several months ago – a children’s book about living through the civil war in Lebanon:

Sami and the Time of the Troubles was published in 1992, two years after the civil war officially ended. The authors are a mother-daughter team who have collaborated on a number of children’s books, including one set in Cairo and another set in Baghdad. (The daughter, Judith, lived in Beirut with her husband and two children during the civil war, and also seems to have lived in Cairo at some point.)

The book’s illustrations are beautiful watercolors showing two main scenes: the streets of Beirut, filled with old men in fezes smoking argileh and gutted streets where Sami plays and his mother shops when the fighting stops, and the basement where his family gathers during gun battles. The basement walls and floors have been covered with richly patterned carpets, making the space more cozy – but the image of adults huddled around a radio makes it clear that this is a more serious moment than the playful, child’s fort-like space it might otherwise seem.

The text is elliptical and restrained: it alludes to the absence of Sami’s father in mentions of the peaches he loved to grow and Sami’s mother’s hatred of guns, but leaves the reader to draw the unavoidable conclusion. Nor does it address the politics that undergirds the fighting. It does not suggest that anyone in Sami’s family is involved as a fighter or political operative, and only the children have names: Sami, his sister Leila, and his friend Amir – names that might be Muslim, might be Druze, or might be Christian.

Sami and the Time of the Troubles must have made something of a splash when it was published, as I found several sample lesson plans, including this one, which use it to teach children about geography or social issues. The lesson plan I linked to has a charming suggestion: that children write letters to Sami after reading the book. Unfortunately, the plan suggests that Sami lives in Iraq.

Same neighborhood, but different decade and very different war.

Your neighborhood library might have a copy of this book – and if so, its worth checking out. Otherwise, you can do as I did and order a used copy from Amazon or Ebay. The most recent search I did showed a used copy available from Amazon for $0.25 plus shipping – a bargain if you are looking for a way to give children or grandchildren a sense of what growing up during the civil war was like.

Posted in Americans, art, Beirut, books, childhood, Lebanon, time, words | 2 Comments »

the oddities of home-making

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 22, 2008

First, a note of thanks from H to each and every one of you who emailed me with words of compassion and empathy for him and his bed-making woes. He is particularly grateful to my grandmother, who emailed me to say that:

Those blasted fitted sheets can be so frustrating! My biggest congratulations to him for trying to figure it out — and for even doing it when he had never had to change his bed!! And, for not calling to you for help.

I’m glad someone appreciated my not simply calling out to you to come and help me, H said pointedly after I read him my grandmother’s email.

I appreciated it! I said indignantly, and returned to my current pursuit: looking for used furniture on Craigslist.

Now that we have signed a lease, we need things: things to sit on, eat on, store books in, lounge on, and sleep on. Neither of us is particularly enthused about used couches (ugh) or beds (double ugh), but we’re perfectly willing to trade light use for a discounted price – which is where Craigslist comes in.

Thanks to its weekend listings, we now have an almost-new table and chairs. We’re currently scouting it for bookshelves and a coffee table – as fun as regular shopping, with no overbearing salesperson trying to push us towards a higher-end model.

But some of the things for sale – some of the things that otherwise sane people think might actually sell – are just plain odd.

This is my current favorite:

Its being sold as a “pop-up bed”, which it definitely is, that offers extra storage space, which I suppose it does. But it also looks like one of the wackiest do-it-yourself projects I’ve seen.

Also, buying furniture on Craigslist means that the buyer must go to the seller’s apartment. I am sure that the person who built this pop-up bed is totally normal and sane – but I still wouldn’t want to go to his/her apartment alone!

Posted in advertising, Americans, family, home, Lebanon, words | Leave a Comment »

familiar flag :)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 20, 2008

This week’s issue of Time Out magazine included a quiz on flags of the world. Look at number five:

I’ve been spending far too much time and energy trying to deconstruct the hint that the flag’s tree “Kind of looks like a Christmas tree, but it probably isn’t”, wondering whether it was a commentary on Lebanon’s majority-Muslim population.

But then I looked at the Lebanese flag again, and the Time Out editors are right. That cedar does kind of look like a Christmas tree.

(As many of you probably know, Time Out is now publishing a Beirut edition again. Time Out Beirut published two or three issues starting in Spring 2006. Its premiere issue included a terrible interview with Haifa that had all my journalist friends snickering at its gaga tone, especially since they all knew the magazine’s editor, who had conducted the interview. But it was a welcome addition to Beirut’s social scene, and each issue was better than the one before. If it offered overseas shipping, H and I would definitely subscribe.)

Posted in Americans, Beirut, cedar, Lebanon, media, New York | 1 Comment »

life’s little luxuries

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 19, 2008

H gave up a great deal when he agreed to move back to the US with me. Of course, he was born and raised largely in the states, but he’s lived in Lebanon for a long time – and it shows.

I recognized this from the beginning, but had been easing my conscience by telling myself that perhaps New York’s constant abundance of pizza-by-the-slice was making up for his Lebanon losses. After all, I did listen to him spend an entire subway ride waxing rhapsodic about the merits of particular pizzerias – places that all seem to be named after their owners, like Vinnie’s or Sal’s or the several ending in -ini or -aldi.

But last night I realized that all the pizza in the world might not be able to make up for one very serious lack.

It all started with laundry. Thursday is our change-the-sheets-and-towels day. So while I washed the dinner dishes, H went down the street to pick up our clean linens and have an after-pizza cigarette. (Last night we compromised: I finished off the zucchini casserole I made for Monday’s dinner, H had “a slice”, and I made a spinach salad for both of us. It was a win-win situation: I was happy to have the casserole dish back, and H was happy to have pizza.)

When he returned, he took out our clean sheets and began making the bed. Meanwhile, I finished washing the dishes and began tidying up our living room.

I finished doing that, sat down at the table, turned on my laptop and began checking email.

After about fifteen minutes, the idea of lying across a freshly made bed and doing the crossword puzzle began to sound very appealing. But I could still hear bed-making noises coming from the bedroom, so I waited. While I waited, I checked a few news sites, looked at the weather for Friday, and listened for the sounds of bed-is-made silence.

After another five minutes of bed-making sounds, I decided to check and see how things were progressing. I walked into our bedroom and found H smoothing out … the bottom, fitted sheet.

Which was on sideways.

I don’t understand why they make these sheets so tight, H said to me, frowning.

I think its on sideways, babe, I said. There were big poufs of extra sheet material along the short side of the bed, while the sheet could barely stretch to reach both corners of the long side.

Well, H said. I’m not doing this again.

So I took off the fitted sheet, rotated it 90 degrees, and put it back on the bed, and H very graciously did the rest.

When he had finished, I lay down on the bed with my crossword, and he flopped down next to me. As I worked through the clues (you can tell I don’t eat meat by the fact that I couldn’t figure out what a six-letter word for “deli meat”, starting with “t”, might be), I heard him start softly reciting women’s names.

Nalente, H said, Thank you. Shashila and Leila, he continued, thank you. And Shamma – I never thanked you enough.

I tried not to laugh. I know those names: they are the names of the women who have worked as housekeepers for H’s parents, and who kept his apartment in order as well. By moving to New York, H has suddenly had to start being his own maid – and, as he noted, housework is hard.

I think H loves the pizza here, but I’m sure that every Thursday he’ll be wishing that we were back in Lebanon 🙂 .

(sheets from one of my favorite off-price online shops: overstock.com)

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, family, home, humor, Lebanon | 5 Comments »

signs of difference

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 16, 2008

This sign made me laugh when I noticed it last weekend:

The Middle East, or at least the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon parts of it that I know best, would not survive without horn honking.

Honks are used to communicate all kinds of messages, from “I’m coming up on your left” to “this taxi is free”, from “I’ll slow down so you can cross” to “I’d like to order a coffee”, and from “you and you are triple-parked in front of me and I’d like to leave” to “I’m heading through this blind one-way intersection the wrong way”. These aren’t angry honks – they’re conversational.

Its much quieter in our new neighborhood than it was in Beirut, but there’s much less communication on the streets. And the only honks we hear are angry ones, from drivers impatient at having to wait behind a taxi or truck.

Patience, in Lebanon and the US, is a virtue. Impatient drivers deserve the $350 fine 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, Lebanon, traffic, words | 2 Comments »