Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel Chronicles: The Israel Pensieve

Lingering thoughts about Israel (before I forget)!

1.Food: Vegetarian food is lovely, especially if you like Hummus, Pita, Babaganoush et al. Too many chickpeas consumed for all meals may have repercussions on a non iron-clad stomach.
The Arab-Palestine veg food is brightly colored especially cauliflowers. A bright lurid pink that one usually spots on bougainvillea shrubs is typically the preferred color for cauliflower stuffing in the falafels. The Israeli Jews have a couple of veg dishes as well. One must-try is the 'Latke'.
If you can imagine potato pancakes served with vegetables you are spot on. If you can't, imagine a south-indian potato bhajji instead, served with sour cream and vegetables on the side... yeah, you've got it. If you still can't imagine how it tastes, visit Jerusalem. Both Israeli Jews and Arabs are liberal with salads and olives in their food. Considering they are all slim and tall, the food is probably worth emulating!

2. Black Jerusalem: The color black hits your eye the moment you step onto the streets, be it near the Walled city or even a modern Mamilla Mall or distant Masada.
Both Jews and Muslims wear the color black - black skirts, black burquas, black overcoats, black shoes.... it is ubiquitous. One morning TP and I had ventured into Mea Shearim (of 'Acts of Faith' fame), an area where very Orthodox Jews live. We thought we had dressed in conservative clothes, in our long printed skirts and full sleeved kurtas and scarves. Needless to say, we stood out like a still in Kill Bill...bold splashes of color in the black and white surroundings!

3. India: Always knew that Gandhi had a greater following in the world outside India, but Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachan are almost as big as Gandhi! Have heard 'Dil to Pagal Hai' being whistled, 'Eechak Dana' being sung and was even asked to visit a shopkeeper's old dorm in Aligarh University! Announcing that you are Indian also brings many curious questions about availability of Bhole baba's prasad and sly questions about how to source if I'd tell even if I knew. Huh.

4. Politics: All Israelis LOVE to talk about politics... it is almost comical to see the heated discussions, the angry gestures and the strong points of view.
I definitely recommend talking to the common man on the street about his opinion on how the Israel - Palestine conflict ought to be resolved... some of the thoughts are visionary. The conflict has been going on for so long (since 1948) that people have almost resigned to a lack of resolution (any thoughts on the LoC at Kashmir? Especially regarding PoK?) There are strong views, heart-rending personal stories, but still no resolution. Not a happy thought.

5. Surroundings: Some parts of Israel, especially parts of West Jerusalem and Dead Sea public beach area, reminds one of India. Not very clean, people spitting on the roads and arguing loudly. Whereas other parts of Israel - more modern areas of Jerusalem, parts of Nablus and the touristy Masada were spic and span, an example of how we could showcase our rich history. Israel is a bit like the western counties, a bit like Middle East, a bit like India, a bit like nowhere else....overall very hospitable, very travel-friendly and extremely memorable.

8. Pride in Nation:
Most Israelis / Palestinians I spoke to, had a strong sense of their identity, a sense of belonging... love for the land.Some were fanatic, Nationalists to the point of being jingoistic, but most were moderate, just happy to be Israeli, happy to have such a rich cultural heritage. The sense of patriotism combined with the constant presence of soldiers does make one feel the 'Israeliness' in the air. Not just in Jerusalem, all over Israel. Definitely Indians are more reserved in their display of patriotism (I don't doubt the feeling, just the expression).I don't know if we need to shout out our Indianness, but it is worth considering.

7. Prayers:
In Israel, someone is always praying... a church's tolling bells, a muezzin reminding you to bow to God, a bunch of Jews in a synagogue bowing back and forth in prayer, someone telling their beads, a taquiyah (skull cap), a tzitzit (religious shawl), a Bibile, a Koran or the Siddur (Jewish daily prayer book).I am sure if I'd been observant enough I'd've even spotted a Jedi Knight! It is impossible to not reflect upon one's relationship with the Big One up there.

To sum it up, the tagline for travel to Israel said it all.... "Visit Israel, you'll never be the same".

ps: The end of my Israel account. :)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Israel Chronicles: P.A.L.E.S.T.I.N.E. - The West Bank story

On Day 4, TP and I fulfilled our long time secret desire of traveling to Palestine when we visited Nablus in West Bank(Palestinian Authority). We were part of a guided tour with a company called 'Alternate Tours' (managed by Abu Hassan).We highly recommend him and the tour company.

To give a brief background, Nablus is an olive-rich PA territory, famous for its Olive soaps, communal ovens and Kunafeh. It also gained notoriety as the hub of the second Intifada, early last decade and ever since has been under strict Israeli (Jewish) control. Our tour group consisted of 12 people - 2 Spaniards doing social work in Ramallah, 8 trade unionists from Norway (who had broken off their ties with an Israeli trade Union and were doing a recce of Nablus to decide if they wanted to affiliate with them) and my TP and I(2 Indians, with sketchy knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian politics, but high on enthusiasm).

Our first stop was at Balata.
A UN refugee camp established in the 1950's,it resembles the dense living conditions of Dharavi in Bombay.We had the opportunity to interact with the community centre head (an American of Palestinian origin)who spoke about the multitude of problems facing Balata, from lack of civic amenities, to lack of job opportunities and lack of space, all leading to a spiral of depression, anger and finally organized violence.
We walked around camp through alleys that barely let us walk in single file, past toilets that were stinking due to water shortage,past vegetable vendors, haggling women,thoughtful old men fresh-faced teenagers furiously typing away on their laptops, old ramshackle cars,
girls playing football…(yes, you read right) GIRLS playing football and young boys discussing the latest football game (it was an Arsenal – Munich Bayern one I think!).The westerners with us were shocked at the living conditions, the two of us Indians were heartened by the indomitable spirit visible in abundance.Every street corner had pictures of martyrs who were killed in their struggle for a free Palestine by the Israeli army. Oh, how common it is to the country- Arab or Jew - to honor their dead and remember their names and faces.

Our tour group then met the Mayor of Nablus (what an honor, what a wonderful insight into Palestinian politics). The building was very similar to any Indian beaurocratic building (not surprising considering Palestine was a British Mandate).
We waited in a conference room which had several pictures, of previous Mayors dating all the way back to the late 1800s! The mayor, bustling with energy and enthusiasm swept into the room a few minutes later. He was interested in understanding our ‘outside’ perspective of Palestine's issues. Palestinian cities have twin cities all over the world, with Stavanger, Norway being a twin to Nablus. Nablus's mayor shared his plans to invite Stavanger's Mayor and some school children on a cultural-exchange program.

The Mayor talked about the current peace process, Norway's role and narrated some ground-level realities that sent chills up my spine.
Israeli settlers (Jews from anywhere in the world) are paid to ‘settle’(or squat) on Palestinian land and practise the Jewish way of life. Adequate comfort is provided through generator sets and borewells, and security through military presence. Palestinian land is encroached upon by building fences and ‘declared’ the property of the Jewish settler there. Woe betide any Palestinian who decides to contest this hostile takeover… he could spend his fortune in a legal process and his life in jail. If settlers refuse to ‘settle’ in these lands, and the land happens to be too close to the Israeli border (decided by the Israelis), the land could be declared ‘no-man’s zone’.

Recently (just a couple of days before we visited Nablus), an Israeli settler’s 4 year old kid had been killed.
Immediately several Palestinians had been rounded up, put in jails, their families traumatized, road blocks established around Nablus, Balata’s water supply cut off for 3 days and yet,no confessions. Finally the murderer turned out to be a Thai migrant worker who wanted to return to Thailand (against his Israeli employer’s wishes) and wanted his salary (due to him for over 6 months). On being refused time and again, he lost his marbles (when his kid lost his life back home due to lack of funds)and in an act of revenge, he killed his employer’s child. And so many Palestinians wronged!

The Mayor said something that still resonates in my ears. He said “I only own the land I stand on. If I want to buy my neighbor’s house, I have to take permission (from the Israelis). If I want to build an extra storey for my newly married son,
I have to take permission (from the Israelis).If I want to dig the ground for water to feed my newborn, I have to take permission (from the Israelis).” The Mayor was hopeful about change in the near future. All Palestinians were. All Palestinians are. When you hit rock-bottom, there is no way but up, ain’t it? He talked about the power of youth and Facebook, and how Egyptian youngsters had harnessed the power of the internet for a good cause. He expressed hope for a ‘Final Settlement’ in Obama's tenure(ah,the man of ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’!)

We walked around the market later.
The market is a traditional Arab souk. Long winding alleys, smiling men in the their traditional kaffiyehs, selling everything from headscarves to spices to hardware equipment... and curious about the non-Caucasian tourist women! 2 brown-skinned women with Indian features can probably pass off as Arabs…the moment we proclaimed we were Indian, it would be greeted with smiles and claps and loud cheers, sometimes extolling Gandhi (do you remember him?), sometimes Amitabh Bachhan, sometimes SRK, and surprise, sometimes Shahid Kapoor!
We had men gallantly singing “Abhi na jao chodke” to “Yeh chand sa roshan chehra” to “Dil to pagal hai”! Yet, we NEVER felt unsafe, never felt harassed. I think Indian men could learn from Palestinians how to be chivalrous and walk the tough line of being pleasantly charming, never flirtatious or annoying. We sampled the world-famous Nabulsi Kunafeh, a lovely dish made of cheese that just melts in your mouth. Bought some scarves (how could we not!), olive soap and zatar(an ingredient in several Lebanese hung-curd based dishes).

My hotel manager (a LOVELY guy called Sammy) hails from a place near Nablus. When he saw our gift of a plate of original Nabulsi Kunafeh he almost kissed us(no he didn’t though!). He said something that shocked us.
He hasn’t been to Nablus in over twenty years and hasn’t met his relatives there in all that time. He said that no matter how tasty the kunafeh in Jerusalem is, it isn’t Nabulsi and could never be authentic! He said it was probably easier to visit the North Pole than Nablus! The (American)community centre manager in Balata had talked about entry barriers too and I hadn’t believed him then. Any American / Canadian of Palestinian origin cannot just decide to visit his relatives – he might be sent back at the airport itself(no immigration clearance). If he landed in Amman, Jordan, then at the Jordanian-Israeli border(so close, yet so far).
In fact, Israeli roads are built in the West Bank area with so many check posts that traffic could halt sometimes for days on end.Villages that would barely take 20 minutes by road could take over 8 hours due to checkpost clearances and round-about travel routes.In contrast, a Jew could declare his religion in Greenland or Pluto for that matter, and an El Al ticket and Isareli citizenship is guaranteed and the country open to him for travel and living. Such disparity based on religion in today's time and age is upsetting.

My take at the end of the trip? I think the Western media has got it all WRONG. I think more than half the world has got it wrong. At a political level, the Palestinian land belongs to the Arabs too.
The Israelis are doing unto the Palestinians the injustices that were wrought onto them - first by getting the Palestinians into today's ghettos (by imposing rules in PA cities) and then possibly by ousting them out of their country.My fervent prayers for peace to prevail. At a social level, I hope for better understanding of the Arab culture by the Westerners.
They are just as fun loving and courteous and polite as a Malaysian or Chinese or Japanese or Canadian.And large hearted.Arab women do hold positions of power, play soccer, use MAC lipsticks, wear designer shoes and swoon over Bradley Cooper.So there!The world would be a better place with more understanding and open-mindedness for diversity, ain't it?

Moral of the story: Hope reigns supreme. The defining picture of my visit to West Bank is this one -

a lovely green shrub smiling at the world,enjoying the sun,despite growing in a stone building....reflective of its caretakers, its country. Despite all the violence and political unrest, the hope and love in the country is incredible. A must visit.