Monday, May 31, 2010

Primavera Write-Up

"My friend and I are going to a festival in Barcelona next month. You should come!” she said.

“Barcelona you say? Umm... Who’s playing? And when is it?”

“Last weekend in May. And tons of people -- Wilco, Buena Vista Social Club, Spoon, Major Lazer – you should look it up online.”

I don’t recall my exact physical reaction, but I probably made my thinking face (sort of a combination of stroke victim and child-staring-at-television). Hipster music festival, early-summer Mediterranean coast, Barcelona – that shit is a Tier-1 Good Idea (and it certainly didn’t hurt that the girl asking was super pretty). I was making my thinking face because saying ‘maybe’ to something like that is fucking weak.

“Yeah, fuck it. That sounds awesome,” I said, snapping out of my thinking face.

And that was that. The festival itself (link here) was this weekend and, needless to say, it was awesome. Here are a few of the highlights, written smart-assedly in award show format:

Best Performance from a Band I’d Never Heard Of
Florence and the Machine
When she first took the stage I thought she was going to be annoying because she had bright red hair and was dressed like a gay angel. But she wasn’t annoying at all. She was awesome. I have a soft spot in my heart for vocalists who can plug their microphones into an effects pedal and make it work. Her band was awesome too. One word: Rockharp.

For Totally Playing the Shit out of Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear

Because that’s the one they sold at Starbucks.

Drummer Who Most Obviously Did Not Decorate His Own Instrument
This guy...


Most Rapey
Major Lazer

I’m all for exuberant stage shows, but when you stop listening to the music and have to ask yourself “who is that girl and why is he doing that to her?” they might have gone a little overboard.

Most Unexpectedly Metal

I don’t know if the folks who make Jeff Tweedy’s flannel shirts were informed, but he is basically in a metal band. What’s the last thing you expect during a live rendition of ‘Impossible Germany’? Alien attack, probably. But closely following that would have to be the explosive aneurisms of awesome that the Wilco drummer and guitarist seemed to suffer at corresponding intervals.

Best Rack
Black Francis of The Pixies

<-- Nice.

Most Adorable Frontman
Carl Newman of The New Pornographers

Happy ginger with a funny little Canadian lisp chatting up the crowd between songs. Super precious.

Best Dressed
Spanish Hipsters

<--- How are this guys’ shorts even staying on? This award was clinched when my friend said aloud, “all we need now is a guy wearing one of those Velvet Underground t-shirts” and then like five seconds later, seemingly magicked into existence by the utterance, a guy walks past rocking the Andy Warhol banana. It was amazing. Spain doesn’t even have an Urban Outfitters.

Best Set

Spoon rocks pretty hard.

Overall Winner

Best weekend ever.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Je ne sais pas

So as of last week, I was all set to move to Hebron. Departure date was set, accomodation was sorted, plane ticket was booked. But now... not. I'll spare you all the boring written details and try to boil it down into an allegorical video presentation.

So basically, Hebron has moved back into the 'maybe' catagory of future plans. Still well-ahead of backpacking through Pakistan, but still far from the certainty that it was a short time ago. Exceptionally disappointing if it doesn't work out, but I can't imagine my parents will be displeased. And hey... extra week of vacation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Some kind of insane, genocidal purge..."

“It’s like a fucking Twilight Zone episode.”

“A plague or something...”

“Some kind of insane, genocidal purge...”

John and I stood at the edge of the beach; swim trunks and t-shirts, a football tucked under my arm. A large crowd occupied the waterfront; sunbathers, footballers, some walking hand-in-hand, some staring. Two hundred or so. ...All men. Every last one of them.


I’m making it a point to write this carefully. One of my objectives is to avoid causing offense unnecessarily. So, if anything here does cause offense – I probably meant it to.

I’ve met a lot of interesting people since arriving here in Morocco. The experiences of the women, however, as related to me, have been the most interesting. The women I know best are here to work – usually on contracts ranging from 1-3 years. Teachers, mothers, artists, NGO workers. Some of them are even diplomats working in Casablanca as representatives of major Western powers; well-traveled, and specifically trained to be culturally sensitive and highly tolerant. Of the tourists, single females choosing to travel alone through North Africa are a particularly tough, brave and independent breed.

These should serve as the preface of my post. Some were related to me second-hand, but I have absolute faith in the veracity of each.

  • A female friend of ours came to visit Casablanca for 2 nights. Over the course of a single day, she was assaulted twice in broad daylight in neighbourhoods I frequent – once in front of a group of male onlookers. Nothing similar has happened to me in 8 months.
  • I have spoken with four female students who are not allowed to use Facebook, by order of either their fathers or boyfriends. Two of them are also forbidden from using email.
  • An Australian couchsurfer missed her train because the taxi driver refused to deliver her – insisting that they “get lunch” first.
  • Our apartment is a fairly social one. The ratio of Moroccan male to female visitors, however, is probably around 10:1. A vast majority of Moroccan girls and women we know are A) Not allowed in men’s apartments, B) Not allowed to socialize with unmarried men, C) Not allowed out of their homes after 8 or 9pm, D) Must check-in frequently if not at home or in a pre-determined location.
  • I have removed two men from my Facebook list because they were soliciting my female friends – apparently based on the “quality” of their profile pictures – for attention/companionship.
  • A friend of mine who works at an NGO has frequent difficulty walking 3 blocks from her apartment to her office. She often ends up running into work.
  • Police will stop you on the street if you are walking with a woman they believe is Muslim. (This may be profiling, rooted in an attempt to solicit a bribe – but it is also well-fitted to a trend).
  • Several female travelers who have left my company to explore other cities have been subjected to aggressive and unrelenting pressure for marriage or sex from Moroccan men who had volunteered, ostensibly, to accompany them for safety purposes.
  • Two female diplomats who have lived in this country for the last 2 years have a combined total of zero numbers from Moroccan men in their phones. They bemoan and regret the fact, but will flatly ignore or deflect public conversations with domestic nationals.
  • I have lost count of the complaints that have been relayed to me of marriage proposals, sexual propositions, catcalls, passes and gropes from Moroccan men directed at foreign women.
  • I have seen women being assaulted on the street, amongst a group of men, with more men watching. Twice. When men fight on the streets, others typically intervene.
  • On days when the local soccer teams play, women do not leave their homes in our neighbourhood (near the stadium) out of fear of the groups of men and boys that wander the streets before and after the match.
  • There are (many) public cafes in which women are explicitly disallowed. Public cafes that do allow women tend not to have them.
  • This weekend, I walked a pair of female friends to the big mosque on the waterfront. I left them there to walk a mile along the waterfront to a popular beach. Alone. 5 minutes after I left, they were being followed by a group of men. 5 minutes after that, one of them was bleeding. 5 minutes after that, they were in a police station...

My perspective has evolved to the point where I now feel neglecting to escort a female friend from one point of the city to another is tantamount to reckless endangerment. I’d sooner drunk-drive a forklift through my kid’s playground than let anyone I cared about walk through the downtown area alone at night.

The bullet points above are in no way meant to be a blanket condemnation of all men in Morocco. I have met a number of Moroccan men (and women) who are better people than I can claim to be. But simply put; women are second-class citizens in Morocco. This is further substantiated by the litany of other statistics on gender equity within the country (see: literacy, higher education, healthcare, employment, political office and violence).

Women do not have the same freedoms or opportunities as men. Most troubling is the fact that Moroccan laws appear to be far less restrictive than social convention.

In one of my classes, we were doing an exercise on unreal conditionals (“if ____, then ____”). One of the exercises was to express what each student would do if they were a member of the opposite sex. Among the responses from women (aged 17-30):

“If I were a man, I would go out with my friends every night.”

“If I were a man, I would get a promotion at my job.”

“If I were a man, I would be safe at night.”

One of the men in the class joked, “If I were a woman, I would kill myself.”

Unwillingness to acknowledge a problem (along with some sickening hypocrisy) is seemingly endemic amongst men here. “Women in Morocco are free to do whatever they want,” is something I have heard repeatedly. This is often suffixed with “no, I wouldn’t let my sister see a male friend at night” or “no, I wouldn’t date a woman who danced at nightclubs”.

I don’t want to get into the causes for it all in this particular forum. Hell, I have developed a veritable fusilade of attacks for it over the past 8 months... unfortunately, I’m still in a place where they could get me in trouble. But here’s a hint: I’ve been to poor, uneducated countries before. I’ve seen ancient, tribal practices integrated into modern, gradually-liberalizing societies...

I have seen nowhere else on Earth where the socially-institutionalized mistreatment of women is worse than here. It is nauseating, and I’m not going to miss it when I’m gone.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On a related note...

To all four people who read this... the blog is going to be on hiatus for an indeterminate period beginning next month. As will any references to it from other sites. I'll let y'all know when I put it back up.

31/5/2010 Edit: Maybe not. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

An Abridged History of Israel

It's kind of embarrassing, but until recently, I've only had a pretty rudimentary understanding of Middle East history. Though to be fair, I don't know much about string theory either, and that's probably less complicated. But I figured it would be a good idea to brush up before I actually moved there. I've been reading a bunch of stuff. So in the interest of future blog posts making any sense, I figured I'd give y'all the rundown as well. The following is a chronological summary of everything* that has happened in/around Israel for the past dozen or so centuries.

*where "everything" = stuff I didn't think was boring

It all begins in the
17th Century BC
Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is born and starts talking about “One God”, as opposed to “Lots of Gods”. According to his Wikipedia page, he lived to be 175... which is totally plausible for a guy who didn't know what soap, medicine or science was.

13th Century BC
Moses does the stuff with the pharaohs and the plagues and the rocks. This time period also marks the height of Deistic badassitude.

The Moses People (henceforth ‘Jews’), invigorated by all the fire hail, blood water, baby-slaughtering and face-boiling, systematically conquer most of Israel.

1020 BC
The Jews consolidate power under a monarch – Saul. First major defeat of the people called Philistines (henceforth ‘Palestinians’).

1000 BC
Jerusalem made capital by Saul’s successor, David.

930 BC
Something really confusing about a Jewish insurrection and two separate states. But this is about the time when Assyrians and Babylonians start kicking the living shit out of everyone, so it really doesn’t matter.

722 BC
Aforementioned Assyrians and Babylonians have rolled into Israel and totally wrecked stuff.

It was at about this time that the Jews got together and decided that they should begin developing a religious framework to underpin their nationhood. This would irrevocably bind the Jews and their descendants to the land of Israel... So no matter where they went, that would be where they were meant to be. No future conflict anticipated.

23 AD
Jesus stuff. Does some preaching and is eventually found guilty of being a dangerously subversive loud-mouth that too many people were paying attention to. Accordingly, the Romans execute him in the most nondescript way they can think of: On top of a mountain during a lightning storm/earthquake.

536BC – 1576AD
Israel is militarily steamrolled in quick succession by Persians, Babylonians, Seleucids, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians again, Ninjas, Pirates, Mamluks, Arabs and Crusaders. This was all a part of someone’s plan to make the (already) arid terrain more hospitable by soaking it in nutrient/mineral-rich man blood for 1,000 years straight. There’s about 30 totally awesome screenplays in there somewhere. Epic battle sequences wooooo!

1517 – 1917
Ottoman rule. Still paying attention? Me neither.

The Ottomans are reasonably open-minded and let the Jews kind of do their own thing. Israel undergoes large-scale Jewish immigration. Mostly from the sort of awesome places where people could reasonably say, “Know what would be a more peaceful place to live? Israel.”

First World War. Ottomans chose the side that wasn’t with America and Great Britain (oops); subsequently get their shit ruined. Brits roll into Israel and pledge to establish “a Jewish national home in Palestine”. No future conflict anticipated.

1918 – 1948
British rule.

1918 – 1948
Inexplicable upswing in British people everywhere being totally fucking stressed out.

1939 – 1945
Holocaust in Europe. :(

State of Israel proclaimed into existence by the Brits. War erupts between Israelis, Palestinians, and pretty much everyone else in a 2 country radius. Britain backs slowly out of the room going, “ehhhhhhhhh”.

Though numerically and geographically overwhelmed, Israel has the support of something called America. Needless to say, Israel wins the war (after creating a little thing called the Israeli Defence Force – henceforth ‘IDF’) and sets about consolidating its borders.

Armistice agreement signed with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (all of Israel’s neighbours). Israel is inducted into the United Nations – which Arab states also got super pissed off about.

Sinai Campaign. The IDF captures the Gaza Strip and the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, constituting much of what is modern-day Israel. The UN declared a Whoa Shit Emergency, but the entire operation only lasted about a week, so whatever. In addition to “reconstituting the ancient Jewish homeland”, the Israelis also succeeded, coincidently, in procuring access to the Straits of Tiran and an open trade route to Asia.

Adolf Eichmann, who was a jerk, is tried and executed in Israel.

1967 – 1973
The Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War. Two more short conflicts between Israel and Egypt/Syria. Israel proves just how scrappy they are by winning both (mostly) decisively (kinda). Numerous disengagement, ceasefire and armistice agreements are signed.
Egypt also signs an agreement that closes its borders with the Gaza strip, a volatile Israeli-controlled area of Palestinian territory. This is seem as an abandonment of Palestinians by other Arab states.

Camp David Accords are signed. They are essentially the plans for general peace and the formation of an autonomous Palestinian government. But that latter doesn’t really happen. ...Nor does the former.

A bunch of Jews immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia. This isn’t really relevant to anything – I just thought it was interesting that there were Jews in Ethiopia.

Palestinian self government installed in the Gaza strip and Jericho. Expands over the next few years into different areas of the West Bank. “Palestinian territory” essentially consists of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank is an area surrounding Jerusalem (which is Israeli) to the North, South and East. Everything West of that – from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean coast – is Israeli. The heavily militarized Gaza Strip is the tiny piece of land connecting Israel to Egypt. It is essentially a fortress, totally encapsulated by the IDF. Even its border with Egypt is closed (save the network of caves that connect the two).

This is where it gets (more) complicated.


1987 – 1993
The First Intifada [Arabic: “Uprising”]. With no clear origin or central leadership, the First Intifada grew out of a general unrest, centered primarily in Palestinian refugee camps. The best description of the discontent I have heard is due to a perception amongst Palestinians of a “creeping process of de facto annexation”.

Sparks for conflict were abundant and unrest was rampant (the official containment policy of the Israelis was codenamed “Iron Fist” – go figure), so once hostilities began, they spread quickly. Casualties, for such a historically significant uprising, were low – 163 Israelis and 2,162 Palestinians (1,000 of whom were killed by other Palestinians as “collaborators”). The truly significant outcome was the shifting power structure within Palestine.

Up to this point, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been weak and not particularly influential. During the intifada, however, it emerged as the only obvious source of central leadership for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, it was also known as a terrorist organization by most of the world. After the Six Day War, Palestinians lost a great deal of faith in their Arab neighbours and began to radicalize. A dude named Yasser Arafat and his Fatah political party, which had connections to a number of paramilitary (“fedayeen”) groups, used this radicalization to take control of the PLO.

Even though the PLO was taken largely by surprise by the First Intifada, the world began to recognize it as the de facto leadership organization of the Palestinian people.

Another group that’s worth taking note of at this point is Hamas. It's based in Gaza and is a radical Sunni Islamic organization with a long history of doing horrible shit (suicide bombing civilian targets, using human shields, recruiting child soldiers).

Oslo Peace Accords. The PLO and Israeli government secretly negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords as the First Intifada was winding down.

The Accords granted Palestinians the right to self-government. It also created the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was dominated by Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Fatah party. This marked a promisingly civilized turn in the PLO’s mission statement. From this point on, the PLO “officially recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”. Others did not agree.

2000 – 2005
Second Intifada. This one started for pretty much the same reasons as the first: people on both sides who were generally pissed off. Technically, this one is still ongoing, but violence began to ebb in 2005.

This one resonates in memory a little better that the older stuff due to the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military incursions that were all over the news for about half a decade.

Remember Hamas? Palestine held its first legitimate series of municipal elections in 2005. And Hamas won them, taking 74 of 132 seats – ousting the more moderate Fatah party, which Palestinians saw as being corrupt, ineffectual and overly-bureaucratic.

Hamas has openly backed down from its previously (and emphatically) stated goal of “obliterating” Israel, but the core of its charter remains unchanged. The full ramifications of their new, and legitimized, leadership position remain to be seen. Needless to say, Israel was not pleased when they won the elections.

2005 – 2010
Hamas and Israel are still at each other’s throats. Israel, and just about every Western power that matters, still views Hamas (and by corollary, the PLO?) as a terrorist organization. Low-level violence simmers (if you can call Hellfire strikes, gun battles and mortar attacks “low-level”).

Just now
Israel and Palestine resolve their differences. Disney Holy Land is opened, the Jonas Brothers add a few Gaza tour dates, and Israeli and Palestinian musicians join forces to record an uplifting new rendition of ‘We Are the World’. All good, mom!

Glossary of terms I didn't necessarily use but are still important:

Hezbollah: An Islamist political and paramilitary party based in Beirut. They, like Hamas, are generally viewed as terrorists (probably because they've got a pretty strong track record of blowing up buses with suicide bombers and shelling civilian neighborhoods). They're important because they've managed to set off the odd full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon.

Settlers: Israeli civilians who "settle" in Palestinian territory. Their placement is a huge point of contention because they basically set up shop wherever they damn well please and are protected by the IDF.

Terrorist: Something that has become exponentially more difficult to define over the past decade. While organizations like Al Qaeda fall safely within the distinction, others have started to blur as they move away from paramilitary activity and into politics. Hezbollah, for instance, is known to the US as a terrorist organization, but the Brits recognize their political wing as legitimate and the EU doesn't say anything at all.

SPF 40: It is going to be very sunny when I get there. Best be prepared.

Zionism: In the broadest sense, it is the notion that Jews deserve control over the State of Israel by merit of ancestory, historical persecution and religious affiliation. Hard-line Zionism is typically the stance held by right-wing Israelis - particularly Settlers.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Parts of the Bangkok Entry I Don't Mind Publishing Under My Real Name

I just found a write-up of my first few nights in Bangkok. If I had any brains, I would delete the whole goddamn thing. An excerpt:

The bus was mostly empty. I was so accustomed to the pangs of loneliness and homesickness that they were sort of comforting -- something familiar. It was a dark night; large portions of the city only nominally lit. The towers of the city center cast a pallid backdrop to the low, brown clouds. Khao San, however, was lit with neon and open flame.

From an infrastructural perspective, the road serves as a sort of grimy connective tissue between a busy commercial lane and a tangle of dilapidated apartment blocks near Bangkok’s commercial center. The only local foot traffic that Khao San sees is at the end of the work day when bleary-eyed workers make their way from their businesses on one end of the street to the brothels on the other. Culturally, Khao San is the stuff of backpacker legend. It’s where Leo drank cobra blood and found the map at the beginning of ‘The Beach’. It is the epicenter of almost all transient activity in a three country radius.

I stepped out of the bus and was immediately accosted by a handful of adolescents in battered sports jackets. They offered "the last room on Khao San". Simultaneously. I declined.

Setting out in search of accommodation on my own terms, further propositions came in a steady bombardment:

Room with fan - $3

Beer - $1

T-shirt - $4

Cocktail bucket (they tend to forsake the glass in favor of the plastic beach pales you made castle battlements with as a kid) - $4

Watch - $40, down to $5 at first sign of disinterest.

Then there are the drug dealers:

Opium/marijuana/highly suspect ecstasy pills - open to negotiation. (You can get coke too, but common wisdom is to avoid it like, well, Thai coke. High grade heroin is easier to come by than cocaine in the area due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle. See: 'American Gangster'. Both are white powders, and dealers rarely care enough about their customers' wellbeing to make the distinction. A lot of Westerners kill themselves in Asia with heroin overdoses. See: 'Pulp Fiction'). [Note: I don’t do drugs, but I am informed]


The gross commercial overpopulation of the area and the sort of cutthroat capitalism practiced by the locals is disorienting at first, but I found it all fascinating once all of the individual catcalls had aggregated themselves into a babbling, foreign white noise.

I got a place to stay from the street lady who sold me a bowl of noodles. I’d taken my food and made the universal sleep gesticulation: Tilted head over folded hands. My server's eyes lit up and she waved excitedly for me to follow her. She abandoned her noodle cart on the street and led me into the building behind it and up a flight of stairs. We paused before opening the door to my room and she held up enough fingers to represent $2 worth of Baht. I gave her the money, she gave me the key.

The room was a Malarial petting zoo. Roaches, bedbugs, the scratching of mice inside the walls and a grainy haze of mosquitoes that spawned in the hall puddles. The mattress was out of an episode of Dexter; a blackened stain in the middle and no sheets or blankets. The pillow looked like it had been used as an oil mop in a mechanic's shop. There were no windows. But at least the door had two bolts and an extra loop for my own lock.

I dragged the nightstand away from the wall, placed my pack on top of it and locked the room as I left. My resolve not to actually sleep or touch anything in the room imbued me with a second wind for sampling the city’s nightlife.


“Don’t drink the vodka,” Chris said. I’d just met him, but we were getting along well. “They refill them with homemade stuff. Can’t fault their initiative, but it’s fucking blindness potion.” I pulled a beer out of a cooler behind the bar and put money down.

Megan had fallen asleep on Chris’ arm. She breathed heavy, counter-nausea breaths.

“You want to check out another patio bar I heard about? Supposed to have fire dancers,” Chris continued.

“She going to make it?” I asked, nodding at Megan (who very obviously would not).

“I have no idea who this girl is.”

“Ah, okay.” He propped her against the bar and waved/shrugged to the group of girls she’d come in with. We took our beers with us.

Chris was in his mid-20s and a former member of the British Army. He was on month six in the process of burning or liquefying and drinking every last cent he’d saved over his 5 years of service. He wore a Tibetan prayer flag around his wrist, a half-finished tattoo on his neck and a black tshirt that just said ‘one’ on the front. I’d asked him what he did in the army and he said, “Soldiering”.

[Redacted… Bangkok is ridiculous]

Anyway... Bangkok. I don’t typically recommend a visit. I can’t imagine anyone would.

But it is the way it is because visits are sort of unavoidable. It’s the doorway. Barring some cataclysmic shake-up of the Southeast Asian economic landscape, if you travel, Bangkok will get you eventually. It just does. If you ever find your way there, just relax and enjoy.