Monday, June 30, 2008

View from the Krak

Looking west over the village of al-Husn from the medieval crusader castle of Qalaat Husn, also known as Husn al-Akrad or Krak des Chevaliers.

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reservoir Dogs

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with Libya's Muammar Ghadaffi and a member of the Libyan Revolutionary Council, in Cairo. The date of this photograph is unknown.

Friday, June 27, 2008


During the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, I travelled as part of a documentary film crew aboard the USS Nimitz. The American aircraft carrier, which was then operating somewhere in the Persian Gulf (we weren't allowed to know where) was busy scrambling aircraft and conducting the messy business of war.

Among the mix of exhilarating, strange, and often sad images that confronted us, were these posters which we found in a room somewhere far below deck.

Anyone familiar with American World War Two propaganda posters can immediately see the resemblance here.

Not aimed at the general public at large, and concerned with internal military affairs (recruiting and security), the posters are nonetheless a throwback to wartime manipulation techniques of old.

OPSEC in the first poster refers to "operational security."

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Souq Merchant

Baghdad, Iraq

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ancient Faces

For more than two centuries, archaeological excavations at cemeteries in Egypt dating back to Roman times have unearthed some unusual and powerful images. These are the painted mummy portraits, often referred to as "The Fayoum Portraits" - so named because of the frequency in which these artifacts have been unearthed in the lush Fayoum Basin, southwest of Cairo.

These realistic portraits of the deceased, usually painted on wood panels or on cloth and attached to the mummified remains of the dead, have been found all over Egypt and not just in the Fayoum.

These remarkable works date back to the period from the 1st century BC until the 3rd century AD. The use of this art in the funerary rites of the time point to the fusion of two traditions - those of Pharaonic Egypt and that of the Classical World.

The idea of an afterlife, derived from the ancient Egyptians, stipulated the importance of physically attaching or leaving close to the body an idealized image of the deceased. The Greco-Roman art of panel painting, highly popular in Rome in those days, was the method of choice for people with enough money to afford to be mummified and have themselves sketched. Owing to Egypt's dry climate, these panel paintings have survived nearly intact and continue to be found to this day.

Little is known of these people beyond what can be inferred from their very "Roman" appearances. These poignant and highly personal images of what were once very real people, our ancestors, literally stare at us from another time and place: ancient faces that speak of lives lived, of empires come and gone, and of knowledge practiced and superseded. They are a testament to the inevitability of change and thus speak to the transitory nature of all those things which we struggle to make permanent at unnecessary and often tragic costs - political and economic systems, religious convictions, borders, power structures, and ruling dynasties..

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

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tunnel Vision

There are recent reports out of Israel that Hizballah is strengthening its positions in southern Lebanon by digging tunnels throughout the troubled area. If these reports are true, then there is indeed a new and strange trend in the Middle East: deep underground in Bint Jbeil, Jerusalem and Gaza, men are busy burrowing away after some strange purpose.

Without its knowledge, Hizballah has joined the likes of other active diggers in the region such as the right wing Jewish settler groups digging a tunnel between the City of David and the Dung Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. Both these efforts can join the now infamous tunnelling efforts beneath Rafah in Gaza. Of course, each of these activities has its own purpose. Hizballah is readying for a future fight with Israel, Hamas digs tunnels for smuggling goods into Gaza and the Israeli settlers are trying to connect their Jewish heritage through subterranean methods.

This burrowing can seem as surreal to an objective eye as the dwarves in the Lord of the Rings digging ever deeper into Mount Moriah. But what exactly is going on here with all this underground activity in a region troubled enough overground?

Digging tunnels in the Middle East is today the purview of non-state actors on serious political missions. They all preserve the right to act underground or elsewhere in the name of a greater cause, despite the presence of a sovereign state, whether that state is Lebanon, Egypt or Israel, and whether the goal is Jewish supremacy in Jerusalem or Hizballah dominance in Lebanon. What better way to do so than underground, invisible, unseen and, generally, effective?

Metaphorically, by digging below the ground, these ideological non-state actors are wearing away at the validity of state power in the Middle East, making authority impotent in the face of their hyperactivities. The sadder fact is that almost all this digging goes on with some knowledge, and even complicity, of elements of the sovereign state – a fact that confirms the hollowness of that authority, a power that either does not take itself seriously or underhandedly agrees or bows down to the agendas of non-state actors.

For sure, nothing would insult these groups more than lumping them together, but together they do represent a real problem in the Middle East - one of the supremacy of the ¨non state¨ and its most recent manifestation: ¨tunnel behaviour¨. And there is no one there, or ready, to stop them.

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

Monday, June 16, 2008

Middle East Institutions - Abou Shakra

69 Kasr el-Einy Street
Garden City, Cairo
Tel. 531 6111

A Cairo landmark, this fancy kebab house has been serving locals for over 50 years. There are other branches in Heliopolis and Mohandiseen. Recently refurbished and purged of its Disney idols and other kitsch collectibles, this conservative Muslim restaurant is done up in marble and alabaster. Seating is a little tight and the staff can be slow, but customers are always guaranteed an authentic Egyptian experience.

The main speciality here is kebabs, with prices calculated per kilo of meat and a host of salads and dips to choose from. Pigeon, chicken and specialty beef dishes are also on the menu. The Egyptian desserts served here are heavenly, with top honours going to the Om Ali (flakey dough with raisins and nuts soaked in sugar and milk).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bitter Lemons

Review: Bitter Lemons, By Lawrence Durrell, Marlow and Company, 1957, 256 pp.

In March 1953, author Lawrence Durrell, penning a letter to his friend and colleague, Henry Miller, describes his newly adopted island of Cyprus as "...a piece of Asia Minor washed out to sea - not Greece. It's the Middle East - taste of Turkey and Egypt."

In another letter two months later, he writes nearly the same thing: "...I think it is a weird and rather malefic sort of island - not at all like Greek islands. Palm trees, camels, the smell of Syria. It is really a piece of Anatolia lopped off."

Bitter Lemons is a travelogue recounting the years Durrell spends in what was then an undivided Cyprus, on the eve of the conflict that would later divide the island. Writing from the perspective of an English-language instructor at a Greek elementary school, and then later as the Press Officer at the British High Commission in Nicosia, Durrell chronicles the rise of the Greek Cypriot independence movement and its impact on the lives of those around him. Readers with an interest in Cypriot life and culture, the Cyprus conflict, travel writing, Mediterranean life, or just the writing of Lawrence Durrell, would find Bitter Lemons an interesting read.

The first part of the book details Durrell's purchase and renovation of a small Turkish house in Bellapaix. The scene in which his newly acquired Turkish friend, a cunning and well-respected middle-man, wheels-and-deals on his behalf for the house stands as perhaps one of the most poignantly comedic bargaining scenes in all of literature. We later watch as Durrell, slowly and with difficulty, assimilates into village life, trying to figure his way through Cypriot Greek and Turkish cultures.

Interesting characters, landscapes, political intrigues, and the start of the crisis that would eventually engulf the island, fill the book's second half.

Bitter Lemons is an especially interesting book for those of us who never knew Cyprus before its division, and who would like to get a preview of how the island might look and feel in the aftermath of its inevitable reunification.

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

Middle East Institutions - The Acropole Hotel

Zubeir Pacha Street, Khartoum, Sudan
Tel. +249 1 8377 2860
Fax. +249 1 8377 0898