Gemmayzeh Before the Bombs: Memories of My Grandparents’ House

By Zina Hemady Beirut’s historical district of Gemmayzeh came under the international spotlight when it took the brunt of the blast that pulverized the city’s ancient seaport and ripped through nearby residential areas killing and maiming dozens of people and causing unimaginable damage. The neighborhood’s charming early 20th century buildings, that had survived the civil war and ensuing gentrification, partially or totally collapsed under the impact of the explosion which ranks among one of the worst of its kind in history. Besides the tragic human toll of this Beirutshima, a blast blamed on the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, the explosion was yet another blow the country’s cultural heritage. To the generation that came of age in post-civil war Lebanon, Gemmayzeh became synonymous with hip restaurants and bars nestled among architectural gems which miraculously survived the pitched battles that raged only a few dozen meters away, in downtown Beirut, during the [Read more...]

Siwa and Qara Oases in Watercolors and Photographs

In the autumn of 1994, I traveled with fellow photographer and friend Patrick Godeau to the oasis of Siwa in Egypt’s Western Desert to witness and photograph the mulid or religious festival that takes place there every year under the first full moon in October. Siwa lies between the Qattara depression and the Great Sand Sea near Egypt’s border with Libya and is about 10 hours from Cairo by car. The people of Siwa are culturally and ethnically closer to the Berbers of North Africa than they are to the Egyptian who live along the Nile Valley. Even though they understand and speak Arabic, Siwans prefer to communicate amongst themselves in a Berber dialect. Up until the mid 1990s Siwa remained largely off the tourism grid partly due to government restrictions on foreigners traveling to remote areas of the country. Patrick, who had visited in 1983 using a special travel permit, immediately noticed the number of Egyptians from the Nile Valley who had settled in the oasis. To me, however, [Read more...]

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...]

Lebanon’s Grand Hotel Sofar Given New Life On Canvas

By Zina Hemady Art and photo exhibits are taking Beirut and, more recently, other areas of Lebanon by storm. As the country regains its pre-war status as a cultural hub, much attention has been focused on preserving Lebanese heritage with the term spanning over several fields including architecture, art, photography, music, oral history, theater, literature and food. The latest such initiative is an exhibit by British artist and conservationist Tom Young featuring the Grand Hotel Casino Sofar, once considered an architectural wonder before it was ravaged by the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. Built in 1892 in the mountain resort of Sofar located on the Beirut-Damascus road, the hotel acquired a reputation as a summer escape for the social elite but also as a playground where the who’s who of Lebanese society rubbed shoulders with royalty, diplomats, and entertainers with whom they spend the evenings playing poker, singing, and dancing. It was occupied by Syrian troops when [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...]

Balfour Declaration Centenary

by Dr. Nagia Abdelmoghney Said The second of November 2017 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine, based on the premise that the rights of the pre-existing, non-Jewish population would not be prejudiced. Yet, the Balfour Declaration signaled the start of a process that has rendered Palestinians stateless, living under occupation in their own land, in refugee camps, or scattered throughout the world. Britain’s collusion with the so-called Zionists has contributed to this unforgivable human tragedy of the Palestinian Diaspora. According to Samih K. Farsoun, an AU Professor Emeritus of Sociology: “Palestine was dismembered as a patrimony and destroyed as a society, and most of its Arab people dispossessed and dispersed into a modem diaspora.” To commemorate this occasion, several events are scheduled in London, one of which is organized by the “Balfour Project Trustees.” Titled “Britain’s Broken Promise, Time for a New Approach,” [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...]