Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind Hajj centerpiece
Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind Hajj centerpiece/node/2117306/middle-east
Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind Hajj centerpiece
An embroiderer sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran, Islam's holy book, onto a replica of the Kiswa, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah. (AFP)
CAIRO, Egypt: Under the steady hum of a ceiling fan, Ahmed Othman weaves golden threads through black fabric, creating Qur'anic verses, a century after his grandfather’s work adorned the Kaaba in Makkah’s Grand Mosque.
A ceremonial hanging of the kiswa, huge pieces of black silk embroidered with gold patterns, over the cubic structure that is the centerpiece of the Grand Mosque symbolizes the launch of the Hajj annual pilgrimage, which starts this week.
Othman’s family used to be honored with the task of producing the kiswa.
His family’s creations would be despatched in a camel caravan to Islam’s holiest site in western Saudi Arabia toward which Muslims across the world turn to pray.
Now, Othman keeps the tradition alive in a small workshop, tucked above the labyrinthine Khan Al-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo, where mass-produced souvenirs line the alleys.
The area is historically home to Egypt’s traditional handicrafts, but artisans face growing challenges.
Materials, mostly imported, have become expensive, particularly as Egypt faces economic woes and a devalued currency.
Plummeting purchasing power makes high quality hand-crafted goods inaccessible to the average Egyptian, while master craftspeople find it hard to hand down their skills as young people turn to more lucrative jobs.
This wouldn’t be the case “if there was good money in the craft,” Othman sighed, hunched over one of the many tapestries that fill his workshop.
Sheets of black and brown felt are covered in verses and prayers, delicately embroidered in silver and gold.
Every stitch echoes the “sacred ritual” Othman’s grandfather was entrusted with in 1924.
“For a whole year, 10 craftsmen” would work on the kiswa that covers the Kaaba which pilgrims circumambulate, using silver thread in a lengthy labor of love.
From the 13th century, Egyptian artisans made the giant cloth in sections, which authorities transported to Makkah with great ceremony.
Celebrations would mark the processions through cities, flanked by guards and clergymen as Egyptians sprinkled rosewater from balconies above.
Othman’s grandfather, Othman Abdelhamid, was the last to supervise a fully Egyptian-made kiswa in 1926.
From 1927, manufacturing began to move to Makkah in the nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which would fully take over production of the kiswa in 1962.
The family went on to embroider military regalia for Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
“In addition to our work with military rank embroideries, my father started embroidering Qur'anic verses on tapestries,” and then reproducing whole sections of the kiswa.
Clients began flooding in for “exact replicas of the kiswa, down to the last detail.”
Though today they offer small tableaus for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds (about $5), massive customised orders go for several thousand dollars, such as replicas of the Kaaba door, which Othman proudly claims are indistinguishable from the originals in Makkah.
But the family has not been immune to the economic turbulence that began with the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated small businesses and craftsmanship in Egypt.
Since early 2020, they have sold around “two pieces per month,” whereas before they would sell at least one tapestry a day.
Othman worries that a sense of “worldwide austerity” makes business unlikely to bounce back.
Today, there might only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he considers authentic, with many artisans leaving the craft for quicker cash flows.
“They can make 200 to 300 pounds a day,” ($10-$16) driving a tuktuk motorized rickshaw, or a minibus, Othman said. “They’re not going to sit on a loom breaking their backs all day.”
But still, a century and a half after his great grandfather left his native Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt, Othman says he has stayed loyal to techniques learnt as a child when he would duck out of school to watch his father work.
“It’s on us to uphold the craft the same way we learned it, so it’s authentic to the legacy we inherited,” he said.
EU expects quick decision on 25-page document after Vienna talks conclude
Updated 10 August 2022
JEDDAH: The final text of a proposed new nuclear deal with Iran has been sent to Washington and Tehran amid rising expectations that a revived agreement is imminent.
The EU said on Tuesday it expected a rapid response from the two capitals. “There is no more space for negotiations,” EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said. “We have a final text. So it’s the moment for a decision, yes or no. And we expect all participants to take this decision very quickly.”
Talks concluded in Vienna on Monday aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 agreement with world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Tehran. The original deal collapsed in 2018 when the US pulled out and reimposed sanctions.
Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia, as well as the US indirectly, resumed talks on the issue last week, after a months-long hiatus. The EU-coordinated negotiations began in April 2021 before coming to a standstill in March.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who coordinated the talks, said the text of a proposed new deal had been submitted to the countries involved for a political decision on whether to accept it. Iran said it was studying the 25-page document.
“What can be negotiated has been negotiated, and it’s now in a final text,” Borrell said. “However, behind every technical issue and every paragraph lies a political decision that needs to be taken in the capitals.”
Key challenges to a revived deal remain. European officials urged Iran to drop its “unrealistic demands” outside the scope of the original agreement, including those related to an International Atomic Energy Agency probe into undeclared nuclear material found in Iran.
Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani has flown back to Tehran for political consultations, but the final decision will be made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The US said the new draft was “the best and only basis on which to reach a deal.” The State Department said: “Our position is clear: We stand ready to quickly conclude a deal on the basis of the EU’s proposals.” Thedeal’s restoration was up to Iran, it said. “They repeatedly say they are prepared for a return to mutual implementation. Let’s see if their actions match their words.”
Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar al-Assad's government
Syria's economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency's value since 2019, prompted by neighbouring Lebanon's financial collapse
Updated 10 August 2022
DAMASCUS: Somar Hazim had high hopes when he opened a hotel in Damascus in 2009, adding to a growing number of boutique guest houses in the Old City that were proving to be a hit with tourists, before war broke out and forced him to close down.
Although security returned to Damascus years ago, big-spending foreign visitors have not, with Syria still fractured by war.
Hazim has no plans to reopen his Beit Rose Hotel, an 18th century house with rooms set around a picturesque courtyard, a decision that reflects the weakness of tourism and the wider economy of a country suffering from 11 years of conflict.
“The number of foreign tourists in Syria — as they were before 2011 ... are still few,” said Hazim, smoking a water pipe at a cafe he owns in another old Damascene house. But he sees a glimmer of hope: more Syrian expats are visiting.
At its peak in 2010, Syria attracted 10 million tourists, many of them Westerners. That all changed in 2011 with the onset of the war that has killed at least 350,000 people and uprooted half the population, forcing millions abroad as refugees.
Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar Assad’s government. They include Iraqis, Lebanese and Iranians on pilgrimage to sites revered by Shiite Muslims.
Visitor numbers rose to 750,000 in the first half of 2022 from 570,000 in the same period of 2021, Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini told Reuters, attributing the rise to the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
He expects visitor numbers this year to recover to levels last seen in 2018 and 2019.
“We have close to 100,000 Iraqis, and there are Lebanese and others from friendly states. But the biggest number are the expatriates,” he said, describing this as a boost to the economy because they spend amounts similar to foreign tourists.
Syria’s economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency’s value since 2019, prompted by neighboring Lebanon’s financial collapse.
Subsidies on essential goods have been gradually lifted, with prices of items such as fuel rising to unprecedented levels.
Although the currency’s collapse has boosted the purchasing power of expatriates visiting with wads of foreign currency, the gaps in some basic provisions has been frustrating.
Sami Alkodaimi, a Syrian expatriate who lives in Saudi Arabia, stayed away from the country from 2011 to 2019, during the peak of the country’s conflict.
In Syria this summer, Alkodaimi said he felt less hope during this visit, noting higher prices, fuel shortages, and poor electricity provision in the heat of summer.
“I came in my car from Riyadh. The gasoline issue is very annoying. We are trying to obtain it, but with difficulty,” he said.
How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight
Article in The Economist attributes obesity among Arab women to social conservatism restricting outdoor exercise
Saudi efforts show why such perceptions are outdated as women take charge of their health and lifestyles
Updated 2 min 40 sec ago
JEDDAH: Obesity rates worldwide have been steadily rising over the past half-century, reaching a point at which experts say many nations are way off schedule to meet the World Health Organization’s 2025 global nutrition targets.
Mindful of the pressures that high obesity rates place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries such as Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote fitness and challenge people to change their sedentary lifestyles.
According to a recent study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, equivalent to about 4.3 percent of the Kingdom’s total annual health expenditure.
Excess weight and obesity — defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health — is not only a concern in the Arab world. More than a billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means that they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or higher, and the number is rising.
According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent among women than men, with factors such as sociocultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15 percent of women and 11 percent of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26 percent of women classified as obese compared with 16 percent of men.
A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: Socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods are usually the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or shedding calories passively in the workplace.
The reality is, of course, more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated as women in the region increasingly enter the labor force, take charge of their diets, and seize new opportunities in the worlds of sports and fitness.
Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries, too, have experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization that have introduced many additional high-fat foods to the market alongside the preexisting unhealthy eating habits, including the traditionally carbohydrate-rich Arab diet.
Nations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia, have not been immune to such changes. Obesity levels have soared in recent decades owing to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity and keeping “fat in fashion” — a stereotype associated with Gulf countries on account of their affluence.
Globally, the perception of obesity varies widely. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines the support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and management measures.
Different ideals associated with weight and body shape can found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an attempt to appear what is deemed more socially popular and desirable.
A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes to excess weight. Many African and Polynesian, and some Arab, cultures associate overweight women with affluence, health, strength and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being fat is certainly no longer in fashion.
Sulafa Kurdi, a photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight almost all of her life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by signing up with a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and began her transformation.
“I was waiting for the right time to make the move and turn my life around,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but, with the support I received from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the difficult way.
“Within three months of signing up, I found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best as I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and feel sluggish at times. With the right support, I’ve managed to get back again and move, breaking my own records.”
• Obesity is closely linked to chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
• Excess weight and the associated health implications cost the Saudi health system $3.8bn in 2019.
Indeed, contrary to the assertions in The Economist’s article, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and setting off on a journey to improved their fitness. This has in turn motivated many to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes.
Studies have found that engagement in sports and physical activity has been lower among women than men. Now various government-led and private programs are providing women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.
This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and the incorrect notions about social conservatism preventing them from going outdoors both to exercise and to take part in organized sports.
Dubbed “Cleopatra Squash,” Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the England Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the UAE’s top padel players, has been making her mark on the court.
Halfway around the world, Saudi Arabia’s female national football team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.
Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh fell short in her first race in Tokyo 2020, she has set her sights on bringing home a medal from the next Games in Paris in 2024.
By all accounts, women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has been building community-driven programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives.
SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be incorporated easily into their daily routines such as walking, running, cycling and other activities. It says the number of female participants in community sports has increased dramatically.
“Since 2018, we’ve seen the numbers reflected across our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and female-driven initiatives to encourage them to go further.
“We provided a special course for ladies in our Spartan race, there was an area for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our Neighborhood Clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.
“SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main objectives of SFA is to enable them, provide them with access to facilities, motivate them and feel that they are part of the community.”
Underscoring the importance of community-based physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, a fitness trainer and the owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that having such programs is helping to build a strong fitness culture among women.
“There’s been a huge jump in the past five years and you can see more people engaged in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just a matter of gyms opening, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the lifestyle,” said Sawan.
“The region’s climate and unique environment restrict us from walking for miles, so we need to put in extra effort just to stay active all day. We utilize the space that we have and create programs fitting for the space, and using vast spaces such as malls and outdoor pathways designated for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public.
“Initiatives such as the ones launched by SFA where they cooperated with malls makes it so much easier for people to be active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run.”
That said, personal motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and changing perceptions among Arab women — and wider society — about their role, status and body autonomy no doubt has a part to play.
“I am a strong believer that your thoughts can really control your life,” said Sawan. “A positive mindset will always believe that there’s room for improvement, and look at challenges as a source of motivation to overcome, rather than challenges that would stop you from moving forward. Everything changes.”
Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
With almost half a million Facebook followers, Azad Mohamad posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens
Updated 09 August 2022
HALABJA: Kurdish Iraqi farmer Azad Mohamad has become a social media star by sharing tips on growing fresh fruit and vegetables in the sun-parched country that is highly vulnerable to climate change.
The moustachioed 50-year-old with almost half a million Facebook followers posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens.
“They should make you agriculture minister,” one of his fans, Ahmed Hassan, commented on a recent video.
Mohamad also uses his popular online platform to raise awareness about protecting the environment and the need to support local farmers, in his native Kurdistan region and beyond.
“Developed-country farmers have government support and harvesting machines,” said Mohamad.
“Our farmers do everything themselves with their own sweat — and when they lose money at the end of the year, they start over with the same passion and energy.”
He also has a message for authorities in Iraq, which the UN classifies as the world’s fifth most vulnerable country to climate change and where many are mired in poverty despite Iraq’s oil wealth.
“Our land is fertile, and our earth is like gold,” Mohamad said.
Therefore, he said, the government should “focus on agriculture rather than oil, for a sustainable economy.”
From his farm near Halabja, Mohamad squats among grape vines and other plants, wearing traditional Kurdish clothing as a friend uses a mobile phone to film him.
Many of his followers, he said, are not farmers but people who “have transformed their roof into gardens — and that’s a way to better preserve the environment.”
He invites his Facebook followers to post their questions, and says some farmers have sent him videos of their crops, thanking him for his help.
“That makes me very happy,” he said.
In one video, he advises farmers to space their trees out by just two meters instead of four to keep the soil shady and damp, protecting it from the scorching summer heat.
“With desertification, and low rainfall, we must change how we plant trees,” he said.
“Look at these tomatoes,” he added, gesturing at a group of plants. “Because they are in the shade, they are juicy and perfect — whereas these that are in the direct sun have been burned.”
Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been spared the worst effects of desertification, water scarcity and drought that have ravaged other parts of the country.
“The region has high rainfall precipitation compared to the rest of Iraq,” said a 2019 study involving UN agencies and the autonomous Kurdistan regional government.
But the report warned that “local agricultural production is in severe competition with foreign goods with largely lower prices” ... “mainly from Turkey and Iran, whose products have flooded Iraqi markets.”
It urged “more investments” to improve irrigation, along with water management to promote sustainability, to ensure the efficient use of resources and “mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Hamid Ismail Abdulrahman, a fellow farmer in Halabja, said low water levels in wells had impacted agricultural development.
Twice a week, the 47-year-old opens his farm to families who can buy “fresh and organic products,” from tomatoes to corn and eggplant.
He said climate change had greatly affected agriculture all over Iraq, though “southern Iraq has the lion’s share of this impact, while in the north the effect is less.”
With Iraq already witnessing record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, Mohamad warned that “if the government doesn’t act now and present a concrete plan ... the damage will be done.”
Mohamad has recently opened a small educational area on his farm, and now also receives visits from university students.
He says he hopes his initiatives will have a longer-term impact.
Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage
Updated 09 August 2022
ANKARA: A series of diplomatic wins, capped by the deal to resume Ukraine’s grain exports, provides some respite for President Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey’s economic strife and offers a blueprint of his campaign strategy for elections due next year.
As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage.
“Turkey is going through its strongest period politically, militarily and diplomatically,” he told a crowd of thousands of people in northwest Turkey at the weekend, a day after holding talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.
Progress internationally contrasts with a grim economic picture at home, with inflation soaring to 79 percent and the lira languishing near record lows it hit during the most recent currency crisis in December.
Opponents blame Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, including a series of interest rate cuts despite high inflation and the sacking of three central bank governors since 2019, that have left the country running large current account deficits and reliant on external financing to support the economy.
Erdogan said the fruits of the government’s economic policies — prioritising exports, production and investment — would become clearer in the first quarter of 2023.
In the meantime, government officials and senior members of his ruling AK Party portray the president as a statesman standing against electoral rivals who are nowhere near matching his international credentials.
“Whether you like him or not, Erdogan is a leader,” a senior Turkish official said, arguing that no other international figure had the same level of contact with top global players. “There is no leader in Turkey who can replace him.”
The accord to restart exports from Ukraine, cut off since Russia’s February invasion, could ease grain shortages which have left millions of people vulnerable to hunger and driven up global prices.
Brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, it came after Erdogan secured concessions from NATO over the accession of Nordic countries and initiated a rapprochement with rival powers in the Middle East.
Erdogan also won a pledge in June from US President Joe Biden that he would support the sale of F-16 fighters jets to Turkey, after Washington blocked Ankara from buying more advanced F-35 jets because of its purchase of Russian weaponry.
Erdogan faces parliamentary and presidential elections that must be held by June 2023.
A survey by pollster Metropoll last week found a slight rise in support for his AK Party to 33.8 percent, still comfortably the most for any single party. But he faces a loose alliance of opposition parties, and polls show him trailing opposition presidential candidates.
Topping voter concerns are the state of the economy, and the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, welcomed by Turkey at the start of Syria’s conflict but increasingly seen by Turks as competitors for jobs and services.
“The government is using foreign policy as material to cover up the economic disaster it has dragged the country into, telling tales of ‘diplomatic victory’ at home,” said Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP and senior adviser to its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Toprak said that even on the diplomatic front, Erdogan was making concessions that “damage the dignity of our country and drag it into weakness.”
“Voters are aware of the benefits of diplomacy. At times they will complain about the economy or refugees, but they will vote for Erdogan for the continuation of an effective Turkey,” an AK Party official said.