Marmalade and Mamalukes

IMG_0906What does marmalade and Mamalukes have in common? Consider the possibility of connecting the two by a fruit tree, the bitter orange, and a day of wandering in Cairo.

DSC_1283Between the 8th and 9th century, the Moors, Muslims of North Africa, introduced oranges to Spain. Bitter orange or “bigaradier” in French is the indigenous variety in Mediterranean countries. In Arabic, bitter orange is called naranj (from Persian narang and Sanskrit naranga meaning fragrant). In the Italian and Spanish language, the fruit is called naranja. DSC_1271And even English takes the word and color ‘orange’ from naranj = aranj.


In literature, we read of gardens and orchards in Mamaluke palaces full of citrus—sweet orange grafted from the bitter orange trees, lemons, grapefruits, kumquats. IMG_0860The practice of making marmalade and preserves of quince appear in the Book of Ceremonies of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII. The Moors in Islamic Spain praised the orange tree and its blossom through poetry and bitter orange trees still grace the streets of Seville today.

February in the Fayoum is bitter orange season. In Egypt, the finest bitter oranges come from the soil of the Fayoum. The pungent fragrant blossoms fill the month of May and after nine month the fruit is ready for harvest.


DSC_1238But before I get carried away, my connection between marmalade and Mamalukes will not be found in the annuals of history; it is a simply story of a day shared with a deep sense of connectedness that evokes joyfulness of experiencing.

The February day begins with bitter, sweet chunky, semi-liquid orange marmalade; a delicacy extracted from the finest Fayoum narang from the farm of Bayt Hewison. A breakfast of warm croissants dripping with homemade bitter orange marmalade guaranteed to wake up the taste buds. And there were those thoughts… of Arab tradesmen and orange groves that spread across the Mediterranean.

At dusk I find myself in the City of the Dead at the IMG_1963Mausoleum of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq (1382-1399 AD). The magrib call floats through the streets and I sit in the splendor of the mosque where the ceiling is supported by columns and lanterns float in the dimming light, my palms open to receive the beauty that lies in this very moment.

IMG_0384Marmalade Days – a photo journey, click here





Obelisque Magazine – 2015

unnamed Articles featured in Obelisque Magazine 2015

Osun Osogbo Grove – Osogbo, Nigeria

City of the Past - Fayoum, Egypt

Encode Studio – Alexandria, Egypt

Street Art: Borg el Zamalek – Zamalek, Egypt

Osun  final  xxx 23-11-2014-001

Read Article here

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Read Article Here

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Read Article Here

Street art 20-3-14-2-001Read Here 

Obelisque Magazine 2015, all rights reserved. Photographs and text cannot be reproduced without the permission of Obelisque Magazine and Lesley Lababidi.

2015 – Cheers to a New Year!

To my loyal followers, thank you for your comments, interest, time and shared love for Egypt and Nigeria. To those of who travel through this blog, I hope you enjoy your visit and return soon. To everyone this is my sincere wish for you in 2015:

Wishing you adventurous days and carefree days,
silent days and exciting days,
simple days and triumphant days,
hopeful days and healthy days,
that each day is a precious day.


Sailing a dhow, off the coast of Zanzibar.

Sailing a dhow, off the coast of Zanzibar -2014.

Making resolutions is a cleansing ritual of self assessment and repentance that demands personal honesty and, ultimately, reinforces humility. Breaking them is part of the cycle. -Eric Zorn


Odogbolu Day 2014

Oro lle Wa “The Tradition of Our Heritage”


Every year for the past 38 years on the first Saturday of December, the Odogbolu Community gathers its sons and daughters to celebrate a year of good works by individuals, clubs and societies.  The citizens of Odogbolu take an active role to access and support security of the community, health programs and sponsor education.  No matter how far an Odogbolu son or daughter roams, home is home and one must respond to the needs of their hometown and return ‘home’ from time to time.

To celebrate this dedication to Odogbolu, a week of traditional games, traditional masquerades, football and spelling quiz competitions, and marathon races are organized by the Odogbolu Community Development Council. To culminate the festivities, a Woro Carnival Parade winds through the dusty streets that leads to the Community Town Hall. Here, the traditional ruler, town elders, local government officials, age-groups, members of clubs and societies, and guests gather to raise funds for next year’s town improvements.

It is a high honor that the Alaya of Odogbolu, Chief Oludemi, President of Odogbolu Community Development Council, and the town elders invite me to preside on this day as ‘Mother of the Day’. Thirty-eight years ago, my first son was born so it is a two-fold joy to celebrate!


In this increasingly globalized world, there is a tendency to look to corporations or government for economic solutions and support. The Odogbolu aspiration is to preserve its local character and have an economic advantage by supporting its local industry such as cassava and palm nut agricultural production. The citizens of Odogbolu recognize the need to build a strong community by sustaining an active town center and contributing to local causes. This ensures that important decisions are made locally by people who live in the community and who will benefit from the impacts of those decisions. Furthermore, Odogbolu is proud of its Yoruba heritage and on Odogbolu Day, we enjoy a variety of traditional drummers and dancers:

Music by : Orin Orisa. Yoruba Traditional Songs of Praises for OrisaAdedayo Ologundudu 2009, Oro lle Wa “The Tradition of Our Heritage”

Masqueraders on Odogbulu Day


Eyo Masquerade -(particular to Lagos a Yoruba masquerade, sometimes seen in masquerades outside of Lagos.


Agbo Traditional Dance



Egun Olotun masquerade. Egun means masquerade; the name of the masquerades Olotun. (Incredible, intricately designed traditional masquerade apparel. I am so far unable to find out the history and meaning.)


Intellectuals and Public Responsibility

 Intellectuals and Public Responsibility 

by Cornel West

“I think the life of the mind is fundamentally about a sense of awe, wonder, openness, exploration….It’s an adventure in exploring different views and viewpoints, different arguments and perspectives. There’s a certain capaciousness that goes with it, an expansiveness of heart, mind, and soul that has its own exhilarating joy in and of itself, and it is a desirable way of being in the world. It’s still worldly, in the way Edward Said put it. It’s rooted in circumstances, but it has its own intrinsic joy.”

(Hedgehog Review_, v 9, #1 [Spring ’07], p. 87)

Ghost of Slavery Past and Present

IMG_1682Ouidah, Republic of Benin – Martine de Souza, a middle-aged, enthusiastic tour guide, leads a group of travelers to the Door of No Return, a monumental arch located on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea in the Republic of Benin. From her home in Ouidah, Martine had covered 3.5 km on the back of a motor-taxi, the common mode of transportation in Benin, to meet the tour bus.DSC_1660

Martine points to the road from which she came, a sandy road known as the Route des Esclaves (Slave Route). Along this route, countless number of Africans were forced to march from Africa’s interior to slave ships that sailed the infamous Middle Passage to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern coast of North America.

Martine stands at the entrance of The Door of No Return, a modern structure that symbolizes the final exit point of African slaves forced departure. Four hundred years ago, the transAtlantic slave trade flourished along the Gulf of Guinea coast with the majority of those enslaved captured from western and central parts of the continent.

“I am the sixth generation direct descendent of our family founder, Francisco Felix de Souza,” Martine says.

“Francisco de Souza, a white Brazilian of Portuguese ancestry, came to the Kingdom of Dahomey (historical name for Benin) in 1812. He was a merchant that traded in slaves, palm oil and gold, in fact, he was the most powerful slave trader on the West African coast in the 1800s. De Souza was a close friend to the Dahomeyan king, Ghezo, who made him viceroy of Ouidah,” she reveals.

A century and a half after the arrival of her family’s patriarch, Martine de Souza guides tours along the coconut tree-lined shores that stretch out into the notoriously treacherous blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea. She tells the history of past atrocities; stories of slavery, wealth, survival, greed, and glory are told about Francisco de Souza. But she also speaks about how slavery is not a thing of the past. “Modern-day slavery is a growing problem we face today taking the forms of forced labour and human trafficking,” Martine says.


The Door of No Return, commemorative monumental arch, erected in 1995 near Ouidah, Republic of Benin

While the transAtlantic slave trade was abolished in the nineteenth century, there are still 30 million enslaved people in the world today, according to estimates of the 2013 Global Slavery Index,, a study by the Walk Free Foundation.

Thirteen of the first 20 countries where slavery is prevalent are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Republic of Benin ranks seventh, with an estimated enslaved population of 76,000–84,000.

Slavery is a relationship of violence and exploitation. Modern slavery is a developmental issue rooted in poverty, poor education, gender inequality, unemployment, and ineffective laws. Children are usually the victims, forced to labour as domestic servants, field laborers who gather crops, or street vendors who sell goods such as gasoline by pouring gasoline from bottles into vehicles.

Children work as mechanics and in construction, and are trafficked from West Africa and Central Africa for domestic and agriculture work. Children are also sexually exploited and become victims of human trafficking.

Today, Martine has dedicated her life to ending modern slavery. A descendant of someone who helped continue the slave trade in Benin, Martine has dedicated the last ten years to fighting the lingering impact of enslavement. Her home has become a refuge for street children, runaways and orphans. Martine feeds, educates and provides shelter to the children. Some leave, most stay.


Children who find shelter and care under Martine’s roof.

A survivor herself, Martine is no stranger to enslavement. Married at fifteen years old and soon with three babies to feed, Martine fed her family by braiding hair and stringing beads while enduring beatings and forced starvation.

What changed Martine’s life was her work as an assistant to Anne Kielland at the World Bank/Benin from 1999–2006 and later on a research project from PopPov (

“Anne would tell me that I was intelligent and beautiful,” Martine recalls. “I never believed it myself but having a friend and mentor like Anne encouraged me to act.”

From her office in Norway, Anne (now with Fafo, reciprocates that inspiration. “I don’t think I exaggerate when I say Martine has made my life very different and more meaningful from what it would have been had I had not accidentally stumbled into her compound in Ouidah, a very dramatic day 15 years ago.”

“I think Martine simply loves helping people. She is an angel, and it just makes her happy and her life meaningful. And what a tough life that has been,” said Anne.

Martine worked with Anne on the child mobility survey, a survey of Koranic schools, an NGO inventory, and a judicial consultancy as translator and facilitator for more than ten years in Benin. During those years, there were many documentary films produced by World Bank and USAID for the rural population.

“I realized the rural population would never have a chance to see the films so I decided to start an association called Cinevillage to screen educational films about human trafficking, enslavement, and women’s rights,” Martine recalls.

Children who find shelter and care under Martine’s roof.

Children who find shelter and care under Martine’s roof.

“When we show films about women’s rights, we went to the village elders or the chief to receive permission before showing the film,” Martine explains. “We visited the chief once, twice, and even three times before permission was granted to show the films.”

“We explain to the men that we are not teaching the women to be rebels. We explain that it is better for men when women can stand on their own and make money to feed the family.”

Even when permission was granted, men were wary. Often Martine traveled with security for fear of angering men firmly attached to patriarchal traditions.

After a typical day of working with a women’s cooperative group to produce gari (a grain made from cassava tubers), or a day with tourists at the Door of No Return, Martine drives to a local market or village center to show the films. Each market or village is visited more than a dozen times. Martine encourages discussion of topics such as child trafficking, hygiene and diseases. In each village, a committee is set up to follow the villagers’ comments and reactions.

When funds were available, several years ago, Martine showed films everyday traveling from one Beninoise village to the next. Today, there is little money and no grant for Cinevillage but Martine uses any extra money she has to drive, at least twice a month, to a village or market, pull from the back of her car a generator, speakers, film equipment and a worn, collapsible screen and show a documentary film.

“For me, showing films with an important message is why I am here but films also provide entertainment to people who normally have no electricity, no television,” Martine explains. “There is never less than 50 people in attendance.”

School children gather at a roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

School children gather at Place Lénine roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

After each film, anyone can take the microphone and speak. Martine tells of an elderly man who came up to thank her. “You taught me how to wash my hands very well,” he said into the microphone. “I always wash my hands before I eat but I didn’t know I had to clean under my fingernails,” he stated.

Martine emphasizes the importance of hearing what children have to say. Martine’s favorite story is when a child proclaimed to the people of her village, “I was sold. My parents sold me. I was taken away from the village. We went to Nigeria. The person who bought me, beat me, then I was lucky. I ran away.”

The girl continued to address the crowd. Her voice loud and strong, she said, “Keep us with you. Even if you are poor, we will love you and stay with you. If you eat sand, we will eat sand with you.”

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

At the Door of No Return, Martine continues to tell her story. “There are statues called the Revenants that guard the monument. They represent Voodoo dancers who wait on the beach to welcome wandering slave souls back to Africa.”

“Nearby, there is a center, Place du Repentance, built by the Ouidah community for Africans to pray for forgiveness for their part in the slave trade,” she says. “It is through forgiveness, education, and personal activism that a cycle is broken, then we are free.



All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. Photographs and text cannot be reproduced without the permission by Lesley Lababidi.