Friday, February 26, 2010

Least Romantic City?

Itka and I are off to Warsaw tonight, each as correspondant of a different paper (I had to let the organizers know that Israel-Hayom and Maariv are sharing a bedroom). The Poles invited us to attend the openning of the international Chopin year, including recitals by such legends as Kissin, Demidenko and Barenboim, plus a concert conducted by the artful Franz Bruggen.

200 years after his birth, Chopin turns out to be a hard sell. I had to give up on a major magazine article for the weekly supplement and settle for 800 words in the daily culture pages. That's a shame because I had a killer concept. Chopin gets me high. I hear the first notes of "Impromptu Fantasie" and my spirit soars. I could sell Chopin to Indonesian villagers whove heard nothing but Gamelan music their entire lives. I'll use those 800 words to the outmost, do trust.

Warsaw makes me far less ecstatic. I've been there twice so far (all photos are from the latest visit, last year) and each time found it to be Europe's least romantic city. It's none of Warsaw's fault, of course. It was known as the most perfectly demolished city of all those harmed by WWII. It then went under the hammer and sickle for too long. But There's more to this than bad history. I've heard it being described as "the epitomy of all that is not exotic", and found that notion spring to mind with every bite into the bland local sausages.

In other words, Warsaw is a city that demands an effort, it does not offer itself. With five days on our hands, we'll try and discover it. The hypothesis: it's wonderful, it's sexy, it's breathtaking. I'll update you later, as we emerge out of the alleyways of the Praga and the clubs off Marszałkowska. If we're still not into it, you're welcome to take our place in the philharmonic hall when Chopin turns 300.

Twelve Chairs

I'm proud to say it was my idea, a little less proud that it was born out of my lack of success as a musician. "If I can barely fill up a bloody club in Florentine," I told Itka, "why don't I take the opposite approach? I'll play for a forum so small that no matter what happens, people will wind out being stuck outside."

We decided on 12 chairs, in honor of the famous satirical novel by Ilf and Petrov. We also decided to buy a huge bottle of vodka (3 liters) and let people drink as much as they want for the 30 shekels cover charge. Stellina, probably the sweetest person in this city, volunteered her apartment near Rabin square, and filled it up with candles.

It works. I've never had so much fun with my music. There have been four performances so far, each one completely different. The first was photographed by the talented Arnon Tussia Cohen, who produced the image appearing beneath. He's working on a series depicting people while they listen to music. The second show was nearly all conversation. The third feathured a guest star: Texas' own Zach Wheat and his anthem "Fuck You Tel-Aviv".

Last night there was relatively little storytelling and sharing of jokes, and more avant-garde trial and error. the totally corky Yael Birenbaum opened for me with her electric organ singing: "Get on top of me. Get on top of me." I couldn't help but reply with something equally pornographic and launched my own set with "Wintery sex in a Moscow Playground"

The much rootsier Ami Yares, sitting across from me on the couch, pulled out a guitar and played along to most songs, turning each one into an unrehersed duet. I was wearing a feathered bow fit for an Austrian widdow, in honor of Purim, Stellina dressed up as Peter pan. we drank nearly 2 liters of vodka and gradually lost control of the music, which is what music is for.

Granted, there were only 11 of us, and that is the closest I got to 12 so far. But this too is a source of pride for me. When the Mothers of Invention began performing there were often more musicians onstage than in the audience. They made their best music at the time. As a one man show, I can't compete with such feat, but a room full of friends isn't prone to artistically corrupt me.

On this link are the date for the next 12 chair show and Itka's email address. drop her a line and she'll send you the address.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Red Alert

What a week. First the municipality of Tel-Aviv launches a campaign to stop Jewish girls from dating Arab boys. Two days later the government decides that all college and university students will be forced to take a course in Zionist ideology and history. I recommend Dimi Reider's extremely intelligent blog for background on both developments.

Dimi, by the way is more of an optimist than myself. He forsees these classes turning into protest events. I believe that our students, fresh from the army and perhaps not too knowlegable about history, will prefer to pass the course and not flunk in the name of rationalism. As for girls seeing Arab boys, here rebellion is more likely. These girls will have to somehow be scared away from their desire. I wonder what city hall has in mind.

When the city begins to interfere with our lovelife on a racial basis, it ceases to be a municipality and becomes a tool of enforcing racist policies. When the university begins to preach an ideology rather than research it and teach about it, it ceases to be an educational institution and becomes a tool in spreading nationalist dogma.

Where in the past have racist policies and nationalist dogma risen so dramatically and so quickly? Hold on! this is the forbidden comparison! make it today and you'll be thrown from an airplane tomorrow. Instead I will quote prominent historian and Israel-prize laureate Prof. Zeel Sternhall. He said that the only government since WWII that was as reactionary as the current Israeli one was Franco's Spain.

Prof. Sternhell wouldn't be as jittery as most of us about being thrown from airplanes. Two years ago he saw death before his eyes. A right-wing extremist tried to take him out with a bomb and wounded him. That attempted-assasin, U.S. born Jacob Teitel, was caught and put on trial, but the way it looks today, it's only a matter of time before Sternhell and his likes will be the ones taken to court and the various Teitels held as heros.

Sternhell's ideas, after all, negate those that will be taught in the obligatory course. They negate the truth of the state, which is now absolute. How long is it going to take before people who speak out are legaly seen as traitors? How dangerous is it for me to be writing these words right now, considering that they are to be read by others in a very unpromising future?

How near is that future?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Skirt Chasers

Lets face it, the holiday of Purim really has nothing to do with the its supposed biblical source. I have no doubt that it predates the book of Esther, and was probably adopted from the very Persians who are vilified in that text. Jews, like persians, need at least one day a year to break loose. Catholics need one too, and have thus invented carnival.

Both Carnival and purim allow grown ups full freedom to choose a diguise and fulfill a fantasy (much more so than Haloween, which is mostly identified with kids) It should come as no surprise that both holidays are heaven for anyone who's interested in playing with gender identity. I love doing that, so it's a big shame that I'll be away for business on the holiday this year.

Stuck as I am in my boring, bearded, male persona, the least I can do is give my readers a Purim gift, a "mishloach manot", if you will. Thus, I decided to honor this earth's true masters of disguises and pay homage to a handful of great female impersonators

When looking for "female impersonator" on wikepedia, one gets automatically directed to "drag queen". In my understanding, this isn't precise. Drag queens exaggarate female attire and behavior, creating in a sense a third, comical gender that can be used to express gay notions, humor and critical content. Female impersonators are about illusion. Their art is tromp l'eoil, and it's an ancient art. check our this poster from 1896.

Even this guy is rather pre-stonewall. In his day, Julian Eltinge was such a star that he gave a commend performance before the king of England. I read somewhere that in preparation for his act he used to go as far as shaving the backs of his fingers. Eltinge was probably straight, and acted in several films as a man.

Fernando Marcano is one of the most beautiful women in Venezuela and a sort of a national symbol, well, if you're gay in Caracas, I guess, or otherwise a drag addict.

And here is Germany's Chris Kolonko. I happen to have met him face to face here in Tel-Aviv just recently, so I can tell you the airbrushing of this photo was completely unneccesary, the man makes a great woman in real life.

I couldn't help but finish the tribute with the picture of a real woman. This photo of a drag king is by talented Canadian photographer Tanja Tiziana. Drag kings, like drag queens, tend to take the portrayal of the other gender to an extreme. They have less of a choice, though. Women in convincing drag tend to look young. Playing it rough prevents them from being mere "drag kids". This one pulls of a nice look, without painting on a moustache.

These people are the answer to the whiny Israeli children's song: "why doesn't Purim happen twice a week." why? because we don't let it. Those who made Purim their profession enjoy it often. If this is indeed a day in which we break societal conventions and bounderies, then these are some subversive personalities, role models for our opressive day and age. Keep that in mind when you choose a costume this year.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dark by Night, Dark by Day

This week kicked off with two very interesting trips. The first was to Yad Haroutzim, one of Tel-Aviv's roughest nightlife districts. On Thursdays and Fridays the streets of the compound are the site of many a stabbing. Real life metal detectors are placed outside the clubs, and the music is as aggressive as the atmosphere. For some reason working class suburban kids love these vibes and descend on these streets by the thousands.

We came on a Saturday, as chaperons for our friend Goni, who had to take photos for a magazine article. The compound turned out to be dead. The dangerous energies gave way to the blues. It was thick blues, the sort of which I haven't felt in this city before. Yad Haroutzim felt like a container into which Israel's augmenting violence, waning education and diminishing values are dumped. We were there just as that trashcan was emptied, walking though the gloomy void that was left.

The following day we traveled 70 kilometers away, to Hebron. I used to come here often, mostly assisting the organization "Breaking the Silence", which gives tours of the city from a human rights perspective. For nearly a year I stayed away. As I expected, not much has changed. In fact, the only visible difference was that soldiers are no longer wearing full combat gear in the city. the destructive status quo, whereby Hebronites are perpetually held hostage, has rooted. No one threatens it.

Palestinians are still not allowed to walk on the main streets. The center of the city is a ghost town, in which 300 Jewish settlers are free to terrorize the Palestinian populatio with support of the army. Hebron feels like a container into which Israel's augmenting violence, waning education and diminishing values are dumped. Its streets at noon are as silent as Yad Haroutzim's streets on a Saturday night. Again that feeling of walking through an empty, dirty trashcan. Here it is, as photographed by Itka.

It's not too difficult to stay away from both Hebron and Yad Haroutzim. Israel looks great from the cafe in which I write this. Everyone is well dressed, educated and polite. We all enjoy liberties and rights similar to those of our brethren in Europe and North Amorica. Outside the window, good looking cars are climbing lazily up the tree-lined Ben-Zion Boulevard, passing the newly renovated national Theatre as they reach the top.

In reality, ours is a society in a state of crisis. The dark side of Israeli existance is getting darker. Many Israelis are struggling to cast more light: teachers, activists, volunteers et al. The government isn't helping much. It's more concerned about buying fake glasses and eyebrows and sending hit men for murder vacations in fancy Dubai hotels. Oh well, at least someone around here is having an authentic good time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Meet the Mainstream

Sometimes it's hard to be an oddball, particularly when you got to think you no longer were one. The ugly duckling is comfortable with the swans, the ugly swan is happy among the duckling. But sometimes they both have to visit the old neighborhood. Yesterday was such a day for Itka and I. It was Shavit's birthday.

The lovely Shvait is Keren's beyfriend, and Keren is Itka's friend from highschool. Both still live in the suburban town of Rehovoth, south of Tel-Aviv. This is the town in which Itka grew up, and which is incidently the cradle of my own family: both my parents were born there.

In order to stay in Rehovoth and enjoy its reasonable real-estate, one must embrace the values of the Israeli mainstream. People with such political opinions and liberal lifestyle as Itka and myself would find life there rather difficult. Even attending a lazy weekend party with Rehovotites turned out to be a challange, at least for myself.

To begin with, we don't own a television set. Consequnetly I found myself confused in most conversations. somebody would say some random word in a funny accent and everyone would laugh. I had to assume that it was some comical TV reference that all recognized, all but for me.

The other difficulty had to do with politics. The party took place in Tel-Aviv's Park Darom (literally South Park), a place where many religious and working class families, typically associated with the right, go to spend a fair Saturday. Our own section of the park was lined with blue and white baloons. Blue and white - because the theme of the birthday party, as organized by Keren, was "Israel". Only Israeli music was to be played and a karaoke machine equipped with Mizrahi songs allowed us to add noise to the park's commotion. Keren kept referring to me endearingly as "the shameless leftist".

Perhaps the most obvious cultural gap between us and the others was the most subtle one. It has to do with the Army service. Neither Osnat nor myself have served in the I.D.F., each for a different reason. The Army provides Israelis with a unique essence in their communication. It's a rustic essence that often makes me feel like an over-delicate Eton boy in conversations.

In the Army, you can't talk "high" or you'll be embarrassing yourself and others. It's very important to stay down to earth and never challange the other conversants with exclusive knowledge or opinions. This trait remains in the Israeli psyche. Even when I caught a some guy talking to his friends about his impending flight to Madrid with a layover in Prague, I couldn't get the conversation to be about either Madrid or Prague. Any mention of anything besides how much layovers suck, was ignored.

Keeping lowbrow is perfectly fine in a picnic situation, but these guys were keeping way lowbrow. I didn't buy it. These are intelligent people. They are Jewish, and Jewish society originally revered education. Israeli Jewish society, however, regards education as secondary and instead reveres the Military.

Are these wasted minds? I am a stuck-up misfit, no different from other trecherous deserters who are currently being demonized by Israeli politicians? Let's not get the quarrel started. It's a birthday party, for heaven's sake.

All in all, it was a good party thrown by lovely hosts. Once I got my go at the Mizrachi karaoke, I was feeling more at home. and once the guitar was out, South Park began to look pretty good indeed.

One day propaganda may make Itka and I into real personas non gratas. That day isn't here yet. As long as both "good Israelis" from Rehovot and Tel-Avivian post-Zionists can still raise a toast together, I'm glad. Currently, It doesn't really matter whether you're a duckling or a swan, so long as the pond is filled with beer.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mirror, Mirror beyond the Wall

Ok, so 15 Israeli soldiers enter Ramallah at night and arrest two European women in their 20s. The excuse: the two have overstayed their tourist visas. In reality these women were members of International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, a non-violent organization of international volunteers supporting the Palestinian cause.

The two women are then handed over to the loving arms of the Oz unit, the force created through a loophole in Israeli law to replace the old immigration police. The Oz unit is subject to the ministery of the interior and enjoys greater liberties than most policing forces on earth. In fact, it enjoys such unparralleled liberty, that its own people have acted more than once inside Ramallah, i.e. outside the recognized bordrs of Israel.

When the Oz unit or the I.D.F. enter the West Bank in search of foreign volunteers, they perform an illegal act, but legality is of little concern in Israel today. What matters is fear, and the young people who come here with ISM are what we fear.

We fear them because the turn the Palestinians into who we used to be. In the early years of the Jewish state, many Europeans came here to volunteer in the Kibbuzim and give a hand to the Zionist endeavor. A fair haired American girl, picking Bananas by the sea of Galillee, was a symbol of Israel's beauty. Once such a girl is murdered by an Israeli bulldozer, while serving as a human shield to stop house demolition in Gaza, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and admit: we have become monsterous. This is what happened to ISM activist Rachel Corrie in 2003, this is what happened to us.

We don't like looking at ourselves in the mirror. We'd much rather smash the mirror by arresting and deporting (though we're not completely adolescent. The Israeli supreme court ordered the two Ramallah activists freed). Most Israelis would claim it's a crooked mirror and that ISM volunteers are impressionable kids at best, possibly antisemites.

I know this not to be the case. One night in Hebron I was with a group of Israeli activists. We were watching over an abandoned Palestinian house that the settlers threatened to take over. The watch was to last two nights, only until the Palestinians managed to renovate the interior and make the house livable for a local renter. I spent most of the first night by the fire in the yard, but was catching a serious cold and had to be indoors. Two ISM volunteers escorted me to their apartment, at the foot of Tel-roumeida and made a bed for me there.

I stayed up nearly till dawn, chatting with them and the other volunteers by the kitchen table. They were extraordinarily lovely. Those were good people who have come to build, not destroy, and who took no offence at my nationality. I challanged them, playing devil's advocate more than once. The challenges were met with attentiveness and willingness to discuss.

Later, a bunch of them came to stay with me in Tel-Aviv. I wanted to show them the other side of things and did. They loved it here, especially after having spent two weeks under artillery fire in Nablus. I remember one girl saying to me: "I am so troubled by how much I like Tel-Aviv. I didn't want to like it that much."

I said: "You shouldn't feel bad that Tel-Aviv is in a good shape. That is a good thing. You should wish for Nablus to be in an eqaully good shape. Once that materializes, your work here is done."

The Soul has no Body but the Body has a Soul

Could a poem bearing the Valentine's-Day-appropriate title "You are my Girlfriend" be scandalous? Yes, if it's written in Hebrew. In the ancient tongue of Moses, all second-person references are gender specific. "You are my Girlfriend", by late Israeli poet Yona Wallach, is written for a man.

It also features the Hebrew equivelants of such words as "pussy" and "prick". When the ministry of education caught word that a teacher in sleepy suburban Kfar Saba was teaching it to 12th graders, they reprimanded her strongly. Her students were shocked that their favorite teacher, the one who actually got them to love literature, was under fire. They quickly formed a guerilla cell and launched a media attack.

The story got exposed in "Haaretz" and made powerful enough waves that Gideon Sa'ar, The Minister of education, felt obliged to comment. He came to the teacher's defence, while maintaining that the poem should not be taught. "There are limits", he said.

This in turn stirred further wrath among Wallach's fans. Today's Haaretz editorial sharply criticizes the minister. I find that while the poem really can't be mistaken for anything by Beatrix Potter and may not be the poet's finest (a translation is provided) I side with the paper.

I too was taught texts by Wallach (pronounced Vollach) in high school, and they are why I believe in Hebrew poetry. They taught me that poetry is a living creature, that it is the most dangerous, fantastic form of art there is. Yes, Wallach's poetry is lewed, it's as lewed as the language these kid's speak, which is why they would find it credible, which is why they would believe other poets, which is why they will end up writing poetry themselves.

Wallach's fearless use of language and blurring of gender lines are part of what makes her great (a peek into my previous post will clarify my position on woman who challange gender cliches), but it's only a part of it. She's great because she is profound. If the ministry of Education can't deal with profound poetry, than literature shouldn't be taught here at all. Minister Sa'ar recently initiated a program featuring visits by military officers to schools. I think we should forget about teaching the kids how to read, and just have do with teaching them how to kill. That's not considered so controversial around these parts.

You are my Girlfriend / Yona Wallach

You are my girlfriend
You've got the head of a girl
And you are a girl girl
Like that sweet kid
Said to me in appreciation
You are a guy girl
Or otherwise a girl guy
Because to begin with
Women are undervalued
But your crooked head
Makes you live with a girl
Maybe she's really a guy girl
But you don't talk about it
You live an established life
"Comme il faut"
Similar to all other lives
But entirly empty
Open only outwards
Without content that isn't there
Isn't there
Because your essences are different
And they are silent and paralized
And censored
She may not know
And may not ever know
That she's a lesbian who prefers guys
And you are a gay man who prefers girls
And you are a girl
She's a guy
It kind of works together
It's the mind that matters after all
Not the bodily form
Imagined testicles
Concealing a desiring pussy
Or a pussy
Concealing testicles
A bit of of beauty, of vain charm
Brings about preciseness, the balancing of deviance
Which awakens regardless
With the excessive honesty
Drawing a line down from the mouth
Lack of humor, trecherous charm
In a language as if that of simple teaching
That fails to consider the existance of lie of trechery
With all its complex charmingness lightness cunningness
That must be fought that is essintial
A funny little empty demon
But me I have exact feeling
I hear your fucking voice
Smokey scorched cynical
And I know by the angle of the harm you inflict on me
The voice of the gay man
Tat caught me on accident and is exploiting her to the end
In order to trick me lurking for me waiting for me to give all
Really really whatamistake I thought of you as a guy
I called him you
Girl, you take advantage of the oppurtunity rising over my momentary ignorance
And you crucify me instantly
Forgetting yourself and the main problem of your life
Perhaps recalling them via my forgetfullness above me rests a face
That awaits unconscious sensativity of me so as to look
without thinking that I can learn something of this in replay
to set you a more cleaver trap next time
and forgetting that you, girl, are like everybody else
You wish to advance stay alive
To draw a contineous line of experience
It's feminine wickedness I'm suddenly recruiting to the aid of my understanding
And grabbing the prize dear me something here can be precieved
Really a typical feminine structure feminine wickedness
And to always be you
My girlfriend sweet one with testicles
And the body of a guy
The first girlfriend I've had who taught me how a girl's head works
To be acquainted with what is central in life
To the personality forming from one moment to the next to your own lack of awareness
To not knowing who you are in you
With sexual essence its center but as character not sex
Something that can be seperated and heard in a clear voice
That can't be played if unknown
As if we are not
There is no pussy between the legs, no prick there
A spirit wothout a body is moving about the house
Which explains beliefs in the eternal nature of the soul its independance from body and consciousness
The soul has no body but the body has a soul
Facial expressions deny the existance of body
All the time the soul and God speak to us and that is very good
Otherwise we'd forget that we exist and are alive
Otherwise all would be lost without the seperation by a third party
In this case the adoption of an impossible but sufficiantly suspicious identity.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


It's just my luck to find myself involved in an argument about armpits. Itka doesn't shave hers (see above image), while our friend Maya had her own armpit hairs perpetually removed. Who's more of a woman?

As the argument erupted today, Itka quoted Naomi Wolf, author of "The Beauty Myth". Wolf claims that the requierments of feminine beautification are a form of opression inflicted on women. Maya doesn't feel opressed. She feels beautiful. Itka does too. However, as Maya points out, Itka has a boyfriend who doesn't mind her hairy armpits, whereas Maya is single and can't afford to lose a good guy simply because he's somewhat fond of the common concepts of beauty.

"Do you really want to date a guy who's not a Feminist?" Itka asked.

"Well, now we'll have to define what's a Feminist."

"A Feminist is someone who believes that men and women should be seen as equal and be treated by eqaul measures."

I interfered by saying that I think Feminism is like Judaism. that it's about what you do, more so than what you believe. Men and women are not treated as equals. if you find something to do about this and do it, then you're a Feminist.

Fine, but what do I do to better women's situation? I accept my girlfriend with her hairy armpits, but That's too easy, since I find them sexy. I once wrote a single op-ed dealing with trafficing in women and the police's failure in dealing with the problem. That's not much.

If the little I can do at the moment is discuss bodily hair, so be it. In a Book written in the 70s, Israeli author and notorious Casanova Dan Ben-Amotz bemoans the fashion of shaven feminine armpits. He attacks deodorants on the same breath, seeing in them an assault against the body's natural odors, which for millenia were a tool in sending erotic signals among humans.

It seems that whenever a woman's bodily part is permitted to catch some sun, there instantly follows an assault on the down covering it. Once the miniskirt was introduced, so were feminine razors. Tanktops were invented soon thereafter, and the blades went after that charming, barely visible bit of hair gracing the underarm. Such hair grows quickly, so keeping a bald axilla is an extra demanding requierment burdoning the well groomed lady; extra demanding, and completely unneccesary.

The same proccess continues with the pubic hairs. True, those are not yet commonly exposed to daylight, yet the masterminds at Gillette have somehow found their way down there too. After being married for seven years and then divorcing, I returned to courting pretty women, only to discover that they have changed. On my first round as a bacholer, I never even encountered a shaved groin. Now I found myself startled again and again to find that something was missing, a little bit of furry womanly warmth.

Then it hit me, I've read them! All the articles I read over the years, praising the "Brasilian" as the new way for a girl to be, they all led to something. I could see how consumerist media promoted this further stripping of a woman natural appearence, and simply had to agree with Wolf. it's a conspirecy.

Being a guy, I won't preach to women not to shave. I completely respect Maya's decisions as I do those of any of my readers. But as a symbolic act of protest, and a call for the return of all hairs, including the faint, not at all uncommon feminine moustache (which actually becomes some girls, I dated one and loved catching a glimpse of it just before we kissed), I sacrificed my own oxter to a sharp piece of metal. If that looks ridiculous, imagine half of humanity being requiered to do so.

One Blessing Counted

I stood today on a hill overlooking Tel-Aviv and took this photo:

It may not move most of you very much. but it moves me. I have been to this city in 1987. Back then, only the white highrise in the middle of the image soared over the rooftops. The buildings on the far left were under construction. That was it.

Socialist-minded friends have been known to mock me for loving skyscrapers, but skyscrapers give a town the air of an exciting metropolis. Less than a quarter of a century ago, this was not an exciting metropolis. My friends and I would take the bus from Jerusalem, and get off at the old bus terminal, by far the trashiest, dirtiest, noisiest place I've ever been to. A policeman with one arm showed us the way to the #5 bus. we had to walk over piles of trash to get to the stop.

The bus itself was a proper antique, dating back to the 50s. We would enter through the back, where a plump woman was sitting in a tiny cage, taking care of ticket sales while the driver focused on driving. All of this was exotic to us Jerusalemites. See, in our town the cops had two arms each, trash was more regularly removed (Tel-Aviv at the time suffered several strikes of the city's garbage treatment personnel, rendering it intermittenly unlivable) and the buses were more modern. We were excited: Tel-Aviv! the big city! crumbling concrete! deadly humidity!

I can't even convey how decrepid south Tel-Aviv was in those days. I must be a poet to do that. Thankfully, local wordster Meir Wiezeltier heeded the call in real time. "a city with no concept," he called it, "peeling paint, a weeping shutter, a dead bus." and later on: "a city without feeling, a desperate cavern of smog, a screeching tin swing."

Yes, that's just what it was. We forgot that. I look for images of 1980s Tel-Aviv online and find nothing relevant to this air of despair, this city in a state of ill repair, the dump that it was. We forgot how green with poison the Yarkon river used to be, how dull the restaurants were before globalization raised our standards, how secluded was the true urban scene, kept in a ghetto around Sheinkin street, how the Dizengoff shopping center was all that this city had going for it, that, until they installed Yaacov Agam's fire-and-water-spurting fountain nearby and gave the city its Eiffel tower.

Sometimes it's nice to stand on a low hill, look backwards and remember that the good old days were really pretty bad. It's alright now, though. The eighties are over, our city is pretty damn gorgeous and will hopefully remain that way until asymetrical earings are in vogue once more.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Voice from Ajami

For three years now I've been living in a neighborhood that gave its name to a cinematic sensation (technically across the street from it, but not in any more glorious surroundings). Itka moved here a year ago from another, equally interesting part of Jaffa. She one-upped me as an Ajamite, though: She actually watched the film.

So today, when my friend and hard-working journalist Anna Kemper wrote from Berlin, it was Itka she needed. Since Copti and Shani's "Ajami" got its Oscar nomination, Interest around it grew in Europe. Anna was looking for an insider's perspective and got perhaps more than she bargained for. I remember Itka returning from the cinema ill at ease after watching Ajami. Amidst the white noise of appreciation, she voiced reservation, having sensed a whiff of exploitation.

What she wrote today begs to be featured here as a guest text. Here it is, accompanied by photos both of us have taken over the past two years.

Dear Anna,

Had the film "Ajami" been given a different, fictional name and featured professional actors, I would say it's a good action movie, but "Ajami" is named after a real neighborhood in which I live, and features real people, whom I know. For this reason I felt a great discomfort watching it. I found the reality of Ajami to be distorted in the film in several ways.

There are many problems of violence in Ajami, but they are portrayed as being similar to those of any big city slum. The story here is different. The problems stem from the government's racist policies which define Israeli Arabs as 2nd degree citizens, and have contibuted to turning West Bank and Gaza Palestinians into the victims of human rights violations.

When the makers of Ajami reveal, they reveal partially. When they keep an issue hidden, it's hidden entirely. The biggest problem in Ajami today is the housing. This problem is not even mentioned in the film! during the war of 1948, many Arabs fled from their houses. Israel took possession of those houses. In most of them the government settled Jews and in some neighborhoods, such as Ajami and the old city of Acco, Arabs.

Since then, most of the houses in ajami belong to the state and the tenants are paying rent even if they used to own the house before the war. Today, the real estate sharks are discovering the nice, old beachfront neighborhood and are promoting a fast, cruel gentrification process in which a lot of the tenents are kicked out with no housing solution. the houses in north Ajami are now all gated mansions worth millions of dollars.

There's always been a Jewish minority in Ajami, living for the most part in peace with its neighbors. "Ajami" the film focuses on confrontations and tensions that exist between Jews and Arabs in Israel, But I find most relationships between the two groups in this specific neighborhood to be good and warm.

Yes, there's a crime issue here, and the usual baggage, but politically driven murders such as the one described in the film are exceedingly rare. Compared with mixed neighborhoods in such towns as Ramle and Lod, Ajami fares well. It is actually a good example of Arab/Jewish coexistance, if you rule out the yuppies that come to live in their palaces up north.

The main story, that of a teenage shot by mistake, is real. But Ajami has so many good things going for it. Good community life, solidarity, beautiful spots and a unique energy. Almost none of this is present in the film. The hardship of Ajami is caused by a political reason, and that isn't present in the film either. The filmmakers present real problems, but don't reveal their significant source. If they can't deal with these issues, they should have named the film "Faaadlu" and set it in some imaginary land.


Osnat Ita Skoblinski

Pun Intended

The obscene campaign directed at the New Israeli Fund is what everybody's talking about. However, not everyone is talking about it in the same language.

Short synopsis for those who missed out: The N.I.F. supports all sorts of social organizations in Israel, among them those that deal with preservation of human rights and with advancment of progressive thought. This week, an obscure reactionary organization named "Im Tirzu", one that calls for "reeducation" of non right-wing Israelis, launched an extremely well funded campaign against the fund. It claims that organizations supported by it are responsible for the Goldstone comittee's harsh critique of Israel's military actions in Gaza.

The Campain's main image is that of Naomi Chazan, the fund's director, with a horn growing out of her forehead. It seems to be a fake horn strapped there, rather than an organic horn. Nonetheless, this is perhaps the worst pun in the history of advertizing. In Hebrew the word "keren" signifies both "horn" and "fund". So Mrs. Hazan has a horn, a.k.a. fund. Great, children.

The horn motif carries very obvious racist references. Antisemitic religious leaders in various places around the world still teach their flock that Jews re born with horns. Friends who have traveled the American heartland told me of small town folk who timidly asked to touch their scalps, then asked them whether the surgery was painful.

Why are Jews said to have horns? because the devil is said to have horns. Why does the devil have horns? because early christianity saught to destroy the animlistic worship of rams in ancient europe. It did so by portraying the horned ram as a demonic creature and designing the image of Satan as his double. In short, horns and defemation are synonimous in western culture.

The hilarity of it all is that while Israelis "got" the pun, most non-Hebrew speakers didn't. The ad first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, an English language newspaper. All that the readers saw there was a rhinolike woman, a caricature that seemed cut directly out of some old Geobelsian pamphlet. The readership of the right-leaning jpost produced little outcry. They disagree deeply enough with the progressive left to accept horned women.

I don't. I believe that personal defemation begins in a charicature and often ends in a funeral (Rabin's image, computer-manipulated to look as though he was wearing an SS uniform, was shown on banners in right-wing demonstrations weeks before his assasination). I also believe that further diverting the discussion of the Goldstone report from its content to an issue of funding, is cynicism at its worst. The same trick was played when the organization "Breaking the Silence" released a compandium of soldiers' testimonies from the Gaza slaughter. Rather than deal with the accusations, the Israeli leadership immidiately began seeking "fishy funders" of the organization. What they found was the Dutch government. Well done.

I wonder how the throne of the Netherlands would have reacted at the time, had an Israeli organization published the image of Queen Beatrix sporting a horn. Would they have made our Ambassador to the Hague sit on a low chair and yakked at him in Dutch? I doubt it deeply. The untranslatable quality of the horn pun is not the only reason foreigners aren't "getting the joke". Eleswhere in the world such concepts as respect and civility are actually maintained. It's only we who threw them to the wind, and are kicking each other and others gladly, like a herd of rams and goats.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Smoke on the Water

There was a double rainbow over Jaffa today, it's raining intermittenly and the air is fresh. This makes me want to write about smoke.

Like salmon and salami, wintery cities are best consumed smoked. I remember Prague in the 1990s. What was it the burned in the fireplaces? It smelled great, anyway. The same odor met me on the wooden allyways of Istanbul's run down Fatih quarter, a decade later. I watched an old woman chopping wood in her doorway, but this wasn't the smell of burning wood, or peat, it was the smell of a city hiding from it's own skies, sowing a down comforter of mysterious smog to shield itself from brutal February.

February isn't brutal around here, and the only smoke on the street is that of apple-sweetened tobacco. shisha smoke, nargila smoke, or hookah pipe, as you will. This is the smell of winter for me. When I first put the foreign, forbidden nozzle into my mouth it was in Bethlehem, on New years' eve of 1999. It rained so hard over the nativity square that my friends and I had to escape into a cloister. A bunch of Palestinian highschool kids were smooking their "tufah" there, beating on a tin pot and singing.

I took enough puffs to learn what I would later know too well, that nargila is hard stuff, that one head of it is equivelent to two packs of cigarettes, that after smoking one by onerself, the contour of one's lungs is clearly felt within one's ribs and that it's nonetheless a delight.

Then there was Cairo in January, the scent attacking you as soon as you stepped out of the building. Not that wintery a city, you would think, and be very wrong. A grim sky over the Nile at sunset welcomed us into a freezing dining experience on a blufftop overlooking the town. The restaurant consisted of a nothing but a terrace. Only a hot porridge called "Oum Ally" could save us, that and the blessed little charcoals, crackling over the bubbling pot.

And there was Berlin, just recently, walking up the Karl Marx Strasse in the snow for a puff of home, with Marieke and Julian and Kike from Cuba. The hooka bar was full of ageing Palestinians who may or may not have welcomed me had they known where I was from. The smoke was the same smoke, it went well with the queit of the street afterwards, with the murmur of the fresh snow pressed under our feet, with the mix of German and spanish and the odd line of a Hebrew song.

Sometimes, when I want this place to just go up in smoke, I remember that it is billowing smoke, much more so than Berlin, in the least. I then go down to Hamouda and Abed's place by the sea and inhale a few carcenogens, just a few, in the good quiet company of Ajami's card players. Today, with the streets neatly washed as to mirror double rainbows, Jaffa doesn't seem too cruel. It certainly doesn't seem helpless. The heating is scarce which lets us all show off our scarves, so rarely used. The waves, a few hundred yards away, are grey and cruel like clouds over London's chimnies. No cannons are firing, it's a good time to light the peace pipe.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Declaration of Intentions

A blog hanging on the wall in the first act will shoot in the third. This is a new dawn for "Everywhere". Ten months have passed since the beginning of the long break, and most things have deteriorated since. We've got a deeply reactionary government, a new political police pretending to be an immigration police. It intimidates opposition protesters and gets rid of the foreigners among them, then the formal police arrests the rest. We've got a foreign policy consisting of making ambassadors sit on low, uncomfortable chairs and putting them down in a language they can't understand. We've got a Prime Minister who tells us foreigners are stealing our job and causing us to "become third world".

When the macro is in the dumps, the micro sometimes blossoms. On the personal level I've been having a great year, lost very few hairs and gained hardly any wegiht. I got to travel far and wide: to Bangkok, to the Polish-Ukrainian frontier country, to Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Jaljulya... I've got Itka by my side and it's stronger and more passionate than ever. I'm theatre critic with a major newspaper and am posting my reviews on yet another blog. I've completed another book (still unpublished, possibly unpublishable) and made lots of new friends. In short, this paragraph finds me well enough physically and mentally to take arms against the previous paragraph and kick the national reality in its graceful little bullocks, which, with the kind help of your reading eyes and typing fingers, I intend to do.