A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for August, 2008

victims and martyrs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 31, 2008

I’ve been enjoying a lovely lovely weekend at home with my parents, enjoying the quiet tranquility of life in suburban Iowa. And since its been a while since I was last here, I’ve also been enjoying the chance to reacquaint myself with the odds and ends that I have been storing here: artwork, clothing, and, of course, a large aghabani collection.

I have several of these beautiful Damascene tablecloths (you can learn a bit more about aghabanis here), including one in light blue and another in a rich salmon as well as the more classic cream, white, and red versions. Now that I am back in the US for a bit and actually have a suitable table, I’m looking forward to taking one back to Brooklyn.

While here, I’ve also had the chance to follow up a bit further on the Syrian Young Men’s Association and other Syrian/Lebanese-American clubs, thanks to various online resources. I haven’t learned anything more about SYMA, but I did go off on a very interesting tangent: the Titanic. In addition to carrying the leading lights of British and American society (not to mention Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet), the Titanic apparently carried a significant number of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants, coming to the United States as steerage passengers.

The subject of Syrians on the Titanic is fascinating, and I will post more about it soon. But in this post I want to focus on something I learned from an article by a woman named Leila Salloum Elias, about how the Syrian community in the United States worked together to respond to the tragedy of the Titanic‘s sinking. For Arabic speakers, it was a particularly difficult tragedy to deal with, since the names of the dead were reported in English-language newspapers first. The combination of Arabic names written down at the ports of entry by French or other non-English speakers and cultural differences in what defined a “full name” (Syrians tended to give their first names and their parents’ names, and perhaps a village or family moniker, which Americans) meant that for the first few weeks after the ship had sunk, some families grieved unnecessarily, thinking that their relatives had died.

The problem of names was compounded by the slowness of early 20th century communication: relatives in the United States might know that family members were planning to join them soon, but they rarely knew when these family members left Syria, or what ships they traveled on.

Elias’ article was fascinating, but what really made me sit up and take notice was this:

Equally important were the reports [in US-based Arabic-language newspapers] about memorial services for the victims that allowed the community to mourn together … In vivid detail, Al-Sa’ih [a New York-based paper] described for its readers the memorial service held for Niqula Khalil Nasr Allah and that members of the Syrian community having come to pay their respects to the Nasr Allah family on the death of “al-shahid”.

The title of the Al-Sa’ih article from which Elias drew this quote was also titled “Al-Shahid”.

I don’t know Elias, but I assume she noted the word “shahid” for the same reason that I am mentioning it here: because today “shahid” is understood – at least in the US – as part of that great stereotyped mishmash of suicide bombers and jihadis. But in the Arab world, “shahid” is used for all kinds of tragic deaths: the Lebanese soldiers who died fighting in Nahr al-Bared in 2007, for example, were all described as martyrs, and so were the people who died during the mini-war in May.

In English, we would call these people “innocent victims” – and there is a word in Arabic for “victim”, with the same connotations of sacrifice as our English word. And on the surface, “martyr” and “shahid” also share the same connotations – both refer back to an earlier sense of a martyr as one who died bearing witness to a belief.

But seeing the use of “shahid” in this 1912 article about a Titanic victim makes me wonder whether the contemporary Western understanding of “shahid” isn’t a bit skewed. Rather than seeing it as an exclusively Islamic term, it might help Americans and others to learn just how many shahid-s there are in the Arab world, and how few die in service of religion.

It might also help to expand the definition of “shahid” to one that includes a more messy (but not less accurate) term like “victim of a wrongful death”, or “victim of an unnecessary death”. Arabic linguists, what do you think? Would that be stretching the word’s definition too far?


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Iowa, Lebanon, politics, sea, words | 7 Comments »

Camels of Shebaa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 29, 2008

(I know: another post about camels. Somehow one camel thought just led to another …)

Sometimes I find myself thinking that I am much smarter than I actually am.

Before I left Lebanon, we went on an all-day excursion to Shebaa Farms. If you think that sounds like a bad idea, particularly for an American, you are in the solid majority of our friends and family members. But we liked (and trusted) the group organizing the trip, so we went anyway.

And yes, being a foreigner was a bit tricky – mostly in the sense that the three of us with non-Lebanese passports slowed down everyone else, because at each checkpoint the soldiers asked our leader: ma3ak ajanib? Luckily, we were all women, which seemed to make us much less of a security threat in their eyes. (As a woman, I am torn between hoping that governments and militaries recognize how powerful we truly are and enjoying the gender-based “free pass” at checkpoints and immigration/emigration booths.)

The trip itself was almost beyond words – an eye-opening experience on many levels, and one that I as a non-Lebanese could never have had on my own.

But it also provided me with a golden opportunity to exchange hubris for humility.

When we all climbed out of the car to photograph the famous “Shebaa Farms” sign, I snickered to myself:

I should note here that I was taking the photo from a decent distance away. I’m a bit of a weenie when it comes to off-piste’ing in Lebanon. In the north, I worry about being mistaken for wild game. In the south and the Bekaa, I worry about left-over Israeli cluster bombs or lingering Israelis with itchy trigger fingers.

So I was too far away to read the Arabic – but not too far away to read, or rather mis-read, the French.

Chameaux de Chabaa, I read. And it didn’t seem that improbable – after all, the terrain in which the sign stands looks more camel-friendly than farm-friendly.

I wonder why no one ever corrected that sign, I thought to myself. The word for “farm” in French is “ferme”.

Luckily for my ego, I didn’t share my wondering with any of our fellow day-trippers, and saved it until we returned home and I could get to an online dictionary.

There I learned that “hameau” does indeed not mean farm – but it isn’t just a typo for “chameau”, either. A hameau is a hamlet – a small village, or a rural community too small to have a town’s right to self-government, commercial center, and house of worship.Both words come from the Frankish “haim”, from which the English word “home” also apparently derives. (Thank you, Online Etymology Dictionary!)

This in turn made me curious to know more about the Arabic term, “mazari3a”. After all, the French mandate officials were no slouches when it came to learning the Arabic language. If they chose to translate “mazari3a” as “hameaux”, they must have done so with good reason.

And … well … mazari3a does mean “farms”. But it also means “fields under cultivation”, “plantations”, and “country estates”. So there is more flexibility in that word, too, than I had imagined.

As for “hamlet”, when I translate it into Arabic, I get two options: قرية صغيرة or كفر قرية, both of which mean “small village”. Go figure.

I do still believe that the French were great Arabic linguists (and am increasingly aware of my deficiencies in that area!). But the use of “hameau” over “ferme” still puzzles me.

(S’il y a quelqu’un qui pourrait m’aider a resoudre ce mystere, je serait reconassiante :).)

Posted in Americans, Arabic, friends, Lebanon, politics, travel, words | 1 Comment »

have camel fantasy, will travel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 27, 2008

A few days ago, a work friend sent me an email that included this photo of Pakistani artist Huma Mulji’s work “Arabian Delight”:

(More of Multji’s portfolio, including additional photographs of Arabian Delight, can be viewed here.)

I keep returning to this image, because I can’t decide how I feel about it.

On the one hand, I find it a brilliantly witty commentary on the camel/desert/harem fantasies that continue to populate the minds of Americans and Europeans when it comes to the Middle East. I love how in this case a tourist is literally packing the fantasy into his or her suitcase.

And I can’t tell you the number of times friends and acquaintances have joked about the camel-riding they imagine that I do in Syria and Lebanon – even those who know better! (I haven’t kept a strict count, but its up there with the number of times I’ve been asked how I feel about having to wear an abaya. I’ve never had to wear one. In fact, the last time I wore one was to tour the Grand Mosque of Kuwait, where as tourists we were largely exempted from modest dress requirements – men and women alike. I chose to wear an abaya to be respectful … and because as a New Yorker I’m a sucker for chic all-black outfits :).)

On the other hand, Mulji’s piece involves an actual dead camel, which I think is pretty gross. Not to mention a bit disrespectful to the animal in question. Surely she could have made the same point using a camel made out of fake fur – or an inflatable one:

(Thanks to AdvertisingBalloons.com for this image.)

I’m still torn. What message do you get from Arabian Delight? Does it speak to you at all? And: could you imagine seeing this piece in a gallery exhibit in the Arab World? I can “see” it in Lebanon, but the taxidermy element makes me wonder whether it would be welcomed in the Gulf.

Posted in advertising, animals, Arab world, art, Iowa, tourism | 3 Comments »

shopgirls and rebels: the 1958 ABC bombing

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 26, 2008

Kheireddine’s comment about the 1958 bombing that targeted the ABC in Bab Idriss made me curious to know more. So I did a little online investigating (thank you, once again, New York Times archives!) and found an article about the bombing, dated July 9, 1958.

Its a long article, reprinted from United Press International, a US-based international news agency – meaning either that the Times didn’t have someone stationed in Beirut at the time or that perhaps its correspondent was out of the country. The length suggests that the story was reprinted in full, so the paper’s editors believed that readers would find it interesting. But it was printed on page 9 – not page 1.

Here it is:

Rebel Bomb Rips Big Beirut Store

Explosion and Fire Kill 2 Persons and Injure Fifty in 5-Story Building

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 8 (UPI)

A rebel bomb blasted and set fire to a five-story department store thronged with shoppers in downtown Beirut today in the biggest bombing incident of the nine-week Lebanese revolt.

Police said at least two persons had been killed and between fifty and sixty injured in the explosion and fire that ripped through the big ABC store during a peak shopping period. Many of the injured were teen-age shop girls.

Twenty of the wounded were hospitalized with serious injuries. Police said fourteen were in “grave” condition, including six who were not expected to live.

The department store, one of Beirut’s largest, was a favorite shopping center for Americans and other members of the foreign colony. But the United States Embassy said it had received no reports of any American casualties.

[I don’t think this paragraph was meant to imply that Americans might have been the intended target of the bombing – just to add a “local interest” element for American readers.]

The combined dynamite-incendiary bomb exploded just as the first wave of morning shoppers poured into the store. The blast smashed the ground-floor plate glass windows of the store, broke other shop windows for a block around and shook buildings a mile away. Sheets of flame raced through the first two floors of the store.

Bomb Believed in Truck

Police believed the bomb had been hidden by rebel terrorists in a soft drink delivery truck parked alongside the store. The truck was turned into a blackened pile of scrap and one of its wheels was blown across the street. Bottles of soft drink exploded in the heat and whistled through the streets like high-explosive projectiles.

The driver of the truck was at first believed to have been killed. But police later theorized that he and his assistant had parked the truck, set the bomb and then disappeared, carrying cases of bottles on a faked delivery.

The local manager of the soft drink plant was taken into custody by police for questioning after the blast.

Two other bombs exploded in Beirut during the day. One went off in a flower shop fifty yards from the department store. But no casualties were reported in these incidents.

Firemen fought for more than two hours at the ABC story before bringing the flames under control. Six persons were injured, two seriously, in three private cars that were driving past the store when the bomb exploded.

The heat of the flames prevented firemen from entering the building. Fiery debris pelted down from the burning building to hamper further the efforts of fire-fighters.

The top two stories of the building were rented by the Middle Eastern office of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. There were no reports of casualties among personnel of the office.

The history of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in the Middle East and other parts of the world is quite interesting – but its not my focus here. The story of the bombing is quite gripping – and it must have been a nightmare to live through for the store’s employees and shoppers.

I know that ABC has a store near Bab Idriss today – one that focuses exclusively on cosmetics and beauty products. Does anyone (hint, hint, Kheireddine!) know whether this is the same building – or at least, a building on the same footprint – as the one that was bombed?

Posted in Beirut, explosion, Lebanon, women | 2 Comments »

feeling social: Syrian American clubs in New York

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 25, 2008

One of the many nice things about living in Brooklyn is the way in which the area’s rich history as a home for immigrants of all kinds continues to punctuate the present.

For example, we get a huge kick out of the Italian-American men’s club that sits two blocks up from our street, with its members faithfully putting out a big Italian and a big US flag whenever they gather to sit on the sidewalk and play boardgames, talk, and have a beer. (No, technically that isn’t legal – but who is going to police a couple of sweet old men?)

We also get a huge kick out of the fact that an organization founded by Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the late 1800s is still going strong: the Syrian Young Men’s Association, now officially known as SYMA.

SYMA was just one of many organizations that Syrian immigrants founded in the various cities in North and South America where they began immigrating in the 1880s/90s – just like other immigrant groups. Societies gave people the opportunity to knit new social bonds, and to have an outlet for relaxation.

But these societies were also important for immigrants’ new homelands, because they allowed them to start putting down local roots. The Syrian Young Men’s Association, like many other organizations, was active as a social and civic organization rooted largely in New York. And in a post-2001 world, its nice to see that – judging at least from its New York TImes coverage – it was treated by other New Yorkers as a regular part of the city’s life.

SYMA and other Arab immigrant group events were listed in the New York Times from early on – like this mention in the the “City and Vicinity” section on March 18, 1896:

“The Syrian Young Men’s Association tonight, at Chickering Hall, will present the play “Andromache” in Arabic, using the translation made from the Greek of Sophocles by Adeeb Bay Izhac. The intention is to aid the suffering people of Armenia. The Association will also present three scenes from “Hamlet” in English. The tragedy of “Al-Amirat Trajla”, showing the conditions in Armenia during the recent massacres, will be given after about three months.”

(For those of you who know about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s, the above fundraiser may seem a bit oddly timed. There were several anti-Armenian pogroms in the 1890s, which spilled over into attacks on other minority communities as well.

They don’t seem to have been government-led, but the Ottoman government also doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them. Its an ugly moment in a much longer history of nearly five centuries in which the Armenian community was treated with respect and acceptance – and unfortunately, the brutality of the Armenian experience during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire has largely erased this earlier memory.)

The New York Times chronicled Syrian women’s club gatherings, the community’s charitable endeavors, and major events like the American Syrian Federation’s, another Brooklyn-based society, June 1928, hosting of Mexican “aviator” Emilio Carranza, who had flown from Mexico City to Washington, D.C.

According to the Times, Carranza was “the guest of honor last night at a reception given by the American Syrian Federation, at its headquarters at 103 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn. Borough President James J. Byrne made a short speech of welcome on behalf of the Borough of Brooklyn … Mr. Carranza, who replied briefly in English, expressed his thanks for the reception given him in Brooklyn, and thanked the Syrian Federation for last night’s affair. The Syrians in Mexico, he said, contributed a third of the money to pay for the expenses of his flight. A wrist watch and a scroll written in Arabic were presented to him.”

I know: flying from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. doesn’t seem quite so exciting today. But in the late 1920s long airplane flights were still relative novelties – and hosting Carranza must have been a social coup for the Federation. (And did you notice the role of the Syrian community in Mexico? Today, Mexico’s “Syrians” identify as Lebanese, and they are a wealthy, influential part of Mexican society – starting, of course, with Carlos Slim [Selim] Helou.)

In the 1960s, SYMA seems to have taken more of a citizens’ watchdog role, protesting gentrification plans that would have driven working and middle-class Arab American New Yorkers out of Brooklyn Heights. On October 2, 1962, the Times noted:

“The Syrian Young Men’s Association of Brooklyn said yesterday that a proposal to rehabilitate the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn Heights was an invitation to the area’s Syrian-Lebanese community “to commit ethnic suicide”.”

SYMA is still located in Brooklyn Heights: on Atlantic Avenue, which many people see as the center of Arab Brooklyn. (Of course, I hear that the real energy today comes from Bay Ridge, where more recent generations of Arab immigrants have settled – including a large community of Syrian Jews.) I’m hoping that H will join so I can experience this connection with history through him.

Hoping, but not holding my breath. As a 1992 Times article noted, SYMA today is a place “where the men are not necessarily young or Syrian, but do share a taste for the thick coffee that used to be available up and down Atlantic Avenue”. H considers himself still young, and he is not particularly enthused about identifying as Syrian. And nor does he drink coffee.

But for those of you who are interested in checking SYMA out: you can find its current address by googling “SYMA” and “Atlantic Ave”. And you can get a taste of the rich history of the Arab American communities in New York with the Google preview of A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, an edited book published by the Museum of the City of New York.

The chapters come from papers delivered at a February 2000 conference that the Museum hosted in preparation for an exhibit on Arab American New Yorkers scheduled for November 2001. The book includes contributions from some very big names in the field.

(The exhibit was re-worked after September 11 and opened in Spring 2002. I saw it and … while well-intentioned, the exhibit was unfortunately quite disappointing. The historical artifacts – period newspapers, photographs, memoirs – were wonderful. But as my friend K noted, the exhibit’s message had disintegrated into nothing more than “Look, Arabs are American, too”. It might have been an important message at the time, but it did little justice to the real rootedness of Arab Americans in the city. Read the book – its much better.)

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Brooklyn, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, time, words | 1 Comment »

shopping in Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 24, 2008

I know: with a title like “shopping in Tripoli”, you were probably expecting lots of scenic souk photos. Well, we went to Tripoli on a Friday, and by the time we got to the souks, the shops that did open on Fridays had already closed. Not that I needed to buy anything – my bags were full to bursting, and my sharqiyyat collection is already fairly extensive.

What caught my eye as we were lunching in one of the only restaurants that we did find open was this:

ABC is the major department store in Lebanon. It started in the 1920s or 1930s as a fairly price-conscious five-and-dime-type shop in Hamra, and the branch there is definitely the homely older sister. When I’ve stopped in, the clothing selection has reminded me of a lower-cost, less-trendy version of Kohls, with outfits aimed at women with rural addresses and practical sensibilities. Lots of polyester blouses and wash-and-wear type clothing.

But the ABC’s marquee stores are dazzling: the colors, the clothing, the housewares – and the prices. (And if you are not suitably impressed, don’t think about hailing a salesperson. They are far, far too pleased with the store and their position there to be interested in helping you.)

When the ABC opened in Achrafieh in the early 2000s, it sparked a number of complimentary news articles, including this one from the trade publication Shopping Centers Today. It was seen as the signal of a new era, a new cosmopolitanism, a move toward the future, etc. etc. etc. – and when the company opened another super-store in Dbayyeh, that one was also lauded.

Meanwhile, the Hamra shop and apparently this Tripoli branch continue to plug along in the shadow of their glamorous younger sisters. They definitely don’t fit the chic ABC Beirut profile – and they aren’t even listed under the “Branches” tab of the company’s website. You have to click through to the “Contact Us” link at the bottom or the “Location Map” under the “About Us” tab. (And while you’re there, click on the “History” link and watch the company’s logo evolve – fascinating!)

I probably wouldn’t have bought anything from the ABC Tripoli even if it had been open – after all, the last thing I need is more clothing. But I did enjoy the surprise of seeing it!

Posted in advertising, Beirut, Lebanon, Tripoli | 5 Comments »

more housecleaning: at home and in Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 23, 2008

Yesterday marked the two-month “anniversary” of my leaving Lebanon to come back to New York for a bit.

It doesn’t seem like its been that long, my friend T said over a drink on Thursday after work. T was being kind – but then again, she had just arrived from Beirut herself, so perhaps she was still in that between-world state that (for me, at least) characterizes halfway-around-the-world travel.

For me, these two months feel like a very substantial amount of time: enough time that my experience of Beirut living has become historical rather than contemporary. When my friends say that Lebanon is “impossibly” crowded this summer, I can only nod and smile. I barely remember what a Beirut packed with khaleejis and overseas Lebanese returning on holiday is like – and for me, those memories come from 2006, not from July or August 2008.

So I’m feeling a bit out of it these days when it comes to Lebanon.

I’m also taking stock, in a way – at least in the literal sense. I’ve been going through my photos, tidying up and trying to caption them correctly before my memories melt into a puddle of “hmmm … great image, but where – and when – was that?”

And I’m still thinking about Tripoli, where for me one of the most shocking things was the utter absence of Lebanon’s greatest heroes: the Sukleen cleaners.

Its not that Tripoli has no garbage collection or street cleaning service, but it has no Sukleen. Instead, cleaning services are provided by a company called Lavajet:

That’s “lava” as in “lavar” (for Spanish speakers), “laver” (for French speakers), or “lavere” (for Owlfish, Abu Owlfish, and any other Latin lovers out there). It refers to washing, not to volcanoes. And “jet” as in … I have no idea. Cleaning at jet speed? Cleaning with jets of water?

According to Zawya, the company is owned by a man named Badawi Azour, who owns several construction and waste management subsidiaries, with main offices near Dbayyeh and operations in Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.

The Emirates outfit may be a semi-separate entity: it apparently partners with a local firm called Batco, as most foreign companies operating in the Gulf are required to do. Here is its website, which is in the process of relaunching. The branding may be distinct for the Emirates, or it may simply be new: Lebanese-Canadian graphic artist Mustapha Sabra includes the new Lavajet branding in his online portfolio.

(Mustapha’s blog also has a very nice deconstruction of a Lavajet ad he designed for the Lebanese market – which he has commented on below. When I first wrote this post, I stated that this ad would be considered false advertising in the United States, since rather than use actual Lavajet trucks, he simply digitally added the branding to a generic North American garbage truck. But Mustapha has clarified that the rebranding accompanies the roll-out of a new fleet of trucks, and that the digital design was simply a cost-saving measure. Thanks for the explanation, Mustapha – and I hope that the new branding is a big success!)

Anyway. Why is she so into garbage companies? you might be wondering. Well, let me tell you.

My understanding was that Sukleen is a Hariri-owned company that functions as a concessionaire, providing cleaning services for Lebanon without much of a competitive bidding process. At some point during the building of the current downtown, it was decided that Lebanon needed cleaning services, and that Sukleen would be the provider.

Of course, I have no hard data on this, nor have I done any research on the subject – this is just my impression, based on what I was told. And I certainly don’t object to having professionals pick up all the bits of garbage the Lebanese toss out onto the streets and sidewalks, as if trash cans are an utterly foreign concept to them.

But I’ve never paid a bill for garbage collection, which has made me rather curious as to just how Sukleen gets its revenues.

Seeing Lavajet’s trash bins in Tripoli made me realize that the cleaning services concession might be one further indication of both the importance of Beirut and the limits of central power – not to mention Hariri power – in Lebanon.

According to Averda, Sukleen’s parent company (and yes, in case you are wondering: its headquarters are in Beirut’s downtown), Sukleen provides services to Beirut and most of Mount Lebanon, or to more than 2,000,000 people – about 55-60% of the country’s population.

Tripoli is supposed to be a Hariri (or at least Sunni) stronghold. But Beirut is, as I noted earlier this week, seen by many as the head, beating heart and all other essential limbs of the country. So if claiming the cleaning and waste concession for all Lebanon was not possible, claiming the Beirut concession was probably the most important.

I don’t remember seeing trash bins in south Lebanon, but I am sure (or at least I hope) that they exist. Does anyone know who has the cleaning concession for the Bekaa, for Saida, etc. etc.?

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, garbage, Lebanon, politics, travel, Tripoli | 3 Comments »

adventures in machine translation

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 21, 2008

As I noted yesterday, I’ve been taking advantage of the mid-August slow-down to address long-neglected housecleaning tasks at my new organization, like the computer defragmenting I mentioned yesterday and backing up our shared files. Neither of which have been done before. Ever.

My colleagues have a fine collection of advanced degrees from well-regarded universities around the US and Europe – which is just another way of saying that we confirm the cliche that some of the brightest people have the least common sense.

Anyway. In between bouts of hausfrau’ing, I have been busily investigating the latest advances in machine translation. When I mentioned this online to our friend B, he responded in kind:

01010111011010000110000101, B wrote.

111001100111? he asked me.

I have absolutely no idea what he was saying – although I’m hoping it was something along the lines of:

Hi Diamond. I’ll be back in New York this weekend – let’s all try to meet up for another spicier-than-anything-nature-intended Punjabi dinner on Curry Row.

In any case, this wasn’t what I meant. Machine translation doesn’t refer to the way in which computers translate ones and zeros into human language – it refers to the way in which computers manually translate one human language to another. You’ve probably had some experience with this, whether through Google’s automatic page translation service or that first-generation standby, Babelfish.

Machine translation is usually a poor substitute for human translation – even when moving between relatively close languages like French and Spanish, or English and German. And when it comes to translating between Arabic and English, most manual translators give the would-be reader only a glancing sense of what the original text might say. Individual words translate well, but coherent phrases are relatively rare. (Try translating Al Jazeera’s homepage via Google and you will see what I mean.)

But, as can often be the case with mis-translations, some of the translations that the system I was testing out offered (English to Arabic and vice versa) made me think – like “plastic surgery”.

(This wasn’t a Freudian choice of phrase, honestly. We had been talking about plastic surgery the other day, and I was testing out technical terms – compound nouns or noun-adjective phrases that as a whole meant something different than the sum of their parts.)

The phrase in Arabic that I use for “plastic surgery” is:

عملية التجميل

I’ve never really thought about its literal meaning – so when the machine translator came up with

الجراحة البلاستيكية

my initial reaction was to laugh. After all, a jur7 is a wound, and “plastique”, as in English, refers to explosives. So I thought that the site had erred, coming up with “explosive wounding” – which sounded like a pretty fine critique of plastic surgery to me. (And when I pulled out my dictionary, I learned that “jira7a” means surgery. Also an appropriate term, since surgery does involve making deliberate wounds in the human body.)

But when I thought further, I realized that the “normal” term for plastic surgery is a bit odd, too. 3amiliya al-tajmeel literally means “beautifying operation” – a phrase that lays bare the primary function of today’s plastic surgery procedures.

I’m still not sold on machine translation, but in this particular case, it gave me far more to think about than I had anticipated.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, fashion, friends, health, Lebanon, media, research, science, vanity, words | 3 Comments »

bulls gone wild

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 20, 2008

I’m de-fragging the computer that hosts our office’s shared files, and there’s not much work I can do until it finishes. Thank goodness for Naharnet, which is reporting on a major, crisis-inducing Resolution 1701 violation – an attack Israeli bull:

A bull which had infiltrated Lebanese territory from Israel has attacked Spanish peacekeepers and headbutted their vehicles before being shot dead, An Nahar daily reported Wednesday. It said the UNIFIL troops were erecting an electric barbed wire to prevent Israeli cows from entering Lebanese territory at the Baathaeel pond when Israeli soldiers unleashed the wild bull on the peacekeepers.

A Spanish soldier shot the bull dead after it ran towards the U.N. troops and began headbutting their vehicles, the newspaper said.

The peacekeepers then buried the bull and continued their work to erect the wire, which according to An Nahar, it has stopped the infiltration of Israeli cows to the pond area.

I’m dying laughing at the idea of a bull “infiltrating” enemy territory, not to mention the accusation that the IDF “unleashed” it on UNIFIL. Can’t you just imagine the discussion in Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office?

We couldn’t get Hizbullah to surrender when we used our F16s, and we couldn’t get them to surrender when we tried a land invasion – but by God, we will get them to surrender to our attack bull.

Given that the Israeli government is currently threatening to target “the entire Lebanese state” (not to mention “all the Lebanese” people) if it “legitimizes” Hizbullah, I think that it is planning something more than a livestock invasion.

As for the poor UNIFIL soldiers who had to first defend themselves from attack and then bury the bull, my heart goes out to them. I’m sure that many days in Lebanon are a bit surreal for them – but today must have reached a new level.

Posted in animals, Arab world, Beirut, dairy, espionage, humor, Israel, Lebanon, media, neighbors, politics, UNIFIL, words | 2 Comments »

bread from beirut, coffee from brooklyn

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 20, 2008

A year ago I wrote a post about something I saw every morning on my walk to the gym that to me epitomized the grassroots sweetness of ordinary life in Hamra, one of the city’s more mixed neighborhoods. What enchanted me was the bakeries’ practice of leaving bags of bread outside their clients’ shops and restaurants, with little worry that anyone would come by and steal the bread.

I called that post bread from beirut, in honor of a now-defunct Midtown cafe.

What I love about our current neighborhood is that it also has the same sweetness. I couldn’t find any bags of bread this morning, although I often do see them on my walk home from the gym. But I did find these bags of coffee:

To me these bags – like the bags of bread in Beirut – are a very special testament to a certain kind of community living, which I called a circle of trust in my original post. For me, the Hamra circle of trust was corroded by the gun battles in May – but it re-knit itself fairly quickly, despite the irritating SSNP-ification of the Sidani gas station.

I like living in a community where bakeries entrust their bread and coffee roasters their coffee to the civic spirit of the neighborhood.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Brooklyn, citizenship, economics, food, friends, home, Lebanon, neighbors, photography | 1 Comment »