A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

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 »

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 »

flying high in Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 9, 2009

S is the one and only person I know who waxes lyrical about Syrianair, the state-owned Syrian airline. He likes it for reasons that might be considered fairly culture- and person-specific: it is a partner with Olympic, his national airline, which allows him easy bookings and frequent flyer miles. And when he wanted to change a Damascus-Athens return for not one but two weddings, the Syrianair personnel were more than sympathetic. Not only was there no change-of-ticket fee, but they wished the brides and grooms well, and told S “insha’allah 3arees” to boot.

I thought of S yesterday when I read the news that the Obama administration has approved the sale of spare Boeing 747 parts to Syrianair.

Here is CBS’ take on the story, posted by George Baghdadi – who I had thought was not a journalist but a kind of semi-corrupt Godfather. I’ve never met him, but I heard several stories of his having magically obtained visas for journalists who agreed to hire him as a fixer while sympathizing effusively but ineffectually with those who had chosen other fixers’ services and (hence) been denied visas. And now he works for CBS. Go figure.

President Barack Obama has pioneered a route towards Syria that is distinctive from that of his predecessor President Bush, dispatching congressional delegations and signaling a rare authorization to sell Damascus plane parts for repairing two aging Boeing 747s.

Airplane parts are an often-overlooked area of trade, and yet – as was suggested recently at a symposium I attended on Iran, another country with old Boeing planes – they offer a low-cost, low-profile way for hostile countries to engage in “confidence building”. Authorizing this exception to SALSA (the US sanctions on Syria) isn’t particularly glamorous, but to me it is an important gesture. By authorizing the sale of these spare parts, we affirm that we want Syrians to be able to travel easily and in safety – two “freedoms” (of movement and from fear) dear to Americans’ hearts as well.

I do think that we need to think carefully about the impact of any major efforts toward rapprochement – I support partnership, not capitulation. This move to me is a very smart use of political power. It is a gesture that demonstrates our our support for Syrians – who consider themselves as modern as Americans – to continue enjoying the modern convenience of speedy and safe air-travel. (And of course as someone with strong Seattle ties, I support their flying Boeing!)

As for the mysterious George Baghdadi, someone at CBS needs better fact-checking math skills. Count the number of Boeing 747s in the lead paragraph above, and then compare that number to the one that appears later in the same article:

Syrianair, set up in 1946, has only five operating single-aisle Airbus A320s, one aging jumbo Boeing 747, two planes for local flights, and more than 5,000 employees.

If the number dropped from two to one in the course of a few paragraphs, we really need to rush those parts to Cham :).

Posted in Americans, Arab world, economics, politics, Syria, travel | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

— Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PJV: Are you “out” as a Jew there?

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

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

PJV: What do they say about Jews?

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

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

PJV: Is there a free press?

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

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

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

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

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

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

PJV: Will you go back?

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

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

Ads and ends from the local paper

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 11, 2009

The news is awful again this morning – more than 60 strikes on Gaza overnight. Assuming an 8-hour night, that’s 7.5 per hour, or one every eight minutes. Do you think people there got any sleep? I don’t. I remember the bombings in south Beirut in 2006. My apartment was roughly one mile away, and the impact of each bomb still shook me – literally, lifted me up off my bed – when they hit their target.

So I’ll focus on lighter things, like a few of the advertisements that I have seen recently in the Daily Star.

Ace Hardware, which had been running ads on billboards near the Beirut port all spring, is now open:


I think of Ace as a real down-home, old-school hardware store – a chain with the feel of a local, small-town shop. I wonder how this attitude is translating in Beirut – I can’t see many people walking in with the idea of taking on anything DIY, for example. Is the store focusing on contractors?

On the other hand, in one way I can see Ace fitting right in. When I went to college, there was an Ace in the next town – for about five minutes. It was closed by the parent company during my first month there – moved somewhere a bit more bustling, I think.

But the store lived on in local memory, because it was used heavily in direction-giving. As in, “Oh yes – shop X? Its right after the place where the hardware store was.” Typical New England direction-giving – and also typical Lebanese-style direction-giving. I can’t tell you the number of times the turn into my neighborhood was described as “where [Fast Food Restaurant X] used to be.”

I moved there long after the fast food restaurant had closed, but I got the message: that in Lebanon, as in New England, there are locals, who know the longue duree of the land; and there are others. With that in mind, Ace should fit right in :).

There’s another ad that has been running regularly in the paper – one from travel agent Nakhal, advertising regular flights to Baghdad and Erbil:


I know Nakhal primarily as an agency focused on leisure travel: vacations, honeymoons, etc. But it seems to have found a lucrative new sideline. The flights, which run on Flying Carpet and Wings of Lebanon, are not inexpensive – $600RT in economy class, and booking a ticket requires an “invitation letter” from an Iraqi company or other organization.

I’m sure that some of you are thinking: What’s the big deal? Why wouldn’t Lebanon have direct flights to Iraq?

I’m not sure what the big deal is, to be honest. And yes, there have been direct flights from Lebanon for some time. What I find interesting is that they are now being advertised by a travel agent, with all the supporting infrastructure this implies (transfer arrangements, hotel bookings, etc.). I see it as an indication that there is now a steady interest in traveling to Iraq for business ventures, and am hopeful that this means better things – like stability – for Iraqis.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, construction, Iraq, Lebanon, travel | 3 Comments »

Open Doors: studying abroad and students from abroad

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 8, 2009

Yesterday evening I had a nice chat with a college friend who has also spent time in the Middle East – well, in Kuwait at least. We talked about the changes that Kuwait in particular, and the region in general, has undergone in the eight years since he was last there.

What we really need, he said, is to send more American students there, and to keep bringing more Middle Eastern students here. Of course, the latter is easier said than done, thanks to our onerous visa process. But it is illuminating to see how many American students do study abroad in the region, and where they go – as well as how many come here.

Conveniently enough, a report was recently released giving the latest statistics: Open Doors, an annual report that tracks trends in university study abroad programs, and on international students and scholars coming to the United States.

According to its statistics on the Middle East, 11% more students from the region came to the US for the 2007-08 academic year – a total of 24,755. The number from North Africa increased 4%, to 3,858. 28,613 students from the region isn’t bad – but compared to the roughly 300 million people who live in the Arab world, its a small amount.

The biggest sending countries are Saudi Arabia (9,873), Iran (3,060) [go figure!], Israel (3,004), Jordan (1,799), Kuwait (1,823), Lebanon (1,807), Egypt (1,766), and Morocco (1,132). Saudi Arabia and Iran are much larger countries, population-wise, so its not surprising that they send proportionately more students. (Well, it wouldn’t be surprising if we didn’t have sanctions against Iran. I’m curious to know more about the Iranian students, most of whom appear to be graduate students.)

If you thought the 28,613 MENA students was a small number, guess how many Americans studied abroad in the region last year?

2,764 in the Middle East (an increase of 7%) and 1,658 in North Africa (an increase of 14%).

The biggest destination countries: Israel (2,226) and Egypt (1,100).

In other words, of the 4,222 American students who studied abroad in the Middle East and North Africa most recently, 52.7% of them went to Israel.

Food for thought. In the meantime, I’m off to learn more about white phosphorus.

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, education, Israel, travel | 2 Comments »

diversity where you least expect it: Arabic lawyering in Iowa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 27, 2008

On Monday, my father sent me the scanned image of an advertisement he had noticed in the Des Moines paper: an English-Arabic language advertisement for a bilingual tax presentation to be conducted the next evening:


We were both a bit surprised: Iowa has a measurable Lebanese- and Syrian-American population, descendants of the immigrants who came here in the early 1900s. But their Arabic is generally limited to food words. And Iowa has a long-standing Muslim population, as witnessed by Cedar Rapids’ Mother Mosque, but not necessarily an Arabic-speaking one.

My father offered to go to the presentation, since my flight wasn’t scheduled to arrive until later that night. But thanks to the country’s weather woes, he instead spent the evening driving halfway to Chicago, thinking I might get stranded there. I didn’t, but my flight to Iowa was delayed long enough that he was able to drive all the way back and still reach the airport before I did.

So: no answer to the Arabic tax advice mystery. But we hope that there was a big turnout: we like seeing diversity in our state! And thank you, Dad, for devoting your evening to your daughter’s interests: first in Arabic, and second in getting home for the holidays :). (And thanks to my mother as well, who kept me updated on my changing flight status, and waited up until the wee-est of the wee hours to make sure we got safely home!)

Posted in Americans, Arabic, family, holidays, home, Iowa, travel | 2 Comments »

threats of “Lebanon”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 19, 2008

I am dying, absolutely dying, to see Waltz With Bashir – which opens here in the city on December 26. In the meantime, I received a Google news alert about a less reflective Israeli. This man apparently also spent time in as a soldier in Lebanon – and decided to use his experiences there to threaten his fellow Jet Blue passengers:

BURBANK — A JetBlue flight headed from New York to Burbank was forced to make an emergency landing in Salt Lake City late Monday night after an intoxicated passenger caused a major disturbance.

Shalom Yarimo was arrested Tuesday night and charged with felony interference with a flight crew.

Now, Yarimo says he had become ill after choking on his food, and was unnecessarily treated as a safety problem by the flight crew.

Officials tell a different story: “Some of his activities included running up and down the aisles, opening and closing the overhead bins, shouting at the flight attendants, making a statement that he had shot people in Lebanon.”

Upon landing in Salt Lake City, Yarimo’s 130 fellow passengers and the flight crew had to deplane and be re-screened before completing the trip to Burbank.

Yarimo was booked in the Salt Lake County jail. He has a court appearance scheduled for Wednesday.

Ugh. What a lame excuse: I was choking, so I began to threaten people by mentioning my murderous activities as an occupying soldier. I hope the judge gave him an appropriately harsh sentence.

Posted in Israel, Lebanon, travel | 3 Comments »

more discount shopping – this time a la Turque

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 17, 2008

Given the sagging economy, perhaps the sudden focus on discount shopping should be no surprise. After yesterday’s post, I found myself reading the New Yorker on the subway – and reading another article about the city’s off-price options.

Some (Loehmann’s, Filene’s Basement, Century 21) are old friends to me. But some – like an East Village shop called Gabay’s – were totally new:


A Turk, I thought. As Kheireddine pointed out the other day, “Turk” was frequently the designation given in Europe and South America – and, to a slightly lesser degree, in the United States – to Lebanese and Syrians who came from the Ottoman Empire.

I bet he was really Lebanese, I thought. And since Sam Gabay came through Ellis Island, I knew how to find him: the online search engine at EllisIsland.org. I love this search engine – what a gift to Americans, to have such a treasure trove of immigration history available to anyone with a working Internet connection.

And when I searched, I found … nothing! Well: I found that no one named Gabay (or Gaby, or Gabey – sometimes you have to try alternate spellings, to account for immigration officers’ and immigrants’ differing ideas about how to spell names in Roman script) immigrated through Ellis Island in 1905.

But I did find that a teenager named Israel Gabay did arrive from Istanbul in 1906 – which might have become 1905 over years of family retellings. And Israel might have been Anglicized to “Sam”.

Between 1900 and 1925, 30-40 Gabays arrived to the United States from “Turkey” and/or “Greece”. I’m guessing that they were all cousins to one degree or another, and that their emigration was inspired first by tightening economic times in the Ottoman Empire, and then by the dislocations involved in the formation of two new nation-states: Turkey and Greece, each of which had a particular religious identity that might have seemed less welcoming to Jews than the multi-faith Ottoman Empire had.

In any case, I was wrong: Sam Gabay does not appear to have been at all Lebanese. But his story, and the story of all his Gabay cousins, was a very nice reminder of the interesting paths by which so many immigrants came to the United States.

You can read about Gabay’s history on the store’s website, here. (In fact, given how closely the article echoes the information on the website, I would say that its author was also a site visitor.) And you can shop there seven days a week, from 10:00 AM until 7:00 pm. See you there!

Posted in Arab world, citizenship, family, research, time, travel, Turkey, words | 3 Comments »

Beirut through vaseline: Season of Betrayal

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 2, 2008

My latest used book purchase arrived in last Tuesday’s mail – just in time for me to stash it in my carry-on when I flew home the next day. I had been wanting to read Margaret Lowrie Robertson’s Season of Betrayal since I had run across a mention of it earlier this fall.

I’m always a sucker for books set in Beirut, and this one, which follows the disintegrating marriage of a journalist and his wife during a stint in Beirut in the early 1980s, seemed promising.


It was a good read, and my thoughts have returned to mull over bits of it several times this week. But two things kept me from liking the book as much as I wanted to.

First, the main character, Lara, is an absolute wet rag. She spends much of the book doing nothing. I understand that this is her character, and it makes the impact of her final denouement action all the stronger, but … I found it hard to relate to her. She did so little to make her situation any better – and so little, period – that it was like watching her through glass smeared with Vaseline.

Second, Robertson’s characterization of the actors in the civil war in the early 1980s was a bit heavy-handed. She takes a very teleological perspective on the Syrians, Hizbullah (whose existence as an organization at this point in time is debated), Islamic Jihad, Amal, and ‘the Druze’ – by which I mean that she describes them much as a Bush Administration official might have in 2006. Its helpful to the reader unfamiliar with Lebanon, because it doesn’t require him/her to stretch him/herself by thinking historically, but it isn’t accurate.

On the other hand, the fact that I am still thinking about the book – and now writing about it – means that these two “flaws” are also precisely the elements that keep me engaged six days after reading it. So: if you have a long plane ride in your future and can be patient with an indecisive woman and a tricky, war-ridden city, you are in for an engrossing read.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, books, espionage, Lebanon, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »