Monthly Archives: January 2015

What’s the news like over there?

Whenever I travel everyone always asks me about the news in the country I travel to. Okay, okay, that’s a lie. What they do ask is “What’s it like over there?”. I use that as an excuse to tell them about my view on different issues and to thrust different news articles upon them.
So, to give my dear relatives a break, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature on my blog. In every “What’s the news like over there?” post I will, at the very least, post an excerpt from an article I find on the political, social or pop culture issues in the country I’m currently residing in. I will always hyperlink the title of the article to the original post.

Enough chit-chat. Here’s the article.

Taiwan Spy Affair Shines Light on Military Morale

“The indictment of a former Chinese army captain and four Taiwanese military men on spy charges this month comes amid cuts in military spending and planned reductions in the size of the armed forces…Analysts and some military experts in Taiwan say the latest indictment rekindles concerns that the growing trade ties between the two historical foes has made Taiwanese officers softer targets for China’s espionage efforts. The debate around the military’s role in Taiwan and the recurring spy scandals have implications beyond the Taiwan Strait, with analysts and experts saying it potentially puts in question the willingness of the U.S. to entrust Taiwan with military technology and knowledge…According to Tsai Huang-liang, a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker who sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, from 2013 to early March last year, Taiwan has unearthed 15 cases of Chinese espionage; of those, 90% involved active or retired members of the military…“As part of your military training, you are told that the enemy is China and that’s who you are preparing to fight against.

Yet at the same time, the ranking government leaders are becoming friendlier with the so-called enemy. This creates confusion for the military of their place in the society,” said Arthur Hong, an adjunct professor at Taiwan’s National Defense University.…Beijing still views Taiwan as a renegade province to be taken back, by force if needed. A desire for reunification with China, rather than independence, plays a role in the motivation of some member of Taiwan’s military to go on China’s payroll, some analysts say.”

Ancitipation [a post from my diary 08/31/14]

Two weeks ago I wasn’t sure where I would be today. Earlier this summer, shortly before the kidnapping of three Israeli teenswhich followed the torture of a young Palestinian by settlers, I accepted a position with a non-profit dedicated to teaching English to young Palestinians in Nablus. For those who may be unaware, the city of Nablus is located near the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank: Balata.

The directors of the program still seemed confident that we would be able to get through, until a number of volunteers from our sister school were denied entry into the country, and consequently into Palestine. “Just wait,” they told me. “S [one of the directors] will be trying to  get in soon. If she cannot get in, the program will not run unfortunately. So, for now, just wait.” I waited. I waited and read. Over the summer, I had watched several truces take hold and fall through. I had read about airstrikes, rockets and protests. When my parents asked me if they thought I would be able to go all I could do was shake my head. “Maybe,” I said. Shortly after the deaths of three Hamas military leaders and the following reported retributive execution of eighteen accused informants/collaborators within Gaza. I wondered if the end wasn’t too far off. Netanyahu was paying a political price for the continued conflict and I wondered if Hamas was losing moral or resources.

Two days before my flight I learned she had made it through, though with some trouble. The trouble I expected. It is not easy to get into the West Bank. In fact, for some it is near impossible and the conflict certainly made it more difficult. As I threw my suitcase together after work, only twenty four hours before my plane, the only reality I felt was the tacit recognition that I still might not get in. I might fly for fourteen hours and immediately turn back and fly for another fourteen.

I didn’t really sleep the night before,partially because my dogs are horrible bed hogs, but also partially because of the writhing nervousness that had settled in my stomach (by the way, I learned on the plane that this is partly because we have neurons in our stomachs. Bless free documentaries). As I boarded the first plane to New Jersey I felt some of that nervousness settle. As you’ve probably guessed by my last post, I’m a bit apprehensive about telling strangers where I’m going because they don’t show concern in a manner that I find helpful. In fact, I find it rather stressful because they often resort to talking at me rather than with me. Yet, as I was waiting to for the plane to arrive a man next to me provided the exact opposite of what I expected. He talked to me. He talked and really listened. He showed concern in the right way. He wished for my safety and the conversation ended with him also wishing luck and success. “It seems like you’re on the way to accomplishin1544950_10152683854839630_4313782899919649797_ng what you want, and you have a good head on your shoulders. Safe travels.” I smiled gratefully and thanked him.

My experience was later repeated in Newark, with a lady who dutifully answered my question about the extra security I had just passed  through. Moments before, I approached C-138 and found a sign indicating a “secure boarding area” (pictured to the left). Immediately, I wondered what it could mean, or if this secured area might have been the result of a threat or the more general conflict in the region. “Actually, it’s been going on for the past few years,” she explained as I sat down after dutifully having handed over my bags for a search. I rummaged through my returned backpack and pulled out 10653597_10152683854829630_3084078336879842266_nmy phone to text my Mom I had made it safely. “Why?” I paused to look at her. “Why did they add it?”

 “I don’t know, but I’m glad.” She said this last part resolutely, and repeated it several times later in our conversation. She had already explained why she made trip to Israel in the past, and why she was now (her sister had completed Aliyah, immigration, and was no living in Israel). When she asked me what I planned doing there, I confessed I would be teaching but chose not to divulge where, knowing that her reaction may not be positive and not wanting to begin my trip with an argument. Quickly I followed up  by telling her I planned to establish a story telling group and, hopefully, broadcast the stories in the US. The infrastructure was already there and a bar in Tel Aviv had been trying to host story slams for a while. After discussing issues like translation, and set up I ended by saying I felt sure I’d find excellent stories in the region. She nodded enthusiastically. “There’s great diversity in Israel because so many Jews lived in diaspora for most of their lives.” At this moment I felt comfortable enough to mention the tensions in the region and intimated that I wanted to ask about them in a tactful manner.

She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. Jews are very forthright, they won’t get offended. Maybe some will yell at you, or ignore you, or turn away but then you can just move on to the next person…but, Jews are very forthright.” Actually, though I had been treading somewhat carefully with her I found that to be great advice. There are always stories to find, so if you’re denied one you’ll certainly find another. As I got up to board the plane, I thanked her for the conversation and for her, well, forthrightness.

She ended our conversation with more reassurance. “You’ll love it there. A curious mind like you? You’ll definitely succeed there.”

I smiled and waved and boarded the plane. Fast forward nine hours of parks and rec and documentaries later, I got of the plane and stood nervously in “foreign passport” line at customs. As I watched the girl in front of me speak with the officer, likely telling her about how excited she was to return for college, I felt the nerves settle comfortably back into my stomach.

“Your first time?” An older man ventured knowingly, shifting a violin case to another shoulder. I nodded. “What are you doing?”

“Teaching English.”

“That’s great,” he reassured me adjusting his cap over white hair.”Just great.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I’m playing in a temple coming up, actually. I’m a violinist”

“Have you played before?”

“Oh yes, I usually play in an American Folk festival. It’s really popular over here.”

Here I got excited. I love folk festivals, having grown up attending so many.

“Really? When is it?”

“Spring sometime,” he responded to my disappointment. “It’s called Jacob’s Ladder.”

Just then, the lady in the small windowed box called me forward. I thanked the man for talking with me, wished him luck and smiled because even if I didn’t get in I had already met and spoken with so many interesting people.

Water, Internet and MacGyver in Nablus

“Everybody hacks here,” C (the assistant director) leaned against the kitchen counter, drinking tea. His casual response to my asking if I should install a VPN. Overall he felt it would be a waste as governmental organizations can gain access easily regardless of such technology and hacking is incredibly popular in Nablus. “In fact,” he continued. “There have been times I haven’t been able to use my computer because someone has taken over it.”

Later that evening the electricity went out. In the few days I’ve been here, we’ve faced two electricity outages and three days of water shortage. Today I took a shower using one and a half containers of bottled water. Yet, though citizens may have trouble accessing electricity for their lights and water for their showers, you’ll also find many are equipped with iPhones, laptops and all manner of technology. There’s a strange sort of duality here between technology and underdevelopment. On one hand, most of my students will likely be very tech savvy, on the other hand electricity outages and water depletion is not uncommon here.

Last night, as I sat on the balcony drinking tea and eating a fresh Falafel made by a sociable stand owner down the street, I noticed a young woman sitting on top of her roof on her laptop. She laughs at something and leans back to rest on a black cylinder which squats on her building. The next day I met a taxi driver, who I would come to know affectionately as “Super driver” who had wi-fi in his cab. He would often pick up his cellphone while driving and, removing his ever-present cigarette from his mouth, answer “Yes habibi”. Of course, despite all of their tech. savviness, so much hinges on having electricity or, if you’re wealthy, a generator. While staying there I sometimes found myself unable to finish lesson plans due to an unexpected electricity outage.

As for water, most, if not all buildings in Nablus, feature a flat top with a large black container positioned on them. Every night, these black containers are replenished with water. Some of you may wonder: where does this water come from? In fact, the water is effectively allocated to the West Bank by Israel, which controls the water supply between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. Now, some readers may have read the Oslo II Accords and point out that Nablus is located in the small percentage of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority; therefore, the water should be controlled by the PA. Actually, there’s a small asterisk there which indicates they should be allowed to control the water insofar as it does not affect the Israeli settlements(page 103) (Also found here) So, in practical terms, Israel controls the water as any water available to the region reaches the settlements first. The settlements themselves are sprawled around near villages outside of Nablus, often surrounded by walls and the IDF.

I talked more with C about this and he highlighted Oslo II as one of the major reasons we, and other Nablusis living in our area, were dealing with water shortages. “There’s also just not good infrastructure here,” he told me.  “We only get water bills sporadically, so maybe we haven’t paid.” I nodded. Each building in our area was outfitted with a large black tank on top of the roof. Every night, new water filled the tank, but often very slowly and sometimes not at all.

“How does water even get up there?” I asked him. “Where does it come from?”

“You know,” he said, finally looking up from the computer screen. “I have no idea. That’s a good question. There’s probably an aquifer near here.”

Water in Palestine is a complex issue. The joint water committee or JWC, a partnership between Israel and Palestine’s Palestinian Water Authority (created after Oslo II) approves all new drill sites for water and, in practice, the amount of water allotted to Palestinians. According to the Israeli government, some of the approved drill sites have yet to be tapped; but, Palestine is guilty of illegally drilling elsewhere (here) (here). The PLO, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority maintains that the Oslo II Accords have not yet been fulfilled. According to an article written by a member of the Negotiations and Development unit, the water resources in the region continue to be divided disparately between Palestinians and Israelis (here). Some cite the codification of inequality in the Oslo Accords as the cause, others blame infrastructure and poor management by the Palestinian Authority.  A recent article on Bloomberg speaks to this disparity, highlighting poor infrastructure which has left many unconnected to the grid of water lines. “According to Water Authority statistics, Israel now supplies more than double the required amount to the Palestinian Authority, or 53 mcm, but even that does not meet the areas’ needs”. Unfortunately, around 30% of that is lost due to leaking pipelines.

Later in the article, Tamar Feldman, an attorney with a civil-rights company in Israel,  notes the following:

“The West Bank water problem is threefold. First comes the “outdated and dysfunctional” Oslo framework. Second are the more than 100 “unrecognized” Arab villages in West Bank areas under full Israeli control, which have no access to the national water grid. And third is Israel’s refusal to license new Palestinian wells. The military authority destroys wells drilled without a license as well as old water cisterns that have been repaired for use, she said.”

This, is perhaps a rather good summary of some of the main issues with something a simple as water. Of course, water isn’t solely a Palestinian-Israeli divide issue, it is also tied closely to the issue of poverty and wealth disparity. During my conversation with C, the assistant director,  he also noted at one point that water and electricity tend to “go out” more in places like the Balata refugee camp than in the region we lived in. After living for two weeks in a region near the Souk,  the other teachers and I moved to a wealthier section of Nablus. There the water almost never went out, even though more people resided in the apartment. Of course, that could also partially be due to the landlord of the other building; but, I wonder if it also may be that the wealthier get more governmental attention and, in general, have more access to resources.

My inclination is to say that developing grid works for water and distributing should be simpler and more accessible than, say, the internet or the phones that many of my students were equipped with. Even so, technology is not as accessible as this article may make it seem. For one, it tends to be more difficult due to sanctions and the reality of being an unrecognized country to obtain something as simple as a charger. I learned this when mine broke one day. Somehow, I had managed to hit it on the desk just so and one of the metal prongs that connected the battery box to the detachable cord broke off and slid into the box. As I shook the plastic box, listening to the sound of metal knocking around, I felt certain this was a death sentence for it. R.I.P. charger.  In the U.S. I would normally order one off of Amazon for a few dollars, but here I needed to find a store that could recognize it and attempt to repair it or order a new one at a high price. To my surprise, they managed to fix it! This involved them breaking apart the protective box that surrounded the main section of the charger, removing part of the cord and replacing it with another one and finish by gluing or soldering it firmly in place. To me, this was some unthought-of MacGyver level stuff. If you’re impressed by that, which I was, you’d probably be interested to learn more about the innovative tech start-ups developing in Palestine which may not only help the economy, but also influence the culture (as things like this tend to do everywhere)! Overall,  as we develop a sense of what technology can do and we discover more disparities between what we’d expect of old technology (like water grids) and new technology (like the internet, computers, etc.). Then, Maybe as we refine the old technologies, maybe even using the new ones with the help of our MacGyver friends, we’ll be more ready to solve problems that now seem insolvable. Who knows?

Here, Askar

“This Askar,” he says jabbing a finger at the lit screen. We are sitting in the darkness at a round multi-colored elementary school table. He is slouched halfway into a plastic lawn chair, staring at a screen covered in Arabic.

His finger touches a picture of a boy, or maybe a man, I’m never sure of the distinction. He stands, unsmiling, holding a sign in front of his chest. Behind him is Askar, narrow streets and tall, worn buildings. Almost no  one, except  maybe some white justice crusader describes Askar as beautiful. It isn’t, but it is home to some thousands of refugees.  Some of them, like the boy in the picture, were born in the camp.
So there he stands, staring into a lens, holding a sign featuring two rockets and red, green and black writing which reads:

“نحن قوم نعشق الموت كما يعشق اعدائنا الحياه “. ‘We adore death as our enemies adore life’.

A, the volunteer at the center I work at and the person currently slouched down next to me watches me mouth the words silently to myself.
I look at him confused. “Shoo yani?” I ask. ‘What does it mean?’
He struggles for a while, his hands clawing in front of him as he attempts to remember his English . Like all Palestinians he studied English through school, but English and Arabic are very different languages and there aren’t many language learning opportunities after.
Eventually he types it into google, google completes it before he hits the second word. Later I go home and search for it. I type the first three words and hit enter; hundreds of thousands results appear, the first of them linking me to videos and facebook pages. Some pages feature a Hamas flag, others militants dressed in all black.
He translates the phrase for me, I stare at him still uncertain. What do you mean adore death? How is this being used? Why the juxtaposition between death and life; us and enemies?

His arms move from his pockets to his chest, in front of him and back again as he explains. He speaks little English and my Arabic leaves something to be desired, so it takes several revisions of his explanation before I think I understand. Israel took, and is taking, Palestine. Without Palestine we are dead. This is what he tells me, but still I wonder how the phrase became so common. Later I find a sound cloud of a man speaking these words, over a microphone in front of what I imagine to be a crowd at a rally.

Back in the room, I look at the picture which had been pasted next to a picture of a smiling military boy, kneeling on the ground in his camo, showing off his gun.

I wonder, if we had compared their lives what would they look like? What led each of them to that moment? I ask A why he thinks the boy did this. Why did the boy cross the border illegally? Why did he stab a soldier in Tel Aviv station? Did the soldier shoot at him? Did he aggravate him? Ahmed shook his head.
“It’s because of Al-Aqsa,” he said simply.

True, the closing of Al-Aqsa could be seen as a catalyst for recent events but perhaps,more than that, it’s the daily reminder of where you cannot go. It’s hearing the stories of grandparents who lived maybe a hundred miles west before ‘48. It’s growing older and realizing more and more that you may never really see more than this refugee camp or the small bit of land you’re allowed to walk on; that no matter how hard you work it will be difficult to get out of Askar or Nablus. It’s knowing that seeing another country is practically impossible. It’s being denied freedom of movement, economic rights, freedom of expression for an ever growing, changing list of reasons.

Not everyone reacts with the same sort of anger. Some withdraw themselves into apathy; but the anger, the exhaustion is almost, if not completely, universal.