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 fa├žade 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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Palestine Youth Orchestra - "Celebrating Jerusalem"

The Palestine Youth Orchestra and the Collegium Musicum of the University of Bonn play in Ramallah, July 27- August 2, 2008. Conducted by Mastro Walter Mik.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


This medical manuscript is from Syria and comprises three medical works - the first two date from the 14th century and the third from the 16th century. The first book, by al-Hamathami deals with pathology and has a section for every organ in the human body. The second book, by Najbe al-Din al-Samarkandi describes medicines according to the diseases that can attack various human organs. The third book, written by Abi al-Hassa al-Mukhtar ibn Abdoun classifies food into different categories. It was common for Arab manuscripts on medicine to be illustrated as this one is.

For several centuries during the Middle Ages, Arab scientists led the world in various disciplines - especially the field of medicine. This book is today on display in the National Museum of Damascus.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Persian Poets: Omar Khayyam

I am sick of idolaters and the temple.
Khayyam, who said that there will be a hell?
Who’s been to hell, who’s been to heaven?

It is we who are the source of our own happiness,
the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid’s all-seeing cup.

I saw a waster sitting on a patch of ground
Heedless of belief and unbelief, the world and the faith
No God, no Truth, No Divine Law, no Certitude:
Who in either of the worlds has the courage of this man?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


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

Mention to anyone in the Middle East that your family comes from a town in Turkey that was once a part of Syria, and is today located just north of the Syrian border, and you will invariably be told that you must be from either Iskinderun or Antakia. A good guess. But travel 200 odd miles east along the Turkish-Syrian frontier from either of these former Syrian cities, and you will reach an unusual-looking hillside town with a commanding southern view over the baking Mesopotamian plain.

This is Mardin, a city of pigeon flocks and old stone homes situated on the far cusp of the Arab world. It is also a place that is strangely unknown to the vast majority of Middle Easterners. Located in the heart of the Kurdish-populated southeast Anatolia region of Turkey, Mardin was up until recent times a kind of microcosm of the Middle East. An important Silk Road station, the town brought together disparate ethnic communities from all across the interior of the Levant, Northern Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Caucasus. These included Syrian and Bedouin Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Assyrians, Nestorians, Yezidis, Chaldeans, Syrianis, Nestorians, Chechens, and Turkomen - all of whom shared the tiered cobblestone byways of the city's old Arab medina built of a light coloured amber stone.

Mardin was the northernmost outpost of Arab culture before the deep hinterland of the non-Arab Middle East began - those rugged mountains where the flanks of the Turkish and Iranian empires collided and mixed with the Kurdish and Armenian nations to form a primeval confluence of blood and belonging. All non-Arabs that settled in Mardin were inadvertently Arabized
as though by some strange and unexplained law of nature. A typical “Mardeli” (the word denoting a person hailing from Mardin) spoke a brusque dialect of Levantine Arabic (also called “Mardeli”) that was as coarse to most Arabs as the Sicilian dialect of Italian is to most mainland Italians today.

From its establishment as a strategic outpost in early antiquity, Mardin has always been a frontier town in the truest send of the word. It has manned the edges of numerous cultural empires whose beginnings and ends were measured and marked by the transitions between peoples. Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Urartians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Selcuk Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans all made use of this hillside perch that dramatically announced the end of the plains and the beginning of the mountains.

But with the coming of the modern age, as tribes and nations adopted or were forced to accept the practice of strictly demarcating their territories, Mardin fell into decline as a multi-cultural experiment without borders. The political upheavals of the early 20th century - massacres and ethnic resettlement programs - sent the Mardelis packing. They were scattered like seeds in the wind to places all across the Middle East - to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and beyond. These were countries where they would be resettled and assimilated, but where deep inside they would belong to no place in particular - embodying instead, intangible notions and genetic memories of a rural cosmopolitanism based on tolerance.

Today, even more than in Mardin itself, echoes of that past can be seen and heard in Mardin's satellite towns of northeast Syria where some semblance of that original admixture of peoples - the "Mardelis" - still resides: towns like al-Qamishle, Hassake, and the Euphrates River town of Deir al-Zor.

The pigeons, the old stone palaces, and murmurs of a dilapidated Arabic still abide in Mardin - but under the watchful gaze of a Turkish military garrison peering suspiciously across the frontier into Syria and engaged in an unresolved local conflict between cultures that once knew few divisions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Coast

The coast has always attracted humans. They emerge from the adjacent hills and valleys to try their luck in the waters. This scene is repeated on the coasts of Brittany, Malabar, or Batan. Here is a scene from Beirut at sunset.

(Photograph by Gabriel Reyes)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mike Molloy: Watercolours of the Middle East

Mike Molloy is a former senior Canadian diplomat who has done a lot of good regarding the very sensitive issues of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

This is beyond the help and sage advice he has given to hundreds, if not more, along the way - and he still had time to produce some fine watercolours of the region.

You can find his work at

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Master Musicians of Jajouka - Summer Tour 2008

The Master Musicians of Jajouka featuring Bachir Attar are currently touring Canada and the United States. For a list of concert venues, click here.

View a video clip of the group performing live.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


A view of Bozburun Bay as seen from the Dolphin Pension Hotel, Bozburun, Turkey.

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Problem

For years, efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine problem, as well as other issues in the Middle East, have floundered outright or only managed to scratch the surface of issues whose roots lie much deeper than where most peacemaking work has taken place. Despite the failures, these political initiatives continue unabated while the problems of the Middle East become further entrenched.

As a result we have a situation today in which a team of well-intentioned doctors are attending to a patient, whose malady has been misdiagnosed, in the hope that a successive application of misplaced treatments will result in a sudden, random, and miraculous cure.

We believe that new clarity is desperately required regarding the problems of the Middle East and their resolution. In our view, the problems of the region cannot be effectively addressed on faulty premises or political terms, or in talks or agreements that do not attend to the root problem.

We believe the correct basis and working assumptions must be established before efforts move forward. Therefore we would like to suggest reframing the problems of - and the solutions to - the Middle East in wider, simpler and more fundamental human terms that draw upon new understandings in the fields of psychology and human behaviour.

We therefore postulate the following:

* Human beings come into high states of anxiety and emotion if their needs - physical and emotional - are not met. These needs can be defined and articulated and they must not be confused with wishes.

* This heightened state of anxiety and emotion is not conducive to finding ways to meet those needs, leading to a downward cycle of worsening of conditions, and in the end, violent conflict

* We believe that the Middle East is exactly in this state, failing to find successful mechanisms to meet the needs of its citizens, societies and its groups.

* Part of the reason that Middle Easterners are not properly attending to the needs of their own, is because theirs is a region that emphasizes and employs the use of ancient means of meeting needs - approaches that no longer work in today's complex world.

* These ancient means can be described as old systems of survival used by small groups (whether tribe, religion, or nation - or a mix of the three) derived from millenia of threat and competition.

* Historically, the pressing need to survive in a region filled with competing groups and frequent invaders, often combined with a lack of overarching authority to provide security, have led to the creation of these group survival systems - based partly on strength, intimidation, deterrence, and war-making - and which have persisted until today. A high degree of exclusivity within groupings adds further fuel to these divisions in a region where groups live together, or in exceptionally close proximity.

* This continued reliance upon survival through a system of exclusive and ancient grouping that once helped to meet the needs of another time is now obsolete in a world where human beings live as part of one global community, where our survival as a race depends on collective cooperation against collective threats, and in a region that, despite the wishes of many, is fundamentally interconnected.

* Put in another way:
continued emphasis upon ancient group survival in the Middle East only leads to worse emotional states and poorer responses to a conflict which now, ironically, threatens the survival of the people employing these techniques in order to survive.

* In addition to spending much of their time and resources towards ensuring group survival and neglecting the basic needs of its citizens, leaders in the region often take advantage of these conditions in order to keep themselves in positions of power, prohibiting the development of new mechanisms and deepening the already profound crisis facing the region.

* This failure to properly meet needs, and the ability to move towards approaches that do, is the source of regular violent conflict in the Middle East, whether between Israelis and Palestinians, or between groups in states such as Lebanon, or Iraq, or even between Palestinians, for example.

* Indeed, today in the Middle East, there is an often intentional approach of denying or belittling the other group and its needs as a means of strengthening one's own. This, above all, needs to change if negotiations or political processes are ever to achieve lasting solutions.

We believe that new mechanisms can be achieved in the Middle East for the needs of all groups to be met, and for survival and prosperity to be assured. To be sure, these must be developed by the people in the region on the basis that the needs of all sides must be met and that new arrangements - political, economic, and cultural - can and must be found to do so. As a basis for moving forward, various groups in the Middle East must also recognize each other's legitimate needs.

Through this blog, and through an adjunct site created specifically for these issues called The Missing Piece, we will aim to elucidate an examination of the problems, the needs, and the means to meet them, and thus, the possible roads that could help the Middle East move from illness to health.

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Arab Conquests

Review: The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, by Hugh Kennedy, 376 pages, Da Capo Press.

"The success of the Muslim conquest was the result of the unstable and impoverished nature of the whole post-Roman world into which they came, the hardiness and self-reliance of the Bedouin warriors, and the inspiration and open quality of the new religion of Islam."

This, the last paragraph of the The Great Arab Conquests, succinctly summarizes 376 pages of detailed text outlining how a context, vehicle and organizing idea came together to change the world. The last phrase regarding Islam may be surprising for non-Muslims today, saturated as they are by the debates over the radicalism of that faith in our era.

Nevertheless, this book makes a very good case that it was indeed universalism and tolerance that the Muslim warriors carried with them on the backs of camels and horses out of Arabia, north into Syria, east through Iran to Central Asia, and all the way west to the Atlantic. The Great Arab Conquests is the tale of that sudden and vast expansion anchored in the fascinating characters who carried it out: Khalid bin al-Walid and his march with 500 troops across the Syrian desert to conquer the Levant; Amr bin al-As, the "Odysseus of Islamic times" and the conqueror of Egypt; and Musa bin Abd Allah bin Khazim, the man who crossed the Oxus and whose fate is fitting of a Shakespearean tragedy.

These men and their armies had little problem routing the empires of Persia and Byzantium - a considerable feat owing to the hardiness of the Arab warrior who travelled light, often rejecting the luxury of a coat of mail that his enemy coveted (another secret of the Arabs' success were the relatively easy terms imposed on the conquered).

It is an irony of history however that the only trouble the rough and ready armies of Islam encountered were fellow nomads such as the Berbers - led by the mysterious Kahina, a purportedly Jewish queen - and the Turks. The latter would be a great foreshadowing of the future takeover of the Islamic empire by the horsemen of Central Asia.

Still, this book carries with it the spirit that the "early Muslims brought with them a great cultural self-confidence....they were the bearers of true religion and God's own language". It is that past confidence, that dream of success, that still haunts Arabs today, making them proud yet also often lost in a wondrous glory of yesteryear. It is also the reason Arabs find it so difficult to come to terms with some of today's harsh political realities.

Can inspiration and a more open quality to their culture and faith once again be terms of creation for Arabs, despite today's challenges?

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell