A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for October, 2009

another day, another Naharnet mystery

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 31, 2009

To be fair, today’s Naharnet “What?” looks like more of a Lebanese government “What?” – and its one I would love to understand.

Here’s the start of the article – this morning’s headliner, about the LAF’s recent arrest of a Fatah al-Islam figure (which in U.S. journalistic practice would be described as an alleged Fatah al-Islam figure) hiding out in the always-newsworthy Ain el Hilweh:

The Lebanese army intelligence has reportedly arrested a top Fatah al-Islam official after luring him outside the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh.

As Safir and al-Liwaa dailies said Saturday that Fadi Ghassan Ibrahim, known as Sikamo, was arrested at dawn the day before. They said the man is very close to Fatah al-Islam leader Abdel Rahman Awad who has been out of sight since October 2008.

Both newspapers described Ibrahim as a “hefty catch.”

So much to love here. “Luring him out” – all I can think of are the lost-in-the-backwoods remedies for tapeworm. or, less graphically, my father’s many failed (but entertaining) attempts to get the family dog, Used Diamond, to go for his prescribed morning walk on days that UD considers less than temperate.

As for calling the lured-out Ibrahim a catch … “hefty”? I’d like to know the Arabic word for this. And also, just FYI, some catches aren’t hefty: they’re just big-boned.

But these bits, delightful morning teatime reading though they were, are not what caught my attention. What I would – sincerely – like to know more about is this:

… Ibrahim, who is a Palestinian and was given the Lebanese citizenship in 1994, is also linked to the blast that targeted the patrol of the Irish contingent in Rmaileh, north of Sidon on January 8, 2008 …

My understanding is that the only Palestinians with Lebanese citizenship are the Christian families given it in the 1950s (1960s?) to help delay questions like “shouldn’t we take a new census since our numbers seem to have shifted?”. Why was this man given Lebanese citizenship? And: How? What’s the process – in general – for granting citizenship to a non-Lebanese male?


Posted in Arab world, Beirut, citizenship, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

maps and mortality.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 30, 2009

Excuse me, but there’s something wrong with your map, I was told the other day.

Well, first of all: it wasn’t my map. I was speaking about the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s with a group of students, and had “borrowed” the 1976 map accessible via the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry Castaneda online map collection – a tremendous resource for any map nerd.

This is the map I was using (and yes, I fully credited UT Austin):

middle_east_pol_1976Back to my corrector.

What do you see that looks wrong? I asked, thinking: he must have seen the “U.S.S.R.” and missed the whole “The Middle East in 1976” caption. Annoying, but at least an easier question to address than, for example, What’s that diamond-shaped “Neutral Zone” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia? which to be quite frank is a mystery to me as well.

But my questioner wasn’t vexed by the lingering presence of godless Communism. Nor was he troubled by small diamonds, neutral or otherwise.

This map shows two Yemens, my corrector said.

There were two Yemens, I said, but they have been united since 1990.

There were two Yemens? another student asked. Really? asked a third.

A roomful of eyes looked at me, shocked. And I looked back.

I should have been happy that at least they all knew of Yemen, and could find it on a map. Instead, I just felt that it was time to stock up on a more powerful anti-wrinkle cream.


Oscar Williamson, at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in with a much-appreciated explanation of the map’s little diamond:

The diamond was the Iraq – Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone. Historically the main political unit in the area was based on tribe, rather than territory. Since the tribes moved about, fixed borders were impractical. However, the British really liked maps and in 1922 insisted that Ibn Saud define his northern border. He didn’t want casual inter tribe conflict to be interpreted as acts of war, so the Neutral Zone was created, with enough cartographical significance to satisfy the British and the practical irrelevance to prevent the unnecessary formalities of interstate wars over tribal slights.

In 1981 Saudi and Iraq signed a treaty to divide the NZ between them, but the legality of this treaty is debatable. Treaties have to be lodged at a public depository, such as the United Nations Secretary General, but neither party did this, or indeed informed anyone of this change to their territories. The NZ officially ceased to exist when Saudi Arabia deposited this and other treaties with the UN in 1991, partly to stop CNN referring to bits of KSA as Iraq.

Fascinating. And who knew that we would have CNN to thank for clearing up a messy little border issue?

Posted in Arab world, maps, research, Texas, time, Yemen | 7 Comments »

hummus: where satire and reality blur

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 25, 2009

Have you ever heard about someone reading an article from the Onion and mistaking it for a genuine news article?

Today J sent me a genuine AP article whose headline made me wish the reverse were true:

Lebanese to Israel: Hands off our hummus!

Ah yes: another bizarre Lebanese food contest. Poor Zeina Karam, having to report on this.

BEIRUT — Lebanese chefs prepared a massive plate of hummus weighing over two tons Saturday that broke a world record organizers said was previously held by Israel — a bid to reaffirm proprietorship over the popular Middle Eastern dip.

“Come and fight for your bite, you know you’re right!” was the slogan for the event — part of a simmering war over regional cuisine between Lebanon and Israel, which have had tense political relations for decades.

[I agree that having Israelis and pseudo-Israelis try to correct my pronunciation of “hummus” as “KHumus” – say it with extra phlegm for full effect – is beyond irritating. But claiming a dish by cooking an obscene amount of it? And being PROUD of this? And creating an embarrassingly lame slogan – in English, no less? Good God.]

Lebanese businessmen accuse Israel of stealing a host of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, particularly hummus, and marketing them worldwide as Israeli.

“Lebanon is trying to win a battle against Israel by registering this new Guinness World Record and telling the whole world that hummus is a Lebanese product, its part of our traditions,” said Fady Jreissati, vice president of operations at International Fairs and Promotions group, the event’s organizer.

[Ah yes, the Guinness World Record: a world-renowned battleground.What, the UN Security Council wouldn’t hear their case?]

Hummus — made from mashed chickpeas, sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic — has been eaten in the Middle East for centuries. Its exact origin is unknown, though it’s generally seen as an Arab dish.

[Ooooooooooooh. An Arab dish. Zeina, did you warn your AP editors about the flow of Phoenician hate mail that’s about to start flooding them?]

But it is also immensely popular in Israel — served in everyday meals and at many restaurants — and its popularity is growing around the globe.

The issue of food copyright was raised last year by the head of Lebanon’s Association of Lebanese Industrialists, Fadi Abboud, when he announced plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli.

But to do that, Lebanon must formally register the product as Lebanese. The association is still in the process of collecting documents and proof supporting its claim for that purpose.

[I can’t wait until someone tries to register olives. We could witness a full-on Mediterranean war.]

Lebanese industrialists cite, as an example, the lawsuit over feta cheese in which a European Union court ruled in 2002 the cheese must be made with Greek sheep and goats milk to bear the name feta. That ruling is only valid for products sold in the EU.

Abboud says that process took seven years and realizes Lebanon’s fight with Israel is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, he says, events like Saturday’s serve to remind the world that hummus is not Israeli.

“If we don’t tell Israel that enough is enough, and we don’t remind the world that it’s not true that hummus is an Israeli traditional dish, they (Israelis) will keep on marketing it as their own,” he said Saturday.

[Someone needs to tell this man that in the United States, the hummus contest is not between Lebanon and Israel. Its not between Lebanon and anyone. Hummus here is sold by nationality as Greek or Israeli, and by region as Arab or Mediterranean. No Lebanon. No cedars. No national dish awareness whatsoever.]

Some 300 chefs were involved in preparing Saturday’s massive ceramic plate of hummus in a huge tent set up in downtown Beirut. The white-uniformed chefs used 2,976 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of mashed chickpeas, 106 gallons (400 liters) of lemon juice and 57 pounds (26 kilograms) of salt to make the dish, weighing 4,532 pounds (2,056 kilograms).

It was not clear what the former Israeli record was, and organizers gave conflicting reports on when it was made.

But chefs and visitors broke into cheers and applause when a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records presented Abboud with a certificate verifying Lebanon had broken the previous record. The plate was then decorated with the red, green and white Lebanese flag.

A similar attempt to set a new world record will be held Sunday for the largest serving of tabbouleh, a salad made of chopped parsley and tomatoes, that Lebanon also claims as its own.

*Sigh*. So much food in one short weekend. But again, a bit misguided. Before Lebanon can claim tabbouleh, it needs to take it back from all the U.S. cooks who think of it as a bulgur-based side dish.

Since I’m now in mourning at missing my chance to attend an all-you-can-eat tabbouleh fest, I’ll let my friend B have the last word. B found Al-Manar’s take on the hummus-a-thon, which described it as “mark[ing] a new victory on Israel” and noted that “organizers have hailed this event as “a patriotic event of national scale”.”

Finally, B noted, Mughniyeh is at peace.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, food, friends, Israel, Lebanon | 8 Comments »

Syria’s fashion police

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 24, 2009

I know: today was meant to be installment number two in Diamond’s Origins of Jihad series. But I can never resist a fashion update. This article, which focuses on Syrian traffic police and their new uniforms, comes from the UK’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Changing uniforms isn’t on the same level as changing policy. But clothing is more important than many people imagine – and breaking the connection between ‘police’ and ‘military’ that seems to plague so many Middle Eastern countries is an important step.

(And who doesn’t love seeing men in crisp white shirts?)

In an attempt to make some of Syria’s police look less like soldiers, the government has decided to change traffic policemen’s uniforms from military olive green to more civilian white and grey shades.

However, many critics of the authorities have dismissed the move as cosmetic, with some asserting that it comes amid growing state repression.

[I do think that the state is and has been cracking down – but that doesn’t mean that the decision to change these uniforms was meant to either make up for that or distract people from increasingly repressive measures in other spheres.]

The decision on the change of uniforms was implemented in Damascus in September, with the rest of the country due to follow later. It included also the uniforms of customs officers at Damascus international airport and on the borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

[Oh, the border officials. I’m not sure that uniforms are enough here, but surely anything that might improve their attitudes is worth a go.]

The new outfits are composed of grey pants, a white shirt with yellow shoulder patches and black belt and shoes.

[Vogue agrees: yellow is in this season! Good choice, Syria.]

It is the latest in a series of moves in recent years to shake off the image of Syria’s socialist, militarised society.

Four years ago, the authorities substituted military green school uniforms with other colours like grey, dark blue and off-white depending on the pupils’ grades.

Mandatory military service was reduced to one and a half years from two years in another move in the same direction.

[I would say that these are two very important changes. Children and adults both take cues from their uniforms, and primary school should not feel like basic training. And reducing the mandatory military service might be a way to start gently downsizing the overweight Syrian military. Might be, says the optimist, but even so.]

The government appears to be conveying an image that it is moving away from the militarisation of society, said a lawyer living in Damascus who also requested anonymity.

In schools, officials have toned down the practice of conditioning pupils not to be concerned with personal issues but to focus on broader regional topics like the liberation of Palestine and the struggle for Arab unity, which were slogans that students had to repeat every day, he said.

In a way, students are now treated less like soldiers and more like just students, he added.

An Arabic language schoolteacher from Damascus who also asked to remain anonymous said that since the new school uniforms took effect, students’ behaviour had improved, especially that of high school students. They had become “more polite”, he said.

[Hugely important – not the politeness, but the evolving attitudes toward students and what they should be learning.]

Similarly, the move to modify the uniforms of policemen and customs officers comes as part of a government plan to change the way people view civil servants.

Mona al-Ahmad, a journalist who works for a Syrian website and usually reports on social issues, said the decision was made by the new interior minister, Said Samour, in an effort to separate officials in charge of maintaining security from those tasked with serving the Syrian people.

The authorities have retrained officials in charge of traffic by instructing them on how to address citizens and deal with them in an appropriate way, she said.

[The idea of service – as in, civil service, civil servant, serving the nation, serving at the pleasure of the people, etc., etc. – would be GREAT. And once Syria gets it down, could they please send a delegation to Lebanon?]

Several websites hailed the decision. The pro-government website Damas Post said the new uniform “resembles that of French traffic police”.

[Oh for heaven’s sake.]

But many critics remain sceptical that changing the appearance of some police officers would solve core problems.

Some anonymous web commentators said that it was more important to stop traffic policemen from seeking and taking bribes.

Others said that the focus should not be on fashion but on the creation of a state where officials respect institutions and laws.

[Yes, but I would suggest that the two go hand in hand. Fashion that emphasizes service rather than state power might be a real help in this process.]

It is a far-fetched dream to expect Syria to become a really civilian-oriented country, said a Damascus-based civil rights activist, who preferred not to be named.

He argued that the tight security grip on political dissent along with the intimidation and imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists was increasing.

[Ouch. Clearly, the state is treating dissidents more harshly. But describing Syria’s capacity for change as a “far-fetched dream” sounds like this man has written off his fellow citizens entirely.]

Posted in Arab world, clothing, fashion, Syria | Leave a Comment »

the origins of jihad, New Yorker edition

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

I’m on a media kick these days – and totally addicted to online newspaper and magazine archives. One thing that interests me is the way that certain terms come into vogue, and how the meanings that attach to them change over time.

So today I took a peek at the New Yorker‘s archives, curious to see when the word “jihad” first appeared, and in what context.

The New Yorker‘s archives stretch back to 1925, but the first mention of the word “jihad” does not appear until 1985, in the July 8 edition of John Newhouse’s “Diplomatic Round”. Titled “A Freemasonry of Terrorism”, the multi-page article uses the word “jihad” four times – but only as part of the group name “Islamic Jihad”, and not as a religious concept or a political strategy.

Terms that today might be associated with jihad, such as “martyrdom”, are used, but there is nothing in this article about terrorists “advocating jihad” or “espousing jihad” or “belief in jihad”.

The next article to use the term is Jane Kramer’s April 14, 1986 “Letter from Europe”. Kramer also uses “jihad” only as part of “Islamic Jihad”. (After introducing the group, she refers to them as “the jihad” in a way that reminds me of how some journalists today talk about “the hizb”. I find this approach bizarre, but what do I know?) Nor does this start much of a trend: the word “jihad” does not appear again until a July 1990 piece on Egypt, where it is again used as the name of a group (“Jihad”).

However, by November 1995, the situation appeared to be changing. A piece by Mary Anne Weaver on “The Annals of Covert Action”, titled “The Stranger”, used the term as follows:

“… the C.I.A.-sponsored “jihad”, or holy war, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan …”.

In other words, “jihad” now appeared as a term of its own, but required a definitional gloss for readers.

By July 1998, the word had become detached not only from group names, but also from the need for definition: a feature on the failure Prince Charles’ campaign for traditional building styles described him as on “a jihad against modern architecture”.

I don’t have any sweeping conclusions to offer about this – I just find it interesting. Next up: “jihad” in the New York Times, where its use as noun and metaphor has a much longer history.

Posted in internet, media, research, words | Leave a Comment »

ones & zeros, waheds & sifrs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

A friend of mine works as a technology journalist, and she just gave a big thumbs up to the newly launched Windows 7. I’m happy that the new system seems to be such a hit, although I doubt that I will personally get to try it out anytime soon. I use a Mac at home, and my work PC snidely reminds me that I “do not have Administrator privileges!” every time I try to approve even the most innocuous update.

However, I’m not writing this post simply for the chance to whine about my dis-empowerment. I’m writing because I’m happy to report that Windows 7 is also launching in Arabic – not a year from now, not six months from now, not whenever the programmers remember that there are indeed people in the world who do not use Roman script, but in two weeks. (You can see the news on PC Mag‘s website, here.) Nor is this a last-minute line extension, either: I remember seeing news about the availability of a beta version last winter.

I think this reflects a very healthy evolution in computing culture. After all, computers think in 0s and 1s. They don’t care whether programs use script that reads left to right or right to left – but historically, programs have been biased towards the former, meaning that Arabic script often looks buggy.

Actually, Arabic still usually looks buggy on my Mac – not that I plan to go back to a home PC anytime soon. But for those of you who enjoy living in the PC world, you might check out Microsoft’s dedicated Arabic product and support site, here.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic | Leave a Comment »

window-shopping the want ads

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 21, 2009

Most days I love my current job – just like I love each and every pair of shoes in my closet. But just like with my beloved shoes, I’m always on the lookout for a new pair of heels – er, job – to love.

Hence I eagerly scroll through the job postings that AME Info sends my way. I’ve never seen a job that I would actually 1) qualify for and 2) be interested in, but I do love reading the descriptions.

The latest featured position – that of general manager of a Saudi Arabian radio station – caught my eye at once:

Our Client in KSA is urgently looking for a General Manager for their radio station. The general manager would be reporting directly to the CEO of the Media Group. Salary will not be a bar for the right candidate.

“Salary will not be a bar for the right candidate”? Since when did radio become such a lucrative field?

At least with that job, the applicant knows the industry. Here’s a more mysterious want ad:

Location : Kabul – Afghanistan
Salary:  $100,000 – $150,000 per year
Applicants should have over 15 years experience and be prepared to be based in Afghanistan. This is a challenging yet rewarding role for a senior candidate.

“Challenging yet rewarding” – I bet. Challenge number one: identifying just what you will be the CEO of.

Finally, I took a peek at all the jobs currently listed with a “Lebanon” location. There were three:

Finance Analyst – Dubai

Senior Business Planning Analyst – Dubai

Human Resources Manager – Lebanon.

Um. Just to recap: I chose the “narrow by location” option and selected “Lebanon”. Guess the sour economy hasn’t soured the Lebanese on the Emirati exodus.

Posted in advertising, Afghanistan, Arab world, Dubai, economics, Lebanon, radio | Leave a Comment »

Banking on Syria

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 20, 2009

No love stories today, I’m afraid – but I do have a fairly interesting article on money to share (and we all know how closely connected love and money can be. Oxford Business Group’s latest report on Syria focuses on its banking sector, which has been slowly but steadily liberalizing, and which still has great potential for continued expansion.

I remember when the first banks began to appear in Damascus – the first banks other than the various branches of the Syrian commercial bank, I mean. And I remember when the first ATMs appeared – or at least, the first ATMs that would accept a foreign bank card. They reminded me of my attempts to use the local ATMs when living in Morocco in the late 1990s. I would stop by the ATM every day – not because I was so desperate for cash, but because the ATMs response to my US bank card varied so dramatically. One day I would be able to take out 400 dirhams; on another, I would be able to take out 10. And on a third, the ATM would reject foreign cards altogether.

The Syrian ATMs weren’t quite that erratic – with them it was all or nothing: either I could take out money, or I couldn’t. And when I couldn’t take out money, it was often because the ATM had run out of money. This was often heralded by a literal snowfall of white papers on the ground around the ATM: evidently, the restocking took place fairly infrequently, and would-be customers had no interest in taking the paper receipts that the cashless machine faithfully printed out. Lots of litter, not so much cash.

At any rate, I think that a liberalized banking sector is a benefit to Syria, although the tightened Syrianization law and the banks’ excess liquidity to me are signs of its fragility. It will be interesting to see how banks develop in the next few years.

Less than a decade into Syria’s financial liberalisation efforts, banking is proving to be one of Syria’s fastest-growing sectors and an increasingly important pillar in the overall transformation of the economy.

Since the government began issuing licences in 2001, 11 private conventional and three private Islamic banks have set up in the country, with another two planning their initial public offerings (IPOs) and expected to be operational by year-end. Current legislation limits foreign ownership to 49%, and all of the private banks established to date are subsidiaries of either Lebanese, Jordanian or Gulf-backed institutions. While private banks account for just under 20% of the market, they are experiencing impressive growth (86.2% in 2008), and most have been able to turn a profit within their first two years of operation.

While the sector has liberalised dramatically in a relatively short period of time, and boasts some of the most advanced legislative frameworks for Islamic banking, microfinance and anti-money laundering in the region, it remains tightly regulated in comparison to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon. Although this strict oversight has been credited with helping to insulate the country from the volatility that has plagued other markets. Further reform is needed to strengthen the sector’s maturation and performance.

A decree issued by the Ministry of Labour in July, stating that financial service firms (including banks and insurance companies) must reduce their volume of expatriate staff from 10 to 3%, has also prompted some reflection by local institutions, given that foreigners often hold key management and technical positions.

Khalid Wazani, the chairman of Arab Bank – Syria, told OBG “Our bank, even prior to the announcement, has been working hard on training in order to lower our dependency on foreign staff. In every country we operate, we would like to employ as many nationals as possible. Even so, staffing decisions should not be based on meeting percentages, but about having the right mix of required experience and expertise. Even in Amman, where we have our head office and have operated for over 79 years, we have to hire expats to fulfil certain technical areas of expertise.”

The impressive growth of private banks has been generated largely by deposits, rather than lending, resulting in excess liquidity in the market. World Bank’s “Doing Business 2010” report ranks Syria as 181st of out 183 countries in terms of access to credit, and according to the IMF, credit to the private sector has stood at around 15% of GDP since 2005, versus figures of 75% for Lebanon and around 100% for Jordan.

This can partly be attributed to the fact that the more established state banks are better positioned to service government clients, forcing private banks’ to rely on smaller business borrowers for whom financial records are harder to come by. Strict regulations and a lack of financial infrastructure also inhibit the expansion of credit, as an absence of a treasury-bill market or certificate of deposit system means that money deposited at the Central Bank accrues no interest.

The government, on their part, is proactively working to accelerate financial reforms, with Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, telling OBG, “We realise that access to funding is a major issue and the central bank is undertaking a number of measures to ease banks’ willingness to lend.”

Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the Central Bank, echoed this sentiment in an interview with OBG, “We want private banks to start financing big projects, whether public or private, and will introduce a certificate of deposit guarantee that should encourage them to do so.”

The government is also working on introducing treasury bills by year-end, as well as a new mortgage and leasing law that is expected to make easier the foreclosure and recovery of assets for non-performing loans. “We are also setting up a mortgage finance corporation to supervise mortgage lending as this is an area that needs more support,” said Dardari.

A positive offshoot of the increased returns on deposits will be a greater willingness to spend internally, with the expansion of bank branch networks a major focus. As banks are already constrained by qualified staffing shortages and complicated zoning laws that make finding a suitable location difficult, investing in new branches is a challenge. Bassel Hamwi, the deputy chairman and general manager for Bank Audi, told OBG, “Without the issuing of treasury bills, we as banks cannot invest and make money on our deposits. And if a bank cannot make money on its deposits, why should they bother aggressively expanding their branch network?”

As of June 2009 there were 414 branches in the country, up from 374 at the end of 2008. While branch penetration is growing, at an estimated one branch per 47,700 people, Syria has far fewer branches per head than its regional neighbours; a figure that is compounded when considering that most branches are concentrated in the major urban centres.

The Central Bank is preparing a new requirement for private banks to increase their paid-up capital to $200m-$300m, up from a current minimum of $30m. While banks will have a three-year window of preparation, some have expressed concern that this measure would place even further pressures on shareholders. Governor Mayaleh, however, explained the move to OBG, stating that, “We are raising minimum capital requirements to encourage bigger banks to operate in the market. We want our banks to be of international size and standards. Bigger banks sustain the economy.”

Overall, while the past 10 years have seen major advances in banking services and infrastructure, the country is still considered under-banked, and there remains much to do before achieving full sector modernisation. Add to this some uncertainty from the banking community over the future direction of government reforms, and banking presents itself as one of the more challenging, if opportunistic, areas of the Syrian market.

Posted in Damascus, economics, Syria | Leave a Comment »

Sunni Love, take two

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 19, 2009

I bet that you thought that “Sunni Love, take one” was going to be about Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s parents, didn’t you? I did too, to be honest. But the failed romance between Sultan and Alia was a pretty good story on its own. And happily Time paid the same media attention to the next Saud-Solh love story: that between “brawny, globetrotting” Talal and the “sparkling” Mlle. Mona.

I’m still not sure where Tola is, but I do love the $8 dowry. Happy Monday-morning reading!

SAUDI ARABIA: Trinkets from Tola!

For years, as he watched his 40-odd sons (the exact number has never been reliably checked) grow to strapping manhood, Saudi Arabia’s wily and sentimental old King Ibn Saud cherished a wish—to unite one of them with a daughter of his old friend and champion, Premier Riad El Solh of Lebanon. After El Solh fell before an assassin’s gun (in 1951), Ibn Saud sent his boy Prince Sultan, 29, to offer sympathy and a small token of affection ($79,000 in cash) to the Lebanese Premier’s widow.

During the course of these amenities, a romance flowered between young Sultan and dark-eyed Alia El Solh, eldest of El Solh’s daughters. But disillusionment set in. Alia, a Western-educated 22-year-old, learned to her chagrin that Sultan already had at least one other wife, two sons and four daughters. Sultan hired a private eye and discovered that his bride-to-be was a feminist agitator with a firm determination not to hide herself behind a veil and live in a harem. One month after old Ibn Saud went to his grave, the marriage plans were canceled (TIME, Dec. 21).

Last July, for the observance of the third anniversary of El Solh’s murder, another Ibn Saud heir, brawny, globetrotting Talal, son No. 18, journeyed to Lebanon to pay his respects to the bereaved. His piercing eye soon singled out Mona, the dead Premier’s sparkling 18-year-old third daughter. After one quick glimpse. Talal invited himself to dinner on the following day. A day later, he proposed marriage. Mme. El Solh said it was up to Mona, and Mona cast down her eyes and murmured yes. Last week, after agreeing to pay a modest dowry of 25 Lebanese pounds ($8), Prince Talal signed his name in the marriage register alongside that of Mona El Solh.

Oil-rich Talal provided his bride with a few trinkets as well. Items: a necklace containing 263 diamonds and an emerald; an engagement ring with a marquise diamond approximately an inch long, half an inch wide; a gold mesh bracelet, a diamond-studded necklace, and a hunting-case wristwatch adorned with seven large diamonds and several smaller ones. More important, Talal bought himself a 20-room mansion on the mountain road to Damascus, which suggested that Mona would not be cooped up all year round in a Saudi Arabian harem.

And there was one other matter. “I don’t like to make conditions, and I made none. But I’m sure he won’t marry any other girls,” Mona said confidently.

Posted in Arab world, Lebanon, romance, Saudi Arabia | 3 Comments »

Sunni Love, take one

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 18, 2009

I should be calling this post “Lives of the Rich and Famous: 1953” – but “Sunni Love” was too much fun. While poking around in Time‘s online archives, I found this December 1953 gem about the non-marriage between a son of Ibn Saud and a daughter of Riad al Solh. Its a bit overwrought in parts (“with dark eyes that pierced like a Bedouin’s”, not to mention “he paled and muttered to himself” – seriously?), and a bit stereotyped in its views of Muslim Arab women (after all, the piece is titled SAUDI ARABIA: Western Woman) but its a good story, and Mlle. al Solh certainly sounds like someone I would have wanted to be friends with. Enjoy!

The bullet that killed Lebanon’s first and greatest Premier, brilliant, little Riad el Solh (TIME, July 30, 1951), distressed the generous heart of old Ibn Saud, autocrat of Saudi Arabia. The old lion of the desert could always count on an ally when El Solh was representing Lebanon. Ibn Saud wept and vowed to look after his old friend’s widow and four daughters. Tragically in the patriarchal Arab world, El Solh died without leaving a son.

So in the summer of 1953, when 29-year-old Sultan Al-Saud arrived in Lebanon, he bore his father’s sympathy to the bereaved family and an offer of $79,000 to the widow so that she might finance the mansion her husband had begun. Then Emir Sultan’s eye lighted upon 22-year-old Alia Solh. She was slender and bright, with dark eyes that pierced like a Bedouin’s when she was talking and crinkled when she smiled. She was also the big girl on campus at the American University of Beirut, where she studied political science and practiced it by leading demonstrations for women’s rights, daring hapless cops to shoot her down.

The Spark. Though Sultan was Ibn Saud’s 16th son, he was one of his favorites. Unlike some of the other 43 sons, he was able and hard working. As mayor of the capital city of Riyadh, he had done a first-rate job, and in negotiations with Aramco he had amazed the American oilmen with his quick mind. Matchmakers suggested that Alia and Sultan would make a good couple; Ibn Saud and El Solh’s widow agreed. Sultan heeded his father and in traditional Arabic style delicately indicated his wish to Mme. Solh through go-betweens. Unaware of all this, Alia went off to England, then to Paris for a holiday. Quite by chance, Sultan appeared in Paris, too, and inquired around about his bride-to-be. What he heard alarmed him. He hired detectives, who reported that Alia was indeed no strict Moslem maiden but was gadding about the Left Bank with a young crowd, behaving herself like a thoroughly emancipated, Western-style 22-year-old.

The Flame. When Alia returned to Beirut this fall and learned of the marriage negotiations, she laid down conditions. She would marry Sultan if he would join the foreign service and live in Washington, Paris, London, Beirut or any other civilized place. She would not live in Saudi Arabia, where women stay in seclusion. She would never wear a veil. Sultan must marry no other woman and must agree to live his entire life with her. Sultan must put a large sum in escrow just in case he should decide to leave her.

When Sultan heard these terms, he paled and muttered to himself. Added to what he had learned about Alia in Paris, this was too much. Though he wished to honor his dying father’s dynastic wish, he wanted a traditional Moslem wife, not a Western woman. Meanwhile, in Beirut, Alia did some fast research on her own and discovered that Sultan already had at least one wife, as well as two sons and four daughters.

Last week it was all over. The matchmakers bowed out. Alia was back in her political science classes at the American University of Beirut. Sultan tended to his job of governing Riyadh and seemed a good bet to become Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Agriculture. Both heaved great sighs of relief. Their families were disappointed, but also aware that times have changed in the Middle East.

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