Bida Glass at MuséoParc Alésia, France


“In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” – Alexander von Humboldt 

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Are you in France this summer from April 6th to September 22nd? If so, a trip to the Alésia, ancient town situated on Mont Auxois, above the present-day village of Alise-Sainte-Reine in the area of Côte d’Ore, France, is well worth adding to your agenda. It is a chance to take in the Gallo-Roman ruins but also visit an unusual and first of its kind exhibition of Celtic glassmaking that does not only demonstrates medieval times but traces the path of glass making from ancient times through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world…glass bracelets.

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The exhibition studies the connection of migration of glassmaking from Egypt to Gallo-Roman era and its connection to modern day Nigeria. Joëlle Rolland PhD, researcher professor, at Maison de l’Archéologie et de l’Ethnologie, René Ginouvès has spent the last year organizing this exhibition about the production of Celtic glass bracelets.  As Joëlle Rolland expertise is Celtic glass, her research spanned Egypt, Nepal and the glass makers of Bida, Nigeria. She discovered the work of Elisabeth Thea Haevernick who publish in 1960 her thesis on Celtic glass bangles and, the ethnologist,  René Gardi who also researched Bida glass in the 1970s and wrote articles with comparisons with the work of Celtic bracelets. As well as, Leo Frobenius  in 1911 who visited Bida also illustrated the techniques of fabrication with the famous illustrations Celtic glass.  All of this, by chance, led Joëlle to my documentation of the glassmaking in Bida, Nigeria. Read: Bida: Bangles and Beads.

During the last four years, we have stayed in close contact sharing information. Joëlle invited me to participate in the upcoming exhibition on Celtic glass at MuséoParc Alésia. Joëlle will be demonstrating the manufacture of bracelets with the glassmaker on the weekends of April 13-14 and also in September, the weekend of 21-22.Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 1.41.12 AM

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For those of you who might not be able to visit, below is my contribution to the catalogue and the table of contents;Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-001Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-002Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-004Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-005Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-006Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-007Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-008Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-009Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-010Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-011Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-012Catalogue Bling-Bling 2019 TAP Lesley Lababidi-013

The Statue of Liberty, a story of rejection and renewal


Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo makes its way to New York City for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, a statue once destined to be called “Progress Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia” and stand as a lighthouse at the Suez Canal. The link between Central Cairo, the Statue of Liberty and our book is the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Isma’il Pasha (1863-79). (As one of my readers commented, ‘an intersection between Oriental and Western history.’)  Isma’il Pasha was also the man who declined Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s colossal statue design to stand at the Suez Canal and sending its on its way to New York Harbor.

It all started at the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris.The best description of the times is from an excerpt by Zeynep Celik , Displaying the Orient:

Although under Ottoman suzerainty since 1517, Egypt acquired a semiautonomous status in 1805, when Muhammad ‘Ali was appointed governor; this status lasted until 1882, the date of the British occupation. Muhammad ‘Ali initiated a series of military, economic, and administrative reforms, relying on the expertise of French and Italian advisers. These reforms were followed by legal and educational transformations and the development of infrastructure (the construction of railroads, the Suez Canal, cities, etc.) under Isma’il Pasha (1863–79), paralleling the changes promoted by the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul. In 1867, the Ottoman sultan conferred on Isma’il Pasha the title of khedive, giving him a special position in the empire and allowing him to sign independent technical and economic agreements with foreign powers.

The 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris was marked by important visits from Khedive Isma’il Pasha of Egypt….What were the goals in visiting the exposition? Isma’il Pasha pursued a Western model of “progress” and wanted to be recognized for his institutional reforms. Similarly, Isma’il Pasha’s goal was to demonstrate his alliance with Europe by announcing the modernizing transformations in his own country…Isma’il Pasha intent on reshaping their cities according to European models—a goal reflected most dramatically in the physical transformation of Cairo…The city building in Cairo was comprehensive…. A new quarter of Cairo, named Ismailiyya after the Isma’il Pasha extended the city to the west with a design that superposed a pattern of radial streets on a grid. Long avenues ended in squares or ronds-points; monuments and public buildings defined the ends of vistas. The model was once again Baron Haussmann’s work in Paris. Indeed, French architects, landscape architects, and gardeners were commissioned to beautify Cairo…For Isma’il Pasha, who had lived in France, the expedition was an occasion to catch up with the social and physical transformation of Paris.-(Çelik, Zeynep. Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

Most civilizations utilize monumental figures and heroic sculptures to revere political figures and leaders. The tradition of immortalizing an individual, whether by human representation or by symbol, is a human trait. Governments impress their political heroes and leaders on their public; erecting statues at major intersections and in parks and gardens appears to reinforce both past heroic accomplishments and current ruling dogma. Heroic sculptures and monumental statues are visible reminders of a time in history when these individuals brought about substantial change in society and, in turn, influenced thought. (“Egyptian City 1801–Today.” Cairo’s Street Stories: Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés, by Lesley Labadidi, American University in Cairo Press, 2008, pp. 39–52. ) However in Muslim countries, human forms on display is subject to question.  Thus at the 1867 Universal Exhibition, Isma’il Pasha took the unprecedented step to interview European sculptors for the purpose of placing heroic, monumental sculptures on the new streets of Central Cairo depicting rulers in his family history.  One such person who submitted a  Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.

Bartholdi had toured Yemen and Egypt in 1855-56, and upon his return to France received a commission to sculpt a statue of Jean Francois Champollion, the Egyptologist who had deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. The statue was displayed in the Egyptian pavilion at the 1867 Exposition Universal in Paris. Isma’il Pasha was impressed with the statue of Champollion and gave an audience to Bartholdi. Bartholdi hoped to build a colossal statue for an immense lighthouse marking the entrance at the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). It was to be a towering figure, dressed in robes and holding aloft a torch. Isma’il Pasha declined due to the cost and that the form was reminiscent of a peasant woman. By 1870 ‘Progress’ had evolved to ‘Liberty’.  Eventually Bartholdi would rework the statue and unveiled at the New York Harbor in 1886.

Statue of Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s original design for the mouth of the Suez Canal in Egypt.

This reproduction of 1869 watercolor by Bartholdi suggests the similarity between the Suez lighthouse and the Statue of Liberty. The Suez plan was the first real step in the Statue of Liberty design.


The Statue of Liberty looks very much like Bartholdi’s earlier design for the Suez lighthouse, but the transition required skill and subtlety. From 1878-1875 Bartholdi slowly developed the new Statue. First he decided upon her symbols: the torch, crown, broken shackles and tablet.


Small terra cotta study models of ‘Progress Egypt Bring the Light to Asia’ designed by Bartholdi between 1867-69.



Obelisque Magazine 2019

The new yearly edition of the Obelisque Magazine has been released in Cairo. This year the magazine was almost sold out within a month. There are a few copies available at select bookstores in Zamalek. Below are my contributions to the magazine.  cover a

Bida Bracelets : The Ancient Art of Glassmaking


Arouset el-Moulid

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Street Art: Ibn Khaldun in Mohendiseen 

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NUPE DAYS – Merit Award



I am sitting in my garden late in the afternoon on a December day in Lagos. A cool, dry harmattan breeze blows across the terrazzo patio.  I hear the garden gate squeal as metal rubs against metal. I am aware of someone entering. A security guard hands me a white envelope with the words neatly embossed:



Wadata, Bida, Niger State, Nigeria

Surprised and intensely curious,  I am careful not to tear the envelope so as not to damage the contents.  I pull out a beige, one page letter. It reads:


I had not a clue that I had been considered for a community service award in Nupeland, After a short time, I realized that I had 48 hours to get to Bida where Nupe Days and the ceremony was to be held. Airline tickets to and from Abuja had to be organized, drivers, food, appropriate clothes, money, accommodations …. so many people to call upon to help me put together this trip. Everyone pitched in to get me to Bida on time!

Arriving in Abuja, there was another 5 hours to drive over broken, rough, potholed roads.  After checking into Bab Hub Motel and changing my dusty clothes, I visit the glassmakers of Bida on my way to the palace and give my respect to the ETSU.

The programme laid out each days activities:


Horse stables throughout Northern Nigeria—Sokoto, Kibbi, Niger—and from Burkino Faso came to Bida to race their best horses. The prizes ranged from money to generators. The races only began once the ETSU was seated. P1040525

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Dusk is short-lived in this part of the world and during harmattan season, the dusty air envelops everything. As soon as the sun sets, all activities come to an abrupt end and everyone rushes to get to the road as soon as possible.


From the race ground, I return to the motel and change clothes for the award event. There are cultural shows, music, and speeches before the awards are presented:

Then I hear my name being called to stand in front of the high table to receive the Merit Award.

I wish to express my profound appreciation to His Royal Highness the ETSU Nupe  for the award. I also extend my appreciation to all the Nupe Traditional Rulers of Niger, Kwara, Kogi and the FCT Abuja. My profound gratitude also goes to the entire Nupe Kingdom, all Nupes within and outside Nigeria for the honor. A special thanks goes to Alhaji Abubakar Mahmoud (Dangaladima Nupe, Hakimi Etsu Audu) who has been a friend of the family for his role in coordinating this recognition.


**Most photos were taken by my driver, Yacubu, with my camera. The first photo of the ETSU is a photograph from the royal photographers. The last 4 pictures of receiving the award was taken by royal photographers. ***All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the permission of Lesley Lababidi 2019.


Narrator of Stories, an interview



Shaimaa Ashour, PhD

The last meeting of the Cairo Architectural Heritage Group (an initiative of Professor Nasser Rabbat) was ten years ago.  I had the privilege to meet a talented group of architects, urban planners and heritage aficionados who are, today, Egypt’s leaders in these fields. One dynamic member was Shaimaa Samir Kamel Ashour.  Shaimaa’s  enthusiasm and dedication to Egyptian cultural heritage was hard to miss and her warm, friendly nature was contiguously positive. Shaimaa was one of the young Egyptians that showed intense interest to take action to preserve cultural heritage.  To this day Shaimaa—architectural engineeer, author, lecturer, blogger, photographer, traveller, organizer of heritage events, conferences and city walks— continues her upward trajectory of contributions to the community in which she lives and works. This interview is to spotlight her commitment and dedication for her career and her country, Egypt.

“I like to narrate stories about architecture and places whether through teaching, writing, photography or public lectures. Through stories we explain how things are, why they are, and our role and purpose,” says Shaimaa one Friday over coffee at Maadi’s newest wellness centre, Osana.  Her day job as an assistant professor at The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transportation (AASTMT) in Cairo gives her the opportunity to teach and mentor students plus she heads the Cultural Committee in the Department of Architectural Engineering & Environmental Design where she organizes the highly successful guest lecture program, Beyond Lecture Halls.


Beyond university walls, Shaimaa continues to narrate stories about architecture. “I’m an architect with multi-disciplinary interests ranging from Egyptian modern architecture to cultural heritage, architectural advertisement and urban history,” says Shaimaa. Most recently she and Alia Nassar, began walking tours for foodies called The Taste of Heritage .

47471001_1803358829793347_6663501322903355392_nShaimaa also maintains “The io Weekly” since 2012 as a hub to connect individuals  by sharing news about the city, environment, architecture, heritage, and platform of upcoming events and exhibitions. She holds a seat on the Committee for Architecture at the Supreme Council of Culture, which gave her the opportunity work for the national competition to represent Egypt at the 15thInternational Exhibition for Architecture, Venice Biennale. Recent publications include sustainable conservation strategy to the Eastern Necropolis in Cairo, the changing housing policies and Sixth of October City, and citywalks as tool to narrate the history of Cairo. Last year, she published her book, An Overview of Pioneer Egyptian Architects During the Liberal Era (1919-1952). And let me not forget to mention her TV series,“A journey with books” program with broadcaster Dr.Khaled Azzab, about modern Egyptian architecture. (can be viewed at the end of this interview.)

As we munched on biscuits, I asked Shaimaa about her long list of accomplishments. She confided that sometimes she feels that nothing is happening and sometime feels like a moth on a wire mesh window.02

So what motivates Shaimaa to keep fighting for the issues she cares about? “Persistence and passion,” she says. “I always believe there is a way. I never lose hope and try hundreds of times because someone might change or something might change.” She explains that during the moments of personal doubt or fear, she realizes that those feelings are natural so they do not become barriers on the path of achievement.

Of course, family is the most important part of Shaimaa’s daily life and she credits her mother and father as the two people whom she admires most and who have given her the freedom and encouraged her curiosity, career, travel and knowledge.


Shaimaa (left) and friends on an excursion to see Mahmoud Fathi’s (famous Egyptian sculptor) statue, Egyptian Peasant

As I looked back over my notes, I counted five points mentioned that describe Shaimaa’s satisfaction with her career and life choices :

– Making a difference.
– Inspiring people.
– Writing about people who inspire.
– Listening to others tell their story.
– Making other lives better with her work.


Sharing a moment between sessions at Inheriting the City: Advancing
Understandings of Urban Heritage in Taipei, Taiwan. We presented our paper, #CityWalks: Another Perspective, April 2016.

TV Series




Original Egypt: Arouset el-Moulid


Kol Sanah wenta Tayyeb [كلسنةوأنتطيب]

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It is candy-making season in Egypt. Every year the streets and shops throughout the country light up with colourful lanterns and tables of sweet delights as Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar rolls around. Preparations begin with making tons of sugary morsels that consist of sugar coated peanuts, chickpeas, split-peas, coconut and sesame seeds, which are eaten in celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), Mawlid al-Nabi. This year Mawlid al-Nabi is on November 30th.

The most popular candy in Egypt that symbolized the approaching birthday of celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi is the Arouset el-Moulid doll (bride of the moulid or sugar bride) and the sultan on horseback, also made of sugar. Although satin-sequin plastic dolls are beginning to overtake the popularity of the sugar doll still one can venture through the alleyways of Share’ Bab el-Bahr and find workshops busily making dolls with entire families crafting and decorating dresses for the Arouset el-Moulid.


Share’ Bab el-Bahr

The most favored folklore is from the Fatimid Period (909-1171) with the legend that a Fatimid ruler during the mawlid rode his horse through the center of Cairo while one of his wives clothed in a white dress and decorated tiara walked next to him. The candy makers of Cairo then crafted sugar dolls and sultan on horseback to commemorate the scene and thus the two images became a symbol of the festival. Another folklore is that when soldiers went off to war they were promised to marry a beautiful girl upon their return and were presented with a sugar doll bride, while the tale also included the story that candy dolls were made to honor the soldiers for their bravery. Whatever the story, the making of sugar dolls has been passed down from generation to generation and has become a special confectionery to celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi.

Watch movie in 1955 about the “Mawlid Bride” starring Tahia Carioca. This film is a sad story to a doomed Arouset el-Moulid.  Fantasy with the devil, deceit, desire, and unrequited love… classic Egyptian music and song  and a glimpse into Egyptian society during mid-twentieth century.

The sugar dolls and sultan on horseback are made of sugar. The sugar is boiled and put into molds that makes a solid sugar form.  The dressing of the doll is a laborious undertaking. According to Abdel Ghani Al-Nabawi Al-Shall’s book, Arouset Al Mulid,(translated by Amira el-Noshokaty), “The dolls are given kohl (black eyeliner) to emphasize their eyes as well as pink powder to highlight their cheekbones. This Pharaonic makeup is coupled with typical Mamluk attire: a tight vest with long, generous sleeves. The vest fans out into a long, spacious dress covering the doll’s ivory body which weighs the doll down. The doll poses with her hands at her waist to show off her beauty. Colorful paper fans hug her back like wings, symbolizing feathered fans used to cool the caliphate. Fransha, or frills, are said to reflect the Fatimid influence, while gold and silver shimmering papers are fashioned in the likeness of the kirdan, a necklace typically known as being worn by Egyptian villagers.” To decorate one doll can take an entire day.P1000915

Arouset el-Moulid season is short and it only comes once a year so the entire family gets involved in making the beautiful and elaborate attire for the dolls.

In recent years, plastic dolls have flooded the market to take the place of the traditional sugar candy brides. IMG_9217 (1)Although the plastic doll forms are said to be imported from Asia, here is a video that claims all parts and clothing are made in Egypt.Watch this interesting video: Beyond the Factory: The Moulid Doll Maker

Arouset el-Moulid is depicted in dance, art and sculptures. The famous Egyptian sculptor, Gamal el-Sigini (1917-1977) featured Egypt in most of his works and used different symbols of Egypt as in this sculpture using Arouset el-Moulid  is an expression of hope, encouragement, and love. This sculpture stood, previously, on Share’ Gameat al-Dewal al-Arabiya in Mohendiseen but it disappeared during the Revolution of 2011.

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 1.21.14 AMBefore leaving the alleyways of Bab el-Bahr, a young girl named , Amar, meaning moon, came up to me and wanted to take a picture. So we posed and it was one of those moments when two people shared pure happiness.P1010883

**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

Book Launch at ARCE

ARCE* hosts book launch for Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo! Thanks to ARCE for hosting this launch, what I re-learned and remembered is the importance to celebrate an accomplishment. Usually, we just move onto the next thing but to stop and put a flag in the ground and breathe for a moment, gave such joy.

Field Guide Book Signing copy


photo credit: Shaimaa Ashour


picture credit: Alhaji Aminu Shamsuddin

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*ARCE Founded in 1948, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) is a private, nonprofit membership organization comprised of educational and cultural institutions, professional scholars and private individuals. ARCE’s mission is to support research on all aspects of Egyptian history and culture, foster a broader knowledge of Egypt among the general public, and strengthen American-Egyptian cultural ties.




Mobile Date Mart


If it is autumn in Egypt, it is date season! Red and yellow panicles hang from date palms throughout Egypt. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is probably the oldest cultivated tree in the world. Archeologist found evidence of cultivation of the date palm more than 7000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Today, Egypt is the number one producer of dates in the world producing yearly around 1.7 million tonnes.

Whether traveling in the Sahara, or Northern Nigeria, or the Pamir Mountains, I always keep a stash of dried dates in my backpack.  They are high in sugar content, fiber, potassium, and protein; a hungry traveller can find peace and sustenance in a cup of tea and a handful of dates.



Cairo in Larnaca

IMG_9135American University in Cairo Press – Facebook posted a short essay on:

“The Story Behind the Book” 

Or read on in October Newsletter:

Mantiqti Arabic Newspaper promotional interview.

Humphrey Davies interview in Arabic