Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Astrolabe

The astrolabe is an ancient astronomical computer designed for solving problems relating to time and the position of the celestial bodies in the sky.

Brass astrolabes were developed in the medieval Islamic world chiefly as an aid to navigation and as a way to locating the direction of Mecca for daily prayers. But they were also used for a variety of other purposes in the fields of astronomy, astrology, surveying, timekeeping and meteorology. Over 1,200 examples survive today.

The knowledge that gave rise to the creation of the astrolabe is said to have originated from the Greek astronomer Hipparchus who lived in the 2nd century BC - a man who may have also constructed the first rudimentary astrolabe.

An eighth century Persian mathematician, Mohammed al-Fazari, is credited with building the first astrolabe in the Islamic world. Another mathematician-astronomer, from Syria, Muhammed ibn Jaber al-Harrani al Battani (known to the West as “Albatenius”), contributed in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, by way of his scholarship, to the development and evolution of the astrolabe.

This particular piece shown above is a “planispheric astrolabe” and dates back to around 1500 AD. It is made of a four-metal alloy comprised of copper, lead, zinc and tin. It is 15 cm in diameter, and 2 cm thick.

Such astonishing masterpieces of instrumental art are an example of the great contributions that Arab and Islamic scientists made to the world by resuscitating the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans (and their forebears) before developing it, and handing it off to an intellectually impoverished Europe that was fresh out of the Dark Ages.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Munzer's Book Shop

For most international visitors to East Jerusalem, Munzer's Book Shop at the American Colony Hotel is an oasis away from the frenetic activity, gossip and wheeling-and-dealing of Middle East politics. This narrow shop, tucked away in a classic Jerusalem style room of rough hewn stone with a domed roof, is a place where people come to browse books specialized in Middle East history, literature and politics. People also come to chat with Munzer Fahmy, the owner of this institution. Talks with him can range rapidly over current politics, visitors to the hotel, and the books themselves.

Munzer, a Jerusalemite from the Old City, and partly of Egyptian stock, got the idea to open up the bookstore through a circuitous road. After learning about the book business in the Netherlands, Munzer attended a book fair in Tel Aviv where he realized that people were disappointed by the predictable and shallow selection being presented. He decided to put on his first book fair at the Zionist Organization of America in Tel Aviv.

Success spurred him to try his luck in his home town, and so he moved his enterpreneurship to the Hyatt Regency in Jerusalem. Someone there suggested to him that his next book fair should be at the elegant Pasha Room of the American Colony Hotel - the nexus of hobnobbing for journalist and diplomats. And so he did. And at that event, another individual in the relay proposed that he open up a shop in the American Colony - another idea which he successfully acted on. And so it was.
The shop has been open since 1998 and beyond the Middle Eastern materials on sale, one can find everything from the latest South African literature to the poetic verses of an Afghan Sufi. The book store is the perfect addendum to the hotel: a conversation there about Jerusalem can lead to the purchase of a book on the city.

The shop's success and popularity goes on, and after much seeking, Munzer  continues to enjoy meeting and speaking with all comers to his shop.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

'Black Cloud' Over Cairo

The UN released a report earlier this week stating that a large number of urban areas in Asia and Africa today are blanketed by a toxic cloud of pollution caused by automobile and industrial emissions, slash-and-burn agriculture, coal burning and cooking fires.

The cloud, which varies in its intensity and area of coverage, has blotted-out the sun in certain places, altered weather patterns and negatively impacted the health of millions of people.

This is no news to Cairenes who, in addition to having to bear some of the worst air pollution in the world, have had to suffer the dreaded "black cloud" which for over ten years has descended upon the city for a number of weeks, every autumn.

This so-called "black cloud", a discernible spike in pollution, is attributed to Egyptian farmers in the Nile Delta region who practice the burning of rice straw after the harvest. Anyone who has travelled through the Delta at this time of year can attest to the large pillars of smoke that can be seen pluming upwards across the horizon from all directions. The smoke collects and then drifts towards the capital where meteorological conditions in autumn trap the pollution in the lower atmosphere.

Despite the undeniable contribution that rice straw burning makes to Cairo's severe pollution, the black cloud is much more than just a perennial agricultural phenomenon. Smog from traffic, industrial pollution, and the burning of garbage - another widespread practice in Egypt - make up the lion's share of that black cloud. It is a year-round condition, which only becomes more discernible and intolerable as autumn rolls around.

The good news is that some progress has been made in convincing farmers to stop burning rice straw. Delta farmers have begun selling their rice straw to factories that can turn it into animal feed or biofuels. As a result, the "black cloud days" - a seasonal tally of the worst daily spikes in pollution - have dropped in number over the last few years.

The not so encouraging news is that this effort, as laudable as it is, is only a tiny step in what has to be a more willful and comprehensive effort to reverse Cairo's air pollution.

Unless Egypt can get its worst polluting vehicles off the streets, clean up its industries, better manage its population, and instill a new awareness of the environment, the dreaded black cloud will never go away. Instead it will only thicken and expand, impacting the lives of countless millions of people for whom a breath of clean air has become an unimaginable luxury.

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


This painting, entitled "Chogan" or "Polo" was created by Mahmoud Farschian, a world-renowned Iranian-American master of Persian painting and miniatures. His distinct style, which has given rise to its own school of painting, combines Persian classical form with the contemporary fantasy genre. His works appear in numerous galleries and private collections around the world. This piece was completed in 1973.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Friday in Jerusalem

Children at play in an alleyway in the Old City.

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sun is Satisfied

“We will die if we do not create gods. We will die if we do not kill them.” - Adonis (Syrian poet)

In the 14th century B.C., a man called Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaton. With this move, he set about changing the culture of Egypt from one that reveres a pantheon of gods, with "Amon" as the top god, to the worship of a one god, "Aton", the sun.

Akhenaton was not however an average citizen - he was a pharaoh. He was the first monotheist in his world, a revolutionary, in a very traditional society. This king removed the Egyptian gaggle of gods in favour of a one god.
Akhenaton also directed his nation away from imperial ambitions and stopped its aggressive drives against other countries. Instead of pursuing adventures to prevent domestic revolution, he did the opposite.

In the religious field, he did the unthinkable and prohibited the use of the word “gods” in favour of Aton. Indeed, he viewed his god as being for the whole world and not just for Egypt. He did what he could in his time for people to get away from worshipping images in their minds and to permit a greater reality to set in.

Akhenaton suffered from a strange physique, and may have had the genetic disease called "Marfan’s Syndrome" - an ailment that Abraham Lincoln may have also suffered from. Akhenaton represented himself in portraits and sculpture as he really was, deformed – unlike the idealized representations of other pharaohs.

Naturally, Akhenaton ran up against heavy turbulence from the priests of Amon - the elite of Egypt - who despised his changes and fought against him. They ultimately triumphed, destroying his newly-built capital of "Akhetaton" ("Horizon of the Sun") defacing his images.

Some of the benefits of Akhenaton’s revolution nevertheless included:

  • Physicians no longer collected money for expelling evil spirits.
  • Shepherds no longer placed a loaf of bread, or a jar of water, under a tree in order to placate the goddess of the tree.
  • Peasants no longer erected crude images of the gods in the field to drive away the terrible demons of drought and famine.

In case it looks as if Akhenaton’s story sounds like a distant fairy tale, some believe that Moses, who was raised in Egypt and had an Egyptian name, may have been Akhenaton’s contemporary and may have acquired his notions of monotheism from the great pharaoh himself. It is therefore possible that without Akhenaton’s intellectual courage, without his desire and commitment to renew his culture, Judaism, Islam and Christianity - all branches of the Mosaic tree - would not exist as they do today.

It may now be time for new ‘Akhenatons’ in the Middle East - not pharaohs, but people who wish to live without evil spirits, demons and darkness - to cut away the dead wood from the Mosaic tree, and so improve its chances for growth.

Akhenaton means “useful for Aton” and it also means "Aton", or "the sun, is satisfied."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Moulid

Text and Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

This week the city of Tanta in Egypt's Nile Delta region swells to over 2 million people in the annual moulid celebrating the birth of one of Egypt's most popular saints: the 13th century medieval mystic, Sayyid Ahmed al-Badawi.

Falling at the end of the cotton harvest every year, the festival attracts people from across Egypt and North Africa who come to pay homage to Badawi (1194?-1273?), who travelled to Egypt from Morocco and who made Tanta his home. A mosque in his name, containing the tomb where he is interred, has long been a place of pilgrimage and is at the epicenter of the moulid, which is one of the largest religious festivals in the world.

Spanning several days, the moulid is a veritable carnival that combines musical, religious and amusement park attractions. Men, women and children - whole families - pass the night in Tanta's streets which are transformed by the moulid into labyrinths of florescent lighting, ornate tents and shops selling anything and everything.

Despite the celebration's religious bent, the festival is first and foremost a social occasion where people come out to have fun, forget their problems, and break free - albeit temporarily - from the narrow strictures and controls of a growingly conservative society.

The memory of Badawi, a man whose reality is probably now all but forgotten, is kept alive by a modern personality cult made up of self-styled religious adherents who claim to be working in his spirit, and through his mandate. Large, colourful tents booming with songs, chants and traditional music - blasted through massive speakers - stir worshippers into emotional frenzies. Others, motivated by every manner of want and need, and overcome by emotional outpourings of every sort, flock to Badawi's tomb in search of miracles, favours and redemption.

Watching nearby, and unable to curb the appetites of the masses, are the state-sanctioned religious authorities of al-Azhar and members of the semi-outlawed conservative opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. They can only roll their eyes in annoyance at so large a flaunting of heterodoxy - one that inspires unease in the minds of those who seek to impose a different flavour of conditioned behaviour and control.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Human Needs and the Lure of Extremism

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

As the boundaries of our understanding of psychology and human behavior are widened by the work of innovators in those fields, we are provided with new possibilities for perceiving the world around us in ways that may be more in line with reality.

For years, academics in the social sciences looked to socio-economics in their attempt to find an explanation for the powerful appeal of political and religious extremist groups in the Middle East. The idea soon emerged that disenchanted individuals – people with little education and/or few or no means to financially support themselves - were easily lured by militants, and made up the majority of their rank and file.

To many, this explanation seemed straightforward and logical enough. The solution, according to its proponents, was for governments to address the root economic causes of the disenchantment that led to people embracing extremist ideology – including unemployment, poverty, and lack of access to education.

But then something happened to muddy the waters.

Other academics, as well as those in some security services, started pointing to exceptions to this socio-economical approach. Many people, they claimed, who joined militant groups were in fact educated professionals that were known to be from the middle or upper classes. Lack of education and economic opportunity - although a factor in many cases of extremist recruitment - did not fully account for the large numbers of others who were clearly not lacking in education, jobs or money. These others had been suddenly magnetized to “the cause” for some other reason or reasons. Something else had to be at play.

Despite an emerging body of evidence-based research in the fields of the behavioral sciences that bear upon this question, there remains little consensus among academics and policymakers as to what causes some people to be attracted to extremist groups, and others not.

We now know that human beings have a set of clearly defined emotional needs that are as equally important to their well being as their physical needs. It is a person’s attempts to fulfill those needs that largely accounts for much of his or her underlying motives and behaviour in the many areas of life - regardless of how that person views his or her own actions. It is this needs-based approach that is the key to understanding the powerful motive to join an extremist group.

Some of these needs, including the need for a sense of status within social groupings and the need for a sense of competence and achievement, reflects the longstanding view by some social scientists that socio-economic issues including unemployment, poverty and lack of education do in fact play a role in the appeal of extremist groups. The inability to fulfill these needs on their own compel people to connect with others who can offer them the means to realize those needs, but in another way. For instance, a person who can’t derive a sense of competence and status through his or her work, simply because they are unable to find work, will be easily lured by a group or organization that can offer to meet those needs. But it doesn’t end there.

One could have an education, status, and money but still be vulnerable to the appeal of militancy – as demonstrated by privileged individuals who are a part of these organizations. But why would this be the case?

The appeal to join an extremist movement may be amplified for those who lack any or a combination of security, attention, a feeling of control, friendships, community, and meaning and purpose – and other fundamental human needs - because any such grouping will almost inevitably provide just those things for the would-be member. Being handed a gun and given a mandate to combat “evildoers” can provide a very powerful sense of safety, social cohesion, control over one’s destiny, and meaning to those who previously lacked those things - regardless of how well-off they may have been.

If people have their needs met through the healthy outlets of daily life, in a healthy society, by way of a good job, a sufficient income, a safe environment, a social network of family and friends, and a sufficient sense of meaning, they would not need to look elsewhere to have them met and will think twice about joining with others whose outward goals don’t gel with their own. This has always been the fundamental, subconscious, appeal of cults, who in addition to offering to meet certain needs also appeal to a person’s sense of dependency on others, especially authority figures.

Educating people about their needs and the necessity to meet them in a healthy fashion, combined with efforts on the part of governments, and others with influence and resources in the Middle East to foster environments where those needs should not go unmet, would go a long way in reducing the appeal of extremist groups. It would also have the effect of reducing conflicts and ameliorating core issues that provide the raison d’etre for these groups in the first place.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dhow Repairs

Mending a dhow boat on the Musandam Peninsula of Oman

Photo in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008

´This´ is Jerusalem

This map, posted previously without text and explanation, is what negotiators devise as a possible political solution for Jerusalem - a situation today compounded by the construction of the barrier around 'Greater Jerusalem', separating the city from the West Bank. The reality on the ground would be walls, barriers and separations as per the multi-coloured map above.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Of Nasser and Cleopatra

This anecdotal history about the creation of the Cleopatra cigarette was recounted to "Al-Bab" by Kamal K. Katba, a former general manager of the Egyptian Chamber of Tobacco, where he worked from 1952 until 1968. The story, told in the first person, goes like this:

In the winter of 1960-1961, Syria was still the northern province of the "United Arab Republic" – the union of Egypt and Syria. And we at the Chamber of Tobacco managed to establish a kind of common market with the Syrian Tobacco Monopoly. This we hoped would be the prelude of a common market between all of the members of The League of Arab States (the Arabs are still waiting and praying for their useless League to establish that common market).

A few weeks after our agreement with our Syrian brothers, Egypt decided to hold an international exhibition on the Cairo exhibition fairgrounds at Gezira. The board of directors of the Chamber of Tobacco, after consultation with the Syrians, decided to build a large pavilion in which samples of Egyptian and Syrian tobacco products would be nicely displayed. It was left to me to implement that decision.

A couple of days before the inauguration of the exhibition, we were advised by the cabinet of the Minister of Commerce that the late President Nasser would himself attend the inauguration.

Because of the importance of the event, we decided that all members of the board, led by Joseph Matossian, its chairman, plus myself, and others, would form a committee to welcome President Nasser and show him around.

On the day of the inauguration ceremony, Nasser arrived with members of the Free Officers group. We received him at the entrance of the pavilion, we shook hands with the utmost respect (he even hugged old Mr. Matossian), and we took him around briefing him about each of our tobacco products on display.

At the end of his tour, we offered Nasser a Belmont - our number one brand - and offered cigarettes and cigars to all the dignitaries in his company. They all obliged but Nasser himself, a chain smoker, declined to accept our cigarettes. Instead he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a pack of illegally smuggled Kent cigarettes. I lit his cigarette with my lighter while all the assistants were looking on with surprise. Nasser felt a little uncomfortable with the situation, and apologized to us claiming that he was used to the Kent and any change of brand would irritate his lungs.

It suddenly dawned on him that what he was doing was illegal and was a kind of faux pas, considering the context. He looked at us and chuckled, saying, “Shoufo kidda ya geda’an (Look here guys), if you make me a cigarette similar to the Kent, I’ll be your first and your best client.” Matossian looked at Nasser and responded, “Mr. President, your wishes are our orders.”

The next morning Matossian called me up and said, “Ya Kamal, we promised the rais that we would make him a cigarette similar to the Kent. I want you to go down to the black market where they sell the American cigarettes and I want you to buy three cartons of Kent. We’ll have them analyzed and we’ll see what the exact blend is, and we’ll create something similar.”

So I went to Kasr el-Nil street where they sold contraband on the sidewalk. I bought three cartons and took them back to Matossian. Weeks later I was phoned and told that some samples were ready. Matossian got his designers in the company to design a box that was very similar to the Kent box at the time – white with gold inlay.

We then had to decide what we were going to name the cigarette. A Hollywood film in production with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor called “Cleopatra” was making headlines at the time. Taylor and Burton were having an affair, and there was a huge scandal surrounding the actors and the film. It was also the most expensive movie ever made at the time at around $20 million dollars. Therefore we thought "Cleopatra" would be a good name for our cigarette. True, Cleopatra was of Macedonian origin, but she was after all the Queen of Egypt at one time, and an icon. We also figured we would not need to advertise the new brand as the film was, and would continue, doing all the promotion work on our behalf. It was decided.

We felt that since the cigarettes were created at the behest of Nasser, that the first person to try them should be the President himself. We had four Cleopatra cartons wrapped with golden paper and silver ribbons, and had a letter signed by Matossian attached to the parcel. The chairman and myself drove to the Kubbeh Palace, which was then the site of the presidential offices. There we were received by Mr. Abdel Meguid Farid, then the General Secretary of the Presidency who thanked us on behalf of Nasser.

A few months later, a friend of ours was getting married to the daughter of General Rashad Hassan, Nasser’s aide-de-camp. We actually knew both families and helped to introduce the young couple. So of course we attended the wedding. It was held at the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which is now the Presidential Palace of Mubarak. We were seated just next to the main wedding table. There was a long delay in serving dinner and rumours were rife that Nasser was expected to attend.

So finally after waiting an eternity, in comes Nasser with his entourage of bodyguards and he is given a seat right in between the married couple – just a few meters away from my wife and myself. Nasser was a chain smoker and I knew that the first thing he would do was to light a cigarette. I was dying to see what cigarette he would smoke. After hugging the newlyweds and sitting down, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his pack of cigarettes and put them on table in front of him.

He wasn’t smoking his usual Kents, nor was he smoking Cleopatra, the cigarette of Egypt which we worked for months to create at his request - he was smoking L&M! Another contraband American cigarette!

We never knew in the end whether this chain-smoking, Egyptian nationalist president ever departed from his beloved American cigarettes and gave in to the seductions of Cleopatra. My guess is, probably not.

Kamal K. Katba worked for The Chamber of Egyptian Tobacco, a branch of The Federation of Egyptian Industries, from 1952 until 1968. In that same year, he emigrated to Canada. He worked for the Canadian Federal Government in various capacities between 1973 until his retirement in 1999.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Apartment Block, Bur Dubai, UAE

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Rug Shop

Sweet narghile tobacco,
Brazier coal fire.
Mothballs and musty wool,
Furniture polish and 4711 German Eau de Cologne.
Cardamom-scented Turkish coffee,
Fresh lemonade tinged with rose water and orange blossom.

It was the winter of 1961. I was 11 years old. This pot pourri of scents encircled me as I entered my grandfather’s carpet shop. Etablissement Azar E. Nahhas & Associates, Saida, Lebanon.

The shop hummed with contentment. Elegant Persian rugs hung above stacks of neatly folded carpets. Hand-polished furniture glowed from the corners: olive and light oak, ebony and mother of pearl, walnut and acacia wood, all intricately carved into tric-trac tables, writing desks, and chairs. Antique brass lanterns dangled from the ceiling and gleaming silver ewers stood on table tops.

My grandfather, Jeddo Azar, sat behind his desk at the deep end of the shop and looked over his horn-rimmed glasses as I pushed open the shop door.

¨Ahlan, Ahlan wa Sahlan, Ya Habibi. It’fadal wa foot. Ta’ala hoen, wa I’teena bausee. Ya habib, Jeddo.¨

(¨Welcome, welcome, my dearest. Come over and give grandpa a hug. Dearest grandson.¨)

Youssef, the office boy, stopped stoking the coal fire and got up to fetch me a chair and a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade.

I took the lemonade, declined the chair, and climbed onto a carpet stack, dangling my legs and kicking my heels rhythmically against the heavy, soft wool of a magnificent Tabriz carpet.


18 years later, I felt a familiar emotion as I entered George Yeremian’s shop, Indo-Iranian Rugs Ltd, on Temperance Street in Toronto, Canada.

Distanced by 6,000 miles and two decades, the two shops shared a link to rugs and carpets hailing from ever more distant places: Turkey and Turkmenistan, Isfahan and Kashan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Afghanistan. Here was a 19th century Kashan from Central Persia, a weathered yet still graceful survivor (two World Wars, three Middle-Eastern wars, and multiple generations of small and large feet). There a charming Isfahan, allegedly the original purchase of a Canadian diplomat in Iran. The lure and magic of oriental rugs was back upon me.

Written by "Roro"

Lamb-soft Kurk wool, bristly coarse camel hair. Indigo blue, deep red madder. Pure cotton, fine silk. Pistachio green and aubergine. Colours and textures harmonized into delicate flowers and stark geometry. These products of wool and loom originated in steppes and deserts, villages and cities.

After 30 years of discovery and appreciation, here are some of my favourites from our collection:

1) Yomut Turkomen Asmalyk (camel trapping), Central Asia, 19th century

2) Silk mini pattern Holbein rug, Afghanistan, 20th century

3) Western Anatolia, Melas prayer rug, mid 19th century

Chadi Younes, Director

Photo Courtesy of Chadi Younes
All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

The impression one gets of Chadi Younes is anything but that of a man whose life is split among cities spread across colliding hemispheres and cultures. But if asked, this is exactly how he would describe it. His serene, almost sedate, manner - one more appropriate of a Biblical shepherd than of an international, jet-setting, ad director - belies this fact.

We are at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky - a café and bakery in the quasi-bohemian Kensington Market district of downtown Toronto. It is Sunday and the street teems with shoppers and drifters idling away the afternoon. Although Younes, just back from a directing job in his native Beirut, is visiting this neighbourhood for the first time, he appears as much at home here as any of the Torontonians ambling leisurely past our table.

"Beirut and Toronto, my cities of residence, are complete opposites," Younes says. "They mirror the opposites in my personality, which is why I have to constantly go to one to get away from the other.”

Younes, 36, is one of the Middle East’s most promising directors whose synergistic embrace of both eastern and western cultural influences has made him one of the more highly sought after ad directors in the region. Constantly skipping between the cities of Beirut, Cairo, Dubai, and his newly adopted Toronto (where he makes the occasional appearance for R&R after his lengthy jaunts in the hyperactive capitals of the Arab World), Younes is a gipsy in the truest sense of the word.

Admitting to being part of a generation which he describes as “not feeling at home anywhere”, and wanting to embrace all cultural influences, Younes has made the fusion of East and West his calling card. And you can see it in his work. He has directed commercials for MTV Arabia, Showtime, Vodafone, Snickers, and many others – all of which are geared towards Arab audiences, but which are crafted with a directness and edge that are more typically western in style. His use of unusual characters, humour, strong art direction, rhythmic cuts to music, ambient light, and wide camera apertures, typifies his work and sets it apart from that of his contemporaries in the region.

After working several years, first as an Art Director and then an Associate Creative Director at the BBDO Advertising Agency in Dubai, Younes decided to leave his job in 2003 to try his luck at directing his own commercials. The combination of his experience at BBDO, his good contacts, his enrollment in the odd filmmaking course, and a strong foundation in stills photography, helped Younes get off to a solid start. In 2005, he directed an ad for “Barbican” – a non-alcoholic beer that was considered a huge success and became a creative benchmark for television advertising in the Middle East. He attributes a big part of his success to selecting work that is intelligent, interesting to watch, and which allows for his own creative input.

“I like to put myself in the shoes of the viewer before I create something that invades his or her space,” Younes says. “I feel it criminal to invade someone's home with material which is not watchable. So I try to take care with what I select and craft.”

Despite his success at finding interesting projects, Younes admits that there are limits to working in the Middle East.

“Clients are generally fearful and cautious in this part of the world,” he says. “Any approach which is deemed risky or in the slightest way sensitive is quickly shot down. There’s a lot of self-censorship.”

In addition to wanting to work on more projects in North America, Younes is planning to try his hand at short films, and to direct more music videos.

His most recent music video was made for Rima Khcheich, a Lebanese singer whose style Younes describes as a "jazz classical Arabic fusion." This video, called Haflit Taraf was "directed in a way to express visually what the Lebanese people have been going through of late," Younes says.

To view a few of Chadi’s MTV Arabia ads, click here and here.

To go to Chadi’s website, click here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Posing for a Photograph

Istalif, Afghanistan

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Story of the Caliph Hakem

Review: ¨Histoire du Calife Hakem¨, by Gerard De Nerval, 92 pages, L´Esprit Frappeur.

¨Everyone has their obsession when they are drunk. Yours is to be God.¨

So Gerard De Nerval, a young romantic French author of the 19th century, described the Caliph Hakem in his novella about the founder of the Druze faith. The quotation is made by Youssef, a Sabaean who manages to help Al Hakem - or Al Hakim bi Amr Allah as he is more accurately known - investigate the wiles of hashish on a riverboat on the Nile.

This is one of many inventions De Nerval imputes to the Fatimid ruler of Cairo (996-1021) whose life was bizarre enough without the Frenchman's orientalist intrusions. The Shiite ruler was known for his strict, almost Wahhabist, adherence to his faith, prohibiting alcohol and mulukhhieyeh (a famous Egyptian culinary dish), and placing great restrictions on women, Christians and Jews. In his enthusiasm, he destroyed many churches, including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem - an act that contributed to the arrival of the Crusades some seven decades later.

In a concoction of drug-induced hallucinations, madness, and dopplegangers, Hakem declared himself God, was imprisoned by his Vizier for this blasphemy, and then escaped to find his double, Youssef, in the lap of his beautiful sister, Sitt-Al Mulk.

According to Nerval, Hakem burned down one third of Cairo in the uprising after his departure from the Muristan, or mental hospital.

In fact, this Caliph did declare himself God in 1017. Those who followed him were later called the Druze, named after the man who apparently helped convince Hakem of his divinity - Mohammad Ibn Ismail Al Darazi.

Hakem was also known for his visits to an astronomical observatory in the Mokattam hills, where Cairo's zabaleen garbage village today stands. There he observed a bronze knight set in a circle with the names of all places on Earth written in Chaldaean and pointing to the upcoming Abbasid invasion of Fatimid Cairo.

The Caliph, in addition, was known to ride around Cairo on his grey donkey, "Qamar", and accompanied by his mute slave. According to De Nerval's account, one day, Caliph Hakem went out on Qamar never to return. He met up with three criminals around Cairo's city of the dead, who attacked him with daggers until they realized his identity and ran off. Only his donkey and bloodstained clothes were ever found.

Some believe Hakem's sister had him killed. His future followers, the Druze, believe that he simply disappeared.

Gerard De Nerval's story is very much the seductive and romantic vision that the Orient has inspired in so many Europeans in the 19th century. The writer also drew upon his own tenure in a mental asylum in Paris, as well as from the "Club des Hachachins" in Paris's Ile St. Louis - the same haunt of Delacroix, Daumier and Baudelaire.

But De Nerval mostly bases his book on a tale told to him during his travels in Lebanon in 1843. There, he met a young lady called Salema, the daughter of a Druze notable who was imprisoned by the Ottomans for various mischiefs.

He subsequently met with with this notable - named Al Shirazi - in his prison cell in Beirut, where the old sheikh revealed all he knew about the founder of his faith. This he recounted to De Nerval in Italian, the only common language between the Frenchman and the Lebanese.

At the end of the day, it is not known whether the Druze sheikh al-Shirazi, who spoke Italian and recounted this tale to De Nerval, ever really existed.

All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Hejaz Railway

My grandfather helped rebuild the railway that Lawrence of Arabia helped destroy. Robert Smith Bell, graduate of engineering from Columbia U. and hailing from Philadelphia, came to the Middle East in 1917 and ended up with the British team in Amman assessing how to rebuild the Hejaz railway after the First World War.

That line, first conceived in 1864 by Sultan Abdel Hamid and completed by the Ottomans in 1908, extended from Damascus to Mecca, and was intended to facilitate the pilgrimage to the Holy City.

The railway was a major financial undertaking for the Ottomans, trying to vault themselves into technological competition with European powers. Building railways was a major financial exercise requiring its establishment as a 'waqf' or religious endowment with innovative funding techniques including 'donations' on the part of Turkish soldiery.

Its construction was fraught with dangers - lack of water, fuel, risky and hostile terrain. Indeed, many Arab bedouins and caravan operators attacked the line because it threatened their ancient livelihood of escorting pilgrims to Mecca. The line saw 8 years of solid service (1908-1916) and carried 300,000 passengers in 1914 until the First World War and T.E. Lawrence presented its destruction in the great Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

My father was born in Amman because of the Hijaz railway and my grandfather's death in 1937 was a result of the desert conditions and the scourges of such difficult engineering endeavours. 'Mr. Lava' as he was known succumbed to a stroke in the upper eastern arm of what is now Jordan while building the road on the lava plain in that area. The road was needed to construct the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa.

He is now buried in the British cemetary in Haifa near the very railway lines that run along the Mediterranean coast, once stretching from Cairo to Beirut.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Views from Apamea

Looking west towards Qalaat al-Mudiq, the Orontes River Valley, and the Jebel Ansariya (Syria)

Looking north along the cardo maximus towards the Pillar of Bacchus

(Photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cairo Portraitist

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008
All photos in this post copyright the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, The American University in Cairo, (AUC)

Levon Boyadjian, or ‘Van-Leo’ as he called himself, was a 20th century portrait photographer who lived in Cairo, Egypt. Working for over half a century, this eccentric Armenian-Egyptian created some of the most stunning, and often bizarre, black-and-white portraits of himself, and others, ever seen in the Middle East.

A strange mix of artist, philosopher, and aspiring actor and director, Van-Leo became one of the last in a line of Armenian photographers that emerged during Cairo’s Belle Epoch: a cosmopolitan period today known for its liberalism, flamboyance, and multi-ethnic flair. He would later come to be seen as one of the first Middle East photographers to employ innovative and creative techniques, fusing glamour photography with documentary studio-portraiture.

Born in the Hatay region of eastern Turkey in 1921, Van-Leo fled with his family at the age of four to Egypt, escaping the genocide of Armenians during, and in the aftermath, of the First World War. As a teenager in Egypt, he became obsessed with Hollywood movie-stars, collecting magazines and miniature cards featuring still images of his favorite actors and actresses in character. Actors like Clarke Gable, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, and Marlene Deitrich, and the many films in which they appeared, were memorized and absorbed into the photographer’s psyche. Intoxicated by cinema and living in a fantasy world of fictional characters, games and make-believe, Van-Leo made the decision to leave his floundering studies at the American University and to devote his life to photographing people in the manner of a possessed cinema director with a stills camera.

Van-Leo made his grand entrance as a photographer in Cairo just before the beginning of the Second World War. While Europe regressed into a period of bombings and destruction, Cairo flourished, becoming centre-stage for the intrigues that simmered behind the war's front lines. British soldiers stationed in Cairo, and the countless entertainers that flocked to the city to find work, provided Van-Leo with his first and most cooperative subjects.

Partnering with his brother Angelo, the two siblings opened shop in the living-room of their parents’ apartment in 1941. Often in exchange for a free portrait the photographer would convince his sitters to give him full creative license. His approach was to employ cinematic techniques of artificial light, shadow, and creative poses, to generate charismatic personas that bordered on film noire in their mood and dramatic effect.

As his reputation grew, countless people flocked to his studio to be photographed, from army officers, to aristocrats, to cabaret dancers, to singers, to actors, expatriate foreigners and Egyptian commoners from all walks of life. The famous too would be drawn by his flair for playfulness and creativity in the studio. Writer Taha Hussein, actors Omar Sharif, Rushdie Abaza, and Samia Gamal, and the singers Farid al-Atrache and Dalida were among the many notables who passed through Van-Leo’s studio and whose images today still periodically appear on walls, books, newspapers, magazines, and on television in the Arab World.

But within photography circles Van-Leo is just as much known as a self-portraitist, having taken hundreds of photographs of himself disguised as just as many characters. His fictional avatars ranged from Zorro to Rasputin to Sam Spade and all manner of personas in-between from a shirtless Bohemian, to a Cossak Prince, to a Geisha girl, to a pipe-wielding steam-ship Captain, to a British fighter bomber. Each of these images provides a key to the deepest depths of Van-Leo’s psyche, linking the observer directly with a man who wanted to live every fictional character in endless worlds of his own making. Living as a minority Christian foreigner in a predominantly Arab-Muslim Egypt, his self-portraits are also a clear reflection of fundamental identity issues. He deals with the reality of who he is by reveling in his lack of attachment to any nation or creed by literally becoming anyone he wants.

These same social and political mores that affected Van-Leo’s private life would deal the photographer his final and most serious blows where his work were concerned. With the rise in the latter part of the 20th century of socialism in Egypt, and later, Islamic extremism, and with the flight from Cairo of its foreigner and liberal classes, Van-Leo found his pool of subjects ever-dwindling. Also vanishing was an epoch in which manners, civilities, pomp and glamour had characterized photography - and by extension, life at large.

The transformation of Cairo into a more homogenous, more religiously conservative and less tolerant society, combined with the rise of instant-development color-photography, challenged Van-Leo at every level as an artist and as a photographer. No longer could he create his film-noire style portraits as easily as he once had. The glamour, shadow and fantasy that once marked his photographs were slowly replaced by big hair, bright colors, and bland faces - all wrapped in a mood of conservative sobriety. Unlike many of his artistic contemporaries who eventually fled to Europe and beyond, including his brother Angelo who moved to Paris in 1961, Van-Leo stubbornly chose to cling to the past and remain in Egypt, continuing to attempt his unique brand of photography late into the 20th century. This he would do despite the deteriorating artistic environment and growing disapproval of his aesthetic that existed in many quarters.

This downward spiral continued into the 1970s and 1980s until his “rediscovery” by a group of foreign expatriates in the 1990s would revive his art and popularity, helping to garner for him the international recognition and accolades which he so much sought. But despite the late resurgence of his art and his name, he continued to see himself until his death in 2002, as a victim of history, a living relic of a tragically forgotten age.

Van Leo’s importance as a photographer in the early photographic tradition cannot be overstated. His portraits covering six decades of life in Cairo are an important social and historical document of Egypt and the Middle East, and of its sudden and radical transformation as a society. He was decades ahead of his contemporaries as an artist and had an experimental attitude, seen especially in his self-portraits, that was very rare at the time and is still rare among photographers in the Arab world today. His story exemplifies the extent to which one’s environment, its society and politics, can impact or even dictate the life and work of any given individual, especially an artist.

Felucca Captain

Aswan, Egypt

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Town Scene

Kerman, 19th century
Courtesy of Cyrus Carpets, New York

Monday, August 18, 2008

Moving Forward

In recent years, a new approach in the field of psychology has opened up possibilities for understanding important aspects of human nature. This new organizing idea, known as The Human Givens, postulates that when certain specific important human needs are not met, or are denied to an individual, that mental illness and suffering can ensue. Optimal well-being therefore can only be assured when a person’s needs are both known to that person and are sufficiently met.

We believe that this scientific, evidence-based approach, which is now gaining wider currency and is replacing outmoded models of psychology, can be applied to collectives as well, and can be used to better understanding the situation in the Middle East - a region which is undoubtedly today in a state of disequilibrium.

We propose that not only does the issue of unmet human needs hold as true for collectives, groups, and societies as much as for individuals - indeed, the goal of collectives is mostly to ensure that individuals have all those needs met - but that unmet needs are at the root of many of the problems in the Middle East today – fueling “issues” which are grappled with endlessly by politicians and diplomats using traditional methods and mechanisms, often with little or no results.

Viewing issues through the lens of unmet needs offers new possibilities for addressing complex issues in the Middle East.

Below is a list of needs, which we have adapted from the Human Givens approach, and which we believe societies in the Middle East must have met if a more healthy, productive, and promising future for the region is to be realized. This follows our July 2 post entitled "The Problem":

Security - safe territory and environment free of threat for the healthy growth of individuals and of societies respectively.

Ecological and Environmental Health – the maintenance and promotion of a balanced physical environment that can provide for the physical sustenance/needs of individuals and societies – clean air, water, and food and sufficient living space to avoid crowding.

Economic Welfare and Opportunity – systems for governments to deliver sufficient economic welfare and opportunity for their citizens.

A Sense of Autonomy, Control and Responsibility – for communities and nations in relation to each other and the outside world, and for individuals within all societies in the Middle East. Too much control by one country over another, one group over another, or by governments over its own citizens robs collectives and individuals of the sense of volition, and leads to frustration. Examples of greater autonomy and control include:

* Israel allowing Palestinians greater freedom of movement
* Palestinians having autonomy and control over their lives through an independent government and state.
* Easing of controls and restrictions by certain Arab governments on their people on access to information
* Greater opportunities for individuals and communities to be involved in politics, local or national.
* Less intrusion by governments into the lives of citizens through security services, informants and the like
* Greater allowance and encouragement of independent thought and dissent within groups or communities

Recognition – a recognition between communities and political entities of each others’ existence and the right to exist, and the cultivation between them of healthy relations, interactions, and exchange on an equitable and mutual basis.

Connection to the Wider Community – a more integrated Middle East, and more integrated countries within the Middle East with fewer divisions, separations, and barriers, and greater interconnectivity between countries, regions, and people. Some examples:

* Greater freedom of movement for people in the region to travel to different countries
* Greater allowance for people of the same ethnic community who are currently separated by borders to meet with one another in other countries or regions, ie – Palestinians, Kurds, Druzes etc.

Individual and Group Competence, Achievement and Status – better run societies with more effective frameworks for providing groups and individuals greater opportunities to realize their economic, political and cultural goals - thereby providing individuals and collectives with the need to have a sense of their own competence, achievement and status.

Corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, greed, and government apathy, deny individuals and groups fair access to opportunities for political and economic growth, leading to frustration and the channeling of energies by individuals and groups towards violence and dangerous ideologies in an attempt to meet those unmet needs.

Meaning and Purpose - Enabling an environment and culture which permits individuals to pursue meaning and purpose in their life.

Friday, August 15, 2008

From Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem to Beirut to Jerusalem...

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

These two cities somehow belong together:

Beirut: Sexy, vibrant, pretentious, fed by sea breezes, a city of Mercedes cars and Cohiba cigars, sophisticated restaurants, electronic trance music and a cosmopolitanism that speaks of Babylon - a place for food and fun, a city to drive and dance in, and get very tense in.

Jerusalem: Elegant, quiet, inspiring, covered in a cool mountain breeze, clearly lit, surrounded by golden stone city walls, cypresses - yet also oppressive in its cultish heaviness, its worship of rocky monuments and odd ritual gear - a city to walk and converse in, and get very tense in.

In these two extremes, the very nature of the Middle East is expressed. On one hand: a worldly cunning where all is possible, all can be bought, the give and take of the bazaar, a love of food, talk, and smoke.

On the other hand: a sense of spirituality, profundity, magnetism, the land of prophets and ideals, of reaching transcendence and unity, of overreach, self-obsession and of a grace embodied in the very hills of the Holy Land.

The two belong together because they complete one another.

The social psychology of the Middle East is very much like these two cities: a daily friendliness and form mixed with a brutal pursuit of dreams, a toughness in business mixed with a fatalistic submission to the future. The surface and the depth are not always in harmony and the schismatic labyrinthine Easterner is difficult to understand for the much more linear Westerner.

This schism can be found within the borders of each Middle Eastern nation: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel, Cairo and Mount Sinai in Egypt, Beirut and the Cedars of Lebanon, each exposes the polarity of the other. It is most profoundly exhibited between Beirut and Jerusalem, these two cities seven hours apart by car. Yet, the border between Lebanon and Israel has ruptured them. Except for Israeli soldiers and the few Lebanese who had access to Israel during the latter’s occupation of the South, plus a few UN workers, the great majority of Israelis have no access to Beirut’s ample charms, nor Lebanese to the grace of Jerusalem.

The two cities are only 250 km apart, by highway only 3 hours apart, and in between are the great old Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre, the Crusader Keep of Acre, Mount Carmel and the bay of Haifa, the valley of Megiddo, and inland, off the beaten path, Nazareth and its olive groves, and the hills rising to Jerusalem. Each stop, a station in mankind’s history, the places of battles that formed the world, or thinkers and prophets whose words echo still today in our laws and morals, of potters and merchants who moved wares from Assyria to Rome, or from Baghdad to Venice. Throughout the trip, the Mediterranean accompanies you, with the possibility of the setting sun, or the olive groves of Galilee creating a corridor of travel.

Beirut and Jerusalem would be better off in connection with each other and the rest of the region, for they work together, balancing each other, finding what is missing in the other. Not through politics but by the very movement and interaction of people with all their wares and vices, their sweat and illusions. This movement, now interrupted by national projects, is the very core of a healthy Middle East – in this way can the various peoples find balance to their local excesses.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A View of Amman

Amman, Jordan

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Al-Fishawy's Cafe

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Barring times of war, domestic turmoil, and national emergency, al-Fishawy cafe - located in the Khan al-Khalili district of Islamic Cairo - has been serving customers non-stop for over two hundred years.

This 24-hour 7 day-a-week establishment, located in a narrow alleyway just off of Midan Hussein, began as an informal meeting place with coffee after evening prayer. The meetings were hosted by a man whose name we know only to be al-Fishawy. As time went on the gatherings grew, tea and sheesha tobacco were added to the menu, and the clientele ballooned. Today al-Fishawy's is run by the descendants of the cafe's originator and has become one of the most famous coffee-shops and social gathering places in the Middle East.

The old adage of location being the primary factor in a business's success was likely coined in relation to this coffee-house. The establishment owes its immense popularity to being at the epicentre of old Cairo life - lying on the cusp of the overlapping meeting places of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the 1000 year-old al-Azhar University (the world's oldest university), and the Sayyidna al-Husayn ibn Ali Mosque, where the head of one of the Prophet Mohammed's grandsons is said to rest.

With its tucked-away location, partial open-air view, and antique disposition, al-Fishawy has long been a magnet for intellectuals, musicians, artists, and writers. Today, local and out-of-town Egyptians mingle with foriegn tourists and expats beneath the old oil paintings and enormous mirrors with guilded Arabesque frames. A steady stream of stray cats, child urchins and trinket salesmen move through the alleyway seeking to capitalize on the daily gatherings of humanity.

In addition to the staple coffees and mint tea, the cafe serves kirkaday (a deep-red hisbiscus tea said to have curative properties), fresh lemonade, and sahlab (a hot milky drink consumed in winter and topped with nuts and raisins).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Coast

Gaza Beach, Thursday, August 7, 2008

(photograph by Diaa Hadid)

The Artist

Yara is an artist from Tyre. Her etching of a black and white tiger hangs near her desk in the office where she translates press articles. All day, she spins through the Arabic media searching for relevant articles for foreigners to read and understand her region better. Like many millions in the Arab world, she wishes for a normal life but instead has war, corruption, and limited horizons. She sits and watches as the political robbers or bearded ones have their way with her world.

Yara will never leave her beloved Tyre, her city by the sea - a place once conquered by Alexander and since, transformed from an island into a peninsula. She stands every evening at the rocks above the Christian cemetery where the Temple of Melqart once stood, the Phoenician god of strength and deeds, their Hercules. There, Yara watches the red sun drift into the Mediterranean and then walks home through the narrow streets of the old district where children play like fairies in the night, the sound of the surf mixing with their giggles.

Yara spends most of her day imagining she is an artist in the hills above Tyre, living in a terra cotta home, working with others in sculpture, paint and ceramics, away from the gossip, politics, and restrictions her society places on her.

She has seen the Palestinians use her land as a platform to attack Israel and to liberate their land. She has seen the Israelis invade to get rid of them and then stay in occupation for 22 years. She has seen Shiite militias fight the Israelis and encourage them to leave, and she has spent years in Beirut being shelled by God-knows-who. Yara concluded that politics is a cynical business with no winners and many losers. She gave up her sense of justice, all her ideals, and just cried out for the liberation of her soul. An impossible task among the gossiping women and oppressive men around her day in day out.

At times, she thought she must have once been a woman of ancient Tyre, watching her people make the purple dye that would give them their name in Greek: the Phoenicians. That woman worshipped at the altar of Baal and Ashtarut and looked out at sea for the sailors of Tyre off to sell their wares in Alexandria, Athens, or the Sicilian coast. She saw the invading armies of Assyrians and Persians come in galleys and chariots to her island city and burn it to the ground in a red fire.

Yara knew somehow that her people were still living that memory, in the invading armies of today and in their sense that life was toil and destruction, anger at your neighbour, and survival of the fittest.

But her soul spoke otherwise. She thought there was too much obsession with past glory, land, or sacred texts - all more important than the present gift of being alive. She remembered that we are the source of our happiness, and live the mystery of tomorrow with creativity.

So Yara spent her days and nights imagining a thousand sketches of her tiger, a thousand students working with her, and a few masters with the touch of Florence and the engraved mosques of Isfahan, guiding her. They would learn together what it means to be free to create, to explore what is inside them, and not just who has the latest, hottest, car or what the latest speech was by the demagogue.

She'd need a large degree of courage, and a patron with good money, to break with her family and feuding friends to establish her terra cotta school in the hills above Tyre.

For the time being, she would dream it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oriental Rugs

Karagashli Sumak, Kuba District, East Caucasus, 19th cent.

(from collection of Robert Bell)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Shepheard's Hotel

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008
Photo Courtesy of Studio Kerop, Cairo

In order to accommodate the influx of tourists coming to Egypt in the mid-19th century, including those passing through Cairo en route to India, some of the first large-scale hotels were built in the Egyptian capital at that time. In 1841, Samuel Shepheard became the co-manager of The British Hotel in Cairo, one of the first of those lodgings to be built. Four years later Shepheard bought The British Hotel and changed its name to Shepheard's. Located in the heart of the downtown quarter within close proximity to Cairo's best amenities and historical sites, the hotel gained a favourable reputation for good service and access to adventure that spread far and wide.

Referred to as “the caravanserai through which the world flows”, the Shepheard's became, at least for a time, one of the most luxurious and opulent hotels in the world. As the years passed however, and as the hotel moved into different buildings to accommodate the growing tourist flood, the Shepheard's would become an overcrowded terminus for colonialists, some of whom traveled to Egypt merely to imbibe the hotel's legendary atmosphere. In addition to being an expatriate hub and meeting place for the well-heeled, the hotel also served as the base for the King Tut excavations in Luxor, and for the British Army during World War One.

The Shepheard's longstanding associations with Britain's imperialist-colonialist agenda led to its eventual downfall. The hotel was burnt down by an angry mob during city-wide nationalist riots in January 1952. It's modern namesake, an imitation façade that stands today on Corniche al-Nil, miles from the original Ezbekiya location, was built soon after the fire, but retains little to nothing of the old hotel, save the name.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wadi Qadisha

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

If there is anywhere that makes Lebanon unique, it is Wadi Qadisha. This gash in the earth winding from the heights of the remaining biblical Cedars to the coastal city of Tripoli, earns its name, 'The Holy Valley'. 'Qadisha' is an Aramaic or Syriac word for 'holy' echoing the Arabic 'Qadiss' for Saint, or the name of Jerusalem itself, 'Al Quds'.

The valley is deep. Its sides are lined by dense Mediterranean vegetation and littered with cave churches. The valley floor carries the Qadisha River that becomes the 'Abu Ali' when it nears Tripoli and the sea. There it is reduced to a trickle with concrete banks winding below the Crusader Fortress of St. Gilles.

The valley moves in jagged shifts from Bsharre (home of Khalil Gibran and Samir Geagea) to Hasroun, Ehden, and Hadath - a zigzag of villages facing each other across the Wadi.

The drive into the upper reaches of the valley is more like an automotive mountain climb: steep, fast, a rush. After one reaches the target of the Cedar grove at the pocket of the valley, one can go beyond to the higher mountains above the cedars to look down on the earth. There, one is literally above the clouds. The drive down, more leisurely, leaves one with a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, once, like an airplane making its descent, I drove down from that high point into the clouds and the cedars, and into the sound and fury of a hailstorm.

The trick to Wadi Qadisha is that it rises from sea level to 2500 meters in the span of 35 kms - a very steep climb for any coastal region. The wadi also shelters the monasteries of many who decided to seek the safety of its high alpine valley, including Qannubin, Mar Sarkis, and Lady of Hawqa - to name only three. It is this rapid climb from seashore to mountain that is the secret to Lebanon's beauty. It is also the key to understanding Lebanon as a mountain safe-haven that drew the Druze, Maronite, and Shiite sects that configure and define the country today.