Life in a Very Complicated Place: Travel Desk Vol. 5

Hello faithful readers. All 6 of you that have been following this little excursion from hockey and into politics will be happy to know that my trip is coming to a close and our regularly scheduled Oilers banter will be returning in a few weeks. The other 4 readers who are here for my rants on life in the middle east? Um...sorry, I have maybe one more of these left in me after this.

Rosh Hanikra, the Sea

Last weekend I was treated to an experience few people outside of the middle east get to have. My Druze friend took me to his village, Abu Snan, and I was privy to a sort of cultural exchange I never thought I would find myself having, exposure to life in a typical Arab village in the north. Now for most of my life I've been socialized to have at least an implicit fear of the other. It's part of the system I grew up with, (friends, feel free to debate that as much as you like; it's my perception of the system many of us were a part of and you can read my Master's thesis or some of my other scholarly work if you're looking for some evidence of this claim), and yet not for a second did I feel unsafe in a place that is 100% Arab, mixed almost evenly between Muslim, Druze and Christian. Abu Snan is historically a Druze village but over the years its population and land base has been able to expand. That said, its neighboring village, Kfar Yasif has a building freeze and hasn't been able to grow or support the demands of its populous. That is one of the fundamental differences between the Druze agreement with the Israeli government and the status of other Arab communities inside of the 1949 borders. In any case, this story isn't to talk about the politics of land in Israel, but rather my experience of the people of Abu Snan, who might be the friendliest in the entire country. It is also home to the best Shawarma possibly in the world, a place called Karem. If you're ever in the north of Israel, it is a must visit, but get there early. It's so good and popular that the owner shuts it down after the first spit of meat is finished, and will often turn away people if he knows he's running out and his regulars are still on their way. But trust me, it is too good to miss.

I was welcomed with open arms by my friend's parents, brother and very old friends. There was a real sense of community, of historical bonds that comes from growing up in one place and maintaining friendships over long periods of time. I know that feeling well, and in a sense it was a bit strange to walk into a new circle of people who had known each other for 25 years. I actually saw some analogues to my own friendships and sensed a sort of brotherhood of shared experience that I always feel when I go back to Edmonton for a visit. The similarities didn't end there. Our Friday night was spent outside, with a fire, an Argileh, and several dozen beers. Sounds a lot like summer nights back home, too, doesn't it (other than perhaps the Argileh). The conversation and drinking carried on until well into the wee hours, as such nights often do, and we knew it was time to shut it down when the morning call to prayer began to echo through the village.

My friends made a point of explaining to me that they are effectively society's trash, the liquid at the bottom of the garbage bin, and that when they drink, they de-evolve into a much more primitive state. I didn't see that at all. What I saw was a group of friends with inside jokes, genuine compassion for each other, and a bit too much beer. Then again, coming from Alberta where white trash/redneck jokes and the occasional group beer-shotgun competition is standard fare, I really felt myself close to home despite the palm trees and stray cats. One friend made a point of asking me how I felt about hearing conversations in Arabic, if it made me uncomfortable. I can honestly say not for a second. It was a typical Friday night, just in another country. The amazing part about language and culture is that if you spend enough time interacting with people in a language you don't understand, you can pick up on the non-verbal cues and still follow along. Plus, now I can curse in a new language rather well, which pleases me.

Rosh Hanikra, the border

To put into perspective about where in the country I was, we were able to drive up to the border with Lebanon in less than 30 minutes. This is a complicated part of the country where identity and culture are constantly tested and the lines between who is what are very blurry. One of my friends was telling me that he wants to leave the village permanently, not to mention the country because of the racism and discrimination he feels and the fact that he's Druze puts him in an uncomfortable position, knowing his privileged status within Israeli society while other Arabs in his village and others like it don't have the same sorts of opportunities. He resented being in the Army and it was there that he felt the most racism. His family is of Syrian origin, but due to the complications with Syria, he will never meet his cousins who still live there. Yet others from the same community feel very attached to Israel, find serving to be an honor and can't imagine not doing it. It's complicated to be an ethnic minority within a very divided and hierarchical place where one's ethnicity is tantamount to status and access to power within the state. To most Druze though, the arrangement with Israel is a positive one as they are able to keep their historical land and property rights, which to them is the most important part. And having spent some time on their land, I can see why.

Abu Snan/Kfar Yasif, from my friend's balcony

I spent my Saturday evening indulging in two local traditions: The family meal and the Classico. The family meal consisted of perhaps the most delicious food I have ever eaten in my life. Kebabs, grilled Lamb, Tabbouleh, Olives from the family's own Olive trees. And of course everything that required oil was made using hand pressed Olive oil from these same trees. Words cannot describe the amazement. And it didn't stop coming, either. The Classico was the Soccer match the village and most of the rest of the country was waiting for, the annual match between F.C. Barcelona and Real Madrid. I've grown to enjoy Soccer a lot more than I was expecting to, and have become a Barca fan by association, but the event was something closer to an Edmonton/Calgary or Canada/USA hockey game than anything I've ever witnessed. There were about 70 Druze men, equally divided in terms of team allegiances hanging out in the local pub, a hookah to every 3 people, and the match up on the big screen. The intensity of the match, the passion of the fans, and the energy in the room was incredible. The result however, was disappointing, but as an Oilers fan, I've grown used to that. It was in this moment that I was able to put my limited knowledge of Arabic to good use, screaming with joy when things went well, cursing and shouting when things went badly, all in the local dialect. As the only white Anglo for miles, the people who didn't know me were all very pleased to see that I was embracing the local culture and the passion. It also demonstrates how sports teams are so often tied to a place, but the idea of fandom and all that comes along with it seems to transcend space and place. How a tiny village in the north of Israel is so evenly split between two clubs from Spain is beyond me, but sure enough it happened. And in the aftermath the village exploded, people pouring into the streets to celebrate the victory, driving around honking their car horns, shouting and jumping with unbridled energy, while the people who lost walked or drove home in disgust. And yet the clubs themselves are completely detached from the material realities of life in the village, the region and the country. (Canucks fans could learn a thing or two from these people!)

I can't say for certain how typical the snap-shot of life I experienced actually was. I don't know what it's really like to live in these Northern villages. I do know however that there are major problems with employment, schools are underfunded, infrastructure is lacking and in some cases, the villages themselves are unable to grow despite the population and demographic situation begging for expansion at the same rate as Israeli communities. The funding isn't there even though the tax base is. What I do know, however, is that I was treated like family by total strangers, given a glimpse into a community I wouldn't ever have been exposed to had it not been for a little bit of luck, and had the best time of my entire trip. And they say these are the people I am supposed to fear?


Oilers notes: I've never been more unsure of what to do about "winning the lottery" as I don't think Tambo can be trusted to make the right decision. #2 would have been so much easier.

I think I can safely say I want the Kings to win the west, if not the whole shebang, if for no other reason than to watch former Oilers get another shot. Stoll's game winner against the Canucks was a thing of beauty, and Penner has been playing like, well, the real Penner as opposed to Pancakes. That makes me happy. He's a player I've always really appreciated and its nice to see him produce when it counts.

I'll be returning to North America in less than 2 weeks and Kingston by June. It's been a good run over here and I really appreciate all the feedback from everyone who has been following along. These stray observations are likely going to appear in my PhD dissertation in one form or another and all of the comments you have made over the past few months, on the site and privately, have kept me on my toes. Thanks for that.

Go Oilers



Anonymous said...

Hey man, glad to hear a more relaxed story than the last one! I liked your comment on fandom, and noticed that the more you described the scene for the big game, the less I was seeing and looking for 'difference.' Perhaps more wars should be settled with beers and sports competitions....
Looking forward to seeing back in Ktown and back on your mat!

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