Monthly Archives: August 2010

the touristas are coming! the touristas are coming!!

in the last week downtown UB, location of our apartment – just off of Times Square, aka the State Department Store,  has become decidedly Europeanly tinted. the latest batch of touristas have arrived.

westerners show up around Naadam, the 4th of July & Olympics all rolled into one, in mid-July. tourism peaks then, then again in mid-August, it seems.

a new phenomenon is emerging that is bringing with it touristas, tourons and what have you – The Mongol Rally! apparently the first groups are arriving in UB. the organizers also have at least one bar, they say there are three, to organize the finishing party. apparently it lasts a month and likely accounts for the fireworks last night.

but, skin color is not how one recognizes these people. it is the same damn blue t-shirt splashed with exclaiming “Mongol Rally 2010” across the front. that is the surest characteristic of this wave of touristas!


The messiness of fieldwork

In the last week I’ve been able to really start to get into my research.  No interviews yet (the first one is scheduled for tomorrow!), but I’ve been to several staff meetings, received contact information, and started to figure out how to deal with the bureaucracy that is the Israeli Ministry of Education (or any government office, in truth).

My discussions even just in this first week have illuminated to me the essential point that somehow fails to be stated in the safety of graduate school classes (and if stated, only briefly and as an aside): conducting social science research in the field is a totally different beast than planning social science research in the library.  Not that I didn’t know that, of course.  But this week has made the fact clear like nothing else, and has resulted in me having to think about different methodological approaches, recruitment measures, and on and on.

Of course, the difference between my head and reality on the ground has good points – it has led to new, different questions that I never would have considered had reality matched my plans.  For example, why does a bi-national organization committed to promoting bi-national partnership between Palestinians and Jews decide that its primary method of politicization should be uni-national? What does it even mean to promote binational partnership, rather than promoting coexistence/tolerance/peace?

All this and more in just a few days.  I’m looking forward to more confusion (and some interesting interviews!) in the days and weeks to come…

“…and on Wednesday I’m in Turkey…”

I’ve been trying for the past few days to think of a way to describe Israeli culture to you.  It’s been hard, in no small part because I have trouble “stepping out” of my life here – a life I’ve lived many times – and describing it from an outsider’s perspective.  But I’m going to try, in bullet point form.  Hopefully this will give you a taste of the life I’m living right now:

1.  The bluntness and kindness of strangers. My roommate and I have been talking over the interactions we have with strangers, primarily vendors working in the neighborhood market.  On the one hand, in true Israeli form, everyone is blunt.  “Oh, it’s your birthday? How old are you?” (A question you’d never hear in the USA).  “What are you doing here? Why?” The directness of people’s questions, and statements, never fails to surprise me.
On the other hand, it’s impossible not to notice how kind everyone is here.  I’ve mentioned Middle Eastern hospitality more than once on this blog – it is truly a recurring theme in my life here.  Every question I ask is met with an answer and often an invitation for coffee or tea, or more questions, or help…every person I know asks if I have someplace to go for the חגים, the Jewish High Holidays coming up in a few weeks.  When people discover my research topic, (assuming their politics align with mine), I receive names and numbers and emails of someone they know who works in this field and can help.  Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful to all the people I know, and the ones I’ve just met, who are instinctively so willing to do whatever they can to make my time here easier, productive, and interesting.

2. Relative sizes and distance. I spent this weekend with family friends – good friends of my mom, their children, and their grandchildren (10 of them! 8 under the age of 6!).  These friends and their children all happen to live on the same moshav,  a small settlement about 50km (30 miles) from Tel Aviv.  At some point during the weekend something was said about a cousin who lived in Tel Aviv, rather than on this moshav, and how far away he was.  I guess it’s all relative. Now that we’re back in New York (well, when we get back to the USA), Neil and I will live about 20 miles from my parents – and we feel like it is very close! (In a good way, of course).

On a similar note, I was speaking with one member of the family and she was telling me her work schedule for the week – Sunday and Monday off (Sunday is a work day here), Tuesday meetings, and Wednesday in Turkey for a meeting.  As in, the country.  For a single meeting.   I keep forgetting that most of Europe is about a 3 hour flight from here – Turkey for a single meeting really isn’t that unusual.  Anyway, in case it wasn’t obvious, that comment was the source for the title of this post.

3.  Produce and street food.  And fast food.  I’ve been basking in the deliciousness of Israeli produce, cheeses, and food in general.  There is a vegetable market about 5 minutes from my apartment where I can get several tomatoes, a few cucumbers, carrots, a head of broccoli, and maybe some plums and/or peaches for under 10 shekels (Israeli currency) – about $2.50.  It really puts produce in the USA – even organic, locally grown produce, which I try to find where I can – to shame.  Almost everything is grown here, in Israel, the whole of which is only about 1000km (~600 miles) from its northern to its southern tip.  OK, so maybe the produce travels a bit more than it does to the Bloomington farmer’s market – but local Indiana produce can’t hold a finger to this stuff in terms of taste and color – and price!

Israeli street food is a whole other matter.  I mentioned burekas in a previous post (and I’ve eaten some by this point), and you all probably are aware of falafel and shwarma…but the possibilities here are endless! Jews from all over the world brought their cuisine to this country and it shows up on street corners – everything from Central Asian to Iraqi to Persian and Moroccan cuisine.  Not to mention the more recent addition of pizza shops, ice cream shops, and of course the ubiquitous coffee shops in this country…

Much of the street food is what I consider “fast food” – something to eat when I don’t have time for or interest in cooking, cheap, filling, and relatively unhealthy (although healthier for sure than most of what constitutes fast food in the United States).  Places like McDonald’s, on the other hand, are reserved the status of “a place to go hang out” by teenagers and families alike.  For example, the same woman who told me she was heading to Turkey for a single meeting was talking about taking her grandchildren to McDonald’s as an activity.  It is an interesting phenomenon and one I don’t quite understand – I mean, the food here is so good and varied, why McDonald’s? (By the way, for those of you who are interested, Starbucks tried to open a few stores here, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and totally failed – there are too many local chains, way, way too many local chains, for Starbucks to have succeeded).

And…that’s it for now on cultural observations – more to come in the coming months.  I can also say at this point that my research is starting to get off the ground.  For example, today I received a list of over 600 (!) people to contact as potential interviewees.  Unfortunately I won’t be able to share much of my research here because of confidentiality issues (I don’t think trees receive the same ethical protection as people!), but I will post bits and pieces as I can.  Mostly I am glad that things are starting to move forward, even if it is clear already that they will not proceed as I planned way back in the day when I was sitting in Indiana only thinking about Israel! The best laid plans and all that…

Meet the Jew Pac clan…

I was going to give you a culture post, to follow up on all of Neil’s, but instead I thought I would show you my favorite neighborhood graffiti.  Meet the Jew Tang family:

One half of the...

...Jew Tang Clan

Snoop Synagoggy Gogg (my personal favorite)

Jew Pac

another Jew Pac

These guys are all over the place around here – who knew that the Hassids (ultra-Orthdox Jews) were such big rap stars??!?  Every time I walk down the street, I run into at least one of these guys painted on to a wall or door.  It’s hilarious, even more so because of the total culture clash implicit in the painting/caption combination.

More to follow in a day or two – I have a whole post about Israeli culture swimming around in my head, but I need a bit more energy to write it up.

thoughts on Mongolian culture

yesterday was a ‘free’ day in the capitol, Ulaanbaatar. the day started with breakfast at the Amsterdam Cafe near the State Department Store. the cafe is the early morning hangout for tourists and their Mongolian hosts. having an “English breakfast” – eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, bacon and toast, and an assortment of coffees and teas and pastries, it makes it a popular hangout. having free internet must help, too. [btw, i started drinking ‘coffee’, mostly in mocha form]. we came to the cafe yesterday morning to meet a Mongolian artist and her agent; the cafe displays artwork for purchase. from there we went back to the artist’s studio/apartment. i went along because i enjoy meeting Mongolians and seeing different parts of the city.

upon arrival, we were greeted by the artist’s husband and boy. the husband, “Tom” [which means ‘big’ in Mongolian], is young, has a shaved head, is thick and muscular [a typical Mongolian build], a chin curtain with a short braid hanging from his curtain. he is also covered below the knees and from shoulders to his wrists with tattoos – he is a hip, young Mongolian, but would fit in Brooklyn no problem. he gladly showed off his tattoos of Chinggis, other historical Mongolians and scenes. his tats  were made by his wife.

their boy is an excitable young man. he was walking around the apartment with his backpack on. he was excited about his first day of school – kindergarten – on September 1st. all Mongolian students begin school on Sep 1st, from kindergarten to university. it is a big show, esp on the national news. the boy also got excited seeing the pile of US dollars his mother earned yesterday morning! his mom had to catch his hands quick.

Amy & the Artist

The artist is a sweet, quiet and soft spoken woman. her art, like much modern Mongolian art, blends the traditional with the contemporary, often western contemporary. unlike her apparent personality, her artwork is quite bold. some of her paintings are almost as big as she is. much of her artwork is very colorful.

it is exciting to me to see this rise in modern, Mongolian art. when i first came to Mongolia, it was soon after the fall of communism and retreat of the Soviets. Mongolian infrastructure was limited and the white-washing/decimation of Mongolian culture made Mongolia appear like Russia – bland architecture, limited color and drab city life. i recently learned that my first visit came during a period of hunger in Mongolia due to the destruction of farming by the communists earlier in the century and the general dependence on the U.S.S.R and subsequent poverty of Mongolia.

Mongolia, while starving again because of the global economic downturn, is hungry in reestablishing their greatness and heritage. if the words ‘greatness’ and ‘heritage’ regarding Mongolians strikes you as a bit odd, i strongly suggest reading this book by Jack Weatherford. while Chinggis, aka Ghengis in the western world, might bring up ideas of fear, savagery and disgust, it shouldn’t completely. Chinggis was an incredible leader who had the abilities to create one of the largest, diverse and longest-lasting nations in History. he was open-minded, tolerant of culture and religion and valued merit over kinship or religious ties. he was pretty modern. his nation established the pony express. his nation tolerated religion. his nation conducted economic activities at global scales. his nation, the Mongol Empire, triggered widespread use of paper money. his vision of creating a great nation was amazingly modern.

Mongolians have much to be proud of.

and, Weatherford accurately describes the individualistic nature of Mongolians in his book on Chinggis.

it is this individualistic nature that i so love about modern Mongolians. bright, hard-working and fairly creative are some attributes that always strike my mind with thinking about many of the Mongolians i’ve met.

you can see it in their art:

it is this blending of their great heritage with the modern elements that are bleeding into Mongolia that one can see or hear in their art. Altan Urag is a great example of this in new Mongolian music – they use ancient instruments, voices and rhythms and infuse their pieces with contemporary rhythms and themes.

young Mongolians are spirited and hungrily recovering their past while at the same time fusing with with external culture. i would guess it is an amazing time for Mongolian artists.

the artists agent was interesting herself: she spoke good English, dressed like an artist, but spoke of the purity of the Mongolian landscape and water of days past. she recognized, rightly, that Mongolia’s landscape is changing rapidly and severely threatened by international mining interests, internal corruption and global climate change. i fear the coming decades with be exciting, though not in a good way, for Mongolia’s environment.

the picture is symbolic of the change in Mongolia’s landscape. the brown trees are the result of fire. tree mortality across the landscape, from insect outbreaks, drought and fire, seems much greater than what i recall 10-12 yrs ago. the mining in the center right of the image is what is most frightening and what will be long-lasting. regulation is limited and the amount of mining for gold and other minerals is unbelievable. nature recovers fairly well from insects, fire and drought. mineral mining, however, is long-lasting.

the artist’s agent worried about this and talked of education of all Mongolians, especially the children. funny, the more i travel, the more it is obvious we are all the same, even of the descendants of Chinggis.

the ride back to our apartment was illuminating and entertaining. we get in a gypsy cab with the agent and artist. after about 10 minutes, the agent stops the cab and says, “we can find another cab. i hate these aggressive drivers. they are dangerous. why don’t they listen to me?” we found another cab and proceeded back to the city center. the whole time the agent, an artist herself, went on and on about crazy drivers. it reminded us of the our trip to go watch the Naadam horse race in 2009. the rush and jockeying of the drivers delivering spectators to the race, including our driver, was hilarious, dangerous and damn entertaining, perhaps more entertaining than the race itself. it was obvious that the spirit of the great, horseback warriors of the Mongol Empire are still alive today.


post-note:  the remainder of the day was spent in meetings in French and Indian restaurants [which were both fantastic]. if you had visited anytime between 1930 and 1997, you would have found this fantastic! if you had visited Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia from roughly 1250-1270, you would have found this not too unusual. ancient Mongolians under Khubilai might have been the original Cosmopolitans of Asia.

those whom i miss…

there are many people i have been thinking about since arriving here nearly 2 weeks ago.  most are back in the USA (or in Mongolia!).  but there are people whose presence is missed here in tel aviv, as well.  people who have always been part of my israel life, it seems.  two in particular i want to introduce you to:

first – my savta (grandmother), who came to israel/tel aviv in the 1930s and lived here until she passed away at 2007.  savta sonia, as we always called her, was an incredible woman who spoke several languages and lived by herself until the age of 95.  she had a sharp tongue (like others in her family…) and quick wit.

i have memories of  savta’s apartment going as far back as i remember, and of her standing on her balcony waiting for us to arrive or waving good-bye to see us off.  when i was younger, we would all stay with her on our visits to israel.  later, her apartment became a place i visited, either with family, or weekly, on my own, when i was a student and soldier here.

it’s been three years since i last spoke with savta and almost two more since the last time i saw her.  but she is a part of my life here that’s not  – and won’t be – forgotten.  i think about her nearly every day.

Savta Sonia at home in her apartment, 2004

The other missing link in my life here, so to speak, is a wonderful, very special woman named Ziva.  Ziva was my mother’s best friend from age 6 and a central part of our family.  Although she never married, she had a huge ‘family’ of friends, in Israel and abroad, and somehow she managed to make each one feel like he or she was the only person who mattered.

It’s hard for me to describe Ziva because she was such a unique and special presence in my life – in all of our lives.  A friend of mine here, who met her, told me that he ran into her not too long ago, didn’t remember how he knew her, and based on her aura was sure she was a celebrity.  Neil likened her to a shooting star.

Ziva’s apartment was where I stayed last summer every time I came from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and I saw her nearly every week.  Last summer and in previous visits, she was someone to whom I turned for advice, for a laugh, and just for a listening ear.

She passed away this spring, relatively suddenly.  It still doesn’t seem real to me – I keep expecting my phone to ring and for her voice to be on the other end, asking about my research or inviting me to dinner.  Not a day goes by without me thinking about her, or seeing or hearing something that reminds me of her smile.

Here she is with me, on a visit to the USA for our wedding:

Ziva in Woods Hole, July 2008

Tel Aviv is not the same without these two women. Every once in a while, though, I can feel their presence here with me.    It’s not the same, but it’s comforting.