Category Archives: culture

Imagining the 1973 War

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend, I headed to Cairo to see pyramids and ancient ruins. While I did gape at 5,000-year-old artifacts, look into the seemingly boundless Sahara desert, and float down the Nile, my touristy adventure couldn’t escape certain political surprises.

Everywhere in Egypt, people speak of the war with Israel from October, 1973. In Israel, it is called the Yom Kippur War. In Egypt, it’s a national holiday. On October 6th, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Judaism’s most holy day, Yom Kippur. While I am no expert on the war, my impression of it from Israelis was that Egypt and Syria were able to get farther than usual due to the timing of their attack on the first day, and it was an intelligence mistake not to know and prevent the war before the attack that led to unnecessary casualties, but that within days Israel was able to take back the lead as usual. Almost three weeks after the attack, Israel was 40 kilometers from Damascus, and 101 kilometers from Cairo. The peace Israel eventually made with Egypt through the Camp David Accords and Israel’s giving back the Sinai is emphasized as an example of Israel’s concessions for peace.

In Egypt, though, the war was a victory. Every Egyptian I spoke with brought up the war. Streets are named after October 6th. It was described to me multiple times as the most proud moment in modern Egyptian history. In the military museum, several murals and descriptions of the war would make one think that the Egyptians slaughtered and humiliated the Israelis. In descriptions, though, Israel’s name isn’t even mentioned. Allusions to the “phantom,” “the enemy,” and “the planes with blue stars” describe the apparently disgraced Israeli army as the valiant Egyptian army showed the world the courage of the Egyptian people, and won back the Sinai after the 1967 6-day war.

While the reality probably lies somewhere in between the two narratives, I was struck by the overwhelming fanaticism with the war in Egypt. In Israel, it’s another war amongst the many in the past 60 years: the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez Campaign in 1956, the 6-day war in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the 1982 Lebanon War, the First Intifada in 1987, the Second Intifada in 2000, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Gaza War in 2008.

As I received a huge hug from an Egyptian after saying that I knew about the victory of the 1973 war, I was inundated with the sense of the impossibility of objectiveness in this conflict. Maybe it’s the same with others as well, but Israel’s 60-year existence has been so densely filled with complicated events, not to mention the history stretching back at least 2,000 years, that one can pick facts to support almost any opinion. It’s impossible to not to have any opinion, I know that my interpretations of events is often clouded by fierce biases, but these systematic and dialectic viewpoints reveal the divides and lack of mutual understanding throughout the conflict.

Egypt and Israel have made peace, but the vastly different narratives reveal a greater trend with Israel and all of its neighbors. These mass inconsistencies pose a threat to any sustainable peace, and put future generations on both sides in danger of growing extremism.

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Filed under conflict, controversy, culture, Middle East, nationalism, Overseas Bureau, violence, war

Fasting for Peace

The Kotel on Tisha B'Av

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM–Starting last night, the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av began. At 7 P.M., restaurants closed, and a strange quiet hung over the city. Recreational spots across the country have also been shut down for the 25 hours of the fast.

The fast honors the destruction of the two Holy Temples in the Old City, which are said to have been demolished out of a senseless hate. They were destroyed over 600 years apart, but both on the ninth day of the month of Av. Today I watched as hundreds of Jews congregated at the Kotel to commemorate the loss, and read from the Book of Lamentations.

The fast has been expanded over the years to mourn other hardships the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, which are said to have happened all on this one day. From the Roman conquerors in the city of Betar, to the Crusaders in France, to Jewish expulsion from England and Spain, to the beginning of World War I, to deportations during the Holocaust, to a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the withdrawal from Gaza which forced Jewish settlers to move in 2005, and more, the fast honors mass suffering of the past.

Today in Jerusalem, the concept of a baseless hate seems pervasive. Hundreds have flocked to the Gilad Shalit protest tent, where I attended a march last week, to lament his captivity, and hope for his return. At the same Wall where hundreds of prayers from the Book of Lamentations will ring today, just last week a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah because of her gender. Just outside of the Old City walls, the residents of Silwan I wrote about a couple of weeks ago await demolitions of their households. Is baseless hatred truly a thing of the past to commemorate, or a continuing characteristic of this crazy city?

For where else in the world do two nations live together on one land, and fight on the battlefields of civilian neighborhoods with construction and demolition? And where else does a religious minority control a democratic government to the point where prayer, religious conversion, and marriage have to follow the rules of the most extreme sector of the religion? And where else do all three of the most prominent religions of the world flock to visit holy sites within yards of each other?

These unique qualities of the city are pulling it apart. A Ynet-Gesher poll of 505 Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis revealed 42% of respondents believe the religious-secular divide causes the most tension in Israel and 41% said it was the Jewish-Arab situation. The baseless hatred is palpable amid these divides: 54% believe Arabs are the most hated in Israel, while 37% believe the Haredi Orthodox are the most hated. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this polarization. With the city 35% Arab and 22% Haredi, racial and religious divides are everywhere.

None of this is news. We are all at least vaguely aware of the constant tragedy and complexity of this ongoing conflict, and can recognize the baseless hate on both sides. I often think of the different sides as looking through mirrored windows, only reflecting back the very real pain each has experienced as a result of the continuing tension and the absence of any sustainable or long-term solution, without being able to see past the wall to the suffering on the other side. The tragedy for me lies in this blindness. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have pain in their hearts, and both sides bear the responsibility of making it better.

On this holiday, though, I appeal specifically to the Jewish people. Among the many Jewish traditions I have learned to love and admire this summer is the social justice teachings in Judaism. In a lecture last week, a religious man spoke about the role of this Jewish morality in the conflict, and used the metaphor of a grasshopper to describe the respective positions of Israelis and Palestinians. He said that for centuries, the Jews have been the grasshopper, and continue to ask for sympathy for this terrible position they were in for so long. On Tisha B’Av, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gross hardship the Jews have faced, and I sympathize deeply with this position. As the lecturer said, though, Israel is not the grasshopper in this particular conflict anymore; Israel has the upper hand and has become the aggressor. The Palestinians are now the grasshoppers, and Israelis, he says, have a responsibility to realize their privileged position and incorporate Jewish values into their actions moving forward.

This is not to say Jews or Israelis do not continue to face hardship inside and outside of the conflict, or have not in the past. They have, they do, and they will continue to face baseless hatred and adversity. Today, though, I implore Israelis to look past the mirrored window, and see the hatred and adversity Palestinians are facing in this conflict. Israel’s success enables it to change the ongoing tragedies in the region. The Jewish state has been created. Israel has internal and external problems, but it is a recognized and developed nation. Today, Jews can celebrate their promised land, but what can Palestinians celebrate?

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Tour de Paris

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — I think one of the most wonderful feelings in the world must be that of when the geography of a new place begins to map itself in your mind. For me, in Paris, that process began when I found a bicycle.

My fascination with the Metro lasted approximately a week and a half. By the start of my second week, the variety of people had begun to lose its magnetic appeal, and a commute of an hour and a half each day become heavy. When the sun finally came out at the beginning of my third week, the last thing I wanted to do was hurtle under a beautiful, summery city in a grimy tube full of unhappy people.

Thus, in order to prevent myself from resorting to the world-blocking headphones so common in the Metro (NB: big, over-the-head devices in various colors are popular, especially with gold accents. If you’re really cool, you leave them around your neck even once you’ve met up with your friends — bling of choice for chic young Parisians), I went in search of a bicycle. My path to Velib, the Paris city bikes, was almost thwarted by my American credit card. In order to purchase an access card, one needs a credit card with a chip — something the rest of the world possesses but which, like the Metric system, our country has decided to ignore. Fortunately, my French friend offered to set me up — and I was off!

I will not deny that, as I pedaled along the Seine that first afternoon, an enormous smile spread across my face. I’ll let you guess if I really did sing a few verses from the Sound of Music. It was just such a wonderful feeling to zip along! My first ride took me all the way across Paris, from beneath the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrond. to bustling Place des Fetes in the 19th. As I passed a number of the Metro stops on my regular commute — above ground, this time — I had the sensation that Paris was becoming real.

On a bicycle, the city unfolds itself with each turn of the pedals. Over the next few weeks, I began to understand where everything is in relation to each other, how distinct pockets fit together and discreetly melt into one metropolis. I became aware of Paris’ neighborhoods, as mind-blowingly diverse as the people I had observed on the Metro. One afternoon, under the big bruised clouds of a brewing summer thunderstorm, I rode along Boulevard de Menilmontant/Belleville. In this traditionally immigrant neighborhood in the Northeast of Paris, the bike lane was full of colorful litter and the air whooshing by brought a sonic amalgamation of Arabic and French. It stood in stark contrast to where I had ridden the day before, the bourgeoise 9th, where I had shared wide-open cobblestone boulevards with BMWs and the occasional Ferrari. Nonetheless, had I continued past the turn-off for my host family’s house and pedaled for another ten minutes, I could have easily connected the two neighborhoods on my growing mental map.

Two observations on bike riding in Paris:

  1. Heels are appropriate footwear. And one can make no concessions to clothing coordination, no matter how sweaty one may get; the first morning I rode to school, I pedaled behind a woman whose toenail polish matched her dangerously high platform espadrilles. She also was able to dismount and park her bike gracefully, a fact of which I was extremely envious, having just spent ten minutes attempting to get on my bike without splitting my dress and/or flashing the world (my success in this arena was questionable; a creepy man watched the whole spazzy process and told me it was “better than the cinema”).
  2. As most of Paris’ bike lines are separated from the street by a curb, you don’t really need to worry about motor vehicles. I would like to warn you, instead, about the rogue pigeons, who on multiple occasions sat calmly in my bike lane and refused to fly away until a split second before I had almost killed myself in attempting to brake. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Paris there are a few nice pigeon crepes.

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Filed under culture, Overseas Bureau, transportation

Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 7: Madrid

Spanish fans watch the World Cup Final at the Plaza de Cibeles, where three giant screens were set up to show the game. (Bruner/TYG)

By Raisa Bruner

MADRID – Never underestimate La Furia Roja.

I can’t make any comments about the style, skill, or success of the Spanish national soccer team on the field in the World Cup final Sunday night against the Netherlands – I am neither an expert in soccer nor someone who was able to watch the game in full. I can’t tell you if Spain deserved to win, or if it was a fitting end to the month-long tournament, or even if the Netherlands played an honorable game. No, I’m not qualified to discuss any of that – because instead of watching the game and the athletes on the screen, I was gazing mesmerized at the crowd of crazed fans at Plaza de Cibeles in downtown Madrid.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to excite.

Sangria funneled down plastic vuvuzuelas into the open mouths of strangers? Sí. An army of red-and-yellow jerseyed fans, Spanish and Australian and American and any other nationality? Sí. Every face, arm, chest, and scalp striped with the red and yellow of the Spanish flag? Sí. Fist-pumping? Absolutamente. At Yale, we get into the spirit of The Game (Yale-Harvard football) and throw on a jersey for our favorite team’s turn in a championship. But in comparison to this experience, whatever sports fanaticism we have back home looks like little league. This much enthusiasm – however drunken – isn’t found every day. Spain’s supporters breathe, sweat, and bleed La Furia Roja.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to focus.

The crowd – which spread in a riotous, rowdy mass for miles throughout the center of Madrid – roared, chanted, vuvuzuela-ed, cheered, booed, sang, yelled, became borracho in unison. And that’s a big deal. To have the cultural power to take all of that energy and send it directly towards one event happening at the other end of the world is a pretty splendid feat. But soccer can do that for Spain. Soccer can take the Catalonians (a million of whom attended a separatist rally on Saturday, the day before the final) and the Basque (who also rallied in support of the Catalonians on Saturday) and the Andalusians and the Galicians and the countless other nationalities, ethnicities, and visitors living in and loving this land and bring them together in one very boisterous, very united movement towards victory. Impressive.

Definitely don’t underestimate the power of winning.

What recession? What unemployment? What sobriety? As we were swept up along with the partying crowd from Plaza de Cibeles toward Puerta del Sol, everything was in a jubilant uproar. Communist protests and workers’ strikes often stride the same route that we paraded down, yet instead of fighting against the concept of Spain, we were marching for it. At Sol, people clambered on top of statues, scaffolding, fountains, even the metro station’s glass roofing in hopes of surveying the scene. Swarming with people in all states of consciousness, the crowd only began to clear at around 5:00am when a man fell off the top of a monument and the police and ambulances arrived to deal with the consequences.

That morning I walked home, blowing my vuvuzuela the whole way. Each car that passed us cheered, even when the birds began to chirp. And now, a full workweek later? Spain isn’t going to sleep anytime soon. The players have arrived home in a wave of glory, the sun is out, the moon is bright, and the sangria is still cheap and flowing.

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Filed under culture, Culture and the Cup, Europe, sports

Detained for Prayer

This morning at Rosh Chodesh, police monitored women gathering at the Kotel to pray. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This morning, a woman was arrested at Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll. While I have been doing some work for her organization, Women of the Wall, nothing could have prepared me for the outrage I felt watching several policemen tackle a group of women raising their voices together in prayer, and the admiration I experienced witnessing these women’s bravery.

For twenty-two years, Women of the Wall have met at the beginning of every Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh, to pray together at the Kotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Israeli and Jewish women from around the world who seek the right for Jewish women to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Currently, such action is forbidden under Israeli law, which singles out women: “No ceremony shall be held in the Wall’s women’s section. That includes reading from a Torah, blowing the ram’s horn, wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.”

Women of the Wall tefila. (Saverin/TYG)

Every month, their actions provoke an outcry from the Ultra-Orthodox community, who today screamed, “God sent Obama to take away Jerusalem,” “these women are responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews,” and because of them, “the Jews would lose Jerusalem to the Arabs.” The women sang through the chorus of accusations and screams, and complied with police monitoring of their prayer shawls and noise level. The yelling and aggressive police activity was only to be expected.

Ultra-Orthodox men shouting at the women's section of the Kotel. (Saverin/TYG)

As the group left, though, chairperson Anat Hoffman pulled out the group’s Torah scroll to lead a procession of supporters to Robinson’s Arch, where police forcefully grabbed the Torah. I stood amid violent pushing as women around me fell to the ground, until the forceful struggle ended with Anat in a police car, where she was taken to the police station and interrogated for five hours before being released and banned from the Kotel for thirty days.

The police pulling a Torah away from Anat Hoffman as she led a procession away from the Kotel plaza. (Saverin/TYG)

An escalation of force towards Women of the Wall's chairperson, Anat Hoffman. (Saverin/TYG)

This blatant inequality is the result of an eleven-year Supreme Court case, which dismisses women’s ability to pray as they wish at the Wall. This is not even to mention the fact that the women’s section of the wall was reduced from 18 to 12 meters, and the men’s section covers 48 meters. As the women celebrate the coming month of Av in the Hebrew calender, along with the men who point menacing fingers at their song from the men’s section of the Kotel, they reflect on its message of unwarranted hate, and pray for its departure from the wall as a step to ending the internal strife within Judaism and Israel.

The issues revealed today at the Kotel are representative of several in Israel. The gender inequality in religion, which prevents a woman from filing a divorce without her husband’s consent, forces her to the back of the synagogue, and emphasizes woman’s value in her ability to bear as many children as possible, continues to create controversy and divide the nation. Tension between religious and secular populations in Israel is also a major issue, which affects everything from modesty requirements, to the army, to praying at Judaism’s most holy site, and raises questions on the bounds of religion’s role in democracy.

These are issues that must be addressed. Women of the Wall is taking a seldom-trodden path by reforming women’s rights within religion, as many view feminism and the patriarchal structure of religion as incompatible. In the small overlap between the two, this group’s unyielding song is creating a precedent I hope women around the world will follow.

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The End of the World

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

CÓRDOBA, Argentina — Running and walking are terrific ways to get to know a place. The ground-level approach allows for the assimilation of sights and sounds into one’s impression of a city or region. I’ve had a few unique running-based experiences these past few weeks that stood out and I thought I’d share two of them.

Tucumán, Argentina. Tucumán, located in northwestern Argentina, is one of the country’s more forlorn provinces. Sure, the statistics will tell you as much — per capita GDP, unemployment, blah, blah, blah. But so does an experience I had while running the perimeter of the central park of the province’s eponymous capital.

Runners, at least the ones I know, are renowned for peeing in public places — after all, nature is not a call one lets go unanswered. To their credit, however, they generally take pride in discreetness. But the runners from Tucumán, or at least one runner from Tucumán, are in an entirely different league when it comes to audacity for public urination.

One evening a guy running in front of me abruptly stopped, directed himself towards a tree adjacent the sidewalk, dropped trou, lost some water weight, and returned to his workout without so much a glance at the passing rush-hour traffic on one of the heaviest used thoroughfares in Argentina’s fifth biggest city. From the reaction, or lack thereof, of perambulating passers-by, using public parks as a very public toilet is just as normal as the odor that wafts from Tucumán’s public waterways (perhaps not unrelated), the litter on the street, or the countless poor who traverse the city in horse-drawn carts scavenging for recyclables.

Fiambalá, Argentina. Fiambalá is ground zero for organizing this little mountain-measuring excursion into the mountains. It’s a modest pueblito at “the end of the world,” as its residents like to say. It feels the part. Surrounded by desert and near-constantly assailed by howling, sand-laden winds, Fiambalá nonetheless manages to take advantage of its location.

There are two attractions: hot springs and the Andean cordillera. I was there for the latter, but one night I ventured on a run to the former. After departing just a few kilometers beyond the town limits I was stopped in my tracks by the visually arresting clarity of the night sky. When in this part of the world last (two years ago) I made a similar observation in my journal — it is rather hard not to notice. Neither has this escaped the attention of the international astronomical community, which has sited the highest density of high-performance telescopes in the world in the Chilean-Argentinean altiplano region which Fiambalá abuts.

Looking into the sky, I practically felt my own eyes were telescopes. It was all there. The celestial dust of galaxy smeared from horizon to horizon in one shimmering longitudinal stripe, a fallow-yellow crescent moon, and a twinkling firmament stars everywhere else. When the night sky is this clear, this unadulterated, it’s the best show there is.

As fortune had it, the night sky was not the only entertainment on the evening. After reaching the hot springs I took a break to enjoy the lesser twinkling cluster of lights of Fiambalá in the valley below, and of course the greater twinkling mass of lights above. That’s when the guardrails on the side of the road started rattling. Earthquake!

Aftershocks still echo in this part of the Andes from the catastrophic 8.8 Chilean earthquake of late February. Whether this comparatively quaint 5.3 was an aftershock I am unsure, but it was a fun ride and an impressive second act to the sublime display of natural beauty and power to which I was fortunate to bear witness. Fiambalá may seem to be the end of the human world, but it one of the final, increasingly scarce frontiers to the truly natural world as well.

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Filed under culture, environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

Hitting the Links, Desert Style

by Jeff Kaiser

AMMAN — Tucked into the rugged, arid hills just 14km from Amman, the 9-hole “brown” Bisharat Golf Course offers a truly unique golfing experience. Jordan’s desert landscape is not a natural home for a golf course, by any means. Because water scarcity prohibits irrigation systems traditionally used to maintain the lush grass of fairways and greens, an innovative approach to the course and game is required.

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Five of us decided that it would be a fascinating cultural experience to play here, so we set off one afternoon for what we thought would be a 9-hole round.

We teed off from a standard-looking tee box, minus the grass, which was of little concern as the ball was on a tee. The fairway, though, was a different story. The fine, rocky soil and patchwork of thorny shrub and tall grass didn’t make for ideal lies (the golf term for the location of the ball at rest). Solution: carry the fairway—two roughly pancake-sized patches of rubber grass, the kind you find at cheap driving ranges—with us. After finding the ball (here, a challenge even more difficult than on a normal course), it is placed on the faux-fairway and hit normally.

Putting on the “browns” took some adjustment—the ball moves much slower on the mix of sand and recycled crude oil than it does on grass. That’s right, the putting surface is made of sand and oil. And, according to the course owner, the browns had been remixed a few days ago, meaning they were particularly slow because the oil was fresh. It was no surprise that after two and a half hours we had made it through only 4 holes.

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