A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for December, 2009

Arabian nights, Christmas-style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 27, 2009

Santa stockings are a great source of fun for our family. Stocking stuffers run the gamut from nail files and travel earplugs to magazines and golf balls. And they include goofier thinking-of-you items as well. This year, my stocking included this bag of candy:
An “Arabian Nights” candy mix? Total, total mystery. All I see on the corporate website is that this is a “classic Christmas candy”. Perhaps it has something to do with the Nutcracker?

I have no idea, but I laughed with delight when I found this bag in my stocking. The more Arabian nights, the better!

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, food, holidays | 2 Comments »

blogs and bedouin

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to those of you who are celebrating today! And to those of you who blog, a less merry bit of news from Kuwait: a proposal to increase the government’s power to monitor blogs produced in Kuwait.

The news comes from a Zawya piece published on the 23rd, and it is a bit third-hand. The Zawya story was taken from Bahrain’s Gulf News, which in turn took its information from a local news site. The blog law proposal is interesting, particularly for its rationale: that what is being written on blogs is more dangerous than what is printed in newspapers and broadcast on television.

The proposal and its rationale are interesting, but so is the sudden segue to Kuwait’s ongoing internal conflict between its bedu and urban (well, the word is “hadari”, but its generally translated here as “urban”) populations.

I have more to say on this, but my mother is having an iPhone crisis, and I think the entire family may need to get involved. Happy reading!

Kuwait’s information minister has urged the parliament to endorse a proposal to monitor blogs, citing social and stability threats.

“Electronic blogs post matters that are now threatening national cohesion and that are much more dangerous than what is being published in newspapers and broadcast on satellite channels. We are therefore working on a draft law to monitor blogs and we urge the parliament to approve it,” Shaikh Ahmad Al Abdullah Al Sabah told Kuwait’s MPs yesterday, Alaan news portal reported.

The minister’s plea came as the country’s social fabric has come under heavy strain following the broadcasting by Al Sour on Saturday of a controversial programme that claimed that tribesmen were not genuine Kuwaitis and that many of them broke the law by holding dual citizenship.

Bedouins make up half of the native population and have 25 MPs in the 50-member parliament.

The programme charged that the only “true and genuine” Kuwaitis were the descendents of those who lived inside the walls surrounding Kuwait City in the 19th century and that the others were not Kuwaitis.

Thousands of Bedouins reacted angrily and staged a rally during which several lawmakers and activists called upon the government to take stringent action against Al Sour and Scoop TV stations for broadcasting the programme and Mohammad Al Juwaihel, the owner of Al Sour …

Posted in blogging, Kuwait | Leave a Comment »

Levantine literature: translated by the enemy.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve to those of you who are celebrating, and for those of you commemorating Ashoura, I hope that it is an opportunity for reflection for you. (And I hope that you are as pleased as I am that Muharram was included in my employer’s “Season’s Greetings” email.)

At the start of the month, I read a very interesting article in Ha’aretz, which I had intended to post immediately. “Immediately” turned into several weeks, but am pasting it in below. The article announces a planned law that would allow Arabic-language works – originals and translations – produced in the confrontation states to be sold in Israel.

Those of you who, like me, are obsessed with the Mandate era, will be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to learn that the current law is a gift of the British. And those of you who, also like me, enjoy following the twists and turns of the cozily hostile Israel-Syria relationship, will be delighted to learn that the Arabic-language translations of well-known Israeli writers like Amos Oz are produced in Syria.

Happy reading!

Books translated in “hostile countries” will soon be allowed to be sold in Israel, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided yesterday to support a bill overturning a World War II-era law aimed at blocking information from enemy states.

This will allow the Arabic translations of best-selling children’s books like “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as Arabic versions of prominent Israeli authors, to be sold here.

Until now, Arabic translations of popular children’s books and works by authors like Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Eshkol Nevo were not available in Israel, because they were printed in hostile countries like Syria and Lebanon. This was because a 1939 British-Mandate era law prohibited literature from being imported from enemy states.

Given the relatively low readership of Arabic-language books in Israel, and the resulting low returns on translations, almost none have been produced in Israel.

The present bill, initiated by MKs Yuli Tamir, Yariv Levin and Zeev Bielski, aims to make literature in Arabic more readily available.

Tamir (Labor) said yesterday, “This would be an important law, one that ensures the freedom of literature and culture of all citizens. Every citizen is entitled to read literature in his mother tongue. This law would end the absence of children’s books and belles-lettres for Arabic readers.”

The bill calls for freedom to “import books from any country, and allow translations into any language, in order to ensure exposure to a wide array of literature and to expand citizens’ rights to rich cultural lives in their native tongues.”

The proposal allows security authorities to reject the importation of a certain book or journal for content that could be used for incitement, such as literature denying the Holocaust or encouraging terrorism.

In January, the human rights organization Adalah petitioned the High Court to allow Kol-Bo Sefarim – Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic-language textbooks – to import books from Egypt and Jordan that were published in Syria and Lebanon.

The book supplier has imported books from Egypt for three decades, and since 1993, it has imported books from Jordan as well. Most of the books were printed in Syria or Lebanon, but the company had received permission from the chief military censor to import them.

In August of last year, however, Kol-Bo received a letter from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stating its permit to import books from enemy countries would not be renewed. The letter said such books could not even be imported through countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, due to the World War II-era law.

Adalah’s petition noted that 80 percent of books intended for Israel’s Arab community, and most Arabic books destined for college and university libraries in Israel, are printed in Syria and Lebanon, where several large publishing houses hold exclusive rights to translate major Western literary works into Arabic.

Lebanese printing houses hold exclusive rights to translate “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as works released by Britain’s Ladybird Books, which publishes a variety of popular children’s books. The Lebanese printing houses also hold exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of classic works by William Shakespeare and Moliere, and modern works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.

A handful of Syrian printing houses have exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of Hebrew works by Oz, Kaniuk and Nevo.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Damascus, Israel | 1 Comment »

minding the social gap in Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 21, 2009

Hello from not-very-good-at-keeping-up-with-blogging land. I interrupt this general blogging hiatus to share a very interesting article on Damascus’ high-end consumer culture. Those of you who have spent time in Damascus will be as amazed as I am (last trip there: summer 2006) at the long list of brand-name shops and cafes. I’m not a great fan of Lina’s, which I associate with the rather sad ending to a very sweet relationship; and nor am I a great fan of Aishti, which I associate with over-priced, under-curated designer glitz. But that these places are now part of the Chami landscape is nothing short of amazing.

Well, nothing short of amazing, but still less amazing than the idea that Chaalan could be described as an “exclusive” neighborhood. Still, that’s one flat note in an otherwise quite intriguing read. Enjoy!

Syria’s youth flaunt new wealth
By an IWPR-trained reporter

Under the arcade of the fancy Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Anas Mashafej gazes at the windows of Aishti, an up-market clothing shop that sells designer brands such as Armani and Roberto Cavalli.

A bright – and expensive – shirt attracts the attention of the 22-year-old college student. After some hesitation, he decides to buy it and postpone buying other items he needs.

“The general atmosphere at college encourages wearing well-known brands,” he said. “Most students brag about their designer acquisitions.”

Close to Aishti, in the exclusive Damascus neighborhood of Chaalan, the streets throng with Western-style cafes and restaurants, like Segafredo and Costa, stylish shops and private banks.

The development of such areas, which are frequented by a small emerging class of well-off Syrians, epitomizes the economic transformation of Syria in recent years.

In 2005, Syrian officials proclaimed that the country was moving towards a more market-oriented economy by encouraging competition and that the Syrian market was opening to foreign goods and services.

This change gave rise to a class of Syrian youth, mainly the children of rich businessmen and officials, who increasingly adopt Western lifestyles.

Azzam Jamil, 26, helps his father at his printing company. He is part of the new wave of Syrian youth who drink filtered coffee at trendy cafes while checking their e-mail on laptops or making travel plans with their friends.

Jamil, who wears torn jeans and a T-shirt with an image of a skull on it and has dyed blond hair, said, “I don’t feel awkward dressing this way. All my friends dress the same … This is how I express myself.”

Kids like Jamil attend private universities and spend their free time in the new malls of Damascus, using restaurants like KFC and Hardee’s as well as an array of amusement centers, modern cinema theatres, and parking lots where they can show off their expensive cars.

Most of the posh spots are in Kafarsousa, where real estate agents say that homes can cost up to US$2 million. Other hot spots reflecting the craze for modern lifestyles include spas, tennis courts, gymnasiums and nightclubs.

Recently, a group of young rich Syrians started a club to play American football, considered an exclusive sport in Syria.

Damascus has also witnessed in the past few years the opening of large supermarkets that sell expensive foreign goods and exotic fruits.

Observers note that in parallel to the new islands of wealth, the liberalization of the economy has brought with it a starker contrast between the standards of living of the rich and the poor, in a country that once prided itself on having social equality and a solid welfare system.

In contrast to the new luxurious suburbs, there are more slums around the city, said Ahmad Nokrosh, a Damascus-based economic expert.

“Liberalization of the economy has impinged on the social reality in the country,” he said, adding that basic services provided by the state, such as education, transport and health, are getting worse at the expense of a flourishing private sector that caters to the moneyed classes.

He said that even hospitals now have advanced sections reserved for wealthier patients.

Zaher Mansour, a 24-year-old law student who makes his living working as a waiter in the trendy Lina’s cafe, said that the preoccupations of rich young Syrians were very different from those of the rest of Syrian youth.

“This place feels like Europe, as if you are somewhere in London or Rome,” said Mansour, who comes from a modest background, adding that the price of a cup of coffee is almost equivalent to what he earns in a day.

Wealthy youngsters speak about the latest fashion in clothes or new mobile-phone models while the likes of him worry about inflation, the increasing price of diesel, or building an additional room onto the house to accommodate a brother who is getting married, he says.

Posted in Damascus | Leave a Comment »