A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for April, 2009

Les hommes de ma vie: Dalida at Bardo

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 30, 2009

It was a warm spring evening in 2007, and G and I had no real plans. K had just returned from two days in a place I think of as ‘Maronite Central’, without being converted OR raising sectarian tensions, – an achievement that we thought deserved a drink in honor of religious diversity.

But given that it was spring 2007, and late spring at that, we were still wary of heading out to the marquee boites. So we met at the usual spot: Bardo, whose out-of-the-way location and bunker-like appearance had made it our number-one choice for bomb-free evenings out.

We arrived to find people spilling out into the garden walkway: Bardo was packed, and mostly with young, well-manicured Lebanese men. It was so crowded that not only were neither of our two usual tables available, but nothing was. We sat outside, at one of a set of makeshift garden tables brought out to accommodate the overflowing crowd.

What is going on? K asked.

A “Dalida tribute night”? G asked, horrified, after reading the chalkboard. I don’t think we want to stay at this place.

But I was hungry and lazy, and in any case our options were somewhat limited. So we stayed through a quick dinner and a round of drinks, as the volume of the speakers inside the restaurant increased steadily to the point that we had to lean in to hear one another speaking. And meanwhile we found ourselves eyewitnesses to at least one segment of Beirut’s vibrant gay culture. Dalida isn’t my favorite singer, but she clearly resonated with the young men around us, who sang along enthusiastically.

You too can enjoy an evening dedicated to video clips of such hits as “Helwe ya baladi” and “Je suis malade” sung by a woman who appears to be the Levantine gay male answer to Bette Midler. According to Time Out Beirut, Bardo is hosting another Dalida tribute this evening:

A tribute to Dalida
9pm Bardo, Mexico street, Opp Haigazian University, Clemenceau, 01 340060 Reservations recommended.
Bardo invites you to come celebrate the Egyptian Italian singer Dalida. With DJ Laila playing her tunes accompanied by clips from Dalida’s movies, this promises to be a nice evening full of nostalgia for a never forgotten singer.


Posted in Americans, Beirut, music, nightlife | Leave a Comment »

Beirut in poetry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2009

I must be on an artsy kick these days – well, if La dama de Beirut counts as art. (My suspicion is that it falls more into the Levantine definition of “artiste”.) This time, my eye was caught by a new book of poetry, titled Beirut Summer:


How lame, I thought at first. Someone took a 2006 war image and decided to capitalize on Beirut’s reputation without knowing much about the actual city.

Shame on me for being so quick to judge. Apparently the author, a woman named Catherine Evans Latta, does indeed know Beirut – and her time there very much coincided with the city’s war days.

According to the “about me” section of a writers’ website to which she belongs, Catherine Evans Latta is a graduate of Cornell University and the American University of Beirut.  She studied at Stanford as a graduate student with poet Denise Levertov and, later, author Nancy Packer.  Catherine’s poetry has been published in numerous journals: The Beloit Poetry Journal, the Stanford Literary Quarterly, Fresh Hot Bread and elsewhere.  She was a feature columnist for Beirut’s The Daily Star, the largest English language paper in the Middle East.  She taught in the English Dept. of the American University of Beirut where she lived for ten years.  Prior to that, she lived in Cairo for three years.

One day when I have more free time, I’d like to spend a few weeks reading through the old Daily Stars. I understand that its archive is honored somewhat more in the breach than the observance, and that accessing it requires a lot of sweet-talking. But still – it would be interesting both to see the articles and to trace the genealogy of the paper’s many writers. I get the strong impression that most of the foreign writers have been less trained journalists than literate English-speakers who found themselves in Beirut and in need of a job – and that many have gone on to equally interesting post-paper careers.

Back to Latta and her poetry. An account of an interview she gave to a California-based local cable program called “Arab TV” states:

The poems are a series of powerfully disturbing and vivid images detailing the pains of people living under fire in Beirut. She has included poems that cover several wars from 1967 to the present. Written from a woman’s point of view, the poems provide insights into the torn lives of ordinary people.

During the interview, she said that while the events in the poems are told in the first person, they were not all her personal experience “…there is poetic license after all,” but all the people in the poems were friends and it is their experiences and stories, as well as her own, that she drew upon for the collection. One poem tells of the extreme penury of two maids who came from the camps to work for her. She remarked how many had broken lives: — the gardener who moved his family to live in a tent in the garden because it was safer than in his neighborhood; — the friend whose farm was burnt to the ground, but felt obliged to remain to show her commitment to her country; — or the mother whose child could only sleep to a cassette playing the call to prayer.

Latta let her imagination take flight to describe the psychological pain of war. In fact, she sat under fire in 1967, sat out the 1972 War and in 1974 while teaching at AUB had bombs going off in nearby class rooms. She was in Beirut during the beginning of the 1975-1990 Civil War and again in 1983.

I’m not much of a poetry fan: I appreciate poetry, but when looking for a book to read, I prefer novels or biographies or … anything other than poetry, with the possible exception of an economics text. And I’m slightly discomfited by the idea that Latta waited until 2008 to publish her poems on Beirut. To me, this suggests that she or the publisher thought that there might be a larger market for them thanks to the 2006 war, even though (as I understand it) she wasn’t in Beirut then.

The writers’ website includes one brief excerpt:

I saw dawn briefly


in the hills

above Ba’abda,

But now my eyes ache so

I cannot mend

the sound-rent sky

to see the day.

Um. If I were better at literary criticism, I am sure that I would have something interesting to say in response. I remember 2006 skies broken by above-the-sound-barrier fighter jets and bunker buster-i bombs, but I missed the boat, clearly, on wanting to mend them.

In any case, I’m interested to see what she has to say, although I’d like also to put in a plug here for a series of poems about how ordinary life in Beirut is most days. And I’m still cheap: the book is $12.95 on Amazon. I can wait for a used copy :).

Posted in Beirut, books, women, words | 1 Comment »

the lady of Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 28, 2009

This morning’s Google alert oddities included the mention of a 1965 Spanish film titled La dama de Beirut. I must confess first of all that I didn’t realize that “Beirut” is spelled the same in Spanish as in English – I had assumed that, as with French, the city’s spelling varies. And yes, as a bad Spanish speaker, my guess would have been: “Beruto”, just like Lebanon becomes “Libano”.

I’m not in the market for old Spanish films, but I couldn’t resist googling to find out a bit more. After all, what was the Spanish market for films about Lebanon in the mid-1960s?

After a bit of online research, and a bit of blushing, I have concluded that whatever Spaniards’ interest was in terms of numbers, La dama de Beirut appears not to have been intended for an auteur crowd.

This is what IMDb has to say about the plot:

Isabel is a beautiful aspiring singer with great aspirations but persistent bad luck, [who is] convicted of a crime she did not commit. Serving time in prison she is released under parole and lands a singing gig at a dive in Barcelona where she meets Sandro “The Greek” and his partner [and lover] lover Gloria.

The couple is posing as entertainment promoters but they are really running a prostitution ring based in Beirut. They offer Isabel a two-year contract to perform in “night clubs” in the Near and Mideast even after they learn that she cannot travel abroad due to her legal status.

Upon arrival in Beirut, Isabel and the other girls are sped away to a luxurious villa where they discover the real intentions of the pseudo-promoters. They are expected to sing and dance but also to engage in sexual activities with the rich clients that patronize the place. Isabel pretends to go along with the situation but she has a plan to get away.

So much to marvel over here. The wrongly imprisoned singer sounds like enough for a full movie narrative, and yet in this film, it is merely the start. A Greek procurer, a high-end Beirut brothel – which the New York Times described as a “sheik’s harem”, and a daring plan for escape – sounds like an action-packed film, full of stereotypes and titillation.

montiel[Photo courtesy of an Ebay seller.]

(For the full “plot spoiler” synopsis, which features all kinds of juicy melodrama, you can go here.)

I don’t think that this is my type of movie, but I’m sure it was a big “B” hit :).

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, film, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

Cedar Island: mis-underestimating the Lebanese government

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2009

It looks like Cedar Island, the is-this-an-April-Fool’s-joke project planned off the coast of Damour (and which I have written about here) will now be slower to – tee hee – take root.

The Kipp Report published an article today stating that:

Work on Cedar Island, an $8.2 billion artificial island off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, will be postponed until after the parliamentary elections in June. The project developer, Noor International Holding, confirmed to MEED magazine that it underestimated the amount of time the Lebanese government needs to approve a project of this size.

In February, Noor announced it hoped to begin construction before the end of May, ahead of the elections in June.

”We are still waiting for permits from the authorities, so everything is on hold,” a spokesman for Noor said. “Hopefully we can move after the elections before the summer vacation starts.”

I’m trying not to laugh and also trying to decide whether the slow government approval is a genuine problem, or merely a euphemism for “let’s see how things go after June 7”.

The article continues:

According to the developer, the project will take four years to construct and will house over 40,000 residents. The island will be a comprehensive community, and will feature villas, apartments, shopping complexes, schools and hospitals.

The project has received a flood of criticism due to its size and location: environmentalists insist that the nation is not in need of Dubai-style constructions to lure investors, and point to the negative impact dredging will have on marine life in the project’s construction site, and economists question whether the developer can secure the funds required to complete the project.

”I cannot see who will do it and how the funding will be secured, particularly when states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with billions in reserves, are halting projects,” Lebanese economist, Louis Hobeika said to Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star.

Mohammad Saleh, the chairman of the board of directors at Noor International Holding, insists the project will attract funding in spite of the global economic downturn:  “I am not worried about the global crisis, because my main target is Lebanese expatriates who have nostalgia for their country and would like to invest in it,” said Saleh.

”Unlike foreign investors, these people are used to Lebanon’s system, its ups and downs.”

I believe that – but the idea that there are 40,000 Lebanese and expats dying to live in a pretend cedar off the coast of Damour leaves me less than sanguine.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, construction, sea | 2 Comments »

the Australian bridge of Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2009

The weather turned unexpectedly hot here in New York this past weekend: yesterday the high was around 90F.

The summer weather reminded me of Lebanon – not Beirut’s soggy heat, but the dry heat further north towards Tripoli. And that in turn reminded me of a day-trip that H and I had taken last June, to see the Rachid Karame International Exhibition Center. We took the highway up, but the older sea roads home – partly for the ambience, and partly for the chance to see the tank graveyard and a mystery bridge.

The bridge itself is not a mystery: its a small, stone bridge that can fit the usual one-and-one-half cars. The mystery came from the marker carved midway across. Here it is on the fly:


And here it is in close-up:


The left-hand side says “1942” in Arabic; the right-hand side in Roman script. And the words on the banner say: “Australian Commonwealth Military Forces”.

I did know, vaguely, that British-led Allied forces were the ones that took Syria and Lebanon back from the Axis sometime in 1942. (And I do know that it was British pressure that forced the French to grant Syria and Lebanon de jure independence in 1943, and to make that de facto in 1946.) But I had no idea what else the troops had been up to while stationed here – and nor did H. Hence the mystery.

I’ve found one book that discusses the building of the Australian bridge: an out-of-print book written by a man named Lawrence FitzGerald, Lebanon to Labuan: A story of mapping by the Australian Survey Corps, World War II (1939 to 1945). As you know, collecting out-of-date books on Lebanon is a hobby of mine – and I was tempted to buy a copy of FitzGerald’s book. But at $40, its too rich for my cheap tastes :).

The Australians must have put their time in Lebanon to very good use, because when I tried to search for information about this bridge, another bridge appeared. A site for the “Australian War Memorial” maintains an online collection of period photos, showing Australian efforts in various locales. One shows the construction of another Australian bridge: a bridge for the Lebanese railroad, crossing Nahr Ibrahim somewhere between Jounieh and Jbeil.

The site describes the bridge as in “Tripoli, Syria” – which will alternately amuse, irritate, or horrify you, depending on your socio-political views. Here’s what it says:


Initially, I thought that this must be the same bridge – but if you look at the photo on the AWM site and compare it to “my” Australian bridge, they don’t seem to be the same. “My” bridge was inland, and nestled in amongst the foliage, while this one appears very exposed. And – while I’m no bridge expert – my understanding is that railroad bridges and car bridges are somewhat different in width and overall appearance.

But perhaps the Aussies built “my” bridge while working in the area on the broader railroad project – since both took place in 1942.

Here’s a bit more information on the railroad, taken from a book titled Middle East Railways and written by the Boutros Boutros-Ghali’an Hugh Hughes, and posted on Al Mashriq:

The most interesting event in this area however was the decision to construct a standard gauge link between Haifa and the railways of Syria. This meant that stores and equipment could be moved quickly, without transhipment problems due to change of gauge, from depots in Egypt and Palestine right up to the Turkish border – and beyond if necessary. Moreover it would also provide a through connection with Iraq. In the event Turkey maintained its neutrality and refused permission for British military stores to pass indiscriminately over its section of the Aleppo-Mosul railway. Nevertheless locomotives were transferred to and from Iraq by this route, and the line from Haifa was also used to move ex-Middle East engines to Turkey after purchase by that country. The first proposal was for a line from Haifa to Rayak but a 1941 reconnaissance revealed construction difficulties that would have taken far too long to overcome. So instead it was decided to blast a route along the coast connecting Haifa with Beirut and Tripoli; this involved some very difficult work negotiating the steep cliffs where the various headlands met the sea. From Haifa to Beirut the construction was carried out by South African engineers and it is interesting to note that a temporary 1.05m gauge line was in use in April 1942 on the 14 miles between Damour Bridge and Beirut so that narrow gauge facilities at the latter place could be used for supplying materials. In June the South Africans were transferred elsewhere and the finishing touches were added by two New Zealand RE companies. Regular military traffic started on 24th August 1942, including three passenger services per week.

From Beirut to Tripoli construction was by Australian Royal Engineers, except for the difficult Chekka tunnel which was built by a tunnelling company recruited from South African miners for this special job. By July 1942 the 14 miles from Chekka Cement Works to Tripoli were already in use but the whole line from Beirut was not completed until 18th December; two days later General Alexander presided at the official opening ceremony for the Azzib-Tripoli railway (the PR were operating the Haifa-Azzib section). Some idea of the character of this line can be gleaned from the fact that when on one occasion some trucks became derailed near Sidon thus holding up 15 following trains with important supplies, the action taken was to bring along a travelling crane and tip all the offending stock over the edge into the sea.

Kheireddine and my other history buff readers, do you know anything more about this bridge?

Posted in Arab world, Australia, Lebanon, photography, research, time | 6 Comments »

a second look at hope

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 24, 2009

A few weeks ago H and I got into a super-charged lunchtime discussion about the relationship between Amal and Hizbullah – a no-doubt thrilling experience for those at adjacent tables. (As those of you who have spent time in New York know, an “adjacent table” is usually three-to-six inches away. So they definitely got to listen in, interested or no.)

H has been doing some background research on the way that Hizbullah began positioning itself from the mid-1980s, if I remember correctly, by using Amal as a foil. So H decided to use me as a test case: what does the average self-appointed foreign expert think of Amal?

What do you think of when you think of Amal? H asked as I doused my lunch in carrot tahini.

I think of Amal as being more secular and also more corrupt, I said, playing right into H’s hands.

Ah, H said, nodding sagely. That’s exactly what you are supposed to think. From what H has read, these stereotypes about Amal were cultivated partly by Hizbullah as a way of distinguishing the two groups from one another. If Amal was secular and corrupt, Hizbullah could be religious and honest. And when Amal’s members do exhibit their religious faith – as on Ashoura – Hizbullah’s followers distinguish themselves further by commemorating the event without (or at least with less visible) bloodshed.

I’ve had an unpleasant run-in with one of Nabih Berri’s children, not to mention the goobers who “guarded” my neighborhood last May, so I suspect that my antipathy towards Amal is largely the product of an extended fit of pique. But still: H’s research made me feel like a dupe.

(I should note here that both parties have evolved considerably over the past twenty years, which seems to be when this “if you’re defined as this, we’ll be defined as that” approach seems to have been employed. But I do think that these stereotypes continue to frame how outside observers, at least, understand the relationship between Amal and Hizbullah.)

It also made me rethink a photograph I snapped last June, of recent graffiti on the back wall of a particularly decrepit parking lot in Hamra:


I took this photo without much of a purpose: I noticed the new graffiti, thought “hunh – Amal graffiti that mentions Ali, how interesting”, took the photo, and left it to languish on my computer for the next ten months.

Now I look at it and wonder: what else have I missed :)?

Posted in advertising, Arabic, Beirut, photography, politics | 2 Comments »

the two-week vacation

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 23, 2009

Here in the United States, a lot of media talk recently has focused on how inexpensive air travel has become, thanks to the tanking economy. Summer flights around the country have dropped to mid-2000s levels, and flights to Europe, the Caribbean, and even Asia are much cheaper than even 2007 prices.

Flights to Lebanon and the rest of the region, on the other hand, seem to have stayed stubbornly high. I’d like to book a ticket to visit my aunt in Kuwait and assorted friends in the Levant, but in my head I keep expecting those delightful 2002 prices to crop up whenever I hit “go” on my favorite search engine.

Instead, what crops up are 2002 prices, doubled.


These are the times when I wish that I were Lebanese.

For once, Robert Worth has written a story about Lebanon worth reading: a piece in today’s New York Times about vote-buying and other “typically Lebanese” (or maybe “typically Saudi”, given what his Saudi source says) electoral activities. Here’s a sample of what is a horrifying yet highly readable article:

The parliamentary elections here in June are shaping up to be among the most expensive ever held anywhere, with hundreds of millions of dollars streaming into this small country from around the globe.

Lebanon has long been seen as a battleground for regional influence, and now, with no more foreign armies on the ground, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are arming their allies here with campaign money in place of weapons. The result is a race that is widely seen as the freest and most competitive to be held here in decades, with a record number of candidates taking part. But it may also be the most corrupt.

Votes are being bought with cash or in-kind services. Candidates pay their competitors huge sums to withdraw. The price of favorable TV news coverage is rising, and thousands of expatriate Lebanese are being flown home, free, to vote in contested districts.

They sure are. My friend S, who knows of both my desire for a “big summer” vacation and my penny-pinching habits, sms’ed me last week with the news that:

8 March will send you back for ten days. 14 March will send you for three. Get your voting card!

S didn’t mean me, of course: I’m not Lebanese. But if you are, and you seem neutral enough to be courted by both parties (and why is March 14 being so cheap, anyway? Where are all the hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars that Worth’s source mentions going?), you could start your summer with a nice two-week vacation.

Bring on the suntan oil and the sequins (and a listing of your favorite candidates, if you have them). Lebanon awaits 😀 .

Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, citizenship, friends, politics | 2 Comments »

Sheikh Mo and the “family business”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 22, 2009

This morning I had another chance to count my blessings. The Internet has given me so much: information, news, opinions, and many new friends.

You may have heard of my latest friend – he runs a city-state known for its real estate boom, not to mention its Burj. Yes, that’s right: my newest friend is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. And boy-oh-boy, does he have an interesting view on Dubai and the rest of the Maktoum clan.

Here is his latest email, with the usual commentary:

Dear Friend,

Regarding possible investment. I wish to bring to your notice my interest to partnership with you in this great business opportunity.

[Sheikh Mo, your eloquence seems to have deserted you – as has your fluency in English!]

As an investment minded entity, it is my desire to fund already existing business as well as set up new business structure provided there is security for the investment.

[“Entity”? Have you moved beyond the “royal we” to some non-human status?]

I officially bring to your notice my interest to partnership with you in this investment venture with me funding the investment.

But we must agree on working modalities/an agreement that will guide the investment.

[Absolutely. I believe in transparency for all business deals – not only the ones involving state leaders.]

I run a family business and will not want any of my family members to be aware of my intention to invest outside our family business venture.

[Um. I’ve often wondered how the Maktoums see Dubai – and now I know. Sounds like a great family, too – very trusting and supportive.]

Secondly, your presence will be required for proper signing of all contract documents and fund hand over.

[No problem – I have several friends in Dubai and would love a chance to visit. When will you be sending me my ticket :D?]

You have to draw-up a business proposal and forward a copy of the business proposal to Mr. Edward Gibson, My foreign investment adviser (PA), for a proper study and we shall get back to you with

{A}: Funding Modalities

{B}: Working Agreement

I am interested in this deal but for security reasons, I will not like to be directly involved.

[Right – because your family wants all the family money put into Dubai. I understand – and love the capital “M” in “My”. But isn’t “PA” shorthand for “personal assistant”, not “foreign investment advisor”?]

Please contact my foreign investment adviser in London, U.K. to arrange for a formal meeting and funding modalities.

Your contacts:

Direct Mobile:

Home Tel:

Office Tel:

Your Position :

You can contact him with the following:

Name: Edward Gibson

Email: info.gibson.ward@gawab.com

[“Gawab”? As in, jawab but with a masri accent? Why does this not sound British to me?]

Endeavor to update me with your agreement with him.

Thank You.

Sheikh Al Maktoum


Will do, my sheikh 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Dubai | Leave a Comment »

charitable Qataris

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 21, 2009

Good morning to you from a slightly soggy big apple. I have another new friend whom I would like to share: the cheery, charitable Mammud Ali Hassan. His email follows below, with running commentary.

Asalaam Alekum!

[Now: you and I both know that this email is about to introduce a dying man with a will toward charity and unhelpful relatives. Why use an exclamation point, which looks so perky?]

Dear Friend,

As you read this, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday. My name is mammud ali hassan a qatari and a merchant in Dubai, in the U.A.E.I have been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer…..

[I struggled for a long time to pronounced Arabic’s aspirated “Haa”. I see that Mr. Hassan has instead switched it out for a second “meem”. Sure seems a bit of a casual approach to a resonantly religious first name.]

It has defiled all forms of medical treatment, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts. I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone(not even myself) but my business. Though I am very rich, I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and only focused on my business as that was the only thing I cared for. But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world. I believe when Allah gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life a different way from how I have lived it.

[Two comments here: First, I believe you mean “defied”, although perhaps doctors do feel that their treatments are defiled when unsuccessful. Second, you believe in reincarnation? Are you Druze?]

Now that Allah has called me, I have willed and given most of my property and assets to my immediate and extended family members as well as a few close friends. I want Allah to be merciful to me and accept my soul so, I have decided to give also to charity organizations, as I want this to be one of the last good deeds I do on earth. So far, I have distributed money to some charity organizations in the U.A.E, Algeria and Malaysia. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore.

[Good for you – money spent on others is always well spent. Fairly random selection of countries, though.]

I once asked members of my family to close one of my accounts and distribute the money which I have there to charity organization in Bulgaria and Pakistan, they refused and kept the money to themselves. Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them.

[Bulgaria and Pakistan? Great, although again: how on earth did you choose these countries over others?]

The last of my money which no one knows of is the huge cash deposit of $35M million dollars $35M that I have with a finance/Security Company abroad. I will want you to help me collect this deposit and dispatched it to charity organizations.

[I’m hoping here that you mean “securities” and not “Blackwater”.]

Please endeavour to reply me via my private email address of   for confidentiality. I have set aside 10% for you and for your time.

[I didn’t delete his “private email address” – he didn’t provide one.]

God be with you,


[Love the final period.]

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Qatar | 1 Comment »

dream jobs, part II: “Lady Coaches”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 19, 2009

$18,000 a year in Abu Dhabi? I hope these lady coaches get massive Eid bonuses – like twice their salaries.


I do like staying fit, but I think I’ll keep my day job 😀

Posted in advertising, Arab world | Leave a Comment »