Inside the Middle East
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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November 14, 2012
Posted: 949 GMT

AFP/Getty Images


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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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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Filed under: Hajj •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia

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July 19, 2012
Posted: 1636 GMT

Ramadan decorations are hung outside a shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 18, 2012, to welcome the upcoming Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (HAZEM BADER/AFP/GettyImages)

Muslims around the world begin fasting on Friday in observation of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam when the faithful abstain from eating food or drinking water from sunrise to sunset.

If, that is, Ramadan actually begins on Friday.

Every year, identifying the start of Ramadan is like a waiting game; Islamic scholars must see the new crescent moon in the night skies before the holy month officially begins.

Unlike the Gregorian (or Western) calendar, the Islamic calendar is based on lunar patterns.  And the lunar month begins with the sighting of a new moon.

This annual – and greatly anticipated – announcement is typically made by Islamic authorities in each country (although many countries in the Middle East follow the moon sightings of scholars in Saudi Arabia).

But with all the technological advancements of the 21st century, why can’t scholars predict the exact date the moon will appear?

They can – astronomers have the technology to actually see the shape of the moon in broad daylight, even with high humidity, pollution, and even sand in the air.

But some Islamic jurists and clerics refuse to announce the arrival of Ramadan until they have seen the new moon with their own eyes.

Additionally, the validity of these high-tech methods is creating a debate among Muslim scholars and jurists, according to astrophysicist and astronomy professor Nidhal Geussoum, of the American University in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Adding to the confusion: in some countries, like Sweden or Norway, the sun does not set at all in the summer.

Muslims in countries like those have two options, according to Geussoum.  The first, he says, is to go with whatever date is announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, considered to be the holiest city in Islam. The second is to begin Ramadan with the moon sighting nearest to them, Geussoum adds.

Here in the UAE, many Muslims are still waiting for an official announcement from the local religious authorities, who will most likely also coordinate with religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Many here still don't know when exactly Ramadan will start.  And most conversations around this time of the year all begin and end the same way:

‘So, when does Ramadan start?’

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May 15, 2012
Posted: 1501 GMT

The Kuwait Times is reporting that an appeals court yesterday upheld a 10-year jail term for a tweeter found guilty of insulting the nation's ruling Emir and calling for the overthrow of the regime. Orance Al-Rasheedi was tried on charges of "spreading false news about Kuwait to undermine the oil-rich country’s image and calling for regime’s overthrow in video footage on YouTube." It said he had also used the social networking site Twitter and YouTube to publicly insult the Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who is protected against criticism by Kuwait’s constitution.

According to the same article but in an unrelated case, a Kuwaiti man charged with defaming Islam's Prophet Muhammad on Twitter as well as insulting the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will stand trial on May 21 and plead not guilty.

The article says the case of Shiite Hamad Al-Naqi, who faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted, has caused uproar in the state, where dozens of Sunni activists and lawmakers have protested against his alleged crime in the streets. Some have called for him to be put to death. Blasphemy is illegal under Kuwaiti law as is libel.

Naqi was arrested in March and charged with defaming the Islamic faith and Prophet Muhammad, as well as his companions and his wife on the popular micro blog. Prosecutors later charged him with insulting the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Twitter too. Naqi has told police that he did not make any of the comments and that his account was hacked. Earlier this month, lawmakers endorsed a legal amendment that could make such crimes – if committed by Muslims – punishable by death.

Naqi’s lawyer said the amendment should not affect his client however. “The new law does not affect this case because it happened in the past,” his lawyer, Khaled Al-Shatti, told Reuters. “The new law will only take effect in the future,” he said. If Naqi is found guilty of endangering state security the maximum penalty he could face would be 10 years in jail, Shatti added. Twitter is extremely popular in Kuwait. One million accounts were registered in the country of 3.6 million as of April, a two-fold rise in 12 months, according to Paris-based Semiocast, which compiles Twitter data. Read full article...

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December 28, 2011
Posted: 1032 GMT

A newly discovered 2000-year-old coin-sized clay seal is shedding light on one of the most significant periods of Jewish history, Israeli archaeologists announced Sunday.

The seal was found in an ongoing archaeological excavation taking place along Jerusalem’s Western Wall and carries an Aramaic inscription, which researchers say translated as “Pure for God.”

The find dates back from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D, the period in which the second of two Jewish temples was destroyed by the Romans during the course of a Jewish revolt.

In a statement, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which oversees archaeological excavations in the area, said it represented a first-of-its-kind discovery and constitutes “direct archaeological evidence of the activity on the Temple Mount and the workings of the Temple during the Second Temple period.”

Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich, who has spent four decades digging around the Old City of Jerusalem, said the seal revealed details about some of the administrative procedures used by temple officials to oversee religious offerings.

"If you wanted to give a drink offering to the temple you went and bought an impressed seal from one person, a priest obviously, and then gave him the money,” Reich explained. “You went to the other man and received against this coupon lets call it a drink offering. And then went to the temple to offer it.”

The excavation is taking place beneath the religious compound know as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The site is revered by both religions and previous archaeological activities in the area have sparked violent confrontations between Israeli and Palestinians.

At the press conference to announce the find, archaeologists were flanked by two government ministers from the right-wing Likud party who used the discovery to press Jewish claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

“The works of the digs are uncovering our roots,” said Education Minister Gideon Saar. “They could not be carried out if Israel was not the sovereign in control of Jerusalem and emphasized the work in this area.”

The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, where the excavation is located, and Palestinians consider the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.

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Filed under: Archaeology •General •Israel •Jerusalem •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion •Video

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August 1, 2011
Posted: 1446 GMT
This file image, taken October 13, 2007, shows Egyptians praying in Cairo's streets during the holy month of Ramadan.
This file image, taken October 13, 2007, shows Egyptians praying in Cairo's streets during the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world on Monday ushered in Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk abstinence from food and drinks.
But this year, the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has cast a pall over what is traditionally a period of comity and goodwill toward men.

Several countries in the region have been swept up in protests against longtime rulers since the January revolt that ousted Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In many cases, these demonstrations and movements have been met with brute force that has escalated into seemingly unending violence.

Most anti-government demonstrations have taken place after prayers, with the masses taking to the streets after meeting at mosques.

The month, which brings more Muslims to mosques, has some governments worrying that the gatherings will provide more opportunities for such protests - and demonstrators fearing that security forces will crack down forcefully to prevent them. Read more...

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July 13, 2011
Posted: 941 GMT
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May 20, 2011
Posted: 1128 GMT
A rabbi drinks a glass of fig alcohol at the 2010 pilgrimage to Derba, a Tunisian island
A rabbi drinks a glass of fig alcohol at the 2010 pilgrimage to Derba, a Tunisian island

By Joe Sterling, CNN

(CNN) – The political tension bubbling across Tunisia, Libya and the rest of North Africa has forced the cancellation of an annual Jewish pilgrimage to a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Roger Bismuth, a leader in the Tunisian Jewish community, said the community is concerned about the possibility of disruptions amid the ferment in Tunisia and the warfare in nearby Libya.

"We are scared people will take the opportunity to do something," said Bismuth, leader of a community that endured a deadly 2002 al Qaeda truck bombing in Djerba. "It's irresponsible to do it."

The annual pilgrimage is always held around the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, which comes this weekend, and it is centered on La Ghriba, a revered and iconic synagogue in the heart of the island. It was targeted in the 2002 attack, which killed 21 people, including German tourists.

According to legend, Jews came to Djerba after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 586 BCE, and the synagogue has foundation stones from that edifice.

read the rest of the story here on CNN's Belief Blog

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April 7, 2011
Posted: 806 GMT

"This is our happy-land," said Hamad Awidat standing next to a minefield in Majdal Shams, a village in the Israeli-controlled northern Golan Heights, as he points at the Syrian side of the disengagement line.

Nestled on a hillside with an Israeli Army base situated at its center this Druze village is a mere stone's throw away from Syrian-controlled land, but because of the minefields separating its residents from their families on the other side, it might as well be a world away.

"I would rather live under a Syrian dictatorship, than under an Israeli democracy," said the 26 year-old television producer who harbors no illusions about the economic benefits of living on what he calls the "wrong side of the minefield."

"Economically I can tell you the situation here is not perfect but very good. You can see, it's very good. We live in a nice situation. We are working, making money. It's nice. But because of the pressure of the political situation, we cannot enjoy much with our money. This is the problem," he said, taking another drag on his cigarette.

The political no man's land of people living in Majdal Shams and the villages of Buqata, Mas'ada and Ein Kuniya puts them in a unique situation in the Middle East, a region where the unusual, strange and sometimes downright bizarre meet on a daily basis.

The Druze are a secretive monotheistic religious sect that trace their origins to 11th Century Egypt. They number about a quarter of a million with most concentrated in Syria, Israel and Lebanon.

While many of the Druze living inside Israel today have Israeli nationality and are staunchly loyal to the Jewish State, their counterparts in the northern Golan rejected Israeli nationality in 1981 and have remained loyal to Syria until this day.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Israel •Religion •Syria

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