Inside the Middle East
February 7, 2013
Posted: 759 GMT


In February, 'Inside the Middle East' travels to Beirut, the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual capital of Lebanon.  Beirut's popularity among expatriate residents has not waned, despite the recent instability caused by the bitter conflict in neighboring Syria. Hosted by CNN’s Senior International Correspondent, Arwa Damon, the programme discovers why the 'Paris of the Middle East' is so appealing to immigrants.

Expats may be flocking to Beirut, but not everyone is always welcome.  Many economic migrants in Beirut struggle with prejudice on a daily basis.  The country has implemented a zero-tolerance policy towards racism – but Damon finds out why it’s going to take more than a legislation to change the local attitudes.

The program also explores the rights of women in Lebanon – a nation known for its tolerant stance on gender issues. With few laws on domestic abuse and little female representation in government however, activists say the sense of freedom among women in the country is a false one. ‘Inside the Middle East’ meets women now demanding change.

Also, the program meets the alternative rock band Mashrou' Leila, a group who have become hugely popular in Lebanon by taking on traditionally taboo topics, such as politics and homosexuality, in their music.

You can find all of the February showtimes here.

Want to see more?  Follow the show on Facebook for all the latest from 'Inside the Middle East' – including a bloopers video featuring Arwa Damon snowboarding – or trying to snowboard – on the slopes just above Beirut.

IME Lebanon

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January 2, 2013
Posted: 1144 GMT

In January, 'Inside the Middle East' travels to Tunisia, the nation where the Arab Spring protest movement was born in 2011.

Two years ago, the self-immolation death of a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, upset by a lack of opportunities for employment, sparked a wave of popular anger that quickly swept across the tiny North African nation, and eventually much of the Middle East.

Two years later, what has changed?  Not much in terms of the economy, many young Tunisians say.  The country is, however, becoming much more conservative - especially in the arts and culture scene.  The program interviews several artists whose work has recently been deemed "un-Islamic", as well as a conservative Salafist sheikh who explains why some forms of expression should be contained.

We also visit the north coast of Egypt, where millions of World War II landmines and other unexploded ordnance left buried in the desert sands are still - seven decades after the crucial Allied victory at the Egyptian town of El Alamein – creating problems for Bedouins living in the area.

'Inside the Middle East' also brings one of the world's most popular writers, Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, to life, through a new play in Abu Dhabi that explores the heroic, and sometimes dark,
history of Gibran.

You can find all of the January showtimes here.

Want to see more?  Follow the show on Facebook for all the latest from 'Inside the Middle East.'

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December 23, 2012
Posted: 625 GMT

A look back at the highlights of 2012 covered on Inside the Middle East.

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Filed under: Culture •Egypt •Inside The Middle East •U.S.

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December 20, 2012
Posted: 943 GMT

A look back at the highlights of 2012 covered on Inside the Middle East.

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Filed under: Culture •Egypt •Inside The Middle East •Israel •Jerusalem •Lebanon •Morocco •Palestinians •Pictures •Religion •UAE •Video •Women

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December 17, 2012
Posted: 618 GMT

A look back at the highlights of 2012 covered on Inside the Middle East.

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Filed under: Abu Dhabi •Algeria •Bahrain •Culture •Dubai •Egypt •Inside The Middle East •Iran •Iraq •Israel •Jordan •Kuwait •Lebanon •Morocco •Oman •Saudi Arabia •Sports •Tunisia •Turkey •UAE •Women •Yemen

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December 2, 2012
Posted: 1150 GMT


American reality TV star and all-around celebrity Kim Kardashian can't seem to please anyone in the Middle East these days.

Just weeks after causing a Twitter outrage with her comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kardashian's appearance in Bahrain Saturday to open a branch of a milkshake franchise prompted street protests.

While throngs of adoring fans paid up to $1,200 to attend her appearance at a mall in the tiny Gulf kingdom, about 100 hardline Islamists protested outside where, according to reports, police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd.

One protestor held a particularly crude banner that read "Syria receives martyrs while Bahrain receives whores."

Last Tuesday a group of conservative Bahraini parliamentarians put forth a proposal to ban Kardashian from visiting the country, citing her "bad reputation," but the motion gained no traction and was not put to a vote.



The buxom brunette, who is prolific on social media, paid no heed to the protests, instead focusing on her fawning fans and tweeting multiple photos of herself – seeming to take particular delight in all things camel – posing in front of camels in the desert and holding a glass of camel milk.

During the official opening of Millions of Milkshakes at a mall south of the capital Manama, a local paper quoted her praising all things Bahrain – from its women: "I love the girls here; their make up and hair are beautiful"... to promoting the country as a tourist destination "People from the States should come here because the country and the people are so amazing and welcoming that I am planning to be back here on my vacation."

However it was her praise for Bahrain's ruler that sparked an outpouring of angry responses on Twitter.

The island nation has seen intermittent unrest since February 2011 as violent clashes have broken out between security forces and opposition protesters on numerous occasions, including government crackdowns that have drawn the ire of international rights organizations.

Just weeks ago, Kardashian stirred up another controversy in Twitter-verse by saying that she was "praying for Israel" during the eight days of Israel-Gaza violence that left over 150 people dead, the vast majority of them Palesitnian. She later tweeted that she was also "praying for Palestine," but the compounded backlash caused her to remove both tweets and apologize on her blog: "The fact is that regardless of religion and political beliefs, there are countless innocent people involved who didn't choose this, and I pray for all of them and also for a resolution."

It may be asking too much to expect an American reality TV star to familiarize herself with the Middle East's political complexities. Political blunders aside, Kardashian has maintained her fan base in the region.

If nothing else, she's got people talking.

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November 14, 2012
Posted: 949 GMT

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It's a story that combines three of the region's most critical issues – it's a dispute in Jerusalem, a dispute between Arabs and Israelis... and a dispute over water. All rolled into one, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most venerated sites in Christianity, has had its bank accounts frozen over $2.3 million of unpaid water bills, with monks threatening to close the church in protest.

The church receives about a million pilgrims a year and stands at the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried.

The water bill is backdated fifteen years to the time when a new company took over the supply. For decades the church was exempt from paying water bills until the Israeli water company began pressing it to pay up a few years ago.

Issa Musleh, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the UK newspaper The Guardian: "They have frozen our account. This is a flagrant act against the church."

"The church is completely paralysed. We can't pay for toilet paper. Nothing. [The water company] Hagihon has declared war on us," a Patriarchate official told the Hebrew-language daily Maariv.

In a statement to Maariv, Hagihon said it had been in talks for several years with church representatives with the aim of reaching a settlement of the debt. It was prohibited by the Israeli Water Authority from exempting any party from water charges, and more than 1,000 religious institutions in Jerusalem paid their bills regularly, it added.

According to the English-language daily Haaretz, Greek Orthodox priest Isidoros Fakitsas said that the move has impaired the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pay bills and salaries including 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of over 30 Christian schools that the church runs in the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

As a result, the church is considering closing for a day in protest, shutting the doors to pilgrims for the first time in centuries. The church is seeking international backing.

As with all issues concerning the Holy City, the issue has become politicized within the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“If they want to cut water off then we will ask the pilgrims and visitors to bring their own water with them and we will explain to them what is happening so that they would know about the Israeli arbitrary policies being practiced against the holy places,” Musleh told the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

The church is no stranger to controversy. The most memorable incident is probably the brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks a few years ago that police had to forcibly break up.

Stay tuned to CNN for more coverage of this story out of Jerusalem.

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November 11, 2012
Posted: 630 GMT

Kuwait's love affair with fast food has become a health disaster for its population. CNN's Zain Verjee reports.

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November 8, 2012
Posted: 756 GMT

'Inside the Middle East' meets chop shop owner Hussain Salmeen, who builds and customizes bikes in Kuwait.

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October 28, 2012
Posted: 1223 GMT

At entrance to Mecca, Saudi Arabia


'Tis the Hajj season again – once a year the world views the iconic images of a sea of pilgrims dressed in white at Islam's holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as more than 3 million people from around the world embark on this ancient pilgrimage. It is one of the pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are financially and physically able must perform this journey at least once in their lifetime.

I've personally been to the Hajj three times - in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – not as a pilgrim, but as a producer covering the event for CNN. It was one of the most logistically challenging assignments I've ever faced and one that left me with some of the more colorful and poignant memories of any story I have covered.

Overlooking the Kaaba from our live position.


The memories came flooding back as I watched the crowds at Mecca's Grand Mosque circling  the Kaaba, the black cube shaped building. It is believed the Kaaba stands on the spot where Abraham built his first temple to God and, while the building itself is not sacred, it is a spiritual symbol. It is towards this direction that Muslims around the world orient themselves to pray five times a day. Hotel rooms around the region have a sticker somewhere with an arrow pointing towards the Kaaba so the visiting faithful can know which way to pray. It is the proverbial North in a Muslim's compass.

These are not the accounts of a pilgrim, but one of the relatively few people who get to be AT the Hajj without being IN the Hajj.


The World Passing By

It seems logical to begin with the obvious. Sitting there on the white marble floor of the Grand Mosque, it was difficult not be blown away by the diversity of the people passing by. Groups of Indonesians in crisp white wearing colored headbands for identification and moving in tight phalanx formations quietly chanting the mantra of the Hajj (which translates approximately to "Oh God, I have obeyed your call"). Groups of West Africans in colorful garb almost singing verses of Islam's Holy Book the Quran. Old Chinese couples, groups of blonde Europeans and Americans; it felt as if we were literally watching the entire world walk past. The effect was nothing short of hypnotic.

The Jabs

Every time I received a call telling me I would be covering Hajj again, my first instinct was to immediately dread the vaccinations I would need. Although Viral Meningitis is the only vaccination legally required by Saudi Arabia, my doctor recommended getting an additional SIX : pneumonia, Tetatus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Diphtheria, Yellow Fever, and the run of the mill flu shot. Yet despite meticulously getting vaccinated AND constantly wearing a surgical mask around the crowds, there was not a year that the crew did not return home with the infamous "Hajj Flu." No, most doctors wouldn't call it that, but I'm convinced that gathering that many people from that many parts of the world at such close quarters for five days in the desert creates some hybrid super-virus that has knocked me down every time. During one particularly rough year, I lost my voice – which, for a field producer, is the equivalent of a cameraman losing his camera. The solution? Twice a day, the hotel doctor came to give me cortizone shots to unclench my vocal chords so I could speak.

The Devil's Makeover

One of the key rituals of the Hajj is called the "stoning of the devil." Part of the cathardic process of the pilgrimage is to throw stones at three pillars known as the Jamarat symbolizing a rejection of the devil's temptation. This was also the most dangerous part of the ritual when it came to crowd control as 3 million people tried to throw stones at the same time at the same location. There have been many instances where people closer to the Jamarat have been killed or badly wounded by stones being lobbed by pilgrims further back. The Saudi Arabian authorities spent millions of dollars renovating the area, making it multi-layered like a garage instead of one flat plain, and renovating the pillars themselves that represent Satan. When I first visited Mecca, the "Devil" was an obelisque-like pillar but the renovations included replacing the structure (after much religious scholarly debate) with a wide oval wall-like structure with a much bigger surface area that was easier to hit. I recall one late night as we were shooting a story on the preparations, being driven out to the Jamarat area with a security escort as an engineer explained to us how the "Devil" had been remodeled. I couldn't resist taking a photo.

The new "Devil" after renovation of Jamarat in 2006


For anyone wondering where pilgrims get the stones, it's at the nearby desert location of Muzdalifa. (The math: 3 million pilgrims, throwing seven stones at each of three pillars – that's 63 million stones.) After every Hajj, the authorities collect all the stones that have landed at the foot of the Jamarat in Mina and take them back to the plain of Muzdalifa in anticipation of next year's pilgrimage, making sure to sift out any that are too sharp or too large.

The Segregation Problem

Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative country that practices a very strict interpretation of Islam, which includes that unrelated men and women should not mingle in private spaces. When you're a CNN crew, it means that the female reporter and producer technically can't be in the same room (or tent, once we're out in the desert) as the male cameraman. This is one of my very distinct memories – every year negotiating all manner of compromises to convince the authorities that the team all needed to share a work space. Various compromises included leaving the hotel room door wedged open at all times, leaving the tent flap open, sometimes having a token chaperone in the room in the form of a government minder or just occasionally being dropped in on to make sure we were actually working and not misbehaving in any way.

I must note here that one thing I appreciate about the Hajj is that women and men all pray together and perform all the rites together (whereas mosques are segregated.) At Hajj, men and women are only segregated in their sleeping arrangements.

The Wardrobe Malfunction

Women in Saudi Arabia, and female visitors, have to wear a long-flowing black robe (called an abaya) and a headscarf covering their hair. In many malls, hotels and restaurants in big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, women can get away with removing their headscarves. But in Mecca, during Hajj, these rules are particularly strictly abided by. As a CNN crew, we often worked late hours or had requests to be available live during U.S. prime time hours which were very late at night local time – so sleep deprivation was a common companion. On one late night as we were frantically trying to make an edit deadline, I received a call from an interviewee bringing a video diary he had filmed of himself so we agreed to meet in the hotel lobby. I rushed down and walked out of the elevator and within a few seconds realized that every single person in that lobby was staring at me in horror. It took me a moment to soak in the terrifying realization that I had forgotten to throw on my abaya and headscarf and was donning only jeans, T-shirt and a pony tail... which is comparable to walking around the Vatican in a bikini. Needless to say, waiting for the elevator to come back down and take me up to the room was the longest 30 seconds of my life.

The Day the Apocalypse Arrived

It was the last day of the Hajj in 2005. We were in our hotel room overlooking the Grand Mosque as the pilgrims performed the final rites as they circled the Kaaba. The sky began to darken, the windows shook with the force of roaring thunder as torrential rains started pouring down. We went out among the crowds and the scene was almost movie-like. Exhausted pilgrims who had just reached the peak of their spiritual journey, caught up in the moment, started saying that Judgment Day had arrived and that we were witnessing the apocalypse. The grounds of the mosque were flooded, the tent city at Mina suffered landslides and several groups of pilgrims had to be rescued by chopper. On the roads, cars and buses were turned on their side in the middle of the road and it was utter chaos. It turned out not to be the apocalypse, but a sobering reminder of what can happen when a desert city without drainage infrastructure gets hit with torrential rains while 3 million people happen to be in town.

The Stampede

In 2006, as the crew was headed to the airport thinking our assignment was over, we received word that a stampede had taken place. In people's rush to try to beat the crowds on the last day, the crowds got crushing that more than 350 people were trampled to death. We came back to the sounds of ambulance sirens wailing in warning and family members wailing in mourning. Just a few hours earlier the sense was one of collective euphoria as pilgrims completed their rites and were spiritually "cleansed" and ready to go home. Now the scene was chaos, blood, bodies shrouded in the same white cloths that they had performed their pilgrimage in. It was the deadliest day at Hajj in years. Subsequent pilgrimages have avoided similar disaster by spreading out the times that people can conduct the stoning ritual, carefully controlling the number of people at the Jamarat at any one time to avoid bottlenecks and overcrowding.


Tears on the Plain of Arafat

Overlooking the Plain of Arafat.

Despite the tragedies... Despite the crowds (it could take half an hour to find a hotel elevator with enough room to fit a 3-person crew with equipment)... Despite the traffic (it could take 4 hours to travel a couple of miles and if it happened to be prayer time, everyone abandoned their vehicles and started praying on the streets)... Despite  it all, the most powerful memory that stayed with me is standing on the plain of Arafat. The Day of Arafat is the spiritual culmination of the Hajj, the peak of spiritual cleansing as millions of people shed tears as they prayed for God's forgiveness for their sins.

As media, we had access to the Saudi Television facility that had a high tower overlooking the entire plain. There is no sight more overwhelming than seeing waves and waves of people in white praying and crying in the most effusive expression of religious emotion I have ever witnessed. It is a day that people smile to each other through their tears, as if in disbelief that they're finally there, finally completing the journey of a lifetime, finally so close to God. It is a moving and powerful moment that this spectator will never forget.

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