Catlantic Travel: Minneapolis, Minnesota to Athens, Greece

Due to an unexpected change in our family life we had to move our cats, Zeeko and Misha, from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Greece where we spend a good deal of time. Since we became a family, most of our feline companions had to adapt to a mobile lifestyle, except for Zeeko and Misha who had only known Minnesota as a home. Suddenly we were faced with the daunting task of taking them on a transatlantic trip that included a transit stop before reaching the final destination. In the past, traveling with pets was relatively easy and all that was required was a vaccination book and a certification by the destination country. As the years went by, the regulations became increasingly demanding with the introduction of microchips, additional vaccines, blood tests etc. However, the post COVID era is a different ballgame. Flying with our cats from Minneapolis to Athens via Amsterdam required weeks of preparation and paperwork that involved the veterinarian, the US Department of Agriculture, [Read more...]

Cluster Bombs: More Dangerous to Civilians Than Combatants

President Joe Biden’s decision to supply Ukraine with cluster bombs is a difficult pill to swallow considering that over 100 countries have banned the weapon from their arsenal. Cluster bombs were first designed during WWII to disrupted troop movement. One parent ordnance dropped from a plane can release hundreds of smaller bombs that in turn detonate as they land killing and maiming troops on the ground. The biggest problem with cluster bombs is that many do not detonate posing a danger for many years to the civilian population. My experience with cluster bombs goes back to 2006 when Hezbollah fought a one-month war with Israel. For months after the conflict ended, I had numerous assignments in south Lebanon to cover the work of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to disarm and dispose of the unexploded munitions. Hezbollah may have been blamed for starting the conflict, but it was Israel that upped the ante by attacking civilian targets and infrastructure and dropping cluster bombs [Read more...]

Jezzine to Marjayoun: 4-Day Trek along the Lebanon Mountain Trail

Day 1: Jezzine to Aitanit For the past few years, we have been meaning to hike the southern portion of the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) in spring, but life always got in the way. Finally, this year, for Norbert’s 65th birthday, we decided to put life on pause and make this a priority. The four-day trek, amounting to approximately 77 km (48 miles) starts in Jezzine in the Chouf Mountains and ends in the southern town of Marjayoun. The trip was led by one of Lebanon’s finest guides, Jorge Abi Saad of Libantrek. After the taxi dropped us off in Jezzine, we started the steep climb up the Chouf mountains to 1900 meters (6235 ft). As we made our way up to the top, we walked through fields of grass and wild flowers along a gurgling stream, and crossed pine groves until we reached a rocky landscape which stood in stark contrast with the greenery below. Somewhere along the way, a handsome and well-mannered white Labrador joined us on our journey. The dog had a collar but no [Read more...]

El Gouna: Style, Beauty and a State of Mind

In its budding years el Gouna was a low-key resort town, flanked by the Red Sea’s azure waters and its jagged mountains, that trailed behind glitzier destinations in Egypt such as Sharm el Sheikh, favored by foreign tourists, and the country’s northern coast mostly frequented by locals. Yet, in its three decades of existence el Gouna has steadily climbed up the ranks earning an unrivaled reputation as a classy international resort as well as a home to thousands of residents who have relocated here seeking an alternative lifestyle. Despite its fast-paced growth and increasing popularity, el Gouna still maintains its raw beauty accentuated by the powerful winds that blow here the greater part of the year. From a tight-knit seaside community, 20 km (12.5 miles) north of the port city of Hurghada, with a handful of hotels, one marina, and a spatter of residential compounds, el Gouna has grown to a sizeable town with a distinct identity shaped by the vision of its founder Egyptian [Read more...]

Lebanon’s Last Surviving Train Driver Passes Away at Age 93

Assad Namrud, Lebanon’s last living train driver, passed away on November 18. We were fortunate to interview him in June and record his memories of an era of Lebanon’s history that couldn’t be further from the country’s present state. When we arrived at Namrud’s modest home in the town of Rayyak, once a hub on the rail line connecting Beirut and Damascus, we weren’t sure if the 93-year-old was fit to receive us. As he sat at his kitchen table nibbling on some food and sipping on a glass of 7 Up, Namrud looked frail, haggard, and confused. Still, we decided to go ahead with the interview as his first-hand account of his travels along the Beirut-Damascus railway as a driver was essential to the article that we were working on for AramcoWorld. As we were setting up the camera, Namrud shuffled into the living room where the book Lebanon on Rails featuring a cover photo of a much younger Assad, was prominently displayed. The same picture hung on the wall in a frame where he had [Read more...]

The 30 Year Anniversary of Iraq’s Civil War

This April marks the 30th anniversary of the Iraqi civil war which broke out following the liberation of Kuwait by allied coalition forces on 28 February 1991. After the war in Iraq had ended and Kuwait liberated I was one of the first journalist to return to Iraq and I found a country embroiled in a civil war. In the south, the Iraqi armed forces were fighting against Shi'ite Moslem insurgents, and in the north, they were at war with Kurdish separatist. The leadership was eager to show the outside world that they were in control of the entire country. Nearly every day, the ministry of information would take the international press on government-sponsored trips to either of the two hotspots to show that the fighting only amounted to minor skirmishes. In all the towns and cities that we visited, Iraqi soldiers looked to be in control, but it was obvious that significant fighting had taken place. The centers of Karbala and Najaf, the two holy Shi’te Moslem shrines, had been so shot [Read more...]

Egyptian Feminist Nawal el Saadawi 1931 – 2021

Egyptian feminist, author, psychiatrist, and university lecturer Nawal el Saadawi died earlier today, 21 March, at the age of 89. Saadawi came to prominence in 1972 after she published her book "Women and Sex" which caused an uproar among Egypt's conservative religious and political circles. She also advocated against female genital mutilation which she described based on personal experience in "The Hidden Face of Eve." Saadawi's writings and controversial role in Egypt made her the face of the Arab feminist movement in the West, where she often appeared on the front page of magazines and on TV programs. At home, however, she was considered a persona non grata by both the government and religious extremists. Saadawi was jailed during President Anwar Sadat's crackdown against the opposition, including intellectuals, and received death threats from al Gamaa al Islamiya who declared her an apostate. During the 1990s and early 2000s, I photographed Saadawi at her home a number of [Read more...]

Mezcal: The Spirit of Oaxaca

Mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, originates from the Mexican state of Oaxaca which is also known for its exquisite cuisine, ancient sites, and tradition of arts and crafts. Mezcal, which means “oven-cooked agave,” can be made from over 30 species of agave cactus. However, the most popular is espadin, which is grown in Oaxaca and is the source of 90 percent of mezcal. The agave plant can live up to 30 years, but it is usually harvested when it is between 7 and 8 years. At the time of harvest, the center fruit or piña can weigh anywhere from 100 to 230 lb (45 to 105 kg). Pulque , a fermented alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, had been drunk for centuries by indigenous people living in present-day Mexico.  When the Spanish conquistadors invaded in the 16th century, they distilled the pulque drink producing what became known as mezcal.  Although tequila is widely considered to be Mexico’s national drink, it is mezcal that was produced first. The [Read more...]

The Pope’s Pilgrimage to Ur in Iraq Finally Accomplished

Today Pope Francis is visiting Ur, in Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the end of 1998, Francis’ predecessor John Paul II was also planning to visit Iraq to draw attention to the Iraqi people’s suffering under crippling United Nations sanctions. Besides giving solace to the people he also wanted to make a pilgrimage to Ur but his timing could not have come at a worse time. As a prelude to the pope’s visit, I accompanied some members of the press who were in the country at the time and traveled to Ur to illustrate a feature story about the holy site. From the top of the Ziggurat of Ur, looking out over the empty desert, we could see U.S. war planes, which were enforcing a no-fly zone over the north and south of the country, bomb non-descript targets in the distance. The scene was surreal. In the end, it was deemed too dangerous for the Pope to make the journey to Iraq. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq there were approximately [Read more...]

Massacre at Saint Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia

Reports are just emerging of a horrific massacre of hundreds of civilians in Ethiopia’s holiest church, almost three months after the deadly attacks. The deacon of the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, believed to house the ancient Ark of the Covenant after it disappeared from Jerusalem, and other witnesses described a horror scene of bodies littering the streets and hyenas feeding on the dead. The killings are blamed on the Eritrean military, arch enemy of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which has been locked in armed conflict with the Ethiopian government since November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power in 2018 ending three decades of Tigrayan dominance over Ethiopian politics. Additionally, he signed a peace treaty with Eritrea which won him a Nobel Peace Prize. However, his push to impose the central government’s control over the Tigrayan areas in the north sparked tensions which eventually led to conflict. It didn’t take long for [Read more...]