The Grass is Always Greener. New review on “Locus Pocus”

Foreign Policy, Reading and Writing, Travel, War

Walls and Religion, near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo by me).

My review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography is now published on If you are interested in additional resources or have questions about the region, please send me a note or post your questions below. A modest excerpt:

Simon Sebag Montefiore writes of Jerusalem Syndrome, a “madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion” that arises out of the Jerusalem experience. “The contrast between the real and heavenly cities is so excruciating than a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s asylum.” Like many visitors who came before me, I was disappointed. Jerusalem felt forsaken, less religious than a bowling alley.


Rapid Review: Palestine by Joe Sacco

Reading and Writing, Travel, War

Excerpt from Palestine

Joe Sacco takes us through the Occupied Palestinian Territories during the first intifada against Israel in his comic documentary penned during that same time. From the Green Line and back, he relays events from the other side of the (security) fence, sharing tea and tragedies with the people living there, trying to lead his reader toward a more germane understanding the Palestinian odyssey. Sacco remains a diligent observer and a fact-checking savant* ensuring the absence of morose sentimentality in his reportage while at the same time escaping the tedium of traditional news coverage. To wit, the terms “militant” and “terrorist” are used more judiciously, if at all, and his coverage thus is less laden with the weight of such terminology. He conveys a malevolent and complicated situation in palatable form (i.e. drawings), doing so without being beholden to advertisers or ideologues, and travels through a land where many have yet to explore.

Still, Sacco is no fence-sitter himself. We are shown Palestinian injustices on a Goliath-like scale: convictions without trials, systemic land grabs, arbitrary torture, refugee ghettos, house demolitions, and Israeli settlers cruising the streets with Uzis like it’s the Wild West. Frame after frame, Sacco barrages us with images that underline the paranoia and the chaos of a people under the shadow of a long and controversial military occupation. Words and images intermingle on the page, mostly in all capital letters amid a proliferation of bared teeth and close-up grimaces. Yet Sacco too, sees small tokens of humor amid the bleakness. With great wit, he pokes fun at the monotony of Palestinians’ repetitive and dreary stories, the apathy of the Israel Defense Forces, the ubiquitous rock-throwing kids, and his own journalistic glee at witnessing some “bang bang.” Though at its core, the humor is dark indeed.

As one Palestinian after another gets beaten or imprisoned in Sacco’s book, you begin to wonder, is this an exaggeration, rendered even more so by its comic form? Having spent two months in the West Bank myself, Sacco’s Palestine is, I firmly concede, the next best thing to being there. In this comic book, there is no foreseeable happy ending for anyone, if even an ending at all.

Fast-forward to today, post-intifada, and nothing much has changed, and in some parts of Israel, life is worse. In other words, in an ever-increasing borderless world, there are still places where walls are erected. To wit: the barrier between Israel and Palestine is expanding, and Israel persists in building settlements in expressly Palestinian sections of the country despite UN resolutions against such a thing. And while Israel enjoys foreign trade with Mexico, Canada, the USA, and the EU, Palestinians enjoy trade with basically just Israel**. Whether you agree with Israeli policy or not, Sacco shows us unencumbered facts on the ground, and through his rigorous research and observation that though violence has ebbed, the struggle over the land and the people who live there continues unabated, and his book, unfortunately, remains timeless.

* At a reading in Berkeley, CA, Sacco stated he typically confirmed a story through diligent research and obtaining back up sources where available.
**  Though technically Gaza maintains trade with Egypt, the border between the two countries is intermittently closed and in March 2006, it was closed 60% of the time, seriously hindering substantial trade

On Colonization–-Ants and Chávez, both of which I can see from my balcony.

Foreign Policy, War

Look, our rental agent pointed over the balcony. You can see Venezuela from here on a clear day. I felt smug, as smug as Sarah Palin in a Nieman Marcus suit as I looked over the Caribbean Sea toward Venezuela, from a balcony in Curaçao. We’ll take it! I shouted.

Not long after we move in, ants colonize the apartment. I blame my husband for bringing them home from work (he did). I blame our landlord because we have no hot water (we don’t). I blame the windows being open (we will suffocate if we close them). I blame the stagnant water in the shower, the sink, the puddles after a thunderstorm. I blame the garbage, my husband for generating the garbage, the cat litter, the cat. I Windex the ants in their endless armies, wiping up thousands in one sheet of Bounty. But still they come. They come no matter how much Windex I squirt, no matter how much I drown them, trap them, squish them with paper towels, my fingertips. They come and they keep on coming, marching straight from the balcony to the cool gray tiles of our new apartment.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez is rumored to be boosting his reserve army. Is he anticipating the October dissolution of the Netherland Antilles when Curaçao becomes independent from the Netherlands, and planning to march right on in? Or is the gossip just part of the oral scare tactics lobbed at the American presence there? Where there is change there is uncertainty, and where there is uncertainty, there is usually a tyrant.

The nebulously forming governance of Curaçao is likely to be uneventful, as it will be under the Mothership’s genteel directive for some time. However, with the handover less than one week away, it is still unclear what Curaçao will even use for a monetary unit, never mind how to handle unhinged South American blowhards.

Curaçao is about 40 miles from Venezuela’s coast, contains a natural and large deep water port, and hosts a massive oil refinery, ISLA, which is owned by the Dutch government and leased to the Venezuelan state oil company, PdVSA. The adjacent tank depot holds somewhere around 16 million barrels of crude and is Venezuela’s central staging platform for oil shipments to China. For years, Chávez has been saber rattling, convinced the American Air Force installation (FOL – Forward Operation Location) in Curaçao is planning an invasion on his country, or at a minimum, spying on him. The FOL, presumably, is there to assist with counter-drug trafficking efforts in the region. In an endless cycle of threats and buffoonery, Chávez often states he will stop refinery operations if the FOL isn’t kicked off the island. The tenuous threat, unlikely to unglue the NATO bond between the Netherlands and America, feeds into local fears, to the point that a political opposition party formed around the desire to gain complete independence from the Netherlands, and even agrees with Chávez’s anti-FOL sentiment. In addition, political sources here say opposition parties receive significant funds from Venezuelan sources. Add to the hotpot, the Build, Own, and Operate plant (BOO) that produces electricity for the refinery (and the country), is often unable to supply ISLA with enough power to operate. From what I understand, the refinery workers, frustrated, go on strike and island rumors whip around faster than a hurricane heading toward Florida; people hear and believe that Chávez has closed the refinery. Before the end of the day, gas stations have run out of fuel and people are buying candles by the dozen. Of course Chávez does nothing to dispel the rumors.

Ah, but will Chávez bite off his nose to spite his face? The refinery is one of few that can contend with the oil that Venezuela’s Maracaibou Basin produces. And, with its close proximity to Venezuela, deep port, oil rig and ship repair capacity, access to markets afar, is Curaçao an asset Chávez can afford to give up? In the past, the refinery was a prodigious employer, but recently, hampered by an aging facility that is largely unprofitable and damaging public health and the environment, it is becoming a liability for the tourist-seeking island. So why not just get rid of him and his haphazard oil diplomacy?

Tyrants are usually not predictable. He could possibly blow up the refinery, in a “if I can’t have it then you can’t” fashion, like Saddam did in Kuwait years ago. He could start a war, convinced that the small Dutch military stationed here and the American FOL would be caught by surprise. Or, perhaps while the newly formed government is learning to tie its shoes, Chávez, like my ants, will try to find the smallest crack, the weak link, in which to slip through, unencumbered by the powers that menace him. If he can throw enough money to opposition parties, create enough fear, and make the refinery a necessity, rather than a liability to the island, he just may forge an unimpeded passage through these vast waters. With proximity on his side, fuzzy governance, and an American administration that would rather avert a fight, it’s the perfect trifecta for a victor seeking enemies of convenience, targets for despotism, anti-Western rhetoric, and unhampered transit for a deluded vision.

While Chávez watches Curaçao, I’m watching him (or at least the mountains of Venezuela) while I zap row upon row of ants, marching along the grout lines. I am slowly killing them all because they are so busy with their own priorities, they don’t see my Windex nozzle staring them down. Meanwhile, if the power goes out because it is being usurped by ISLA, I will consider buying a windmill to generate my own electricity and use it to blow the pesky ants into the sea and the smoke from the refinery along with them.