News from 219 Cities: Addendum Edition

Since the last few News from 219 Cities, I would like to include more information about places I have already written about.

Qatar (Previous post from Dukhan)

Population: About 1.8 million; but only 278,000 Qatari citizens. Foreign workers with temporary residence status make up four-fifths of the population.

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Description from Wikipedia:

Natives of the Arabian Peninsula, many Qataris are descended from a number of migratory tribes that came to Qatar in the 18th century to escape the harsh conditions of the neighboring areas. Qatar has over 1.5 million people, the majority of whom (about 90%) live in Doha, the capital. 

In 2012, Qatar retained its title of richest country in the world (according to per capita income) for the third time in a row. [This do not apply to the four-fifths of the population of foreign workers. Also, the news network Al Jazeera is run from Doha, the capital. In my opinion Al Jazeera English is the most reliable and best quality news service in the world.]

Photographer, s3eedalmarri has some great photos of Qatar and Qataris on Instagram. (http://instagram.com/s3eedalmarri)

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Baghdad, Iraq (Previous post from Baghdad)

Population: Baghdad metro area estimated at 9,000,000.

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al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad (wikipedia)

In the last edition of New from 219 Cities I posted this photo from Baghdad:

A man looks at the crater caused by an explosion after a car bomb attack in Baghdad's al-Ghadeer district

I would like to juxtapose it with this photo of al-Mutanabbi Street:

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al-Mutanabbi Street is the historic center for bookselling in Baghdad. “It was named after the 10th century classical Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi. This street is well established for bookselling and has often been referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literacy and intellectual community.”

An internet comment on a different picture of al-Mutanabbi Street states, “Notice how everyone is potbellied with an open jacket. There’s one part of Jumeirah here in Dubai full of Iraqis and they all look like this too. i wish i could be pot bellied so i could feel double the pride.”

Fez, Morocco (Previous post from Fez)

Population: About 1 million.

Tannery in Fez

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The rejuvenation of the Fez River. (Ted Talk)

In a previous edition of News from 219 Cities, I wrote about a music festival in Fez. This time I would like to focus on the creative rejuvenation of the city. All the information and pictures were taken from this 5 minute long Ted Talk.

The Fez River in Fez, Morocco is considered “the soul of the city.” Modernization of this ancient city has put a lot of stress on the river that runs through it. In many places the river is completely covered by concrete and illegal parking lots. Fez’s trash, sewage, and industrial chemicals heavily pollute what is left of the river. Now thanks to the help of Aziza Chaouni and other environmental activists, Fez has begun work on a project that will rejuvenate the river areas of the city. These pictures were taken from a short Ted Talk that Aziza Chaouni did on March, 2014.

The Fez River in 2007

The Fez River

Projected image. The awning will me made from recycled leather from Fez's tanneries.

Projected image. The awning will me made from recycled leather from Fez’s tanneries.

Before: Illegal parking lot.

Before: Illegal parking lot.

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Projected Image. Playground made from recycled tires. Wetland to clean the river and protect it from flood damage.

Plaza in 2007.

Plaza in 2007.

Plaza today.

Plaza today.

Fez River before.

Fez River before.

Same area today.

Fez river today.

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Projected same area after completion of the project.

Thank you and goodbye for now.

حَوّامتي مُمْتِلئة بِأَنْقَلَيْسون

:)

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The News in 219 Cities: This week’s cities: Dukhan, Oujda, and Baghdad!

I put together a list that included the 10 most populated cities of each country (though tiny Bahrain only had 9 cities.) Then I used a random number generator to pick three cities to write about.

By doing this I hope to gain a better picture of what the Arab world looks like. In the US all we see of the Middle East is explosions but that does not mean the entire Middle East is exploding. Unfortunately because my project is based in news articles, it will be hard to completely get away from writing about explosions. In either case, I will do my best to portray a snippet from the lands where our civilization was born.

Dukhan, Qatar

Population: 7,250 (7th most populated city in Qatar)

Beach party in Dukhan!

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dukhan

Description from Wikipedia:

Dukhan is an industrial city in western Qatar. It is approximately 60 kilometers west of the capital, Doha. Dukhan is administrated by Qatar’s state oil agency Qatar Petroleum and holds an important place in Qatar’s oil industry. Any person willing to visit or work in Dukhan requires a special permit from Qatar Petroleum in the form of a Dukhan entry gate pass. Dukhan beach is famous in Qatar for surfing and swimming and as a picnic spot. Looking ahead, the growth of Dukhan shows no signs of slowing.

September 18, 2014: British expat gives birth in a Cuban hospital in the desert of Qatar. (The Telegraph)

Victoria Scott recently gave birth in a Cuban hospital close to Dukhan. While it is common practice for Cuba to send their world-renowned doctors into disaster areas, Cuba has built and staffed a hospital in Qatar as well. This was good news for Mrs. Scott. Not only was the hospital staffed with doctors that had Western attitudes, (Scott’s husband could be with her in the hospital) but the cost of her c-section was 400 Qatari riyals ($67) instead of the over 30,000 Qatari riyals ($8,238.) In case you’re wondering, a c-section in the US costs about $25,000 – $50,000. As a bonus, Scott got to listen to Cuban music in her hospital room.

Edit Sept. 28, 2014: Another story about Qatar here.

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Oujda, Morocco

Population: 450,000 (9th most populated city in Morocco)

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Oujda

Description from Wikipedia:

When Morocco was occupied by the French, Oujda was used as a military base to control eastern Morocco. The city grew up along the roads that were built and owes much of its present form to the French. The main characteristic of the city is having the old city in the centre. The old city maintains traditional features of the Moroccan architecture with its narrow and twisted alleys which leads to the houses and different markets such as jewelry market and the leather market.

The Moroccan border with Algeria is just east of Oujda; on the other side of the border is the Algerian town of Maghnia. The state of the border crossing depends on relations between the two countries, which are often strained.

September 18, 2014: Oujda bans the olive tree. (Middle East Online)

Why would a city need to ban a tree? One word: allergies. According to  Omar Hijra, a professional pharmacist, olive tree pollen is, “one of the main causes of seasonal respiratory allergies.” And in some areas around Oujda, 90% of the trees are olive trees.

The people of Oujda have until December 31, 2014 to remove their olive trees. Otherwise the government will charge a free to remove the trees themselves. However, according to the Middle East Online, the process could take up to five years because there are just way too many olive trees in Oujda.

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Baghdad, Iraq

Population: 5,672,513 (The most populated city in Iraq, second most populated in the Arab world.)

Baghdad 123

A man looks at the crater caused by an explosion after a car bomb attack in Baghdad's al-Ghadeer district

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Description from myself and a little from Wikipedia:

Baghdad was once the most populated city in the world, and the first to reach a population of over a million people. After the Mongols invaded in 1258, Baghdad was never fully able to return to its former glory. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Baghdad’s infrastructure was savaged and continues to remain in a blurry zone between sectarian clashs and civil war. Bombs seem explode almost every day in Baghdad, an occurrence so common it almost never make the news. ISIS has brought a new misery upon Baghdad with a barrage of terrifying threats to its residents and powerful bomb attacks to back them up. ISIS stalks Baghdad like a tiger outside of a fence, constantly trying to break through. Today it is one of the least hospitable places in the world and ranked by Mercer as having the worst quality of life of all 221 major cities.

You probably have an idea of what’s happening in Baghdad right now so here’s something that’s not news: (IraqiBodyCount.org)

In my college days my most used resource was IraqiBodyCount.org. In short, it’s a website that counts how many Iraqi civilians have been killed that day and where they were killed. After around six months you can usually find a little more information on the incident. As far as I know, IraqiBodyCount.org is the only place to find this kind of data.

It is an important resource because it is simple, accessible, and care is put into the data to make it as accurate as possible. Because of this care IraqiBodyCount.org has been criticized for showing a lower mortality rate than there is in reality. For example, IraqiBodyCount.org puts the civilian death count at 130,000 – 145,000. I’ve seen estimates from other sources say it’s more like 500,000. However I don’t see the problem with IraqiBodyCount.org‘s numbers as long as you know that the site only shows the minimum amount of civilians that have been that day.

Besides being useful for college papers, this data is useful to anyone who wants to understand the Iraq War. For example NGOs and policy makers need this kind of data in order to know where to best place resources, and whether or not certain previous policies have worked or will work.

Here are a couple screen-caps from the site:

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Edit Sept. 28, 2014: Another story about Baghdad here.

See you next time in a week or two!

How I tracked down a militia group on the Israeli/Syrian border without knowing anything – and how you can too.

How can I, a broke Jew living in San Francisco with almost no knowledge of Arabic, make a difference to anybody in a warzone? As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Well, I have the will and here is the way.

Open Source Investigation

“Open source investigation,” is using tools on the internet that a bunch of people contribute to in order to create an investigation that others can contribute to. For example, let’s say you discover this video on Youtube and you think that your friends would enjoy it, so you post it on Facebook. Then one of your friends finds this video on Youtube and she thinks that her friends would enjoy it, so she posts it on Facebook. Then a mutual friend on Facebook watches both videos on his Facebook and realizes THIS.

That is how open source investigation works.

Another example would be if ISIS put up a propaganda video on Youtube. People watched it and took note of the weapons that ISIS was using in the video. Then they watched other videos and see what weapons ISIS was using in those. By using this information people could put together a map of where ISIS gets its weapons from.

The ISIS example is just one way that open source investigations can be used. Open source investigations could be used for any field imaginable; from piecing together human trafficking networks, to documenting the effects of climate change, to learning about global music trends.

How to Start an Investigation

There are some great tutorials on website called, Bellingcat. If you are interested in open source investigation you should go there.

The tutorials on Bellingcat showed that creating an open source investigation was a piece of cake. This made me very skeptical. But it looked interesting and fun so I decided to give it a shot. Here is how it went.

Finding something to investigate.

I am interested in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict so I decided to start there. I went on to Twitter and in two minutes I found this tweet:

Here is the video from the Tweet:

This video appears to be showing off some rebel-held territory. As this was a test investigation, I decided to come up with some questions that may have been relevant to real investigation.

  • Which militia was filming this? There are about eighty billion militias in Syria right now.
  • Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really in the Hamidiyah area?)
  • When was this video made?
  • What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Which militia was filming this?

This video and the text surrounding it was in Arabic but that was not a problem. First off, I noticed it was part of a playlist put together by some group. I guessed this was the rebel group that made the video. This is the group’s logo:

The Criterion Brigade logo.

Upon using Google Translate, I found the that the rebel group called themselves the “Criterion Front.” 30 seconds of research gave me a photo with the caption, The Criterion Brigades (aka Alwiya al-Furqan) display their military prowess in various convoys and parades in towns near Damascus, Syria. The Criterion Brigades is one of the larger armed groups allied with the Islamic Front who are taking the fight to Assad’s regime.

OK so now I’m going to presume that the Criterion Brigade/Alwiya al-Furgan made this video and it might have been made somewhere within driving distance to the Damascus area. I could have been wrong about both those things but it gave me a starting point to find the answer to the next question.

Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really filmed in the Hamidiyah area?)

The description of the video that Google Translate gave me was, A quick tour of the Mujahideen Brigades in the town of Al-Furqan Hamedia liberated on the border Alasraúalh.

Google Translate is terrible at grammar so I could only use it for key words. Al-Furqa is the Criterion Brigade. Hamedia is probably Hamidiyah which is where the Tweet said this video was from, and it’s probably on the border of Alasraúalh. Where is Alasraúalh?

Alasraúalh

Oh I get it. Alasraúalh is Israel.

That made it easy. The border between Israel and Syria is not very big. There are a lot of Hamidiyahs and a lot of ways to spell Hamidiyah so searching using the name was not successful. However, after going along the Israeli/Syrian border in Google Earth, I found a tiny village called “el Hmidaiah.”

el hmidaiah

That had to be it. el Hmidaiah was also right on the Israeli/Syrian border. Now that there was a little context to the video, I wanted to verify it’s authenticity. Were the Criterion Brigade really where they said they were? A lot of times militias and the Syrian Army lie about where they are – even in videos – especially in videos.

I got lucky when I randomly chose this video because the camera man seemed to be trying to prove that the militia was where they said they were. He even paused on some road signs. Unfortunately, the glare on the signs made them unreadable. No worries, I had Photoshop. I turned these signs:

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Into these signs:

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The cameraman also showed two signs that said Damascus was 43km away and KH Anarhabheh was 6km away. A quick check on the map showed that el Hmidaiah would have been in the area of these signs. However, there was a big problem: where was the village? Where was el Hmidaiah? On the map el Hmidiah looked a lot more densely packed than what the video showed. Where exactly was this video filmed?

treeline

I looked for clues in the video. In the video there was a huge flagpole in the middle of an intersection. In front of the intersection there was a field with some buildings in it. In the back of the intersection there was a field with no buildings in it. The left of the intersection had a road lined with trees. There was also a water-tower close to the trees. Most importantly, the layout of the intersection was a roundabout with an island in the middle of it, rather than a simple intersection. el Hmidaiah did not have an intersection like this.

However, using Wikimapia I followed the road south from el Hmidaiah and found a place that almost matched the description.

intersection

Just like in the video, buildings were in a field on one side but not the other, trees lined the road going out one side of the intersection, and there seemed to be something that looked like a large flagpole in the middle of the intersection. But other things were off. Mainly, the island in the middle of the intersection wasn’t round enough and the buildings didn’t quite match up. Also, the video showed more buildings than there were in the satellite photo. So I changed source’s satellite.

intersection2

That was more like it. I could see that this was a more updated photo because the road to the right had been completed. In the first satellite’s photo the road was under construction. Either right before or during the civil war, the Syrian government must have developed this area.

To further investigate this area in the map, I used Panoramio, a website that shows pictures taken from any area of the world. I found these two pictures of the intersection with Panoramio:

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Both pictures showed the flagpole, and the second picture showed street lamp that matches the layout of the street lamps in the video. Just to triple-check that this was the intersection in which the rebels made the video, I used Google Earth. Google Earth has an option to see 3D terrain. It’s terrible at showing 3D buildings and trees, but great for viewing mountains. To compare the video with Google Earth, I positioned my viewpoint in Google Earth to where I thought the cameraman was in Syria.

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Video facing southeast.

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Google Earth facing southeast.

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Video facing northwest.

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Google Earth facing northwest.

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Video facing southwest.

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Google Earth facing southwest.

So this video did not show that the militia was in the village of el Hmidaiah, but it did show that the militia was close by. That is a very important difference in a warzone.

When was this video made?

A lot of times militias and armies will use old footage to prove new gains. The army will say that they took over a village today and prove it by showing footage from 2012. Very little of the information in this video would matter if it was filmed in 2012.

In searching for the video’s date using some extreme googling, I found that the name of the village shown in the video was called, “al-Rawadi.” I remembered a sign in the video saying, “R ARRADI.” A search for “R ARRADI” brought up nothing, but things got very easy once I searched for “al-Rawadi.”

The most interesting thing a search for “al-Rawadi” brought up was a video put up by a different poster that uses the Islamic Front’s logo. (The Islamic Front is an umbrella group of militias that the Criterion Brigade is a part of.) The video was posted on September 2nd 2014. This new video showed what might have been a different militia fighting a battle in the intersection, as well as them taking down the giant Syrian government flag.

This newly discovered video put the video I was investigating into a whole new light. The new video was posted 11 days before the one I was investigating. To really find when either video was filmed I would have to go down a couple more rabbit holes. I didn’t feel like doing that because this was just a test investigation and I want to see the sun sometimes.

What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Since I didn’t want to spend the time to conclude the investigation, I cannot publish a solid conclusion. Although I can say that there is some intense stuff going on down by the Golan Heights, and it’s almost certainly being done by The Islamic Front. The Criterion Brigade is probably involved as well.

Conclusion

I am incredibly impressed by the scope of what I can do with an open source investigation. It was interesting to see militia groups running around the border of the Golan Heights. However next time I investigate something, I would like it to be something worthwhile – something that could make a difference to anybody trapped in a warzone.

How to prepare a pomegranate.

Pomegranates are in season which means they are really cheap and delicious right now. But if you don’t know how to prepare one, their sight can be haunting. You know the joy contained in pomegranate seeds, but you don’t want to have to scavenge through the pomegranate labyrinth, picking out the seeds like a lost monkey who works for treats.

So let me show you my friends, how to conquer the pomegranate and get all the seeds at once.

Step one: make a few incisions into the pomegranate.

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Step two: Rip open a section of the pomegranate.

 

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Step three: Fill a bowl with cold water. Casually scrape the pomegranate seeds from the pomegranate. It’s totally OK to get the pomegranate papery walls into the bowl of water. This is because the paper floats, and the pomegranate seeds sink.

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In the end, the bowl should look like the picture below. The gross paper is floating on the top while the delicious seeds have mostly sunk to the bottom.

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Did you know that some scholars think the forbidden fruit that Eve and Adam ate was actually a pomegranate? Then again, scholars from 13th-century France thought that the forbidden fruit was actually a psychedelic mushroom so who knows.

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Step four: Scrape the floating paper out with your hands or some sort of strainer. I just use my hands. Then drain the water.

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Now you can put the pomegranate seeds on about a week’s worth of salads, or enjoy as a snack while writing a blog post about how to extract pomegranate seeds.

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The News in 219 Cities: This week’s cities: Sabha, Homs, and Tunis!

I put together a list that included the 10 most populated cities of each country (though tiny Bahrain only had 9 cities.) Then I used a random number generator to pick three cities to write about.

By doing this I hope to gain a better picture of what the Arab world looks like. In the US all we see of the Middle East is explosions but that does not mean the entire Middle East is exploding. Unfortunately because my project is based in news articles, it will be hard to completely get away from writing about explosions. In either case, I will do my best to portray a snippet from the lands where our civilization was born.

Sabha, Libya

Population: 130,000 (9th most populated city in Libya)

sabha

sabha

Description from Wikipedia:

With a relatively large population, and growing fast, Sabha’s importance is due to its being the air and road transport hub of the Fezzan, a military base, and the centre of a remarkable agricultural industry in the desert. Sabha is famous for the Fort Elena castle, which is the castle featured on the reverse of the ten dinars banknote of Libya. Fort Elena was previously known as Fortezza Margherita, built during the Italian colonial period. Currently the Italian-built fort is a military institution.

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June 12, 2014: Sand surfing! (Twitter)

Any news coming out of Libya is not good this week. In contrast to Libyan culture, a civil war between tribes seems to be coming to the country. Despite its distance from Libya’s main population centers, Sabha has not been immune to the looming conflict. Most of the English news coming from Sabha has been about tribal clashes or about Vietnamese workers being pulled out of the city.

However, I searched Twitter and found a different side of Sabha. Here’s one of my favorite tweets in English:

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Homs, Syria

Population: 775,404 (3rd most populated city in Syria)

 

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Description from Wikipedia:

Previous to the civil war, Homs was a major industrial centre, and was the third largest city in Syria after Aleppo to the north and the capital Damascus to the south. Its population reflects Syria’s general religious diversity, composed mostly of Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims and Alawiteand Christian minorities. There are a number of historic mosques and churches in the city, and it is close to the Krak des Chevaliers castle, a world heritage site.

In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Homs became an opposition stronghold and the Syrian government launched a military assault against the city in May 2011. By 14 January 2014, the government was in control of Homs except for the Old City, which remains in rebel hands and is under government siege. The Syrian army’s artillery shelling and warplane bombing has left much of the city completely destroyed and thousands dead.

August 13, 2014: Rebuilding a Restaurant in the midst of Civil War. (Press TV, Horst Fiedler)

Through a series of sieges and intense bombing campaigns the Syrian government has ultimately gained back what is left of the city of Homs. Now in the relative peace, former residents have come back and rebuild their city. During this period of reconstruction the iconic restaurant Julia’s Palace has been revived, though the repairs have not been completed yet.

Julia’s Palace before the war.

Julia's Palace Today

Julia’s Palace today during reconstruction.

 

It wouldn’t be surprising to find Julia’s Palace bustling soon. A restaurant would be a welcome site for a city that was so recently under siege. And besides, this is Syria after all.

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Tunis, Tunisia

Population: 693,210 (The most populated city in Tunisia.)

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Description from Wikipedia:

Situated on a large Mediterranean Sea gulf (the Gulf of Tunis), and behind the Lake of Tunis, the city extends along the coastal plain and the hills that surround it. At the centre of more modern development (from the colonial era and later) lies the old city.

The colonial-era buildings provide a clear contrast to smaller, older structures. As the capital city of the country, Tunis is the focus of Tunisian political and administrative life; it is also the centre of the country’s commercial activity. The expansion of the Tunisian economy in recent decades is reflected in the booming development of the outer city where one can see clearly the social challenges brought about by rapid modernization in Tunisia.

*Tunis is also the capital of Tunisia, which was the country where the Arab Spring began.*

August 24, 2014: Walid Sultan Midani’s new company is making the first Tunisian video games. (BBC)

 

It has not been easy, but Walid Sultan Midani has created a video game company called Digitalmania in Tunis. In the early days of Digitalmania, he could only pay his employees enough money to buy lunch. Since then business has picked up. In its three year history, Digitalmania has developed 34 games. Most of the games have been for third parties, but four have been released under the Digitalmania’s own name.

So far Digitalmania has thirteen employees: seven men and six women. Midani says he is still looking for more employees. Thinking of moving to Tunisia?