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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

It’s. A. Trap! (Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal)

Ourika Valley, near Marrakech, Morocco

“Very good price. Very low. Better than free.”

We’re standing outside the van on the road to Ourika Valley, a verdant, majority-Berber region about two hours from Marrakech, popular with tourists for its many waterfalls.

A half-dozen camels on short tethers wait for curious tourists to approach. It’s well past 11 o’clock, but the sun is just making it over the mountains to warm the deep valley.

The man speaking proffers a tangle of necklaces. Plastic. The artisanal products are waiting in well-planned shops, with tougher hagglers behind the counter. My companions for the day, a French couple from outside of Paris, laugh and tell him that’s a good marketing plan.

In a way it is, but then…maybe not.

You see, I don’t want anything for free (unless it’s a sincere gift). I don’t want the cheapest price (anymore). I want a fair price.

And that’s a very different thing.

Ostensibly we’ve stopped for photos, but the view was around the last bend, and we’re really here to have time to spend money. We’ll stop at three more tourist establishments (some would call them traps, but I won’t today and I’ll explain why soon) before actually reaching our intended destination.

> The Argan Oil Cooperative. Smiling women sit outside the building grinding argan nuts into a paste, which will later be separated into cosmetic oil and the base ingredient for savon noir (black soap). They beckon us to sit beside them. Ashkid, ashkid. (Come, come.) You can take pictures, we’re told. No problem. There’s a dish in front of the women with a few dirham notes in it. We can leave money there.

> The Berber House. A traditional Berber house, which I might have found more exciting had I not spent a great deal of the last five weeks visiting my Berber friends in their (yes) Berber Houses. We’re shown the kitchen, the store room, the family room, the hamam (bath) and the backyard. You can take pictures. No problem. On the way out, there’s a well-placed souvenir shop and a donation box for the welcoming Berber House family.

> The Guide. We stop in the village near the waterfalls to pick up the guide. We haven’t asked for the guide, but the guide is going to come with us. He accompanies our small group halfway up the trail, to the first set of falls, and then tells us it’s time to turn back. When we insist on continuing, and he insists on not going back without us, I convince him to wait at the halfway-up cafe while we finish the hike.

Now, I don’t like being forced to pay for things I didn’t ask for or want in the first place. I also don’t like not paying someone for work completed or services rendered. I don’t like feeling cheated out of my money. And I don’t like feeling I’ve cheated someone out of their fairly-earned money.

Most people in the world would probably agree with those sentiments.

I think all of these scenarios and concerns come down to the same fundamental issue: fairness. Fairness to local people working in the tourism sector, and fairness to tourists seeking to spend their money well (ethically, reasonably and in a way that feels good to them).

So, what’s fair?

I’m going to seriously oversimplify for a moment. The tourist-local marketplace dynamic—as I see it—breaks down like this:

Tourists don’t want to feel ripped off or trapped. (That’s a low bar.) These things are traps: Telling someone to take a picture (no problem, pictures are free!), and then asking them to pay for it. Insisting someone take a bracelet as a gift—and then insisting they pay for it. Following someone through the souk, though they have clearly stated they do not want a guide—and then asking them to pay for it. (These are all common experiences for unsuspecting foreigners in Morocco.)

Tourists do want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Sure, some are pinching pennies, but most just want fair. Many, like me, will feel frustrated when they know an item’s market price, and then are asked to pay four times that because said item has been handily transported into a souvenir shop. They don’t want to pay “tourist prices.”

Local people want to make a decent living. They see foreign tourists and assume (reasonably) that if they had enough money to pay for a plane ticket to Morocco, they also have enough money to pay a few dollars above market price for a bottle of oil, silver necklace, taxi ride, and everything else. They might also encourage (or push) said tourists to spread their money evenly—a few gifts at the Argan Cooperative, a dollar to the Berber House, a tip to the guide. From this perspective, those tourist establishments mentioned above are not traps, but simply an integral component of the day’s adventure.

Some believe that tourists should pay tourist prices, because they can. And hey, I get where they’re coming from.

Naturally, I also get where tourists are coming from. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think the fair solution is neither “equal” (tourists often do earn significantly more than the locals they’re buying from, so why shouldn’t they pay more too?), nor excessive (no one likes traps and cheating). Rather, it’s somewhere in the middle, where everyone is happy—or at least not pissed off.

So, when buying abroad, keep three questions in mind:

1. How much is this worth to me? (How much do I want to spend on it? Keep in mind, for perspective, what you would spend at home.)

2. What is the “market price”? (What would this cost a local?)

3. What can I afford? (What’s my budget for this day? Week? Holiday? Will this meal/souvenir/excursion put me over?)

The “fair” price exists somewhere at the nexus of those three answers.

Happy shopping!

*** 

And to justify this blog title:

 

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Africa, Culture

6 Awesome-Sauce Pictures of Morocco (or, Why you Should Follow Me on Instagram)

 

I haven’t been writing much the last couple weeks. I think sometimes, when it comes to writing about our experiences, there have to be periods of writing—and then periods of experiencing. So, let’s just say it’s been the latter, and I’ll get to the writing part again soon.

In the meantime, did you know I’m on Instagram these days? I share snippets of writing or travelogue with nearly every post. Here are five reasons to follow me:

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Africa, Culture

How to Pour Tea, It’s Out of our Hands, and Other Lessons from the Moroccan Coast

View of Taghazout from one of my favorite cafes.

We watch the waves crash against the cliffs beneath our table, the spray catching the sunlight over and over again.

Our tea arrives—the classic combination of Moroccan mint and strong green that everyone drinks, but without the usual pound of sugar, per my request. A simple silver teapot with a long spout. Two small glasses (not mugs, but glasses).

I lift the teapot and pour, starting low, then lifting higher, and higher, and a bit higher, steam rising up from the cascade of tea and a slight froth forming at the top of each glass.

(If I wanted to mix in sugar, I would pour out glasses of tea and dump them back in the pot several times to avoid using a spoon—bad luck, I learned later. But I don’t, so I only pour once.)

I can’t remember where I first learned to pour tea—properly. I think it was in a Senegalese village when I was 16. Everyone laughed at my first attempts, of course. Even today I spill more than any veteran tea pourer ever would. But I know the technique, and I can make a few bubbles.

It’s a small thing, arguably, pouring tea well, and yet drinking tea proves such a fundamental aspect of so many cultures that I think it’s important, too. Worth learning. Worth sharing.

***

Let’s drink tea together tomorrow!

Inshallah.

You should open a cafe there—you would get so much business!

It’s a good idea. Inshallah.

Are you moving this week?Inshallah.

When does the high season start?

Things will get busy next week—inshallah.

Inshallah (also written insha’Allah). If God wills it. God willing. Used throughout the Arabic-speaking and Muslim world—and often. At times my plan-making mind gets irritated by the ceaseless string of Inshallahs spoken and exchanged each day.

Is nothing certain?

Well, no, it’s not—is it? To visitors from outside cultures, I think this nonstop Inshallah business can seem like a cop out. Noncommittal. But I suspect (I don’t know nearly enough to say for certain) that it stems more from a different perspective.

Everything—everything—is out of our hands. Maybe. It’s probably a good brain exercise to consider the possibility, even if you disagree. Living here, then, is like a daily mind workout.

***

Every day I learn here.

I learned that until the 1950s there was a small Jewish settlement alongside the Berber ones in the mountains behind Taghazout. I visited a new friend’s home in those mountains, and I could feel the history in the ground under my feet.

I learned that Friday is couscous day and that soup is a summer food.

I learned that no length of fabric will cover my foreignness here—no matter how Mediterranean I like to think I look.

I’ve learned that if you sit long enough in one spot it is really possible to see every person you know in this town, and that if you start walking you can spend a whole day just stopping in for chats with old and new friends.

I’ve learned how to roll under a wave with my surfboard, and that lip sunburn is real.

I’ve learned to count to ten (though I’ve forgotten at the moment), and how to greet.

There’s no other message today. There are lessons everywhere, every day and in every culture; I hope you’ll go find some!

***

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Culture, Europe, Food

3 Macabre Stories that Capture the Essence of Napoli

Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy

The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary. 
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:

Rub a skull for good luck.
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.

L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.

This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance. 

There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.

***
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Culture, Europe

La Notte della Taranta—or, Where I was on Saturday

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on


On the road to Melpignano

Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.

Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.

It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.

The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.

The History:

In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.

According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.

Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.

La Notte della Taranta Today:

I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.

But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.

Worth the trip? Absolutely.

Some outcomes of this excursion:

  1. I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
  2. I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
  3. I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.

Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.

Skip to minute 4:00 if ten minutes of Italian folk music isn’t your thing.

 

Skip to minute 5:00 to see a bit of traditional dancing.

 

***
 
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Adventure, Culture, Europe, Nomadism

Pilgrimage Today—It’s Still Relevant

Pilgrimage Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

I placed the noise canceling headphones over my ears, and an ancient melody flowed straight to my soul.
It was my foodsteps—hundreds, thousands of them—plucked from a harp. It was the daily rhythm of walking made song.
I stood at that display in the Pilgrimage Museum for a long time, and I listened to some of the recordings of the Resonet Musica Antiga group more than once. Recreated from sheets music in the Cathedral’s archives and reconstructed medieval instruments, the music might have run through my head at a distance.
But somehow it didn’t. Somehow it connected.
I arrived in Santiago on Friday, July 1, 2016. That Friday marked the culmination of a month of walking across Northern Spain (approximately 800 kilometers) begun in the vague interest of “seeking.”
(We can talk about what I “found” once I figure that out—story for another day.)
Pilgrimage is an ancient phenomenon. Historians have found evidence of its occurrence in Mesopotamia, Vedic India and ancient Egypt. Wherever it appears in human history, it follows the same principle: an outward, often arduous journey serving as an allegory for the spiritual path.
Since the alleged discovery of the remains of Saint James (one of the Twelve Apostles) in the ninth century, Santiago—and its cathedral—has been one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. It is said that the Camino de Santiago—the Way to Santiago, and there are many—is a metaphor for the trail marked by the Milky Way across the sky. Again, a physical manifestation of a metaphysical path.
That sounds heady and outmoded, right?
Wrong.
In the last decade, traffic on the Camino Frances (the most popular route) has surged into the thousands. Clearly, the ancient tradition still resonates. And lately, its popularity is growing fast.
Just as ritual will always revive itself and traditions will be reborn, pilgrimage is finding its place in the modern world.
The scallop shell, long worn as an insignia by peregrinos walking to Santiago, now hangs from my backpack, too. Symbol of water, life and healing, it is as timeless, endlessly resonant, as it is timeworn.
These themes are eternal:

WanderingSeekingThe JourneyWalkingLooking to the SkyWalking upon the Earth
Questioning 

The WarriorThe SeekerThe Scholar [1]

As I listened to those modern recordings of centuries-old music, I heard my experience translated—so precisely—into sound. I walked a path that thousands, perhaps millions, had walked before me, and though the asphalt beneath my feet and electric lights in the distance were new, the the experience had somehow been the same. [2]

That, in short, is why pilgrimage is still deeply relevant today.

***

[1] The Warrior, The Seeker and The Scholar are the three archetypes represented by Saint James.
[2] Sadly I have not been able to find the same recordings anywhere online. This is the closest I could find, but you may have to visit the Pilgrimage Museum in Santiago to hear the music I’ve described:
***

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Culture, Middle East

Pillowcases in the Desert, Rainbows in the Forest, and Hippies in the Holy Land: Another Perspective on Israel

Tzukim, Arava, Israel
The whirring of the machine as I touch my foot to the pedal brings me back.
To my grandmother’s home and her ancient Singer. To the costume room in the basement of my middle school theater. To my projects on the kitchen table in my childhood home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
I haven’t used a sewing machine in a long time, and the rhythmic pull of needle on fabric is bringing me to a good meditative place.
The air is so dry that drinking water does nothing for my thirst—the liquid seems to evaporate on my tongue—and there’s a super-fine layer of desert dust beneath my bare feet. (Hardly had we swept the floors, cleaning house to usher in Passover, than the relentless winds brought the dust back.)
I’m staying with my brother’s friends and their five beautiful children in the mud house they built for themselves here in Tzukim; we (my brother and I) have been invited for Passover seder. They study and speak openly about Kabbalah, a central tenet of which is the concept of togetherness. And indeed, I feel more than welcomed here on my second stop of my second visit to Israel—I feel involved.
Tonight, I am helping to sew pillowcases to decorate the rounded, light-filled common area of their home. Deep green, vivid red, heavy, rough, intricate, beautiful textiles. I hum tunelessly as I work; it’s a new habit I’ve found myself adopting since the term, “humming tunelessly” caught my eye in a book.
The pillowcases are definitely of the wabi sabi variety—as is everything about the house. Perfectly imperfect. Made by hand with care and natural irregularity. Human. Filled with meaning.
My brother’s friend works beside me, and she smiles when she tells me that each person who has stayed in the house has left a part of themselves in it. The pillowcases will be my part.
***
After my last, particularly heavy post on Israel, I wanted to offer something lighter. A balancing perspective, if you will.
The question came to mind: How would one write about Israel if it were just a place, with no history, no complexities and no enigmas—just sun and desert and sandy beaches and olive groves—a beautiful spot on the map? How would one describe it?
Is such a thing possible? Of course not. Not for anywhere in the world. Total nonsense.

And, what’s more, maybe misguided. 

For, like my wabi sabi pillowcases, Israel is not beautiful—cannot be beautiful—in spite of its rough edges (rough edges is putting it mildly), but because of them. The same is true, I believe, for every spot on the map.
***
Somewhere near Modi’in, Israel
A man with one leg and no clothing flashes by, moving faster on crutches than I can usually manage to run.
As we traipse in with our camping gear a little before dusk, a crowd near the entrance shouts, “Welcome home!” as they always do at these gatherings. Participants spread out across the forested space to make camp, collecting in small population centers, or venturing further afield in search of silence and solitude.
The activity centers around the communal cooking area, and a large bonfire where most gather after the shared evening meal for drumming, singing and sometimes dancing. Gauzy dresses, dreadlocks and bare skin are as common here as head scarves and black hats in Jerusalem.
This is Rainbow Israel, and if you aren’t familiar with Rainbow Gatherings and you want to understand what they are (you do), you should go here.
We stay only one night, but I could have happily stayed a week. There’s something special about a community where anything goes, and (usually) nothing bad comes of it.

Tel Aviv, Israel
On my last night in Israel, I sit with an old friend on the steps of the big Synagogue, sipping a beer as we catch up on six or seven years of life. 

He describes his experiences with medicines in Peru (yes, others would call them drugs), his work with sound healing and his studies on homeopathy and Kabbalah. I describe my work with elephant journal, a publication focused on mindfulness, my yoga teaching and my nomadic lifestyle. I think the intervening years have brought us both a good deal closer to our life paths.

This last evening, along with other conversations, meetings and interactions like it, balances out my more complicated experiences of Israel, renders me more grounded in my time here. There’s violence and oppression in the Holy Land, but there are hippies too.
So, what do wabi sabi pillowcases, rainbow gatherings and hippies all have in common?
For starters, they’re all positive, forgiving, inclusive and somewhat alternative entities.
And, they all exist in Israel.
It would take many lifetimes to write enough to do justice to a single spot on a map. It would take a million voices, on a thousand days, to tell every facet of every side of every story cradling that spot.


For now, I’ll content myself with having told two facets of one story—my own—and I hope you’ll be wise enough and brave enough not to take my word for it. Make your own stories, wherever you may be called to do so!

***

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Culture, Middle East

Okay, Let’s Talk about Israel

View from Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv
“If the Arabs didn’t kill me, my wife would.”
Bloody hell. Did he just say that?
After the split second necessary for me to process his words and maintain a neutral expression, I answer:
“Why’s that?”
“She doesn’t want me walking through the Arab neighborhood.”
Obviously.
We are talking, of course, about which gate to use to exit the kotel (the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews to pray in Jerusalem).
I think he means it as a joke, but it’s not funny.
On this visit to Israel, I have been floored multiple times by this kind of abject fear, prejudice and even hatred—veiled and otherwise—toward the vaguely-defined “Arabs.”

***
I don’t want to write about this hatred, but I feel I must. I could not in good faith write at some length on post-apartheid South Africa, yet stay silent on the subject of Israel. I don’t mean to criticize the incredible people who have welcomed me here, but I feel an obligation to present my experiences as they have been—without convenient omissions. I come from a class of American Jews for whom criticism of Israel is practically the equivalent of self-hatred. Yet, to be silent is to be complacent.
***
Imagine my surprise when, fifteen minutes later, I learn that we are to join this man and aforementioned wife for Shabbat dinner.
As we walk across the large stone plaza by the Western Wall (toward the “safe,” acceptable gate), the call to prayer echoes across the open space. It is, as I always find it to be, hauntingly beautiful.
Dissonance.
I steel myself for an… interesting (challenging) evening.
But nothing ever happens the way we expect.
Eighteen guests break bread (matzah) around a generously laden table, and before we take turns introducing ourselves, our hostess delivers a brief speech full of lovely sentiments on perspective, understanding and peace. 
How we should all get along.
Our hosts turn out to be warm, exuberant, slightly odd, good-hearted and generous humans. They delight in opening their homes to strangers every Friday night.
The dissonance still has me reeling three days later.
How can people who live according to laws of loving-kindness, compassion, charity and devotion also spread hate?
It is the paradox of our times—perhaps of every time.

***
I do not want to write about this ugly, complicated tangle of politics, identity, religion, culture and hate. But to stay silent is to be complacent.
Growing up in Jewish communities in the U.S., I have seen how stories of persecution and oppression—and survival—perpetuate themselves.
I know how seductive it is to believe ourselves always the David to another’s Goliath. Such archetypes are practically written into our genetic code. After all, everyone wants to be the hero, the victorious underdog, the resilient victim. To put it in contemporary terms, most of us see our obstacles with clarity—but rarely our privilege.
All of us have our hands too close to our faces to read our palms.
And six years ago, when I first visited Israel, I was still too close to the flattering, awe/fear-inspiring story with which most Jews are inoculated. Two years ago, when I wrote my senior thesis in Anthropology on female Jewish identity, I had taken a few steps back.
Again, I have gained more perspective.
I am hardly informed enough to offer you a well-shaped, well-researched and well-defended opinion, but neither am I too scared to present my experience and observations as I have found them, with as much accuracy as any individual could hope to achieve.
I don’t have any answers to offer, but I have questions that are churning in my brain, and I want them to churn in yours, too.
***

Market abundance.
“Now, some people are saying that Israel is an apartheid state,” he says in a classic Brooklyn accent unaffected by twenty plus years living in Israel.
The patriarch of the family (another family, in another Jerusalem neighborhood, for another Passover week dinner) sits at the head of the table.
I certainly wasn’t planning on opening that can of worms, and I hold my peace while he holds forth.
“That is simply not true.”
He goes on to explain why point-to-shoot, border walls, checkpoints and other security policies are justified and necessary to the self-preservation of the Jewish people.
I hold my peace and wait for the subject to pass.

But it’s so much more complicated.
While in Cape Town, I, too, heard some people—many people—referring to Israel as an apartheid state.
Takes one to know one?
I don’t know. I do know, however, that the arguments are compelling and not insubstantial. It’s not an entirely ludicrous claim, as others would declare.
This family of religious Jews is, like the other, extraordinarily kind, warm, welcoming, generous and loving.

They ply us with food, wine, friendly interrogation on every aspect of our lives. There is joy and laughter and exuberance at this table, and we are folded into the melody. Yet, every so often a “joke” slips out at the edge of conversation, and the note falls flat on my ears.
Dissonance.
Again, my mind turns over and over the same questions:
How can people have such open hearts, yet such narrow minds? How can we preach love, but spread hate? How can we celebrate our survival, and at the same time justify—advocate for—the oppression of our fellow man?
I’m not deaf. I’ve heard this dissonance a hundred times in a hundred places. Contradictions spoken by a hundred mouths in a hundred languages. The pairing of hate and love in a hundred hearts; the conflict of logic and fear in a hundred minds.
But this, now, in Israel, is different for me.
It hurts me to see a group of people—to whom I belong; whom I am proud to call my own; whose story of survival is my story of survival—display these confusing contradictions.
Dissonance.
The shelves of history are crowded with stories of the oppressed who became the oppressors—the Hutu and the Tutsi; the early pilgrims to America; Britain (if you go far enough back); Burma/Myanmar—a narrative so common as to almost be an historical cliché.
It is easy—too easy—to live out the patterns of conflict handed down by past generations. In Israel and Palestine, these stories exist now in abundance on both sides of the proverbial—and literal—fence.
It is far harder to pull our hands away from our eyes and read the map of where we have walked—and where we are walking.
Is Israel an apartheid state? I’ll leave that to the history books to answer, though we know those will only ever tell part of the story.
I am far more concerned with the answer to this:
How can people have such open hearts, yet such narrow minds? How can we contain such love and generosity—and such anxiety and fear—within our individual—or national—bodies?
I would like to know.
I don’t.

I do know, however, that I wish I had not held my peace for the sake of harmony—as I so often do. For to stay silent is to be complacent.
***
I regretted saying nothing at that first dinner, so at the second dinner, when I introduced myself to the 19 other guests and our hosts (the instructions? talk about something—anything), I told a story. It wasn’t a Jewish story; I think I’ve heard it’s Cherokee, and the original version I saw goes like this:

An old man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” 

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” 

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I don’t know if my message reached anyone, but at least this time I tried. 

And I’ll keep trying.

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coffee, slow food
Africa, Culture, Food, U.S.

Coffee Culture, Slow Food, and Why Cape Town Has Both

cape town coffee culture slow food

A side alley off Buitenkant Street, Gardens, City Center, Cape Town

The first sip is bitter, sour, almost acrid, before my palette adjusts and the taste mellows into a more complex configuration of nutty, earthy, sweet and rich.

This is good coffee.

I’m sitting at my favorite Cape Town cafe, Deluxe Coffee (also called YARD, the Dog’s Bollocks and the Bitch’s Tits), where motorcycle parts, vintage bicycles and canvas sacks of wholesale coffee beans make for original decor.

I’ve occupied this stool at the counter for well over an hour now, and nobody cares. Par for the course.

Cape Town has an exceptional coffee culture. (The reason I’ve consumed more coffee in the past three months than probably the last three years prior—well, that, and the fact that a cappuccino costs a bit more than a dollar.)

What is “coffee culture”?

Well, to answer in negatives, the U.S. does not have a coffee culture—or a cafe culture, to be more precise. A coffee culture does not “run” on coffee (like Americans run on Dunkins), but rather stops. Sits. Stays. Connects.

And when you stop to taste your “cup of joe,” quality matters. Deluxe Coffee may be my favorite spot, but easily half a dozen others tie for second. There is a lot of good coffee in this city.

To-go cups are more rare, too, and at least among my friends, “going for coffee” is an hour(s)-long undertaking—not a five-minute quick fix.

Cape Town generally moves more slowly. Less rush, less stress, none of the high-powered, shiny, corporate velocity of New York, London or Hong Kong. None of the humorless, chain-brand cafes, either.

Starbucks hasn’t made it to Cape Town, yet, but I hear it’s coming. When it gets here, I hope Cape Townians will put it out of business.

In a cafe culture, independent roasters, brewers and purveyors of coffee thrive. Character and personality matter—or maybe that’s just me.

And I think there’s a common denominator between coffee cultures and Slow Food. Shared values. An appreciation of quality, and a willingness to wait for it.

Many of the cafes where I go to do work have some of the worst service I have seen anywhere in the world. Friendly, but extraordinarily slow.

But, good food. Good coffee.

See the connection? I do.

I am more than a little bit enamored of the Slow Food movement—and of Cape Town’s coffee culture.

I like the pace, the time for detail, the space for real connection. This is what a cafe should be, in my opinion.

This is how coffee should taste. This is how life should move.

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