When we visited Lebanon toward the end of the Clinton administration, the country was still occupied by the Syrian army. The occupation was a nuisance, because we frequently came across checkpoints where the cousin who was driving us around had to explain himself — or ourselves — to these interlopers. To bog things down a little more, the Lebanese army had its own checkpoints. Besides being an obstruction, the presence of the Syrians served as a constant reminder of the tense atmosphere that has too often prevailed in the country.

My maternal grandparents were born in Lebanon, and our principal reason for going there was to visit members of my grandmother’s family. Thanks to my cousin’s generosity with his time, we also saw a good deal of the antiquity and natural beauty Lebanon has to offer. Coming from a country that hadn’t had a war on its soil in well over a century, we couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between the competing armies with their automatic weapons and the Lebanese people going about their everyday lives.


That came to mind when we watched “Caramel,” a film made in Beirut, co-written and directed by Nadine Labaki, who also plays the central character, Layale. The story is about six women, three of whom work in a beauty salon, which is the axis around which the action revolves. The title, incidentally, refers to a sweet concoction used in the salon for hair removal; it actually figures in the plot in two instances.

The characters in the story are Layale, who is in a self-destructive relationship with a married man; Nisrine (Yasmine al Masri), who is about to be married to a man who doesn’t know of her previous sexual experiences; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), who is attracted to other women – including Siham (Fateh Safa), a stunning customer at the salon; Jamale (Giselle Aouad), a frequent client at the salon, an aspiring actress who is having trouble coping with age; and Rose (Sihame Haddad), an elderly seamstress who cares for an unbalanced older sister, Lili, (Aziza Semaan), and is conflicted when she gets what apparently is her only chance at romance.


Labake — whose eyes, by the way, are hypnotic — tells the stories of these women with a loving, delicate, sometimes even dreamy touch. The blend of drama and comedy is just right. The performances, without exception, are credible and affecting. All of the characters, including the distracted Lili, are endearing and sympathetic.

The choice of settings adds to the quality of this film, because Labake keeps the camera’s eye on the story, and doesn’t go exploring the city for its attractive waterfront or its war-scarred ruins, or its slums. In fact, there are no allusions to the recent history of Beirut; this story is about the interior lives of these women.


An interesting cultural aspect of this story is that Nisrine is the only Muslim in the circle of friends; the other women are Christians. Nisrine’s family is very traditional — and, presumably, so is her fiancée, which is why — with the support and encouragement of her friends, she takes a drastic step to deceive her groom about her virginity.

The dialog in this film is in Arabic, and we watched it with English subtitles. It’s fun to listen to the actual dialog, because — as we noted when we visited there — the Lebanese mix French and English into their Arabic. This movie was well received when it appeared in 2007, and the attention was well deserved.

A policeman questions Lili, who collects paper -- including parking tickets -- in the streets of Beirut.



Danny Thomas used to do a monologue about a man who got a flat tire and then discovered that he had no jack in his car. He had no choice but to walk to a gas station that was miles away, and the routine consisted of this guy muttering to himself as he trudges along the road. Already annoyed, he makes himself angrier by imagining how the garage owner will try to take advantage of him. He is so furious by the time he reaches the station that he verbally attacks the unwitting mechanic, telling him what he can do with his jack. Some people could tell that story in a few sentences; Thomas could make it last ten minutes. That was the genius of the saloon comic whose talent and know-how made him a television mogul.

Thomas was a popular guy in our house, not only because he was funny but because he had Lebanese parents. My mother’s parents were from Lebanon, and when Thomas became a national figure, he was the only one who shared that heritage. The Lebanese were once regarded in our country as exotic, so much so that my mother told me that her parents instructed her to say she was French if anyone should ask. Danny Thomas with his broad popularity and his frequent acknowledgement of his background provided a chance to wave the flag.

The story has been told often enough about how Thomas, when it appeared that he might never succeed as an entertainer, promised St. Jude that if his fortunes changed he would build a shrine to the saint. Even St. Jude might have forgiven someone for dismissing a vow made in desperation, but Thomas stuck to his word and, in the process, made himself one of the heroes of 20th century America.

When Thomas first launched a campaign to raise money for his project, the backbone of the drive then as now was the Arab-American community, including several of my mother’s Lebanese cousins. My parents attended fundraising events, including one at which Thomas and his wife, Rose Marie, appeared.



I figured that tenuous connection was better than nothing when I had an opportunity last year to share a meal with Marlo Thomas, one of Danny Thomas’s three children. I needn’t have bothered. She is a gracious and open woman who doesn’t require pandering. She and her siblings are also their father’s successors as heroes, making an extraordinary commitment to generating support for the hospital he founded. Although it has been operating since 1962, the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – to treat children with catastrophic pediatric diseases regardless of their families’ ability to pay – seems more like a dream than a reality The hospital has operating costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a day. Someone who joined us at dinner asked Marlo about covering that nut. “How do you do it?” he said. And she answered: “We do it.” I have often thought about that answer; it reveals a combination of determination and confidence that I have encountered in leaders of other charitable enterprises.

Marlo Thomas, on her own, has had a remarkable career. She is a talented dramatic and comic actress, and her TV series “That Girl” was a benchmark in prime time representation of independent women. Her project “Free to be You and Me” — a record album, a TV special, and a book — broke new ground in eliminating the image of the helpless or subservient female that infected traditional children’s literature and entertainment.

She has recently published her sixth book, “Growing Up Laughing.” This book alternately recounts her childhood and adolesence in the Thomas household — which was frequently extended to include the likes of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray — and her conversations with contemporary comics about the origins of their own funny bones. Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy  Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams are among them. The observations of these modern performers supplement the wisdom that Marlo Thomas gleaned from her exposure to the wits of her dad’s generation. The book is entertaining and full of insights about both the inspiration and the discipline of comedians.


I particularly liked Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of his  remark that comedy doesn’t belong on the arts pages, but on the sports pages:

One of the things that drew me to comedy was that it’s a simple world. It doesn’t require the interpretation of any critic to tell you whether something is good or not good. If the audience is laughing, the guy’s good. If they’re not laughing, he’s not good. Period. And that’s the analogy to sports: You can talk all you want about how two teams played in a game. But we all know who won at the end. There’s no debate. It doesn’t require any perception. … Standup comedy doesn’t require value judgments. If you get laughs, you work; if you don’t get laughs, you don’t work. It’s all about the score.



As there isn’t enough turmoil in the land of my ancestors — well, some of them, anyway — a popular Lebanese singer has stirred the stew by including a derogatory reference to Nubian people in the lyric of a children’s song. I won’t go into what the lyric says, but it’s described in a story in the English-language newspaper in Beirut, and that story is right HERE.

Reading that story in the Daily Star sent me on a search for the Nubians, with whom I was not familiar. I found out that the term describes more than two million black people who are concentrated in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are one of our links to antiquity, because they have preserved culture and tradition that dates from the beginning of civilization.


Photo of Nubian girl from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on

Stumbling across the reference to these people and the information available about them reminded me of an experience we once had while flying to California. On the plane with us were a group of people in rural dress who had coal-black skin and who spoke to each other in a language we were sure we had never heard. When we surmised that one white man was with that party, we asked him about them, and he told us they were aboriginal artists from Australia who were on a world tour with an exhibition of their work. That encounter made us so conscious of how diverse the world is and how little we know about the many kinds of people who compose what we call humanity.

So, too, now with the Nubians. The Daily Star quoted a fellow named Motez Isaaq, who represents the Committee for Nubian Issues: “We are one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. Instead, our image is constantly perpetuated as the uneducated doorman or waiter.” Isaaq gave Wahbe the benefit of the doubt by saying her lyric was offensive even though she may not have intended it to be. And he added, according to the Star’s paraphrase, “that stereotypes of minorities are so entrenched that referring to them in popular culture media is frequently done unconsciously.” How sad and how discouraging, particularly since Wahbe, whether consciously or not, addressed her bias to children.


A Nubian child from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on








The Daily Star in Beirut published this story today about Kareem Salama, whom the writer describes as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. It’s funny: Just yesterday a family member was telling me of his disagreement with his sons – they’re 17 and 18 – over whether there is any difference between “country music” and “country and western music.” The boys’ opinion is that “western” is not part of the genre. The dad cites Tex Ritter and Gene Autry, among others, as evidence of the contrary. My own opinion is that the genre can no longer be defined – if it ever could be. It has evolved from the front porch to the honky tonk to the high-tech audio/video recording studio, and there are more and more people  in the industry who have less and less of the kind of life experience that generated the form in the first place. That’s to be expected. And now we have Salama, who may be the first but probably won’t be the last Muslim to put on the broad-brimmed hat. As the story indicates, although he was born and reared in Oklahoma and now lives in Texas, he brings to his music a perspective and a range of interests that never would have occurred to those who dreamed of an “Old Rugged Cross” or warned that “There’s No Excuse if You Don’t Know the Savior.”

It’s a brave new world.


By Amany Al-Sayyed
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: If you’re tired of arguing with your pals about whether culture-clash between down-home America and the Muslim Middle East is inevitable, you need look no further than Kareem Salama. The 31-year-old Salama is known as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma to Egyptian immigrant parents, he goes horseback riding and enjoys his mother’s southern cooking. He’s performed in Italy and Germany, typically with a guitar accompanist and black cowboy boots. He even sings in a southern twang.

Salama’s music reflects many influences – pop, rock and folk as well as country-and-western. Then there’s the inspiration he takes from the Koran. “I enjoy listening to the Koran recited with a beautiful voice,” he said in an email interview, “or listening to songs praise God or the Prophet Mohammad or praising something good in general.”

He says the work of 17th-century English poet John Donne’s has been “a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and it still is. In order to memorize them, and other western poems, I made them into songs with a melody. This is common in Arabic poetry because it is written and then sung using ‘maqamat.’ I memorized some Arabic poetry the same way.

“Sayidna Ali wrote a line of poetry that says, ‘If it were that wealth were brought by intellect then all the rich people would be wealthy.’ Wealth and fame, these things are difficult to explain.”

Salama describes his music is a hybrid of an American-Arab experience. His latest self-marketed debut albums include 2006’s “Generous Peace” and “This Life of Mine,” from 2007. During Israel’s summer 2006 bombing campaign against Lebanon, Salama released a special single dedicated to the crisis, “Prayers at Night.”

Salama’s parents moved to the US in the late 1960s, where they pursued a university education at various universities, including MIT. Salama himself holds a B.Sc. in chemical engineering and earned a law degree in 2007.

The singer-songwriter depicts a near-idyllic American childhood. “I spent it doing stuff outside like playing baseball with friends or sitting on the porch at night drinking Kool Aid,” he reminisced. “Maybe we’d even sneak out and throw toilet paper at the neighbor’s house.”

Though he hasn’t been in Egypt for some time, he said he finds American rural life not unlike what he found while visiting his parents’ home. “The country style here resembles the ‘Shaabiyyah’ element in Egypt,” he said. “I grew up in the country and my music has a more traditional style to it.”

The songwriting process he describes will be familiar to young pop musicians around the world. “Sometimes I have a thought or idea about a song,” he says. “I sit with my guitar. I start singing it with a melody or rhythm underneath it. Then a line or idea comes to me about something and it flows out of me in tandem always with the melody. Then I write a rhythm.”

Afterward, he sits with his producer, who works the melody and the chord progression around the song with a piano interlude here, or a riff there.

Salama says he writes his own lyrics, mostly about chivalry, love, home and family values. Yes, he knows Umm Khoultoum and likes her music. “I don’t demonize or idolize any particular time or era,” he says, “because there’s something good in all times. You get more modern progression sound in the remixes today, but there’s still enough of the old, because people still appreciate it.”

Though he doesn’t sing about Arabic cultural heritage, Salama believes he still weaves its spirit into his music. He says his lyrics are inspired by readings from Al-Ghazali, John Makdisi and “Maqamaat al-Hareeri” as much as good old Southern race/slavery narratives – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for instance. “There is an enjoyment of the old and the new,” he said. “That’s why I think country music is the most lucrative market in the USA.”

Salama continues to live in Texas where he pursues his musical career. He still prefers shawarma over falafel, loves to go horseback riding and believes line dance resembles Arabic dabkeh. A polymath, he’s finishing a book on political fiction.

Though he’s faced challenges as the son of immigrants, Salama depicts himself as an American nationalist. “As far as my relationship with my American-ness, yeah I love my home,” he said. “I’d still visit other places but I love this place. I had a good childhood and I’ve always been happy where I was born. I can relate to it. As for the racist element, I think of it like this: it’s like having a family with a history in abuse; at the end of the day they’re still your family.

“I don’t neglect the Egyptian part of me or that of my parents,” he continues. “But you get some people here who have a bad experience and they wake up one day and say; ‘I’m only Egyptian or I’m only Lebanese.’ That’s fine but in my opinion, I say I’m sorry you’re not just one thing.”


For more information on Salama’s performances and music, visit

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star


Posting my blog at has added plenty of hits, although I can’t understand the pattern at all. One movie review blog I wrote has been getting more hits than anything else, but I can’t see why.




The Daily Star in Beirut is running an ad on its web site for hookahs and tobacco. If I’m not mistaken, that’s Barbara Eden in the ad. It certainly doesn’t look like any Lebanese women I know. I guess the agency figured that since “I Dream of Jeannie” is still in vogue in the United States – well, it’s one of the series that gets re-run ad nauseam while better ones stay on the shelf – then Barbara would be a good image for this campaign. I’ve been told that my grandmother, Selma Aoun, whom I never met, smoked a hookah, which the Lebanese and Syrians call something like arghille. (I have pictures of my grandmother; she looked more like Salma Hayek than like Barbara Eden.) Another common Arabic term for the water pipe is shisha, which evokes one of the materials a person might smoke in such a device. I have never smoked more than a few cigars, but I have always envied the image of the smoker. Not the crowd I recently saw huddled outside the back door of a restaurant in Morristown, but the thoughtful pose of the Edward R. Murrow. I have always wanted to place a Meerschaum between my teeth during a conversation and nod from behind the blue haze as though to say, “Hmmmmm. I’ll have to see what Spinoza had to say about that.” According to family lore, my grandmother’s arghille had several pipes, so that she could share it with her visitors. I fantasize about getting out that fez I bought at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and squinting through the smoke at two or three men in dark glasses as we plan the raid on Aqaba. Of course, even if I could sit cross-legged on the floor at my age, I couldn’t get up without assistance.