A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘news’ Category

firsts: Hariri in the New York Times

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 17, 2009

I find firsts interesting. When did someone we now consider famous first attract the notice of major media outlets? How was he or she portrayed, and how has his or her image evolved since?

Some time ago, my interest in firsts intersected with my interest in Rafiq Hariri, and I began poking around a few news outlets, starting with the New York Times.

I bet you won’t be surprised to learn that Hariri’s name first appears in the Times in 1982 – but I also bet that you will never guess why. Will it help if I tell you that he appears in a section titled “Middle Western Journal”?

Yep – that’s “Western”, not “Eastern”. Hariri appears in an August 25, 1982 story about a stalled dam project in Missouri. The dam project put pressure in turn on the economy of nearby St. Louis, which had been anticipating good things:

It was to have been a boon to the St. Louis area: a large, $200 million complex with a 400-room hotel, three high-rise office buildings, a shopping mall and condominium apartments, all to be built on choice land in Clayton, Mo., just west of St. Louis.

Instead, the complex was described as a “six-block-long crater”. And guess who was behind the project?

It all began with considerable fanfare a few years ago when Rafik B. Al Hariri, a Saudi developer, put up money to get the project going. There was a flurry of activity: Architectural plans were drawn, Western International Hotels became involved and work crews began gouging the earth to prepare for a major parking lot that was to be the project’s first stage.

But Mr. Hariri encountered snags, according to Gyo Obata, a partner in the architectural firm that designed the project. ”It was one of those absentee ownership deals that was made worse by problems with getting financing as interest rates went up,” Mr.  Obata said. ”He kept putting up more money for the project and probably spent $30 million. Finally he said he could go no farther and the project stopped.”

The article noted that Hariri was “said to be looking for another developer”, but that few might be interested given the raised interest rates and lack of interest in the complex’s office space.

I’m amused but happy that Hariri’s first appearance in the Times has to do with the Midwest, rather than the Mideast. And I’m delighted to have a new spin to put on the old phrase: “Meet me in St. Louis”!


Posted in Americans, Arab world, construction, Lebanon, media, news, Saudi Arabia | 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 »

Presidential overtures: Hisham Melhem on the Arabiya interview

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2009

I hadn’t planned to write anything about the interview that President Obama gave on Arabiya this past week – for several reasons. That he would choose to give his first official news interview to an Arabic-language news channel is a wonderful first step; that he chose Arabiya – a weak, pro-Saudi channel -, and not Jazeera – the Arab world’s best, most neutral, and most professional channel -, was a huge disappointment.

Also, on a personal level, I don’t care for Hicham Melhem. I sat near to him at an event this fall, and he was incredibly rude: he insisted on chit-chatting (or rather, chatted up – see below) in Arabic throughout the entire event, ignoring the speakers in favor of the young women seated five feet away. In other words, his behavior was not only rude to the speakers, but it was also rude to the audience members around him, who (like me) might have preferred listening to the headliners’ talk than his own largely snide remarks.

My personal experiences aside, I can say that he turned out to be a fine interviewer, and that happily he did not ignore our President in favor of whatever comely young producer was working off-screen.

Anyway. If you watched the interview (its in English) and are curious to hear more about the interview process and reaction in the region, NPR’s On the Media has a very nice interview with Melhem that you can listen to here. Its not too long – 7.5 minutes – and quite interesting.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, media, news, politics, television | Leave a Comment »

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 »

A 60 year-old on YouTube: Israel and new media

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 14, 2009

My friend N found me online last weekend, and we chatted about an article she was working on for Variety: an analysis of the various media that Israel has been adopting in order to get its message about Gaza across. Its a fascinating subject.

The Israel Consulate’s use of Twitter has been poked fun at in the New York Times and elsewhere. I admit that reading political bullet points in Twitter-speak is pretty funny: its hard to take statements like 1st ivstgtn @ UNRWA sch. sugg.mortars fird frm sch & IDF rspndd. 2ndry explsns sugg. arms in bldg. c4 exmpl: http://gurlx.com/gxc #askisrael as seriously as a standard press conference. But that view may merely reveal my old-media bias – I imagine that the 4,000+ readers following the Consulate’s updates may find their views increasingly falling in line with the IDF’s.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken its own approach to new media, creating a YouTube channel on December 31. It calls itself “IsraelMFA”, lists its country as Israel (obviously) and its age as 60 – and it posts videos in English, Arabic, and assorted other languages. When I last checked, IsraelMFA had begun “favoriting” videos, including one of a Palestinian girl denouncing Hamas. Go figure.

N’s article has now been published, and it is a must-read. (Not that I’m biased of course.) You can read it on the Variety website, or you can read it here:

BEIRUT — As the military war in the Gaza strip enters its third week, Israel is pressing forward to win the image war in cyberspace — and its weapon of choice is YouTube.

Hundreds of thousands of viewers have been drawn to channels on YouTube launched by the Israeli government and military. The uploaded videos explain the military operation — in English and Arabic — and demonstrate with aerial footage the air force’s “precision” and “pinpoint” strikes against Hamas targets.

About 900 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since Israel began air strikes on Gaza on Dec. 27 with the stated aim of stopping militant Palestinian org. Hamas from launching rockets, according to international media reports. Israeli state media have since rolled out new-media tools — Twitter feeds, blogs and video logs — to control the war’s message amid mounting international condemnation of the Palestinian death toll.

The Israeli Defense Forces’ media arm joined YouTube two days into its air strikes to document “the IDF’s humane action and operational success in Operation Cast Lead.” Its videos have been viewed well over 1 million times. With almost 18,000 subscribers — people who choose to get notified every time the IDF uploads a new video — it is the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube this month.

“The IDF has become a highly viewed channel on YouTube because our users think their content is worth watching — whether they agree with the IDF or not,” Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics, tells Variety. YouTube content is largely regulated by users themselves, who push videos up the “most viewed” list by playing them and passing them around, while flagging inappropriate content for YouTube to review.

YouTube has been used by governments and militaries since its inception, Grove says. The U.K. prime minister’s office and the U.S. military have channels on the site. The multinational force in Iraq set up a YouTube channel in 2007 to bolster support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. “When governments and militaries come to YouTube, they are opening up a conversation with citizens and giving them an access point through which to connect,” Grove says.

“Whether you agree with their message or not is up to you, but we think having the information there is a good thing.”

Arab governments have been slow to harness new media to engage citizens and influence public opinion, giving Israel the lead in open platforms such as YouTube in which, Grove says, “any voice has the same chance of being heard.”

Queen Rania of Jordan took the lead among Arab states last year, earning plaudits for her YouTube channel dedicated to tackling stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. But the channel has largely kept silent on Gaza, except for one clip of an interview with Al Jazeera in which the Queen appeals to international aid and humanitarian agencies to intervene on behalf of “a crisis of human dignity.”

Al Jazeera has built up a strong presence on YouTube with more than 40,000 subscribers and 2.5 million views to its Al Jazeera English channel.

“I think we’ve reached a point now where if you want to get a message out there, you can’t afford not to be on sites like YouTube,” Grove says. “You’re seeing that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now.”

Conversation and credibility

The IDF videos have started a conversation — though not on the IDF channel itself, where text comments on the videos have been disabled.

A Gaza reporter for the Associated Press said he saw his home destroyed by a bomb — on YouTube. “The Israeli army issued a video of the bombing of the Hamas-run government compound, which it posted on YouTube,” wrote Ibrahim Barzak in an AP report. “In it, I also can see my home being destroyed, and I watch it obsessively.”

The video is in the top five most viewed on the IDF channel.

Also spurring commentary is the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Arabic YouTube channel, in which a spokesman’s Arabic statements have generated pages of text comments and video responses. The channel was created last year — ahead of Israel’s landmark prisoner-swap deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon — “to create dialogue as well as to bypass the limitations we are facing when it comes to getting airtime on Arab TV channels,” MFA spokesman Ofir Gendelman told Variety in early December.

Gendelman, who is acting director of the MFA’s Arab Press and Public Affairs Division, has uploaded almost a video per day since the start of the war in Gaza, in which he speaks to Arabs through clips titled “Why did Israel undertake the military operation in Gaza?” and “When will Israel end its operation?” But the most popular videos — the aerial shots on the IDF channel — are also the most contested. In these videos, English annotation guides viewers through murky night shots, and red circles edited into the footage enclose what is described in text as Hamas targets.

Flagged by YouTube users as inappropriate content, some of these videos were removed, reviewed and then re-uploaded within the next day. Since then, IDF videos on YouTube have been called into question on two accounts.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, followed by the BBC, reported that a video showing a missile strike on a truck loaded with “Hamas grad missiles” was actually a truck owned by a Gaza resident. Ahmed Sansur said his family was moving oxygen cylinders from his damaged workshop.

In the second incident, the IDF released footage on Jan. 6 — the day Israel shelled two U.N.-run schools — of mortar bombs being shot from a U.N. school. The video, released as evidence that the IDF was retaliating after specific shots, was shown to date to October 2007. The video has been marked as such on YouTube, and the IDF has also since backed down from its claim that the attack was a response to mortars fired from within the school compound.

But the 2007 video is still being used on the IDF channel in reference to the Jan. 6 attack. The old footage plays in the background of a video “message to the Gaza people,” delivered by an IDF captain in Arabic. The video received 11,000 views in its first 24 hours on the site.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, friends, Israel, Lebanon, media, news, politics, women, words | Leave a Comment »

Mixing Media: Al Jazeera on the New York Times

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 10, 2009

How cool is this advertisement, which I saw on the “front page” / home page of the New York Times website yesterday:


Al Jazeera English has had a terribly hard time getting onto US cable packages – very few companies have proven willing to sign contracts with it, even if the channel costs them nothing. Thanks in no small part to Donald Rumsfeld, Al Jazeera is seen as pro-Arab, anti-US, and cozy with bin Laden.

But particularly right now, with the attacks on Gaza escalating even further, I think that Al Jazeera English can tap into a substantial interest among American viewers. And Times readers like to think of themselves as being in-the-know.

To watch AJE, you can go to the Live Station website, as the advertisement suggests. Or you can just go to the channel’s website, english.aljazeera.net, and click on “Watch Now”.

One warning: Al Jazeera prides itself on resisting the soundbite, so its stories tend to be several minutes longer than anything on CNN. This may not sound like much, but when you find yourself watching an 8-minute special on something in Ghana, it will seem much longer. But in-depth coverage is a good thing – and learning about the pressing issues of less headline-grabbing parts of the world is, too.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, media, news | Leave a 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 »

the current financial crisis: an Arabic view

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 8, 2008

Today I am taking a pause from Faylasoof’s stamp collection to report on the latest from the Arabic news channels. You might be expecting me to comment on Arabiya’s and Jazeera’s coverage of last night’s debate – and I will. Tomorrow.

What struck me as I watched the news last night – first on the Lebanese channels, and then on Jazeera and Arabiya – was how much attention they are giving to the financial crisis, both here in the US and around the world.

Well, diamond, OF COURSE, you might be thinking. And you’re right – this is a global news event. But seeing LBC and Mustaqbal devote more time than the usual token few minutes to world news, listening to the terms the announcers used to describe the crisis (more on this below), and noting the new graphics that Jazeera has created (ditto) brought the global-ness of this crisis home to me.

Let’s start with the terms. The most common term I heard as a description of the financial crisis was the same as we use in English: “al-azma al-maliya”, or “financial crisis”. This was also used as the “story title” on the text bar for LBC and Future’s newscasts. (We do get NBN and New TV, but I haven’t sorted out when their news broadcasts are. If you want to know, please ask H :).)

But this wasn’t the only phrase used – and the others were much more poetic. LBC described the crisis as the “zilzil al-mali” – the “financial earthquake”.

And Al Jazeera, which delayed its coverage of the presidential debate to broadcast a special report on the financial crisis, has created a new set of graphics just for this story. Its title:

That’s right: “financial hurricane”.

Jazeera’s coverage focused on New York (I know: the locator bar says “Washington”, but as the building shown itself clearly states, this is the New York Stock Exchange) and the stock market’s tumble there:

Jazeera did cover the presidential debate after its special news broadcast ended – but the fact that the channel chose to prioritize direct coverage of the financial crisis over a debate that largely focused on this crisis suggests to me how seriously it, and its viewers, are taking this “hurricane”.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, earthquake, economics, media, news, politics, research, television, words | 1 Comment »

more TV watching

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 14, 2008

I see from this morning’s news alerts that the US State Department is working itself into a tizzy about the fact that Hizbullah’s al-Manar satellite channel is broadcasting to South Asia on an Indonesian satellite. I’m not sure whether the State Department is upset more about the broadcasting or the fact that the Indonesian government seems eminently unmoved by US government concerns.

(The government apparently owns 15% of Indosat, the satellite parent company, and its spokespeople are describing al-Manar as adding to the diversity of views available to viewers and as a news channel “similar to Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN”. Yes – Al Jazeera, another channel the Bush administration loves.)

I’m finding it hard to take the State Department’s concern too seriously, largely because of the timing.

Why? Because this is, strictly speaking, not news. Al-Manar began broadcasting on Palapa 2, the Indosat satellite, in April (which explains why its contract runs until April 2011). Perhaps the State Department missed the early news coverage due to language issues, since it seems to have been largely in Bahasa – like this story, which appeared April 22.

But any Internet prowler should have been able to find the blogworld’s commentary about al-Manar, including this combination of translated news links and commentary on Indonesia Matters.

And on May 1, members of Shia Chat, which claims to be the largest Shia forum on the Internet, began providing instructions for would-be viewers, with one poster noting that:

Al-Manar TV is now available in the Asia-Pacific via satellite.

Satellite: Palapa C2 (113 degrees East)
Frequency: 4080
Symbol Rate: 28125
Polarity: Horizontal
FEC: 3/4

Anyone in the highlighted area can pick it up.

The poster also provided a map:

as well as instructions for Europe-based readers, who can apparently view al-Manar on a satellite called Atlantic Bird. (For this information and to read the very interesting discussion thread that follows, go here.)

April to August is four months. I understand that the wheels of government turn slowly, but I am curious as to why the State Department is making an issue of Indosat’s contract with Al-Manar now.

I understand why it criticizes the channel – like all Lebanese channels, it does engage in heavy political propaganda, and its broadcasts about resistance do shade perilously close to incitement. But I am curious about the timing.

And if you’re curious about Al Manar but don’t live in the Arab world or South Asia, you can easily watch it online. Just google “al-manar watch online”. The quality of the image will depend on the speed of your connection, but you’ll get a good sense of the channel and its broadcasts.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, news, politics, television, words | Leave a Comment »

“doing normal”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 14, 2008

I’m back at work this morning and feeling a bit aimless. Before I left last week, I carefully arranged my work in piles – a thinking-ahead effort by my last week’s self to smooth my eventual return.

I appreciate my own thoughtfulness, but unfortunately it hasn’t prevented me from being scatterbrained today. Thus far I’ve caught up on email, looked at the piles and merged two of them, but I haven’t yet come up with an outline for my day. Usually I have a whole list of tasks, big and small, and by 9:45 am humming well along. Today I seem to be more of a slow lurcher.

And today again I seem to be one of very few in my office, if not the entire building. There has been no trash collection since last week, understandably, and the bathrooms could use a bit of a spiff-up. In short, the place feels a bit abandoned, which isn’t helping me kick myself into productivity.

We came back to the city last night, delighted to be back home but also hyper-aware of the subtle differences. The streets of “West Beirut” were unusually quiet, even for 10 pm, and the buildings were hushed. When we reached my neighborhood, we had our pick of street parking – meaning that many of my neighbors must still be away. But the streets themselves were dark. Although the power was on, the street-lights were off. The darkness wasn’t dangerous, but it did make me want to scurry inside.

When we dropped off our guest in Hamra, where he lives, we noticed that the fast food spots on Bliss, across from AUB, were open. They had customers, but not enough even for a row of double-parked cars – let alone the triple-parking that reduces Bliss from four lanes to one on most evenings. Across from our friend’s building was a freshly painted trio of SSNP flying swastikas, or whatever its logo is meant to resemble. And under the logos, in three white plastic garden chairs, sat three late middle-aged men.

They weren’t armed, and they weren’t young hooligans – in fact, they all jumped up to warn H when they thought he might back up into the one other car out driving in Hamra. But they definitely weren’t sitting there just to enjoy the evening hawwa – they had no coffee, no tawla board, and no arguileh.

Today it all feels normal, kind of. The sun is shining and my gym is open – and old men do sit out on the streets in plastic garden chairs. But there are almost no cars on the roads, and from what I saw this morning, many of the shops and restaurants remain closed.

Ten years ago, I saw an art exhibit at the SF MoMA with my college boyfriend, called “Doing Normal”. I didn’t like the exhibit, but I remember it.

The exhibit was built around the idea that there is a difference between simply being normal – going about one’s daily life unconscious of one’s habits – and doing normal. Doing normal is by definition artificial – its the conscious attempt to dress normally, speak normally, behave normally, go to work normally, run errands normally, go out at night normally, etc.

“Doing normal” is the fiction of normalcy in un-normal times, and that is exactly what my part of Beirut is doing right now.

Posted in Beirut, friends, Lebanon, news, nightlife, politics, words | Leave a Comment »