Monday, May 19, 2014

Things I saw and ate and thought about this week

On Tuesday: looking down at the Baha'i Temple from the panorama in Haifa; a walk around Nazareth, followed by lunch at Al-Reda (the best grilled vegetables I have ever eaten, and an angelically good salad with oranges, pistachios, bean sprouts and baby greens) and then a dessert from a bake shop, evocative to and devoured by the Israeli friends I was with but slightly overwhelming to me (I was still just wiped out from travel, and feeling a bit queasy!), an incredibly rich flat square of pastry with a layer of cheese topped by a layer of shredded phyllo dough all drenched in syrup and warm out of the oven (we waited for a new batch, it came out in a huge tray); then to Tiberias/Capernaum in the Lower Galilee for a walk through the church and monastery grounds at (I think) Tabgha.

We had two more sites on the day's projected itinerary, but it was nearly five o'clock, we'd left from the hotel at 9:30 and I was absolutely dropping - I had to plead fatigue and beg for us to return to Tel Aviv!

On Wednesday, I was working frenetically to sort out the second of my two talks and put together appropriate handouts for both - normally this is what I would have done before I left (I especially prefer to travel with all the copies of handouts already made, and hard copies of speaking notes in case of some computer-related calamity), but B.'s father's death and the unexpected trip to Ottawa knocked out the two days I'd set aside for that last week (right up until I left town, I was reading huge stacks of other work stuff - on Wednesday last week, for instance, I had a meeting to decide on Whiting fellowships for which I needed to read sixty applications, and then on Thursday the last thing I did before leaving for the airport was a meeting to pick the award-winning departmental MA essays, which also involved hundreds of pages of reading).

I should have done the prep Monday, which was my quiet day at the hotel, but I was too tired. Bad moment Wednesday late morning when the computer suddenly restarted itself (I suppose it was 11 or 12 Tel Aviv time, i.e. 3am or 4am EST) - Word has this wretched habit of not preserving the autosaved document unless the program has shut down irregularly, i.e. not when the computer shuts everything down for updates, and I wasted a good half an hour trying to retrieve five minutes of work that fatigue made me feel I could hardly bear to recover from brain as opposed to hard drive, though really it would have been easier and less stressful just to write it again!

Both talks went very well, I think, and I had dinner afterwards near the university with my friend and host. It is slightly comical the extent to which I am most myself - happy, focused, energetic - when I am in a classroom.

On Wednesday night I slept well, and I woke up Thursday feeling much better. We went to Jerusalem, which was as extraordinary as one might imagine (the only other place I have been in my life that is so shockingly visually iconic was Red Square, Moscow). An amazing thing: you can pay a modest fee and walk the ramparts of the Old City (here's more information - they were built by Suleiman in the sixteenth century, and it gives you an intense albeit historically fuzzy feeling of the crusades etc.!). What you can see, what you can imagine - really quite extraordinary.

The stairs are very deep, but modern railings make it quite safe; there was only a precipitous metal spiral staircase or two to give me a bad moment. We walked quickly round many of the main sites (Golgotha, the Western Wall) and ate amazing hummus and falafel at Abu Shukri. Pleasant delayed-onset muscle soreness in following days from genuinely strenuous walking.

Quiet days on my own in Tel Aviv Friday and Saturday, doing a lot of walking along the promenade (to Jaffa, where I saw the so-called Andromeda rocks, and also north to the old port). It is a gorgeous city, incredibly easy and enjoyable to visit (more so I think than any other place I have ever traveled to.

Alas, I was coming down with a respiratory infection, so I neither ran along the promenade nor had another swim in the amazing 50m Gordon Pool - but walking is good regardless....

I especially liked the hotel I was being put up in by the university, the Melody Hotel. It was one of these small boutique hotels that is somehow perfectly comfortable - not lavish exactly, but really amazing breakfast (also daily happy hour with wine and delicious snacks) and free wifi and a roof deck the like of which one can hardly imagine. Little fridge in the room, and super-convenient markets and ATM and so forth nearby, also a ton of restaurants (I had a particularly good meal on my own at one deli-type one, one of these meat and cheese platters that turns out to be just sublimely delicious, but I think I have misplaced the card and cannot reconstruct the exact name).

And a final very nice dinner with my friend at Rustico (pasta puttanesca), followed by toffee ice cream from Iceberg.

Minor reading on related topics (I am a person who mostly prefers to avoid thinking about politics, but really one cannot do so all the time, and the most disconcerting and, really, dismaying moment I had on the whole trip involved an enjoyable conversation with two extremely nice young journalists from London, visiting on a promotional trip funded by the Israeli tourist board - we were all watching the sunset from the hotel roof - during which it rapidly emerged that they knew nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, about Israel's twentieth-century history: nothing about the expulsion of the Palestinians, nothing about the history of hostilities with Egypt and Lebanon and Syria, nothing whatsoever about the Occupied Territories; I am a professor to the core, I could not help but give a short impromptu lecture, though it is really not one of my preferred topics! Their eyes were like saucers!): two books, each of which is about 60% great and 40% less so, the first because of a sort of columnist's liking for airy and/or emotional generalizations and the second because by necessity it includes so much not-very-interesting detail about a young visitor's coming-of-age post-college - though of course that is precisely the detail required to make the other content so shocking.

Ari Shavit's My Promised Land is extremely absorbing, especially in its account of the country's early years. I was fascinated by the story of how the "Masada ethos" came into being - I had been wondering why my host didn't mention Masada at all, as it looms relatively large in my imagination of Israel due to the TV series, which I did not see but which was very much talked about by my classmates - I suppose the year it came out I was in fifth grade or so? Shavit's book makes it much clearer to me than it had been before why a present-day Israeli leftist might not automatically single out that particular site for visiting! The description of the Israeli nuclear program is also fascinating. Here is a thoughtful review of Shavit's book; my criticisms would be more literary (why, oh why do these reporters have to narrate things in the present tense, and attribute to real historical individuals impossibly specific sequences of thoughts at specific times and places sixty or seventy years in the past? plus aforementioned columnist-style verbiage).

Pamela Olson's Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland is also highly worthwhile. It claims the authority not of deep knowledge and longtime expertise but rather of witnessing. I've seen quite a bit along these lines before, obviously, but this gives a much more detailed account of the ordinary lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories over the last ten years or so.

I'm taking suggestions for other reading. I can't read really dense policy stuff, the narrative history mode is more of a default for me, but please recommend in the comments or by email anything you think I would find particularly worthwhile. I think I'm going to go and get some of the academic history from the library - I have been meaning to read this one for instance for quite a long time, now I really will get it and crack it open....

After this, then, the irony (the shame?) of posting this record of what the texture of my week was like!

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