Wednesday, April 13, 2016

After you! No after you!

Five random immigrants to Israel meet at a bus stop: an older Ethiopian lady with several bags of heavy shopping, an immaculate elderly Argentinian couple with matching his n hers walking sticks, a middle aged Briton with a massive sack of toys and a young Indian man with what looks like a month's supply of eggs.

The bench at the bus stop only seats three.
Cue ten minutes of "after you" standoff as all five try to insist the others must take the seats, even though not everyone even speaks Hebrew well enough to argue with more than hand gestures.

Resolution: the three women sit, but they budge up so that the elderly Argentinian can sort of squeeze in with his wife with his tush half off the seat while the Indian stands nearby and the two men exchange complements about each others' impressive handlebar mustaches in a mix of broken Hebrew and sign language.
Would have made an amazing Gashashim or Hamishiya Hakamerit skit.*

* veteran Israeli comedy groups

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Overheard in the waiting room

At doc's appt today in the waiting room there was an adorable elderly Yemeni couple sitting together.  She wore amazing silver filigree jewellery and a colourful headkerchief with a simple long black dress. He had traditional style peyot. He had his arm around her and she had her head resting on his shoulder. So so sweet, but I didn't want to intrude and ask if I could take their photo, much as would have loved to, would have made a beautiful portrait.

Everything was delayed because the doctor had been called out on an emergency, and things could have turned ugly had it not been for the good humour of the secretaries and patients combined even as the waiting room got more and more crowded as the delay continued for several hours.
Entertainment was provided by the automated checking-in system which decided to give certain people several numbers in a row, spitting out paper slips with numbers on them so fast that I was looking around the candid camera.

The lady who got the numbers jackpot turned to me with a smile, her hands full with wads of paper and said "See, it's dishing out bouquet's for yom tov!" Someone else called out "How often do you get extra for free, enjoy the perks!"
Just as things were finally starting to move another elderly couple emerged from one of the treatment rooms. He was tall, bearded and stately in old fashioned Bedouin robes and artfully draped headcloth. She wore an exquisite hand-embroidered traditional Bedouin women's dress covered in intricate cross-stitch designs, an older style one you don't see often today because they are so labour intensive to make, her head covered with a fine white damascene headshawl.
After the cute elderly Yemeni couple finished with the doctor they blessed every person they passed on the way out. "Good health and a speedy recovery" to the bald woman who'd just finished chemo. '"You should have an easy birth and much joy from your child" to the pregnant lady. "Next year you will hike Masada and run a Marathon" to the man with a bandaged leg. And so on.

Just as they were heading out another couple emerged from one of the treatment rooms, this time elderly old school Bedouin, he in stately robes and artfully arranged white headcloth, she in magnificently heavily embroidered traditional dress of a style not often seen today because it is so labour intensive to sew the intricate tiny cross stitch designs.

The nurse wished him refuah sheleimah (complete recovery), and he turned to the whole room and in very elegant Hebrew without a trace of an Arabic accent, blessed everyone in the waiting room with good health, good tidings, happiness and pride and pleasure from their families - and hag sameah (happy holiday).

His wife whispered something to him in Arabic, and he added "and a happy and kosher Passover to all".

Monday, February 29, 2016

El Niño

It's not unusual to have bright sun and even a heatwave in an Israeli February. True, it's also a season for rain storms, sometimes even the odd snow flurry in the higher altitude regions.

This year though the rains were a little different, both in quantity and in pattern.

The north of Israel, home of Israel's only significant freshwater lake, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), was unusually dry this winter rainy season. True, with Israel's state of the art desalination technology the country no longer relies on pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as it once did, but the lake is still important both ecologically and because while desalination makes sense for Israel's densely populated coastal region, the Kinneret is still the prime source of water for the inland north-east.

There is now talk of building a desalination plant in northern Israel due to the severity of the drought up north and the need to replenish streams and aquifers in danger of running dry due to the paucity of the rainy season in this usually water rich region of Israel.

Furthermore Israel is committed to supplying water to the neighbouring Kingdom of Jordan, a further drain on Israeli water resources. Jordan has been afflicted even more severely by the drought and it struggling to provide water for a population swelled by well over a million refugees from neighbouring Syria and Iraq, and even as far afield as Libya. Israeli water is critical to the kingdom's water supply, and so must be factored in to Israel's water calculations.

Meanwhile Israel's arid desert south received copious precipitation this winter (at least by desert standards), with several major rain events and massive flash flooding. Southern Israel's Negev and Arava regions have been experiencing years of drought so severe that even the hardy desert acacia trees have begun to wither and die, and with them the bountiful wildlife that relies on them for sustenance. Things had become so bad that in some recent winters National Parks Authority rangers and conservationists had been artificially watering seasonal stream beds in emergency measures to save the lives of local animals facing starvation and drought.

Israel's south-central coasts all got clobbered with massive rainstorms dropping a month's worth of rain in the space of a few hours. Flooding ensued, with even well developed infrastructure unable to cope with the extreme deluge.

And now it's late February and both this month and January have been if anything drier than usual, it feels as though spring is already here. Rain or shine, this is peak flower season for Israel, but the question is how the lack of late winter rain will effect the blossoms still waiting to bloom later in the spring, and more importantly the crops yet to ripen. El Niño in the Middle East.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Think again

For many in the media Dafna Meir with her headscarf and West Bank address was obviously a far right wing nationalist fundamentalist extremist. How could it be other way? They would say the same about Mikhal Fruman, and certainly her late father-in-law Rabbi Menahem Fruman, what else could a religious West Bank settler with a long white beard be?

And yet the point missed by much of the media, local and foreign, is that this stereoptype is just that, a stereotype. Jews living over the Green Line are nuanced just as much as Jews living within the Green Line.

Dafna Meir was not the only religious Israeli living in the Hebron hills who had decided to learn Arabic to better interact with the local Arab population. Her husband isn't the only religious settler to have friends from among his Palestinian neighbours.

The late Rabbi Fruman from Tekoa was absolutely a fundamentalist. He believed that religious was the fundamental root of this region and that interfaith dialogue and understanding was fundamental to building a new Middle East. To that end he was prepared to pray with people of all faiths, including sworn enemies of Israel like Hamas, in order to create a bridge between the local religious communities in the hope of bringing peace. In nearby Efrat, community leader Rabbi Riskin has also made a point of reaching out to his Palestinian neighbours and setting an example for regional coexistance.

Despite the wild-eyed stereotypes, despite the media playing up the crazed religious nutter settler image, you'll find Jews all over this region who precisely because they are living in the West Bank have taken the trouble to meet their Palestinian neighbours, whether through co-existance initiatives, or simply from living close to each other, shopping in the same Rami Levi supermarkets or working in local businesses.

They may have widely differing political and religious visions for the region, or not, but on a day to day basis many people do find a way to live together and interact. This is despite the horrific anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incitement coming from the Palestinian Authority and many local mosque preachers, Hamas and European activists. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

When is terrorism not terrorism?

What happened this weekend in Paris is horrific, a heinous act of terror against innocent civilians. It is however only the most recent such attack this year against innocents by radical Islamist terror groups affiliated with Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Boko Haram/Al Shebab.

Over 200 Russian civilians were murdered recently when ISIS/Da"esh blew up a civilian airliner. Facebook didn't suggest changing my profile pic to the Russian flag. 100 Turkish civilians were murdered in a recent bombing of a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Ankara. No rash of Turkish or Kurdish solidarity flags. In recent days scores have been killed in terror attacks in Beirut and in Iraq. Most Western news outlets barely covered the story. in August 20 civilians were killed and over a hundred wounded in a terror attack in Bangkok. It drew media coverage and concern largely because of fears for Western tourists.

In April this year 147 Kenyan students, mostly Christians, were massacred by Al Shebab terrorists in their college. The New York Times described the murderers as "militants" and no one changed their FB profile to a Kenyan flag in solidarity with the people of Kenya.

20 people were killed in Cameroon by a 13 year-old suicide bomber this July. One of several such attacks in this West African nation. Last month 38 people were murdered and dozens injured in a double suicide bombing in the Chadian capital N'Djamena. There have been numerous terrorist shootings and suicide bombings in Mali and Nigeria this year, many "small" scale Boko Haram attacks on villagers in neighbouring Niger and Chad, shootings, throat slittings, beheadings and the like. They were barely reported in the international media. When is the last time anyone changed their FB picture to the flag of Mali in solidarity with this nation's suffering at the hands of al-Qaida/Boko Haram?

The only reason you heard about the massive terror attack in Sousse, Tunisia in June was that most of the 38 people murdered were Western tourists, hence it was a terror attack and the perpetrator was not simply a "militant".

And you wonder that no one seems to care about the wave of terror attacks in Israel or cares about a few murdered Israeli civilians?

If it doesn't happen in Western Europe or North America it hasn't really happened and probably isn't really terror and those probably aren't really innocent victims.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The twist is in the headline

It is stunning to watch the foreign press report on Israel, headline after headline screams that Israel is killing Palestinians, apparently for no reason, just because. Any time an Israeli is killed or hurt the headlines read that they were mysteriously "attacked" or "killed" or "hurt" but some entity, never actually identitfying who is doing the attacking, killing and hurting, it just happens, like a force of nature. 

A particularly egregious headline appeared in today's British "Independent" newspaper: "Israel kills pregnant mother and baby in revenge attack" - you know, Israel just went out and found a pregnant woman and her baby and executed them in revenge, as one does, when what actually happened was Jihadi folks in Gaza launched missiles at Israel, Israel responded by attacking a Gaza munitions factory making rocket parts and just plain bad luck meant that the explosion triggered a civilian house collapse nearby, killing the poor woman and her child inside. Very different story. Yes she is still dead, but there is a big difference between a "revenge attack" intending to kill her and an attempt to stop the manufacture of rockets being fired at Israeli civilians.

God Dies by the Nile and other stories

I first discovered Nawal el Saadawi in my early teens when I came across her novel about women in rural Egypt "God Dies by the Nile", and I was instantly fascinated, delving in to whatever books of hers I could find translated in to English.

Probably not the way most Orthodox Jewish teenage girls discover modern political feminism. My poor mother had no idea what I was reading - boy do I sympathise with her trying to keep up with the stacks of books I brought home from the library. Incredibly well read in several languages she encouraged me to read widely, though I suspect she didn't quite mean her young teen to read quite that widely.

Nawal El Saadawi taught me the harsh realities of life in rural Egypt, especially for young women. If until then I had some idea that there was extreme poverty and subjugation of women in rural areas across the Middle East her writing brought it in to stark relief, complete with graphic details that once learnt could not be erased. I was at once horrified and impressed by her courage and openess. Having both grown-up in these areas and returned to them as a doctor she was more than qualified in conveying just was it like to be a woman living in such circumstances.

Her work in promoting womens' health and education in Egypt, her fight against FGM, her campaign for womens' most basic and fundamental rights under such difficult circumstances, including imprisonment and threats against her life, made her one of my heroines alongside Hannah Sennesh and other Zionist icons I had grown-up with. I felt that she was one of those women who could change the Middle East for the better. Her story inspired me. 

El Saadawi is unfortunately no friend of Israel, her radical Marxism putting her on the side of the extreme anti-Israel camp, but as a young teen I always hoped that her zeal for justice and compassion might one day change that view of her Jewish northern neighbours.

She is still going strong in the new post-post Arab Spring Egypt, hoping that the leadership of General Sisi will bring the greater freedom, modernity and positive change that she has always hoped for.

Reading Nawal El Saadawi led me to other regional feminists and writers, like the writings of Lebanese/Egyptian/French author Andree Chedid, Palestinian feminist and PLO activist Raymonda Tawil (Yasser Arafat's mother-in-law) and a selection of women authors from the Maghreb countries and Lebanon.

What I discovered was a world full of unfamiliar and strange concepts, of incredible brutality, mindblowingly strict tradition and hard hearted men, but also full of women with the vision and hope to try to create something new, though in practice often running up against a very high and thick stone wall, sometimes quite literally.

It wasn't all feminism and theories of the patriarchy though. There were descriptions of the Westernised decadent middle and upper classes in Egypt and Lebanon, clashes of identity among the Francophone educated classes of the Maghreb, beautiful rural retreats and villages where the illusion of freedom could be reached just beyond the last house or among the circle of female relatives within the secure confines of the enclosed courtyard.

Very cliched sounding I know, but a huge eye opener to my teenage self, a window on places I could likely never visit, people who I would likely never know because along with their quest for freedom within their own societies and their rejection of many of the supposedly sacred truths of the Arab world, they generally still embraced a very firm hatred of Israel, be it framed in terms of the Marxist struggle against Western colonialism or the cultural/nationalist insistance on maintaining a united Arab front across the Middle East.

Most of these books were written in the revolutionary cultural fervour of the 1960s, 70s, even 80s, barely broaching the Islamist revolutions that were just starting to ferment in the region, replacing the secular Socialist and Marxist Arab nationalisms that had held sway among the revolutionary classes.

Looking at the post-Arab Spring Middle East it seems that the only perhaps Egypt and Tunisia have had revolutions that in any way matched the aspirations of these authors. Looking out over the broiling burning early 21st century Middle East I think often of their books and feminist ideals and I wonder if any of the women dashing off to join Da'esh may have read them too, and if not, perhaps they should.