A guide to the many cultural oddities members of the U.S. military community encounter while overseas. E-mail your questions to

Oct. 31, 2006Q:I know it's a town in Iraq, but "diwaniyah" has a specific meaning, I'm told. What's up with that?

A: Diwaniyah is indeed a city in Iraq, and the capital city of Qadisiyyah province. The town has an estimated population of 400,000, and is one of the most fertile agricultural areas in Iraq. Fields in the area have for centuries been irrigated from the Euphrates River, and the city sits on the main routes between Baghdad and Basra.

As for the name's meaning, a "diwaniyah" is roughly translated to mean a room or space separate from a main house that is used by men for socializing, often in the form of long hours spent over tea and discussion. The diwaniyah tradition is particularly strong in Kuwait, where men use the place to talk about business, politics, family and other important issues.

The roots of the word come from the Arabic "diwan," which is used to describe an office where an Emir would meet his subjects and listen to their problems, then offer advice or help.

Today's diwaniyahs are usually a large reception room – sometimes within the main house - outfitted with all manner of cushions and creature comforts. They are, if you will, the "barber shops" of public opinion - if you want to get the pulse of the population, sit in on the conversation.

Oct. 30, 2006Q:I showed up for a date with this nice Russian lady I'd recently met, with a rather expensive bouquet in hand. The first thing she did was take out one of the flowers and put it aside. Is this some kind of tradition? What's up with that?

A: If the bouquet had contained an even number of flowers - such as the quintessential Western symbol of romance, a dozen roses – it would have been perceived as an omen of bad luck. In Russia and other countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, even numbers of flowers are only presented at funerals or events with a connection to death.

For romantic or gift-giving purposes, an odd number of flowers should always be presented. This aversion to gifts of twos does NOT extend to other items - for example, two bottles of perfume would go over just fine.

If you are dating someone who grew up in Russia, here's an important day to mark on your calendar - March 8, or International Woman's Day. This day is taken very, very seriously in that part of the world, and men should by all means remember that flowers, at the very least, are the order of the day. In Russia, March 8 is an official day-off kind of holiday, and a large part of it is usually spent in front of a table groaning under the weight of delicious and painstakingly prepared food. (Prepared by the woman, of course.)

And if you're not one for saying toasts praising the talents and beauty of your beloved, you are advised to learn - fast.

Oct. 29, 2006Q:Several times outside temples in Japan, I've seen little statues wearing red hats and bibs. What's up with those?

A: The statues represent Jizo, a Buddhist bodhisattva (or "enlightened being") thought to be the protector of people - especially children - in hell. Talk about being in the hot seat.

Japanese Buddhists believe children who die before their parents do - even in miscarriages - are sent to hell as punishment for the grief they cause. In hell, the children toil to build monuments to Buddha from pebbles in hopes of being released. But a demon often stops by to scatter the pebbles, which means the monuments are never completed. Jizo steps in by hiding children in his sleeves when the demon appears, allowing the monuments to go unscattered.

The red hats and bibs on the Jizo statues usually are tributes from bereaved parents who hope Jizo will take special care of their child. Sometimes you'll see small piles of pebbles near the statues, also a gesture from parents hoping to ease their child's suffering.

But Jizo's job isn't all gloom and doom. Sometimes he gets hats and clothing in thanks for helping a child overcome an illness. And Jizo also is a protector of travelers, which is why you'll see the statues on roadsides, too. He's also sort of a patron saint to firemen – you figure if he can walk through hell helping children hide from a demon, he's probably well able to handle a little fire here on earth.

Oct. 24, 2006Q:All of the souks in Kuwait are choked with rugs and gold. But I keep hearing that one of the biggest traditions in Kuwait is pearl diving and that pearls used to be the biggest export from here. What's up with that?

A: Believe it or not, before oil became a wanted commodity, pearls were the backbone of Kuwait's wealth. For centuries, people that lived along the Persian Gulf made their livings and followed long traditions as pearl divers. The pearl (called "dana" in Arabic) found in this area has now taken a back seat globally to the pearls that come from Japan, but the traditional culture in Kuwait can still be found.

There are annual pearl diving festivals in June, for example, that showcase the young men who carry on the tradition, known as "ghawawis." The ships, or dhows, are fixed up with calk made from cotton dipped in shark oil. A mix of shark oil and powder is then rubbed all over the hull, partly to waterproof them.

Pearl divers traditionally wear the same outfits: a wraparound skirt called a "wazar," which also doubles as a head scarf. The tools include the "dieng" (basket), the "hajer" (the toe anchor, connecting a diver to the boat), and the "fotam" (nose clip). The diver is also usually connected to the boat by a rope tied around his waist; when he's ready to surface, he gives a tug on the rope, which is held by an assistant on the boat, who then pulls the diver up.

Pearl diving started petering out at the end of the 19th Century, and took its commercial death blow in the 1930s, when Japanese pearls and economic depression cut down demand for Kuwaiti pearls.

Oct. 23, 2006Q:Summer has passed, but my memories of many a delicious frothy cold Radler remain. It does strike me as a bit odd, however, that the Germans, with their high standards for beer purity, will so readily mess with their favorite beverage. What's up with that?

A: Well, Germans certainly aren't the only ones to dabble in mixing up a beer. The Radler, a mixture of a lemon-flavored soda and beer, has its approximate equivalent in what the English call shandy, a Frenchman would recognize as a Panaché, or a Spaniard would term a Clara con Limon.

But a Radler is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strange ways indeed that a beer in Germany can be altered. In Berlin or eastern Germany, you might wish to try a Weizenbier with a shot of raspberry (Himbeere) or Woodruff (Waldmeister) syrup, which is known as a Berliner Weiss mit Schuss. The Weizenbier is also the critical ingredient in the "Frühstück Weisse" - just add orange juice for a yummy breakfast drink. A "Diesel" is usually concocted of a pilsner beer and cola.

German-language speakers will notice the word Radler has a second meaning, that of bicycle rider. According to several sources, back on a hot summer afternoon in 1922, the owner of a Gasthaus in the Bavarian Alps realized his supply of beer wasn't going to hold out long enough to accommodate all the thirsty guests he was anticipating. So he cleverly mixed up the remaining beer with his ample supply of lemon soda, and pretended that he had come up with a drink made especially for cyclists, so they could get home without worry about falling off their bikes. Thus, the story goes, was the Radler born.

Oct. 22, 2006Q:I've often heard people brag that Korea's written alphabet, Hangeul, is the "most efficient" alphabet in the world. What's up with that?

A: Hangeul stands out because, unlike most of the world's alphabets, it was created from scratch, with simplicity as the goal.

Before King Sejong sat down with a small committee to make a new alphabet in the 1400s, two forms of written Chinese were used in Korea - one for the upper class and another for the middle class.

Those two alphabets were incompatible with each other, and neither were very well-matched to spoken Korean, which contains sounds not represented by Chinese letters.

So in 1446, Hangeul was born. But it was met with strong opposition from the educated elite because it stood to open the doors of literacy to women and the lower classes. But gradually the alphabet caught on, and in 1894 official documents began to be published in Hangeul. After 1945, Hangeul became a point of national pride and was the norm in writing education.

There are only 24 letters in modern Hangeul, 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Each consonant's shape is a rough diagram of how the mouth, tongue and teeth work together to form the letter's sound. Vowel shapes represent the sky, land and man - elements King Sejong and his scholars believed were behind the phenomenon of human speech. Letters are put together in blocks, each of which is a syllable.

So what's so great about Hangeul, which can be translated as "great script"? According to scholars worldwide, simplicity and good design. Its simplicity makes it accessible - Korean children master Hangeul much earlier than their counterparts elsewhere can use other written alphabets, and Korea's literacy rate is extremely high. And the building-block design means Hangeul can represent all the sounds in the Korean language as well as sounds in foreign languages.

Basically, Hangeul can handle it all.

Oct. 17, 2006Q:This month being Ramadan, I keep hearing things about "The Night of Power" and how it's coming up soon. What is it? What's up with that?

A: The "Night of Power" is a literal translation from the Arabic (Leyla al Qadr), and is special night that occurs each year sometime within the last ten days of Ramadan.

The celebration commemorates the night that - according to tradition - the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the prophet Mohammed. It's sometimes referred to as "the night more valuable than a thousand months" and is the subject of a full chapter in the Quran.

According to one online religious guide, Muhammed said of the Night of Power: "Whoever stays up (in prayer) on the Night of Qadr, fully believing and hoping to seek reward, he shall be forgiven for his past sins."

So it is that many Muslims around the world spend the last ten nights of Ramadan in prayer and devotion, heading to mosques and reading special incantations. Of course, different traditions within Islam have different ways of marking the date. Sunnis and Shiites usually mark the night on different dates. This year, Leyla al Qadr will fall sometime around the 20th of October, according to religious calendars found on the Web.

Oct. 16, 2006Q:I recently made a trip to Budapest, Hungary. As we toured the city, I saw numerous statues of cows in various positions throughout the Pest side of the river. What's up with that?

A: As soon as we heard "cows," our first thought was that the international CowParade had arrived in Budapest. And that is exactly the case.

The Fiberglas bovines that popped up around the city this summer are the latest installments in an international mooo-vement that began in the States seven years ago. It combines interactive art and charity.

Cows created in a variety of poses by artists, designers, craftsmen and even architects are purchased by sponsors and then decorated by folks young and old. Finished products are stationed in public spaces, in front of stores and on private property by those who paid for them, and left there for the public to play on, laugh at, photograph or admire.

When the season is over, the statues are rounded up and auctioned off, with substantial portions of the proceeds going to charity. The cream of the cows, according to the organizers' Web site, have sold for more than $100,000.

If you think you may have seen these cows roaming elsewhere in Europe, you are right. This summer they were in Lisbon, Portugal; Edinburgh, Scotland; Athens, Greece; and Telemark, Norway, and in the past have appeared in Paris, London, Prague, Stockholm and several other places.

And they have bred offspring: Berlin had its BearParade, and Munich's Löwenparade - or Lion's Parade - is going on now.

Oct. 15, 2006Q:I've noticed that larger shrines in Japan have booths selling little charms - different ones for all sorts of different purposes. What's up with that?

A: Who says money can't buy happiness? For about 300-1,000 yen ($2.56-$8.56), you can by an omamori aimed at ensuring your happiness, your health, your luck and more.

Omamori - meaning "protector" - usually come in the form of a bright-colored satiny bag. One side usually is embroidered with the name of the shrine or temple from which it was purchased, and the other side displays words of blessing. Inside the bag is a small piece of paper or wood inscribed with prayers consecrated by a priest. But don't open the bag! Some believe that doing so lets the luck escape.

Omamori come in many shapes, sizes and designs - and just as many purposes. Beyond general health and happiness themes, you'll find omamori with more specific aims, such as success in school exams, safe childbirth, traffic safety, harmonious marriage and even secure computing. The bearer generally keeps the charms where they're needed - at home for luck in marriage, children and home security; at the office for help with your work life; in the car for traffic safety; and - no surprise here - as a cell phone charm for any kind of luck you want with you all the time.

Oct. 10, 2006Q:Iraq was under the influence of the British for so much of its earlier history, but Iraqis don't drive on the left-hand side of the road, like in many other former British-influenced areas. What's up with that?

A: Good question. Drivers in about one quarter of the countries in the world drive on the left-hand side of the road (when they bother to follow lane makers, or even have paved roads). Most of those countries are old British colonies or British-influenced, just like Iraq.

Iraq, like many other countries, gave up on the left-side drive when the Brits left. That's the simple explanation. But why does it matter which side you drive on? A bit of history …

In the old days, everyone traveled on the left side of a road or pathway, because everybody was right-handed (what with left-handedness being a sign of the devil and all). Traveling on the left allowed swordsmen to keep their right hand free and closer to a potential enemy.

Later, as trade developed and people started using carriages, the carriage drivers would sit on the left-most horse pulling the cart, to keep their right hand free; since they were sitting on the left, they kept their carts to the right side of the road to avoid accidents. We've also heard tales of how Napoleon's conquering ways spread the right-hand-side drive to all countries that were not under his thrall (Britain being the most obvious).

Now, why does Japan - far from ever being part of the British Empire - drive on the left? We're told it goes back to the sword explanation and the dominance of Samurai. Later, Japan's railway system was built - traveling on left - with help from the British.

Oct. 9, 2006Q:I enjoy collecting pieces of the local currency, especially coins, when I travel. I recently took some leave time and went to Tallinn, Estonia, where the local currency is krooni. But I was there for three whole days before I ever received any Estonian coins as change, even though I did a lot of shopping and eating in restaurants. I was beginning to wonder if the Estonians even used coins. What's up with that?

A: Well, it is rather unusual that you didn't receive any small change during those first three days in Estonia, but the locals probably would tell you that they don't use coins very often because "they aren't worth very much."

If you look at the exchange rate, one U.S. dollar is equivalent to about 12 Estonian krooni; in other words, each kroon is worth about 8.3 U.S. cents. If you break a kroon down into senti, (there are 100 sentis in one kroon), each senti is worth, well, almost nothing in terms of U.S. cents - about eight-tenths of a penny.

One local resident told us that, for the most part, businesses price items "very cleverly" so that coins are seldom needed for change.

But if you collect coins, I hope you kept the few senti you did receive in Tallinn - the country hopes to be joining the ranks of other euro-using countries in 2007.

Oct. 8, 2006Q:I've heard that Japan has some crazy ice-cream flavors, like fish or wasabi. What's up with that?

A: According to several reports, fish and wasabi are some of the tamer ice-cream flavors you can find in Japan. If you really want to wacky it up, you might try flavors like seaweed, garlic, silk, chicken, beer, charcoal, octopus, eggplant, corn or crabmeat. Or if those aren't quite out there enough for you, there's always goat flavor (made from goat's milk - and other parts of the goat) or varieties made from ox tongue or raw horsemeat.

The bad news (or good news, depending on your perspective) is you can't find those unconventional flavors just anywhere. Most are produced in small batches in a single ice-cream shop, and they're usually a reflection of a local specialty. Sometimes, the reason for making such strange flavors is as much economic as it is novelty. In many cases, rural communities have made ice cream tributes to their main product in order to draw tourists and put themselves on the map.

But there are easier - in terms of both availability and palatability - ways to push your ice-cream boundaries while in Japan. Green tea ice cream is available everywhere, including in convenience stories, as is red bean (azuki) flavor. Sweet potato ice cream is fairly widespread as well. And in spring, many restaurants serve cherry blossom ice cream, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds.

But if you prefer to stick to the classics, never fear: The Japan Ice Cream Association reports that the nation's most popular ice cream flavor, past and present, is vanilla.

Oct. 3, 2006Q:My platoon was in the Rasafa district of east Baghdad. On our way there, we passed several churches. I thought everyone in Iraq is Muslim? What's up with that?

A: Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side for 14 centuries in what is now Iraq. When the British took control of Iraq in 1922, about 20 percent of Baghdad was Christian, mostly Surianis (Greek Orthodox) and Chaldean, (Roman Catholic). Jews made up about 20 percent, with various Muslim sects making up 60 percent.

After 1948, Iraqi Jews faced growing persecution, and most fled to Israel, Great Britain, Canada and the United States. After Israel's victory in the 1968 Six Days War, Saddam Hussein rounded up 19 influential Jewish businessmen, charged them with spying for Israel, then hanged them in December 1969 in various public squares around Baghdad.

Many, if not most, Christians prospered under Saddam Hussein. Tarik Aziz, currently in custody, is a Christian who was a Saddam confidant for 40 years, ascending to the post of deputy prime minister. After the fall of Saddam, fundamentalist Muslims began targeting Christians businesses and homes, and after repeated attacks and bombings, many Christians are fleeing to Syria, Lebanon and the United States.

Oct. 2, 2006Q:During an unusually hot-weather spell in Germany this summer, I realized that none of the buildings are air-conditioned – even hospitals! It made for a stifling experience when temperatures passed the 90-degree mark. What's up with that?

A: Air conditioning was invented in the United States because it was a comparatively wealthy country that, in areas, had a much hotter climate and very different building technology than in Europe, according to Marsha Ackermann, author of "Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning."

The older stone and brick housing stock of many European cities both keep the indoors cooler and makes the installation of A/C harder, she said.

Also, Ackermann contends, "because air conditioning is so 'American,' some Europeans have scorned the idea of automatic comfort and our enormously disproportionate use of energy."

It reminds me of a good line in my favorite movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously," when a Jakarta-based driver picks up the incredibly handsome journalist, played by Mel Gibson, and takes him to the only hotel in the city with air conditioning, quipping; "In Jakarta, foreigners pay to be kept cold."

Nevertheless, there are some regions in the U.S. where folks don't have A/C because it's unnecessary - like in New England or the Pacific Northwest, or because it's too expensive.

Ackermann said she notes in her book that St. Louis, Mo., charity hospital had no A/C during the 1980 heat wave. Many poorer neighborhoods in the States lack the convenience.

As for making do in a sweltering spell in Europe, one may recommend a trip to the Alps; a visit to a pub for a frosty beverage, or maybe a dip in one of the local ponds - with or without a bathing suit - as a way to beat the heat.

Oct. 1, 2006Q: I've heard most of my Korean co-workers talking about travel plans for the end of this week. Is everyone going on vacation at the same time? What's up with that?

A: Think of it as homecoming weekend. Traveling to be with family in one's hometown is a key part of Chuseok, the Korean fall harvest holidays - somewhat similar to American Thanksgiving. This year, Chuseok is observed Oct. 5-7.

Just as America has Thanksgiving traditions - turkey, football, awkward dinner-table conversation with your weirdo uncle - Korea's Chuseok has its own set of observances, many centered around food and family. Songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes stuffed with ground sesame and steamed on fragrant pine needles, is an especially popular dish. Many families visit ancestral graves to perform memorial rituals and clean up the site a bit. As on other celebration days, many people wear hanbok - Korea's traditional costume.

Even if you're not Korean, you're likely to be involved in another Chuseok tradition: Horrible, horrible traffic. Last year, a Korean traffic official projected that a drive from Seoul to Busan – about 275 miles - would take nine hours. Train and bus service are extended in the days around Chuseok to try to ease congestion, but even so there's no avoiding the crush. So your best bet may be to stay home this weekend, maybe give that weird uncle of yours a call.

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