Monday, January 31, 2011

Caution! Bicycles Ahead!

Yoav and I biked from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, around 75 kilometers with some pretty decent climbs throughout the day. I think the city sits at 2500 feet, and we biked from sea level. We thought it would be easy, it totally wasn't. I was certainly regretting knobby tires and a full set of media stuff. Starting my journey into the West Bank off with a tour, though, was an absolutely excellent idea and got me into the right state of mind for this teaching experience. Heading out of town was fairly complicated, as mapless directions go, but eventually we got it with only one getting-lost experience. I was pretty proud of my navigation, and was sure of what caused us to lose our way before it happened, so my intuition was right-on. That portion was the great kind of city riding that only the Middle East can offer, fast-paced and traffic-dodgy with attentive, flowy drivers that don't mind if you weave through them (I love it, my description of traffic sounds like stoner skiers' description of snow. Sentient snow). The sub-cities were all similar and unremarkable, some, like Rehovik, were pleasant enough. We got into the countryside and started humming along, in grassy-but-arid terrain with farming 'experiences' all around.

The first half of the country was pretty unremarkable, but soon we were in pine-style dryish forests and, as the road got thinner and curvier, full on lush greenery. It was absolutely beautiful. For lunch we stopped and had a kind of Arab crepe, Lafah with Labane, yogurt inside it, and my left-over experimental cooking (crap).

My dear MTB (named either "Negev Crusher" or "ITS Refusnik" depending on who you ask) was humming along with minimal idiosyncrasies and I thought how my former self, on my bike trip at 19, would have thought the current me rather posh: sporting a tent, a route, a sleeping bag, a semi-working bike and real panniers. Takes some of the adventure out of it, surely, but it's equally fun to feel capable.

Meeting Yoav has been great. He's easy to travel with but into interesting stuff. He involves his friends in the things we do together (which can be rocky with couchsurfing and the whole second-language thing), every time I thought the day was over we wound get up to something new and interesting, an art opening or having company over. On the summit of the hill to Jerusalem we met an Arab fruit seller, he asked if I spoke Arabic and the words came spilling out. I loved talking again, if only in my stock phrases, but I'm very excited. I think biking gets me into a similarly fortuitous state to learn and speak as slight drunkenness does. I learned "Akol Sababah," Hebrew for "It's all good," and a secular response to "Kefaheilk," or "How are you?" In Arabic.

We arrived in Jerusalem at Yoav's friend Natalie's house, where she lives with her boyfriend, Neil. They are great, they just cook and garden and live with an astonishing view out of the front of their house.

Both teachers. Pretty but removed, pretty removed in this hillside house. Casual and content. We had cauliflower soup, which was great, had a spice in it called baharat, and was food-proccessered up so it was nice and thick. A final night in Israel, watching the sun set from an impossibly beautiful vantage point. One part lush mountain town, one part cusp of an ancient nexus of culture.

An excellent, mind-blowing day, made even more so by what's to come. Stay posted for the other side of this coin.
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dreaming life. Living is easy.

A great couple days here in Tel Aviv, making my head spin. Reading the Lemon Tree is messing with me too, it almost brings me to tears and fills me with rage while teaching me tons. I read the recounting of the 6 days war like a spy novel or something. Riveted. Took off from the hostel and went to meet Yoav at his place. I looked up the address on Google maps but the intersections and those around it had no english streetsigns. Asking around I found it, but it was a locked-up door. I loafed around and eventually he came down. He has such a cool place. Exterior courtyard with a rusty old wrought-iron staircase, a crumbling single room studio with a chipped-up floor that he's turned into an in-progress art installation.

He's very interested in dirt, clay, and scale, a love of the desert and its fractal nature, which is something I've thought a lot about as well. One of his pieces was all about emulating miniature scale while leaving out the obvious markers of it, like trees or humans. Trying to just use details of the landscape and meticulously controlling the marks tools make in order to maintain the illusion of miniature scale. He's quite prolific and consistent, you can see more of his work here.

We talked a while about art, Israel, and traveling. I really like Yoav, he's easy to be around. He wants to move to Berlin, he biked from Amsterdam to Berlin last summer. Coolo. We talked about how he'd always thought of Tel Aviv as western, thought of himself as western, until he went elsewhere and realized that wasn't the case. Interesting and makes perfect sense, this is a town of European people stuck in the Middle East. They've made it their own but the two effect one another in a great hybrid way.

We rode over to Tal's house, who is sick. I stopped by a shop and learned about dates and figs, which are more expensive than I thought but delicious. She's at home sniffling, showed us some performance art videos she'd made, and talked tons more about whatever. She has a really odd/cool apartment that she got in a really strange arrangement.

She had been living in a family-owned building when I club moved into the basement. They had a good relationship but the club was there illegally. They wanted to stay, and make her happy but were too loud, so the club owner decided to rent her crappy little place for twice the price from her and she moved elsewhere. So now she's living in fat city with a stipend! We made dinner together, listened to Dolly Parton, Edward Sharpe, and watched this video:

Yikes. Awkwardest video ever.

Then, this happened:


Next day was more or less uneventful, mostly wandered and read, riding my new bike around the city. Made great crepes in the morning. I'll let the pictures talk for themselves for the most part, with some explanation (sorry about the imbedding, I've been annoyingly locked out of my flickr account so things aren't as pretty as usual.)

Got approached in the park by a homeless outreach group, which I should take offence at, but it was the middle of the night, so whatever. Ended up meeting a really cool journalist and then, inexplicably, getting drunk in the park with a really crazy russian-heritage goth/punk kid who was extremely (goofily) violent, misguided, suicidal (in a cry-for-help way) and, it turns out, a bit of a neo-nazi. Savory character (on the left).

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Alleyway deeds and got a steed

Good Morning!

Today was spent doing camera errands and looking for a bike, both of which are scads more fun in a foreign country. Drumming up the courage to interrupt some grumpy old mechanic so you can barter over the merits of interchangable chainrings is something I excel at. Also having an excuse to duck into extremely sketchy dead ends and alleyways is always fun.

So far the candidates are: a too small KHS MTB with rack mounts, front fork, and knobby tires for $100, a too small cannondale MTB (!)missing its front shifter and with some crappy components for $100, or a perfect-sized Mid-80's MTB with XT components for... drumroll, $60. The only problem is its seat post is stuck at bottom height. Finding this bike was my favorite, as it resulted from talking to the locals and finding out about a 'very cheap bike shop behind a gas station.' I round said corner after half an hour of walking and see man in a kefffeyh (shorthand for Palestinian solidarity, perhaps with a specific Fatah connotation) and a veiled old woman sitting with a grizzled group of Arabs in a derelict courtyard. The bike shop is like all Israeli (and Egyptian) bike shops, a single indescribably dingy garage bay filled with bikes on hooks which spill out into the pavement (or in this case, dirt) broken Arabic and no-handed trackstands ensue, both of which startled the folks, it was clear. As did my declaration that I was biking to Nablus. Without fail everywhere I go people find the distances in their lives absolutely unimaginable without motorized transport. When I said I was planning on biking there in 5 days (a very arbitrary estimate) there were literally ripples of incredulity. After a stint of google maps I discovered my admirable feat was going to be all of 35 miles. Come on, guys.

I managed to work out a deal: If the bike seller could un-stick the seat post before tomorrow I'd come back and pick up the bike.

The awed/worried reaction could also be attributed to the obvious socio-political conflict we're all so aware of, but I doubt it. Like any area of strife daily life very much continues at a normal pace, Tel Aviv feels safer than most places I've been. For those of us in the lucky position of mutability there is little danger in the West Bank as well. For average Israelis, however, it might as well be Mars. I haven't had too many conversations about it yet, but having an Israeli passport bars one from entering the west bank, an absurd concept in an area with the footprint of the Bay Area. Though like the locals of that cosmopolitan comparison, the people here seem to try to make up with culture what they lack in national real estate. Israel is a very cool place, so briefly into it I can already see why someone with a different take from mine on the politics of the situation would never want to leave.

Next my hunt took me to the markets of Jaffa, where purveyors of sundry linens and knicknacks rub shoulders with shops selling, inexplicably, tons of beautifully crafted antique film-light rigs with wooden poles and pounded brass carapaces. Coming out of a shop that had, side-by side, a shoddily-mother-of-pearl-inlaid mandolin ($100) and an African chamber-less instrument with 2 strings and demon-headed resonating base ($45) I was approached by a smiling young man with glasses.

"Excuse me!" He said, can I ask you something?"
"Sure" I think at this point he's trying to drag me into his shop. "But not about linens. About bicycles!"
He laughs. "I'm an artist. A photographer. You have a look of someone I'd like to photograph. Can I tell you more about it."
So now I'm over thinking he's trying to sell me something, and into thinking he's trying to pick me up. I humor him for a few moments before his friends wander over, a cute red-bearded fellow with a rather excellent flat-bar road bike and a good-looking pixie-ish girl with baggy pants. It turns out:
1) The fellow, Daniel, is actually telling the truth and doesn't want to pick me up. We're shootin' some photos Tuesday.
2) His friend Yoav is on couchsurfing, lives in a loft and wants to host me tomorrow.
3) His friend Tal invited me to go volunteer with refugee kids for the evening at an outdoor library. So I did.

She's a great person, Tal, we immediately had some good conversations about performance art, queer identity, and our relationship as individuals to our nations. Dere she is:

She told me the scoop on this park (Ha Tinkva?) we were headed to. Apparently Eritrian and Sudanese refugees flood into Israel all the time, seeking to become nationally recognized refugees but in reality being held in limbo as 'asylum seekers' that supposedly cannot work and are initially detained for several months before getting shipped to Tel Aviv. This is another moment of odd parallel stories for Israel, where any Jew in the world can expatriate to the country but in the treatment of other asylum-seekers it becomes obvious that the state being sought is still very much a Jewish one. But apparently the very park where we stood was a focal point to this whole international conundrum, as the majority of the new asylum-seekers end up at the central bus station a block away and sleep homeless here until they find apartments and illegal work. Indeed, over the course of volunteering there one night several timid class-style packs of Israelis crept into the park and observed and discussed the goings-on ethnographically, apparently the general vibe the place holds in the Israeli concept is that of the ghetto: dangerous, scary, you just don't go there.

Happily oblivious to this fact, I was busing myself helping to run a open-air library.

It was patronized by hyperactive polyglot round-headed children, who would jabber at me in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. There were books in all three of those languages, and we generally had a blast trying to keep them entertained. They didn't seem to naturally have the reverence for books that I somehow picked up living in a bookstore with a literature-crazy mother, I cringed as battered, ancient, spanish translations of 'Le Petit Prince' went flying around the park, spines ripping apart. After considerable despair at the mayhem (which included a game where three or so 6 year olds would climb to the top of the book stacks, yell at me, and then leap-attack my head when I gave them attention) I resorted to juggling, climbing, and finally leading a rag-tag gang of kids to the jungle gym nearby to do some proper horsing around. We had to displace a couple deflated loafing types that were huddling conspiratorially in the playground, the contrast of these little kids horsing around and infringing on the claimed space of drug-dealer-esque setups was pretty surreal, especially when you'd look up and think, "I hope someone's looking after these guys" and you realize it's pretty much just the lurkers and you taking up that job. This guy pretty much sums up the energy level for the night:

After dark, thoroughly tired out, I walked back to the hostel and made an olive-filled bachelor stew before chatting and writing the night away. Day 2 down, dig it.

Day 3 turned bike theory into a reality. After Arab guys weren't able to un-stick the seatpost (with a hammer, chisel, and a pipe-wrench, no less) I abandoned option A and went back to the first bike I found. After tinkering on it for a whole day I landed it for $125, which is steep for me but whatever. Witness! The ITS (Israeli Turn Sandwich) Refusnik:
That's right. True Temper, suckas. Yeah!

Many readers will soon quake in fear as together we conquer spans that only sound impressive in meters. Stay tuned! Piecing together ol' Refusnik was made especially fun by the to-and-fro scavenging I'd go on to abandoned bikes in the area when it was in need of a part, much to the entertainment of the shop owner, Elian. He's a downhill biker and his shop was different than most, by the end of the day he offered me a job! :) If only I was learning Hebrew...

Later I went to a nightclub on my new steed with the owner of the hostel. The experience was complete with an unmarked door, descent 2 stories, a security pat-down, and an ex-soviet-style bouncer whose neck was wider than my whole body, a pit-bull of a man with bulging veins on his forehead and a shaved head. He looked like he bashed his face through brick walls for breakfast. Other than that the club was boring as hell.

Here are assorted piccies from the day:

Cutting out comics to give to kids as gifts.

Thu-thu-thats all for now, see ya.
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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Made it! Now we really start up...

I was nervous off the plane, expecting an interrogation. In that vein I had locked down my phone, erased all my emails, replacing all my incriminating files on my computer with vague titles, hid my extra SD cards, combined my tripods to make them look like there were fewer of them, and moved my bookmark to the beginning of my slightly incriminating book. And of course I prepared a goose-chase of stories justifying my need for a 3 month visa without getting an Israeli stamp in my passport. I had even kept my notebook reflections vague, in order to match with my innocuous front.

So imagine my disappointment and surprise when subverting the vaunted Israeli airport security consisted of babbling to two (very cute!) women about my love of bicycles and fresh dates. No search, no hard questions, just skepticism at my ability to pedal 200 miles. I still have to get through the West Bank checkpoints, but I probably could have gotten away with bringing all 5 cameras. They're apparently harder on you on your way out.

There are no trains on Saturday, so I accosted strangers to share a taxi into city center. Got a ride with Claudio, an Italian robotics professor who works in Artificial Intelligence. His destination was a nice residential neighborhood, lots of people ambling around, cute young couples mostly. He paid the fare (business expense!), and told me to take Sderot Rothschild vaguely toward my hostel's neighborhood. I had no maps, just street-to-street directions I'd scribbled from the web the night before, so I was worried. But the street was pleasant, a walking boulevard filled with perambulating people, bikes zigging around.

The whole world working at about 1/3 capacity on the Sabbath. Tel Aviv is a flat, fairly ugly city with a a lot of little shops and good vibes, cool and breezy but t-shirt weather in January. It reminds me of Athens, dirty and un-neutered cats all around, scooters and motorcycles, beautiful people. I just walked over an hour and eventually found my cross street.

The sketchiest street encountered so far is the one the hostel's on. It's in a little pocket of wasteland! That's it there:

But upstairs is a proper hostel scene, free Internet and tea, hammocks on the rooftop, a sweet pink-haired Argentinian to check us in, dates and lovely dirty kitchens and lots of conversation.

Hit the ground running talking with Matt, working with Anarchists against the wall, a solidarity movement that goes around protesting wherever locals are protesting in the west bank. Here's footage of similar stuff from 2 weeks ago in the town he's been going to. Says there's lots of tear gas fired directly at protesters, use of live rounds, and that the stone-throwing is usually in response to IDF aggression. I don't know how I feel about it. It seems presumptuous to go somewhere far away to engage in protests of other people's struggles, I don't feel personally well-informed enough half the time for protests in my own country. They also seem pretty ineffective and formulaic. But perhaps the internationals have done their research and this is the best way to further their goals. And surely effectiveness is a lot to ask for your average Palestinian.

In any case, he's a cool guy and had some good information. He also holds the dubious distinction of having his bone structure carefully delineated in a tattoo on top of his left hand by someone while at the hostel. He's also responsible for this turn sandwich:

Oh bike co-op travelers, how you represent.

He told me about Ragotka, a vegan coop that has all sorts of interesting radical connections, I'll go check it out tomorrow.

Also talked with Ginendy, a New Yorker who came over with a moderate pro-Israel group that trains college ambassadors for the country. And Bram, a Dutch journalist here to do stories on Dutch Holocaust survivors and their generational relationship to the trauma. Bram and my current (very informative) book, The Lemon Tree, remark on how Holocaust survivors are seen in an oddly unfavorable light considering their weight in their country's history. They have been construed as weak and cowardly, carrying the burden of brutalization by the Nazis, as if they only half-survived, a people of dust. They suffer especially in comparison to the myth/stereotype of the sabra (prickly pear) or the stubborn, macho new generation of Israel which was able to cultivate a modern empire out of the fertile void of the desert and fight against persecution ruthlessly and more effectively than their forebears.

Skepticism at the stereotype aside, the origin story of Israel really is amazing. Disdain for capitalism falls away in the face of what early Israelis did with the benefit of that system. Immigrants from Europe arrived in the thousands in 1948 and in a few short months they created a skill-based import/export economy from the ruins of the previous Arab society. They ran everyone out as war refugees and declared the new Jewish settlers custodians of abandoned property.

As such they had the basic infrastructure and resources of existing Palestine to work from, but still the prospect of turning an ancient, empty land into a 21st century cosmopolitan civilization in the space of 60 years is audaciously mind-boggling. A good reason to dislike capitalism in general is that it does not put the welfare of people as a first priority, it becomes an end in and of itself (more power) rather than a means (providing stability to people so they can follow their priorities, like living their lives). The more correct role of capitalism gets made very clear when you're dropped off in a blank land and made to fend for yourself, and in 7 months there are municipal offices and enterprising businesses. But when comparing early Israel to the parallel struggle of the Palestinians you start to see the huge advantages created by having stable international connections and a multitude of socialized programs in place to kick things off on the right foot. Israeli immigrants were given a house, a lantern, a bed, and rations for flour, sugar, oil, eggs, and milk. They, like the Palestinian refugees, were largely dependent of foreign aid shipped in at first, but unlike the Palestinians they desired to build upon their situation and dug in, whereas the Palestinians wanted to return to their homes. Palestinian refugees were dependent on UNRWA aid in 1948, and many still are.The Batala camp in Nablus is the largest one currently in existence. In the meantime Jews have created places like Tel Aviv.

I have to continue this train of thought a bit further, annoyingly enough, for it's beginning to sound like I believe Israel sprung from ruin into a completely autonomous moneyed super-state thanks to a champion cottage industry. It's not quite that simple. Because apparently soon after this industrious time of can-do-working-the-earth mentality Israel started down the same road of imported labor and exploitation those of us in more developed countries know so well. They took the let's-use-the-less-auspiciously-colored-in-the-skin-department people from around the region route, mainly Mid-East Jews known as the mizrahi. Further, we can't forget that the US aid to this commercial giant in the defense game alone makes the dependence of the Palestinians on foreign aid seem like a crumb pile: A conservative estimate puts total US military aid at 114 billion.

Aaannd we're back to capitalism fail. That was quick.

Jeeze. I started with a cool bohemian hostel and got here, huh? I guess that's telling. A clue of things to come, perhaps. The rest of the night was just fine, dinner in an actual expensive restaurant (Honest!) with wine, ambling through graffiti-ed streets surrounded by what seemed to be squads of dark-haired transplants from east cost finishing schools headed to food and parties.

Now the snoring of hostellers. Just fine. It's good to be here, my brain's workin, we'll see what we see.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Time to take off.

The time, as they say, is finally upon us. I fly out to Israel this morning.

In the last 3 months this plan has gone from a theory to a reality. Along the way encountered all that I love about my world of friends and acquaintances, and through their cumulative actions I've been emboldened in so many ways.

Through the efforts of my community this project was made not only affordable, but almost completely funded by independent donations, a hugely generous grant from Kids With Cameras, and in-kind donations from Children's Media Workshop and The Salt Lake Art Center.

As I got closer to the departure date I learned more about the project. My main focus is slated to be documentary projects with students aged 12-16. They'll work in groups of 2-3 and write/produce complete documentaries all the way through publishing them on the web. Right now we're circulating around a theme of place, and their relationship to it. The next step is to find a community to receive their work, fairly criticize it, and give them feedback throughout their process. This can take the form of other classes of kids becoming e-pen pals with the Palestinian youth, or individuals watching their work on youtube and commenting constructively on it. If you're still interested in participating in this project then I encourage you to keep an eye on this blog and spend some time on the content the kids generate. It'll all end up here. I'll also keep you posted on my personal progress, and I'm sure once the grim realities of homesickness set in I'll live and breathe your encouragement and responses myself, so keep 'em coming!

I've also been overwhelmed by the exceptional results yielded by extending myself to the international community. Through and research I've found previous and current Project Hope volunteers, locals in Nablus, thoughtful Israelis, international projects that do inspiring work, and countless NGO's in the area which are all working together against insane odds to improve the life of Palestinians and the understanding of the world at large. I don't know what the future holds for me, but the thought of working with some of these organizations fills me with hope.

Thanks, and see you soon. The stress of considered preparation is tempered with the felicity of the knowledge that anything can happen, with any luck I'll be thinking on my feet. So long, I'll be back before we know it.

Photo from the In This Week article that Daisy Blake was nice enough to write about me. If you haven't seen it it's a nice g'bye to Salt Lake! Read More......

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Loving this video

Simple single shot, each new plane and modification added with a perfect build. Lovely.

Eskmo 'We Got More' (Official Video) from Ninja Tune on Vimeo.

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