Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Druze


I'm here in a Druze village with my camper Meadad. He is sitting with me to discuss the Druze religion. I always thought that the Druze were simply a sect of Islam, but rather it is an offshoot that has since become its own religion.


The Druze call themselves Ahl al-Tawhid ("People of Monotheism") or al-Muwahhidūn ("Monotheists"). The origin of the name Druze is traced to Nashtakin ad-Darazi, one of the first preachers of the religion (got that from Wikipedia, okay Abba?).


The Druze are a Semitic people, who speak Arabic. In Israel, they speak Hebrew as well. They are located in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Syria, and a few other places around the Middle East and rest of the world. There is about 1 million worldwide, with the vast majority in the Middle East. Wikipedia notes "Analogous with Jews, Druze are an ancient people who preexist modern constructs of identity. In some ways, Druze are a nation, an ethnicity, a tribal kinship, a religion, and so on, and in some ways not really any of these." As for a famous Druze, try Casey Kassem (really Kamal Kassem, from coast-to-coast).


The Druze have different traditions than other religions. For example, they have some food that is forbidden. Pork is forbidden, as well as mloqia (a type of Egyptian food). Only those who are religious are allowed to read from the holy books. There are six books that are considered holy to the Druze. The Druze flag, which I posted on the blog, represents the 5 holy shiekhs in the Druze religion and five princliples they follow.

A little more on the Druze as I have a few more minutes. The Druze religion originated from a sect of Shi'ites called Ismailis. It stems mainly from the Shi'ite Fatamid Caliph Hakim, who ruled over portions of North Africa including Egypt. Hakim ruled from 996 to 1021 AD. Scholars note that his rule was characterized by some pretty arbitrary rules he enacted like certain things that were forbidden to eat, and other assorted things like forcing everyone to work at night and sleep during the day. Apparently, overtime his behavior became even more rather erratic.

So anywho, Hakim dissapeared on the back of a donkey in 1021. Some believed he was assasinated, and most of the people went about canceling all his decrees and changing things back to the way they were. Others thought perhaps this guy knew what he was doing, that he was really divine, and that God was/is hiding him as mahdi (muslim messiah) for Day o'Judgement. They became the basis of the Druze religion and it went on from there.

More of Hakim's history at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Hakim_bi-Amr_Allah

If you want to read more about the Druze, and their religion, click this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Druze


Friday, March 30, 2007

Sea o'Galilee

I left Kfar Saba by train to Tel Aviv so that I could catch a train to Haifa. In Haifa, I was picked up by my friend Moti, who I met on a tube in Laos. He was the one who dropped my camera in the river- which was since stolen. We just hung out last night, and I took pictures of Haifa at night. I woke up this morning and lounged around his apartment while he attended some business. We had lunch at the most famous shwarma place in all of Israel called Hazan shwarma. It was amazing.

After, I took a sherut to Nahariya, where I met my camper Meadad and his lovely family. He is a Druze, and I will discuss the Druze in a later post. His little sister has blond hair and blue eyes, and looks little like him. We drove through the Galilee to Tiberias, stopping a few times for me to snap pics. I hadn't been to the Galilee since Year Course, and yet I still recognized places from when I went trekking almost exactly 8 years ago from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. That time we set out from the Sea of Galilee with matza in our bags, and little idea of where we were going. The cab driver almost refused to take us, as he thought our trip was dangerous. When we convinced him to take us, as he dropped us off, he remarked" Be careful, stupid people like you have died doing stupid things like this." Then he drove off. The 5 day hike was fine.

So back to present tense, we walked around the Sea of Galilee then had a wonderful Lebanese dinner at a nice restaurant on the tayelet (promenade). We had yummy lebanese salads, then I had a St. Peter's Fish, whole and grilled. So good. After dinner, we drove back to his village, where I am staying, and I met the rest of the family. Meadad impressed me by being able to quote Martin Luther King's speech "I have a dream." So now, I am back at his house, and about to kick his butt in playstation.

What the World Costs- Jordan & Israel

Jordan
20 fills (28 cents) falafel on the street
25 fills (35 cents) cup of turkish coffee
40 fills (57 cents) public bus to Jerash
75 fills ($1) one hour at an internet cafe; shwarma
1 dinar ($1.43) entrance fee into Kerak's crusader ruins; strawberry banana cocktail in Madaba
1.5 dinars ($2) public bus to Kerak
2.5 dinars ($3.57) red Jordanian keffiya
4 dinars ($5.71) cab to the Jordan-Israel border, night stay at Farah Hotel
6 dinars ($8.38) burger, fries and a pepsi at Houston's in the Mecca Mall
10 dinars (~$15): Jordanian visa bought at the airport
15 dinars ($21.43) total cost of a pub crawl through Amman till the break o' dawn

Israel:
5 shekels ($1.12) hamza key chain in Jaffa market
12 shekels ($2.67) train from Tel Aviv to Kfar Saba; latte at Cafe Aroma
17 shekels (3.78) draft of Staropramen (czech beer) in Jeru
18 shekels ($4) 20 unit phone card
20 shekels ($4.45) sherut from Jeru to TA
23 shekels ($5.11) grand marnier and butter cream waffle at Babette's in Kikar Zion
27 shekels ($6) glass of merlot on TA beach (cold red wine, ugh)
31 shekels ($6.89) train from Tel Aviv to Haifa
34 shekels ($7.56) huge shwarma in a lafa and goldstar beer on Ben Yehuda st
36 shekels ($8) pint o' guiness on Dizengoff
65 shekels ($14.45) visa to Egypt
130 shekels ($28.89) 2 caprinhas and profiteroles at a trendy Tel Aviv bar
200 shekels ($44.45) Lonely planet guide to Egypt

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Kfar Sababa

I woke up early yesterday to catch a free tour from my namesake of Jaffa. I was joined on the tour by Bethy and Courtney, two old friends from Year Course, and other various places. I had planned to interview the both of them about Aliyah to Israel, but Courtney and her boyfriend Daniel are returning to America. They have been here two years and have had enough. Meanwhile, I had emailed Bethy about the tour guide and she thought I was kidding about the name and making a cheesy joke. The tour was very informative. Nice and interesting, all over Jaffa. Lots of history there, so much that I had no idea about.

After the tour, we had lunch at Dr. Shakshouka- a famous Jaffa place where we of course had shakshouka among salads, cholent and couscous. Yummy and filling. After Bethy and I went through the shouk (market), then headed back to Tel Aviv where we had drinks on the beach and were joined by her friends. One was very interesting, named Nathan from Derwood, MD. He is involved in the settler movement and was protesting against the army at a settlement that evacuated before. Fascinating fellow cause he sure didn't look like a Kahane quoting settler supporter. He was wearing preppy western clothes and no kippa. He interestingly had similar views on the Israeli security services as that of a uberlefty kid I met on the bus who was involved in the International Solidarity Movement.

The ISM is a western peacenik pro-Palestinian group that Rachel Corrie was in (the girl who got killed by a bulldozer). This kid mentioned he was going to the territories, and was wearing a kippa and looked like a yeshivanik. Then he mentioned he was in the ISM, and was going to a different part of the territories than I expected. So the settler supporter is western, while the super pro-Palestinian Jew is in a kippa. Too strange sometimes.

Meanwhile, I stayed last night with Courtney and her boyfriend Daniel. We talked a lot about their decisions to return. It is so hard, because everytime I am here I have to seriously consider if I want to make aliyah, while there are always voices exterior and interior questioning and supporting such a move. It's hard because I always feel so much more at home here than anywhere in America. But it is a hard life here, and I have a very different outlook than most Israelis. With that said, I always feel so wonderful being here, but I am always here as a tourist not a resident.

Currently, I'm in Kfar Saba with one of my campers Amir, who just treated me to a huge shwarma. I was supposed to come at 11am, but arrived at 3pm, as it was a long strange day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Namesake

The title of the book I am currently reading, which was a gift from my friend Jocelyn in Mumbai. I was waiting for Paule Rakower in Dizengoff Square and I pulled it out to start reading, only to laugh at the hilarity of it. So I met my namesake, a 40-year old Beglian-Israeli tourguide whose name is also pronounced "Paul." Too cool. I was worried that when we met, a black hole vortex would open up, since we couldn't possible occupy the same space. She gave me a lovely tour of Tel Aviv and some of its history and invited me to the Rakower seder in Tzfat. I was planning on being in Jerusalem for the sheer poignancy of being this year in Jerusalem, but the prospect of a Rakower family seder is interesting.

Tel Aviv rocks. So cosmo, so hip, so many beautiful people. I got my Egyptian visa this morning, I showed up 10 minutes before it closed, and was a mess. The visa cost 65 shekels ($16), and they wouldn't take change. First I had to get someone to switch me shekels, then I was short by 10 sheks on the visa. I tried to get them to take a Jordanian dinar but no dice. I asked if I could run to the bank, but they were closing. So I made a quick plea for10 shmekels, which was answered by a nice girl. I chatted with another American fellow who is on his way to Cairo, and we might catch up. After I got my visa back, I went to find a bank but there were none around so I offered the girl my change and a dinar. She was not fond of the idea but her boyfriend was willing to accept. He mentioned he was applying for the Academic Affairs position for the Atlanta Consulate, so I offered to put in a good word.

Tonight I met with my friend Inessa who was with Steve and Marsha, my SOP friends who I bumped into in Cambodia and Vietnam. This was a new trip for them, while I am still on my same. They were so pleased to see me, and Marsha said I was like a son to her. They are so sweet. We had yummy Israeli salads, and I had malawach, a delicious Yemenite dish of fried philo-ish dough, eaten with boiled eggs and tomato sauce. Washed down with a yummy glass of lemonade filled with lemons and limes. I love Tel Aviv. If only the Beirutis and Casablancans and Rabati and other cosmo places in the Arab world could see it, and vice versa, we would have a peace rave tomorrow night into the wee hours of the morning.

Monday, March 26, 2007

New Jpost article up

After my meeting with the Jpost staff, I am getting more prominence for my column. Now in the "must-read" or in the op-ed section.

"Many men discover the whole world while seeking only to make their fortune. But as for you, my son, you will stumble on your treasure as you seek to discover the world."
Leo Africanus

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On my lack of a full time writing gig

So my quest to be a real columnist didn't exactly work out due to lack of funds for the Jpost. On that note:

"Writing is a lot like sex. At first you do it because you like it. Then you find yourself doing it for a few close friends and people you like. But if you're any good at all...you end up doing it for money."
-unknown

Yerushalem shel zahav

"Your name will scorch my lips forever,
Like a seraph's kiss, untold,
If I forget thee, golden city,
Jerusalem of Gold"
Naomi Shemer, Yerushalem shel Zahav

I had a lovely Shabbat nap, then Joe and his family dropped me off at Yael's house (my old boss at the Consulate/my Israeli mom). On the way, there was a raven that was hobbling across the road. Hila, Joe's daughter, ran out and grabbed the wounded bird. The Lowes happen to be Dr. Doolittles. Hila keeps pet rats (really) and ferrets, while the family has an assortment of dogs, cats and birds. Their dalmatian Pnina poses no threat to the cat, and they live together, while the rats are very comfortable sitting on the dog's back. I spent the evening with Yael and the rest of the Ravia clan. Her husband Ron made some fantastic shakshouka, and we watched Israel and England play to a 0-0 tie in a football match at Ramat Gan.

This morning, I woke up and again accidentally salted my coffee. I had never done it before, now twice in two days. Meanwhile, I got to see a spectacular view from the Ravia's house, which I had heard Yael mention as the most beautiful view in Israel during interviews at the Consulate. She didn't exaggerate a bit. She dropped me off this morning, and I made my way to the Jerusalem Post office for a meeting with the editors.

I was warmly welcomed, and got to sit in on an editorial meeting. Unfortunately, they have no money for me to continue my series in South America, as I had hoped. Oh well, I might actually have to find a real job. But, they are going to promote my stories more on the Jpost website, with perhaps my own link and they want to do an interview with me. Amir the editor is very nice. It is always strange meeting people who you have had contact with, but never met face-to-face. He was not how I expected. He was a young thirtysomething, originally from South Africa. The whole staff was mostly Anglos. They all said I should turn my stuff into a book, or maybe a coffeetable book. Anyone know any publishers???

After, I had a nice lunch at a humuseria. I was a little short on the bill, but instead of giving me a smaller order, they hooked me up with a huge meal and a drink. Hummus, foul (chickpeas), Israeli pickles and falafel, with a fanta to drink. So yummy.

After lunch, I went to Mt. Herzl and saw the new Herzl museum. It was an interactive exhibit that was well done, if not a tad propagandistic. In any case, it gave me chills. I seem to get them a lot here. Amazing to see how the dreams and visions of one man can change so much.

After the museum, i visited Herzl's grave, and Rabin's too. Then I visited Yad Vashem. It has been redone, and is even more powerful, with interactive exhibits. It takes you through the whole story, and deposits you out overlooking a somber valley. Very moving, more chills. The memorial that struck me the most was the Heroes Memorial:

"Now and forever in memory of those
Who rebelled in the camps and ghettoes
Fought in the woods, in the underground
And with the Allied Forces
Who braved their way to Eretz Israel
And those who died
Sanctifying the name of God"

I hopped the bus back to Kikar Zion, my stagging point it seems, and now I am going to try to catch up with some Seeds campers.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sabbath morning

I woke up to a steel-gray morning sky, with a strong breeze rustling the leaves. The morning got off to an interesting start, as I got an electric shock opening the fridge. I pointed it out to Joe, who then touched the handle and received no current. It was because he was wearing socks and I wasn't. Mama always said socks on your feet keep you healthy, but never warned of anything like that.

I made myself a cup of coffee, only to dump it out after realizing I put salt in my cup. In my defense, the salt was unmarked, sitting next to jars of honey, coffee and artificial sweetener.

After I got a proper cup, I noticed there were people gathered outside his gate. Joe informed me they were blessing the trees. Apparently before Passover, they come by to bless the trees. The mulberry, fig, peach, plum and pomegranate trees received their benediction, as I sat on the porch receiving my morning sacrament of coffee. Only in Jerusalem.

After a lovely brunch of an mushroom and cheese omelette and salad, I went for a walk with Joe on the Haas Promenade, overlooking the whole of Jerusalem. The view was stunning, as the day had cleared up, and there were passing clouds in the blue sky. The clouds would shield the golden Dome of the Rock, then the sun would lighten it up. We had cigars and discussed Jerusalem, its holiness and its discontents as we walked along the promenade and admired the views, save that of the scar that runs across the face of Jerusalem near Bethlehem.

"Upon my lips is always burning
Your name, so dear, so old:
If I forget Jerusalem
Of bronze and light and gold ..."
-Naomi Shemer, "Yerushalem shel Zahav"

Friday, March 23, 2007

Shabbat in J-town

On Friday I went to the Old City once again, to pray at the Kotel. I figure use it while I got it. I later went to Machane Yehuda and had a fantastic Iraqi lunch of kubeh- tomato soup with dumplings filled with beef, with okra and onions, and a ground beef-stuffed artichoke with red rice. All free courtesy of my Orthosnuggle buddy, who works at the restaurant for free in exchange for free food. A good trade, as I sampled the wares.

Hopped a bus back to the conference, but ended up in Gilo, a different suburb nearby. Got my way back over by cab, and saw my kiddies some more, then headed back into town. I waited for a while at the bus, but since it wasn't coming, I hopped in a Palestinian bus, and was the only non-local. They thought it was a riot that I was on the bus. The kept joking by saying it was going to Nablus not Jerusalem. No worries, I have friends there too.

Got back to J-town and went to use the internet, as I didn't have my friend Joe's number. I have been staying with his family every time I visit Israel since 1999. He and my father were friends when my Dad did a residency stint at Hadassah Hospital, prior to moi. Unfortunately, since it was getting to be Shabbat, all the internet cafes were closed. I was getting a little worried that I would be stuck with no number and no bus back to Dana's apartment. As I wandered to Kikar Zion, I saw a curly red head that looked familiar. Sitting there was Inessa and her coworker Daniel. Daniel had a laptop, and Jerusalem is a free-wifi city, so I was able to get in touch with Joe. He picked me up, and we went back to his place for coffee and cigars. Later, I went out with he and his wife Anat for dinner at a South African style steak house. I had boerwoers, South African beef sausages, which gave me major missings for SA. Washed down with a Leffe brown. Yum. Now just hanging out in the Jerusalem rain.

Little town o'

Strange days as always. It started yesterday when I met a friend Inessa for coffee in Jerusalem. She lives in Tel Aviv and works for Seeds of Peace in the region. Over coffee and a chocolate croissant, I notice a gold diamond ring on her finger. I asked rather curiously if it was an engagement ring, which received an affirmative reply. Umm...you could have mentioned that you got engaged in at least one of the emails that previously passed between us. Some Russian who she only knew for a few months. Life is too funny and never what you expect.

Moving on, we went down to the Old City, and wandered through the markets. Grabbed some kanafey and "Armenian" coffee then got lost until we found the Jaffa Gate to meet a former Seeds director who was recently unceremoniously booted from the org. As I was going to Bethlehem, which is only 6 miles from J-town, she gave me a ride to the Bethlehem checkpoint.

Ugh. The checkpoint was not a fun experience. It is a giant wall that cuts through an olive grove. It is big and scary, with barbed wire fencing and graffiti all over it. Owing to a former life, I know all the statistics about the barrier, and how it is 95% fence and all the other arguments about it very well, but it still didn't sit well. I managed to get through pretty quickly, but it left me feeling a little uncomfortable. Kind of like a concrete airport terminal to nowhere.

I arrived to the other side to find someplace that really did not feel like Israel. I walked past more graffiti of "tear down this wall" and other cliche slogans, and onto the taxi area. I bargained for a cab onto Bethlehem, and was given a "Welcome to Palestine" from the driver. With Palestinian flags flying, scant Hebrew around and a very different feeling in the area, it really was a welcome to someplace that wasn't Israel. After the checkpoint, it felt exactly like I crossed a border.

I took the cab Manger Square, and visited the Church of the Nativity. There were a fair amount of tourists in the area, not a lot but not empty. The Church of the Nativity was begun by Emperor Constantine's mother, Helena, in 325 AD on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is believed to be on the place of the birth of Jesus. The church has a long history of destruction and rebuilding. It almost looks like a fort. Inside the church are hanging lamps, incense holders and columns. Also some gorgeous mosaics and alters. Below there was a grotto, with a silver star commemorating the birthplace of Jesus, with the Latin inscription "Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born."

After, I wandered up the street to the Milk Grotto, where Jesus and family took refuge before a journey to Egypt. It is said that a drop of Mary's milk hit the floor of the cave, turning it to chalky stone. I continued my wandering around town that felt a lot more like Jordan than Israel. After I got tired of taking pics, I sat in Manger Square, and had a cup of coffee while I read and talked with the local shabab about religion. I took a taxi back to the border, I mean checkpoint, and again felt creepy. Down a ramp, to a single file line waiting to go through a turnstile and metal detector. Again my passport got me through quickly, but I was there long enough to not like the environment. On my way out, lines of Palestinian laborers were in line waiting to get back in. As I was leaving the other side, I noticed a perverse large colorful sign on the wall that said "Go in Peace," sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Too Orwellian.

I trudged my way over to Tantour to go to a Seeds of Peace conference taking place nearby. It is a 2 day bi-national conference about South Africa and Tibet, and their relevance to the ME conflict. I got to see a ton of my kids, who were shocked to see me. So nice. I stayed for a while, but was getting tired so I headed to catch a bus back to central Jerusalem. A nice Israeli teen offered me to join his cab for free, which I gladly accepted. I got back to Kikar and ran into an old friend. I will neglect to mention her name, as she is Shomer negiyah (no touching opp sex) but gave me a big hug and let me crash at her place. This girl had a boyfriend for 2 months, and they never ever touched each other even to hold hands. Nada. But since I knew her before she went no-touch, she let me, also on my persuasive argument that the rule didn't apply to me since I knew her before, and other ex post facto arrangements. I crashed at her place and got the ortho equivalent of a home-run, by getting to snuggle and back rubs. Anymore than that is treading on sheet territory. I made sure to grab a kiss, as next time she might be more religious and really won't allow it, or betrothed to some Yeshiva boy on her way to a family of ten.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pablo Africanus

I finished Leo Africanus, it was wonderful. It definitely cracked my top 5 list. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery:

I, Paul S. Rockower the son of Stephen the bone-mender, I, Pinchas Eliyahu ben Yesheyahu, born into this world too soon as if too impatient to begin his wanderings. I bear many names in many languages: Pablo, Pavel, Pavlichko, Boulus al-Yehudi and Marco Paulo. I am called a wandering Jew as I come from no country, no city; simply a member of an ancient tribe and the guardian of an ancient faith. I am the son of the road, my life the most unexpected of wanderings.

My wrists hold the charms of a variety of faiths; a Sikh silver bracelet, Buddhist sandalwood beads, red Hindu and Kabbalah strings. Around my neck lays woven strings of Brazil, a bead from the Muslim shrines of Multan, an amulet from a camp of peace, and a silver Andalucian Star of David. My hands have caressed the flesh of countless beauties, and my lips have tasted a bevy of foreign tongues that range from Chinese Muslims, Arab Christians to Black Jews, and my eyes have seen cities rise and empires ascend.

From my mouth you will hear English, Hebrew, Castillian, Arabic, Czech and a smattering of words and vulgarities in a variety of tongues, because all tongues and all prayers belong to me. But I belong only to my family, to the muse, to God and to the earth, and it to them that I will one day soon return.

But you will remain after me, my readers. And you will carry the memory of me with you. And you will read my words. And this scene will come back to you: your son, brother and friend, with a smile on his lips, his hands held together at his chest- pointing to the heavens, a child-like curiosity in his eyes and the dream of peace in his heart. Sitting alone, the only foreigner on a lonely night train which is conveying him towards an unknown coast, scribbling to himself like a merchant working out his accounts at the end of a long journey.

But is this not in part what I am doing: what have I gained, what I have lost, what I have learned, what shall I say to the supreme Creator? He has granted me seven-and-a-score years of life, which I have spent where my travels have taken me. My faith has flourished in Jerusalem, my wisdom where the three seas meet, my passion in Saigon, my anguish in the Killing Fields, and my innocence still flourishes in Africa, which waits for me to continue my wanderings.

O' Jerusalem

"Holy city, but full of impieties; idle city, but one which gives the world a masterpiece everyday."
Leo Africanus

I awoke to a crystal clear Jerusalem morning. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. I woke up early enough to catch Dana on her way out. I had a delicious Israeli breakfast of challah, humous, tehina, labneh, matboucha (tomato and eggplant salad) and coffee. I hopped the bus to Kikar Zion, and walked down to the Old City. I entered through the Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter. I still know Jerusalem like the back of my hand. If I forget thee, O' Jerusalem....

I wandered through the labyrinth maze of markets, inhaling deeply in the smells of spices and ground turkish coffee, and admiring all the fabrics and wares. I grabbed a falafel, chock full of different salads and wandered from the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter, and into an alley where the local shabab were playing volleyball in the road, behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I talked with the locals shabab for a few minutes in Arabic, as we chatted as Jews, Christians and Muslims together. I wandered through the markets, past all the tourists. There were tourists from Europe, Africa and Asia, strolling along together in large groups.

I made my way through the Cardo, into the Jewish Quarter. I stopped at the Beit Chabad to do teffillin since I hadn't done it since Delhi. The place seemed to be closed, so I asked an orthodox fellow walking by about it. He had some himself, and did it with me. Nice guy named Moshe, originally from Long Island who teaches something related to metaphysics and Judaism. After, I wandered through to the cafe corner, where I enjoyed a Maccabee beer in the light sun. I went down to the Kotel for a second time, and it was just as moving.

After I left the Old City on a bus back to Kikar Zion, where I had a waffle from the waffle lady. It is a semi-famous place behind Kikar Zion that I have been visiting since I studied here some 9 years ago. Everytime I come here, I have one of her yummy waffles. Last time, 4 years ago, I had a half-dulce de leche, half nutella waffle. This time, I had a grand marnier and butter cream waffle with an espresso. So good. The girl sitting next to me gave me a bite of hers, which was covered in sour cream and apple sauce, dusted with cinnamon. On that note, my old girlfriend Lauren used to say we should pronounce waffle like raffle since they are similarly spelled. Off to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to see the home of my former employers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Eretz Zion

Even if I were more eloquent, even if my pen was more obedient, even if my words did glow, I would be incapable of describing the sensation, when after 5 months of exhausting journey through lands foreign to me, after 4 years of absence, I made my accent to Jerusalem and spied her ancient walls.

I woke up early this morning, grabbed my last cup of Turkish coffee from my neighborhood place, posted my pics and hopped a taxi to the border. The journey through the hills and valley of Jordan was stunning- verdant green and covered in olive trees. We descended to the King Hussein bridge, and i cleared Jordanian customs. I met a Jordanian who had lived in Brazil and we shmoozed about how awesome that place is. After I took a bus across the border, and I saw the symbol of my people flying proudly in the desert. My heart fluttered like the blue-and-white flag in the desert winds, and I sang "hatikvah" to myself.

My time at the border was long, but much shorter than expected thanks to one Dana Kursh, my former boss at the Consulate who helped smooth my entry. Meanwhile, I have a small problem with a bracelet I bought at a Sikh temple in Delhi that absolutely will not come off and sets off every metal detector. I had a relatively gentle search and answered a lot of questions. I also got the phone number from a really cute Palestinian girl who was in my cab to the border and was also waiting to get through security. West Bank Story.

I took the bus to Jerusalem and trudged my way to the Jaffa gate, where I made my triumphant entrance. Only slightly less triumphant than Allenby himself, cause he didn't have to lug a 22 kilo bag (~45lbs). I wandered through the alleyways I know so well, and went directly to the Kotel. I went straight up to the wall, bag and all, took off my hat and put my head against the cold wall that is the last remnants of our holy temple. I was literally trembling as I said my prayers. While I was praying, a bird's white feather landed at my feet. I collected it, finished my prayers and made my way to Kikar Zion, where I had the biggest, tastiest shwarma ever- filled with meat, humous, tehina, salad and chips (french fries) in a lafa (warm Iraqi pita). First kosher food in a long time. Washed it down with a Goldstar beer. Oh, it is so wonderful to be back in Israel!

New pics up

Pics of Amman in the snow, Roman Jerash, Crusader Kerak and Madaba. http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18

A great quote from Leo Africanus:
"A Beduin woman was asked one day which of her children she loved the most. She replied: 'The sick one until he is cured, the smallest one until he grows up, and the traveller until he returns."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Shababi

Roughly translates to "my kids." I had a wonderful day catching up with my Seeds campers. I saw a whole bunch of them. First, I had an interview at the Israeli Embassy to Jordan for my series. A far different situation than I ever faced in Houston, to say the least. Later I met Muhammed, who was a PS- peer support camper returning for a second year. He had a house with the most beautiful view of the Jordan valley. On a clear day, you can see as far as Jerusalem. I also met his family, who were lovely.

After we went to the mall to meet a Seed named Noor. I hadn't previously met her, but I had been contacting her after I posted that I would be in Jordan on the Seeds server. She is an Iraqi Christian from Baghdad, she moved to Jordan 7 months ago because the situation is too dangerous in Iraq. She said that many people cheered when Saddam was toppled, but the situation is so bad, that people actually have started missing the time when Saddam was in power. She also said that her neighborhood was mixed with Sunnis and Shi'ites. Noor said that she never used to know which of her neighbors were Sunni and which were Shi'ite, but now there is a big divide. Her family is all in Jordan, save her father who is a doctor in Baghdad. He refuses to leave his home, even after he was kidnapped once. Two more Seeds came, Leen and Christina. I love my campers, they are so wonderful. I think I might have to go back this summer, assuming they want me back after all my shenanigans last summer.

As a driven leaf

The name of a wonderful book about a Jew in Roman times who is caught between two worlds divided. Sometimes I feel it applies to me too. Whereas I would consider myself very moderate and liberal, in the Arab world I am still a long way off from their point of view. Meanwhile, my articles get all sorts of "interesting" posts from people who question me from the Jewish and Israeli side. Ha, as if I need to burnish my Israel-supporting credentials to anyone. It's hard straddling the divide between the people I love the most, and sometimes I worry if I will simply be swallowed up in the void that separates both sides.

Someone wrote on my last article questioning how a Jew could go to countries that don't allow Israelis in. But I travel there precisely because I feel I can do more to change opinions if I am on the ground, talking to the people- in their language, about my people and who we are. If I can make them understand our shared humanity, this does far more than boycotting those who hate us because they don't know us. As William Lloyd Garrison said, "With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost."

I'll be honest, I enjoy the negative comments immensely. I enjoy making enemies almost as much as I enjoy making friends. All of those who I admire and try to model myself after had no shortage of enemies- perhaps it is a sign of forcing those to think beyond their myopic viewpoints.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Into the homestretch

"Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
The town lit up the world got still
Im learning to fly but I aint got wings
Comin down is the hardest thing"
-Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly"

Time continues to fly by, and I have only one month remaining in my travels. My time in Madaba has been very interesting, to say the least. My first night with my camper Baydar was nice until I ventured into a political discussion with his parents that was at the very least difficult yet I think enlightening for all sides.

The next morning, he went to school and I had breakfast with his uncle. We had fried eggs, humus, labne (creamy goat cheese), olive oil and pita. After I had some cake with his grandmother, who is absolutely wonderful. She baked me a delicious chocolate cake. An addendum to my saying about families, grandparents all over the world want to spoil you. Interestingly, both Baydar's grandma and uncle warned me to keep my identity close to my vest. I went with Baydar's uncle to his office, where I could use internet and drink Turkish coffee. I spent the day just hanging out and reading Leo Africanus, which is quickly joining my top 5 list.

After Baydar got out of school, I had lunch with his family at a wonderful Jordanian restaurant in an old stone house. We had a delicious mezze and grilled meats and kefta (ground beef) in tehina. It was sooo yummy, and I felt like a stuffed kosher hallal piggy. We got back to his house and watch soap operas- the Days of our Lives, which his little sister loves and I napped in my post-lunch coma.

Later, Baydar and I went to the house of another Seed named Laith. His family are also Jordanian Christian, Syrian Orthodox, and his father speaks Aramaic. His father also surprised me by speaking Hebrew, which he knew having lived in Israel. We chatted for a while in Hebrew, that was an unexpected treat. His Mom came home, who is a journalist and translator for the London-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" (The Middle East). We discussed great literature and the tricks of the trade, and we all watched a Bond movie on tv.

Today I woke up early and took a mini-bus to Kerak, the home of ruins of an old Crusader castle. First a minibus to the university, then another minibus to Kerak proper. I trudged up a hill to the old castle and was wowed by the view overlooking the valley below me. From high above, I was staring down into what was once the Land of Moab. There was a time. I sat in silence, watching the clouds paint shadows on the hills, and olive groves that littered the hillsides. I listened in silence to the winds carry the old prayers of the Moabites to their god Kemosh.

The present ruins of the castle were built in 1161 by the Crusaders. It was an important seat for the crusader lord Reynald of Chatillion. After Reynald picked too many fights with Saladin, the mighty Kurd (yes, he was a Kurd) took the town and began to siege the castle. While Saladin was sieging the castle, a wedding was taking place. Reynald's stepson was getting married to a princess. While the ceremonies went on, Lady Stephanie, mother of the bridegroom, sent dishes of the feast to Saladin, also reminding him of the times when he was a prisoner in the castle and how she used to hold him as a child in her arms. Saladin asked which tower the young couple were housed in, and directed his bombardment away from it.

After touring the old ruins and admiring the views, I hopped a minibus back to the university, then a bus to Amman, and got off at the Madaba junction and caught another minibus to Madaba, where I am currently, and just for a little longer.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Desert Kingdom of the Muse

Amid the sweeping golden sands, the Muse resides in her desert kingdom. In a palmyra-filled oasis, she can be found in tents made of dyed sheep's wool. Under the fecund full moon, she sits cross-legged on a rug beside the fire, sipping bitter black coffee. The Muse is in a jetblack abbayya, that covers her to her golden-jeweled wrists and her henna-covered hands stretch out from its black sleeves. Sequins adorn her cloak, and the sequins sparkle like the stars above her. Her honey-date colored eyes are lined in black kohl, and peer out from behind the black veil. Her black hair peeks out from under the black crape, and a braid falls down her back.

The multitude of stars shine above, and feel as numerous as the sands below her. Her beduin guards sit next to her; their desert songs fill the air as they are carried by the night winds, and the beat of the coffee mortar supplies the simple rhythm.

Her camels' cargo is laden with ink and ideas, as her caravan makes its way slowly from oasis to oasis. She has no time for the cities being built in the sands; the Muse knows that the sands will one day retake them like so many other desert cities that were forgotten.

It was the Muse that filled the Nabateans with the radiant pink and peach dreams to carve their stone capital Petra, and then hid it behind a veil of sand for two millennia. She is the one who fills the pilgrims with perseverance as they trod on their long journey.

But take heed, my children, for the Princess of Fear holds a mighty empire here. From a desert fortress, she stares out over her vast terrain and her minion of followers. She poisons the minds with ignorance and arrogance. I hear her vile words pouring from the mouths of too many good people. Some days, it leaves me feeling so hollow to hear her plagued ideas brandished like swords, and I feel this sword cutting on both sides of the divide. It makes my heart hurt and fills me with anguish that I can hardly decribe.

The Princess of Fear helped cut down King Abdullah as he made his ways to his prayers, as his grandson and future regent Hussein stared on. She punished Anwar Sadat's courage with a hail of bullets. She is the one who stokes the fire of the mobs; she is the martyrs' false courage.

The Queen of the Muse and the Princess of Fear are locked in an eternal clash across these lands, and it is a battle I'm afraid the the Princess of Fear may have the upper hand. The Muse illuminates the desert with her knowledge, but I fear her sun is at its eclipse, and everything is becoming dark. But in the holiest of holy lands, hope springs forever eternal and will remain there to light even the darkest hour. From the pages of Leo Africanus, the Muse left a little note and a tidbit of truth that I will end on:

"When you were a child, didn't you speak out the truth that the oldest ones kept secret? Well, you were right then. You must find the time of innocence in yourself again, because that was also the time of courage."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Jazz in Jordan

I left Amman in a minibus to Madaba. The minibus guy wanted me to pay for two seats for my bag, but he was chided by some teens for being a schmuck. I talked to the guys, all in college. Same-same conversation on loving America but hating Bush. We were talking about possible next presidents and I mentioned Barack Obama and explained who he was. One of the guys said, "you mean he is a n-gger?" I was shocked. Once I ceased being, I explained to him that you don't say that word, that it is an awful word. I asked where he learned it. He replied rap music and movies. Oy. I guess that is a case of reaping what you sow.

I arrived to Madaba and was picked up by Baydar, from my bunk at SOP second session. He is a Jordanian Christian. His mother is Catholic and his father is Greek Orthodox, a real Christian mixed marriage. I am going to blog with him later about the Jordanian Christian community. Anyway, I had my first hot shower in days, and ate some wonderful makloube a fantastic Arab rice, lamb and potato dish. After, we went to the first annual Madaba Jazz Festival. The American Embassy helped sponsor it, maybe they are starting to realize how to do good public diplomacy. When I was in Pakistan, a guy asked me to name three good things about America. I said: 1) Jazz, 2) Hip-Hop, 3) Girls that will sleep with you without having to marry them.

The jazz was fantastic, really cool stuff. Jordanian bands and a proper American jazz band. Red and blue lights flickered on the ceiling, and shadows of the drums and saxaphone danced on the wall. They did a song about missing Mom's cooking, and started listing off great soul food. Oooh, I miss some good soul food. Really cool band, they are going to Jerusalem, and I am going to try to catch them again.

Leo-Africanus re-posted








"Yet do not doubt that I am also Leo Africanus the traveler"

-W.B. Yeats

I was wandering in Kramer's Books and Afterwords, browsing through the travel sections and planning for my journey. I meandered over to fiction, and came across a book that caught my eye. "Leo Africanus" by Amin Ma'alouf. I read the first page, and got chills. I get shivers down my spine every time I read it. It is here posted:

I, Hasan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia. I am also called the Granadan, the Fassi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road. My country is the caravan. My life the most unexpected of voyages.
My wrists have experienced in turn the caresses of silk, the abuses of wool, the gold of princes and the chains of slaves. My fingers have parted a thousand veils, my lips have made a thousand virgins blush, and my eyes have seen cities die and empires perish.

From my mouth you will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and vulgar Italian, because all tongues and all prayers belong to me. But I belong to none of them. I belong only to God and to the earth, and it is to them that I will one day soon return.
But you will remain after me, my son. And you will carry the memory of me with you. And you will read my books. And this scene will come back to you: your father, dressed in the Neopolitan style, aboard this galley which is conveying him towards the African coast, scribbling to himself, like a merchant working out his accounts at the end of a long journey. But is this not in part what I am doing: what have I gained, what have I lost, what shall I say to the supreme Creator? He has granted me forty years of life, which I have spent where my travels have taken me: my wisdom has flourished in Rome, my passion in Cairo, my anguish in Fez, and my innocence still flourishes in Granada.

There was a time

I had a quiet evening last night. Just had some kebabs at an Iraqi place, which were fantastic. The Iraqis loved my Arabic and I loved their kebabs. I spent the night reading Leo Africanus, which is amazing. I will re-post the opening, as it still gives me chills.

This morning I woke up to an unfamiliar sight, sunshine. The sun came out and dryed up the landy-landy. I grabbed a cup of turkish coffee at my local coffee shop. After three days, they know me as a local. I sipped hot turkish coffee while Arabic music filled the cool morning air. I hopped a cab to the bus station to go onto Jerash. The cab driver and I chitchatted in Arabic, and more of the same. I haven't shied away from telling people I'm Jewish because I feel I can do more to help my peeps by explaining us than hiding. I had a great breakfast of a boiled egg, lavache quire cheese, frenchfries and tomatoes in a baguette. As I waited for the bus, I spoke with a blue-eyed Egyptian guy living in Jordan. He is my age and has a wife and kid back in Egypt. More of the same discussions about our respective religions. People accept me more here as a believing Jew than if I were an non-believing atheist.

I caught the minibus to Jerash, and found myself surrounded by wonderful Roman ruins. There was a time when Pax Romana ruled the known world, and all roads led to Rome. When the six-hilled city of Amman was known as Philadelphia, and Jerash was Gesara. Both cities were part of the Decapolis. All that remains today are broken columns of a long forgotten cardo and round semi-circle ampitheater ruins. I sat on the old stones, closed my eyes and listened to the wind sing forgotten songs in Latin. I daydreamed and for a second, I was transported back to the days when Gerasa was a bustling Roman metropolis, with Roman sentinals guarding the stone streets, and gladiators battling in the arenas. Then the cold drizzle of rain awoke me from my Roman daydream.

I caught a van back, and traded a Jordanian soldier a sikh bracelet for his flag pin of Jordan with a no.1 on it. "Al-Urdun Al-Awal," Jordan First, as the motto goes. Another cab and another bridge-building conversation. The cab driver was welcoming, and surprised that I admitted I was Jewish as he said most Jewish tourists were afraid to admit it. Same welcome as a cousin and brother of a monotheistic faith. I even had one cab driver say to me "Shalom and Ma shlomech?" after I told him. After I walked up to the King Abdullah Mosque, which is lined in an interesting torquise and blue pattern (at least I think) and then down by the King Hussein mosque, where the faithful sat in the streets listening to the Imam's Friday sermon. Now I'm going to head on to Madaba to see my camper Bayder. He is a Jordanian Christian, about 6 percent of the country is as well.

PS: New Jpost article up on the Emirates. www.jpost.com in the Jewish world section.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

SNOW!

It's snowing in Jordan, WTF! It didn't even snow on me in Tibet. I had a late night last night with Hani, a guy who runs my hotel. We went on a proper pub crawl until the wee hours of the morning. Arak and Moroccan girls, lots of fun.

New pics are up. The rest of Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and more from Dubai. Also my brief glimpse of Bahrain and Amman.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

There she blows

No, I didn't get lucky with any locals, I finally finished "Moby Dick." Only a decade late for the AP English lit class I was taking. I failed that course as I did none of the required reading, but managed to keep it off my transcripts because I am a great negotiator. Since it was a "booster" class, and could only add to your GPA, I argued that it shouldn't need to be shown if it wasn't adding anything. I'm sure Brandeis would have loved that one. "I am madness maddened," sayeth Captain Ahab.

I enjoyed the book and loved Melville's beautiful prose. But, call me a Philistine, (or Jordanian or even a Ishmaelite), but there were definitely parts that were tedious and I could have done without every last detail of the whaling industry.

While I would love to fill my blog with the tons of quotable passages from the book, I think there was one that was most apt:

"They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company."

Mrs. Field's at the Mecca Mall

With sub-arctic temperatures and freezing rains swirling about (okay, so I exaggerate a tad, but its damn cold), I hopped a taxi to the mall. The cab driver and I chatted the whole time, and he is my new best friend. I got to the Mecca Mall, and walked in to find Mrs. Field's cookies. YUM! I had a chocolate chip cookie that was soooo good.

I caught a flick called "Fearless," with Jet Li. The tag line was by Lao Tzu, "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." Nice. Too bad the movie was just fair. Great martial arts scenes, and beautiful scenery, but it ended up being a thinly-veiled Chinese propaganda flick. It was by the guy who did "Crouching Tiger" and "Hero." I had the same problem with Hero. Loved it, but hated the kitschy propaganda. It was also dubbed, so maybe it would have been better in Chinese, with English subtitles. There was exactly one other person in the theater.

Speaking of Crouching Tiger, I was reminded of when I watched that movie with my brother and sister. The three of us were home alone, and we watched it together. Afterwards, we were in the kitchen, and we started grabbing weapons to fight and screaming "waaaaa." I grabbed the crab hammer, "waaaa!" My sister grabbed the corn tongs, "waaaa!" My brother grabbed the dog, "waaaaa!". We were dying of laughter. Maybe you had to be there. Then I found five dinars.

I was going to catch a double-feature but my plot was foiled by security. I grabbed lunch in the eatery. There was KFC, Burger King, Sbarro and "Bobeyes" (popeyes, but there is no "p" in Arabic). There was even a Houston's, where of course I had to eat. I even found the Muse at the mall, there was a store with her moniker tucked in a backcorner.

Ahlan wa sahlan

I love being back in the ME proper, where I really know the place. Last night I had a big ol' shwarma, then had my favorite desert kanafey. Kanafey is a sort of cheese covered with shredded wheat and smothered in honey. It doesn't sound good, but it is amazing. Washed it down with a glass of mint tea, and enjoyed reading Moby Dick. I bought a scarf on the street, and wandered around downtown Amman. I quickly realized I knew my surroundings owing to my trip to Amman some 4 years ago. I got back to my hostel and spent the night speaking with a German in my dorm named Michael. He is on his way to Israel now, he was a really nice fellow.

This morning, I woke up early to another cold, rainy day. Aargh, I should be in the Gulf still. I had a cup of turkish coffee and chatted it up with the locals. The usual surprise about an American that speaks Arabic, and the usual shock that I am a Jew. The Jordanian and Egyptian I was speaking with had no issues with me, and said that my peeps are "ahl al-Kitab," people of the book. Same talk about people vs. political bs and governmental nonsense.

After coffee, I found a little humuseria and had yummy, yummy humus for breakfast. I think the best I have ever eaten. It was covered in really good olive oil, and chickpeas, with haref (hot sauce) on top. Eaten with pita, and a plate of raw onions and mint, and washed down with a diabetes-causing glass of mint tea. Similar conversation ensued with the fellow at the restaurant. I met a guy who lived in Washington, DC, and was even previously married to a Jew. The guy even used to own a restaurant that I used to eat at in Georgetown. The folks there said similar stuff. Now, I am just trying to stay warm and dry and trying to figure out what to do on a cold, rainy day. Maybe I will go catch a movie, as I haven't done that in a really long time, save a bollywood flick in Calcutta.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hashemites

After waking up a second day at 5:15am, and heading on to the airport for a very deja vu feeling, I finally arrived in Jordan. I arrived to a cold, rainy Amman. I should still be in the sunny, warm Gulf, lounging in Manama but no, someone had to go and crash their plane. I also forgot how expensive Jordan is.

I took the bus in from the airport, and met a Sudanese doctor (a cardiac surgeon) from Darfur on the bus who lives in Chicago. Once we got to the bus stop, he was picked up by his driver and gave me a ride to my hotel. We chatted up on the way, and we briefly discussed the shared similarities of our religions. He even knew the "shema," which he recited to my stunned disbelief.

I checked into my hotel dorm, the Farah Hotel. I picked the place because they had roof accommodation, but unfortunately the weather is far from permitting. After I dropped my stuff, I grabbed a cup of wonderful Turkish coffee. I am such an Orientalist at heart.

So long Syriana

I have left Dubai, and am currently waiting for a flight to Amman from the Bahrain airport. Dubai was far too weird for me. Luxury BMWs and Mercedes are the cars the police use. Not a place for a poor, broke traveler like moi. Onto Jordan and the Middle East Chapter on my travels. Journey on.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What God wills

Ah, the Muslims have it so correct with "inshallah," God willing. I was supposed to be flying to Bahrain today, God willing, but apparently God had other plans. Simple one hour flight. Except a plane crashed at the airport during its takeoff, shutting down one of the world's busiest airports. I don't think anyone was hurt. It created major delays. First they announced it would be a 5 hour delay. But I was talking with some other passengers, and we realized that was impossible. 30-40 flights per hour in and out, all now behind schedule. We reasoned that it should be at least a 12 hour delay.

The airport announced free breakfast for all passengers, so I grabbed a free cup of coffee and chocolate croissant with a cute Australian Muslim couple. He was Malay, her parents were white Aussies who converted in the 70's. Meanwhile, I chatted it up with Iranian, Aussie and Indian fellow wayfarers-in-limbo. An amiable Indian chap said it was probably Bangladesh airlines, cause they suck and are super ghetto. Sure enough, he was right. I spoke with the Gulf Air person, and explained my situation of only a short period in Bahrain plus having to purchase a visa. He leveled with me and said it wasn't likely to get out before 7pm. 12 hours, like we thought. It didn't seem worth it to go to Bahrain, so I changed my flight to skip visiting Bahrain. On my way out of the airport, I became a Middle East Rockstar to go along with my Asian rockstar status. I went about collecting my stuff and documentation for insurance. After I was interviewed by the local news for what happened at the airport, and how it affected my travels. I was interviewed by a guy named "Usama" who went to UT-Austin. I caught a bus back to the hostel.

While I was waiting, I met a nice Moroccan bus driver, and we chatted about the good ol' Magreb. When I got back, I was greeted by the hostel workers, who are convinced I am CIA. They said, they have information for me and want to work for me. "If I am CIA, wouldn't I be in a nice hotel?", I asked. "No, it's a front," they replied. I took a nap, and woke up to a wonderful meal provided to me by a hostel mate, a nice Egyptian fellow from Aswan. As always, my arabic gets me lots of free stuff. I have been very free flowing with my identity here. I start babbling in Arabic, then they ask me where I am from. Al-Wilayet al-Mutahidah (United States). Mashallah is the reply (roughly translated as God bless or God has willed it). Are you a Muslim? La, ana yehudi (no, I am a Jew). What??? Mashallah!

Speaking of, I spent last night with the veritable Arab League. I chatted it up outside my hostel with an Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian and Palestinian about the Saudi plan. Relative acceptance all around, I will write more about it for an article. Meanwhile, I ran into my Croatian friend Marin, and we were having a late night chatting. An American living Washington, DC showed up. Why is it that most Americans I meet traveling are such tools? I mean on a scale of 1 to toolbox, most of them are Ace Hardware. I got along better with the Arabs than a Virginian as we insulted each other's states terrible driving.

Speaking of Arab League, a Gulf Newspaper wants to interview me about my travels, my tenure with the Israeli FM and SOP. I am stuck debating if I should change my flight back to March 14th (no cost to me) so I can do the interview.

Alas and alack, I could not change my flight out from Dubai. The frustrating thing is that I was originally scheduled to leave on 3/14, but moved my flight back at the last moment because I couldn't think of any other reason to spend another day in Dubai. As God wills it...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What the world costs- Pakistan & the Emirates

Pakistan:
5 rupees (8 cents): cup of chai on the street
10 rupees (16 cents)
15 rupees (24 cents) 600ml bottle of water
25 rupees (42 cents) one hour of internet
60 rupees ($1) amazing beef kabab plate and naan at restaurant in Karachi
70 rupees ($1.16) backsheesh pack of Marlboros to hotel manager for letting me leave my stuff for free at a fancy hotel (normal price 200 rs per hour)
75 rupees ($1.24) 250 grams of masala fried fish and naan in Rawalpindi
80 rupees ($1.32) large cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee (the best!)
100 rupees ($1.64) cafe latte at chic Lahore coffee spot
130 rupees ($2.16) 10 km cab from Rawalpindi to Islamabad
180 rupees ($3) one night stay at the al-Azm Hotel in Rawalpindi- vip price for a double room
200 rupees ($3.32) foreigner entrance into Lahore museum; bribe to police man for driving w/o a licence in Lahore
245 rupees ($4.08) 2nd class sleeper train from Lahore to Multan, cancelled with 180 rs returned
275 rupees ($4.58) 3 Pakistani rock cds
300 rupees ($5) one night stay at the Hotel Ocean in Karachi- tv included, such luxuries indeed
450 rupees ($7.50) Daewoo bus from Lahore to Rawalpindi, including snack pack, drinks and movie (Men in Black)
580 rupees ($9.64) 8 hour bus from Rawalpindi to Multan- really 10 hours aargh
600 rupees ($10) treating 4 SOP campers to Cake Alaska, and assorted sweets, ice cream and shakes at a cafe in Lahore
1,560 rupees ($26) overnight lower ac sleeper train from Multan to Karachi

United Arab Emirates
1 dirham (27 cents) 600 ml bottle of water
2 dirhams (55 cents) bus ride around Dubai, 30 min internet at the Djibouti Internet cafe- cheapest in town
2.5 dirhams (69 cents) student discounted entrance to musuems in Sharjah for a perpetual student;)
3 dirhams (83 cents) shwarma bought on the street; weekend Gulf Times newspaper
4 dirhams ($1.11) two eggs, naan and coffee at cafe in Sharjah
5 dirhams ($1.39) cup of turkish coffee at cafe on the Dubai creek
10 dirhams ($2.77) cup of starbucks coffee; gigantic ice cream float
15 dirhams ($4.16) 2 hr bus from Abu Dhabi to Dubai; lamb humus, salad and pita at the Marina mall; apple/mint shisha at cafe on Dubai creek
17 dirhams ($4.72) McArabia extra value meal (2 hallal beef patties, special sauce on a pita)
25 dirhams ($6.94) 2.5 hr minibus from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi
50 dirhams ($13.89) dorm room at youth hostel in Sharjah
75 dirhams ($20.83) dorm room at youth hostel in Dubai
80 dirhams ($22.22) fancy dinner of 400gr grilled Arabic meats, kiwi juice and a melon shisha- I splurged after I got lost and walked for 2 hours.
150 dirhams ($41.67) 2 hours of snow skiing at the Mall of the Emirates (equipment included)
200 dirhams ($55.56) entrance fee simply to see the Burj al-Arab hotel- redemable at bars and restaurants
220 dirhams ($61) current rate for a barrel of crude oil
3,000 dirhams ($833) one night for the cheapest accomodation at the Burj al-Arab hotel, the world's only 7 star
30,000 dirhams ($8,333) one night for the penthouse at the Burj al-Arab for me and wife no.4

I guess Dubai isn't so bad, it just seems so much more expensive compared to what I am used to.

Values

What came up when I tried to visit the Israeli Foreign Ministry's website:

"We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates."

No joke. Oy, there is a lot of work to be done.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Muse in the Marina Mall

I received a hint from the Queen of the Muse while I was wandering around the Marina Mall. She said stop looking at the veils and abbayas (cloaks), and pay attention to what is beneath them. When I stopped focusing on the black, I started noticing all the sequins that adorn the veils and abbayas. Veils with colorful patterns, and even ones with fox-fur lining. I noticed the mascara shading the eyes peeking out from behind the slits. I saw the fancy watches and jewels that adorned the wrists of these guardians of modesty. All the fancy high-heels and painted toes that tread just below the black crape. Designer sunglasses sitting on top of veils, and designer hand bags that lay tucked under the arms. I even passed by a lingere store, and saw these black veiled ladies shopping for lace and silk.

Meanwhile, the super chic shiekhs treaded around in their impeccable dishdashas (robe dress-shirts), with designer high-end sunglasses just below their keffiyahs and headdresses. Wires of the latest mobile phones wrapped out of their robes, or sat in wrapped around their fingers like prayer beads. The call to prayer.

I had a cup of coffee at Starbucks in the mall, and spoke with a local Emirati about life in the Gulf and the Saudi peace plan. He was impressed with my Arabic. Sadly, his opinion was just as intolerant as the commenter on my Pak piece. He calmly stated that their could be no peace between Israel and the Arabs, and the Saudi plan would never work. He informed me of the nature of Jews, that they stab people in the back and that the Jews from Europe were really gypsies who converted. Funny, I don't remember any gypsies popping up in my Dad's genealogy surveys. Then he asked my religion, and I told him in Arabic "ana yehudi (I am Jewish)." You should have seen the look on his face. Oy, it was priceless. He waxed on about as a Jew I was welcome in his country, and that I shouldn't be feel unsafe. Intolerance is bred from ignorance- people are experts on things they don't know a damn thing about. The Princess of Fear was sitting on his shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in his ear. Ironically, my seeds of peace bracelet broke this morning, snapped from too much wear.

Reminds me of another anecdote of when I checked into my hostel in Dubai. When the guy (an Egyptian) found out I was American, he started giving me crap about Bush and Iraq. I replied in Arabic, "Am I the president? No, so what have I done? I have done nothing, so what do you want from me?" He was as surprised with my Arabic as he was with my response, and said "ahlan wa sahlan," you are most welcome here. He wanted to know all about me, and why I spoke Arabic. And he was really nice to me from that point forward. I have come across many opinions here, some good and some bad. As always, it is far from black-and-white.

Finding Nermal

For any of you Garfield fans, I have indeed found Nermal, the cute nemesis of Garfield. When Garfield would be annoyed at Nermal and her annoying cuteness, he would mail her to Abu Dhabi. I found her purring outside the house last night, now all I need is some lasagna and a drooling puppy named Odie.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Tales of a wandering idiot

Haha, that is someone's angry response to my Pak article. He got in a fight with some Pakistanis in the UK, so therefore I don't know what I am talking about. "this guy is not just an idiot but a dangerous idiot. Know who hates and know who wants you dead! The Jews worst enemies are other stupid Jews!" I luv it. As any of you who know me should know, I love being controversial:) Perhaps I am a fool on a fool's journey. I would rather foolishly wander the world, than reside in a bunker, nursing a persecution complex and a siege mentality.

FRONT PAGE!!!

Jpost gave me top billing for my story on Pakistan. They have never had anyone file a story from there. www.jpost.com, either in the "must-read" section or in the Jewish world section.

"First I snatched the streets, then I snatched the charts. First I had their ear, now I have their hearts."
-Jay-Z, "Get Up"

Ok, I checked it on e-paper, and its only page three. Oh, well. Close, so close. Meanwhile, I spent yesterday wandering around Sharjah. After I finished my article prep, I went wandering around the city, taking pictures of the lights reflecting off the lake. There was a nice park, filled with palmyra wrapped in white lights. Families were having picnics, and playing soccer. There was a beautiful mosque in front of the park that reminded me of the Blue Mosque in Turkey. On the other side of the street were KFC, Dunkin Donuts and Hardees (I don't even have Hardees remotely near me in the US).

It was nice just to see all the kids playing and families having picnics- it could have been anywhere. Yet there was an interesting juxtaposition of kids in western dress, while their parents were in robes and veils. Not all, but many. I think we in the West need to learn to look past the veils. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about it in the "Minister's Black Veil," that we all shroud ourselves, some just do it more visibly.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

All that shimmers

I am in one of the stranger places in my journey, and that really says something. An empire of black gold in the golden sands. It's a mix of Miami glitz, Vegas surrealness and the American/Dubai dream.

Meanwhile, it's strange going from being rich in poor countries to poor in a rich one. I actually had to shave myself! Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I met a Croatian guy named Maren in my hostel who just moved to Dubai to work (he is a clone of Leonid from the Consulate). We took two buses and a taxi to get to the Mall of the Emirates. It's the mall with a ski slope. Yes, you can ski in Dubai, in the middle of the freaking desert. The mall was so bizare. Beyond the skiing, I have never seen such a ritzy mall. Huge place, with roller coasters, a climbing wall, and enough high-end stores to make Rodeo Drive blush. Veiled women in black sequin dresses that sparkle, and men in perfectly white linen robes, wearing designer sunglasses and talking on the latest mobile phones with wires coming out of their robes. Teen girls in designer jeans and shoes, covered slighty by veils- with tons of makeup on their faces. This is only one of a dozen gigantic malls in Dubai. There are other malls with different themes like Arab bazaars and Renaissance styles. So strange.

After I went to the beach, next to the Burj al-Arab hotel. Snow to sand in a short km. Taking the bus back was strange too, with all the guest workers eeking out a living, after being surrounded by the glitterati and their fancy cars. Meanhile, as I waited for the bus, a helicopter landed on the helipad at the Burj-al Arab. Such juxtapositions abound.

I left Dubai for Sharjah. I caught a shared cab with an Indian, Egyptian and Pakistani. All different people here for the same Dubai dream. I had dinner with the Egyptian and Pakistani, it was funny how I played bridge for the Muslim world. Sharjah is slightly less expensive than Dubai. My hostel is $15 rather than $20, here you take all the little breaks you can.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dubai, Dubai du

For the first time in my trip I was feeling very fatigued. I felt very tired, with a lot on my mind. I caught the bus back to my hostel, but first stopped at the Lulu Hypermarket. It was a total culture shock market- a true hypermarket. White-robbed emirati men and black-sequined black veiled women (a cocktail dress that covers head to toe) mixing in a super-market with Indian Hindus and Sikhs, Arabs from across the ME, Filipinos and Europeans, all buying products from South Africa, India, China and the ME. I got a soymilk to quench my Asian thirst and a chocolate custard to cheer me up.

This huge supermarket also had electronics, watches, perfumes and massage chairs. I spent half-an-hour in a state-of-the-art massage chair that made me feel much better. I was laughing hysterically as the chair made my belly jiggle as it massaged me. I spoke with the Filipino guy working there, who had been in Dubai since November- about the same time I have been traveling. He missed his family, as did I. Meanwhile, a call to prayer echoed through the supermarket. In Islam, they say "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet," but in Dubai, there is no god but capitalism, and Adam Smith is his profit.

Today I visited a museum to the old Dubai. Amazing to see how much this place has changed. There was a time when Dubai was a simple villige, with fishermen and pearldivers eeking out a simple existence. All this has changed in a very short time. I visited the beach, and had lunch at McDonalds. A McArabia (two hallal beef patties, special sauce in a pita!)

After I went to visit the Burj al-Arab. Just to see the place costs 200 dirhams (~$60), they also don't allow you in in jeans and flipflops. I tried to talk my way in past security. I offered him a deal, if he would let me in for free, I would bequeth 10% of my future fortune to him (Today's pauper is tomorrow's prince). No dice, he laughed and gave me a brochure. I'm still holding out that a discontented oil sheikh's 4th wife will trade me one night in the penthouse for 7 years good luck. If anyone happens to know any bored wives of filthy rich oil sheikhs, please pass them my number;)

Monday, March 05, 2007

gulfing

After a lovely time staying with my brother's friend Na'adir and his family in Karachi. They live in a beautiful house with 4 servents, and a slew of armed guards and drivers. A real lovely family, interesting too. Mom's a Sunni, Dad's a Shi'ite. I had a real low-key time with them, just watching movies, talking politics and having good food on the Arabian sea. I enjoyed my stay in Pakistan but was ready to get out. A little too much time of having to guard my identity was starting to wear on me. With that said, I really enjoyed my 2 weeks there.

I took a flight this morning to Dubai, and landed in the world's largest shopping mall built on sand. The golden sands were swirling over the roads and covering cities as we made our descent. It is out-of-control here. $20 for a damn dorm room, and that is the best in the city! Avarice and opulence on display. You can go skiing here, indoors of course. As I love to say, nothing exceeds like excess.

peccavi

Going against direct orders, Gen. Charles Napier of the British East India company launched an invasion to capture Sindh for the British empire's imperial-mercantile arm. When ordered by his superiors to report on his endeavor, Gen. Napier wrote back simply: peccavi- latin for "I have sinned (Sindh)."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Karachi and its discontents

After a blessedly relaxed day of napping and doing jack, I managed to stave off getting sick. Never did I think a bombing would be so useful to my health and wellbeing. I had a wonderful time enjoying all the hospitality in Multan, then caught a night train to Karachi. The train was relatively uneventful. I arrived to Karachi and called some family friends that I thought I would be staying with, only to find out that my assumptions were incorrect. I guess I never specified because I thought it was understood that I would be staying with them.

No worries, I called another friend who had invited me to stay with him in Karachi, who I had met in Lahore. I called Husaiyn and told him my predicament and asked if I could stay with him. No problem, he said. Except there was when he asked his parents. No dice to a random stranger. He invited me over for tea to his house, and to meet the family who turned me down. His father proceeded to tell me how dangerous Karachi was, and that I should be really careful and let the American Consulate know where I am staying. Thanks, but if you were really so concerned for my welfare, then wouldn't you consider letting my stay?? Enough rant, I just thought it was strange, to say the least. On the way to find a hotel, Husaiyn also kept telling me how dangerous Karachi is. Thanks, your giving me a warning then sending me to the wolves?

Anywho, I found a hotel, and wandered around. Karachi is choked, crowded, polluted and noisy, in short fond memories of India. I can't say I care too much for the city, it doesn't have much charm or sights to see. Just need to get through a night and a day, then off to the Gulf.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

New pics up

New pics of Amritsar, the Wagah border ceremony and Lahore.

Anecdote about the Golden Temple. It was the subject of an intense fight in 1984, when Sikh separatists were holed up in there and Indira Gandhi sent in the tanks and troops. There was an art gallery at the Golden Temple complex that had all sorts of paintings, some very graphic of Sikhs being tortured. One painting was very interesting, as it was the Golden Temple after the damage was done to it in 1984. The caption mentions the incident, and not so cryptically writes at the bottom, "but the Sikhs got their vengeance."

Meanwhile, my trip to Uch Sharif seems to be off, as there was a bombing today in Multan, and the police have cordoned off the city so no one is getting in or out. Acha, acha (I understand).

Multanate

I woke up yesterday and wasn't sure what to do with myself. There was nothing to do in Rawalpindi, and I decided against going back to Islamabad because the newspaper said there were 4 suicide bombers loose in the city. That really makes it sound much worse, Islamabad was fine. I had no problems and it was very safe.

My train to Multan wasn't until 4:45pm, and with little to do, I decided to cancel my train and take an earlier bus. I made a reservation for a 12:30pm bus, and got back 75% of my train ticket (I lost 60 r, $1). At least on the bus, I could watch a movie, and the scenery. Nice idea in theory, but the bus arrived two hours late- I have no idea why. I got in late, and didn't want to disturb Sa'ad's family (who had invited me to stay with them, and I called from the bus station), so I tried to get a cheap hotel room. I took the rickshaw to the first place, but they said they were full. As did the next 3 places. Strange, I haven't seen any other tourists. Finally at the last place, they leveled with me. They said they had rooms, but wouldn't rent to me as a foreigner. Too many problems associated with it. They said they would have to alert the security services, who would want backsheesh, etc. They simply refused. A bit stuck, I called the family, bothering them even later than if I had just called upon arrival. Ugh. Anyway, they were up and more than willing to come get me.

Today I went shrine-hopping. Multan is famous for its beautiful blue-tiled shrines. I also met all the family. It was very funny. Even auntie said I was like a son, and gave me a little monetary present that comes in handy later in the story. After a nice lunch at the fancy Pizza Hut, where I had tikka pizza, I napped and went to get my train ticket to Karachi.

As usual, that wasn't easy. Ashad, a servant, came with me to help. We went from one office and one counter after another. Finally we got the right counter, but there were no second-class tickets (550 rs~$9). All that was left were first-class (1,560rs~$25), and I was short on the fare. After wrangling about other arrangements, I realized I really needed to get that ticket. I was planning to go to the bank, when Ashad offered to spot me. He covered the difference, and I am now bona-fide first class. As we were heading over to the bank, I reached in my back pocket and pulled out auntie's gift, thereby paying back Ashad and heading home.

Tomorrow, we are going to Uch Sharif (High, holy place) to see a beautiful shrine. For now, I am fighting getting sick as the change in weather is leaving me ill and with chills. Either the change in weather or dengue fever- take your pick.