A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for August, 2008

the road to Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 19, 2008

Last week, Moose commented on my post about watching Tripoli with:

What amazes the Moose is that life goes on as usual in Beirut as if Tripoli was on the other side of the world.

Tantalus pointed out that Lebanon has a long history of compartmentalizing, noting that from Gemmayzeh to Batroun, the 2006 war did little to dampen the spirits of nightlife-lovers.

Tantalus is right, although he puts a stronger spin on the partying by calling it “denial”. But there’s also something to what Moose said – something I’ve been mulling over for a few months now.

If I said that Beirut is the driver for Lebanon, I imagine that many people would agree with me. Beirut is not only the governmental capital, but also the center of commerce, education, and finance – not to mention the ‘headquarters’ for several religious sects.

Beirut’s centrality has made it the engaging city (and major draw) that it is, but it has also had serious drawbacks for the rest of the country. Before the Civil War, government figures’ and corporate heads’ tendency to focus exclusively on the capital meant that the rest of the country received very little in the way of commercial, educational or even infrastructural build-up.

And disparities between Beirut and the rest of the country are visible today – in the number of hours per day of electricity cuts; in the quality of the roads (not that Beirut doesn’t have numerous potholes, but they don’t dominate the roads as in some parts of the country, north and south); and in the relentless concentration of finance, commerce and other corporate headquarters there and nowhere else.

For the past forty-odd years, scholars have followed Albert Hourani in diagnosing Lebanon as an almost city-state: a state run much on the model of the city-states of ancient Greece or medieval Italy. This sounds good on the surface – after all, Athens and Venice were each major success stories in their day.

But in both cases, territories and people outside Athens and Venice were expected to contribute to the well-being of the city. Resources and revenues were not allocated equitably, because in the city-state model, only the city really matters.

Hence when there were bombs in Beirut in May and June 2007, it was a national catastrophe. When there was shooting on the streets this May, it was seen as a mini-civil war, and a portent of the possibility of much larger disaster.

But when there are bombs in Tripoli, or even a mini-war, it is merely a matter of concern – a news item, but not an existential threat to either Lebanon in toto or people’s individual lives. The government continues to (dys) function; the finance, commercial and services sector all hum along; and the much-celebrated summer season continues.

Well, continues for now. I don’t think the city-state model helped Lebanon in the past, and I don’t think it aids it now. Tripoli to me seems to need much more attention than it is receiving, and much more consistent direction than actions like:

7:18pm VOL: The Lebanese army removed the barbed wire erected between Bab el-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts in Tripoli.

1:15pm The Lebanese army erected a barbed wire between Baal al-Darawish, which straddles Bab al-Tabbaneh, and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods to stop security breaches.

suggest (thank you, Naharnet, for those intriguing updates).

Below are a few photos I took on the road up to Tripoli – the new road.

Its exponentially less built up in terms of advertising and shops than any road entering Beirut:

And the first sign of impending urbanization is not billboards but massive industrial complexes on both sides of the highway. This one is on the right:

And this one is on the left, a bit further down:

And when it comes to regulation (labor, environment, restrictions on stripping of natural resources via mining, etc.), “Rome is far away”.

Or, as the city-state model might say:

out of sight, out of mind.


Posted in Beirut, citizenship, economics, Lebanon, politics, science, travel, Tripoli, words | 2 Comments »

Tower of … Babylon?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 18, 2008

Hizbullah is having a busy week in Lebanon, it seems. In between calling for Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails to be repatriated and signing a MoU with “the Salafists” (which I never realized was a discrete organization. I thought it was a tendency, or an orientation – not a club.), it has been pushing to expand the upcoming national dialogue to include issues beyond national defense.

That’s all fine with me – I mean, I personally don’t support two of those activities, but I’m all in favor of hard work and a busy schedule. What intrigues me is a small aspect of the English-language media coverage of March 14 reactions’ to Hizbullah’s desire to broaden the dialogue.

According to Now Lebanon, Prime Minister Siniora said that he was against broadening the dialogue because it would create a “Tower of Babel”-like situation:

“If the participants would like to expand the dialogue, we could add some terms, but then we would be cancelling the constitutional institutions and the parliament’s role, which would lead to a situation similar to Tower of Babel,” he commented.

Now Lebanon’s command of English is nothing to write home about, at least when it comes to its news updates and “Today in Lebanon” section, but I would agree that “Tower of Babel” is the correct translation for “burj Babil”.

Naharnet, on the other hand, seems to have gone utterly off the linguistic deep end. Here’s the title of its article on the same subject:

Hizbullah Weapons into the Babylon Tower Dialogue

Oh yes – clear as mud, as they say. The article opens with back-to-back present participles and more passion than reportage:

Hizbullah appeared heading to flooding the proposed national dialogue with an expanded agenda and an expanded list of participants as Premier Fouad Saniora warned that such a trend would only end up in a “Babylon tower” disarray.

“Babylon Tower”? Does anyone know anything about this? My memory of the Tower of Babel chapter in Genesis is that both it and the city of Babylon were in the same kingdom, but were not at all the same. But “Babil” in Arabic is translated both as “Babel” and “Babylon”, so maybe the translation was an honest mistake.

Or it may be that Babylon grew over time and absorbed the old Tower site – just like Beirut grew and absorbed the formerly rural areas of Achrafiye, Zarif, and Ras Beirut.

I’m eager to know more, if anyone has information (or an opinion!) to share :).

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, church, Iraq, Lebanon, politics, research, time, words | 5 Comments »

proper young ladies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 17, 2008

Yesterday evening, H and I headed uptown to have dinner with his three preteen nieces, who have been spending the week with their grandparents. The three girls don’t get together very often, so this was a big, much-anticipated trip for them.

H had met up with them earlier in the week, and while he loved seeing them (he’s a good uncle), he did sound a bit haunted afterwards. I understand – I was a twelve year-old girl once, and I know how terrifying a pack of us them can be.

H got each of them two books as a good-bye present: one relating to what each girl had said she wanted to be when she grows up, and one a collection of Arabic phrases and expressions, transliterated into English script. They loved both, and while we waited for our salads, they decided to test us.

How do you say, “Do I need a prescription for this?” one asked.

How do you say, “I think there’s been a mistake here?” another quizzed us.

What does “3aiza twaleet” mean? the third asked me. Yes – “3aiza”, not “beddi”. Lebanese Arabic books are only available on special order, so H had to get an Egyptian version.

H was thrilled that the girls liked his gifts, and I was delighted to see that they were so excited to learn a bit of their ancestral language. And it wasn’t until we began walking them home that they began to wonder where the “cuss words” were located in the book.

I’ve done a bit of research on immigrant assimilation, and one piece of conventional wisdom is that ability to speak in the tongue of the “old country” disappears with the second generation of immigrants born in the US. Food habits last longer, and so do food words – Italian-Americans who don’t know a word of Italian still happily serve family pasta recipes, for example.

I haven’t seen any research done on the longevity of curse words and insults among immigrant communities, but judging from H’s nieces, they last longer than food words.

H’s siblings don’t speak Arabic, but they apparently incorporate a few key terms liberally when English just isn’t enough – and their daughters have clearly been all ears.

Where is sharmouta in this book? one asked, mercifully waiting until we had exited the restaurant, since the unwrapping of the Arabic books brought the maitre d’ over to say that he and the staff were all Algerian and delighted to meet us. The sight of sweet preteen girls excitedly repeating “sharmoutas, sharmoutas” might have made their welcome a bit less warm.

Listen, H said, frowning. There’s one thing your parents have never gotten right, because they never learned Arabic properly. They don’t know how to properly pluralize these words.

Its not “sharmoutas”? one niece asked, puzzled.

No, H said. And like a good uncle, he instructed them: Repeat after me: “shrameet”.

Shrameet, shrameet, they chorused.

Now, “manyoukeh”, he said. Manyoukeh, manayek.

Manayek, manayek, they said, their focus drifting a bit as they locked arms and began zig-zagging across the sidewalk.

And Uncle H, one asked boldly. What’s that really awful expression?

What expression? H asked, taken aback.

The one that Jiddo taught us, they all said, smiling. And really, what’s a grandfather for if not to indulge his grandchildren?

I’m not telling you that, H said firmly. Its very graphic, and you don’t need to know.

It was something like “ardi feet”, one said, musingly.

I’ll call my brother, said another. He’ll remember. But “ardi feet” sounded right to him, too – so apparently she kept on dialing family numbers.

H finally gave in, as a bribe to get them to quiet down while we walked through the foyer of their grandparents’ building. But don’t ever use this, he said. And anyway, it doesn’t really work for you to say.

A little while later, as we watched video footage they had taken earlier in the week, the landline rang.

Oh hi Dad, said niece number two when the phone was passed to her. Sorry to bother you. I just called earlier because I wanted to know how to say “a*ri feek” – but I figured it out, so its okay. Thanks for calling back!

I tried to imagine my Lebanese female friends using that phrase in conversation with their fathers – at age twelve or even as adults. Even in the most mellow families, I doubt that the conversation would have continued as breezily as hers did: with a casual okay – see you tomorrow! love you! and the phrase in question relegated to being a minor side note.

Curse words may last beyond the second generation, but when they become heritage rather than ordinary terms I don’t think they carry quite the same force as they do back home 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, childhood, family, Lebanon, parenting, women, words | 4 Comments »

Levantine treasures

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 16, 2008

Two Sundays ago, H and I loaded ourselves down like mules and toted bag after bag to the new apartment. We finished around 6:30, sweaty and a bit grumpy as we realized just how much more we had to move (and paradoxically, how little furniture we had. Most of what we own is clothing and books.).

And then, as we rounded the corner and headed back to our old apartment, there it was – the brass table-top I’d always wanted to buy in Damascus:

Brass and other metal table-tops are a dime a dozen in Syria, where they range from inexpensive plain disks to intricately carved, beaten and burnished masterpieces. (And where many sport a beautiful star of David in the center – another instance of the artisanal openness we noticed at Beiteddine.)

This one is rather mid-range: it has a pretty design, and the lip has some raised design elements, but it has no Arabic or deeply intricate patterns:

I couldn’t believe that a Levantine brass table-top was there in front of us, leaned up against the facade of a junk shop called 2Silhouettes in the Window. I had always wanted to buy one, but my incurable cheapness consistently held me back: I didn’t want to pay for shipping, or for odd-sized luggage if I took it back by plane.

The store’s proprietor couldn’t believe that I was so interested in his “brass tray” – apparently it hadn’t attracted much interest. As I knelt down to get a better look at the design, he quickly walked over to us and offered to let us have it for 40% of the amount on its price tag.

A big Levantine brass table-top for less than a dinner at Monks? How fast could I say “yes”?

It needs a little polishing, and we need to find a base for it, but I’m thrilled that I finally have the brass table-top I’ve always wanted – and equally thrilled that it has a Brooklyn pedigree!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, art, Brooklyn, Damascus, home, Lebanon, shipping, time, tourism | 4 Comments »

Consumer equity: GPS in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 15, 2008

When I flew to Damascus in November 2005 to spend a few pre-Christmas weeks visiting friends and favorite haunts, my friend M eagerly showed me his new car. Not being a car person, I’ve forgotten the brand, but it was one of the “big three” that meet Levantine standards for understated luxury: BMW, Jaguar, or Mercedes.

People here call it the alligator, M told me, grinning.

Your car? I asked, puzzled. I wasn’t criticizing: after all, I named my high school car “the Sharpei” (as in, “so ugly its cute”). And the vintage Chevy pick-up I drove whenever I was home for the summer during college was known as “Marvin”. But M didn’t seem like the type to name his car – and nor did his friends, the beefy, self-confident men of Damascus’ old Sunni merchant families.

Not my car, M explained, frowning a bit at me. The model. People call it an alligator because of the headlights and the hood. Everyone wants this car.

Oh, I said, nodding and trying to sound deserving of my good fortune at getting to ride in it.

The car was plush, and it certainly did glide through the city streets (although to be honest I’m not sure that “gliding” accurately describes how alligators move, at least on land). But in my mind it had one major, major flaw.

M’s alligator came with a built-in GPS console. This was 2005, so think first-generation GPS, the type that required the user to insert a CD with road information for the relevant country. (American users may never have had this experience – I believe that most early GPS cars sold in the US came with the CD pre-installed. But Europeans, who might have been more likely to drive to neighboring countries, probably did.)

Please insert the country CD so we can get started, the GPS voice would say each time M started the car, while the display flashed the same message. Every few minutes, the voice would repeat itself.

Can you turn it off? I asked M.

Oh, M said. Does it bother you?

Well, in a way. The voice was annoying, but I suppose it was a reminder to M’s passengers that he had bought not only the latest but also the most deluxe model.

For me, the voice was a reminder that all customers – even luxury customers – were not created equal. I don’t think that there was a CD for Syria – so M and other alligator drivers were stuck with the trappings of luxury, but without the reward.

GPS technology has improved over the past three years, with self-updating systems that offer flexibility and entertainment. Put on the sexy voice so diamond can hear it, my friend K said to her boyfriend J recently as we climbed into their SUV and headed to Brooklyn. It was a sexy voice – and a very funny one. I have another friend who chooses to GPS in Spanish, so his son can learn the language. (His vocabulary may be somewhat restricted, but he will be very good at giving clear directions.) And I understand that many GPS’es offer celebrity voices – when K & J aren’t laughing at the bedroom voice helping direct them to IKEA, they usually take directions from John Cleese.

But my friends in Syria and Lebanon were still driving without electronic help – and using their GPS displays for nothing more than to indicate what radio station was on. So yesterday I was delighted to see that in Lebanon, at least, one can now drive with GPS:

(Thanks to the Daily Star for this advertisement.)

Of course, driving with GPS is really only an improved version of driving with a map – something that no Lebanese person I know would willingly do.

Even H, who is generally pretty mellow about my weird American habits, draws the line at using maps. Last weekend I handed him three, detailing different possible routes to the Berkshires, and asked him to navigate.

Maps? he asked me. Are you serious?

Midway through the drive, he looked at the by-then crumpled up pieces of paper and frowned. If you had told me six months ago that I would be back in American AND READING A MAP, I would have laughed in your face, he said.

H was much happier once we got lost and had to actually start asking people for help. This is the real way to drive, he said, smiling. See? You just ask people.

So I’m not sure how well NavLeb will sell – but it gives me an idea for an ad campaign. If the NavLeb’ers can convince people that driving with GPS is just like having a local villager in the car with them, every step of the way, it might be a very big seller. All they need are a bunch of old men from the day3a to provide the voices 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, friends, humor, Lebanon, maps, traffic, travel, words | 6 Comments »

more TV watching

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 14, 2008

I see from this morning’s news alerts that the US State Department is working itself into a tizzy about the fact that Hizbullah’s al-Manar satellite channel is broadcasting to South Asia on an Indonesian satellite. I’m not sure whether the State Department is upset more about the broadcasting or the fact that the Indonesian government seems eminently unmoved by US government concerns.

(The government apparently owns 15% of Indosat, the satellite parent company, and its spokespeople are describing al-Manar as adding to the diversity of views available to viewers and as a news channel “similar to Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN”. Yes – Al Jazeera, another channel the Bush administration loves.)

I’m finding it hard to take the State Department’s concern too seriously, largely because of the timing.

Why? Because this is, strictly speaking, not news. Al-Manar began broadcasting on Palapa 2, the Indosat satellite, in April (which explains why its contract runs until April 2011). Perhaps the State Department missed the early news coverage due to language issues, since it seems to have been largely in Bahasa – like this story, which appeared April 22.

But any Internet prowler should have been able to find the blogworld’s commentary about al-Manar, including this combination of translated news links and commentary on Indonesia Matters.

And on May 1, members of Shia Chat, which claims to be the largest Shia forum on the Internet, began providing instructions for would-be viewers, with one poster noting that:

Al-Manar TV is now available in the Asia-Pacific via satellite.

Satellite: Palapa C2 (113 degrees East)
Frequency: 4080
Symbol Rate: 28125
Polarity: Horizontal
FEC: 3/4

Anyone in the highlighted area can pick it up.

The poster also provided a map:

as well as instructions for Europe-based readers, who can apparently view al-Manar on a satellite called Atlantic Bird. (For this information and to read the very interesting discussion thread that follows, go here.)

April to August is four months. I understand that the wheels of government turn slowly, but I am curious as to why the State Department is making an issue of Indosat’s contract with Al-Manar now.

I understand why it criticizes the channel – like all Lebanese channels, it does engage in heavy political propaganda, and its broadcasts about resistance do shade perilously close to incitement. But I am curious about the timing.

And if you’re curious about Al Manar but don’t live in the Arab world or South Asia, you can easily watch it online. Just google “al-manar watch online”. The quality of the image will depend on the speed of your connection, but you’ll get a good sense of the channel and its broadcasts.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, news, politics, television, words | Leave a Comment »

watching Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 13, 2008

When I get up in the mornings, the first site I see when I open my browser is the BBC’s news site: news.bbc.co.uk. And when I was in Beirut, I knew that it would be a good morning when Lebanon was not one of the news items bulleted at the top of the page – or, worse, the lead item.

This morning, of course, Lebanon was much in the news, thanks to the bus bombing in Tripoli and President Sleiman’s scheduled state visit to Syria. I had meant to continue my posting theme on the Rachid Karame complex, but instead I’m pasting in a photograph I took of a bread vendor in the heart of the city, who had ingeniously hooked up his television to the electricity supply of a street light:

I’m watching Tripoli today and wondering, as I have frequently over the past two months, about what exactly is going on up there – and what it might portend for the rest of the country.

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon, politics, television, Tripoli, words | 5 Comments »

stadium seating for no one

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 12, 2008

Tripoli has been on my mind frequently in the past seven weeks – the weeks since I left Lebanon. As I have mentioned before, I am good at living in foreign cities as a resident (I can locate a neighborhood dry cleaners, a local locksmith and a good grocery store in record time) but I am a terrible tourist. Consequently, my first visit to Tripoli was the day before I left the country.

H’s family is from Tripoli, although none of them live there now. So part of the draw (and his incentive in taking me there) was to get a sense of the mysterious forces that make him tick his roots.

The other reason I wanted to visit Tripoli was to see the Rashid Karame International Exhibition Center, a World’s Fair-like complex designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the early 1960s. (Yes, Niemeyer was Jewish – he was a native-born Brazilian but his parents were immigrants from … Eastern Europe? Russia? I forget. Lebanon has a number of modernist structures designed by Jewish architects, including the Gefinor Center in Beirut. I’m not sure how receptive the population today would be to a Jewish architect, but I’d like to think that he or she would be welcome. Some people in Lebanon do seem to conflate “Israeli” and “Jewish”, but many are able to differentiate the two categories.)

Construction on the Rashid Karami complex was begun and the major physical structures were completed, but none was finished. I don’t think that work stopped precisely in 1975 – my understanding is that it had slowed before then and petered out over a longer period, but I’m not really sure of the precise time line.

What I am sure of is that the complex is an utterly fascinating place. We loved wandering around its several buildings and spent over an hour there, despite the 95+ degree weather.

Fascinating, but also a bit eerie. What struck us most were the theater seats set up for outdoor performances. Apparently there have been some performances here – including one as recent as 2005, I believe – but in general, the seats look a bit forlorn. As does Tripoli in general.

(You can read a bit more about the complex here, at the World Monuments Fund’s website, or by googling Niemeyer and Tripoli.)

Posted in Arab world, Lebanon, photography, time, tourism, travel, Tripoli, weather | 3 Comments »

Out of many, one: the superflag project

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 9, 2008

I stumbled across a terrific website yesterday afternoon: the New York Tenement Museum’s superflag project, WeAreMulticolored.com.

First, you choose three national flags (the site invites you to choose one for the country in which you live, one for a country that has affected you, and one for a country that you have dreamed of visiting – but you can choose according to your own criteria if you prefer).

Then, you get to design your own flag, using the elements of the three flags you chose. For example, in the US flag, there are three separable elements: the blue rectangle, the white stars, and the red stripes. In the Lebanese flag, there are also three: the cedar tree, and the two red horizontal bars.

You can change the size of each element, expanding or contracting. You can flip it or rotate it, and you can layer elements so that certain ones overlap others.

The flag I made wasn’t particularly beautiful, but the samples that run in a horizontal band across the main page are stunning. If you put your mouse over them, you can read the designer’s name and their explanation of why they chose the countries they did.

Wonderful, wonderful project! In fact, I wish the site let me choose additional countries: I’d like to build a flag from the flags of all the different countries in which I have lived, because they have all affected me.

H and I are off to a wedding this afternoon, and not back until tomorrow evening. I think I booked a hotel with wireless internet, but if not … see you on Monday!

Posted in Americans, art, cedar, citizenship, colors, Lebanon, politics | Leave a Comment »

marketing misfires

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 8, 2008

Rami of +961 wrote a short post earlier this week on the incongruity of seeing Lebanon-specific ads while reading Haaretz online. As a Lebanese citizen, it must be odd to see ads for “Jobs in Lebanon” (not to mention “Single Lebanese Girls”) while reading an Israeli paper – although I would argue that allowing Israelis and Arab state citizens to read one another’s press has been one of the great regional benefits that the Internet has provided.

Until recently, the Daily Star‘s online ads were similarly incongruous: any article that mentioned Israel would be accompanied by ads to visit Israel or buy Israeli goods, which was a bit jarring when the article was about cluster bombs or new settlements. Someone must have noticed however (maybe the editors, but more likely Google, since I bet those ads didn’t get many click-throughs!), since more recently the ads have stuck to safer topics like “Sexy Lebanese Girls” (its a theme with universal appeal, I guess) and “Fly to Lebanon cheap”.

I understand that these crossovers happen because online ads target customers through keywords and IP addresses, but I was still unprepared for the dramatic shift that took place in the ads I saw on Facebook. One day, I was in Lebanon, seeing ads for a “regime” that promised a 5-10 kg loss and ads for March 14 and other political organizations.

The next day I was in Brooklyn, where suddenly I was being asked to expand my wardrobe by visiting israelmilitary.com, an Israeli army surplus store selling everything from t-shirts to dog tags:

I do like shopping online, but this won’t be my new go-to site. Nor will I be spending much time on Jobshuk.com, a site that aims to “improve the financial situation of Israeli residents” by connecting Israelis in need of jobs with “Zionists worldwide”. (Shuk is the Hebrew word for “market” – and yes, its a close cousin of “souk”, the Arabic word.)

Why am I not a fan of Job Shuk? Because when it states that: “The alarming numbers of poverty, hunger, and unemployment in Israel are incongruous with the advanced, democratic, and technically advanced society which we are developing,” it isn’t referring to poverty, hunger, or unemployment among Palestinians.

Don’t get me wrong – I love many things about New York internet, not least its speed. But when it comes to advertising, I would be happy to have my Beirut IP back. Especially since half the time it put me in Lithuania.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, economics, Israel, Lebanon, media, vanity, words | 3 Comments »