Monthly Archives: August 2008

Getting Ready To Leave Haifa

Well, I’ve got my bags half-way packed and some of my mess cleaned up, and I’ve made arrangements for a ride to the aeroport.  I couldn’t get ahold of the sherut company I had a contact number for, so they might be closed on the weekends and might be dumb enough not to have an answering machine.  So… I’ve had to arrange a cab, which is absurdly expensive (about a hundred bucks) but still better than trying to manage my luggage on the train again.  This is what I get for leaving campus two days later than everyone else; sure I get the peace and quiet, and more time to pack, but I have no-one to share a ride with to Tel Aviv.  *grumble*

I had originally thought to use this time on one final trip elsewhere in the country, and then scaled back that ambition to visits to some local sights I had missed.  In the end, though, I decided to save the money and hassle, and just work on getting ready to leave without the slightest stress (“did I forget anything?”, etc.).  I’m also being good and keeping up my studying, which is kind of a surprise.  I had thought that, as hard as this summer schedule has been, I’d have wanted a break, but instead I’ve decided it’s better to maintain the momentum.  All considered, this is probably a really good idea…

Back To Nazareth

Yesterday I returned to Nazareth on my last school-sponsored day-trip.  Despite getting off to a slow start, the day ended up being quite entertaining – and with only nine people in our group it was easily the least stressful of these outings.  We began at the Church of the Annunciation, which was predictable, if disappointing.  Our guide, a Nazareth native who did his Ph.D. on nineteenth-century Palestinian homes of the wealthy élite, spent too much time talking about the Church, almost putting me to sleep, but we had more time free to look around inside and take pictures, so I was able to improve upon my flawed set from the first visit.

After that we got to see the underground features of the Church of St Joseph across the way, and now I have some photos for mother showing what is believed to have been the workshop in which the young Jesus learnt carpentry.  (Of course, I don’t buy that he was a carpenter at all, but that’s neither here nor there!)

We then passed through the souq, which was nice as I’d not seen in on the first visit.  This began a long stretch where the tour got to be genuinely interesting, as our guide (who’s name I have forgotten) was keen to show us the Nazareth that’s not usually seen on tours.  He took us into several private homes to discuss the features of them, including in one a fantastic painted ceiling from the later nineteenth century, with panels depicting the cities of the region as they looked at the time.  The panel for Haifa was great – all you could see was the area now called Wadi Nisnas and the boulevard known as the German Colony, and everything else was natural and open.  Cool!

On the way down one of the old city streets we stopped at the shops of two old men, the last cobbler and the last blacksmith in the city.  It was pretty slick to see a shop where people can still bring their shoes to be repaired (though most everyone these days just buys a new pair of Nikes), and some of the increasingly uncommon bits of metalware one would want for his house, from assorted cooking implements to pole attachments for picking the fruit from cactus and a hand-cranked roaster for coffee beans.

We took a break in a small café in the Ottoman-era Muslim quarter, where we were served a local treat that is popular on Ramadan evenings.  It starts like a small pancake that’s only cooked on one side.  It is then stuffed with walnuts of a local cheese, folded and closed and fried in oil, and finally served with a heavy syrup on top.  It was very greasy but quite tasty!  He then showed us a few more old buildings, some of which we falling apart because the low-income families that have moved into them in recent years cannot afford to maintain or restore them, and one spectacular old building that has been turned into a high-end restaurant.

After this we worked our way over to Mary’s Well and, unlike last time, I got to see the inside of the Orthodox Church (St Gabriel’s).  This is built atop the original opening to the city’s only spring, where Orthodox Christian’s believe the Annunciation took place.  We got in just as a large Russian tour group was finishing a prayer service, and it was really nifty to hear all of their voices raised in prayer, and watch them move through the room kissing icons at its conclusion.  The priests in an Orthodox church operate behind a solid wooden partition, completely cutting them off from the congregates.  Down a side corridor and slightly lower is the opening to the spring, and I took a few photos for mother to see.

The tour concluded in a remarkable little shop called Cactus, which was built on the site of an older building starting in 1993.  Which working on the shop the owner, Elias, discovered a set of terracotta pipes inside the walls, a couple of which he broke.  Someone told him that this might be old and he called the Ministry of Antiquities out to investigate.  The inspector they sent assured him that the site had been an Ottoman Hammam, and of minimal historical value so he was free to do as he pleased.  Setting out to dig a basement, he tore out a large chunk of the piping and managed to uncover a very large room to the left of his shop, attached to which was a large furnace and, further down and directly below his shop floor, he found a fantastically well-preserved hypocaust!

Okay, so you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is, and what a hypocaust even is.  A hypocaust is the heating system for a public bath in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.  What Elias had found below his store was much older, and much more valuable, than he had been led to believe.  Growing increasingly suspicious, he finally got someone out from the government to take another look, and they determined that he had found a public bath that was at least as old as the Crusader period, but again they missed the point.  Where Crusader baths had a hypocaust they were invariably built on top of Roman ruins, which meant that even if the site had been used as late as the Crusader period (and tests of the ashes indicate the bath was used as recently as 800 years ago), the underlying structure was much older.

Elias was finally able to get teams of archaeologists from outside universities to look over the site, and they discovered that his hypocaust was the largest and best preserved by far in the entire Middle East, and that it ran under the hot, medium, and cold rooms of the public bath.  This design was only used in the early Roman period, making this a Hellenistic bathhouse that was in use during the century before Jesus!  I have seen the remnants of hypocaust systems before both in the Byzantine baths at Caesarea and at the old Roman baths in Bath Spa, Britain, and this building was larger and better built than either of those.  The characteristic thin red bricks making up the support pillars were far bigger around and of larger bricks, and atop this lay a very large chunk of the original marble floor (though most of it is still obscured by the floor of Elias’s shop, which is built just above).

The perfect terracotta pipes (aside from the ones Elias had broken), the massive hypocaust, and the furnace still loaded with ashes from fires of long ago, are elements in a very sophisticated ancient heating and plumbing system that, by all accounts, should not be present in Nazareth.  This find reveals that Nazareth was not a poor village in Jesus’ day, as has been traditionally believed, but was in fact a city of probably 15,000 persons!  No bathhouse of this size and sophistication has ever been found in a provincial city; its presence reveals a level of affluence that demolishes the old narratives about Nazareth.  As Elias (a devout Christian) suggests, with the bathhouse located beside Mary’s Well, if Jesus did in fact come from Nazareth it is nearly certain that he once used the facilities.  Think about it: Elias has stumbled upon a building that Jesus probably knew and used to bath in!  Nifty, eh?

The ancient bathhouse with its incredible story was a great way to conclude the tour.  I then grabbed lunch at a local restaurant with a bunch of the folks from the university, and afterwards took a short walk with one of the guys before heading back to the bus.  All told this has to be one of the very best, if not the best, of the trips planned by the university.  It was small, detailed, off the beaten track, and ended on a fantastic discovery from the ancient world.  Once I get home and re-order my photos to post, I’ll share some of the great shots I got crawling around inside the hypocaust of the bathhouse!  Until then…

Getting Ready For The School Year…

Not much to report of late; just been busy with my Arabic.  To-morrow is the last trip I’m taking with the university folks.  We’re heading out to Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel.  I’ve been there once already but only in the area around the biggest Christian sites.  Hopefully we get to see entirely different parts of town.  Then, on Wednesday, I have to study for the final exam, which is on Thursday.  After that test I am free until early morning of the 31st, when I have to get down to the aeroport in Tel Aviv.  I’m thinking of taking a sherut (shared taxi) down instead of the train (which is how I got to Haifa) so that I am spared the hassle of moving my gods-awful heavy luggage. *grin*

I picked up a few more books to-day, including the remaining three volumes of the Arabic textbook we’ve been using.  I’m not sure who subsidises these books, but someone is conspiring to keep them cheap.  Most books in Israel are more expensive than those back home, but these volumes range from NIS 18 to NIS 40, which is about $6 to $15.  Where the hell have you ever bought a college textbook for six freakin’ dollars?!  Anyroad, I like the books because they are written in Hebrew and Arabic, with no English; it forces me to work with both languages and the lessons in one reinforce the other.  I’m now finished with the first volume.  When I get home I want to review it all from the start, doing the exercises we skipped and making up new ones with the same words.  Once I have this material mastered I can start into the second book.  Gonna be a busy year.

Speaking of which, I’m being forced dramatically to reduce my living expenses, so I’ll be encouraged by want of money to stay at home and study more diligently than I might otherwise… *grin*  I’ve also taken a job as a high school English and history tutor.  Yes, I am genuinely getting desperate for cash.  And just think, I have another four years until I can finish this degree, including several more research trips back to the Middle East.  If anyone knows where I can whore myself for extra cash, feel free to share the information…

On Death And Life In The Galilee

Here is the promised second half of my day-trip into the Galilee with the school folks.  I’ll try to keep it shorter than the last one… *grin*  But first, I need to correct a couple of big omissions from my first post on the Galilee trip.  Located immediately beside Albyan College is a small-scale slaughterhouse that does its work out in the open air.  As we drove past it on the way up the hill, toward the restaurant we were going to grab lunch in, I spotted three cows sitting in an open, covered space not unlike those roofs over the islands at a service station.  Two of them were standing roped to a support beam, and the third was lying dead on the ground between them.  I thought this was the last we’d see of the process, and am at least thankful that – while I was wrong about that – at least we saw nothing else until after eating our lunch.

The restaurant, incidentally, was the only one anywhere on the street that had all of its marquee and menu written in Hebrew, rather than Arabic.  Given that this is an entirely Arab village, I am a bit suspicious about this as a choice of eatery – is it only co-incidental that this was their choice?  Or is this a restaurant that specifically caters to crowds from outside the village?  Either way, there were plenty of locals eating inside, and the food was good – a couple of varieties of hummus (one with a dark bean added to the mix whose name I cannot recall), some fresh pita bread, and plentiful salads of common veggies.

After eating we walked down the hill to the college, and by luck (good or bad I leave to your judgement) the slaughterhouse was in the building immediately below it.  Along with three other students I was drawn to the activity there, and as the rest of our university group disappeared into the college we four watched the two butchers work (and one of us, not me, tried to ask questions in broken Arabic).  By this time there was only one cow still alive, and she was pulling backward on the rope holding her to the structure, a look of mute terror in her eyes.  Say what you will about how stupid cows are, but this gal knew exactly what was going to happen to her, and it seemed to me unbearably cruel to perform their vivisections in full view of the next animals in line.

Hanging from the ceiling were now two carcasses with most of the meat already efficiently stripped from the bones.  On hooks further in were a number of organs that were also destined for meals.  But, most disturbingly intriguing, there was on the ground at our feet the complete head of one cow, still attached to the empty skin that once covered its body.  The empty skin was oddly fascinating despite being repulsive, and I found myself staring into the dead eyes of the ex-cow lying before me.  In a pile just past the skin was a bunch of entrails that would doubtless find some other use.  The whole thing was done in such a way as to waste none of the animal, which is at least a sensible economic policy (if still disgusting).  Times like this I am glad that I am already vegan for health reasons, because I am spared the trouble of having to justify my food choices in the face of this barbaric process.

And now … fast forward to the end of our meeting inside the college.  After visiting the villages of Majd al-Krum and and Deir al-Assad we drove a bit further down the highway, past the sprawling Jewish city of Karmi’el, which has played a big part in the government’s efforts to “Judaize” the Galilee (which is what they actually called the policy of settling Jewish citizens in the region, a public-relations disaster of a name if there ever was one).  The village of Sakhnin has benefited from the resulting economic development as well as natural growth, and is now reclassified as a city of some twenty thousand according to our guide.

We stopped into the home of a local woman with a harrowing tale to tell.  Since (pathetically) none of the Arabic teachers were competent enough to translate the spoken Palestinian language for us, she was forced to recount her experiences in Hebrew and our guide translated for us.  Which means, for those paying attention to the various cultural gaffes, that we were supposed to learn something “authentic” and important about Arab culture in the Galilee from a woman who told her story in her second language, and which was then translated by an American using his second language.  Regardless, she spoke perfectly clear Hebrew, and I was able to follow more of the story in the original than I’d have expected.

It turns out that she is originally from Deir al-Assad, and that she and her sister had married two brothers, with the two couples forming a single household.  (Nifty, eh?  They even married on the same day.)  Despite coming from a conservative family that disapproved of women working outside the home, she was determined to have a career of her own, and worked as a simple labourer in kitchens until she could learn enough to start working as a cook.  She learned a lot from working on a nearby kibbutz, and had worked briefly for that NGO in Shorashim, which is how our guide met her.  Finally she was able to establish her own catering business, which had been thriving at the time her trials began, and she had just finished building her own home along with her family – working on it, in her words, like a man, helping to plaster the walls and whatnot.

Then it all came apart one fateful night.  One of her husband’s brothers was involved in a fight and killed a scion of the village’s largest and most powerful clan.  The entire offending family, all ten brothers, along with their wives and 43 children, were given 24 hours to get out of the village, on pain of death.  Until a reconciliation commission had worked out a suitable punishment, they were all forbidden from communication with members of the other clan, which meant that they lost most of their friends, and could not come back into the village for any reason.  It has now been a full year and there is no sign that the commission will have done its job any time soon.

She now lives in a large apartment in Sakhnin with her family, and has started a new business in the city and enrolled her children in a new school.  Despite the appearance of putting down roots, she is determined to return to the home she built with her own hands, and remains bitter and aggrieved over the whole affair.  She apparently, in the words of our guide, “learned feminism” while she was working on the kibbutz, and seems determined to do something to help break down this culture of “honour” that has no qualms about punishing the innocent.  Her family, after all, had no possible connexion with the murder, which was committed by one of her husband’s brothers – a man who was already in jail for the offence and was certain to be convicted (there were many witnesses and no question of his guilt).  Since the practices that she’s run afoul of do not come from Islam, but rather from local traditions that are dressed up in religion, she is understandably upset at being ejected from her home.  Her position, sensibly enough, is that if they live in a nation of laws, then those laws should be used to punish the guilty, and her family should be left in peace.

Throughout the story, her sister had been serving us coffee and tea along with little pumpkin-flavoured confections.  It was easy to see that everyone in the room was sympathetic, but the wider purpose of the story’s being recounted to us is a little opaque to me.  This was presented as a way to stop us from “romanticizing” the village life, showing us that there is a “dark side” to traditional culture in the Arab villages.  Okay, fair enough – but it’s difficult to escape the sense that we are trumpeting the benefits of Western civilization in the face of Arab “backwardness”…  I am less touchy about this sort of thing than are many of the people I know at UCI, and am perfectly willing to pass judgement on what I consider awful practices, but even I was made very uncomfortable with the way this was handled.  What is missing to the discussion are the bases for judgement.  That is, on what grounds, exactly, can we critique the village’s practices without simply endorsing, as cultural chauvinists, the “liberation” that ostensibly comes from abandoning their traditions and signing onto ours?  It’s a tough question, and one that we’ll pick up again on another day.

Yad Vashem And My Last Visit To Jerusalem

I know I promised to continue my story from the Galilee, but I needed to write something up on to-day’s Jerusalem trip before I forgot something that I could not photograph.  I’ll come back soon and finish that other story later, but for now let’s run back up to Jerusalem for more fun and games with penguins and traffic….

I left this morning along with the university crowd, taking advantage of their trip in order to score a free bus ride.  I had already seen most of what they had planned, and I’d been intending to see Yad Vashem since I arrived in country and this was my last chance.  The bus ride was pleasant enough, and I had a vacant seat beside me for a (welcome) change.  Levi kindly asked the driver, Ahmed, to stop the bus at a corner not particularly inconvenient for them, and I took off on my own.

Rather than cross the street to the main Egged bus terminal and ride to the museum, as Levi had suggested, I elected to walk it so that I could see some more of west Jerusalem from the ground.  This was difficult as I had no real map of the city and had to double-back a couple of times in order to get going in the direction in which I knew the museum lay.  The walk was enjoyable and I got to take in more of the sights, including sections of the new light-rail system that’s being installed to relieve some of the traffic and pollution that are choking the capital.  In other year or two there should be quite a few less buses running around the city, which would be a real improvement in my opinion.  Like the penguins that have flooded the city, there are just far too many of them around.

Yad Vashem occupies the peak of one of Jerusalem’s many hills, and immediately abuts the military cemetery where everyone from Theodore Herzl to Vladimir Jabotinsky to Golda Meir are buried.  I started my exploration of Har Hazikaron (the Mount of Remembrance) in the cemetery, mostly because it was there I suppose, and planned to use a nice wooded trail that was recently added to connect the two facilities.  The cemetery itself, to add a few thoughts, was frustratingly laid-out, and it took far too long to find the sections I wanted.  The maps did not bother to mention that one of the two halves that they described was not visible for several kilometres, and I was stuck between the street and the other half wondering where the hell the missing part was!  The only bright spot along the way was the amazing memorial to the Ethiopian Jews who died on the way to making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel).

Once I got to the sections I wanted to see (the political figures), I ran into a huge crowd of noisy American kids on a trip organized by Birthright – a charity that offers free trips to Jewish kids in their late teens and early twenties.  I got to see the down side, as they don’t get a choice of where they go and have to endure a drill-sergeant type tour guide who was tearing into them for being, well, the little arseholes college kids usually are!  *grin*  Still, they broke up the monotony of burial monuments, and I exchanged some amusing gestures with kids desperate to ignore the guide.  Finally leaving the cemetery and coming down that trail toward the museum, my first sights of Yad Vashem were, to put it mildly, a bit startling.

I had (probably deliberately) never looked at photos of Israel’s celebrated Holocaust museum, so I was unprepared for the extreme architecture that has been employed to bring it to life.  The most striking structural feature is a massive triangular building that bisects the complex.  At one end the triangle bursts open and appears to spill its contents onto the hillside below; at the other end it comes to an abrupt end at a solid wall, but the entire shape has extended probably a dozen metres from the supporting structures, leaving it hanging there in mid-air.  It’s a really impressive effect, and the stated aim of the building is to provide a “bridge” (which it vaguely resembles in shape) to a vanished world.  For me, though, it also spoke of a bridge to nowhere – a place at which the train of Judaism simply tumbled over the edge of history and fell into the abyss below.

Once inside, I almost immediately ran afoul of their no-photography policy, which – while understandable from an artistic and intellectual-property standpoint – seems to run counter to the stated aim of bringing the images and memories of the Shoah to the largest possible audience.  Whatever; with the camera tucked away in my palm I simply wandered through each exhibition hall and looked over what they had put together.  The exhibits run in a rough chronology, starting with the ancient and modern anti-Judaism of Europe and ending with the survivors’ stories.

I was impressed by the refusal to mince words about the history of Christian “antisemitism” (I hate that word; what the hell is a semite?!), which is quite unlike most American portrayals I’ve come across.  Despite the wealth of documentary evidence and apostolic writings on the benighted status of the Jews, it’s just a little too controversial for most American Christians to accept that their faith was the single largest factor underlying the Holocaust.  No ideology written in modern times could have mobilized ordinary people to such atrocities without being able to dip its pen deeply into the inkwell of cultural and theological prejudice that had long conditioned Europeans to consider the Jews as worthy targets for hatred and abuse.

After this they move quickly into the rise of modern antisemitism and the racial theories of the nineteenth century, and from there to the birth of Nazi political ideology.  The first of many, many excellent maps then shows you the relative concentration of Jews in the countries of Europe, the Near & Middle East, and North Africa.  At each step along your journey through the exhibits, new maps present the political, social, and demographic changes wrought by war.  The section on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis is very effective, and they make stunning use of documentary footage of his speeches.  Rather than the typical few second clips of him ranting like a lunatic, these pieces were chosen for content, and as such they present Hitler closer to the way he must have been at the time.  Of course, they choose particularly relevant bits like a “prophecy” he made to the effect that, if “international finance Jewry” were to plunge the world into war again, the result would not be the Bolshevism he says the Jews would want, but rather the extermination of Jews in Europe.  As we all know, when Hitler had manufactured his own little war he did his best to make this come to pass.

Each room then takes you through a major event in the war, and in the unfolding saga of the Shoah that accompanied war in Europe.  The camps all receive extensive coverage, and the difference between concentration, labour, and extermination camps is made plain by excellent models and descriptions of the purpose-built death-camps.  The deportation of the Jews and the loss of their world is shown through exhibits showcasing, for example, boxes of valuables looted from Jewish homes.  When it comes to the exterminations themselves, original canisters of Zyklon-B are presented, with their deadly contents spilling out into the display case; and, particularly effectively, the floor at one point turns to plexiglass and you look down to see a massive pile of empty shoes stretching across the length of the room.  In the same room is a large-scale model of the entire gas and cremation complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, made by the same Polish partisan who had seen the original and made the first model of the crematoria in Poland in 1946.  You look in on a vast sea of carved figures screaming in mute agony in the gas chambers, only to be carried up a lift and loaded into ovens by half-starved Jewish labourers.  The model is jaw-dropping and horrifying, and I wish I could share it with you…

The story is not unremittingly awful, as the moments of heroism are well represented.  In keeping with the early Zionist obsession with the failure of Jews to resist en masse there are tributes to the ghetto uprisings and to the partisans, both Jewish and Gentile.  There is also a moving memorial to the actions of Christian X of Denmark, who stood up to the Nazi authorities governing his country at considerable risk, and who – once it was clear that diplomatic protests could not guarantee the safety of Danish Jews – arranged to have nearly the entire population spirited safely across the Baltic to Sweden in small boats, one of which is now on display in the museum.

After the displays about the battered survivors and their search for meaning in a world turned upside down came the Hall of Names, which was more moving than I had expected it to be.  The circular chamber houses thick black folders containing the names and available information on over three million of the lost.  This material is a major part of the museum’s raison d’être and, while the sources are already fast disappearing, the hope is to save the names of as many of the dead as possible, so that something of them and their communities is preserved for future generations.  The seemingly endless wall of carefully organised folders got to me enough to make me sneak a couple of photos when no-one was looking…

Finished with the main body of the exhibits, I gave the other halls (containing, e.g., sections on the children, on art inspired by the Shoah, etc.) a miss and headed out to the open-air memorials scattered over the museum grounds.  On later reflexion I realised that I had passed up the Hall of Remembrance, and wish I had seen it – inside is a continuous memorial flame beside a crypt containing a sampling of the ashes from each major extermination site, along with the names of 22 of the most notorious places of execution. I doubt I could have looked in on this without tearing up; I was close to tears at several points in the main hall.

But instead, I got a brisk walk around the huge landscaped area beyond the museums, where modern art pieces, dedications by survivors and sympathisers, and large memorials to various aspects of the Holocaust compete with the surrounding Jerusalem Forest for your attention.  Out here, at least, I could snap photos with impunity, and for nearly the entire length of the complex I was by myself – most everyone seems to leave after they finish the history museum.  Was I not exhausted from the walk and lack of food, I doubtless would have walked all through the Valley of the Communities, which is a really distinctive and worthy memorial to the lost worlds of European Jewry.  They have literally carved a labyrinth out of the bedrock of the hill and engraved within it the names of 5,000 destroyed or nearly-destroyed Jewish communities.  I took a couple of pictures at the entrance, but fought back the intense desire to enter it and get lost for a while.  Instead, I started heading back up, but ended up getting more of a walk than I was looking for…

I first came upon something I had seen in a model in the entrance hall – a gigantic outdoor “sculpture” that consists of a rail road bridge that extends into empty space and ends in a tangle of shredded steel.  Sitting atop it is one of the original German cattle cars used to herd the Jews toward extermination camps, which was donated to the museum by the Polish government.  This has to be one of the most awe-inspiring and effective works of historical art I am ever likely to see.

Beyond it are signs pointing back toward the main buildings marked with various words for ‘exit’.  Silly me, I thought they meant that they’d take me back to the museum’s formal exit, since I needed to return to the cloakroom and pick up my backpack.  Instead, they wrapped along the side of the hill and dipped into the Jerusalem Forest, forcing me to walk well over a mile, mostly uphill, back to the initial automobile entrance, and then to re-enter the museum where I started.  Exhausted, I had thought to get something to eat in the restaurant downstairs, but had to settle for a drink and a brief rest.  The dining space is divided into two sections – one for meat and the other for dairy – in accordance with kosher laws.  Unfortunately, the only restaurant was on the meat side, and the dairy section had only super-fattening snack foods.  Rather than hassle with the menu there, I opted to wait until I got back out of the museum complex to grab lunch.

I took the available free shuttle bus back to the main street, to save a couple of kilometres and some valuable time.  Crossing the street, I picked up a bus back to the main Egged terminal and, since the hour was already growing late (damned shabbat shut-downs!), I grabbed a quick bite in one of the dive eateries in the terminal.  Buying my ticket back to Haifa was unusually frustrating, as it turned out to be a microcosm of the kind of rudeness that seems to characterise so much of the population.

Several women attempted to cut in front of me, one of which succeeded.  She then allowed a Haredi fellow with a booming voice to jump ahead of her, and he proceeded to waste fifteen minutes of everyone’s time as he tried one credit card after another in order to get eight tickets for his family.  Just when I thought I could get no more annoyed, a middle-aged woman came up right beside me and started screaming at the woman in the ticket booth – over the heads of quite a few people and right into my ear.  I came close to punching the bitch, but someone else answered her question and she hurried off to the terminal she needed.  I have found, again and again, an annoying predilection for older Israeli (Jewish) women to cut in front of you in queue, to scream out questions to people at random, to throw violent tantrums in public, and so on.  “Why” is, as always, a pointless question to ask in such circumstances – human beings just don’t make any damned sense.  😉

With ticket finally in hand, and having determined which terminal and times were possible, I had a helluva time finding my way back down to the food court mentioned above.  I made it back up in time for the 1530 bus back to Haifa, and had to face more aggravation as one person after another tried to force themselves ahead of everyone else to squeeze into the bus.  This is definitely one area in which Americans are, in general, so much more considerate than Israelis.  I’m so used to seeing the ways in which my fellow countrymen are inconsiderate arseholes that it’s refreshing to find a place in which we actually stand up favourably.  (Though for the Israelis it’s a sad verdict.)

The bus ride back was the nicest I’ve had, as the bus was not completely full and I had a vacant seat beside me again.  Such luck, twice in one day!  I got to see a few things on this route back that I’d not gotten good looks at before, including a good number of Muslim villages in the West Bank, which the toll rode skirts for some distance.  Some of these had up to seven minarets that I could see, and one had a gold-domed mosque clearly intended to evoke the Haram ash-Sharif.  I also got a close-up look at very long stretches of the Apartheid Wall, including rolls of razor wire, manned gun towers, forced-earth barricades, and – of course – the tall expanses of plain concrete wall that are increasingly showing up in images of Israel.  On a less depressing side, I got to see another big hunk of the ancient Roman aqueduct, this time on the other side of the highway from Caesarea and quite a bit inland.  It appears as out of nowhere just where the highway runs past, and stretches in crumbling majesty toward the distant hills before disappearing again beneath the soil.  How much of human history is simply buried beneath your feet, never again to be seen?

I got back to Haifa before 1730 and thought that I’d still be able to catch a bus back up the hill, but it turns out that things closed up at 1700, not the 1800 I had mistakenly presumed.  Oops.  Without sufficient water to survive another walk up the hill from Merkazit Hof HaCarmel all the way to the university, I was finally talked into taking a taxi.  I first refused several offers as too expensive, preferring the difficult walk to the rip-off, but managed to nudge one down to an acceptable fare and – grudgingly – took the ride back up to the dormitories.  The driver decided to risk giving me a heart-attack, since he (like so many Israelis) drove casually over multiple lanes and, once well into the hills, often exceeded 100 miles per hour!  I then spent (*gasp*) almost two hours typing this up, in between munching a few cookies and listening to some music.

All told this was my shortest visit to Jerusalem, and easily the least satisfying.  I got to see relatively little that was of serious interest to me, and there were far too many small inconveniences along the way to make most of it worth the time and effort expended.  Still, as with everything else I’ve done here, I have no regrets, and value all those scattered moments in which time seemed to stand still, as I took in another sight that I could not have imagined, and will in all likelihood never see again.

Scattered Reports From Two Galilean Villages

Here’s what I can remember from the trip out to the Galilee a few days ago.  Or at least, what I can type up in the few minutes I can spare before I need to get to sleep (I leave for Jerusalem again at 0700 to-morrow).

We rode out to a tiny village of about 250 people called Shorashim, which was founded as a moshav (a socialist community) by mostly American and European Jews.  There we met up with a fella named Mark, who works with a left-wing NGO that helps to foster Arab-Jew co-operation through — among other things — a youth circus that’s split 50-50.  Weird, but politically admirable.  The day started at the group’s dinky office where I fought to stay awake as he gave a 1.5 hour lecture to the kids about the history of Arab-Israeli conflict and how it affected the development of the Galilee region.  Sprinkled in amongst the Zionist apologetics were sincere efforts to address the shortcomings of the Israeli social and legal policies with respect to the Arab inhabitants, and I wish him all the best in trying to combat the entrenched belligerance of Israeli society.

We then drove out to a small village called Majd al-Krum to meet with a young Arab-Israeli woman at her family’s home.  The hospitality lived up to its stereotype, as a large family buzzed around offering things to our rowdy gang of college kids.  Iman (the young woman) is working on her first degree in college (she’s only 19, if I recall correctly) with a major in English, and she hopes to continue on to a MA in English and then teach.  She taught herself English by watching satellite television and looking up the lyrics to songs she downloaded from the Internet, and given that her accent was better than any of the professors I’ve met at Haifa University, she’s done a damned fine job of it!  Amazing, really.

I reckon one of the reasons they wanted us to meet her was that she’s a religious Muslim and wears the hijab.  Mark seemed to focus on giving the students a chance to ask questions about religion and national identity for someone like Iman growing up in a “Jewish” state.  Unimpressively, the director of the Arabic language programme later expressed amazement that someone like Iman could be so “modern” as to be using a computer so proficiently, yet still be so backward as to wear a headscarf.  I bit back and observed that the two were entirely unrelated, and that there was more than one path to “modernity” anyhow.  We yammered for a bit, she admitted I was right and then shut up; but I doubt it was in any way effective, given the core assumptions that seem to underlie the educational programme ’round here.  Whatever.

Iman, though, is really an extraordinary person.  She has 14 siblings, and her parents came from even larger families.  Iman is already engaged and will marry next summer, but plans to have only three or four children and will pursue her career throughout married life.  I hope that the kids got something out of this, as she spoke quite eloquently about the identity conflict she had to face when she came of age, and described the tortured space open to someone who cannot easily affirm either a Palestinian or an Israeli sense of place.

After this meeting we moved on to the larger village next door, a place called Deir al-Assad, where we met with the man running a “college” for the local Arab kids.  By college he really means high school, as they teach 10th through 12th grade, but the school is very selective about whom it admits and places 100% of its graduates in university.  This kind of school is a very recent phenomenon in Israel, and his school (Albyan College, ‘albyan’ meaning wide knowledge) only opened up about four years ago.  It is a recognized private school, which means that it qualifies for funding from the Ministry of Education, but it depends in large measure on foreign donations and on the tuition charged to parents.

He was able to talk about co-operation and co-existence in Israel, and about the good a school like his could do for the local Arab community, but he managed to slip in a few barbs about expropriated land (the site of the Jewish city of Karmi’el was originally the farm land for his village).  He also made it clear that, although he has high hopes for the school’s prospects, he himself wants the emigrate to America; he’s named his last daughter “Christina” (even though she’s Muslim), and hopes to see a future son (whom he will name Mario!) born in the United States…

The last place we visited was the home of a young mother with a fascinating story, in the nearby town of Sakhnin.  Her story, however, would take me too long to summarize and I need to get to sleep.  Hmm, actually I should have been asleep two hours ago — I’m going to have a helluva time getting up for the bus to-morrow morning…

First Reflexions On The Arabic Programme In Haifa

On the whole, I do not regret coming here to study Arabic.  It offered the advantage of taking intensive courses in two languages, thus making it easier to get the ball rolling on each for the coming year.  But overall I am not impressed by the structure, content, instruction, or management of the programme, and I hope they manage to improve it before the next batch of students arrives. The most irritatiing part about it (though not the most disruptive or significant) is the degree of separation that the programme maintains between the students and the native Israeli Arabic speakers.  Neither of the instructors nor the student tutor are native speakers, and the administration insists that they have established that Hebrew speakers can teach Arabic to English speakers more effectively.  I have not only seen no evidence to support this, but I have seen a great deal to contradict it.

You can start with the speech components.  There is a clear Hebrew accent to the form spoken by the instructors, and some common Arabic elements are butchered or absent.  And none of the instructors has sufficient skill in the spoken Palestinian Arabic to translate the simplest conversation.  My class’s instructor seems unaware either of the similarities the Syrian / Palestinian dialect shares with the Modern Standard, but also that most adult speakers of Arabic would be well familar with the sound of Modern Standard, as it is the version used in broadcast media — anyone watching Al-Jazeera or listening to the radio is going to learn the differences pretty quickly, eh?  There is also a great deal of borrowing from MSA on account of this pervasive influence.  How can you teach a living language when you don’t listen to it our use it out loud on a regular basis? This probably comes from the fact that both instructors are — get this — intelligence officers!  Which means they’re probably quite good at reading Arabic, but it makes me suspect they don’t have many Arabic-speaking friends and acquaintances…

Worse, everything that comes out in class is mediated by the Hebrew.  My instructor’s English is not particularly good, which means that she is teaching a second language through a third language that she knows even less of.  This is problematic since she often has difficulty finding the right English word to define an Arabic word for us, and appears to have great difficulty answering questions about the languages.  Now, I can understand that the university might have had better luck in the past teaching Arabic with Hebrew-speaking instructors, but this international programme is new and they’ve never tried it in an intensive format with foreign students.  Given that you can presume that the simple racism that complicates things for an Arab teaching Jewish students in this country (yes, racism and condescension is pervasive, and strong traces of it show up even in the textbook), I don’t think that their past experience is particularly relevant.  Unless they hope to use this course as a specific opportunity to champion their view of the local Arabs, I can see no justification for using Jewish intelligence officers to teach us Arabic.

Yesterday we took a field trip out to the Galilee to visit some Arab villages and have “structured encounters” with — gasp! — real live Arabs.  I’ll post my comments on that lovely experience later, since my laundry is done and I need to get some more studying in.  It’s not all negative and the trip had some nice moments, but there was enough about it that was fucked up to make it worth sharing. To-morrow is the third test in the Arabic series, and on Friday I’d running out to Jerusalem for the third and (almost certainly) last time.  I want to see Yad Vashem and a few other sites, and for various reasons want to get myself worked up into a righteous fury again by taking a stroll through Mea Shearim, and maybe out to the Apartheid Wall.  I love so much of this country that it’s a real shame the capital is such a fucked up mass of seething hatred and religious nationalism.

An Evening At The Cinema

It started off innocently enough.  Since we have a day-trip planned for to-morrow instead of normal class time, I decided to put off my homework and take a well-earned night off.  The assignment is brief and I’m still at the head of my class, so I can afford it.  After walking through the local archaeological museum, I grabbed a quick falafel lunch, packed a shopping list, and headed out to the Grand Canyon — the largest shopping mall in the Middle East.  (I think I’ve said that before…)  This three-level monster (plus two more levels of parking) had a modern-looking cinema on the top floor, so I figured I’d go and see what the movie experience is like in Israel.  And boy was I surprised at how different a night at the movies could be!

First, the screen is tiny — no better than one quarter the size of a typical American screen and maybe smaller.  The pre-film commercials were familiar enough, and I thought that perhaps this would be the end of the difference (well, that and Hebrew subtitles).  But when it came time for the film, there was a very loud, very annoying three-note alarm sounded from within our theatre.  Nobody moved, so I quickly realised that this was something expected.  The alarm went off a couple more times, then someone came over to close the door to our theatre and the movie began.

About an hour into the flick the film cuts off, very abruptly and clumsily.  A message from the cinema company (not much more than their logo, really) flashed on the screen for about two seconds, then the lights came up.  Most people got up and walked out, without a hint of complaint.  If not for the lady sitting next to me — who alone of our small crowd was not inclined to get up — I would have thought that there was a problem with the reel or something.  But no, it was an intermission!  Remember the intermissions at the drive-in?  It’s a little like that, I guess.  It’s nice to be able to take a toilet break, but it definitely takes you out of "the zone" and spoils the action.

After about ten minutes that horrible alarm started to go off again.  Following a few interminable repetitions, the initial process was repeated and the film resumed from (what I presume to be) the cut-off point.  There was no warning, and the first scene was a fight, so it was extremely difficult to figure out what was going on.  After a while I managed to get back into it and the rest of the film experience seemed pretty generic.

But the real surprise came at the end.  Once the film credits started to roll and people got up, they cut the credits short and turned on the lights.  I turned to walk back into the cinema, as I always need to hit the loo after sitting through a movie.  But I was turned back, and forced out a small door next to the screen — they do not allow anyone back into the cinema after a film is finished!  The door dumped me into a service corridor, from which I had to find my way back into the mall.  After a few minutes I found myself directed through the back door of an Ace Hardware, from which I could fight my way through busy shoppers and into the mall.  Very strange!

Incidentally, I found myself wondering in a few scenes if they edited this film (The Dark Knight , which I just realised I had forgotten to name at the beginning!) to make it less violent for the Israeli market.  Given many of the set-ups, I expected a lot of blood — but there wasn’t a drop to be seen anywhere.  Either this was a conscious obsession of the director, or something funny was done to the movie.  Since the Joker portrayal was so over-the-top, cutting off his attacks just when the nastiness was about to start seems a bit anti-climactic.  He’s always wielding a wicked knife, but he never actually cuts anyone…

Anyroad, after the film I picked up a couple of periodicals and caught a couple of buses back to campus.  Having now spilt my curious tale of cinematic trivia and pointlessly wasted your time and my own, I’m off to bed.  To-morrow we’re heading out into the Galilee to visit a few small Arab towns.  Sounds like fun, eh?

Lovely Walks And Minor Tragedies

Yesterday I took a walk from the university up to the two Druze villages that run along the highway south over Mount Carmel.  The full distance was more than 15 kilometres, which was quite bracing I must say!  The first village, Isifiya, is really more of a good sized town, and sprawls over the surrounding hills in a chaotic and very appealing manner.  The larger of the ‘villages’ (for so they are still labelled) is the small city of Daliyat Al Carmel.  By the time I reached the high street I was bloody exhausted, and after a bit of sightseeing I found a ride back from a friendly Druze fella who was recently married.  He talked about wanting a family — he was raised with 14 brothers! — and expressed surprise that I had no children of my own by now.  All considered, the day was quite enjoyable, even with the small sunburn on my neck.

This afternoon, though, after I had finished my Arabic homework, I accidentally erased one of the memory cards for my camera.  1500 or so pictures are now, alas!, lost forever.  I know that most of them were of walks I had been taking within Haifa, so nothing of real historical interest should be gone, but some of the scenery I had taken in was priceless and the loss is really bugging me.  That and I think some of the photos I had of my local feline friends crawling all over me are now lost.  *sigh*

I’m just back from another long walk, this time down to the biggest mall in the country, in order to pick up some news and — I had hoped — to catch a film and relax a little.  But I missed the show I wanted by ten minutes, so I gave up and came home.  What with the bus delays on the way back it’s now close to my bed time, so…  bye!

Night Walking

I’ve really come to love these late-night walks in Haifa.  For once I’m actually happy that I have someplace like Irvine to come back to, since I’ll be able to do something very similar.  The crime rate here is amazingly low and the streets are just beautiful — nice houses, beautiful greenery, and variable terrain to make the walk interesting.  It’s a lot more generic and a lot less interesting for being familiar, but I can get the same effect walking around Newport Beach I reckon.  It’s fun and good exercise — a nice way to end the day.

Incidentally, the best music for power-walkin’ uphill late at night is definitely thrash or speed metal.  *grin*  I’ve had Megadeth on the iPod for the past couple of hours and the energy level never seems to drop off as long as those drums keep thumpin’.  I’ve got good track lists for several groups worked out and I’ll make some more compilations when I get back home.

Not much time for anything of substance to-day: I spent too much of my limited computer time yesterday and to-day in lengthy e-mails.  I had my second exam in Arabic this morning and think I smoked it again.  I have no idea why Arabic is going so well for me, but I need to keep this up back home.  No distractions, no stress — gotta keep up the pace, keep up the exercise, keep everything going as well as it’s been going over here this summer.  I have to say, this trip has really been good for me.  Hard work, sure, but I’ve gotten some cobwebs cleared out of the old noggin and settled into some good new habits.

To-morrow I’m going to take half a day off from studying and walk up the road and into the Carmel National Park.  A few miles up there are a couple of Druze villages, and I think one of them might make a great place to stop in for lunch after a long walk in the woods.  I’ve got my study cards all caught up from to-day’s lessons, so I’ll spend Shabbat on my homework and be ready for class again on Sunday.  Only two more weeks!  As much as I’d like to see Robin and Stef again, I’m really going to miss this…