Sophia's Peace Work

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Spittin' Hasidims of Al Quds (Jerusalem)

I recently came back from a holiday trip that involved traveling with two friends to Jordan and Israel/Palestine. We had a lovely trip working through Petra and staying at the Ammarin Desert Camp and then returning to Amman on the King's Highway, then on to Al Quds where we took one day to go down to Al Khaleel (Hebron) and Bethleham (Literally in Arabic, this means "House of Meat"). We saw the ridiculous wall and the massive checkpoints of Bethleham and later Ramallah.

But it was while were were in Jerusalem that we had one of the more memorable events of our trip occur. One of my friends had read in the Lonely Planet that the the Hasidic (Ultra-orthodox Jewish) area of Jerusalem was an interesting places to visit. We needed to wear conservative clothing but it should be fine.

So on Christmas Eve at about 4:30 pm, we took off to find this area ... which wasn't too hard (just watch for the men wearing long, black frock coats and big black hats or fur hats on their heads, which also featured long hanging side curls of hair on either side of their face). As we approached the neighborhood though we saw a sign that said "Groups entering our neighborhood are offensive to our community. Please stop this."

We hesitated a moment but felt that the sign was referring to big gauking tourist groups, not to three conservatively dressed and respectful women such as ourselves. So we forged ahead. There were many people on the street ... men and boys dressed as previously mentioned and women in long shirts. It was the start of Shabbat and many were heading to the Western Wall or to Synagogues. We did start to feel that we stuck out a bit.

Then once we were in the heart of the community, I passed a middle-aged man in a large fur hat, with my friends close behind me. Immediately, a string of Yiddish explatives exploded behind us (in which I distinctly heard the word "Shiksa", a pejorative term for non-jewish women) and the distinct hocking sound as the man spit at us. I never looked back (forge ahead and damn the torpedos being my usual motto) and my friends scooted up close behind and beside me.

We looked for a side turn to get us out of the neighborhood but once we found it faced another spitter! Finally we were free and high-tailed it back to the old city.
After we got back my friend looked at her Lonely Planet guide a bit more closely and saw that it advised avoiding the area during Shabbat. Dang, if only we had known!

Later that night we decided to go to a bar and each drink a shot and make a toast to the spitters. I toasted them, "To the spitting Hasidims of Al Quds, may they learn some tolerance." Then we made a dismal job of burning an effigy of that very intolerance (we soaked the napkin in too much vodka!).

We later had a field day classifing everyone we saw as either potential "spitters" or "smilers" ... and we definitely steered clear of all the Hasidims we later saw ... maybe they are not spitting, but perhaps they are thinking about spitting!!!

Ah what a world we live in!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Eco-Tourism in Iraq

Recently there has been a new effort to start an ecotourism project in Iraq. There is the development of a national park in the south and also talk of other such parks in the north (Iraqi Kurdistan) and if ecotourism could be started it would really demonstrate to the local people the intrinsic value of their local environment. Fish, birds, reeds, water would all have an additional value that they never had before. Tourism has got to be part of the picture with the development of a National Park if you are to achieve some level of protection for its natural resources.

But starting ecotourism is also risky, certainly in Iraq. Right now, we seem to be operating under the philosophy, "If you build it, they will come." For anyone starting eco-tourism as a money-making venture that has little background or experience in promoting and running tours they will face many challenges. And certainly, starting up such work in a post-conflict setting, will represent additional problems.

There has been some discussions whether a non-governmental organization, such as the one I work wtih, which is focused on environmental protection and restoration should take on such a project ... especially for an organization that already has an hugh work load of projects as it is. My feeling is that, while I recognize that at some point eco-tourism needs to be developed in Iraq, it's too much for an organization to start a big program in ecotourism. Something informal yes perhaps but to create a who new project represents a significant investment that I worry will impact our other work.

There are so many environmental problems in Iraq and to me the biggest and most important issue to address is the overall lack of awareness and education on the environment that exists within the general population of the country. If I want to affect these people, affect their daily interactions with the environment and get them to think about ways they might make that interaction more healthy, what will be the most effective tool? An eco-tourism project or perhaps a general educational media campaign?

Which will reap the greatest reward for Iraq's environment? What will be the comparitive return on the money invested? How many Iraqis will I affect doing an eco-tour vs. a Public Service Announcement (PSA) played on Iraqi Television?

For sure, it is true that an educational media campaign wont touch people as deeply as getting them out into the environment on an eco-tour but I still remember when I was a kid seeing the "Crying Indian" PSA from the Keep America Beautiful Campaign. It deeply affected my whole generation. This campaign started in 1953 and really got off the ground when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson joined the campaign in the 60s ... The "Crying Indian" PSA, with its Native American standing alone with a single tear rolling down his cheek as he watches the lands and water of American being polluted is an iconic symbol of environmental responsibility. It was one of the most successful media efforts in US History. A few thousand dollars spent wisely had an enormous impact on the country.

For an Iraqi organization, I simply wonder if the money we spend developing a full-scale eco-tourism project that may or may not be successful is the best use of our limited time, energy and funds.