Category Archives: Politics

Latin, Lefebvre, Labour, Le Chat

It’s been a bit chaotic around here lately! I’ve been settling in and decorating my home, preparing for my new classes (which start on Monday, yikes!), and getting to know an old friend who’s come out to visit. Things have not all been to my liking lately, i.e., I’ve had to adjust to a few set-backs and disappointments, but such is life — and mine is a good one. I will find a way through the practical exigencies and get there smiling. Arridens, de profundis ego stare et ambula. (Ah, high school Latin… how I hated it at the time… *lol*)

This evening I am wrestling with an application of Lefebvre’s spatial analytic to my project in the West Bank. Specifically, I am wondering if I can position his thoughts on the production of difference in social space such that one may postulate a revolutionary political project inherent in the precise ordering of Haredi cities. Does that construction reflect merely the production of their own abstract space, i.e., does their mark on the natural environment in the W.B. reflect merely their own needs? Or is it intended to reshape Jewish life in that space in a way that has wider implications for Israeli Jewry?

I have hitherto worked mainly on the notion of integrating the Haredi project into the wider Occupation dynamic, by showing the ways in which Haredi chauvinism can converge with religious-Zionist nationalism. My view of Haredi space has thus been focussed on its relation to the physical and cultural space of the W.B., i.e., their impact on the environment and how similar it is (in both its physical manifestation and its ideological purpose) to the political projects of the other settlers. But it strikes me that I may be missing an interesting angle to this. Israeli sociologists have been appreciating the ways in which the Haredim are engaged in a ‘culture war’ in Israel, challenging the secular population in subtle (and sometimes decidedly unsubtle) ways. What if their construction of social space in the W.B. reflects this wider political project (a re-Judaising of the ‘wayward’ majority), by laying out an ideal environment for Jewish life and working assiduously to maintain the purity of this vision? Anyway, random food for thought. I am probably saying something foolish and/or obvious, but we’ll see. *lol*

I have two physical projects coming up which will be interwoven with my friend’s visit and my work schedule. I am going to build a small wind-break on the north side of the a-frame next to my patio. This will not remove the chill wind by any means, but it will cut a little of it out and allow me to remove the file cabinets that I have on my patio right now for that purpose. This should be pretty quick and easy if my current idea (a couple sheets of fibreglass strapped to the existing chain link) works. The other is a cat-door on the other side of the patio for Ms Grey. She’s tamed to the point of normal house-cat behaviour and really enjoys being inside. I have no intention of taking her from her outside territory, but I would like her to have the option of coming in out of the cold whenever she likes. But it will have to be some sort of locking door that the other cats can’t use, so I’ll have to investigate the various magnetic/RFID collar models. The construction itself is a project for an afternoon, so we’ll have to hope I feel comfy spending a day on it before the end of winter! It’s got to be cold out there for her — when she comes in she is generally loath to go back out!

Speaking of cats… Miss Kitty hurt herself walking on the back lot last Friday and we finally took her to the vet today. She cut on the pads of front-right paw on something, but there didn’t seem to be anything in there. And it has seemed to be improving at first, but the last couple days she’s been keeping it off the ground entirely and just hopping, so we were concerned that it was hurt more seriously than it looked. Anyway, the vet couldn’t find anything and it wasn’t broken, so they prescribed antibiotics and pain killers; the poor dear will be on bed-rest for a little while.

Okay, back to work for me. It’s a nice breezy night on the patio and there is reading to be done…

Let’s Play The Embassy Polka!

Did anyone catch the news that the British embassy has pulled out of Tehran? The UK has withdrawn its entire staff and closed the embassy. The Iranians responded by promptly passing a bill that expelled the British ambassador, but that’s largely to save face at home, eh? *lol* The UK then threw the Iranian ambassador out of the country. Why wait until the British staff were out of the country? Easy: the long shadow of the 1979 hostage crisis.

This tit-for-tat embassy shuffle was sparked by an attack on the British compound by an unruly mob which appeared to contain Basij elements. Those are the street militia that the state use for routine thuggery when uniforms are inappropriate on the front pages. I would surmise that elements within the state almost certainly approved the attack, even if only tacitly. The crowd’s animus came from the latest round of sanctions levelled at the Islamic Republic for the nuclear weapons programme it is widely presumed to have going. (I, for one, think the intelligence is credible; the mullahs have a very good strategic reason for wanting one, and the wide dispersal and burial of facilities is kinda suspicious…)

What this leaves us is the biggest diplomatic spat the Iranians have had for a while. Not only have the Brits pulled out, but the French and German ambassadors have been recalled for ‘consultations’, and the EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss joint statements or action. The Iranians and Brits not getting along is old news — think back to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company monopoly and the 1953 coup; and hell, they only reestablished diplomatic relations in 1999 — but the rest of Europe getting behind the Brits in this is interesting to me. There’s a lot of money at stake, after all.

Think about it: What’s the one thing preventing much stronger action against Iran, specifically an oil embargo that would cut off their cash supply? It might drive the economy further into the ditch. A lot of countries depend on Iranian oil, and they are a huge contributor to the OPEC cartel. Getting enough countries to go along would be tough, since places like China and Russia could step in (China with more oil purchases, the Russians with cheap credit). This means that if Europe or Japan closed the spigot on Iranian oil it would likely only hurt them. And if you don’t know how messed up the European and Japanese economies are right now you’ve been asleep for way too long…

This makes it striking to me that the British foreign minister has said that the UK is behind the idea of oil sanctions, and would be willing to impose them unilaterally if the EU as a whole demurs (which is likely). Given the much more hawkish foreign policy of Sarkozy’s France I would not be surprised if he went along; the French don’t need the oil the way a lot of southern European countries do anyhow. The risk of damage is much lower for these two giants, so this would be more of a symbolic power-play, part of a steady ratcheting-up of pressure on Tehran.

Will it work? That is, will is stop the nuclear programme? Not in my opinion, but it will be interesting to watch this latest chapter in the long Iranian melodrama play out.

Sufis And Beer

Stepping back a little, I owe you the story of how my museum day ended.

So I had gotten in contact with the fella named Amor who was involved in some radical publication projects and knew a mutual friend. He decided that I deserved to see a local Sufi concert of sorts — it’s technically a religious ritual, but it’s really performance art. I’ll get back to it in a minute.

I met him by the KFC in Tahrir square, which is the one and only Western-style fast food joint I saw in the city. he had a companion with him — a German gal named Sophia with whom he flirted relentlessly. I have never seen a guy work so hard to get in someone’s pants. I felt distinctly awkward to be the fifth wheel on what would doubtless have made for a better date without me!

Anyroad, we headed from there to a place that he thought he knew the way to, but really we were lost. We wandered for a long time and missed close to an hour of the show. This would be a recurring theme throughout the night…

The ritual was interesting, albeit too slow for me. The singer was extremely passionate and clearly drank in the attention. The lyrics were about loving god and being full of God in the heart and stuff like that; typical Sufi themes. But he seemed more interested in pleasing the audience than God, which I found oddly endearing (being not one for religious music). The band was great — a tabla, an oud, a violin, a wooden flute, and a percussionist. But the rhythm was hypnotic. I found myself swaying to it and nodding off repeatedly.

In the show we met a friend of Amor’s and we piled into his car. The intent was to take us closer to where we could get a beer and talk. It being Ramadan there was only one place they knew in the city where you could drink. But not only was his friend an usually scary driver (nearly hitting people a couple of times), but neither of them had a clue in hell where they were going!

His friend finally dropped us off and we began to walk, but we started not far from where I met Amor, which made the entire drive a waste of time. Not only that, it was in the wrong direction. He then set about trying to find the place the way Cairenes do: by asking everyone and their uncle that you pass! You see, street signs are pretty rare and addresses are non-existent, at least in the sense of being printed on the actual buildings. If you don’t know anyone in the area to call as you approach, you’re just supposed to ask people.

As it happened, few people could give good directions, or didn’t really know, or Amor just couldn’t tell what they meant, since we wandered for what had to be at least an hour and was probably more. Amusingly, we got closer and closer to the street, then to the building, where I was living. Wonder of wonders, the place ended up being in the same building! Had I been able to ask the directions we could have gotten them a lot faster, since I knew the streets in that part of the city better than Amor did. (He’s from Alexandria and only moved to Cairo recently, and he doesn’t live downtown.)

This place ended up being one of the facilities used by the Greek consulate, and they had just one type of beer. Didn’t matter, I had a couple big ones because there had been no beer in my diet for a week, hehe. The two of them smoked (most people smoke) and we all talked a bit. They both knew some of the people at a nearby long table, as the expatriate community is not that large and people tend to network. One of them came over to join us for a while, then went back and forth for the rest of the night.

We talked about Amor’s work with a bunch of creative types and the art magazine they put out, about girls and sex and how sleeping with people upset Amor’s parents — and about how his father locked him in his room for a month as a kind of rehab!

And we talked about my research project (the fourth party, whose name I forgot, asked and seemed very interested), and then got into Amor’s experiences in the revolution, which is why I came out in the first place. There were tales of baton charges and getting his head knocked, about being arrsted multiple times, etc. One particularly good one had him in the back of a police car when it was surrounded by pro-Mubarak thugs. They tried to drag him out of the car (likely to kill him) and the cops said, ‘hey, why don’t we just let them have you?’ Scary, no? But they ended up driving off and Amor lived to fight another day.

I don’t want to get into much more of this stuff, but we talked until closing time and then went out onto the street. We parted company and I went looking for a place to buy some water, while the two of them wandered off into the night. I wonder if he got lucky (she was pretty cute!). *lol* Then I headed back to my hostel and went to sleep. Zzzzz.

Tahrir Square

On the evening of 12 August I went out to Tahrir Square for the Friday protest. So much of the impressions I have are feelings that it is difficult to know how to put things, but I will stick to the events as I saw them and hopefully convey some of those impressions in the process.

I had see the square a couple of times before this, and each time there were rows of police and army vehicles in the streets leading to it. The presence seems to be constant these days, though they (the individual troops) were not always out in formation. I did see (and posted previously) a tight ring of riot police in the centre of the square on the first evening that I went down to see it. The same sight greeted me this time, along with an already-large and growing body of Cairenes.

The press that morning was filled with finally-confirmed stories of the evening’s changes. Where originally it was to be some larger event with dozens of groups in attendance, this about 20 organisations had pulled out after the government asked them to do so, and the event was rescheduled for the following Friday. The remaining groups, along with a promised huge contingent of Sufis, still planned to go. It was also announced that the evening would be essentially a huge iftar — the evening meal that Muslims take at the end of a Ramadan fast — and that large rallies would not be taking place at all. I was a bit taken aback by this, but it turned out to be largely untrue.

In the end, it turned out to be a rally for a civil state, i.e., against the idea of religion being written into the governing institutions. This is a contentious issue in Egypt to-day, with many long-suppressed groups like the Muslim Brothers hoping to have Islamic principles woven into the fabric of the new Egypt. A few weeks ago the square was taken over by a massive and partisan rally of bearded Salafists demanding a Shari’a state, which was the first time that the protesters’ unity was seriously disrupted — a tacit agreement had kept divisive issues out of the square for most of the previous months.

This undoubtedly emboldened secularists to rally against the idea. Egyptian secularists and the ecumenically-minded have wisely chosen not to brand their idea as a ‘secular democracy’, but rather as a ‘civil democracy’. It is purely a semantic distinction, but it is symbolically significant as many Egyptians (and Muslims in general) view secularism as godless and therefore threateningly heretical.

One of the first things I noted on coming into Tahrir that night, aside from the military vehicles and ring of cops, was the number of vendors scattered around the periphery, particularly on the east side. This I had noted on the previous, non-Friday evening visit, but their numbers were considerably greater on this night. One stand-out was the large number of tee-shirt vendors, and before the night was up I would purchase four of these to bring back with me. (I had needed some thinner shirts anyhow, and these were astonishingly cheap — about 3$ — and would both provide memories and express support.) Other vendors were less interesting, selling a profusion of buttons and ribbons and flags, as well as those who were providing refreshment to the protesters. The prices here were surprisingly reasonable — one might expect price-gouging in a similar event in the USA.

Lousy photo of a tee-shirt vendor. I bought a few and love them -- very comfy. Should have bought more. Heh.

Slightly clearer, with blurry walking dood.

But I did see one amusing ‘fight’ between rival vendors. The carts were mobile, and a new guy set up his drink stand immediately beside one that was already in operation. The original seller exploded in rage and started threatening the new guy, who maintained an unimpressed expression while setting up his own business. Since his rival was unwilling to turn to physical violence in the presence of so many cops, he was forced to back down and acquiesce to the competition. Hot-tempered exchanges like this are apparently common in Cairo from what I have heard, and I saw two others before leaving — one of which was quite wild and I will write about that in my last from-Cairo post.

The protesters themselves were a motley bunch representing plenty of distinct interests and parties. One common sign — visible in the square for months — shows Mubarak with a noose hanging in front of his face. It was hard not to smile at the courage it takes to express sentiments like this in a police state. (I call it still a police state since, while there are promises of reforms and the lifting of emergency laws, Egypt is still governed by the military, and many protesters have been arrested and put on trial by the government.)

Huh-huh, huh-huh, uhhhh, he said "hung".

How to capture a sense of what it was like to move through that crowd… I was not the only non-Egyptian there, though there were few of us. I felt at ease the whole time, though, and moved freely about taking photos and videos. At one point a poet burst into action spontaneously and I managed to capture a large chunk of his performance. It was comically intense, with him sweating and gesticulating dramatically, his voice rising and falling with an infectious rhythm. I would post a photo but I didn’t take one, though I did video tape more than two minutes of his performance. Maybe I can embed a video here…? Hm. Nope. I can, but only tiny ones. Ah, well. I will find a way to upload it and link to it later.

{insert poet here} 😉

The crowd was filled with large Egyptian flags, some with slogans written on them. A few children were there with their faces painted in the colours of the flag, which was quite precious in an annoyingly patriotic way. *lol* There were plenty of people holding up signs, some professionally printed, others hand-drawn on poster-board. A few of these really stood out for me, including one with large cross and crescent and an appeal to ecumenical solidarity, and one which seemed to be attacking Israel, though I will have to translate its contents later (it was very long).

Flags, flags, everywhere.

Christians and Muslims together in one state, no shari'a for me, thanks...

Not all patriots are young secular folk.

Speaking of controversial ideals, one vendor had set up a table in the square to sell photographs of political figures past and present. There were shots of Nasser and Che and Sadat and Fidel, of course, but also of Saddam Hussein and Usama Bin Laden. This is not surprising, of course, but it was interesting.

Usama, Che, Saddam, Nasser... Choose your own hero.

Another thing you might find interesting was the attitude of the soldiers and police. I was able to walk right up to armed soldiers and take photos. Some seemed to enjoy the touristic attention, smiling for the camera and returning friendly waves. Others tried to look away or simply ignored me. But on a few occasions I walked right up to their formation, stood maybe a metre away, and examined the line-up.

'Pretty maids all in a row..'

Toy soldiers... with real guns.

Smiling for the camera.

Other times I repeated this with soldiers and police down by the transport vans and paddy-wagons, or on the armoured personnel carriers. Even the guys manning the machine guns had no problem smiling for the camera. It was all pretty surreal. You know that, on the one hand, these guys won’t mess around if given the order to clear the square. On the other, it all seemed somewhat comical, as if there were merely a part of the show, boys playing at soldier.

These things filled almost all the side streets.

Riot police donning their gear.

Armoured personnel carrier with machine gunner.

As the night wore on a platform stage that had been erected on one of the sidewalks was filled with speaker after speaker. Loud and rousing music would pour through the PA system, then someone would take their turn on the mic and speak their piece. The speeches were pretty impassioned and often got a powerful response from the crowd. After the speeches a hip-hop act came on, which has to have struck many of the middle-aged attendees as a bit odd. Aside from Eurodance stuff, Western music forms don’t seem to have much penetration in Egyptian popular culture. Every cab but one was playing either recordings of the Qur’an or sermons, or more traditional Arab balladry. There is an English-language rock station in Cairo, though — Nile FM — which I only discovered on my last day in town.

Crowded platform of speakers, rousing the crowd and jeering the soldiers.

Distance shot of the platform with some of the crowd.

Cheering on speakers, singing, call-and-response... it was an amazing thing, being there.

On the periphery I was struck by a curious graffito: an Israel flag shaped like a heart. Someone here loves Israel and is not afraid to say so! It seemed a little odd, given the anti-Israel sentiment that predominates in Egyptian culture. I wonder if this is a more common youth sentiment, or a philosophical outlier.

Interesting....

Things grew steadily more tense as the evening wore on, and I received a few warnings that the police would attack soon. I did see movement in the formations that was unlike the routine shuffling of earlier, and I did see one abortive charge a little earlier in the night. Either way, the scene was growing a bit intense. I wanted to stay until the crowd was dispersed, honestly, though I knew this was a bit riskier that it was worth. I decided that the folks back home would be a bit angry with me if I got myself trampled or arrested, so I followed a chunk of the crowd which was already seeing the signals and headed into the metro tunnel. As the roads around the square were choked with police and army, the metro station below the square seemed the safest and most practical escape.

If you ever visit Cairo, definitely check out their subway system! For one pound Egyptian, the equivalent of 16 US cents right now, you can ride anywhere on the system, hopping multiple trains as you like. It was crowded but very efficient and has a pretty wide coverage area. I used it a few times while there and was very impressed by the value. *lol* Anyway, this has nothing to do with the excitement in Tahrir but I figured it was interesting enough to tack on here. I split before things got really nasty, but I got enough of a sense of what these events have been like. It was definitely one of my more fascinating Egyptian experiences and I am glad I stayed there longer to do it.

Responding To The Terror Attacks Near Eilat

What can I say about the terror attacks in Israel a couple of days ago? (Thursday, 18 August.) Obviously, I condemn violence in general, and these kind of things are no exception. Sure, Palestinians are oppressed and they have their right to resist that, but not like this. Indiscriminately killing innocents is always wrong, and firing machine guns at buses and launching anti-tank rockets at cars is the very definition of indiscriminate. Let no-one suggest otherwise: I condemn this action in the harshest terms possible, and I think its perpetrators and planners are boorish thugs.

Israel’s response, too, has moral problems. Sure, they say that they managed to kill those who ordered the attacks in Eilat, but they also killed a nine year old boy. Further, those men deserved a day in court like any other criminal. What Israel did is assassination, and assassination is murder by another name. Call a spade a spade, I say: this was murder for murder, a revenge-killing that’s simply easier than the alternatives. And now the Egyptian ambassador has been recalled from Israel because the Israelis shot over the border at some of these guys and managed to kill five Egyptian cops. Those guys were there to help secure the border because of the recent rise in violence in Sinai, and now some of them have been killed by Israeli troops in an ‘accident’.

I put that in scare quotes, not because I think the deaths were deliberate, but because of the arrogance that allowed firing over the border in the first place. This is not the only place it happened, that helicopter shooting. Two of the fleeing men from the scene of the violence in southern Israel were shot by Israeli troops while on the other side of the border. The last two were killed by Egyptian troops, so why did the Israelis need to do anything? They didn’t; this is what security deals are for. Power and ease in dealing death go hand in hand. Israel feels it has the right to act in its defence, regardless of what the neighbours think (witness the response to Turkey’s year-old request for an apology for the Mavi Marmara incident). And Israel feels it has ultimate power over the Palestinians.

But does it? Non-violent resistance is the one force that Israel could not counter. I read a comment in The Jerusalem Report where the IDF was said to be ready to fire on unarmed crowds of Palestinians if they approach settlements and do not respond to tear gas, etc. Since the settlements are eating up agricultural land and blocking the natural way to neighbouring villages, going near them is hard to avoid. I think they should test this. Sure, people will die — perhaps many people will die. We’ve seen an extreme version of this in Syria, yet Assad’s rule grows shakier every week in the face of the revolution’s perseverance. But the international outcry will force a change on a government in Israel that otherwise has no incentive to change. The occupation costs very little and it appeases extreme elements within Israel. So what if the cost went up? What if instead of being welcomed into more international organisations Israel was shunned by those it already trades with? What it the EU slapped sanctions on Israeli manufactures?

The Knesset recently passed a law forbidding Israeli citizens from taking part in any drive for boycotting, divestment, or sanctions against the state. This is a tremendous blow to free speech and a subversion of Israeli democracy. Well, since the Israelis can no long say it themselves, I will say it: International pressure is the only way things will change. The occupation costs between two and four dollars per day per Israeli citizen, depending on the figures you use. This sum is not enough to bring the majority of Israeli into the streets on the issue, so the insane minority who want to bring the messiah back through ethnic cleansing need to be stopped from outside Israel. The USA is not going to do it, certainly; the rapturous response to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress recently was shameful. So the rest of the world needs to step up. Europe is a major trading partner for Israel. Many European nations are doubtless set to vote for recognition of Palestine as an independent state in September. If the Palestinians follow that up with mass protests, and are greeted with a forceful Israeli response, what might be the next step? Time will tell.

‘State Your Opinions Openly And Fearlessly’

Excerpted from an essay by Sir Leslie Stephens, quoted in Upton Sinclair’s The Cry For Justice.

I, for one, am fully prepared to listen to any arguments for the propriety of theft or murder, or if it be possible, of immorality in the abstract. No doctrine, however well established, should be protected from discussion. If, as a matter of fact, any appreciable number of persons are so inclined to advocate murder on principle, I should wish them to state their opinions openly and fearlessly, because I should think that the shortest way of exploding the principle and of ascertaining the true causes of such a perversion of moral sentiment. Such a state of affairs implies the existence of evils which cannot be really cured till their cause is known, and the shortest way to discover the cause is to give a hearing to the alleged reasons.

From Israel To Egypt

[edited to add photos]

My second attempt at Cairo got off to a frightening start. I left my flat in Jerusalem late at night on the 6th in what seemed plenty of time to make the bus. (My flatmates and I had discussed going to the housing protests but they were too tired from their own move and without them I wouldn’t have made it back in time.) Anyway, so I take my walk to the bus station at about 2300 for a midnight bus. Most of the time one buys a ticket on the bus, and buying it in advance only saves you a little cash.

However, this bus had sold out before I even arrived at the station! D’oh! I waited patiently to see if there would be free spots — the guy directing inflow and taking tickets insisted there wouldn’t be any, but you know how that goes. As it happened, there were two, and I got the second and last. There was a young soldier (and several others behind him) tried to squeeze their way past me (Israelis do not queue, they shove and cut — the aggressive get served first every time), but I was bigger and wanted it more so he got left and I made it on. Yay!

The ride down was much better than the first, being blissfully free of obnoxious laughing hyenas. All the same, I couldn’t sleep. Dozing in public is extremely difficult for me, and I need to be wasted-tired to do it. Since I can stay up for a few days, this doesn’t happen often. Anyway, I got to Eilat at close to 0500 with more than four hours to kill. I therefore set out on a long walk.

Last time here I had seen the marina, so while my route started similarly I cut right as I approached the Red Sea and headed towards the harbour. This had me passing through a lousy neighbourhood and then onto a truly lovely stretch of highway, Mitzrayim Street, which goes all the way to the Taba border crossing. They had created a wide pedestrian and bicycle way along the seaside of the street, in order to give morning joggers (of which I later saw plenty) and bicyclists a long stretch for their business. Walking in the dark was cool, and while I missed a bit of detail in the port, I walked all the way to the end of it and a little beyond. The way forward to Taba was still waaaay long, though, and there were several beaches and resorts still along that road, so I stopped past the port and turned around.

By this point the sun was rising so I dug out my camera and went to work. My father works in the port of LA/LB, as I used to, and as my grandfather and great-grandfather did. So, there’s a bit of fun in seeing harbour facilities in different parts of the world. This was also interesting in that it was not a containerized terminal — they were still using break-bulk cranes, lifting pallets out of the ships directly. There is space for two simultaneous off-loads, each with five cranes working. There is one small container crane at the end of the dock, but the only cans I saw anywhere in the port were stacked at the end as a wall. They did have a huge number of cars in storage lots, so this is clearly a major entrepĂŽt for Japanese cars, etc.

So anyway, this is where the fun began. I was stopped once and spoken to about taking photos — this was close to border, it was a military zone, and so on. I explained my story as to why I was doing it, and he asked a lot of questions based on my name (asking to see my passport first is pretty standard). Having an Arabic surname is a pain in the arse, even when you’re not actually an Arab. (Damn the Germans for having an identical name, and damn the Irish in my family for stealing it!) Either way, the questioning wasn’t bad and he left quickly enough, and as I was headed back away from the border I took my chances with more photos of the harbour. Yeah, I’m stubborn.

Of course I noticed that I was being watch by security in various places — across the street, down in the port, etc., and sure enough another man came along, this time a friendly blond Russian fella. He chastised me for taking harbour photos and asked me to delete them. I’m rather clever about this, though. First, I had a huge amount of duplication, taking a lot of pics of the same thing in slightly different ways, as you never know what’s going to come out well. Second, I was able to delete without doing much; I’m good with my hands and he was distracted from pushing me to delete more. So I lost the most recent shots but not the near-identical ones from before.

(Yes, I realise that Shin Bet might be reading this and know that this was foolish, but my pictures are perfectly innocent, my rationale was good, and I defy anyone to prove that I’m an actual security threat. *pfft* But I am going to be nice and not share them with you here.)

Anyway, the Russian fella told me not to take more of the harbour, but shots in the other direction were okay — i.e., toward Eilat and Aqaba. There may have been a miscommunication and he meant in that direction once I had walked fully past the harbour, but I confirmed with him twice that he was saying I could snap pictures of, e.g., the disused container crane coming up but not of the warehouses and ship behind. He said this was kosher and so, continuing forward, I resumed taking photos in only that direction. And very quickly, a third car arrived on the scene….

Observation is very good on that street, as is the coordination of officers. Both the second and third already knew my name and some of my story from the first guy. This third one corrected the misunderstanding/mistake/miscommunication from the previous officer, but this was not enough by that point — I had raised too many red flags by persisting to take pictures in that region. I can’t help it, I like to push boundaries I suppose. And I have perfectly innocent reasons for being interested in these things, and no ties to anything they could call criminal.

At this point I was detained. Another officer arrived, and both were coordinating with HQ on radios. I got a tonne of questions, including totally pointless ones like, have I spoken to any Arabs in the time I’ve been in Israel. For shit’s sake, 20% of the population are Arab. I can’t help it if I’m not going to paint in the same broad, racist strokes as everyone else. They did seem sceptical of the story surrounding my name, but didn’t pursue that. They asked about my passport and why it was a replacement. They asked about my previous trips to Israel, and about the Frankfurt stamp in the book. They seriously wanted to know if I had spoken to anyone in Germany, or if I had taken anything — the latter making some sense, but talking to anyone? come on…

Then they took me across the street to their car. Just before being herded in into the back seat someone changed their minds at HQ. We then re-crossed the street and I was led down a dirt slope and into the port, to a secured area. I was not allowed to carry my own bag, which definitely excited my paranoia (it’s nearly everything I had in there, including my computer) but I played it really cool and zen-like, both here and throughout the ordeal.

I then stood around while four or five people discussed my fate. I was able to follow a good bit of the conversation, picking up in particular on the references to my surname. This being a not-uncommon Arabic name, particularly in Egypt, has caused me no end of trouble; I definitely envy my adviser his nice obviously-Jewish name. They asked me a whole range of questions which you can file under racial profiling or outright racism, depending on your politics. I was asked again if I had spoken to any Arabs during my visits to Israel, including Arab citizens of the state. Obviously, I was not about to discuss visiting the West Bank.

When I threw them a bone and admitted to just two they grilled me on who they were, but I was able to slide out of that by noting that I was staying in Jerusalem where such contact is not entirely unlikely. This is a dangerous game, as I do not have the rights that exist in the ‘States and my associations can and would be used against me. With no formal rights to free speech or association, politics can (and has) become a basis for prosecution and harassment in Israel.

At any rate, I picked up on a lot of those references, and they were apparently significant enough to overrule my very comfortable rationale for being there and looking at the port. My father is particularly nostalgic for the days of break-bulk shipping, as opposed to the fully-containerised approach now ruling the West. And me, I find ships and shipping fascinating all around, so getting to see an Israeli port in action was intriguing. I did show my port ID cards, but these didn’t get me very far I suppose — at least, not with my name or whatever.

I was then taken into a tiny, one-room building which appears to exist for this purpose. Now came the search, and it was very thorough indeed. Everything was emptied from my bag — and I mean everything, every last scrap of paper. The stuff and the bag were all rubbed with a chemical-detecting gauze, and a good bit of it was put through an x-ray scanner, from the electronics to the boots to the walking stick. I was mostly stripped and frisked extremely thoroughly — the only part he didn’t grab at was my unit, and he ran a metal-detector wand in front of that.

Most of the time in that room I sat calmly, hands folded or steepled in my lap. They brought me a couple of cups of cold water, which was very nice of them. One of the men in particular, a fellow long-hair, was quite nice and apologetic for the whole affair. The others seemed very dispassionate and business-like about it all. Either way, I never felt physically threatened and took it all as pretty routine. Again, I have nothing to hide, and this has happened to me quite a bit in Israel by now.

After they were finished I laboriously re-packed my backpack; since I brought only the day-pack for a week in Egypt is was pretty carefully arranged. The long-haired officer then drove me up to the road and dropped me at the first corner. I think he would have taken me further up the road if I wanted, but I was still keen to walk. Of course I snapped no more photos until I was past the final fence of the harbour, but I then pulled it back out and took shots of the nice rocky beach just beyond it.

I had passed this beach on the way up in the dark and had been looking forward to seeing it in daylight, too. It’s really quite distinct from beaches I’ve known. There was nothing quite like sand on it, just rocks of varying size. The lower stretches were like a very fine gravel intersperses with larger rocks from the size of a quarter to the size of my hand. The water was extremely clear and you could see the rocks stretching off for some distance into the water, which was really quite cool looking. I don’t have time this morning or I would put up some pics of that. Anyway, I walked there for a little bit, picked up a few rocks, and then headed back up the road.

Rocky beach near the port.

Still on the beach, collecting rocks.

I walked all the way through the hotel and marina district for the first time. It was quite interesting in daylight, but I didn’t take the time to photograph it at that point. I was in a hurry to reach a coffee shop and video-chat with a friend. As it happened, their Internet was down so that would have to wait. I chatted for a bit using YahooIM on the phone, then I took a cab to the consulate.

Aroma café (photo taken later that afternoon)

Egyptian Consulate (last thing photo'd before the border)

Processing my visa would take them about four hours, and since I got there at 0945 I couldn’t come back until 1330. This left me a good bit of time to kill, so I walked back through the downtown area and looked for another Internet cafĂ©, unsuccessfully for some time as it happens. Finally I located a Cup-o’-Joe in the mall, and while it left me no place to charge my phone, I was at least able to read the news while I ate breakfast.

After this I set out to walk the length of the marina and hotel district, and it was really quite interesting. This is kind of like Las Vegas on the seashore, or some kind of Caribbean resort (though I can’t speak from experience there, hehe). The hotels are huge and, typical for Israel, very oddly designed. There was a massive profusion of shops catering to the tourists, with overpriced drinks and pointless trinkets. The lower stretches of the marina, which I had not gotten to before, were amazing — some of the boats in there just blew me away. I will post the photos eventually in the gallery, so be looking there for the Eilat section later. I walked all the way to the Aroma location, where the Internet was down that morning but where I had now stopped for coffee two weeks in a row. From there I picked up a cab back to the consulate. I had managed to waste exactly the right amount of time (I was checking my watch and pacing myself).

Rocky resort beach in Eilat

Resort beach, with sunbathing girls. *lol*

An underwater restaurant.

Boardwalk, one of many such stretches.

Aren't these beautiful?

More cute boats with two big resort hotels behind.

From the consulate, visa in hand, I picked up a ride all the way to the border crossing, past a long stretch of resort beaches and the underwater observatory (I am gonna try and do that when I get back to Israel if I can time it right). The crossing itself was fun, let me tell you! The process is long and has tonnes of places to stop you. There’s a fee that you pay on both sides, which is interesting; that money must go into supporting the crossing complex, I imagine. They asked a whole lot more questions and spent a lot more effort in security on the Israeli side, which is funny since I was leaving the country.

Okay, I cheated. Border crossing.

Once on the Egyptian side I pulled my camera out immediately and no-one said a word. There was no security check, just a place to show my passport, and then an arrival hall where I showed it again and got my passport stamped. In that hall there was a single security check but there was no-one standing behind the x-ray machine when my bag went through — only one guy was working the gate. Inside the hall I used an ATM to take out some Egyptian pounds, noting in the process that my chequeing account was almost empty. Hrm. *shrug* Anyway, I passed through the hall and I was in Taba, Egypt!

I'm in Egypt!

Arrival Hall, Taba, Egyptian Arab Republic.

I’ll pick this story up from there next time. Once again, apologies for any typos; I’m in a hurry to reach the streets again. Stay tuned, my loyal droogs….

Getting Stares In Modi’in Ilit

I’m falling far behind in my personal updates, but that means I’m obviously busy, no? *grin* I have to fill you in on Modi’in Ilit, Eilat/Taba, and now my arrival in Cairo. I’m headed out in a bit to reconnoitre in downtown Cairo and will be back this evening to try and catch up a bit more on this before my memory is totally swamped and I can’t keep things straight! So, to the first of these…

One of the reasons I’m in Israel is to go and see first-hand some of the Haredi settlements in the West Bank. I need to pick three of these for my research project (well, not need, I chose to root it with three locations). One of them is a small radical settlement in the northern West Bank that I will see when I get back from Egypt. One is a district of Jerusalem, just over the line. The last is the largest and oldest purely-Haredi settlement: Modi’in Ilit. On Wednesday, 3 August, I set out to see it.

This is located a short drive into the West Bank, through a winding path cut through the hills, and just north-east of Modi’in Maccabim Re’ut. I set out there on a very complicated bus route which I struggled to put together using Hebrew bus sites. I have come to loathe the bus deregulation here that broke the Egged monopoly. My route would have me stopping to change buses twice, each time to a different company. And it was way the hell out of the way, since Modi’in Maccabim Re’ut is pretty much straight east of where I was. Why there was no more direct way to it baffles me. Anyway, the first stage was easy: an Egged bus from Rekhovot to one of the Tel Aviv train stations.

From here I hopped a Veolia bus to Modi’in Maccabim Re’ut, the city with way too long a name. Most people abbreviate it as Modi’in, so I will do the same; just be careful to distinguish between Modi’in and Modi’in Ilit. Right, got that? Good.

Modi’in is a really odd-looking city, as so many Israeli cities are. Some of the newer apartment blocks are truly wild! I’ll post two examples just below. I got dropped at the train station there, and was supposed to be able to pick up a Superbus route into Modi’in Ilit. However, no-one seemed to know just where that pick-up should occur! The only bus stop I could find anywhere near the train station — and this is how it was listed on the route — did not have that line number on its sign. I walked around the giant traffic circle abutting the train station, asking people I met and looking for bus stops. Three different people told me that buses only picked up at the one I had initially found. So, leery of the missing number on the sign, I went back there to wait never-the-less. Mistake.

Isn't that the strangest thing? Israelis have a lot of fun with this stuff.

Check out that curving one at the top of the hill!

Time passed, the other people waiting boarded city buses, and I grew bored. I put in my Israeli SIM card and called the automated bus route mapper, and then struggled mightily to follow the rapid Hebrew. I did find the location I was in through the automated system, but its answer was not helpful — pick up the bus from the train station. And of course, there was no place at the station for a bus to stop, only this one bus stop just up the street. (And, duh, I asked people at the train station first; they directed me to that stop in the first place.) But more than half an hour late, I decided I had clearly missed the bus.

At that I figured, well, I’m not going to be able to eat in this place I’m going, so I might as well have lunch. The train station was just across the way from a giant mall. I located the food court on the upper level, got myself a slice of cheese pizza and a Fanta, and relaxed for a bit. Then, I headed out and picked up a cab. Modi’in Ilit is pretty close to Modi’in, so I reckoned it would be reasonable, and it really was — not much more than my bus tickets to Modi’in in the first place.

Being in a Haredi city is a real experience, let me tell you, and not a very good one. I asked the cab to drop me at the spot on Avnei Nezer where I would later need to pick up my outgoing bus, which was pretty clever if I do say so meself! It was not the same place the original bus would have dropped me, so I’d have needed to find it had I come in as planned. And all of the stops in Modi’in Ilit are residential; in fact, nearly the entire city is a residential area. There’s a small industrial zone in one corner to provide jobs, and one mall, and a medical centre… I couldn’t find much else. Oh, and lots and lots of synagogues. *grin*

And of course my GPS did not work there. Not too surprising, given it’s the West Bank, but since Israel considers this part of Israel in any future agreement, and since it’s so close to a big city on the other side of the line, I kinda hoped it would work. I had scribbled a map of the major streets on the back of an index card, and you better believe that was a good decision since it was my only navigational aide while there. (The people were certainly not going to be a fount of information!)

Within one minute of being dropped by the cab I say a boy dart across the way to the payphone and make a call, all the while staring at me as were his friends. This would be a common sight in Modi’in Ilit, as I was an uncommon sight for them. Goyim don’t wander those streets, nor do non-Orthodox Jews — unless you are obviously there to do a job, suspicion is the automatic response. And after all, with my red shirt and blue jeans I was a riot of colour in this monochromatic world.

After the phone call the boys tailed me for a time down the street. I played a long for a bit, but finally turned and looked at them, at which point they scattered. A little bit later I passed a courtyard between two apartment blocks and two young girls took one look at me, screamed, and then ran back into their building calling for their mother. Do I look so hideous? *lol* They needn’t have worried, the police caught up with me a couple minutes later. Within about ten minutes of my arrival I was already being interrogated on the street by a policeman. That has to be a record for me (I have had the cops called on me in Haredi neighbourhoods before.) We talked for a bit, he took down my name, and then headed off. One more suspicious activity for my file with Shin Bet. Gotta love this country.

As it happened, the street I had chosen to look at dead-ended into some alleyways, and I really wanted to see some major streets, so I backed up and headed down a winding street to a main artery. This was mostly empty, save for a large park in a deep recess on the right side. I love the way it looks when Israelis just carve into the bedrock with such abandon — they come up with some really interesting places to live. It’s kinda harsh environmentally, carving up hills, but it’s very stable (the country being essentially one big rock!) and it can look quite impressive. The park was completely empty, which didn’t surprise me. The state has provided them with basketball and volleyball courts, a Greek-style oval theatre, huge jungle-gym/crawling spaces for kids, etc., all totally devoid of living beings. Well, a cat or two perhaps.

Being thirsty and low on liquids I stopped into what passes for a mall in this city. It was a really pathetic little thing by Israeli standards, and the centrepieces were a large grocery store (which was quite well stocked) and a clothing & housewares store (kinda like a K-Mart or Target) right above it. I picked up a couple of waters and headed on up the main drag. My intent was to follow Mesilat Yesharim to Kiryat Sefer, turn east on that, and then cut south on Hafez Haim, essentially making a big doughnut and returning to where I began.

But I got sidetracked from this, and very glad that I did. One of the things I’m trying to see in these settlements is their impact on the land surrounding them. And what did I find along the left side of me but a huge amount of brand-new construction, none of which is on Google Maps (I later looked) — not the road, not the buildings, none of it. This was just perfect, I thought, and turned left. The apartment blocks are all identical, and I mean that literally: nothing distinguished one from the next and there seemed to be dozens of them in this new neighbourhood. I was just shocked ay how much subsidized housing the state was building here, and I came here knowing that they do this. And the buildings were not some cheap, drab, Soviet-style ugly either, but rather were quite striking,

Under construction...

Singing: "And they're all made of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same."

The Haredi birth-rate necessitates endless construction. (View from the hilltop)

Along this way I could see the remnants of a razor-wire fence that much have been an older border between Modi’in Ilit and the open stretches beyond. This has been broken through in several places, but large chunks remained. A newer fence was built further out, but even this was open in places and in the distance I could see yet another — this one the ‘separation fence’ denoting the land that Israel would like to steal in any deal. There were olive orchards running right up to the other side of that fence, and I can only imagine how the land now taken must originally have ben either in cultivation of used for grazing or both.

Through one of the openings in that second fence I spied a large hill. Mountains are there to be climbed, I thought to myself, and I left the road to do so. There are some extremely dusty dirt roads going in along the base of the hill, and huge rubbish heaps at the back of a clearing. But with the other roads winding down below, my guess is that this area is a planned development.

Orchard and separation fence, seen from the temporary rubbish heap.

It's a bit higher than it looks (the summit is obscured).

This was -so- much fun; highly recommended.

Going up that hill has to be one of the coolest things I’ve done in a while. (Cool to me, that is.) Here I was in the West Bank, cutting through a small opening in a security fence and climbing a big hill to look around. The going was not so tough but it was extremely rocky and quite fun — just steep enough really to get the blood flowing. At the summit there was the remains of some old construction: a well in the floor, maybe a cistern, a low stone wall. I wondered what had been up here, and when it had been destroyed.

The view from the top was amazing. I could see the highway and separation fence, and three separate Palestinian villages, all sitting atop different hills in the distance. One of these is extremely close to that new construction in Modi’in Ilit. And I watched it for some time and never saw a single person. It was as if the town were deserted. Perhaps they are afraid to walk or be seen on that side of it? I can only guess. But I did get some great pictures.

Do these really need captions? Panning southward...

One of the Palestinian villages in the distance.

Olive grove just on the other side of the Israeli fence and road.

This is -such- a beautiful country.

A close-up view of a village immediately adjacent Modi'in Ilit on the north-west side -- Ni'lin, maybe.

Climbing, being a bit harder on one and me being the sweaty type, quickly exhausted my water supply. By the time I got back to the road I was panting for water, but no taxi would stop me for. Six different ones passed me by, either ignoring me completely or wagging their finger. I would assume that they get calls from the buildings and are all responding just to those, but who knows. Of course, none of the Haredim who passed would respond to me either, except for one gentlemen who informed me that the mall was indeed the closest place to get water. And so, I had a lousy walk back to it, but I got my drinks and crashed on the stairs there for a bit to rehydrate.

By this time it was getting close to the bus, so I wandered back that way. Good thing I did, as it was more than 20 minutes early! Had I missed this one I’d have been in trouble. The time I did spend walking back in the neighbourhood and then waiting for the bus was interesting — a more self-conscious person would have a tough time exploring a town like this. Everywhere I went people got suddenly quiet and began whispering amongst themselves and watching me. I was tailed several times by teenagers, and got a great many stares from both young men and women. Adult Haredim pretty well ignored me completely. My guess here is that the mistrust of outsiders that is instiled pretty early on is unrefined in youth, and they simply don’t know how to react, whereas the adults have learnt to show their disdain through neglect.

The ride back was pretty uneventful. This one was a straight shot to as spot in eastern Tel Aviv, the Aluf Sade interchange. From there I was to grab a bus to Rekhovot, but a sherut pulled up first and I took that instead — much quicker and for close to the same price. This sherut trip was distinctive in two ways. First, the driver decided to get off early for the day, and we had to bail in the middle of the street — myself and two gals — and get into another sherut. The other is that on both rides, packed full at various points, I was the only male.

Okay, that’s it for this wee tale. I’m going to head out into Cairo now. And I’m not taking the time to proof-read this post, so apologies for any typos.

My First Visit To Hebron

I have fallen way behind on this lately. In my defence, some of that time I’ve spent out of the house on other wee road trips, and most of the rest on Hebrew study. But still. I have to fill you in on my run down to Eilat soon, but first we should catch up with the Hebron post I never got ’round to! I mean, hell, the following story comes from 18 July!

Right, so the day started at Jamil’s house, where I had stayed the previous night. We got ready and headed out to Hebron to get him to hospital for his injured leg. (Incidentally, Hebron is the English; it’s Hevron in Hebrew and al-Khalil in Arabic.) We rode a service taxi (what Israelis call a sherut and Palestinians a servees) down to the city, then stopped at an intersection and transferred to a regular taxi. At this point I had the bright idea to take off on my own into the city while Jamil went on to hospital. I wasn’t going to do him any good in a waiting room, and it seemed a shame to waste the day that way. I got back out of the taxi, went back to the main road, and caught another service taxi to the old city.

End of the line.

The taxi stopped at the end of the line, just as you enter the old city. I got out and headed down the street, taking pictures, looking in shops, etc. I was pretty conspicuous, and I got plenty of awkward glances, but also some smiles and nods. Several people stopped to talk to me briefly, and one made a determined effort to ingratiate himself — a fellow name Jad. I ended up spending the next few hours walking around the city with him, talking about life and such. He’s a management student and talking to me was good practice for his pretty broken English I’m sure. He’s in his last year at the local university and is hoping to get into an MBA programme somewhere. Anyway, we talked a bit about ourselves, sure, but also about the city and stories of people in it.

A shot from the old city.

Jad wonders why I take so many photos.

Another shop-lined old-city street

Jad and I wandered through the old streets as I snapped photos, and slowly made our way towards the Ibrahimi Mosque. Now, I am aware that just using that designation is a political statement, but I do so because of who I was walking with. The Ibrahimi Mosque (al-Haram al-Ibrahimi) is also the Me’arat HaMakhpela, and in English the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The Cave and the structure above it has been divided in various ways for close to two millennia, since the Byzantine era, when it was both a synagogue and a church. With the initial Arab conquest the church was replaced by a mosque, and with the exception of the Crusader period it has stayed that way since. When the Mamluks came to replace the Ayyubids in the 13th century Jews were barred from the Cave, being allowed only up to the fifth, or later seventh, step. It remained a mosque, with the Jewish sites outside but nearby, until the 1967 War. After that it was divided, with about 20% turned over for a synagogue. Until 1994 it was at least open between the two sides; now, access to the cenotaphs and holy places on either side are restricted to one religious group and there is an ugly separation barrier run down the middle. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stairs up to the Mosque/Cave complex.

By the time we had reached the mosque I really wanted to use a toilet. There are, of course, no public toilets in the old city, though there is one just outside the mosque for visitors. This was by far the worst restroom experience I have had. The toilets were the squatting kind, basically holes in the floor. There is no toilet paper and no way to flush, just a spigot nearby and a small bucket. You’re meant to squat, shit, then use the water to clean yourself — with your hands. No fucking way. Luckily, I am a clever traveller and I had a roll of t.p. in my backpack. *grin* The process was still awful, as was the stench; I have a massive natural gag reflex, and I was heaving. *sigh* Anyway, let this be a lesson to anyone travelling in the area — be smart and also bring your t.p., and use the toilet before you leave any place that actually has a real toilet!

holy shit! no way!

Heading up to the mosque itself, we had to pass the ubiquitous security check. I had to remove all my junk, hand over the bag, and take questions about whether I was Jewish (since I was headed to the Muslim side and was not obviously Muslim). I lied. *grin* The inside was impressive, and hard to describe so I’m going to put up a few photos. I’ve gotten lazy since the first time I used photos, so no compositing.

Coming onto the main floor of the Mosque.

You can see here the minbar, courtesy of Salah ad-Din.

We wandered around, talked a bit; I got to see the cenotaphs built in the Mamluk period, and place my hand on a stone where Adam’s footprint was left. *cough* A Jewish tradition has the cave as the burial place of Adam & Eve and the gateway to ‘heaven’. An older tradition has this as the burial place of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and their wives (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah), which is the basis of its holiness. So that’s kinda nifty to see, eh? The minbar in the mosque was built at the order of Salah ad-Din. Ah, and there’s a covered hole into the deep cave below the mosque, where the tombs would be found, I imagine. There’s a metal cover over the opening with small holes in it, and if you look through them you’ll see a candelabra hanging from a rope in order to add some light to the space.

Peering into the Cave.

One of the cenotaphs and its enclosure.

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit was to see the site of the 1994 Goldstein killings. It was an emotional moment for me, standing in the space where 29 people were gunned down and over a hundred others shot. I paused for some time thinking about the scene and what it must have been like to go through something like that. The ancient sites hold a historical interest for me, but no religious draw. A visit to the site of a massacre, perpetuated in the name of twisted religious faith, is a pilgrimage that makes much more sense to a secularist like me.

I had wanted to see the Jewish side as well, but with Jad along with me it would not have been possible. I may do that the next time I’m in Hebron. Just outside the mosque we picked up another party, a short Arab fella whose name I have forgotten. The three of us walked and talked through along some of the spaces adjacent to the Jewish section of Hebron, AKA “H-2”. This section of the city houses some of the most radical of settlers — a group of people who are drawn by a sincere religious connexion to the ancient sites, but who are also animated by an extraordinary level of racism. I won’t go into any of that here, though.

Settler compound right outside the Mosque/Cave.

A street divided and once-busy shops abandoned.

The long road leading up to the mosque is lined with shuttered shops. This was once a thriving Muslim neighbourhood and market, but nearly everyone has moved out of it because of conflict with the settlers. There is a dividing line in the road and Arabs can only walk on one side of it or risk being shot. There are no cars in this area save those driven in by settlers. We passed two schools that have been closed down, and the large empty square that used to be a bus station.

Neighbourhoods deserted on account of settler threats.

An ethnic-cleansing graffito, the Jewish settler counterpoint to maximalist 'Free Palestine' calls.

An Israeli car on a Jews-only road passing the shuttered Arab girls' school.

Finally we stopped into a ceramics factory and shop, the only remaining business in the area, and the workers there offered us tea. Interestingly, they make a large number of Jewish-themed items like seder plates and little ‘shalom’ signs for your wall. These items are sold to tourists in Jerusalem, not to the settlers, but it still says something that — even a stone’s throw from a radical settler compound — these men make their living catering to the Jewish economy. Twenty years after the “peace process” began, this remains a fully colonial relationship.

Painting ceramics for Jewish tourists.

Jad asked for a photo -with- me and folks back home ask for photos -of- me, so here we are -- the second photo taken of me this trip. I've since trimmed the beard considerably; it was getting very warm...

We parted ways with our companion at this point and Jad & I made our way back through the old city. I stopped to buy a water, which Jad said would be expensive here but I was parched by this point. The vendor actually refused my money, though! It was a unique surprise. We passed a little further along and suddenly I saw something I needed to stop for. I’ve always wanted to pick up a keffiyeh, in large part because of the modern-historical association (Arafat, etc.) but had never gotten ’round to it. I stopped because this hawker had great deals on some in the right colouration, but they were of pretty thin material with bad stitching. I ended up getting one that was still very reasonable but was in the better of three piles. Not having a local political reason to, and not being an Arab meself, I can’t imagine actually wearing it — I would feel utterly foolish or pretentious — but it will be nice to hang up somewhere. Cheesy, no? Shut up, you! It’s better than collecting thimbles. *grin*

Jad and I stopped into a cafĂ© he knew to rest and refuel. I had a couple of large mint teas while he puffed away on a nargileh. I have many times been offered a drag on one of these and it always seems subtly rude to refuse, but I’ve never smoked a thing in my life and I’m not about to start now. The teas here are amazing, with long strands of mint running the length of the glass and providing an incredibly rich taste. Jamil offered me tea like this at his place, too, though in a more traditional setting — on a silver tray, with tiny glasses — but the taste is what matters, right?

I sipped tea and we chatted about girls and music. He asked to see pictures of Amanda (my ex) and told me how beautiful she was — he kept trying to get me to show him more. *lol* We talked about how different things are in our respective love-lives, as in his culture men and women will not sleep together until married, period. He was unbelievably jealous, and didn’t want to stop talking about girls or sex — it was really funny. *grin* So I indulged his curiosity as best I could given our language gaps, and we moved on to music.

Having my iPod with me I tried to explain how common it was now to collect diverse forms of music. He found it odd that I have several Arabic artists on there when I understand so little. (Truth be told, -I- find it odd that I can pick up as much as I do from conversations, given how little time and effort has gone into it.) I noted that people around the world listen to and appreciate music from English-speaking nations without understanding the words, and said that listening to music in languages I am studying or wish to study helps to train the ear; you begin to pick out automatically those words you do know and it starts to build a context for them.

New friend at an old café.

When it came time to leave, Jad refused to let me pay for anything. He went in to talk to the proprietor, and then we headed out. He walked with me a little while longer, until we reached the main road. We had exchanged Facebook information at the café and he made me promise to look him up when I was next in town. (He had asked me to stay the night at his place then, but I was worried about Jamil and decided to go back and make new plans.) I then hopped into a service taxi and headed north.

Ah, that reminds me — I forgot to mention that I had spoken with Jamil about an hour earlier. He had found out that his leg was in much worse shape than he thought and he was supposed to stay off of it. He had gone back home to al-Aroub without me, so I had to get back on me own. This was, of course, great fun.

When I got back we discussed what to do. I did not want him to exert himself on my account, and was prepared to leave for Bethlehem immediately and return in August after he’d had time to recover. I wanted to do a lot of walking still, both in the camps and the villages surrounding, and at the nearby settlements, and he said that he would walk with me around the places he could (the Arab parts). Obviously this would not happen now, and I did not want to risk his feeling obligated to show hospitality and take me anywhere in his condition. Besides, he had a couple from Germany coming over that night and it would have been even harder for him to entertain us both, though he protested and thought I should be able to stay. He did convince me to stay a little longer and go with him to the neighbouring village of Beit Jala to meet with some friends of his. I am very glad I did.

He had his car this afternoon, so we drove to Beit Jala. There we stopped into Mousa and Becca’s house. Mousa is a Palestinian man and Becca is an American Reform Jew who moved to Israel originally as a committed Zionist. Obviously, things changed for her, and she later married Mousa; they have an adorable little girl. Both work for an organisation called The Center for Freedom and Justice, which works with rural Palestinian communities and helps them to resist the settlement enterprise through non-violent means. They plant trees (and have added 3,500 trees in the Saffa region of Beit Omar), operate a free library and youth centre, organise a women’s embroidery collective to raise money to support extended families, run summer camps and a preschool, and are trying to raise money for a greenhouse.

The group relies on a rotating cadre of international volunteers, many of them American; I met a few of these as they came back from an ‘action’ somewhere (I could not understand what it was they were doing that day). They teach strategies of non-violent direct action to youth from the Hebron and Bethlehem areas. I would love to chat at length about what they do, given how interested I once was in anarchist direct-action politics, but we’ll see if I have time. I’m intending to return to the area in a couple of weeks to explore the settlements down there, so perhaps it will work out. Either way, Becca’s story was fascinating — her odyssey from Jewish nationalism to resisting Israeli policies and marriage to a Palestinian — and I was happy to have met them.

Okay, that’s about all you get of that story. I made my way back to Bethlehem, hopped the bus to Jerusalem, passed the security check-point, had a long conversation on the bus with a young British archaeologist who had a day off and ran down to see Herodion, and made my way from Jerusalem central station to Rekhovot. I have a few other stories to put up, so that’s the end of this one. Time to go and find something more substantive to do than wonder what I’m doing! *lol* Have fun!

Fascism And The Debt Crisis

There is a class war in American to-day. But despite what you hear on Fox, America is in no danger of becoming ‘socialist’; it’s in danger of becoming a fascist state. This budget argument, and the ideologues in the House, exemplify this overall trend exceedingly well. I have tried to stay out of this mess because it’s so tangential to what I’m focussing on this summer, but I’m a bit angry to-day so I’m going to rant and vent. (And yes, I’m aware that I just linked to Glenn Beck above; the man is such a raving moron that I can’t believe anyone takes a thing he says seriously. When he says “do your homework”, it’s more than apparent than no-one in his audience does.)

The United States has been drifting steadily rightward since the 1960s; earlier if you count the massive post-war military build-up as a right-wing nationalist project and, incidentally, I would. The Cold War had nothing to do with democracy — the US did more to crush democracy in the Global South than the Soviets could have dreamt of doing. The whole ideological framework of the post-war period is a contest between capital, and specifically American corporations on the global stage, and the command economies that tried to escape this system. Their solutions, of course, were idiotic; the Leninist-Marxist and Maoist governments were deluding themselves. But I’m drifting from the point, so let’s get back to fascism.

We can define this ideology of government pretty easily by noting that it always contains the following elements: it is nationalistic, in that it espouses a chauvinistic attitude towards the world and waves the flag, so to speak; it is militaristic, in that it argues for national strength and uses jingoism to maintain virility and authority in the world; it is collectivistic, in that it seeks to mobilize the whole nation, or at least, the ‘authentic’ parts; it is eugenicist, in that it favours specific policies regarding birth and death in service of a higher cause; it is populist, in that it appeals to class-conflict and conspiracy theories; and it is authoritarian, in that it aims to indoctrinate everyone with a uniform message and denies the principle of loyal opposition, so vital to democratic systems.

All of these features are in ample display in the American right, and I should not have to provide examples for that to be quite obvious. Republicans, and frequently Democrats as well, wrap themselves in the flag, worship the military and military spending, push a uniform political/social message via propagandistic media, force the government into your reproductive lives, issue divisive statements and rally people around economic issues, and frequently defy the right of an informed citizenry to criticize the government. And, wow, for populist conspiracy theories look no further than Glenn Beck; I was appalled to hear my grandmother repeat his bizarre argument that financier George Soros is a “puppetmaster”. Try to remember how the Nazis used the Jews and repeat after me: scapegoating is populist manipulation! Anyway, looking at this stuff it becomes apparent that the only common elements of fascism missing in the United States are the anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism that emerged with Italian fascism.

The most threatening aspect of this political project, and clear evidence that it is working, lies in the media. 80% of our news sources are controlled by a half-dozen large corporations, and most of the rest are trying to get big or be purchased by one. These companies are often nakedly partisan and slant the news to suit their political or financial interests. Some of this is the simple effect of market forces — capitalism dictates that any profitable enterprise find a market, and why should the purveyors of news be immune? This is why public news broadcasters exist in the first place, from BBC to NPR (which explains why Republicans would love to destroy the latter; its lack of an agenda allows it to aim for accuracy first).

The whole media edifice, and in particular the News Corp brands like Fox, exemplify that great principle of authoritarian propaganda from Goebbels to Stalin: Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Turning the news into entertainment, as Fox has, makes for a successful business model, but it eviscerates reality in the process. We no longer hear of the world as it is, but rather, as certain ideologues wish it was or conspiracy theorists think it is. The success of right-wing punditry in the United States would make any authoritarian state envious.

Now, as regards this current budget and debt argument in Congress … What.The.Fuck?! The Republican brand seems to have been thoroughly coöpted by slavering imbeciles, competing with each other to show how much drool they can spill from their crooked mouths. Who are these freshman “tea party” fools? It’s bad enough that so many of them are proud creationists — I mean, what century is this? The material evidence for evolution is unassailable, and it takes a wilful ignorance to pass this over in favour of bronze-age mythology that is poorly translated or understood. But again, I’m off topic: What about their economics?

The issue these Republicans have over the debt ceiling revolves around a total resistance to tax increases, when this is absolutely the way to approach closing the deficit. Austerity measures enacted swiftly in other countries have all contained a mixture of spending cuts and new revenue, and while we fall closer to default like the insolvent southern European nations, those thrifty northern Europeans have been addressing their budget issues effectively. For cryin’ out loud, check out some of the coverage of this in The Economist, a free trade-supporting publication if ever there was one. But all we hear from those “tea party” lunatics is the same old rhetoric about supply-side economics that has been debunked by practical experience again and again and again.

Even a cursory examination of economic history will show you that the closer one gets to unregulated laissez-faire the greater the risk of economic melt-down, not to mention the accumulation of wealth at the top while the bottom 90% suffer. The notion that cutting taxes leads to greater investment, and hence job growth, is complete bullshit. Why not do your homework, America, and note that every significant tax decrease (including the gargantuan one Bush passed in 2001) has been followed by a decline in investment. No kidding. Why bother with risky investments when you can sit back and rake it in? Conversely, if a smaller slice of the profit will reach their own wallets, the wealthy have usually been driven to greater investment, since rapid growth in overall income is the only way to grow their own share. Logical, no? So why is it so damned hard to understand?

As to the tax rates themselves, this is another piece of ideological crap pedalled by class-warriors who want to expropriate more wealth to themselves. You want to see higher growth? Enact sensible taxation and investment. Why do you think that the Scandinavian countries are routinely classed amongst the most economically competitive and successful on the planet, despite having some of the highest tax rates?

Let’s take a look at the top tax brackets during the greatest period of economic growth in American history, the post-war 1950s and 1960s. For taxable wages over $400,000: 1951, 91%; 1952–1953, 92%; 1954–1963, 87%; 1964, 77%. And for taxable wages over $200,000: 1965–1967, 70%. The richest individuals are taxed at less than half that last figure now, and one-third the upper brackets from this period. Yet this is when the American middle class came into existence in the first place! This is the period that created our consumer culture, gave everyone a car and a teevee and a refrigerator, and moved millions into clean suburban neighbourhoods. Where was all that wealth coming from? High corporate investment and substantial government investment in infrastructure!

Now, remind me why cutting taxes on the top earners is necessary for economic growth. Oh, wait: you can’t. Taxing the wealthy has not led to any statistically-significant drop in economic growth, and the periods of highest taxation for the wealthiest have usually been in periods of rapid overall economic growth. America, you are being lied to in the name of a class war stoked by the wealthiest and playing on your ignorance. Wake the hell up! The middle class is disappearing, real wages have stagnated since the 1970s, fewer people can actually afford their lifestyles or homes, and the infrastructure that made this country a post-war powerhouse is crumbling into dust (collapsing bridges, anyone? *sheesh*).

Take a quick look at the periods of peak unemployment and poverty through 2001. Pay attention to the years in which these recessions take place. November 1948–October 1949; July 1953–May 1954; August 1957–April 1958; April 1960–February 1961; December 1969–November 1970; November 1973–March 1975; January 1980–July 1980; July 1981–November 1982; July 1990–March 1991; March 2001–November 2001. And need I remind you that George W. Bush began his presidency with a budgetary surplus, before plunging the country into its greatest peace-time deficit spending and a massive recession — more than one, technically.

Okay, now note the conspicuous absence of Democratic presidencies in most of these periods. Where are the Kennedy-Johnson years? Carter? Clinton? Not that their policies are necessarily the issue here, since they often observed the same economic principles. My point is that there is no correlation between the so-called “tax-and-spend Democrats” and recession or unemployment — quite the opposite, in fact. If you want an economic collapse, vote Republican and your chances probably go up, statistically-speaking.

My underlying reason for delving into this is that Americans are being effectively manipulated into supporting policies that are not in their best interest and which are founded on lies. Even that patron saint of the “tea party” crowd, Ronald Reagan, raised taxes when it became apparent that his tax cuts had led directly to an economic downturn. Meaning, he was actually pragmatic and smart enough to recognize when he was wrong. Somehow the modern Republican party has missed this pragmatism and embraced a kind of mediaeval dogmatism which allows of no deviation from the sacred gospel of low taxes.

Frankly, it’s disgusting, and insulting to the many Republicans I have called friends through the years. Conservatism is an honourable political stance, no matter what you think of it personally. Propaganda and deception on the current scale is anything but honourable. The extraordinary facility which the American right has demonstrated in crafting and disseminating a message is rightly the envy of would-be dictators everywhere. And while the Global South has, since the end of the Cold War, been shaking off the authoritarian rĂ©gimes often imposed in the name of American strategic interests and embracing democracy, the land of its birth is steadily shrinking from it.

What happened to the public interest? Or to integrity? We elect whores to Washington, and then wonder why everything is so jacked up for us. If you want to fix the debt issues, get the damned lobbyists off of Capitol Hill; the ghost-written legislation their servile congressmen have been passing is a big part of the problem. Next, revisit the facts about progressive tax systems and their place in economic growth. Finally, stop listening to the damned lies purveyed by corporate media!

A long time ago the World War II journalist William Shirer predicted that one day the United States might go fascist by popular vote. With each passing year I grow more convinced that it will happen in my lifetime. And I am not happy.