Inside the Middle East
September 18, 2010
Posted: 2133 GMT

A view of the Yemenite city of Shibam (Dane Kenny/CNN)

*CNN Producer Gena Somra filed this report from Yemen*

Riding along the dusty road through Yemen's Hadramawt valley, I was curious how the day would unfold.

Shibam, the ancient skyscraper city, was only kilometers away. I had read about its rich history, and looked at photographs of its stately skyline, but when the road turned, the view took my breath away.

There before me, after a long and arduous journey, was the "Manhattan of the Desert, " I had heard so much about.

Magnificent, and majestic-the towering landscape reaches skyward, out from the barren earth, and into the hearts of all who are lucky enough to take it in.

Even though our visit was for work, I couldn't help but marvel at what I saw in front of me.

For a moment, I allowed myself to be an awestruck tourist, grateful to see this rich composition and to experience it first hand.

People once came from all over the world to see the splendor of Shibam with their own eyes.

But a single act of terror in 2009 struck more than the South Korean tourists and their guides that were killed when the suicide bomber attacked. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Culture •General •Yemen

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Posted: 822 GMT

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Filed under: Culture •General •Israel •Judaism •Video

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September 17, 2010
Posted: 1618 GMT
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.
The original photo showed U.S. President Barack Obama leading Middle East leaders during peace talks.

Twitter alerted me to the doctored picture of President Hosni Mubarak leading the pack of Middle East peacemakers that appeared on page 6 of Al-Ahram’s 14 September edition.

Wael Khalil, a part-time blogger and full-time software engineer, noticed that the photo in Al-Ahram was an altered version of a picture first published after the meeting in the White House of President Barak Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordanian King Abdallah II and, of course, the Egyptian President.

In the original photo President Mubarak was in the back on the left, looking, many people in Egypt duly noted, his 82 years. The group was led by President Obama.

So when Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, Obama pushed back to the second row, and Netanyahu relegated to the rear, he knew something was wrong. Through Google he found the original photo and posted them on his blog, and posted that link on his Twitter account.

And then went out for lunch with his friends.

When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.
When Wael saw in Al-Ahram that Mubarak was in the lead, he knew something was wrong.

“We felt it’s going to be a ‘ha-ha,’” he told me, “a local joke, a ‘look-at-what-they’re-doing’ sort of thing.”

He’s taken aback by the interest in the doctored photo. “This is the Mubarak we know, this is the regime we know,” he says.

He posted his blog when I was busy covering the second round of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Sharm Al-Shaikh. I looked at the two pictures, laughed at the obvious, fairly crude hanky-panky, and moved on. So Al-Ahram plays fast and dirty with Photoshop, I thought. No surprise there. They’re playing the same game they do with words on a daily basis: It’s called “praise the leader.”

Al-Ahram is one of Egypt’s oldest newspapers, founded in 1875. It’s a dull but reliable indicator of how the government views the world. It’s Cairo’s dusty gray lady, all the news the Egyptian government deems is fit for the people to read.

Al-Ahram’s senior editors are appointed directly by the Egyptian president, and, not surprisingly, they follow the official line without much deviation.

Friday Osama Saraya, the editor of Al-Ahram, wrote in the paper that the picture at the centre of the controversy was “expressive,” underscoring Egypt historic role in the peace process.

Hisham Qasim, himself an independent newspaper publisher and harsh critic of the 29-year-old Mubarak regime, is not impressed by the defence.

“The editors of Al-Ahram have gone over the top. They are making Mubarak look silly worldwide," he said. "It's amazing how much coverage Mubarak is getting. It has become the joke of journalism.”

In the meantime the Ahram photoflub is racing around the new media in Egypt across the Middle East, a lesson to the old media, perhaps, that the rules of the game of “praise the leader” have changed for good.

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Posted: 1305 GMT

Prayer vigil among Israelis and Palestinians in East Jerusalem (Kareem Khadder/CNN)

Dozens of secular Israeli Jews and religious activists stood silently in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. It's just before Yom Kippur and they have gathered in a display of solidarity with Palestinian residents who have been evicted from their homes by the Israeli government.

The neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah has become one of the latest fault lines in the decades old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over land.

In the past few years, dozens of Palestinians from three families, who have lived in the area since the 1950's, have lost their homes in court battles to Jewish Israelis who claimed the land was owned by them before the creation of Israel in 1948.

The evictions have given rise to a weekly protest movement in Sheikh Jarrah aligning leftist Israelis, international activists and local Palestinian residents.

Activist Rabbi Arik Asherman, from an organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, says Isareli Jews have come together this night ahead of Yom Kippur to recite prayers asking for forgiveness. Forgiveness, for what he says, is the injustice being carried out by the Israeli state against the Palestinian residents of the neighbourhood.

"...there are families who are not at their homes because the court did not review the evidence in the courts when expelling the families and that the Israeli legal system has sanctioned the expulsion based on suspect pre 1948 Jewish claims, while denying the expelled Palestinian families an equal opportunity to re-claim their 1948 homes in Israel proper. The Jewish tradition calls that eifah v'eifah, a double standard,"

Palestinian residents of the neighbourhood took part in the evening observance and recited hymns and prayers with their Jewish supporters. One Palestinian resident of the neighbourhood who had been evicted from his home, Maher Hanoun, said he appreciated the presence of the Israelis in supporting Palestinian claims on their homes.

Rabbi Asherman said the theme of the evening was taken from the poem "On the Day of Atonement" written by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in which an Israeli Jew engages in a silent conversation with an Arab shopkeeper in Jerusalem's Old City.

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Filed under: Israel •Jerusalem •Palestinians •Religion

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Posted: 420 GMT

Gaza Market (Fred Pleitgen/CNN)

Tired of hearing bad news from the Palestinian territories?

If so consider this: in the first quarter of 2010 the economy of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip grew at an astonishing 11.5% compared to the same quarter the year before.

Broken down, real GDP growth in the Gaza Strip stood at a whopping 15% while the West Bank enjoyed a slightly more modest 10% increase.

These are just some of the pretty impressive sounding numbers contained in a new World Bank report on the Palestinian economy being released next week for a donor’s conference in New York.

In addition to signs of continued economic growth, fewer Israeli restrictions, and increased investor confidence the study, in part, credits the reform measures taken by the Palestinian Authority for the seemingly rosy economic news.

“These include increased efficiency of the social safety net system that is now one of the most advanced in the region, improved fiscal standing through greater revenue collections and a decrease in recurrent expenditures and an improved security situation in the West Bank” said World Bank vice-president Shamshad Akhtar.

But before you break open the champagne let’s briefly consider the bad news. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Economic crisis •Gaza •Israel •Palestinians •West Bank

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September 16, 2010
Posted: 1149 GMT

CNN correspondent Mohammed Jamjoom sent us the following photos of the CNN team at work in Yemen. Along with producer Gena Somra and photo-journalist Farhad Shadravan, Mohammed filed this report on the city of Shibam, aka "the Manhattan of the desert" where stories-high and centuries old mud skyscrapers create an urban skyline in a remote walled city. The site is one of Yemen's treasures, but since a 2009 attack on tourists, visitors have stopped coming and the residents of Shibam are finding it hard to get by. 

CNN crew shooting footage outside of Shibam (Dane Kenny/CNN)

CNN crew shooting outside doorway of a Shibam building (Dane Kenny/CNN)

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Filed under: Culture •General •Yemen

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September 15, 2010
Posted: 2158 GMT

Here a report from our Abu Dhabi based reporter Mohammed Jamjoom who reports from Tarim in Yemen's spiritual heartland. Steeped in history, the town is believed to have more descendants of the Prophet Mohammed than anywhere else in the world. Its also the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden's father. Tucked away in self-isolation from the watchful eye of the world, people come from all over the world to study an extremely conservative approach to the Islamic faith, but caution their conservatism should not be mistaken for extremism. Students say on the contrary, the draw of Tarim, is its purity of study, and the peaceful simplicity of life.

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Filed under: Culture •General •Islam •Religion •Video •Yemen

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Posted: 1515 GMT

The Israeli government has, for some time, been an active player in the world of social media. The military, government ministries, and Israeli embassies and consulates around the world are avid users of websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as a means of getting their message out.

With an increasing importance being placed on digital forms of communication it is not surprising then that the Israeli Foreign Ministry sought to obtain the Twitter user name @Israel for its already established presence on the micro-blogging service.  But what is surprising is that it purchased the account name from the owner of a pornographic website.

The Foreign Ministry’s top twittering diplomat, Chaim Shacham, told CNN that the Foreign Ministry paid $3,000 to Israel Melendez, a Spanish citizen and website developer living in Miami, to take control of the account. He said reports that a "six-figure" sum had been paid were not accurate.

The Spanish daily Publico first reported on the story earlier this month and it’s now been picked by various organizations including the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.

Melendez told the New York Times that he had the user name since 2007, but used it rarely because posts on the account prompted a torrent of anti-Semitic comments.

Shacham said the transaction took place at the end of August and that both sides were satisfied with the outcome. He said the purchase is part of a drive to make the Foreign Ministry’s messages on Twitter more user-friendly.

Filed under: General •Israel

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Posted: 950 GMT


Ayman Khalil, the porter, and CNN Jerusalem cameraman David Hawley at the Erez Crossing


*CNN's Sr. Int'l. Correspondent Ben Wedeman filed this report from a recent reporting trip to the Gaza Strip*

"I am always walking in my dreams," Ayman Khalil tells me as we walk across no-man's land between Gaza and Israel in oppressive mid-day summer heat. "And when I wake up," he adds, "my feet hurt."

Ayman, and his other colleague, 'Antar, are the only two people authorized by both Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Israel to walk back and forth in no-man's land. They work as porters at the Erez Crossing, in the long, fenced in passageway set aside for the few people allowed to go back and forth between Israel and Gaza.

Ayman walks about 600 metres of ground in the kilometer-long passageway on the Gaza side. He then hands off to 'Antar, who, with his rickety trolley, takes luggage the rest of the way.

He estimates on average he goes back and forth about between 30 and 40 times a day, which means he walks 36 and 48 kilometers a day, or, by my rough calculation, taking into account slow days, holidays, etc. between 10,800 and 14,400 kilometers a year. He may be overstating the case, but I can attest that he's on his feet much of the day.

As one of the few precarious links between Gaza and Israel, both 'Antar and Ayman are acutely sensitive to the ups and downs of the unhappy relationship between the two. If tensions are high, if there is an incident that closes the border crossing, their livelihoods are put on hold. They both have large, extended families to support in their nearby town of Beit Hanoun, which often bears the brunt of the violence.

I've known Ayman and 'Antar for years, and watched as they walked, and walked, and walked a fine line between Israel and Gaza. Both have been wounded by shrapnel and gunfire, both have seen more combat than most battle-hardened veterans, both have a hard-headed disdain for the vagaries of war and politics.

"It's exhausting work," says Ayman, "but if I don't walk, we starve to death."

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Filed under: Gaza •General •Israel

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September 14, 2010
Posted: 1418 GMT
Press Corps in Sharm al-Shaikh

Press Corps in Sharm al-Shaikh

Ben Wedeman sends us this photo of the assembled press corps in Sharm al-Shaikh, Egypt waiting for the press conference of the United State's Middle East envoy George Mitchell to begin. Ben reports that everyone did rise from their slumber when the news conference started. You can read about Mitchell's comments about the second round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians here.

Filed under: General •George Mitchell •Israel •Palestinians •U.S.

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Welcome to the Inside the Middle East blog where CNN's journalists post news, views and video from across the region. This is also a place where you can start the discussion so please keep your comments coming. We highlight not only current news stories but also anecdotes and issues that don't always make the top of the headlines.

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