A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for October, 2008

Levantine treasures, part two

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 31, 2008

In August I wrote about a brass tray that I had picked up from our neighborhood junk shop – an act that pleased the owner even more than it pleased me – which equals a great deal of pleasure, since the tray in question was $20.

But it was also pretty tarnished, and (although I didn’t know this at the time), H thought that $20 was more than it was worth. Little did he know that thanks to the khala and Grandma Gigi, I have plenty of experience in polishing metal 🙂 .

I purchased a container of brass polish shortly after acquiring the tray, but never got around to polishing it.

Last Sunday, I decided that it was finally time to put some elbow grease into my bargain treasure. So I got out a few clean rags, a pair of rubber gloves, and some don’t-mind-if-they-get-stained clothing, laid the tray down on our living room floor, and got to work.

H, who was working at the the table on the other side of the room, turned from what he was doing to watch me.

I love seeing you working away like this, he said fondly. I smiled.

I think I’ll leave you now, he said a minute later, as the overwhelming chemical odor of brass polish meeting tarnish wafted its way across the room. Frowning as he quickly gathered up his things and made his escape to the far end of the apartment, he asked: what exactly is in that stuff?

I have no idea. But I do know that it works. Here is my beautiful brass tray, post-polishing:

It needs one final polish to really shine – but doesn’t it look bright and shiny already? Its cold here in New York – perfect time for a reminder of the bright golden sunshine of the Levant :).


Posted in Arab world, art, Brooklyn, home, Iowa, time, women | 3 Comments »

“The book ends differently than the movie”: Body of Lies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 28, 2008

Those of you living in the United States have probably heard about the new Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies. It came out earlier this month: another CIA-in-the-Middle-East adventure flick, starring Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.

You might not have wanted to see it in any case, given what the New York Times called its “grinding tedium”. And you may have been turned off by what even reviewers noted was an improbable romance between Damon’s character and a Jordan-based Iranian refugee nurse (They scoffed at the religious and cultural differences, but readers with experience in the region will be scratching their heads at the thought of Iranians in Jordan. The Iranian refugees I know all live in Damascus.)

Well, guess what? As my AP English literature teacher used to say in high school: the book ends differently than the movie. And in this case, the book begins and middles differently than the movie, too.

You will love this book. The characters are beautifully drawn – they come alive immediately. The region is aptly portrayed, with the minor exception of the one hospital scene, which takes place not in Amman but in Tripoli. (Who goes to Tripoli for non-emergency medical care, when Beirut is only two hours away?)

I’m not going to tell you the plot, but I am going to tell you that it is not only very different, but much better than the movie.

And I will give you a few hints.

First, the main character’s name is Roger Ferris.

Second, his dearly departed grandfather spoke very little and only vaguely about his origins in the “Balkan region” of the Ottoman Empire.

Third, the Jordanian mukhabarat plays a starring role – in a good way. (When asked about torture, the director says: we find torture incredibly ineffective. But we know our reputation, and we make use of it. The sounds of screaming in the prisons? All a recording.)

Fourth, there is romance and a strong woman character (woo hoo!), but she is not Iranian.

This is not an anti-American book, and it is not an anti-CIA book. It is a gripping read, and it offers something that we need to see much more of in contemporary American literature: Muslim heroes.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, books, citizenship, Damascus, espionage, family, home, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, politics, romance, Syria, words | 4 Comments »

Warden weenies: the US Embassy in Damascus on last night’s strike in Syria

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 27, 2008

Earlier this morning I noticed a warden message from the US Embassy in Syria sitting in my inbox. I give the embassy kudos for quick response time – unlike the US Embassy in Lebanon, which takes days to respond to US-related Lebanese events. But I can’t stand its “know-nothing” attitude: it treats the strike as an “alleged action” and takes no responsibility for US action. Nor does it cite any of the mainstream media coverage (the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, Reuters, etc.) – only SANA, which makes the “Syrian allegations” sound like just that.

I was taught as a child to take responsibility for my actions. The US Embassy in Syria represents the United States, and it should take responsibility for our actions.

Or at least acknowledge that the US charge d’affaires in Damascus (who stands in for our missing ambassador there) was summoned to appear before the Syrian Foreign Ministry yesterday evening to explain the raid.

Warden Message:  Media Reports Concerning a Military Action at the Syrian/Iraqi Border

The Embassy of the United States of America in Damascus wishes to inform the American community of media reports about a military action at the Syrian/Iraqi border near the town of al-Boukamal.  According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the alleged action occurred on October 26, 2008 at 4:45 p.m. and there were several persons killed or injured in this action.  SANA has reported Syrian allegations this action was carried out by the U.S. armed forces.

Also according to SANA, the Syrian government has condemned the action as an aggressive act and holds the United States responsible for this military action and its repercussions.

In light of these reports, the U.S. Embassy wishes to remind the American community to review their personal security practices, such as avoiding areas in which demonstrations take place and to not draw undue attention to themselves.  The U.S. Embassy in Damascus remains concerned about the continued threat of terrorist attacks, demonstrations and other violent actions against U.S. citizens and their interests overseas.

The American community in Syria should be aware that unforeseen events or circumstances may occur that could cause the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to close to the public for an unspecified period of time.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Iraq, politics, rumors, Syria, words | Leave a Comment »

more Lebanese beauties

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 27, 2008

Hello and happy Monday to all of you, from oh-boy-do-I-have-a-lot-to-do land. I’m giving a talk in upstate New York later this week, and although I used to make public presentations all the time, its been four months since the last one. So it is laying heavily on my mind today.

Before I start working on it, let me grace you with more Lebanese beauties from Faylasoof’s stamp collection. (Faylasoof, I am so sorry, but I am cutting out some of the flower stamps. There are just so many of them … and I have a very brown thumb.)

The stamp at the left is just stunning, isn’t it? It looks to me like it is a print of a color photograph (when you zoom in the image gets quite grainy) – and the subject is a circuit board. The stamp celebrates Lebanese industry – a field that seems to have gotten far more attention from the country’s post office than from its businessmen (and women, but in this period, mainly men).

The Arabic in this stamp shows a real evolution from some of the earlier – or at least more traditionally-focused – designs. Look at “Lubnan”: its close to the Ministry of Tourism logo, but cleaner. And take a look at the “25 qurush” – both the numbers and the qaff are incredibly stylized, but in a very streamlined, 1960s-modern way. They blow the boring “25 pence” on the left out of the water: rounded, dull numbers and a very generic “p”.

The middle stamp is another one that blends Lebanon’s Roman (well, probably intended as Phoenician) heritage with its geographic position in the modern world – not terribly interesting, and with much more traditional Arabic calligraphy. But the color – my goodness! The post office must have had plenty of pink left over after printing the Bal des petits lits blancs stamps, and decided that this was the way to make the best use of what remained.

As for the Lebanese post office, it is well represented in the green stamp at the right, which shows the old national post office building. (In French, the text reads “Hotel des Postes”, but the Arabic has “Dar al-Bareed”.) The stamp was canceled in February 1955, and the car in the drawing looks fairly 1950s, so I would identify this stamp as somewhat older than the first two – and certainly older than the Lebanese industry stamp.

These next two stamps are from the mid-1960s: 1968 on the left, and 1966 on the right.

On the left, a drawing showing some of the ruins of Baalbek to celebrate the 1968  Baalbek festival. Neither the Arabic nor the French scripts excite me much, but I think this may be the result of having to cram so much textual information into the margins. Designing bi-lingual stamps must be a real challenge.

On the right, another internationally-focused stamp – this one celebrating the 1966 World Day of the Child (Journee Mondiale de l’Enfant, or Yom al-Atfal al-A`lami). I like that the child in question is a little girl, and that she is shown outside the house. I personally think that her skirt could be a couple of inches longer, but oh well – it was the sixties, after all!

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, art, Beirut, childhood, Iowa, Lebanon, stamps, time, words | 1 Comment »

New York through Lebanese eyes

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 24, 2008

Yesterday we met for lunch: H, I, and L, who is in from Beirut for a working vacation. (That’s “I” as in “me”, not as in some mysterious friend whose name begins with I.)

We were all delighted to see one another, of course – but H was particularly delighted. This has been the Week of Lebanese Visitors for him: his brother was in town last weekend; his friend W is here for work until Saturday; and L is visiting. And for him, Lebanese visitors mean Lebanese analogies.

What do I mean by this? Let me explain.

Example One:

We love our apartment, but the landlords are almost Yankee in their reluctance to turn up the heat more than is absolutely necessary. In other words: our apartment can be brrrrrrrrrr chilly at times, especially for men used to more Mediterranean climes. (I don’t like the cold either, but I’m used to it: my mother Big Diamond grew up in Alaska, and she sets the thermostat accordingly.)

Do you know what its like? H asked L eagerly while we were waiting for our food to arrive. Its like you’ve rented a chalet in Faraya, and when you get there you find that the owner has [insert graphic and physically unlikely verb here] you by not buying any mazout for the chauffage.

Hahahahaha, said L, who understood H’s analogy immediately. Apparently when this happens, the owner often simply insists that the chauffage (the heater) is broken – when really he (or she, but more often he) is just cheap.

Example Two:

One of L’s friends has recently moved to Brooklyn, so we were discussing how the borough has become a real mixture of upscale, gentrifying areas; older, ethnic enclaves; and poorer “urban” areas.

Jay Street/Borough Hall was ranked one of the worst three subway stations in New York, H said, trying to explain that proximity to Manhattan does not necessarily make for a wealthier area. L looked at him politely – ranking subway stations is a pasttime better appreciated by New Yorkers.

So H tried again.

You know what its like? he asked. Its like Basta.Or like downtown after the war, when everything was still torn up. Instead of subway tiles on the walls, this station just has the grout where tiles used to be.

Ah okay, said L, smiling. After all, who in Beirut doesn’t know Basta?

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, friends, Lebanon, words | 1 Comment »

time & stamps

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2008

Last night I attended a function for work, during which I was introduced to a woman of Lebanese-Saudi origin. How long were you in Lebanon? she asked me – and I realized that yesterday marked four months to the day since I left Beirut.

The passage of time matters to me for many reasons. For one, it means that its been four months since I last heard gunfire on a regular basis – just one of many normal nighttime sounds in my Beirut neighborhood. On a less exotic note, its been four months since I bought groceries in French, or in Arabic – or paid in a mixture of dollars and lira. So the passage of time signals to me how much my daily life has changed.

But it also suggests to me that my knowledge of Lebanon is moving from “present” to “past”. I’ve been told – and believe – that “in-country knowledge” has a shelf life of approximately six months. After this period – and without any major sustaining ties to the country, like family – one can no longer credibly claim to be able to speak about the country in the present tense. So come December 22, I will need to change my focus, and start to write about Lebanon in ways that acknowledge that the Lebanon I know is in fact a Lebanon that has evolved beyond my knowledge of it.

Not that this means that I won’t still continue to offer my opinion of this new Lebanon, of course :).

Back to Faylasoof’s stamps.

Today’s set includes more flora as well as a few stamps that are graphically very interesting. Look at this blue one at the top left, showing two men working with a pick-axe and a … I don’t know what. A blowtorch? At any rate, I like the verticality of its design and particularly the arabesque column at the left. And the two stamps on the right: cherries and figs, both of which are delicious in Lebanon, but as usual about which I have little else to say.

More flora in the bottom row – and you may notice that the fruits are from the same series that I posted when showing my little collection. I like them, and I certainly agree that Lebanon has good fruits – but I also imagine that fruit was a safe choice. Fruit isn’t sectarian: there are no Maronite oranges, or Druze pears. So I can just see how fruit would have been a happy, happy choice for the Lebanese post office.

I don’t find the pink stamp in the middle below particularly attractive, but I am curious to know more about it. The caption reads: “Ball of the Little White Beds 1964”. I am guessing that it commemorated some type of fund-raiser, but did Lebanese children really sleep in beds like this? Does anyone (Kheireddine?) know anything more about this?

The brown stamp at the right is another one produced in honor of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. The image on the left to me looks like a simplified Aztec calendar, while on the right I see a Phoenician ship with the Olympic rings emblazoned on its sails.

And below: grapes and flowers, another safe choice.

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, media, politics, stamps, time, words | 1 Comment »

visual interlude: more Lebanese stamps

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 22, 2008

Good morning to all of you from a little diamond who is very happy to be sitting at her computer at last. I arrived at work today, put my key in the lock of my office door, and … nothing. Feeling foolish, I checked that this was indeed my office; checked that I had the correct key; jiggled the handle; but still nothing.

One hour of the building manager’s very patient labor later, I am now in my office. My doorframe’s siding is now back in place, and the offending lock has been tested and sprayed to remove any particles that might have rendered it inoperable.

And I am now settling in to a busy day – so I will leave you with a quick post on more of the beautiful Lebanese stamps that Faylasoof so kindly sent me.

At the top left is another one of the Beiteddine stamps that I have in my collection – but look at the two beauties next to it. The script (in Arabic and in French) is rich and gothic, and that man with the hoe looks like he is planting half in the nude. I’m not sure how the image relates to the International Labor Organization (mentioned at the bottom of the stamp), but apparently it does. And the stork in the stamp next to it is carrying not a baby but food for “World Nourishment Day”, sponsored by the FAO.

The stamp at the bottom left is equally rich: it commemorates the 19th Olympic Games, held in Mexico in 1968 (that’s an Aztec head at the left, I believe). Look at the lettering in “Liban” – its strong and graphic, and looks like a paint stencil. On the right: grapes and flowers. Pretty, but as usual I don’t have much more to say about flora :).

The two stamps at the top of this section celebrate Lebanese statesmen. Do you recognize them? Bishara al-Khoury is at the left, and Hassan Kamel al-Sabah is at the right. Isn’t the calligraphy gorgeous? Even the “qaff” (for “qurush”) is elegantly done.

And at the bottom: more flowers at the left. To me they look like poinsettias, but that is very much an amateur’s guess. At the right, a mystery. In Arabic, the text reads: “Lebanese Union for Weapons”, but the flags are from a number of countries. Is this some kind of fencing organization? Does anyone know? I like the stamp’s design, but the idea of a Lebanese arms union makes me snicker a bit.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, stamps, time, tourism, travel | 3 Comments »

carpeting and other nasty American habits

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 21, 2008

As anyone who has lived in New York long enough to rent an apartment will tell you, New York apartments have at least one fundamental thing in common: their wood flooring. Wooden plank floors are the signature of all pre-war (WWI) apartments, and are installed in many more recent apartments as well.

For me, wooden floors are a normal sign of New York homes – just like concrete, granite, or marble floors are a normal sign of Arab world homes. So back in August when we were apartment-hunting I was un-surprised that every apartment we saw had wood floors.

What did surprise me was H’s delight.

I can’t believe all these apartments have wooden floors! he said happily.

At first, I thought that this was a Lebanese reaction to wood. There are trees in Lebanon, but they are few enough that most “wood” flooring is actually synthetic – even in very nice homes.

But H grew up in the United States, so wood is less of a novelty for him. What really delighted him about the wooden flooring was what it was not: carpeting.

Carpeting is a big thing in the United States. Wall-to-wall carpeting is standard in most houses, and carpeting is a big industry.

Nubby carpeting that invites tired feet to sink into and relax:

Textured carpeting that says “warmth” but also “professional home office”:

Hotel carpeting – plush and patterned – communicates luxury to guests:

But to H – and I’m guessing to anyone who grows up with washable floors – carpeting does not say “luxurious”. It says: “gross”.

Just think of all the stuff that settles into it, he said, making a face. Dust, dirt, food, animal hair – and it just stays there forever.

That’s why people vacuum, I said. But vacuuming doesn’t cut it in his mind: only a good scrubbing with mop and disinfectant soap counts as floor-cleaning – something best done at least once a day.

Well. H certainly lives a cleaner life than I do – or at least he did in Lebanon. Our wooden floors get swept regularly, but please banish from your minds any vision of me coming home from work each night and slinging a mop around :).

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, home, Lebanon, vanity, women | 6 Comments »

what’s in a(n Arabic) name?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 20, 2008

Today’s post comes from ST, who sends some of the funniest Arabic- and English-language forwards that reach my inbox. Its a list of the names of famous Lebanese (mostly) figures and how these names would translate into English.

Asking “what does your name mean?” is a particular type of question in English: no one asks someone named George or Tom or Sam or Caroline or Sara or Abigail what meaning their name has. Its a question that follows one about “what kind” of name Reem or Anupama or Suneil or Kwame is, or where it comes from – i.e., its a question that gets asked of names that sound foreign.

So, for anyone who has heard the name “Rafiq Hariri” and wondered “What does that name mean?”, here are some answers (I’ve put the more famous names in English transliteration for non-Arabic readers):

Right Appearance

Ayman Al Zawahiri

أيمن الظواهري

Constructive Bomber

Moammar al Qadhafi

معمر القذافي

Victorious Jellyfish

ناصر قنديل

Lantern the Humpback

مصباح الأحدب

Comrade the Silky

Rafik al Hariri

رفيق الحريري

Happy the Silky

Saad al Hariri

سعد الحريري

Thankful Frowner

Shaker al-Abssi

شاكر العبسي

Mother of All Garlic

Um Kulthoum

أم كلثوم

Morning Pride

صباح فخري

Sultan Father of Two Eyes

سلطان أبو العنين

Loyal Makes Pretty

Amin Gemayel

أمين الجميل

Frame Honored

برواز مشرّف

Decent Seed

نزيه البزري

Beautiful Sir

جميل السيد

Alert My Righteousness

Nabh Berri

نبيه بري

Heart of the Beautiful Lady

Fouad Siniora

فؤاد السنيورة

Slave of the Meek Diaper

عبد الحليم حافظ

The Son of the Teacher

عبد الحليم خدام

Salute Karaoke

تحية كاريوكا

Michael the Bitter

Michel al Murr

مشال المر

The Stealer of My Meter

طارق متري

Sigh BlacksmithGem

نهاد حداد (فيروز)

Unique the Deaf

Farid al-Atrash

فريد الأطرش



Desiring a Mark

راغب علامة

Diver Priest

غطاس خوري

Unique the Stock Keeper

فريد الخازن

Unique the Donkey Herder

فريد مكاري

Age of Generosity

عمر كرامي

Guide of Generosity

رشيد كرامي

Honor the Gardener

نبيل البستاني

Nobel We Say No

نبيل نقولا

Receive Compensation

نيلا معوّض

Goody Blessed

حسني مبارك

Knight of Little Grouchy

فارس بويز

Complete the Happiest

كامل الاسعد

Loyal the Perfumer

أمين الريحاني

Happy Brain

سعيد عقل

Stealer of Turkey

طارق حبشي

Posted in Arabic, friends, Lebanon, words | 5 Comments »

the playground camel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 19, 2008

When my parents come to visit me, wherever I am, they have learned one thing: they must bring their walking shoes.

I like to walk – actually, they like to walk too, but I really like to walk. When they came to Beirut, I met them at their hotel in Achrafieh (the Albergo: chosen not for the sectarian quality of its surroundings but for the narrowness of its streets. I didn’t want them staying at the Phoenicia and getting run over if they ventured out unsupervised without me.) and walked them to downtown. From downtown, I walked them to AUB. And the next day, I walked them from their hotel down to Gemmayzeh, and then around and back up to the ABC Mall.

So you will be unsurprised to learn that their trips to New York are equally athletic adventures.

Yesterday afternoon, our walk was organized around an artists’ studio open house held in an older, industrial part of Brooklyn. We had a wonderful time – the art didn’t all inspire us, but we loved seeing all the creativity at play and work in the area, and we enjoyed the chance to wander through the old industrial buildings that now house dozens of artists’ workspaces.

As we walked from one cluster of studios to another, we passed a neighborhood park. It had all the standard elements: young men playing soccer in a mix of languages, old men sitting on the park benches, and small children playing on the playground.

And, somewhat less usually, it had a camel:

There was no reason for this park to have a concrete camel: there was no exotic-animals-rendered-in-concrete theme, for example.

And this was no spring camel, as evidenced by the beating that his face had taken:

When we noticed the camel, we did what any group of Iowans who have been to the Middle East (and the camel tents at the Iowa State Fair) would do: we hopped on and took pictures.

So if you’re on H’s and my ecumenical greeting card list, you know what photograph you’ll be receiving this year: the two of us perched atop a Brooklyn camel :).

Posted in Iowa | Leave a Comment »