Remembering the Jewish Festival of Light in Egypt

The Jewish Festival of Light reminds me of one of the last significant gathering of Jews in Egypt, which took place nearly two decades ago during a Hanukkah celebration at Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. Jewish guests from different parts of the world, along with foreign residents of Egypt from the Jewish faith, joined the handful of Egyptian Jews for the occasion.  For the locals, the festivities were a throwback to happier times when the Egyptian Jewish community was thriving and numbered in the tens of thousands. Until the creation of Israel in 1948, Egypt’s Jewish community was roughly 75,000.  That number had already dropped from a high of 100,000 at the beginning century due to nationalist fervor against British occupation, which created some apprehension among the Jewish and European residents of Egypt. From the 1920s onwards there was a slow but constant stream of Egyptian Jews leaving the country. The second blow to Egypt’s Jewish community happened right after [Read more...]

UAE Gives 50.4 Million Dollars to Restore Al Nuri Mosque

The United Arab Emirates is contributing 50.4 million dollars to UNESCO for the rebuilding of al Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State (ISIS) destroyed the mosque intentionally in 2017 as Iraqi troops were in the final stages of liberating the country’s third largest city. Ironically, it was from the pulpit of this same mosque that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had announced in 2015 the formation of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The 800-year old mosque, with its iconic leaning minaret, was one of Mosul’s most recognizable landmarks affectionately called al Haba or “the Hunchback.” Pictures of the minaret were found on postcards and are featured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note. The mosque is named after Nur al Din Mahmoud al Zangi, a leader who was instrumental in uniting Moslems in what is now Syria and Iraq to join forces in defeating the Crusaders in the 12th century. Nur al Din used the spoils he reaped during wartime to build madrassas or religious schools and [Read more...]

Donkey Soldiers: The Unsung Heros

Donkeys and mules have had a long and distinguished career in modern military warfare. During the two world wars, they played a key role in transporting supplies over rugged mountains and jungle terrain inaccessible to motorized vehicles. The practice was extended to the colonial and Cold War eras where the animals were used by British troops stationed in Egypt and Palestine and American soldiers during their short-lived invasion of Lebanon in 1958. During the World War I Battle of Gallipoli, a medic from New Zealand named James Gardiner Jackson took a photograph of a fellow countryman transporting a wounded soldier to a field hospital on donkey back. The photograph became immortalized when artist Horace Moore-Jones, another New Zealander who also fought in Gallipoli, drew a number of paintings based on that image. It turned out that the stretcher-bearer, Dick Henderson, had used his donkey to save many other wounded soldiers. Today the paintings hang in war memorials and museums in [Read more...]

Early 20th Century Views of Deir ez Zor

Deir ez Zor is a city in eastern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates, which dates back to the third century BCE. Recently, it has earned a reputation as a civil war battlefront between the Syrian Army, the rebels, and ISIS. However, before it was sucked into Syria’s bloody events, Deir ez Zor, or the Monastery of the Grove, had a prosperous and, at times, turbulent record. In its early history, the city was ruled by the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, and later by the Greeks and Romans. Throughout the Roman period, Deir Ez Zor flourished as a trading hub. However, during the third century CE, when civil wars wreaked havoc throughout the Roman Empire, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra conquered Deir ez Zor and made it part of her kingdom. After Zenobia was defeated and captured by Roman Emperor Aurelian in 271, Deir ez Zor changed hands numerous times until it was completely destroyed in the thirteenth century during the Mongols invasions.Present day Deir ez Zor was re-established on the [Read more...]

A Tribute to Raqqa

When the civil war erupted in 2011, Syria was still far from being a major tourist destination and only a few of its cities resonated with the outside world. Those include Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and to a lesser extent Homs which are known for either their souks, citadels, gigantic water wheels, quaint neighborhoods, or a combination of any of these features. Raqqa, on the other hand, was not among Syria’s illustrious cities. It wasn’t until January 2014, when the terror group ISIS took control of Raqqa, that it became recognized, but only to be associated with terrible oppression and suffering. However, the city has a history that dates back to antiquity and it has had its golden years as well as dark periods since those days. Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city, is located in an oil-rich province which bares the same name on the northern banks of the Euphrates River, about 160 kilometers east of Aleppo. Before the war broke out, Syria had been experiencing a tourism revival and [Read more...]

Egypt’s Stella Beer: Celebrating 120 Years (1897 – 2017)

Beer was first brewed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt nearly 6,000 years ago. Sumerian beer was a porridge-like concoction that had to be sipped with a straw to avoid consuming the floating bits of grain. In fact, it is believed that the Sumerians invented the straw for the very purpose of drinking this dense beer. On the other hand, the beer produced in ancient Egypt was far more refined, lighter in color, smoother, and closer to what we drink today. Modern brewing began at the end of the nineteenth century when foreign entrepreneurs had a vision to make Egypt a beer producing country once again. On Stella's 120th anniversary, let’s celebrate the Pharaohs for introducing fine lager to the world. On May 15 1897, Belgian investors opened Crown Brewery, Egypt’s first brewery, in the Ibrahimieh district of Alexandria. Up until then Egypt’s growing expatriate community had depended on imported beer, most notably Guinness, Tennent’s, and Becks to quench [Read more...]

Egyptian Women Enter the Arena: First Steps into a Male-Dominated World

In 1919, Hoda Shaarawi, one of Egypt’s most recognized feminists, was at the forefront of a movement that would lead to women’s emancipation. Feminism had been slowing growing since the late nineteenth century, but women activists made their first public appearance when they joined the male-dominated Nationalist movement in Egypt’s fight for independence against British rule. Photographs from this period show veiled women with raised fists parading in the streets of Cairo with placards condemning the foreign occupation. In 1922, after her husband’s death, Shaarawi challenged the system yet again by removing her veil in public. This defiant act gave birth to a new era where women began to stand up for their rights, including the right to compete in sports. This collection of photographs features a sporting competition in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which included swimming and running events for women and men. What makes this contest unique is that it is one of the [Read more...]

Mohamed Ali in the Middle East: A Retrospective

Thirty years ago I had the privilege of meeting boxing legend Mohamed Ali for the first time. It was October 1986, five years after his last fight, and he was in Cairo to make a special announcement. I was working for the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) at the time. One day, I answered a call from Mohamed Ali’s press spokesman who was inviting us to the “Champ’s” suite at the Cairo Marriot Hotel. Before hanging up, the spokesman asked me to invite other members of the press corps to the event. My first thought was that Mohamed Ali was coming out of retirement and was going to announce an upcoming fight, possibly in Egypt. I got off the phone and informed the office that we had been invited to meet with Mohamed Ali. That evening, four of us from AFP went to Ali’s suite and, to our surprise, we noticed that no one from the Champ’s entourage was present. The only other person in the room was a member of the hotel staff arranging food on a table. Not knowing what to [Read more...]

Twentieth Century Snapshots of Christmas from across the Middle East and North Africa

In 1995, I was asked to illustrate a chapter for a book titled Christmas Around the World. At the time, I was in Lebanon spending the holidays with my wife’s family. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, so I chose to document how Shi’ite Moslems celebrate Christmas. My driver Farouk, who happened to be a Shi’ite, told me that his family and all his neighbors in the Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs, celebrated Christmas. Traditionally, Shi’ite Moslems have had a strong connection to Mariam the mother of Isa (Jesus), who is recognized as a prophet in Islam. A few days before Christmas, Farouk and I set out for the Dahiyeh, where Hezbollah has a significant presence. As soon as we entered the area, we immediately felt the Christmas spirit. The lampposts, where Hezbollah flags are erected year-round, were also adorned with Christmas ornaments, sitting on either side of the party’s yellow and green flags featuring the infamous fist holding an AK-47. As we drove down the [Read more...]