A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for December, 2008

Happy New Years’

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 31, 2008

For the past few years, the major holidays of the Abrahamic faiths have been all bunched up together – which I love.

Two days ago was the Islamic New Year – or Hijri New Year, since Muslims follow what is known as the Hijri calendar, which starts from the flight of Muhammad and the nascent Muslim community from Mecca to Medina. Western Christians follow the Gregorian calendar, named after a 16th-century pope who decreed that one October would be short a few days in order to correct miscalculations made by the previous Christian calendar, the Julian. Guess this “clerical error” in calculation is one more reason to be grateful that the Arab world kept Greek traditions of math and astronomy alive!

In Arabic, “the New Year” is “Ras al-Sinna”, or “head of the year”. “Ras” also means “top” or “apex”, but I like “head”. After all, the New Year is the time when we reflect on the course of the previous year and try to map out our course for the year to come.

(For those of you who find “head” and “top” boring, my dictionary also suggests the more poetic “noggin”. Happy noggin of the year to you, too!)

For more on the topic of hijri and Gregorian calendars, Saudi Aramco World has a wonderful little article summarizing the history of both. I’ve pasted the article text here, but if you want tips on converting the two calendar years back and forth, click on the link to the original article, which lists calculations and helpful websites.

Here is the article, “Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun”:

The hijri calendar

In AD 638, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph ‘Umar recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of the Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, AD 632, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird III. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 BC. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, AD 284. Although all were solar, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 BC. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.

There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.

This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijrah, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijrah thus occurred on 1 Muharram 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, AD 622 on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation AH, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijrah.”

Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.

The Gregorian calendar

The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 BC, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until AD 1582.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christen­dom. The use of the epoch AD 1 dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th. Because the zero had not yet reached the West from Islamic lands, a year was lost between 1 BC and ad 1.

The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gre­gorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.

And here is the link to the original page.

Happy belated and soon-to-come New Years to all of you. I’ll be celebrating with family this evening, and looking forward with hope to a better 2009/1430. Given that both years ended with this terrible Israeli assault on Gaza, it may be time to invoke the cliche: “there’s nowhere to go but up”. We can only hope.


Posted in Americans, Arabic, family, holidays, Iowa, Islam, time | 3 Comments »

Life in the wintry mix

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 29, 2008

The forecast calls for a “wintry mix” tomorrow, I said Friday evening, looking up from my computer screen. What do you think that means?

The icon under the forecast descriptor showed snowflakes, rain, and funnily-shaped blobs that looked a lot like my memories of cellular mitosis.

When we awoke the next morning, it was to the sound of a constant stream of little taps on the windowpanes. Apparently, the mitotic cells represented rain pellets: freezing rain in which each raindrop carried a frozen hail pellet at its core.

Roads are often described as “sheets of ice” during Iowa winters – but in this case, the rain pellets really did create a thick ice glaze over everything.

I think this is a day that the State Patrol advises “no unnecessary driving”, my father said as we creeped our four-wheel-drive way to the gym. I wonder whether going to the gym qualifies as necessary.

Well, I said, noticing that Perkins’ (a local diner) parking lot was fairly full, If breakfast at Perkins counts as necessary, surely going to the gym does!

Driving wasn’t too bad – but getting out of the car was a challenge. My father’s car is a bit tall for me, so when he let me out on the street on our return home, to pick up Friday’s mail and then walk to the house, I put my foot down on the icy road and kept on going.

Happily, my backside turned out to have enough padding to keep my fall from involving more than a few light bruises, but it was a good reminder of the dangers of ice.

This is one of the living room windows, thickly coated in ice:


The west-facing windows were totally covered, while the east-facing windows had only individual ice splotches:


It was a nice day to be inside, and to be grateful for cozy indoor heating.


Posted in home, Iowa, weather | 2 Comments »

diversity where you least expect it: Arabic lawyering in Iowa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 27, 2008

On Monday, my father sent me the scanned image of an advertisement he had noticed in the Des Moines paper: an English-Arabic language advertisement for a bilingual tax presentation to be conducted the next evening:


We were both a bit surprised: Iowa has a measurable Lebanese- and Syrian-American population, descendants of the immigrants who came here in the early 1900s. But their Arabic is generally limited to food words. And Iowa has a long-standing Muslim population, as witnessed by Cedar Rapids’ Mother Mosque, but not necessarily an Arabic-speaking one.

My father offered to go to the presentation, since my flight wasn’t scheduled to arrive until later that night. But thanks to the country’s weather woes, he instead spent the evening driving halfway to Chicago, thinking I might get stranded there. I didn’t, but my flight to Iowa was delayed long enough that he was able to drive all the way back and still reach the airport before I did.

So: no answer to the Arabic tax advice mystery. But we hope that there was a big turnout: we like seeing diversity in our state! And thank you, Dad, for devoting your evening to your daughter’s interests: first in Arabic, and second in getting home for the holidays :). (And thanks to my mother as well, who kept me updated on my changing flight status, and waited up until the wee-est of the wee hours to make sure we got safely home!)

Posted in Americans, Arabic, family, holidays, home, Iowa, travel | 2 Comments »

the danger of family gatherings

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 26, 2008

The danger of family gatherings like Christmas is that while you are having so much fun together, small details get neglected.

After opening our Santa gifts, my parents, grandmother, and I moved to the kitchen to put breakfast together.

In the midst of the breakfast bustling – getting out the coffeecakes, cooking the little smokies, making oatmeal – I decided to make a cup of tea. In the microwave, which for me is a luxurious treat (I haven’t had a microwave since 2000 or so – no space in New York, and not enough wattage in Beirut).

What’s that smell? Big Diamond asked. Big Diamond could be a perfumier, her sense of scent is so nuanced. I rarely smell anything when she asks that question.

I think its the sausages, I said, lifting the lid so she could get a better smell.

It smells a bit like bay leaf, my mother said, unconvinced – but since none of us smelled bay leaf, she agreed that it might just be the sausages.

When the microwave beeped, I maneuvered around my father, who was giving the sausages a good stirring, opened the microwave door and took out … an unusually hot, unusually light mug.

This is the danger of family gatherings: that because you are having so much fun together, you neglect small but critical details like adding water to your cup of tea.

This is what a tea-bag looks like, after spending two minutes in a microwave with no water:


And yes, nuked tea bag does smell like bay leaf.

Posted in family, food, home, Iowa, women | Leave a Comment »

Merry Christmas from the Iowa/Brooklyn/Beirut Santa!

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 25, 2008

When I awoke this morning, Weather.com told me that it was 1 degree outside. That’s 1 degree Fahrenheit, not Celcius – i.e., 31 degrees below freezing. And with the windchill factor (Iowa is almost a Plains state, so there is LOTS of wind, and not much to break it up), it is -14 degrees.

Brrrrr! I’m glad its warm inside, and glad that the power is totally, unequivocably on.

My aunt’s Christmas post this morning mentioned our family’s position on Santa: that “as long as you believe in Santa Claus, Santa Claus will come.” Very true – and I can see four over-stuffed Santa stockings in my parents’ living room, testaments to the importance of belief :).

What Intlxpatr didn’t mention is that there are two types of Santas in our family: the original, who comes in the middle of the night, keeps reindeer, and leaves lots of little gifts in our stockings; and the regional, who exists in multiples and delivers his/her gifts by regular US mail.

The regional Santas are tireless promoters of their homelands, and many of them are real food connoisseurs. They also delegate shipping duties to relatives who live in the Santa’s area. Hence growing up, the Hawaii Santa often sent macadamia nuts via our cousins, who live on one of the big islands. The Seattle Santas (its a big city, and we had many relatives in Seattle) sent box after box of Frangoes, which we of course “sampled” immediately after unwrapping.

This year, the Brooklyn Santa dubbed me the official shipper for assorted borough-themed gifts, which were sent off to Sporty Diamond, her husband Research Diamond, and the rapidly growing nephew. And I see that the Damascus Santa has nominated my aunt to send a few very intriguing packages to me – merci, khalti! I remember when the Shami Santa enticed me into bringing two cans of one of the local Syrian soda brands back for my father, who had found it much tastier than Diet Coke. Regional Santas remember these details 🙂 .

Of course, some Santas have more regional delicacies to offer than others. The Iowa Santa used to be at a culinary disadvantage – what was he/she going to offer: Christmas corn? – but thanks to our mid-1990s discovery of a group of upper Iowa nuns and their caramel-making enterprise, the Iowa Santas were able to compete successfully with the Frango – er, Seattle – Santas when it came to make-you-sick-but-they-taste-so-good sweets.

We’re opening Santa gifts in an hour, after which we will have breakfast and then get dressed. The family and regional Santa gifts will wait until this afternoon: we’re scheduled to be local Santas and deliver hot lunches to eight elderly people. Its a big volunteer operation: dozens of people donate their time early on Christmas to make the lunches, and dozens more donate their mid-days to deliver them. It doesn’t make for a perfect Christmas for the recipients – after all, they enrolled in the program because they would be spending the holiday alone – but it does give them a meal cooked and delivered with love and friendship.

Merry Christmas from Iowa 🙂

Posted in Americans, childhood, family, holidays, Iowa | 3 Comments »

prepared for the storm

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 23, 2008

After reading my post about preparing for snow and other storms, my father sent this reassuring email:

I read your blog and did want to offer a few comments to alleviate your concern about any power failures we may experience while you’re here.  I actually used one of several working flashlights that I carry in my briefcase; there is a flashlight in the garage that uses either of the two charged power drill batteries that are with it opposite the refrigerator and the “still-looking-for a new home wine cooler; and if all others fail, there is the “dog-locator” flashlight attached to the dog’s leash.

The fireplaces actually use natural gas which was why I was able to turn on the upstairs one using the standing pilot light and then went to the basement to light that pilot light.  Mom has me extinguish both each summer as it adds to the heat the a/c must deal with, but I had previously lit the upstairs pilot.  Heat circulation from the two fireplaces is limited when the power is out, since the circulation fans are electric.

This is more than you needed to know, but I wanted you to feel more secure while you’re out in the country for the holidays.

I do feel secure, and well-loved – and slightly amused to learn that my father carries “several” flashlights with him at all times.

And I know that I can add to my father’s list by enumerating the location of various candles in my bedroom and the downstairs bathroom, as well as matchbooks from … well … all of my matchbooks are from overseas, actually. I  know that my bedroom desk has a set from Oxygene in Damascus and another from the Movenpick at the Dead Sea, not to mention assorted sets from Beirut. So if the power fails again, my childhood bedroom will have light thanks to the Levant’s smoking-friendly boites and restaurants.

I’ll be in Iowa tonight – over several rivers, a few woods, many fields and through a bunch of nasty winter winds. Its okay: I’ve brought a few books, and I’m looking forward to being home!

Posted in family, home, Iowa | 3 Comments »

“You’re special” – Alfa’s mobile auction

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 23, 2008

I had been worried about Alfa. MTC had gotten so much press about its “platinum” auction – and Alfa seemed to be losing out.

But not to worry – Alfa held its own special numbers auction last night, featuring a trio of precious metal numbers:


Unfortunately for Alfa, its auction appears to have been hit by the world’s economic woes: while the MTC auctions apparently raised over $2 million (which seems high to me), Alfa’s topped out at $700,000. That’s still quite a taking for the sale of a few phone numbers.

Here’s a snippet of the article in today’s paper about the auction:

BEIRUT: Alfa, one of the two mobile operators in Lebanon, launched an auction for premium cellular numbers on Monday, following the lead of  MTC Touch. About five dozen people took part in the auction at the Metropolitan Hotel in the presence of Telecommunications Minister Jebran Bassil and senior officials from the Telecommunication Ministry.

The number that fetched the highest price was 70-333333   ($90,000), followed by 70-300000 for $65,000 and 70-300300 for $37,000.

Alfa executives tried to start the bidding for 70-303030 at  $50,000 but found no takers.

The company is offering 50 easy-to-remember numbers to the highest bidders following the successful auction by MTC Touch, which managed to raise $2.5 million three months ago.

Wonder if some of these numbers will end up as Christmas gifts …

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, economics, Lebanon, media, vanity | 3 Comments »

regifting, nation to nation

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 23, 2008

As I was packing up to leave work for the day, I got a surprise “gift” in my inbox: a fascinating Washington Post article on gifts of state. Apparently, gifts to American officials “are usually stored in government archives or with the GSA in accordance with federal law, which bars officials from accepting personal presents in almost all circumstances. They are then shipped off to the National Archives or given to charitable organizations.”

Or, naturally, they are regifted. As the article notes:

There are some exceptions. A century-old olive tree from Walid Joumblatt, chairman of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, was transplanted to the Israeli embassy compound in Washington.

Dying, dying laughing.

Posted in Israel, Lebanon | 5 Comments »

Joyeux Noel de Taanayel et CDG

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 22, 2008

Qifa Nabki sent me this link, to Taanayel’s holiday ad, on Saturday, with a note stating apologetically that “I’m about 99% sure that you’ve already seen this ad”. Well, I hadn’t – count  me among that remaining 1% of slow adapters / inept YouTube’rs.

But it was worth the wait. The ad itself is a total hoot, and as an amateur linguist, I also enjoying pondering when (and why) Mme. Lebneh /Teta Latifeh switches to Arabic:

If only the CDG flights-to-Lebanon/flights-to-North-America terminal hop were this smooth in reality 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Arabic, family, French, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

preparing for the storm

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 22, 2008

My neighborhood is always quiet early in the morning, but the hush was different on Saturday. It was a snow hush – the quiet that comes from the presence of a soft white coverlet, draped over everything from tree branches to car hoods.

My office closed early on Friday afternoon, along with a number of others. It wasn’t the absolute volume of snow – we had three inches, at most. But three inches in a city that relies heavily on public transportation and that rarely gets any snowfall was more like seven or eight inches in Iowa. I was glad that we were sent home – I took a book in case the trains to Brooklyn were slow (or stuck), but it was a relief to be able to be cozily ensconced in my apartment by 5:00, rather than after the dark and cold had truly settled in.

This is how my street looked, early Saturday morning:


Its been a big weather week for the entire continental United States – or, in honor of Abu Owlfish, perhaps I should describe it as a Weather week. From Seattle to New York, the country seems covered in snow, ice, and freezing temperatures.

My parents lost power last week – briefly, they said, but still a rare occurrence.

I realized that I have no idea where our flashlights are, my mother said to me after recounting how my father had turned on both (electric) fireplaces. And even if I did, I doubt they have fresh batteries.

Part of the problem, I think, is that American houses (like most modern homes) are designed with the expectation of a steady and relatively inexpensive flow of electric current that not only lights but also heats and cools. I wouldn’t know where to find flashlights at my parents’ house either – and I doubt that the two electric fireplaces would be able to provide much heat.

But I am prepared for power emergencies – after living in Lebanon, I know almost instinctively what to do when the power goes out.

I know where my flashlight is – stuck to the hood of the stove (its magnetic) for easy access. I know where my candles are, as well as my matches and two back-up lighters. And I know that I can keep myself warm by bringing a chair into the kitchen and turning on the stove. (Actually, this I learned years ago from friends with a semi-legal sublet in Chinatown – but it came in handy in Beirut.)

Its good to be prepared for emergencies – but it was better to be home on Friday with the power on, so I could wake to a warm apartment, a hot cup of tea, and a fast Internet connection on Saturday.

Posted in Beirut, Brooklyn, home, Iowa, Lebanon, weather | 3 Comments »