The Hanukkah holiday, which Jews around the world are observing this week, celebrates two different miracles: the overthrow of Greco-Syrian control over Judea and the discovery in the Temple in Jerusalem of a sealed vial of oil that is said to have burned for eight days instead of one.
“In the Bible, when miracles happen, they happen for a reason,” Rabbi Yosef Ote, the community rabbi of the Orthodox Hazvi Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. For example, he said: “The ten plagues in Egypt happened because of what was going on with slavery, and we needed to escape, so God split the sea.”
“Ever since the [the Second Temple] was destroyed, there were no more evident miracles,” Ote added.
Yet, in this difficult year in which COVID-19 has killed more than 1.6 million people worldwide and drastically altered our way of life, extraordinary things have happened.
The following are eight “miracles” that occurred this year in the Middle East:
8. Camels Rescued
In Libya, 3,000 Australian camels that arrived at a Libyan port were evacuated to Zawiya, about 30 miles from Tripoli, after the port was attacked by rebel forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.
And in Egypt, after a year-long campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the government in October prohibited camel and horse rides around the Giza pyramids and in the archaeological areas.
“This announcement is a huge victory for all the camels and horses who are forced to haul visitors on their backs or in carriages at Egypt’s top tourist sites, in the blistering heat, without access to food, water or shade,” PETA Asia Senior Vice President of International Campaigns Jason Baker said in a statement.
“Many of the camels used for rides in Egypt come from the notorious Birqash Camel Market, where PETA filmed camels being beaten bloody. Our footage led to the arrest of three camel traders by a security force,” Nirali Shah, senior media coordinator for PETA Asia, told The Media Line.
7. France’s Macron Offers Pakistani Woman Asylum
Asiafef Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on Pakistani death row for alleged blasphemy, was offered asylum after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in February. Her supposed crime was “insulting Islam.”
“One might say that Macron’s move to invite Bibi should in retrospect get [additional attention], considering the havoc and harsh criticism he endured in the Muslim world because of his stand on laïcité [secularism],” Anne Gadel, a French Middle East expert told The Media Line, in reference to Macron’s late October interview with Al Jazeera in which he said free speech takes precedence over religious sensibilities.
Macron received widespread condemnation from the Arab world when he expressed understanding about the outrage over the publication by French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for the second time of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemy in Islam, while also defending the paper’s right to publish such images as part of free speech in a democracy.
“It is all very linked to the situation in France and the very specific conception we have of religion in the public sphere, and it has to be put in perspective with the recent terror attacks that struck France,” Gadel added.
On October 29, three people were killed in a knife attack at a church in Nice by a Tunisian man. Earlier that month, a teacher was beheaded in suburban Paris after allegedly showing the cartoons published by Hebdo as part of a class on free speech.
6. Egyptian Man Becomes Oldest Pro-Soccer Player
At the age of 74, Ezzeldin Bahader became the oldest professional soccer player. The previous record holder was Israeli Isaak Hayik, 73. Bahader, now 75, scored a goal in his first game in March in Egypt’s third division.
M, an elite Egyptian soccer coach who declined to give his name out of fear of professional repercussions from appearing in an article about a Jewish holiday, said Bahader’s accomplishment reflects Egyptians’ passion for football, known to Americans as soccer.
“Egyptians breathe football more than anything else,” he told The Media Line. “It for sure shows people that age is just a number.”
“Passion for football never ends,” M. added.
5. Narges Mohammadi, Kylie Moore-Gilbert Released from Iranian Prison
Iranian human-rights champion Narges Mohammadi was released from prison in Iran in October, after new laws officially ended her sentence.
“Releasing someone after their prison term ends is unusual under the Iranian regime,” Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the organization Iran Human Rights, told The Media Line. “Normally, they find a reason to keep human-rights defenders in jail.”
British-Australian scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released in November in a prisoner swap after nearly two years in an Iranian prison.
4. First Saudi Women’s Soccer League Established
Saudi Arabia, as of last month, has a women’s soccer league. Women could not even drive in the kingdom until recently.
“This provides long-awaited opportunities for women and girls in Saudi Arabia,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based Middle East/North Africa consultant for Equality Now, told The Media Line. Saudi Arabia needs to take even more significant steps, such as releasing female human-rights activists from prison, she said.
3. Three-Year-old Saved Nearly Four Days After Quake Struck Turkey
Three-year-old Ayda Gezgin was rescued in Izmir 91 hours after the massive October 30 earthquake struck Turkey.
“Turkey’s well-organized rescue teams pulled out nearly 50 victims from the rubble in the first two days, but the number of survivors started to decrease after the third day,” Emre Erturk, one of the survivors of the 6.9 magnitude quake in Izmir, told The Media Line.
“When all hope of any more survivors [had faded], suddenly a tiny hand of a child appeared from the rubble to cling to the rescuer’s finger,” said Erturk, an energy expert who is the founder and managing director of Istanbul-based Enerji IQ Market Information and Consultancy Services.
“Ayda Gezgin, who lost her mother in the quake, was Izmir’s consolation,” he added.
2. Dates Grown From 2,000-Year-Old Pits
Dr. Sarah Sallon from Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura enjoyed the fruits of their labor in September after growing dates from 2,000-year-old trees. Methuselah, the male date, sprouted in 2005 from a seed excavated from Masada. Hannah, the female date, took nearly a decade to sprout from a seed in nearby Qumran. Hannah was fertilized by pollen from Methuselah.
“Their seeds were preserved randomly. The ones in Masada were found in a pot underneath all this rubble. The ones in Qumran were also covered up by sand and earth,” Solowey told The Media Line. “It’s just a coincidence it survived.”
Coincidence or miracle?
“It’s one [seed] out of thousands. You don’t just pick a seed out of the rubble and sprout it. Most of them are dead,” Solowey added.
1. Israel Makes Peace With Four Arab Countries
The Abraham Accords, signed in September, established official ties between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and between Israel and Bahrain. The peace agreement was followed by a deal with Sudan and, as of last week, Morocco.
“To think that a year ago, we would be in an Arab country,” with opera star Andrea Bocelli, alongside an Israeli singer and an Arab orchestra, “on erev [the eve of] Hanukkah, which is a festival of the liberation of Jews from religious coercion, as a celebration of a new peace deal seems like a dream, and therefore I see it as a Hanukkah miracle,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council.
“On the third day of Hanukkah, to understand that Morocco, the country my family originates from, is also joining the countries normalizing and making peace with Israel, is another miracle,” she told The Media Line.
Despite the continuous challenges this year has brought, “a great miracle happened here,” as the phrase that the letters on the dreidel, the traditional holiday toy, represent. Eight spectacular occurrences, in fact.