Thursday, April 1, 2010

Moving Day

'Elsewhere' has moved, well, elsewhere.

I decided to move my blog to Wordpress. All my previous blogspot postings, comments and photos have already been packed up and moved over. I hope you come visit at my new digs.

The new site is here:

See you there,

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The City and the Dogs

I found a wonderful article on the Huffington Post today. The posting is from the blog of Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit that works to examine issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within Jerusalem. When I was last in Jerusalem, I took a tour of East Jerusalem with Ir Amim.

The author of this story, Yizhar Be'er, writes about cheerful murals that decorate walls in East Jerusalem, what they say about the conflict and, especially, what they hide. It is a fascinating report with some compelling images. The link is here, but I've included the story it in its entirety below.

The City and the Dogs: A Psychedelic Tour through Jerusalem's More Peculiar Districts

A Special Report by Yizhar Be'er

You have to see it to believe it. The photographs that appear here document the murals that stretch dozens of meters down the length of the road that leads from the neighborhood of Silwan -- that is, the City of David -- along the Eastern Wall of the Old City on the way to Dung Gate. The murals decorate a wall that conceals one of the ugliest and conflicted corners of the world. Similar murals can be seen along the border between the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Jalla during the days of firing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem during the second intifada. I saw murals like these in Belfast, when the Civil War of Northern Ireland was still playing out on the streets and in the pubs. But the skirmishes there are long over, so whoever is looking for such insanity now has to come here, for here you can find it in abundance; especially in the City of David -- that is, Silwan--the place where, as they say, it all began.

Whoever looks at these murals -- pop art-style oil paintings in a style that's gleaming, crisp, and crisp, like the industrial paintings of Andy Warhol -- sees an image that doesn't exist in reality, but may be led to believe depicts the city of Jerusalem. The greatest enemy of knowledge, the mathematician Stephen Hawking once said, is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. These murals present a reality that is imaginary, illusory, and utterly alienated from the darkness and treachery that is being conducted beneath and atop the very grounds of the holy basin of the Old City.

Exhibit A:

The hills of this imaginary Jerusalem are grassy and green and carry the symbols of Jewish sovereignty: the Knesset, a menorah, Montefiore's windmill. Beyond the murals sprawls the true reality: the run-down Arab neighborhood of Silwan with a gaping wound in its middle, the pit of the "Givati Parking Lot," one of many megalomaniac projects of the Elad organization--a right-wing entity that aims to thwart any possibility of arriving at a compromise agreement in Jerusalem. The State of Israel, in a fit of insanity, handed the administration of one of the most sensitive and explosive sites in the world to Elad. But we'll get to that.

The next segment also paints an imagined reality. The Western Wall, cloaked in moss and sadness, with lovely and clean Jews standing around with polite self-discipline. The Western Wall plaza, empty and glittering against the unsightly foreground of the flooring of the actual city: dirty, poor, beleaguered.

In this third section we will examine how the narrative of Jerusalem has been radicalized to portray a city that is green, modern, secular, and open to the winds of the world--in other words, all that is foreign and opposed to the possessive and sealed off city in which I live. The Yad Avshalom monument, which according to Jewish tradition holds the remains of the rebellious son of King David, is shown planted in the center of a green hill, upon which glides a golf cart against the blue sea and sky. The sun is rising (or is it setting?) on the eternal capital, half submerged in the water. On the side, a Hebrew worker labors--an Elad man, most likely--with two buckets in his hands, hovering above a pile of cement. The man embodies what by now is the nostalgic fantasy of the good Hebrew laborer, a Zionist emblem that has long been replaced by the flood of Arab workers who uphold the construction industry. It is only the sidewalk stones, dislodged from their places in front of the mural and lying alongside the actual asphalt road, that remind us of the neglect and ugliness that no amount of oil paint can correct, and neither the cement that the diligent worker prepares in the image.

The concrete can't cover over a thing, owing that ancient Jerusalem, like the heart of a nuclear furnace, is boiling over from within. The Arabs (still) populate the majority of the land in the holy basin, including the lands of the Old City and Silwan/City of David, as well as the holy sites outside the city walls. The ground beneath their houses are the sites of secretive digs which rattle the ground, crack the walls and the roads, and pave the way for the big explosion, the inevitable eruption which is sure to come.

The radical right-wing organization Elad, in its activities with the approval and authority of the Israeli government, is embittering the lives of hundreds of Palestinian residents. Jewish settlers have control over properties in the heart of Arab neighborhoods and disseminate small islands of settlement which create impossible mosaics. They are aided by the Israel Antiquities Authority--which has acquiesced to the generous payment proffered by Elad--to dig on Elad's dime and with the support of the Jerusalem Municipality, government offices (every Jewish administrator in Arab areas is given a personal security attaché funded by the government), and even the police. Arab residents of Silwan who dared to appeal to file legal opposition against the digs that were cracking the walls of their houses were arrested by police in the dead of night and charged with ridiculous accusations that were never brought to court but were sufficient to plant fear.

It's hard to believe, but the surrealistic plan to dig a tunnel beneath the entire Old City from Damascus Gate to Dung Gate is already beginning to find its footing on the ground. In several places, digs are being run just dozens of meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Handing over the administrative keys to one of the most sensitive and volatile sites in the entire country, and possibly the world, to a political, extremist organization is akin to deciding to hand over the keys of the nuclear base in Dimona to Ahmedinejad and friends.

In any event, the Arabs are convinced that the Jewish settlers living in their neighborhoods are trying to reach under the Temple Mount, and ultimately aspire for their very destruction. Just another conspiracy theory? Not necessarily. Thousands of Jews identify with the movement to rebuild the Temple. They gather around Succoth in the national convention center and swear to "remove the abomination" (i.e. the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem and one of the holiest sites of all of Islam) from the premises.

In this reality, all the pieces are adding up to the colossal Armageddon that awaits.

Even in the idyllic mural of Jerusalem of high, signs and symbols are concealing themselves from evil messengers. One can find in the murals Israelis, tourists, the ultra-Orthodox, the nationalist-religious, the secular, a smattering women and children, but only two Arabs. Two images of Arabs were selected to represent the quarter-million Arab residents of the city. Below is Arab A, standing alongside an imaginary wall of Jerusalem. Passing behind him is a group of tourists who are indifferent to his existence. Arab A stands, leaning on his walking stick, and glances around (what is he plotting?). Beside him: a dog.

Arab B appears in the second picture. The background of this part of the mural is the alleyways of the new Hebrew Jerusalem. Two Yeshiva students stand around talking, a woman returns from shopping, a boy in a knitted yarmulke walks home with his bicycle. Arab B, a woman in a traditional embroidered dress, steps into an alleyway, with her back half-turned against the viewer. Next to her stands--you guessed it--a dog!

Did the anonymous artist deliberately plant two dogs--an animal known by Israelis to be considered impure by the Muslim tradition -- next to the only two Arab figures in the huge mural that extends along the entire holy basin? I don't know the answer, and the truth is that the answer is not all that important. It is enough that the Arabs are convinced that this was the intention. And here vandals managed to blot out the faces of both Arab A and the dog that stands beside him.

Dogs and pigs have long been hazardous material in the Muslim world. The oft-used taunt--a settler favorite--that couples "pig" "dog" and "Muhammad" are words that light fires. Dogs are an impure animal according to Islam. According to tradition, the prophet Muhammad claimed that angels do not enter houses with dogs or pictures (Orthodox Judaism, similarly, considers it forbidden -- even an image is considered an abomination). Another tradition says that a Muslim who runs into a dog on his way to pray must purify himself again, even if the dog did not touch him. In Muslim folk culture, in any case, a dog is a contemptible animal.

In this case, it's no surprise that on the day of Arafat's death, the newspaper Yedioth Ahronot proclaimed in an eye-catching (Hebrew) headline: "His Day Has Come," referring to the Arabic proverb known well to every Israeli, "Every dog's day will come." (Kul kalb bi'gi yomo in Arabic, and kol kelev ba yomo in Hebrew.) Unlike the phrase's English cousin, which rosily promises that even the lowest among us will have a day of good fortune, in its Semitic form it may as well be, as the Forward's "On Language" column aptly remarked: "Every scoundrel will receive his comeuppance."

In this reality, in which every drop of mutual trust has long since evaporated, intention doesn't matter. The question -- "Did settlers really intend for their archeological digs to run up against the foundations of mosques in reaching for the very roots of Jewish existence?" -- is not particularly relevant; much like the question of whether the Arabs really do want to throw us into the sea. It's enough that Muslims and Israelis, respectively, are convinced enough as to the (positive) answers to both of these questions as to have already amassed a stockpile of ammunition that could, with the slightest disturbance, engulf everything in sight. As we say in Hebrew, "The dog is buried here." In other words, X marks the spot.

Yizhar Be'er is the founder and executive director of Keshev - The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, an organization that researches the Israeli media, threats to democracy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Sichel

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Life through a new lens

A short piece a wrote for the University of Calgary's Alumni magazine has just been published. In it, I talk a little about my walls project and my own origins as a writer. You can find it here.

I just finished a first draft of half of my walls book - I will need to travel again to write the second half. I am looking forward to putting it aside for a month or so, working on magazine pieces, and planning for my next trip. I'm also doing some presentations for classes here at the University. I will be talking about the Iranian traditional wrestling for a Kinesiology class, and about the Iranian love of poetry for a English lit students. I already spoke to a class of Environmental Design students about the social impacts of walls. These are busy times.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Nakba of Olives - an excerpt

[What follows is an excerpt from my Walls book-in-progress. This is from my chapter about the West Bank Wall called 'A Nakba of Olives.' Most of the chapter is about my time in the Palestinian village of Jayyous, and this excerpt is part of a longer account of an anti-Wall demonstration I observed there last February.]

It is a bad day for a protest. I am standing in Mohammed’s kitchen and looking out of the window at the rain. Mohammed’s second-floor apartment is half-finished and rarely cleaned. A week-old tub of yogurt sits on the countertop among spent Yellow Label tea bags and cigarette butts. Plastic soda bottles and falafel wrappers spill onto the floor beneath the hole in the countertop where a sink should be. Yesterday’s pita hardens into leather. One of Mohammed’s brothers brews tea with water from the bathroom sink – the only running water in the place – for the small gathering of activists from overseas waiting in the salon. Julia, a German activist with the International Solidarity Movement, is among them. She boasts about being blacklisted and strip-searched by the IDF, and advises me to take out my contacts. “The tear gas gets behind your lenses,” she warns as she traces on her eyeliner.

There is supposed to be a demonstration against the Wall today, but earlier this week, the IDF raided Jayyous. Soldiers entered the village at night, seized about a hundred young men and penned them in the school gymnasium. The troops also occupied several village houses and spray-painted a Star of David over a pro-freedom mural on a school wall. The IDF took about a dozen men with them when they left, and the men are still in custody somewhere in Israel. I wonder if the night action by the IDF will intimidate the young men out of their weekly protest and I ask Mohammed if anything is going to happen today. He says he doesn’t know. He says that the “street will decide.” I don’t believe him. His cell-phone has been ringing all morning. If anyone knows, it is Mohammed.

From the window we watch the road that leads from the centre of the village to the Wall’s south gate. At around noon, just as the group in the kitchen decides there will be no demonstration, we see a half-dozen young men walking up the road. Another group follows. They don’t have banners or flags or any other accoutrements of protest, but clearly something is happening. “It is the shabaab,” Mohammed says. The word is Arabic for ‘youth,’ but in the context of occupied Palestine, ‘shabaab’ refers to the bands of rebellious young Palestinian men – the stone-throwers and trouble-makers – who wage their own miniature intifadas on the IDF. Mohammed pulls on a black coat with a fur-lined collar, pockets his cell-phone and hands his camera to Aidan, a Canadian volunteer with ‘Stop the Wall’. Mohammed goes down the stairs and out the door. The rest of us follow him up the road.

We stop at the edge of an olive orchard. The shabaab are there. They calmly lift stones from the road and hurl them over the trees. Aidan tells me there are IDF soldiers on the other side of the grove. I cannot see past the grey trunks and silver-green leaves and the shabaab cannot see where their stones land. Eventually a clank of rock against metal signals that someone hit something. Probably an IDF jeep. The hurlers turn to each other and grin.

The response comes quickly. A pop from behind the trees and a tear gas canister fizzes overhead like a dud firework wheezing yellowish smoke. I think of Julia and my contact lenses but the wind whips away the fumes. Then an explosion so loud everyone cowers. Sound grenades. I am terrified and look to Mohammed. His hands are over his ears and he is ducking from the noise. But he is smiling. So are the shabaab. They laugh and reach for more stones to continue their assault on soldiers they cannot see.

Someone yells something in Arabic and the mood changes. The boys run from the groves. They are still grinning but frantic now. Aidan looks calm. I ask him what is happening. “The Israelis are coming,” he says and I hear the army engines rumble. The protestors run down the road and join the boys who again collect stones to throw. I don’t want to run. I feel it will implicate me somehow, but there is a blast from another grenade so I flee with the others, up the road and around a corner where someone has written ‘Stop the Wall.’ I stop running because everyone else stops. And then there is a new sound, a crack I don’t recognize. “Those are rubber bullets,” Aidan tells me and we are running again. I don’t turn back because I’m afraid to see how close the soldiers are....

We turn a corner, step over a row of boulders the shabaab have lined across the road, and continue to a ledge overlooking the valley. There are Israeli soldiers on the other side. I can see them ducking under the clotheslines on the rooftops and taking cover behind black water tanks. Here on the ledge, a half-dozen shabaab hurl stones at the IDF with homemade slings.

Mohammed told me that Palestinians are born knowing how to sling a stone. He joked that West Bank boys emerge from their mothers’ womb swinging their umbilical cords over their heads. I stand behind the shabaab, afraid of being hit by an errant stone, and watch as they co-opt King David’s weapon against his own heirs. Some wrap keffiyehs around their heads to hide their faces, but most don’t bother. The rain slickens cheeks too young for beards, and soaks through their blue jeans. Slings dangle from pockets like something cool.

I watch one of the stone-throwers, a boy in his late teens. He carries a sling made of denim and nylon cords. The boy threads a finger through a loop on the end of one cord, then grips both ends with his right hand. He lifts a stone from the road, places it in the cradle of denim, then holds his arm straight out from the side of his slim body. The stone swings back and forth in its cradle as if being lulled to sleep. The boy bends his legs and turns his body to eye the soldiers from over his shoulder. He pauses for a moment in this taut, proud pose.

After eyeing his target, he sweeps the sling over his head and his hand spins on its wrist. The cords blur and whistle as the stone strains against its cradle. The boy cocks his body back, twists his face into a sneer, and snaps the stone into the air as his entire body lurches forward. The released sling makes a sound like a bird and, relieved of its turning force, falls slack at the boy’s waist. The stone flies but the boy does not watch to see it land. His eyes are down as he lifts another stone from the ground. Cradles it. The sling swings and whirls and whistles again. It is a furious beauty.

I don’t want to leave the sling boys. I find it hard to resist their swagger. They hurl insults between their stones, and shout “Jayyous!” each time a tear gas canister fired at them falls harmlessly into the valley. Their stones fall short, too. Mohammed told me about an older man in Jayyous – a veteran of the first Intifada – who is a sniper with a sling. He is not in action today. I never see these boys hit anything at all. But this is not the point. For the shabaab, it is enough just to resist. To not cower. To fill a hard grey sky with hard grey stones.

The IDF insists it is the stone-throwers that trigger the army’s action. The moment a rock is thrown, the marchers become rioters and the protest an insurrection. Activists can hardly cling to claims of nonviolence, the Israelis say, if the shabaab pelt soldiers with rocks. After all, a slung stone can shatter a skull. Still, the battle on the streets is hardly even. Far more Palestinians than Israelis have been injured in these clashes. As I watch Israeli forces, clad in bulletproof vests and helmets, emerge from armoured jeeps to wage war on rock-throwing teenagers, the IDF claims of self-defense seem absurd....

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Audacity and the Wall

I've finished a new draft of my West Bank Wall chapter and will post a short sample soon. It was a difficult chapter to write. There are so many facets to the Wall that I had trouble knowing when to stop.

What struck me most during the writing, and during my time in Palestine earlier this year, is the Wall's audacity. The Wall has a concrete conviction in its own bluntness. It makes no pretenses towards grace or sophistication. It is blue-collar and proud. It is boastful. The Wall is cold and rude and hard and stone. And it doesn't give a shit what you think.

But the Wall is not the whole story in Palestine. What I want to show in this chapter, among other things, is that while the Wall is a potent symbol of the Occupation - something to march against, spray with paint and pound with fists - it is only an example of Israel's audacity in regards to the Palestinians.

Here is another one: A Palestinian organizer of anti-Wall protests in the West Bank, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, has been arrested and charged with arms possession. What were the arms in his possession? Spent IDF tear gas grenades and canisters that were fired at demonstrators during the protests. He had the "arms" displayed in his home like this:

You can find the story about Abu Rahmah's arrest here. It makes me wonder if the Israelis who collect rockets shot at them from Gaza are also guilty of arms possession?

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Books Not Bombs" online

A story I wrote about Tmol Shilshom, my favourite place in Jerusalem and a mecca for writers, is now online on the Maisonneuve magazine site.

You can find it here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

John Irving on Wrestling and Writing

The author John Irving was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC Radio a few weeks back. He spoke about how his own career as a wrestler influenced his writing. Irving started to wrestle when he was an ill-tempered fourteen year-old. He told Enright that “you can’t lose your temper on a wrestling mat”, and that wrestling was all about controlling one’s temper. Channeling it. “Wrestling was my first discipline,” he said.

Irving started to write about the same time as he started to wrestle, and eventually made the connection between the two pursuits. Passion, fear and anger are fuel for a writer as much as they are for a wrestler; and just like a wrestler a writer must be able to manage them. He learned how do do this on the mat first through repetition. Through the hours of practice on the mat. He goes on to say that as a wrestler, you...

accept the responsibility of learning a small detail until it becomes second nature. Until a move or a response to someone else’s body becomes instinctive. It isn’t instinctive. It’s a learned process. But it has to be as quick as something instinctive if you’re going to be any good. I was disciplined at that before I became disciplined as a writer. And it helped me.

Irving relates the necessity of a wrestler to constantly repeat his movements over and over to the necessity of the writer to constantly revise. Wrestling taught him the stamina for constant rewriting.

I am thinking of Irving these days as I lay down my rough first draft of the Walls book. Quite frankly, most of what I’ve written is horrible. My experiences overseas were rich, and my notebooks are full of delicious details, but my prose so far is weak and my narrative disjointed. I know that the beauty, if there is to be any, will come later through rewriting. I have a long way to go and I get exhausted thinking about it. I could use a little of the wrestler’s stamina right about now.