A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘Morocco’ Category

books around the world, one flight at a time (iv)

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 23, 2007

Serendipity enters one’s life when one least expects it.

Yesterday I took advantage of a long layover at Heathrow to wander slowly through Borders’ aisles. Many books called my name, but only one found its way into my carry-on bag: Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House.


In the tradition of A Year in Provence and other similar books, The Caliph’s House tells of Shah’s experience relocating to Morocco, buying an old riad in Casablanca, and restoring it – or at least restoring it to inhabitability.

I began reading with the assumption that Shah was a British subject of Indian (Muslim) heritage, based largely on his name (Tahir means “pure” in Arabic) and his wife’s (Rachana, an Indian Hindu name and one, incidentally, shared by one of my favorite college professors.

Soon, however, Shah disclosed that he was Afghani British, not Indian. Hmm, I thought.

He mentioned his father’s regret at having raised his children in a quiet English town rather than in the Hindu Kush, where he had spent his own childhood. Interesting, I thought. Sounds a bit familiar.

Finally, he noted that Morocco held particular fascination for him because his father’s father had moved their after the death of his wife, a Scottish aristocrat known as Bobo. Ahaaaa, I thought. I know who you are!

Tahir Shah is the brother of Saira Shah, whose book The Storyteller’s Daughter started my books around the world posts.

The book was good on its own – a well crafted read and a thoughtful narrative made all the more interesting by the fact that Shah was neither a total newcomer to Morocco nor a complete outsider (he might not be Arab, or Berber, but as a Muslim and a sayyid he is certainly within the community of the faithful).

My reading of The Caliph’s House drew extra richness from all I had learned about the Shahs’ family from The Storyteller’s Daughter. I love literary families – the way individual family members’ memories resonate with one another’s, even when they do not agree. (For example, I think no one should read Edward Said’s Out of Place without also reading his sister Jean Said Makdisi’s Mother, Teta, and Me.)

I read The Caliph’s House all in one gulp, bookended by two venti Starbucks teas, as my layover flew by.


Posted in Afghanistan, Americans, books, home, India, London, Morocco, mosque, religion, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

dining with friends

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 13, 2007

Last Wednesday my parents and I had supper with two very dear family friends, Owlfish‘s parents, who had just returned home to Iowa from their apartment in Venice.

When I graduated from high school, I spent two weeks with them in Venice. It was a fantastic trip – I was introduced to cherries, Turandot, and what has become one of my favorite travel-related activities: reading books set in the city and/or country that you are visiting. Owlfish père et mère had collected a number of novels, histories, and mysteries set in Venice, which together occupied a bookshelf in the guest room. I was enchanted by the idea – to me the experience of exploring a new city by day was made all the more delightful by the chance to read stories set there every morning and evening.

The Owlfishes also gave me one of the loveliest photographs I have seen as a college graduation present: an exquisite framing of the iconographic entrance to Moulay Ismail’s shrine in Meknès. Using an alphabet chart, they had painstakingly spelled out my name in Arabic letters on the card – a gesture both charming and sweet, and (because Owlfish’s mother, Printperson, is herself an artist) aesthetically graceful.

The photograph is currently in storage, along with my other prints, but this one, taken from Victor Ovies’ online Morocco photo gallery, is similar in spirit and composition:


Posted in Americans, art, books, family, food, friends, Iowa, Morocco, travel | Leave a Comment »

history repeating itself, as tragedy and as farce

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 12, 2007

My friend R sent me this link with the very kind subject line “I’m sure you already know this”. I did not – and passed a gripping 9 minutes watching this video when I ought to have been editing a piece on electricity in the Mandate-era Levant.

The video is called “Planet of the Arabs”, and it is an assemblage of film clips, most from the late 1970s to mid 1990s, of or about Arabs. Unsurprisingly, the Arabs portrayed are violent, dark, speak with terrible accents, eat bad food, and lust after Western women. They carry guns and talk about Palestine, hating Jews, and dying for Allah.

The subject of this film is not new – Elia Suleiman did a brilliant, longer version more than fifteen years ago, Introduction to the end of an Argument (muqqadima li nihaya jidal). If you can find it, I suggest watching it after Planet of the Arabs – the cinematography and the argument are sophisticated and deeply compelling.

My favorite moment in Planet comes during a break in the film clips, when a (I presume faux) movie review blurb passes across the screen, saying “”Planet of the Arabs is even more racist than the New York Post” – New York Post“. I wonder what the Post thought of that – or whether the film even registered on its cultural radar.

Planet‘s creators describe it as based upon – or perhaps created in homage to – Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, a groundbreaking characterization of Arab depictions in American film published, felicitously, in 2001.

And since I have no connection to Hollywood I will end by mentioning the one small tie I (might) have to the world of Arabs’ American film critiques. Decades before Jack Shaheen began writing about Arabs in the media, I believe he knew my aunt and uncle when they all worked in Amman, Jordan.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, art, Beirut, Damascus, film, friends, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, media, Morocco, politics, religion, Syria | 4 Comments »

at the opening of the year: the country version

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 9, 2007


The Oxford Business Group has posted 2006 Year in Review analyses for the many countries its analysts cover. All are available online at OBG’s website – select a country from the list at the right, and look for the Year in Review analysis on the left, under the “[country name] – news briefing” heading.

As a sample, below is the OBG’s review for Lebanon:

The first half of 2006 saw the Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora make some progress in rebuilding confidence in the economy and announce measures to reduce the country’s massive debt, which was running at 183% of GDP. Steps were also taken to revive the stalled privatisation process, carry out further state reforms such as boosting accountability, transparency and government spending cuts.

Heading into the summer months, Lebanon was looking to a bumper year in the tourism sector, with direct receipts of $2bn or more predicted. The ongoing political stability and the favourable expectations for the economy had seen a strong movement of foreign investment into the sector, with well over $1bn committed to new developments. There were also a series of announcements that a similar figure would be invested in Lebanon’s real estate market, with the majority in both cases coming from cashed up Gulf states riding the oil price boom.

However, all of this changed in July when Israel launched its military strike against Lebanon, or as Tel Aviv put it, against the Islamic group Hizbullah. While the 34 day war, and the extended blockade imposed by Israel may have hurt Hizbullah, it was the Lebanese people and the country’s economy which bore the brunt of the campaign.

Months after the war, the cost of the direct damage caused was still being added up, but a conservative estimate of the destruction of 35,000 homes and businesses, a quarter of Lebanon’s road bridges and overpasses, much of the country’s electricity network and sundry other havoc has been put at $3.5bn.

Additionally, the economy has been hardly hit by the trade embargo applied by Israel, lifted only in early September. With estimates that GDP will fall by as much as 7% for the year, driving the Lebanese economy into negative growth, some predictions have put the total long term losses brought by the war at up to $15bn.

However, Lebanon’s woes didn’t end when the guns fell silent on August 14. Simmering tension between the country’s many political factions came to the boil, with the Syrian- backed Hizbullah withdrawing from the government and, along with its allies, including the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by Christian politician Michel Aoun, pushing for a national unity government.

By December, the efforts to unseat the government of Prime Minister Siniora had seen six cabinet ministers resign and President Emile Lahoud refusing to accept the legitimacy of the ruling coalition. Hizbullah, which was in part staking its claim to a greater say in the running of the country on its self proclaimed victory over Israel, called its supporters out into the streets of down town Beirut.

This show of force, which at times saw more than 100,000 pro-Hizbullah demonstrators camp in the central business district, dealt yet another blow to the country’s economy. Retailers in Beirut’s CBD saw sales fall by more than 30% in December, in what is usually one of the busiest seasons. The catering, tourism and hospitality sectors were also hard hit by the ongoing political instability, which has been little eased by efforts at mediation by the Arab League and other parties.

Despite the instability, there were still some positives for Lebanon at the end of the year, with Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh tipping a balance of payments surplus of $2.5bn at the end of December and a 7% increase in deposits held by Lebanese banks, giving holdings of $63bn by the end of 2006.

Salameh said that Lebanon’s foreign-currency reserves had risen to $13bn during the year, up from the $12.5bn at the close of 2005. He also said this would allow the Central Bank to weather any fluctuations in the markets, as would a predicted fall in interest rates in 2007.

However, the long running political infighting appears likely to offset any advances in the economy, threatening a positive outcome of the international donors’ conference scheduled to be held in Paris in late January to try to drum up more financial support for Lebanon.

Another more immediate victim has been the government’s privatisation program, which has stalled amidst the year’s battles, both military and political. The program’s cause was not aided by the assassination in November of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, yet another factor that added to the destabilisation of the country.

Though talks are continuing over forming a new government, there are no guarantees that Lebanon’s deeply divided factions will be able to work in harmony if they do join forces, imperilling the recovery of the economy from the blows it suffered in 2006.

Posted in economics, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, politics, religion, research, Syria | Leave a Comment »

fantasy foods: just add water

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 10, 2006

My first hummus came from a box.

In the early 1990s, hummus came to the midwest courtesy of Fantastic Foods, accompanied by tabouli and falafel. open the cardboard box, pull out the sealed plastic bag, empty contents into a bag, add water (and, for extra pizzazz, a tablespoon of oil, some chopped parsley, and/or cucumbers), and … presto! the shores of the mediterranean lapped at my toes.

I have tried to explain this just-add-water hummus to friends around the region, along with the flavored varieties (lemon, garlic, artichoke heart, or – my favorite – chipotle) sold in the deli section of most US groceries. They respond politely, with bafflement and, ultimately, sympathy, as the deprived nature of our American culinary lives sinks in.

I have no objections to hummus in a box. it was fantastic, the way water brought a magic new food experience into our lives. I still buy the company’s products (not the hummus though, and certainly not the tabouli, which I now spell tabbouleh and think of exclusively in salad terms) – especially its couscous, which comes in a health-and-conscience-saving organic whole wheat variety.

What does distress me is the continued fantasy elements at play in selling foods whose exoticism has had over a decade to wear away.

The front of the organic wheat couscous box is an attractive medley of colorful elements: a large, well-photographed product shot (of a modified Moroccan couscous dish), with the “Fantastic World Foods” logo (shaped like an old trunk travel stamp) separating the photograph from an inset photograph above it – the Menara Gardens, outside Marrakesh.

FF Organic Whole Wheat Couscous

I get it. Couscous is Moroccan, or at least North African. I have no trouble with product packaging that references the product’s origin – as with Barilla pasta, for example – or shows its application in classic dishes.

The “story” on the back of the box, though, drives me nuts:

“The sultans of Marrakech knew how to party. In the countryside around the city walls, they built parks and pleasure palaces designed to set the scene for elaborate feasts and other festivities. Menara Gardens is a legacy of that era, a place where modern-day Marrakechis come to stroll amid palm trees, olive groves, and roses, and to picnic on couscous and other Moroccan delights.”

Menara Gardens is beautiful, and Marrakechis (bonus points for getting the adjective correct) do go there for strolls, picnics, sing-alongs with friends, and afternoon naps. Why was this not enough? Why the need to link this little box of couscous with Marrakesh’s former rulers – and why in such a “dude where’s my couscous” idiom?

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arabic, art, family, food, home, media, Morocco, photography, time, tourism, travel, words | Leave a Comment »