A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘espionage’ Category

a bicycle built to Yahoo

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 21, 2008

In response to yesterday’s post on “A bicycle built to view“, someone from Yahoo wrote this comment:

Yahoo Start Wearing Purple Campaign Says:
December 21, 2008 at 4:39 pm e

Yahoo has a fleet of about twenty of these bicycles all over the world! They’re part of Yahoo’s “Start Wearing Purple” campaign.

I went to the Start Wearing Purple website, which unfortunately wasn’t too enlightening – although I did learn several “fun facts” about the color purple. (For a sense of the general response to this campaign, see “And you thought Microsoft’s marketing campaign was weird”, here.)

And by googling “purple pedals” (the name of the “Start Wearing Purple” bicycle campaign) I found the Beirut bicycle – and its rider – here. The photos taken by the bike’s camera upload to Flickr every so often – but the latest set currently available is from November, sadly.

I can’t wait to see the ones taken this week – I’m anticipating scowling ISF and Jumblatt security forces, not to mention the special forces men in blue.

And I’m dying to know, Yahoo: how is the Beirut experience working for your marketing campaign 🙂 ? Any chance of inspiring the ISF with purple, “the color of innovation”?

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Posted in advertising, Beirut, espionage, Lebanon, vanity | 2 Comments »

a bicycle built to view

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 20, 2008

This morning when I checked the Lebanese news I learned that a “spy bicycle” – one equipped with a camera – had been found “between Jumblatt’s residence and Future TV“. Hunh? I used to live in the next neighborhood over, and I can tell you that no bicycle – not even a bicycle built for giant – would be large enough to monitor the two buildings at the same time. They’re in the same neighborhood, but they are still at least half a mile apart from one another.

But that wasn’t all. Apparently this super-bicycle was also monitoring the headquarters of BankMed, the Hariri-owned bank, which is located on Clemenceau and the road leading up from the Phoenicia. Again: one bike, able to do all this spying?

Now Lebanon posted a photograph of the bicycle in question on its website – and when I saw it, I burst out laughing:

bycicle-joumblat-420x

What espionage professionals would use a bright purple, women’s bicycle as a spy vehicle? How many people have you seen biking around within the city of Beirut? How many of them have been women? And how many of them have been riding technicolor bikes?

I wonder how long it took the ISF to notice the bicycle, and to “confiscate” it.

And I wonder whether the disclosure that the bike belongs to David-Munir Nabti, the recent face of the Democrats Abroad – Lebanon group, will have any impact on President-elect Obama’s popularity in Lebanon.

Posted in Beirut, espionage, humor, Lebanon, photography, research, women | 6 Comments »

Beirut through vaseline: Season of Betrayal

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 2, 2008

My latest used book purchase arrived in last Tuesday’s mail – just in time for me to stash it in my carry-on when I flew home the next day. I had been wanting to read Margaret Lowrie Robertson’s Season of Betrayal since I had run across a mention of it earlier this fall.

I’m always a sucker for books set in Beirut, and this one, which follows the disintegrating marriage of a journalist and his wife during a stint in Beirut in the early 1980s, seemed promising.

season-of-betrayal

It was a good read, and my thoughts have returned to mull over bits of it several times this week. But two things kept me from liking the book as much as I wanted to.

First, the main character, Lara, is an absolute wet rag. She spends much of the book doing nothing. I understand that this is her character, and it makes the impact of her final denouement action all the stronger, but … I found it hard to relate to her. She did so little to make her situation any better – and so little, period – that it was like watching her through glass smeared with Vaseline.

Second, Robertson’s characterization of the actors in the civil war in the early 1980s was a bit heavy-handed. She takes a very teleological perspective on the Syrians, Hizbullah (whose existence as an organization at this point in time is debated), Islamic Jihad, Amal, and ‘the Druze’ – by which I mean that she describes them much as a Bush Administration official might have in 2006. Its helpful to the reader unfamiliar with Lebanon, because it doesn’t require him/her to stretch him/herself by thinking historically, but it isn’t accurate.

On the other hand, the fact that I am still thinking about the book – and now writing about it – means that these two “flaws” are also precisely the elements that keep me engaged six days after reading it. So: if you have a long plane ride in your future and can be patient with an indecisive woman and a tricky, war-ridden city, you are in for an engrossing read.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, books, espionage, Lebanon, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »

“The book ends differently than the movie”: Body of Lies

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 28, 2008

Those of you living in the United States have probably heard about the new Ridley Scott movie, Body of Lies. It came out earlier this month: another CIA-in-the-Middle-East adventure flick, starring Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.

You might not have wanted to see it in any case, given what the New York Times called its “grinding tedium”. And you may have been turned off by what even reviewers noted was an improbable romance between Damon’s character and a Jordan-based Iranian refugee nurse (They scoffed at the religious and cultural differences, but readers with experience in the region will be scratching their heads at the thought of Iranians in Jordan. The Iranian refugees I know all live in Damascus.)

Well, guess what? As my AP English literature teacher used to say in high school: the book ends differently than the movie. And in this case, the book begins and middles differently than the movie, too.

You will love this book. The characters are beautifully drawn – they come alive immediately. The region is aptly portrayed, with the minor exception of the one hospital scene, which takes place not in Amman but in Tripoli. (Who goes to Tripoli for non-emergency medical care, when Beirut is only two hours away?)

I’m not going to tell you the plot, but I am going to tell you that it is not only very different, but much better than the movie.

And I will give you a few hints.

First, the main character’s name is Roger Ferris.

Second, his dearly departed grandfather spoke very little and only vaguely about his origins in the “Balkan region” of the Ottoman Empire.

Third, the Jordanian mukhabarat plays a starring role – in a good way. (When asked about torture, the director says: we find torture incredibly ineffective. But we know our reputation, and we make use of it. The sounds of screaming in the prisons? All a recording.)

Fourth, there is romance and a strong woman character (woo hoo!), but she is not Iranian.

This is not an anti-American book, and it is not an anti-CIA book. It is a gripping read, and it offers something that we need to see much more of in contemporary American literature: Muslim heroes.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, books, citizenship, Damascus, espionage, family, home, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, politics, romance, Syria, words | 4 Comments »

Lebanon career opportunity 1: looking like Nasrallah

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 16, 2008

News of the weird, from today’s Daily Star:

A Hizbullah media official told Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in comments Wednesday that the group was “unaware” of information published by Iranian newspaper Khoursid last week, which reported that the Hizbullah’s leadership had selected Hachem Safieddine as a successor to secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Khoursid quoted senior Iranian officials as saying that if “the Zionists succeed in assassinating Nasrallah, Hachem Safieddine will take over the party.” “Having leaders that look alike is one of the ways that Hizbullah wages psychological warfare against the enemy, in that the assassination of one leader does not create a problem or harm the resistance,” the newspaper wrote.

The weird part is not that Hizbullah would have a succession plan in place – that’s just good planning. Its that Khorshid claims that the plan prioritizes finding someone who looks like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s charisma does lie partly in his sunny smile and sweet manner – but mostly it is the result of his strategic and oratorical brilliance. The idea that replacing him can be done by anyone with a beard, a roly-poly countenance and a sayyid’s turban doesn’t seem like psychological warfare. It just seems silly.

But if you have ever been told: You could be a good Nasrallah for Halloween and you are looking for a job, keep your eye out for Israeli assassination squads in Dahiyeh.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, espionage, Iran, Lebanon, media, politics, vanity, words | Leave a Comment »

weekend reading: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 12, 2008

Last weekend was an utter reading binge for me, thanks to the long flights between New York and Oklahoma City. I indulged shamelessly in mysteries: two Donna Leons, thanks to my aunt’s recommendations and my own fond memories of a stay in Venice with the Abu Owlfishes fourteen years ago (where does the time go?).

And I also read a book that I had ordered several months ago but never quite managed to open: Matt Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem, a mystery involving a Christian man accused of collaborating with the Israelis and an elderly Muslim school-teacher determined to clear the man, his former pupil.

This was a hard book to read. Not because it is badly written or the plot stumbles – on the contrary, it is well written and the plot is gripping, in a quiet, menacing way. For me, it was hard to read because having been to Bethlehem and seen the shuttered shops around the Church of the Manger, as well as the beautiful big houses built when people there were making money in the 1990s (or thanks to remittance from abroad), I can imagine the economic desperation. And it was also hard because having heard Christian residents mourn their declining numbers as the younger generation gets visas to leave the country, I can imagine the sectarian tensions that Rees describes.

What I didn’t see when I was in Bethlehem was the way the town is governed: by the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, according to Rees. And much of the tension that seeps into each successive page comes from the control that its za’im-like leaders exert over the population.

The Israelis are a presence in the book, but it is a muted one. They appear directly only twice: once, when a squad of tanks and helicopters arrives one afternoon to tear up the road in front of the school-teacher’s house, destroying water and sewer pipes that leave his family without water and with the neighborhood’s sewage pouring into their basement; and once when they arrive to search a neighbor’s apartment and bring the apartment building’s residents to the school-teacher’s house to wait out the search.

But in a way, they are a non-issue: their existence sets the parameters of life in Bethlehem, but it is the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade that looms large over political and economic life.

This is a well-written, gripping book, but it is a hard book to read because the innocent are not spared and the guilty are not punished. I recommend it whole-heartedly, but I also warn you: if you are sentimental, read it with a box of kleenex nearby. And if you have hopes for good governance in Palestine, you may end the book with a heavy heart.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, citizenship, espionage, Israel, Palestine, words | Leave a Comment »

bulls gone wild

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 20, 2008

I’m de-fragging the computer that hosts our office’s shared files, and there’s not much work I can do until it finishes. Thank goodness for Naharnet, which is reporting on a major, crisis-inducing Resolution 1701 violation – an attack Israeli bull:

A bull which had infiltrated Lebanese territory from Israel has attacked Spanish peacekeepers and headbutted their vehicles before being shot dead, An Nahar daily reported Wednesday. It said the UNIFIL troops were erecting an electric barbed wire to prevent Israeli cows from entering Lebanese territory at the Baathaeel pond when Israeli soldiers unleashed the wild bull on the peacekeepers.

A Spanish soldier shot the bull dead after it ran towards the U.N. troops and began headbutting their vehicles, the newspaper said.

The peacekeepers then buried the bull and continued their work to erect the wire, which according to An Nahar, it has stopped the infiltration of Israeli cows to the pond area.

I’m dying laughing at the idea of a bull “infiltrating” enemy territory, not to mention the accusation that the IDF “unleashed” it on UNIFIL. Can’t you just imagine the discussion in Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office?

We couldn’t get Hizbullah to surrender when we used our F16s, and we couldn’t get them to surrender when we tried a land invasion – but by God, we will get them to surrender to our attack bull.

Given that the Israeli government is currently threatening to target “the entire Lebanese state” (not to mention “all the Lebanese” people) if it “legitimizes” Hizbullah, I think that it is planning something more than a livestock invasion.

As for the poor UNIFIL soldiers who had to first defend themselves from attack and then bury the bull, my heart goes out to them. I’m sure that many days in Lebanon are a bit surreal for them – but today must have reached a new level.

Posted in animals, Arab world, Beirut, dairy, espionage, humor, Israel, Lebanon, media, neighbors, politics, UNIFIL, words | 2 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 »

Food for thought: Beirut dining in 1975

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 21, 2008

While trying to find a photo of the now sadly defunct Taj Mahal for my post on a national unity cuisine, I stumbled across a wonderful, rich feature on the global span of Beirut’s restaurants. It was published by Saudi ARAMCO World in late 1975. (If you get bored with the article itself, scroll down to the end – there’s a little “fun fact” there that conspiracy theorists won’t want to miss.)

Not long ago, a Beirut businessman and his guest from California met before dinner in the glass-walled lounge atop the Hotel Le Vendôme. As they munched pistachio nuts and sipped their drinks, sunset turned the mountains a deep rose and flecked the sea with gold. Darkness fell and lights came on aboard the ships at anchor and in the villages, sprinkling the harbor and hillsides with a starry sparkle. The men talked of other lovely views, of Rio and Hong Kong, and the visitor’s travel fatigue gently slipped away. “I’m hungry as a bear,” he said. “If we were in San Francisco, I’d say let’s go to Chinatown for some spareribs and dim sum .”

“Nothing easier,” the host replied. “We’ll go around the corner to the Pagoda.” Within minutes the hungry San Franciscan was happily clacking his chopsticks, choosing “Two from List A, One from List B.”

The same scenario could easily have been adjusted to cheer a visitor from Paris, London, Madrid, Bucharest, Tokyo, Rome or Riyadh. Fortunate Beirutis! They can dine around the world without leaving home. Few cities are endowed with the range of authentic national cuisines to be found in the restaurants of the Lebanese capital.

There is nothing accidental about Beirut’s eclectic gastronomy. Historically, Lebanon has been a crossroads of cultures. Climatically, its range from temperate to near-tropical permits cultivation of an astonishing variety of foods. Economically, it not only caters to an international clientele but also, for lack of other resources, must make the most of service industries and tourism.

Lebanon, like the rest of the Levant, has from earliest times served as a cross-fertilization point between East and West, a fact that is reflected as much in its eating habits as in its great social diversity. The basic culinary legacy of this past is the spectrum of dishes common throughout the former Ottoman Empire, especially the array of various appetizers called mezeh , the skewered meats grilled over charcoal and the honey-drenched pastries. The French mandate between the two World Wars firmly established the cuisine of Paris, while the postwar emergence of Beirut as a Middle East headquarters for international banking and trade has added influences from every continent.

Lebanon, like the rest of the Levant, has from earliest times served as a cross-fertilization point between East and West, a fact that is reflected as much in its eating habits as in its great social diversity. The basic culinary legacy of this past is the spectrum of dishes common throughout the former Ottoman Empire, especially the array of various appetizers called mezeh , the skewered meats grilled over charcoal and the honey-drenched pastries. The French mandate between the two World Wars firmly established the cuisine of Paris, while the postwar emergence of Beirut as a Middle East headquarters for international banking and trade has added influences from every continent.

One cannot overstate, however, the importance of Lebanon’s fresh produce. When asked the secret of his success, French three-star chef Paul Bocuse once replied, “I do not prepare a meal according to a recipe, but according to what is best on the market on the particular day.” The suqs of Beirut are a chef’s paradise. Lebanon’s Mediterranean coastline, Bekaa Valley and the cultivated terraces that ridge the steep contours of Mount Lebanon amount to an agricultural phenomenon. Apples and bananas grow within a few miles of each other. Freshness is a fetish: heads of lettuce are “alive” in the markets, their roots still packed in clumps of moist earth. In season the colorful Beirut suq offers almost any vegetable you can name, from artichokes to zucchini. Covered lanes, each with a specialty, are crammed with fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, spices, seafood, poultry, meat, game, cheeses and confectionery. The abundance of these top-quality ingredients (tough beef, unfattened and fresh-killed, is the exception) forms the solid foundation of Beirut’s reputation as the culinary capital of the Middle East.

The best food in Beirut, of course, is Lebanese (or Lebanon’s special version of Middle East cookery), and its finest form is the mezeh. A mezeh can be anything from half a dozen saucers of appetizers to a spread of 50 dishes, a veritable banquet. A basic selection will include crunchy raw carrot sticks, radishes, lettuce hearts, cucumber and green pepper slices, salted nuts, olives, crumbly goat’s cheese, green onions, sprigs of mint and mountain thyme, pickled turnips and peppers, strained yogurt (labneh) topped with golden olive oil, and the national specialties: hummus bi tahini, baba ghannouj, and tabbouleh . In the center, in reach of all, will be a stack of the puffy hollow rounds of flat Arab bread or sheets of the paper-thin mountain bread. Bread is torn to make scoops for the dips and to enwrap tidbits of meat and vegetables. It can also serve as a plate, table cloth and napkin.

A word about those specialties. Hummus is a paste of chick peas flavored with sesame seed oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Baba ghannouj is a smoky dip of eggplant that has been charred over a flame and whipped with the same flavorings to a fluffy consistency. Tabbouleh is a salad composed of quantities of chopped parsley, onions, tomatoes and mint leaves mixed with softened cracked wheat kernels (burghul ) and dressed with lemon juice and a little oil. These dips are attractively served, swirled into a saucer and garnished with whole chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, a sprinkling of paprika or sprigs of cress or mint.

Nutritionally speaking, mezeh followed by a dessert of Lebanon’s exquisite clementines adds up to a perfect balanced diet. When you’re dining out in Beirut, however, it’s just for openers. The mezeh can be extended almost indefinitely with stuffed vine leaves, flaky bourik and sambousik (meat-filled pastries), “cigars” of pastry with cheese inside, kibbeh (macerated lamb and burghul ) served raw with garnishes as a Lebanese steak tartare, or shaped into balls or pie wedges stuffed with lamb mincemeat and pinenuts and baked, and tiny roast “fig-pecking” bird you eat bones and all.

You can enjoy this extended meal in many different settings. At Al-Ajami a venerable restaurant open twenty four hours a day in the cloth suq district of old Beirut, you can go into the kitchen to make your selection—and a restaurant with an open kitchen has got to be good. At Le Grenier on Phoenicia Street you are served in summer in a lanternlit garden, at Yildizlar in a grand salon overlooking the Ras Beirut head land, at Al-Barmaki in an agreeable oriental setting one flight above the bustle of Hamra Street. At the Sultan Ibrahim on the beach, south of the city you buy your fish or shrimps by the pound on the way to your table. All of these establishments have good mezeh and excellent grilled lamb, poultry or seafood. To single them out is only to suggest five different settings; the city abounds with first-rate practitioners of Arab cuisine.

And this is only the top, as the farmer said when he gazed for the first time on the sea. The time comes when the expatriate from Tokyo craves his sushi, the Parisian his escargots, the Milanese his osso bucco , and when it comes Beirut is ready.

There are four Japanese restaurants in Beirut. The Tokyo, under the Ras Beirut lighthouse, has an enthusiastic following of Japanese businessmen who always seem to be eating something special not on the menu. Michiko in a hotel on the Avenue de Paris has Japanese decor and a clientele that includes western women who take Michiko’s cooking lessons.

French traditions pervade both public and private cuisine in Lebanon’s capital. They range from the formal elegance of Le Vendome Hotel’s La Reserve and the spectacular setting of Lucullus on a penthouse overlooking the port to the red-checked tablecloths and bistrot atmosphere of Le Relais de Normandie. Diplomats, politicians and business executives like to lunch at Le Vendôme, Lucullus, the Hotel Saint Georges’ terrace or the Bristol Hotel. They can afford it. They’ll get oysters and mussels flown twice a week from France, Charolais beef and Scotch salmon (smoked and fresh), imported milk-fed veal and Belgian endive. At Chez Temporel white arches set off the blue sea beyond and the brightly colored fashions of a more swinging crowd, but none the less demanding when it comes to the steak au poivre vert or the salad of Syrian truffles. Chez Jean Pierre is for intimate dinners by the fireside surrounded by the patron’s collection of antique firearms. Two generations of the family maintain a reputation for a classical approach to such delicacies as partridge, trout and gratin de fruits de mer .

Italian restaurants rank among the city’s finest. Quo Vadis on Phoenicia Street imports its beef, veal and clams for vongole sauce and uses Italian pasta for its fettucine al Alfredo and other delights. Romano’s, up the street, has excellent scampi and spaghetti alla carbonara .

If there weren’t other good reasons, the United Nations, which has many regional offices of its agencies in Beirut, might have selected the city for the international flavor of its dining rooms. Want a runny fondue laced with kirsch? Try the Swiss Cellar or La Taverne Suisse. Hanker for a slab of Kansas City rib roast? Head for the Hotel Phoenicia’s top floor. Can’t live without paella and sangria? La Taberna Espanola has the real thing. One of the capital’s most attractive restaurants is the venerable Dimitri’s, where the Greek proprietor-chef inspects you behind a locked door before deciding whether to admit you to his fireplace room or garden. Eccentric and well worth it. Hungarian delicacies and gypsy music are a night time innovation at the Saint Georges. Russian piroshki and shashlik are featured at Kalinka. Armenian friends can lead you astray after midnight to try tripe stew in the boisterous kitchens of little places in Bourj Hammoud.

At the moment “British” pubs are in vogue in Beirut (as in New York and even Paris) so one does not have to go far for a Scotch egg, steak-and-kidney pie or fish-and-chips. The Rose and Crown and The Green are among the better rivals for the dartboard set. Rumanians relish their mititei (a spiced meatball) at the Bucarest Devotees of German sausages, North African couscous, Danish open-faced sandwiches and herring, Mexican tacos and Brazilian feijoada all have outlets for their passion in Beirut. The curries and tandoori chicken of India and Pakistan already a favorite of Arabs in the Gulf, are well established at the Serena Restaurant and the Taj Mahal in the Manara district.

Parallel to this serious dedication to the pleasures of the table, is the more or less continuous munching that goes on in the streets and offices of Beirut. Ladies interrupt shopping to nibble pastries; secretaries have a second breakfast of buns or manouche, an herb-filled, puffed and toasted bread; merchants duck out of their shops for a quick shawarma sandwich between deals, and after the movies, everyone has a snack at one of the hamburger joints or ice cream booths nearby.

The ancient Lebanese role of cultural exchange is still at work. Menus may be printed in three languages—Arabic, English, French—while diners chatter in a dozen tongues. East meets West; hummus meets hot dog. And in anybody’s gastronomic guide Beirut rates three stars.

Donald Aspinwall Allan was an editor of The Reporter and has written about food in the Middle East for Gourmet Magazine.

Unfortunately, by the time Mr. Aspinwall Allan’s piece was published, life in Beirut changed. The piece began with an editorial introduction:

This description of eating out in Beirut was written before the recent tragic events in Lebanon. It is to be sincerely hoped that the good life, including fine restaurants and local delicacies, will soon return to what was once the gastronomic capital of the Middle East.

It also gained a title that I imagine was very different from what had been originally envisioned. When published, the article ran as “This Was Beirut“.

And – hehehe – it gets better. I love Google.

Mr. Aspinwall Allan died in August 2006, God rest his soul, and his obituary makes very interesting reading.

Evidently, food writing was merely his day job. His real work was with the CIA.

Posted in Beirut, espionage, food, Lebanon, time | 7 Comments »