What kind of tour is this?

I have to admit – one thing that fills me with a mix of excitement and dread on the days leading up to a tour with the Fulbright program is the tour-guide-led part of it. Not that I don’t like tours or tour guides. It’s a great way to experience something new, and more memorable than wandering around with a guidebook trying to figure out where important site #34 is on the mediocre map you’ve been provided. But a good tour guide is suppose to be an expert (or approaching an expert level of knowledge) in the contents of said tour, and relatively unbiased in her narration. Herein lies my concerns.

It is the case then, that our tours begin to feel like taglit (birthright, as it is know in the US) for grown ass intellectuals. In other words, a pro-Israel propaganda project disguised with barely a veneer of education and mutual understanding. We are Fulbrighters – current and future public intellectuals – and we want nuance, the full story, to be shown the complexity of the historical, political, economic, and cultural legacy of the country for which agreed to be cultural ambassadors (but of course in no official capacity or affiliation with the federal government or state of Israel whatsoever).

In a sense this tour tragedy is an opportunity for further education. At the very least – you would hope – in the process of correcting these errors and micro-manipulations of the truth we gain a better understanding of things here; I know for me this has been the case.

Below is a list of problematic statements that I’ve caught over the course of many tours. They vary in the degree of wrongness from ‘yes, but that’s not the whole story‘ to ‘no that is not the case at all.’ Why does this really matter? The short answer is that the ancient and recent history of the Middle East, and even the Mediterranean and Europe, are an essential component of state authority and identity narratives. This is not a unique fact; most nation states do this, ranging from innocuous truths to damaging falsities. As a social scientist, as a responsible citizen, and as a compassionate individual I feel it is my responsibility – in fact it is our shared responsibility – to question the prevailing narratives that perpetuate structural inequalities.

Jewish enterprise meets Palestinian tragedy

  • Claim: Jaffa oranges were invented by Israelis.

False. You only need to google Jaffa orange to debunk this. The Wikipedia entry tackles who invented them in the second sentence. There is a documentary about the Jaffa orange, a fruit which became the symbol of Zionist enterprise and the state of Israel, while for Palestinians, it represented the loss of their homeland and its destruction.

Kindergarten in Rishon Lezion, c.1898

  • The immigrants of the First Aliya came to an empty country of “sand, rocks, and stone” and purchased a bunch of farms and land that had been devastated by the Ottomans

I’ve been having a hard time unpacking this one. For one, it’s not fully clear from whom this land was bought from according to our tour guide. Presumably she means Palestinians, but usually she just said Arabs and didn’t commit to naming a people in any specific way. This, of course, is problematic in itself but I didn’t spend enough time with the tour guide to get a good sense of where she stands on this. The internal logical contradictions here are also curious. For example, from whom does one purchase land in an empty country? And, if the land was so devastated by centuries of Ottoman mismanagement, why were there so many farms available for purchase? Needless to say I could write a lot about this period of time, which is very interesting, but won’t.

Here are some quick facts:

Some 2.5 to 3 million jews immigrated out of Europe (mostly eastern) in the late 19th century during the First Aliya. Of these only a few tens of thousands moved to Ottoman Palestine, and about half ended up leaving anyway because of various hardships.

While secular political motives were not a major concern of these religious families seeking refuge from persecutions such as the pogroms in Russia, political Zionism quickly found a foothold there. During and after the Second Aliya, a major focus would become the creation of a majority Jewish state in an area where Palestinian Arabs were already the majority. One solution was known as “transfer,” and would later be known as Plan Dalet, the forcible depopulation of Palestinians from their homeland.

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah

  • The Romans wanted to eradicate Judiasm

This is preposterous. The Romans were an imperial force that annexed Palestine and Transjordan. During the 1st century BCE they installed a client king, Herod, himself of Jewish descent and a man of great infamy. During the 1st and 2nd centuries CE a series of large-scale nationalist revolts by the Jews attempted to restore an independent Jewish state. The Jews, for their part, were attempting to subvert an occupying force, with absolutely no relevance to the present situation in Israel. Disagreements and ultimately revolts broke out due to a combination of ethno-religious conflict, protests over taxation, and dissatisfaction with the veneer of limited autonomy in their homeland.

The Jews had it the worst, and the empire came the closest to a true attempt at eradication, under Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE), who saw them as the cause of continuous rebellion. Hadrian essentially outlawed Judaism and executed Jewish scholars, and attempted to erase Judea from historical memory by renaming the region Syria Palestina (after ancient Israel’s enemy, the Philistines), and re-establising Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina (after the Roman god Jupiter). Of course, to Hadrian the Jews were attempting to subvert the authority of his empire, which had been ruling there for nearly 200 years by that point. The waves of incitement by messianic figures like Bar Kochba only infuriated the emperor further.

IMG_2896

  • Abraham brought the “mother wheat” to Israel

If these events were suppose to be a tour of the literal historical geography of the Holy Land (as in, “that way is Ashkelon, where Jonah was swallowed by a whale,” a phrase actually uttered by our guide, among others) then this still doesn’t belong on the tour agenda, because: 1) In reality science says it didn’t happen that way, and 2) in the Bible it doesn’t say this happens.

Wheat began to be cultivated in the Near East (including the area of the fertile crescent in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel about 11,500 years ago. For most people who literally interpret the Bible this is 5000 years or so before the Earth is created, so… Even still, non-Young Earth literalists date the age of the Patriarchs to a much later period than this.

F120121SL21

  • Druze were persecuted by and breakaway of mainstream ‘arabism,’ and Israel gave them refuge.

The Druze are a little know minority in Israel, touted for their support of the country in the mainstream media. Throughout the tour our guide talked about how many of them become officers in the army. Like many things, the situation is more complex. I’m not an expert, so this point will be brief. Here is some other reading you can do.

Also, mainstream ‘arabism?’ WTF is that? Learn how to talk about groups of people, ffs. You’re a tour guide. Throughout our tours this guide seemed to struggle when talking about the Arab and Muslim minorities of Israel.

Two men in a sugar cane field

  • Crusaders introduced sugar cane to the Mediterranean

Nope. It was those Muslims that are so hard to talk about. Sugar cane was brought to the Levant during the Abbasid caliphate.

Saladin_and_Guy.jpg

  • Saladin’s defeat of the crusaders destroyed 100 years of progress and development in the Crusader empire

Quite the opposite, in fact. If you can think back to your high school history courses,  you will remember that during the Medieval period Europe was going through a sort-of “Dark Ages.” The Medieval Muslim world, on the other hand, was the scientific and cultural center of the world. So realistically the crusaders were more responsible for the destruction of progress and development than Saladin.

dead-sea-transform-fault

  • Syro-African Rift was created 25 million years ago in an earthquake

The timing of the development of this fault zone is not so far off. The earthquake part, though…

The series of faults that comprise the Jordan Rift Valley are a part of the Great Rift Valley, a geographic trench running from Lebanon to Mozambique. The norther portion, the Jordan Rift Valley, the more common name for the Syro-African Rift, formed during the Miocene Epoch (24-5 million years ago). The valley was created by the movement of two plates, the African plate (on the west), and the Arabian plate (on the east).

The two plates are moving in what is known as left lateral displacement, meaning if you stand on one side of the plate boundary looking at me standing on the other plate, I will appear to move to your left.

Both plates are actually moving in a north-northeast direction, but the Arabian plate is moving faster, resulting in the relative leftward shifting of the plates. Annual movement of several millimeters per year has resulted in a total current displacement of about 107 km.

AlArakibdemolitioncemetery
Bedouin Residents of Al Arakib watch as the Israeli Authorities destroy a structure used as a mosque.
  • The Negev was virtually empty when Jews began to settle

Sure, if you consider 65,000 to 100,000 people empty. This was the Bedouin population of the Negev before the 1948 war, during and after which the state of Israel began the ongoing process of eviction of Bedouin from their dwellings and their land. After the war only 11,000 remained. Many of the Bedouin fled or were expelled to the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza strip, Egypt, and Jordan.

I’ve been dealing with the myth of the empty Negev in my own work as well. Part of my time here is spent working with an organization called the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF, for short). The NCF is a collaborative Jewish-Arab non-profit NGO that advocates for full civil rights and equality for the Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel, who still face systematic discrimination.

2864529938

  • Golan heights minefields were all planted by Syria

In fact, Israeli forces planted new mine fields as recently as 2011. The Golan also contains the remains of minefields from Syrian and French forces during their control of the area, as well as mines from the British mandate period, laid by Jordan and Egypt. None of this really seems to matter to our tour guide.

Where have all the slugs gone?

Where have all the slugs gone?

Those shiny little trails, the thin veneer proving you were here, are no more. Not because I’ve cleaned them off the walls, but because we’ve moved to a new, so far slug free, apartment. Something else is gone too. As I walk around Beer Sheva, things don’t have that “I’m new in town” look anymore. The novelty of a new place, how we see the world as tourists, is fading away and the city is becoming part of my routine.

Fortunately Harvey goes great with our new place.

IMG_2435.JPG

One of my colleagues shared with me an anecdote about the four reasons why people like Israel, all food related:

1) The bread – It’s great here. Not the best in Beer Sheva, but still… a typical loaf here is better than the average american loaf. Also, all different kinds of flatbreads, challah, I could go on.

2) Yogurt – it’s so good! So many different percentages of fat, for whatever you could want to use it for. Plus, there’s labneh, which is kind of a yogurt-cheese and basically the best thing ever. We’ve eaten so much yogurt at this point it’s disgusting and we’ve only been here for a tenth of my postdoc.

3) Hummus/tahini – I’m going to drop a bomb, are you ready? All of the hummus here is delicious. I can’t find bad hummus. In Jordan – where I’ve also eaten incredible hummus – I’ve also had the worst (it came in a little box like for kids juice). This doesn’t even make sense to my American economic sensibilities. Somewhere there should be cheap, poorly made hummus. It’s a defining characteristic of global capitalism, the Newton’s third law of our western economic system: whatever is made that is good, is made as shit in equal or greater quantities. But not hummus.  Now, the tahini, pronounced taCHina, in hebrew, with extra CH (see here for pronunciation guide), is unlike anything I’ve ever found in stores in the US. That organic Arrowhead Mills crap I was buying, and every other shitty brand that I tried, they all pale in profound comparison to the rich, velvety, nuttiness of Israeli tahini.

4) The fourth reason is: no one remembers. Why is this? Who knows…  \_(0.o)_/ It was funny during the story, but the bigger message is somewhat lost on me. Perhaps it signifies a stereotypical Israeli approach to certain things in life. Something akin to saying “whatever” and moving on… Our recent experience with the local mops illustrates this well. Mop is maybe a bit misleading; squeegee would be a more apt term.

10009
Go ahead, use that squeegee like a mop!

Knowing not how to use this device, I googled “How to use an Israeli mop.” It turns out I’m not the only anglo in this country perplexed by the squeegee galavanting as a mop around here. My search returned many, many results, entire blog posts, and video tutorials on the magav, as it’s called in Hebrew. My favorite magev blog entry captures the aforementioned attitude nicely, part of which is quoted below, and slightly edited for length.

What [the magev is] really for is to spend ten minutes cursing and getting increasingly frustrated while trying to attach a rag Israelis call a smartut to the squeegee part. Then, you shlosh the thing back and forth across your floor in a parody of “mopping” and watch the rag fall off the squeegee a million times. The North American brain will logically try to solve this problem: Did I not tie it correctly? Is the rag meant to be shoved in between the squeegee blades? Maybe there’s supposed to be a hole in the middle of the rag so you can slide it down the stick and it stays around the squeegee that way? Pointless questions really, when you realize this is just an example of Israelis’ take-it-or-leave-it approach to logic. Ask any of them how the rag is supposed to stay on and they’ll tell you, Oh, well, it really doesn’t stay on…you have to just keep picking it up after a little while and re-tying it again. Trying to explain how there are newer and easier ways to clean floors falls on deaf ears. They’ll immediately defend the magav thing and say, Oh, well, but nothing cleans as well as this. It is the best way to clean a floor. I would never use anything else but this. Why don’t you like it?

I’ve gotten pretty good with the squeegee, but I miss my Swiffer wet jet.

Bugs and Brutalism

Bugs and Brutalism

Now that I have the key to my little windowless office it seems I have zero other things to do bureaucracy-wise. It’s interesting how people have warned me and complained that the bureaucracy here is so slow, especially compared to the states. Despite how it may have appeared in my previous post, I’m not all that sure the process here is really that much slower than in the US. It’s of a different nature, sure, but here there is a subtle flexibility compared to the rigidity of bureaucratic processes in the west. The problem for outsiders is recognizing where there is flexibility; lacking an understanding of this culturally defined set of rules can create an extra set of hurdles.

To be honest I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy so much I wrote a poem about it. This just kind of poured out of me in a moment of inspiration:

Slug, bug, sliming the wall;
Lug, glug, slowly you drawl.

So… that’s more of a poem about a slug. Okay, but the two share some similarities, do they not? Incidentally, slugs have been frequenting my thoughts after this happened the night we arrived:

This was an actual search by Jesse
Actual search by Jesse

But now, I can put all that behind me. BGU awaits, brimming in anticipation and welcoming me with open arms brutalist architecture – one of my favorite architectural styles. Most popular in the mid-century, it traces its origins to early Modernist architecture of the early 20th-century. Brutalist architecture is known for having a very serious look, often with a massive character that suggests strength and functionality. Exposed concrete punctuated with glass windows expresses the systematic and regular construction of the buildings. They are rugged and seem to lack concern for external comfort, many look downright Orwellian.

Nom
Not brutalism, just a bunch of date trees! Nom Nom
This one said nuclear on it somewhere…
IMG_2226
The library! So judgy.
Just a park. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Just a park. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Trouble in Be’er Sheva; we’re all just fine

Trouble in Be’er Sheva; we’re all just fine

You probably didn’t hear about this – I would be surprised if it made the international news. Certainly it’s not trending in a city near you. This evening shortly after 8pm there was an attack at the central bus station in Be’er Sheva (far from where we live and work).

This sad and awful act of violence injured a half a dozen people and one death led to 11 wounded and 2 deaths. The attackers were stopped by police, one of them killed. Nothing justifies murder and violence, whether instigation or retaliation. Israeli security forces must ensure that no further acts of terrorism are committed, nor that retaliation or vigilantism are permitted to perpetuate this cycle of killings.

Update: There was only one attacker. 2 dead, 11 wounded. One of the dead was mistakenly identified as a terrorist. He was an asylum seeker from Eritrea who had traveled here to get a visa, and was on his way home. After being shot by a security officer, he was further attacked by a mob who beat him repeatedly. According to ynetnews, “Paramedics trying to evacuate the Eritrean to the hospital, who was critically wounded, ran into objection from the crowds at the scene, who blocked their way and called out “Death to Arabs,” “Arabs out!” and “Am Israel Hai” (“The people of Israel still live”).”

Bureau-crazy

Bureau-crazy

Settling into a new life in another country takes time. Joining the university in the context of multiple entities and institutions sponsoring my fellowship is trying. In reality, they are part of the same herculean process of navigating an unfamiliar bureaucracy, set of cultural rules and norms, actual laws, and diverse personalities.

For Americans, who are accustomed to a specific idea of customer service, personal responsibility, and timeliness, working the system can be frustrating. Mitigating/adjusting my expectations has helped, and Jesse too, but acculturation is a slow process. Fortunately for us, we are pretty damn good at it!

Case in point: When do banks close?

You: “Oh, I don’t know… M-F at 4 or 5pm, sometimes Saturdays at 1pm depending on the branch.”

Well I’ve got news for you. First, don’t expect a whole week of regular business hours. No, no… there are different sets of hours on Sunday-Monday and Thursday, and on Tuesday-Wednesday. Did I mention that the weekend is Friday-Saturday? Honestly that is the easiest part of this equation.

Second, closing hours are not ON the hour. Nope. 1:15. I am not prepared for this! It’s hard to describe, but getting somewhere before the quarter of the hour is kind of an adjustment. Never did I think this would be an issue.

Maybe people here think that our speed limit signs are weird. 65 MPH? 35 MPH? “Who ends a speed limit with a 5?” thought no one ever until just now. 105 KPH wouldn’t fly… who cares about that extra 5 KPH anyway? What is that, like .2 MPH? (It’s not)

Anyway, as a result of this 1:15 closing time, I missed the bank’s open hours, twice. My fault, sure – and not completely the result of my inability to adjust to this new on-the-quarter-hour closing system, there were other factors too – but I missed it nonetheless. So, third try, Jesse and I make sure we’re there at the university branch early, and BAM! We’re in. Got a number. All set, and the teller calls us up and asks us for our papers.

“You are not Israeli?”

She calls her boss over, “you are not Israeli?”

“No,” I blurted out, trying to hold it together.

“I am sorry, there is a new rule that just came out this morning,” the boss explained. “All foreigners must open new accounts at the central branch, near Kanyon HaNegev. Only Israeli citizens may open accounts at this branch.”

Perplexed, I asked “But. The most non-Israelis are here. At this University. We live across the street. The other branch is so far! How does that make sense?”

Sympathetic, but unwavering, she says “Yes, I understand, but there is nothing I can do. It is policy, set in stone.”

In the face of defeat, I could only laugh. Three is not the magic number here. In conversations with new friends they simply remark: “Welcome to Israel.”

Undeterred, and with a new sense of determination, Jesse and I set out the next day by bus, taking Harvey for one of his new favorite activities. No one’s really happy on a bus, until they look at a cute baby. Harvey is instant besties with everyone who has sense enough to smile at him.

In my idiocy infinite wisdom, I somehow got in my head that the university branch must have odd hours, and that the main branch would have “normal” hours. Whadda dummy… Our 1:30 pm arrival to the bank is met with closed doors and crushed spirits. This was a Thursday, the last day of the week. Sure, we could wait around for two and a half hours for the bank to open again for their evening hours, but patience, our stomachs, and Harvey were not into it.

Sunday morning. Fifth try. Working around the nap schedule we arrive at 10:30. I get my number: 6. I’m telling you right now this number is prophetic. We sit down in a room bustling with people.

Later on, we learned from our teller that the people in Beer Sheva don’t use the ATM much, or online banking, or phone banking. Clearly annoyed, she explains to us that every transaction, for many people, must be done in person. That means waiting for 20-plus minutes to withdraw 200 shekels or check ones balance. WAAAAT?

As a result, the bank is swimming with customers. It’s a full blown clusterfuck of people, or as hebrew speakers would say, “a balagan.” This very common word, originally coming from Persian, through Russian, literally translates as “fucks in a cluster**”

Numbers are called over the banks intercom, and displayed on multiple flat-screen panels throughout the room. 5 is summoned to counter 9, 400-something to 16, 400-something else to some other counter, 7… 8… Something’s wrong. I go to ask the manager for help, who looks in her computer, “I think 6 was called already.”

Fifth attempt. Failure.

“But my wife and I are both here attentively watching and listening. How could we both miss it? We are just trying to open an account.” I explained to her that we are new in town, that I am a postdoc at the university, and we need a bank account very bad.

“Okay, let me see,” checking her computer again. ” Why don’t you open a bank account at the university?”

Rage monster stirring, “I was told that by law I could only open an account here.”

“Yes, that is true,” she smiled.

I would be asked this many times, in fact. It seems to be some sort of weird trick question they ask for security purposes.

Anyway, after some deliberation we are sent down to the lower level, where there are far fewer people, and tellers sit in glass offices with large desks and stock nature photos on the wall. Ofra, our bank teller, warns us, “this will take about an hour.” Fine. We’ve been trying for freaking ever to open an account. Nothing will stop us now.

And on the sixth try, nothing did. When we left the bank at 2pm, three and a half hours after we arrived, we returned home to rest. I felt little sense of accomplishment; it seemed like a typical day. In that, we embraced a new sense of acculturation.

**This is completely made up, by me. Sorry Notsorry.

Jet Lag

Jet Lag

If there’s one thing I like about jet lag it’s that I often wake just before sunrise. I’m no morning person so this is rare. There is a gentle electric current to the chilled morning air. Everything feels, smells, looks crisp. Like an unopened book – whose pages, brisk with fresh ink printed for this occasion – my early morning tryst.

Every city has a rhythm, predictably melodic and syncopated. No moment is quiet like the predawn hour. And then, as I sit sipping my coffee, the city slowly begins to awaken in a doppler orchestra of cars, conversation, and public transportation. We live adjacent to a busy street so this quickly becomes a wall of sound.

Grateful Dead's wall of sound system

With the family sleeping, a brief moment of solitude: even the cat sleeps somewhere other than my keyboard. In the morning we have a fleeting confidence, one part anticipation for the day’s potential and one part security in those tasks we have not yet failed to complete. Be’er Sheva stirs.

Ramadan

It’s a beautiful evening here in Jerusalem, at 73F and partly cloudy, I’ve got a nice breeze coming in through my window. Also, the numerous stray cats around the university are keeping quite, for now.

This month, by the Islamic calendar, is Ramadan (رمضان‎), the most important month for Muslims. It’s special because Mohammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an from God during this month. Ramadan is a time of religions and spiritual reflection, self-sacrifice, charity, and fasting. Yes, Muslims fast for the entire month – but only during daylight hours. Fasting includes abstention from food, water, smoking, and sex. Everyone is expected to fast, with the exception of young children, pregnant or menstruating women, people who are traveling, the ill, and other situations where fasting is unsafe.

I’ve always been curious about fasting. Many of the people I work with in Jordan fast, as do many of my new friends here in Jerusalem. So, I’ve decided to fast with some of them for a day, starting tomorrow (or tonight, if you’re on the west coast!). I’ve set my alarm for 4:00am, so I can wake up and have my pre-fast meal, called suhoor (سحور). Then I will abstain from food and drink until it’s time to break my fast at the iftar (إفطار), sometime around sunset. So, wish me luck, and I’ll try to post updates on my status!

!!!رمضان مبارك