A healthy debate

Comment“Please leave Israel. You bring negativity and hatred to this country. Please go back to Britain and advocate on behalf of illegal infiltrators there. You contribute nothing to Israel. I’m sure you also take welfare money from the state that you abhor. Your fancy prose in defense of illegal infiltrators doesn’t contribute to Israel. Get out. There are enough Kappos here.”

This comment was left on my website after a piece I wrote regarding the Israeli government’s policies towards asylum seekers was published on +972 Magazine’s website.  It is completely typical of the responses received by anyone who dares to challenge the state’s treatment of its ‘demographic threats’ (i.e. Africans and Palestinians).

The People’s Republic of Chinaland

Somehow, China’s complete evisceration of the heart of Tibet – Lhasa – has escaped wide press attention so far.  Yet the government’s ‘modernisation’ programme – another one of those noisome Stalinist euphemisms – is utterly destroying Lhasa’s old city.  I visited Tibet in 2009, with long-nurtured visions of what would be waiting for me when I finally made it to the ‘roof of the world’.  Unfortunately, my dreams were pronounced dead on arrival when I landed at Lhasa airport, and flatlined throughout my first evening in the new part of the city.  But they were resuscitated by an electrifying visit to the old city, which I wrote about at the time – here and here.  In spite of some faith having been restored, however, I could see even then that Old Lhasa was an already rickety bastion against Beijing’s attempts to erase the country’s cultural heritage and replace it with gaudy replications of ‘authenticity’ that one associates exclusively with theme parks and Las Vegas.  (It must be said that my views were already jaundiced by two previous visits to Beijing proper.)

And as we can see, the Chinese government is rubbing itself all over the capital of Tibet.  The photos below show the Barkhor circuit, which winds around Old Lhasa, and passes the Jokhang Temple – the most sacred in Tibet.  The picture on the top is one that I took in 2009; the one underneath was taken in 2013 by a Tibetan blogger called Woeser.  (Woeser writes in Mandarin, but her post on the destruction of Old Lhasa has been translated into English for the High Peaks Pure Earth blog.  Their post contains more photos of what is happening in Lhasa.)  Although the pictures are not taken from identical spots, they do show the same area of the Barkhor – and the differences are stark, and devastating.  This is colonisation as ‘renovation’, and it is being ignored.

Tibet then and now

So we are left with another tragedy wrought by the acidic effects of ideology on heritage and culture.  The fact is that in Lhasa’s case, the damage is done; no letters, protests or sanctions will bring the old city back to what it was.  As with so many ancient sites that broadcast spiritual mystique around the world, and in turn have the wonderment of millions projected back onto them, Lhasa has an inherent mythology which obstructs the myth-making necessary for nation-building.  Combine this with the commercial colonialism that blights so much of the world, and you end up with one of the most revered, adored and prolifically inspiring places in history having an enormous state-sponsored shopping centre built in the middle of it.

There is, of course, not just cultural devastation afoot.  The government’s project in Lhasa is not an isolated one; it is part of a wider drive to photoshop the entirety of Tibet (or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, to give it its official name – another spore from China’s fecund doublespeak dictionary) into something more befitting a ‘socialist republic’.  Currently, it is estimated that over two million Tibetans have been ‘rehoused’ – a benign term for an activity that is slowly strangling an indigenous people’s livelihoods and way of life.  As with Lhasa, the silence from the rest of the world has been deafening; God forbid we should threaten ties with the second-largest economy in the world.  I am reminded of a quotation from an American diplomat, justifying the pre-9/11 US government rolling over when lobbied by oil firms to go easy on the Taliban, so that a pipeline could be built through Afghanistan: “There will be Aramco [a Saudi oil company], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.‟  Money talks, but it also shuts people (and governments) up.

So goodbye, Lhasa.  Another poignant dream has been turned into a painful memory.  But at least the Chinese government can’t touch that.

A year in the making

There’s a sense, in Tel Aviv, that one has ended up in the world’s lost property department.  All is jumbled, chaotic, heaped up – and yet with the sense that nothing and no one here ever belonged anywhere else.  Things turn up (and turn) unexpectedly while others vanish without warning.  And stranger still, that which you did not know was waiting to be found is also chanced upon.  Yes, before I came here I expected to find answers, questions, revelations, confusions, beauty, truth, visions and illusions.  I found all of those, thrown around and piled on top of each other.  I expected to find meaning, and I did, abundantly – for in Israel, a country which uses its past to distract itself from its present, meaning is like brambles; you keep getting snagged, unexpectedly.  Sometimes it tears your clothes, sometimes your skin.  It emerges between encounters with the sacred and the mundane.  (And by virtue of its exoticism, the mundane also becomes sacred.)  All these things I found, yet my biggest discovery is the one I never imagined looking for; namely, my voice.  It is easy, in hindsight, to position this within the ground zero matrix of the immigrant; for when you emigrate you are distilled, and gradually drip back into yourself.   But it is not apparent until the words spill into your mouth and your mind from elsewhere that you realise your voice is the firmament in which these findings embed themselves.  It charts the stars as you seep, returning to the root of the root of yourself, gazing at the constellations of self-discovery.

As such, Tel Aviv has not only re-threaded my ties to myself (as I have written about much in the last year), but also my ties to literature and words.  My final solo trip to Israel coincided with my discovery of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it has improbably, ineluctably framed my experience of the place since, as well as re-tinting my memories of it.  Or perhaps it isn’t improbable, and it is simply the kind of tortured paean that can be related to by all those who are at the mercy of a city which has electrified their mind and saturated their soul.  A new year’s day cup of coffee at a Dizengoff cafe recast my understanding of my surroundings through the conduit of 1950s New York, as the furious, psychotically urbane, relentless thrust of the poem bled into and snapped away again from my circulating impressions of Tel Aviv.  The infinite rush of inside-out days and nights; glowing, pulsating rooms full of sultry glances behind blackout curtains; curious tastes in ancient new installations and familiar faces in strange places – all skipped across the surface of my imagination and splashed in, followed by another pebble of recollection, and another.  Into these wailing winds (experienced quietly at that cafe) sauntered Ginsberg and his beats, and his Beats; whirling dervishes bearing the gifts of syntax and vocabulary finally sufficient to approach the kinesis and rhythm I had struggled to verbalise.  So it is that each time I pass that cafe, a door bangs in my head somewhere, whipped open and closed by leftover sighs.  It is since I came to Israel that I have been trailed by the idea of books working as a camera lens; adjusting our field of vision and focus on the world around us; picking different bits out for us as we read, and even more so as we ponder what we have read.  It seems that we always manage to begin reading the right book at the right time, without meaning to, and without really knowing why.  And as I have existed in and experienced Israel over the last year, the opening line of Howl has visited me more than any other quotation: “I saw the best minds of my generation…”

Other times, other places…  “My voice was born in Beirut”, the Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi wrote in a recent love letter to the city.  Her words infused with the bewitching fragrance of this region’s writing, she describes the impact Lebanon’s capital has had on her voice, from its offer of “emotional asylum” to its “coexistence of contradictions”, and with a final flourish, that “[s]he experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death.”  (Beirut is referred to in the feminine, as all cities of seduction should be.)  And that is my experience of Tel Aviv; a city which left me reeling, spinning, tumbling, spiralling, finally crash-landing in an endless hall of a new reality, and a new language in which to render it.  It is a ball of wool from which countless threads unravel and are remade.  It goes on spinning stories to keep the outside world at bay, to delay the release from its endless reverie.  It has a thousand voices and one voice.

Scheherazade, what would you have happen tonight?  And will you permit me the words to re-tell it?

Notes on Hebron

1.  Judging by their graffiti, settlers can’t spell.

2.  Hearing the air coated by multiple Muslim calls to prayer while standing in the empty city centre (the Muslim populace having been dismantled) is like hearing voices from beyond the grave.

3.  Palestinian kids have turned military-speak into a playground chant (“1, 2, 3, 4, Situation Normal!”).

4.  Settlers take pride in intimidating tourists, though their words are laughable and their stones inaccurate.

5.  Truth is the forgotten casualty of hatred.

6.  There is not one individual nor a square centimetre that is not being watched by the military…

7. …and yet the children, playing, still run around.


A State of Mind

“You took the wrong pill…you should have taken the blue one…”

So I was informed by a taxi driver in Tel Aviv, after the conversation inevitably settled on my decision to emigrate to Israel. The suggestion (referring to the film The Matrix, where the central character is given the choice between taking the blue pill, which will keep him safely in his current comfortable, illusory world; and taking the red pill, which will permanently remove him from the fantasy and cast him out into the real world) is appropriately cut to fit the unique contours of making aliyah. For the idea that is sold to the expectant arrival is that of the promised land, and that by coming here, we are coming home. In fairness, depending on the attitude of the immigrant, that assertion is not entirely unmerited – provided their idea of home is a bustling, complicated Mediterranean country, and not the ‘Jewish Disneyland’ of various youth programmes and holiday tours. But as soon as the concept of an absolute promised land gains traction and takes root, the problems start.

Certainly at first, living in Tel Aviv can give the impression that one has reached the promised land, that the dream became a reality, that we did it. That there is a Jewish state, and that it is filled with intelligent, cultured, witty people, who care about the country but at the same time wish for and believe in two states for two peoples. And this political persuasion seems so effortlessly convincing that it is not to be questioned. Only if it is to be thus, the argument goes, will we ensure that the dream continues and that we retain our morality and maintain our dream of a homeland. And it is supported by a uniquely powerful concept – that of the aforementioned promised land. It is a projection which strikes the heart and mind with surgical accuracy, and all those afflicted by a belief in and devotion to it suffer its exit wound on their Imaginary. Intangible and yet infused into some kind of collective memory, the ideal of Israel as the promised land is like the Northern Lights – a stunning, shapeshifting, amorphous display which fires the imaginations and desires of countless dreamers, seeming to hint at an ethereal paradise and yet remaining devastatingly out of reach. And like all dreams, it is evanescent, receding further and further the more we try to grasp it.

As a disclaimer, I have fallen captive to this myself in the past, and in moments of profundity am prone to it still; recently, while sleeping on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City, I was awoken at 4.30am by the call to prayer emanating from al-Aqsa Mosque. There followed an ephemeral, atavistic experience, in which I was enveloped by the historical panorama of a chant that has echoed through the ages and a velvet blackness tattooed by the lights of the ancient buildings all around; at the same time, I was subsumed by a brief instant of insight where I understood why men have been driven to madness and death in pursuit of the dream of Jerusalem. But then the veil of inherited nostalgia that had descended lifted once more, the millennial yearning evaporated, and present-day Israel re-materialised.

And the reality is that the reverie is unsustainable, for it assumes certain post-partition elements that are simply not there. The central conceit behind having two states is that Israel will remain Jewish and democratic. Yet in truth many of those who wish to (and have the mandate to) safeguard the Jewishness of the state are not interested in protecting it as a democracy, and those who wish to see it retain some kind of democratic character are terminally disinterested in being Jewish. The cultural heritage is so frequently brushed aside, the religious dimension distrusted and sneered at, the history at best wincingly endured. It is difficult to see how the bottom would not fall out of any society facing such competing antipathies and apathies.

Yet it is not only what may be that points to this dead end, but also what has been. Shattered by streams of bombs and rockets, pockmarked by endless bullets, crippled by bad faith and hopelessly and helplessly deformed by 65 years of gradually altering physical facts on the ground, the two-state solution has been lynched and left for dead. These are outcomes that no amount of self-delusion and well-meaning protest marches can reverse, and whatever it is that one may wish for and envision, the cold and pragmatic assessment can draw only one conclusion. It is an agonising, wrenching position to accept, and one which signals the end of an era both in Israel’s self-perception and the expectations of the rest of the world. One calls to mind the words of Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad, a close friend of Saladin, upon hearing of the sultan’s death:

“Then these years and their players passed away
As though they all had been merely dreams.”

So it is in these times of modern-day Crusades. This country is not a dream factory, and it has become something of a moral sweatshop. It is struggling vainly towards a peace proposal that has been crushed by its past and denied its future by the disunity of the present. Yet we must not squander Israel’s extraordinary potential; I am not proposing solutions or giving instructions, but I am suggesting a first step, which is to snap out of it. It’s time to take the red pill, despite what astute taxi drivers from Tel Aviv may tell you.

Searing beauty, searing pain

Outing yourself as an olah chadashah always prompts intense curiosity. First, of course, is the obligatory investigation of your reasons for coming here; rarely do I take the time to unpack everything required to adequately explain to the enquirer what it is that brought me to Israel. How do you represent a shape-shifting, boundless, kaleidoscopic weave of family history, political outlook, personal ambition and unceasing restlessness to someone you’ve only just met? After navigating that set of social rapids (which I fear can leave me coming across as inarticulate, stand-offish, arrogant, or a mixture of the three), comes the second question, which is how I’m finding Israel so far. There, the answer is less woven into the fabric of myself, and therefore easier to extract; indeed, it’s one which is often influenced by what I’ve been doing that day. Sometimes I home in on something that’s happened in my volunteer work in south Tel Aviv, and my response revolves around the knocks one’s faith in humanity takes on an almost daily basis here. Other times, I focus on the intense sensation of expansion one feels from being in a country where conflicting thoughts, ideas, feelings, dreams and desperations dance around and frequently smash into one another. At other times still, I might eulogise about the freedom I feel from being so close to the sea and its endless horizon. But whatever the answer I give on any particular day, the underlying sensation is always the same; that being here is like walking on broken glass in a cave of wonders.

And the feeling that is stoked by this is awe. I have never been as consistently awe-struck as I am in Israel, and awe, of course, is a response which transcends good and bad. It is simply an impression of being overwhelmed, whether by beauty, shock, disbelief or gratitude. I stood in awe on Yom HaZikaron, where on a busy motorway during the siren, the only things that moved for two minutes were leaves and flags in the wind. I walked alone under multiple fireworks displays on Yom HaAtzmaut, also in awe, this time at the meteoric, versicolour celebrations of Israel’s independence, 36 hours and a universe away from the monochromatic grief of the previous day. And as I reflected that the extravagant merrymaking was there to act as a valve to release the pressure of the day before, I found myself once again in awe, this time at the methods of thermoregulation this society has developed.

I often find myself drifting through the streets of south Tel Aviv, in awe at the stories I’ve heard from asylum seekers, and the defiant, challenging stare of their scars. I reflect in awe on the conflicting textures of their lives; on the one hand, the blank, muffled, flat reality of a life lived in stasis, all of those without status, or at best temporary status, existing from one day to the next, meted out by turns rejections and pebbles of fraudulent hope, all of them waiting for Godot; and on the other hand, the jagged, volatile, runaway developments of anti-immigrant protests.

All of this has enveloped my experience in Israel so far in a melange of surpassed expectations. When you think about, dream of, long for something so much for so long, it is easy for the expected reality to fall short. But when simply stepping out your front door is enough to provoke a tornado of concepts and images which streak through you, smudging and bleeding into one another before separating and resolidifying, it is difficult not to be grateful for the richness of the experience, no matter how hard it is. The truth is that I am disturbed by this country as much as I am enchanted by it, but as long as it keeps me in awe, it will be near-impossible to be pushed away.

Life goes on

Everyone’s asking me this question. So here’s my full response; really, I can only do justice to the query in writing. The question is this: “Why are you moving to Israel?” The curiosity always comes with a partner: disbelief, scepticism, wonder, accusation, bemusement. I can’t promise to satisfy all those reactions, but I’m going to try. Different people will already be aware of different things I’ve written here, but perhaps you’ll understand them in a new way after seeing them in this context.

Try and imagine, if you can, a Venn diagram, composed of three interlocking circles. In one, identity. In another, politics. And in the third, family; particularly my grandfather, Kurt Rowland (born Roth; he had to Anglicise his surname on joining the British army in World War 2). I’m positioned where the three circles overlap, nestling, as ever, in the space in between. Next to me is Israel.

So to the first circle, identity. Having a heritage composed of finely-sliced nationalities all meshed together is an extraordinary blessing and an existential challenge. A blessing for the perspective and capacity for analysis it gives you; it’s not something that can be understood if you have one definitive place that you are ‘from’, but the constant sizing up of who you are and where your place in the world is lends you a unique view on life. And a challenge, because you cannot take issues of identity and your sense of self for granted, and the concepts of nationality, and belonging to a nation, are subject to a constant internal negotiation. It precipitates a fractured sense of self, which manifests as an unending search for something to which you can anchor yourself. I don’t have the words to express what that has been like, or how difficult I’ve found it. I have spent most of my life feeling like I’ve been in Teflon-coated surroundings, slipping through and past my environment without being able to ‘stick’. It’s the classic paradox of being able to feel at home anywhere, but unable to feel like you belong anywhere. Israel was the first place where I felt I could stick; suddenly, after feeling like a spider trying to crawl up the side of a bath, footholds appeared in what had been a sheer cliff preventing me from accessing any place I could conceive of as ‘home’. It took until I was 25 years old to hear the words ‘I thought you were from around here’; insignificant they may seem, but to me, they were like precious drops of water in a desert. If for nothing else, moving to Israel is worth it for that exploration.

Now to the second circle, and politics. Everyone knows what my politics are, and they don’t need illumination here. There’s little point applying labels, either, as bound up in every one is both an unjust reductiveness and room for misinterpretation. Suffice to say, the causes I believe in and the issues I want to work towards are ones where I feel I can make the biggest contribution by being ‘in the zone’. Further, the motivation and strength behind all of that is my humanism, which will never leave me, and which I will never leave behind.

So to the final circle, and my beloved grandfather, Kurt. This is the most difficult thing to write about on a personal level, and also the hardest thing to explain. But it’s the one story, above the others in this piece, that deserves justice.

I never met Kurt. Circumstances took him away a few years before I was born, and I can honestly say it is the biggest regret of my life so far that I never had the privilege of spending time with him. I cannot overstate the impact he has had on me, which is simply a natural extension to the impact he has had (and continues to have) on my whole family. From everything I have been told, he was the most extraordinary, insightful, brilliant man; and as we know, the brightest lights cast the strongest shadows. So it is that I feel his presence constantly; always benign, always bittersweet. From not having had much sense of loss regarding my grandfather when I was a child, through exploring my Jewishness and that side of my family, I have shifted to a sensation of at times overwhelming bereavement. A wound I never knew I had has been de-cauterised, and amidst the grief and incurable curiosity, I find myself in awe of the dimensions of mourning for someone you have never met. So what does this have to do with Israel? That’s the tricky part. It begins with an ending. In what is a tragically typical tale, the events of the mid-20th century took an incredible toll on Kurt, and after losing my grandmother, his adored Mona, to cancer, he took his own life.

I refuse to let that be the way his story ends. I cannot explain how or why I have this sensation, but I feel beyond doubt that there is a postscript waiting for my grandfather in Israel. Maybe it is something I have to do, or something I have to find; perhaps it simply a realisation I need to have. But whatever it is, it is compelling me to that strip of land, and whatever transdimensional connection I have built up with my grandfather over the last few years, I can feel it pulling me inexorably towards Israel.

And there you have it. I can’t say what’s going to happen after I make Aliyah; perhaps I will make the discoveries and connections I’m searching for, perhaps I won’t. Maybe I’ll make a difference, or maybe the ideals and resolutions that were fashioned from the comfort of England’s mild (on every level) surroundings will be worn down and I will lose the strength to fight. What I can say in all certainty is that there is only one way to find out.

Wish me luck.