Category: Letters to Florence



It’s been two years to the day since Mirna passed away.

I was reminded of this painful reality by Facebook’s “On this Day” feature. A sad sign of the times, perhaps, to be reminded of the death of a dear friend by social media. But also an apt one, as I sometimes find myself visiting Mirna’s Facebook profile when I miss her dearly and scramble for memories of the last few times we interacted — both online and in real life.

I do, of course, have Whatsapps, text messages, emails and Instagram likes and comments to remember her by. I have viewed and re-read them countless times over the past 24 months. In each message, post and comment I find an additional sign of her determination to overcome brain cancer — a disease she never gave in to, even though it ultimately claimed her life.

At various points in our friendship, I wasn’t there for Mirna in the way that I should or could have been. The texts also remind me of my shortcomings in that respect. The guilt associated with those shortcomings is something I still struggle to contend with: I could have been more present, more communicative, more supportive. At the same time, Mirna was forgiving and loving and warm, without fail, whenever we communicated or saw each other.

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Man of the Orchard

Update: Since I wrote this piece in February, Sukoon, an Arab literary magazine, kindly republished it here. I was also asked to turn the tribute into the below podcast for Black River Press. With thanks to both Rewa and Themba. 

I  first met jeddo (grandpa) in August 1987. I was just three years old, but I have this distinct memory of him hurriedly running down the driveway of his humble orchard-home in Zahrani, barefoot, in the pouring rain, to embrace my mother. He hadn’t seen her since just before the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982; they’d barely communicated in the interim. Tears were streaming down his face as he held her.

Osman “Abu Nasser” Antar was born to Zahra and Mahmoud in Sidon in 1929. He was the fifth of eight other siblings — one sister, and seven brothers. His father was a trader and a landowner who worked between Palestine and South Lebanon; he managed his finances poorly.

When jeddo was barely 11, my great-grandfather unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family of ten with very little to survive on. My grandpa was consequently forced to leave school to provide for himself, his younger siblings, and his mother. Continue reading

This is Leila. She Was Murdered by Al-Qaeda


The Arab world has lost yet another tremendous talent to terrorism.

Leila Alaoui, a French-Moroccan photographer, passed away last night.

She was just 33.

Leila, who was on a photo assignment in Burkina Faso for Amnesty International, spent three days fighting for her life after being shot by Al-Qaeda militants at close range as she arrived at a restaurant late last week. Driver and Burkina Faso national Mahamadi Ouédraogo died along with Alaoui. They were two of at least 32 people who were murdered in the horrific Ouagadougou attack. Continue reading

‘We Just Want to Go to England Please’

In less than 12 months, Calais — the tiny port-city in the north of France — has become synonymous with the plight of refugees worldwide.

Situated just across the English Tunnel, the makeshift migrant camp has frequently been referred to in international media outlets as a “jungle” or a “slum.”

Thousands of refugees — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea —  struggle to survive on charity handouts at the camp, with many planning to embark on a desperate, often fateful journey by way of lorries and trains to the United Kingdom.

At the same time, coverage of these asylum seekers has either been muted or xenophobic. Continue reading

Dear Gaza

In the six months since I started Florence of Arabia, one of my favourite things about the blog has been the infinite space it’s given me to write embarrassing love letters to some incredible Arab artists, journalists, writers, musicians and film-makers — mostly to spread the word on how much brilliance this troubled region possesses.

It’s the sort of quiet yet powerful talent that you want anyone and everyone to know about. In this vein, I’ve decided to ring in the new year with an intoxicating poem written by an equally intoxicating and talented Palestinian-American poet (who moonlights as a clinical psychologist in New York City): Hala Alyan.

“I’ve written for as long as I can remember,” Alyan said in an e-mail this week. “From a young age, I was enchanted by the prospect of storytelling and playing with language; it was like getting to live a thousand lives.” Continue reading

On Paris, Beirut and ISIS

*Filed under Letters to Florence*

Some unique takes on the Paris attacks from Aida Alami, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Foreign Policy, and Bashir Saade, a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. (Note from Nov. 24: I’ve also added a third account from journalist and PhD candidate Sobhiya Najjar.)

While Alami offers a personal account of reporting from the scene in Paris — and the thoughts that crossed her mind at the time — Saade takes a step back to make some sense of the political implications of the attacks in both France and Lebanon.

Najjar’s piece centres on the cognitive dissonance she felt as her concern wavered from Paris to Beirut and from Beirut to Paris.

With many thanks to all three contributors. Continue reading

Here’s One Way You Can Help Syrian Refugees Keep Warm This Winter

Winter in Lebanon is projected to be particularly harsh this year, with temperatures poised to drop to subzero levels.

This worsens an already disturbing, brutal reality for the vast majority of the nation’s 1 million+ Syrian refugees, who continue to live in makeshift camps as the war in their home country shows no signs of abating.

SAWA for Development and Aid,  a Lebanon-based charity that specialises in improving the living conditions of families and individuals in these refugees camps, is holding a winter clothes drive in Beirut tomorrow (November 14) entitled Before the Storm. The charity has also launched an online donation campaign to help address the problem. Continue reading

On War, Food and Leaving Iraq: a Letter from Baghdad

Vivian Salama
, who’s covered the Middle East as a journalist for more than a decade, has served as Baghdad bureau chief at the Associated Press for 18 months.

During her time in the Iraqi capital, she has overseen stories dealing with the Islamic State’s takeover of large swathes of the country, the displaced Yazidi community, the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS and the digitisation of the national library, among countless others. She also interviewed the Prime Minister of the war-torn country, Haidar Al-Abadi, in addition to former PM, Nouri al-Maliki.

Salama, an Egyptian-American,  is set to leave Baghdad for a Deputy Political Editor post in Washington D.C. on November 24.

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