News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

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March 29, 2009

Spain court mulls US torture case

Spain court mulls US torture case

An unnamed inmate sleeps in his cell at Guantanamo, file image

Some inmates were subjected to controversial interrogation techniques

Spanish judges have agreed to consider charging six former US officials with providing legal justification for alleged torture at Guantanamo Bay.

Human rights lawyers brought the case against the six, who all served under former President George W Bush.

Among those named was former defence official Douglas Feith, who said the charges against him “made no sense”.

Spanish courts can prosecute offences such as torture or war crimes even if they occurred in other countries.

The former officials – who include ex-Attorney-General Alberto Gonzalez – could face arrest on leaving the US if the courts decide to issue warrants.

‘Controversial position’

The lawyers who brought the case accuse the six of providing legal cover to allow the security services to use techniques of interrogation such as “waterboarding”.

They say the methods amounted to torture.

Mr Feith, a former under-secretary for defence, rebuffed the accusations.

“The charges as related to me make no sense,” he said.

“They criticise me for promoting a controversial position that I never advocated.”

The lawyers took their accusations to Judge Baltasar Garzon, who agreed to allow state prosecutors to decide if the case has merit.

Judge Garzon was responsible for bringing a prosecution against former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in the UK in 1998.

Spain’s courts have also launched investigations over alleged crimes in Argentina, Tibet, El Salvador and Rwanda.

December 1, 2008

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Stranded passengers at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok

Thousands of passengers have been stranded by the protests

About 40 empty planes have flown out of Bangkok’s international airport after authorities reached a deal with protesters camped there for seven days.

Thousands of travellers have been stranded since anti-government groups took over two airports last week.

The deal allows a total 88 planes to be flown out to other Thai airports, where it is hoped they can evacuate some of the blockaded tourists.

The crisis has economically damaged the country since it intensified last week.

Thailand’s deputy premier for economic affairs is reported to be meeting senior figures in commerce, industry and tourism today to discuss the damage being done.

As the backlog of stranded foreigners grows with each day, foreign embassies are beside themselves with frustration.

Foreign airlines

A spokeswoman for Airports of Thailand said: “Thirty-seven aircraft have left Suvarnabhumi (international airport) since the first aircraft of Siam GA (a regional airline) took off on Sunday evening.

“International airlines will have to contact us to take those stranded aircraft out of Suvarnabhumi.”

Twelve planes belonging to foreign airlines are stranded at Suvarnabhumi, as well as 29 from Thai Airways, 16 of Thai Airasia, 15 from Bangkok Airways, and 22 aircraft from other airlines.

With thousands of British citizens among the estimated 100,000 travellers, a spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said: “Bangkok’s two main airports remain closed but airlines have been able to arrange flights and transfers to and from alternative airports.

An anti-government protester outside Bangkok airport

“Some British nationals have been able to fly out but not in the necessary numbers.

“We have continued our consultations with airlines and Thai authorities…and action is being stepped up to enable people to travel in greater numbers, for example via Chiang Mai.”

Chiang Mai, in the north, is 700km (435 milies) by road from Bangkok, while the other option – Phuket, a resort in the south – is 850km (530 miles).

France has said it will send a “special plane” to fly its citizens out of Thailand on Monday, with “those in the most pressing situations…given priority,” AFP news agency reported.

Air France-KLM has already said it would fly travellers out of Phuket.

A few airlines have been using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 140km (90 miles) south-east of Bangkok.

On Sunday more than 450 Muslim pilgrims stranded at the international airport were taken by bus to the base where they were to board a plane for the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Spain and Australia have been arranging special flights to evacuate their citizens.

Thailand’s tourist industry is losing an estimated $85m (£55.4m) per day, and the government warns that the number of foreign tourists arriving next year may halve, threatening one million jobs.

The protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are a loose alliance of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

They opposition want the government to resign, accusing it of being corrupt, hostile to the monarchy and in league with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


Are you stranded in Thailand or do you have family affected by the protests? What are your or their experiences? Send us your comments

October 4, 2008

Blast outside Basque region court

Blast outside Basque region court

Map

A bomb has exploded outside a court in Spain’s north-eastern Basque region, after a warning from Eta, the armed separatist group, Spanish media report.

The small blast went off at 0115 (0015 BST) in the town of Tolosa and no injuries were reported.

The device was reportedly left in a rucksack on the steps of the court.

The attacks come at a time of increased turbulence in Basque politics after Spanish courts banned two Basque parties over their links to Eta.

Spanish public television station TVE said a man claiming to represent ETA called the Basque traffic department to warn of an imminent blast about half an hour before the explosion.

Eta’s four-decade campaign to set up an independent state straddling northern Spain and south-western France has led to more than 800 deaths.

The group resumed its campaign of violence in December 2006, following the failure of secret dialogue with Spain’s Socialist government.

Last month, eight people were arrested after a series of car bombs in northern Spain which killed a Spanish army officer and injured several others.

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September 22, 2008

One dead after Basque car bombs

One dead after Basque car bombs

Police officers inspect scene of car bomb at Basque regional police headquarters in Ondarroa

At least three policemen were injured in the Ondarroa car bomb

A third car bomb in 24 hours has exploded in northern Spain, killing one person and injuring another.

Basque separatist group Eta gave a telephone warning before the latest blast, near a military academy in the town of Santona in Cantabria region.

Earlier, three policemen were among 11 people injured in an explosion outside a police station in Ondarroa.

And another bomb exploded in the outskirts of the Basque regional capital Vitoria, but no one was hurt.

Eta also gave a telephone warning before the Vitoria blast.

Correspondents say the attacks come at a time of increased turbulence in Basque politics.

Spain’s supreme court recently declared two Basque nationalist parties illegal because of alleged links to Eta.

September 10, 2008

Britain ‘to fall into recession’

Britain ‘to fall into recession’

German car production line

Many exporters have been hit by the stronger euro

The UK, Germany and Spain will fall into recession in 2008, the European Commission has predicted.

Brussels said the three countries would see two negative quarters of economic growth in a row, which is the technical definition of a recession.

In its latest economic forecast, the commission also downgraded its outlook for eurozone growth again.

It said the 15-nation bloc would now grow by 1.3% this year, against previous projections of 1.7%.

Earlier this month, data showed the region’s economy shrank by 0.2% between April and June – the bloc’s first decline since its creation in 1999.

The contraction was driven by a slowdown in exports and consumer spending.

But high inflation in the region led policy makers at the European Central Bank to keep interest rates at 4.25% at its latest meeting, allowing no relief for the eurozone’s slowing economies.

In its latest report, the commission believed that inflation was now likely to creep up to 3.6% in the eurozone – above its previous predictions of 3.2% and way above the government’s target of 2%.

Gloomy outlook

Shaken by a housing slump and volatile financial markets, the Brussels-based organization predicts that the UK economy, which is not a member of the eurozone, will shrink by an annual rate of 0.2% in each of the next two quarters.

The grim outlook echoes forecasts from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) out earlier this week, which were even worse.

According to the latest official figures, the UK economy did not grow at all in the second quarter of 2008.

The European Commission said the UK economy would grow by 1.1% in 2008 – much less than the 1.7% previously forecast and a sharp reduction from the official Treasury forecast of 2.5%.

A second quarter of negative growth is also expected in the German and Spanish economies, which are expected to contract by 0.2% and 0.1% respectively.

Stubborn inflation

Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia blamed ructions in the financial markets, soaring commodity prices and the housing slump for the gloomy outlook.

“In a context of an unusually high degree of uncertainty, the external headwinds not only had a direct adverse impact on inflation and capital costs, but also an indirect one on confidence,” he said.

Stamping out hopes of an interest rate cut in the near term, Mr Almunia said even if economic activity were to slow further, inflation risks were still “tilted to the upside”.

“The risk of second-round effects can not be excluded, although there is no evidence of any widespread such effects so far.”

September 4, 2008

Roman Empire ‘raised HIV threat’

Roman Empire ‘raised HIV threat’

Roman

The Romans spread their genes far and wide

The spread of the Roman Empire through Europe could help explain why those living in its former colonies are more vulnerable to HIV.

The claim, by French researchers, is that people once ruled by Rome are less likely to have a gene variant which protects against HIV.

This includes England, France, Greece and Spain, New Scientist reports.

Others argue the difference is linked to a far larger event, such as the spread of bubonic plague or smallpox.

We’re waiting for the big piece of evidence which will solve this
Dr Susan Scott
Liverpool University

The idea that something carried by the occupying Romans could have a widespread influence on the genes of modern Europeans comes from researchers at the University of Provence.

They say that the frequency of the variant corresponds closely with the shifting boundaries of the thousand-year empire.

In countries inside the borders of the empire for longer periods, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, the frequency of the CCR5-delta32 gene, which offers some protection against HIV, is between 0% and 6%.

Countries at the fringe of the empire, such as Germany, and modern England, the rate is between 8% and 11.8%, while in countries never conquered by Rome, the rate is greater than this.

Legionnaire’s disease

However, the researchers do not believe that the genetic difference is due to Roman soldiers or officials breeding within the local population – history suggests this was not particularly widespread, and that invading and occupying armies could have been drawn not just from Italy but from other parts of the empire.

Instead, they say that the Romans may have introduced a disease to which people with the CCR5-Delta32 variant were particularly susceptible. This tallies with some other theories of why some have the gene variant, and some do not.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool had suggested that the variant could have offered protection against pandemics such as the Black Death which swept Europe on a regular basis during and after the Roman era.

These, said the Liverpool researchers, were viral illnesses which were lethal to people without the gene variant, raising its frequency from one in 20,000 people to approximately 10% in Northern Europe.

Dr Susan Scott, one of the researchers, said that the idea of Roman occupation being the driving force behind this was another theory to be considered.

“We just don’t know. This is just another piece of the jigsaw, but we’re waiting for the big piece of evidence which will solve this.”

August 24, 2008

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

Beijing primed for Olympic finale

The Bird's Nest stadium hosts the closing ceremony

Plenty of fireworks are in store at the closing ceremony

The Beijing Games draw to a close on Sunday after what many have described as one of the best Olympics ever held.

China, having beaten the United States to top the medals table, will hand the Olympic flag to the 2012 hosts London at a closing ceremony from 1300 BST.

Great Britain surpassed all targets by winning 19 golds at the 2008 Games – their best haul for a century.

Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the men’s marathon on the final day, with basketball and boxing finals to come.

Six boxing titles are being decided while the men’s basketball final, featuring the United States and Spain, starts at 0730 BST.

Later, the spectacular farewell in front of a packed house of more than 90,000 at the Bird’s Nest stadium is set to last three hours and will include fireworks displays at 18 locations across Beijing.

The organisers have promised a more light-hearted show than the opening ceremony, which focused heavily on Chinese history.

Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, who claimed three gold medals at the Games, will carry the flag for Team GB at the closing ceremony.

The ceremony will also see London mayor Boris Johnson receive the Olympic flag to signal the countdown to the 2012 Games.

Team GB have been congratulated for their efforts in a message from The Queen.

“As a nation we now look forward to holding the Olympic Games in London in 2012,” she said.”The golden triumphs of the present British team can only serve as further inspiration to those who will be working hard over the next four years to make the London Games a shining example of Olympic success.”

China staged the Olympics against a background dominated by fears of pollution, worries over security and protests about its human rights record.

But the sporting action has been enthralling, with highlights including Michael Phelps swimming to a record eight gold medals and Jamaican Usain Bolt breaking three world records as he bagged a sprint title treble.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spoke on Sunday of his hope that a UK football team could compete in the next Olympics, will attend the closing event.

Prime minister Gordon Brown and footballer Beckham

Brown rubs shoulders with Beckham in Beijing

The London Olympics will also have a eight-minute slot that will feature a version of Led Zeppelin classic Whole Lotta Love performed by the group’s guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Leona Lewis.Footballer David Beckham will be involved as will the Royal Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The closing show will also feature a duet by Chinese folk singer Song Zuying and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, along with a performance by a 350-strong kung-fu group.

There promises to be another spectacular show earlier in the day when the US basketball team, aka the ‘Redeem Team’, look to reclaim their crown against world champions Spain.

There are also six boxing gold medals to be decided, with Ireland’s Kenny Egan going in the light-heavyweight final.

Other finals are taking place in the men’s water polo (0840), men’s volleyball (0500), and men’s handball (0845).

In the rhythmic gymnastics group all-around event, Russia defended their title to take gold, while China claimed silver and Belarus bronze.

In total, there will be 12 gold medals won on the final day of action before the Games are handed on to London.

August 14, 2008

BA seals alliance with American

BA seals alliance with American

British Airways says it has sealed an alliance with American Airlines that will allow the two carriers to agree fares, routes and schedules together.

The move will also include Spain’s Iberia, which is merging with BA.

With aviation fuel prices near record levels and spending on air travel slowing, airlines are looking at ways to cut costs.

But the carriers will have to persuade the US that the deal does not break US rules on foreign ownership of airlines.

Challenges

Under the business agreement, the three airlines will co-operate on flights between the US, Mexico and Canada and the EU, Switzerland and Norway.

“We believe our proposed co-operation is an important step towards ensuring that we can compete effectively with rival alliances and manage through the challenges of record fuel prices and growing economic concerns,” said Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines.

However, BA’s rival Virgin Atlantic, owned by Sir Richard Branson, said the plan would reduce competition in the airline industry.

“What they’re proposing is to create the world’s biggest airline with American Airlines,” said Virgin’s Paul Charles.

“But we know what dominant players do – they snuff out competition, they raise prices and they become even more dominant.”

Competition

Peter Morris, an aviation analyst from Ascend, told that it was unlikely that the deal would be anti-competitive.

“I think BA would argue that it will reduce its cost structure, which it can then pass on, to a degree, to passengers.

“BA is far less dominant than any of Air France, KLM or Lufthansa are out of their hubs.”

AA and BA tailfins

The airlines hope the alliance will help them to cut costs

Mark Pritchard MP, a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, also saw the decision as “good news” for both UK and US consumers.

“With tougher trading conditions for most airlines – coupled with the need to support the spirit of the Open Skies Agreement, Congress has no real excuse to delay the deal unnecessarily,” he said.

The airlines said they planned to apply to the US Department of Transportation for immunity from US anti-competition rules and they would also notify European regulators.

They have previously failed to win an exemption from these laws because of their dominance at Heathrow, where BA and AA control nearly half of all the landing and take-off slots to the US from the airport.

‘Good news’

However, BA chief executive Willie Walsh said the relationship would strengthen competition by providing consumers with easier journeys to more destinations.

“This may not be good news for Richard Branson but it is good news for consumers,” Mr Walsh told.

Earlier this week, Sir Richard said he had written to presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain to warn that the proposed alliance between BA and American Airlines would severely damage competition on transatlantic routes.

US airline ‘broke safety rules’

US airline ‘broke safety rules’

American Airlines planes (file image)

American Airlines has joined forces with British Airways

US aviation officials are accusing American Airlines of major breaches of safety, including intentionally flying planes known to need repairing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants to fine the company a total of $7.1m (£3.8m).

An FAA statement said two MD-83 planes were used on dozens of flights in 2007, even though repair work reported as necessary by pilots had not been done.

Problems with drug and alcohol testing were also found, officials say.

The FAA statement comes hours after British Airways confirmed it had sealed an alliance with American Airlines, allowing the two carriers to agree fares, routes and schedules together.

The alliance also includes Spain’s Iberia, which is merging with BA.

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