See more by Julie Farrar
La Vanguardia, August 4, 2015
Catalonia is set to go to the polls next month, as regional President Artur Mas called early elections for Sept. 27, intending to use the vote as a fresh bid for independence. He announced the election as "an exceptional measure," says Tuesday's front page of La Vanguardia.
In a televised event Monday night from Barcelona, Mas signed the voting order, blaming Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's central government for refusing to engage in talks over the future of Catalonia â€" which accounts for 20% of Spain's GDP.
Mas' ruling Convergence party and the region's second party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, are running joint candidates, and say they will unilaterally leave Spain if they obtain a majority, reports the Associated Press. Meanwhile, anti-austerity party Podemos have said Catalans have the right to decide, but the party wants the region to stay as part of Spain. Recent opinion polls have shown that a slim majority oppose secession.
Barcelona-based La Vanguardia is Catalonia's leading newspaper, printed in both Spanish and Catalan.
A not-so-veiled effort to limit the population of this Muslim ethnic minority is the systematic denial of marriage licenses. Children born out of wedlock are rendered stateless, without citizenship or education.
SITTWE — Kyaw Kyaw Oo, 25, takes me to a safe place to talk — and because he fears the authorities here in Myanmar, he's not using his real name. A Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted minorities, he has been waiting for permission to marry his girlfriend.
"I graduated three years ago, and I applied for permission to get married two years ago," he says. "I heard that if you pay a large amount of money, you can get permission immediately."
Failure to get a permit before marrying can result in a lengthy jail sentence. "One of my friends applied for the marriage permit," he says. "His documents were approved, but he didn’t have any money to pay the officials. So he didn't get his documents. But he went ahead with the marriage. The authorities found out and arrested him and put him in jail for seven years."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country of many faiths, but Buddhism is the majority religion, whereas the Rohingya are Muslim. In 1994, the government issued an order restricting marriages for Rohingya. According to the Arakan Project, which records human rights abuses against them, marriage permits are only granted after paying bribes and long delays.
"For me, it's very clear that this is a tactic from the government to control the population," says the Arakan Project's Chris Lewa. "In one parliamentary session, the Ministry of Immigration explained that preventing marriages was a way to reduce population."
And as a result, there are many cases of illegal marriages among the Rohingya, he says. "We find that many young couples run to Bangladesh because they can't marry in Burma, and their parents can't pay the fee. In other cases, the couples continue their relationship without a permit. When the girl becomes pregnant, she has to abort the baby because it's living proof that they had an illegal marriage."
The government punishes Rohingya children by putting them on a "black list" if their parents don't have a marriage permit. This year alone, about 7,000 Rohingya children were born unregistered, according to the government. In total, there are an estimated 40,000 unregistered Rohingya children.
"The government has not issued a birth certificate for Rohingya children since the mid-1990s," Lewa says. "This means it will be difficult for families to prove that they were born inside the country. If a child is not registered, he can never get a identity card, he can't travel, and can't go to school. When he becomes an adult, he can't marry because he has no document."
In a letter to the United Nations, President Thein Sein said that the Burmese government was prepared to address the sensitive issue of Rohingya citizenship. He also promised to look at other issues such as work permits and granting freedom of movement for the Rohingya. But he didn't say anything about the marriage restrictions.
The Arakan Project is urging the government to tackle this issue. "They keep the children in hide-outs or send them out of the country," Lewa says. "We've heard stories of Rohingya children being left alone in Bangladesh refugee camps. It's a very sad situation for the children and the mothers. This marriage issue is a gross human rights abuse against the population."
Rohingya parents who do receive permission to marry are required to sign an agreement not to have more than two children.
This small Eastern European country is the Wild West (good guys and bad guys) of the fight for Internet security.
ALEXANDRIA — On the FBI's Most Wanted list is the name Nicolae Popescu.
Born in the small city of Alexandria, a two-hour bus ride south of Bucharest, Popescu is now in his early thirties and is known for sporting a crew cut and smart clothes. After creating a digital ruse to sell hundreds of fictitious cars on eBay, and pocketing $3 million, he was arrested in 2010, but eventually released on a technicality. He is now a fugitive from justice and the reward for any information to lead to his capture is at $1 million.
How has the small country of Romania become, according to data published by Bloomberg in 2013, the No. 3 country in the world for cyber attacks?
From Bucharest, a bus leaves every thirty minutes for Alexandria and costs the modest sum of five euros. On arrival, I'm welcomed by the former police head responsible for cybercrime, who remembers Popescu well. "He was one of many young people who, in the mid 1990s, found themselves in Alexandria's only Internet café," the officer recalls. "They were smart kids, they excelled especially in science and IT but had no job prospects. So some of them decided to use their talents against the law."
Since the time of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania has invested significant resources into computer science studies. As the country was denied access to Western technology, in addition to what was produced in the USSR, Romanians learned how to manage. Among other local advances, they turned out a self-sufficient microprocessor.
The legacy has largely been positive: Many of those young people are now working in London, Silicon Valley and Seattle, while several big American companies develop software and Apps in Bucharest.
A computer security expert tells me that in the early 1990s there were hundreds of micro-networks made at home by engineers on their weekends. This explains how Romania came to be the country with the fifth fastest Internet connection in the world. Those who live in the city of Timisoara, western Romania, have the fastest network on the planet. This level of connectivity is crucial to hacking websites (the so-called "Denial-of-Service-Attacks"), but also for many other virtuous purposes.
I sat down with Silviu Sofronie in the offices of BitDefender, the Romanian company that produces one of the world's most popular antivirus systems. On the wall is a world map made up of computer parts, and in the center of the room is a door that does not lead anywhere, with the letter B painted in bright red on white background. Some of the brightest minds of the computer world work here.
Sofronie is the team leader who analyzes the structures of new viruses. "Today, the greatest danger comes from Ransomware. In just the first three months of 2013, there were 250,000 variants identified," he explains. "How do they work? A user clicks on a perfectly legitimate site, such as Yahoo or the BBC, which has now been compromised. The site sends a "trojan horse" able to encrypt all files on their personal computer. When this happens, there is nothing we can do."
The next step is the redemption request, usually "between 200 and 500 euros." After receiving the money, the hacker sends a code to unlock the computer. Redemption must be paid in Bitcoin, the virtual currency. It's up to the victim to buy the Bitcoin to send to the hackers, and the transaction is impossible to trace — it's the perfect crime.
"The money laundering is done by those who pay the ransom, reversing the classical model of kidnappings," Sofronie says. "And soon, mobile phones will be targeted."
Just like the others
A series of blackmail viruses hit Italy in 2014 and the city of Bussoleno found itself with the whole network blocked and decided to give in to their ransomers — the only government to have admitted, courageously, that they were victims of cybercrime. The deputy prosecutor of Turin, Alberto Perduca, confirmed to La Stampa that in the district of Piedmont-Valle d'Aosta "there were 3,600 reports of computer crimes in 2014 and in most cases it was impossible to trace the culprits as the attacks came mostly from foreign countries, often far away."
Who are the Romanian hackers? In Bucharest we met Razvan Cernaianu, a 23-year-old who does not drink alcohol and loves rock music. "I'm just like anyone else, in some subjects at school I didn't do very well and I like girls," he says.
In the virtual world he is known as TinKode — one of the most famous Romanian hackers in the world. In his short career he has managed to compromise dozens of sites, including those of NASA and the British Navy and he boasts of having darkened the websites of several Italian newspapers (including La Stampa) with the Romanian flag.
In 2012 Cernaianu was sentenced to six years in prison and is now on probation. "Many of us started playing video games, then we moved on to test the flaws in computer systems. The most exciting thing for me was to be recognized, become famous, to subvert the system. But now I have finally stopped and I work for a legitimate company," he adds, noting that the founder of the company where he works is a retired Romanian general.
At a café on the outskirts of Bucharest, I met with a hacker who is still active. Constantly looking around, he left his phone at home and communicates through a Russian instant messaging system with a high level of encryption ("WhatsApp is for rookies," he says).
Soon enough he opens his computer. "Look at this illegal Romanian forum," he says. "Right now, there are 172,000 connected users. The topics discussed are where to purchase machines to clone credit cards, methods to penetrate PayPal and eBay, and strategies for targeted attacks.
TinKode was very active here before he was arrested. "We are all under observation," the anonymous hacker adds.
Dejected, he tells me that members of his community were hacked by Romanian spies who stole the list of participants to their secret meetings. "The choice we were given was simple: Go to jail, or work for your country."
In fact, many hackers are being paid by intelligence services. Not surprisingly, 41% of cyber attacks come from China. Recently an American website that hosts the Chinese edition of The New York Times (which is banned in the People's Republic) was targeted. The U.S., Russia and Romania are the other countries from which the majority of these hostile acts come.
The Cold War described by John Le Carré during the 1960s is today fought in the virtual world. This makes the Internet a perfect place for double agents.
On this southern European island, some of the hundreds of corpses have arrived from the latest migrant tragedy. They will be processed and buried without knowing their identity. It is not the first time.
VALLETTA — They're stacked in silver tubes. One on top of another. They are sealed in black plastic bags with marker-scribbled signs hung at their feet: Unknown Number 7, Unknown Number 10. Here, we can count 24 nameless corpses, all unknown and unidentified.
"They are all adult males, except one teenager," says Dr. David Grima.
They were on deck and died at sea, in the open wind, unlike those who were trapped below deck. We don't know their names, but in reality we know them very well. We have already seen them, followed them, listened to them, admired them for a strength that we don't have.
And we know how this would-be passage to Europe ends, here on the continent's extreme southern stretch, at the Mater Dei hospital's morgue on the island nation of Malta. Authorities now say as many as 800 people were killed in the sinking of the boat over the weekend, the worst maritime disaster in Europe since World War II.
Mater Dei (Mother of God) is the main hospital on the island, a modern building tucked among a tangle of streets. The mortuary's refrigerator has capacity for 65 bodies at any one time. Today a retiree suffered a fatal heart attack and three chronically ill patients from a ward died, joining the 23 men and teenagers who were fished out of the Mediterranean Sea.
"Sub-Saharan," says Dr. Grima. "Eritreans and Somalis, probably." The doctor, who wears an ID card around his neck and a blue shirt, is head of the morgue. He is the guardian of the dead who have no names.
"Today we took their DNA and in two days we will perform autopsies," he says. "Over the weekend we will give them an inter-religious burial, like we did last time."
Though the world is now finally paying attention, everything seen here has already happened before. The 24 bodies will go to the Addolorata cemetery where they will be interred next to the 21 who died in the Oct. 11 2013 sinking, and an Eritrean who tried to escape from Malta's reception center on a small boat, but returned lifeless because of the strong currents.
Malta's Addolorata cemetery — Photo: Ori~
"There is a specific part of the cemetery reserved for migrants," says Grima. That is where they bury these victims without names, and without religion to avoid mistakes.
The day after the wreck in 2013, we came to this hospital for the first time and the atmosphere was very different — in addition to the dead, there were survivors. Everyone was grabbing arms, pleading to make a phone call. They were shouting the names of their relatives in the hopes that answers would come. "Where is my mother?" "My son, my son … please tell me that he was brought to Lampedusa."
Where is Europe?
There was a Syrian boy who was frothing with rage, standing at the door, wearing a baseball cap turned backwards. His name was Molhake Al Roasrn and he made his sea journey from the Libyan port city of Zuwarah. "The Libyans began firing, wounding three people. Because of the panic, everyone came above deck and the ship overturned …"
Perhaps he lost some relatives in the wreck but that was not the reason for his anger. "This is not Europe," he kept repeating. "Yes, yes, you're in Europe now," we tried to console him. "It's not true. I wanted to go to Italy, then to Sweden. That is Europe."
A European Union nation, Malta is a quiet island with a mild climate. There are retired Italians who read newspapers in the sun, groups of English tourists, colonial-style hotels and school classes on field trips. For the immigrants who arrive here, it's a curse. "I didn't undertake that journey to end up here," said Molhake.
Yesterday morning at 9 a.m., the Italian Coast Guard's Gregoretti ship docked at Valletta's port, not far from one particularly large and luxurious yacht with a helicopter on board. Sitting on the main deck of the Italian military ship were survivors, wearing colorful jackets and lucky tracksuits. They watched the corpses being brought ashore, one by one, towards a black van with a cross on its side. "After the initial euphoria at being saved, the ship fell silent," said Captain Gianluigi Bove. "It was when they realized we would be carrying the dead too."
Everybody knows the end of this story too well: the perpetual condemnation to oblivion, an eternal distance from loved ones, the desire not be recognized anymore. In the face of the sheer scale of the latest tragedy, Mater Dei hospital chief Ivan Falzon posted a message on Facebook. "No one even knows who died. Nobody will bring flowers. So let us, as their friends and relatives would. We can try to at least make their deaths gentle."
This is why people are coming to the front of the morgue. People like Gloria Bugeja, who works with stray dogs. "It hurts to think that nobody is mourning these people," she says. "What do their parents know?" She lays a camellia beside the wreath that the Minister for Justice placed down. By 6 p.m. on Monday, eighteen bouquets of flowers had been placed, and at least one note: "For the unidentified dead in Mater Dei, hoping for an eternal paradise. Rest in peace."
TURIN — Thousands of people — calling them people, i.e. men, women and children, is the first step — have died in the Strait of Sicily since 2010. Sunday saw the worst tragedy yet, but it was not the first, and unfortunately it won't be the last.
Many of these people are fleeing the civil war in Syria, conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the renewed crisis in Iraq. They are displaced people and refugees who, under international law, can apply for asylum. Others are economic migrants who hope to escape poverty. The difference between these two groups — refugees and migrants — has been lost in the vast numbers of people arriving.
The criminal gangs who run the black hole that is Libya, brutally and viciously trafficking human beings, certainly don't care why these desperate people are coming. It also matters little for the exasperated Italians every time there is news of landings or tragedies at sea, and it doesn't mean much either for those frightened by the potential connection between migration and terrorist infiltration.
So rather than looking at these victims as people, we are too often left dividing ourselves into "hawks" and "doves" on how to face the problem of undocumented immigration into Europe.
Meanwhile, European countries further away from our Mediterranean cemetery pretend not to know that Italy's borders are the EU's borders too.
Our country is accused of being a sieve. We can respond with with this statistic: Of the EU's 28 countries, the vast majority of refugees (about 70%) are concentrated in just five countries — including Italy. Proposals of European quotas (a division of costs) have remained on paper, and the common asylum system has had little practical effect.
An honest discussion — and not the "what to do" discussion that follows every tragedy in our territorial waters — should meanwhile be based on three points.
First, the issue of migration from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean can no longer be managed as an emergency. It is not an emergency, it's a structural phenomenon, determined by a number of obvious causes: the demographic gap between the sea's shores, the severity of the conflicts, the still-backward socio-economic conditions in several African countries.
If the phenomenon is structural, migratory flow will continue with unprecedented numbers. And I personally do not think that a purely humanitarian response of simply opening Europe to absorb the increased flows will work, if not just for political reasons. Neither will a strictly "security-driven" answer (a closed Europe, able to push migrants back). In fact, both responses should be seen as separate and vital tools in any new policy. A harder attitude is needed towards the traffickers — or perpetrators of a "new slave trade," as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called it.
New ways are also needed to sort through asylum applications in "areas made safe" on the southern shores of the Mediterranean ("safe havens" and humanitarian corridors in transit countries), as well as rational management of a controlled flow of migrants, both protected and regular.
Secondly, there can be no response to these tragedies at sea without rebuilding stability in key counties, especially Libya. The Italian government rightly considers this an international priority. Libya is not just in our own backyard, it is the underbelly through which a growing instability from the Mediterranean and Africa is seeping into Europe. It is true that achieving peace in Libya will mainly depend on the factions and tribes that are fighting, but it is essential to at least put a regional network of containment in place, based on agreements with local actors, including Egypt.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the question of migration is becoming a more difficult and delicate test than the Greek debt crisis for the EU. In the case of Greece, there is at least a sense that sufficient barriers against financial contagion have been established as a point of common interest. Instead, on the question of migration, Europe is showing neither solidarity, nor the ability to prevent the infection from spreading.
Countries like Italy — the first point of entry — have the disproportionate burden of facing the human tragedy and costs of welcoming the first arrivals. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, Britain and Sweden note that most of the refugees arrive in their countries later.
It is an opaque system that doesn't work for Italy, nor for the rest of the continent. Moreover, Operation Triton — the EU naval operation that replaced Mare Nostrum, more focused on surveillance than humanitarian concerns — doesn't work. The underfunded program is not able to deal with emergencies nor quell the landings that critics of Mare Nostrum said it would.
None of this will be enough without the basic pre-condition that the EU finally creates a genuine common policy on immigration, based on a safe and shared vision of the relationship to be established between foreign human resources and the continent's labor market.
This issue isn't only about those southern points of entry — it's about the EU's very future. If convincing answers are not found, the political forces that want to close the borders of both the Mediterranean Sea and European continent are bound to win.
YOTVATA — There are mud huts to block out the heat, solar micro panels for cooking, bio-gas production from waste, and wet mattresses to grow vegetables and flowers in the desert. This is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Yotvata, the most torrid and depopulated area in Israel's Negev desert, where a community of scientists and researchers are relentlessly seeking solutions to problems that beset the inhabitants of the planet's poorest countries.
A three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, this is a scientific frontier where Israel is using high-tech and human ingenuity to find solutions to the planet's food security needs amid severe environmental challenges. The Israeli pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015 will be a window into this laboratory. Tali Adini, a researcher from the nearby kibbutz of Ketura, takes us to a village of mud huts that, from the outside, resembles many of those in the remote areas of Africa and Asia.
"We wanted to re-create the original environment, one that needs help and is not connected to any kind of network: electricity, water or telephone," Adini explains, showing how each hut has been internally transformed to a welcoming place, thanks to technology.
The mud huts are comprised of plastic bags containing fibers that can't be penetrated by excessive temperatures. Once inside a hut, you can see an electric oven in the center that is powered by a micro-solar panel outside. A little further on, a visitor sees that the village uses new techniques that have been developed for life in the desert: facilities for recycling organic waste into biological gases, the cultivation of seeds that are able to flower even in salty soil, development of desert grasses into materials for biofuel production.
In the kibbutz of Lotan, the Center for Creative Biology grapples with the construction of similar huts and technologies. Just to the north is the Hatzeva research station, where Noa Zer accompanies us to the greenhouses where more than 40% of Israel's agricultural exports are produced. As far as the eye can see, there are fields of fruit, vegetables and flowers, where even the most diverse can grow "thanks to the human ability to invent solutions," Zer says. He points out the wet mattresses, which are strategically placed in several directions "to allow the temperate air to circulate" via fans that take advantage of the desert air.
Teaching the Third World
Only 3,000 people live at the Arava — out of more than 8 million Israelis — and they are mostly scientists, researchers and high-tech pioneers, together with their families, who choose to engage with the adverse nature here. "There aren't many of us here," says Yaakov, who immigrated from Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. "But when we meet by chance in a field in the heat, then friendships that last are born."
It's not surprising that halfway between Hatzeva and Yotvata is the Keren Kayemet Le-Israel — the national Jewish fund that has taken care of the development of nature in Israel since the birth of the state — where there is an agricultural school that has welcomed hundreds of students from the Third World. When we arrived, there were four classes, each with pupils from Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Sudan. The national flags hang outside the doors to indicate the students' countries of origin.
The young people, almost all of them in their twenties, race to tell us about their experiences. "I came here without knowing anything about Israel," says Nuri, from Burma. "And I discovered that I could help my village to better manage the water in the fields."
For the Indonesians, there's an additional difficulty: Jakarta has no diplomatic relations with Israel. The students tell us of their long route to obtain visas, expressing their hopes of "being able to repeat the miracles of life we see here in the desert every day in our own villages," says one 26-year-old student.
The aim of the Arava Institute is to transform agriculture into a high-tech bridge to the Third World, just like the successful recent project of Furrows in the Desert, which introduced agriculture to the village of north Turkana, Kenya. "Our students are all amazing," says professor Moti Harari.
It wasn't the Easter bunny delivering chocolate eggs this past Sunday night. No, that furry creature scaling the walls was a very real cat, in a very serious attempt to smuggle a precious load of cell phones and SIM cards into Brazil's Romero Nobrega maximum security prison.
With adhesive tape and bandages strapping the load to his belly, Miao (as we shall henceforth call the protagonist in this tale) was allegedly sent in to the prison in Paraiba on orders of the Primeiro Comando da Capital, a top Brazilian mob outfit that controls most of the country's cocaine market.
Sadly for the narcos, the seven SIM cards, four phones and chargers were too heavy for Miao and he was spotted by some eagle-eyed officers, reports La Stampa. While Miao may have disappointed his mafioso owners in doing this, he was later rewarded by the guards who lured him with milk and kitty treats.
This isn't the first time that animals has been used by drug traffickers to smuggle contraband into Brazilian prisons, says Daniel Ribeiro, penitentiary guard at the security facility. "We are investigating because we suspect there is a real criminal organization that trains these poor animals and uses them for criminal purposes," he told reporters this week.
The first known smuggler-cat was stopped on New Year's Eve in 2012 as it tried to sneak into Arapiraca prison with phones and SIM cards. Earlier that year, seven pigeons were stopped as they tried to get into Pirajuí prison, in the state of Sao Paulo, with cell phones and drugs in the mini birdie backpacks they were sporting.
No flying the coop for them.
The youngsters were playing their Paris Saint-Germain equivalents for a place in the semi-finals of the Tuscany tournament that features 48 international teams, including Chelsea, Ajax and Benfica.
It's not clear which team the heckling parents were supporting, though event organizers insist that the remarks weren't racist in nature but instead questioned whether the Milan players were over the age limit, La Stampa reports.
The organizers added an anti-racism video to their Facebook page Monday morning, followed by a statement Tuesday that their investigation found no evidence that racist or even vaguely discriminatory chants were uttered Sunday.
Sadly, racism in soccer is nothing new, and many talented stars, including former AC Milan players Mario Balotelli and Kevin-Prince Boateng, have been subject to abusive tirades.
On a happier note, the young team from AC Milan went on to defeat Inter Milan 4-0 in the final, winning the overall competition.
CAIRO — International lingerie store Victoria's Secret came to Cairo in 2013, but somewhat surprisingly for a country of Muslim modesty, there has been a varied and flourishing lingerie business in Egypt's capital for years.
Most of the lingerie downtown is imported from either Turkey or Syria. The owners of the two lingerie shops who agreed to speak with Mada Masr are both Syrian, having left the country before the 2011 uprising and ensuing violence. Both say they're still able to obtain lingerie from back home, despite the political turmoil.
One of the stores, Bahaa Makki (the name of a well-known Turkish lingerie brand), also sells silver and gold body glitter, flavored lubricants and lip glitter. It's not difficult to find sexual aids such as lubricants and condoms in corner shops in Cairo, but finding toys for the bedroom can be trickier. Although Bahaa Makki's selection is limited to a couple of glitter tubes and lubes under a glass counter on the second floor, it's nevertheless an unexpected find.
According to Shorouq, one of the three young women working in the shop, one of the most popular items in the shop are the costumes, which include sexy nurse outfits and sexy firemen (or firewomen, in this case).
Hurts so good
Store owner Basher Mekky says that the pleather dominatrix-style costumes made by the Erotica brand are also quite popular. The costumes usually consist of pleather bodysuits made out of thin straps and black mesh, which show off the breasts and the crotch. The costumes come in all sizes, although the most popular is medium-large.
He says that "sexy" pieces have become more popular in recent years, though he isn't quite sure why. It could be a combination of two factors, Mekky says: Women want something that's special and will stand out as unique, which the flashier costumes and lingerie pieces offer. And secondly, style has changed in general. Mekky explains that sexier lingerie wasn't available in the past, but it makes sense that women want to buy it now that it is.
Omar Mohamed Sobhan, another Syrian proprietor of lingerie shops, says that most of the customers collect it piece by piece, so that when they get married they will have a large collection ready. He says that girls as young as 12 come into the shop with their mothers to pick out pieces, although once they reach 18 and beyond, they make most of the choices themselves.
Mekky says that about 60% of the women who come into his store are buying lingerie for their wedding nights. Along with the racier bodysuits, he also sells a range of lacy white dressing gowns and sheer flowing slips that he says are suitable for the morning after the wedding.
But Shaimaa, an 18-year-old woman working at Sobhan's shop, adds that women as old as 60 are loyal clients. Shorouq says that the clientele at her shop ranges in age from 18 up to women in their 50s. All women — whether dressed in niqab, hijab or unveiled — buy lingerie, the two women explain, although Shaimaa says that foreign women are the most likely to buy the racier outfits, like a bright red mesh body suit.
Another hub for lingerie is Shehab Street in Mohandiseen, where slightly different variations await.
On the classier end of the spectrum, the lingerie store A to Z sells bras and underwear made from high-end cottons and other material. There are still costumes and nipple tassels discreetly displayed, but the store puts more of an emphasis on the understated, less flashy lingerie than any of the other shops.
In A to Z, three young girls in their early 20s are browsing the selection. They gather to talk about an item, and then later, outside of the shop, their purchases are bundled away into pink-striped boutique shopping bags.
Yasmine Bamieh, the store's visual merchandiser, says the shop distinguishes itself by selling "good quality for good prices."
But at A to Z, like other stores, the Erotica brand with its skimpy bodysuits is still the most popular. Bamieh says she thinks these are in such demand because while people want to look conservative on the streets, looking sexy at home is still important to a lot of women.
"Underneath the niqab," she explains, "the way they dress is not so conservative."
The most glorious lingerie store is Saxon, hidden in an innocuous residential building next to the McDonald's on Shehab Street. There are no signs pointing to the store, and we had to ask guys hanging out at the kiosk across the street to find it. It's on the second floor, and the entrance is lined with mannequins in various "character" costumes. There's a mannequin wearing a sexy army uniform (glittery camouflage Lycra with the eagle of Egypt adorning the shoulder), and the perpetual sexy pleather dominatrix outfit.
The store has a wide variety of lingerie, ranging from everyday beige bras to underwear with plastic apples and tassels hanging off the bottom. There's even underwear with a feathery bird head attached to the front.
Saxon is an institution that's been around for 25 years. Unlike the lingerie stores downtown, most of the lingerie there is made in Egypt.
Another store, Display, sells masks and feathers along with sexy lingerie. A different store by the same name — which is run by the same man, who declined to give his name or be interviewed — was once one of the first sex toy stores in Cairo. The current owner of Display says the original sex shop shut down because of lack of business, as most people buy sex toys on the Internet.
None of the lingerie stores seem concerned about being shut down over conservative religious concerns. Display's owner is nonplussed at the suggestion that the original sex shop may have been shut down by the government.
"There was not enough business," he explains.
In the window of Mekky's store, there's a belly-dancing outfit with a diaphanous yellow skirt and a matching sparkling yellow bra. There are also a number of sexy slips and dresses in the window. "This is normal," he says, gesturing to the items. "Everybody does this, everybody puts sexy underwear in the window. There are no problems."
The shop owners say they aren't aware of any precedent for shuttering lingerie businesses for morality reasons, and they aren't concerned about a perceived lack of morality in their displays because most of their clientele are married women.
You've heard of storm chasers and tornado hunters who travel far and wide to capture extreme weather. Carlo Dellarole will go anywhere anytime that the moon and sun cross paths.
ROME — "It's as if my heart stops beating for a few minutes and then starts pumping again. Pure adrenaline mixed with emotion," says geologist Carlo Dellarole, 55, on witnessing a total solar eclipse. An avid amateur astronomer from Castellamonte in northwestern Italy, he has plenty of experience in viewing them: Since 1998 he has seen 11 around the world, the first one in Antigua, the latest on March 20 in the Faroe Islands.
"I feel privileged, it's sort of a miracle," he says of his experience in the archipelago. "It rained so much and the wind was very strong. My daughter and I were in the Sandavágur inlet, near Vágar airport, and it went well. Suddenly the sky opened up and allowed us to capture the sun when it had almost entered the totality phase."
Dellarole spent 20 hours traveling to witness this unusual phenomenon that occurs when the moon lines up perfectly with the Earth and plunges the planet into complete darkness. From 9:41 a.m. to 9:43 a.m. on March 20 everything stopped — even the wind, Dellarole recalls.
"We couldn't hear the birds anymore and the image of it all was just enchanting," he says. "It's a moment that causes powerful emotions. Then when the light returns everything goes back to normal. You can hear people shouting, greeting each other — happiness."
Next stop Indonesia
Dellarole captured the total phase of the eclipse with his Pentax telescope and Canon 6D camera. His best image was submitted as NASA"s Astronomy Picture of the Day. He's still waiting to hear back whether it won. Dellarole was already recognized in January when a shot of asteroid 2004 BL86 was published, taken with his friend Andrea Demarchi, a doctor with a passion for astrophysics.
Asteroid 2004 BL86 — Photo: Carlo Dellarole, Andrea Demarchi
After having viewed eclipses in Antigua, Hungary, Zambia, South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Siberia, China, the Maldives, Polynesia, and now the Faroe Islands, Dellarole is already planning future trips in search of total eclipses.
"In March 2016, there will be one visible in Indonesia, Borneo and the Philippines. But all amateur astronomers await the big event on Aug. 21, 2017, when the band of totality will completely cross the United States — from Oregon to the Carolinas. Obviously I'll be there," he says, "I've decided my last one will be in Tokyo in 2035."
Finally, a tip for those who haven't shared a similar experience: "Save your money for a trip that will allow you to look up at the sky and see the wonders that dominate us," he says. "It will be just you and the sun; a magic you'll get to live maybe only once in your lifetime."
RAS BAALBEK — There's a 140-kilometer strip of land on top of the mountains just north of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley that marks the border with Syria. It's here that ISIS has dug in, appropriating a remote corner of Lebanon where the terror group has accumulated militants, resources and hostages to gear up for an impending battle with Hezbollah-backed government troops.
This strip is a strategic area because it allows jihadists from ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, who are allies, to threaten seven small towns in the valley. Among the few who know well the imprecise boundaries of the terror groups' enclave in Lebanon is Talal Iskander, head of the International Red Cross. The organization operates in Ras Baalbek, rescuing those wounded in battle between ISIS and the Lebanese.
"We began work here at the end of 2012," Iskander explains. "The bloodiest phase was last fall when we received around 3,000 wounded from both sides. And the pace has continued with about 60 to 70 injuries a week. Not a day goes by without clashes along the front line between troops and ISIS."
There's a "safe zone" eight kilometers from Ras Baalbek where the Red Cross collects the wounded from both sides, bringing them back to the Sunni town still formally in the hands of the government — though support for ISIS is visible with posters and flags. It's when you leave the northernmost Lebanese town of Arsal in the direction of the mountains that you cross the invisible border with the so-called ISIS "caliphate" led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
"On the ISIS side, there are small isolated villages, refugee camps, a court administering justice on the basis of Sharia, and other ISIS offices," Iskander says, citing testimony from the wounded who ask him every day to go and help in the zone closed off by soldiers. ISIS has repeatedly made it known that they want to declare the birth of an "emirate" in Arsal to rival the capital of Beirut.
Lying in wait
The opinion of the Hezbollah commanders in Baalbek is that the ISIS "terrorists are shuffling their cards to prepare for battle when the weather changes." Presumably, when the snow-covered peaks thaw, the showdown will begin. ISIS has been preparing, arriving from the Syrian side with militiamen, food supplies and ammunition. Meanwhile, Hezbollah — which considers Bekaa Valley its sacred territory — is ready on the other side for a "cleansing operation" to annihilate the enemy, says a 45-year-old officer who requested anonymity.
Among the the jihadists' trump cards are 30 Lebanese soldiers who have been held hostage since August. Four have already been beheaded. One of these men was Mohammed Hamie, 25, the son of a Shia civil war veteran who had hoped for "bloody revenge against ISIS."
"My son's killers are barbarians, and Lebanon must react as Jordan did after the pilot was burned alive," says Hamie's father Maruf, sitting next to his other three children and a Kalashnikov. "We need to hit them hard, by hanging the terrorists we already have in prison and sending jets to destroy them in Arsal."
Maruf is ready to do his part and says he knows who killed his son. "It was the ISIS Emir to Arsal. It's Hujairi Mustafa also known as Abu Taqie, and he's a dead man walking. He ordered the beheading, and he will be killed, but only after his son dies so he can go through what I did," he says, giving voice to the desire for revenge that's in the air.
Just a few kilometers away, 28-year-old Adel Islaim decided to take up arms and defend his village of Britel from ISIS attacks two months ago. "It was early afternoon when I received a message on WhatsApp saying that ISIS were coming," he says. "I picked up my gun and went into the street. There were 4,000 of us, all the men in the village, and we went to meet them."
The caliphate's militiamen hit the town from above in the mountains with mortars, came down into the valley and killed eight Hezbollah men before they were beaten back. Among the Hezbollah members who rushed to give support to the residents was 27-year-old policeman Mohammed al-Masri. He climbed onto the roof of a house to show us where the attack came from. "We defended with Kalashnikovs, G3 and RPG launchers, but we know that they'll try to come back."
North of Bekaa, Hezbollah is coordinating the defense in front of the mountains. On the other side are the black flags of the caliphate. Further south, the only road leading to Beirut is guarded by soldiers, police and Lebanese intelligence — with dozens of checkpoints. Residents of the Christian village of Ksara feel besieged. "Hezbollah is protecting us because ISIS wants to kill us all," says Munir Dika, a local doctor.
The military is looking everywhere for young people, rented cars or bearded Syrians. They're tracking the car bombs that ISIS has managed to bring, six times now, from Arsal to Beirut — setting them off in the Shia Dahieh district of the capital, which Hezbollah has turned into a bunker where at least 500,000 people live. The outer perimeter is locked and closed by cement boulders, and inside there are large iron bars that can be closed at any time to stop cars entering. The Al Rasul Al Azzam hospital, where Hezbollah takes its wounded, is surrounded by towers and barbed wire.
Shia night patrols guard the outer perimeter of the nearby Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps to prevent Sunni jihadists from escaping. There is a suspicion that Islamic groups in the countryside are allied with ISIS cells. The armed Shia militants standing in front of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's house mark the point where buses leave to go to Syria, and posters of Hezbollah's fallen heroes and martyrs adorn the walls, lampposts and windows.
"This conflict against ISIS is so different from what we have fought before," says Hamza Akl Hamieh, a former collaborator of the late Ayatollah Khomeini who now lives in exile in Paris. He became a military leader of the Amal Movement in Lebanon, best known in Europe for a spate of hijackings between 1979 and 1982. "We have to defend Lebanon from a tribe of murderers," he says. "It will be hard, but they will lose."
Hence the ongoing preparations to regain the strip of land ISIS controls in the Bekaa mountains. The voices from the Beirut suburbs suggest that Hezbollah will have hundreds of soldiers ready to fight, and the orders have been given to "take no prisoners." The veterans of the 2013 battle of al-Qusayr expect fierce clashes. "Those who fight for ISIS are inhuman," one says. "They face bullets without showing any fear."