A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Levantine literature: translated by the enemy.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve to those of you who are celebrating, and for those of you commemorating Ashoura, I hope that it is an opportunity for reflection for you. (And I hope that you are as pleased as I am that Muharram was included in my employer’s “Season’s Greetings” email.)

At the start of the month, I read a very interesting article in Ha’aretz, which I had intended to post immediately. “Immediately” turned into several weeks, but am pasting it in below. The article announces a planned law that would allow Arabic-language works – originals and translations – produced in the confrontation states to be sold in Israel.

Those of you who, like me, are obsessed with the Mandate era, will be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to learn that the current law is a gift of the British. And those of you who, also like me, enjoy following the twists and turns of the cozily hostile Israel-Syria relationship, will be delighted to learn that the Arabic-language translations of well-known Israeli writers like Amos Oz are produced in Syria.

Happy reading!

Books translated in “hostile countries” will soon be allowed to be sold in Israel, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided yesterday to support a bill overturning a World War II-era law aimed at blocking information from enemy states.

This will allow the Arabic translations of best-selling children’s books like “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as Arabic versions of prominent Israeli authors, to be sold here.

Until now, Arabic translations of popular children’s books and works by authors like Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Eshkol Nevo were not available in Israel, because they were printed in hostile countries like Syria and Lebanon. This was because a 1939 British-Mandate era law prohibited literature from being imported from enemy states.

Given the relatively low readership of Arabic-language books in Israel, and the resulting low returns on translations, almost none have been produced in Israel.

The present bill, initiated by MKs Yuli Tamir, Yariv Levin and Zeev Bielski, aims to make literature in Arabic more readily available.

Tamir (Labor) said yesterday, “This would be an important law, one that ensures the freedom of literature and culture of all citizens. Every citizen is entitled to read literature in his mother tongue. This law would end the absence of children’s books and belles-lettres for Arabic readers.”

The bill calls for freedom to “import books from any country, and allow translations into any language, in order to ensure exposure to a wide array of literature and to expand citizens’ rights to rich cultural lives in their native tongues.”

The proposal allows security authorities to reject the importation of a certain book or journal for content that could be used for incitement, such as literature denying the Holocaust or encouraging terrorism.

In January, the human rights organization Adalah petitioned the High Court to allow Kol-Bo Sefarim – Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic-language textbooks – to import books from Egypt and Jordan that were published in Syria and Lebanon.

The book supplier has imported books from Egypt for three decades, and since 1993, it has imported books from Jordan as well. Most of the books were printed in Syria or Lebanon, but the company had received permission from the chief military censor to import them.

In August of last year, however, Kol-Bo received a letter from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stating its permit to import books from enemy countries would not be renewed. The letter said such books could not even be imported through countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, due to the World War II-era law.

Adalah’s petition noted that 80 percent of books intended for Israel’s Arab community, and most Arabic books destined for college and university libraries in Israel, are printed in Syria and Lebanon, where several large publishing houses hold exclusive rights to translate major Western literary works into Arabic.

Lebanese printing houses hold exclusive rights to translate “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as works released by Britain’s Ladybird Books, which publishes a variety of popular children’s books. The Lebanese printing houses also hold exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of classic works by William Shakespeare and Moliere, and modern works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.

A handful of Syrian printing houses have exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of Hebrew works by Oz, Kaniuk and Nevo.


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Damascus, Israel | 1 Comment »

Israeli zen.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 1, 2009

I have a love-hate relationship with the Jerusalem Post. Love the easy access to its archives; hate its stance on many issues. But this afternoon I’m simply impressed with its Naharnet-like ability to put even the most inane statements to good use.

The Post‘s article about the ongoing two-and-a-half-way spitfest between the Lebanese government and/or Hizbullah, and the Israeli government, is interesting for several reasons. First, note how it describes Ziad Baroud:

Israeli spying devices on foreign soil are a clear violation of international resolutions, Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said during a visit to southern Lebanon on Sunday.

Baroud, a rising Maronite politician who was appointed interior minister in
2008 as a representative of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s bloc, expressed his “determination to continue to uncover espionage networks.”

Interesting. I can’t find any mention of Baroud as a Maronite in the New York Times – in fact, the only result I get when I search for “Maronite politician” is a  1993 article that mentions Michel Edde. To me it says a great deal about Israeli political culture (and, perhaps, the lingering presence of the SLA) that the Post can assume that “Maronite politician” is a term that readers will understand.

But what I really love about this article is the closing:

The Lebanese interior minister’s remarks came a day after Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that Israel was gathering intelligence within Lebanon and would continue to do so until Hizbullah renounced its arms.

“During a conflict with an enemy, one must gather intelligence,” he said, adding that the conflict would end once peace with Lebanon was achieved.

The conflict will end when peace is achieved. Thank you, Mr. Ya’alon, for providing this Zen definition of the day.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, citizenship, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, religion, Uncategorized, words | Leave a Comment »

hummus: where satire and reality blur

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 25, 2009

Have you ever heard about someone reading an article from the Onion and mistaking it for a genuine news article?

Today J sent me a genuine AP article whose headline made me wish the reverse were true:

Lebanese to Israel: Hands off our hummus!

Ah yes: another bizarre Lebanese food contest. Poor Zeina Karam, having to report on this.

BEIRUT — Lebanese chefs prepared a massive plate of hummus weighing over two tons Saturday that broke a world record organizers said was previously held by Israel — a bid to reaffirm proprietorship over the popular Middle Eastern dip.

“Come and fight for your bite, you know you’re right!” was the slogan for the event — part of a simmering war over regional cuisine between Lebanon and Israel, which have had tense political relations for decades.

[I agree that having Israelis and pseudo-Israelis try to correct my pronunciation of “hummus” as “KHumus” – say it with extra phlegm for full effect – is beyond irritating. But claiming a dish by cooking an obscene amount of it? And being PROUD of this? And creating an embarrassingly lame slogan – in English, no less? Good God.]

Lebanese businessmen accuse Israel of stealing a host of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, particularly hummus, and marketing them worldwide as Israeli.

“Lebanon is trying to win a battle against Israel by registering this new Guinness World Record and telling the whole world that hummus is a Lebanese product, its part of our traditions,” said Fady Jreissati, vice president of operations at International Fairs and Promotions group, the event’s organizer.

[Ah yes, the Guinness World Record: a world-renowned battleground.What, the UN Security Council wouldn’t hear their case?]

Hummus — made from mashed chickpeas, sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic — has been eaten in the Middle East for centuries. Its exact origin is unknown, though it’s generally seen as an Arab dish.

[Ooooooooooooh. An Arab dish. Zeina, did you warn your AP editors about the flow of Phoenician hate mail that’s about to start flooding them?]

But it is also immensely popular in Israel — served in everyday meals and at many restaurants — and its popularity is growing around the globe.

The issue of food copyright was raised last year by the head of Lebanon’s Association of Lebanese Industrialists, Fadi Abboud, when he announced plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli.

But to do that, Lebanon must formally register the product as Lebanese. The association is still in the process of collecting documents and proof supporting its claim for that purpose.

[I can’t wait until someone tries to register olives. We could witness a full-on Mediterranean war.]

Lebanese industrialists cite, as an example, the lawsuit over feta cheese in which a European Union court ruled in 2002 the cheese must be made with Greek sheep and goats milk to bear the name feta. That ruling is only valid for products sold in the EU.

Abboud says that process took seven years and realizes Lebanon’s fight with Israel is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, he says, events like Saturday’s serve to remind the world that hummus is not Israeli.

“If we don’t tell Israel that enough is enough, and we don’t remind the world that it’s not true that hummus is an Israeli traditional dish, they (Israelis) will keep on marketing it as their own,” he said Saturday.

[Someone needs to tell this man that in the United States, the hummus contest is not between Lebanon and Israel. Its not between Lebanon and anyone. Hummus here is sold by nationality as Greek or Israeli, and by region as Arab or Mediterranean. No Lebanon. No cedars. No national dish awareness whatsoever.]

Some 300 chefs were involved in preparing Saturday’s massive ceramic plate of hummus in a huge tent set up in downtown Beirut. The white-uniformed chefs used 2,976 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of mashed chickpeas, 106 gallons (400 liters) of lemon juice and 57 pounds (26 kilograms) of salt to make the dish, weighing 4,532 pounds (2,056 kilograms).

It was not clear what the former Israeli record was, and organizers gave conflicting reports on when it was made.

But chefs and visitors broke into cheers and applause when a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records presented Abboud with a certificate verifying Lebanon had broken the previous record. The plate was then decorated with the red, green and white Lebanese flag.

A similar attempt to set a new world record will be held Sunday for the largest serving of tabbouleh, a salad made of chopped parsley and tomatoes, that Lebanon also claims as its own.

*Sigh*. So much food in one short weekend. But again, a bit misguided. Before Lebanon can claim tabbouleh, it needs to take it back from all the U.S. cooks who think of it as a bulgur-based side dish.

Since I’m now in mourning at missing my chance to attend an all-you-can-eat tabbouleh fest, I’ll let my friend B have the last word. B found Al-Manar’s take on the hummus-a-thon, which described it as “mark[ing] a new victory on Israel” and noted that “organizers have hailed this event as “a patriotic event of national scale”.”

Finally, B noted, Mughniyeh is at peace.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, food, friends, Israel, Lebanon | 8 Comments »

the art of war

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 27, 2009

For the past several months, I have been resisting the urge to shop. Its easier than I thought: I’m parsimonious by nature, and the current size of my closet (small) and bookshelves (ditto) are further disincentives.

But Sporty Diamond turns 30 tomorrow, and in search of a treasure for her, I have been doing some serious hunting online. And since we have overlapping interests, shopping for a gift for her has led to some sideline searching for objects of interest to me. Its a slippery slope, as they say …

Thus I found myself the other day typing “Lebanon painting” into Ebay’s search engine – after, I must confess, first typing in “Beirut painting” (which produced one wan seascape) and “Damascus painting” (which produced nothing). When shopping, I take a spray the field approach.

What came up was this:


Its beautiful, isn’t it? Vibrant colors and a mountainscape, all for $6,499 + shipping. Would you like to know its title? The painting is called “Lebanon War 2”, and the artist is an Israeli man named Dan Rapaport. (You can see the full listing here.)

Rapaport has evidently done several pieces that reflect on the war, including an intellectually thoughtful but artistically naive sculpture depicting the exchange of rocket-fire through arrows and the war’s net effect through the number zero. (You can also purchase this sculpture on Ebay.)

This isn’t a negative post: I’m certainly not against Israeli artists reflecting on the 2006 war. But it does return me to a question I had after watching Waltz With Bashir, whose soundtrack featured something totally new to me several songs with a Lebanon theme. I don’t know anything about the degree to which the Lebanon invasion and occupation has become a theme in Israeli art and music, and I would greatly appreciate tips on where I might go to learn more.

Posted in advertising, art, Beirut, Israel, Lebanon | 1 Comment »

the $18 million Gazan

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 24, 2009

My aunt is the lucky recipient of a steady stream of “good” scam emails: definite scams, but creative enough to be worth remembering. The ones I receive are usually much less interesting – they tend to be of the ho-hum ‘I am the widow of Eminent Person X and am now dying of cancer in a foreign land’ variety.

But last night I received a real gem: a request for help from a Gazan refugee with $18 million to his name.

Here is the email:

Dear Sir, I am Mr. Hadi Abdoullah originally from Gaza Strip but currently going through asylum process here in Spain . I lost every other thing with my name on during the recent war on Hamas and managed to escape and Due to the situation there at home, those of us in business cannot invest any more.

Please, why I need your assistance is that I have ($18 .000.000 USD) Eighteen million united states Dollars in a security & volts services company here in Spain but cannot put into investment because of my status as an asylum seeker and I am afraid so that I do not loss this funds because its all that is left of my family after I had lost my entire family in the war. I inherited the money from my late father who was an oil and gas dealer.

I intend that you assist me and take possession and also help with any investment Overseas that can sustain the funds and yield interest. Please contact me urgently on my private email address Email: hadiabdoullah@xxxx.com, Email: hadiabdoullah001@xxxx.com So that I can give you further information, Thank You as I wait for your reply.

Let’s go through this treasure, piece by piece.

First, if you are soliciting money and/or other forms of assistance, don’t start by alienating half your audience. I am hardly about to jump up and aid someone who mis-identifies me as a man.

Second, his story makes no sense. He is seeking asylum in Spain – which in most countries is a status that does not permit the seeker to work – yet has $18 million in a “security & volts services company”, whatever that is. I understand that Spain’s bureaucracy may be less than assiduous, but surely the government would have noticed an investment that large. And yet he says that he “cannot put [this money] into investment” because of his asylum application. So: is the money invested in the company, or is it liquid?

Third, think of the economy. I can’t imagine any country that would be less than welcoming to a “refugee” with that much money to his name. Why doesn’t he just come clean and let the Spanish government drool all over him and his economy-boosting funds? Or, why doesn’t he go on the market and see which country will give him the best deal? A man with $18 million to his name should be able to start a green card bidding war these days.

Fourth, and no offense to the Gazans, but: how many Gazan oil and gas titans do you know? I can’t think of any, perhaps because Gaza is a tiny strip of land ghettoized by both Israel and Egypt and – by the way – with neither oil nor gas.

In any case, I wish Mr. Abdoullah luck in his asylum case and his desire to find “help with any investment Overseas that can sustain the funds and yield interest”. He’s going to need a great deal of luck when his two email inboxes overflow with replies from desperate investment bankers :D.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, economics, Israel, Palestine | 1 Comment »

Beirut: banding together

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 10, 2009

One of the many events currently taking place in New York’s busy cultural scene is a music festival called “Sounds Like Brooklyn“, which features musicians from – yes, you guessed it – Brooklyn. And the headliner band, which played a concert this past weekend, is called Beirut.

The first time I heard of this band was – appropriately enough – in Beirut, during drinks at Bardo. An incredibly lush piece came over the sound system (a nice break from the usual music played there) and B, whose blushing description of meeting his girlfriend’s parents belied my friend A’s description of him as “a total rogue”, smiled and said, That’s Beirut.

The song was “Scenic World”, and the lyrics are actually quite depressing – but the music is stunning. (You can listen to it here.) Does it sound Lebanese? Not at all – and that’s the rub.

Beirut-the-band has no connection to Beirut-the-city. No Lebanese musicians, no Lebanese musical influences, although the group does claim a strong interest in Balkan harmonies. I wish there were a deeper connection – as do the numerous journalists who have asked Zach Condon, the band’s founder, to explain its name. Perhaps its the fault of youth: Condon was only 18 or 20 when he chose the name, and (thanks perhaps to beer pong?) he seems to have thought nothing more than: “sounds cool”.

Of all the articles I found that addressed the group’s name, this one – a feature in the August 6, 2006 issue of New York Magazine – made me the saddest. I know where I was on August 6, 2006, and I know how I felt about “the Beirut situation”.

Here’s what Condon had to say:

Condon’s band has grown to ten members—just in time, it would seem, to defend its name. “You know, it’s ironic,” he says, addressing the “Beirut situation” before a rehearsal in his Bushwick loft. (Spackle covers everything, including the pots and pans. He and his roommates are trying to build individual bungalows, maybe buy a pool table.) “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.”

I still like “Scenic World”, but I’ll wait to hear Beirut play live until they do a bit more research into their city.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, art, beer, Beirut, Brooklyn, Israel, media, music, news, words | Leave a Comment »

What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in Syria? new thoughts on my favorite city

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2009

This morning I found myself utterly engrossed by an interview in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, which appeared on my Google news alert. If you read it carefully, you will see a number of interesting tensions between the stereotypes that the interviewer has – about the appropriateness of a young Jewish academic studying Arabic literature rather than Jewish, about Jewish life in Syria, and about Islamic influences on synagogue architecture – and the much more grounded perspective that Rachel Levine, the interviewee, has. (And a few things that are not addressed, such as the fact that many Syrians would have no idea that Rachel Levine is a “stridently Jewish” name.)

As for me, I found parts of it an absolute hoot, like the idea that a rabbi would calmly ask a young woman how she and her boyfriend enjoyed traveling together. I may be wrong, but in my experience, the sexual habits of unmarried Americans and their comfort level in discussing these with religious leaders are quite different.

I also found parts of it extremely comforting, like Levine’s comment that there are “over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors” in Damascus – men who apparently want a wife who will commit to staying in Syria. This is heartening to me, because it suggests that Syria’s small Jewish community is not yet (and, I hope, ever) in danger of dying out completely.

As I noted above, the interview is quite long, but worth skimming if you don’t have the patience (or the time) for a full read.

Why’s a Nice Jewish Girl Spending a Year in Syria?

— Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

This fall Rachel Levine begins doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, having completed a BA in Near Eastern Languages including Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi (Persian). Right now she’s studying Arabic in Syria.

PJV: Sounds like a potentially dangerous location for a beautiful young American woman with such a stridently Jewish name. Why did you want to spend a year in Syria?

Coming from a part of the academic world where study in the Arabic-speaking world is not only expected, but imperative, it was the next natural step. Syrians guard and cultivate their linguistic heritage and they are very proud about this. It’s simply the best place to learn Arabic well as any person on the street can speak to you in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).

PJV: What drew you to Arab literature over say, Jewish studies or Torah?

I’ve always seen it as intimately related to my being engaged in the Jewish world. If we’re talking about comparative advantage, I went to public school and don’t have a background in Talmud or Jewish studies, but I do have a background in multiculturalism and being open to the other. I think there need to be people in the Jewish world who study Arab societies from a cultural, rather than political perspective. And my work isn’t so far removed from Jewish studies because my doctoral program will also involve Hebrew across the full spectrum from classical texts to modern literature.

I’m particularly interested in the questions that are found where modern Arabic and Modern Hebrew discourses interact. What’s written about Arabic literature in Hebrew and Modern Hebrew literature in Arabic, or when you have Israeli Jews writing in Arabic and Israeli Palestinians writing in Hebrew, these are fascinating areas of overlap. And if we’re talking more historically, Jewish studies in America are very much Ashkenaz-centered. I think the story of Jews in Muslim lands, which would include Arabic and Persian-speaking Jews, is a story that is waiting to be told in the West, and a very important story given the current political climate.

Furthermore, anyone who is committed to Judaism and the Jewish past, present and future needs to realize that in the 21st century it’s incumbent upon us to learn Arabic and learn to appreciate the interwoven and adjacent Arab cultures. We don’t have to all become world-class scholars in Arabic, but we all do need to become familiar with their customs, their magnificent history, and their incredibly expressive language, because if we think that Israel is going to stay and “survive,” we need to recognize that we have neighbors and we must build relationships with them. That we must do. In speaking with American Jews, I see it just hasn’t sunk in how close together the two peoples live. Day schools would do well to offer Arabic and Arab cultural studies.

A Palestinian girl from the Old City of Jerusalem explained it to me this way when I was living in Amman. She’d given me an Elite candy bar she’d brought with her, and stated that “We’d better learn to get along because we’ll be living side by side,” and then she paused…”Forever.” In the ideal world knowledge of the Arab world and language would be just as valued as Hebrew, Talmud and Torah given the emergence of the State of Israel in what happens to be the geographic center of the Arab world and the bridge between Mashriq and Maghreb [Eastern and Western Arabic-speaking countries].

Right now there is a curiosity in Jewish communities about the Arabic speaking world but often it’s interwoven with schadenfreude: Why can’t they have democracy? Why do they blow up one another’s mosques? Why are people kept so poor in such an oil-rich region? Can women drive cars in Damascus? What are you going to Damascus for, to learn how to make bombs? I want to help change that curiosity in which the subtext is, why are Israelis so superior? There needs to be a more neutral and respectful curiosity about Arab culture and the Arabic language.

PJV: Did you get to travel widely? What surprised you most about Syrian culture? You are half-way through your year there, how has your perspective changed over time?

There are certain things I think we can learn from more traditional cultures of the Arabic-speaking people of greater Syria, if I’m not romanticizing. There’s a huge emphasis on spending time with family and friends. Syrians will often tell foreign students like me, when we say we don’t have time to socialize due to our studies, that we don’t know the real meaning of friendship; they sometimes get angry. Also, all their produce is locally grown. They often mention that Syria is self-sufficient in this way, which of course is easy to do in the Mediterranean. Public transportation is very efficient and inexpensive, you rarely have to wait more than two minutes for a microbus. People are very very friendly and hospitable, they’re world-famous for it.

PJV: Can you get by as a tourist without Arabic?

Sure. I was really overwhelmed by the great wealth of archaeological sites and stunning Islamic architecture. I was able to dress like I dress in America, which one can’t do in Egypt or the West Bank.

PJV: What are the religious services of Syrian Jews like? This was the first time I was in a Yom Kippur service where there were more Torah scrolls than people. I think I counted twenty-five kept in this one synagogue. All in beautifully ornate cases, they’re the scrolls brought from other Damascus synagogues which have since been boarded up. The service was 100% in Hebrew; I’d never heard this particular kind of semi-melodic chanting before.

PJV: Was there separate seating? Did the temple look like a mosque?

There was a place for women upstairs but since there were so few of us, we all sat downstairs. Ostensibly there could have been separate seating if there had been more people. We women were sitting off to the side in the back, but at one point they invited us to sit closer to the men, near the ark. They seemed impressed that we as women knew how to davven (pray) and read Hebrew. They probably didn’t think very much about this, but for us it felt like a rather profound gesture. Here we are, still fasting and praying in Damascus in 2008, so indeed, why make praying, atoning Jews sit so far away?

Many elements of the synagogue showed Islamic influence, for example the name of G*d in Hebrew illuminated on the gold wall plaques, stylized exactly like in the mosques. There’s a lot of word art with religious themes; it’s done in Hebrew calligraphy just like its Islamic, Arabic counterpart.

PJV: Did you feel isolated as a Jew in Syria?

Well, for those who are looking, I met /heard about over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors who would each love a Jewish woman to contact them with an eye toward marriage and a life in Syria. They all make an excellent living there, and as rumor has it, are quite eligible. But, what’s left of Jewish life in Damascus gives a sense of what it was like to be Jewish before vast swaths of Jews immigrated to America.

Being a minority anywhere, religious or otherwise, can be a position of disempowerment and the position of Jews in Syria must have been similar in some ways to that of other religious minorities. How similar, well, that’s a question for graduate school. But in this regard, Syrian Jews were integrated into a religiously-diverse Syrian society. The Jews were a sect among sects in Syria; they were sectarian in the true sense of the word.

PJV: One hears that people watch what they say over there. How safe and observed do you feel?

I know that part of what makes Syria so safe is that there’s a lot of “observing.” I feel very safe and know I can walk around at any time of day or night. I run alone at night and feel 100% safe and often feel people there are so involved in the lives of others and it’s like the entire society watches one another. It’s a nosey culture but people also care about one another immensely and watch out for the well-being of women especially. There’s a certain sense of chivalry that’s present in the society.

PJV: Are you “out” as a Jew there?

No. But maybe I’m just afraid and not giving the Syrians a chance. It’s been fascinating discovering a whole world where Judaism doesn’t exist. Here some people live very pious lives but they’ve never met a Jew, it doesn’t show up on their religious radar. It’s been a wake-up call to realize this is a norm in much of the world, that Judaism just isn’t present. Maybe it’s present in its absence; Jews are depicted as such an ominous force in world politics though no one has met one of us. Part of it is that I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

Some Syrians do reminisce about when they had a Jewish neighbor or Jewish classmates in high school and their nostalgia for them. This is a testament to their society’s religious diversity. In some ways the loss of the Jewish population, regardless of the historical circumstances, was seen as a blow to Syrian pluralism. But at the same time, what they understand as Judaism and Jews is so removed from Judaism and from what Jews are and what I really am. Syrian religious minorities themselves don’t always make known their religion, and so Jewish foreign students would be extremely well-served to adopt this local custom. I don’t think anything bad would necessarily happen to me, but it would change the relationships with people as I came to learn about them.

PJV: What do they say about Jews?

There are two strands of discourse – one is there are no gripes with the Jewish people; Judaism is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, the problem’s with Zionism. Jews can come to Syria and anyone is welcome to pray in any holy place in Syria – a member of the Syrian parliament actually said this to us in a lecture. He was particularly proud of the fact that there is still a functioning synagogue in Syria even though the country is at war with the “Hebrew State.” So there’s this discourse of tolerance that’s interwoven with the enmity toward Zionism and Israel.

The other discourse is a very deeply rooted suspicion of Judaism; you see a lot of sensationalist books in bookstore like “The Sexual Secrets of the Talmud,” and books with skulls and blood and Jewish stars – the typical anti-Semitic fare. There’s a sensationalist book on the history of the Jews in Damascus published last year with a specific chapter dealing with the ritual uses of blood throughout history and with the phenomenon of “Jewish prostitution.” You don’t see such things about Christianity or other traditions. Every day one hears anti-Zionist sentiments such as “God isn’t a real estate agent, he doesn’t promise people land.” There are copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kamf all over the place. There was a book at the book fair, Leaders of the Zionist Movement. I didn’t read it. There is an interest in the figures of Zionism, but as criminals. This type of stuff tends to be rather sensational in nature. They assume you’re a Christian if you’re an American tourist, but some people think most of America is Jewish. It’s very strange.

PJV: Is there a free press?

No, but newspapers from Lebanon are available for sale and one can always read widely on the Internet or watch any number of foreign satellite channels, everything from Al-Manar [Hizballah TV] to Al-Jazeera to the BBC and CNN. Syria has a secular government that is providing security for its citizens in one of the most violent, sectarian regions of the world.

Also, it’s important to remember how people’s degrees of relation to the terrorized-starving-dying people on TV affects their emotional response. When Syrians read take in news about Israelis and Palestinians the top story before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza had been the humanitarian suffering and the boycott there. Perhaps people hear from American satellite or from the last line in an Al-Jazeera article about rockets falling on Sderot, but obviously the sufferings of the residents of Gaza struck and do strike their hearts much more intensely and immediately. They look at the rockets falling on Israel with a degree of dismissiveness, if not a little bit of cheering.

With the air and now ground campaign in Gaza, the Arabic press sees as the main story what the Israeli and Western presses see as the collateral damage.

PJV: Your boyfriend came out to visit you for a month, how did your experience change?

They aren’t used to seeing unmarried people staying or traveling together. They would assume we are engaged or married, and bless us to have a large family, inshallah (G*d-willing). There was a family that was so hospitable they wouldn’t let us leave – for days. We went one night and the next day we stayed two more nights for a total four days with them. We lost track of how many cups of tea and teaspoons of sugar we drank.

Syrians have a saying – “his blood is light,” which means someone has a good sense of humor, and they do laugh a lot. My experience is that they value their relationships and joke about one another all the time. There has to be something to talk about in lieu of the sensitive topics of politics and religion.

PJV: Will you go back?

Well, that’s a much more daunting prospect than it was a week and a half ago given just how angry people are in the Arab world right now. But there are five months left of my program and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to deepen the relationships with the very kind people who I’ve had the immense pleasure of meeting in Syria. There must be a better way, and the more violent the region becomes, the clearer it gets that even though educating and being educated is a slow, gradual process, there really isn’t a moment to lose.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Damascus, Islam, Israel, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »

Another non-Zionist venti: more on Starbucks and Israel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2009

This post is an update on the issue of whether Starbucks’ profits have been used to support Israel, which I posted about earlier this month. Its intended especially for those who had been following the exchange of comments between Mart Stuart, Nimrod, and Kheireddine.

My aunt has posted an email she had received from a friend regarding Starbucks and its NON-connection to the Israeli government and/or military forces.

You can find the same text – a press release on “Facts about Starbucks in the Middle East”, available in Arabic and English, on the Starbucks’ website.

Or you can read it here:

It is disheartening that calls for boycotts of Starbucks stores and products, which are based on blatant untruths, have had direct impacts on local economies and residents, and have also led to violent situations involving our stores, partners (employees) and customers.

Our more than 160,000 partners and business associates around the globe have diverse views about a wide range of topics. Regardless of that spectrum of belief, Starbucks Coffee Company remains a non-political organization. We do not support any political or religious cause. Further, allegations that Starbucks provides financial support to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army in any way are unequivocally false. Unfortunately, these rumors persist despite our best efforts to refute them.

What we do believe in, and remain focused on, is staying true to our company’s long-standing heritage — simply connecting with our partners and customers over a cup of high quality coffee and offering the best experience possible to them – regardless of geographical location. Though our roots are in the United States, we are a global company with stores in 49 countries, including more than 230 stores in nine Middle Eastern countries. In countries where we do business, we are proud to be a part of the fabric of the local community — working directly with local partners who operate our stores, employing thousands of local citizens, serving millions of customers and positively impacting many others through our support of neighborhoods and cities.

Is it true that Starbucks provides financial support to Israel?

No. This is absolutely untrue. Rumors that Starbucks Coffee Company provides financial support to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army are unequivocally false. Starbucks is a publicly held company and as such, is required to disclose any corporate giving each year through a proxy statement. In addition, articles in the London Telegraph (U.K.), New Straits Times (Malaysia), and Spiked (online) provide an outside perspective on these false rumors.

Has Starbucks ever sent any of its profits to the Israeli government and/or Israeli army?

No. This is absolutely untrue.

Is it true that Starbucks is teaming with other American corporations to send their last several weeks of profits to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army?
No. This is absolutely untrue.

Is it true that Starbucks closed its stores in Israel for political reasons?

No. We do not make business decisions based on political issues. We decided to dissolve our partnership in Israel in 2003 due to the on-going operational challenges that we experienced in that market. After many months of discussion with our partner we came to this amicable decision. While this was a difficult decision for both companies, we believe it remains the right decision for our businesses.

Middle East Partnership and Operations

Do you work with a Middle East partner to operate Starbucks stores?

Through a licensing agreement with trading partner and licensee MH Alshaya WLL, a private Kuwait family business, Starbucks has operated in the Middle East since 1999. Today Alshaya Group, recognized as one of the leading and most influential retailing franchisees in the region, operates more than 274 Starbucks stores in the Middle East and Levant region. In addition to its Starbucks stores, the Alshaya Group operates more than 1,700 other retail stores in the region, providing jobs for more than 15,000 employees of more than 35 nationalities.

We are extremely fortunate and proud to have forged a successful partnership for the past ten years and look forward to building on this success.

In which Middle Eastern countries do you operate?

We partner with Alshaya Group to operate Starbucks stores in Egypt, Kuwait, KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Jordan and Lebanon in the Middle East region. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with so many communities, and we are committed to providing the Starbucks Experience while respecting the local customs and cultures of each country we are a part of. We are also committed to hiring locally, providing jobs to thousands of local citizens in the countries where we operate.

Are you still operating Starbucks stores in Israel? If not, do you have plans to re-open should the opportunity arise?

We decided to dissolve our partnership in Israel in 2003 due to the on-going operational challenges that we experienced in that market.

When and where the business case makes sense and we see a fit for the Starbucks brand in a market we will work closely with a local partner to assess the feasibility of offering our brand to that community. We will therefore continue to assess all opportunities on this basis.

At present, we will continue to grow our business in the Middle East as we have been very gratified by the strong reception of the brand in the region. We continue to work closely with our business partner, the Alshaya Group, in developing our plans for the region.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, economics, family, food, Israel | 7 Comments »

Waltz with Bashir

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 24, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about Waltz with Bashir for the past two weeks or so, but my good intentions have gone nowhere. Thank goodness for my friend N, who had a piece about its screening at a Beirut non-profit in this past week’s Variety:

Lebanese auds have finally been able to “Waltz With Bashir” despite the fact that Israeli helmer Ari Folman’s Oscar-nommed pic is officially banned in the country.

UMAM, an org that archives Lebanon’s history and war memory through written and audiovisual materials, screened the film at its cultural center, a restored warehouse in a southern suburb of Beirut that is home to Hezbollah’s headquarters.

UMAM’s name is derived from the Arabic word for “nations.”

Banned by the censorship board of Lebanon’s Security Directorate, Ari Folman’s film also passed under the radar of Hezbollah at the semi-private Jan . 17 screening, to which 40 people were invited by the nonprofit org but about 90 attended.

(You can read the rest of the article here.)

I’m not surprised that there was so much interest in the film, but I would love to have heard what viewers said about it afterwards. For me, the biggest shock was partly self-induced: I had been thinking of Waltz as a film about Lebanon. But it isn’t: its a film about Israel, in which Lebanon is merely a foil for national reflection.

Its an interesting film, although “documentary” is not the word I would have chosen for it. Folman plays with the backgrounds of the people he interviews – some are reproduced faithfully, putting them in normal contexts that suggest their professional or domestic worlds, while others are not. The ones whose backgrounds are not reproduced appear to be in prison, or perhaps a hospital – which they are not. In other words, Folman’s choice regarding what to include or exclude from the interviewee’s surroundings frames how the viewer interprets his or her words.

Nor is the history told fully accurate. For example, there is an extended sequence at the Beirut airport, which shows it occupied exclusively by Israelis. As an American, I consider this a historical injustice: when Folman was there, the U.S. Marines were very much a presence at the airport.

In another sequence, repeated several times throughout the movie, Folman “remembers” walking through a group of chadored, mourning women. This makes no sense, historically or geographically: in 1982 women in chadors were not roaming the streets of Ramlet el-Baida. His “memory” reflects his own inability to separate later fears of Iran and Hizbullah from actual history; which is fine, except that as a documentarian he should frame his narrative more carefully – i.e., more accurately.

(FYI: small spoiler alert ahead)

Those of you who have read the reviews and/or seen the movie know that it ends with actual footage of Sabra and Shatila, post-massacre. I don’t find this a terribly compelling cinematic choice: the footage is early 1980s, and as grainy and choppy as war footage of that era seems to have been. Also, it was clearly filmed after the massacre was known, so while the mourning is real, the immediacy of shock has been lost. (I’m leaving aside here my comments on the totally rubbish portrayal of the Israeli role in this, in which the massacre stops because a heroic Israel commander finally drives up to the camp and yells at the Kataeb through a bullhorn.)

The camera follows several women as they walk through the camp, crying at the loss. Palestinian women, speaking – unsurprisingly – in Arabic.

Yet my latest copy of the New Yorker notes that the film is “In Hebrew, German, and English.” When the characters speak in Hebrew, their words are subtitled in English. When they speak German (don’t ask), their words are subtitled in English. When they speak English, obviously, there are no subtitles.

And when the women speak in Arabic?

No subtitles – and no sign from any U.S. media critic that this is an injustice. But it is: the lack of translation reduces these women from mourning women to screaming animals, with meaningless noises.

What they say is actually very interesting: they speak directly to the camera, and ask: Where are the Arabs? Why is it only foreigners here? And they tell the cameraman: Film this; film all of this.

Folman makes several irresponsible decisions as a “documentarian”, but for me this is the worst of all. By choosing not to translate their words, he denies them – the victims of a massacre the Israeli Army helped perpetuate – their voice. And he confirms that this is not a film about Lebanon.

Posted in animals, art, Beirut, film, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, women | 8 Comments »

a venti of Zionism, extra hot: Starbucks and Israel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 17, 2009

I saw that protesters closed one of the Starbucks in Beirut this week, my father said after he and my mother picked me up at the Seattle airport. Did we pass that one when we visited?

They definitely did – I took them on a full tour of Hamra. But we didn’t stop at any Starbucks during their visit to Beirut – the Starbucks franchises in Lebanon used to drive me nuts. First, because of their unapologetically erratic tea supply, and second, because of the lack of milk at the milk station. At Lebanon’s Starbucks, the only way to get milk in your tea or coffee is to ask for it when you order – and then ask for it again when the barista makes your drink, since the message never seems to get passed otherwise. Nor does the order-taker ask you whether you would like milk. Sigh.

But at least Lebanon has Starbucks, so I could order a venti to go whenever I needed a portable shot of caffeine in a jumbo size. Guess what country doesn’t have a Starbucks? Not even one?


I understand that Starbucks did partner with a local company to open a few franchises there in the early 2000s, but they failed: not enough customers. Meanwhile, the Arab world is filled with Starbucks outlets.

Maybe Howard Schultz is an ardent Zionist, but it 1) doesn’t seem to have gotten in the way of the company’s business focus and 2) doesn’t seem to have driven Israelis to patronize his shops.

The wide currency of the belief that he donates 5, 10, or 15% of the company’s profits to Israel (in a publicly traded company?) meant that Starbucks issued an official “Rumor Response” on January 5, long before the Beirut dozens decided to gather on Hamra. The response stated:

Rumors that Starbucks Coffee Company and its management support Israel are unequivocally false.

Starbucks is a publicly traded company with stores in 49 countries. Though our thousands of partners (employees) and business associates around the globe have diverse views and share many beliefs about a wide range of topics, our primary focus remains to deliver the best customer experience possible. Starbucks is a non-political organization and does not support political causes. Further, the political preferences of a Starbucks partner at any level have absolutely no bearing on Starbucks company policies.

I’m perfectly willing to protest the fact that Lebanon’s Starbucks miss the boat when it comes to adding milk, because I have proof. I’ve looked into the Schultz/Zionism connection, and while he seems to be an observant (Reform) Jew who has been to Israel, he doesn’t appear to be rabidly Zionist. (If he were, why open so many Starbucks outlets around the Arab world?) Before I boycott the company, I would like to see the paper trail.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Beirut, college, economics, Israel, Lebanon, news, rumors | 15 Comments »