Evil eye talismans are very prevalent throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The evil eye is an envious or hateful look that is believed to cause harm on whomever meets its gaze. Certain people are thought to wield especially potent powers when it comes to inflicting the curse of the evil eye on others. This bad luck often stems from envy and the “overlooking” associated with a fixation on or the coveting of another person.
Belief in the evil eye is strongest in the Mediterranean region. Muslims often ward off the evil eye by answering any complements with “mashallah,” (God has willed it). In the Aegean region, where light-colored eyes are rare, those with green, and especially blue eyes, are thought to wield the power of the evil eye. This belief may have arisen after people from cultures not used to the evil eye unintentionally transgressed local customs by staring or offering praise. Thus, evil eye amulets in Greece and Turkey take the form of a blue eye. In Israel, observant Jews believe that the 10th commandment “thou shalt not covet” is a law against inflicting the evil eye on another person.
Apotropaic (protective) talismans have arisen in many cultures to ward off the evil eye. They take the form of hanging discs, or small beads, and are often found in cars, on doorways, and on people’s bodies.
The term “Bedouin” literally means “those in the desert,” which is an entirely apt appellation for a group of desert nomads. Throughout history, the Bedouins have herded sheep and camel through the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen), Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. They earned income by transporting goods and people across the desert. Surviving and thriving in such a hostile desert environment engendered a strong kinship network and a profuse sense of hospitality. Any stranger encountered in the desert could be assured meals and a place to sleep for as long as they needed; survival was a team effort.
Bedouins traditionally lived in desert tents, made from hand-woven carpets. These tents were dismantled and transported at each rest stop along the route. Nowadays, it is harder for Bedouins to maintain their traditional lifestyles. Many find themselves working in the tourism industry, taking visitors on camel rides through the desert, and offering them a meal and a night’s rest in a traditional tent. I did this in the Sahara in Morocco and in Wadi Rum in Jordan. It’s wonderful and conflicting and sad. I love feeling like Nicole of Arabia, traipsing through the desert sands, but I hate seeing these people with such a rich culture scraping a living by serving me. I suppose that’s the duality you grapple with when you travel. The Bedouins are a truly kind and welcoming people, though, and it’s worth a trip to the Middle East just to meet them.
The streets of the Middle East and North Africa are abound with stalls selling fresh juice of all sorts. You can stop for a moment, pay a few cents, and enjoy a glass of fresh-pressed-just-about-anything. There is something a little extra regal about pomegranate juice, though, and whenever I see it available, I always stop for a glass.
The pomegranate, which originated in Persia, is now abundant throughout the Middle East. It is a nutrient dense, and antioxidant-rich fruit, which carries much symbolism in Egyptian, Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures. Throughout history, it has symbolized prosperity, ambition, abundance, fertility, resurrection, and good luck. It is often offered as a wedding or a housewarming gift, and is featured prominently throughout art history.
Did you know that you can ski in the Middle East? You may have heard of Ski Dubai, an artificial ski resort inside the Mall of Emirates. However, in Lebanon, you can find the real deal. Lebanon is a mountainous country, with peaks reaching over 10,000 feet. Often called “The Switzerland of the Middle East,” Lebanon has 6 different ski resorts on the Mount Lebanon range.
Skiing was introduced to Lebanon in 1913 by a Lebanese engineer who had studied abroad in Switzerland. The French Army established the country’s first ski school in 1935, and the sport continued to develop, with cross country skiing gaining popularity in the 1990s.
Lebanon has much to offer in terms of natural beauty, and due to its small size, traveling between sites is relatively easy. It is possible to ski amongst the country’s famous cedars in the morning, and then take a swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. Lebanon is a country that truly has something for everyone.
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.
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.
Olive oil soap, made from olive oil and lye, is a Middle Eastern handicraft that dates back over a thousand years. It is traditionally made in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan) from 100% natural materials. Essential oils and traditional herbs are often added to remedy skin ailments such as dandruff, rosacea, eczema, and acme, as well as to heal wounds and sooth insect bites. Olive oil has long been known to serve as a deep moisturizer, regenerating and softening skin cells. Olive oil soap can be found today in suqqs and in apothecary shops, and is still commonly made at home.
Check out Canaan Fair Trade to find out more info on olive oil soap, as well as other goods produced in Palestine.
Buy olive oil soap and support local artisans here.
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!
The Middle East and North Africa have some of the world’s most well-preserved Roman ruins. From Volubilis in Morocco to Jerash in Jordan to Palmyra in Syria to my personal favorite site, Baalbek in Lebanon. The Roman Empire encircled the Mediterranean Sea, borrowing influences from each outpost to form a singular “Mediterranean” culture, which is still evident today. Rome imported wild animals (for the gladiator games) and grain from its MENA cities while introducing innovations such as aqueducts, roads, and arches.
The temples at Baalbek are dedicated to Jupiter, Aphrodite, and Bacchus, and are some of the largest and most artistic Roman temples ever built. They represent the wealth and creative output of the Roman Empire at its apogee.