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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Famous Expatriates in Morocco

The city of Tangier in northern Morocco is just a stone’s throw from Europe.  The ferry from Tangier to Spain takes only 30 minutes.  This easy access has made Tangier a veritable expatriate melting pot.  Between 1923-1956, Tangier was an international zone, governed separately from the rest of Morocco by a loose coalition of foreign governments.  The cosmopolitan environment and laissez faire attitude attracted many libertine creatives from Europe and America.

Several prolific American writers have famously called Tangier home, including Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs.  French painters Eugene Delacroix and Henry Matisse also spent significant time there.  Bowles, in fact, spent the last 52 years of his life in Tangier, and wrote three novels set in Morocco.

delacroix Delacroix’s Fanatics at TangiermatisseMatisse’s Window at Tangier

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Yves Saint Laurent bought the beautiful Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech in 1966, and split the remainder of his life between the adjoining estate and another home in France.  John Paul Getty Jr. and his wife, Talitha hired design visionary, Bill Willis, to revive their run-down Marrakech palace .  Many famous friends came to visit, including the Rolling Stones, to record part of their album, Steel Wheels.

592038_525_380_w British journalist, Jonathan Dawson

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Talitha Getty in Marrakech
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The Getty’s home in MarrakechOB-UR197_mag101_J_20120920214953 Yves Sant Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens

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The Rolling Stones in Morocco in 1964

Morocco’s rich culture of craft and long history of acceptance has fostered a diverse expatriate community.  Countless artists, musicians, designers, and travelers have explored this special land, and many have decided to call it home.

Want to read more about interesting expats in Morocco?

Wall Street Journal – The Magician from Memphis

New York Times – The Last Casbah

Abdu Hafid

My friend, Phil Murphy, filmed this video of Abdu Hafid, the man who made svinj (Moroccan donuts) just outside of Phil’s house in the Fez Medina. Abdu Hafid explains that he recites verses from the Quran while making his svinj because he hopes to bestow blessings upon anyone who eats them.

Phil is getting his PhD in Ethnomusicology from UCSB, and spent a year in Fez on a Fulbright scholarship, learning Moroccan Arabic as well as traditional Moroccan music. He has a great blog as well, full of beautiful photography and music. Check it out: http://philinfez.tumblr.com/

Zellij

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This type of tile work is called “Zellij,” it is in the Moroccan style and is mainly found in Fez.  Zellij is comprised of interlocked shapes, with the number 5 being very prevalent (pentagons, 5 and 10 point stars, 5 colors).  The number 5 is a significant number in Islam, there are 5 pillars of faith, 5 prayer times each day, and the hamsa (the Arabic word for 5) is used as an amulet for protection from evil.

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 Properly executing zellij designs requires steadfast attention to detail and strict adherence to mathematical calculations.  Thanks to measures taken by the Moroccan government, this technique has been preserved, and many capable Moroccan artisans remain to perpetuate the craft.  In fact, Moroccan artisans, renowned for their skill, are often hired throughout the Middle East to undertake restoration projects.

Artisans from Fez were hired to recreate a traditional Moroccan court within the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when it remodeled its Islamic Art wing in 2011.  The result is an example of the highest level of Islamic craft possible today, created within the walls of a museum, and available for all to appreciate.

http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/isl/building-the-moroccan-court

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/arts/design/metropolitan-museums-moroccan-courtyard-takes-shape.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Mint Lemonade and Mint Tea

Mint, an herb long cultivated across the Middle East and North Africa, is renowned for its cooling and healing properties.  Its modern name came from an ancient Greek myth.  Persephone, the jealous wife of Pluto, transformed the object of her husband’s lust, the lovely young nymph, Minthe into a plant so all could trample her.  Unable to reverse the spell, Pluto instead gave Minthe a pleasant scent that intensified when she was tread on.  The name Minthe eventually evolved into Mint.  The versatile plant was used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans in aromatic baths, as a salve for sports injuries, and as an appetite stimulant.  In Rome, Pliny the Elder advised his students to wear wreaths of mint to sharpen their minds, and senators wore mint sprigs in the hope of enhancing their oratory skills and suppressing their tempers.  It has long been known to serve as a digestive aid, as an antiemetic, and as a cough suppressant.  It is refreshing when served cold and soothing when served warm.

Historically, mint is a symbol of hospitality.  The Greeks and Romans would rub mint on banquet tables to greet their guests,  and today, Moroccans are quick to offer a glass of mint tea as a gesture of friendship.

Both mint lemonade and mint tea are widely drunk throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  They are both easy to make, healthy (as long as you are much more conservative with the sugar than they are in the Middle East), and de-licious!

Moroccan Mint Tea:

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Mint Lemonade:

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