Rawabi, city of the future: Palestinian nation-building in Zone A

 

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Traveling around Israel and the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank, it is easy to become cynical, sad, and sometimes even angry. We met an Israeli settler from a Binyamin vineyard in the West Bank who believes in maintaining the occupation for 50 more years; we met representatives from ‘Breaking the Silence’ and B’tselem; we met the Palestinian Christian mayor of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem (an educated and well-spirited man who will soon leave for the USA like so many Palestinians); and we heard the Imam of Al-Aqsa mosque deny the irrefutable and ancient link of the Jews to the same site- the Temple Mount – the very site he was standing on.

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So why this picture, why this place? This amphitheater is in Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city in Zone A of the West Bank. 250 families already live here, interest comes from all corners of the Palestinian Territories and diaspora, as well as from young interns from universities like ours.

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The Rawabi representatives we met did not accuse, they did not lament, they did not cast blame. They are grateful for Israel’s help in supplying them with necessary resources, and they are grateful for the support of many young Israelis. They did not talk about what they cannot do, but showed us what they can – solar panels on houses, a soon to be soccer stadium, an outdoor shopping mall, a center for high-tech start-ups, a Church for Christians and a mosque for Muslims.

These people had charisma, ambition, love for their people, and an undeniable level of craziness in devotion to a project far greater than themselves.

In other words – they have the same drive and the same ingredients of many Diaspora Jews who returned here since the 1880s to build Israel for their people…

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Child of the North Seeks Storm

 

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What do you do when you’re upset by someone or mad at someone? Do you listen to Coldplay? To Heavy Metal? Do you attack your punching bag? Write an angry letter which you never send? Personally, I leave the house and go on a walk. I don’t aim for a destination, I just let my furious feet and my wandering mind guide me.

Yesterday afternoon when I left my Tel Aviv apartment at 5PM in the aforementioned angry state, I literally walked into a storm. The wind was slapping my face from both sides, my hair was swinging around my head and blindfolding me, my bag was threatening to fly away. It was chilly for Tel Aviv standards –  15 degrees Celsius – and the wind was sweeping big clouds across the sky. First I stopped for a cappuccino on a kiosk-style cafe on Ben Gurion Boulevard. I like this place; waiters there lovingly mock my Hebrew and add a chocolate powder coating to my cappuccino without me having to ask. Then I aimlessly walked North along Dizengoff Avenue where my mood cheered up as I imagined what occasion I may wear the many ballgowns to that adorn the shop windows there.

But there are only four compass directions you can walk in, and if you walk West (as I did after an hour or so), you inevitably hit the sea. Or the sea hits you, as it did on this stormy evening of Marie’s March Madness on the Mediterranean. What I saw there on the coast made me plug my headphones out of my ears and plug my ears into the sound of the sea. I was raised on an annual “summer”trip to Germany’s northernmost point – the island of Sylt which lies in the tumultuous North Sea. And so when I saw the Mediterranean up in a storm, this made me unnaturally happy. Tiny droplets of salty sea water flying into my face like little daggers, the sound of the wind sweeping up all else, the loneliness of being the only person outside … I felt right at home, reminded of glorious childhood days on Sylt.

Besides cool photos, there is also a moral of this stormy story. When you’re mad or upset, and emotions are boiling up inside you, don’t let them build up in the cramped space of your mind or your bedroom walls. Go outside. Go explore. See something else so that your mind and your heart are preoccupied, maybe even inspired. And for God’s sake, go experience a storm by the sea! It’s quite extraordinary.

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Darom Adom – The Red South

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When you run into the endless fields of Darom Adom in the northwestern Negev, the last thing you will want to do is take photos. It’s one of those places you can’t quite capture, where taking your camera out of your pocket is close to a betrayal of nature. But of course that doesn’t stop us members of generation digital, and so I did take photos. Many of them.

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Darom Adom occurs only for a few weeks each year, between the end of January and the beginning of February, when the poppy-like Anemones bloom (try saying anemones in front of the mirror: An-e-mo-nes, ANEMONES, A N E M O N E S). Finjan, a Tel-Aviv based travel grouped named for the synonymous Arab coffee filters, took me on this adventure. We left from Tel Aviv’s Savidor central train station at 6:30 AM on a warm Friday morning. The early hour’s dark sky was brightened by freshly brewed coffee and platters of cookies. Thanks, guys!

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The Western Negev itself is not a desert as I imagined. It looks far more than the hilly, greeny-yellow landscapes of Provence in France, including the thin but tall trees, the rows of hedges, the rows of orange trees and other plants. As we got out of the bus to see the anemones, though, that all changed.

It seemed like time slowed down; I felt calm, relaxed and happy at the sight before me. No, there weren’t “just flowers.” There was a snake of stands selling olive oil (I bought a bottle), strawberries (I bought a box), and oranges (my friend dragged me away). There was a beautiful donkey who looked very well taken care of. There were speakers blasting Hebrew folk songs. And there were professional photographers roaming around all around us.

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I can’t be sure how long I strolled through those endless fields, but for lunch afterwards, we went to a small family-run Tunisian restaurant. They served Tunisian falafel, Tunisian vegetable stir-fry, Tunisian chicken… all in large steaming hot silver pots for sharing.

To conclude the day we got off on a pretty hill home to a playground, a picknick area, water fountains, and public bathrooms. The problem? This hill, with all its amenities, served the single purpose of being a tourists’ viewpoint of Gaza. Standing only 800m away from the most densely populated place on Earth, I felt uneasy, even nauseous at the paradox of it all: Here we were, drinking our freshly brewed coffee, staring at Gaza like tourists stare at the lion cage in the zoo. We were told that the electric generator 200 m to our right is frequently hit by Hamas rockets. It is the same electric generator that delivers electricity to Gaza. We were told that the IDF patrols the area and that it was a complete no-go zone during the Gaza war. We were told that local farmers can hear Hamas digging tunnels underneath their villages at night.

We were told that “the Red South” has a bitter-sweet double meaning. Yes, the anemones of late winter tinge the South red. But the blood that is spilled in this area year in year out, across national and religious lines, can also color the landscape red.

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The Coffee Wheel of Flavors

If you’re a girl, you probably have a ‘Wedding’ board on Pinterest. If you’re a guy, you probably have no idea what Pinterest is. And if you’re me, you have a ‘Coffeeshop’ board on Pinterest. Those of you who know me will know that I have two dream jobs. Dreams are fragile, so we shall not name them here. But after these two I have a few fun ‘Plan C’ type job ‘options’, one of which is to own a coffeeshop! I have given this a lot of thought – from the art on the walls, to the color scheme, to the sandwiches, to the baked goods (German, duh). What did I forget? The coffee! So when Gemma of the Brew Shop told me I can come to a coffee tasting lesson, I said yes on the spot.

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As I am first to the scene at 6pm on Sunday evening, I sit on the wooden bench inside and cuddle Gemma’s dog Gracie. I look around me – on my left there is a record player playing soulful coffeeshop music. On my right there is a fridge where cold brew coffee is being made over a span of 24 hours. In front of me is Gemma – dancing behind the counter and balancing filters, coffee beans, and a flavor platter of dark chocolate, cherries, tomatoes and citrus fruits.

After my fellow five students gradually trickle into the shop, Gracie (the dog) and I suddenly jerk upright. There is a new smell, and it fills this small, warm space in no time. “this is a varietal from Panama called Geisha,” we are told as the air is suffused with jasmine, lemon, and a hint of hazelnut. If that last sentence sounds like gibberish to you, you’re in good company. And yet this exercise is surprisinglythumb_IMG_0570_1024.jpg fun. We learn about the altitude beans grow on (the higher the better); the outside temperature (the lower the better), the continents and countries (they differ greatly); and THE TASTOR’s FLAVOR WHEEL, my favorite part.

My childhood memories often center around scents… on top of that, I’m a visual learner, and so the wheel of flavors diagram is a dream come true. Did you know your coffee can taste of raisins, liquorice, pomegranate, snow peas, bread, almond, or pear?

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There are a few moments in the 2-hour class where I really wish a friend were here so we could grin about all this, such as when Gemma says “this coffee tastes inoffensive,” or when I find out that my mouth has a roof (“now swirl the spoonful of coffee around up to the roof of your mouth”). Mostly though, I am thankful to have had this personal experience. Am I a natural? No. Am I a Coffee-Snob? Yes.

As I skip up the shop’s steps at the end of the session, I re-consider my “Plan C” career options. A coffeeshop is tempting for sure, but so is being the manager of Schalke 04, my football team. And knowing myself, I think it would be easier to sign good football players, than to find good coffee beans.

 

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One Day in May

 

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Y’know that one day in May when you wake up early because sun rays tickle your nose? When you ditch your jacket, head outside down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue and stroll below the cherry trees? When you wake up your BBQ from its 8-month hibernation period? When you head down to the Charles Esplanade to cautiously dip your toes in the water?

Well, Friday, February 12th (also known as yesterday), was that day in Tel Aviv. I got home “late” from a night out, or “early” depending on how you see it. The sun was rising and so I made an impromptu detour to the beach. The sun’s early rays glistened on the boats in the harbor, a streetsweeper began his morning shift on Frishman beach, a dogwalker yawned and gave me a lazy smile. It was 7:30 AM. You could already sense it would be a warm day. I went home and collapsed on my bed…but managed to get up, shower, get dressed, leave the house by 1 PM “a few” hours later 😉

thumb_IMG_0209_1024.jpgEn route to the beach I made a pit-stop at the Brew Shop on Gordon street. I had never been inside before but was intrigued: rumour has it they sell Cold Brew Coffee here, something I miss about Boston (besides Pavement Coffeehouse of course, my quasi living room). Gemma from Manchester, a happy barista in her mid-twenties, told me about the Ethiopian and Kenyan beans they use and poured me two Coldbrew shots from beautiful glass bottles. She also invited me to a coffee roasting and tasting workshop on Sunday evening: see you there!

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thumb_IMG_0238_1024.jpgAnd so I wandered towards the beach, Cold Brew in hand. I had spicy shakshuka with my feet in the fine sand. I skyped my mum and my dog Beau. I joined a few guys who juggled a football in the air. Mostly, I took it all in – a mum cradling her young son; a surfer running into the sea; a sailboat spinning over (I’ve been there); a few French friends joking about Paris winters.

When I left the beach, the same time that the sun fell into the ocean just before 6PM, I saw a young man in a green sweater and a green bowtie dancing wildly. Why is this noteworthy? Because his VIP audience member was an old lady with big, white curls, and a gentle face. She sat in one of those red wheelchair scooters and she watched the dancer as happily as can be. Many stopped to watch the man dance, but just as many were simply moved by this old lady’s joy. Only in Tel Aviv!

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Florentin: The Writing On The Wall

To join a chocolate fight on Rabin Square, or to join a Streetwise Hebrew tour of Tel Aviv’s coolest neighborhood, Florentin? This was the tough choice I had to make last Friday afternoon. As you may or may not know, the Israeli weekend is on Friday and Saturday and marks Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. The chocolate fight was, as the name suggests, a fight with liquid chocolate in Tel Aviv’s most famous square. It was to be filmed as a promotional trailer for Tel Aviv University’s “Chocolympics,” an annual campus event that raises money for children’s heart surgeries in third world countries. If you know a bit about my family history (my sister Luisa was born with a heart defect) and a bit about my chocolate addiction, you will be incredibly surprised that I chose instead to do the street art tour of Florentin. And what a great choice it was!

Guy Sharett is the multilingual Israeli tour guide who shows journalists, diplomats, world travelers (and people with lesser backgrounds) around Florentin. His life story sounds like the plot of a bestselling children’s book: Guy was raised by a tugboat skipper father and a ceramic artist mother in Ashdod, a Mediterranean town where sailors from all around the world anchor their boats. And so his childhood schoolmates spoke Georgian, Russian, Turkish, Greek, Marathi, Arabic and Romanian; he even learnt German from a Protestant pastor’s daughter (who happened to be his neighbor’s au-pair). From my own experience, I can also confirm that he speaks excellent French – when he learns my name at the beginning of the tour, he assumes I am French, and so for a good five minutes, we muse about languages and cultures in casual French dialogue. Merci beaucoup, Guy!

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“If I forget you, Jerusalem/ It’s because of Tel Aviv”

This, written on the walls of Florentin in Hebrew, is a tongue-in-cheek take on Psalm 137:5: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill.” Guy points the quote out to us on a wall splattered with street art: the wall stands next to the Tiny Tiny Gallery . To picture this gallery, imagine Harry Potter’s closet at the Dursleys’. This is of the same size and height, except it’s filled with paintings, not spiders. Anyway, the aforementioned wall is a bit like the graveyard of the gallery: once artists have enjoyed the temporary glory of being exhibited in the Tiny Tiny Gallery, they make their mark on the wall. And so a painted plastic duck sits proudly next to a somewhat creepy photo of a baby, and an old baby-blue frame protects a pin-up girl’s space from intrusion by other street art.

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M A K E     M E    B E L I E V E    I N   L O V E   A G A I N.

Can you see it? Look more closely at the photo above. Those abstract faces you see are in fact letters, and they spell this heartfelt desire.   We’ve now stopped at a big square in Florentin, adorned with a fountain surrounded by pastel-colored mosaic stones around it. While the above mural sticks with me, the central piece Guy points out here pays homage to the “27 Club” of popular musicians who died at just 27 years. And so Amy Winehouse, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison and their peers stare down at us. We learn that the artist rented a crane at a cost of 5,000 skekels/day. During his lunch break, he would simply attach a post-it note asking the locals, “please do not move my crane.” The height of his work is a distinct advantage: part of street art’s appeal is that it is fleeting and ever-evolving; we learn that sometimes art here disappears from one day to the next, meaning Guy has to change his tour all the time (he seems delighted about this).

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What else should you know about Florentin’s street art? Well, there is 13-year TRA who skips school to spray his fascination with Botox onto the walls, Dede who uses band-aids as imagery to express his feelings about changing identities and questions of doubt, and DIOZ whose huge works are among the most photographed and respected in the neighborhood. But besides art, I also learn about Ladino, a language that many of Florentin’s first settlers in the 1920s spoke. Florentin started as an outpost of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki, and they were soon joined by Hispanic craftsmen, artists and builders. To this day there are many workshops in this area that sell handmade leather shoes, wooden frames, antique furniture, anything really. Ladino was their lingua franca until recently: it is a Jewish language with heavy Hispanic influences and it has left a big artistic legacy, for example in songs that were written here. Unfortunately it is now dying out; Guy mentions that an old neighbor of his still speaks it, but he’s an exception.

I’m gonna end this post by explaining the photo that introduced the post with (going full circle, y’know): the Orthodox Jew you see in that first image faces two street signs: one pointing towards Jerusalem, the holy city; the other pointing towards Tel Aviv, ‘sin city.’ Why is this remarkable? Because he chooses to send his prayers towards the latter :-).

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“Serendipity” (noun)

Serendipity: noun

the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

“a fortunate stroke of serendipity”

synonyms: (happy) chance, (happy) accident, fluke

 

How better to end a mild winter evening than with hot Shakshuka in central Tel Aviv? This sumptuous breakfast dish makes for a great dinner, and so I happily dipped challah bread in the steaming hot saucepan of tomatoey goodness. In the meantime, I watched life go by on Ibn Gabirol, one of Tel Aviv busiest streets. But when a large procession of people danced by the restaurant’s windows, accompanied by a party bus that boasted neon lights and blasted loud music, even the Tel Aviv locals in the restaurant spun their heads around with intrigue. Curiosity got the better of me; I hastily paid my dinner and ran out of the restaurant to pursue this congregation. Who were they, what were they celebrating, and why did they do so on a public street in the middle of the city?

My initial instinct was that this was a Jewish wedding. There were people of all ages but some wore more traditional religious clothing and black hats, and two men were carrying large silver goblet-like objects. But when I couldn’t spot the happy couple, I decided to ask a security guy in a yellow vest what was going on. He told me that this group of people were carrying the Torah from a bar on Dizengoff to the synagogue. “Wait, back up!” is what you’re probably thinking just about now. Well, I felt the same way, and so I went around the group asking more people more questions. Here’s what I found: the group had started as just a handful of people. Two hours ago, they met outside the bar on Dizengoff street where there was a horrific shooting in early January. Dizengoff is to Tel Aviv what King’s Road is to London, or the Theater district to Boston – an area rife with bars, clubs, and young people. It is not known to be a dangerous area; rather it is one of the most desirable places to live. But while the shooting must have left many Israelis scar(r)ed, these people had made a beautiful decision: they would commemorate the young victims of the shooting with a Torah, and in the process, would celebrate life by dancing from the bar to the synagogue in an ever-growing mass of people.

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To you, this probably sounds bizarre and surreal, maybe distasteful. To me, this was a profoundly moving event that I feel very lucky to have been a part of. Whether English-speaking or not, everyone present tried to include me. An Israeli Arab (who was by far the best dancer) grabbed my hand and pulled me into the middle of it all; the rabbi present eagerly shook my hand and thanked me for being there, before leading the group in chanting a prayer; and a French Jew who had made Aliyah four years ago told me he had turned down a private dinner with a senior Likud politician, just to be here.

For me, this evening was sheer serendipity. By pure luck, I saw something raw – figments of the national psyche out in the open: Israelis’ mourning for their dead compatriots, Israelis’ resilience, and their unshakable will to live their lives in spite of terrorism.

Two days later, I found myself at the very bar where the senseless shooting occurred. Why? Because a mere ten days after the shooting, the bar’s owners had invited all of Tel Aviv to a massive street feast to celebrate life.

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