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Looking for Banksy in Bethlehem -- December 7, 2007

"This is him," the taxi driver proclaimed triumphantly, quickly flashing a photograph of a bespectacled European man who looked to be in his mid-forties. "I worked with him when he was here."

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The donkey theme is offensive to some.

"That's Banksy?" I asked incredulously. We had come to Bethlehem to do a story on the latest outbreak of wall art, including work by the British urban guerrilla artist who goes by the name of Banksy.

The eight-metre-high concrete wall Israel built around Bethlehem -- officially intended to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel -- has become the world's largest canvas. Palestinian and international artists have covered it with grafitti, art and slogans against Israel's forty-year occupation of the West Bank.

Among Banksy's contributions are a painting of a dove of peace, olive branch in its beak, wearing a bullet-proof vest. Another shows a little girl in a dress frisking a soldier.

On a house wall inside Bethlehem, Banksy painted a silhouette of a soldier checking a donkey's ID. An Irish resident of Bethlehem, whose home overlooks the soldier and the donkey, told me he thought it depicted a soldier reading to a donkey.

The donkey theme is offensive to some, however. One man looked disdainfully at the silhouette and told me, "Look, Israeli soldiers check our IDs all the time. So does that mean we are donkeys?" No, someone else replied. "Don't you see, it's not the donkey who's the real donkey in that painting."

We won't be able to know what Banksy himself intended. He has given only one interview in his career, and I couldn't find a photograph of him during his latest visit here a few weeks ago, or when he first came here in 2005. No Bethlehem resident I spoke to had seen Banksy -- working or relaxing -- when he was here -- with the exception of course of the taxi driver. Banksy, it was dawning on me, is an anomaly in this age in which fame, celebrity and media-hyped cult of personality are a package deal.

A British arts company has set up a temporary gallery in Bethlehem's Manger Square which goes by the name "Santa's Ghetto." There I met a variety of people who said they knew Banksy, but each had a different description. One, a beer-sipping British board game designer with white hair, said he knew Banksy, who he said is in his thirties. "Trash," a Palestinian artist from Bethlehem, told me he knew Banksy, who is in his fifties. A third guy, also from the UK, insisted he had met Banksy, who is in his twenties.

Someone else told me Banksy is an anti-capitalist idealist who doesn't care about money, and just wants a bit of change in his pocket to allow him to pursue his career as phantom artist.

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"Don't believe a word of it," someone who overheard this claim interjected. "The man is loaded."

And while a lot of these artist types seem a tad scruffy, look like they've been down and out for a while, appearances may be deceiving. Maybe it's because I spend my time in all the wrong places, but at Santa's Ghetto I discovered that art does not come cheap.

"I want this piece for $30,000," I overheard the beer-sipping British board game designer say nonchalantly, pointing to a dark, chaotic painting of a half-human, half-beast with dollar signs all over it.

Thirty-thousand dollars, I was told, is nothing. Some of the artwork was worth more than a hundred thousand dollars, and more.

The money from the sale of art at Santa's Ghetto does go to a good cause. All of it, I was told, will be given to children's projects in Bethlehem.

I thought of buying something, so I asked the man running the show, who would only give his name as Tristan, if prints were on sale. He said they were available on their Web site, which he showed me. They started at $400 a piece. Never mind, I told myself. Art collecting is not in my future. I'll wait until they come out as $10 posters.

You can watch my report here Video.

-- From CNN Senior Correspondent Ben Wedeman






Overnight breadwinners in Iran -- December 6, 2007

When we went to Khadijeh's house we literally climbed up a steep hill, that was damp with the falling snow, muddy and not an easy walk. She does it everyday carrying Ali which in whatever weather there is. When we walked into her home, it struck me that she still has her wedding picture up. Her husband sometimes comes by -- she doesn't let him inside anymore -- but lets the kids go outside to see him. "he's still their father," she says. As we were talking with Khadijeh, three-year-old Ali was having the time of his life with new guests and with my camera. Couldn't help but wonder how he'll grow up, with no real father presence, with a mother whose barely making ends meet, and with two brothers and a sister themselves trying to keep it together.

With almost 2 million drug addicts in Iran, a number rising alongside unemployment, there's been a new trend here. Overnight men are leaving their families out of addiction, and overnight the wives are left to pick up the pieces. In a culture where men are the ones who tend to work, it's causing an odd role reversal and in a strange way become part of the gender fight for equality. To see it all first hand we drove an hour outside Tehran to a center that is run by the Zenab Cobra Foundation. It helps women in this exact situation -- who have no prior training, some no education -- but now must provide for two, three, sometimes four kids on their own. They have classes in carpet weaving, computer technology, catering all meant to get the women ready to work.

It was in a weaving class we met 33-year-old Khadijeh. She has four kids, the youngest Ali is three years old and attends a daycare set up at the center while Khadijeh is training. Six years ago her husband married another woman, while still married to her, and then after losing his savings became addicted to crack cocaine. He sold everything she had -- down to the very last pots and pans -- before taking off and leaving her to care for the children. She does now, in a run down two room apartment, that is a 15-minute walk from the center. We traveled there with her, and it was heart-breaking to hear her story but inspiring to see her carry on. As the center says, from these unfortunate circumstances, a truth is being enforced in Iranian society. That when the men leave, the women can easily take over. And that equality in all rights must come quickly.

NOTE: Watch Aneesh's story on Your World Today and throughout the day on CNN.

-- From CNN's Aneesh Rahman



Mideast snapshot -- December 5, 2007

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Speaking of Saudi Arabia, here is a picture of the Inside the Middle East team filming in the coastal city of Jeddah. CNN has been trying to reach the Girl of Qatif's lawyer for the last 24 hours, but has been unable to get in touch with Abdul Rahman al-Lahem.











-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani




The 'Girl of Qatif' -- December 4, 2007


She's known only as the "Girl of Qatif". She is the Saudi woman, gang raped by seven men, whose case has drawn worldwide consternation.

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Abdul Rahman al-Lahem

That's because, although her attackers were sentenced to prison time, she, the victim, was also punished.

And her sentence was doubled on appeal because she was in a car with a man not related to her at the time they were both ambushed by their attackers last year.

The Saudi Islamic court wanted to send a message: There are strict behavior codes for women. Ignore them at your peril.

Her lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem -- already stripped of his license for "disrespecting the court" during his defense of "the Girl of Qatif" -- was due to face a disciplinary committee Wednesday to decide if he would be punished further. That hearing was postponed.

I spoke to Amnesty International's Lamri Chourif on Your World Today a few hours ago. He is the Saudi researcher for the human rights organization. He told me he hopes the attention this case is getting will force change in the Saudi criminal justice system which has "in-built prejudices against women."

Meanwhile, the woman's lawyer told CNN's Octavia Nasr in a telephone interview : "Several lawyers volunteered to represent me and I chose someone young to send the message, loud and clear, that there is a whole generation of young lawyers who know the law, completely capable, and want to bring change."

On CNN's World News Europe Tuesday, Masoud Shadjareh, Chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Council, said that the case has little to do with religious law, praised the rape victim's lawyer for his courage and added: "What is happening in Saudi Arabia right now neither represents Shariah, nor represents due process."

We will update this page with the decision of the disciplinary panel and continue to follow the story on CNN and CNN.com.

-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani





Mideast Snapshot -- December 3, 2007

These are a few photos shot while filming a story in Iraq a few months ago.

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This was taken outside the Baghdad Artificial Limbs Center.

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It is one of only two artificial limb fitting facilities in Baghdad and the machines and prosthetic limbs are very rudimentary.

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Since the start of the war, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry, a quarter of all injuries from the violence in Iraq involves the loss of at least one limb.












-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani





Syria's role in Mideast talks -- December 3, 2007

It is too early to assess just what the next several months will bring for the Middle East peace process, but something interesting emerged from last week's peace conference in Annapolis: The Syrians are not going to be sitting on the sidelines. Our interview with the Syrian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fayssal Mekdad Video, made that clear. Not only did Syria agree to attend the meetings in the 11th hour, but Mekdad told our Hala Gorani that Damascus will "definitely attend" an upcoming follow-up meeting planned in Russia early next year.

Syria's attendance -- albeit at a lower diplomatic level than other countries -- raised eyebrows. The U.S. insists Syria is a state that supports terror. And Syria only came after the issue of the Golan Heights was added to the agenda. Still, during the visit, the Syrian delegation shook hands with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Does this signal an emerging rapprochement between the U.S. and Syria -- or just a slight thaw in the chilly relations? Last week, U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the Syrian representative's speech at the summit was "positive and constructive."

Analysts say Iran was miffed that Damascus sent anyone at all to Annapolis. And while Mekdad was quick to affirm that Syria and Iran are still key allies, he also told us sovereign nations have to look after their own best interests. In the months ahead, what will be interesting to see is whether Syria wants to be a key cog in the peace process -- or whether it will play both ends against the middle. Just days after our interview, Mekdad was in Tehran to assuage President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where he insisted the Iranian-Syrian ties remain strong.

-- From CNN International Supervising Producer Ryan Cooper



A thaw in relations? -- December 1, 2007



It was a quick trip to Washington for two sit-down interviews this week. The first one-on-one was with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, currently envoy for the so-called "Quartet" for Middle East Peace.

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Tony Blair and Hala Gorani.

We aired a little under four minutes of a 13-minute interview. We spoke of the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, but also about Tony Blair's very low popularity in the region. I asked him if he thought the fact that many in the Arab world disapproved of his involvement in the Iraq war and his unwillingness to call for a ceasefire in last year's Israel-Hezbollah war was something that would get in the way of acting as a mediator for a final Mideast agreement.

Watch the interview here Video.

While in Washington, I also spoke with the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, who this week attended the Annapolis conference near the U.S. capital. Until the last minute, it was unclear whether Syria would take part in the conference. There were reports Damascus was unhappy that the Golan, which has been occupied by Israel since the Six Day war, was not on the official agenda.

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Producer Ryan Cooper, Tony Blair, Hala Gorani.

At the last minute, the Golan question was added, and Syria sent its number two diplomat. Many said that by not sending its top man, Syria was subtly snubbing the conference organizers. After all, crucial Mideast players, such as Saudi Arabia, sent Foreign Affairs ministers.

Check out my interview with Fayssal Mekdad here Video.

But what was interesting was the fact that the Syrians wanted to talk to the media at all. Simply put, officials in Syria almost never give gratuitous interviews. I've traveled many times to Syria and have been turned down for sit-down on camera interviews more times than I can count. This was clearly a sign that the government of Bashar Al-Assad, which is accused by the United States of supporting Hamas, being allied with Iran and interfering in Lebanese politics, wanted to send a message: We came to Annapolis and that is significant enough. And when Condoleezza Rice shook hands with members of the Syrian delegation in Annapolis, some analysts even starting speaking of a thaw between the two countries.

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Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad.

Not so fast.

When I asked Fayssal Mekdad about the current stand-off in the Lebanese presidential election, the rift between Damascus and Washington surfaced again.

The battle between the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora and the pro-Syrian opposition parties has led some to fear that political chaos, and perhaps worse, will again engulf Lebanon.

The United States accuses Syria of meddling in Lebanese politics and of supporting candidates it wants at the top. For the Deputy Foreign Minister, it's the other way around.

"We hope that those who are asking others not to interfere in the internal affairs of Lebanon, in the process of electing a new president, will stop their interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon because this has led to problem," Mekdad said.

I asked him who he was referring to. His answer was uncharacteristically specific:

"I am referring to role being played by the U.S. and the interference by the U.S. ambassador every day that has in fact led to the Lebanese from electing their new president."

A thaw, perhaps, but the accusations are still flying.

-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani




Blogging and brutality -- November 30, 2007

He is the first ever blogger to receive the prestigious Knight award by the International Committee of Journalists.

His name is Wael Abbas.

He says his blog has generated awareness of police brutality in his native Egypt thanks in large part to the video file-sharing site YouTube, where he posted cell phone video of alleged prisoner torture.

But YouTube suspended Wael Abbas' account, citing its policy of prohibiting "inappropriate content on the site," adding in a statement to CNN that it is the YouTube community that "effectively polices the site for inappropriate material."

YouTube didn't expand much on this explanation, but some bloggers and observers are worried that the removal of Wael Abbas' material came as a result of pressure from the Egyptian government, unhappy that this 33-year old blogger, armed only with a computer, has managed to bring worldwide attention to police brutality in Egypt.

Critics say you can still access very disturbing torture video on Youtube (type "torture" in the search box and you will see for yourself); and that Abbas' material has been on the site, unchallenged, for several years -- so why remove it now?

CNN spoke to Wael Abbas after his YouTube account was suspended:

"We managed to direct the attention of the people to something that was taboo that was never discussed before," Abbas told CNN in a telephone interview from the United States. "We were able to send two officers recently to prison ... in the trial. Because of one of these videos that was used as evidence in the trial."

YouTube said it had no further comment beyond a statement it issued a few days ago.

Decide for yourself.

Our own Aneesh Raman spoke to Wael Abbas last month for Inside the Middle East. You can watch his report here Video.

-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani

Update -- November 30, 2007

Wael Abbass' account has been reactivated by YouTube, who issued the following statement: "We are committed to preserving YouTube as an important platform for expression of all kinds, while also ensuring that the site remains a safe environment for our users. Balancing these interests raises very tough issues. In this case, our general policy against graphic violence led to the removal of videos documenting alleged human rights abuses because the context was not apparent. Having reviewed the case, we have restored the account of Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas -- and if he chooses to upload the video again with sufficient context so that users can understand his important message we will of course leave it on the site."

-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani




Persian food El Salvador style -- November 30, 2007

Hala and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for this month's "Inside the Middle East" show shoot.

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The story I found most interesting was our profile of Juan Alberto Melgar, one of the area's most renowned chefs of Persian food. What made Juan particularly interesting was the fact that as a native of El Salvador, he managed to move to the U.S. without speaking English, ultimately mastering a cuisine foreign to him.

The other thing which became quickly apparent is that Juan is not only a masterful chef, but truly a man so embraced by the Persian community.

All night we watched his clients -- many of them friends -- come and chat with Juan and express their support of him.

Juan's kitchen was a sight to behold -- such a small space but so orderly and clean. And every one of the cooks in the kitchen is Hispanic.

As Hala said in her piece, it looks like the El Salvadorians are cornering the Persian cooking market!

-- From Inside the Middle East Producer Kristin Cuff



Welcome to Inside the Middle East's new blog.

CNN's Hala Gorani

Our reporters, producers, cameramen and editors will regularly add to this with colorful behind-the-scene stories. This page is about how we put the show together -- from on-location shoots to the editing room -- as well as for anecdotes and stories that don't always make it into our finished on-air product. We will also post pictures and feature links to our most popular stories. The Inside the Middle East Web site is also currently undergoing a complete redesign and should be online in the next few weeks, so watch this space. We want to make this page an open forum for comments from you, our viewers, who have watched the show since its launch four years ago, and who have helped make it such a success. Thanks for watching and I look forward to reading your comments and contributions.

-- From CNN Anchor and Reporter Hala Gorani E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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