A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for February, 2009

Ace Hardware: Lebanese landmark

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 28, 2009

As I mentioned in a post last month, last spring I began seeing billboard advertisements for the new Ace Hardware on the road between Charles Helou and the Port. (One of the many joys of being a passenger is that I get to spend more time watching the world pass, and less time worrying about passing motorists!) So when I began seeing Ace Hardware advertisements in the Daily Star this winter, I was glad to see that the store was fully on its way to opening.

And what a grand opening it must have been. Take a look at this press release, published on Wednesday:

25_02_2009_008_006

I’m still puzzled by the idea that the Lebanese have harbored a secret desire for do-it-yourself handy-person projects, which is what I think of when I think of Ace. I wouldn’t do plumbing, but I have changed many a door knob and cabinet handle, have hung mirrors and paintings, and have been roped into assorted painting projects – all with a fair degree of enthusiasm. I’m not sure that this same spirit is as valued in Lebanon – so I have been wondering who Ace’s customers might be.

Thanks to this press release, I know: the Sin El Fil Ace Hardware gathers people “in large numbers”, who come “from all walks of life” and “from different parts of the Country”, as well as from the U.S. Embassy. (Actually, I have no doubt that Michele Sisson is capable of any household project – and would likely do it with both grace and aplomb.) I hope this is true, and that Ace’s grand opening is a “landmark event”, not only in the history of Lebanese retailing but in the evolution of Lebanese culture. A “can-do” spirit and a “let’s pitch in” attitude could do wonders for the country.

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Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, construction, home, Lebanon | Leave a Comment »

the art of war

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 27, 2009

For the past several months, I have been resisting the urge to shop. Its easier than I thought: I’m parsimonious by nature, and the current size of my closet (small) and bookshelves (ditto) are further disincentives.

But Sporty Diamond turns 30 tomorrow, and in search of a treasure for her, I have been doing some serious hunting online. And since we have overlapping interests, shopping for a gift for her has led to some sideline searching for objects of interest to me. Its a slippery slope, as they say …

Thus I found myself the other day typing “Lebanon painting” into Ebay’s search engine – after, I must confess, first typing in “Beirut painting” (which produced one wan seascape) and “Damascus painting” (which produced nothing). When shopping, I take a spray the field approach.

What came up was this:

fc5d_1

Its beautiful, isn’t it? Vibrant colors and a mountainscape, all for $6,499 + shipping. Would you like to know its title? The painting is called “Lebanon War 2”, and the artist is an Israeli man named Dan Rapaport. (You can see the full listing here.)

Rapaport has evidently done several pieces that reflect on the war, including an intellectually thoughtful but artistically naive sculpture depicting the exchange of rocket-fire through arrows and the war’s net effect through the number zero. (You can also purchase this sculpture on Ebay.)

This isn’t a negative post: I’m certainly not against Israeli artists reflecting on the 2006 war. But it does return me to a question I had after watching Waltz With Bashir, whose soundtrack featured something totally new to me several songs with a Lebanon theme. I don’t know anything about the degree to which the Lebanon invasion and occupation has become a theme in Israeli art and music, and I would greatly appreciate tips on where I might go to learn more.

Posted in advertising, art, Beirut, Israel, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

helping out the bin Talals

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 26, 2009

This morning I received a lovely email from my new friend: Princess Amira, the wife of Saudi prince and uber-billionaire, Alwaleed bin Talal. As some of you may recall, Amira was recently in the news for her comments about her readiness to drive in Saudi Arabia whenever the laws are changed. Sadly, it seems that she now has more pressing issues on her mind:

Sir,

Assalamaleku and Good day.

My husband’s agent came across your e mail contact where he was seeking for
an investor/business partner for me.

I am interested to invest and partner in your business, with assurance that the security of my capital will be there, please kindly get back to me with full details via email. I have $120 million of my sick husbands money that I want to invest in your country through you or your company.

May Allah bless you.

NOTE: THESE ARE MY DIRECT EMAIL:
Direct email: hayalwa@yahoo.co.uk
2nd Email: hayalwa@gmail.com
Mrs H.Alwaleed, (Wife of HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal)
Founder/ Chairman of KHC
Kingdom Holding Company
www.kingdom.net

Evidently “Mrs. H. Alwaleed” has been so affected by her distress at the Prince’s illness that she 1) called me Sir, my longstanding pet peeve 2) missed the meem on “Assalamalekum” and 3) signed a doozy of a pre-nup, if she only has access to $120 million of the bin Talal fortune.

The Kingdom Holding website is real; I highly doubt that the email addresses are. Oh well – it was a sweet friendship while it lasted!

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Saudi Arabia, women, words | 5 Comments »

Are you ready? The Lebanese elections

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 25, 2009

The Daily Star, which seems to be back for the  medium- if not long-run again, has been running a series of PSAs from the Interior Ministry and the Elections Commission (not sure if that is its proper name, but its a similar idea), reminding people to update their registration and identity cards so they are “ready” to vote during the June elections.

The first PSA I have seen just asks “Ready?” and shows an image of a hand showing with a purple ink mark to indicate that the person has voted:

17_02_2009_002_005

I didn’t realize that Lebanon used purple ink, or any ink – I thought that this was done in Iraq as something of a stop-gap measure to prevent people from casting multiple votes, since the voter registries were so confused. But aren’t things a bit more structured – in fact, aren’t they highly bureaucratized?? – in Lebanon? Do any of you know more about this?

This one says: “Ready for your requests” – or maybe more like “Ready to serve”, and identifies the “27 centers at your service for processing [literally, implementing] identity cards in all cazas”:

21_02_2009_002_005

Look how many there are on the western half of the country, and how few there are in the Bekaa and the north-east. Is the population distribution really this lop-sided?

Seeing the little cedar in the top right, for Hirmel, makes me blush. A few weeks ago, a fellow midwesterner emailed me about a recent visit to Hormal, Minnesota, home of “Spam”. Since there are so many Biblically-based connections between American towns and Levantine ones, I spent a good deal of time trying to find a connection – all for nothing. Apparently, Hormel was the family name of the company’s founders – no Lebanese connection at all.

In any case, I am glad to see these PSAs, and I hope that they are running as billboards as well. I love elections, and I am looking forward to seeing how the June elections play out.

Posted in advertising, Arabic, Beirut, citizenship, Lebanon | 6 Comments »

the $18 million Gazan

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 24, 2009

My aunt is the lucky recipient of a steady stream of “good” scam emails: definite scams, but creative enough to be worth remembering. The ones I receive are usually much less interesting – they tend to be of the ho-hum ‘I am the widow of Eminent Person X and am now dying of cancer in a foreign land’ variety.

But last night I received a real gem: a request for help from a Gazan refugee with $18 million to his name.

Here is the email:

Dear Sir, I am Mr. Hadi Abdoullah originally from Gaza Strip but currently going through asylum process here in Spain . I lost every other thing with my name on during the recent war on Hamas and managed to escape and Due to the situation there at home, those of us in business cannot invest any more.

Please, why I need your assistance is that I have ($18 .000.000 USD) Eighteen million united states Dollars in a security & volts services company here in Spain but cannot put into investment because of my status as an asylum seeker and I am afraid so that I do not loss this funds because its all that is left of my family after I had lost my entire family in the war. I inherited the money from my late father who was an oil and gas dealer.

I intend that you assist me and take possession and also help with any investment Overseas that can sustain the funds and yield interest. Please contact me urgently on my private email address Email: hadiabdoullah@xxxx.com, Email: hadiabdoullah001@xxxx.com So that I can give you further information, Thank You as I wait for your reply.

Let’s go through this treasure, piece by piece.

First, if you are soliciting money and/or other forms of assistance, don’t start by alienating half your audience. I am hardly about to jump up and aid someone who mis-identifies me as a man.

Second, his story makes no sense. He is seeking asylum in Spain – which in most countries is a status that does not permit the seeker to work – yet has $18 million in a “security & volts services company”, whatever that is. I understand that Spain’s bureaucracy may be less than assiduous, but surely the government would have noticed an investment that large. And yet he says that he “cannot put [this money] into investment” because of his asylum application. So: is the money invested in the company, or is it liquid?

Third, think of the economy. I can’t imagine any country that would be less than welcoming to a “refugee” with that much money to his name. Why doesn’t he just come clean and let the Spanish government drool all over him and his economy-boosting funds? Or, why doesn’t he go on the market and see which country will give him the best deal? A man with $18 million to his name should be able to start a green card bidding war these days.

Fourth, and no offense to the Gazans, but: how many Gazan oil and gas titans do you know? I can’t think of any, perhaps because Gaza is a tiny strip of land ghettoized by both Israel and Egypt and – by the way – with neither oil nor gas.

In any case, I wish Mr. Abdoullah luck in his asylum case and his desire to find “help with any investment Overseas that can sustain the funds and yield interest”. He’s going to need a great deal of luck when his two email inboxes overflow with replies from desperate investment bankers :D.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, economics, Israel, Palestine | 1 Comment »

safety first: surveillance tools for sale

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2009

Feeling insecure? Thanks to my new-found popularity with Lebanon’s spam ads (no idea how long it will last, so I’m taking advantage of the gems while I can), I now have a much better idea of what’s available on the market when it comes to security tools:

ad2009a

fingerprint-security-system-solutions

The only odd thing about this advertisement is that it includes a price. Many advertisements in Lebanon (and the region more broadly) do not – not even as a “MSRP”. In fact, this advertisement is doubly odd, because it includes the full address and phone number for NETS. Often, ads – particularly for restaurants and boites, it seems – do an excellent job of communicating the experience to be had there, but neglect key details like where they are and how they can be reached for reservations.

In any case, if you are looking for a surveillance solution for your home, company, hospital, school, or – scary thought – nursery, NETS clearly has a wide variety of options.

And if you’re lucky, and the rumors are true, your purchase of a “high-speed dome” (which looks much like the ones in downtown Beirut and sprinkled throughout Qoreitem) may make your chosen surveillance spot eligible for inclusion in the — reputed — direct feed into the Hariri mansion. Better safe than sorry, as we all know.

As for the fingerprint access machine, we were recently joking about getting something like that for my parents’ house. For the first two-three years after their house was built, their only way of entering the house was through the garage: the keys to the front and side doors had never been provided. The U.S. doesn’t have the same electricity issues that Lebanon does, but we did have a good laugh imagining how they would get in if there was a power cut, since the garage openers are electric. In the end, they changed the door locks and now have keys to spare – but a fingerprint machine with battery back-up would certainly have been a trendier solution 🙂 !

Posted in advertising, Beirut | Leave a Comment »

expectations of abundance

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 22, 2009

I’ve written before about the mysterious ebbs and flows that characterized the stock on Beirut’s grocery store shelves – not to mention its Starbucks. The staples – locally produced goods – were always there, but imported or even semi-imported goods would sometimes disappear for ages. (Sietske has written about this as well, as has my aunt – apparently its a region-wide phenomenon.) When the shops were out of my favorite tea:

dalfour-tea1

I would whine to myself for a while – but in the end, I would be fine.

Americans are, as the saying goes, spoiled for choice. We expect abundance in our mega-grocery stores, and we expect uninterrupted availability of our favorite brands. If a store carries product x by brand y, we expect the store to have it in stock all the time – and when it doesn’t, we expect an explanation and a re-stock within 24 hours (or a coupon to take away the pain). I never did get a coupon in Beirut, but I did get something better: the chance to develop a bit of consumer maturity.

There are no big-box stores in my current neighborhood, so – much as in Beirut – I shop for groceries at three smaller, local shops, each with a different selection of goods. From one I buy produce; from another, bread; and from the third, the staples: milk, yogurt, pasta, tea, etc.

But since Wednesday, my staple store has been yogurt-less. Well, there are a few lingering single-serve containers of fruit-flavored yogurt, but the two/three brands that the store carries in larger sizes have disappeared.

I thought nothing of it on Wednesday. On Thursday, I began to wonder. And yesterday, I asked the store owner when they would be getting more.

He gave me a look I know well from shopping in Beirut: a look that says: we carry yogurt [or whatever product has gone missing?

The yogurt that’s usually in the dairy section? I say, smiling awkwardly and putting an inept question-mark at the end of my sentence.

In the end, we agreed that the store does carry yogurt and that more will be in soon. And, as in Beirut, I whined to myself for a while – but in the end, I was fine :).

Posted in Americans, Beirut, food | 2 Comments »

feeling nervous

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 21, 2009

My aunt recently wrote a charming post, “words strung together in new ways“, about the joys of hearing English phrases put together in fresh new ways by people for whom English is a second or third language. “When you put words together in new ways, you think new thoughts”, she notes, citing a friend’s use of “Christmas wrath” rather than “Christmas wreath”, and how that led my aunt to think about the many stresses that do often hit around Christmas-time.

I’ve been thinking about language cross-overs as well, but more so in terms of what the French call faux amis: words that exist in either the same or slightly modified form in two languages, but whose meanings don’t really match one another’s. They look like friends – like the words you already know – but their different meanings make them false.

There aren’t many faux amis causing trouble between English and Arabic, but there are a number of French/English faux amis running around in Lebanon, even when the speaker in question isn’t French educated, because the French definition has taken over the English word – as with ‘nervous’.

‘Nervous’ and ‘énervé’, its French counterpart, both have the same baseline: they refer to an agitation of the nerves. But in English, ‘nervous’ refers more to apprehension – an anxious or slightly frightened state brought about by sensitive or easily jangled nerves. In French, ‘énervé’ refers more to irritation – an agitation brought about by something, as we English say, ‘getting on’ one’s nerves.

So when I say “Person X makes me nervous”, or “flying makes me nervous”, I mean something subtly but substantively different than “Person X gets on my nerves” or “flying [through the oft-delayed O’Hare, for example] irritates me”.

But in Lebanon, the easy flow of speech between Arabic, English, and French has meant that these differences have been smoothed away: ‘nervous’ is used in English as if it were French. Which of course for me made for many awkward conversations in Beirut.

I feel really nervous today, G would say.

Ah, I would say, struggling for context. Do you mean that you are worried about something, or irritated about something?

DIAMOND, G would reply, I just said “I feel really nervous today”. What do you think that means?

And thanks to the all-caps use of my name, I would have my answer :).

There are also faux amis that exist within English: between British and American English, most notably. When I lived in Damascus, I would be equally thrown by my friend S’s use of ‘boring’.

The border crossing is so boring, S would say, referring to the crossing between Syria and Lebanon.

Being the people-watching nerd that I am, I found the border crossing fascinating, but I didn’t think that S really meant ‘tiresome’.

Do you mean that you find it tedious or that you find the process annoying? I would ask.

S would look at me. Both, Diamond. The border crossing is tedious and the process is annoying, as are the border guards, the customs inspectors, and everyone else.

(S grew up in Britain, and sometimes found the lack of orderliness in Syria a bit overwhelming.)

Having just spent an evening with two friends, one who has been laid off since September and one who says that he and the rest of his team have “three things to do, max” each day, I find myself with a growing sympathy for the dual meaning of both words. Being anxious, as so many of us are these days thanks to the plummeting economy, is both nerve-wracking and irritating. And being bored at a job that may soon be cut because there is no work to be done is also annoying – not to mention frightening.

Posted in Arabic, French, words | Leave a Comment »

the mechanical Turk

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 19, 2009

I’ve been on an Ottoman kick recently, as you may have noticed. One of my more recent Ottoman jags started with a magazine’s casual reference to Amazon’s work-for-hire service, “Mechanical Turk“. The site, whose motto is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”, connects employers and independent contractors willing to do online tasks that require human, rather than machine, intelligence for piecework rates.

Amazon’s enterprise is always interesting, but what made me curious was the name. What is a mechanical Turk, and why is it Turkish?

Since I was on Amazon’s website anyway, I turned to its book offerings, and found:

tom-standage-mechanical-turk

It turns out that the “mechanical Turk” was a machine designed by an Austrian tinkerer and scientist in the late 1700s – a time when machines that could simulate some aspect of animal or human life were apparently all the rage at Europe’s courts. On the more charming side was a torso of a boy playing the flute, whose wind-up gears actually produced a flute-like sound. On the less charming side was a replica of a duck, whose primary enchantment was that when fed, his wind-up gears took the food through the process of digestion, including the excretions at the end. Ugh.

The mechanical Turk was something else – more impressive than any other machine of its day, because it seemed to be able to think. The machine (see image on the book cover above) was a large contraption: a semi-solid table, which housed the machine’s gears, and the figure of an Ottoman Turk. What the machine did was to play chess.

I’m not much of a chess player, but apparently the ability to play chess is one litmus test for machine intelligence, because chess requires strategic thinking. In other words, the mechanical Turk seemed to possess artificial intelligence.

What we know now – and what Amazon’s Mechanical Turk plays with – is that the machine’s gears were just for show. A person hid inside the box and manipulated the Ottoman Turk’s arm to make each chess move – meaning that this artificial intelligence was really human intelligence supported by artifice.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the science side of this story, and I’m not too impressed by the mechanical Turk’s creator. Why didn’t he put his skills to work designing a machine that did work, even if it couldn’t play chess? I found myself wondering as I read the book.

Maybe that question shows my own lack of imagination – or my own hidebound morality. In any case, what really interests me is why he decided to make the figure Turkish – why not dress him as a fellow Austrian, or even another European?

I think I know the answer: the Ottoman Empire was Austria’s historic rival. An Ottoman Turk must have appeared a much more intimidating competitor than a Frenchman, or even a British subject. From the descriptions that cropped up in the book, however, it also made him seem much more alien – and maybe a bit sinister.

Here is one example:

An article [published in 1820] in the [London-based] New Monthly Magazine … proclaimed that “this cunning infidel (for he assumes the figure of a Turk) drives kings, and castles, and knights before him with more than moral sagacity, and with his inferior hand; and, except in a very few instances of drawn games, has beaten the most skillful chess-players in Europe.” (p. 128)

Ah, infidel – one of my favorite, we’re-all-cousins-under-Abraham, words.

Here is another, taken from the mechanical Turk’s tour of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in the 1830s:

Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor who attended Maelzel’s show as a child, later recallted that “the Turk, with his oriental silence and rolling eyes, would haunt your nightly visions for many an evening thereafter.” (p. 172)

Glad to see that we Americans were so free of stereotypes. If the figure had been dressed as an Austrian, would Dr. Mitchell have referred to his “Tyrolean silence”, do you think?

Posted in Americans, art, construction, religion, research, time, Turkey | 1 Comment »

the sajj-maker of D.C.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 18, 2009

On Sunday, A and I met M and two other friends for lunch at one of the several Lebanese Tavernas that pepper the D.C. metropolitan area.

Are you two going to be alright here? M asked kindly. M lived in Italy for several years, so she knows what it is like to face Americanized interpretations of cuisines one knows in their local forms.

Don’t worry about us, I said cheerfully. We’ll be fine.

And we were, at least until I discovered “Camel Wings” on the menu. There are no camels in Lebanon – well, except for the camel-for-tourists stationed outside Moussa’s Castle. But Americans know that the Middle East has camels, so I guess at some point the Lebanese owners of the Lebanese Taverna decided to put “camel wings” (i.e., buffalo wings) on their menus.

And we were okay again, until A discovered the mana2ish – or “Lebanese-style pizza”, as the menu describes them.

How much would you pay for a man2oushe? A stage-whispered to me from behind the menu.

Depends on the topping, I said.

How about $7.50 for a man2oushe with zaatar? A asked.

Good God. In my neighborhood, the street mana2eesh were sold for 750LL each, or about 50 cents. At Zaatar w Zeit, I think they were more like 1,750, or $2.16.

Sticker shock led me to revisit something A had mentioned earlier during my visit: that his mother had recently sent him a crepe-maker.

When am I ever going to make a crepe? A asked, showing the gadget to me.

As we looked at it, we realized that this was no ordinary crepe-maker. This was a potential sajj-maker, man2ouche-maker, and even mar2ou2-maker, all rolled into one.

img_1137

At $7.50 per man2oushe, A could have an incredibly lucrative second job as the neighborhood sajjci. Even at $5 per man2oushe, if A worked for two hours and made twenty man2ouche per hour, that’s $200. (If a Beirut sajjci made the same number, that’s 2*20*$.50=$20.)

Nice work, if you can get it – or if your loving mother sends you the fruits of her kitchen shopping 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, economics, food, friends, Lebanon | 2 Comments »