A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘research’ Category

maps and mortality.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 30, 2009

Excuse me, but there’s something wrong with your map, I was told the other day.

Well, first of all: it wasn’t my map. I was speaking about the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s with a group of students, and had “borrowed” the 1976 map accessible via the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry Castaneda online map collection – a tremendous resource for any map nerd.

This is the map I was using (and yes, I fully credited UT Austin):

middle_east_pol_1976Back to my corrector.

What do you see that looks wrong? I asked, thinking: he must have seen the “U.S.S.R.” and missed the whole “The Middle East in 1976” caption. Annoying, but at least an easier question to address than, for example, What’s that diamond-shaped “Neutral Zone” between Iraq and Saudi Arabia? which to be quite frank is a mystery to me as well.

But my questioner wasn’t vexed by the lingering presence of godless Communism. Nor was he troubled by small diamonds, neutral or otherwise.

This map shows two Yemens, my corrector said.

There were two Yemens, I said, but they have been united since 1990.

There were two Yemens? another student asked. Really? asked a third.

A roomful of eyes looked at me, shocked. And I looked back.

I should have been happy that at least they all knew of Yemen, and could find it on a map. Instead, I just felt that it was time to stock up on a more powerful anti-wrinkle cream.


Oscar Williamson, at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in with a much-appreciated explanation of the map’s little diamond:

The diamond was the Iraq – Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone. Historically the main political unit in the area was based on tribe, rather than territory. Since the tribes moved about, fixed borders were impractical. However, the British really liked maps and in 1922 insisted that Ibn Saud define his northern border. He didn’t want casual inter tribe conflict to be interpreted as acts of war, so the Neutral Zone was created, with enough cartographical significance to satisfy the British and the practical irrelevance to prevent the unnecessary formalities of interstate wars over tribal slights.

In 1981 Saudi and Iraq signed a treaty to divide the NZ between them, but the legality of this treaty is debatable. Treaties have to be lodged at a public depository, such as the United Nations Secretary General, but neither party did this, or indeed informed anyone of this change to their territories. The NZ officially ceased to exist when Saudi Arabia deposited this and other treaties with the UN in 1991, partly to stop CNN referring to bits of KSA as Iraq.

Fascinating. And who knew that we would have CNN to thank for clearing up a messy little border issue?


Posted in Arab world, maps, research, Texas, time, Yemen | 7 Comments »

the origins of jihad, New Yorker edition

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

I’m on a media kick these days – and totally addicted to online newspaper and magazine archives. One thing that interests me is the way that certain terms come into vogue, and how the meanings that attach to them change over time.

So today I took a peek at the New Yorker‘s archives, curious to see when the word “jihad” first appeared, and in what context.

The New Yorker‘s archives stretch back to 1925, but the first mention of the word “jihad” does not appear until 1985, in the July 8 edition of John Newhouse’s “Diplomatic Round”. Titled “A Freemasonry of Terrorism”, the multi-page article uses the word “jihad” four times – but only as part of the group name “Islamic Jihad”, and not as a religious concept or a political strategy.

Terms that today might be associated with jihad, such as “martyrdom”, are used, but there is nothing in this article about terrorists “advocating jihad” or “espousing jihad” or “belief in jihad”.

The next article to use the term is Jane Kramer’s April 14, 1986 “Letter from Europe”. Kramer also uses “jihad” only as part of “Islamic Jihad”. (After introducing the group, she refers to them as “the jihad” in a way that reminds me of how some journalists today talk about “the hizb”. I find this approach bizarre, but what do I know?) Nor does this start much of a trend: the word “jihad” does not appear again until a July 1990 piece on Egypt, where it is again used as the name of a group (“Jihad”).

However, by November 1995, the situation appeared to be changing. A piece by Mary Anne Weaver on “The Annals of Covert Action”, titled “The Stranger”, used the term as follows:

“… the C.I.A.-sponsored “jihad”, or holy war, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan …”.

In other words, “jihad” now appeared as a term of its own, but required a definitional gloss for readers.

By July 1998, the word had become detached not only from group names, but also from the need for definition: a feature on the failure Prince Charles’ campaign for traditional building styles described him as on “a jihad against modern architecture”.

I don’t have any sweeping conclusions to offer about this – I just find it interesting. Next up: “jihad” in the New York Times, where its use as noun and metaphor has a much longer history.

Posted in internet, media, research, words | Leave a Comment »

words and things: what’s in a car?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 18, 2009

I’ve been slowly working my way through a thin but rich family memoir: Grace Dodge Guthrie’s Legacy to Lebanon, about the various contributions of her paternal and maternal families (the Dodges and the Blisses, both deeply connected to AUB and to Robert College in Istanbul). Grace, who was born in Beirut in 1915, writes sweetly of her childhood there and her parents’ work while her father, Bayard Dodge, served as AUB’s president.

She describes her father’s arrival to Beirut during a family trip in 1910:

After being ferried ashore by red-tarboushed boatmen rowing forward to prevent colliding with other boats and being waved through customs under President Bliss’s wing, the Dodge family would have ridden to the college in arabiyehs, open carriages manned by colorful drivers urging on their scrawny horses with cries and whips.

I’m rolling my eyes a bit at this depiction of AUB extra-legality (though under Ottoman laws the Dodges were likely exempt from most customs scrutiny in any case), but what really makes me curious is the word “arabiyeh”. When I studied Arabic in school, I was taught that “siyara” was the word for car.

As my aunt says, sometimes you don’t even know what it is that you don’t know. I didn’t hear the word “arabeh” in Damascus for some time, because I didn’t know to listen for it – just like I didn’t know to listen for “bagnole” when listening to my Parisian friends, because I knew that the word for “car” in French was “voiture”.

But I did begin to hear it – both as “arabeh” and “arabiyeh” – and I did begin to wonder. Why would there be a word for “car” in Arabic that sounded just like the word for “Arabic” in Arabic?

My short attention span meant that I stopped wondering at some point – probably when I grew enough accustomed to Lebanese car culture to refer to cars by their model and make, rather than simply as “car” :). But Guthrie’s use of the term reawakened my curiosity, and I turned to my dictionary and to Google.

My dictionary confirmed what I already knew: that “araba” and “arabiyeh” both refer to a “carriage, vehicle, araba, cart, car, [or] coach”. And Google produced a Wiktionary entry, which gave me a sense of 1) just how much the Wikipedia empire has expanded and 2) the origins of the term. It defines “araba” as: a carriage used in Turkey and Asia Minor drawn by horses or oxen.

And – just like the OED – it includes historical illustrations of the word’s usage:


  • 1836: No one but a native of the luxurious East could ever have invented an araba, with its comfortable cushions, and its gaily painted roof, and gilded pillars. The prettiest are those of brown and gold, with rose-coloured draperies, through which the breeze flutters to your cheek as blandly as though it loved the tint that reminded it of the roses of the past season amid which it had wandered.”— Julia Pardoe, City of the Sultan; and Domestic Manners of the Turks, in 1836.
  • 1845: I found the examination of these antiquities much less pleasant than to look at the many troops of children assembled on the plain to play; and to watch them as they were dragged about in little queer arobas, or painted carriages, which are there kept for hire. William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 1845
  • 1898:There is, however, such a thing as an “araba,” a vehicle drawn by oxen, in which the wives of a rich man are sometimes dragged four or five miles over the grass by way of recreation. The carriage is rudely framed, but you recognise in the simple grandeur of its design a likeness to things majestic; in short, if your carpenter’s son were to make a “Lord Mayor’s coach” for little Amy, he would build a carriage very much in the style of a Turkish araba. — Alexander William Kinglake, Eothen, 1898.
  • 1917:Whenever I mounted the araba, he would whip his horses to a sharp trot or canter for half a mile, and then at a word stop for me to get out. — W.J. Childs, Across Asia Minor on Foot, 1917.

I love these quotes, and even though I’m not a wiki’er, I love knowing the origins of the word “araba” (or “arabiyeh”). I see so many Ottoman influences in Lebanon and in Syria and am delighted to have found one more.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, research, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

the Australian bridge of Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2009

The weather turned unexpectedly hot here in New York this past weekend: yesterday the high was around 90F.

The summer weather reminded me of Lebanon – not Beirut’s soggy heat, but the dry heat further north towards Tripoli. And that in turn reminded me of a day-trip that H and I had taken last June, to see the Rachid Karame International Exhibition Center. We took the highway up, but the older sea roads home – partly for the ambience, and partly for the chance to see the tank graveyard and a mystery bridge.

The bridge itself is not a mystery: its a small, stone bridge that can fit the usual one-and-one-half cars. The mystery came from the marker carved midway across. Here it is on the fly:


And here it is in close-up:


The left-hand side says “1942” in Arabic; the right-hand side in Roman script. And the words on the banner say: “Australian Commonwealth Military Forces”.

I did know, vaguely, that British-led Allied forces were the ones that took Syria and Lebanon back from the Axis sometime in 1942. (And I do know that it was British pressure that forced the French to grant Syria and Lebanon de jure independence in 1943, and to make that de facto in 1946.) But I had no idea what else the troops had been up to while stationed here – and nor did H. Hence the mystery.

I’ve found one book that discusses the building of the Australian bridge: an out-of-print book written by a man named Lawrence FitzGerald, Lebanon to Labuan: A story of mapping by the Australian Survey Corps, World War II (1939 to 1945). As you know, collecting out-of-date books on Lebanon is a hobby of mine – and I was tempted to buy a copy of FitzGerald’s book. But at $40, its too rich for my cheap tastes :).

The Australians must have put their time in Lebanon to very good use, because when I tried to search for information about this bridge, another bridge appeared. A site for the “Australian War Memorial” maintains an online collection of period photos, showing Australian efforts in various locales. One shows the construction of another Australian bridge: a bridge for the Lebanese railroad, crossing Nahr Ibrahim somewhere between Jounieh and Jbeil.

The site describes the bridge as in “Tripoli, Syria” – which will alternately amuse, irritate, or horrify you, depending on your socio-political views. Here’s what it says:


Initially, I thought that this must be the same bridge – but if you look at the photo on the AWM site and compare it to “my” Australian bridge, they don’t seem to be the same. “My” bridge was inland, and nestled in amongst the foliage, while this one appears very exposed. And – while I’m no bridge expert – my understanding is that railroad bridges and car bridges are somewhat different in width and overall appearance.

But perhaps the Aussies built “my” bridge while working in the area on the broader railroad project – since both took place in 1942.

Here’s a bit more information on the railroad, taken from a book titled Middle East Railways and written by the Boutros Boutros-Ghali’an Hugh Hughes, and posted on Al Mashriq:

The most interesting event in this area however was the decision to construct a standard gauge link between Haifa and the railways of Syria. This meant that stores and equipment could be moved quickly, without transhipment problems due to change of gauge, from depots in Egypt and Palestine right up to the Turkish border – and beyond if necessary. Moreover it would also provide a through connection with Iraq. In the event Turkey maintained its neutrality and refused permission for British military stores to pass indiscriminately over its section of the Aleppo-Mosul railway. Nevertheless locomotives were transferred to and from Iraq by this route, and the line from Haifa was also used to move ex-Middle East engines to Turkey after purchase by that country. The first proposal was for a line from Haifa to Rayak but a 1941 reconnaissance revealed construction difficulties that would have taken far too long to overcome. So instead it was decided to blast a route along the coast connecting Haifa with Beirut and Tripoli; this involved some very difficult work negotiating the steep cliffs where the various headlands met the sea. From Haifa to Beirut the construction was carried out by South African engineers and it is interesting to note that a temporary 1.05m gauge line was in use in April 1942 on the 14 miles between Damour Bridge and Beirut so that narrow gauge facilities at the latter place could be used for supplying materials. In June the South Africans were transferred elsewhere and the finishing touches were added by two New Zealand RE companies. Regular military traffic started on 24th August 1942, including three passenger services per week.

From Beirut to Tripoli construction was by Australian Royal Engineers, except for the difficult Chekka tunnel which was built by a tunnelling company recruited from South African miners for this special job. By July 1942 the 14 miles from Chekka Cement Works to Tripoli were already in use but the whole line from Beirut was not completed until 18th December; two days later General Alexander presided at the official opening ceremony for the Azzib-Tripoli railway (the PR were operating the Haifa-Azzib section). Some idea of the character of this line can be gleaned from the fact that when on one occasion some trucks became derailed near Sidon thus holding up 15 following trains with important supplies, the action taken was to bring along a travelling crane and tip all the offending stock over the edge into the sea.

Kheireddine and my other history buff readers, do you know anything more about this bridge?

Posted in Arab world, Australia, Lebanon, photography, research, time | 6 Comments »

operas and other works of imagination

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 14, 2009

After making A serve as my grapefruit guinea pig last weekend, our conversation turned to more general developments in Lebanon – and specifically, to the post-war fate of Martyrs’ Square.

Its amazing how different it looks today compared with before the war, A said.

I agree, I said. Starting in the late 1800s, Martyrs’ Square (known then as the Bourj, or the Place des Canons) became the heart of downtown life, with shops, banks, cafes, and other businesses springing up around its perimeter, a public garden covering the square, and a pay garden – for the wealthy – at its heart. Today, Martyrs’ Square is basically a nothing space.

And what I love best is that the Virgin Megastore replaced the old opera house, A continued, smiling.

I stopped smiling and started to fuss.

Why does this “opera house” canard persist? I understand its appeal: it allows people to use the replacement of opera by dance music as a metaphor for post-war Lebanese culture – but I don’t see any historical evidence for it. No rhapsodies by turn-of-the-century Lebanese or visiting foreigners about opera, no “news of the weird” pieces about how Beirut used to be a major stop on the European opera circuit. (By contrast, we all know that Aida premiered in Egypt.) Is there some secret Beirut opera history of which I am unaware?

From what I have read, the Virgin Megastore is housed in the old Cinema Opera. I.e., the cinema’s name was “Opera”, just like there was a Cinema Roxy, a Cinema Metropolis, a Cinema Empire, and so on. There was no Beirut empire, and there was no Beirut opera house – at least, as far as I can tell. (I’m eager to be corrected, if I am wrong – so if you do have evidence to share, please don’t hold back!)

Here’s what I have found on the subject. In Fin de Siècle Beirut, scholar Jens Hanssen states that the Cinema Opera was built in 1923, on part of the old palace grounds of Fakhr al-Din. A number of cinemas were indeed originally built as theaters and then adapted as technology and tastes changed (for an interesting overview of Lebanese theater, you can read the relevant sections in the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater, Volume Four: The Arab World here), but it seems that this cinema was built as just that.

Hanssen is a very well-respected younger scholar, who spent a good deal of time doing research in Beirut – at the German institute, I believe. His use of footnotes and primary source research leads me to trust him far more than I trust the many journalists who blithely state that Virgin replaced an opera house.

For a bit of additional color, I suggest this: The cinema does make an appearance in one well-known journalist memoir: Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation (a book I like, by a journalist I don’t always trust) – as a beaten-up, run-down building weakened by the war:

Zarab took us into a tottering ruin upon whose bullet-scarred facade were the words ‘Opera Cinema’ … In the gloom of the interior, we could make out the faces of other Palestinians, sitting on mattresses on the floor. But Zarab took us straight across to some very narrow wooden slits that had been built into a mountain of rusting oildrums and sandbags at the far end of the building. We were behind what would have been the cinema screen; sunlight streamed through the wooden apertures. Through them, we could see undergrowth, a forest of bushes and trees spreading far across what had once been Martyrs’ Square. (p. 342)

I suspect that this facade didn’t make it through the end of the civil war (the story Fisk recounts above was from 1982), and that with time, memories of the “Cinema Opera” faded into memories of a building known as “the opera”, which outsiders assumed referred to an opera house. (But again, if I am wrong and there actually was a Beirut opera house here, please tell me.) That’s fine: this is how social memory works.

What I like less is the metaphor that seems to have emerged from this mis-remembering: that Lebanese culture has chosen the flash of pop and dance music over the serious art of opera. To me, this not only does a disservice to contemporary Lebanon, but also to the Beirut of the early 1920s – a modern, culturally rich space that embraced cosmopolitanism and whose inhabitants were ‘early adopters’ of many new innovations, including cinema.

In any case, this seems to have turned into a more strident post than I intended. Basically, I’d like to know more about the history of the building, so that we can put the proper historical metaphor to work. For those of you currently in Beirut – or for those who have spent more time at the downtown Virgin than I have – are there any commemorative plaques on it that might shed some more light on its history?

Posted in Beirut, Lebanon, music, research, time | 4 Comments »

Lebanese, Ireland, and the Titanic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 13, 2009

Yesterday was a lovely, relaxed holiday – lots of time with friends, and beautiful spring sunshine. But I also learned that it was a sober holiday for some: yesterday, a number of Lebanese-Irish commemorated the 97th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which happened on the night of April 14th to 15th, 1912.

I’ve mentioned before that the ship carried a number of Ottoman Syrians, many of whom would today be described as Lebanese. For American and European upper classes, the Titanic was the latest, greatest luxury liner – but for the many other people who made up its steerage classes, its specialness lay solely in the fact that it was bringing them far away from the land and people they loved, and towards a – hopefully – more lucrative and thus happier future.

This article in the Irish Times helps bring this aspect of the Titanic‘s story to life:

THE 97th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was marked by a ceremony in Cobh, Co Cork, yesterday.

The Irish Lebanese Cultural Society laid its first wreath at the annual commemoration which got under way shortly before 3pm.

The laying of the wreath highlighted an often-overlooked statistic: 123 people from Lebanon travelled on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912, along with the mostly-European passengers and Asian crew.

The small village of Kfar Mishki in the lower Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon was devastated by the loss of at least eight of its inhabitants. Another village, Hardeen, lost 12 of its locals while eight others survived.

The tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic is commemorated every April in Cobh.

Cobh, then known as Queenstown, was the Titanic’s last port of call on a journey which ended with the loss of 1,517 lives.

Posted in Arab world, Lebanon, research, sea, time, travel | Leave a Comment »

the mechanical Turk

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 19, 2009

I’ve been on an Ottoman kick recently, as you may have noticed. One of my more recent Ottoman jags started with a magazine’s casual reference to Amazon’s work-for-hire service, “Mechanical Turk“. The site, whose motto is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”, connects employers and independent contractors willing to do online tasks that require human, rather than machine, intelligence for piecework rates.

Amazon’s enterprise is always interesting, but what made me curious was the name. What is a mechanical Turk, and why is it Turkish?

Since I was on Amazon’s website anyway, I turned to its book offerings, and found:


It turns out that the “mechanical Turk” was a machine designed by an Austrian tinkerer and scientist in the late 1700s – a time when machines that could simulate some aspect of animal or human life were apparently all the rage at Europe’s courts. On the more charming side was a torso of a boy playing the flute, whose wind-up gears actually produced a flute-like sound. On the less charming side was a replica of a duck, whose primary enchantment was that when fed, his wind-up gears took the food through the process of digestion, including the excretions at the end. Ugh.

The mechanical Turk was something else – more impressive than any other machine of its day, because it seemed to be able to think. The machine (see image on the book cover above) was a large contraption: a semi-solid table, which housed the machine’s gears, and the figure of an Ottoman Turk. What the machine did was to play chess.

I’m not much of a chess player, but apparently the ability to play chess is one litmus test for machine intelligence, because chess requires strategic thinking. In other words, the mechanical Turk seemed to possess artificial intelligence.

What we know now – and what Amazon’s Mechanical Turk plays with – is that the machine’s gears were just for show. A person hid inside the box and manipulated the Ottoman Turk’s arm to make each chess move – meaning that this artificial intelligence was really human intelligence supported by artifice.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the science side of this story, and I’m not too impressed by the mechanical Turk’s creator. Why didn’t he put his skills to work designing a machine that did work, even if it couldn’t play chess? I found myself wondering as I read the book.

Maybe that question shows my own lack of imagination – or my own hidebound morality. In any case, what really interests me is why he decided to make the figure Turkish – why not dress him as a fellow Austrian, or even another European?

I think I know the answer: the Ottoman Empire was Austria’s historic rival. An Ottoman Turk must have appeared a much more intimidating competitor than a Frenchman, or even a British subject. From the descriptions that cropped up in the book, however, it also made him seem much more alien – and maybe a bit sinister.

Here is one example:

An article [published in 1820] in the [London-based] New Monthly Magazine … proclaimed that “this cunning infidel (for he assumes the figure of a Turk) drives kings, and castles, and knights before him with more than moral sagacity, and with his inferior hand; and, except in a very few instances of drawn games, has beaten the most skillful chess-players in Europe.” (p. 128)

Ah, infidel – one of my favorite, we’re-all-cousins-under-Abraham, words.

Here is another, taken from the mechanical Turk’s tour of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in the 1830s:

Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor who attended Maelzel’s show as a child, later recallted that “the Turk, with his oriental silence and rolling eyes, would haunt your nightly visions for many an evening thereafter.” (p. 172)

Glad to see that we Americans were so free of stereotypes. If the figure had been dressed as an Austrian, would Dr. Mitchell have referred to his “Tyrolean silence”, do you think?

Posted in Americans, art, construction, religion, research, time, Turkey | 1 Comment »

unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2009

In May 2005, two days before the elections, M and I went from Damascus to Beirut for a weekend getaway. A was having a joint birthday party in Beirut that Saturday night, and we thought that an excursion “abroad” would be a fun change from our usual Damascene weekend pursuits.

We had a hoot of a time – not only at the party, but in general. And we caused most of our own hilarity – particularly during the share-taxi rides to and from Beirut.

Oh, look at that beautiful mosque, I said as we passed one especially lovely mountain town heading from Masnaa toward Beirut.

Oh yes, M said, frowning and then nodding sagely. She had spent the previous three years in Damascus, so her sense of sectarian architecture was much finer than mine. That’s a beautiful Christian mosque, diamond.

As our return taxi wheezed its banana-boat way up towards Aley, M told me an “urban legend” story that she had heard from equally science-minded friends.

Someone at the American University of Beirut got a grant, she said, to study traffic patterns in Beirut and to suggest ways to improve congestion. (The conversation was sparked, of course, by the many mini-traffic jams we encountered on our way toward the border.) He or she also got access to an incredible new software program, designed to model traffic patterns and analyze them – a program that U.S. municipalities use when trying to improve their own traffic issues.

What did the program say about Beirut? I asked, in between bouts of car sickness induced by our stop-and-go drive.

Well, M said, the team plugged in all the numbers: the maps of the city’s streets, the number of cars on the road, the traffic signals, the parking lots – all the data they would input for any city. And when they ran the software program, the program said: impossible. This many cars cannot possible operate on the streets of Beirut.

What do you mean? I asked. M is the scientist, not me.

The program insisted that there was an error in the data, M explained. It wouldn’t analyze Beirut’s traffic, because it insisted that the number of cars that drive the city each day is impossibly high.

And, by American standards, I am sure that the software program was right. It probably assumed things like lanes, parking spots, and obedience to traffic signals – all of which would no doubt decrease the number of cars that could feasibly fit on Beirut’s streets. But this is reality – and it does work.

I thought of M’s story yesterday, when I came across this press release, about another new AUB research project:

The Transport Research Unit (TRU) within the Department of Civil Engineering of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has just received the region’s most advanced automobile driving simulator, DriveSafety’s DS-600. It will allow researchers to investigate a wide range of topics spanning the domains of traffic engineering, road safety, as well as driver behavior and cognition.

“This is a significant new addition to the Department of Civil Engineering’s research infrastructure,” Salah Sadek, department chairman noted as he observed the final tests being conducted on the simulator. “This simulator will enable the relationship between the driver and the vehicle to be thoroughly investigated, and opens up the possibility for investigating a wide range of research topics as well as providing opportunities for numerous inter-departmental final year projects.”

(You can read the rest of the DriveSafety press release here.)

I’m sure that the simulator will be a great help in the University’s research projects – but I’m not sure that those research projects will have any applicability in Lebanon. I’m guessing that the “DriveSafety” simulator simulates American driving experiences, not Lebanese ones – and probably leaves out some of those, like the joys of encountering black ice on a “rural route” in Iowa, or running into a felled tree on the highway between Seattle and Portland.

How will the civil engineers of AUB compensate for the simulator’s tendency to insist on lane discipline?

How will they compensate for the simulator’s insistence that one should not drive on the shoulder of a mountain road?

How will they account for the driver’s desire to put on his/her hazard lights in foggy weather?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the first simulations, and I would love to see how the DriveSafety employees like their experiences on the roads of real-life Beirut!

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Canadians, church, education, Lebanon, research | 4 Comments »

mollusk silk: more from Bsous

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 12, 2009

Since it is the season of love, indulge me as I return to one of my Lebanese loves: the Bsous Silk Museum. I’m not actually a great silk wearer, but the history of silk production in Lebanon is one of my favorite stories.

Any thanks to a casual remark from one of my former professors, I am now curious about the name of the town itself. I understand that “Bsous” comes originally from a Syriac word, and wonder whether it might be linked to the word “byssus”, which appears in the Old Testament – in Exodus, where it is often translated as “linen” or “wool” or even “yarn”. Byssus is the term for the silk-like threads that some types of mollusks (shelled creatures in the mussel and clam family) secrete to anchor themselves to the sea-floor. (Think this sounds gross? Schedule a visit to the Bsous Silk Museum and ask to meet the silkworms.)

Merriam-Webster tells me that “byssus” comes from Middle English bissus, from Latin byssus, from Greek byssos flax, of Semitic origin; akin to Hebrew būṣ linen cloth. And apparently byssus silk and worm silk were seen as much the same – both somewhat nubbier and more linen-like than the silk we use today, thanks to the difference in hand-spun and machine-spun threads.

You can probably figure out my question. Do any of you know whether “Bsous” the town derives from the same word as “byssus”, and whether there was any ancient connection between its land-based silk-making and sea silk? Bsous isn’t a coastal town, so I’m guessing that the term “byssus”/Bsous was used by analogy, but I’m curious whether it was applied first to silk worms and then to silk clams, or vice versa.

Posted in academia, animals, Arab world, Beirut, bugs, clothing, education, Lebanon, research, sea | 1 Comment »

a pox on you: Ottomans and the cure for smallpox

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 2, 2009

Last week I was asked to take a look at the John Carter Brown Library‘s exhibit “Islamic Encounters”, which is available for viewing both in-person and online. Its a very sweet exhibit, and an impressive effort by the library to encourage its collection, which focuses on books and manuscripts written by Europeans traveling abroad, to speak more broadly and to new audiences.

While looking at the artifacts selected for the “Exchange of Knowledge” section, I learned something that utterly blew me away:

Amid a smallpox epidemic in the city of Boston, Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston fought deep public resistance in order to implement smallpox inoculation as a public health measure. Mather cited the customary use of inoculation in Constantinople, and was deeply impatient with those who objected to adopting any practice used by the Turks. Mather knew the Koran well and cited it often in his theological writing.

I suspect that Mather’s Quranic citations were used for rather partisan purposes – but I had no idea that the idea of smallpox inoculation came to us from the Ottomans. Where was this story when I was taught that it came from Jenner’s study of milkmaids whose exposure to cowpox made them resistant to smallpox?

Naturally, I turned to Google for more information. I found further confirmation in an article on Edward Jenner published in Baylor University’s medical journal, which states:

Inoculation, hereafter referred to as variolation, was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe. In 1670, Circassian traders introduced variolation to the Turkish “Ottoman” Empire. Women from the Caucasus, who were in great demand in the Turkish sultan’s harem in Istanbul because of their legendary beauty, were inoculated as children in parts of their bodies where scars would not be seen. These women must also have brought the practice of variolation to the court of the Sublime Porte.

Well, I think the characterization of the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish “Ottoman” Empire is questionable, but the Circassian women and their “moon-faced” beauty is certainly a part of the Empire’s history. Who knew that they brought health along with good looks!

The article continues:

Variolation came to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century with the arrival of travelers from Istanbul. It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation in England. In 1715, Lady Montague suffered from an episode of smallpox, which severely disfigured her beautiful face. Her 20-year-old brother died of the illness 18 months later.

In 1717, Lady Montague’s husband, Edward Wortley Montague, was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte. A few weeks after their arrival in Istanbul, Lady Montague wrote to her friend about the method of variolation used at the Ottoman court. Lady Montague was so determined to prevent the ravages of smallpox that she ordered the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland, to inoculate her 5-year-old son. The inoculation procedure was performed in March 1718. Upon their return to London in April 1721, Lady Montague had Charles Maitland inoculate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of physicians of the royal court.

Mather and a few other Boston-based physicians had heard of inoculation through European contacts, and brought the practice to the American colonies; Jenner’s work on vaccination began in the later 1700s, and drew heavily upon earlier practices of inoculation/variolation.

What a delightful bit of historical knowledge: I love that it shows “my” Ottomans in a favorable light, and I love that it was the courage and ingenuity of a woman that brought the practice West.

Its a lovely start to my week – happy Monday to you all 🙂

Posted in childhood, health, research, science, time, women | 3 Comments »