A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Everything gets better with olive oil

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 8, 2009

Its been one of those weekends: I brought work home, a semi-common occurrence, and have been dancing more or less efficiently between that and the usual thrilling mix of laundry, grocery-shopping, and other errands.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, I desperately needed to get away from the computer and to do something active. Well, semi-desperately: I didn’t find myself rushing off scrub the floor, for example, but I did find myself pulling out the bottle of “Copper Brite” that the Iowa Santa had put in my Christmas stocking.

I’ve mentioned my bargain brass table before, as well as my various efforts to restore it to shiny glory. I’ve polished it with polish and lemons, and it has gotten better looking with every bit of elbow grease. But it was more than time for another go with sweat and chemicals.

Here is the table half-way through the scrubbing process:

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It looks like the table version of a “before and after” laundry soap ad, doesn’t it?

When I finished, I thought back to my aunt’s description of what women she has known do with their polished brass: rub it with olive oil.

Ordinarily, I would have googled “olive oil” and “brass” in advance, but this was a somewhat on-the-fly decision, and I hesitated to open my laptop with traces of Copper Brite on my fingers.

Feeling somewhat foolish, I washed my hands, grabbed my bottle of olive oil and a set of fresh paper towels, and began rubbing a thin coat on my table.

To be honest, it felt like a more metallic version of rubbing oil on the Thanksgiving turkey, which made me feel even sillier. But the table looks great, and I understand from my post-oiling google that the oil will help keep it from tarnishing again.

Brass: one more item made better with olive oil 🙂 .

Posted in Arab world, art, Brooklyn, home, time, women | 2 Comments »

Beirut: banding together

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 10, 2009

One of the many events currently taking place in New York’s busy cultural scene is a music festival called “Sounds Like Brooklyn“, which features musicians from – yes, you guessed it – Brooklyn. And the headliner band, which played a concert this past weekend, is called Beirut.

The first time I heard of this band was – appropriately enough – in Beirut, during drinks at Bardo. An incredibly lush piece came over the sound system (a nice break from the usual music played there) and B, whose blushing description of meeting his girlfriend’s parents belied my friend A’s description of him as “a total rogue”, smiled and said, That’s Beirut.

The song was “Scenic World”, and the lyrics are actually quite depressing – but the music is stunning. (You can listen to it here.) Does it sound Lebanese? Not at all – and that’s the rub.

Beirut-the-band has no connection to Beirut-the-city. No Lebanese musicians, no Lebanese musical influences, although the group does claim a strong interest in Balkan harmonies. I wish there were a deeper connection – as do the numerous journalists who have asked Zach Condon, the band’s founder, to explain its name. Perhaps its the fault of youth: Condon was only 18 or 20 when he chose the name, and (thanks perhaps to beer pong?) he seems to have thought nothing more than: “sounds cool”.

Of all the articles I found that addressed the group’s name, this one – a feature in the August 6, 2006 issue of New York Magazine – made me the saddest. I know where I was on August 6, 2006, and I know how I felt about “the Beirut situation”.

Here’s what Condon had to say:

Condon’s band has grown to ten members—just in time, it would seem, to defend its name. “You know, it’s ironic,” he says, addressing the “Beirut situation” before a rehearsal in his Bushwick loft. (Spackle covers everything, including the pots and pans. He and his roommates are trying to build individual bungalows, maybe buy a pool table.) “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.”

I still like “Scenic World”, but I’ll wait to hear Beirut play live until they do a bit more research into their city.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, art, beer, Beirut, Brooklyn, Israel, media, music, news, words | Leave a Comment »

acts of interpretation: Marlboros on Main Street

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 29, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scrub-a-dub Saturday and Sunday

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 12, 2009

Sniff, sniff, my nose went this weekend as I toweled off after my shower. I’ve changed soaps, and now I smell like a hammam – in a good way.

When I was home in Iowa over Christmas, I found a few blocks of soap that I had purchased in Damascus a few years ago. “Aged” soap might not sound as appealing as “aged” wine or cheese, but I don’t think it goes stale. (Any soap experts out there?)

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As you can see, the soap was made in Aleppo, and while it has no laurel, it does leave a lovely scent of olive oil on my skin. I’ve been missing the Levant recently, and my new-old soap has made me feel both closer to and further from the region.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Brooklyn, Damascus, home, laundry, vanity, women | 4 Comments »

preparing for the storm

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 22, 2008

My neighborhood is always quiet early in the morning, but the hush was different on Saturday. It was a snow hush – the quiet that comes from the presence of a soft white coverlet, draped over everything from tree branches to car hoods.

My office closed early on Friday afternoon, along with a number of others. It wasn’t the absolute volume of snow – we had three inches, at most. But three inches in a city that relies heavily on public transportation and that rarely gets any snowfall was more like seven or eight inches in Iowa. I was glad that we were sent home – I took a book in case the trains to Brooklyn were slow (or stuck), but it was a relief to be able to be cozily ensconced in my apartment by 5:00, rather than after the dark and cold had truly settled in.

This is how my street looked, early Saturday morning:

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Its been a big weather week for the entire continental United States – or, in honor of Abu Owlfish, perhaps I should describe it as a Weather week. From Seattle to New York, the country seems covered in snow, ice, and freezing temperatures.

My parents lost power last week – briefly, they said, but still a rare occurrence.

I realized that I have no idea where our flashlights are, my mother said to me after recounting how my father had turned on both (electric) fireplaces. And even if I did, I doubt they have fresh batteries.

Part of the problem, I think, is that American houses (like most modern homes) are designed with the expectation of a steady and relatively inexpensive flow of electric current that not only lights but also heats and cools. I wouldn’t know where to find flashlights at my parents’ house either – and I doubt that the two electric fireplaces would be able to provide much heat.

But I am prepared for power emergencies – after living in Lebanon, I know almost instinctively what to do when the power goes out.

I know where my flashlight is – stuck to the hood of the stove (its magnetic) for easy access. I know where my candles are, as well as my matches and two back-up lighters. And I know that I can keep myself warm by bringing a chair into the kitchen and turning on the stove. (Actually, this I learned years ago from friends with a semi-legal sublet in Chinatown – but it came in handy in Beirut.)

Its good to be prepared for emergencies – but it was better to be home on Friday with the power on, so I could wake to a warm apartment, a hot cup of tea, and a fast Internet connection on Saturday.

Posted in Beirut, Brooklyn, home, Iowa, Lebanon, weather | 3 Comments »

Syrian delight: discount shopping in the boroughs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 16, 2008

This morning at the gym I decided to recover from the latest Business Week (basic message: yes, the economy is bad; and yes, it will get worse :S) by ending my workout with something lighter: a fashion magazine.

Appropriately enough, the magazine had a small feature on bargain/resale shops in Brooklyn, including one in Gravesend. I’ve never been to Gravesend – actually, I’m not sure I could find it on a map –  but apparently it is a “wealthy Syrian-expat enclave”. And that means bargains that are both high-end and well-tended:

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“What you won’t find at this high-end consignment store is a single frayed hem, stained sleeve, or scuffed heel” – I’m not surprised. Even if this were a middle-end store, or even a low-end, I doubt you’d see frays, stains, or scuffs – not to mention scratches, fades, or even wrinkles. Lebanese may have the region’s reputation for stylishness, but Syrians, rich or poor, are the most impeccably groomed people I have ever encountered.

Bring on the January sales – I’m looking forward to my first trip to Gravesend 🙂 .

Posted in Brooklyn, clothing, Damascus, fashion, Syria, vanity, women | 3 Comments »

the power of curry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 5, 2008

Last night I had dinner with my friend R. It was one of those cold, wet nights that I think of as an early winter specialty in New York – and we had decided to combat the chill with Thai. We went to Lemongrass Grill, a local chain, and happily began poring over a long menu of flavor-filled items, each more tempting than the next.

But one in particular stood out: the massaman curry dish, which Lemongrass’ menu described as “Muslim influence curry”:

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Hmm, I said. I think it means “influenced”, as in “a curry influenced by Muslims”, not as in “this curry will influence you in Muslim ways”.

I’m ordering it, said R, who has an adventurous spirit.

Both of our dishes were delicious, and neither of us seemed particularly altered by them – happily for me, as mine featured both peanuts and spinach, neither of which I particularly wish to resemble.

But I am curious about the name. I have seen this dish in other Thai restaurants, spelled mussaman and massalman. This latter to me looks a lot like the French term for Muslim: musulman/e, so perhaps many people over the centuries have  misheard “Muslim” or “Muslimeen” (the plural) as “Musalm” or “Musalmin”.

I looked online and found that while most food writers agree that this is “Muslim curry”, there seems to be no definitive view on how it received its name.

Here is the general consensus, from the foodies’ view:

Food blog Taste Buddies states that the dish is from southern Thailand and “was born from the Arab spice merchants who settled in the region a thousand years ago.”

The Curry Focus Blog agrees, noting that 60% of the population in southern Thailand is Muslim. It describes the curry as more sweet than spicy, and notes that that: “Spices were introduced to southern Thailand by early Portuguese traders who brought spices (such as turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, cloves and nutmeg) from the Middle East and India.” It suggests that the curry does well with pork, which to me seems to take away from the “Muslim” influence, but perhaps its a sign of how popular the curry is beyond its original makers.

A few sites suggest that the dish was traditionally made with beef. EnjoyThaiFood and others who suggest using chicken note that this is a departure from the traditional dish, since “Thai Muslims of course usually eat this dish with beef.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? I don’t think of Muslims as avoiding chicken (or poultry generally) – is this more of a Thai Muslim culinary tradition, or is it something I simply do not know?

In any case, what I do know is that we were both delighted to find ourselves warm and cozy on a chilly night, catching up and filling up on sweetly spicy food.

Posted in animals, Arab world, Brooklyn, food, Islam, neighbors, religion, research, weather, women | 1 Comment »

Levantine treasures, part two

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 31, 2008

In August I wrote about a brass tray that I had picked up from our neighborhood junk shop – an act that pleased the owner even more than it pleased me – which equals a great deal of pleasure, since the tray in question was $20.

But it was also pretty tarnished, and (although I didn’t know this at the time), H thought that $20 was more than it was worth. Little did he know that thanks to the khala and Grandma Gigi, I have plenty of experience in polishing metal 🙂 .

I purchased a container of brass polish shortly after acquiring the tray, but never got around to polishing it.

Last Sunday, I decided that it was finally time to put some elbow grease into my bargain treasure. So I got out a few clean rags, a pair of rubber gloves, and some don’t-mind-if-they-get-stained clothing, laid the tray down on our living room floor, and got to work.

H, who was working at the the table on the other side of the room, turned from what he was doing to watch me.

I love seeing you working away like this, he said fondly. I smiled.

I think I’ll leave you now, he said a minute later, as the overwhelming chemical odor of brass polish meeting tarnish wafted its way across the room. Frowning as he quickly gathered up his things and made his escape to the far end of the apartment, he asked: what exactly is in that stuff?

I have no idea. But I do know that it works. Here is my beautiful brass tray, post-polishing:

It needs one final polish to really shine – but doesn’t it look bright and shiny already? Its cold here in New York – perfect time for a reminder of the bright golden sunshine of the Levant :).

Posted in Arab world, art, Brooklyn, home, Iowa, time, women | 3 Comments »

New York through Lebanese eyes

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 24, 2008

Yesterday we met for lunch: H, I, and L, who is in from Beirut for a working vacation. (That’s “I” as in “me”, not as in some mysterious friend whose name begins with I.)

We were all delighted to see one another, of course – but H was particularly delighted. This has been the Week of Lebanese Visitors for him: his brother was in town last weekend; his friend W is here for work until Saturday; and L is visiting. And for him, Lebanese visitors mean Lebanese analogies.

What do I mean by this? Let me explain.

Example One:

We love our apartment, but the landlords are almost Yankee in their reluctance to turn up the heat more than is absolutely necessary. In other words: our apartment can be brrrrrrrrrr chilly at times, especially for men used to more Mediterranean climes. (I don’t like the cold either, but I’m used to it: my mother Big Diamond grew up in Alaska, and she sets the thermostat accordingly.)

Do you know what its like? H asked L eagerly while we were waiting for our food to arrive. Its like you’ve rented a chalet in Faraya, and when you get there you find that the owner has [insert graphic and physically unlikely verb here] you by not buying any mazout for the chauffage.

Hahahahaha, said L, who understood H’s analogy immediately. Apparently when this happens, the owner often simply insists that the chauffage (the heater) is broken – when really he (or she, but more often he) is just cheap.

Example Two:

One of L’s friends has recently moved to Brooklyn, so we were discussing how the borough has become a real mixture of upscale, gentrifying areas; older, ethnic enclaves; and poorer “urban” areas.

Jay Street/Borough Hall was ranked one of the worst three subway stations in New York, H said, trying to explain that proximity to Manhattan does not necessarily make for a wealthier area. L looked at him politely – ranking subway stations is a pasttime better appreciated by New Yorkers.

So H tried again.

You know what its like? he asked. Its like Basta.Or like downtown after the war, when everything was still torn up. Instead of subway tiles on the walls, this station just has the grout where tiles used to be.

Ah okay, said L, smiling. After all, who in Beirut doesn’t know Basta?

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, friends, Lebanon, words | 1 Comment »

books I’ve been reading …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 2, 2008

My new position leaves me with free time on weekends (a luxury I haven’t enjoyed for years), as well as roughly 20 minutes of commuting time every morning and evening. I’ve been putting all this time to good use by catching up on a shelf’s worth of books that I have ordered over the course of the past year but not yet found time to read.

The first was the bittersweet family memoir Kisses from a Distance, written by Raff Ellis (Elias). His maternal grandmother was the product of an unhappy alliance between members of two elite Maronite families in Ottoman Syria: the Hobeiches and the el Khazens. Elite, but deeply impoverished – which is what led their son, a man with the Hobeiche name and the desire for financial security to match, to marry off his sister to a ‘nameless’ young Lebanese man newly returned from the United States to look for a local bride, with a general goods store and bright prospects for the future. That man and that auctioned-off woman would become Ellis’ parents – and despite the initial promise of a rented store, they ended up living a very hard life, trying to keep their store (and family) afloat.

Ellis moves charmingly from one side of his family to another, and intersperses the history of their lives with his own memories of visiting Lebanon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The book is published by Cune Press, a small but very good Seattle-base publishing house, which has published a number of books on the Middle East and Arab culture. Kisses from a Distance is a sweet book, but its not a fairy-tale. I cheered for the Ellises when their store did well, and I grieved for them when tragedies struck.

The next book I read was one that I intended to be a totally brainless summer read: a novel with a bit of a mystery to spice things up, and a back cover reference to Lebanon. Alex Carr’s An Accidental American, whose main character is a half-Lebanese, half-American forger recently released from a French prison, was 100 times better than I had anticipated: well-written and utterly gripping.

If you’ve ever been tempted to imagine how the bombing of the Marines barrack was planned or executed, and what it meant for Beirut’s already frayed inter-communal bonds, this novel is for you. It has haunted me since I set it down a month ago – its that good.

The most recent book I read is From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Mid-Century America, by Jack Marshall, another family memoir. Marshall (original name: Meshaal, which you can relate either to the Saudi prince or the Hamas representative – your choice!) is the son of two Middle Eastern Jewish-Arab-Americans, one from Aleppo and one from Baghdad. Their families had emigrated to Brooklyn in the early 1900s, and Marshall’s memoir is rich with the texture of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, whose culture, food and language dominated his childhood. (I was particularly interested to note that the Arabic terms that he includes have largely to do with food and/or insults.)

Marshall’s parents seem to have had a deeply unhappy marriage, but he and his siblings remained close, and the book – a seamless mixing of past and present – is laugh-out-loud funny. So choose your reading site carefully – I read it on our flight to Iowa last Friday, where mercifully H was my only seat companion (and even he gave me a few odd looks when I disintegrated from quiet chuckling to big guffaws). You can buy the book from Amazon – and I hope you do!

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, books, Brooklyn, Damascus, family, Iowa, Lebanon, Syria, time, travel, words | 1 Comment »