A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘childhood’ Category

a pox on you: Ottomans and the cure for smallpox

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 2, 2009

Last week I was asked to take a look at the John Carter Brown Library‘s exhibit “Islamic Encounters”, which is available for viewing both in-person and online. Its a very sweet exhibit, and an impressive effort by the library to encourage its collection, which focuses on books and manuscripts written by Europeans traveling abroad, to speak more broadly and to new audiences.

While looking at the artifacts selected for the “Exchange of Knowledge” section, I learned something that utterly blew me away:

Amid a smallpox epidemic in the city of Boston, Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston fought deep public resistance in order to implement smallpox inoculation as a public health measure. Mather cited the customary use of inoculation in Constantinople, and was deeply impatient with those who objected to adopting any practice used by the Turks. Mather knew the Koran well and cited it often in his theological writing.

I suspect that Mather’s Quranic citations were used for rather partisan purposes – but I had no idea that the idea of smallpox inoculation came to us from the Ottomans. Where was this story when I was taught that it came from Jenner’s study of milkmaids whose exposure to cowpox made them resistant to smallpox?

Naturally, I turned to Google for more information. I found further confirmation in an article on Edward Jenner published in Baylor University’s medical journal, which states:

Inoculation, hereafter referred to as variolation, was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe. In 1670, Circassian traders introduced variolation to the Turkish “Ottoman” Empire. Women from the Caucasus, who were in great demand in the Turkish sultan’s harem in Istanbul because of their legendary beauty, were inoculated as children in parts of their bodies where scars would not be seen. These women must also have brought the practice of variolation to the court of the Sublime Porte.

Well, I think the characterization of the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish “Ottoman” Empire is questionable, but the Circassian women and their “moon-faced” beauty is certainly a part of the Empire’s history. Who knew that they brought health along with good looks!

The article continues:

Variolation came to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century with the arrival of travelers from Istanbul. It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation in England. In 1715, Lady Montague suffered from an episode of smallpox, which severely disfigured her beautiful face. Her 20-year-old brother died of the illness 18 months later.

In 1717, Lady Montague’s husband, Edward Wortley Montague, was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte. A few weeks after their arrival in Istanbul, Lady Montague wrote to her friend about the method of variolation used at the Ottoman court. Lady Montague was so determined to prevent the ravages of smallpox that she ordered the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland, to inoculate her 5-year-old son. The inoculation procedure was performed in March 1718. Upon their return to London in April 1721, Lady Montague had Charles Maitland inoculate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of physicians of the royal court.

Mather and a few other Boston-based physicians had heard of inoculation through European contacts, and brought the practice to the American colonies; Jenner’s work on vaccination began in the later 1700s, and drew heavily upon earlier practices of inoculation/variolation.

What a delightful bit of historical knowledge: I love that it shows “my” Ottomans in a favorable light, and I love that it was the courage and ingenuity of a woman that brought the practice West.

Its a lovely start to my week – happy Monday to you all 🙂


Posted in childhood, health, research, science, time, women | 3 Comments »

Merry Christmas from the Iowa/Brooklyn/Beirut Santa!

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 25, 2008

When I awoke this morning, Weather.com told me that it was 1 degree outside. That’s 1 degree Fahrenheit, not Celcius – i.e., 31 degrees below freezing. And with the windchill factor (Iowa is almost a Plains state, so there is LOTS of wind, and not much to break it up), it is -14 degrees.

Brrrrr! I’m glad its warm inside, and glad that the power is totally, unequivocably on.

My aunt’s Christmas post this morning mentioned our family’s position on Santa: that “as long as you believe in Santa Claus, Santa Claus will come.” Very true – and I can see four over-stuffed Santa stockings in my parents’ living room, testaments to the importance of belief :).

What Intlxpatr didn’t mention is that there are two types of Santas in our family: the original, who comes in the middle of the night, keeps reindeer, and leaves lots of little gifts in our stockings; and the regional, who exists in multiples and delivers his/her gifts by regular US mail.

The regional Santas are tireless promoters of their homelands, and many of them are real food connoisseurs. They also delegate shipping duties to relatives who live in the Santa’s area. Hence growing up, the Hawaii Santa often sent macadamia nuts via our cousins, who live on one of the big islands. The Seattle Santas (its a big city, and we had many relatives in Seattle) sent box after box of Frangoes, which we of course “sampled” immediately after unwrapping.

This year, the Brooklyn Santa dubbed me the official shipper for assorted borough-themed gifts, which were sent off to Sporty Diamond, her husband Research Diamond, and the rapidly growing nephew. And I see that the Damascus Santa has nominated my aunt to send a few very intriguing packages to me – merci, khalti! I remember when the Shami Santa enticed me into bringing two cans of one of the local Syrian soda brands back for my father, who had found it much tastier than Diet Coke. Regional Santas remember these details 🙂 .

Of course, some Santas have more regional delicacies to offer than others. The Iowa Santa used to be at a culinary disadvantage – what was he/she going to offer: Christmas corn? – but thanks to our mid-1990s discovery of a group of upper Iowa nuns and their caramel-making enterprise, the Iowa Santas were able to compete successfully with the Frango – er, Seattle – Santas when it came to make-you-sick-but-they-taste-so-good sweets.

We’re opening Santa gifts in an hour, after which we will have breakfast and then get dressed. The family and regional Santa gifts will wait until this afternoon: we’re scheduled to be local Santas and deliver hot lunches to eight elderly people. Its a big volunteer operation: dozens of people donate their time early on Christmas to make the lunches, and dozens more donate their mid-days to deliver them. It doesn’t make for a perfect Christmas for the recipients – after all, they enrolled in the program because they would be spending the holiday alone – but it does give them a meal cooked and delivered with love and friendship.

Merry Christmas from Iowa 🙂

Posted in Americans, childhood, family, holidays, Iowa | 3 Comments »

good parenting

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 30, 2008

I saw this advertisement in the online edition of the Daily Star, the English-language Lebanese paper, on Wednesday, and it made me terribly sad:


This is a legal notice to Hassan Trabulsy that his child or children are about to be placed in foster care or an orphanage. From reading it, I could tell that he obviously hasn’t been around to take care of him/her/them in some time, since his address is listed as “parts unknown” – but also that someone must have reason to think that he returned to Lebanon. And the court is trying to let him know what is happening with his child/children, and to give him one last chance to come back to the United States and be a good father to him/her/them.

In the US, when parents split up, custody generally goes to the mother. We see mothers as the primary, care-giving parent.

In the Middle East, when parents split up, custody almost always goes to the father. Children are his responsibility, but also his right – and they belong to him. Hence as my friend M told me years ago, when I asked him how his mixed-marriage parents decided which religion he should follow, Religion follows the father. And religious courts automatically award custody to the father.

Its a tragedy whenever either parent chooses to abandon his or her responsibilities towards his or her children. But coming from a culture in which fathers are so centrally involved in raising their children, I found it all the more heart-breaking that Trabulsy should abandon his.

Except that when I googled his name to find out more, I learned that he didn’t – or at least, he only abandoned one of them.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Hassan Trabulsi had three children with his American wife Holly: Tristan, Afif, and Serena. Afif and Serena are fraternal twins, and Serena has Down’s Syndrome.

Holly and Hassan, who went by “Richard” in the United States, divorced in 2004, and Holly received full custody of the their children. In 2005, Hassan asked Holly to allow the two boys to come to Lebanon to spend the summer with him. At the end of the summer, he told her that he was not sending them back.

I suspect that this loss-of-custody notice is for Serena, in whom Hassan/Richard seems to have taken no interest. And knowing that he abandoned one child while abducting the others is even more heart-breaking. This is not an example of good parenting. Hassan Trabulsy should be ashamed of himself, and so should the rest of his family.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, babies, childhood, family, Lebanon, parenting | 6 Comments »

reading when I shouldn’t be: The Return to Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 21, 2008

Last night I had dinner with my friend S, who not only shares a birthday with Owlfish but shares the distinction of being my two oldest (as in “longest-running”, not as in “getting on in years”) friends.

What have you been reading lately? S asked as we waited for our entrees to arrive. (I know: entrees are appetizers in French. But in the US, we use “entree” for the main course.) This is one of the many reasons why we are friends: we both love reading.

I told her about Body of Lies, and she told me about Lonesome Dove, which she has been working her way through each night before bed. And we both admitted to bargaining with ourselves, in exactly the same way we used to bargain with our parents when we were girls.

I tell myself: just five more minutes, S told me. And then 45 minutes later I think: I really need to go to bed.

I do the same! I said. Or I promise to turn the lights off once I reach the end of the chapter. But then I want to know what happens next, so I keep reading.

Of course, I’m proud that each of us recognize the importance of getting good sleep. But the fact that we are reduced to wheedling extra pages out of our better selves does strike me as a bit odd.

My latest reading-when-I-shouldn’t-be book is a short novel originally published in France in the mid 1980s and translated for English publication in the early 1990s: Andree Chedid’s The Return to Beirut:


The novel is not bad: it tells a beautifully elliptical story of a 50-something Lebanese-Egyptian returning to Lebanon in May 1975 to spend two weeks with her American-Swedish granddaughter, marred by a slightly overwrought parallel story-line and a crash-boom-bang ending. Chedid interweaves memory and present deftly, but the story has some very odd bits. For example, Kalya, the woman, has only been to Lebanon once before; and although she does not seem to be estranged from her son, she has never met her granddaughter.

I also suspect that a certain amount of “ethnic” marketing went into the US edition of the book. For one, the French title is La maison sans racines, or “the house without roots” – a fitting title given how much of the book is devoted to Kalya’s memories of various interior spaces. But I imagine that the US publishers felt that a book with “Beirut” in the title would sell better.

And look at the image on the cover. Yes, there are two girls in this novel who wear yellow. And yes, Lebanese men and women come in all shapes and colors. But these young women do not look particularly Lebanese – and nor do they match the description of the girls that the novel gives. Again, I wonder whether the publishers were trying to market the book to a particular type of “world literature”-loving audience.

Despite these quibbles, the book definitely kept me up past my bedtime, and thanks to some very sleight-of-hand finagling with myself I went from “I’ll just read the opening” to “well, I’ve finished” in one night.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, books, childhood, friends, Lebanon, women, words | 1 Comment »

more Lebanese beauties

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 27, 2008

Hello and happy Monday to all of you, from oh-boy-do-I-have-a-lot-to-do land. I’m giving a talk in upstate New York later this week, and although I used to make public presentations all the time, its been four months since the last one. So it is laying heavily on my mind today.

Before I start working on it, let me grace you with more Lebanese beauties from Faylasoof’s stamp collection. (Faylasoof, I am so sorry, but I am cutting out some of the flower stamps. There are just so many of them … and I have a very brown thumb.)

The stamp at the left is just stunning, isn’t it? It looks to me like it is a print of a color photograph (when you zoom in the image gets quite grainy) – and the subject is a circuit board. The stamp celebrates Lebanese industry – a field that seems to have gotten far more attention from the country’s post office than from its businessmen (and women, but in this period, mainly men).

The Arabic in this stamp shows a real evolution from some of the earlier – or at least more traditionally-focused – designs. Look at “Lubnan”: its close to the Ministry of Tourism logo, but cleaner. And take a look at the “25 qurush” – both the numbers and the qaff are incredibly stylized, but in a very streamlined, 1960s-modern way. They blow the boring “25 pence” on the left out of the water: rounded, dull numbers and a very generic “p”.

The middle stamp is another one that blends Lebanon’s Roman (well, probably intended as Phoenician) heritage with its geographic position in the modern world – not terribly interesting, and with much more traditional Arabic calligraphy. But the color – my goodness! The post office must have had plenty of pink left over after printing the Bal des petits lits blancs stamps, and decided that this was the way to make the best use of what remained.

As for the Lebanese post office, it is well represented in the green stamp at the right, which shows the old national post office building. (In French, the text reads “Hotel des Postes”, but the Arabic has “Dar al-Bareed”.) The stamp was canceled in February 1955, and the car in the drawing looks fairly 1950s, so I would identify this stamp as somewhat older than the first two – and certainly older than the Lebanese industry stamp.

These next two stamps are from the mid-1960s: 1968 on the left, and 1966 on the right.

On the left, a drawing showing some of the ruins of Baalbek to celebrate the 1968  Baalbek festival. Neither the Arabic nor the French scripts excite me much, but I think this may be the result of having to cram so much textual information into the margins. Designing bi-lingual stamps must be a real challenge.

On the right, another internationally-focused stamp – this one celebrating the 1966 World Day of the Child (Journee Mondiale de l’Enfant, or Yom al-Atfal al-A`lami). I like that the child in question is a little girl, and that she is shown outside the house. I personally think that her skirt could be a couple of inches longer, but oh well – it was the sixties, after all!

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, art, Beirut, childhood, Iowa, Lebanon, stamps, time, words | 1 Comment »

proper young ladies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 17, 2008

Yesterday evening, H and I headed uptown to have dinner with his three preteen nieces, who have been spending the week with their grandparents. The three girls don’t get together very often, so this was a big, much-anticipated trip for them.

H had met up with them earlier in the week, and while he loved seeing them (he’s a good uncle), he did sound a bit haunted afterwards. I understand – I was a twelve year-old girl once, and I know how terrifying a pack of us them can be.

H got each of them two books as a good-bye present: one relating to what each girl had said she wanted to be when she grows up, and one a collection of Arabic phrases and expressions, transliterated into English script. They loved both, and while we waited for our salads, they decided to test us.

How do you say, “Do I need a prescription for this?” one asked.

How do you say, “I think there’s been a mistake here?” another quizzed us.

What does “3aiza twaleet” mean? the third asked me. Yes – “3aiza”, not “beddi”. Lebanese Arabic books are only available on special order, so H had to get an Egyptian version.

H was thrilled that the girls liked his gifts, and I was delighted to see that they were so excited to learn a bit of their ancestral language. And it wasn’t until we began walking them home that they began to wonder where the “cuss words” were located in the book.

I’ve done a bit of research on immigrant assimilation, and one piece of conventional wisdom is that ability to speak in the tongue of the “old country” disappears with the second generation of immigrants born in the US. Food habits last longer, and so do food words – Italian-Americans who don’t know a word of Italian still happily serve family pasta recipes, for example.

I haven’t seen any research done on the longevity of curse words and insults among immigrant communities, but judging from H’s nieces, they last longer than food words.

H’s siblings don’t speak Arabic, but they apparently incorporate a few key terms liberally when English just isn’t enough – and their daughters have clearly been all ears.

Where is sharmouta in this book? one asked, mercifully waiting until we had exited the restaurant, since the unwrapping of the Arabic books brought the maitre d’ over to say that he and the staff were all Algerian and delighted to meet us. The sight of sweet preteen girls excitedly repeating “sharmoutas, sharmoutas” might have made their welcome a bit less warm.

Listen, H said, frowning. There’s one thing your parents have never gotten right, because they never learned Arabic properly. They don’t know how to properly pluralize these words.

Its not “sharmoutas”? one niece asked, puzzled.

No, H said. And like a good uncle, he instructed them: Repeat after me: “shrameet”.

Shrameet, shrameet, they chorused.

Now, “manyoukeh”, he said. Manyoukeh, manayek.

Manayek, manayek, they said, their focus drifting a bit as they locked arms and began zig-zagging across the sidewalk.

And Uncle H, one asked boldly. What’s that really awful expression?

What expression? H asked, taken aback.

The one that Jiddo taught us, they all said, smiling. And really, what’s a grandfather for if not to indulge his grandchildren?

I’m not telling you that, H said firmly. Its very graphic, and you don’t need to know.

It was something like “ardi feet”, one said, musingly.

I’ll call my brother, said another. He’ll remember. But “ardi feet” sounded right to him, too – so apparently she kept on dialing family numbers.

H finally gave in, as a bribe to get them to quiet down while we walked through the foyer of their grandparents’ building. But don’t ever use this, he said. And anyway, it doesn’t really work for you to say.

A little while later, as we watched video footage they had taken earlier in the week, the landline rang.

Oh hi Dad, said niece number two when the phone was passed to her. Sorry to bother you. I just called earlier because I wanted to know how to say “a*ri feek” – but I figured it out, so its okay. Thanks for calling back!

I tried to imagine my Lebanese female friends using that phrase in conversation with their fathers – at age twelve or even as adults. Even in the most mellow families, I doubt that the conversation would have continued as breezily as hers did: with a casual okay – see you tomorrow! love you! and the phrase in question relegated to being a minor side note.

Curse words may last beyond the second generation, but when they become heritage rather than ordinary terms I don’t think they carry quite the same force as they do back home 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, childhood, family, Lebanon, parenting, women, words | 4 Comments »

literary gems

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 23, 2008

Yesterday three big boxes of books, magazines, and clothing arrived from Iowa, courtesy of my very patient parents. (Actually, I think they were thrilled that I finally have a US address – I bet there are more boxes to follow, as they liberate the basement space that I have been i7tilal’ing since moving abroad several years ago. Its the muqawamat al-walidai, I guess :).)

In one of the boxes was a book I had found on Amazon several months ago – a children’s book about living through the civil war in Lebanon:

Sami and the Time of the Troubles was published in 1992, two years after the civil war officially ended. The authors are a mother-daughter team who have collaborated on a number of children’s books, including one set in Cairo and another set in Baghdad. (The daughter, Judith, lived in Beirut with her husband and two children during the civil war, and also seems to have lived in Cairo at some point.)

The book’s illustrations are beautiful watercolors showing two main scenes: the streets of Beirut, filled with old men in fezes smoking argileh and gutted streets where Sami plays and his mother shops when the fighting stops, and the basement where his family gathers during gun battles. The basement walls and floors have been covered with richly patterned carpets, making the space more cozy – but the image of adults huddled around a radio makes it clear that this is a more serious moment than the playful, child’s fort-like space it might otherwise seem.

The text is elliptical and restrained: it alludes to the absence of Sami’s father in mentions of the peaches he loved to grow and Sami’s mother’s hatred of guns, but leaves the reader to draw the unavoidable conclusion. Nor does it address the politics that undergirds the fighting. It does not suggest that anyone in Sami’s family is involved as a fighter or political operative, and only the children have names: Sami, his sister Leila, and his friend Amir – names that might be Muslim, might be Druze, or might be Christian.

Sami and the Time of the Troubles must have made something of a splash when it was published, as I found several sample lesson plans, including this one, which use it to teach children about geography or social issues. The lesson plan I linked to has a charming suggestion: that children write letters to Sami after reading the book. Unfortunately, the plan suggests that Sami lives in Iraq.

Same neighborhood, but different decade and very different war.

Your neighborhood library might have a copy of this book – and if so, its worth checking out. Otherwise, you can do as I did and order a used copy from Amazon or Ebay. The most recent search I did showed a used copy available from Amazon for $0.25 plus shipping – a bargain if you are looking for a way to give children or grandchildren a sense of what growing up during the civil war was like.

Posted in Americans, art, Beirut, books, childhood, Lebanon, time, words | 2 Comments »

political dentistry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 13, 2008

I wore braces on my teeth for four years – four very long years, from age 11 to 15. My teeth were picture perfect when the local orthodontist finished with me – and the top ones still are. But despite my best efforts to remain ignorant, I have noticed that the bottom ones are shifting.

So I added “find orthodontist” to my list of Leaving Beirut activities. It wasn’t hard to do – I took the easy route and called AUB’s hospital, AUH. (The American University of Beirut, the American University Hospital – both clearly chosen before the era of cleverly chosen brand names.)

I assumed it was a small office, so after being disconnected midway through my first attempt to book an appointment, I tried to pick up where I had left off.

I’m sorry, the polite young man on the phone said to me, but I wasn’t the one speaking to you before.

Goodness, I said. I figured there was only one receptionist for the orthodontics department.

Oh no, he told me cheerfully. We have a whole football team here.

Go figure. So I made the appointment with the halfback, or defensive lineman, or whoever he was, and went in last week for an initial consultation.

The staff was incredibly nice and the machines were very up-to-date, but I felt a bit out of place as soon as I began filling out the “patient information” sheet. Its questions made it obvious that I vastly exceed the average orthodontics patient age.

I identified my family situation as “unremarkable” (i.e., my parents are not divorced) and indicated that I get along well with all family members, including any younger siblings (that’s you, Sporty D!).

And after wrestling with my conscience for some time, I decided that I am “well-adjusted” but “not always cooperative”.

Well, said my new orthodontist after reviewing the sheet, at least you’re honest.

Today I went back for my new retainer. (Yes – no return to braces for me. Sorry to disappoint those of you who were eagerly awaiting a new “Little Diamond with grille” version of the blog.)

And once again, I was faced with a choice.

What is your favorite color? asked the orthodontist, lifting his head from a drawer.

Hmm, I thought. Black for clothing, burnished gold for jewelry, brown for eyeliner – my favorites are all contextual. Why is he asking?

We have many colors for retainer cases, he said to me. Come pick one.

“Many colors”, yes – but “all colors”, no. The AUH retainer case collection currently consists of three colors:

orange. yellow. and green.

I wanted to laugh. Actually, I really wanted to take a picture. And part of me was dying to quip: did you invest in these colors after the May a7dath?

But I didn’t. I’m trying to be more cooperative. So I just picked a color and said thank you.

And just in case you are wondering: I picked yellow. For summer, and for the discipline I’ll need to remember to wear the darn thing 14 hours a day 🙂 .

Posted in Beirut, childhood, family, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

yesterday’s beaches

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 2, 2008

The air changed this week – its still cold at night, but the chill is less wintry. The air smells like spring, and it feels like it, too – slightly heavier and more humid. And with the change in air has come an evolution in our weather-related sports conversations: from skiing to beaching.

I hear that before the war everyone went to beaches in Ouzai, H said to me the other day.

We paused for a minute to absorb that idea. Today’s Ouzai does not scream “beach club”. It is a lower-class suburb of Beirut, largely populated by poor Shiites who fled from the south during the Israeli occupation (and overlaid with waves of other internally displaced refugees).

My only experience in Ouzai was quite positive: I bought my first set of pillows and coverlets there – big thick traditional ones that feel incredibly cozy on cold nights.

It was February 14, 2006 – the one-year anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination – and I had just arrived to Beirut from a conference in Kuala Lumpur. I was moving into a new apartment, and I had nothing – just a set of sheets that I had purchased in Malaysia. And because it was the first year anniversary of Hariri’s death, everything in Beirut was closed.

As I contemplated the unhappy prospect of camping out in my own apartment, sleeping under a sheet and my winter coat, my landlord took pity on me.

I’ll take you to Ouzai, he told me. They aren’t mourning Hariri there.

He was right – all the shops were open, and I slept in warmth and comfort for many nights in my Ouzai bedding.

But before Ouzai was known for its inexpensive, handmade “shaabi” furniture and conservative ways, it was known for its beach resorts.

My 1965 copy of Travel Lebanon lists them among the city’s “swimming clubs”: Saint Michel, Saint Simon, Riviera, Acapulco, Sands, Coral Beach, and the Beach Club. A day pass could be had for 2 or 3 Lebanese pounds, and cabanas, apartments and even houses could be rented for the season, for 700-7000 LL. My, prices have changed :).

The beach clubs boasted restaurants and bars as well as swimming facilities, and most offered surf boards for rent as well.

The area around Ouzai has been inhabited since ancient times, and has been the subject of several archaeological studies. But its name comes from a Sunni (I assume) religious scholar from Baalbek:

Among the residents of Beirut during the Medieval Period who became well known was Imam Al Aouza’i. Bom in Baalbeck in 707 or 712, his personal name was Abd er Rahman bin Omar. A learned man of his day, well versed in Islamic technology and law he moved and became stationed in Beirut were he practiced and distinguished himself. He became a world- famous Moslem jurisconsult of the first and second centuries of the Hijra, and was regarded as the Imam of Syria (Jidejian 1993:12). He died in 774, and the Moslem shrine on the south coast of Beirut was erected for him.

It is said that the Imam Al Aouza’i was extremely fond of the Hantus village and that he often expressed the wish to be buried beside the tiny single-domed mosque, in which he taught (Conde 1955:20). After his burial in 774 Hantus was virtuallv destroyed by an earthquake and when it was reconstructed and reinhabited, it was name after this holy man and benefactor, Al Aouza’i (Conde 1955:20). Since than, Al Aouza’i has become Lebanon’s second holiest shrine. Imam Al Aouza’i’s original 7th century needle-like white minaret mosque building is the small room with a low dome which adjoins the minaret on the east (mountain) side. The mosque marks the resting-place of its famous namesake, and has since become the name for this region

I took the information above from a May 2000 Council for Development and Reconstruction report on “The Beirut Urban Transport Project”, sponsored by the World Bank. The full text is available online, and it is extremely comprehensive, covering developments from Roman times to the present for most of Beirut’s neighborhoods. It has this to say about Ouzai’s beach resort days:

Only with the opening of the Beirut International Airport, in nearby Khaldeh, did one witness the intensive development of the beach area, and the unmistakable southem expansion of Beirut toward the red sand dunes in the back of the beaches … In 1955 the Al Aouza’i sector remained a sleepy summer resort for Beirutis who still preferred the traditional ways of the country over the foreign-style further north beach resorts of the St. Michel and St. Simon.

To be honest, suburban Beirut geography is not my strong suit. What I understand from the above report is that Ouzai proper had “traditional” beaches while today’s Bir Hassan had the chi-chi beach resorts. But I could be wrong

There are some very sweet photographs posted online by Beirutis who do remember the old resorts, including a few childhood ones posted by Gus Ramadan on flickr. You can see pictures of a young Gus at St. Simon with his father and cousin here.

Thanks to its beachfront property, Ouzai has also been the unhappy recipient of military strikes over the years, including the 1982 Israeli invasion. I found the Saint Simon beach mentioned in this context in a letter sent from the “Permanent Observer of the Palestine Liberation Organization” in Beirut to the United Nations Security Council as the Israeli attacks continued, asking for UN support in condemning and stopping the attacks. The full report is available online here (the UN maintains a wonderful online archive of its Palestine-related documents); and below is what the PLO had to say about Israeli attacks on West Beirut and its beach suburbs:

In the early morning hours of today, 26 July 1982, less than five hours following the night attack on the refugee camps of west Beirut, the Israeli forces renewed and escalated their attacks against the besieged western sector of Beirut. For more than two hours, commencing at 1.30 a.m., Israeli land and sea-based heavy rocket, artillery and tank fire indiscriminately hit the areas of west Beirut: Ouzai, Ramlet al-Baida, the Fakhani district, Bir Hassan, Bir al-Abed, Haret Hraik, Mar Elias and the airport vicinity. The three refugee camps, Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh, were shelled once again.

Under the cover of that fire, which continued until 3.30 a.m., Israeli naval units attempted to approach the Saint Simon beach shore in the Jnah/Ouzai region. Our defiant Palestinian and Lebanese defenders were able to repulse the attempted Israeli sea-borne landing.

At 10 a.m. today, 26 July, Israeli artillery, rocket and naval shelling of west Beirut resumed. For two hours, the Israelis pounded the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital and concentrated on the Ouzai and airport region as well as the refugee camp, Burj al-Barajneh.

“Defiant defenders” sounds a bit melodramatic, but I imagine that writing in between bouts of shelling makes one less interested in understatement.

H remembers hearing that the US marines landed on the beaches of Ouzai, where the mixture of men in fatigues and girls in bikinis caused mass confusion on both sides. The marines wondered: but isn’t there a civil war on? while the sunbathers wondered: is there a movie being filmed here today?

I can’t find anything online to back up that story, although I can tell you that googling “marines Beirut beach landing bikini” sure does produce some interesting results. But if anyone else knows more, we would love to know! It sounds almost too good to be true – too typically Lebanese! – but it could be :).

Ouzai was hit during the 2006 war, and its population may be hit in a different way by Hariri-led plans to tear down the slums and build beachside condos, if this dated but fascinating LF forum debate is still accurate. I probably won’t be going there in my bikini anytime soon, but I like knowing about this other side of Ouzai.

And for those of you who might be interested in seeing photos of Saint Simon and other Ouzai beaches in their heyday, Skyscraper City has a wonderful collection of old photographs from Lebanon. Try pages 32-35 for beach resort images.

Posted in Beirut, childhood, construction, holidays, Israel, Lebanon, sea, swimming, time | 5 Comments »

rumors from the grounds up

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2008

I thought you would already have left the country, the neighborhood coffee vendor said to me this morning as I walked past him.

What? I said, snapping out of a hausfrau-like but pleasant daydream about which stores I would go to on my Saturday morning grocery run.

Aren’t you planning to leave? he asked me again.

I assumed he was asking about my reaction to the “situation” here, and the increase in gunfire & scuffles over the past few weeks.

No no, I said, trying to snap myself from “do I need peanut butter?” to “calm, reassuring foreigner” mode. I’m fine here – and I’m busy with work.

But you must leave, he said, shaking his hands and frowning. By Wednesday. On Wednesday, Israel will attack.

Um, WHAT? The peanut butter debate whisked itself to my mental back burner.

Yes, he continued, with bombs and airplanes. And just in case I didn’t get it, he made “boom boom” and fighter jet noises.

Mmm, I said. Yes, I remember those sounds from the 2006 war.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t take invasion predictions from my coffee vendor terribly seriously. But earlier this week a Lebanese colleague told me about the homeless man who lived in her neighborhood during her childhood. He was sweet, harmless, and slightly touched in the head – and when the Israelis invaded Beirut in 1982, he turned out to be one of their top brass.

Although I appreciated his warning, I can’t imagine that Israel wants anything to do with the words “Lebanon” and “invasion” these days.

And if it does, I sure hope it doesn’t happen on Wednesday. I have two morning meetings and a heap of other things to do that day – and no time to deal with an onslaught of Israelis.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, childhood, espionage, explosion, Israel, Lebanon, politics, rumors, time | 4 Comments »