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