Monday, March 30, 2009

Armenia 2

A few more impressions of Armenia, particularly the capital Yerevan , which is home to a third of Armenians. The photo above of a photographer's display window includes a few national heroes, including Charles Aznavour.

A warm, inviting office building from the Soviet period. Smart new shopping parades are however beginning to erase the oppressive Soviet architectural legacy.

Stunning sheshbesh (backgammon) boards on sale in a Sunday morning Yerevan street market. The game is popular all over the Middle East as well. Although almost 100% Christian, Armenia felt like part of the Middle East too and there was an obvious mixing of cultures.

Banjo-playing old dude, Yerevan street market. We heard some traditional Armenian music at a restaurant, belted out by a mixed duo in traditional dress. A bit too strident and Balkan for my taste.

The cathedral-like food market in Yerevan suggests a Soviet stab at capturing the atmosphere of the east. As soon as you walk in, determined moustachioed men wielding knives, hack out slices of fruit stuffed with nuts and stuff them into your mouth: an aggressive (and effective) marketing ploy.

Laying a wreath at the memorial to the Armenian genocide. There is a nearby grove where various international figures and bodies have planted a tree in memory of the victims. Jacques Chirac, for example. However trees planted by US, UK or Israel were not to be found (there was a tree planted by the Armenian Jewish community). All these countries, and more, are wary of infuriating Turkey, but upon exiting the well-documented exhibition of the Armenian genocide, this knowledge didn't help me feel less ashamed.

Armenia is proud of its cultural heritage but as a strageically located small country with very limited resources it needs to find a more stable niche in the chaotic post-Soviet era. Conversations with locals and a bit of reading revealed a pretty sad political picture of Armenia today.

Following the (Feb 08) election result, opposition protests began in Yerevan's Freedom Square, in front of the Opera House. On March 1st, the demonstrators were violently dispersed by police and military forces and President Robert Kocharyan declared a 20-day state of emergency. This was followed by mass arrests and purges of prominent members of the opposition, as well as a de facto ban on any further anti-government protests. (Wikipedia)

Locals told us that you could distinguish the cars of the different business oligarch clans by their number plates. If they ended with 500 for example, they belonged to the oligarch who had the monopoloy on the import of concrete.. or whatever. And in fact the black SUVs of these powerful families could be seen all over Yerevan. As if to verify a story I'd been told, we pulled up at some traffic lights next to a smart black van driven by the 14 year old son of an oligarch. He fleetingly peered down his nose at our scruffy taxi before returning his attention to a pretty and heavily made up 14 year old girl. The lights changed and he left us in the dust. The police, I was told, are too scared to enforce the law against these characters.

A police car circyling a bust of Sakharov....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Armenia 1

'Please do not bargain' reads the sign on the babushka stand in Yerevan's market.

The opportunity to spend a few days in Armenia, mainly in Yerevan the capital, gave me with a taste of life in the southern Caucasus, a part of the world not often heard about until trouble breaks out there and one not often on our minds here in our own turbulent Middle East. But after learning something about the complex Ngorno Karabakh conflict (too complex to go into here) I couldn't avoid noting some comparisons.

Kids in the Tigranashen village, Armenia, once populated by Azeri citizens of Armenia and now by Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. The population swap was carried out in the last days of USSR.

In case you were wondering, "Armenia is a landlocked mountainous country in South Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Located at the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, it borders Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran and the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan to the south." (Wikipedia).

Of these surrounding countries, the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, just as Israel's borders are closed to its north. Like Israel too, Armenia has had its own Armenian genocide, its diaspora, and its occupied territories. So, all in all, I felt quite at home.

Armenian soldiers on the streets of the capital Yerevan

The history of the Ngorno Karabakh conflict is long and convoluted. Suffice it to say that today, Ngorno Karabakh is a self declared Republic now populated only by Armenians that is de jure part of Azerbaijan. The Armenian army also controls another 9% of Azerbaijani territory in buffer zones around Karabakh. The oil rich Azerbaijanis are however buying up arms and threatening to retake the region by force. Meanwhile, the Minsk Group (Russia, US, France) is supposed to be working out a diplomatic solution. Russia supports the Armenians. Turkey supports Azerbaijan. The Armenians want the Turks to recognise the Armenian genocide while the Turks have been softening their line on relations with Armenia somewhat. The Armenians, nearly all of them Christians, are also keen to maintain friendly relations with their neighbours the Iranians. Got all that?

A cinema in central Yerevan. The Armenian language reigns but until 1991, this was the capital of a Soviet Republic so people also speak Russian. The town , we were told, was also full of Iranian tourists, celebrating the Iranian new year.

Rosanna was born in Ngnorno Karabackh, fled the war, and moved to three different countries before returning to Yerevan. Her aristocratic family is trying to regain the land it lost to the Soviets. Like all Armenians she would like the Turks to recognise the 1915 genocide and for Mount Ararat at which she's gazing in this photo, to again be part of Armenia.
This Armenian couple in the isolated village of Eghegnavan are refugees from Baku in Azerbaijan. There, he was an oil drilling engineer, while here they live in poverty. They show us the deeds to their house in Baku where, they said, their neighbours turned on them overnight. Some 32,000 Armenians were exchanged for over 600,000 Azeris in the "ethnic cleansing" during the Ngorno Karabakh war.

Like the Promised Land, Mount Ararat, actually situated in Turkey, can be seen but not reached.

More photos of Armenia here

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Good taste, bad taste

The old Turkish Ottoman railway station in Manshiyeh, Yaffo, that stood empty and neglected for decades has recently been beautifully restored as a venue for events and exhibitions. The trains that use to take passengers to Jerusalem and back are now just quaint props. They should have replaced by a fast train line to Jerusalem but this will have to wait for the coming of the messiah.

Meanwhile 'The Station' (hatachana) in its new guise is open for business, the first event being an art fair called 'Fresh Paint'.

Part of the floor of the main station has been turned into a sort of disco dance floor. with constantly changing designs.

The place was packed and so were the walls. My eyes now move instinctively towards the photographs.

The one below caught my attention. It''s an obviously staged photo of a young soldier showing off his new uniform, his mobile phone, his muscles and his aggressive dog to a group of younger admirers around a water tap. The scene could have been taken in any one of scores of development towns or poor neighbourhoods. The scene is an exercise in bad taste and a comment on the tendency of ordinary Israelis to worship the military and its accompanying status symbols. Click for details.

In the same spirit, this weekened's Ha'aretz magazine carries a story called 'Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009' revealing some of the stomach turning designs ordered by snipers for their T shirts. Something's happening to our society and it's not good. The reports from soldiers who served in the Gaza war of the killing of civilians, fits this depressing pattern. In a different vein, I loved this installation of hundreds of little plastic 'Keter' chairs, made actually of clay. The front rows contain the 'reserved' sign that divides the elite from the plebs and the whole scene triggers associations of too many public events.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Razor blades, old brigades, Mid Life Crisis hit parades


This old advert for 'Shalom' razor blades slowly peeling on the dusty window of an abandoned parfumeria can be seen as symbolic. I liked the fact that Shalom was a NEW........ISH PROCESS, although it's obvious that some of the letters have been erased. Might this have been a NEW JEWISH PROCESS? or maybe it was ENGLISH PROCESS. In any event, like the blades, shalom seems to have been superceded.


Rehov Alexandroni, presumably named after the Alexandroni Brigade that fought in the 1948 War, receives a new interpretation for English speakers. Apparently someone at the municipality thought they'd be more interested in meeting new people than in hearing about boring old Brigades.

Photo credit: Fred Black


'War Zone' by ageing rockers Mid Life Crisis was played today on the coolest music station in Israel -106 FM. This makes the second time that our song has been played on the radio thereby proving decisively that we're not too old to be rock gods. Details of a gig in April coming soon.

Mid Life Crisis - now a radio sensation

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yaffo transformed

Every few weeks I take a bike ride through Yaffo (or Jaffa or Yafa) Tel Aviv's much older and much neglected sister, to watch it is changing before my eyes. In the old port area, the massive rusty hulk of a hangar that used to house fish wharehouses (before the sea almost ran out of fish).....

has been transformed into the skeleton of a what will likely be an industrialised shopping mall with galleries and and restaurants, pretty much like its recently regenerated sister Tel Aviv Port that was originally built as the Jewish response to the 'Arab Revolt'. This is part of the gentrification (some would say 'Judaisation') of Yaffo that is being fostered by the combination of planning from city hall and market demand for authentic Mediterranean real estate.

Yafo - charming old Arab houses, mosques and churches, arches and alleys, shocks of colour and light - fits this bill.

Back at the port, the municipality is beginning to put some life back into the still unrenovated port by putting on small exhibitions and shows in the old wharehouses, like this jazz band.

This new development of small flats, many owned by non -Israelis - near the old Flea Market (also recently renovated) is one sign of many of the revitalisation/exploitation of Yaffo. Another is the battle between the authorities and many Arab residents who received court orders to vacate their properties to make way for new developments, without, they say, proper compensation. Arab and leftist groups claim that the Judaisation of Yaffo is (again) driving out the local residents.

New additions to an old building like this one in the Flea Market capitalises on the demand.

Further south a massive parking lot is being laid out (one day to be covered with houses and hotels?). This leads (if you circumnavigate the numerous obstacles placed in your path) into a park undergoing landscaping that will eventuallybe part of the promenade that will end up in Bat Yam. Meanwhile it looks sterile, and out of place.The north imported into the south.

This used to be the site of a stretch of "beach" that was used as a dumping ground for Yaffo's building refuse. The contractors have recycled its different components creating temporary artificial mountains.

Yaffo with its large population of Arabs and new immigrants from the FSU has plenty of problems: poverty, drugs, crime, schools that lag and social services that sag. From time to time there are minor eruptions of violence: a demonstration by Arabs gets out of hand, Jews throw rocks at a mosque. The sort of Arab-Jewish violence we saw recently in another mixed city - Acco - could reappear in Yaffo.

Yaffo, a beautiful, unkempt time bomb. Already bereft of most of its original Arab population, neglected, ignored riven by tension between Jew and Arab, Moslem and Christian, and now reinvented as a sterile real estate location to satisfy the Mediterranean fantasies of the rich (while ignoring the problems of the poor).

"Every Palestinian in Jaffa is either directly facing eviction by the municipal authorities, or has a neighbor or relative who faces such eviction, an estimated total of more than 500 families are in this situation. The two main excuses for eviction are lack of licensing -- especially since licenses are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain -- or that the family is considered illegal squatters in their own home which is registered as state property."
Local committees are fighting the authorities for housing rights.
And into this expolosive mix, slap bang next to the Moslem cemetery, the Peres Peace Centre is arising before our unbelieving eyes.

Like the megalomanic fantasy of a Norwegian lumber merchant, it imposes itself on the local environment like an alien from the planet Peres. This is what one writer had to say about it in Ha'aretz:

"It looks like a fortress, blocked in on all sides, full of firing positions, completed alienated from its environment and therefore almost canceling it out and ignoring it; this alienation is no stranger to Israel and is only becoming stronger as the years wear on."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Purim 2009, Florentin

For the third year in a row Florentin was the site of the biggest and bestest Purim street party in town. So big, that the crush on some street corners made breathing, let alone movement, impossible. These photos were taken at about 1 a.m. and people (all of them younger than we, many of them stranger looking) were still streaming into the area.

It goes without saying that in Tel Aviv, Purim is just an excuse to dress up in a costume, act silly and get drunk. Consequently it beats other festivals hands down. Click to enlarge pics.

There were many tipsy angels in the crowd.

As well as delegations from the east.

Everydoggie was getting into the act.

Some went to extravagant lengths to gain attention.

While others preferred to find a quiet corner and contemplate deeper meanings

Moose meets leiderhausen in what could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

MLC issues a single and more

1. Mid Life Crisis has from time to time stirred from its winter hibernation, first to produce a single of 'War Zone' and then to make a proper recording of 'Bit of Faith' . We've distributed the single to radio stations but, strangely, have yet to be swamped by lucrative offers. Next move - more gigs.

2. This, believe it or not, is what the view from the rooftop looked like today, a pseudo-summer with temperatures in the mid 30s! After driving through the open oven that were the streets of Tel Aviv, we took a look at the new photo exhibition - 'Tel Aviv Time 2009' - at TA Museum and part of the city's centenial celebrations. Somehow the exhibition failed to work as a whole although there were some memorable photos. Instead of the brash buldings and renowned nightlife, the photographers focussed on back rooms, private corners, the hidden underclass, urban decay. Needless to say, many of the photos were of people in photogenic South Tel Aviv. Here's one of mine.

Purim 2008. Florentin

I'll be checking out the Purim street part on Monday night for more memorable images.

Re-Remembering David Crosby

               We recently saw the film David Crosby: Remember My Name at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and as I write, I’m listenin...