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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Becky Lee Katz

IRAN: Dangerous levels of nitrate in Tehran's drinking water reported

Amid reports that water in parts of Tehran may be tainted with high levels of toxic nitrate, the Ministry of Power has handed out free bottles of water to an underprivileged suburb south of the city.

Parliamentarian Hasan Ta’mini, a member of the Health and Medicare Commission, reported that authorities had hoped to address the water crisis within a week, though no solution has yet been announced.

Water consumption soars as the summer heat rises in densely populated Tehran. For neighborhoods and families struggling with overpopulation, endemic poverty and air pollution in the south, the heat, and dehydration, can be oppressive.

South tehran

The Water and Sewage Waste Organization, an agency of the Ministry of Power, recently dug new wells to expand the water supply. Though most of the drinking water for Tehran typically flowed from the reservoirs of Karaj Amirkabir Dam, one hour west of Tehran, 30% of the water is now coming from these wells.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Dr. Marziyeh Vahid Dasjerdi announced that the amount of nitrate found in the drinking water pipes in parts of Tehran exceeded the appropriate level, posing a serious threat to city-dwellers’ health.

The director-general of the Water and Sewage Waste Organization, Mohammad Parvaresh, denied the claim of a nitrate threat, claiming that all water was uncontaminated and safe to drink.

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LEBANON: Supermarket chain won't sell Melitta coffee filters with Hebrew writing on package

Lebanon-melittaFor those craving a fresh cup of home-made Joe while in Lebanon, finding a pack of coffee filters may become a difficult task.

You might even find yourself crawling from neighborhood corner store to mini-mart to grocery megaplex under the scorching sun searching for filters.

Why? Because though the Arab League may lack the unity to cling to its once-potent boycott of Israel, which from 1942 to 1993 was highly comprehensive, Syria and Lebanon still adhere to an orthodox interpretation.

And though the coffee filters you seek may be German and not Israeli -- Melitta in this instance -- it apparently makes no difference to the Lebanese branch of a major Kuwaiti supermarket chain, The Sultan Center, known by its acronym T.S.C.

At least one T.S.C. supermarket nestled in the quaint, largely Francophone neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh in Beirut recently sent back its shipment of Melitta coffee filters after discovering that the boxes had Hebrew script on the side.

“We saw that they are from Israel so we sent them back," one of the retail assistants said to a customer. "Don’t worry. We will be getting Melitta’s from America instead."

No, they’re not from Israel. Though the sight of the Jewish state’s official language is enough to make some foes of Israel recoil, Melitta’s European Article Number, a bar code listed on all products from the continent, shows that the filters were made in Germany.

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KUWAIT: Islamic purists hound education minister

Nice humoudKuwait’s education chief has run up against the fire and brimstone of puritanical Muslim members of parliament for her recent decision to tone down the incendiary religious content of the nation's school curriculum.

In late June, reports surfaced that Minister of Education Moudhi Humoud met with some of the country’s teachers of Islamic studies to discuss a controversial draft of a ninth-grade final exam. 

In it, two potentially explosive questions were posed regarding the companions of the prophet Muhammad and appropriate behavior at a cemetery. Some accuse Humoud of instructing teachers to cancel both questions on their exams and to consider revising the state curriculum to skip over the issues completely.

Both topics are doctrinal points of contention between Sunni and Shiite religious scholars. The secular Sunni minister may have hoped to contain brimming sectarian tension in Kuwait, which is mostly Sunni but includes a significant Shiite minority. 

Immediately, a storm erupted in Kuwait City. Puritanical Sunni Salafists and other conservative Sunni parliamentarians called for Humoud’s grilling. Not at the stake, but in the halls of parliament.

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TURKEY: Kurdish teenager convicted as terrorist for attending demonstration

Convicted of terrorism, a Kurdish teenager is serving a seven-year, nine-month prison sentence in Turkey’s Prison E in Diyarbakir.

On October 9, 15-year-old Berivan Sayaca left her parents’ home in Batman in southeast Turkey to pay a visit to her aunt. She never came home. 


According to news reports, Turkish authorities charged that Sayaca stopped at a demonstration organized by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known by the acronym PKK, and threw stones at police. Her advocates deny that she attended the protest and say she simply passed through the crowd. They say the rally was coordinated not by the PKK but by the recently banned Kurdish political party Peace and Democracy, or BDP.

In densely populated and economically suffering southeast Turkey, pro-Kurdish protests are commonplace. On some occasions, youths have thrown stones and gasoline bombs at police, who respond with tear gas and water cannons, the BBC reported.

Amnesty International says that an anti-terror law passed by the current Turkish government in 2006 states that minors can be convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

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LEBANON: Hip-hop heavyweight Timbaland latest performer to take on the house music stronghold

TIM 1Yet another wildly commercial R&B giant descended onto Beirut.

This time, Timbaland, the Grammy Award-winning record producer, singer-songwriter and rapper, performed for a crowd at a yacht-studded port, La Marina Dbyaeh, not long ago. 

Timbaland is one of many popular R&B/hip-hop artists who recently performed in Lebanon. The tiny but spirited nation is becoming flush with American stars despite its predilection for European house music. 

In August 2009, Akon and Snoop Dogg performed separately in Beirut. Then Sean Paul, Missy Elliott and Pitbull teamed up in December 2009. Gorillaz will perform this month as part of the Byblos International Festival. 

Timbaland, born Timothy Zachery Mosley, sang more than rapped, an increasingly popular style among artists despite criticism by some in the industry. Though his performance was welcomed by concertgoers as a refreshing alternative to the dominance of techno music, it was saturated with pauses and Timbaland dancing solo.

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IRAN: Merchants continue to protest government's proposed tax hike

Bazaar strike 1All eyes in Iran are on the bazaar, the nation's traditional marketplaces, where tensions have peaked over a proposed tax hike that has fused with other strains of discontent against the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since Tuesday, strikes in Tehran’s old bazaar rage on as merchants still refuse to accept the government’s proposal for an increase on their income tax.

By some accounts, the bazaar protest is gathering momentum. In response to the growing demonstrations, increasing numbers of police are stationed not only around the bazaar but in various points throughout Tehran.

Authorities have also shut down the bazaar, declaring Sunday, ordinarily a bustling work day, an impromptu holiday because of the hot weather in an attempt to mask over the strike.

On Sunday, subways heading to the bazaar were relatively empty. Whole swaths of the market were shut down

"I am still continuing my strike," said Ali, a cloth merchant. "I may keep shut on Monday too."

He said his annual taxes were jumping from about $1,700 to $4,700 despite slow business.

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IRAN: Government backs off on stoning, but what's next?

AdulteryWill she be stoned, executed or set free?

Though the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London issued a news release Thursday announcing that the regime would not stone to death an Iranian woman accused of adultery, it did not clarify what fate awaited her.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been in a Tabriz prison since 2006. It is speculated that she may still face a similarly gruesome death penalty sentence of hanging or beheading.

Her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafai, aid in an interview that he will approach the judiciary on Monday to inquire about his client’s fate.

Though she was a widow at the time, Ashtiani has already received a public flogging of 99 lashes for an “illicit relationship” outside marriage. With murky evidence, the judge convicted her of adultery during her husband’s lifetime as well in May 2006.

Though she retracted what her defenders say was a forced confession made during interrogation, she was still found guilty of "adultery while being married." Iranian law stipulates that three out of five judges can convict based on “knowledge of the judge," without significant evidence, reported Amnesty International.

The communique issued by the Iranian Embassy apparently denies stoning as the sentence doled out to Ashtiani."It is notable that this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran," it said.

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IRAN: Bazaar strike triumphs as government retreats from tax hike

After just one day of protests, the Iranian government has retreated from its proposed 70% hike in the income tax for merchants and traders in bazaars.

On Tuesday, gold and jewelry vendors shut down Tehran's old bazaar in protest of the government's proposed tax hike. The discontent spread throughout the typically bustling bazaar as all garment, cloth and women's chador vendors slammed down their shutters and continued the strike.

Local merchants said that they did not trust the government and tax office and are already hard hit by the economy. Amir, a garment vendor, keeps a wad of bounced checks in the drawer of a table in his stall.

"Many of my clients who used to buy large quantities of garments can no longer pay their installments," he said. "Last month, I received more than [$40,000] in bounced checks. I cannot get my money back, so how can I afford to pay 70% more in taxes?"

A carpet vendor said, "The carpet business is already on the verge of collapse. So a 70% annual tax is like holding the business at gunpoint."

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IRAN: Authorities release state-produced documentary on the death of Neda Agha-Soltan

In its latest attempt to explain the death of the Green Movement's inadvertent icon Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian regime released a documentary last week to counter the widely accepted narrative of the incident.

It concludes that an unknown woman approached Agha-Soltan and, grabbing a gun in her purse, shot her. 

A police officer announces, “It seems an unknown lady was leaning on the truck with her right hand in her purse, and perhaps she had a gun and shot Neda while her hand was in her purse.”

Soon after Agha-Soltan was killed on June 20, 2009, eyewitnesses reported that a plainclothes security official or militiaman, not the civilian woman highlighted in the film, had shot her in the back.

But the Iranian government video insinuates, ultimately, that the People's Mujahedeen Organization (often known as the exiled terrorist group the MKO) may have played a role in the killing. The MKO is an Islamic Marxist opposition group that the Iranian regime has periodically cited as an instigator of civil unrest. Other more independent sources view them as a small, insignificant and nearly defunct organization.

The logic of the movie becomes a bit clumsy as the MKO is presented as an enemy of the regime as well as responsible for a protester's death.

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DUBAI: Alleged victim of gang rape sentenced to one year in prison

British_woman_arrested_in_Dubai_when_she_tried_to_report_rape-topImageThe Criminal Court of Abu Dhabi, in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, ruled this week that an 18-year-old Emirati woman who accused six men of gang-raping her will herself serve a one-year sentence for consensual sex.

It's one of in the latest in a scourge of reported rape cases in Dubai, The court proceedings were marred by legal travesties, experts say.

While the plaintiff was not granted a lawyer, the defendants were. Moreover, the plaintiff could not have any family members present with her during the trial, the court decided. The prosecution also argued that simply because the plaintiff agreed to enter the police officer's car, this action somehow constituted partial consent to sex, The National reported.

Emirati authorities had kept the plaintiff imprisoned since she made the allegations last month.

Meanwhile, the accused rapists mostly got off lightly. A police officer will serve one year in prison for extramarital sex and two of the other defendants were sentenced to three months for being in the company of a woman not related to them by blood.

Two more defendants must pay a fine of 5,000 dirhams, or $1,361.50, for violating public decency.

The court dropped charges against the sixth defendant.

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IRAQ: Human Rights Watch slams high rates of female genital excision in Iraqi Kurdistan

“I still feel the fear,” Runak recalled as she told her story of undergoing genital excision at age 7.

The 26-year-old recounted her experience to Gola Ahmad Mohammad, an activist for the Assn. for Crisis Assistance and Development Cooperation (WADI). “When they tried to circumcise me, I ran away from one village to another to avoid the process. But they found me and brought me back home. I heard my mom when they were cutting a piece of my genitals say to me, ‘This will make you pure and the water of your hands become halal [permissible],”  indicating she would otherwise consider her impure.

Kurds 2In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mohammad shared that many girls and women who spoke to WADI stressed the deception and secrecy of the process as particularly painful. The excision also reverberates with immediate and permanent physical damage.

It most commonly involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce, also known as a clitoridectomy. Some adult women undergo the procedure in a more invasive manner though it serves no medical purpose.

While the procedure is practiced in various parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it has begun to receive greater global awareness. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch held a news conference in Irbil, Iraq, to rally international outcry against the  practice.

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LEBANON: Government split down the middle on latest U.N. sanctions on Iran

Lebanese councilLebanon's government split into two rival camps, deeply divided on whether to abstain or oppose the latest round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran. Though Lebanon ultimately abstained from the vote, the question of how Lebanon as a country should view Iran unearthed domestic political fissures.

The Cabinet of Ministers failed to reach consensus on the sanction issue, with 14 in favor of abstention and 14 opposed to sanctions. Lebanon's Ambassador to the United Nations, Nawaf Salam, had to keep the Security Council waiting for an hour until Beirut gave him directions on how to vote. Ultimately, Lebanon had no choice but to  abstain.

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