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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hebrew University

Greetings from Jerusalem! I’ve been here for about two weeks now. After getting over some pretty bad jet lag, I’m alert, awake (sort of), and analyzing the crap out of some samples I excavated in southern Jordan. I’ll get to that later, but let’s talk about this campus! The Hebrew University in Jerusalem has three campuses, one for science, one for medicine, and one for the soft sciences. I’m at the Givat Ram campus, which has most of the hard science labs. Givat Ram is also where the Knesset is, you know, the Israeli legislature. When I go runing at the track, I can see the Knesset up on the hill.

The campus is also beautifully landscaped. Yeah, I know. I really like the landscape. But there are so many TREES! And everything has a natural feel to it, like they didn’t tear every single shrub for miles before erecting buildings.

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There’s also this really nice open air theatre. As far as I can tell there aren’t any shows this summer, unfortunately.

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Starstruck at the SAAs

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about this year SAA conference, and I’ll get to more of them eventually. For now, this experience will have to suffice:

While at a Nat Geo reception, my friend pointed out Randall McGuire standing across the room. I had recently read his book review of Flannery and Marcus’ new tome on social inequality. As a marxist archaeologist, Randy didn’t exactly agree with all of their positions. Not only did he point out many of the inherent flaws of their approach, he was pretty funny in the process. In what could have been a harshly critical review, McGuire wrote tongue-and-cheek. I could almost hear him chuckling as I read.

Two issues in particular stood out. First, they assume that social inequality did not exist or existed in some fundamentally different way prior to early complex societies. Though the authors acknowledge inequality in age and gender in hunter-gatherer societies in the earlier chapters, they do little more to address this obvious criticism. Second, like many archaeologists, Flannery and Marcus use modern ethnographic examples. But their presentation of the “timeless ethnographic present” has obvious flaws; namely, that it doesn’t exist.

At any rate, when Randy walked by I had to introduce myself. I told him that I really enjoyed his review, and that I had sent it around to some of my friends on facebook. He was pleased to hear that it had gone viral (sort of). After a couple of minutes it was over. I should have taken a picture…

Words I am starting to hate

There are certain words or phrases that exist in the archaeological vernacular that drive me bonkers. For the people who use them, it’s often not their fault. I assume the words pass from person to person without much thought. Sometimes it may be from mentor to student, or other times from colleague to colleague. Either way, these words stink, and it’s not anyone’s fault they’re sticking around (except for lack of thoughtful reflection, perhaps).

  • Virgin soil: Oh my god, this one drives me crazy. First of all… gross! At some point, did someone say, “hey, we need a word to describe this soil that has no cultural remains in it. Since I’m the first man to penetrate this dirt, I’ll call it virgin**.” Let’s stick with sterile soil, people. Sure, sterile has some funny medical connotations, but at least they apply to both genders.
  • Campaign (as in excavation campaign): Are we in a war? Is it the colonial period again? Are we sojourning to the countryside? NO! So campaign should be replaced with less colonialist term.
  • Patronage: Article introductions that list the sponsors, patrons, affiliations, institutional histories, and so on, are BORING! Put this in the acknowledgements like the rest of us. Try being specific when you say patron: did your patron give you money? Is your patron merely the institution with which you are affiliated? Are you a client, who has an obligation to your patron, similar to the Roman system of patronage? or the style of patronage which funded excavations when archaeologists were antiquarians (you know, like, a hundred years ago)?

These terms are distracting, and do nothing to further archaeological knowledge. Do me a favor and refrain from using them. Maybe in a couple decades they’ll be gone!

**note: Paradoxically, once you’ve penetrated virgin soil, it ceases to be virgin any longer!

They tried to send me to Qurayqira…

They tried to send me to Qurayqira…

I snapped a series of HDR photos from Jabal as-Sufaha a couple days ago. It was a perfect day; the partly cloudy skies made the weather cool and resulted in some great photo opportunities. This one looks down into the Arabah valley from the late Iron Age site we were working at. The Bedouin village of Qurayqira is in the distance.

Jordanian Food

Tomorrow I will leave Showbak for the Faynan valley. One thing I’m really going to miss are the dinners. There’s a local family my colleague is friends with who run a camp for tourists, and who will cook dinner for visiting archaeologists for a small fee. The food is fresh, local, and cooked by an expert. I ate way more than what I posted below, but I was so busy eating it I forgot to take pictures. Who has the time?

If you’re ever in Jordan, stop in Showbak, see the crusader castle, Montreal, and spend the night at Jaya Camp, which has an incredible view of the castle. Did I mention the castle is lit up at night?