10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Middle East and North Africa

1. In 1777, Morocco was the first nation to recognize the newly formed United States.  At the beginning of the American Revolution, American merchant ships were subject to pirate attacks along the Barbary Coast.  After seeking and failing to receive protection from European powers, Morocco’s Sultan Mohammed III extended American ships protection from the sultanate, thus ensuring their safe passage. Relations were formalized in 1786 with the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship, which was signed by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.   The Treaty of Friendship remains to this day the longest standing foreign relations treaty in American history.

2. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia account for 77% of Europe’s total lingerie exports.  Saudi Arabia alone accounted for $1 billion in revenue from lingerie sales in 2010, and Syria is known for having the region’s most elaborate underthings.

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3. Sometimes it snows!

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Free Syrian Army fighters play with snow in Raqqa

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A foreign tourist, with the Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque, known as the Blue mosque in the background, takes souvenir photos as she strolls in snow-covered Sultanahmet square in Istanbul

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Dubai was a sleepy pearling town until oil was discovered in 1966.  It did not have electricity or phone lines until 1961, and in 1970, illiteracy rates in the UAE were above 70%.

5. The world’s largest fossil water aquifer system lies beneath the four African countries Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan.  Fossil water is groundwater that has been trapped in underground aquifers for thousands or even millions of years.  It is a non-renewable source, but if used prudently, could allow Libya to become Europe’s bread basket- the next San Joaquin Valley.  California ‘s San Joaquin Valley is essentially desert but because of irrigation and water works projects it has become the largest producer of food and cotton in the world.  It contributes significantly to California’s economy- the eighth largest in the world.

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6. Napoleon Bonaparte lead a military campaign in Egypt from 1798-1799, ostensibly to disrupt England’s trade route to India and to establish scientific enterprise in the region.  He brought 167 scholars as part of his invading force, who worked prodigiously to study Egyptian culture and to propagate the principles of Enlightenment.  He also introduced the printing press, which had an immense modernizing impact on the region.  Furthermore, the campaign illustrated how vastly superior the Western powers had come to be over the Arab World, a realization that fomented profound social changes.

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Bonaparte at the Sphinx by Gerome, 1868

7. The Golan Heights is home to numerous nature reserves, waterfalls, about 12 wineries, and an abundance of delicious apples.

8. There are 18 official religions in Lebanon; four Muslim sects, 12 Christian sects, the Druze, and Judaism.  Lebanon operates on a confessionalist system, where seats in the government and legislature are apportioned according to religious sect.

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9. Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, the Bahraini ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2013, was the first Jewish ambassador from any Arab Middle Eastern country.  She was the third woman to be appointed ambassador of Bahrain, and the first female Bahraini ambassador to the US.

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10. Rather than spending the $40,000 it would take to bring in real zebras through smuggling tunnels, the owner of the Gaza Zoo decided to paint two donkeys to resemble zebras.  After an Israeli offensive in 2009, only ten out of 400 animals remained at the zoo, which served as an important escape to the stress of daily life in Gaza.  The children didn’t know the difference and were happy to see something new, the zoo said.

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Phoenician Legacy

The Phoenicians occupied modern day Lebanon from about 1550 BC to 300 BC.  They were a trading and seafaring people who left an incredible legacy throughout the Mediterranean basin that persists to this day.

Their greatest contribution to humanity was undoubtedly their alphabet.  The Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to widely implement a phonetic alphabet, which in turn, extended literacy beyond a narrow caste of priests.  It lead to a more democratic and flatter social structure throughout the Mediterranean.  This democratization of knowledge in turn inspired the renowned Greek constitutional government and fomented a spectacular leap in literacy and literary production.  The oral traditions of Greek mythology began to be transcribed onto Egyptian papyrus, which had an enormous influence on later cultures, namely the Etruscans and Romans.  The Phoenicians were in fact the first shipping pioneers to explore beyond the Strait of Gibralter.  Their commercial network spanned the Mediterranean, where they colonized many outposts, including Carthage.

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In Carthage, they spoke Punic, a variety of Phoenician language, and became the Roman Empire’s main rival.  Rome and Carthage would fight three major battles, known as the Punic Wars, which would eventually determine the course of Western civilization.  Hannibal, a Carthaginan commander, lead a successful attack on Rome by crossing the Alps on war elephants.  Rome eventually vanquished Carthage and subsumed its territory.

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The Phoenician influence persisted, both through the Roman Empire, and through successive Middle Eastern civilizations.  Hebrew and Arabic languages both stem from Phoenician, and Lebanon has inherited Phoenicia’s rich literary tradition.  Lebanon, in fact, boasts some of the highest education rates in the region, many of its citizens are trilingual, and Beirut has long been a regional book publishing capital.

It is interesting to me how highly valued Greek and Roman cultural output is, while the  underlying Phoenician influence is little known.  Without the innovative Phoenician alphabet, we might not have Greek and Roman mythology in the canon of Western literature.

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