Monday, November 25, 2013

ABC and an American in 'Arabs Got Talent'

The control room of "Good Morning America," ABC News' morning show.

It's been awhile!

Since my triumphant return to America, I moved to New York and started a job at ABC News. I work on the news division's assignment desk and foreign desk, where I monitor and report on breaking news, help move correspondents and producers in the field, and head out on shoots in the New York area.

I've also written a bunch for, ranging from small local stories in the United States to live blogging turmoil in Egypt. Sillier highlights include "Tales of fried chicken in the Middle East" and "Exploding toilet wounds man," two masterpieces of mine, I might add ("Toilet bowls are supposed to flush, not explode").

I wanted to share a fun article I just wrote about an American singer from Massachusetts, Jennifer Grout, who's soared to the finals of the Arab world's version of the TV talent competition "Arabs Got Talent" -- despite understanding hardly any Arabic. Grout, 23, sings absolutely beautifully, and she's wowed viewers across the Middle East and North Africa by showing she's willing to cover some of the most technically challenging and popular songs in the region.

Please check out my story, and enjoy!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Carmen's passing

It's been three weeks since Carmen Weinstein passed away in Cairo, but I wanted to add a few thoughts to the outpouring of articles in the wake of her death.

Carmen led the Jewish community of Cairo for much of the last decade, after taking over from her mother, the first female leader of the Cairene Jews. She fought to keep Egyptian Jewish artifacts in Egypt, arguing they were part of Egypt's heritage and could not be shipped abroad like Egyptian Jewish diaspora groups desired. She had a tough exterior and could be difficult to work with, which I'm sure is a byproduct of years of taking on both the Egyptian government and those diaspora groups, as well as dealing with widespread anti-Semitism in Egypt.

I spoke with Carmen during the many celebrations and services I attended with the Cairo Jewish community, from a Passover seder in 2010 to a Chanukah dinner in December. I believe I was the last reporter to interview her, when she told me just five months before her death that she had no clear successor. She was 82 years old when she passed away, and Cairo's Jewish community consists almost entirely of elderly Jewish women—about 50 in total, Carmen told me in December.

But one woman has stepped up: Magda Haroun, who sometimes attended community celebrations with her sister Nadia, both around 60 years old (I think). Maggie has been quite outspoken so far—even before Carmen's passing, around the beginning of this year, Maggie appeared on a panel on an Egyptian TV talk show (Arabic) to discuss Egyptian Jewry—but has mirrored Carmen's convictions. “My goal is to preserve the cultural heritage of the Egyptian Jews so that when we are gone, it will endure, because it belongs to all Egyptians,” Maggie told the Daily News Egypt, an English-language Egyptian paper. She has said that the community may actually be much smaller, an assessment that I think is probably accurate.

Carmen fought for years to prevent Cairo's Jewish cemetery from falling to ruins and squatters, and photos from her funeral show the difficulty of that battle. She was buried surrounded by squalor; my good friend Robin attended the ceremony, took photos and wrote about it on her blog. The funeral was a media circus, which is ironic since Carmen hated journalists.

When Carmen died on the early morning of Saturday, April 13, a friend of mine in Egypt got a call to help perform burial customs. A Jewish expat in Cairo with no experience caring for dead bodies, he relied on a manual he found online that was published in Brooklyn by a "chevre kadisha," or "holy society" that watches over and cares for the bodies of deceased Jews. With no Cairene Jews left to perform the rites, he spent hours at the Italian Hospital in Cairo washing, purifying and dressing the body. Despite the Jewish custom of burying the body quickly, the burial took place five days later, as foreign guests flew in and Carmen's successor was chosen. As always, the community's resourcefulness carried it through another major event, just as Carmen had presided over celebrations and services through a popular uprising and constant civil unrest.

For more, I highly recommend this piece (link goes to Google results because of Wall Street Journal paywall) by Lucette Lagnado, the author of an excellent memoir about her family's expulsion from Cairo, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Children held hostage in Sinai

During my last few weeks in Egypt, I tried to learn more about how Eritreans fleeing oppressive conditions at home end up held hostage in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, routinely beaten and raped until their families pay tens of thousands of dollars for their release. I wrote about the topic for The Atlantic back in November.

Members of the region's Rashaida tribe generally kidnap the Eritreans after they flee to Sudan or Ethiopia, handing them off to Bedouin in Egypt who keep them chained up while physically and sexually assaulting them. The abuse often takes place as the Bedouin force the Eritreans to call their relatives back in Eritrea or across the world and beg them to pay their ransoms – up to $50,000 per person. Hundreds are probably being held hostage in the Sinai, according to activists.

In January, I sat at an outdoor café in Cairo with four Eritrean children who had been kept captive for a month and a half in Sinai last year. I interviewed them for a story about how the Bedouin received money from the United States and Europe via Western Union and MoneyGram payments; unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish the article, so I wanted to share the children's story here.

The kids had lived with their grandmother in the Eritrean town of Shambuko, after their father, Bieday, moved to Norway. With the hope of smuggling the kids to him in Europe, Bieday paid someone to bring the four kids, who in January ranged in age from 11 to 14, out of Eritrea. But when they reached Sudan, the smuggler handed them over to Rashaida tribesmen.

They spent a month in the Sudanese desert before the Rashaida took them up to Sinai – 19 people locked in one truck for the two-week journey. Once they reached their destination in Sinai, a garage, the Bedouin tied them up with wires and chains. "We were very scared because they hit and beat us," Mirhawi, 14, said.

The girls said they did not suffer any sexual harassment, although sexual abuse is common for Eritrean hostages – both men and women. Still, the physical and mental abuse was constant, including beatings, according to the Eritrean man who was caring for them in Cairo. "We were held captive all the time – we couldn’t go outside," Fiyori, 13, said. "They tied cloth blindfolds on us, and we couldn’t see who was around us," added Tesvamkay, 14. "They tied us up with chains. They hung the people with us from the ceiling."

Finally, Bieday, the father, collected the $50,000 the kidnappers demanded for the children, and a taxi whisked them away to Cairo. The Norwegian press covered his ordeal. Check out this Norwegian report (in English via Google Translate) and this Facebook page for photos and video of the kids and the father.

In January, the children waited in Cairo, where they had been living for five months. They spent their days sitting at home, watching Arabic, Turkish and English television they hardly understood as the Norwegian embassy sorted out their cases.

"We only think about going to our father," Hiyab, 11, said. "We just think about this – nothing else." His older sister Mirhawi added: “We’re going to forget Sinai, and we’ll only be happy.”

Egyptian security forces have done little, if anything, to stop this flow of traffickers; police and military have been accused of complicity in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. With no country to advocate for them – rights groups say the Eritrean government is one of the most oppressive in the world – the Eritreans feel all alone.

A recent Wall Street Journal article looked into this transnational flow of people and money, and it's definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The fountains of Iraq

A Kurdish man sells Muslim prayer beads.

Over a year and a half after heading off to Cairo, I moved back to the U.S. last month to search for a job in journalism here. It's been great seeing family and friends and eating Mexican food.

Before I left the Middle East, I made a quick trip to northern Iraq, home to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.

The Kurdish people reside in a landlocked region at the intersection of the border of four countries: Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Turkey is home to the largest concentration of Kurds, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Arabs, Turks and Persians who hold power in those countries. But three northern provinces in Iraq represent the Kurds' most tangible success to date in achieving their dream of a state of their own.

Iraqi Kurdistan has its own security force, social services and visa process. It also sits on billions of barrels of oil, which has been fueling the region's economic prosperity for the past five or six years. Fancy SUVs cruise past luxury hotels, malls and cookie-cutter developments with names like Italian City and the American Village. I stayed in Italy during my visit, and like parts of Rome, it smelled of sewage thanks to some very slipshod construction.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Kurdistan has avoided the sectarian violence that has racked the rest of Iraq. No need for a security detail in downtown Erbil, the regional capital; I felt at ease sipping pomegranate juice by the city's beautiful bazaar and outdoor fountains (in Iraq!).

Erbil's city center

Iraqi Kurds generally love Americans and the men who took on and toppled Saddam Hussein: George Bush and his son W. After decades of oppression, including Saddam's genocidal campaign in the late 1980s that used chemical weapons, air raids and other means to destroy thousands of villages and kill up to 180,000 Kurds, they welcomed the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

Occasionally, I came across American flags on display, and they weren't on fire! Like at this authentic burger joint:

Just like home.

While the Iraqi flag often flutters alongside its Kurdish counterpart, animosity toward the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad runs high. Kurdish leaders say they want to remain part of Iraq, but ask anyone and they'll quickly express a yearning for a Kurdish state in "Greater Kurdistan," encompassing Kurdish-majority areas across the region.

At the heart of the current fight is oil – what's new? – and the Kurds' use of their natural resources in a tension-filled dispute with Baghdad over revenue, contracts and ultimately, additional autonomy. I filed a nice, colorful story (with photos!) for EnergyWire from a gas field called Khor Mor, giving Zaatari, Jordan, a run for its money for my coolest dateline ever.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also struggling to deal with an influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees as Iraqi Kurdish leaders vie for influence across the Syrian border. I wrote about that geopolitical trend for the International Herald Tribune.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Jews of Egypt

Since I began living in Egypt -- and once before -- I've been attending services and celebrations with the Jewish community of Cairo. The tiny group consists almost entirely of elderly women, and it is slowly dying out.

From Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah to Sukkot, Purim, and Chanukah, I've gotten to know some of the remaining Egyptian Jews and the diplomats, study-abroad students, and others who help strengthen the community's numbers. It's been a fascinating experience.

I wrote an article for Foreign Policy about how Egyptian Jews have been faring since last year's uprising. Please check it out here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Refugees and protests in Jordan

Syrian girls study in a school in Irbid, Jordan.

Egypt's had an eventful few weeks, and so have I. Bored by the lack of newsworthy action here about a month ago and spurred by news of protests and Syrian refugees in Jordan, I booked a ticket there to file some stories from the Hashemite Kingdom. I also traveled to Lebanon for a weeklong vacation I had wanted to take for a while.

Of course, after a few days in Jordan, Egypt exploded politically when President Mohamed Morsi widely expanded his powers with a constitutional decree. Clashes, protests, a constitutional referendum, and more broke the relative silence that had settled over Egypt in previous weeks.

Back in Jordan, the government faced some of the most intense popular protests in the kingdom's history, with citizens pouring into the streets to rally against a surprise announcement of cuts to some fuel and gas subsidies. I wrote about the protests for The National and The Egypt Independent.

My main impetus for traveling to Jordan, though, was to cover the massive influx of Syrian refugees who have crossed into Jordan in recent months. About 146,000 Syrians have registered as refugees or are awaiting appointments with the UN's refugee agency in Jordan, and the government says over 100,000 more undocumented Syrian refugees are spread throughout the country. Many live in squalor.

I wrote a story for Al-Monitor about how Jordan is feeling the crush of these refugees on its infrastructure and the public school system in particular, and I filed a piece for The National about how aid groups are rushing to prepare refugees for the winter cold. Since I returned to Egypt, I wrote a follow-up story for Syria Deeply, a great, new website, with more about how Syrian children are adjusting to schools in Jordan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Torture in the Sinai

I spent a good chunk of the last week or two working on a piece on human trafficking in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Bedouin have been holding sub-Saharan Africans hostage there for a number of years, not to mention trafficking weapons, ammunition, and other goods, but the subject has been receiving more media attention of late.

The hostages, primarily Eritrean, have told activists and refugee-aid workers that their kidnappers subject them to electrocution, burning with molten plastic, beatings, and rape.  Ransoms can reach $50,000.

Check out my story here.