Country Facts #5: Israel to Lithuania

This week: Celebratory gunfire, Tony Blair, secret vodka pipes, the Mafia, reggae music, nuclear bombs, and fighting TV pundits.

Israel – Hebrew, the national language of Israel spoken by some nine million people, is as unique as the nation which speaks it. Prior to Israel’s conception in 1948, far more of the world’s Jews spoke Yiddish, though the Holocaust took the lives of millions of these speakers. Meanwhile Hebrew, the language of the original Biblical Israel, had ceased to be used as a spoken language for over 1,500 years, and was used only as a literary language by religious scholars. Yet, when plans for the state of Israel were concocted in the late 19th Century, the need for a new lingua franca saw the language painstakingly revived, and within decades it had been adopted by millions of migrants to the new nation. READ MORE

Italy – The ongoing economic crisis that has struck southern Europe in recent years has had a myriad of unpleasant consequences, but one of the most unfortunate is that, in Italy, the Mafia has thrived and expanded across the whole country. With cash reserves of $73 billion and annual profits of $112 billion (as of 2012), the Mafia is now considered the biggest business in the country. They are involved in everything from toxic waste dumping to gambling and transport, though loan sharking is their most profitable activity.  READ MORE

Ivory Coast – The world’s biggest church is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast. A near replica of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, the $300 million structure was commissioned by the conceited late Ivorian president Félix Houphouet-Boigny, whose likeness is depicted alongside Jesus on a stained glass window inside the church. READ MORE

The world’s largest church viewed from above – Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro / User:Jbdodane / CC BY-NC 2.0

Jamaica – Jamaica has a reputation in the west as a rather laid back tropical paradise, but the reality is less cheery. Violent crime is rampant, fuelled by the trade in illegal drugs. It has the world’s sixth highest murder rate. Even reggae, Jamaica’s most renowned cultural export, is deceptively laid back. Some of the most high profile reggae artists sing lyrics advocating and encouraging the murder of gay people. Bob Marley must be spinning in his grave. READ MORE

Japan – When Japan was hit by two consecutive nuclear bombs in the final days of World War II, one rather unfortunate man witnessed both. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was on his final day of a work placement in Hiroshima when the first bomb struck, and having taken refuge in his home city of Nagasaki he was promptly hit again. On both occasions Yamaguchi was within three kilometres of the blast, yet despite suffering serious burns he survived and lived to the ripe old age of 92. READ MORE

Jordan – While it has thankfully been spared the destruction and bloodshed wrought by the civil war in neighbouring Syria, Jordan has had to put up with some of the side effects of the conflict. As well as having to cater for over 600,000 refugees- around 10% of their population- Jordanian TV has regularly been blighted by fights between guests supporting different sides in the Syrian war. In 2012, one guest threatened another with a gun after being hit by a shoe, while two years later another passionate exchange culminated in a destroyed set and a spot of table jousting. READ MORE

Kazakhstan – Lying on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, The Aral Sea is the scene of one of the great natural catastrophes of history. Until the 1960s it was the world’s fourth biggest lake- hence the title sea- but a ham-fisted Soviet attempt at using the rivers which feed it to irrigate the surrounding countryside has seen it dwindle to a tenth of its previous size. Fishing villages have been stranded many kilometres from the receding shoreline, and beached fishing trawlers sit rusting on the former lakebed. READ MORE

One of the Aral Sea’s now useless fishing boats – Aral Sea (lost again) / User: Lamerie / CC BY-NC 2.0

Kenya – The Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya hosts the biggest concentration of refugees on earth. At its peak in 2011, Dadaab was home to half a million people, almost all of them fleeing famine and war from across the border in Somalia, many of whom had walked across the desert for days just to get there. So big was the camp that it effectively became Kenya’s third largest city, albeit a temporary one consisting entirely of makeshift tents strewn across the desert… READ MORE

Dadaab, a temporary city in the desert – Refugee shelters in the Dadaab camp / Pete Lewis, Department for International Development / CC-BY-2.0

Kiribati – The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, is already preparing for the possible dissolution of his country. Tong has been vociferous on the dangers of climate change- most of the tiny island nation he rules is less than 2m above sea level- and suggested the whole Kiribati population may soon need to emigrate en masse as environmental refugees should sea levels continue to rise. READ MORE

Kosovo – While he has become something of a pariah in the UK, former British Prime Minister remains a hero in Kosovo after he backed airstrikes which protected the small Balkan country from Serbia in 1999. When Blair made a visit to Kosovo in 2010, he met several boys who had been named Toni or Tonibler by their grateful parents in his honour. READ MORE

Kuwait – Watch any footage of groups of people celebrating in certain Middle Eastern countries and there’s a good chance you’ll see exuberant men firing their gun into the sky. They really should know better. What comes up must come down, and gravity powered bullets are almost as lethal as they are when they leave the barrel. When the first Gulf War ended in 1991, 20 Kuwaitis were said to have been killed by the resultant celebratory gunfire. READ MORE

Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan may be a Muslim majority country, but the legacy of Soviet rule is evident in its fondness for booze. In 2013, a 500m, 20cm thick pipe was discovered below the River Chu, which forms the Kyrgyz border with Kazakhstan, through which vodka was being pumped in to avoid import taxes. READ MORE

Laos – The dense forests of Laos are home to the Laotian Giant Flying Squirrel, a metre long rodent complete with a natural skin parachute which allows it to glide down safely from treetops. Incredibly, it only became known to scientists in 2012 after they discovered the squirrels on sale in a local bush meat market. It is unclear how many remain alive in the wild. READ MORE

Latvia – After experiencing ruthless occupation by Nazi Germany and then annexation by the Soviet Union, Latvia did not enjoy a particularly pleasant 20th Century. But since throwing off their Soviet shackles and becoming independent in 1991, the wily Latvians have begun to exploit their troubled past for commercial gain. Visitors to the country can pay to stay overnight at Karosta Prison, previously used as a military prison by both the Nazis and the USSR. In order to replicate the conditions of its brutal heyday, guests are interrogated on arrival, verbally abused by guards, and sleep on the floor atop thin mattresses. READ MORE

Lebanon – Being taken hostage is apparently an integral part of the Lebanese tourist experience, too. Between 1982 and 1992, 96 people, mostly westerners, were captured and held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon. Many were held in solitary confinement for several years before they were released. In 1985, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah even hijacked a plane and brought it back to the capital Beirut, though all but one of the 147 people on board were eventually freed. In 2011, a group of Estonian cyclists were held captive for 113 days, and hostage takings in the unstable country regularly occur to this day. READ MORE

Lesotho – Contrary to what Bob Geldof and co may tell you, there is some snow in Africa. 3000m up in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho is Afri-Ski, one of Sub Saharan Africa’s only skiing resorts. It’s Lesotho’s height rather than its latitude which ensures cold temperatures- with a low point of 1,400m, it is the only country in the world that is entirely at least one kilometre above sea level. READ MORE

The snowy Lesotho HighlandsMaluti Snow / User:Jacovt1 / GFDL

Liberia – Manipulated elections are an all too frequent occurrence in Africa. The vote rigging in the 1927 Liberian general elections was particularly blatant, with the incumbent candidate Charles King receiving 240,000 votes (96%) in a country of only 15,000 registered voters. The Guinness Book of Records later declared them to be the most fraudulent elections ever held. READ MORE

Libya – Libya’s $25 billion Great Manmade River project provides water for one of the world’s driest countries. The water is sourced from huge natural aquifers deep below the Sahara Desert and diverted through a 4,000km network of giant pipes to the north of the country, where the vast majority of the Libyan population lives. Described by the country’s ever bombastic former leader Muammar Gaddafi as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the project is still uncompleted to this day. READ MORE

Huge pipe sections were transported across the Libyan desert during construction – Man Made River Libya / Jaap Berk / Public Domain

Liechtenstein – The national anthem of Liechtenstein, Oben am Jungen Rhein, uses the exact tune of the British anthem God Save the Queen, though naturally with completely different lyrics. In fact, several European countries once borrowed the tune before inventing one of their own. READ MORE

Lithuania – The Mayor of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius made headlines in 2011 when he rode a ten tonne Soviet era armoured vehicle over a car illegally parked in a cycling lane in the city, in a publicity stunt set up for a Swedish TV show. READ MORE

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!

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