Inside the Middle East
July 29, 2012
Posted: 806 GMT

Iranian demonstrators purportedly took to the streets in a rare act of public defiance last week, but not over corruption, unemployment, or social and political reform.

The protests were reportedly over chicken, which has become the latest symbol for Iran's deepening economic malaise.

Videos circulating on social media websites purported to show demonstrators marching in Neishabour, a city located about 500 miles northeast of Iran's capital, Tehran.  In one YouTube video, a number of people could be seen lining a street in Neishabour chanting slogans critical of the nation's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Others chanted against the rise in prices.  Photos posted to blogs in iran appeared to show similar scenes from the northeastern province, though, the videos and pictures could not be independently verified.

Recent discontent in Iran has focused on rising prices of food staples, such as poultry.  Many Iranians blame the government and tightening international sanctions over the country's controversial nuclear program for the economic decline and rising inflation.

The price of chicken in Iran has increased nearly threefold in the past two months. Chicken now sells for around 80,000 rials a kilogram, roughly $6.15.

Earlier this month, one senior government official caused a stir when he urged Iranian state television to avoid broadcasting images of people eating chicken. Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, chief of Iran's national police forces, announced at a press conference that pictures of poultry could spark social unrest, with potentially unforeseen consequences.

"They show chicken being eaten in movies while somebody might not be able to buy it," said Ahmadi Moghaddam in mid July. "Films are now the windows of society and some people observing this class gap might say that we will take knives and take our rights from the rich."

Meanwhile, one of Iran's top-ranking conservative clerics has been doing his part to quell concerns over what some are calling Iran's "chicken crisis."

"We see that many people are shrieking over the price of chicken.  But what's the worst that can happen if one doesn't eat it? The overwhelming majority of doctors say that meat products don't make for good food," said Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, according to state media.

Filed under: Iran

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July 19, 2012
Posted: 1636 GMT

Ramadan decorations are hung outside a shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 18, 2012, to welcome the upcoming Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (HAZEM BADER/AFP/GettyImages)

Muslims around the world begin fasting on Friday in observation of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam when the faithful abstain from eating food or drinking water from sunrise to sunset.

If, that is, Ramadan actually begins on Friday.

Every year, identifying the start of Ramadan is like a waiting game; Islamic scholars must see the new crescent moon in the night skies before the holy month officially begins.

Unlike the Gregorian (or Western) calendar, the Islamic calendar is based on lunar patterns.  And the lunar month begins with the sighting of a new moon.

This annual – and greatly anticipated – announcement is typically made by Islamic authorities in each country (although many countries in the Middle East follow the moon sightings of scholars in Saudi Arabia).

But with all the technological advancements of the 21st century, why can’t scholars predict the exact date the moon will appear?

They can – astronomers have the technology to actually see the shape of the moon in broad daylight, even with high humidity, pollution, and even sand in the air.

But some Islamic jurists and clerics refuse to announce the arrival of Ramadan until they have seen the new moon with their own eyes.

Additionally, the validity of these high-tech methods is creating a debate among Muslim scholars and jurists, according to astrophysicist and astronomy professor Nidhal Geussoum, of the American University in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Adding to the confusion: in some countries, like Sweden or Norway, the sun does not set at all in the summer.

Muslims in countries like those have two options, according to Geussoum.  The first, he says, is to go with whatever date is announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, considered to be the holiest city in Islam. The second is to begin Ramadan with the moon sighting nearest to them, Geussoum adds.

Here in the UAE, many Muslims are still waiting for an official announcement from the local religious authorities, who will most likely also coordinate with religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Many here still don't know when exactly Ramadan will start.  And most conversations around this time of the year all begin and end the same way:

‘So, when does Ramadan start?’

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Filed under: Culture •Egypt •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia

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July 12, 2012
Posted: 1137 GMT

Fans of the late-1970s "Star Wars" movies probably know that Luke Skywalker, a reluctant hero battling his way through the film's evil Galactic Empire, was raised on the windswept plains of Tatooine, a desert wasteland planet located on the outer rim of director/writer George Lucas’ fictional galaxy.

In reality, Skywalker’s house - known as the Lars homestead - is actually located in southern Tunisia. The whitewashed ranch was constructed on an outdoor movie set in a desert region known as Tozeur.

And after more than three decades of blowing sands and extreme Saharan heat, Skywalker’s domed home was beginning to fall into disrepair.

That’s where "Star Wars" superfan Mark Dermul comes in.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Culture •General •Science & Technology •Tunisia

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July 11, 2012
Posted: 901 GMT

This month, 'Inside the Middle East' aims for Olympic gold, exploring stories of adversity, faith, and triumph in the world of Middle Eastern sports.

In the United Arab Emirates, we meet 17-year-old Khadijah Fahed Mohammed, the first Emirati woman to qualify for the Olympic Games outright. But competing during the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset – will pose challenges for Mohammed. With both Ramadan and the Games right around the corner, she still hasn’t decided: should she fast, or not?

We also head to Jerusalem, where Maher Abu Rmeileh is also preparing for his journey to the Olympic Games in London.  Abu Rmeileh has the honor of being the first Palestinian to qualify for the Olympics on merit.  The 28-year-old judoka explains to the program why winning a gold medal would mean everything to him – and his family.

The program also heads to the shores of Oman, a nation pinning its future chances for Olympic glory on one small group of female sailing instructors.  Just outside the capital, Muscat, twenty-one women are teaching Omani children how to sail, and helping to revive their country's rich maritime heritage.

Finally, in Amman, Jordan, 'Inside the Middle East' meets the women of Jordan's national boxing team, the first female boxers in the Middle East.  They might not be heading to the Olympic Games, but Jordan's female boxers are challenging gender stereotypes in a region where many perceive women as the weaker sex.

Want to see more?  Become a fan of 'Inside the Middle East' on Facebook for all the latest photos and news from our shoots.

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Filed under: General

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July 3, 2012
Posted: 1328 GMT

When it comes to Dubai, it’s not uncommon to hear that the most expensive products in the world are on sale.

This year alone, shoppers at a luxurious shopping mall attached to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, have had the opportunity to purchase gold-plated eyeglasses worth $75,000 and a somewhat more affordable, yet equally ostentatious, $5,500 gold-plated iPad.

Neighboring emirate, Abu Dhabi, has long been considered much more fiscally conservative than Dubai.  But the UAE's national capital also showed it's propensity for 'bling' in 2010 when the Emirates Palace Hotel (which cost a staggering $3 billion to construct) displayed a Christmas tree worth $11 million.  The tree was set up in the hotel lobby, just a few feet away from the world's first  gold vending machine.

The global financial crisis may have left most of us concentrating on saving money, but in the UAE, appealing to the very high end of the market went out of favor only briefly.

From owning multi-million dollar vanity car plates to exotic animals like cheetahs and tigers to using social media to brag about spending tens of thousands of dollars at a restaurant, on the surface, the UAE appears to be an avowedly austerity-free zone.

And now, the UAE is home to the world's most expensive cupcake.  Topped with actual gold flakes, Dubai's latest dish costs more than $27,000.

Bloomsbury’s, a boutique cafe in Dubai, calls their latest play for the masses a "work of art."  Art that a potential buyer only has a quarter of an hour to admire.

The expensive chocolate used in making the ’Golden Phoenix’ melts in 15 minutes, according to Shafeena Yusuff, the cupcake's creator.  The gold sheets covering the cupcake will also peel off when the chocolate melts, giving it a different look and taste.

Made specially to order, the dish takes up to two days to prepare and contains some of the world’s most expensive ingredients.

When asked why anyone would spend $27,000 on a cupcake, Shafeena said, “It’s just like buying an expensive painting, or an expensive car or even a watch.”

In this oil-rich desert nation, a $27,000 dollar cupcake with a 15-minute lifespan might be just the thing.

But so far there have been no takers.  Maybe all the customers are down the road at McDonald's, where the migrant workers – who make up the majority of this country's population – can get a Happy Meal for a meager $2.70.

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Filed under: Dubai •UAE

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Welcome to the Inside the Middle East blog where CNN's journalists post news, views and video from across the region. This is also a place where you can start the discussion so please keep your comments coming. We highlight not only current news stories but also anecdotes and issues that don't always make the top of the headlines.

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