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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Princesses of Arabia

If you saw these women in a different context, you might assume they were glamorous 1950s Hollywood starlets.  Bedecked in fine, western-style garments and jewels, with their hair carefully styled (and uncovered), they are stunning.  They are all princesses of the Middle East.  Some, the last of an era, stood witness as history shifted, and monarchies and empires crumbled around them.

This is Princess Fawzia of Egypt.  She was born on November 5, 1920 to King Fuad of Egypt and Sudan.  Her family’s monarchy was overthrown during the Egyptian Revolution in 1952.  By this time, she had already been married to and divorced from Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran.  It was an unhappy union, and she eventually returned to Egypt, where she remarried.  In a later interview, she remarked “Twice in my life, I lost the crown. Once I was the queen of Iran, and once I was the princess here.” She smiled. “It’s all gone now. It doesn’t matter.”  Fawzia, once named “one of the world’s most beautiful women,” lived out her later years in Alexandria, Egypt, where she ultimately died on July 2, 2013.

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Princess Niloufer was one of the last princesses of the Ottoman Empire. Born on January 4, 1916 in Göztepe Palace in Istanbul, Princess Niloufer’s early life was marked by war and exile. At the end of WWI, the Ottomans were deposed, and eventually, in 1924, were forced into exile in France. At the age of 16, she was married to Moazzim Jah of Hyderabad, where she spent the next 21 years of her life. She was deeply involved in charity work, and spent much of her time building a medical facility in Hyderabad and incentivizing foreign doctors to relocate there. She was named one of the world’s ten most beautiful women and was considered a champion for women’s advancement. After remaining childless throughout her marriage, Princess Niloufer and Moazzim Jah divorced. She returned to France, where she eventually married a British diplomat, and died in Paris on June 12, 1989 at the age of 73.

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Princess Hanzadeh (born an Ottoman Princess) and her daughter, Princess Sabiha Fazila of Egypt

Of course, there are also the modern day princesses of Arabia. The most iconic being Jordan’s Queen Rania. The Palestinian beauty has become a progressive female voice in the Arab world. Queen Rania is a powerful advocate for reform in education and public health, for the development of a sustainable tourism industry in Jordan, for youth empowerment, and is a champion for cross-cultural dialogue between the West and the Arab world.

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Queen Rania was named the world’s most beautiful first lady by Harpers and Queen magazine in 2011

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Sheikha Mozah of Qatar is also a glamorous and philanthropic Middle Eastern monarch. Sheikha Mozah pioneers ambitious initiatives directed at women, children, education, and human rights. She is a mother of 7, and is the chairperson for the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development.  She also works to stop the spread of extremism among youth, and was named one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women in 2007.

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As you can see, there has been a long history of strong and influential women in the Arab and Islamic World. These examples are of women who we might be able to relate to more, since they are beautiful, and dress in a western style (for the most part). They are impressive to me for that very reason – for their ability to be human bridges. Not only are they strong and influential at home, but they are/were admired worldwide as well. They open the door to a culture that might otherwise be inaccessible, and invite us to ponder our similarities.

Bedouin Hospitality

The Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the south, has some of the world’s best diving.  The Sinai is a fascinating place to visit for other reasons too.  It is the home to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the ten commandments, and beheld the burning bush, and to Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

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It is also stunningly beautiful, it’s landscape craggy and reddish, and covered in sand.  I guess that’s what happens when two continents come crashing together.  The Sinai has traditionally been inhabited by Bedouins, a nomadic people who live in portable tents in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  They are renowned for their generous hospitality, which I can personally attest to.

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I found myself slightly stranded on the Sinai last November while I was attempting to bus it (solo) from Cairo to Israel.  Due to several unforeseen challenges, I landed in Sharm al-Sheikh, the southern tip of the Sinai, at about 9 pm, only about halfway to Israel.  There I met a Spanish dive instructor, an Egyptian diver, and a Bedouin man who was offering to drive the three of us about 60 miles north to Dahab.  The Spanish woman promised me she had some Bedouin friends who owned a hostel on the beach, and she would take me there.  OK, I said, slightly annoyed that it would take me 2 full days to go 260 miles (ended up being 450 with previously mentioned unforeseen detours).  When I got to Dahab, the Bedouins were waiting for me with mint tea, conversation, cushions on the beach, and a HUGE plate of freshly caught fish.  When I woke up the next morning, I could not believe how beautiful the view was

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I left the next morning to continue my trek to Israel, severely regretting not having realized how amazing the Sinai was.  I really want to go back, it is basically at the top of my list.  I would love to dive in Ras Mohammed National Park, climb Mount Sinai, and see St. Catherine’s.  I would also just like to spend more time with the Bedouins, a group of people I find fascinating and warm and strong.  They certainly taught me a lesson in serendipity and kindness when I could not have been more annoyed:  slow down, enjoy the ride, and eat some fish on the beach with some nice, new people.

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The Israeli side of the Sinai, Eilat

And with this post, I am giving myself homework.  Two more posts: one on diving in Egypt, and one on Bedouins.  Due: this week.  Stay tuned.