Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Wall is Down

Not that wall, but it will do.

I don't need to reiterate my positions, I think, so let's look at this from the exegesis perspective. The images of people rushing over the wall are powerful, and most Western observers cannot help but compare them to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is a very important aspect of that event which is not intrinsically present here.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was about reunification. It was about a country divided by an external force - literally a force; not an ideology, though there may have been committed communists in the DDR. And after the wall fell, it was the sacred responsibility of West Germans to take care of their unfortunate siblings. It was not easy, and it sure as hell was not cheap, but it was inevitable. The wall came down, and the DDR was now part of Germany.

The wall came down in Palestine, and it's a wall between two Arab communities. Consider that in the weeks since the border between Gaza and Egypt has been open, there has been a suicide bomber attack in Israel, an attack that killed civilians. For the first time in a very long time! Causality would seem to suggest that walls in Gaza and the West Bank are effective at stopping terrorists, and these particular terrorists are said to have crossed into Egypt and back into Israel over the Sinai border (which is far less well-guarded - tourists at Egypt's Red Sea resorts are offered daytrips to Jerusalem).

Is there really any doubt in anyone's mind that if it wanted, Israel could have sealed up the wall? The terrorist attack is a sufficient pretense for the IDF to move in. Gaza is currently controlled by Hamas, which would undoubtedly react, but Rafah is not south Lebanon. With their backs to the sea and the fortified borders, Hamas would have no room for guerilla tactics, and in a direct urban shootout the Israeli army would rip them to shreds. Hezbollah would certainly make a move at the same time, but exactly because they could not avoid doing so, it would give Israel the opportunity to prepare and take advantage of another war started by the Arabs to pummel them into the dust. There must be plenty of IDF brass insulted by the Summer War debacle in 2006.

It could be that Israel is simply not ready to fight another war on two fronts simultaneously. Gaza and Lebanon are tough targets; after the remarkably poorly reported Israeli raid on a Syrian nuclear research facility some months ago, Syria could have ideas of revenge and reconquest of Golan, especially when backed by a pissed-off Iran. It's certainly a big factor that should not be discounted; Israel knows that if it moves into Gaza again, it would cause another war, and they would have a tough time with it.

But let's consider another aspect. One of the questions eternally posed in the blame-slinging of the Middle East crisis, and never answered to satisfaction, is why the Palestinian Arabs are not just taken in by the Arab countries. The combined population of Gaza and the West Bank is some 4 million; not inconsiderable, but between the Muslim states, not unmanageable either. Why don't Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. take in the refugees, give them jobs and homes? The world is full of refugees; losing your homeland is terrible, but it's not the end of the world. More people than that have gone through it in the 20th century, and built happy new lives for themselves in a friendly country.

The wall has come down; it is widely reported, with videos and photographs and blogs. And Westerners cannot help but ascribe the same significance to it as Berlin. The prison of poor Arabs has been broken, and the victims are spilling out into the land of the better-off Arabs for all the simple things they never had. The Egyptian military is just standing there, with no intention of impeding the human flow.

The longer Israel allows this to continue, the more people in the West will think of it as a reunification, and expect Egypt to take responsibility for the management of Gaza. It is entirely in Egypt's power to make Gaza a viable Palestinian home, an autonomous district relying on Cairo for security, utilities and economic assistance (much as it relies on Israel now). Would this solution be acceptable to Hamas? Unlikely. But to regular Gazans? Why the hell not? Nothing has shown itself to be as effective at disarming hostility as prosperity.

It's not a solution Egypt has been entirely comfortable with, but at this point they seem to be in a position where they can't really say no without alienating the bleeding-heart portion of the West. Israel is demonized for not allowing food and medicine packages into Gaza, but Israel has learned to live with the hatred. If Egypt seals the border and deports the Gazans, it will be made into a villain of startling proportion; and furthermore, a traitor to its own people. And Egypt is a Western-oriented state, which can ill-afford a boycott by all the German vacationers.

If this solution can be made to stick, it will be an enormous step forward. Israel will have found a viable long-term solution for Gaza, and the West Bank - far larger, more self-sufficient and calm - could either be given independence or turned over to Jordan in the same way.

The best thing about the scenario I have outlined is that it is not just my dream; it is a likely and logical evolution of recent events. It could very much happen. If this arrangement can be made to stick, the next generation of Palestinians will be working in Sharm el Sheikh hotels, and will only be annoyed by agitators calling for a holy war. Inshallah.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Temple

For Jens, by special request. :)

Giustino reports snarkily on the opening of a synagogue in Tallinn - Shimon Perez was there for the ceremony, and the President of Israel had come earlier to lay down the cornerstone. (Construction is quick in Estonia today.)

At a Tartu blogger love-in a few weeks back, I was asked about my background; when I replied that I was (half) Yiddish, the others were surprised. Yiddish is a term for Eastern European Jews; I use it because it is a more specific definition. It is difficult to explain to foreigners the uniqueness of a post-Soviet Jewish identity, because it does not necessarily have anything to do with the two widely-known pillars of judaica: religion and Zionism.

All the mythology and conspiracy theories aside, Zionism comes down to a single imperative: Jews must live in Israel. It is partially because of dogma - the return of all displaced Jews to the Holy Land is supposed to be a prerequisite for the coming of the Messiah - but I guess mostly it's because Jews want a homeland, a place where they would not be persecuted. The Zionist movement dates from the 19th century, far predating the Holocaust, but then Jews had been persecuted in Europe before.

As I explained to my fellow Esto-themed bloggers, the Holocaust has given rise to a specific sentiment among people with at least some Jewish self-identification: the 'never again' which refers not to the evil of others, but to the complacency of ourselves. The most disappointing thing is not that so many people died - it's that so many people didn't resist. This cannot be allowed to happen in the future, and so I unquestionably support the existence of Israel, as a Jewish state and as a significant military force; I am sorry for all the suffering Arabs, but Israel acting like a psycho nutter bastard is my own personal guarantee that if a new Hitler emerges, he will get a late-night visit from Mr Craig long before he ever gets to any sort of threatening position.

And yet I have no intention or desire to move to Israel. It was an interesting country to visit, if I get a chance to go back I'll probably take it; but it's not somewhere I would want to live. My home is elsewhere.

The other thing, religion - I'm a militant atheist. Under equal circumstances I'd prefer Judaism to other mainstream religions, because it's mostly based on interpretation by rabbis - authoritative, but fallible; and because unlike others, it includes a loophole for outsiders. The Noahide Laws, which essentially come down to "don't be a dick", will guarantee a non-Jew passage into Heaven. Dogma influences mentality, so having a rule like this buys a religion a lot of credit in my book.

So I'm quite sure I won't be attending the new Temple in Tallinn; I might stop by for a look when I'm in town, but that's about it. Still, I'm very happy it's there.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

A tale of treachery and terror


That kid's name was Ofir Rahum. He lived in Israel, in a town called Ashkelon. Some time in 2000, he met a girl online. They hit it off. Gradually he fell in love - and it looked like so did she.

The girl called herself Sally, but her real name was Mona Awana (correct spelling unclear, transcription from semitic languages is always ambiguous). She was a Palestinian, educated in an Israeli university, with a degree in psychology. She was also part of Fatah, Yassir Arafat's organization.

After a while, the two agreed to meet. Ofir went to Jerusalem, where he and the girl got in her car. She drove him to Ramallah. Once they were in Palestinian territory, she got out of the car, and three gunmen started firing upon it.

When Ofir's body was handed over to the Israeli authorities, 36 hours later, it contained no less than 15 bullets.

The gunmen were later killed by Israeli special forces. Mona was arrested, convicted of accessory to murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

A Russian-language Israeli newspaper managed to interview her in April of this year. Their first question, of course, was whether she has any regrets about getting the boy killed.

'Of course not. In two years he would have been conscripted, and told to shoot at Palestinians. So he's an enemy. Any Israeli is an enemy to us - both boys and girls serve in the army.'

According to Mona, Ofir was silent all the way from Jerusalem to Ramallah. How come? Did he suspect anything?

'Most likely he was just scared, but didn't want to show it. I'm a psychologist by training, and in my opinion Ofir had two conflicting feelings in the car on that day. He still believed me, but already had some doubts. Ofir was a strong kid, he could've grabbed the wheel, turned the car off the road and saved himself. But...'

Is she afraid now, in jail? Does she have nightmares about Ofir?

'I'm not afraid of dreams. I'm strong. I have a life in jail. I can watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers in Hebrew, Arabic, English. All inmates are allowed three hours a day out in the courtyard. Once every two weeks I see my family. I have plenty of money that different organizations transfer in my name. I get up to fifty letters a day. Some of them are love confessions. A few years from now they'll have to release me, and I'll get married...'

Why am I writing this post? So far I've approached the entire Middle East thing from what I like to think is a detached, reasonably objective perspective. Probably I just need a copy of the story that I can refer to, the next time I get into an Israeli-Arab flame war and people start talking about all the Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.

That, and as an example of the difference between war and terrorism.

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Damn straight.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Kill the Gibson

Nah, sorry, the title is just a geek in-joke. But in response to William Gibson's blog entry and as a general point:

I can understand and probably even agree that the solution to the Middle East crisis is not military. Not even the mighty IDF can win a guerilla war on foreign soil, and so far they seem to have the sense not to try, at least not to commit massive forces to a ground assault.

That, however, does not mean Israel could have reacted differently. It is in a fundamentally inferior position. For the Arabs, a defeat in Lebanon will be no more than a mild annoyance; they have suffered all-out military defeats before and have shrugged them off. The agenda opposing Israel is not the agenda of Nasrallah or Ahmadinejad or Hamas - it is the agenda of an ideology with a stranglehold on hundreds of millions of people. Unlike its enemies, Israel cannot afford even a single defeat, as this will mean the destruction of the country. (Europeans and particularly Americans seem mostly incapable of comprehending this. To them the idea that a country could cease to exist is preposterous in the context of the 21st century.) I've called Israel a generally Western place, but the Middle East is still quite medieval in its outlook; strength is the ultimate virtue, and Israel's existence is secured by the assurance of defeat for any challenger. This assurance must be maintained.

The paradigm in which Israel exists is less different from the paradigm of Hezbollah and Hamas than it is from the paradigm of someone living in Vancouver. I only have the capacity to appreciate this nuance because I come from a country that has fought fiercely for its independence against an incomprehensibly superior force, and had been betrayed by its supposed allies on several occasions.

So while I have the utmost respect for Gibson - he has the sort of ability to see into the heart of things that I admire even more than his mastery of language; basically I want to be him when I grow up - in this case any criticism or lament of the situation is academic unless accompanied by an effort to present a plausible exit strategy.

A total victory of Israel over Hezbollah and an establishment of a democratic, peaceful, moderate, lasting regime in Lebanon - the absolute best-case scenario - will not solve Israel's problem once and for all, and certainly neither will any likely outcome. But that doesn't mean Israel could choose not to fight this war. Whatever its generation.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pictures from Israel

Here.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

IDF 0wnz j00

The men's room of the gate A63 lounge in Frankfurt International Airport has Fuck [something] soldiers scribbled on the wall. The [something] has been scratched out and replaced with Al Qaeda. I didn't have a pen on me at the time, but otherwise I was sorely tempted to commit this article's headline to the sideboard.

I suppose it is appropriate for me to express my position regarding the current war and the entire Middle East muddle; some may find it enlightening or at least useful.

The parties can be broadly considered as Israel on one side, with heavy backing from the US and occasional reluctant acknowledgement by Europe; and the Arab nations on the other. There is a crucial difference between the sides, lying in their long-term strategic goals, that is to say, why the war is being fought in the first place.

Israelis have no fundamental desire for expansion, other than the strategically useful pushing back of borders from major population centers (in case of Haifa, apparently not far back enough) and maybe a better hold on Jerusalem. Our guide in the city told us of Jewish attitude towards sanctity, and that it does not necessarily tie down to geographical locations. It was no big thing for Israel to return Sinai to Egypt in the negotiations following the Six Day War; the significance of the act of Moses receiving the commandments far outweighs the significance of the place where it happened. Besides, they don't really have a very good idea of where Mount Sinai actually is. There are two or three educated guesses, which seems curious, considering that otherwise Jerusalem is pretty well mapped to sites of biblical importance.

Naturally, I went up to the Western Wall when I had the chance. So did The Boss. When we came back, our guide asked him what he thought of it, and The Boss answered truthfully that it was just a bunch of really old rocks. This was exactly the answer our guide was looking for. The Wailing Wall is holy not because the temple of Solomon was housed beyond it, but because millions come there to contemplate the fate of a people.

Israelis claim and defend the country because this is the land of their forefathers, not because this is where religious events took place.

Israel's only objective in the conflict is to ensure its safety. I will admit freely that Israel does not respond proportionately. First, this is not in their nature (even more true for sabra than for other Jews). Second, Israel cannot possibly afford to go blow for blow with its neighbours. It is a nation of some 7 million, in a territory smaller than Estonia's. The tactical doctrine of one dead Jew resulting in a hundred dead Arabs, not to mention an air-to-ground missile up the arse of the leadership, is the only one available in such a situation. But Israel's main objective is simply to secure the continued existence of the state of Israel, acceptably within existing borders, and protect its citizens from attack.

On the other hand, the main objective of the Arab nations is the complete destruction of the state of Israel, acceptably accompanied by the destruction of the nation of Israel. This alone defines right and wrong clearly enough for any reasonable human being who takes a second to consider matters objectively. And yet the First World harbours a lot of sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden Palestinians in occupied territories.

People don't seem to recall how the lands got occupied in the first place. In 1967 the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon declared war on Israel and began a full military assault. Within six days, all the Arab nations were comprehensively fucked up by the vastly outnumbered IDF. Israel's counteroffensive netted it vast territories, many of which it conceded in subsequent negotiations. Only outside diplomatic pressure prevented Israeli tanks from rolling triumphantly into Cairo and Damascus. Gaza and the West Bank* remained under the control of Israel as spoils of a war which it did not start. The Arabs waged war, were defeated, and lost territory. Yeah, life sucks like that.

At this point, the argument of "whose land is it anyway?" usually diverts to the 1940s, the morality of Britain and the newly-formed UN establishing the country, and Jewish terrorism prior to it. All points that deserve consideration, but you know what? In 1909, sixty families got tired of Jews being discriminated against in Jaffa. They put their money together and bought a bunch of sand dunes north of the ancient city. They went out there, took a picture of all the families on the Mediterranean beach, then drew numbered shells to assign themselves plots of land along the newly formed Rothschild Boulevard. In less than a century the village grew into a mini-metropolis, a center of industry and finance, and the country around it into the world's biggest importer/exporter of diamonds. Tel Aviv's only real rival in the region is Dubai, built up with oil money. Israel has obviously done better with its land than any of the neighbours, and once you discount the desire for religious landmarks, this gives modern Israelis a claim to the territory superior to that of the Arabs who were here before them.

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*The Hebrew Union College is a foundation of modern, progressive Judaism. When the land for it was ceded by the Jerusalem municipality, it was faced with a tough choice: on one hand there was no reason to deny the request, but on the other, the influential conservatives would not be happy with it. So the land was given in the worst slum of the city, overlooking the ravine between modern Jerusalem and the old town - at the time, part of Jordan. The neighbourhood was under constant threat from Jordanian snipers picking off the population. Then the Six Day War happened, Israeli special forces took old Jerusalem (today you can see all the pockmarks from the ammunition fired at the Lion's Gate to suppress enemy fire and enable a breach), and the plot was suddenly prime real estate. The terms of the lease were such that the land would revert to the municipality if it is not built up within 25 years. Short of time and money, the progressives initiated massive fundraising in the US and elsewhere. Today the HUC is a massively impressive campus, dotted with memorial plaques with names of individual contributors.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

No Sleep Till Tallinn

Today's meetings at the head office were irrelevant to me, so I had the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing. The big diamond store around here sponsors a free tour of the city, which I was only too glad to take advantage of. Saw the Mediterranean beach and the promenade, Jaffa, the original Tel Aviv neighborhoods, and the diamond museum.

Israel has attacked a second Lebanese airport and instituted a naval blockade. Tel Aviv is on high alert, with gunships patrolling off the coast. The Blonde is convinced she'll be killed by stray gunfire or something.

Went out with The Boss and The Blonde in the evening. Took a cab to the Allenby/Rothschild Blvd area, and did some sweets shopping at the Max Brenner chocolate bar. Then we walked down Allenby to the promenade. Tel Aviv is not that big, and even then it is split into areas. Tel Aviv and Jaffa are technically one city, but Ramat Gan - the City, including the diamond exchange district - is not, although it is part of the Tel Aviv municipality. Allenby and Rothschild are the heart of Tel Aviv proper, built up before the formation of Israel in 1948. More than anything else this area looks colonial. If Ramat Gan could just as well be Shanghai, Allenby could just as well be Port-au-Prince.

I didn't have my swimming trunks with me, unfortunately, but I did walk down the beach and into the Mediterranean. Awesome feeling. Caught a cab up to Jaffa and walked around it for a bit, with The Blonde taking pictures of every cat and kitten encountered - and Jaffa has plenty of feline fauna. Landed in a pub called Bernhardt Show (ostensibly Bernard Shaw), at a table overlooking the sea. Toasted the IDF with Goldstar lager. Walked down the main street, looking for a cab and wondering at the fireworks. My first thought: the war is over, Israel tanks are in Beirut, and it's celebration.

No such luck. Returned to the hotel to find that rockets had been fired on Haifa, and the Israeli air force has attacked Beirut itself. The Sheraton City Tower overlooks a major train station, and I've seen soldiers walk up the ramps all afternoon - reservists called up and heading to their bases. Woke up in the morning to find cNN talking of more strikes on Beirut and the highway to Damascus. Russian channels show interviews with foreigners bugging out of Lebanon. The Israelis are properly pissed now, and it appears that things will get worse before they get better.

This post is going out on the Ben Gurion wifi a few minutes before boarding. Wish me luck.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

State capital

In Tel Aviv and checked into the Sheraton City Tower. It's slightly better than the Regency - has a working safe and minibar - but WiFi still isn't free. Took a train up from Jerusalem - about twice the time it takes by car, but cheap (less than 5 Euro) and quite scenic.

Tel Aviv is a busy modern city, with skyscrapers and stuff. It definitely feels less exotic, and as such less friendly. Jerusalem is actually larger in terms of population, but Tel Aviv is a lot more humid and therefore less tolerable. The Sheraton is in the diamond exchange district, where office highrises mix with dilapidated shacks (whorehouses, apparently). The biggest problem I have with Tel Aviv so far is that it is generic - if you were teleported into a bit of it that has no streetsigns or shop names, you could justifiably think you were anywhere from Rotterdam to Hong Kong. In Jerusalem even the spanking highrises are covered with Jerusalem stone (an actual type of stone), it's the law apparently. That lends the city authenticity, continuity and cohesion. You feel like you're in an actual place. Whereas the capital, with the exception of the fact that you can't get any proper food on Saturday, is simply a branch office of the global economy. With the same glass and chrome buildings, the same noise, and the same Sheraton hotel.

Went out for a meal with the rest of The Stereotypes. Chicken kebabs and the typical local selection of crap to put on bread or chips (in the British sense, mind you). Tried hummus finally. It's bean paste - not bad at all, actually.

The TV is showing IDF press conferences. Reserve troops have been called out; the country seems to be bracing itself for a large-scale military offensive.

Warzone update: Woke up to find the CNN talking about Katyusha attacks on a north Israeli town. During the night the IDF airforce blew the fuck out of Beirut International Airport. I got my Israel Airforce T-shirt two days ago...

Tinfoil update: The person who was in the hotel room before me blocked off the movement sensor with a postcard, so all through the night the electricity would switch off every once in a while, and only turn back on if I opened and closed the door. Took me a while to figure that one out.

The Blonde is getting freaked out, but our tickets are not exchangeable and to buy a ticket at the last minute would be prohibitively expensive - lots of people bugging out right now. Our flight is tomorrow after 4pm; checkout from the hotel is 12am, and while I'd prefer to stick around and see a bit of the city, it looks like tomorrow morning The Stereotypes are getting the fuck out of Dodge.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Warzone

 Hesbollah forces attacked northern Israel today. Israeli tanks have crossed the border, and the IDF air force has hit targets in Lebanon. Our hosts are frantically communicating with extended family. The instructor says: "This is how Israeli soldiers fight. With one hand they're fighting, and with the other they're talking to their mothers."

Dead Sea's out, but we'll all be going back on Friday - probably. This looks like it may be the beginning of an actual ground war. Hopefully not.

OK, now I'm feeling apprehensive.

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Notes from a hot country

  • Dead Sea is still on for tomorrow, but since it cost the employer a shiteload of money to get us out here (would've been cheaper if they'd bothered to book the hotel and airplane tickets in advance!), The Boss will stay in Israel till Sunday to complete the course - which is actually entirely unnecessary as today was about learning the software. The Boss doesn't write any more, his time is occupied well enough just being The Boss.

  • Met a bunch of local technical writers today. It's quite a scene in Israel, and the contrast is very interesting. Whereas in this country and in the US, a tech writer is a person of 40-something that has lots of cats, in Estonia the few people in this profession (by our estimation no more than 20 in the entire country) are very young; our own team only scrapes together a semi-reasonable median age on the backs of The Boss and Tank, who are 28. We are young, urban IT professionals with above-average income; the new Estonian yuppies.

  • I may have done mostly the tourist route in Jerusalem, but so far, I have seen nothing that would inspire me to go and blow myself up. In fact I have felt more apprehensive walking through inner-city Stockholm (which is preposterous) than I have in Jerusalem. The truth is that with all the security, there is very little street crime, and this is one of the safest places in the world to be a tourist.

  • Jerusalem traffic is insane, but there seems to be a method to the madness. Most cars in Israel are white, and I have noticed a very surprising number of Subaru Imprezas: the non-WRX version of the car is actually very mediocre, but here there's plenty of 1.6 and 1.8 versions. Who would need AWD in this climate?

  • Police cars drive around with the lights on (though no sirens). Nobody gives a flying fuck. In Estonia a police car under full illumination will have people pulling over to give it way. Not here.

  • Jerusalem's drivers rarely bother fixing bodywork. Dings are commonplace and largely ignored. I suspect it's similar to Paris in that regard.

  • In the same way as Estonians loathe the cold, Israelis loathe the heat. What they complain about as hot, we consider a very pleasant temperature. This is specifically applicable to air conditioning inside buildings. If our host had her way, the office would be positively cryogenic.

  • Israel in general is yellow to the same extent that Estonia is green. Our guide told us a secret: that Jerusalem is really full of hidden inner courtyards of astounding beauty. Hidden behind tall walls, they are a representation of the larger aspect of living in the desert: on the outside it looks inhospitable, but if you can get to the center, you will be pleasantly surprised.

  • Sabra is a cactus flower, a fruit you can buy in the market. It is also the colloquial name for a native Israeli. (If you've seen the movie Munich, you've probably noticed it.) The metaphor is much the same: it is hard and prickly on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.
  • Taking the train tonight to Tel Aviv. Should be a very scenic trip. Canon A620 at the ready.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tinfoil update

My jeans tore yesterday. They were old, I have another pair with me, plus dress trousers, plus bermuda shorts. Still annoying though.

The Boss has come down with a fever and is back at the hotel, suffering. The Blonde has a cold. I'm the last man standing.

The plan was to drive out to the Dead Sea tomorrow, and then head straight back to Tel Aviv to check into the Sheraton City Tower. Not sure now if that will happen.

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Erschalaim

Sunday was an uneventful day of work - met our instructor, who turned out to be infinitely cool. The most important thing I've learned so far though was that through osmosis, by figuring out what works and what doesn't, our team has learned most of what there is to learn about technical writing. It's highly vindicating. Most of us remember the time before the employer's major leap, when the Estonian branch had a corporate neurosis about not feeling like a real company. This translated to us: there is no history of technical writing in Estonia (I myself was, in all likelihood, the first person to actually carry the title back in 2002), and we simply had no frame of reference. Were we world-class? Did we completely suck? Could we use Microsoft as a quality yardstick, and then, how to measure that quality? As it turns out, we are as good as just about anyone in the real world, and better than a large amount of folks holding down jobs as technical writers. While not necessarily praising the state of the industry, it does make me feel good about myself and my coworkers.

Went out that night to watch the game. Osho pub in downtown Jerusalem, where we had some very nice Israeli wine (Galil Hills merlot) and some decidedly un-kosher food. I wonder if McDonalds serves cheeseburgers.

Today was awesome. One of our local colleagues that was there for the training used to do a regular three-day walking tour of Jerusalem, so he gave us the abbreviated 5-hour version. From the modern midtown market, down the pedestrian streets, out to the gardens and the Hebrew Union College, through Hell Valley and up past Sultan's Pool, through the main sites of the old city - all commented, with stories and explanations of significance. Enjoyed it tremendously. Took lots of pictures, including a few of the wall (visible in the distance) - I've flamed so much on the topic, on CoT and in other places, that I sort of had to.

Finished off the night in Spagettim, the Italian restaurant, where The Blonde and I had some very decent lasagne (with meat!), and The Boss had pasta with ham. Sic. I thought they simply wouldn't let shipments across the border, but apparently you can not only get non-kosher food in Jerusalem, you can even get pork.

Meat is actually a bit of an issue. Take the Regency's breakfast buffet, for example. They had the unenviable task of ensuring that guests do not mix meat with dairy. They solved the situation elegantly, by foregoing meat altogether. Generally Israelis do not eat very much meat, replacing it with truly outstanding baked goods. I'm a convinced carnivore - if God did not want us to eat animals, he would not have created them out of food - but even I have to admit, in this weather the local cuisine does actually work very well. Where Spaniards will not give up meat, instead instituting a period of rest to digest lunch, the Israelis simply modify their diet to suit the conditions. Like I said, it works.

Gave our guide a bottle of Vana Tallinn. It's more or less a condition of citizenship that you have to give people abroad Vana Tallinn. It is the landmark Estonian booze, although almost no Estonians drink it. It's 45% (sic) liqueur. Use your imagination.

Meeting a bunch of local tech writers tomorrow, and going to the Dead Sea on Wednesday. Updates will come as interesting stuff happens.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

We're not in Kansas any more...

Arrived in Jerusalem, and so far The Stereotypes have singularly failed to get blown up. We fully intend to keep up the good work, although at this point I'm starting to wonder.

For the last several days I've been having a streak of small annoyances - tiny bits of bad luck, of no real significance really, but enough to notice. The Boss commented that me and reality are not on the best of terms at this point, and I need to consider wearing a tinfoil hat.

The curse (or rather cursoid) does not seem to diminish with geography. The guy next to me on the Lufthansa commuter flight to Frankfurt seemed at first like a nice enough man - what's known as a "väliseestlane", born into a family of WWII-period Estonian refugees to the West, in this case Toronto. Eventually I asked him what he did for a living. Nothing; he's a missionary volunteer; a Jehova's Witness. He showed remarkable restraint, but did end up trying to convert me. I told him about Popper's falsifiers and Adams' puddle argument, but I should've known better than to try to use reason and common sense, really.

Frankfurt Airport, if not depressing, is at least surprising. As Lufthansa's main hub and a huge international half way point, I'd expect it to be a tad more impressive. Instead it feels old and industrial. Our connection was fairly tight (only an hour to get from the commuter parked in the ass end of nowhere to a 747 skybridge); we made it, but it involved a lot of walking and two separate security checks.

This was my first time on a Jumbo Jet, and I can see Clarkson's point - it's a lot more pleasant a place to be than the Triple Seven I rode to California a couple years back. A less than four-hour hop down to Tel Aviv was entirely unstressful, save for a slightly exciting landing.

There is an island somewhere in the Caribbean whose major attraction is the fact that it consists almost entirely of a runway, with a beach at either end; on this runway lands a weekly Air France 747. The runway is still fairly short, so the plane comes in very exactly, touching down at the edge; supposedly the experience of a heavy airliner gliding just above your head is one-of-a-kind indeed. But the sensation of being in one as it powerslides at low altitude onto Ben Gurion's main landing strip is not something to ignore.

I am by no means the world's least suspicious traveller, which is kind of ironic, considering I'm a very law-abiding one. I may have mentioned that I repeatedly get stopped by customs in Stockholm's Frihamn seaport, but in this case the customs guys were the only ones utterly disinterested. Israeli security actually took me aside at the exit gate, though the agent was satisfied by my story and the fact that I actually had something with the employer's logo on it with me.

Ben Gurion is actually a very pretty building. It's distinctive, local, and looks like somebody actually put some thought into both planning and decorating it. I remarked on this as my queue for passport control promptly ground to a halt, and kept thinking it as I was questioned again by a second agent at the airside exit, this one only made happy by the sight of my return ticket and a promise not to go anywhere except Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, specifically not Ramallah.

Israel has a smaller territory than Estonia, but over three times the population. I had thought Jerusalem would be a longer trip than it was; the highway is of very good quality and the scenery is awesome. I'd long since lost any feeling of exotic travelling through Europe, but this country really feels like it's somewhere different. My understanding had been that Israel is still fundamentally a Western state, but now I'm starting to wonder.

The Regency hotel in Jerusalem is advertised as five-star luxury accomodation. If your understanding of hospitality is calibrated for Europe, as mine is, you will be sorely disappointed. The building itself is extremely impressive, a pyramid carved into the side of a mountain, if quite hard to find (our cabbie - equipped with an address, a map and a tinfoil-suggesting engine issue half way down from the airport - failed to deliver us there without the aid of a local colleague). But it was built a long time ago, and nobody has bothered to renovate it since. My first suspicion arose during checkin, when I saw that the WiFi was not free. The room only extended my disappointment. Maybe this was five-star stuff in the 1970s, in an age before laptops, MP3 players and digital cameras, when it was not presumed that a traveller may have any need to extract electricity. The room has a desk, letterhead paper and envelopes - but, curiously, no pen; and infuriatingly, no sockets in sight. The power cables from the desk lamp and paleolithic TV set snake off into the nether regions behind the cupboard and bed. I found an outlet eventually, just the one - hidden behind the curtain in the bottom corner of the wall, quite possibly the least useful possible spot.

Company policy states the laptop needs to be left in the room's safe when leaving the hotel without it. The safe, never mind that it's too small to fit the thing in the first place, does not actually work. There's a minibar, and I'll give you three guesses about that.

I'm typing this up on my laptop on Saturday night, saving it in a Notepad file. Hope to post it tomorrow or whenever I get to a working network connection. On the upside, I've got some very nice pictures that I'll be posting. Stay tuned for more!

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Off to the Holy Land

I love travel. Whereas most people enjoy visiting a foreign place, I am actually also rather partial to the process of getting there. The prevailing sentiment is that airports are the hubs of Hell, I've always liked the feel of being there, the sensation that everyone is either going places or coming home. (If you've seen the movie Love, Actually, you'll recognize the notion.) I also haven't done enough air travel to generate familiarity.

Me and two of my coworkers are going to Israel tomorrow, for business. The Boss is a tall, scrawny man that not only looks like a geek, but relishes it. He is a Dungeon Master, and has more geek pride than anyone I've ever met. The Blonde is one of my old acquaintances from Posh Uni. She's the object of all the blonde jokes here in the Document Lounge, and doesn't seem to get offended. She's not dumb, but she is a blonde, and she does like pink fluffy things and kittens. Include me - a big bloke with facial hair and the wardrobe of a Hell's Angels prospect - and you may as well collectively call us The Stereotypes.

I've had longer journeys than the one I'm facing tomorrow, and less comfortable ones (it's coach class air travel, but it's Lufthansa at least), but I'm still preparing for it. Today's last-minut lunchbreak shopping included a couple of books, despite the fact that I've got half a dozen DVDs at the ready. The Boss is omnivorous in terms of reading material, but alas I am more discerning, so I've been lucky to find something even remotely promising in the Tartu bookshop. I also intended to stock up on sun tan lotion, but didn't. The sort of "SPF Fuck" sunblock that I'm after is quite expensive in Estonia and, I presume, ubiquitous in Israel; besides, I remembered what a native of Arizona once told me. Some of the palest people you will ever meet come from Las Vegas; in the middle of the desert, civilization is constructed so as to limit sun exposure to an absolute minimum.

I'm carrying new toys - a Dell Latitude D620 and a Canon PowerShot A620, both clad in ballistic nylon - so I'll do my best to document the journey and post updates from the road.

And yes, I'm typing this up on the laptop, reclining on a bright red leather couch in a nook of the Document Lounge. I feel so Web 2.0.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

OMFG WALL!!!

In the news today (well, a few days ago but I saw it on this morning's repeat of the Friday night news): a band member of Pink Floyd has travelled to the Middle East with a coterie of cameras and got himself all sad looking at the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. He even wrote "Tear down the wall" on the stones with a black marker.

WTF? Israel is making it complicated for West Bank residents to get through the checkpoints because it's a fucking national border for all intents and purposes. It's not supposed to be easy. Yes, I realize that the arabs all have menial jobs in Israel (which apparently still pay better than anything in the West Bank) so they need to cross the border twice daily, but you know what? Tough cookies. The wall has shown itself to be effective against suicide bombers, and it's the biggest step so far to actually solving the bloody mess over there. If we assume that the man had actually taken a moment to grasp what he was doing there, calling for the wall to be torn down is effectively giving up the hope of "get rid of the occupants and let the residents have their own nation" for "why oh why can't the Jews and Arabs live together in harmony?".

I guess all that Pink Floyd cash buys a personal reality distortion generator whose power exceeds even the natural abilities of Bob Geldof.

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