Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Three Philippines Scenes

A trip downtown
We are staying with our gracious Filipino hosts in Santa Rita, a suburb of Olongapo, a city of about 240,000 situated on the coast, a two hour drive north-west of Manilla. The street outside the family compound is buzzing. Mom and pop stores and street restaurants are doing brisk business. By 11 a.m. pupils in school uniforms are returning for their lunch break after starting at 6 a.m. A peddler yells “taho!” - a popular breakfast drink made of silken tofu and tapioca pearls. There’s plenty to see here but today we’re going downtown.

Getting to downtown Olongapo involves two trips using public transportation, first by a motorized tricycle or tuk tuk taxi and then by a jeepney bus (originally made from leftover American jeeps). Both vehicles are canvases for the Filipino art form of kitsch decorations that add anarchic flashes of colour to the streets.  Many of them also carry the uplifting municipal slogans – “Transparency and Good Governance”, “Aim High Olongapo” - to be found on available spaces throughout the city.

In fact, my first impression is that Olongapo municipality is expert at window dressing, not only via the ubiquitous inspirational slogans but also for example by lining the badly lit streets with massive electric red hearts in honour of Valentine Day. This, in a bid perhaps, to cover up the less attractive sites of neglect and disrepair?  

M. an Olongapo native now living in New York notes, while scrunched into a jeepney, that while public transportation in the Philippines is uncomfortable and polluting, it’s also cheap and readily available. If you miss your train in New York, you’re looking at an expensive Uber ride home, she says. Here you can pick up a tuk tuk in a jiffy for a few cents.

Passengers get on and off, money is passed along to the driver Tel Aviv sherut style. An older man gets on and sits opposite M. It’s her godfather, a respected teacher, and she places his hand on her brow as a sign of respect for her elders.   Later a young person does the same to me. Unused to such demonstrations of respect, I’m taken aback.

The big public market has plenty of attractions, especially in the food section but before long the heat, noise and pollution in the chaotic streets are taking their toll and M. leads us across  a river into a much quieter zone.

This is formally known as the Subic Bay Special Economic and Freeport Zone and until 1992 was the site of a massive US naval base. No fuel-guzzling jeepneys and noisy tuk tuks here and no shanty towns either. Instead, gleaming white taxis and expensive SUVs glide along wide straight roads lined with malls, cinemas and restaurants and the offices of international corporations. The Freeport is now run by a special authority which “provides tax and duty free privileges and incentives to business locators in the special economic zone.”  There are guards at the entrances and the entire area functions under its own traffic rules (First to stop at a junction, first to go).

To my eyes, the contrast between messy, rundown, Olongapo and its sanitized neighbour Freeport is blatant. A swanky “international” showcase on one side of the river and its poor cousin on the other. But a bit of digging reveals that the departure of the Americans that allowed the Freeport to be established was actually instrumental in turning around Olongapo’s fortunes. In the 1960s when its bars and brothels served thousands of US servicemen, Olongapo was considered “sin city”. Yet today it is considered a national “model”, known for its “innovative methods of urban management” and is the recipient of numerous awards.

So much for first impressions.

An indigenous meal

A short drive from Olongapo city, leads us into a lush tropical forest. We stop at a spot called Pamulaklakin, the home of an indigenous family group belonging to the Aeta people, themselves belonging to the wider Negrito group, one of the Philippine’s many ethnic minorities and sometimes referred to as the aborigines of the Philippines. Our hosts have developed a close relationship with them and have arranged a cook out. We bring the food, they cook – indigenous forest-dwellers style. 

We traipse down a path accompanied by two friendly indigenous ladies with fearsome machetes tied to their waists, cross a bridge and set up camp alongside a stream in a shady area with a few tables and benches.

The ladies disappear into the forest. Chopping sounds. The ladies reappear clutching long poles of bamboo which they now expertly lop into cooking sized cylinders. Short and very accurate cuts create a replaceable window for cooking rice. Another few cuts produce bamboo tongs for handling the food. We are amazed by their expertise.  A fire has been lit and the bamboo ‘pots’ have been filled with mussels, pork, rice, fish and vegetables. They simmer on the fire while we paddle in the sun-dappled stream, dazzled by the butterflies and water insects.

Soon, the food is poured out of the bamboo cooking pots, we share a delicious meal and offer our compliments to the proud chefs. The organic leftovers are gathered in banana leaves and buried.  

I hear later that there is a community of displaced indigenous people living in Olongapo City where they live in poor conditions, among other things, because of their limited skills. We westerners wouldn’t last a week in their forest while the ostensibly “primitive” Aeta ladies who efficiently cooked a meal for 12 people using only a machete, could only feel redundant in a modern shopping mall. This is one country with different groups of people living in vastly different stages of development. 

Bucana beach

We are in Bucana, a fishing village perched along the mouth of a river in the El NIdo District of Palawan Island. We have already spent a few days exploring this beautiful coastline with its archipelago of unpopulated islands rising dramatically from the sea. Island hopping for tourists is a mainstay of the local economy and we hear that obtaining a license to operate a tour boat can take years. As everywhere else, it helps to know the right people.

Now on our last stop in Palawan, the idea is to just chill and read in an isolated spot with no commercial distractions. Bucana certainly fits the bill. The river cuts the village in two and crossing it to get to the beach involves us carrying our luggage over a hanging bridge made of planks and twisted wire.

Safe and sound at Zhaya’s Beach and Cottages (recommended), one of only three simple camps on the long, unspoiled beach, we can unwind in the shade of the coconut palms and observe life at our leisure.  The beach is a thoroughfare for the people living along it and for us observers provides a clean, backdrop that focuses the eye on whoever happens to be crossing it at the time: a family of four on one motorbike; a gaggle of children chasing a dog wearing a dress; a lady carrying a parasol or a water buffalo dragging a sled laden with bags of rice and a little boy.

We wander along the ramshackle lanes of the village between the tin and palm frond dwellings and simple shops all selling the same snacks and drinks, say hello to the friendly barefoot children who ask “What’s your name?” in English. I take photos and the kids are happy to pose but at some point I feel uncomfortable wandering around this “authentic” but abjectly poor village with my fancy digital camera like some western colonialist documenting the “natives”.

Not that the people of Bucana seem unhappy. The children in particular, here and in other rural areas we visited, are often seen in little giggling gangs, deeply engrossed in games involving little more than a wheel on a stick. Even without understanding Tagalog you could see that they were actually using their imagination to play. Sometimes, less can be more.   

As I watch the fishermen putting out to sea in their simple bangka boats in a scene that might not have changed for centuries, I pan to a woman peering into a smartphone outside a family shop and then start spotting the TV antennas on the rooftops. Bucana is not disconnected from the outside world. It sits on the border between the traditional and the new and seems to accept both with equanimity.

Everywhere we went in the Philippines we met warm and friendly people and were often struck by their humility and modesty.  Life is hard for so many of them yet they seem to face it with a fatalism and a carefree attitude, alongside a deep attachment to family and friends, that we spoiled westerners could find instructive.  

Grateful thanks goes to the De Jesus Lumibao family for their generous hospitality. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ends and Beginnings - Confessions of a dad band member

We coalesced in the early oughts, four, middle-aged men with full time day jobs and families, closet strummers and pickers looking for something more. For years, Danny B and I had been playing acoustic guitars and Zev and Danny Z had been sawing away on electric guitars.  But by the time the two musical duos got together and became a quartet, Danny B was also playing bass and I was taking my first steps as a rock drummer. Mmm …two guitarists, drums, bass– a classic lineup. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t too late to realize the definitive male boomer fantasy - and play in a rock band.

We jammed, we clicked, we sensed we had a future and we decided to call ourselves Midlife Crisis.  

Rehearsals began in the moldy air raid shelter of our apartment building, and graduated to a series of bare-bones rehearsal spaces in nearby Florentin. It was cool to hang with younger, unknown bands wrapping up their sessions before ours or coming in after us, to compare styles and sounds and to feel that we too belonged to the same scruffy musical fraternity of little gigs and big dreams. Every band had its own style, its own sound, but we were all scratching the same itch.

Eventually, we found a permanent rehearsal home at Ambience Studios, suitably situated on the seedy side of Ramat Gan, under the friendly management of Dar Nahmias (a.k.a Dari).  For about a decade we met there every two weeks (at best) for intensive four hour sessions.  

Entering the initial hush of that soundproofed room, anticipating the earsplitting electric wail that would soon envelop it, was like walking on hallowed ground.  A Hendrix poster hung above the raised dais for the drum set. Here was the entry point to an alternative universe in which we would shed our workaday personas and morph into Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Neil Young.

Fun and games at Ambience Studios.

But first, we had to become a ‘real’ band, and since we’d decided to concentrate on original material, we needed to forge our own repertoire.

If you are a keen amateur but most of your playing is done solo in the kitchen, it’s easy to get stuck in a musical rut. Yes, you might excel at performing your personal well-worn bag of blues riffs, folk tunings, jazz chords, bass lines, drum breaks or whatever.  And inside your own echo chamber, as you loop proficiently through the tricks you’ve learned, you may feel like you’re in control. However when plunked down with other amateurs, each with his own particular set of weaknesses, and your aim is to turn rough song ideas into tightly arranged, rock diamonds, matters can lurch out of control. 

Not being trained musicians, and with no clear “leader” we had no choice but to become a band the hard way: through trial and error, false starts, screwed up middles and messy endings, endless repetition, experimentation and fine tuning, all accompanied by democratic discussion. It was hard going. Each song had to be painfully stitched together. Songs that didn’t work for everyone were ditched. So were songs that everyone liked in principle but we couldn’t get right.

Essential to getting it right was to find the groove. Either the groove was there or it wasn’t. And for it to be there, all four of us had to have it simultaneously. When it was there, with all of us floating together in perfect, natural sync, it felt like we had attained a higher state of consciousness.

Mistakes were the norm and frazzled nerves would occasionally flare. Like a foursome in a compulsive relationship, the same old accusations would be levelled over who was: speeding up the tempo/ playing too loud/ not coming in at the right place/ cutting into the vocals/ forgetting the harmony/ not indicating that the song was ending? 

Sometimes, work on a song would veer off at a tangent into an endless jam that started as hard rock and somehow evolved into long stoned atmospheric meanderings that seemed to carry deep meaning. “Why didn’t we record that!” we would cry in despair, deeply conscious that a rare and precious moment of magic had been lost to posterity.

Somehow, at a glacial rate, through a combination of donkey work and occasional flashes of creativity, each new song took on a little more style and distinction.

By the end of a rehearsal we were wiped clean, our heads pulsating, wearing inane smiles yet bound together by the sonic vibrations we had created.  We schlepped our gear down the grimy stairwell (soon to be visited by the local hookers and junkies) and headed back into the real world. Each session ended with faithful vows to learn the parts we’d flubbed, at home. Rarely have vows been broken so frequently.

I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager and there was a period back in the late 1970s when I was (occasionally) paid for writing English lyrics for Israeli artists trying to make it overseas but output throughout my 30’s and 40’s had been limited.  Now, in my 50’s, I was in a band that needed new material and I ended up doing most of the writing. Sometimes it would be an entire song from scratch and sometimes the inspiration (a line, a phrase, a chorus) would come from another band member and I’d complete the picture. Apart from the eternal theme of romantic relations, MLC’s lyrics tended to fall into three categories: songs, influenced by living in Israel, that foresaw impending disaster (Smart, Shaky Ground, War Zone, It’s Gonna Blow); songs about the frustrations of middle age (Midlife Crisis, Dirty Old Man, Dreams, Change) and songs that took a swipe at organised religion (God Doesn’t Pick Up the Phone, Urgent, He Come Down In a Big Machine). 

Once we had finally cobbled together enough original songs - with a few covers thrown in for audience recognition -  we started playing gigs in small, dingy clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Friends, family and workmates were all co-opted into attending in a bid to cover the bar expenses. The audiences we scraped together seemed to like what we were doing, and there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush you get from a live performance, crammed onto a tiny stage with the audience a few feet away.

Gig at the Bloom Bar, Tel Aviv, 2008.

But it soon became clear that creating a fan base was going to be challenging. The sort of challenge that, frankly, we didn’t have the energy to invest in. After a few gigs, even the existing core family and friends group was flagging.  So, gigs turned out to be few and far between, among them  a charity race for early detection of colon cancer, a festival at community centre in Haifa (audience - five Ethiopian children and an old lady who was knitting a sweater), and several Purim parties... There was semi-humorous talk of a tour of old age homes. 

With hindsight, with only 8 hours a month (including set ups and beer breaks) to work with, it was inevitable that Midlife Crisis would spend most of its time rehearsing. In fact we agreed that our rehearsals were often at a higher level than our performances. There was talk of inviting people to “open rehearsals”. This idea had the added allure of being able to shrug off mistakes by exclaiming “That’s why it’s a rehearsal!”

Eventually, in 2011, we issued a CD called Emergency Generator  (click and scroll down to listen). Listening to it now, and whatever its faults, you can hear in the tight, fluid playing that those hundreds of hours of rehearsals paid off (although the magic weaved by the studio technicians also helped). Listening to it back then, hot off the CD press, we could proudly say, “We’re a band, and we rock!”

We never had illusions of actually making money from Midlife Crisis and the album was not released commercially. Instead we gave away the CD to friends and relations and at gigs. We also sent it to radio stations. Total radio play consisted of one track (Ecstasy) being played on one occasion on Or Lagoyim (A light unto the nations”) a programme that featured Israeli artists singing in English on the now sadly departed Kol Hakampus (106 FM) local radio station.

Not many people heard Emergency Generator but some who did told us that they loved it, that it was “their” sort of music, that it was “real rock’n’roll”. That made us feel a lot better about the fact that hundreds of copies still remain untouched in our homes to this day.

After Danny Z left the band, we three remaining members had to re-calibrate. Without the special electricity he created with Zev, it was hard to maintain our energy level as a rock trio. So we gradually shifted to an “unplugged” format (in which we were actually plugged in but just played softer). I replaced my drum set with a cajon and also played acoustic guitar. What this lower decibel level lacked in energy it compensated by allowing us a calmer space to listen, connect and experiment. We played a few more gigs, this time mainly in folk clubs, but as in the previous phase, mostly we rehearsed.  

A film about a completely unknown band rehearsing at home might sound like an unlikely proposition but that is exactly the challenge that filmmaker, friend and music fan, Roni Lipetz decided to take up. After first creating a terrific music video for our song He Come Down In a Big Machine he decided that he wanted to document our rehearsals. The old idea of the “open rehearsal” had resurfaced, except that instead of people physically coming to our rehearsals, our rehearsals would come to them via Roni’s film. About a year later, in March 2019, Midlife Crisis  The Movie was being applauded at the Epos Art Film Festival at Tel Aviv Museum. Recognition at last!

Music video: He Come Down In A Big Machine

By now, given the age and condition of its older members, Midlife Crisis had become a misnomer, a dad band old enough to be a grandad band. It was time to wrap things up. We decided to collect the recordings we’d made over our five years as a trio, some at Ambience, others at my home studio, and release them as a farewell album - Ends and Beginnings. No actual CD this time but it has been released “commercially” and you should be able to hear it or download it on all major platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes etc). Here’s a free link to the album on SoundCloud.   We’ll also be posting tracks on the band’s Facebook page

Ends and Beginnings with its mix of rock, blues, R&B, folk and reggae is more eclectic than its predecessor and maybe a little more reflective too. Among the themes  - dreams, fate, change, false messiahs, inspiration, desperation, cultural appropriation, ends and beginnings.  We hope you like it.

Midlife Crisis was a band that made zero impact on Israel’s music scene. We had no fan base and received little attention. It didn’t matter.  We created our own brand of music for (more or less) 17 years and remain friends to this day. I’m eternally grateful to bandmates Zev Labinger (guitars, vocals), Danny (B) Blumberg (bass, vocals) and Danny (Z) Zilberman (guitars) for sharing some of the best times of my life.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Labels and Fables

While rockets from Gaza were flying above our heads last week, angry messages were flying from Jerusalem to Brussels. Not over the targeted killing of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata but over the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that the EU’s labelling of Israeli settlement goods in European supermarkets was legally binding. All EU member states needed to label certain products from settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, e.g. with a label that reads “Made in The West Bank - Israeli settlement”

Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein for example sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, expressing his “dismay and disappointment” over the “disgraceful” decision. Edelstein’s letter contained most of the Netanyahu government’s standard arguments on this issue. The verdict “applies a double standard to Israel […] since out of “dozens of such areas around the world, […] only Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights are subject to such labelling regulations.” Judea and Samaria should not be considered occupied by Israel “as they were never part of another country” and Israel’s control over them was legitimised by the Balfour Declaration and the 1920 San Remo Resolution. The court was prescribing differential treatment for Arabs and Jews based on ethnicity, was prejudging the “outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations” (that one made me LOL) and had knowingly adopted the arguments of the BDS movement. Labelling would “inevitably result in a boycott of goods” from the settlements but also from Israel proper. The move was bound to harm relations with the EU and would, “undermine the EU’s ability to play a fair and objective role in the Middle East peace process.”
PM Netanyahu, not mincing words, declared that, “Europe the other day decided to act against Israel and put labels on products that are made here. They don’t join the sanctions against Iran, they join sanctions against Israel. Unbelievable!”
All this sent me back in time to November 2015 when the European Commission issued an “Interpretive notice on indication of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967.”  Technical documents are not my favorite reading matter but, since at the time (full disclosure) I was employed by the EU Delegation to Israel as press and information manager, I took the time to read this one carefully. The reaction in Israel then was as apoplectic as it is now and I was part of a team who had to explain the EU’s positions to a skeptical if not hostile, Israeli media and public. This was not a boycott, we stressed. The EU was opposed to boycotts of Israeli products. This was merely a technical measure, mandated by international law and part of the EU’s global labelling system. European consumers had the right to be informed as to the provenance of settlement products and since the EU didn’t recognise the settlements as being part of Israel, their Made in Israel label was misleading.  In any event, the labelling would be limited to only a few fresh food products, cosmetics, olive oil and wine and its economic impact would be very limited.   
None of this cut much ice with the public or the government which (temporarily) cut off diplomatic contacts with EU officials and continued to denounce the notice as a hostile political act carrying more than a whiff of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the hardest point to explain was why the EU applied its labelling in such a monolithic fashion without regard to the local political context. Didn’t the EU know that the  (East) Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramot had been annexed to Israel and was therefore not a “settlement” and would remain under Israeli control in any conceivable peace agreement with the Palestinians? And did the EU really expect Israel to return the Golan Heights to Assad?
One of the main Israeli arguments, then and now, is that first to be hurt by labelling will be some 26,000 Palestinian workers employed in Israeli settlement enterprises “who enjoy good working conditions, fair wages and gain professional knowledge [..]”. The EU in its ignorance, was harming the “real peace” being forged as Jews and Palestinians worked alongside one other (camera pans to happy Palestinian workers in settlement factories). The EU’s response that it would rather see those Palestinians employed in their own state, was shrugged off.
What happened next was… not much. The EU member states, even those that had pushed for the labelling notice, showed far less enthusiasm for actually implementing it and the European Commission which has the duty to remind the member states of their obligations, appeared to be not overly anxious to do so. To illustrate, a recent study showed that only 10% of Israeli wines from the West Bank and the Golan were labelled across the EU as instructed.
The whole affair might have continued to stagnate but after the French economy ministry adopted the notice in 2016, the Psagot winery, (situated in a settlement outside Ramallah), challenged the labelling notice as unconstitutional in France. The French court agreed but since France was subject to EU law, decided to pass the matter on to the ECJ.  

By all accounts, Israel’s foreign ministry, aware of the danger of a final ECJ decision on labelling would have been happy if Psagot had dropped its appeal, but was unable to halt the procedure that ended with precisely the opposite result than that sought by Psagot and by the government.  
Nevertheless, Psagot’s CEO, Yaakov Berg was unrepentant. The winery he said, was proud of its contribution to combating this decision and intends to continue the struggle. The entire episode reminded him of “when my grandmother was told [by the Nazis] that her shop under the law would be labelled as having ‘Jewish’ ownership.”
Will the EU’s member states now clearly enforce the labelling guidelines or will Israel's counter-lobbying cause them to think twice? And if labelling becomes widespread, what will be the outcome? According to President of the Israel Manufacturing Association, Shraga Brosh, there would be potential damaging consequences not only for the settlement enterprises concerned but for all Israeli products sold in Europe since importers were liable to reconsider buying Israeli products for fear of becoming entangled in the labelling issue.  
Perhaps some. My guess is most will continue to buy Made in Israel products if the quality and the price is right.

But what of the political consequences of the ruling?  European proponents of labelling argue that it contributes, “to the preservation of the two state solution”. On the Israeli left too, the argument runs that Israelis need a wake-up call, to feel some economic pain to remind them that the occupation is not cost-free, that despite the best efforts of the government, the Green Line cannot be entirely smudged. How far will the ruling go towards meeting those goals?
Today, (according to a recent Haaretz poll) only 43% of Israelis believe that a two state solution or a confederation is the preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while about the same percentage are in favour of one form or another of annexation. In mainstream Israel 2019, settlements authorised by the government are regarded as entirely legal and therefore outside attempts to differentiate them from Israel proper are considered reprehensible. Moreover, the ruling by the “anti-Semitic” EU body will provide Israel’s national camp” with plenty of grist for its propaganda mill. So while Israel’s tiny left may enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the net result, if any, will probably be a further hardening of Israeli attitudes towards the EU without any appreciable contribution to the “two state solution”

And what if you are convinced, as I am, that the fact that over 400,000 Jewish Israelis now live over the Green Line, has already made a two state solution an impossibility?  Should I be pleased that the Green Line may be reinstated in the public’s awareness? I have to admit that my heart is not full of joy.  If a two state solution based on the Green Line is a dead duck, then Israelis and Palestinians are destined, or doomed, to live in a one state reality. Ultimately this means that the Green Line’s symbolic role as the prospective  border between Israel and a future Palestinian state is bound to fade into irrelevance, with or without European rules about the wording on packaged organic tomatoes.
One day, Israel will have to drop the pretence that the occupation is temporary and the EU will have to drop the pretence that there is a “Middle East Peace Process” that will lead to a Palestinian state. When that happens, all sides will have to re-calibrate. Meanwhile, the EU is perhaps the last staunch defender of the two state solution and if you still believe that such a solution is possible, you should appreciate that. Regretfully, from the vantage point of the Tel Aviv Rooftop, it seems to be fighting yesterday’s battle, a battle that Israel, for better or worse, has already “won”.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Five Sinai Scenes

1. Crossing the border

The transition into the Third World is immediate. Time slows down. The Egyptian customs officials greet the trickle of incoming visitors from Israel with a lazy indifference.  At the entrance to the marbled Taba terminal there is a sort of podium where visitors are supposed to fill in entry forms. The forms have been commandeered by three men who, in return for baksheesh, fill them in for you. At the bank, my dollars are turned into an unwieldy wad of Egyptian pounds. The ATM machine doesn’t work.

In a Bedouin taxi we speed unnervingly along the twists and turns of Israeli-laid southbound coastal road. No-one’s wearing seat belts; Khaled, the driver, is singing along to a hit song. To the left, the beaches and sparkling waters of the Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba and the rosy outline of the Jordanian side of the gulf; to the right, imposing red granite mountains, changing hue in the late afternoon sun. 

The once unspoiled desert coast is now scarred with the concrete carcasses of abandoned tourist resorts, a graveyard for the megalomanic developments made in the Mubarak era that failed or were halted in mid-construction. Between these we meet familiar sites like old friends: the Salah a-Din Citadel, the “fjord” and the long stretches of beach where the simple Bedouin husha tourist camps are named ‘Freedom’, ‘Utopia’, and ‘Eden’. Khaled swerves off the main road and we bump down a long dirt track and pull up in what we hope will be ‘Paradise’.   

And once settled in over sage tea and (for those interested) speedily scored some grass from virtually any member of the friendly young staff, and having taken a first glorious dip in the refreshing, clear, buoyant water, Sinai’s magic begins to permeate and the outside world fades into insignificance. The border has been crossed.

2. Heba

Charming, vivacious, in dressed-to-kill beachwear, Heba is chatting in Egyptian- Arabic accented English with two musclebound Israeli guys who answer her in American-accented English. She’s telling a convoluted story about an embarrassing encounter and they are nodding sympathetically. Later we strike up a conversation with her ourselves and discover that Heba, who has “lots of friends in Tel Aviv”, is a yoga instructor who has studied in India and runs a studio in Cairo where yoga is increasingly popular. She discovered yoga only after her children graduated from high school and loves to visit Sinai, despite the gruelling 8 hour bus journey.

These conversations with the outgoing and obviously liberal Heba were less interesting for their content than for the fact they took place at all. In all the years (over 30!) that we’ve been visiting Sinai, this has been the longest conversation I have ever held with an Egyptian tourist to Sinai. Over the last few years we’ve seen an increasing number of young, cool Cairenes at the Bedouin-run beach camps we favour.  The two sides-  the Israelis being in the clear majority - normally keep a respectful distance but now and then a remarkable person like Heba is able to break the ice. Since Egyptians are strongly dissuaded from visiting Israel and most Israelis would feel unsafe in Cairo, the south Sinai coast is perhaps the only place in the region where they can meet.

Heba sets her smartphone to video on the low wooden table and angles it into a frame created by the low wall of the zula and palm fronds of its roof, with the sparkling Red Sea as background. Then, her dark blue wrap fluttering dramatically in the wind, she seems to elevate horizontally with only one hand resting on the wall.

3. Starlight and music

We lie on our backs, stargazing, wavelets lapping at the sand, a balmy caressing breeze.  The firmament of stars numbs us into humility in the face of an infinite universe.

Behind us in the zula, a group of young Bedouin men accompanied by a darbuka and an oud, start singing a traditional song. The long, snaking, hypnotic piece is the perfect soundtrack. Click here  for a taste of traditional South Sinai Bedouin music. 

Later, a hyperactive Israeli man we’ll call Tomer, plugs in a Bluetooth speaker and the tranquillity is shattered by the thumping repetitive beat of an Egyptian hit with lyrics that sound like “mashi mash , mashi mash.” Soon he’s dancing with the young Bedouin in robes. The young Israelis lining the zula, which is now a disco, join in, complete with whoops of delight, hand claps and laughter.  

If you’ve been wondering what pop music from the Arab world sounds like nowadays here’s a link.

Tomer, accompanied by his two young boys, is smitten with the Bedouin (“There’s so much we can learn from them, brother”) and talks up the idea of moving his whole family from the Israeli rat race to the tranquillity of Sinai. He also seems to be on the make, conspicuously ingratiating himself with the locals and acting towards the visitors as if he owns the place.

We hear more of “Mashi mash” and its sister “Heya hey” over the coming days and decide that we’ll look for a quieter place next time.

                                        Playing the simsimiyya

4. Women and children last

No dancing for Bedouin women though. Nor are they to be found among the kitchen or cleaning staff. It’s only along the beach that we meet them, swaddled in dark layers, carrying one bag on their heads and another in their hands. They find a place in the shade and spread their wares; colourful ornate plastic necklaces and bracelets, fabrics and clothes, a long embroidered dress, a kufiyah, a sha’awal, a gellabiya. Once they have made contact, they are charming but determined salesladies. It’s pleasant to sit on colourful rugs in the shade of the zula, sift through their merchandise, and bargain playfully with them in basic Hebrew as they laugh behind their veils.  A waiter from our camp brings them some food. Later we see them kneeling in prayer and then taking a nap.

Gaggles of boys and girls aged from about 7 to 12, are also part of the operation and will not hesitate to use emotional blackmail to make a sale: “You bought from Mohammed and Jud, but not from me!” they complain in Hebrew. We  agree to make more unnecessary purchases on condition that they use the money for school books. They nod solemnly that they will. We give them Bamba and pens for the madrasa.

We interact with these friendly Hebrew-speaking Egyptian Bedouin on a superficial level without understanding their lives, their codes, their tribal laws, how they've been impacted  by the 21st century and by government discrimination. 

If  Bedouin women are allowed to sell jewellery to tourists on the beach, why are they not allowed to work alongside men in restaurants or shops? How would a man like Sayid, the worldly, dashing manager of our camp who alternates between flowing robes and cutting edge western fashion and has sped off to Cairo in his new BMW, relate to his wife, to his daughters? 


5. A trip to Nuweiba

The taxi is two hours late. The driver looks friendly but speaks no Hebrew. I’m sitting next to him and we are all speeding recklessly towards Nuweiba City when we encounter a truck ahead of us. The driver sits on its tail. We approach a blind curve. The driver looks at me with a mischievous gleam in his eye signifying, “Whadya say? Shall I overtake the truck and risk it?” “No, no!” I gesticulate wildly, stay in your own lane!” The driver regards me piteously, revs up the engine and overtakes the truck. I try not to look. We swerve round the curve with no margin for correction and are not killed in a horrific and totally avoidable accident. The driver displays a smug  victory smile.

Nuweiba is a town shut down. In the dusty old bazaar area there are more souvenir shops than tourists. Inexplicably, Nuweiba’s northern and southern parts are divided by about 5 kilometres of emptiness which we drive across to reach the grubby port area for a meal at Doctor Shish Kebab where we are the only patrons. Soon it will be Rosh Hashana and thousands of Israelis will start streaming into Sinai but it seems unlikely that Nuweiba, with so little to offer, will be reaping the benefits of their cash.

                                                                Nuweiba. Photo: Yotam Haviv 

After a depressing urban experience it feels wonderful to return to nature. A wallow in the sea, a walk along the beach in the twilight, crabs scurrying from their holes into the water, mountains growing darker by the minute, the windsurfer skipping across the waves for the last time today.


 Key for the uninitiated: baksheesh - a tip; husha – a simple hut made of palm fronds; zula - a cosy shaded area lined with carpets, cushions and low tables;  oud  - a lute-like stringed instrument; darbuka - a hand drum; kufiyah - traditional headdress; sha'awal - baggy pants; gellabiya - traditional long sleeved garment worn over clothes by both men and women; Bamba  - popular Israeli children's peanut snack; madrasa - school.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ten Days in Brexitland

London: Brexit for ever and ever? 

Landing at Luton airport felt like falling from the skies slap-bang into the middle of a post-no-deal-Brexit worst case scenario.

On the runway a metallic voice on the PA told us that Luton airport was in the midst of an emergency and that disruptions were to be expected. Power lines had been cut all over the country and unusually heavy rain had penetrated the airport’s roof, flooding the floor below. Delays were to be expected. We were 9th in the line of waiting planes .

After finally disembarking, we shuffled, in an endless crush, for our passports to be stamped by overwhelmed immigration officials.  All in all it was a dramatic entry to the UK: disintegrating infrastructure, bureaucratic muddles and climate change shocks all rolled into one.

That initial impression was quickly dispelled as we wandered around the streets of London.  With the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal looking ever more likely, Brits may be deeply divided, confused and even desperate as the October 31 deadline for Brexit looms; but there’s little sign of any of this in London’s bustling streets.

Portobello Road antique market
I had heard that, fearing food shortages, citizens were stockpiling food but as we lost ourselves along the aisles of a major Waitrose supermarket, our provincial eyes dazzled by the tasteful superabundance, the idea of stockpiling seemed laughable.  Nevertheless, according to one report

“Britons have spent £4bn stockpiling goods in preparation for a possible no-deal Brexit . One in five people are already hoarding food, drinks and medicine, spending an extra £380 each, according to a survey by the finance provider Premium Credit. The survey found that about 800,000 people have spent more than £1,000 building up stockpiles before the 31 October Brexit deadline.”

Could this relative trickle turn into a tsunami of stockpiling? It could, according to Amatey Doku, former vice-president of higher education, National Union of Students. Asked “the big Brexit question – where will we be by the end of the year?“ by the Observer, she said:

“No deal will be felt much sooner than we expect. If it is averted, it is likely that it won’t be until the last minute. By that point consumers will go into a panic and start stockpiling food…I think the UK will see the biggest demonstrations in its history […]” 

Where will the UK be this time next year?

Meanwhile, ahead of the reopening of parliament in early September and with PM Boris Johnson’s majority hanging by a thread, reports emerged from Westminster, of a so-called “rebel alliance” to force him to at least delay leading the UK off a cliff. A Tory minister trying to coordinate these efforts noted that this “unholy coalition” consisted of members from, “moderate Labour, Labour frontbench, Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, minor parties, independents and moderate Tories. It’s difficult.”
And there I was thinking that Israeli politics was fragmented.

One of political scenarios the rebels are considering involves a “breach of convention” in which backbenchers would “seize the parliamentary timetable” and pass their own laws, independently of the government (!!). Whether or not this comes to pass, the very mention of such an unprecedented step is an indication of the depth of this great rift in British politics.

On this trip, prices in London were suddenly cheap. With sterling having fallen against the shekel, food, theatre tickets, clothes were all relatively inexpensive. We were able to enjoy some excellent theatre and music in London for significantly less while the Brits travelling abroad are already paying significantly more for their euros or dollars.

Hanging by a thread. The Bridge Theatre's amazing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

No-one knows how all this is going to end. Worse still, it may never end at all. As Jonathan Freedland explained in the Guardian in a piece subtitled, ‘this nightmare will go on forever: “Unless we call the whole thing off, this is our future: leave v remain, remain v leave, Brexit for ever and ever.

Ireland: Green fields, dread and hurling.

Can there be a friendlier people than the Irish? In Israel, people pass each other in the street with, at best, an air of indifference. In Ireland, people will greet you from the other side of the street with a friendly wave. Everyone seemed more than happy to chat, to help, to share a joke.

It rained every day. But between the showers came sudden bursts of sunshine.  We drove (on the left) along shady single lane country roads of  County Galway, entranced as the clouds scudded over fields and forests succored by abundant rainfall into endless shades of green. The rolling hills were studded with contented sheep and cows grazing in the open pasture and all seemed well with the world.

Along the way were neat villages with many well-kept modern houses, some of them quite grand with expensive cars parked in the drive. Even in this rural area it was clear that Ireland (termed the “Celtic Tiger” in the late 1990s –late 2000s boom years) has come a long way since the 1960s, when, we were told, many homes lacked electricity or running water.  The Irish economy is still relatively strong (4% growth this year, a predicted 2.7% for next) but given its close trading ties with Northern Ireland and the UK, economists are warning that a no deal Brexit could radically change the picture.

Meanwhile, on the tranquil banks of Loch Derg, more important matters were at hand. The neighbors of our gracious hostess, tethering their fishing boat to the jetty, offered us two freshly caught pike for supper.  How could we refuse?

Loch Derg

The City of Galway was lively and charming. The Atlantic coast was dramatic and squally and if you ever find yourself in the lovely village of Terryglass in County Tipperary, Paddy’s is a must.

It was only while listening to the radio on the road back to Dublin that the Brexit drama raised its ugly head again. The (Irish) Sunday Times had obtained a full copy of the UK’s classified “Yellowhammer” report on the expected outcome of a no-deal Brexit. Among other disastrous predictions this included [an expected] “return to a hard border in Ireland as current plans to avoid widespread checks will prove “unsustainable”: this may spark protests, road blockages and “direct action”.

"Direct action" sounded ominous. A return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (Eire) and Northern Ireland is dreaded on both sides.  A poll found that most people in Northern Ireland would prefer a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Britain rather than a border between the two parts of Ireland. 

Thanks to the 1998 Good Friday agreement the population of the two Irelands, particularly the nationalist Catholics, have been traveling and trading freely across the border. A hard border would not only seriously complicate trade, it could also lead to violence. Our Dublin taxi driver told us that some nationalists had already planted a “warning bomb” some weeks earlier. 

Ireland has a long and bloody history but this short film might help to explain why the question of what happens at the border is so crucial. 

Border flare-ups are not the only concern, the economic implications are no less daunting. According to the Irish Independent, ministers fear that the country will be plunged into a ‘major national emergency’ in a no-deal Brexit. One editorial referred to Ireland as a “tethered sacrificial lamb on the battlefield, as our nearest ‘neighbor’ goes to war with the EU,” and bemoaned the country’s lack of preparation for the worst. 

Dublin on Sunday evening was buzzing but, unlike London, not cheap. We’d learned that we’d be arriving just in time for the “Irish Superbowl”, the 2019 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final, a uniquely Irish event. The two sides, Tipperary and Kilkenny, were considered finely matched. In ‘The Bleeding Horse’ (don’t ask) we joined the friendly locals in watching what one of the most exciting sporting events we had ever witnessed. Playing before 85,000 spectators at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, the two sides swerved, crashed, passed and dribbled non-stop, while balancing the sliotar (ball) on their hurls (bats) before aiming for a goal. 

What a game, and it’s an amateur sport too. (for hurling see here).

A triumphant Tipperary defeated Kilkenny by 28-20.

And at least for those riveting 70 minutes, no-one in Ireland was worrying about Brexit.

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