Middle East Chronicles: Amman

While waiting at the bus station in Jerusalem we bumped into a group of German tourists who ask us: “Why are you going to Amman” and I replied ” What do you mean?” “There’s nothing to see there!” they respond.

When we planned our trip we thought of Amman as a base to visit Jordan but we didn’t know much about what the city offers. Besides, the Jerusalem – Amman journey (about 70 km) took us over 10 hours, so we were happy to just chill for a night. Thanks God, Marwan and Layan took us to a very nice restaurant where we could catch up some energy and enjoy some really nice food and great narguilé. It really recharged out batteries.

Amman forms a great base for exploring Jordan and does, despite popular belief, hold a few items of interest to travellers. The city is generally well-appointed, reasonably well-organized, and the people are very friendly. To my experience many Ammanians understand some English especially all taxi driver and hotel staff. Even in a small kebab shop (where we could have a 1 dinar kebab) the owner spoke good English and was quite friendly. Charmingly, the most commonly known English phrase seems to be “Welcome to Jordan”. There is no obligation to wear an Islamic headscarf and many women do not.

Amman is experiencing a massive (some would say: reckless) change from a quiet sleepy village to a bustling metropolis. Amman’s roads have a reputation of being very steep and narrow in some parts of the city but now the city has state of the art highways and paved avenues.

A city built of white stone, Amman’s growth has skyrocketed since it was made the capital of Trans-Jordan in the early 1920s, but especially after the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees settled. Another wave arrived after the second Iraq war, with Iraqi refugees forming the majority of newcomers.

Its history, however, goes back many millennia. The settlement mentioned in the Bible as Rabbath Ammon was the capital of the Ammonites, which later fell to the Assyrians. It was dominated briefly by the Nabataeans before it became a great Roman trade center and was renamed Philadelphia. After the Islamic conquests, Amman became part of the Muslim empire, until the Ottomans were forced out by the Allies, with the help of the Hashimites, who formed a monarchy that continues to rule until the present.

Today, West Amman is a lively, modern city. The eastern part of the city, where the majority of Amman’s residents live, is predominantly the residential area of the working class and is much older than the west.

After dinner we go sleep early and organize our next excursion. A less “historically interesting” day chilling on the coast of the Dead Sea.

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A view of Amman by night

A social media analyst’s visit to Israel

I’m off to Israel and Jordan this week. As a social media analyst and a Middle-East enthusiast (although my Arabic classes did not bring me very far on the lingustic level) I made some research about what to know about social meda in Israel. Much credit should be given to Danish diplomat Karen Melchior who pointed out to me many interesting articles on the topic.

  • Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement

by dhosier

The story of how one foreign mission innovated its diplomatic engagement with global society from the bottom-up.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/dhosier/startup-digital-diplomacy-innovating-israels-social-engagement-6622639&#8243; title=”Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement” target=”_blank”>Start-Up Digital Diplomacy: Innovating Israel’s Social Engagement</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/dhosier&#8221; target=”_blank”>dhosier</a></strong> </div>

Both sides kept up live commentary on Gaza attack in which key Hamas leader was killed in attempt to corral world opinionhttp://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-16/israel-twitter-and-the-line-between-free-speech-and-violence …

  • Israel, Twitter, and the Line Between Free Speech and Violence

By Mathew Ingram November 16, 2012

Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip–seen from the Israel Gaza Border, southern Israel, on Nov. 16, 2012.

If you’ve been following the social-media campaign recently unleashed by the Israeli army on a multitude of platforms—from Twitter and Facebook (FB) to Instagram and Tumblr—as part of its attack on Hamas guerillas in the Gaza Strip, you know that we are seeing the birth of a whole new way of experiencing a war: in real time, and with live reports from the combatants themselves. But while some might argue that more information about such events is good, it also highlights just how much of our perception of such a conflict comes to us through proprietary platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and YouTube (GOOG). What duties or responsibilities do they have (if any) to monitor or regulate that information?

How important were Twitter, Facebook and other social media in toppling regimes in the Arab Spring uprisings?

Amid a fierce debate in academic circles, an upcoming book argues that social media and new technology made a key difference in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and helped foster grassroots movements in other Arab nations.

Sarah A. Tobin

Dr. Tobin is a Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Islamic Studies at Wheaton College. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Boston University.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was watched closely during the early events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Many Western analysts expressed concerns that it would be the next country in which large protests and social and political mobilization would shift the

“You call this violent language?” The IDF’s social media spokesperson sees online posts as just another way to spread the same message, “without the touch of an editor.”

Middle East Chronicles: Nablus

We only have a couple of hours to visit Nablus and we’re also a bit tired from our rushed visit to Ramallah and in fact we end up falling asleep on the van on our way there.

As soon as we get there we get a similar feeling of what we could breathe in Ramallah, a young ( in terms of population’s age), vibrant and chaotic place. However, we could still feel something different in the air. The same air you can breathe in Rome, Athens or Istanbul. The air of history, an ancient history.

Nablus is one of the oldest cities in the world, possibly first established 9000 years ago. It was originally called “Shechem” by its Canaanite inhabitants. The Romans built a new city (Flavia Neapolis, in honor of Flavius Vespasian) a short distance from Shechem. The name Nablus comes from Neapolis. The old city of Nablus is located on the site of Neapolis, but in modern times the city has grown to include the site of Shechem as well.

Nablus is distinguished by its location in a narrow valley between the two mountains Gerizim and Ebal. This makes for an impressive view when you are within the city itself.

During the British Mandate, Nablus became the core of Palestinian Nationalism, and it was the center of resistance against the British. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War Nablus was occupied by Jordan, and 2 refugee camps were built near the city. In 1967, during the six days war, Nablus was occupied by the Israeli army, the infrastructure of the city was damaged and 3 refugee camps were added to accommodate the people who fled to the city. Jurisdiction over the city was handed over to the Palestinian National Authority on December 12, 1995, as a result of the Oslo Accords Interim Agreement on the West Bank.

During the Second Intifada Nablus was a center of violence between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militant groups. There are many damaged buildings and debris-filled fields around Nablus, the result of past Israeli attacks, but today most of the damage was repaired. Israeli restrictions on the city are generally looser than they used to be, and a visit to Nablus in the daytime is a safe and worthwhile trip.

The majority of Nablus’ inhabitants today are Muslim, but there are small Christian and Samaritan communities as well. Much of the local Palestinian Muslim population of Nablus is believed to be descended from Samaritans who converted to Islam. There are seventeen Islamic monuments and eleven mosques in the Old City.

The Old City of Nablus is a charming area filled with winding narrow streets and small shops selling all kinds of foods, clothing, and trinkets. We simply enter the alleyways leading into it nearby the massive parking garage in the center of town, and wander around until we recognize every street. The sooq  is a typical colorful and loud Palestinian vegetable market located right in the center of town. The the tent roofs really stand out.

We must run back. We have an appointment in the evening in Ramallah and we must rush to the bus station and take a mini-van to the Palestinian administrative capital. We are a bit lost in the sooq and fortunately we find a kind man who offers to walk us back. We get talking and he explains to me that he lived in Benghazi (Lybia) for many years, where the Italian colonial tradition, according to him, is still vivid in the local culture. I’m not very proud of the disastrous colonial past of my country and I even forget Italy had colonies sometimes. He was a very kind person displaying the solemnity typical of someone that has seen war, probably many wars among civil and against an external enemy. A solemnity the I will still discover during our upcoming visit to the South West Bank.

Middle East Chronicle: Tel Aviv and Jaffa

Right, after telling you about our small adventure at Tel Aviv airport we are off to a day visit of the city. What strikes us from moment one is the level of westernization of this place. It doesn’t look Middle Eastern at all. Tall skyscrapers, bicycles lanes, actual bus lines with timetables, hipsters. This place is way more similar to Barcelona or Berlin than Beirut or Cairo.Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

Tel Aviv is really a rapidly growing city in the midst of an exciting transition from medium-sized urban center to bustling international metropolis. Its booming population, energy, edginess and 24-hour life style give the city a cosmopolitan flair comparable to few other cities in this part of the world. Tel Aviv is likely the most liberal city in Israel and in the Middle East – as it is no-less liberal than Western Europe’s liberally-inclined major cities. It has a bustling civil society and is home to many activist movements and NGOs. Its residents tend to have liberal attitudes towards gay and lesbian rights, and, in fact, Tel Aviv hosts the largest gay pride parade in Israel (the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not considered illegal).

Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

With its liberalism comes a dose of sophistication and some will say detachment, and Tel Aviv is often dubbed “The Bubble” or “Medinat Tel Aviv” by residents and non-residents alike. Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis have even dubbed the city a modern day “Sodom and Gomorrah”, due to its hedonistic lifestyle. It is also very common to see head shop and smell marijuana in the middle of the very centre as in fact there seems to be a pretty liberal policy on soft drugs consumption.

Street_Art_in_Tel_Aviv

We take a stroll on the beach, originally hoping for a swim, but an unusual massive sandstorm ruined our plans. We even entered a bar where even the inside couches were just covered in sand.

A VERY BAD HABBIT that people working in the bar-restaurant area have is that they ASK FOR TIPS. Ok, I’m Italian and we are not used to tipping. It’s just not in our culture also because in most restaurants you pay a small service fee. Anyway, this means that when we tip we do it because we have received a great service and we enjoy rewarding the waiter or receptionist whatsoever. All the time in Tel Aviv they ask you “Should I keep the change? How much do you want to add as a tip in the bill?” Apart from the first brunch place we went to, which was fantastic, I found it incredibly annoying to receive such requests for a simple, and mostly overpriced, beer or tea. In the beach bar I mentioned before we spent some 40 shekels (8 Euros) for 2 tiny cups of tea. I handed the guy a 50 and he said “Should I keep that change?”To which I replied “No, you should not”. If you go to Tel Aviv don’t hesitate to say NO. They will always push you for that. Screw that, honestly.Tel_Aviv_house

Anyway, as the centre didn’t seem to offer much, unless you are on a business trip, we headed towards Jaffa. Jaffa is one of the world’s oldest ports. It was here that the prophet Jonah started the journey that left him in the belly of a big fish (not a whale as is the common misconception!) and Andromeda was tied to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster, before later being saved by Perseus. It was also here where Peter the Apostle received a vision marking a significant ideological split between Judaism and Christianity.

Painting_Obama_Laughing

The smallish gulf of Jaffa has been the site of a fortified port town for at least 4000 years. The old city walls could no longer contain the population, and they were destroyed in the 1870s. New, more spacious neighborhoods started to appear. We also managed to find a very beautiful and hidden Greek Orthodox church where a priest was teaching the Bible to a family in Russian.

Jaffa is more Arab. You can already perceive a different and more exotic hustle and bustle on the way up to the souq and the main square. In July 2003 Tel Aviv-Yafo was declared a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site for the many “International” style (also known as Bauhaus after the German school it originated from) buildings built in the city during the 1930s-50s. As this style emphasized simplicity and the white color, Tel Aviv is in fact also called the White City.

A long day and a very early wake expect us the following day, so after having an amazing dinner nearby our hostel we head back. On a related matter and to highlights some bad practices services wise you can find in Israel, when we got to hostel after visit to Jaffa and having walked some 12-13 km, the hostel owner told us to stay for shwarma and after waiting 45 minutes he said he ran out of it. We were so pissed off and starving and this guy even chased us when we headed out to look for food. We thought he wanted to apologise. Actually, he came out shouting that “a hostel is not a restaurant and it wasn’t his fault we didn’t get any food. All this with his mouth full of hummus and chicken. We surely kept this in mind for our review on bookings.

Leila saida.

Coming next Nazareth and Galilee

Streets_of_Tel_Aviv

Middle East chronicles: Tel Aviv aiport

Here we go, off to Israel. I had been waiting for this trip for a very long time. I have studied in depth the Middle East and the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and the political situation of the Holy Land. I have watched tons of documentaries and read guide books prior to my departure but I was sure that the upcoming firsthand experience would be quite telling.

We leave from the unusual airport of Liége which is used by many of the orthodox Jews living in the Antwerp community and take a Jetair flight to Tel Aviv. We get there after 4 and half hours and already I’m struck by the first surprise. Ben Gurion airport is incredible. It’s certainly one the most modern and advanced airport I have ever been to and at midnight it is super busy with all shops, duty-frees and cafes open. It’s exactly how it was described in the book Chronicles from Jerusalem by Guy Deslile.

The second surprise though was not that positive. I knew I would have some problems due to the Lebanese stamp I got on my passport after last year’s visit to the country but at the beginning things were going smoothly.

Passport control guy: What are you going to do in Israel?

Me: Just tourism.

Passport control guy:  Where are you going?

Me: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (I didn’t mention my planned visits to the West Bank)

Long pause…

Passport control guy:  When were you in Lebanon?

Me: Last year in April

Passport control guy:  Why?

Me: Just tourism

Passport control guy:  Your girlfriend can go. You will get your passport later. Now go to the room at the back

Me: OK (but actually thinking “oh shit”)

We go to a small room nearby and wait. Some other people were there just waiting for questioning. This slight misadventure actually turned out to be a blessing as it was in that room that we met some of the people we ended up travelling with. Some really cool people. A funny thing of that moment was that the TV in the room was showing South Park episodes with Hebrew subs…

Tore, a Danish teacher, had been to other Arab countries including Lebanon and Syria and had been waiting for a little while before we came. He’s a cool guy displaying a tattoo on his left arm. He offers me some wine gums straightaway which of course I can’t refuse and we start talking about why we ended up in that corner.

Mustafa is a Syrian movies studies graduate who’s been living in the US for many years. His nationality is the reason for him being held. He will turn out to be a great traveler, friend and valuable source of information about Syria and the Middle East. He even spoke Hebrew. He’s a really resourceful man.

Mickey is 17 years old. His family is Palestinian but he’s grown up in Chicago. He’s trying to reach some of his relatives up in Nablus but his origin and his “pro-Palestine” bracelet got him away. He’d been in the room for hours already and missed his train to his destination but he acts calm as he sort of saw this coming.

Ben_Gurion_Airport_Waiting_Room
In Ben Gurion’s waiting room with the other people waiting. I think I was lucky to be held and having had the opportunity to meet such incredible people

People are held for questioning for the most disparate reasons. Another Canadian guy was held and questioned for an Azerbaijiani stamp on his passport. A retired German couple was held because they booked accommodation in the West Bank. Total absurdities.

After two hours, they finally call me. The guard goes straight to the point. “It won’t be long” she says. She must be 21 or 22 years old max and she seems friendly. Of course she has to deal with loads of people (justly) annoyed by the absurdity of this over night waiting and she tries to be cool. At 3AM I tried my best to be calm too as I wanted badly to go to bed.

Here we go.

Guard: Can you tell me why you went to Lebanon?

Me: Just tourism.

Guard: Why?

Me: What do you mean?

Guard: What is to be seen in Lebanon?

Me: Well, Beirut is a beautiful city and I also went to the historic city of Baalbek (completely omitted my visits to Tripoli and Sour. Just tried to keep short and concise)

Guard: Have you been to other Arab countries or Middle East?

Me: Yes. Morocco, Tunisia, Cyprus (if you consider it Middle East), Turkey and Lebanon.

Guard: Where do you work?

Me: At the European Commission.

Guard: What do you do?

Me: I’m a Social Media analyst

Long pause..

Guard: What’s your religion?

Me: I’m not religious

Guard: What about your parents?

Me: Not religious (not true)

Guard: What about your grandparents?

Me: (Thinking “what the hell is this?”) Well, as they were an Italian couple during the 30s in Italy I assumed they were Catholic.

The conversation continues and the weirdest questions were asked

Guard: How long are you with your girlfriend? Do you have friends in Arab countries? What were your previous jobs? Do you use Facebook…?

I answer in syllables as I know any hesitation would give me away. They are trained and they do that every day, but I know how communication works.

We finally leave and share a taxi with the German couple I mentioned before and reach our hostel. We get a first glance of the city. It’s Thursday night and it is exactly how they described it to me. In Israel the week starts on Sunday and Friday and Saturday are off, hence Thursday is the party night.

Tel Aviv is called “The city that never stops” by tourists and locals alike. It has a massive range of pubs, bars, clubs and it is known worldwide for its nightlife. The entire city is crawling with nightlife attractions and you would actually have to work pretty hard to find yourself further than 500 meters away from a place to have a drink. People from the entire surrounding region come to Tel Aviv to have a drink or a party so on weekend’s traffic is hectic at late hours. But any day is a good day to party in Tel Aviv, not just the weekends.

New places are opening and closing every day and the “hottest spots” change every couple of months, so no internet guide will be able to direct you to the hippest place. One of the most popular drinks is the local Goldstar beer and at the moment (2010) the Arabic drink, Arak (it means “sweat” in Arabic) is all the rage in pubs and bars.

Even though all this was available to us we were pretty tired from the trip and went straight to bed in the Montefiori Chef hostel after having paid an absurd 15 Euros late arrival fee!!!!! Do not go this hostel. The owner turned out to be the rudest idiot I have ever met in my life. Anyway, part 1 is over.

Coming up, chronicles from Tel Aviv and Jaffa by day…

Violence in Syria overtakes UN undemocratic policies

Violence against Syrian civilians continues unremittingly. Homs is under siege and air attack for five days and the images shown by Al Jazeera do not leave room for imagination about the perpetuation of the military’s atrocities. After the ludicrous and laghable sharade put up by Arab League’s delegates in Homs in late December , the VETO at the UN Security Council by China and Russia resounds like a dramatic slap to human rights and principles of international humanitarian law.

Just yesterday. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated that “The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has been making fresh promises to end violence in his country, talk to the opposition, and bring in reforms“. The incredulity of political analysts and policy makers should reverberate high into world media when listening to such words of manifest and indignant defiance towards the worst humanitarian crisis of the Arab awakening. The b lame for non-intervention in Syria against Assad’s violence on civilians will fall on Russian and Chinese heads the same way it happened during Neville’s appeasement policy  in 1938.  There are no more legal, ethical, political or economic motivations to postpone intervention to avoid inevitable carnage, humanitarian disaster and historic social devastation.