A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘neighbors’ Category

hair, water, and taxis: Syrian triggers in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 15, 2009

This morning, an article in The National by Rasha Elass caught my eye – and brought back memories. Rasha writes about her reception at a posh Beirut hair salon, when the stylist learns that she is Syrian.

Having lived in Damascus for some time before moving to Beirut, I too learned about the perils of my accent. Unlike Rasha, however, my learning was generally ex post facto. Hence in summer 2005 I was booted from a Beirut service for saying something too shami; and when I moved to Beirut, I avoided saying “water” for months after seeing the looks on waiters’ and shopkeepers’ faces when I asked for “moy” rather than “mai”. And I only learned to stop saying “lissa” one evening when the person to whom I had been speaking drew back from me as if I were diseased.

Ahh, memories.

In any case, my experiences were those of an outsider: someone who had committed the offense of learning Arabic like a Syrian, rather than a Lebanese – and not someone who had committed the evidently graver offense of being Syrian, like Rasha.

Here is her article – enjoy!

The Lebanese hairdresser had a sleight of hand typical to his profession, alternating quickly between his left and right hand as he cut, razored, pulled and tugged the strands of my hair. He came highly recommended by a friend, so I wasn’t worried about the way my hair was going to look when he was done.

But I was worried about him picking up on my Syrian accent, given that I was in an area of Beirut where many hold strong anti-Syrian sentiments.

And then came the inevitable.

“Are you Lebanese?” he asked.

Sometimes I purposely don’t speak Arabic when I venture into anti-Syrian areas in Lebanon. During a road trip to Batroun, a charming small town with a staunchly anti-Syrian community, my Lebanese friend made me promise not to say a single word in Arabic.

“They’ll pick up you’re Syrian from the minute you open your mouth,” she warned.

Though her concern was exaggerated – violence motivated by hatred is extremely rare since the end of the civil war in Lebanon – times were tense, and people might have been rude or snooty towards us if they had found out that I was Syrian.

Your accent in the Arab world is like an identity card. Even the unfamiliar ear can place you in a region, be it the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt or North Africa. The familiar ear can even figure out if you’re an urban or rural Syrian, a Damascene or from Aleppo, a Kurd from northern Iraq or a Shiite from the south, an Algerian or a Moroccan, and whether you grew up locally or abroad.

Accents also often are the butt of political jokes, like the popular favourite for Lebanese and Syrians taking political jabs at each other.

It pokes fun of the words moo and ma, Syrian and Lebanese slang for “right”, as in: “You’re coming to dinner, moo?”

“‘Moo’? What are we? Cows?” goes the joke.

“Better than ‘ma’,” it continues. “‘Ma’ is for sheep.”

Given my propensity to say moo, I couldn’t lie to the hairdresser, so I confessed that I was Syrian.

“Emm,” he muttered, his face visibly annoyed. I briefly worried he might purposely ruin my hair, which would be a disaster given I was to attend a posh Syrio-Lebanese wedding later and needed it to be flawless.

“You’re Syrian from both parents?” he asked.

Here, I thought, could be my way out. I could lie and end the conversation amicably, guaranteeing a good haircut. Or I could keep playing cat and mouse and see where the game took us.

“Umm, no. My mother is American,” I lied.

“Aaah, OK,” he said, looking relieved, as if everything about me finally made sense to him.

The most striking thing when travelling from Syria to Lebanon is how politicised everything is in Lebanon. While Syrians are bashful about discussing domestic politics, the Lebanese think nothing of asking you where you stand on their domestic political spectrum the minute they meet you.

“Are you with or against?” is probably the most common question in Lebanon after “what’s your name?”

I was still at the hairdresser’s watching my transformation in the mirror when I was asked this question.

“Are you with or against the Americans?” the hairdresser said.

Before I could answer, a customer in her mid fifties walked in frazzled, her short blonde-dyed hair brittle and uncombed. According to my friend, this hairdresser is known to the stars and the wives of politicians.

“Je suis en retard,” she announced to the hairdresser, her head appearing in my mirror. She spoke the French typical of Sodeco, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

How their conversation moved from “I’m running late” to comparing political affiliation is beyond me. But after exchanging the usual “ça va” and “walaw”, the latter being colloquial for no worries, they vented politics at each other.

“I know you’re a supporter of Aoun,” she told the hairdresser. “But I’m not,” she announced, her head’s reflection still floating in my mirror.

“And that’s why you were late,” he said in French, laughing.

The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and the woman sat herself down in a chair for a shampoo.

Turning his attention back to me, he made a reference to one pro and one anti-Syrian Lebanese politician and asked:

“Are you with or against Aoun? Or do you prefer Geagea?”

I mumbled something about not caring a whole lot for internal politics in Lebanon.

“Ah, mais vous êtes Syrienne. Vous aimez Hariri,” he concluded, half testing if I understood French, another telltale political sign for some Lebanese.

Fortunately, he got distracted and forgot to wait for an answer. When he finished my hair, I paid in US dollars, then thanked him in French. I walked out into the street, and my hair looked fabulous.


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, vanity, women, words | 6 Comments »

Folklore and other adventures in English

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 3, 2009

Sometimes I have trouble finding a really good topic for my daily post. Thanks to Naharnet, today was not one of them.

One of Naharnet’s (the English-language, rabidly-March 14 news and commentary website whose more moderate views and charming linguistic gaffes make it much more fun than Now Lebanon) morning leads is a piece on the criticism that Syria’s representative to the Arab League yesterday heaped on the launch of the United Nations-overseen special tribunal, whose mission is to investigate Rafiq Hariri’s and assorted other political assassinations, and – if possible – bring the perpetrators to justice.

I personally have grave doubts that the tribunal will do anything more substantive than waste dozens of millions of dollars, in the way that so many UN projects seem to do. But its been an ongoing bone of contention, particularly since Lebanon’s pro-tribunal folks have made no bones about their desire (and expectation) to see Syrians charged, found guilty, and punished. Forget justice: what they want is an international stamp of approval on their prejudices.

So: that’s the back story, with commentary. And here is the article:

Syria has criticized the March 1 launch of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, describing it as “folklore.” The daily Al Mustaqbal said on Tuesday that an argument erupted between Syrian and Lebanese representatives at a meeting of the Arab League at the level of delegates in Cairo.

It quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying that the quarrel developed after Syrian ambassador to Cairo Youssef al-Ahmad objected to a “Solidarity with Lebanon” clause which included the phrase “welcomed the establishment of the tribunal” and “Arab confidence in the fairness of the court.”

“No such thing as launch of the court has taken place,” al-Ahmad has reportedly told the meeting that was held in Cairo on Sunday, claiming that the supposed launch of the tribunal was just a facade for the media.

“What has happened was folklore,” Ahmad was quoted by an Arab diplomatic source as saying, in reference to the launch of the tribunal in The Hague on Sunday.

What on earth does that mean? Some of you may be thinking: well, perhaps its just a bad translation. But in fact the “folklore” is used as a transliterated foreign term in Arabic:  فولكلور.

Does Mr. Ahmad mean that there was singing and dancing, rather than a proper launch? Too much debke, too little ribbon-cutting?

Here’s how he sees the tribunal in its non-folkloric guise:

“The international tribunal is still a gymnasium; and the proof is that U.N. Security General Ban Ki-moon has personally said that the court will be launched in 2010 when the courtroom is ready,” he added.

Erm. A gymnasium? Another word that also exists in transliterated form in Arabic: الجمنازيوم ? Or perhaps he means it literally, as in “qa3at riyadiyya” – a sporting hall?

What am I missing here? I think the use of these two terms is nothing short of bizarre, but they must be applicable than I understand. Why? Because rather than responding to al-Ahmad by saying something like: “What on Earth are you trying to say?” the Lebanese representative to the Arab League, Ali Halabi, used the same word:

Lebanon’s representative Ali Halabi hit back, saying “you should not underestimate the launch of the international tribunal.”

“It is a major event in Lebanon’s history. It’s not true that it is mere folklore,” Halabi argued.

So minor events are folkloric; major ones are historic and may involve the launch of a tribunal. As for setting the gymnasium reference in its proper cultural context, I look to all of you for help.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, neighbors, politics, Syria, words | 7 Comments »

Lebanese Arabic: filling in the blanks

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 21, 2008

Living in Lebanon for so long has left me with curious gaps in my Arabic. There are plenty of words that I learned at one point and have simply forgotten, of course – but there are also plenty of words that in Lebanon I simply never used.

Yesterday I braved the ice-encrusted sidewalks to do errands and a few loads of laundry. When it came time to switch my loads from washer to dryer, the only one open was directly behind one of the laundromat’s Maghrebi employees, who was busily folding a fresh load of “serviced” laundry.

Most of the laundromat’s employees speak English as well as any native speaker, but I’ve noticed that this one avoids talking with customers. I should speak to her in Arabic, I thought. After all, I just need to ask her “Would you mind moving a bit so I can use the dryer?”

If only I had needed to ask to use the washer.

What is the word for “dryer”? I thought frantically as my mind remained blank. Why can’t I remember it?

Well, probably because I’ve never owned a dryer – not in Beirut, not in Damascus. What would it be? I wondered to myself. Jaffaf? But I didn’t want to risk it – I’ve tried using grammatical logic to come up with Arabic words before, and it has never ended well.

It wasn’t jaffaf exactly, but I was close: its مجفف. Yep – I looked it up as soon as I returned home.

Of course, this was the second Lebanon-specific gap in my Arabic that I discovered this past week. The first came thanks to the Russian government.

Hunh. What is the word for “Air Force”? I wondered as I read about Russia’s agreement to provide Lebanon with MiGs.

Technically, I believe, there has always been a Lebanese Air Force – although its flying capacity has been largely theoretical for the past few decades. But when people talk about the Lebanese military, they usually talk about the army.

I’m not holding my breath for a sudden infusion of dryers into my next stint in Beirut. But I do hope that the Lebanese Air Force becomes a major institution in its own right.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, home, laundry, Lebanon, neighbors, women, words | 1 Comment »

still more from the Green Guides: Lebanese social classes

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 11, 2008

Its a glum Thursday in New York – rainy and cold. So I can’t resist writing a bit more about life in sunnier climes, like … Lebanon.

Here’s another excerpt from The Green Guides: Beirut and the Republic of Lebanon, from which I’ve been stealing shamelessly this past week. This one is a short bit on Lebanon’s social classes:

There are no social classes in Lebanon, in the strict meaning of the term, namely, exclusive segregated groups. The practically equitable distribution of land abolished social distinctions. However, there is still a remnant of feudalism in some regions in Lebanon, but it is less prominent than in other Arab regions, and is disappearing.

The well-to-do class is, on the whole, constituted by businessmen. The absence of distinct classes and the happy distribution of land are the causes of the high social and intellectual standard of the Lebanese people.

To fully understand Jamil’s description of Lebanese social classes, I had to do a bit of research here – thank you, Google Scholar and Google Books. Apparently many scholars define social classes with respect to their residences: in cases of strict social class division, rich people and poor people do not live side by side. This is an important distinction – the inner cities of many American urban areas and the suburbs of many European cities show what happens to the level of city and social services when middle- and upper middle-class residents leave.

I do think that there were social classes in Lebanon in the 1940s, but I can understand that the existence of multi-class neighborhoods helped to even out the financial gaps – both because wealthier neighbors insisted on city services (electricity, street cleaning, police protection, …) and because their proximity to poorer neighbors might have encouraged them to provide gifts of money or food – or to help them get jobs – when times were tough.

Its also very interesting that Jamil describes the wealthiest class as composed largely of “businessmen”, and not the feudal aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t know enough about the politicians of the 1930s and 1940s to be able to answer this question myself, but I am curious: Who was more involved in politics then – the “old” families or the “business” (trade, commerce, import/export – however you call it!) families?

Posted in Beirut, books, citizenship, economics, Lebanon, neighbors, research | 3 Comments »

the power of curry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 5, 2008

Last night I had dinner with my friend R. It was one of those cold, wet nights that I think of as an early winter specialty in New York – and we had decided to combat the chill with Thai. We went to Lemongrass Grill, a local chain, and happily began poring over a long menu of flavor-filled items, each more tempting than the next.

But one in particular stood out: the massaman curry dish, which Lemongrass’ menu described as “Muslim influence curry”:


Hmm, I said. I think it means “influenced”, as in “a curry influenced by Muslims”, not as in “this curry will influence you in Muslim ways”.

I’m ordering it, said R, who has an adventurous spirit.

Both of our dishes were delicious, and neither of us seemed particularly altered by them – happily for me, as mine featured both peanuts and spinach, neither of which I particularly wish to resemble.

But I am curious about the name. I have seen this dish in other Thai restaurants, spelled mussaman and massalman. This latter to me looks a lot like the French term for Muslim: musulman/e, so perhaps many people over the centuries have  misheard “Muslim” or “Muslimeen” (the plural) as “Musalm” or “Musalmin”.

I looked online and found that while most food writers agree that this is “Muslim curry”, there seems to be no definitive view on how it received its name.

Here is the general consensus, from the foodies’ view:

Food blog Taste Buddies states that the dish is from southern Thailand and “was born from the Arab spice merchants who settled in the region a thousand years ago.”

The Curry Focus Blog agrees, noting that 60% of the population in southern Thailand is Muslim. It describes the curry as more sweet than spicy, and notes that that: “Spices were introduced to southern Thailand by early Portuguese traders who brought spices (such as turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, cloves and nutmeg) from the Middle East and India.” It suggests that the curry does well with pork, which to me seems to take away from the “Muslim” influence, but perhaps its a sign of how popular the curry is beyond its original makers.

A few sites suggest that the dish was traditionally made with beef. EnjoyThaiFood and others who suggest using chicken note that this is a departure from the traditional dish, since “Thai Muslims of course usually eat this dish with beef.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? I don’t think of Muslims as avoiding chicken (or poultry generally) – is this more of a Thai Muslim culinary tradition, or is it something I simply do not know?

In any case, what I do know is that we were both delighted to find ourselves warm and cozy on a chilly night, catching up and filling up on sweetly spicy food.

Posted in animals, Arab world, Brooklyn, food, Islam, neighbors, religion, research, weather, women | 1 Comment »

Elkader, Iowa: leading the way

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 15, 2008

My parents are coming into town for a visit tomorrow, and I can hardly wait to see them. In the meantime, my father alerted me to another newspaper article on Elkader, the small Iowa town with big Algerian roots that I have blogged about before. I learned something from this article: that Algeria is as proud of its Iowa connection as Iowans are of their Algeria connection – and foreign governments taking pride in their links to Iowa is not something that happens every day :). Thank you for helping Elkader’s citizens recover from this summer’s flooding, Algeria.

Elkader shows how to build relationships with Muslim world“, by guest columnist John Kiser:

As estrangement between Muslims and non-Muslims grows in America, relations are warming in Clayton County, Iowa.

This year, the town of Elkader is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its namesake, Emir Abd el-Kader, a native son of Algeria. It is also showing what good relationships, listening and learning can accomplish.

Through much of the 19th century, Abd el-Kader was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and Paris to Mecca: first as a chivalrous adversary of the French and later as a stoic prisoner who forced France to honor its pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after voluntarily laying down his arms.Exiled in Damascus, he reached the summit of his fame by protecting thousands of Christians during a rampage in Damascus in 1860. President Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX were among the many who sang his praises. Abd el-Kader was on his deathbed in 1883 when the New York Times eulogized, “…The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world … He was one of the few great men of the century.”

If he were fighting America today in Iraq instead of France in Algeria during the 1840s, Abd el-Kader would be labeled a radical fundamentalist. But in Elkader, this town founded by German and Scandinavian immigrants, fear-mongering caricatures are not easily confused with more complex reality. Thanks to exchanges and close personal relations with Algerians, the Islamophobia peddled by some Americans does not find footing here.

How did such a name get planted in Iowa corn country? In 1847, Timothy Davis, a lawyer from Dubuque, named a new settlement on the Turkey River in Abd el-Kader’s honor. A reader of Littels Living Age, a digest of international news, Davis had come to admire this resourceful Arab David whose resistance to the mighty French Goliath had won him wide recognition. Memories of the American rebellion against British imperialism were fresh enough for Davis to see in the emir’s struggle a freedom-fighting cousin.

Abd el-Kader was a fundamentalist – he sought in all things to live according to God’s will as transmitted through the teachings of all the prophets from Abraham to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Their common message, he wrote, is to “glorify God and have compassion for His creatures. They differ only in the details. Each of his creatures worships and knows Him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others … No one knows all God’s facets. Error does not exist except in a relative manner.” Abd el-Kader was a fundamentalist who understood the fundamental unknowability of God.

The emir’s life was rooted in deep religious knowledge that required him to treat prisoners humanely, keep his word, end futile suffering after 15 years of struggle and save innocent lives. His Islam has little to do with the attention-grabbing violence presented by the Western media and glorified in the jihadist cyber world as martyrdom. True jihad lies in struggling with the axis of evil within – those inner demons that lead to violence and injustice. Christians know them as the seven deadly sins, among which anger and self-love are the most deadly.

Outside the Arab world and France, the memory of Abd el-Kader has been forgotten – except in tiny Elkader. Through a Sister City exchange between Elkader and the emir’s birthplace of Mascara, Elkader’s citizens have gained a new appreciation of the hospitality and generosity of the emir’s fellow countrymen.

Following the flood damage Elkader suffered this spring, the Algerian government sent $150,000 of assistance to this town of 1,500 residents. The spirit of friendship with Algeria and respect for Islam thrives because personal relations have been allowed to thrive.

America needs more exchanges with Muslims to break down stereotypes that feed suspicion and distrust of its fellow citizens. Muslims need reminding of the emir’s true Islamic righteousness, whose life is a rebuke to jihadists of today dominated by anger, violence and politics.

Kathy Garms, Elkader’s Sister City program director, put it well to the Algerian Parliament this summer. “Answers can come only through face-to-face communication, when everyone reaches outside their comfort zone to listen and work together in a spirit of goodwill.”

Posted in Americans, Iowa, neighbors, news, words | Leave a Comment »

holidays, Lebanese style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 3, 2008

This week has been filled with holidays: with Rosh Hashanah, for Jews; and with Eid al-Fitr, for Muslims. Both religions follow a lunar calendar, which means that their holidays do not always align – but I love it whenever they do.

I also love that these holidays are increasingly recognized in the United States, both by schools and businesses. Jewish and Muslim students and workers are more able today to request time off from work or school without prejudice than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. And in some communities, particularly those with long-standing multi-faith populations, these holidays may be publicly commemorated: with a menorah in a town square, for Hanukkah; or a mayoral iftar, for Ramadan.

I love these changes, but I also want more. And holidays are an area in which I think we could learn something from Lebanon.

Here is one list of all Lebanon’s 2008 public holidays:

1 Jan New Year’s Day.
6 Jan Orthodox Armenian Christmas.
10 Jan Islamic New Year.
19 Jan Ashoura.
9 Feb Feast of St Maroun.
20 Mar Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s Birthday).
21 Mar Good Friday.
23 Mar Easter Sunday.
25 Apr Orthodox Good Friday.
Apr Orthodox Easter.
1 May Labor Day.
6 May Martyrs’ Day.
13 May Resistance and Liberation Day.
15 Aug Assumption of the Virgin.
2 Oct Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan).
1 Nov All Saints’ Day.
22 Nov Independence Day.
9 Dec Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
25 Dec Christmas Day.
29 Dec Islamic New Year.

There are a lot of holidays in Lebanon, you might be thinking. And you are right – but they aren’t all celebrated in the same way. There are two categories of holidays: holidays that apply to everyone, and holidays that apply to people of a particular religious background.

Let me address this second category first. These “members-only” observances are used for the holidays of Lebanon’s minority communities. For example, the entire country does not celebrate Armenian Christmas. But Armenians are expected to be given the day off, with no negative repercussions from teachers or employers.

This is somewhat like what I see happening with Jews and Muslims in the US (or Hindus who want to celebrate Diwali), although with two key differences. First, it is not mandated by the national or state government; and second, it is not universal. In Lebanon, my understanding (which may be wrong – so please correct me if so!) is that employers are required to give members of the celebrating faith the day off, and the government can take legal action against them if they do not. This aspect of holiday’ing makes me a bit uncomfortable – as a product of the separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state, I dislike the idea that people should be automatically defined by their religious affiliation.

Also, in the case of the particular example I gave above, it can get a bit confusing. All Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on January 6 – there are different denominations within the Armenian community. Yet all Armenians are, at least officially, granted the day off. (I would argue that this is one of many indications of Lebanon’s Ottoman heritage. In the Ottoman Empire, “Armenian” was a catch-all millet category that mashed together religious identity and ethnicity – just like “Greek” did. Hence “Armenians” included all ethnic Armenians, who are both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, and Maronites.)

So: I am not advocating the Lebanese system of insisting that people of a particular religion must celebrate its holidays – after all, we as a country are officially religion-blind.

But I am interested in thinking seriously about the first category of holidays: those that everyone celebrates, at least in the sense of having the day off from work or school. In Lebanon, as here in the US, everyone celebrates national days, like Independence Day and Labor Day.

And in Lebanon, as in the US, everyone celebrates certain religious holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s Day. In the US, these holidays follow the Western Christian calendar. But in Lebanon, they follow the Western and Eastern Christian calendars, and they include the Muslim calendars as well. So everyone celebrates Orthodox Easter as well as Western Easter; and everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and the Prophet’s birthday.

The exact list of holidays seems to shift from year to year – in 2009, for example, Armenian Christmas does appear to be an official holiday. And for the past two years, the Lebanese government has been considering removing Good Friday from the holiday list – inspiring copious amounts of over-heated rhetoric as well as public protests.

I’m not advocating that we adopt the Lebanese system. As nice as 16 holidays might be, what we need to focus on now is increasing our national productivity, not reducing it.

But I think that as we mature into a country that that not only recognizes but embraces the multiple faiths that our citizens follow, we ought also to spend some time thinking seriously about our national holidays.

Erecting a public menorah and holding a city-wide iftar are important symbols. But adding a day to commemorate Yom Kippur or celebrate Eid al-Adha might be gestures of greater substance.

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, church, citizenship, family, holidays, Iowa, Lebanon, mosque, neighbors, religion, unity, words | 1 Comment »

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 »

feeling social: Syrian American clubs in New York

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 25, 2008

One of the many nice things about living in Brooklyn is the way in which the area’s rich history as a home for immigrants of all kinds continues to punctuate the present.

For example, we get a huge kick out of the Italian-American men’s club that sits two blocks up from our street, with its members faithfully putting out a big Italian and a big US flag whenever they gather to sit on the sidewalk and play boardgames, talk, and have a beer. (No, technically that isn’t legal – but who is going to police a couple of sweet old men?)

We also get a huge kick out of the fact that an organization founded by Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in the late 1800s is still going strong: the Syrian Young Men’s Association, now officially known as SYMA.

SYMA was just one of many organizations that Syrian immigrants founded in the various cities in North and South America where they began immigrating in the 1880s/90s – just like other immigrant groups. Societies gave people the opportunity to knit new social bonds, and to have an outlet for relaxation.

But these societies were also important for immigrants’ new homelands, because they allowed them to start putting down local roots. The Syrian Young Men’s Association, like many other organizations, was active as a social and civic organization rooted largely in New York. And in a post-2001 world, its nice to see that – judging at least from its New York TImes coverage – it was treated by other New Yorkers as a regular part of the city’s life.

SYMA and other Arab immigrant group events were listed in the New York Times from early on – like this mention in the the “City and Vicinity” section on March 18, 1896:

“The Syrian Young Men’s Association tonight, at Chickering Hall, will present the play “Andromache” in Arabic, using the translation made from the Greek of Sophocles by Adeeb Bay Izhac. The intention is to aid the suffering people of Armenia. The Association will also present three scenes from “Hamlet” in English. The tragedy of “Al-Amirat Trajla”, showing the conditions in Armenia during the recent massacres, will be given after about three months.”

(For those of you who know about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s, the above fundraiser may seem a bit oddly timed. There were several anti-Armenian pogroms in the 1890s, which spilled over into attacks on other minority communities as well.

They don’t seem to have been government-led, but the Ottoman government also doesn’t seem to have done much to stop them. Its an ugly moment in a much longer history of nearly five centuries in which the Armenian community was treated with respect and acceptance – and unfortunately, the brutality of the Armenian experience during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire has largely erased this earlier memory.)

The New York Times chronicled Syrian women’s club gatherings, the community’s charitable endeavors, and major events like the American Syrian Federation’s, another Brooklyn-based society, June 1928, hosting of Mexican “aviator” Emilio Carranza, who had flown from Mexico City to Washington, D.C.

According to the Times, Carranza was “the guest of honor last night at a reception given by the American Syrian Federation, at its headquarters at 103 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn. Borough President James J. Byrne made a short speech of welcome on behalf of the Borough of Brooklyn … Mr. Carranza, who replied briefly in English, expressed his thanks for the reception given him in Brooklyn, and thanked the Syrian Federation for last night’s affair. The Syrians in Mexico, he said, contributed a third of the money to pay for the expenses of his flight. A wrist watch and a scroll written in Arabic were presented to him.”

I know: flying from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. doesn’t seem quite so exciting today. But in the late 1920s long airplane flights were still relative novelties – and hosting Carranza must have been a social coup for the Federation. (And did you notice the role of the Syrian community in Mexico? Today, Mexico’s “Syrians” identify as Lebanese, and they are a wealthy, influential part of Mexican society – starting, of course, with Carlos Slim [Selim] Helou.)

In the 1960s, SYMA seems to have taken more of a citizens’ watchdog role, protesting gentrification plans that would have driven working and middle-class Arab American New Yorkers out of Brooklyn Heights. On October 2, 1962, the Times noted:

“The Syrian Young Men’s Association of Brooklyn said yesterday that a proposal to rehabilitate the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn Heights was an invitation to the area’s Syrian-Lebanese community “to commit ethnic suicide”.”

SYMA is still located in Brooklyn Heights: on Atlantic Avenue, which many people see as the center of Arab Brooklyn. (Of course, I hear that the real energy today comes from Bay Ridge, where more recent generations of Arab immigrants have settled – including a large community of Syrian Jews.) I’m hoping that H will join so I can experience this connection with history through him.

Hoping, but not holding my breath. As a 1992 Times article noted, SYMA today is a place “where the men are not necessarily young or Syrian, but do share a taste for the thick coffee that used to be available up and down Atlantic Avenue”. H considers himself still young, and he is not particularly enthused about identifying as Syrian. And nor does he drink coffee.

But for those of you who are interested in checking SYMA out: you can find its current address by googling “SYMA” and “Atlantic Ave”. And you can get a taste of the rich history of the Arab American communities in New York with the Google preview of A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, an edited book published by the Museum of the City of New York.

The chapters come from papers delivered at a February 2000 conference that the Museum hosted in preparation for an exhibit on Arab American New Yorkers scheduled for November 2001. The book includes contributions from some very big names in the field.

(The exhibit was re-worked after September 11 and opened in Spring 2002. I saw it and … while well-intentioned, the exhibit was unfortunately quite disappointing. The historical artifacts – period newspapers, photographs, memoirs – were wonderful. But as my friend K noted, the exhibit’s message had disintegrated into nothing more than “Look, Arabs are American, too”. It might have been an important message at the time, but it did little justice to the real rootedness of Arab Americans in the city. Read the book – its much better.)

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Brooklyn, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, time, words | 1 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 »