Stun Grenades, Philosophy, Hilarity: Ringside at a Riot in Palestine

I’m sitting in the common room on the eighth floor of Al Abraj Housing Complex in Abu Dis, having a conversation with a friend, when we hear a loud boom.

“What was that?” he asks. He’s a newcomer.

“I have to get a closer listen.” I go to the balcony, and cock my ear in the direction of the booms.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

“I don’t think that’s firecrackers,” he says.

“Neither do I,” I respond.


“Definitely not,” I confirm. “Today is Friday, right?”


“It’s Friday Clashes in Abu Dis. You want to go?”

He looks at me. There’s a slight tinge of apprehension on his face. “No,” he says, at last. He’s a newcomer, after all.

“OK,” I say, brightly. “Well, I’m off.” Continue reading

Postcards from the ER: “Safe Travels” from the Mideast to the Midwest and Beyond

I spent the last two months in the Occupied Palestinian Territories diligently looking for trouble. Strangely, despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage to find any.

I spent every Friday during Ramadan in the vicinity of Haram Sharif in the Old City, poised and ready for rock throwing and riots. There was some rock throwing and rioting at that very location, but I was never there when it happened. The one day they really decided to have a riot, I was home in Abu Dis, grading final exams for my political philosophy class.

Another tense Friday evening at Jaffa Gate.

Another tense Friday evening at Jaffa Gate.

According to the pro-Israeli blogger Elder of Ziyon, the Jerusalem light rail system is pelted with rocks by Palestinian youth “every single day.” I was in Jerusalem in the vicinity of the light rail twenty of the sixty or so days I was in the area, and didn’t see it get pelted even once. Didn’t hear of it being pelted once, either–and I had a friend in Shu’afat (the neighborhood, not the refugee camp) who rode it without incident every day for a month. Didn’t see any broken windows, any terrified commuters, or experience any anxiety while hanging around the rail stops at Jaffa Road and near Damascus Gate.  Just saw the light rail making its way from Mt. Herzl to Pisgat Zeev and back, over and over without incident.

As I’ve mentioned before, there was a stabbing at Damascus Gate one morning. I had planned to be at Damascus Gate that very morning, but got sidetracked by some paperwork that needed to get done, and never made it there. The stabbing took place without me.

On my way back from a visit to Hebron, my guide and I drove by clashes-that-were-about-to-take-place at this highly contested location near Al Arroub Refugee Camp. As we drove by, the Israeli soldiers were loading their weapons and the protesters were getting ready to engage. “I don’t think we should stop,” my guide said. So we didn’t.

I went through about thirty checkpoints. It was often a tedious and demoralizing experience, but it was mostly uneventful. No rock throwing, no terrorist attacks, no beatings. Only one arrest. That’s not to say that there were no checkpoint incidents while I was there. I just didn’t happen to be around for any. I went out to dinner with friends in Azariah immediately after the Duma attack. One friend floated the idea of driving to Jericho for dinner. “Maybe some other time,” said the other friend. Unsurprisingly, all hell broke loose that night across the West Bank. But things were calm enough in Azariah. We had a nice chicken dinner.

While in Abu Dis, I made contact with Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim, who invited me to tour the “Temple Mount” (Haram Sharif) with his group (Luria: “We don’t often get inquiries from Abu Dis”). Ateret Cohanim is a settler organization, and settlers who visit the Temple Mount/Haram Sharif are usually subject to harassment by Muslims who object to their presence there. I was all set to go, but had to cancel at the last minute because of a scheduling problem (once again, believe it or not, my plans to visit the holy site were trumped by the holier imperative of grading).

On my last day in Abu Dis, there were violent clashes between locals and the Israel Defense Forces. I heard the clashes from my window and decided to go out into the city to find them. Following my nose (tear gas) and ears (stun grenades) I set out in (what I took to be) the direction of the clashes. I spent an hour looking for trouble, but didn’t really manage to find it. When I finally got to the relevant location, all I found was an abandoned street where clashes had taken place, the residue of tear gas in the air, and a couple of still-burning fires.

Last time I went to Israel, I was detained for five hours on entry at Ben Gurion Airport, and for four hours on exit. This time, I was only detained for about two hours on entry, and for about half an hour on exit. In an attempt to be polite, the lady who gave me my exit permit gave it to me and tried to say, “You’re free to go.” What she actually ended up saying was, “Please go.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I said, “OK,” and left without incident.

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Terror from the Midwestern skies. 

So I got home to New Jersey, rested a day, and flew to Michigan to spend some time with Kate Herrick. On Thursday, Kate and I decided to go to the Ingham County Fair for some good, wholesome Midwestern fun. After eating some really unwholesome county fair food (“jalapeno poppers“), we decided to ride “The Zipper,” a vicious amusement park ride characteristic of Midwestern county fairs. Though strapped in at the waist, I didn’t realize that I was supposed to keep my arms outstretched in front of me to keep my head from being bashed against the steel sides of the car. Predictably, my head got bashed against the steel sides of the car, and I ended up in the ER with a concussion.

Aside from some headaches, cranial pressure, drowsiness, and mild loss of memory and cognitive function, I’m OK.

For months, people have asked me whether travel to the Mideast is “safe.”  I rest my case. If you want danger, try the Midwest.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a kind of domestic follow-up to my trip to Palestine. As a friend of mine put it, “If Palestine is the Third World, get ready for the Fourth World.”

Yeah, yeah, I know: “safe travels.” Spare me.

Postscript: As Rod Stewart once put it, some guys have all the luck. Some guys do nothing but complain.

Postcards from Abu Dis (11): Transcendental Questions, West Bank Edition

When you live in the West Bank, you get hyper-sensitive about license plates: yellow plates are Israeli, green plates are Palestinian; yellow plates can go anywhere in Israel or the West Bank (except, in theory, to parts of Area A); green plates are confined to designated parts of the West Bank (e.g., places reserved for the military or Israeli settlers).

I just saw a car on the main street of Eizariyah here in the West Bank (Area B) with Virginia license plates.

How is that possible? And for legal purposes, would it count as a yellow or a green plate?

I have no idea how to answer the first question, but here’s a guess at the second: if license plates follow passports, I’m guessing a Virginia license plate counts as yellow. As an American passport holder with a valid visa, I can go places in the West Bank that Palestinians can’t, including Israeli settlements and militarized zones designated off-limits to Palestinians (e.g., H2 in Hebron). If Virginia plates are treated as equivalent to an American passport (plus visa), the same would be true of them.

My speculation here rests, of course, on the debatable assumption that the presence of the car with the Virginia license plate is legal–an assumption confounded by the fact that the town of Eizariyah is effectively a Lockean State of Nature without laws or law enforcement of any discernible sort. The only “exception” to that rule is the presence of an Israeli military base on the outskirts of town, between Eizariyah and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. But it’s not really an exception at all: the Israeli military presence serves as militarized backdrop to life here; it isn’t here for purposes of everyday policing, much less to deal with traffic violations. It’s mostly here to intimidate Eizariyah and environs, and protect Ma’ale Adumim.

That said, unless someone bought a car here and just randomly stuck a Virginia license plate on it (odd but possible), to get it here, the owner would have to ship the car from Virginia to a border crossing controlled by the State of Israel. I can see why someone might want to do that; what I can’t see is why the State of Israel would allow it.

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That’s not the sort of Virginia plate I saw, but it does raise the question: if you can drive a car with Virginia plates in the West Bank, how about one with a plate like that? Granted, the State of Virginia has ordered that car owners with Stars and Bars license plates trade them in within about three months (120 days since the original ruling). But that still leaves time to ship one’s car here and drive it around for a few months as a test case. I’d love to see how that works, if only I could be around for it.

Postcards from Abu Dis (9): Checking Out the Checkpoints

I had my first run-in at an Israeli checkpoint yesterday, only the second pedestrian checkpoint I’ve gone through in the last six weeks.

Prior to this, most of the checkpoints I’d gone through were vehicular, and little of note had happened at them. I was held for two hours at the airport, which was an improvement on my last visit here, when I was held for five. I encountered one “flying checkpoint” on my first night here on the road between Ma’ale Adumim and Al Eizariyah, but after a ten minute wait, we were waved through. My seatmate on the 263 bus to Jerusalem was detained one morning at the Ma’ale Adumim checkpoint, but hey, I wasn’t, so the trip was basically uneventful. I was briefly accosted and questioned by a security guard for standing too long in front of the Jerusalem District Courthouse (where the Abu Khdeir trial is taking place), but after convincing him that I was harmless, he walked away, whereupon I decided to confirm his opinion by walking away myself. In an irritating sequence of events, I was falsely told one night by a police officer in the Old City that a certain walkway was closed when it wasn’t; he forced me to take a left turn that I didn’t want to take, after which I managed to get lost. But on reflection, I decided he’d done me a favor, because the hour was late, and I didn’t need to be in the Old City at that hour anyway.

And that was it. All was well even if it hadn’t quite ended well.

Yesterday, I finally had occasion to go through the Har Hazeitim checkpoint I mentioned a few weeks ago. Honestly, the only way to describe my experience there is to say that the people staffing that checkpoint around 7:30 pm on Sunday night were the most consummate assholes I’ve dealt with in a long timeand by far the biggest assholes I’ve met in Israel or Palestine in the last six weeks. If Palestinians routinely get treated at these checkpoints the way I was treated last night at Har Hazeitim, it really is no wonder that they lash out as often as they do. Anybody would, especially if they got the sense that the mistreatment would persist into the indefinite future, and that it seemed to be getting progressively worse. I’m morbidly curious what happens to one’s psyche if one goes through checkpoints like that on a regular basis, so in a spirit of inductive inquiry modeled on Mill’s Methods, I’ve decided to go through that checkpoint as often as I can over the next few weeks that I’m here, just to see what happens to me. I’ll be sure to tell you.

For now, I guess I’d describe the experience as roughly what would happen if you put a bunch of college-aged kids safely behind bomb-proof glass, then gave them the power to run a version of the Milgram Experiment every day, thousands of times a day, and then crossed the Milgram Experiment with a game of Donkey Kong in which instead of Donkey Kong, the protagonist of the game was a human being, typically a Palestinian. A real barrel of laughs. I guess it was for them, because they spent the duration of my visit to the checkpoint laughing at me.

I’ve noticed that Israeli Border Police have a certain hand gesture that I think of as the “mosquito gesture.” When they don’t want to deal with you, they wave you away with this contemptuous wave of the hand–what you or I would do to swat away a mosquito. The sign language says: “go away,” or more expansively, “go away, you piece of shit.” The next time I get that gesture, I intend to do it back. If questioned, I intend to describe it as an act of assimilation into Israeli society: I’ve seen the gesture so often that I thought I’d blend in and imitate it. Judging from the frequency with which it’s used, it must mean something like “mazel tov.” What could be nicer?

Seriously, I’m curious to see what happens. Stay tuned.

Postscript, July 16, 2015: I just discovered this great website and organization, Women Against the Occupation and for Human Rights, with individualized reports on each of the checkpoints. So many checkpoints, so little time!

Here’s the report on the Mount of Olives checkpoint described in the post above.

Here’s Anata/Shu’afat checkpoint; the report includes a few others, like Az-Zaim, which I’ve gone through about a dozen times on this trip. It looks different nowadays than it does in the photos here.*

Here’s Abu Dis, where I’m currently living; unfortunately, the photos of the place are somewhat dated. Perhaps I should donate some of my own? I’m a little baffled by the references to Cliff Hotel from this website; I’ve heard it mentioned by locals as well.

It’s always painful to see this gem of Jerusalem architecture in its present state — smashed windows, broken walls, filth everywhere, and now surrounded by a fence.  Nobody came to stop us when we crossed the gate into the settlement area.  There was someone in the booth, but he didn’t bother.  The signs proclaimed “forbidden, forbidden” — and “dangerous”.

I’ve lived here for six weeks, and despite looking for it, I can’t find it. The report above is from February 2014; is the hotel gone?

This report from Bethlehem took place about an hour before I happened to visit the same exact checkpoint (I visited July 10 around 9:30 am). Things were hectic but not violent while I was there, but I was only there for about fifteen or twenty minutes. I was also farther away from the checkpoint itself than those writing the report. I don’t know how they managed to get as close as they did.

Here’s reporting from Hebron, a hell-hole I’ll describe in a forthcoming post, having recently visited there (I’ve uploaded some photos of Hebron to the header).

Container Checkpoint at Wadi Nar is fast becoming my favorite checkpoint in the whole Occupied Territories. I was going to try walking through (it’s walking distance from where I live) but a friend told me that doing so was a good way to get shot, so I decided against it. It’s also a good way to get bitten, as the soldiers at that checkpoint have befriended some aggressive stray dogs, feeding them, but taking no responsibility for their (the dogs’) behavior –a good deterrent against overly curious American tourists out for a stroll. WOHR describes Container Checkpoint as “a god-forsaken checkpoint rarely visited by our shifts.” Yes and no: it’s actually about 200 yards from the rather pleasant village of Sawahirya, so it’s not that out of the way. As for “rarely visited,” it’s a hell of a walk from where I live, but I don’t mind making the trip.

*Correction, July 18, 2015: I corrected a mistake in the original version of this sentence: having now gone through the (various) Shufaat/Anata and Az Zaim checkpoints, I now realize that there are at least three different checkpoints involved here. By “Az Zaim” checkpoint,” I mean the one on Route 1 directly after Ma’ale Adumim and before the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University.

On My Way to the Promised Land (Hebron Edition)

I’ve been traveling these last few days, and I’m off to Hebron now, so I’ll be away from the blog for a bit. Commenting and comment approvals will be slow. Hope to blog a bit on it at some point when I get back. Patience is advised.

Meanwhile, here’s some background material on Hebron from a variety of perspectives. They’re intended as background; I don’t necessarily endorse what any particular author or speaker says here.

Print resources:

I’ll be taking my camera with me, but I can’t hope to capture Hebron on film the way Jackie Hadel captures it on her travel photo blog, Tokidoki. Highly recommended.

The official Israeli perspective on Hebron, care of the Israel Defense Forces:

Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, as experienced and described by a Palestinian:

A longer video from a left-dissident Israeli perspective:

Interesting perspective from Vice:

And, of course, the soundtrack:

By the way, in Arabic, “Hebron” is “Al Khalil,” making Hebron, roughly, the City of Friendship. Cue up irony.

Postcards from Abu Dis (7): Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem

I went to Jerusalem’s semi-famous Museum on the Seam the other day (“MotS”). A couple of friends have asked for a report on what I saw there and how I liked it, so I thought I’d blog it.

Here’s the Museum’s self-description, from its website:

The Museum on the Seam is a socio-political contemporary art museum located in Jerusalem. The Museum in its unique way, presents art as a language with no boundaries in order to raise controversial social issues for public discussion. At the center of the changing exhibitions in the Museum stand the national, ethnic and economic seam lines in their local and universal contexts.

The Museum is committed to examining the social reality within our regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart.

It’s a relatively small place, three floors of museum plus a guillotine-equipped observation deck, housed in a building that played an important role in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. The wartime damage to the facade of the building is still visible, and constitutes part of MotS’s aesthetic-political appeal. The owners are obviously proud of the fact that the place manages to look both chic and bombed-out, and though the comparison isn’t exact, the vibe is a little bit like Manhattan after 9/11.


The Museum gets its name from its physical location–on the seam or borderline between largely Arab East Jerusalem and largely Jewish West Jerusalem, two halves of an “eternally undivided” city divided by one war, and fused together by another. Strictly speaking, MotS is located in West Jerusalem, but that’s only because it’s on the west side of Hel Handasa, the street that divides the city. So it’s at the eastern edge of West Jerusalem, across the street from the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and next to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim.

Though the Museum is obviously well-named, I’m inclined to wonder whether anyone from either Sheikh Jarrah or Mea She’arim ever visits the place. As it happens, the only people in the Museum during my visit there were American tourists like me. There’s a kind of symbolism in that: East doesn’t seem to meet West in Jerusalem; the two keep their distance from one another, leaving Americans to fill the gap. I get the sense that for the most part, Americans visiting “Israel” tend to go as far East as is compatible with staying firmly in the West. In other words, they stay in Israel, and visit the West Bank, if only for Bethlehem. My visit to MotS reinforced that sense.

MotS is controversial by design, and there are at least two rival perspectives on it. Partisans of Israel sing its praises as a daring exercise in contemporary guerilla art. Partisans of the Palestinian cause regard it as an overhyped pseudo-radical exercise in Zionist apologetics and imperialist bullshit artistry. My own sensitive and deeply nuanced view sits somewhere in between those unsubtle extremes. In other words, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to MotS, but ultimately sympathize with the Palestinian take on it. It shouldn’t surprise you that, as an American, I feel entitled to have it all.

I particularly liked four of the exhibits I saw, and through the wonders of the Internet, I can show you two and a half of them right here.

The first was this film, “Los Encargados,” by the Spanish artists Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra, which depicts a motorized protest up the Gran Via in Madrid, Spain in August 2012. It’s set to an old socialist worker’s anthem, and for me, that really did the trick (not because I’m a socialist, but because I liked the anthem).

The message is not exactly subtle–Spain’s leaders have betrayed the country’s working class–but aesthetically, it works, so I liked it. (Trigger warning: I’m really not that sophisticated or articulate about art, so this is the level of commentary you should expect for the rest of this post.)

This second film is a lot longer than the first (37 minutes), but frankly I think it’s a masterpiece, and I was riveted by it from beginning to end–despite knowing absolutely nothing about the issue it engages with, and having no idea how to pronounce the artist’s name. It’s Chto Delat’s “The Tower: A Songspiel,” in Russian, and it’s about a controversy concerning the (pardon me) erection of the Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg. If you don’t have 37 minutes to spare, just watch the first two minutes. I don’t know about you, but I found it hilarious.

The depiction of the short-haired elite woman struck me, somewhat vaguely, as a parody of Ayn Rand–not so much a political parody (the woman’s views are not particularly Randian) as an aesthetic one. To be precise, it seems like the kind of parody you’d expect of someone who had heard of Rand but never read her (there’s no shortage of such people). But I still liked it.

I can’t show you the third film, William Kentridge’s 3-minute “Monument,” but here’s a description of it:

Monument is Kentridge’s second film in the series and explores his feelings of ambivalence about the privileges and comforts of the white South African society into which he was born. It was made from a basis of eleven drawings and is accompanied by music composed by Edward Jordan. Soho Eckstein, wealthy real estate developer, here assumes the guise of civic benefactor and erects a monument to the black South African work force, from whose labour his wealth is derived. The monument is a huge statue of an anonymous African workman. During the ceremony of unveiling the monument, in the first half of the film, the statue comes to life. Slowed by the enormous burden on his shoulders, he makes his way across the outskirts of the city, before disappearing into the distant landscape.

There’s a vague Rand connection here, too: the film managed to remind me of Rand’s essay “The Monument Builders” in The Virtue of Selfishness, and the film’s protagonist bears an obvious similarity to John Galt from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. That said, I somehow doubt that Kentridge has ever heard of Rand, or that the average Randian has ever heard of him; same symbolism, different messages.

A fourth piece I liked was a bitter sculpture of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin by the Israeli artist Uri Lifshitz. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a version online. Since you really have to see it to appreciate its power–and it was powerful–I’ll leave my “commentary” on it at that.

I should add that the Museum’s staff was excruciatingly nice to me in that disarmingly earnest, half-apologetic way that I associate with a certain brand of Israeli leftist. Maybe it’s my American imagination on overdrive, but I felt as though the staff was saying, “We realize that the occupation is in its 48th year–and we apologize for that–but we hope you’ll like the Museum anyway.” Which I did (thanks). I  guess I should also mention that MotS is responsible for the “CoExist” meme you’ve probably seen, which combines symbols from the world’s religions to form an icon spelling that word. If the Museum had a slogan, it might be the one associated with Rodney King (of Los Angeles riots fame): “Can we all just get along?”

So that’s what I liked about MotS. But there were some things I didn’t like–really, one big thing with a variety of different aspects. In a way, this complaint is a response to the somewhat facile nature of the whole “CoExist” idea associated with MotS. There are reasons why coexistence is not as easy as putting a clever bumper sticker on your car.

To approach that problem, consider some of the hype in favor of MotS. The authors of Lonely Planet’s Israel and the Palestinian Territories are typical in their accolades for the place:

Conflict, prejudice, racism (and occasionally coexistence) are on display at the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political/contemporary art museum that pulls no punches. …

Do not mistake it for a museum about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the issues here are broad and far-reaching and the Middle East conflict is just one small piece of a larger puzzle. (2010 edition, pp. 130-31)

Well, that’s one–rather euphemistic–way of putting things. I think it’d be more accurate to say that the Museum does its best to avoid the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in so doing, pulls a lot of punches. You couldn’t guess, by walking through it, that MotS is on the seam of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, you couldn’t guess that the Museum is in Jerusalem, much less that it advertises its proximity to Arab East Jerusalem. Going by its contents, MotS could just as well be located in New York or Chicago as anywhere in Israel.

None of the artists featured in MotS are Palestinians. Neither are any members of the Museum’s administrative staff. With one exception, none of the exhibits had anything to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The exception is the Uri Lifshitz sculpture I mentioned, but even there, Lifshitz depicts things entirely from an Israeli perspective. His approach reminds me of Ari Folman’s in the 2008 film Waltz with Bashir: the theme is the anguish, from an Israeli perspective, of Israel’s having fought the 1982 Lebanon War, not the anguish of being on the Palestinian or Lebanese receiving end of the Israeli invasion. I don’t begrudge Lifshitz his perspective on things (he was a paratrooper in the IDF), but the fact remains that the closest that MotS comes to engaging Palestinians is the artwork of an Israeli paratrooper lamenting the fact that he had to kill some.

Mariam Shahin, author of Palestine: A Guide, is harshly dismissive of MotS:

Israelis established the Museum of [sic] the Seam in the confiscated home of the Baramki family. The theme of the displays is the development of Jerusalem since 1948. Although the curators say the museum is designed to bring Arabs and Jews together from both sides of Jerusalem, the signs are only in Hebrew and English. (p. 337)

Though I sometimes find Shahin’s nationalist polemics wearing, and would dispute the accuracy of the second sentence, the first and third sentences of this excerpt are very much on point. Nowhere is MotS candid with the visitor about the complex and problematic history by which it claimed ownership of the building it calls its own (more on that below). And for a Museum that prides itself on bridging East and West Jerusalem, Shahin is right to suggest that it’s not exactly an Arab-friendly place. Shahin was writing in 2007, but things don’t seem to have changed that much since then: though a small handful of the signs are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, the vast majority are only in Hebrew and English. You can see why the residents of Sheikh Jarrah are not exactly lining up to get in: even if you could cough up the 30 shekel entrance fee, you’d have no idea what was going on around you. No surprise that the only Arab in the whole place was the guy serving coffee in the café.

But all of that really pales in comparison with the property-rights issue, bitterly summarized by the Arab Israeli politician Awatef Sheikh in a 2011 piece in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, “Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam: Artful Dodging.” Reading the first paragraph, I was inclined to think that Sheikh was overdoing the polemics, but having worked my way to the end, I had to admit that he was painfully right.

The building which today houses the Museum on the Seam is, in fact, owned by the Baramki family. It was designed by Andoni Baramki, then a young Palestinian architect who designed many of Jerusalem’s houses. In 1934 he built it and rented it to two Palestinian families who were forcibly expelled from the house in 1948. The Baramki family lived in a rented house nearby and, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, were forced to flee their homes in search of temporary safety during the violent spring of 1948. Denied return to their home, the Baramki family lived as refugees in Gaza before moving to the village of Birzeit, north of Ramallah, in 1953. Following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, all members of the Baramki family with the exception of son Gabi—his parents, brother and sister- managed to obtain Jerusalem ID cards and live in East Jerusalem. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, contacted Dr. Gabi Baramki, who was 18 when his family fled Jerusalem in 1948. A former vice president of Birzeit University, he lives in Ramallah.

After 1967, when the family was able to cross over to the west side of the city, Gabi’s father, Andoni, fought for his right to his house. He went to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, presented the deeds to his house and his identification documents. According to Gabi, “My father, a 6’4″ tall man, stood in front of the Custodian and told him: ‘I’m Andoni Baramki and I want to return to my house.’ The Custodian looked back at him and replied: ‘you are absent.'” The family then turned to the court but received no justice there, either. “You will get your house when there is peace,” the judge told Gabi’s father. People often told Gabi that his father, a very well-known figure in Jerusalem, “stood in front of the house for hours looking at it the way Romeo used to look at Juliet.” Andoni Baramki was never allowed to set foot inside his house again. He died in 1972.

There seems to be a pattern here: just as MotS is the expropriated home of a “present absentee” Palestinian, so the forthcoming Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance is currently being built on top of the Mamilla Muslim Cemetary in violation of the property rights of the Palestinians whose family members are buried there. (For more on the Mamilla issue, see this article from Columbia Journalism Review, featuring my friend, Rawan Dajani.) The ethos seems to be: Injustice must be done so that good may come of it (and feed the insatiable desire for uplift characteristic of bien pensant American tourists).


Given betrayals of this nature, it becomes hard to take Israeli liberals’ claims about the need for mutual understanding and tolerance at face value, and tempting to regard their brand of liberalism as a self-deceived charade. When they tell you that “art lacks boundaries,” I guess they really mean it: boundary violations, you might say, are part of the picture.

I hate to end on that downer note, but unfortunately, that’s the way Jerusalem is, at least in my limited experience. Every time you find something to feel good about, you find something bigger to feel bad about. And that was my ambivalent experience of MotS as well: the premise of the place seemed to be protest of injustices located at a safe remove built on injustice perpetrated nearby.

For me, the lesson is to disavow the smiley-faced, faith-based interpretations of this place one so often hears back home, of which Birthright Israel is perhaps the most nauseatingly delusional exemplification. In fact, Jerusalem is the scene of deep tragedy, worthy of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare, and built on tragic flaws that seem to reproduce themselves with every passing day. And while MotS was interesting and enjoyable–I’m glad I went–it wasn’t a catharsis. I’ll tell you if and when I have one. But don’t hold your breath.

Postscript, August 21, 2015: Here’s an interestingly if indirectly relevant item from The New York Times: Holland Cotter’s “What I Learned from a Disgraced Art Show on Harlem,” discussing the “Harlem on My Mind” art show at the Met in 1969, from the Times’s “Virgin Eyes” series.

Postcards from Abu Dis (5): More Miracles in the Holy Land?

Ramadan just started a couple of days ago, and I’m already wiped out from fasting. The fast is just too long. It starts at 3:54 am and doesn’t end until 7:48 pm: no food, no drink, no coffee. No coffee….

Fasting used to be easier when I was a kid. Somehow, back then, I had the capacity to fast and then play basketball or go to track practice. When did I become such a soft and pathetic wimp?

The thing is, I had planned to go to Jerusalem today, but canceled those plans at the last minute, because, due to fasting-fatigue, I hadn’t gotten any work done over the last few days. So I stayed home today and finished some of that work instead, fighting the ravages of my confused metabolic system.

Originally, I’d planned to go Bab al Amoud (Damascus Gate) in the Old City. In fact, I was planning to take a bus that stops right there just around the time that this happened:

An Israeli border policeman was critically wounded in a stabbing attack at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Sunday morning. The officer was stabbed in the neck, but managed to shoot the attacker before collapsing.

“When we arrived, we found a young man around 20 lying unconscious with a number of stab wounds to his upper body,” Magen David Adom paramedic Aharon Adler told Haaretz.”

“We immediately provided life-saving treatment and evacuated him to Shaare Zedek hospital in very serious condition.” The officer’s condition stabilized after undergoing surgery, the hospital said Sunday afternoon.

According to an Israel Police spokesperson, the perpetrator was an 18-year-old Palestinian who lives in the West Bank. He was evacuated to Hadasah, Ein Kerem hospital in critical condition.

Following the incident, security forces began combing the area with police helicopters.

As a friend of mine laconically put it: “It wasn’t a good day to go to Jerusalem.”

Mere coincidence? Or yet another survival-conducive miracle?

Well, survival-conducive for me, at any rate. Otherwise, too few miracles to go around.

Postcards from Abu Dis (4): A Land of Miracles

So I decided today, in defiance of common sense, to walk from Abu Dis to Jerusalem. I mean, I can see the Mount of Olives from my kitchen window, so how hard could it be to get there? Seeing is believing. Kind friends showed me the way there en route to a nearby restaurant a few days ago, albeit from the comfort of their car. It all seemed simple enough. You take the short cut from Abu Dis to Eizariyah, take Route 417 down to the Khatib Bakery shop, take the road after it, and walk up the road to Har Hazeitim* Checkpoint and into Jerusalem. Easy!

You forget that the holy land is not just holy, but hilly. Yes, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, but we tend to remember the sermon at the expense of the mount. And now I get why Jesus didn’t walk to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I really get it: one mile of walking up a 45 degree slope in 80-something degree heat from Abu Dis to Eizariyah, and I begin to think that this whole “walk to Jerusalem” thing is a really bad idea. (I could at this point too easily resort to an “ass” joke, but I’ll spare you.)

So I get to the town of Eizariyah, and the time comes to put those directions to use. You know, the directions my friends gave me while driving through this town? So here I am on Route 417. Now, I seem to remember them saying that the turn-off to Har Hazeitim Checkpoint is after Khatib Sweets and Bakery on this road. Khatib Sweets. And Bakery. After it. It seemed so clear at the time.

I get to Khatib Sweets and Bakery, and wouldn’t you know it, there are two roads after it. Two roads diverged in Eizariyah after Khatib Bakery, and I–I cannot figure out what “after” means in this context. Right after? Somewhat after? Which has the better claim?

Whatever “after” means, I get it wrong: right direction, wrong turn-off, wrong destination. I end up at a checkpoint, all right. But it’s closed. And it’s not called “Har Hazeitim” (or, for that matter, Herzliyah).* I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s ugly as sin, covered with trash, and totally abandoned.

I keep walking a few miles up and down the hills of Eizariyah, feeling like death itself.  “Jesus,” I think. “Get me out of this.”

Lazarus_Bethany.JPG (2048×1536)

I look up. It’s the Tomb of Lazarus. I take a random left turn. Hey, there’s the bus stop. I pay the fare. It’s eight shekels. I have exact change. I get to Jerusalem.


*Postscript, June 17, 2015: Not only did a screw up my friends’ directions, but I got the name of the checkpoint wrong in the original post (I had originally written “Herzliyah Checkpoint”). I’ve fixed it now. Of course, for purposes of the post, this piece of revisionist history erases the fact that I not only misremembered my friends’ directions, but misremembered the name of the checkpoint that was central to the directions.

My friend Awad Mansour informs me that the abandoned “checkpoint” I describe in the post is actually a large gate that (years ago) used to be opened at times to allow schoolchildren back home from school in Jerusalem. Apparently, it’s been the scene of clashes with the Israeli army–including some particularly intense ones this past fall.

Incidentally, I’m glad I didn’t head toward the “Herzliyah checkpoint” (or more precisely the “Herzliyah Marina Checkpoint“), because unsurprisingly, it turns out to be in…well, Herzliyah, on the Mediterranean coast, on the other side of the country. I’m not sure what miracle would have helped me there–except, perhaps, the one that gave the scarecrow a brain in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Postscript, June 24, 2015: With the help of Wikipedia, a bit of OCD, and some help from my friends, I’ve figured out what I did wrong. See the yellow road that stretches somewhat horizonally across the page underneath the words “Abu Dis”? That’s not the road I took. But if you look at the “s” of “Abu Dis,” you’ll see a sort of vertical white road that heads to Eizariyah. That’s the “short cut” I mention in the post. If you take it to Route 417, there’s a roundabout there, probably not visible on this map. I got lost in those squiggly white lines (roads) and kept knocking into the purple thing (the wall). But see how only one of those roads crosses over the blue and white line into the city? That was the road not taken.

You can’t see Lazarus’s Tomb, but I walked down from it to Route 417 and walked over to the red sign with the horizontal white stripe through it. That’s the bus stop at the wall (in purple). The bus then takes 417 in the opposite direction, through Eizariyah, Jahalin, Ma’ale Adumim, to Route 1, and into the city via the checkpoint at Adumim Interchange (where we were ordered to stop and our documents were inspected). Whether the further route continued via Sawaneh, Wadi Joz, or Sheikh Jarrah, I don’t remember (will pay closer attention next time I go). But whichever it is, it’s a pretty circuitous route, and would obviously be much shorter if it went through the Mount of Olives via 417 heading northwest.

ILroute-417.png (1856×1298)

Postcards from Abu Dis (1)*

So here I am, blogging “live” from Abu Dis. I’ve settled in a bit, the jet lag is starting to wear off, and I’m getting ready for my first class tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be a case of found rather than lost in translation: I’m speaking in English, and a translator is translating into Arabic for the students, and then back into English for me (and so on). We’re working on acquiring and distributing serviceable Arabic translations of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, Mill’s “On Liberty,” Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and just maybe, Marx’s “British Rule in India.” With the possible exception of the very last reading, I’m pretty confident that translations are out there and can be found–though I suppose that  you’d want more than a vote of “pretty confident” from a professor whose class starts tomorrow morning.

That said, I do wish I had paid more attention in Arabic 101 (as well as Arabic 102 and Arabic 103) in college, but I clearly didn’t learn enough to understand or carry on an ordinary conversation, much less teach a political philosophy seminar. Let that be a lesson for all students everywhere who ask that ridiculous question, “But when will I ever use this stuff that I’m learning?” How about: “What will you do when the unforeseeable occasion arises that demands knowledge you were supposed to have gotten but didn’t?” You’ll plead ignorance, that’s what you’ll do. And you’ll look and feel like a blithering idiot. How’s that for an answer?

How this translation thing will work is anybody’s guess, but I’m game, and I hope the students are, too. I met three of my students the other day–we exchanged enthusiastic smiles at one another for lack of being able to engage in mutually comprehensible discourse–and I’m told that I’ll have a total of between 12 and 15 students in the class. (A colleague at Felician tells me that they’re running summer classes with enrollments as low as 5. Ha!) We’re scheduled for a nice seminar room with a long rectangular table. A few cups of the Arabic coffee I’ve been having lately, and I think I’ll be ready for anything.

I don’t mean to be minimizing the hardships of life under military occupation–at least for people without an American passport like mine–but you could hardly have dreamt up better conditions for philosophical contemplation than the ones I’m currently in. I’m living in a spare but comfortable dorm room on the eighth floor of a four-tower housing complex. I’m the only human occupant of any of the four buildings: it’s like living in a non-scary version of “The Shining” (if that makes any sense). The other occupants include an unending series of pigeons whom the building manager allows to roost where they will–because “they’re guests, too.” Those bloodthirsty Palestinians!

The weather has been clear everyday, with temperatures hovering in the upper 70s and low 80s during the day, and upper 60s at night. A Mediterranean breeze riffles through my open window, and my ears are caressed by the twittering of birds, and the melody of children at play (never thought you’d see me write that, did you). I’ve had nowhere to go today, and apart from a quick trip into town, nothing to do but read, write, and look idly out of my eighth-floor window. It’s like a single person’s version of that old Belinda Carlisle song (if that makes any sense).

I’ve had a whirlwind few days. Last night, Rawan Dajani, one of the many hard-working people who work at AQU’s PR office, took me–of all places–to a reception at the U.S. Consulate in West Jerusalem, where I hobnobbed with the movers and shakers of Jerusalem. The food was good (grape leaves, sushi, hors d’ouevres, Jerusalem-style pizza, Palestinian pastries), but the music was even better (a jazz group from Nazareth), and the company was better than either. We got there too late to hear the departing Consul General’s speech–all I heard was the word “terrorists” as I went through security–but here it is.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I even managed to have a conversation with the Consul General, Michael Ratney. Mr. Ratney and I discussed the complexities of the political situation. It was a productive conversation, and we agreed to re-convene in the near future for further talks. In a highly positive development, he told me–and here I quote directly–that he was “very pleased to meet” me. So I’m happy to report that progress is being made on all fronts, and look forward to continuing conversations with him on matters of mutual concern.

After the reception, Rawan and I visited the controversial Mamilla Cemetary, the opulent Mamilla Mall, and the hard-to-characterize Festival of Light in the Old City of Jerusalem, but I’ll have to save serious discussion of all of that for another post.

Well, except for one thing: I gather from a report on CBS News that there was a protest and some police action in response to the Festival a few days ago, but the only disturbance I managed to encounter that night was sleep disturbance due to jet lag. Incidentally, I find the line of questioning by the interviewer in the CBS video I just linked to rather silly: “Things have been calm in Jerusalem ‘lately,’ so was there anything that precipitated these protests?” The assumption seems to be that protesters are stimulus-response machines who won’t protest unless some proximate event precipitates it. But tensions have been “simmering” here for years, and the underlying problems have gone unresolved, so there’s nothing surprising about protest in East Jerusalem when it does arise.

Anyway, as I said, I’ll save discussion of the politics (and in the case of the Festival, the aesthetics) for later posts. For now, I’ll just say that Rawan and I were there for about an hour last night; it was packed with throngs of Israelis, Arabs, and foreign tourists, but I perceived no tension at all.

So what’s it like here in the West Bank?  I’ve put a photo of my immediate surroundings in the header photos (and I’ll putting more in as I take some), so you’ll see that come round the photo carousel every now and then. I’ve already told you about the weather, and I haven’t had enough meals to tell you about the food, so about sound? What does it sound like in the West Bank?
Here, from a few days’ experience, is what the average evening sounds like in Abu Dis:
7:30 pm: preliminary call to maghrib (evening) prayer followed by call to prayer followed by prayer (VERY LOUD)
8:30 pm: celebratory machine gun fire and fireworks** followed by loud amplified music (yes, every night)
9-10 pm: dog fights and miscellaneous dog howling that echoes throughout the valley
10 pm: night time (isha) call to prayer
11 pm: eerie, reverential silence…until….
12 midnight: roosters crow midnight for half an hour
1 am: cat fights
2 am: dead silence punctuated by random horn blowing and trucks in low gear straining to get up the hill
3 am: cats, roosters, pigeons, donkeys, and occasional dog engage in high volume interspecies call-and-response communication, the cats being the loudest and sounding weirdly human
4 am: morning call to prayer (fajr)
5 am: in direct contradiction of all rooster stereotypes, roosters fail to crow for sunrise
9 am: someone operates a pneumatic drill for an hour
The strangest thing is that I actually slept rather well, and feel totally refreshed.
It’s a rather paradoxical place, this Palestine. More soon.
*I was originally going to call this series “Live from Abu Dis,” but dropped it for two reasons: (a) The blog currently has more Palestinian than American readers, and I’m not sure Palestinian readers would understand the (not all-that-funny) allusion to “Saturday Night Live”; (b) every blog post from anywhere is live, so “Live from Abu Dis” ultimately makes no sense. I almost called it “Postposts from Abu Dis,” but I think you can figure out why I didn’t. So “Postcards” it is. Wish you were here!
**I had originally written “celebratory machine gun fire,” but I discovered last night that they were fireworks. Less dramatic, I realize (June 14).
August 3, 2015: I later discovered that machine gun fire was interspersed with the fireworks (and vice versa).

Guest Post: The Other India: Dharavi, Mumbai (by Matt Faherty)

Mumbai Days 3 and 4 – Slums Below, Death from Above

[We continue, in a manner reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, with Matt’s travels in India prior to the Nepal earthquake.]

In my last post, I walked around the wealthiest part of the wealthiest city in India. Today I explored the poorest part.

According to my guide at Reality Tours and Travel, Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia, with one million individuals packed into 1.75 square kilometers. In comparison, Manhattan’s skyscrapers give the island a population density of a mere 26,000 individuals per square kilometer while these Indians pack more than ten times that amount into two story concrete blocks. Dharavi is in the heart of Delhi and has grown rapidly over the last few decades. Likewise, slum tourism has really taken off over the last decade. In the Indian case, this is largely, though not entirely a product of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The tour guide told my six-person group to call him “Monroe,” and he laid out a few ground rules before entering the slums:

  •             First, no cameras. Apparently the locals don’t take kindly to being treated like wildlife.
  •             Second, don’t hold your nose if something smells or make any other obnoxious indicators of disgust towards the neighborhood.
  •             Third, the primary purpose of the tour was to combat negative steryotypes about the slums. Apparently, after Slumdog Millionaire became a world-wide hit, everyone thought the Indian slums are inhabited solely by beggars, gangs, and drug addicts. In reality Dharavi is basically an industrial region involved primarily with recycling and small scale manufacturing.

Since I couldn’t take pictures, I diligently took notes. The following is based on Monroe’s presentation and my observations.

Dharavi was first inhabited 174 years ago when the British were busy spreading their settlement up Mumbai’s peninsula. At the time it was a swamp and not particularly amenable to habitation. Still, a small native settlement was established, but theregion didn’t really take off until the 1960s and 70s. By the 1980s, Dharavi had exploded into the largest slum in Asia in terms of population and still holds this distinction today.

In India, the term, “slum,” technically refers to any group of buildings built illegally on government land.* Over time, many slums in India gain legitimacy and government recognition, but they are still referred to as slums. This is the case for Dharavi and all other slums in Mumbai built before 1995. Post 1995 slums are largely beggar communities set up in make-shift shacks, while Dharavi consists mostly of two story concrete blocks with metal sheeting for roofs.

“Dharavi Slum in Mumbai” by Kounosu – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, most Indians think that slums are filled with lazy bums who don’t want to work and are content to live on whatever scrap they can gather from landfills or whatever they can beg from productive citizens. This was the impression I got from at least one Indian I spoke to in my guesthouse in Mumbai. Contrary to these expectations, Dharavi has a GDP of $665 million (though Wikipedia says the figure is closer to $500 million) according to the Indian government’s equivalent to the IRS. Some quick math indicates a GDP per capita of about $665, compared to a national Indian average of $1,500. So while Dharavi isn’t quite a massive Hoover City, it isn’t an economic juggernaut either.

Dharavi’s recycling and manufacturing economy consists of 10,000 businesses run by 8,000 owners. Mumbai produces 10,000 tons of trash per day, and about 70% of it is processed in Dharavi. On the manufacturing end, Monroe told us that we would be shocked how many high end leather products sold in Paris and London were made here. Basically, Dharavi is a strongly entrepreneurial and productive community, which despite its poverty, is an important component of Mumbai.

The tour started on an overpass above the Mumbai railway. After an introduction, our group walked across the overpass and we entered Dharavi. My first impression is that it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. It is dirtier, greyer, and more crowded than the surrounding areas, but not by a huge margin. The buildings are mostly two story concrete blocks without doors or windows. None of them are painted and the vast majority are grey. The street is dirt, and the rapidly disintegrating sidewalks are stone.

Lining the sides of the bigger streets are all of the same stores one finds in the rest of India, only smaller, dirtier, and shittier. There are grocers, small food markets, repair stores, etc. I didn’t buy anything but the prices were shockingly low. Monroe told us we could get a full acupuncture treatment for 290 rupees, or about 30 cents. There was also a shop which sold selfies; even desperately impoverished Indians like pictures of themselves.

After walking along the main road for a bit, we turned into one of hundreds of very similar looking side streets. We were in the commercial district, so this whole area was packed to the brim with tiny businesses. Our first stop was at a plastic recycling operation. Three guys stood outside a bed room-sized room which had some sort of rusty machinery in it. Outside, there were dozens of massive white sacks filled with bits of plastic. In another room, a guy sat on his knees in a pile of plastic which reached a foot high and covered the floor of the entire 20 by 20 foot room.

Monroe explained that there were businesses which collected plastic in Mumbai for free and sold it to business like this one for 8 to 10 rupees per kilogram. These guys chopped the plastic into tiny pieces, then mixed it with some chemicals and water in barrels, then dried the plastic into solid strips, and then resold the strips to manufacturing companies to be reused as raw plastic. Put another way, these guys used a giant shredding machine, then manually collected billions of tiny shards, then dipped the shards into dangerous emulsifying chemicals, and then laid them out to dry in the glaring sun so they could be sold to big companies for next to nothing, all without any safety equipment.

Next Monroe brought us to an aluminum recycling operation. The process here was similar. They bought aluminum by the kilo, broke it down into shards, then smelted it into ingots to be sold to companies. But the aluminum operation had the extra fun of using a terrifying make shift furnace, which looks exactly like it sounds.

We got a chance to look through all three rooms of the aluminum company. The first toom again had a giant machine and a massive pile of aluminum shards on the floor which one of the workers was diligently sifting through. The second room was the furnace, where a guy was pushing a big stick into a fiery hole coming out of the ground, The third room was the ingot manufacturing, where a few guys were working on at multiple stations on a bewilderingly complex machine. None of these rooms had an artificial light source, so all were completely dark other than whatever sunlight came through the entrance and the glow of the furnace. They were all filthy and smelled awful. However, they did have surprisingly good ventilation assisted by fans.

As with the plastic workers, none of these guys had safety equipment either. I know these slum dwellers are poor, but can they really not afford goggles to protect their eyes or gloves to protect their hands? According to Monroe, they can afford those things but choose not to use them because it slows down work.

Despite the conditions of the slum structures, they did have electricity which is used for the occasional light bulb and fan. Monroe stated that you can always tell the difference between an old, official slum, and a newer unofficial slum by the former’s electricity.

Given that most of Dharavi is dedicated to recycling, the whole neighborhood is covered in garbage. Of course, most Indian cities are covered in garbage, but in Dharavi, you can never tell whether any particular pile of garbage is just waste discarded on the side of the street, or if it’s some business’s excess inventory which can’t fit into storage. There are huge sacks of aluminum, plastic, paper, and electronics all over the place. I saw two guys rummaging through what must have been over a thousand cheap cell phones.

At one point, we went on the rooftop of another plastic recycling operation. Every building in the neighborhood has sheet metal roofs, and nearly every home had a huge pile of garbage on it. Some of these piles were clearly left up here for drying purposes, but others I couldn’t figure out. One roof had fifty or more small plastic chairs, the sort which is sold at a toy store. Others had plastic bags. Some piles seemed to be lodges between multiple buildings and I couldn’t tell who had rightful claim over them, or if anyone would even want to claim them.

From the rooftop, I could also see that every single building had its own small satellite dish. Monroe explained that cell phones and television are fundamental requirements in India that no one goes without. Additionally, just outside the slum borders were numerous high rise apartments which towered over Dharavi. One of these skyscrapers was the private skyscraper of some Indian billionaire.

Despite being coated in garbage, Dharavi doesn’t actually smell that bad. Oh, it still smells, but aside from the streets which have streams of tepid water on the side, it smells no worse than the rest of Mumbai.

The vast majority of the workers in the commercial district of Dharavi, are not from Mumbai. They are migrant workers from other parts of India, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They usually come from dirt poor farming communities where they worked as hired farm hands for 20-80 rupees (30 cents to $1.30) per day. In Dharavi, they get hired by local businessmen or particularly successful migrants to work in these recycling and manufacturing facilities for 150-200 rupees ($2.50-$3.30) per day. The monthly rent for a standard room in the slums is 3,000-4,000 rupees per month, so most workers opt to sleep in the factories instead. The managers allow this because they effectively serve as guards for their capital at night.

The migrant workers rarely plan to stay in Mumbai permanently. Most intend to stay for 8 to 10 years until they can gather some decent savings and move back home to live with their family. Some even return home during the harvest season when they can find more work.

“Pottery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC3155Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

According to Monroe, the workers are extremely happy to be in Mumbai. This place is filthy, crowded, cramped, and really just entirely unpleasant, but these guys cannot wait to leave their homes and families in the countryside to come to Dharavi and grind aluminum for twelve to fifteen hours per day in return for enough money to maybe buy a cheap meal at an Indian McDonald’s each day.

The government is awful.

This is not just my opinion, this is the prevailing sentiment of the slums. Every interaction Dharavi has had with the Indian and Mumbai government has lent further credence to the notion that the state is corrupt, ruthless, and most of all, incompetent. Or maybe Monroe is just a stealth libertarian.

The following descriptions may just sound like me raging for my libertarian beliefs, but these are all paraphrases of Monroe.

About a decade ago, either the national government or the city of Mumbai (Monroe didn’t clarify) created the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, or SRA. The SRA’s job was (and still is) to systematically tear down the slums in Mumbai to be replaced by more comfortable and standardized apartment complexes. According to the government, the purpose of this venture was to revitalize the slums, though a cynic like Monroe suggests it was a scheme to make taxation more effective and give crony-based benefits to wealthy developers.**

In conjunction with local landlords, the SRA would ask every inhabitant within a particular geographic area if they would take a buy-out to vacate their apartment. Not only would the buyout recipients receive a lump sum of cash, but they would also get a brand new apartment in the new building. If 70% of the area’s inhabitants took the buy-out, the SRA could legally declare eminent domain on the other thirty percent and clear the buildings to begin a new construction.

For the first few years the SRA was quite successful and acquired considerable swaths of land, but the slum residents soon began to resist. It turned out that the standardized apartment sizes in the new buildings caused a lot of problems. Wealthy slum dwellers who had relatively large apartments found themselves getting downgraded into smaller rooms. Meanwhile, the more plentiful slum-dwellers in small apartments couldn’t pay the upkeep and rent (which was only free for a limited time) in their new, larger apartments. Worst of all, these new buildings prohibited the small manufacturing businesses which proved 95% of the income to these slums, so the inhabitants of these new builds effectively lost their jobs and companies.

On the other hand, I’m sure the well-connected construction companies made out splendidly on the SRA.

The slum’s aversion to the government doesn’t end there.

Monroe estimated that about 95% of children in the slums go to school, and about 45% of them go to private schools. The government schools have free tuition, provide free books, clothes, and bags, and yet the poorest of the poor people in an extremely poor part of a very poor country would rather scrape together a few rupees to send their children to a private school than send their kids to a government school. This is because the government schools are notoriously useless. The class sizes are enormous, the teachers don’t show up half of the time, when they do show up they clearly do not give a shit about their professional responsibility, and as a result, graduating from a government school means almost nothing to potential employers.

According to Monroe, the locals do everything they can to send their kids to a private school, most of which are taught by local professionals and organized by local entrepreneurs, while others are established by NGOs. The only kids who go to public schools are those whose parents are too poor to afford private school tuition.

Monroe’s account of private education in Dharavi closely aligns with the Cato Institute’s findings in a 2005 study on private education in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Finally, there are the hospitals. Unsurprisingly, in a place where people regularly work with toxic chemicals and shards of industrial waste without any safety gear, illness is very common. It also doesn’t help that children literally play on huge piles of garbage. In regard to medicine, all slum-dwellers know that the private hospitals are vastly superior to the government run hospitals.

When slum dwellers get minor illnesses, they go to the local private hospitals. When they catch serious diseases or need surgery, they are forced to go to the government hospitals because they can’t afford to go to the private ones. Monroe’s father was a doctor at one of the nearby government hospitals and Monroe saw these operations first hand. They are utterly filthy and overcrowded, with injured people regularly bleeding all over the hallway. Monroe even claimed that in many instances, going to a public hospital is worse than not going to any hospital because of how often patients got infections from the unsanitary conditions.

Our tour group walked around the commercial sector of Dharavi for about an hour. I could not tell the narrow, winding streets apart, nor could I distinguish between the hundreds of make-shift businesses packed into the tiny structures lining the streets. As I said, there are no doors in this area, so as I walked around I could peek into all of the buildings. Without fail, I always saw a group of young men working on some massive machine which must have been a nightmare to get into the hovel, or sorting some pile of trash, or hunching over an old sewing machine focusing intently on stitching correctly, or stretching a piece of rough leather in the sun.

The only time I saw women working was in the pottery and food operations. Dharavi imports clay which is then soaked for days before being dried, hardened, and fired in a kiln. On the food end, women bake and arrange whatever that tortilla-like bread thing that Indian eat. According to Monroe, the food operation was entirely created by NGOs attempting to provide women with a means of earning money. Even still, women are treated largely as second class citizens in the slums, and are a tiny minority under the flood of male migrants.

Our group left the commercial district and made our way through the residential district. The residencies are divided between Muslims and Hindus. They used to be united, but were separated during the 1993 riots, when over a thousand Mumbai residents were killed in religious conflict (most of the victims were Muslim). Monroe noted that you can always tell when you’re in the Hindu region because it literally smells like shit due to their squat toilets.

Monroe also related to us a personal anecdote of how he fell in love with, and proposed marriage to, a Muslim girl. She asked him to convert to Islam and he refused, so they broke up. He said that today Muslims and Hindus basically get along in India, but interfaith marriage is still almost unheard of.***

“An embroidery unit in Dharavi, Mumbai” by M M from Switzerland – Dharavi_DSC2981Uploaded by Ekabhishek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

The residential district looked like the commercial district except the rooms were smaller and the streets were more narrow. Monroe lead us down some… I guess they could be called alleys, but that’s kind of a stretch. These passages were 2-3 feet wide and sometimes less than 5.5 feet tall (because random things jutted out of the sides of buildings). They looked like random gaps between adjacent buildings, but I could see dozens of entrances into tiny homes barely lit by single lightbulbs. Mothers and children stood outside their homes and watched us pass by, even though it meant congesting the already claustrophobic alleys. Lots of sections were flooded by streams of water flowing between the buildings.

At some parts the alleys were so narrow that I could barely see the blazing Indian sun. Though these homes were built into dark, uncomfortably tight alleys filled with rancid streams, they must have been remarkably cool for a sub-tropical location in India.

When we finally exited the alleys, we entered a clearing and waited for our eyes to adjust to see about a dozen young children playing on a massive pile of garbage, just like in Slumdog Millionaire. Then we made our way to a nearby leather processing facility which recycled old leather and built shockingly high quality bags to be sold to European and American companies which would never admit where they built their wares. I suspect that most of these bags would be sold as knock off on the street, but I have to admit, they felt extremely real, at least according to my nearly non-existent sense of leather fashion accessory authenticity.

After a short break in the mercifully air conditioned office of the leather company manager, we went to a “semi-private” school run by the NGO which operates these tours. The school focuses on teaching slum-dwellers over the age of 18 how to write and read in English, learn basic computer skills, and develop “soft skills,” like how to conduct oneself in an interview.

At the school were two twenty-something women, both volunteers from Italy. One had worked here for a few months last year and had returned for another tour of duty, while the other was on her first week out of a six month stay. These girls are absolutely insane. I suppose they at least get to live in Mumbai, which is a decent city with plenty to do (unlike my podunk farming community in Nepal), but I simply cannot imagine working in this Indian slum for months on end. These girls are tougher and/or more deranged than I will ever be.

The tour ended at the NGO’s base of operations within Dharavi. Monroe gave us a pitch about how awesome the NGO is and told us that 80% of the tours profits are donated to the NGO’s efforts in Dharavi. Then he asked us to fill out tour reviews; I gave the tour and Monroe high marks.

For the rest of Day 3 I just wrote and walked around another chunk of the scenic city center of Mumbai. The next day I did much the same and there is little to say about either day with the exception of one event I must briefly recount.

Crazy things happen while traveling. When you’re in a foreign country, you don’t understand the culture or how things operate, so you never know when you are going to accidentally do something really stupid or cause a huge problem. Other times, bizare things just happen around you and you have no idea why. For instance, I was drinking a cup of coffee in McDonald’s this morning, and despite every other table in the entire restaurant being empty, a 20ish year old Indian guy sat directly across from me at my two person table. I assumed he wanted to talk to a random white guy, but after asking if the seat was taken, he didn’t say a word and just ate his entire meal.

That was a strange situation, and I can’t explain it. What happened to me later in the day I can probably explain, but was far crazier. It wasn’t a byproduct of some cultural mores I don’t understand, though it was probably the result of some unexpected error on my part.

I got attacked by a hawk.

I was walking around some swanky neighborhood in West Mumbai consisting of a lot of really nice streets covered by beautiful leafy canopies and lined by well-maintained high rise apartments. Eventually I made my way to the nearby water, where, unlike the beaches near the city center, was no a recreational area, but primarily used for fishing. I decided to walk along the water on some flat rocks sticking out of the ground. Ten minutes later, I saw them.

There were probably ten brown hawks congregating in a small area of the beach. They were quite large, maybe 1-1.5 feet tall. Half of them were on the ground while the other half were circling in the air above. I thought they looked really cool, so I took out my camera and snapped a few pictures.

It didn’t actually occur to me that wild hawks might be dangerous, though I did remember seeing warnings about the dangers of these predators on a beach in Japan. On the other hand, I don’t typically like disturbing wild animals, so I decided to keep walking along the water and I figured I would disturb their sandy spot closer to the road.

Thirty seconds after I put my camera away and started walking, I distinctly felt something smash into my head and two claws dig into my scalp. The impact hurt worse than the claws since the later mostly grabbed hair and mercifully didn’t rip any out. I didn’t actually see the hawk who attacked me, but I saw lots of hawk shadows at my feet and could see them circling the air around me. Like the millions of rodents attacked by hawks before me, I was simply stunned for a moment. Did that really just happen?

I’ll admit, I was a little scared. These things weren’t that big, and I’m sure I could easily kill one if I actually got my arms around it, but obviously that was easier said than done.**** I estimated that the odds of one these hawks successfully dive-bombing me to rip out my throat or eyes was significantly higher than the odds of me catching one to break its neck. I specifically recalled the movie, Hidalgo, where an Arabian hawk plucks a guy’s eyes out on command. Could you imagine the headline: “American Tourist Blinded by Wild Hawks in Mumbai.”

I had to get out of there, and for some reason I just assumed the hawks would keep attacking me on the beach, so I had to get to the road and perhaps the buildings along its far side.. However, I was concerned that literally running for the road would cause the hawks to dive-bomb me more, kind of like how running away from bears supposedly causes them to attack. Maybe if I ran, my blond hair would look even more like some delicious rodent which needed to be eaten.

Look at that delicious rodent that needs to be eaten, bobbing up and down on that idiot’s head. 

The shortest distance to the road was through hawk territory, so I cautiously made my way to the road at a diagonal angle between the parallel road and water. The first attack came from behind, so as my lacrosse coach would say, I “kept my head on swivel” to spot the next attack. But apparently these hawks wanted a challenge. I saw one in the air in front of me line up so that he was flying directly at me. He dived down from the sky and I took evasive maneuvers by juking my body back and forth and moving my head accordingly like a running back trying to fake out a linebacker, or alternatively, like an idiot.

Regardless of how I looked, it worked. The hawk changed its flight pattern at the last moment and sharply turned upwards about five feet away from me. At that point I took off my back pack and was prepared to use it as a melee weapon, regardless of what risks this posed to its contents (which included my cell phone and keyboard. Fortunately I endured no more attacks and successfully made it to the road. I had survived an attack by a hawk or hawks and lived to tell the tale with both of my eyes.

Those were a lot of sentences I never thought I would write in my life.

*Irfan: This raises the question of what exactly is involved, practically speaking, in legal registration of housing. I suspect that Hernando de Soto’s work is relevant here.

**Irfan: Martin Anderson’s work on urban renewal provides an interesting point of comparison on this.

***Irfan: For whatever it’s worth, that’s the account my own relatives give of life in British India (they were from Amritsar) before the India-Pakistan division (1947).

****Irfan: Um. You wouldn’t get your arms around it, and even if you did, you wouldn’t kill it. Animals don’t die easily, trust me.

Irfan: Ted Hughes’s poem “Hawk Roosting” seems an appropriate postscript. My second choice was Rush’s By Tor and the Snow/SlumDog, but of course, By Tor is an owl.

“Direct through the bones of the living…”