A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘education’ Category

that old black magic …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2009

Several years ago, my aunt pointed out something I had never noticed: the great frequency with which articles about – and editorials against – magic and sorcery appear in Gulf newspapers. I thought of her observation when I read earlier this month that Ali Sibat had been sentenced to death for his work as a television psychic. Sibat is Lebanese and lived worked in Lebanon, but was arrested in Saudi Arabia while there on a religious pilgrimage last year.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest Associated Press article on the story:

Saudi Arabia should overturn a death sentence imposed on a Lebanese national convicted of practicing witchcraft during a visit to the conservative kingdom, an international human rights group said in a report late Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Saudi government to halt “its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”

The report highlights the ongoing complaints over the Saudi justice system, which, while based on Islamic law, leaves a wide leeway to individual judges and can often result in dramatically inconsistent sentences.

Ali Sibat, a Lebanese psychic who made predictions on a satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut, was arrested by religious police in the holy city of Medina during a pilgrimage there in May 2008 and then sentenced to death Nov. 9.

Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom by local papers for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortune-telling. These practices are considered polytheism by the government of this deeply religious Muslim country.

Sibat seems to have been arrested somewhat by chance: he was recognized while in Medina, and those who recognized him informed the local authorities.

Here’s a September article from Arab News, the English-language Saudi newspaper, that addresses the issue of magic (or sorcery, as it is often called in the Gulf papers). It incorporates several common themes: the sinfulness of magic and its historic omnipresence; the connection between sorcerers/magicians and 1) Africans or dark-skinned people, 2) avarice, 3) women; and the real presence of evil in this world, which religion can address but magic cannot.

JEDDAH: Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery. It is, however, not just sorcerers who make money — those who treat (or claim to treat) magic and the evil eye are also rolling in dollars. While there is mystery surrounding how magic is done, some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries.

At the same time, magic is an old human practice, which has existed in many countries and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

Sara Mohammed, a single 28-year-old woman, said a sorcerer once told her she was unmarried because someone had cast a spell on her. “I have been facing problems all my life and I was looking for something to change my fortune for the better. A relative told me that she knew a man who could help me because I may be under some kind of spell,” Sara said.

The man who her relative introduced her turned out to be an African sorcerer who had been residing in the Kingdom for some time. Sara visited him at his home, which she described as a “rotten place with a terrible stench.”

Afraid to go alone, she took her cousin along. “I went in and his wife offered us tea. We refused to drink anything there. My cousin was laughing and giggling as she felt the entire setup was just a big joke. The man then began asking me about my situation and held up a small cup filled with olive oil,” she added. Sara laughs for a few seconds and then explains that the sorcerer then began acting strange by whispering into the cup. “He then said my ex-fiancé had cast a spell on me and that he could undo it for SR1,800. I told him that he was asking for far too much money. He held the cup up once again and started talking and haggling with this supposed jinn inside,” she said, laughing.

“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said.

People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is. Some people pay large amounts of money to sorcerers, believing they will eventually give them happiness. Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals.

“Two elderly members of my family who are sisters met a sorceress who told them that their sister-in-law had cast a spell on them. They believed everything that she told them,” said Saleh. She added that the two sisters were experiencing some domestic problems and in the course of their fascination with magic even claimed to have seen the ground split open and their sister-in-law appear and cast a spell on them. “They then began selling their personal belongings and even furniture to pay the sorceress to break the spell,” said Saleh, adding that other members of the family even tried to explain to them that magic was forbidden in Islam, but to no avail. “They’re still, even to this day, engrossed in weird rituals. They burned coriander and black pepper at my sister’s wedding to protect her wedding dress from harm,” she said, adding that her relatives are educated women and not ignorant.

Reports surfaced in July that divers searching for the body of a young woman who drowned off Jeddah’s Corniche discovered 22 bottles containing papers with names scrawled on them, as well as pieces of jewelry and locks of hair. It is thought these items were spells cast into the sea as part of some magic ritual. Some sheikhs cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected.

Some of these people have even developed reputations of being very proficient in what they do and are known to charge around SR100 or more per visit. One sheikh who helps fight black magic and the effects of the evil eye said that magic is everywhere. The sheikh, who asked not to be named, charges SR100 per visit. He even has an office where he receives clients.

“Black magic is widely practiced nowadays. It’s all over the Internet and even in toy stores,” he said giving the example of Ouija boards, which are sold in stores.

A woman told Arab News that she went to this sheikh after her son decided to break off his engagement. “I just felt my son was behaving strangely. It was out of character. The girl he was engaged to was suitable for him,” she said. “The sheikh treated my son with verses of the Qur’an and Zamzam water. He then abandoned his intention and then married that girl. They are very happy,” she added.

I’m personally not a great fan of astrologists, psychics, etc. But this story is rather horrifying: a man goes to the holiest cities of Islam to perform an act of piety, and is arrested and sentenced to death for breaking the law – a violation that occurred in another country, under a different set of laws. Talk about a guardian state …


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, education, Islam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

20,000 students “just like that”: American universities in Kuwait

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 20, 2009

This post isn’t about the upcoming Lebanese elections, or funny words in Arabic, or even about my prospects as a dictator. Its about Kuwait, and by extension about the many countries around the region who have been working over the past few years to partner with American, Australian, French, and UK universities as a way of making world-class higher education available to students within their national borders.

Its a tricky process, I think, and requires a great deal of trust on both sides. The article is long, but if you are a student, an educator, or simply an interested citizen, I think you will find it a good and useful read.

New Private Universities in Kuwait Pin Their Hopes on U.S. Partners



Sharply dressed in black suits and bright red ties, the two recruiters latch onto high-school students as they walk through the gates of Exhibition Hall No. 8 at the Kuwait fairgrounds.

“I want to tell you about the American University of the Middle East,” one of the recruiters says, following a visitor into the university fair.

“We’re affiliated with Purdue University, from the United States. Do you know Purdue?” his sidekick adds, brandishing a clipboard emblazoned with the Purdue logo. “Would you like more information? Just fill out this card and visit our booth. We have a coffee bar there.”

These recruiters have figured out that the key to selling private higher education in Kuwait is to emphasize what may be their year-old institution’s most important asset: its affiliation with a top foreign university.

“The international affiliation is very important. Purdue is a good American university. Its reputation is known,” says Ahmad Al-Jaber, one of many high-school seniors who swarm around the American University of the Middle East’s booth. “And it’s not going to put its name with a school that is not good. Is it?”

This implied assurance of quality is more than just an institutional strategy. It’s a national one. When Kuwait lifted a ban on private higher education less than a decade ago, it decided that the best way to ensure the development of academically sound universities was to require all new institutions to have foreign partners.

That policy has helped the country rapidly build a credible private higher-education system where none existed before. In only eight years, eight private colleges have opened in this sprawling city-state, catering to some 13,000 students. Nine additional institutions have been authorized to open in the next few years.

Two other Kuwaiti universities have paired with American colleges. The Gulf University for Science and Technology, a polytechnic, teamed up with the University of Missouri at St. Louis; and the American University of Kuwait, a liberal-arts college, is in partnership with Dartmouth College. Other private colleges have Australian or European partners.

To be sure, Kuwait’s private universities have not yet established the kind of academic profile needed to place the small nation on the academic map. When it comes to the Middle East’s higher-education renaissance, nobody mentions Kuwait’s colleges in the same breath as New York University’s soon-to-open campus in Abu Dhabi or Qatar’s Education City, whose six U.S. branch campuses have established Doha as a college town on the Persian Gulf.

But here in Kuwait, the private universities have transformed the local scene.

For more than three decades, private higher education was banned in Kuwait. The giant, state-owned Kuwait University was the only option for students who wanted to earn a college degree in this emirate at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

But as the number of Kuwaitis edged close to a million during the 1990s, Kuwait University simply could not keep up with the demand.

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates faced similar challenges. But the unopposed rulers of those petrodollar-rich monarchies could set aside the kind of public money needed to build flashy campuses and lure top foreign universities to fill them up.

Politics are much more complicated in Kuwait, an aspiring democracy where a tumultuous parliament frequently exercises its power to oppose the ruling family’s decisions, including on the national budget. Public money has never been as easily available as it has been among Kuwait’s neighbors.

So the Ministry of Higher Education settled on a more cost-effective approach: It turned to the private sector.

The government has set out a number of requirements for private investors wishing to develop their own universities. The foreign partner must be ranked among the top 200 by The Times Higher Education Supplement or appear on U.S. News and World Report’s top tier of colleges. The relationship between the Kuwaiti institution and its foreign partner must be a meaningful one.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re buying degrees — fancy degrees, with fancy names, but not enough meat,” says Imad Alatiqi, secretary general of the Private Universities Council, which regulates all private universities in Kuwait. “We want substantive relationships, where there is a commitment of quality from the local people and from the international people.”

Within those requirements, though, there is quite a bit of variety. The University of Maastricht Business School, in the Netherlands, and the Box Hill Institute, in Australia, have opened branch campuses or franchises of their home institutions in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti partners take a back seat when it comes to day-to-day operations.

Other local investors have chosen to seek advice from their foreign partners, but manage their own academics and operations.

In those cases, the Private Universities Council requires the foreign partner to submit a formal opinion every time the Kuwaiti university makes a major academic decision, such as starting a program or hiring an academic officer.

The council, which licenses and accredits all institutions, also sets the standards it expects private universities in Kuwait to meet.

“Any arrangement between the two universities that can deliver those standards, we welcome,” Mr. Alatiqi says.

A Liberal-Arts Alternative

In 2003 a group of investors led by Sheikha Dana Nasser Al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family, wanted to establish an American-style liberal-arts college. They approached Dartmouth, which offered the kind of curriculum and approach to teaching they hoped to emulate.

They first called Dale F. Eickelman, a Dartmouth anthropologist. It was clear to him, he says, that the Kuwaiti investors wanted to develop a deep relationship.

“From the start, their instinct was to say to us, ‘We don’t just want you to sign off on things for us, we want you to help us aim for the highest level,'” says Mr. Eickelman, who has spent more than three decades working in the Middle East.

Dartmouth found the idea of helping build a liberal-arts college in the Middle East, a relatively uncommon concept here, hard to resist.

Six years later, hundreds of students now mingle in the shaded courtyards of the American University of Kuwait, switching seamlessly from Arabic to English and back again.

The compact campus on the outskirts of this dusty city, with its palm trees and glass buildings, could not seem farther from Hanover, N.H. But inside its classrooms, the approach to learning is similar.

The largely Western-educated faculty members do not expect their students to memorize lectures, as is common in Middle Eastern universities. Instead, Dartmouth has helped the American University of Kuwait set up the kind of curriculum and structure that, Mr. Eickelman says, encourage students to learn how to form their own opinions.

The university emphasizes a broad liberal education. After the Private Universities Council concluded that Kuwait had no need for anthropologists, Dartmouth worked with university officials to successfully argue that degrees in anthropology and sociology would prepare students for a wide variety of careers.

Dartmouth’s agreement with the American University of Kuwait, which extends until at least 2013, is intentionally vague, says Laurel R. Stavis, executive director of the Dartmouth College-American University of Kuwait Project. There is no pro forma checklist of things the two institutions must do for each other.

Instead the relationship is an “organic” one that changes to meet the Kuwaiti university’s needs as it matures, Ms. Stavis says.

Administrators and faculty members from the American University of Kuwait are able to turn to a group of Dartmouth consultants, selected by Ms. Stavis and Mr. Eickelman, for advice on issues like governance, faculty recruiting, and communications.

Students from both universities have begun traveling back and forth. This summer an American University of Kuwait faculty member will be awarded a fellowship to spend a month conducting research in Hanover.

Ms. Stavis is also helping develop a dual-degree program that would enable Kuwaiti students interested in engineering degrees, which are not offered by the American University of Kuwait, to complete their studies in New Hampshire, earning a Dartmouth degree.

The Kuwaiti university covers all of Dartmouth’s expenses, but it is hardly a money-making opportunity for the college, Mr. Eickelman says.

“The amount of money is a joke. Let’s just say it’s tremendously little for the work that is being done,” he says, declining to say exactly how much money Dartmouth has brought in.

Building Up the Sciences

Joel Glassman, associate provost and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says his university is more interested in helping to build indigenous institutions overseas than in cloning the home campus and transplanting it to the other side of the world.

“It’s not so mysterious,” says Mr. Glassman, who heads up Missouri’s work with the Gulf University for Science and Technology. “They’re asking for our advice. Academics are not shy people. There is nothing we love more than being asked for advice.”

Administrators and faculty members from St. Louis have helped the Kuwaiti university develop academic programs and curriculum, recruit faculty and staff members, and build the university’s administrative organization.

The Gulf University for Science and Technology, which opened in 2002 and enrolls about 2,600 students, modeled its programs after those offered in Missouri. Students can earn undergraduate degrees in computer science, English, business, and mass communications, and a master’s in business administration.

Like the American University of Kuwait, it requires all undergraduates to take a set of general-education courses.

The university has ambitious plans to spend $100-million to expand its campus to house a full-fledged engineering college.

This is Missouri’s second such partnership in the Persian Gulf. It has advised the Modern College of Business and Science, in Muscat, Oman, since it opened in the early 1990s.

Now Missouri is helping the science-and-technology university as it seeks accreditation from AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Robert Cook, vice president for academic affairs at the university in Kuwait, is in the process of hiring 38 faculty members.

He says the relationship with the Missouri campus has given the university’s recruitment efforts a boost. Attracting quality faculty members is often the biggest challenge new universities face in the region.

“For potential faculty members who have never been to the Middle East before, Kuwait can seem an intimidating place,” says Mr. Cook. “So we did all the interviews for American candidates on the St. Louis campus, and a University of Missouri-St. Louis faculty member in the same field sat in on the interviews.”

That assured candidates that the Gulf University for Science and Technology is a serious institution, strongly linked to a serious U.S. university, Mr. Cook says.

The Kuwaiti university has not yet built much of a regional reputation, but here in Kuwait its skills-based programs are highly regarded.

Mr. Cook boasts that 80 percent of its graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Unlike most public-university graduates, who are automatically given government jobs, graduates of the Gulf University for Science and Technology typically find work in the private sector, where employers demand the best candidates, he says.

Gaining Credibility

Back at the university fair, the American University of the Middle East’s recruiters have done their job: The university’s booth is surrounded by teenagers filling out applications for next fall.

The campus is still in its first year of operation. About 100 students are enrolled in three degree programs — business, design, and information technology — which operate out of a single building at the edge of a windswept stretch of land.

Purdue has agreed to help the Kuwaiti university design and build “some very Purdue-like programs that will, over time, morph into the kind of programs they need in Kuwait,” says Andrew Gillespie, Purdue’s associate dean of international programs.

Kuwait’s private universities face a clear challenge as they continue to expand. The best Kuwaiti students still prefer to study abroad. And two out of every five students — 20,000 of them — take advantage of generous overseas government scholarships every year.

Mr. Al-Jaber, the Kuwaiti student, says that his first choice is to study abroad and his second choice is to study at the American University of Kuwait. But, he adds, the American University of the Middle East is not a bad third choice.

While that suggests that many Kuwaiti students still don’t have confidence in the quality of their own higher-education system, Mr. Alatiqi, of the Private Universities Council, prefers to see the students as an untapped market.

“So you can see why we’re so concerned about building quality universities,” says Mr. Alatiqi, snapping his fingers. “We can pick up 20,000 more students just like that.”

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, education | 2 Comments »

Lebanon calling

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 8, 2009

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reading about the Lebanese Ministry of Communications’ plans to encourage the establishment of call centers in Lebanon, starting with the ten contracts it signed in late March. Earlier this month, the telecomm industry newsite TMCnet reported that one of these contracted firms, Call Center International, is moving ahead with its plans to open five call centers throughout Lebanon. Although CCI is a California-based firm, it will operate in Lebanon as a local branch (with a largely non-functional website) in partnership with a U.S. firm called InContact, whose software will route calls placed in the U.S. to Lebanese customer service agents.

The TMCnet articles notes thatThis move [by the Ministry] is part of the Lebanese government’s efforts to try and provide more jobs for its workforce, which is considered to be well educated and highly skilled. In addition to the licenses, the Lebanese government has also pledged to provide full support and encouragement of the new business.”

I’m all for initiatives to bring more service jobs to Lebanon – especially those located outside of Beirut -, and to diversify its employment sectors. And if this expansion comes with increased education and professional training opportunities, so much the better. (CCI Senior Corporate Advisor William Robertson is quoted in the article as saying, “One of our key focus areas includes the development of online distance education for schools, government agencies, and higher learning institutions.”)

On the other hand, I’ve had some fairly scarring outsourced call service experiences. Foreign customer service agents seem measurably less interested in customer service, sadly. More importantly, they seem much less willing to take a creative, problem-solving approach to the problems that necessitate calling the service line in the first place.

I don’t think this latter issue will carry over to Lebanon, but I do worry about the type of problem solving they might suggest. I can just imagine myself calling to contest a credit card charge, or to be rebooked when my scheduled flight is late, and being asked whether I have any relatives or friends who work at the mis-charging store, or at the carrier whose flight I want to switch to. Its better if you know somebody, I can hear my friendly Lebanese helper telling me.

I’m not sure that this is a problem-solving approach that I want brought to the U.S. :).

Posted in economics, education, Lebanon | Leave a Comment »

getting readiest: more elections prep

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 7, 2009

Thanks to Blacksmith Jade and Jester for passing along the ads I’ve been finding about voter registration – and thanks to those of you who find this kind of stuff less engrossing than I do.

This morning something even more useful found its way into my inbox: the same advertisement I posted on Wednesday, framed by a note from the Ministry of the Interior and Lebanon’s baladiyas, a set of FAQs (with answers!) and a list of numbers to call for questions regarding personal status and voter eligibility:



This is a great, great PSA. It educates voters and it empowers them. (Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that calling any one of these numbers will put you in touch with someone helpful and/or motivated. That’s a global problem, as those of you who have dealt with such legendary U.S. institutions as the driver’s license, post, and/or Social Security Administration offices know all too well.)

The number of Lebanese friends I have who participated in some pro-Lebanon activity in 2005 is very high. But the number of Lebanese friends I have who voted in the 2005 election is very low. Some felt that their votes would not count; some faced discrimination when they tried to register at the baladiya; and some felt that regardless of who won the elections, their voices as citizens would be ignored. Their stories – and the turnout number – break my heart. I would love to see a record voter turn-out in June, on all sides, because people who vote are more likely to see themselves as stakeholders in other aspects of civic life as well.

For me each election brings the promise of a new beginning and the chance to reaffirm the meaning of democracy. As an American, I feel that I honor my ancestors and the ideals of my country when I cast my vote – even when the candidate or proposition I support doesn’t win. As a woman, I feel that I honor the men and women who struggled to make this country a real democracy, in which all citizens, regardless of race or sex, can participate.

I hope that those of you who can vote in June feel similarly (well, with obvious adjustments for my male readers), and I hope that you do vote. And if you haven’t double-checked your registration, please do so before Tuesday!

Posted in advertising, Arabic, Beirut, citizenship, education, Lebanon, politics | 2 Comments »

English at Level Zero

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 6, 2009

Whatever did I do for email entertainment before the Lebanese ad industry found me? I wondered this morning. Oh yes – I remember now. I read through my scam emails, which promised love and friendship – not to mention lucre.

Here’s one from an outfit new to me: the American Education Center, which is offering English courses:

att00077I can think of several things that seem odd about this advertisement.

First, isn’t advertising in English for “Level zero” courses a bit misguided in terms of reaching the AEC’s target audience?

Second, aren’t “academic persons” – among whom I count myself – more likely to need a Level Ten or even Twenty course, given our preference for complicated jargon and convoluted sentence structure? (And does the course come with training in critical related areas such as “limiting one’s social skills” and “looking down at one’s notes rather than at one’s audience”?)

Finally: where is Level Two?

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arabic, Beirut, education, Lebanon, words | Leave a Comment »

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 »

mollusk silk: more from Bsous

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 12, 2009

Since it is the season of love, indulge me as I return to one of my Lebanese loves: the Bsous Silk Museum. I’m not actually a great silk wearer, but the history of silk production in Lebanon is one of my favorite stories.

Any thanks to a casual remark from one of my former professors, I am now curious about the name of the town itself. I understand that “Bsous” comes originally from a Syriac word, and wonder whether it might be linked to the word “byssus”, which appears in the Old Testament – in Exodus, where it is often translated as “linen” or “wool” or even “yarn”. Byssus is the term for the silk-like threads that some types of mollusks (shelled creatures in the mussel and clam family) secrete to anchor themselves to the sea-floor. (Think this sounds gross? Schedule a visit to the Bsous Silk Museum and ask to meet the silkworms.)

Merriam-Webster tells me that “byssus” comes from Middle English bissus, from Latin byssus, from Greek byssos flax, of Semitic origin; akin to Hebrew būṣ linen cloth. And apparently byssus silk and worm silk were seen as much the same – both somewhat nubbier and more linen-like than the silk we use today, thanks to the difference in hand-spun and machine-spun threads.

You can probably figure out my question. Do any of you know whether “Bsous” the town derives from the same word as “byssus”, and whether there was any ancient connection between its land-based silk-making and sea silk? Bsous isn’t a coastal town, so I’m guessing that the term “byssus”/Bsous was used by analogy, but I’m curious whether it was applied first to silk worms and then to silk clams, or vice versa.

Posted in academia, animals, Arab world, Beirut, bugs, clothing, education, Lebanon, research, sea | 1 Comment »

Open Doors: studying abroad and students from abroad

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 8, 2009

Yesterday evening I had a nice chat with a college friend who has also spent time in the Middle East – well, in Kuwait at least. We talked about the changes that Kuwait in particular, and the region in general, has undergone in the eight years since he was last there.

What we really need, he said, is to send more American students there, and to keep bringing more Middle Eastern students here. Of course, the latter is easier said than done, thanks to our onerous visa process. But it is illuminating to see how many American students do study abroad in the region, and where they go – as well as how many come here.

Conveniently enough, a report was recently released giving the latest statistics: Open Doors, an annual report that tracks trends in university study abroad programs, and on international students and scholars coming to the United States.

According to its statistics on the Middle East, 11% more students from the region came to the US for the 2007-08 academic year – a total of 24,755. The number from North Africa increased 4%, to 3,858. 28,613 students from the region isn’t bad – but compared to the roughly 300 million people who live in the Arab world, its a small amount.

The biggest sending countries are Saudi Arabia (9,873), Iran (3,060) [go figure!], Israel (3,004), Jordan (1,799), Kuwait (1,823), Lebanon (1,807), Egypt (1,766), and Morocco (1,132). Saudi Arabia and Iran are much larger countries, population-wise, so its not surprising that they send proportionately more students. (Well, it wouldn’t be surprising if we didn’t have sanctions against Iran. I’m curious to know more about the Iranian students, most of whom appear to be graduate students.)

If you thought the 28,613 MENA students was a small number, guess how many Americans studied abroad in the region last year?

2,764 in the Middle East (an increase of 7%) and 1,658 in North Africa (an increase of 14%).

The biggest destination countries: Israel (2,226) and Egypt (1,100).

In other words, of the 4,222 American students who studied abroad in the Middle East and North Africa most recently, 52.7% of them went to Israel.

Food for thought. In the meantime, I’m off to learn more about white phosphorus.

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, education, Israel, travel | 2 Comments »

more from the Green Guides: a guide to the Lebanese woman

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 8, 2008

I can’t resist typing in this gem from Rouhi Jamil’s Green Guides: Beirut and the Republic of Lebanon, which I blogged about over the weekend. Here is his take on “The Lebanese Woman”:

She is no longer the ignorant being so despised formerly. She is as much advanced as the Western woman. On the whole, she is sufficiently educated to be able to shoulder, with the man, the responsibility of life.

Dignified, elegant (without exaggeration), conservative (without excess), she was able to adapt herself easily to modern Civilization. If she is so much interested in learning and to be active, it is because she wants to bring her individuality to yet a higher perfection. Man helps her in this respect by opening education to her. The Lebanese woman exerts a considerable social influence: she has founded many philanthropic and cultural societies, and made her voice heard anywhere. The Moslem as well as the Christian has rendered great services to her country and to its freedom.

And now a few comments – mostly on the first paragraph, which I like less than the second:

1) Please remember that this was written in 1948, when Western women in France and other European countries still lacked the right to vote. And who despised Lebanese women? Historical documents show them to have been active in family and business life, even if they were not the big names of politics and religion. As for shouldering the responsibility of life … I bet that Jamil’s mother, not to mention his grandmothers, would have raised their eyebrows at the suggestion that they played no role in ensuring that he was tended and fed, and that the family home and finances were kept well in order.

2) I’m going to ignore the “without exaggeration” clause, since I find my glitter and accessories tolerance a bit lower than most Lebanese, male and female. But I do agree that Lebanese men and women have each proven themselves highly adaptable – to the demands of modernity and to life generally. And I like that he mentions women’s desite for education and “active” engagement in life, as well as their very important role in volunteering and public service. The importance of women’s philanthropy is often under-estimated – but in terms of social benefit, not to mention the sums of money managed and spent, it has played a major role in many societies.

Finally, I like that he specifically includes Muslim and Christian women in this process, and includes them in the fight for independence – a contribution that people often miss, whether in Lebanon, the United States, or any other formerly colonized power.

So: for all my Lebanese woman friends, and for all my Lebanese guy friends who have Lebanese mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and cousins – in 2008 as in 1948, these ladies are all pretty special.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, books, citizenship, education, family, Lebanon, time, women, words | 4 Comments »

Defining the Middle East

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 19, 2008

Yesterday MESH (the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog) had what seemed to be a delightfully time-wasting post on online quizzes about the Middle East.

I didn’t find any time to waste yesterday, but while stuck on a phone call this afternoon, I decided to try my hand at two geography quizzes aimed at testing my ability to correctly identify each Middle Eastern country on a map: Geo Quizz Middle East and Rethinking Schools’ Map Game.

Some of my errors were totally my fault. What was I thinking, forgetting about Libya? Or putting Oman where the UAE should be?

But others I would argue were the fault of the designers, and the general US tendency to leave “Middle East” as an ill-defined catch-all region.

What was Pakistan doing on these map quizzes? Why was Mali included?

Should North Africa be included (or central Africa, for that matter)? Should the ‘stans?

The two quizzes each listed roughly 35 countries as belonging to the Middle East. I find this fascinating, but I wish they had included a working definition of the term. Is it geography that connects all these countries? Culture? Religion? Language? When the scope is this broad, it seems to me that what they end up sharing is simply the “middle-ness” of being in the catch-all bin.

Anyway. Take the quizzes and enjoy – and if you do better than I did on in Africa and Central Asia, chalk my request for a “working definition” up to sour grapes 🙂 .

Posted in education, internet, maps, research | 1 Comment »