A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘Canadians’ Category

unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2009

In May 2005, two days before the elections, M and I went from Damascus to Beirut for a weekend getaway. A was having a joint birthday party in Beirut that Saturday night, and we thought that an excursion “abroad” would be a fun change from our usual Damascene weekend pursuits.

We had a hoot of a time – not only at the party, but in general. And we caused most of our own hilarity – particularly during the share-taxi rides to and from Beirut.

Oh, look at that beautiful mosque, I said as we passed one especially lovely mountain town heading from Masnaa toward Beirut.

Oh yes, M said, frowning and then nodding sagely. She had spent the previous three years in Damascus, so her sense of sectarian architecture was much finer than mine. That’s a beautiful Christian mosque, diamond.

As our return taxi wheezed its banana-boat way up towards Aley, M told me an “urban legend” story that she had heard from equally science-minded friends.

Someone at the American University of Beirut got a grant, she said, to study traffic patterns in Beirut and to suggest ways to improve congestion. (The conversation was sparked, of course, by the many mini-traffic jams we encountered on our way toward the border.) He or she also got access to an incredible new software program, designed to model traffic patterns and analyze them – a program that U.S. municipalities use when trying to improve their own traffic issues.

What did the program say about Beirut? I asked, in between bouts of car sickness induced by our stop-and-go drive.

Well, M said, the team plugged in all the numbers: the maps of the city’s streets, the number of cars on the road, the traffic signals, the parking lots – all the data they would input for any city. And when they ran the software program, the program said: impossible. This many cars cannot possible operate on the streets of Beirut.

What do you mean? I asked. M is the scientist, not me.

The program insisted that there was an error in the data, M explained. It wouldn’t analyze Beirut’s traffic, because it insisted that the number of cars that drive the city each day is impossibly high.

And, by American standards, I am sure that the software program was right. It probably assumed things like lanes, parking spots, and obedience to traffic signals – all of which would no doubt decrease the number of cars that could feasibly fit on Beirut’s streets. But this is reality – and it does work.

I thought of M’s story yesterday, when I came across this press release, about another new AUB research project:

The Transport Research Unit (TRU) within the Department of Civil Engineering of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has just received the region’s most advanced automobile driving simulator, DriveSafety’s DS-600. It will allow researchers to investigate a wide range of topics spanning the domains of traffic engineering, road safety, as well as driver behavior and cognition.

“This is a significant new addition to the Department of Civil Engineering’s research infrastructure,” Salah Sadek, department chairman noted as he observed the final tests being conducted on the simulator. “This simulator will enable the relationship between the driver and the vehicle to be thoroughly investigated, and opens up the possibility for investigating a wide range of research topics as well as providing opportunities for numerous inter-departmental final year projects.”

(You can read the rest of the DriveSafety press release here.)

I’m sure that the simulator will be a great help in the University’s research projects – but I’m not sure that those research projects will have any applicability in Lebanon. I’m guessing that the “DriveSafety” simulator simulates American driving experiences, not Lebanese ones – and probably leaves out some of those, like the joys of encountering black ice on a “rural route” in Iowa, or running into a felled tree on the highway between Seattle and Portland.

How will the civil engineers of AUB compensate for the simulator’s tendency to insist on lane discipline?

How will they compensate for the simulator’s insistence that one should not drive on the shoulder of a mountain road?

How will they account for the driver’s desire to put on his/her hazard lights in foggy weather?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the first simulations, and I would love to see how the DriveSafety employees like their experiences on the roads of real-life Beirut!

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Canadians, church, education, Lebanon, research | 4 Comments »

lemony Levantine treasures

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 9, 2008

H is away this weekend, so I decided to put my solo time to good use and finish up a few loose ends – including the final polishing of my Middle Eastern junk shop treasure.

My aunt had recommended using lemons and salt, which she described as a Palestinian method. But I remember watching Med polish a brass astrolabe (yep, that’s right: an astrolabe. our friendship is a celebration of geek-ness.) with sour naranjes taken from the naranj tree in her backyard. So perhaps it is also a Syrian method – or maybe just the normal historical method for dealing with brass.

The fruits & veggie bakkala I frequent had a a four-for-one-dollar special on lemons yesterday morning, which I took as a good sign. And of course I had plenty of salt.

My new-old (and eco-friendly) cleaning products, ready for use:

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Polishing is hard, hard work – but doing it with lemon and salt smelled a whole lot better than doing it with brass polish.

After about forty minutes, I had eight squeezed-out lemon halves, a living room floor peppered with salt, two rejuvenated hands (lemon juice is supposed to be good for your skin), and one super-shiny brass tray.

The photo I took unfortunately doesn’t do it justice – I was going for “moody” with the flash but instead produced a “my home is a cave” effect. But the tray is beautiful beautiful beautiful – and full of Vitamin C, besides.

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, art, Canadians, Damascus, family, friends, home, Palestine, Syria, women, words | 1 Comment »

Sunday on the Syrian Beach

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 11, 2008

Sunday is family day in Lebanon, and if you are a foreigner with no family around, it can be a lonely day – especially around lunch-time, when the sounds and sights of extended families gathering for a big meal out or at home are difficult to miss.

As a result, Sunday is a very good day to spend time with one’s family of friends – so I was delighted when M suggested lunch with her and J in Raouche.

The day was beautiful: sunny and warm, a lovely reminder that spring is on its way to the Mediterranean. We ate on the terrace at Petit Cafe, enjoying the blue sky and the waves crashing against the rocks.

After lunch, M suggested a walk on the corniche. Not the Ras Beirut corniche – the corniche in Ramlet el-Baida2, overlooking the rather inappropriately named “White Sands” beach.

I think of it as the Syrian Beach, M said, because who else would go there?

Well, she does have a point. The sands weren’t filthy, but there was quite a lot of debris. And my friend A, who has indeed swum at Ramlet el-Baida2 before (he’s Canadian), got out of the water when he remembered that dead livestock (mostly goats and cattle) tossed overboard from cargo ships tend to wash up there.

The beach had a few determined picnic’ers on it, and the corniche was filled with people out enjoying the sunny afternoon. But we were definitely the ones to look at: three foreigners piling out of a well-tended SUV who spent the first few minutes gawking at an equally well-tended 1975 VW Bug.

All in all, it was a great family Sunday in Beirut 🙂

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Posted in Americans, Beirut, Canadians, economics, food, friends, Lebanon, sea | Leave a Comment »

timely warnings ii

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 24, 2007

If its late August, it must be time to think about the upcoming (Sept 25) presidential ‘election’. For popular second-country citizenship choices like Canada and Australia, this means that it is time to remind Lebanese dual citizens of the need to register with their local embassies for help during what the Canadian embassy so delicately terms “emergency situations”:

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I’m not holding my breath in hopes that the American embassy will publish a similar notice, but seeing the new crop of registration does make me a bit nervous.

It reminds me of the cabin announcements that pilots sometimes make during long-haul flights – one of which I heard earlier this week.

Folks, we’re going to encounter some chop in about ten minutes, they usually say. If you need to get up for any reason, now is a good time to do so.

I’m in the states for the next few weeks, and seeing these notices makes me wonder whether there won’t be a similar amount of “chop” on the ground when I return.

Posted in Canada, Canadians, citizenship, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

Little Mosque on the Prairie VI: Good Neighbors

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 4, 2007

Several times during the past week the fact that I have no television set has come up in conversation. Regardless of nationality, everyone is horrified.

I love radio, newspapers, books, and magazines; somehow the appeal of television and cinema is less strong for me. When I watch television here, I download American shows and watch them on my computer.

I include all this exposition about my media consumption as explanation for my tardiness in posting about the two most recent Little Mosque episodes. I adore the show, but … I forget to watch it. Television, even good television, doesn’t always grip me in the way that a novel does.

Episode six,  which I am taking from mydien rather than asifnana because mydien’s version has stripped the show of its commercials, deals with the ominous visit of the Anglican archbishop. He is making a tour of non-performing parishes and closing those with poor attendance.

Given the small (and aged) size of his parish, our priest fears that his church will be the next to go. The Muslim congregation volunteers to impersonate a full, enthusiastic, multi-cultural congregation in order to give the impression that the parish is full of active parishioners. They stage a dress rehearsal, practicing hymns, the sequence of standing and sitting, and prayers – a delightful display of good neighboring, as they attempt to help the parish that helped them (by renting its parish hall to them as the community mosque).

Some of the humor is situational, and some of it a bit slapstick for me. What I found fascinating about this episode was the (very realistic, in my experience) gulf between Muslims and Christians with respect to knowledge of one another’s religious praxis.

While many Muslims may be aware of two of the fundamental theological differences between Islam and Christianity (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the related doctrine of the Holy Trinity), the details of their neighbors’ religious lives are unknown. For example, Yasser, though married to a converted Anglican, has no idea what distinguishes New Testament from Old.

Sarah is called upon to give the congregation a crash course in Anglicanism, and her efforts to do so are funny but also sad. Her knowledge of the faith and practices of her former faith are hazy at best – and a not inaccurate depiction of the depth of many Christians’ religious knowledge.

As a scholar of the Islamic world, I am quite accustomed to the reality that Christians (in the Middle East almost more than in the United States) know very little about the ways in which practicing Muslims live their faith. This episode brought home the reality that our lack of knowledge of one another extends in both directions. For me, it was comic and sobering at one and the same time.

Posted in Americans, Canada, Canadians, church, Islam, mosque, neighbors, religion, unity | 2 Comments »

the sound of music in Lebanon: the streets are alive

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 1, 2007

Last night I had drinks with a friend at “our” neighborhood place. Its not really ours, and its not quite in either of our neighborhoods, but … close enough.

A (I’ve realized recently that most of my friends have names beginning with A, C, G, or K. I do have more than four friends, but as any quick perusal of my mobile’s phonebook will attest, I could stand a bit more name diversity.) had spent the day in the south, which is beautiful these days.

Spring is springing there: the trees are budding, and wildflowers cover the ground. A said that the views (having spent much of the day lost in the south, apparently the trio in A’s car had the opportunity to see many views) were reminiscent of the Alps in The Sound of Music.

Oh, I said dreamily (the Sound of Music, along with Oklahoma and West Side Story, was one of my favorite musicals when I was a child), wouldn’t it be lovely to imagine all the people of south Lebanon twirling around on the mountainside, singing “The hills are alive”?

Oh yes, little diamond, A replied. Except for all the mined areas.

Right.

I do hear lots of singing here – in the streets. My friend M once described Syria as “a very musical country”, and Lebanon is much the same.

Lebanon is musical in the sense that wherever one goes, one hears music – in cars driving past, restaurants, and wafting down from apartments.

My favorite musical moments come in the early mornings, as I pass soldiers stationed at various points around the city. They play music on their mobile phones – the latest Arabic love songs and the latest US hip-hop tracks. Each man I walk by is enveloped by his own little cloud of song.

But Lebanon is musical in another sense as well – and this is the way in which M meant the description.

Men break into song here – phrases of old ballads, choruses of old love songs – when women walk past on the street. Much, much, much nicer than any catcall, or even than such memorable New York phrases as “God bless you and the mother who bore you”.

The hills may not be alive with music, but the city streets are very much alive – with song.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Canadians, Lebanon, media, music, words | 3 Comments »

Little Mosque on the Prairie V: praising God

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2007

Episode five of Little Mosque on the Prairie is available on YouTube (and again, with thanks to Asifnana for the prompt uploading.

This episode has a rather painfully funny addition: a white Canadian convert. He exemplifies the by-the-book rigidity that converts to any religion can exhibit, running around shouting Allahu Akbar and criticizing the community’s Muslims for their various lapses in correct practice.

A sub-plot involves Sarah and her daughter Rayyan’s pinkie-swear that Sarah can keep up with the five daily prayers for a month. The rigor of doing so is exaggerated for comic effect, which I find less than funny. I know many people who pray the required 9salat without falling prey to such total exhaustion.

One bit did make me laugh. After Sarah agrees, Rayyan brings her something to help her keep track of the prayer times: a mosque clock! I’ve never seen one that keeps track of the five prayer times, as the television show’s clock is meant to, but it could be possible.

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Posted in Arabic, Canada, Canadians, clothing, family, food, Islam, mosque, music, politics, Qur'an, religion, television, time, women, words | 1 Comment »

Some are more equal than others: Australia’s dual citizens and their evacuation from Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 15, 2007

In November I wrote a bit about Canada’s proposal to charge Lebanese-Canadians for the cost of their repatriation to Canada during the July war: Some are more equal than others: Canada’s dual citizenship debates.

Similar discussions have evidently been taking place in Australia, and have now been settled. Lebanese Australians who reside in Australia will not be charged for the cost of their repatriation; those who reside in Lebanon will be asked (not required, but requested) to pay.

Here is the article:

Lebanon evacuation cost $30m, gov’t says

The evacuation of Australians from Lebanon last year cost the federal government more than $30 million.

And the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said it expected to recover only a fraction of the money after the government decided not to force evacuees to repay the cost of their repatriation.

DFAT on Thursday said the total cost of getting around 5,000 Australians out of Lebanon after fighting broke out with Israel last August was almost $30.4 million.

That covered the cost of evacuating people home by air, evacuating them to Turkey and Cyprus by sea, accommodation, using Beirut’s convention centre as a processing point, medical support, food, interpreters and visa services.

DFAT said the government had decided to seek reimbursement of evacuation costs in cases involving dual Australian-Lebanese nationals who were permanent residents in Lebanon, and those who had recouped money through insurance.

But the system was voluntary, and the people would not be forced to pay back the money.

“What we’re doing in order to manage the financial recovery process is inviting the individuals to self-nominate,” DFAT’s consular division first assistant secretary Rod Smith told a Senate committee.

That process was only just getting underway, he said, but the government did not expect to recover much money from the exercise.

“We don’t expect it to be a great deal, certainly not close to the costs to the government of the evacuation,” Mr Smith said.

“I would think it would be not more than in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The Howard government’s decision not to make people repay their evacuation costs reflected the view that they were caught up in extraordinary circumstances, he said.

“Nobody could have predicted that commercial air services would have been cut when they were,” Mr Smith said.

“It [the evacuation, I presume, and not Israel’s airport bombings] was seen as a reflection of the seriousness of the government’s consular role.”

Although I dislike immensely the Lebanese tendency to acquire second nationalities for precisely such instrumental purposes, I dislike even more the idea that democratic governments should construct hierarchies of citizenship.

Perhaps a better solution is to take more seriously the requirement (which at least in the United States is a legal requirement honored almost entirely in the breach, rather than the observance) that those who take Australian, Canadian, US, etc. citizenship do forswear the nationality of the country they have left behind.

Posted in Australia, Beirut, Canada, Canadians, citizenship, economics, Lebanon, news, politics, research, words | 1 Comment »

Little Mosque on the Prairie: Pools & Pirates

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 15, 2007

Last Saturday I watched episode four of Little Mosque on the Prairie, which was excellent. It covered two very common daily-life issues for Muslims – one a universal issue for today’s world, and the other more specifically related to life in North America: swimming and Halloween.

Rayyan advises Fatima, who has sprained her leg, that she needs exercise, and suggests the ladies’ fitness classes at the local pool. The class instructor, however, turns out to be a man. There is a long plot line revolving around the solution to this problem, which ends with Fatima dressed in an “Islamically appropriate” swimsuit – which appears to be a modified fireman’s costume.

I used to swim at the state pool in Damascus during its weekly women’s hours. My fellow swimmers came dressed in all kinds of bathing costumes, from bikinis to loose, vaguely wet-suit like costumes that covered them from neck to wrist to ankle.

More recently, the Australian government has launched an all-Muslim lifeguard program, with really slick looking modests swimming costumes for women.

I understand that Little Mosque chose the swimming costume designed to make the biggest visual “splash”, but I wish they had chosen to highlight a less risible, more likely-to-appear-at-a-pool-near-you outfit.

The community’s discussion of Halloween begins with an argument between Fatima and Babur over whether their children should be allowed to participate. I know several Muslims (and know of many born again Christians) who have debated this same issue: is anything centered around devilish revelry truly harmless?

The imam comes to the rescue and suggests an Islamic Halloween: Halaloween, with Arab-world costumes. Not the stereotypical ones of oil barons and their shrouded wives (several years ago an old friend, just returned from a stint in the Emirates, went to a Halloween party dressed as a “chic sheikh”, complete with stylish mobile and watch. none of the American guests got the joke.) – he suggests that the two pre-teens go as a fig and an olive.

Babur is nominated, much against his will, to accompany them. The children’s costumes draw puzzled looks, but his “costume” is a great hit. One child compliments him on his “Osama costume”, while a parent says approvingly: oh, the Taliban – how topical!

Seeing the Halloween issue brought to life in Little Mosque reminded me of my aunt’s post on the difficulties she has faced in explaining the holiday to friends in the Gulf: some things just don’t translate.

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(a photo M took last January of a left over Halloween pumpkin slowly returning to the earth from whence it came)

Posted in Canada, Canadians, childhood, holidays, Islam, media, mosque, politics, Qur'an, religion, swimming, television, women | 2 Comments »

Unity in the Arab world

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 12, 2007

My friend Andrew (the Middle East is a breeding ground for expatriates named Andrews and Andy; they soring up everywhere, in journalism, the foreign service, humanitarian work, and academia. This Andrew is one of five whom I know.) has published a piece on Sunni Beiruti fears in the Toronto Star: Recipe for more bloodshed in the streets of Beirut.

Its an interesting piece. Andrew notes that the few Shiite residents of Tariq Jadideh have since moved to Shiite-majority areas, which reminds me of a comment that H made recently about a barber in my neighborhood. I had noticed that the barbershop had suddenly disappeared, but not known why until H (who frequented it, apparently) said: he moved because he is Shi3a and the neighborhood is too Sunni.

Towards the end, Andrew notes that: The clerics at Imam Ali Ben Abi Taleb have issued their fatwa and hung a blue banner in front of the mosque that reads: “Hold on to Islamic and National Unity.”

Over drinks a few weeks ago we talked about this notion of unity and why it has such strong resonance in the Arab world.

For example, almost every day I walk under a banner that reads: “The strength [quwwa] of Muslims lies in their unity”.

Here in Lebanon the opposition is calling for a unity government; the opposition in Bahrain is doing the same; and we all know about the new unity government in Palestine.

A and I wondered, at first idly but then more seriously, about the extent to which the high value in which unity is held plays into what Western analysts often see as laughably high election victories. (Not that the US’s incredibly low <50% victory margins do not merit snickers of their own, of course.)

What if we as academics and political analysts were to look at 98.75% presidential victories not as risible insults to our intelligence but as the overwhelming show of support needed for a “mandate” to rule? If unity is the ideal rubric under which one governs, a 65% or even 75% victory is little better than an outright loss.

I haven’t reached any definitive conclusions about this little rumination of mine, but I do think that notions of unity and the positive attributes attached to it are things to which we should begin to pay closer and more serious attention.

Posted in Arabic, Bahrain, Beirut, Canada, Canadians, Islam, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, politics, unity, words | Leave a Comment »