Mystery Shack on the Jordan River

I recently read In the Steps of the Master (1936), one of travel writer H.V. Morton’s books on the Holy Land. In the passage where he describes his visit to the baptism site on the Jordan River, Morton mentions a strange wooden shack built up on stilts alongside the riverbank. When Morton spotted the structure, he wandered around the property trying to determine the purpose for the shack. The writer then discovered an inscription above the bar revealing the proprietor as “Mr. N. Stomation” whom he finds sitting in a chair, completely oblivious to Morton’s presence on his property. Morton’s description of his discovery is detailed in his book as follows: “I was not prepared for the strange sight at the end of the road. On the river bank is an old café, or rest-house, mounted on stilts. The roof is made of Jordan reeds, and everything about it suggests that at any moment the narrow, inoffensive river might overflow and drive the few inhabitants to their boats. Under this frail [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...]

Sand Skiing in the Sahara

Egypt Sand Skiing

In the early 1970s, the Canadian Club whisky company launched a print advertising campaign featuring an athletic and glamorous young couple in swimwear skiing down the face of a sand dune in Morocco. “Sand Skiing in the Sahara. Even if you don’t win the downhill race…it’s a beautiful way to get a suntan,” states the bold text above the pictures. After a brief description of the couple’s adventures on the dunes, the ad gets to the punch line: “Later we toasted our adventures with Canadian Club at Hotel du Sud in Ouarzazate.” The 1974 ad was part of a larger Canadian Club campaign launched in the 1950s which featured lesser-known sports in exotic locations. Besides sand skiing the ads promoted sand yachting in Belgium, hydrofoil skiing off the Greek island of Corfu, hang gliding off a glacier in New Zealand and spinnaker riding in the Grenadines islands, among others. Even though sand skiing was relatively unknown before the Canadian Club ad, it did have a small following in [Read more...]

Book Review: Turkey in Pictures

Turkey in Pictures

Turkey in Pictures, published in 1936 was meant to highlight the accomplishments of the “new” Turkish Republic under the leadership of Kamal Ataturk. The photographic album opens with a short introduction, written in Turkish, French, English, and German,  that blames “Occidental colonization” for the demise of the Ottoman Empire. It goes on to praise the Turkish people for uniting their ancestral homeland against outside influences (namely western Europe). The dominance of Ataturk’s philosophy is clear as the text praises Kamalism as "the ideologic religion of the Turkish Republic.” The album includes 154 pages of sepia-toned photographs taken by the Austrian born photographer Othmar Pferschy. The book has the unusual feature of allowing for the insertion of additional pages. It is held together by two screws that can be loosened and removed to add more materials. The State Printing Press hired Pherschy in 1935 because they could not find a Turkish candidate with equivalent [Read more...]