Posted by: Mike Z | August 12, 2010

Zionism: Remembering and Forgetting

I arrived in Tel Aviv ready for a long night’s sleep, but around me the city seemed to just be waking up.  Allenby Street, where my hostel was, is full of nightclubs and shawerma stands and—uh-oh—sex shops with things on display that I don’t care to discuss in detail.  Young Jews paraded through the streets in high heels and miniskirts.  I was perplexed.

This is Israel?

The next day I walked down the beach to Old Jaffa.  It was as if the whole city was on vacation.  Hordes of gorgeous Jews in swim trunks and bikinis eating ice cream and playing volleyball.  A promenade—a promenade!—of patterned brick spanned the entire length of the beach.  Every three hundred yards or so there would be a station with outdoor workout equipment, where Israelis stop to do pull-ups, apparently, in the middle of their morning jog.

I stopped for a minute and watched.  Israel’s flag flapping in the wind, tanned couples making out in the sunshine, the Mediterranean tides flirting with white sand and a warm breeze . . .

Then my mind flashed northward, westward, to long lawns and deep ditches, to train tracks and cattle cars, to mothers screaming as their children are torn from their arms, to the last shower and the final furnace . . .

A few days after departing Tel Aviv I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.  This building is how Israel remembers the Holocaust as a nation.  Thousands of people visit every year to remind themselves of what happened (not even 75 years ago!) in the heart of Western civilization.  I’ve written about it here before, so I won’t go into the unspeakable horror (words can never suffice) that was the Final Solution.

But what I am particularly interested in here is how Yad Vashem, as a museum, is about more than just the Holocaust.  You enter into the side of a hill and are thrust underground.  You walk through exhibit after exhibit chronicling the different stages of the Holocaust, seeing artifacts (relics?), watching videos, hearing recordings.  At the end, however, you come out of the other side of the hill onto a balcony with an absolutely breathtaking view of the land.  It’s in West Jerusalem, and the view opens westward onto the hill country.

But the land wasn’t really part of the Holocaust.  But Yad Vashem is more than a memorial; it is Zionism in architectural form.  It is an argument, a rationale, a narrative.

The story, by the end of the museum, is quite clear.  After centuries of persecution epitomized in the Shoah, the Holocaust, the Jewish people have found redemption in their possession of the land.  For the first time in thousands of years, Jews had a place of safety in the world.  A place to call home.

Exile, persecution, return: it was and is a powerful story, and I have seen for myself how that power drives the Israeli psyche.  This land has been the focus of Jewish longing for nearly 2,000 years.  That’s a long time to want, and a long time to wait.

Now, I’m a postmodern.  That word is loaded with all kinds of negative connotations for most Christians, so let me elaborate for a bit on what that means.  By “postmodern”, I do not mean that I don’t believe in absolute truth.  That’s a straw-man of postmodernism as I understand it.  What I mean is that, as a postmodern, I feel obligated to look at all narratives with a certain skepticism.

Think, for example, about the driving narrative behind the westward expansion of the United States.  Remember that video game “Oregon Trail” we all used to play in elementary school?  You’d cross the Great Plains in a covered wagon and have to pick how much bread and salt you wanted to bring and decide when to hunt bison and sometimes drown when fording a river.  But it was worth the risk, because westward expansion was the destiny of the United States, it was an adventure, the spirit of expansion, of new opportunities, and so on.

It’s a powerful story.  But the fulfillment of that story came at a price, especially to the Native American population who had called much of the land we settled 150 years ago “home”.  The story we had written for ourselves during this time, and the story we often learn in elementary school, leaves out—it marginalizes or ignores—the stories of the thousands and thousands of Native Americans who were displaced, taken advantage of, and killed to fulfill the American Dream.  Acknowledging those other stories, of course, problematizes our own stories.  It turns the good guys into the bad guys, or at least, it compromises their moral integrity.  And it makes us uncomfortable—for good reason.

It is the same thing with the Zionist narrative.  We cannot accept the Zionist narrative, however powerful it might be, without first investigating it more thoroughly.

During the days of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement and author of Der Judenstaat, “The Jewish State”, the rallying cry of Zionism was “a land without a people, for a people without a land!”  It’s catchy, isn’t it?  It’s powerful, it resonates with something in our hearts.  How fitting.

But was it true?

No, of course, it wasn’t.  The land wasn’t barren and empty at all, as the Zionist movement knew perfectly well.  European Jews didn’t begin settling historic Palestine until the turn of the 20th century.  The goal was to create a Jewish state, which requires (in theory) a Jewish majority.  But by the 1920’s, the population between the Jordan and the sea was less than 30% Jewish.  It was quite clear, from the beginning, that fulfilling the Zionist narrative required not only moving Jews in, but also kicking Arabs out.

Can you do this fairly?  The Zionist leadership, of course, could ask them to leave.  They could provide incentives for them to leave.  But can you blame the Palestinians for wanting to stay in their ancestral homeland?

If they wouldn’t do it of their own free will, of course, then the only solution was to make them leave by force and by fear.  And that is exactly what happened.  During and just prior to the War of Independence in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled their homes in a panic.  Most of them were told that they would return as soon as the war was over.  Few, if any, of them did.

Palestinians remain the largest refugee group in the world today.

Before 1948—the year Israel declared its independence—there were about 500 Palestinian villages lying within the boundaries of what is now Israel.  During and just after the war, 400 were destroyed, erased from the memory of the land entirely.

Why would you do this?

You would do it if you were trying to forget that Palestinians ever resided in Palestine.  You’d do it if you were trying to erase somebody’s story from your own.  But in doing so, of course, you cease to tell a true story and you begin to tell a lie.  You’re hiding something.

Don’t believe me?  Why bulldoze the villages then?  Why pretend they were never there?  Why hide something you’re not ashamed of?

Yad Vashem, the very center of Jewish remembrance of the Holocaust, was built over a Palestinian graveyard.  There used to be a Palestinian village in front of the balcony at the end of the exhibit, but it was bulldozed so it wouldn’t impede the view of the land.  A tour guide at Yad Vashem who used to mention this during his tours was fired.

Why?  Why do it this way?  Why, in the very place where you remember your own history of persecution, insist on forgetting another’s?

The Zionist narrative, it seems, is not only trying to remember the history of Jewish persecution in a certain way.  It is also trying to forget about the persecution it has imposed on another people.

Can it succeed in the second without compromising the first?

Posted by: Mike Z | July 25, 2010

The Conference, Day 1

I wish that I had the time and energy to cobble together all of these experiences into some kind of narrative or argument, but for now all I’ve got for you is more or less a recording of what happened today. That should suffice for now, and I’ll work on something more substantial. Things are still cooking upstairs, but here’s a list of the ingredients!

Today it was rise-and-shine at 7:30 AM, which, as many of you know, is way before my preferred wakeup time. Breakfast was corn flakes (no sugar . . .), lukewarm milk, and pastries with butter and jam. And pita bread. Pita bread is everywhere here.

Shortly afterward we head to the Garden of Gethsemane for worship. We cut through the Old City, leave from St. Stephen’s Gate—where Stephen was martyred in the Book of Acts—and head down the hill toward the Mount of Olives. Luckily we don’t have to go all the way to the top, as it is very steep.

When Jesus was in Jerusalem he made the trip all the way from the Mount of Olives to the Temple every day. Maybe he used a donkey?

We had worship in the Garden of Gethsemane, which still exists and has trees that are more than 3,000 years old. These are the same trees that Jesus walked among just before he was arrested. It was here that he prayed alone while his disciples slept, and here that Judas Iscariot showed up with the Romans soldiers some 2,000 years ago. These trees have seen some action.

The sermon is by Rev. Naim Ateek, who founded Sabeel—the group putting on this conference—20 years ago. Sabeel, if you’re wondering, means “the Way” in Arabic. Ateek is the Palestinian Liberation Theologian. I’ve read his work, and while I may disagree with some of his methodology, I can tell you from meeting him that Dr. Ateek is a kind, kind man. His sermon was entitled “From the Belly of the Whale”, about, naturally, enough, the book of Jonah. Really solid interpretation, in my opinion—not that I’m any position to judge! Jonah is a story that challenges tribal and nationalistic conceptions of who God is and the boundaries of God’s people.

Next, a tour of the Old City. First stop is at the church in the garden which commemorates where Jesus was comforted by the angels in his distress. Then we walk back up toward St. Stephen’s Gate and walk the Via Dolorosa all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, visiting each of the fourteen stations of the cross. Some of them may or may not have been made up by the Crusaders. Also, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is incredible.

For lunch we go to a Palestinian cultural center. One of the myths that Israelis and the British advanced as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel is that there is (or was) no real “Palestinian” identity—that the Palestinians did not think of themselves as a distinct people group. By this logic, relocation to Jordan or Lebanon was perfectly logical, as this could still be “Palestine”. The cultural center is quite new, but it has many photos of life in Jerusalem before WWII, among other things. Lunch is incredible: chicken, rice, salad, all Palestinian-style. I’ve had food in other Arab countries, and there is definitely a distinct Palestinian flavor . . . not sure what they do, but it’s good.

Afterwards we have a few hours to ourselves in the city, so I head out with a group of fifteen or so, which quickly becomes more like 6 as people peel off or get stuck talking to shopkeepers. We visit the Western Wall. I go into the synagogue in the corner, which is all men, and watch the Hasidim there pray for the reconstruction of the Temple. Later I write my own prayer and stick it in the cracks of the Wall, as is tradition.

Then, it’s back to the Casa Nova Hotel for a movie entitled, “Occupation 101”. I am going to get a copy of this so you folks can watch it. It’s basically an hour-and-a-half introduction to the conflict in all of its history and current dimensions. Essential vocab: 1948, 1967, occupation, separation wall, intifada, the Oslo Accords, and so on. You learn the basics, like how much money America gives to Israel every day (6 to 7 million dollars . . . that’s per day), the amount of land Palestinians have lost, the casualties on both sides, media coverage, home demolitions . . . it’s pretty incredible.

One image that will stick with me: a video clip from one of the intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings. The Israeli response to the Intifada was, self-admittedly, disproportionately violent. This is an intentional policy of the Israeli government toward both Palestinians and any external threats to the country. During the Intifada, this became known as the “break the bone policy”. The clip? Two Israeli soldiers holding down a Palestinian man, pulling his arms behind his head, grabbing a big rock, and breaking his arms. They have to hammer at his upper arm four or five times before the bone actually breaks.

After the film we have time for questions. I was prepared for the film but some had less knowledge of the issue and were, rightfully, emotionally outraged. Some angry discussion and a lot of hard questions.

Time for dinner.

I am eating so well here, I love it. After dinner it’s back downstairs for more icebreakers. We were asked to bring a personal item from our luggage and explain it to the group. I bring a picture of my SMCs from two years ago that a dear friend of mine let me borrow for the trip. So glad she did. Finally, we get into small groups for an end-of-the-day discussion, which I guess we’ll be having every night. We tell our stories about how we got to this conference. Then, finally, bed.

I am exhausted.

Posted by: Mike Z | July 16, 2010

Encounters: Israeli Border Control

“Pardon me, but are you going to the border?”

“Yeah, are you?”  I asked, as if I didn’t know the answer already.  Coming off the bus from Cairo in Ta’ba, we were clearly the only two westerners there.  She could have passed as an Arab, but her sunglasses and travelling backpack—and the absence of a headscarf—gave her away.

“Do you suppose it’s this way?”  English accent.

“Yeah, I think so.  I mean, this is Egypt, that’s Israel there, then Jordan, right?”  I didn’t know this at the time, but you could actually see Saudi Arabia from where we were, too, at the northernmost tip of the Red Sea.  “Where are you from?”

“London, originally.  But I’m half-Egyptian.  Dual citizenship.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amira.  Yours?”

“Mike.  Nice to meet you!”

We continued to make small talk as we walked up to the Egyptian checkpoint.  Egyptian military guys look like they wear costumes, not uniforms; I’m pretty sure I could find better-quality polyester at a Halloween store, too.  Both of us pass through with no problem into the no-man’s-land east of Egypt.  A sign in the distance greets us: “Welcome to Israel.”

“I knew I should have caught an earlier bus,” Amira says, half to me, half to herself.  “The last bus to Tel Aviv leaves at 6:30, and it’s already 4:15.”

“Do you think we’ll make it?”  I was worried too, because I didn’t want to waste a night in Eilat when I could be in Joppa, Nazareth, Tiberias, Jerusalem . . . you know, the greatest hits.

“You’ll probably be fine,” she said.

“What about you?”

“Well, I have an Arab name.”

“Even with a British passport?”

“We’ll see.  Some of my friends have been stuck at the border eight hours . . .”

Eight hours? Where are they from?”

“They’re halfsies, like me.”

Lodged between the huge cliffs on our left and the deep blue Red Sea on our right, we hit the next checkpoint.

“Welcome to Israel,” the guard says to us.  “Passports?”

She goes first, and he flips through to the first page.  “OK.  What’s your name?”

“Amira Bayoumi Al-Atrash.”

“OK.  Over there please . . . through the metal detector.  The bench.  Please wait.  You guys together?”

“Uh, no,” she says.  “Just met, actually.”

“OK.  You.  Passport?”  He flips through to the first page.  “All right.  Go on ahead.”

I offer her a sympathetic smile.  “Really nice to meet you!”

“Yup.  Good luck out there!” she waves, and I walk through a set of automatic glass doors.

Thirty feet up there’s a woman standing for me behind a desk.  I am alone.

“Hello,” I say as I approach.  “How are you?”

“I am well, and how are you . . .”

“Great, thanks.”



“How long will you be in Israel?”

“A little more than two weeks.”

“This your first time?”


“OK, where are you planning on going?”

Uh-oh.  I slow down a bit.  “Well, I’ll be touring for about a week in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Galilee . . .” —do I say it?— “. . . the West Bank . . .”

DING DING DING!  Her eyebrows pop up and she goes back towards the metal detectors, speaking with someone who looks fairly intimidating.  I see her whispering as he nods and takes my passport.  He comes up to me and leans across the desk, his voice low, but pointed.  He is searching—probing—for something.  I, for one, am thrilled to be suspicious enough to merit further interrogation.

“Tell me, why you go to West Bank at this time?”  The add-on, “at this time”, made it sound like this was a particularly dangerous time to be there.  Was that because of the recent Gaza flotilla fiasco?  Was a Third Intifada imminent?  Or was “at this time” supposed to mean anytime after 1967, when Israel began occupying the region?

Deep breath.  “On the 21st of July I’ll be attending a conference on the Israeli-Palest . . . the Arab-Israeli conflict with a group called Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian peacemaking group.”

“How you hear about this conference?”

“Uh, well, I studied the conflict in school, and Sabeel recently put on a weekend-long thing in Seattle, where I’m from, and I was invited to attend.”

“Who invite you?”

“Na’im Ateek.  He’s an Anglican minister who founded Sabeel twenty years ago.”

“How you know him?”

“Well, I’ve read his books.  And I met him after he spoke at the conference in Seattle.”

“Why you decide to go to conference?”

“Adventure, I guess.”

“Adventure?  Why adventure?  Why you no go bungee jump or scuba dive or something?”

“Well . . . that’s not really meaningful, is it?  I mean, this is more important than scuba diving.”

“What will you be doing in this conference?”

Ha!  I wish I knew.  “Um . . . to be honest, I’m not entirely sure.  I know that we’ll be meeting with different Palestinian and Israeli peacemaking groups, doing workshops, and that we’ll be touring the region . . . that kind of thing.”

All of that was fine, really.  I can understand why he wanted to know those things.  But here was the kicker.

“Tell me, why you grow your beard out like this?”

I think I might have laughed.  “It’s funny you ask, really, because many of the Egyptians I met thought I was Muslim because of it.  But it’s not a religious thing, I’m just not shaving while I’m abroad.”

True story.  I got so many stares in Egypt that by the end of the week I didn’t want to ride the subway.  In Islam, a long beard is a sign of religious devotion.

“You want to look like the people you’re meeting with?”  I could hear the disdain in his voice.

“Uh, no.  It’s just a fashion thing.”

“Fashion, maybe short.  But this long . . . not for fashion.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, man, but where I come from lots of guys have long beards, and none of them are Muslims.”

“Religion not why I ask.”

Please.  He and I both knew that wasn’t true.

“Welcome to Israel.”

Posted by: Mike Z | July 9, 2010

The Maze of Middle Eastern Merchant Culture

I spent part of my last full day in Istanbul in the Grand Bazaar.  I had been reluctant to go at first, given my experiences with Turkish merchants the day before, but the Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s most infamous attractions and I knew that I’d regret it if I didn’t get around to going.

I’m glad I did.  The bazaar is truly, well, grand—the oldest mall in the world, I think it’s been called.  The area it sits on was the main marketing area during the Ottoman era, and it gradually evolved over time into what it is today: a sprawling labyrinth of textures, colors, sights, and smells.

It’s impossible not to get lost here, so I didn’t even try to stay oriented.  I plunged into the bazaar and just kept turning.  The experience was . . . sensual.  I don’t know what other word to use to describe it.  The textures, colors, sights, sounds—it was a feast for the senses.  On my right, a wall of gold jewelry, shining brighter than I’d ever seen.  So that’s what gold is supposed to look like.  Right next door, a shop of silver goods.  Across from it, Turkish carpets piled to the ceiling.  I keep walking.  Books.  Pottery.  T-shirts.  Trinkets.  Hookah pipes.

As expected, I was lost within seconds.

I was warned about this place in all the guidebooks and such.  “Watch your money belt in there,” my friend Karin told me.  I kept my hands in my pockets as much as possible and tried to keep my eyes focused straight ahead.  Again, I had learned much from my previous encounters with Turkish merchants, and this place had me more wary than ever.

Sure enough, some of the merchants there were determined to get me to stop and look.

“Excuse me sir, you are from States, right?”  Remembering the rule I had learned—never say you are an American—I simply smiled and walked away.  Boom.  Point Mike.  I was determined to keep my head.

I was also determined, however, to buy a gift for a friend, so there was no way I was getting out of there without talking with one of the merchants.  Only, I would remember the rules this time.  Never say where you are from.  Pick the merchant, don’t let the merchant pick you.  Take your time.  Don’t be rushed.  Agree on the currency.

Now, there were many shops selling the particular item I wanted—and wouldn’t you like to know what it was and who it was for?  Well, forget about it!  I looked around a few times, but I didn’t have to look too hard before a I found a quiet enough place and began examining the selection.  Surprisingly, no one bugged me.  I had won so far: I had picked the merchant!

After a few minutes the owner walked up to me: “Can I help you unfold it?”

Yeah, sure.

“Where are you from?  You from Philly?”

I grunted.  “Ehhhh . . . I don’t want to say.”

“What?  Why don’t you want to tell me?”

I didn’t even make eye contact.  No way in hell was I going to lose this game again.

I continued to look around.

“Here, you want me to show another one like it?”  He picked me out another.  I liked it quite a bit.

“How much?” I implored.

“These are 40 lira”

I paused.  “I can give you 30.”

He looked indifferent.  “These are usually sixty, man, but we’re about to close and it’s getting late, so I’ll give it to you for thirty-five.  How’s that?”  I was surprised by his good English.  This wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

“Deal.”  I gave him the lira and he added into his huge stack: lira, euros and dollars all in one pile.

“Hey,” I began.  “I’m from Seattle.  The reason I didn’t tell you before is because I heard that if you say you’re American, people jack up the prices because we can pay more.”

“That’s not true, man.”
“Really?  That’s what it said in the guidebooks.”

“Well, they’re wrong.  And it’s shaming”—the word stuck with me, shaming—“not to tell someone where you are from if they ask.  Say ‘Canada’, say ‘Italy’, say whatever you want, but it’s shaming not to answer the question.  I studied in Philadelphia, man, at Temple University.”

I left disappointed in myself.  I had shamed him.

In the class I took in the spring, called “Living in Another Culture”, I had been warned about culture shock.  At first, living in a new culture in intriguing, enchanting even, but after a few more excursions you inevitably find that things are more different than maybe you had anticipated.  On the outside, sure, things, look pretty similar: but as I started to move closer, things got more confusing.  I wasn’t just buying a gift for a friend: I was engaging in a complex exchange of honor and dishonor.  Business is personal here.

Man.  What a ride.

Posted by: Mike Z | July 5, 2010

Encounters: Turkish Merchants

You know, you read in guidebooks and online about what haggling with a Turkish merchant is like, and how to avoid getting ripped off, but in real life it all happens so fast . . .

I’m half-lost and trying to find my way to the Hagia Sophia, which, as one of the biggest churches in Christendom (maybe the biggest), you’d think would be hard to miss.  I end up somewhere near Istanbul University and am walking by a small ice cream stand in on the side of the square.  I must have turned my head slightly to the side, because I was just starting to think, “Do I want some ice cream?” when the merchant called out:

“Hey!  My friend!  Ice cream!”

(Mistake #1: Always pick the shop.  Never let the shop pick you.)

So I decided suddenly that yes, I did, and gravitated toward the stand.

“Where you from, my friend?”

“America?”  I answered like maybe he’d never heard of it before.

(Mistake #2: Never tell them you’re from America.  It’s bad enough that you’re obviously a tourist, but for clever Turkish merchants an American is pretty much a walking sucker/ATM.)

“Ah, America!  Beautiful country.  Strawberry, chocolate, vanilla?”

“Strawberry and chocolate.”

He starts serving me up really mediocre chunks of ice cream on a very small cone.  He starts to hand it to me, and then jerks his hand back, playing little game, poking me with the cone . . . I am already annoyed.  He being congenial and “friendly” but I know I’ve already lost the game.

(Mistake #3: ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS agree on the price beforehand!)

He hands me the cone.  Obviously by this point I am obligated to pay.

“How much?”

“Ehhh . . . 5 lira.”

Five lira is about $3.50 . . . for maybe an ounce of ice cream.  For $3.50 you can get a gallon of Tillamook ice cream on sale.  I’m being completely ripped off.  What’s on the cone is worth 1 lira tops.

“5 Lira!” I spit.  “No, no no.  I know these tricks.  This is two lira at most.”

Suddenly his face went blank, as if I have insulted him.  His voice drops and he frowns deeply . . . trying to make me feel bad.

“5 lira.”

“No.  2 lira.  5 lira is way too much, and you know it.”

“4 lira, and is final.”

“Fine.” I hand him a five and eat the ice cream.  The whole cone takes me about thirty seconds.

The thing about being suckered into these situations is that no one leaves happy.  I’m annoyed because I didn’t even really want any damn ice cream, and all I had really done was glanced over at his ice cream stand.  He’s annoyed because I wasn’t as completely stupid as he thinks most American tourists are, even though I was dumb enough to come over to the stupid stand . . . annoying all around.


You can’t walk anywhere touristy in Istanbul without being approached by merchants.  The only way you’re going to get anywhere is if you learn how to let them know that you’re not a sucker.

It’s actually not as hard as you’d think: as they approach and open their mouths to speak, keep the arm closest to them at your side, but but lift your hand, bending only at the wrist, and dismiss them.   If you try to be polite and say “I’m sorry, no, I don’t have any money . . . I can’t” then you are going to end up buying something or feeling as if you’ve insulted them by walking away.  Best to just ignore them and keep walking.


I had nearly made it to the Hagia Sophia (or, in Turkish, the Aaya Sofya) when a man approached me in the square.

“Hello!  I see from your beard . . . you are a travelling man, yes?  Where from?”

“America.” (I swear, I’m going to start saying Lithuania or Botswana or something instead.)

“America!  Where in America?”


“Washington D.C., or Washington State?”


“Ah!  My father was in America for many years, God rest him.  In Massachussetts Boston.  He left me his shop—please!  Please!  My brothers and I, we have shop inside.  I would like to show you.”

I had thought by this that he wanted to have some nice conversation or something (again, it all happens so fast), so I agreed to visit his shop and walked with him onto the street.

“My brothers and I, we run this shop after my father leave it to us, in our family 35 years.”

Yes, gain the idiot American’s sympathy with the old “family business” shtick . . .

“We have finest rugs available, and silver.”

“Well, I can’t afford any silver,” I say.

“Please, no obligation to buy!  Only come look.”


We get inside and sure enough, there is silver and rugs.

“Please, have seat.  First, hospitality, I show you Turkish hospitality, then business.”

Anyone who advertises their hospitality, I’m guessing, is probably not really being that hospitable.  I can feel the springs in the couch . . . it reminds me of home.  A man brings me a glass of very hot tea and my new “friend” starts explaining to me why his rugs are much better than Persian rugs and come from all over Turkey.  Then he brings out a few for me to look at.

“Please, you tell me which ones you like, and we eliminate ones you don’t.”

A game, right?  So I oblige, and point out the ones I like, and he removes the ones I don’t, until we are down to one, which is shiny and golden and red.  I genuinely liked it, but there was no way in hell I was going to buy a rug.

“This one, you pay . . . 650.”

Well, crap.  So much for no obligation to buy.  My tea is too hot to drink but it would be quite rude to leave without finishing it.  So I’m stuck awkwardly explaining that really, I have no money, and that I am on a very tight budget.

“Why you no buy?”

“Because I have no money!  I think you guys think that I’ve come in here with lots of cash, but I mean it, I have no extra money to spend.”

We went on like this for several minutes.  Finally he starts talking to his brother in Turkish, and turns back to me.

“All right.  How much would you be willing to pay for this rug?”

“I wouldn’t, because I don’t have any money to spend.”  Finally, my tea is cool enough to drink . . .

“How much?  It’s just a question.”

“Eh . . . I could maybe spend . . . 40.”

He looks slightly insulted again, but hey, I’d warned him.  He’s quite unhappy, and no longer my friend giving me the tour of his family shop.

“40 bucks.”  I had meant 40 lira, which is about $25 bucks, but it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t buying any rugs today.

“I’m sorry, but I really must go.  If I come back to Turkey I would love to buy a rug from you, but today I really cannot.”

I awkwardly extricate myself from the room and walk outside.  Well.  That was a mistake.

Basically: you can trust people outside the touristy areas, but don’t think for a moment that anyone with any connection to a “shop” is just looking to show you a good time or be your friend . . . he’s trying to entangle you in his hospitality so you feel obligated to make a purchase.  Yuck.

Posted by: Mike Z | July 3, 2010


I’m going to start keeping a series of posts where I can put random conversations, moments, encounters, and so on, that way I don’t forget them.


It’s interesting watching the way “traffic culture” changes between different countries.  In Frankfurt, for example, if the crossing sign had a little red man lit up, then no one walked.  Period.  The street could be totally deserted and people would wait patiently until the green man came.  Here in Istanbul, no one cares at all.

I was trying to cross the street in Budapest, which is somewhere in between Frankfurt and Istanbul as far as pedestrian etiquette goes, when these four Hungarian guys speed up to me in the oncoming lane.  I thought they were going to run me over, but at the last second the guy hits the brakes.  Instead of throwing his hands in the air or looking scared to death, instead we lock eyes and he makes this dramatic, sweeping gesture with his hand: “Please, good sir, after you.”  He didn’t say that, but he might as well have.  It was like he was my waiter.  What a gentleman.


I was on the worst train ride of my life, from Budapest to Bucharest, the capital of Romania.  Six people to a compartment, and no beds.  18 hours.  It was terrible.  I was talking to this guy from who is a dual citizen of Albania and Greece.  He worked in London for six years and spoke good English, but with a thick, well, English accent.  We were talking about the differences between American and European culture.

“Also,” I said to him, “Americans are much more . . . militaristic than Europe.  That’s not true for everyone, but in general we’re much more willing to use force to solve diplomatic problems, you know—especially after 9/11.”

“Yeah, but if you fink abou’ it, wot’s wiffat, you know?  I mean, ‘snot like those men blew up the towers for no reason.”

“Sure, yeah, I agree with you.  But most people here don’t stop to think about that.  They just assume that some people are good and some people are evil, and that we never did anything to hurt anybody, so these people must be just evil, and that’s about it.”

“That’s silliness, ‘swot dat is.”


Also, I have this annoying habit of picking up people’s accents really quickly and almost using them in response.  Hanging out with a couple of Brits and Scots recently it’s really hard not to imitate their accents in the middle of a conversation with them, changing my ‘th’s into ‘f’s and whatnot.  “Wot’s wiffat, you know?  ‘S just rubbish, really.”

Worse is that when I speak with people who don’t know much English, I start pretending like I don’t speak much English either and take a long time to spit out words.  “Yes.  Hallo!  I have hamburger, yes?  Thank you.”


The flip side of being tempted to imitate accents is that I can pick up the basic “feel” of a language pretty quickly.  I’ve found that if you know just a few basic words in the native tongue people will treat you a lot better than if you always have to ask, “Hello?  Speak English?” with every person you try to speak with.

My host in Krakow, Dawid (‘w’s make ‘v’ sounds in Poland) taught me how to say “thank you” in Polish.  Dziekuje! But it sounds more like “Jenquia!”  Just put a little ‘z’ in the ‘j’ sound and you’ve got it.

I got good enough at saying this that people started complimenting me, and even trying to speak further in Polish.  Our tour guide at Auschwitz: “You have very good Polish accent!”

I don’t think there’s any way to feel cooler as an American abroad than to be mistaken for a native.  🙂

That’s all for now.  I’ll write down more of these as they come.

Posted by: Mike Z | June 30, 2010

The Road to Jerusalem Runs Through Auschwitz

I was walking alongside the tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, toward the end of the tracks, toward the crematoriums where 1,500,000 people were exterminated during the war.  All but 200,000 were Jews.  These two old Jewish men (one was in full Hasidic garb) were walking the other way, in the midst of a rather intense conversation.  I only caught two lines:

“It just isn’t moving enough,” the one said.

“I think so too,” said the other.

After thinking about this for a while, I think I agree.  I came to Auschwitz wanting to be shocked, horrifyed, nauseous.  I wanted to feel the helplessness and hopelessness of the place, to smell the death in the air, to descend to the depths of Sheol with the victims (martyrs?) here.

Most of them never saw it coming.  They were put on a train in Paris, or Oslo, or Athens, or Rome, and told that they were being “relocated” to somewhere else in Europe.  75% of them were deemed “unfit for work” upon arrival and sent 100 yards to the right, 20 yards left, and down a stairway.  They were told to disrobe, and to remember which hooks they put their clothes on.  Naked, they were filed into the showers.  Then, the gas.  They never saw it coming, and 15 minutes later their corpses were loaded into the furnaces, and they dissipated into the air like smoke, like vapor, like their prayers had done only minutes earlier.

At full capacity about 15,000 people were exterminated here every day like rodents.  Those “fortunate” enough to be deemed fit for work did so until they died.  That usually took no more than three months.

The problem which bothered the Jews who walked by me, and the problem that’s bothering me now as well, is that of memory.

How do you remember—literally, re-member—what happened here?  I was in a bookstore today in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, flipping through a book on remembering the Holocaust.  A number of different ideas have been proposed.

One is to burn everything down and cover the whole place with concrete, making sure nothing can ever grow on that piece of land again.  The whole thing should be flattened, hollowed ground, a hundred-acre tomb to the millions who perished.  Dead.

Another is to let is grow over, to let the birds and the trees slowly overtake the camp, to let new life grow on what was once a hopeless place of death and despair.

Another is to “memorialize” the place by saturating those who visit with knowledge about what happened: to guide them through each stage in the process, to take them through the cabins and the watchtowers and torture chambers and shooting blocks and explain how many people died from where and how.  To turn it into a museum.  The goal here would be to “recreate” the experience of the camp in the people’s minds.

What we think of as “Auschwitz” is actually two different camps.  The first, smaller camp was originally for Polish political prisoners.  It was this camp where the first crematorium was built and tested.  This camp was turned into a museum, with “exhibits” and guided tours and all the rest.  Here I did, in fact, have some emotional responses to what happened.  Masses of hair in one room—thousands of pounds of actual human hair—will do that to you.  As will the suitcases: piles and piles of suitcases from all over Europe, the owners’ names and addresses painted boldly across the front.  And the faces: rows upon rows of faces and names.  All dead.

But the second camp, Auschwtiz-Birkenau, where the logic of the Holocaust reached its final, terrible conclusion, had no such museum.  We met our tour guide there, and she explained at every point what happened.  But there was no emotional response from me this time: “it wasn’t moving enough”.

Let me ask, though: is it my being moved that matters?  Is it even possible to be moved by visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau or reading about the Holocuast in a way that, well, “does justice” to the Holocaust?  Is there a proportionate response to all of this loss—one that I’m even capable of as a human being?

My guess is that there is not.  Perhaps in that way making a museum out of it would be, in a sense, a mockery: as if words and feelings could somehow describe or explain or adequately condemn what happened here.  To even try to do so is—you have to reach for religious language when describing these things—blasphemy.

But the way we remember events, especially cataclysmic ones like the Holocaust, does matter. In later posts, perhaps, I will explore what this means a bit more.  But for right now I’d like to make one main point: we make meaning out of events by placing them within a story.

If Auschwitz was the “end of the story”, so to speak, then at best the story would be a tragedy.  At worst, Auschwitz would render the whole story meaningless, nothingness, and despair.

But Auschwitz is not the end—we all have ways of putting Auschwitz in a narrative  context that provides it with meaning.  Poles, for example, the majority of whom are Catholic, remember the camps through the lens of Catholicism and the narrative of martyrdom and resurrection.  The Christian story, the story of the cross and the empty tomb, becomes the lens through which to understand what happened.

For many Jews, the story of Auschwitz has also been placed inside a larger narrative context of the persecution and redemption of the Jewish people: only here, redemption comes through the establishment of the Jewish state.

Telling the story in this way is irresistible.  After years of persecution, under the constant threat of annihilation, epitomized at Auschwitz, the Jewish people finally come home . . . who can resist a story like that?

More thoughts like these to come.

Posted by: Mike Z | June 27, 2010

How to Avoid another Hitler

The last two days I have been touring Berlin and learning a bit about (1) the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany, and (2) Judaism in Europe, and especially under the Third Reich.  Maybe I’ll post about (2) later, but for now I think there’s some things worth noting about (1).

In school we learn a lot about the holocaust.  I remember vividly studying it for the first time in sixth grade, getting to hear from a survivor in person (a great privilege, though I didn’t realize it at the time), and finally, as a junior in high school, watching a video from the liberation of Auschwitz which was truly gut-wrenching.

What you don’t learn about, or at least, what I don’t remember learning about, was How did Hitler get control of the country? Who put the Nazis in charge?

Ultimately, the Nazis took power because of a combination of, firstly, Hitler’s determination to do so, but secondly, and more disturbingly, because the German people voted for them.  That’s the crazy part.  Are the Germans any less noble, as a people, than Americans?  What made them so susceptible to voting in a fascist regime?

Granted, the largest percent of parliament the Nazis ever took on a democratic basis was 45%.  But that’s still a lot—enough for Hitler to gain enough power to oust everyone else.

So, here’s my feeble attempt to answer this question.  I’m mainly curious because I think we need to keep these things in mind for the life of our own country, and even on an individual as well.

The first thing to note is that the concept of “Germany” as a single, unified state is a relatively young idea.  There had always been a loose coalition of German-speaking states (Prussia, Bavaria, and so on) and cities, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Otto von Bismarck succeeded in uniting Germans under one banner.

von Bismarck did so—how else?—by uniting Germans against a common enemy—who else?—the French.

So, first off, you have a very fragile national identity that was rooted from the start in visions of victory and conquest.  That’s one.

Two, the Germans had very recently suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I.  Germans were forced to pay millions of dollars in war debt, which put Germany in a state of economic depression.  This contributed greatly to Germany’s identity crisis and also sent many Germans looking for someone to blame (other than, you know, themselves).

Hitler was a madman and a devil.  But he was also a human being, a very shrewd one, and he capitalized greatly on this widespread sense of confusion and despair during his political career.

More specifically, Hitler presented to the German public a glorified, idealized picture of themselves which he called “das Volk” (as in Volkswagen, the “people’s car”).  For the first time in a long time, someone was telling Germans that they were not inferior, or guilty, or anything bad, but that they were actually the best.  Better than everyone else, in fact.  Germans were the greatest people who had ever walked this earth.

This was something that the Germans liked hearing.

Now, the thing about das Volk is that it only included a certain subsection of the German public: the hard-working, middle-class Germans, true patriots who believed in a hard day’s work and the importance of family.  The problem was not with those who belonged to this group.  The problem was with “the others”: Poles, homosexuals, gypsies, but most of all, Jews.

Hitler, in short, rallied (most) Germans to a common sense of identity which glorified itself and vilified the Other.  You’re either in or you’re out.  This relieved Germans’ frustration with their own condition and gave them a sense of superiority in a time of struggle.

But it wasn’t enough to just start saying these things and think people would buy them right away.  The Nazi party actually got off to a pretty slow start.  But one of the things Hitler was very good at was propaganda.  He capitalized on feelings of vulnerability in the German consciousness to make his main points.

For example, after a big fire gutted the Reichstag, the guy who started it was discovered to have a connection to some leftist group in Germany.  Hitler used the opportunity to decry the event as an act of “communist terrorism” and asked to be given more executive power in order to secure Germany against her enemies (sound familiar?).  They did, and 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.

I guess the thing that concerns me is that you can hear this kind of political rhetoric coming from the fringe of American society, too.  U.S. History is rife with examples of racism and xenophobia.  Example: the Japanese internment camps.  We rounded up a whole segment of American society and put them in isolated communities in the name of national security.

My question is: how many more terrorist attacks would it take before Americans get scared enough to elect a leader who capitalizes both on our fears and on our national pride to do something horrifying?

In a sense, this combination of fear and pride drives American policy abroad: we Americans are notorious for thinking we’re the only ones who know how to run things, and we tend to involve ourselves in other countries’ affairs pretty heavily for fear of what might happen otherwise.  But could we also reach a point as a society where this fear not only drives our foreign policy, but is the center of our domestic policy as well?

There will always be crazy people out there who want to rule the world.  The question is whether we will be persuaded, through fear and propaganda, to let them try.

Posted by: Mike Z | June 21, 2010

Reading the Bible with Palestinians

The Curse of Ham

OK, granted, I’m not doing that quite yet.  I’m actually still sitting in the Sea-Tac airport.  But you’ll see what I mean.

I won an award from the School of Theology this year and got $50 (!) to Barnes and Noble, which is quite the chunk of change for an undergrad!  I figured that since it came from the SOT, the best thing to spend it on would be a new Bible.  It was a black, bonded leather, NLT with large print, and slimline.  I couldn’t resist.  She’s beautiful.  She’s like a new car.  I wish there was a way to polish the leather.

I started in on Genesis today, because Dr. Wall taught me that the best way to read the Bible was to start at the beginning, and keep reading until you get to the end.  Funny how that works. 🙂

Stick with me here.  Genesis 9:18-27, just after the story of Noah’s Ark:

The sons of Noah who came out of the boat with their father were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham is the father of Canaan.) From these three sons of Noah came all the people who now populate the earth.After the flood, Noah began to cultivate the ground, and he planted a vineyard. One day he drank some wine he had made, and he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw that his father was naked and went outside and told his brothers. Then Shem and Japheth took a robe, held it over their shoulders, and backed into the tent to cover their father. As they did this, they looked the other way so they would not see him naked.

When Noah woke up from his stupor, he learned what Ham, his youngest son, had done. Then he cursed Canaan, the son of Ham:

“May Canaan be cursed!
May he be the lowest of servants to his relatives.”

Then Noah said,

“May the Lord, the God of Shem, be blessed,
and may Canaan be his servant!
May God expand the territory of Japheth!
May Japheth share the prosperity of Shem,
and may Canaan be his servant.”

The story is weird enough on its own.  After discovering how to make wine, Noah gets hammered and passes out naked inside his tent.  From what I understand, it was a shameful thing back then to see your old man naked (although it would still be kind of awkward nowadays), so when Ham, the youngest, stumbles upon his dad, he goes and tells his brothers, who back into the tent with a robe to cover their dad up.  Noah finds out about all of this, and becomes very upset.  Perhaps not even for a very good reason: how was Ham to know his father had passed out naked in his tent?  Regardless, Noah puts a curse on Ham’s son (also strange), Canaan, and all of his descendants.

If you read ahead, it is the land of Canaan that is promised to Abraham and his descendants in chapter 12, and it is the Canaanites who must be purged from the land in the book of Joshua.

What does this have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Well, keep reading.  Genesis 10:13:

Mizraim was the ancestor of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, Pathrusites, Casluhites, and the Caphtorites, from whom the Philistines came.

The words in English for “Palestine” and “Palestinian” come from the same origins as the word “Philistine” and “Philistia”.  The two are etymologically related.

Why is this a big deal?  Well, its all well and good, maybe, if the Philistines, ten thousand of whom Samson kills in the book of Judges, against whom Israel is always fighting, and so on, are a people who existed “back then”.  But if Philistines and Palestinians are identified as the same thing, or even as related peoples, then you have big problems when it comes to reading your Bible.

As a Jew, you could read this story of Noah and understand it to mean that God has blessed the descendents of Shem (the “Shemites”, or Semites, as in “anti-Semitic”), and cursed the descendants of Canaan, including the Philistines, or Palestinians.  “May the LORD, the God of Shem, be blessed, and may Canaan be his servant!”  Reading it this way would support the current situation in historic Palestine, almost to the point of understanding it as a fulfillment of Scripture.

As a Palestinian Christian, you’ve got a major problem on your hands.  How do you read this text as Christian Scripture, yet also resist the Israeli occupation of a land your family has lived on for centuries?  Are you, a Philistine, destined to be a servant to the sons of Shem?

I’m not saying that its necessarily appropriate to read Scripture in this way, or to understand the whole situation in such a cut-and-dry manner.  But I am saying that these readings of Scripture are sticky, powerful, and hard to shake because they see the current conflict in Israel-Palestine as one more act in a very long drama.

The question is, how do Palestinian Christians—Christian Philistines, so to speak—understand themselves as characters in this story?

Questions like these are exactly why I’m blogging in the Sea-Tac airport at 1:30 in the morning.  These are the things that keep me up at night.

Posted by: Mike Z | June 21, 2010

Self-Indulgent Travel Blog #1

I am sitting in a place I can no longer call my room.  My backpack is empty, but strewn around it are all the things that will soon go inside.  I’ll check each item off as I go.




Beef jerky.





Typhoid pills.

This morning I called my housemate, Brent, while he was in the next room and made him come drag me out of bed.  It’s the last night for a while when I’ll sleep somewhere familiar.  The funny thing is, I’ve been longing to satisfy my wanderlust since sophomore year.  Now that I’m actually doing it . . . well, there’s no going back, is there?

So it begins.

Jesus, you are my light, my path, and my only destination.  Now, more than ever, be my companion on the road.

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