A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘home’ Category

lemony Levantine treasures

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 9, 2008

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

Levantine treasures, part two

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 31, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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 »

carpeting and other nasty American habits

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 21, 2008

As anyone who has lived in New York long enough to rent an apartment will tell you, New York apartments have at least one fundamental thing in common: their wood flooring. Wooden plank floors are the signature of all pre-war (WWI) apartments, and are installed in many more recent apartments as well.

For me, wooden floors are a normal sign of New York homes – just like concrete, granite, or marble floors are a normal sign of Arab world homes. So back in August when we were apartment-hunting I was un-surprised that every apartment we saw had wood floors.

What did surprise me was H’s delight.

I can’t believe all these apartments have wooden floors! he said happily.

At first, I thought that this was a Lebanese reaction to wood. There are trees in Lebanon, but they are few enough that most “wood” flooring is actually synthetic – even in very nice homes.

But H grew up in the United States, so wood is less of a novelty for him. What really delighted him about the wooden flooring was what it was not: carpeting.

Carpeting is a big thing in the United States. Wall-to-wall carpeting is standard in most houses, and carpeting is a big industry.

Nubby carpeting that invites tired feet to sink into and relax:

Textured carpeting that says “warmth” but also “professional home office”:

Hotel carpeting – plush and patterned – communicates luxury to guests:

But to H – and I’m guessing to anyone who grows up with washable floors – carpeting does not say “luxurious”. It says: “gross”.

Just think of all the stuff that settles into it, he said, making a face. Dust, dirt, food, animal hair – and it just stays there forever.

That’s why people vacuum, I said. But vacuuming doesn’t cut it in his mind: only a good scrubbing with mop and disinfectant soap counts as floor-cleaning – something best done at least once a day.

Well. H certainly lives a cleaner life than I do – or at least he did in Lebanon. Our wooden floors get swept regularly, but please banish from your minds any vision of me coming home from work each night and slinging a mop around :).

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, home, Lebanon, vanity, women | 6 Comments »

seven years of fat, seven years of lean

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 11, 2008

This is a sad day for those of us who were in New York, Washington, D.C., or rural Pennsylvania when the planes hit seven years ago. What I remember most clearly is the confusion of it: I was walking home from the gym when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and so I had no idea that anything had happened until my friend K called from work.

Diamond, something big has happened, she said tightly. We don’t know what exactly, but a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

That’s awful, I said sympathetically, while thinking to myself: oh, K is always a bit dramatic. I’m so sorry for the people in the plane, and those who witnessed it – but I’m sure that the building will be fine.

No, I remember her saying to me. You don’t understand – our cell phones aren’t working and we can’t get any of the news sites to open.

At the time, I had just moved into a new apartment with a roommate. We had no television and no radio, and only a dial-up internet connection. When K hung up, I tried to go online, but it took ages to connect. And she was right: I couldn’t get any US news website to load.

My mobile phone wasn’t working well either, but I was finally able to reach my father, who had been on his way to vote in their town primary election when he realized that what he was hearing on the radio was not a replay of the 1993 World Trade Center attacks but breaking news.

Later I learned that my sister, who lived in Washington, had also been able to get through to my father. She had been at the doctor’s office when the plane hit the Pentagon, and didn’t know whether she should continue to work or return home. 

It was still early enough that people wondered whether more planes might still be in the air and heading towards unknown targets, so my father cautioned her: try to avoid walking near any building that looks like it might be a target.

My sister looked around and saw government buildings, IMF buildings, embassies and other political headquarters. 

But Dad, she said, this is D.C.. Every building here could be a target.

Three years ago CNN replayed its full coverage of the day on its website, and I watched it from 8:30 am, curious to see what I had missed by being away from the television that day. What I realized was that there was as much confusion on the television as I had experienced on the ground. The news didn’t break immediately, and when it did, the newscasters were unsure how serious – or how big a story – it would be.

The coverage evolved gradually from breaking news into a morning newscast to full live coverage of a story that superceded all others – but even then, confusion reigned. The screen clearly showed the second plane hitting the second tower, but the commentators missed it entirely – and when they were informed of eyewitness accounts reporting the second hit, they initially dismissed them. None of us could believe what happened at first, I suppose – which one could call a gut response or a “failure of imagination”.

Just like 2001, its a beautiful sunny day today, although several degrees cooler than it was then, and the clouds are a bit thicker in the sky. I’m seeing my city with two sets of eyes today, both a bit misty – and its hard to reconcile the seven years that separate them.

Posted in Americans, explosion, home, neighbors, New York, politics, time, weather, women, words | 1 Comment »

bread from beirut, coffee from brooklyn

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 20, 2008

A year ago I wrote a post about something I saw every morning on my walk to the gym that to me epitomized the grassroots sweetness of ordinary life in Hamra, one of the city’s more mixed neighborhoods. What enchanted me was the bakeries’ practice of leaving bags of bread outside their clients’ shops and restaurants, with little worry that anyone would come by and steal the bread.

I called that post bread from beirut, in honor of a now-defunct Midtown cafe.

What I love about our current neighborhood is that it also has the same sweetness. I couldn’t find any bags of bread this morning, although I often do see them on my walk home from the gym. But I did find these bags of coffee:

To me these bags – like the bags of bread in Beirut – are a very special testament to a certain kind of community living, which I called a circle of trust in my original post. For me, the Hamra circle of trust was corroded by the gun battles in May – but it re-knit itself fairly quickly, despite the irritating SSNP-ification of the Sidani gas station.

I like living in a community where bakeries entrust their bread and coffee roasters their coffee to the civic spirit of the neighborhood.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Brooklyn, citizenship, economics, food, friends, home, Lebanon, neighbors, photography | 1 Comment »

Levantine treasures

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 16, 2008

Two Sundays ago, H and I loaded ourselves down like mules and toted bag after bag to the new apartment. We finished around 6:30, sweaty and a bit grumpy as we realized just how much more we had to move (and paradoxically, how little furniture we had. Most of what we own is clothing and books.).

And then, as we rounded the corner and headed back to our old apartment, there it was – the brass table-top I’d always wanted to buy in Damascus:

Brass and other metal table-tops are a dime a dozen in Syria, where they range from inexpensive plain disks to intricately carved, beaten and burnished masterpieces. (And where many sport a beautiful star of David in the center – another instance of the artisanal openness we noticed at Beiteddine.)

This one is rather mid-range: it has a pretty design, and the lip has some raised design elements, but it has no Arabic or deeply intricate patterns:

I couldn’t believe that a Levantine brass table-top was there in front of us, leaned up against the facade of a junk shop called 2Silhouettes in the Window. I had always wanted to buy one, but my incurable cheapness consistently held me back: I didn’t want to pay for shipping, or for odd-sized luggage if I took it back by plane.

The store’s proprietor couldn’t believe that I was so interested in his “brass tray” – apparently it hadn’t attracted much interest. As I knelt down to get a better look at the design, he quickly walked over to us and offered to let us have it for 40% of the amount on its price tag.

A big Levantine brass table-top for less than a dinner at Monks? How fast could I say “yes”?

It needs a little polishing, and we need to find a base for it, but I’m thrilled that I finally have the brass table-top I’ve always wanted – and equally thrilled that it has a Brooklyn pedigree!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, art, Brooklyn, Damascus, home, Lebanon, shipping, time, tourism | 4 Comments »

ahlan w sahlan: guests welcome

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 5, 2008

Now that we have started the moving process, its a good time to look around for extra help friends. So when H mentioned that his friend M would like to come from Dubai to visit us for a few days, we were both delighted.

H is happy because 1) M is his friend and 2) hosting him means that H now has a legitimate excuse to eat out every night. No more fussing with napkins, silverware, or a fussy diamond for the rest of the week – Hallelujah :)! And I am happy because having another strong male in the house for a few days means that I am off the hook when it comes to moving our “vintage” television – not to mention the 75″ bookshelf and 87-lb. air conditioner.

As for M, it might sound like he is getting the raw end of the deal. But the longer he stays, we’ve realized, the better his creature comforts will be. When he arrives tonight, all we have to offer him is a spot on the couch. But the new inflatable bed arrives tomorrow, and if he can hold out until Thursday, a matching set of high thread count sheets will arrive as well.

Of course, by Thursday M will be leaving us for a weekend in Las Vegas – for “work”, which I suppose is a legitimate reason if one is coming from Dubai. When he comes back next week for another few days with us, he’ll have all of the above, and more. By then, we should be fully ensconced in the new apartment, and M will have been our first New York guest – twice 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Dubai, friends, home, travel | Leave a Comment »

family culture wars: napkins vs. kleenex

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 1, 2008

When we decided to move back to the US for a bit, we agreed that going out to eat every night (or ordering in) would be too expensive. So, I agreed to cook, and H agreed to wash dishes.

Agreeing on meals isn’t a problem for us – we have highly compatible taste buds. But agreeing on what should accompany those meals has been an ongoing challenge.

To put it bluntly, H and I simply come from different cultures. We arrange our silverware differently: I learned the “Grandpa Knife takes Granddaughter Spoon to the circus, buying a ticket from Vendor Fork” way, while H’s arrangements are more, um, poetic. Or perhaps more conceptual – sometimes we sit down to the table with no silverware.

But this is a minor problem compared to our real cultural battle:

napkins versus kleenex.

I’m solidly in the napkin camp. I’m not a total snob (I know: some of you may disagree on this!) – I am more than willing to use paper towels when out of paper napkins. But my preference is for a proper napkin, paper or cloth: something that to me adds a note of grace to a home meal.

H is equally solidly in the kleenex camp. I’m not sure what his family did for serviettes when he was growing up in the US, but he’s been in Lebanon for a long time, and his parents’ house is peppered with tissues. He thinks nothing of setting a box of tissues on the table next to the salad, – and actually, the box of premium US tissues is a big step up. Discount tissues come in a big saggy box-shaped plastic bag in Lebanon, which makes me like the idea of them sitting on the table even less.

Of course, I know that tissues, paper towels, and napkins all perform the same function. I.e., I know just how neurotic I am being when I insist that colored, printed paper napkins are dinner-table appropriate, while kleenexes are not.

That must be why I found myself doing the unthinkable yesterday afternoon. I had brought lunch from home – a collection of leftovers that harmonized surprisingly well together. The shared kitchen here has forks, but when I sat back down at my desk, I realized that I was napkinless.

I watched in horror as my right arm stretched out toward the box of designer Kleenex semi-hidden behind my computer screen. It pulled not one but two tissues out, which my equally rebellious left arm helped arrange, napkin-style, on my lap.

Oh, the humiliation! Or at least: Oh, the lesson in humility 🙂 🙂 :)!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, family, home, humor, Lebanon | 3 Comments »

Beirut moments

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 26, 2008

This morning I went on a walking tour of our new neighborhood, sponsored by a local architectural preservation society. (H claimed work as an excuse, but I suspect that the 90-degree weather also played a factor in his decision. Its also cleaning time again in our apartment, so perhaps he was penning an ode to Lebanon’s housekeepers.)

The tour was definitely focused on Brooklyn, but for the alert tour-goer it did offer a few Beirut moments.

One, a similar “more is more” approach to electricity wires:

near the Gowanus ... or Gemmayzeh
near the Gowanus … or Gemmayzeh

And two, a shared “batten down the hatches” view of strangers:

"The enemy is everywhere"
“The enemy is everywhere”

I bet the guy who created that sign thinks I’m secretly a CIA agent, too 😛 .

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, home, laundry, Lebanon, photography, tourism, weather, words | Leave a Comment »