Monday, August 31, 2009


I think I mentioned in an earlier blog post something about the challenge of keeping up with the local news in Israel. I have taken to a morning ritual of scanning the NY Times, Ha-aretz, and Al-Jeezera-English sites…to get some semblance of balance.

But, for fun, I’ve also been collecting some of the more…um…memorable Ha-aretz articles. Here are some funny, sad, and sometimes frightening “News” headlines [click on the headlines for links to the original articles].

New campaign targets Jews 'abducted' by intermarriage


Brooklyn bike loan gets Hasids and Hipsters rollin' together


If it wasn't bad enough already

The battered image of Hadassah, the American women's Zionist organization, may be harmed further by the disclosure earlier this month that its former chief financial officer was a mistress to Bernard Madoff - even as she sat on the committee that invested the charity's funds in Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme.”


U.S. Jews tell Catholics: We won't accept Christ as savior

No Shit.

The IDF sets its sights on saving the planet

Oh good, the IDF is going green…

Israel aims to colonize Hungary with Jews, says extreme right

A well known extreme rightist Web site,, is now saying that Israel and American Jews are planning to transport three million Jews with dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship into Hungary over the next two years.


Swedish daily hits back at critics of IDF organ harvest story

A Swedish newspaper provoked outrage in Israel … after it ran a story on transplant organ theft, a report an Israeli official branded anti-Semitic ‘hate porn.’”

What Netanyahu wants from Obama's 'self-hating Jews'

Who is to blame for the latest dispute with the United States over the new neighborhood going up in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah area? Mayor Nir Barkat? Certainly not. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stood behind him? Ridiculous. Any child knows that everything is the fault of other Jews: Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, two American administration officials who are inciting President Barack Obama against their own people.

I think this paragraph is meant sarcastically, but I’m not sure.

Israel tells El Al: Call it a separation fence, not a wall

“El Al passengers have received maps of Israel marking out a "separation wall" along the West Bank, but the Foreign Ministry has asked the airline to change the classification to "security fence," Haaretz has learned. New maps are to be distributed soon.”

Censorship, much?

Was Michael Jackson a friend of the Jews?

The crucial questions of our time….

Dutch journalist: Flu pandemics are Jewish conspiracy

Clearly not…see below:

Dozens of rabbis fly over Israel praying to defeat swine flu

“Dozens of rabbis and Kabbalah mystics armed with ceremonial trumpets took to the skies over Israel on Monday to battle the swine flu virus, according to local media reports.”

Soccer game or tear gas? Palestinians put controversial ad to test

“The row over a controversial advert for an Israeli mobile phone operator, which shows Israel Defense Forces soldiers playing soccer with Palestinians on both sides of the security barrier, continues…A video recently posted on YouTube has tried to reenact the game in reality, and found that the result could not be further removed from the situation on the ground: when the Palestinians kick the ball to the other side of the fence, what they get in return is a salvo of tear gas grenades.”

For the original add click here.

For the "reality," click here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Egyptian minute

Spices for sale on the street, Dahab.

Not only is Egypt a different county, it is also a different time zone.

Now, when I say ‘time zone’ I don’t mean it in the way you’re thinking…I don’t mean it in the GMT sense, where it might be 4:15 in Israel and 5:15 in Egypt, or something of that sort. Instead, I mean that when you enter Egypt from Israel, you are entering a zone where time operates differently. Similar to how you must exchange your Israeli shekels (NIS) for Egyptian pounds (L.E.), traveling to Sinai involves inadvertently exchanging one’s Israeli minutes for Egyptian ones.

Rumor has it that there is a somewhat semi-established exchange rate. Fernando told me -- while we were sitting and waiting at the border crossing in Taba -- that he had heard it was currently around 5 Egyptian minutes for 45 Israeli ones. This figure, in my limited experience, seems to be a reasonable approximation.

Time to travel from Lotan to Dahab: 6.5 hours
Fernando, Bryan and I met in Lotan late Thursday night. I took the bus down earlier in the day, spent the afternoon hanging out and doing some site research, and slept outside under the Bustan’s geodesic dome. Waking up Friday morning as the sun was rising over the Arava was amazing. The whole experience made me wonder why I don’t sleep outside more often…but then I realized that I actually do spend quite a bit of time sleeping outside.

Jennifer in the Bustan, Lotan

Friday morning I met with Alex about the Library project, went to the pool, and grabbed some lunch in the dining hall before Fernando, Bryan, and I headed down South. We left Lotan around 3, after hitching a ride with some friends of friends who were on their way to Eilat. On the way, we stopped for ice cream in Yotvata [Ilan: we tried for black cherry, but they were out] but still managed to make it to the Taba border crossing a little after 4.

Time spent under the control of Israeli officials: less 10 minutes
[basically, just long enough to pay the 94 NIS exit fee.]

Time spent in the Egyptian ‘Arrival Hall’: around 10 minutes
[for basic security check, passport control, and a swine flu screening…yes, I’m serious… they took my temperature.]

For the record: if you want to bring firearms and/or ammunition from Israel into Egypt it’s not a big deal, you just have to tell the authorities. Pornography, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden...end of story.

Time spent trying to get a cab to Dahab: 3 hours
This was partly our error. Since we missed the last bus from Taba to Dahab, we had to take a service taxi. It didn’t seem like it should be difficult; there were, afterall, a fairly steady stream of tourists arriving into Egypt and several Egyptians employed, in one way or another, in the tourism industry. Yet somehow, actually securing ourselves a ride – which involved bargaining over a price, negotiating between ‘official’ agents [largely from Cairo] and Bedouins drivers, and finding other people to fill our service taxi [van] --turned out to be a very long process. Thankfully, we had some entertainment in the form of Egyptians in uniform moving thousands of pages of paper documents from the Arrival Hall to somewhere else using something that looked like a shopping cart. As if the site weren’t strange enough on its own, the wind kept blowing the pieces of paper away and periodically everything would fall off of the cart altogether. I don’t mean to be judgmental here, but it really didn’t seem like the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand.

Fernando in Taba, waiting for a taxi.

Time spent driving to Dahab: 3 hours
The first part of the drive down the coast was really incredible – dramatic views of the Red Sea coast, framed by rocky peaks to the West. We made a few stops along the way [Basata, where apparently Israelis are not allowed, and Ras, a nature preserve with thatch huts on the beach for tourists to rent.]

Huts for rent in Ras.

After the sun went down, any boredom I might have felt during the long drive was overshadowed by my constant wondering if our insane driver was going to inadvertently kill us before we made it to Dahab. Thankfully, we made it to our destination, and with some advice from a British traveler we met on the way, found an excellent and cheap hostel right on the beach.

Time spent at breakfast Saturday morning: 4 hours-ish
Our hostel [The Red Sea Relax] offered free breakfast from 8-11, so I got up at what I thought was 8:30 and headed downstairs. Turns out that in Egypt they set the clocks back one hour for Ramadan [which coincidentally began that day] and so it was actually only 7:30. I had some coffee and hung out in the lobby, where I made the acquaintance of a fellow American traveler who happened, also, to be a Ranger in the U.S. army [?!]. In comparison to other Americans, I usually feel like a fairly adventurous traveler, with a decently long list of exotic locales under my belt. Not so in this particular case. As we swapped travel stories, my experiences – Europe, India, Morocco, Mexico -- seemed quite tame in comparison to his. Rwanda, he assured me, was beautiful, despite it’s bad rap; Columbia, Burundi, and the Congo were apparently amazing. And, given how nice the people were, he was glad to have made it to Iraq as a tourist [really? Do people do that?]. Anyway, all and all I was just reminded of how cool it is that traveling affords one the opportunity to meet totally random people who do all sorts of crazy things. I mean, who knew I would find myself in Egypt, discuss the merits of vacationing in the Congo over breakfast with an Army Ranger from Texas.

Eventually Bryan and Fernando got up and joined us downstairs [breakfast had since been served] and we all spent another couple of hours discussing Israel and Jews and Middle Eastern politics. I think in the Middle East people talk politics with the same frequency that Midwest farmers discuss the weather, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the point in mentioning all of this was to demonstrate another way in which Egyptian time works differently from Israeli. See…the slowed pace is partly due to a general inefficiency [this is what we got into at the border] but it’s also a function of the generally relaxed atmosphere. This, it seems, is particularly apparent in a beach town like Dahab. When there isn’t really anything to do besides sit at the beach and go snorkeling, there also isn’t really any need to rush though breakfast.

The Roof deck of our hostel.

View of the beach from the roof deck.

Dahab was great – super-chill vibe, gorgeous beaches, and restaurants literally on the water where you can get a sheesha [hookah] for 5 Egyptian pounds [less than $1] and sit for hours without anyone bothering you to leave. Bryan, Fernando, and I did our fair share of lounging at these establishments in between trips to the beach and the hostel’s pool. In addition we spent some quality time playing pool on the roof deck and poker down by the water. All the locals we interacted with were very nice and helpful and while there was, in my opinion a fair amount of leering on the part of Egyptian men, it seemed pretty harmless.

Seaside dining.

Time spent trying to get back to Lotan: 8 hours
We left the hostel at 9:30 am in a ‘cab’ headed for the bus station. The bus was later than we were expected, but by 10:45 we were on our way North. We made it back to Taba in 2.5 hours or so at which point we joined a bottleneck of people at Egyptian passport control. With two officials and maybe a hundred people in line, getting through the ‘Departure Hall’ took some patience…but it was nothing compared to the Israeli security we encountered next. I don’t really understand why 8 different people had to check my passport, but it’s not as if you can argue with the Israeli border patrol. All I know is that waiting in that series of lines, for the right series of stamps and customs validations and security checks and whatever else, took forever…hours and hours of forever. Bryan suggested that maybe the original conversion factor of 5 Egyptian minutes for 45 Israeli was incorrect; maybe the time scale and levels of inefficiency were actually more similar than we had thought…they were just opposite types of inefficiency. In the case of Sinai things just didn’t get done very fast; in Israel things got done, but there was so much bureaucratic craziness that even though it was all getting done, nothing else was.

I just kept thinking about how weird it is to have left one country, but not yet entered the next…waiting in line in a kind of geo-political nowhere.

Me in a 'taxi' leaving Dahab.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As seen from my bedroom window...

Where am I? Do I really live here?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tel Aviv'n

Don't get me wrong, I love the desert. However, sometimes it's also nice to...y'know...go to a restaurant, or have a beer on the beach, or just be in a crowded place.

I was feeling a little stir crazy last week, so yesterday, I spent the day in Tel Aviv. I went to the Jordainian embassy and the bouldering gym [oh, how I do miss rock climbing!], ran some other errands that require a certain degree of urbanity, and met my friend Zoe for a beer at an outdoor cafe/bar on the Mediterranean. The weather was perfect, the beer was cold, the people were tan and beautiful, and the view was amazing. The beach in Tel Aviv is an easy place to love...

Traveling in Israel is a unique experience. Here are two things that happened yesterday, both of which, although very common occurrences here, might not seem so normal least not where I come from.

#1 Israeli guys are forward...very forward.

Bus ride from Tel Aviv to Be'er Sheva.

There's a guy sitting beside me...Israeli, mid to late 20s, doesn't speak hardly any English. We kindof chit chat for a few minutes [it's not easy considering the combined state of my Hebrew and his English] and then, he invites me to come visit him in Dimona, where he lives. I thank him for the invitation [thinking to myself...the only thing I know about Dimona is that there is a nuclear reactor there. Go figure, this story was in the news today.] I must not have seemed interested enough, so he began making more concrete plans. He explained that it would be best if I came this Thursday...I could stay with him Thursday night, have Friday dinner with him and his parents for Shabbat, and then we could go to the Dead Sea on Saturday. His friend runs a hotel, he told me, so we could stay there.

Woah...wait a minute...let me get this straight...we met maybe 15 minutes ago and can barely communicate with each other. Your pick-up line isn't...'can I get your number' but rather 'do you want to spend the weekend with me and have dinner with my parents?' Yikes.

At this point, I didn't really know what to say; I just [sortof awkwardly] thanked him again for the invitation, but told him I didn't think I could make it this weekend. And then...he went on. 'You need job in Israel?' 'What?' 'Work. You need work?' I told him that I actually already had a job here, at which point he let me know that he could get me a job at his friend's hotel at the Dead Sea and I could 'stay in Israel forever.' I had, he assured me, 'met the right guy.'

See what I mean? Forward...also incredibly helpful and welcoming...but really really forward...

#2 Racial profiling is totally normal, and apparently not a big deal.

Full bus on the ride from Be'er Sheva to Tel Aviv.

Bus pulls into the Cental Bus Station; security guard flags down the bus and climbs on board. He walks up and down the aisle and over to the two kids sitting in the seats behind me. The kids happend to be Arab guys, maybe 18 or 19 years old. The security guard demands to see their tickets, which they show him; then, without saying a word to any one else on the bus, the security guard leaves.

No one, including the two Arab guys, seemed the least bit surprised or annoyed. Just a normal part of life, I guess.

I was trying to imaging what would happen if I were on an American bus filled with mostly white people and two black kids...and if a white cop randomly got on the bus for no reason and demanded that the two black kids show their tickets. Obviously the reaction would depend on where the bus was. I'm pretty sure that in Philly there would be some vocalized attitude, at the very least. I hope that in Cambridge, people would at least take note.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Life Update

Since I’ve been in Israel a little over a month, I figured it was time for a general update -- something that wasn’t just travel snapshots.

In general, things are going well. I’ve met a lot of nice people here and I’m starting to make some progress on my project. I also do feel like I’m getting some sort of meditative soul-searching benefits from all of this time out in the desert. Below are just some unrelated thoughts about my life in Israel that may or may not be interesting.

Things I haven't gotten used to:

Ibex. Yesterday I went outside and there was, literally, a heard of Ibex standing across the street from me. An ibex, for those of you who don’t know, looks something like a cross between a small deer and a ram; many of them live around here -- mostly in the valley – but come up to the Midrasha to look for food because it is so dry right now. They are a quite common sight around here, but they still take me by surprise every time I see them. I think it’s because of their horns – which are spectacular – and their familiarity with people. You can get very close to them before they spook. The other day I went for a walk at dusk along the cliff edge. I walked down a ways and as I was on my way back up, I walked over a small rise and into a group of at least 25 of them. I turned around, and from in the midst of the heard, looked out over the amazing view below.

It’s okay to talk politics…all the time…even if you offend people. Perhaps one of the most striking ways you know you are in Israel and not the U.S. is that people talk politics and religion a lot [it’s impossible to separate the two in a place like this] -- in public, at the dinner table, with their friends, with their boss, with people they just met. Unlike in the U.S., no one seems overly concerned about offending people; “political correctness” is not a virtue. As far as I can tell, when there is a disagreement [as is often the case] it’s not a big deal. [At the risk of over-generalizing] Israelis seem to have an uncanny ability to separate political discussions from personal relationships. I guess, when you live in a place like this, you don’t have much choice.

This interest in talking about issues is, oddly coupled with a strange distance between political happenings and daily life. When I was in Israel the first time I recognized that Tel Aviv was a bubble – a place where hedonism reigned supreme and it was surprisingly easy to avoid seeing evidence of the things you read about in the newspaper. [A very visible exception was the recent hate crime against a member of Tel Aviv’s gay community.] Then, I came to Sde Boker…which is also a bubble. It’s isolated, the people are left-wing and overly educated, there aren’t really any visible signs of racial tension or political discord…life is pretty good; people are happy; they get along. Then I went to Lotan…which is also a bubble; Ketura as well. From what I remember Eilat was also a bubble…and Nitzanim; certainly the Kinnaret…and the kibbutz nearby here. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re Jewish and you hang out with other Jews, it’s pretty easy to avoid seeing evidence of the things you read about in the news no matter where you go; in fact, surprisingly, it requires some concerted effort to see what’s going on.

Shabbat. Despite my being Jewish, I have not adjusted to the idea that Sunday is a work day. I guess the days of the week are just one of those things that are pretty ingrained into one’s psyche. Not that it really has any effect on anything, but for me the week still starts on Monday and the weekend is Saturday-Sunday [as opposed to Friday-Saturday]. Also, I mean, I know it’s a holy day and all…and I know that the rabbinate controls a fair amount of things in this country [marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut certification, the bus schedule…] but no public transportation from Friday afternoon to Saturday night? Seriously?

This country is really small. You can get anywhere in a matter of hours and often you get this sense that everyone knows each other somehow. Combine that with a Jewish tribal mentality [“kulanu yehudim!”] and it makes for absolutely fantastic networking. But, as often happens to me when I travel, I am reminded of how special the American West is – the way you can drive for days through amazingly beautiful and barely populated country.

The Israeli idea of democracy – i.e. the notion that a state can be both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Living here, I feel very aware of my American-ness – of certain ideological biases that I have, as a result of growing up in the U.S. Now, I know it’s trendy among ex-pats to bitch about the U.S. and I’m not at all saying that our country doesn’t have major issues [which it does] or that there aren’t things to improve [which there certainly are]…but I have to say, I’ve never been such a defender of the basic tenants on which the U.S. government was founded as I am now that I live in the Middle East.

For example, the idea that Israel could be both a “Jewish” and a “democratic” state makes no sense to me. Now, I know that “democracy” does not, on its own, imply “for everyone,” and obviously early American interpretations of “liberty and justice for all” were…um…not particularly inclusive. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that today, most Americans agree that “for all” really should mean for everyone…and when it doesn’t, that’s a problem. That’s very very different than believing “for all” should mean “all Jews.” And of course, the complexity of defining who is and who is not a Jew, only make reconciling “Jewish State” with “democracy” that much more difficult. If you treat Judaism as a religion – a tradition one can adopt – then you’ve got an institutionalized preference for one religious belief system over another…which…with my American biases…is difficult to get behind. However, if you treat Jewish as an ethnicity then you’ve got and institutionalized form of racial discrimination…whic isn’t any easier to stomach then a unification of church and state. Since the government, in my understanding, views Judaism as a tradition encompassing both religion and ethnicity, it’s…well...complicated. Anyway, the point of this was not to critique the Israeli system, but rather to illustrate how ingrained my own American ideological biases are. Fortunately for me, I think that if one has to have ingrained biases, one could do worse than the American variety.

Things I miss:

Aside from people, the list is actually pretty short. And I think most of the things I'm going to mention are less a factor of my being in Israel, and more a factor of where, specifically, in Israel I am [i.e. a remote settlement in the Negev]. In general, I really love being in the desert in the middle of nowhere, but there are a few things I would change, if I could.

Rock climbing. This probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this, but I really miss rock climbing…a lot. There are, rumor has it, places to climb in the North, but without a car (or climbers who know the area) they feel very inaccessible. It’s also kindof too hot right now for climbing outside. There are climbing gyms in Israel, but they are far away from where I am…and they are nowhere near as nice as CRG or Metro. And it’s not just the climbing I miss, it’s the scene…the other climbers…my people…

A gym. As if it weren’t bad enough that there isn’t a climbing gym…there also isn’t a regular gym. Which, I’ll admit, is driving me a bit crazy. I really don’t think that I’m that high maintenance, but there are, apparently, certain things that I really don’t want to live without and a gym is one of them. There is a pool here, which is awesome…and I’ve been trying to do a sort of modified cross fit to stay in some semblance of decent shape. Check it out:

A nice coffee shop…to go, have a really good cup of coffee, and just sit and talk or read or write or whatever. Let me just add that in general the coffee in Israel is really good and in Tel Aviv there are tons of cool coffee shops. We just don’t have any here in Sde Boker, which is unfortunate. There is one place that’s like a cafeteria; they do have outside tables, but they serve instant coffee and it’s really not the same kind of atmosphere.

Take-out Ethnic food. I know, I’m spoiled from living in the city. Israeli food is great. And the quality of food here is amazing – the fresh produce and fantastic dairy products. (It’s a good reminder of how crappy our institutionalized and over-processed American food industry is.) However, it’s nice to be able to order Thai food to go, or Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Tibetan…or just burritos. Also, I have to say, Goldstar, the most popular Israeli beer, is just alright. I’m sorry, but it’s no Rogue Dead Guy or Hazelnut Brown.

I also really miss the MIT and Harvard libraries, but I guess this one really has nothing to do with my being in Israel. I mean, even if I were still in Cambridge I would no longer have access. I think I sortof didn’t realize how spoiled I got over the last few years…having access to basically any intellectual material ever printed. When did Google say they’re going to be done digitizing everything? 300 years?

Things that are surprisingly difficult and/or time consuming:

Shopping for dairy products without knowing Hebrew. This is actually the only time when I really feel the language barrier. There are too many options in too many different containers with too few clues as to what is inside. Often I just end up picking something; thankfully, most of it is really good.

Reading the news. In the U.S. I usually just scan the headlines in the NY Times and call it a day. But here, I feel like it’s really important [and interesting] to keep up on the more local news…most of which isn’t covered [or at least not in any detail] in the American media. So…I get up and read the NY Times site, then I look at Ha-aretz, the popular left-wing Israeli paper. In general I find the coverage in Ha-aretz pretty terrible and I just read it to keep track of what Ha-aretz is reporting on. So, after reading Ha-aretz, I read Aljazeera-English, which is actually really good. However, the process takes a while.

Traveling across borders and/or on the weekends. In general, traveling in Israel is really easy and convenient. Public buses go nearly everywhere [except rock climbing destinations]; they are dependable and cheap. However, since they don’t operate on Shabbat, traveling on the weekends requires some advanced planning. Also, despite the insanely small distances, if there are political borders in between you and your destination, it is very difficult to predict how long it will take to get there. For example, I am in the midst of planning a climbing trip in Jordan with another American who is living in Amman. As the crow flies [or by American driving standards], Amman really isn’t that far from me [about 90 miles]. However, since there are only 3 border crossings between Israel and Jordan, getting their either involves traveling to Eilat [going 3 hours south, in order to go 5 hours north], to Beit She’an [going 5 hours north-ish to go 1 hour south], or crossing through the West Bank and over the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge [indeterminate travel time]. Have you ever been to Vermont and heard someone say ‘you can’t get there from here’? It’s like that…only worse. [If you ask Google Maps for directions, you get a message that says ‘We could not calculate directions between Sde Boker, Israel and Amman, Jordan.’] I’m still going to go, I think. It promises to be an adventure, at the very least.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The West Bank

Warning: This is a long post.

Disclaimer: The events described below didn’t actually happen.

As my funding from MIT stipulates that I heed the U.S. State Department warning, and avoid Gaza and the West Bank, what you’re about to read is not a recounting of my weekend, but rather, a fictional account of what could have happened to two MIT students who were curious about seeing life in the occupied territories first-hand.

That said…

This past weekend, I went to Ramallah and Bethlehem with a friend of mine from MIT. It’s a trip I’ve been thinking about for a while – since I was in Israel last March. On that trip, sponsored by Birthright, I was presented with a pretty one-sided view of the situation here and I really felt like it was a matter of responsibility to try to even out my sources of information. Sifting though the incredibly biased media pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a start, but I wanted to see something first-hand.

I’ll admit…I was a little nervous. Although I talked to several people who had been in both Ramallah and Bethlehem – all of whom said traveling there was fine – I would say the majority opinion [amongst Israelis and foreign-born Jews living in Israel] is that it’s a terrible idea to go…that people get kidnapped…that it’s like a war zone…etc. [Keep in mind that Israeli passport holders aren’t, by law, allowed to go…so their impression of life in the West Bank comes more from hearsay and the Israeli media than from first-hand experience. After going there…it’s not hard to get the feeling that the fear-inspiring media is an intentional tactic to prevent people from seeing the reality of the situation…but that’s another story.]

I was also shocked at how easy the traveling was. Basically, I took a bus to Beer Sheva and met my friend; we both took a bus to Jerusalem, walked to the Damascus Gate of the Old City [East Jerusalem], paid 6 shekels, and got on bus number 18, which dropped us off 15 minutes later in Ramallah. Done. Most things were closed that afternoon, since it was Friday [I still can’t get over how the three monotheistic religions have three different days of rest] so we basically just found a place to stay, wandered around the city for a while, ate some dinner, and hung out in a cafĂ©, talking and observing an impromptu dance party that erupted around us.

On the street in Ramallah.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I was surprised. Ramallah was pretty nice, I thought…and life seemed relatively normal inside the city. I guess what surprised me the most was how ridiculously nice everyone was. Everywhere we went, people seemed genuinely excited to see, and talk to, and help out American tourists [I got the feeling that we were a bit of a rarity]. Coming from New England, it seemed…well…bizarre. We were offered rides, directions, advice on what to do, restaurant recommendations, free food, invitations to stay in people’s homes, phone numbers to call next time we were in the area, and most importantly…personal stories. I felt like more than anything else, the people that we met and talked to just wanted to tell their stories…to let us know what their lives were like, and to give us a glimpse into another perspective on the situation here. It probably didn’t hurt that we were a very eager audience.

The souq, Ramallah.

An example…

Saturday morning after eating some breakfast we ended up at the souq, where we ducked into a store with the intent of purchasing a keffiyeh [I know…I know…we sound like stereotypical left-wing Western tourists…guilty as charged.] Anyway, turns out that the guy working at the store studied political science at Marquette [which is, coincidentally, where my mom teaches.] We ended up talking with him for more than an hour about his participation in the First and Second Intifadas, the difficulties of commuting between Ramallah and his home [which takes somewhere between 10 minutes and 7 hours, depending on the unpredictable security at the checkpoint between the two locations], his take on Fatah and Hamas [he’s not a huge fan of either], his disappointment that his kids have never seen a swimming pool or a swing set, and why -- despite everything -- he’ll never leave Palestine. He gave us his number…telling us to call if we ever come back to Ramallah…that he’ll put us up and show us around. And after all of that, he wouldn’t even let us pay for the keffiyet.

I didn’t then…nor do I now…know what to say about what he told us.

We were advised on the "trendy" way to wear a keffiyeh.

Getting from Ramallah to Bethlehem was relatively easy for us, with our U.S. passports. We took a bus back to Jerusalem [which stops at the border…you get out, walk through a security check, get back on the bus], then another bus to Beit Jalla and walked to Bethlehem. [We were advised to do it this way…in order to avoid passing through an additional checkpoint.] In Bethlehem, we were particularly interested to see some of Bansky’s work and also to get an up-close-and-personal view of the wall. I know that this is a weird sort of tourism…it’s kindof sick, actually…to want to go somewhere in order to see such a divisive thing as the “separation barrier” / “security fence” / “apartheid wall” – even its name(s) is controversial.

Anyway, on our search for political graffiti we happened to walk past the Intercontinental Hotel which is, from the outside, a beautiful stone building. Having heard about how fancy it was on the inside, we thought we’d try to go in and have a look around. What happened next was one of the most surreal travel experiences I’ve ever had.

Let me say a few things first, before I continue the story. First of all, I felt like we’d done our homework before going to the West Bank. I heard that it could be dangerous and so I’d been reading the news quite carefully for a few weeks before hand – looking for any sign of protests or other potentially dangerous situations. In general, things seemed relatively stable; the only potentially questionable thing over the weekend was, of course, the Fatah congress meeting. Now, I knew that the meeting had been extended…that it was going on in Bethlehem while we were there. What I didn’t know was exactly where. Second, we did notice that as we were walking down the street towards the hotel there did seem to be an awful lot of security…I mean a lot of security…even by Middle East standards. But we’d never been in the West Bank before and had nothing to compare it to. Given the standard level of security in Israel [think American airport, but with a lot more military and bigger guns…everywhere, all the time] it seemed entirely possible that in Bethlehem, a city under military occupation, it might be normal for there to be soldiers with AK-47s, police, and private bodyguards…everywhere.

Gardens at the Intercontinental Hotel, Bethlehem.

Back to the story. So we walk past all sorts of armed guards, into the hotel, and up to the front desk as if it was no big deal. We told a guy at the desk that the hotel was gorgeous and we wanted to have a look around, if that was okay. He said of course…and began showing us around the lobby, giving us a brief history of the place. Our tour continued, taking us into a beautiful courtyard, where a number of very important-looking men were sitting around several small tables, talking, smoking, and drinking coffee. Suddenly very curious about exactly what we had just walked into, I asked our tour guide if this level of security was normal at a hotel like the Intercontinental. He just looked at me for a minute, confused, and asked “don’t you know what’s going on here?” We, the stereotypical clueless American tourists, looked at each other, then around the room, then back at each other. “Um…no?” I said, suddenly very aware of how dumb I must have looked. “This is the meeting of the Fatah congress…first meeting in 20 years.”

Right-O…the Fatah congress…here…in this room…right now. WHAT?!

Our tour guide apologized profusely as he excused himself. He said he would have loved to show us around some more, but it was a very busy day at the Intercontinental.

We continued to walk around for a while on our own…wondering to ourselves whether this historical event -- that we were somehow accidentally in the middle of -- was more like a political party national convention or a meeting of mafia bosses. Either way, we decided, it was more exciting than a lot of things we could be doing on a Saturday afternoon. We also, after some time, decided that if anything scary were going to happen in the West Bank over that particular weekend, it was definitely going to happen right there…in the lobby of the Intercontinental. On that note we decided to conclude our hotel tour and continue our search for Bansky.

The separation barrier.

After seeing the wall and some graffiti, we decided that since we were in Bethlehem…we should probably go check out the Nativity church -- you know, the one where Jesus was born. We hailed a taxi and the driver, Ishmael, dropped us off at a check point a few blocks away from Manger Square [yes, it’s really called Manger Square.] We walked up hill and into the plaza in front of the church. Never in my life have I seen so much security – Palestinian Authority soldiers, military police, regular cops, non-uniformed security guards, snipers on the roofs of the surrounding buildings…plus press vans with satellite dishes, camera crews, and broadcasters…everywhere. My friend and I were with it enough to figure that something was probably going on, but we were a little confused…I mean, we’d just come from the Fatah congress meeting – the big gig in town. What could all of this commotion be about?

Well, we figured we’d come to see JC’s birthplace, and no one was stopping us, so we walked across the plaza and over to the church. Things seemed very closed and after talking with a nice man from the Franciscan Center for Pilgrims we found out that we had arrived 4 minutes after closing time. My friend drove a tough bargain trying to get us in, but apparently rules are rules, at least at the Nativity Church, and so we had to make due with seeing the church from the outside. After a few minutes of looking at the church from outside we got distracted by all the security and decided to try to find out what was going on. On our walk back to the plaza a police officer came to talk to us – collecting survey data about how we’d gotten to Bethlehem – and I took that as an opportunity to ask him what all the commotion was about. Again, pause…confused look…[oblivious tourists! de ja vu all over again!]…then a friendly explanation: “Well, the Fatah congress meeting is going on at the Bethlehem Center for Peace” which happens to be right next to the Nativity Church. “Oh” we said… “we thought that was happening at the Intercontinental Hotel.” “No, no” said the officer. “That’s where the Old guard is meeting. All the young people are meeting here.”

Cool. We quickly recalculated…turns out if something was going to get out of hand it in the West Bank this weekend the most likely spot wouldn’t be the Intercontinental Hotel afterall…it would be Manger Square.

Looking up from Manger Square.

Well, we debated for a moment what to do next. Get back to Jerusalem before dark? Go home? And then, we decided what the hell, we’d have a cup of tea at the Bethlehem Center for Peace. Might as well…we were already there. Tea with na-na [mint] it was, and we spent the next hour or so sitting amongst Fatah’s young guard, compiling our collective knowledge of Fatah, Arafat, Hamas, and the congress proceedings, wishing we had access to the internet [where was the iphone when you needed it?] and wondering how we could have possibly ended up somewhere we so didn’t belong.

In a moment of brazenness, we decided our current location afforded us such a unique opportunity to learn about Fatah, that we couldn’t possibly pass it up. We had to talk to someone. There was, at the next table over, a guy who had been sortof trying to get my attention [okay, so there are some perks to being female] and so we figured he was a good candidate [we couldn’t have been more right]. He turned out to be a documentary film-maker who was at the convention interviewing people for a new project. He gave us a overview of his take on the history of Fatah, the “universal” popularity of Arafat, the source of conflict between Fatah and Hamas [Fatah’s willingness to recognize and negotiate with Israel], the problems with Hamas in Gaza [they can’t deliver the social improvements they promised because nearly all of Gaza’s resources have been cut off -- European and American governments won’t give foreign aid to “terrorists”], the elections that were in progress upstairs, and the future of the party that was being debated before our very eyes.


We thought about hanging around for the press conference [also at the Center for Peace] where the election results were going to be announced, but eventually decided maybe we had pushed our luck enough…maybe it was time we headed back to Jerusalem. [Turns out this was a good call on our part as the announcement of election results was postponed until the following morning.]

So, we called up Ishmael [our cab driver from earlier on] and he said he’d come pick us up at the check point. He arrived shortly after [leaving us a few minutes to chit chat with the soldiers] and drove us to the border, where we were herded through a dizzying series of steel walkways, metal detectors, and one-way gates. Luckily, flashing our American passports eased the process and before too long we were back in Israel, in another cab, heading for Jerusalem’s central bus station.

For a few more photos from the West Bank, click here.

Since I got back, I've been trying to read up on the conference, to try to figure out exactly what was going on there.

This video clip gave, i thought, some pretty good background info on the party.

All in all, the New York Times seems pretty optimistic about the situation [see here]; not surprisingly, the Israeli media is less so [see here].

Work Update

This post is for those of you wondering: ‘what is she actually doing over there?’

As I mentioned in a previous post, this past spring, I received a grant from the MISTI-Israel Program and the Sloan Business School to come to Israel to do research on the use of renewable energy technologies in architecture in extreme environments. I’m currently in residence at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research in Sde Boker, a hotspot for interdisciplinary environmental research pertaining specifically to the desert.

As all of you who have done any sort of research know, “the use of renewable energy technologies in architecture in extreme environments” is not a particularly focused research topic. Needless to say, once I got here, there was some…refining to be done.

I purposefully wanted to leave things open until I got here, and had a chance to look around, meet with a bunch of people, and get a sense of what type of work was going on here. My personal objective in coming to Sde Boker was really just to try to learn something about what kind of environmentally-oriented design strategies were being used in the Negev, and to see how the idea of sustainability was being dealt with amongst the architects here. I was, in other words, quite flexible about what the specifics of my ‘research’ should be.

After spending some time here, meeting with a lot of people, and noticing a few opportunities that seemed too good to pass up, I put together an [unsolicited] project proposal. The basic idea is to work with PhD student Nora Huberman-Meraiot [who is currently developing a digital energy modeling framework that combines simulations of operational energy use with an embodied energy analysis] to design a new library in Lotan, a kibbutz located in the Arava Valley [about 2 hours south of Sde Boker]. The aim of the project is to try to investigate how energy simulation data can be incorporated into a design process. We are also collaborating with Alex Cicelsky, from the Center for Creative Ecology in Lotan.

The objectives, as stated in the project proposal:

1. To design new library for Lotan’s Bustan [neighborhood].

The design approach and final product should account for Kibbutz Lotan’s extremely arid climate, community needs, and available resources. Additionally, the project will aim to learn from and contribute to an understanding of local building systems.

2. To outline a design process that takes, as its starting point, the goal of minimizing energy used in the construction and operation of the building.

Nora Huberman-Meraiot’s doctoral research will be used as a guiding framework. Huberman-Meraiot offers a “complex energy-based optimization framework…[that uses] computer aided tools for design, analysis and predictions.” Her stated research objective is to “minimize the use of high embodied-energy building materials and their effect on the whole life energy consumption, while satisfying mandatory national building code performance requirements - in terms of permitted building materials, technologies, structural reliability, and serviceability.” This design project may be seen as a test case for her optimization framework.

3. To contribute to the contemporary discourse on “sustainable” design.

The project will attempt to demonstrate how an embodied energy analysis [in addition to a prediction of energy performance] can be the starting point for, and the generator of, innovative design ideas.

I figured, any new project needs a logo. I'm still working on a title...