A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Lebanese history, par avion

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 15, 2008

I’m currently listening to the recorded message of a government office in Cairo, telling me an Arabic version of “All lines are currently busy. Please stay on the line and the first available operator will take your call.” I know that this office is open until 4:00, but I’ve been on hold for ten minutes, and my belief that its officials are in fact still busily working at their desks is growing increasingly tenuous.

So, while I listen to a tinny version of … could it be? … “Beauty School Drop-Out”, set to Muzak, I’m taking the opportunity to do a little blogging.

Months ago, I thought of doing a project with mid-century Arab world stamps. The inspiration, rather long in gestation, comes from the tables at a cafe in Damascus’ Shaalan neighborhood: Beitouna. The cafe’s proprietors had renovated their family house, and had designed tables with glass surfaces and “shadow box” compartments beneath the glass, in which they had strewn old coins, stamps and other mid-century memorabilia.

Beitouna’s menu was pretty 3adeh, but its location was convenient and I loved watching the bustle of the street from the tranquility of its second-floor window tables. And I loved looking at the old stamps – I remember entire series dedicated to Syria’s athletic accomplishments in something like the “Soviet Games”, not to mention the short-lived appearance of “Arab Union” stamps.

So in an idle fit of online shopping one afternoon in Beirut, I decided to see what Lebanese stamps might be available on Ebay. And, let me tell you: there are a LOT of old Arab stamps for sale, and they are very, very cheap.

These aren’t collectors’ items – they are all used stamps, although for me this is part of their charm. And I am sure that the vendor from whom I bought a big envelope filled with Lebanese stamps wondered why I was willing to pay $2 + shipping for them. But I did, happily – and I think I got a great bargain.

The stamps show a great variety in style, motif, and the fonts used. I think they are all 1950s-1960s, but I could be wrong. Here are two photographs I took last night of assorted stamps from my “collection”.

The first is a set of stamps on a fruit theme. If you look closely, you will notice that each cost a different amount – and that in French the value is in “P” (for “pence”), while in Arabic it is “qaff” (for “qurush”):

This next photograph is of two stamps from the same set, showing a man (want to bet that he is Phoenician?) decorating an amphora, which I have heard originated in Lebanon/Syria and was eagerly adopted by the Romans.

The stamp below it is very curious: it has a stylized bird on the top left, an ocean liner or cruise ship at the bottom right, and the symbols of the twelve signs of the zodiac circling around the cedar tree. I think its a visually striking stamp, but I am stumped as to what its message might be:

Today should be a busy one, in Beirut and New York. In Beirut , politicians and ordinary citizens are getting ready to welcome (or not) the national dialogue and the challenges it will bring; while here finance professionals and ordinary citizens are getting ready to withstand (or not) the latest financial collapse and the challenges that it will bring.

For those of you working to meet either challenge, I wish you strength and hope that the stamp photos give you a brief respite from the day’s tasks 🙂 .


2 Responses to “Lebanese history, par avion”

  1. faemom said

    Those are really neat! And I’d like to also say I enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Moose said

    Speaking of stamps…who stamped out Tantalus and his tantalizing blog?

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