A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for January, 2009

Presidential overtures: Hisham Melhem on the Arabiya interview

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2009

I hadn’t planned to write anything about the interview that President Obama gave on Arabiya this past week – for several reasons. That he would choose to give his first official news interview to an Arabic-language news channel is a wonderful first step; that he chose Arabiya – a weak, pro-Saudi channel -, and not Jazeera – the Arab world’s best, most neutral, and most professional channel -, was a huge disappointment.

Also, on a personal level, I don’t care for Hicham Melhem. I sat near to him at an event this fall, and he was incredibly rude: he insisted on chit-chatting (or rather, chatted up – see below) in Arabic throughout the entire event, ignoring the speakers in favor of the young women seated five feet away. In other words, his behavior was not only rude to the speakers, but it was also rude to the audience members around him, who (like me) might have preferred listening to the headliners’ talk than his own largely snide remarks.

My personal experiences aside, I can say that he turned out to be a fine interviewer, and that happily he did not ignore our President in favor of whatever comely young producer was working off-screen.

Anyway. If you watched the interview (its in English) and are curious to hear more about the interview process and reaction in the region, NPR’s On the Media has a very nice interview with Melhem that you can listen to here. Its not too long – 7.5 minutes – and quite interesting.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, media, news, politics, television | Leave a Comment »

Another non-Zionist venti: more on Starbucks and Israel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2009

This post is an update on the issue of whether Starbucks’ profits have been used to support Israel, which I posted about earlier this month. Its intended especially for those who had been following the exchange of comments between Mart Stuart, Nimrod, and Kheireddine.

My aunt has posted an email she had received from a friend regarding Starbucks and its NON-connection to the Israeli government and/or military forces.

You can find the same text – a press release on “Facts about Starbucks in the Middle East”, available in Arabic and English, on the Starbucks’ website.

Or you can read it here:

It is disheartening that calls for boycotts of Starbucks stores and products, which are based on blatant untruths, have had direct impacts on local economies and residents, and have also led to violent situations involving our stores, partners (employees) and customers.

Our more than 160,000 partners and business associates around the globe have diverse views about a wide range of topics. Regardless of that spectrum of belief, Starbucks Coffee Company remains a non-political organization. We do not support any political or religious cause. Further, allegations that Starbucks provides financial support to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army in any way are unequivocally false. Unfortunately, these rumors persist despite our best efforts to refute them.

What we do believe in, and remain focused on, is staying true to our company’s long-standing heritage — simply connecting with our partners and customers over a cup of high quality coffee and offering the best experience possible to them – regardless of geographical location. Though our roots are in the United States, we are a global company with stores in 49 countries, including more than 230 stores in nine Middle Eastern countries. In countries where we do business, we are proud to be a part of the fabric of the local community — working directly with local partners who operate our stores, employing thousands of local citizens, serving millions of customers and positively impacting many others through our support of neighborhoods and cities.

Is it true that Starbucks provides financial support to Israel?

No. This is absolutely untrue. Rumors that Starbucks Coffee Company provides financial support to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army are unequivocally false. Starbucks is a publicly held company and as such, is required to disclose any corporate giving each year through a proxy statement. In addition, articles in the London Telegraph (U.K.), New Straits Times (Malaysia), and Spiked (online) provide an outside perspective on these false rumors.

Has Starbucks ever sent any of its profits to the Israeli government and/or Israeli army?

No. This is absolutely untrue.

Is it true that Starbucks is teaming with other American corporations to send their last several weeks of profits to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army?
No. This is absolutely untrue.

Is it true that Starbucks closed its stores in Israel for political reasons?

No. We do not make business decisions based on political issues. We decided to dissolve our partnership in Israel in 2003 due to the on-going operational challenges that we experienced in that market. After many months of discussion with our partner we came to this amicable decision. While this was a difficult decision for both companies, we believe it remains the right decision for our businesses.

Middle East Partnership and Operations

Do you work with a Middle East partner to operate Starbucks stores?

Through a licensing agreement with trading partner and licensee MH Alshaya WLL, a private Kuwait family business, Starbucks has operated in the Middle East since 1999. Today Alshaya Group, recognized as one of the leading and most influential retailing franchisees in the region, operates more than 274 Starbucks stores in the Middle East and Levant region. In addition to its Starbucks stores, the Alshaya Group operates more than 1,700 other retail stores in the region, providing jobs for more than 15,000 employees of more than 35 nationalities.

We are extremely fortunate and proud to have forged a successful partnership for the past ten years and look forward to building on this success.

In which Middle Eastern countries do you operate?

We partner with Alshaya Group to operate Starbucks stores in Egypt, Kuwait, KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Jordan and Lebanon in the Middle East region. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with so many communities, and we are committed to providing the Starbucks Experience while respecting the local customs and cultures of each country we are a part of. We are also committed to hiring locally, providing jobs to thousands of local citizens in the countries where we operate.

Are you still operating Starbucks stores in Israel? If not, do you have plans to re-open should the opportunity arise?

We decided to dissolve our partnership in Israel in 2003 due to the on-going operational challenges that we experienced in that market.

When and where the business case makes sense and we see a fit for the Starbucks brand in a market we will work closely with a local partner to assess the feasibility of offering our brand to that community. We will therefore continue to assess all opportunities on this basis.

At present, we will continue to grow our business in the Middle East as we have been very gratified by the strong reception of the brand in the region. We continue to work closely with our business partner, the Alshaya Group, in developing our plans for the region.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, economics, family, food, Israel | 7 Comments »

Waving the flag

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 30, 2009

This week has been one inordinately rich in flag imagery. On Wednesday, B kindly pointed me to this article from Now Lebanon, about a new “Arab Islamic Resistance Party” founded as a Shia alternative to Hizbullah. The party, which seems to have come out of nowhere, burst on to the scene last week with the claim that it has over 3,000 armed fighters, and that it might – it suggests coyly – have had something to do with the rockets fired into Israel during its bloody Gaza invasion.

Despite the press coverage, AIR-P (my suggested acronym) is having trouble getting itself taken seriously. Even Now Lebanon, which slavishly supports any non-Hizbullah Shia group, titled the article “Party of Odd”. As for Hizbullah (which translates to “Party of God”), its spokespeople have had nothing to say. As the article states:

Despite the Arab Islamic Resistance’s open and vocal opposition to Hezbollah, the Party of God has remained silent. They have not threatened Husseini as they are accused of doing to other anti-Hezbollah Shia politicians and religious figures. A Hezbollah press spokeswoman told NOW the party had no comment on Husseini or his new Resistance.

I don’t think AIR-P requires threats. In this case, I imagine that silence equals pity. The chattering class of Lebanese political commentators seem to have had much the same reaction:

Resistance watchers – analysts, authors and journalists – contacted by NOW said they’d never heard of Husseini and found it strange it took a television interview to bring a 3,000-strong actively-training force to come to light. Wouldn’t someone have noticed them earlier, was the resounding refrain.

As the author finally concludes:

it was quite a challenge finding people who knew much about Husseini.

“I doubt his wife supports him,” one religious leader said, after making yet another phone call on the ancient Panasonic fax machine at his side to a colleague in search of information on Husseini. In fact, interview after interview ended with the same conclusion: This is mostly talk.

The only person who seems to take AIR-P seriously sounds like a total oddball:

One person contacted for this article, Sam Bazzi, a Lebanese living in America who runs a website that monitors terrorist activities, claimed Husseini’s money comes from Iran and that he is, in fact, an undercover Hezbollah agent.

Right.

As far as B and I are concerned, the best part about AIR-P is its flag:

logo-main-012709031335

Where to begin?

First, the new resistance is partly armed with a pencil. As a writer, I am a strong believer in the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. But a pencil? In the age of computers, this seems seriously retrograde. Also, this pencil has no eraser. Is AIR-P infallible?

And – not to quibble – the pencil and the gun are the same size. AIR-P is either planning to resist with one giant pencil or one very small gun.

Ah, the gun. I’m not an expert, but that looks much more like a M16 (American assault rifle) than an AK-47 (Kalashnikov). What self-respecting resistance uses U.S.-made weapons?

Next, the lettering. This script to me looks like the Arabic equivalent of bubble letters. I don’t find anything fierce, strong, upright, or resistant about those rounded qaffs and taa marboutas – they look like they belong on a twelve year-old girl’s school notebook.

Finallt, the rose dripping blood. Leaving aside the fact that the rose should also be red (historically, a yellow rose means happiness and/or friendship), the red of the blood means that this flag is a three-color print job – which is much more costly than a two-color job. As a budding resistance movement facing a tough economic climate, shouldn’t AIR-P focus on demonstrating fiscal prudence?

AIR-P is the most entertaining resistance movement that Lebanon has had in some time – or at least since Wiam Wahhab faded back into the woodwork. I can’t wait for Husseini’s next interview.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Arabic, art, Beirut, friends, Lebanon, politics, research, rumors, vanity, words | 2 Comments »

acts of interpretation: Marlboros on Main Street

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 29, 2009

Last night I taught myself how to bluetooth – at least four years after the rest of the world learned. I was familiar with the concept: in January 2005, A. patiently walked me through the steps to activate my mobile so he could send me samples of the flirtatious video messages that anonymous Syrian women would send him whenever he kept his bluetooth on. They were a hoot – but I wasn’t in the market for phone flirts, and I wasn’t sure what else bluetooth was good for.

Yesterday, I learned. Bluetooth allows me to move the photos I have taken with my mobile phone to my laptop – magic, and much appreciated. I’ve had photos lingering there for over a year, which I can now send on to family and friends.

And I can share this photo, which I took last week, with you:

image002

What would you think if you saw an empty Marlboro carton with Arabic writing on it lying on the sidewalk? (Brooklyn isn’t dirty, but there have been some very windy nights recently, which have left the streets and sidewalks looking a bit haggard in the early mornings.)

I think: someone recently returned from the Arab world, where cartons of cigarettes can be bought far more cheaply at the airport duty free than anywhere in the United States.

The Arabic writing, by the way, is not advertising copy: its a health warning, just like the ones printed on cigarette packs and cartons in Europe.

Seeing this carton made me smile (which, along with stopping to take a photo with my cell phone, definitely won me “weird Brooklynite of the morning” status among my fellow work-bound pedestrians), and made me feel that my two corners of the world are less distant than they usually seem.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Brooklyn | 2 Comments »

a treehouse in the sea

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 28, 2009

Has anyone else heard about this? Qifa Nabki wrote in a group email that I received this morning. Am I the last one?

QN was talking, of course, about Cedars Island, a planned cedar-in-the-sea more-Dubai-than-Dubai development. I had heard about it, thanks to a Facebook status message that M posted last week:

M wants to move to Cedar Island.

Okay, I thought – M is fairly peripatetic – after which it slipped from my mind. Luckily, QN was a bit more on the ball – and has a hysterical, very on-point post about the development, which you can read here.

The project’s website is a laugh-out-loud hoot to read. Its news section recounts Tourism Minister Elie Marouni’s recent visit to developer Noor Holding’s offices, in which he “expressed his blessing” and wished them “big success”.  The project promises residents an “exotic, pleasant, and peaceful environment”, which will “mainly consist of 8 distinct zones.” What are these distinct zones? you might ask.  They are “zone a, b, c, d, e, f, g, & h.”

Curious to know what a cedar in the sea might look like? Me, too. After all, how one draws a Lebanese cedar often tells much about one’s political affiliations.

Here is the official rendering of the project:

cedar-islandSigh. It looks like a joke, doesn’t it? But as QN says: this is the real thing. And it will be located on the coast of Damour, between the airport (easy exit in case of troubles: a plus. distance from Beirut: a minus.) and Jiyyeh (easy access to a power station: a plus. increased likelihood of Israeli bombing raids: a minus.), where cedar imagery has been few and far between.

So.  Which cedar do you think Cedar Islands should most resemble?

Chamoun’s cedar?

chamoun-flag

The Kataeb cedar?

kataeb-flag

The Ouwet cedar?

ouwet-flag

The Lebanese Communist cedar?

lebanese_communist_party_flagThe national flag cedar?

lebanese-national-flagOr – my favorite, thanks to its slightly goofy shape – the AUB cedar?aub-logo

Cedars are a serious topic in Lebanon. If Noor Holding doesn’t fully understand what it is getting into, the lifestyle it promises residents could be “exotic” indeed.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, cedar, construction, economics, friends, Lebanon, media, politics, tourism, vanity | 5 Comments »

Scrabble Gets Fair Play in Bahrain

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 28, 2009

Yesterday an intriguing item came across my Google alerts: the news that a Bahraini champion Scrabble player had been found guilty of cheating and banned from playing in tournaments for the next four years. Today I saw a follow-up article in Abu Dhabi’s The National, which I have pasted below.

Its a bit long, and Scrabble is not the world’s most pressing concern (and no, I am not saying this just because I lost a family Scrabble match over the Christmas holiday. Grandma, your unchallenged string of victories was well-deserved.). But I think this story is important, because it offers an example of an organization willing to enforce the rules of fair play – not something that happens in the Middle East all that often, and certainly not to Gulf citizens.

Even if you aren’t interested in Scrabble, I hope you will be interested in this article and the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association’s (who knew!) message that cheating is unacceptable.

The Scrabble champion banned from international competitions for four years for cheating will not be stripped of his local and regional titles, it was announced yesterday. The Bahrain Scrabble League Committee believes the ban “is punishment enough”.

Mohammed Zafar, 19, beat Akshay Bhandarkar from Dubai last June to win the Gulf Scrabble championship. He is also the Bahrain national champion.

Mr Zafar, who denies cheating, was barred by the game’s governing body, the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (Wespa), for breaking the rule about how players draw their letters while playing in a tournament in Malaysia in December.

“The decision is not to strip Mohammed of his titles,” said Roy Kietzman, a member of the Bahrain Scrabble League Committee and a special panel of four that met on Monday night in Manama to discuss Wespa’s decision.

“We felt it was humiliation enough to be charged with being guilty and being banned from Scrabble.

“For him, this is public humiliation in the Scrabble community. We feel this is punishment enough.”

Mr Zafar was accused of taking his tiles from the top of the bag and having a quick peek at them before letting go of any he did not want during the Causeway Challenge, held in Johru Bahar in Malaysia.

The rules of the game state that although players may give the bag a vigorous shake, they must draw tiles at shoulder length while looking away from the bag.

Mr Zafar is also banned from the Malaysian tournament for life.

The Bahrain Scrabble League Committee says it “fully endorses the Wespa decision that he was guilty”.

Mr Kietzman confirmed that Allan Simmons, the chairman of the Wespa inquiry and Britain’s national champion, had been willing to lower the penalty and cut the time of the ban by half if Mr Zafar had admitted his guilt.

“We are urging Wespa to make strict guidelines on what to do in the future. This was a precedent.”

Last year, Mr Zafar faced the two-time defending champion of the regional Scrabble title, Mr Bhandarkar, in a thrilling match that saw the use of plurals, bingos [when a player uses all seven letters at once] and plenty of theatrics.

Posted in Arab world, Bahrain, Iowa, vanity | Leave a Comment »

a fiction stranger than fiction: Blackline

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 27, 2009

This past weekend I spent some time hunting for videos to watch online while finishing an article that was due – well, overdue – to a very patient publisher. One of the online streams that kept me company while I wrestled with bad prose (mine) and awkward transitions (ditto) was CNN’s Inside the Middle East, which has a nice “best of 2008” trio of stories up on its website.

My favorite was a rather guilty pleasure: a piece about the “surreal” experience of filming a US action movie in Beirut. (You can watch the video segment here.) It brought back memories of a small but intense burst of news about the movie (now called Blackline: The Beirut Contract) last February, when nearby residents alarmed by the sounds of gunfire alerted the Lebanese Army to “action” that turned out to be more cinematic than real.

As you may recall, February 2008 wasn’t the least tense of times, and I remember the story inducing a few eyeball rolls among my friends. But if it was a relief in Lebanon, it proved titillating elsewhere: the story was picked up by several international news outlets, including the New York Times, which ran this piece:

Lebanon is a country on edge, with every side warning about foreign interference and the spark that could lead to factional war.

So when explosions and gunfire broke out in an abandoned building east of Beirut the other day, two Lebanese Army platoons quickly surrounded the site, guns drawn.

“Cut!” yelled a frightened American voice. The sounds of gunfire stopped abruptly.

It was a foreign film crew, not a militia. And if life sometimes imitates art, this was something stranger: The crew was making a movie about a group of armed foreigners who come to Beirut and almost set off a factional war by mistake.

(The NYT story continues here.)

I can see how tempting it would be to write a piece (or ten) about the irony of shooting a war film in Beirut, and CNN’s video clip was fairly interesting. But it featured this doozy of a quote by one of its producers, a man named Kirk Hassig:

We wanted to be the first movie to shoot in Beirut in 30 years, he said. There’s value to that. Those kind of things are added value in the way people perceive our movie.

Ugh. First of all, how could the interviewer not challenge him on his “first movie” claim? The first American movie, perhaps. But feature and documentary films were shot in Lebanon all throughout the civil war, not to mention during the past 18 years since it ended. What an ignorant claim.

As for the “added value”, I’m sure he’s right: I’m sure that this movie has already attracted disproportionate attention thanks to its on-site filming, and I’m sure that the “authentic” setting will drive ticket sales as well. But I think its rather bald of him to acknowledge this so cavalierly – and a bit disingenuous to pretend that filming a movie in Lebanon is either a pioneering act or one of bravery.

Count me in for a ticket, though. Even if all I do is fuss about the stereotypes that I am sure pepper the plotline (its about rescuing a hostage, after all), my eyes are longing for a little Lebanese scenery.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, economics, film, Lebanon, media, vanity, words | Leave a Comment »

Gem from Gemmayze

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 25, 2009

This weekend I did all the new year cleaning that I ought to have done earlier in January (Or maybe I’m more of a Chinese New Year cleaner.) – including tidying up my computer files.

As I weeded through the photos I took during 2008, this lost gem caught my eye:

p1030052

I took this photo one sunny March afternoon, during Lebanon’s first 2008 Easter weekend, when I was giving my parents a walking tour of Gemmayze. (I called it a walking tour; but since I made them hoof it from downtown through Gemmayze and then up to the ABC mall, they refer to it as The Long March.)

80’s Arabic music? I don’t know ANYTHING about the Arabic hits of the 1980s. Someone, please: send me a few titles/artists! I’m imagining a Jordanian Bon Jovi and a Lebanese Boy George … can’t wait to hear about the real thing :).

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, music, nightlife | 5 Comments »

Waltz with Bashir

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 24, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about Waltz with Bashir for the past two weeks or so, but my good intentions have gone nowhere. Thank goodness for my friend N, who had a piece about its screening at a Beirut non-profit in this past week’s Variety:

Lebanese auds have finally been able to “Waltz With Bashir” despite the fact that Israeli helmer Ari Folman’s Oscar-nommed pic is officially banned in the country.

UMAM, an org that archives Lebanon’s history and war memory through written and audiovisual materials, screened the film at its cultural center, a restored warehouse in a southern suburb of Beirut that is home to Hezbollah’s headquarters.

UMAM’s name is derived from the Arabic word for “nations.”

Banned by the censorship board of Lebanon’s Security Directorate, Ari Folman’s film also passed under the radar of Hezbollah at the semi-private Jan . 17 screening, to which 40 people were invited by the nonprofit org but about 90 attended.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

I’m not surprised that there was so much interest in the film, but I would love to have heard what viewers said about it afterwards. For me, the biggest shock was partly self-induced: I had been thinking of Waltz as a film about Lebanon. But it isn’t: its a film about Israel, in which Lebanon is merely a foil for national reflection.

Its an interesting film, although “documentary” is not the word I would have chosen for it. Folman plays with the backgrounds of the people he interviews – some are reproduced faithfully, putting them in normal contexts that suggest their professional or domestic worlds, while others are not. The ones whose backgrounds are not reproduced appear to be in prison, or perhaps a hospital – which they are not. In other words, Folman’s choice regarding what to include or exclude from the interviewee’s surroundings frames how the viewer interprets his or her words.

Nor is the history told fully accurate. For example, there is an extended sequence at the Beirut airport, which shows it occupied exclusively by Israelis. As an American, I consider this a historical injustice: when Folman was there, the U.S. Marines were very much a presence at the airport.

In another sequence, repeated several times throughout the movie, Folman “remembers” walking through a group of chadored, mourning women. This makes no sense, historically or geographically: in 1982 women in chadors were not roaming the streets of Ramlet el-Baida. His “memory” reflects his own inability to separate later fears of Iran and Hizbullah from actual history; which is fine, except that as a documentarian he should frame his narrative more carefully – i.e., more accurately.

(FYI: small spoiler alert ahead)

Those of you who have read the reviews and/or seen the movie know that it ends with actual footage of Sabra and Shatila, post-massacre. I don’t find this a terribly compelling cinematic choice: the footage is early 1980s, and as grainy and choppy as war footage of that era seems to have been. Also, it was clearly filmed after the massacre was known, so while the mourning is real, the immediacy of shock has been lost. (I’m leaving aside here my comments on the totally rubbish portrayal of the Israeli role in this, in which the massacre stops because a heroic Israel commander finally drives up to the camp and yells at the Kataeb through a bullhorn.)

The camera follows several women as they walk through the camp, crying at the loss. Palestinian women, speaking – unsurprisingly – in Arabic.

Yet my latest copy of the New Yorker notes that the film is “In Hebrew, German, and English.” When the characters speak in Hebrew, their words are subtitled in English. When they speak German (don’t ask), their words are subtitled in English. When they speak English, obviously, there are no subtitles.

And when the women speak in Arabic?

No subtitles – and no sign from any U.S. media critic that this is an injustice. But it is: the lack of translation reduces these women from mourning women to screaming animals, with meaningless noises.

What they say is actually very interesting: they speak directly to the camera, and ask: Where are the Arabs? Why is it only foreigners here? And they tell the cameraman: Film this; film all of this.

Folman makes several irresponsible decisions as a “documentarian”, but for me this is the worst of all. By choosing not to translate their words, he denies them – the victims of a massacre the Israeli Army helped perpetuate – their voice. And he confirms that this is not a film about Lebanon.

Posted in animals, art, Beirut, film, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, women | 8 Comments »

a dimmed star in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 23, 2009

Pssst, Diamond, K (for “knowledgeable” – not her real first initial) said to me online on January 15.

I have been sworn to secrecy, but an anonymous source tells me that the daily star officially went bankrupt yesterday,

H used to say that it has been on the cusp of bankruptcy for years, I replied. I’m not surprised.

And I wasn’t. I wasn’t surprised to see unofficial confirmations appear on various blog’s, including Qifa Nabki’s – nor to see the three official articles that appeared yesterday on Menassat, Gulf News, and the LA Times websites. But I am sad.

The Daily Star, for all that I love to make fun of it, has been a rich source of news and analysis for English-speakers around the Middle East since its founding more than 50 years ago. Its editor, the legendary, Kamel Mroue, was murdered for his work with the paper – and yet it continued publishing, with little effort to curry favor with one or another political faction.

It hasn’t done well in recent years – a partnership with the International Herald Tribune evidently ended when the IHT realized that the Daily Star was pocketing the moneys allotted for publishing the IHT each day, rather than printing it, which the DS explained was due to its need for funds. And advertising – as everywhere in the Middle East – is sparse. But the thought of English-speakers in (and interested in) Lebanon having only Naharnet and Now Lebanon as their sources for news and analysis chills my blood.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that the paper’s economic woes were perhaps best forecast by its massively confusing economic and business reporting. I’ll close with a link to one of my all-time favorite blog posts: an analysis of an article on the Lebanese banking scene that Riemer Brouwer did in July 2007. I read it at work, laughed until tears came to my eyes, and then read it out loud to H. Here it is – enjoy.

Posted in Iowa | 2 Comments »