Talking about Gaza: what’s possible/what’s not

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It’s possible to be Jewish and oppose the Israeli military operation ‘Protective Edge’ in Gaza.

It’s possible to be Israeli and oppose it.

It’s possible to be an ex-IDF soldier, or to have a family member in the IDF, and oppose it.

It’s possible to be a rabbi and oppose it.

It’s even possible to be a self-identified Zionist and oppose it.

It’s possible to empathise profoundly with people who have to endure living under the sickening threat of missiles, rockets and terrorist attacks in crowded public spaces and with the fear of having to put your kids to bed at night not being certain you will be able to protect them from this violence, and to still oppose the war in Gaza.

It’s possible to be an Israeli academic, writer, or world-renowned expert on the Israeli-Arab conflict and oppose it.

It’s possible to believe that Hamas is a violent extremist organisation that uses civilian structures and civilians themselves as human shields to further their military/political objectives, and exploits the deaths of Palestinian children to change or manipulate international public opinion – and oppose it.

It’s possible to oppose it on the grounds of a moral-political logic that is not simplistic, reductive, myopic, ignorant, hypocritical, non-pragmatic, the byproduct of black-and-white thinking, or racist.

What’s not possible is to have a meaningful/rational/constructive/respectful debate with those who do not strongly oppose Israel’s military actions in this latest outbreak of conflict – usually on the grounds of the military and/or moral right to self-defense – but who are not open-minded enough to consider the possibility that those who do might NOT be brainwashed, misinformed, deluded, stupid, hippy-dippy, politically naive, pro-Hamas, anti-Israel (whatever that means) or anti-Semitic lemmings.

The reflexive defensiveness that seems to have infected the majority of this “side” is extremely frustrating and depressing. It makes me, as one of many others, think that the future for Israel, Palestine and the rest of us on the planet is looking pretty dark at the moment.

On procrastination/blogger’s block

I want to confess into the Internet ether that for months and months I’ve been stuck with this blog. Badly stuck. This post is about the learning arc ­– how I wound up in a procrastination sinkhole, and how I’ve managed to start crawling out.

Diagnosis

Procrastination can take over a person’s life like chronic disease. Left untreated, it can turn one’s mind into a sinkhole of anxiety and avoidance, a fetid gaseous swamp strewn with the skeletons of late essays, superannuation forms, expired kale, unfinished novels and unused gym subscriptions… a place where schedules and dreams go to suffocate and die.

Early diagnosis is therefore important.

In Mae Sot I flailed under the weight of self-imposed expectations (to write every day, blog 3 x a week, etc.) Not posting on events as they happened made me stressed, pressured, behind. I thought it meant the blog would be a flop. But I couldn’t seem to squeeze out more than one a month, and as the weeks went by and the events and ideas and experiences and photos and hyperlinks and draft posts started mounting I felt more and more behind, like Sisyphus with his boulder on a pathetic mound of mediocre grass.

In the New Year I fell into the sinkhole and by then even the thought of blogging invoked anxiety and frustration, which worsened my aversion and, from there, my avoidance. It was like being encased in wet, hardening, mental cement. Like a window was closing but I couldn’t jump through.

Towards the end, I started entertaining the thought that maybe everyone was right – maybe it didn’t matter that I hadn’t blogged that much about the Thai-Burma border while I was there on it. Huh. Then I started reading more about how others have found it hard to maintain their blogs and writing practice. This helped to detangle my negative thoughts and turn the heaving, leaking vessel that is my procrastinating mind around.

Management

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers and would-be writers. A list of some practical tips and insights I’ve been finding helpful:

–       Aim Low. This one is hard. It means replacing perfectionistic delusions with Realistic Expectations (RE). The problem is that sometimes aiming high works and when it does it tends to attract a lot of positive feedback. However, clinging with white knuckles onto an unrealistically high bar is invariably a bad idea. Leaving you dangling in mid-air, petrified, your lofty goals eluding you, it leads to discouragement, dissatisfaction, tiredness and feelings of failure, which can lead to real failure – the failure to do anything at all except whimper on the floor with a sprained mind. Lowering the bar is therefore a critical first step (like Airway, Breathing, Circulation).

–       “Keep your doing and your deciding away from one another this nugget was airdropped into my inbox from Raptitude, which is like a humanitarian blog for internal-conflict-affected writers. It made me realize that most of writing, and living, comes down to micro-decision making – what David Foster Wallace called ‘the work of choosing’. This is something that takes a lot of practice but is easy to avoid. And when you’re a chronic over-thinker, infected with self-doubt, it makes sense that you would go to pains to scurry away from it.

–       “Worry destroys the ability to write” — Hemingway. Yup. Fear disables decision-making. Anti-anxiety strategies are therefore essential.

–       Distraction is a never-ending threat. Fear + Doubt + Distraction = the worst. Being ‘on the grid’ in this situation can mean paralytic indecision, hence this incisive piece of wisdom from Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

–       ‘The Redirect Technique’ – one of Life Hacker’s ‘Six scientifically-supported ways to crush procrastination’. This is about procrastinating well, with intention e.g. by doing the washing up, or going for a run (the best). Virginia Woolfe advocated ‘gentle exercise in the air’ and getting ‘out of life’ as ways to overcome writer’s block. She is also quoted as saying “My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often it’s most profitable way”.

–       Self-forgiveness = another effective, evidence-based antidote. No matter what you’re procrastinating about, it can lead to guilt, however nonsensical and indulgent that guilt might be. When this happens, self-flagellation is never a good idea. Unlike with aiming high, it doesn’t work. It makes everything worse, always. Giving oneself a break, both literally and morally, is very important. Learnt that the hard way….

Remission – out of the sinkhole

On that note, I’m going to re-start this blog with a less self-defeating, flea-like, dilatory mindset and some revised aims: to embrace failure; let go of what I was trying to do; remind self that every post is a small, irrelevant experiment, not some legally binding public document.

Also, to be more optimistic. When I told a friend about my blogging woes she told me to stop whining and think of “Proust and the biscuit”. This is in reference to a well-known part of In Search of Lost Time where biting into a Madeline evokes a flood of involuntary memories in the narrator, who relives them all in the one compressed moment.

What I take from this is that life isn’t linear. Blogging definitely isn’t linear. This means it really doesn’t matter if I blog retrospectively about Mae Sot from London, or wherever. Maybe there will be upsides to doing it this way.

Even if not, everything is still clear in my mind. And I’ve been taking a lot of notes.

Back in London: You can’t go home again (phew!!)

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After just over 7 months in Mae Sot I’m back living in London.

It’s a funny feeling – not the affluenza-induced despair I was expecting (Westfield-Bondi Junction popped that cherry) but a dreamy inversion, like I’m traveling through my adopted hometown.

On this reverse travel high, familiar things take on an unfamiliar quality – bricks, pavements, Airwaves gum, Pret-A-Manger, brown leather jackets, shuddering traintracks. The glowing aisles of Sainsbury’s. The pulsing bells of Southwark Cathedral. The tired, ironic voice-overs of beleaguered British tube drivers telling their passengers over and over to “mind the closing doors”.

It’s still the same old London but everything’s all buffed up and dewy, like a freshly washed car. I’m being mindful without even trying. Maybe this is the silver lining to that melancholic phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

Bricks… bricks!!

What does it mean to travel? Why does everyone like it so much? I think it’s to do with this filter-bending effect it induces, a sensory trick akin to popping a pair of glasses back on after wiping off the dirt streaks. It reminds me of the way I felt bike-riding around Mae Sot. It’s what makes travel so drug-like, the flipside being that coming home carries the risk of a comedown. Even after a brief weekend away, the returned traveler can feel deflated, morose, hungover; after a relatively long time they may fall prey to ‘reverse culture shock’, where the dip is more pronounced, and the sudden transition back to R.L. causes them to plummet to a miserable, alienated “re-entry” funk at the bottom of a U-shape curve.

I’ve often been left frustrated and dissatisfied by short trips over international borders, many of which I’d throw in the Tourism (not Travel) basket. I never felt like they had a much of an effect, and if they did it was almost imperceptible or wore off immediately. Living somewhere else rather than just passing through means the effects of travel are more likely to stick, for better or worse. In the end this is what makes the whole expensive, tiring, disaster-prone enterprise worthwhile.

Maybe the way you feel coming home is a sort of litmus test for how meaningful/life-changing a trip really was, if that was the intention?

For the moment the effects of this one seem to be lasting, like they did, mostly, while I was away. This is helped by my current situation. A series of bureaucratic obstacles have meant I haven’t been able to start back at hospital yet so instead of going to work I’ve been spending mornings, afternoons and early evenings wandering around Zone 1 like a badly dressed dandy thinking through abstract philosophical questions while listening to songs on my iPhone. The other day I went for a walk along Southbank beside the stale, lapping olive-grey Thames water. Watching heavy clouds lit up an eerie periwinkle blue trip over the surface, moment by moment, I thought of how neurons are like filter paper and how it’s like the ISO has gone up on mine so that now I can absorb a lot more in conditions of low lighting – literally. A handy ability to have in the UK!

Low-lying London clouds

Low-lying clouds

I want this grainy ISO-400 clean-clothes-out-of-the-dryer feeling to last, and I hope the change in perspective it brings proves more durable than a disposable contact lens from Specsavers. I really hope it doesn’t evaporate as soon as I step through the automated doors into A+E next week (gulp). I don’t want to revert back to my pre-departure baseline. Somehow, I want to stave off hedonic adaptation[1], however inevitable it might be.

Watch this space.


[1] From Wikipedia: the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

Quote of the month (and before-bed reminder)

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph. 19th century American essayist, leader of the Transcendentalist movement, a prescient intellect. I wonder what he would be like as a psychotherapist.

‘Inside Burma’ – on the night bus

726pm. I’m inspecting a wilted chocolate doughnut and unidentified bun squished into a small cardboard box with flowy Burmese writing on it. KG is not interested. She’s sitting in the puffed-up recliner next to me, huddled in a fluorescent apricot CottonOn hoodie that looks a lot brighter than she does, staring up at the TV screen, which, incidentally, is playing the same music video of an albino popstar that’s always on in Lucky’s teahouse in Mae Sot – weird.

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This is the second night bus we’ve caught on this trip and I’m the one who made us get it, instead of a significantly more expensive flight, despite KG’s besieged intestinal tract not being 100% recovered. Although it smells like garlic cloves in here and the air-conditioning has that Legionella-feel to it, it’s sort of warm and cozy (not literally – technically it’s v. v. cold).

We waited around for several hour in this strange, chaotic makeshift terminal on the side of the road, straddling our backpacks expectantly. The driver and most of the other staff of the Shwe Mandalar bus company are loud middle-aged men with their bellies stuffed tightly into dark green longyis. They herded us on and chuckled explosively when I attempted (in Burmese then in English) to check this was the 730pm bus to Yangon. HAHAHA??!!

We haven’t started moving yet. An eager younger man in a pressed white shirt just brought round a tray of Sunkist cans. He looked confused when we declined.

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On top of the snack box and the soft pink blanket with bunnies on it, it looks like we get a complementary toothbrush- yay!!

 

 

 

I am feeling overwhelmed with guilty excitement. Guilty because I’m a lot more excited, it would seem, than my travel counterpart. The garlic-clove smell isn’t sitting well. She is looking unimpressed and a bit pale…

127am. We’ve pulled into a vast and bustling highway market with a series of all-night cafeterias. All the spare change and bright, jangling lights make it feel a bit like a casino. And at the same time, it feels vaguely… communist? Maybe part of the dictatorship hangover?

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KG’s perked up after adjusting to the bus smell and we’ve been ranting at each other about relationships, being 30, jobs, biological injustice, men – specifically Australian men – and what’s wrong with them. Neither of us has needed the toilet up till now, which is lucky because there isn’t one on board. My night bus guilt is starting to fade.

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In the stores they’re selling avocados and oranges, packets of banana chips, an infinite range of fried snacks, jellies and plastic jars filled with things that look like dried black fungus.

 

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Some of the labels have Snow White on them.

 

 

 

I just bought a big glutinous grey rice-based blob of something wrapped in plastic but threw it in the bin after a couple of thought-provoking chews. I also bought a bottle of white ‘grape wine’. KG rolled her eyes at this. It seems I’m impulse spending. And I think I just saw a monk instagram something. Brain over-stimulated. Starting to get very tired.

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“Want to see the long-necks?” On the tourist trail Part 2

KG has no appetite but is feeling a bit better so this afternoon we ventured down to the jetty with a stray backpacker and booked a half-day tour of Inle Lake. We were plonked down in a long-tail boat with a small but vocal motor, which spluttered single-file down a streaming waterway lined with sugar canes, green reeds and wilting banana palms.

After 30 minutes the waterway widened out into the main body of the lake, a blue surface dotted with stick-figures of the Intha leg-rowing fishermen balanced upright on the backs of their boats man-handling those large webbed baskets. Tired, reluctant mountains sat in the background like low-lying blocks of muddy, uncut sapphire. Other boats and bright clumps of weed passed by. The thin air, strong light and dusky, plethoric faces reminded me of Lake Titicaca.

Like a scene from 'Jaws'. But who's the shark?

Like a scene from ‘Jaws’. But who’s the shark?

First stop was a floating market. Inle Lake is typically listed as one of Burma’s ‘Top 5’ attractions and Wikitravel had warned us that the standard itinerary involves being taken to a relentless series of workshops and shops-on-stilts selling products like woven fabrics, silverware, tobacco and handmade cheroots, all set up exclusively for tourists. Time Travel Turtle advised (on his blog), ‘Just be prepared to feel like you’re on a Disneyland ride, gliding along with a camera and no control.’

Our boat driver, like the hawkers in town, kept reminding us we could go and “see the long-necks” if we wanted. It’s a jarring concept. Inside some of the dimly lit souvenir shops, a handful of Padaung women are sitting around waiting to be… viewed? Or photographed, or to sell something? I’m still not really sure. Aside from intuitive shame, I was vaguely aware of some of the ethical quandaries involved in this sort of spectacle (to see or not to see, etc.). There are active (annoying) debates on TripAdvisor about whether it’s ok to take photos or not. There’s also the question of whether it’s ‘real’.

The Padaung[1], from the Kayan Kahwi ethnic group of Eastern Burma, are widely known around the world for their tradition of women (sometimes called “giraffe women”, hmn) wearing heavy brass coils around their neck, typically from around the age of 5. As they grow, more rings get added year by year. This compresses the collarbone and ribcage, eventually leading to the appearance of an elongated neck. Someone told us they’re not from Inle Lake but are brought in from other areas of Shan State by business owners as bait for curious, cashed-up tourists. It’s even been alleged that the rings are fake – that it’s now only the elderly members of the tribe who practice the custom[2] and the younger girls take them off at the end of a shift before heading home.

I wonder what it’s like to effectively sell a part of your identity (your ‘self’) and try to make an income from your family traditions, your literal image, your depressed clavicles? What’s it like to be an object of “the tourist gaze” ? Real or not, the blatant commodification of ethnic identity raises strange and disquieting questions. Are the Padaung women and girls wearing the rings just to cater to the voyeuristic demands of affluent tourists on an ironic quest for spoon-fed authenticity? And what would they be doing otherwise, besides weaving?

I wandered in, past a middle-aged woman and two teenagers serving weak green tea at the entrance. They were all wearing the rings. A brief look – their necks appeared to be longer. Feeling self-conscious (the height of narcissism?), I went over to a collection of carved wooden statues, jewelry and discardable trinkets spread out on some large tables, picked up a jade bracelet, a flimsy pair of silver earrings, then put them down again. My hand gravitated towards my wallet like an trigger finger but I couldn’t concentrate because of all the shop assistants hovering around with their soft, imploring smiles. When I asked how much something was in Burmese, one raised her voice and started calling me ‘sister’ (as in ‘sister, buy this one!’). It was awkward and a bit depressing.

Outside I walked into a flashbulb of sunshine. An elderly woman with no teeth sidled up to our boat and tried to sell me a soggy bunch of reeds for 100 kyats, with eventual success.

I’ve come to realize that the touristic encounter is almost always dissatisfying, for the tourist at least. And the Padaung women aside (uh oh more narcissism..), what about my identity, my mode of being-in-the-world?? I don’t want it to be reduced down to ritual acts of consumption. It feels somehow demeaning to both parties. Even though I don’t mind watching money flow heavily across 1st/3rd world membranes, it’s no fun to be treated like a walking – or floating – ATM.

In the end we convinced our reluctant driver to bypass the other floating shops and take us to a floating village instead.[3] I spose the idea was to see local residents going about their everyday lives – hanging out the washing, tending to their water-gardens, taking a bath under the house, transporting vegetables to and from the markets. 

Jaws 2? This time we are the annoying shark.

Jaws 2. This time we are definitely the shark.

We were steered passively past rows of stilted houses with satellite dishes and washing lines with T-shirts and strips of bamboo drying in the sun. We passed through a dense network at the edge of some algae blooms and “floating gardens” where Intha farmers plant crops like tomatoes on beds of water hyacinth, marsh vegetation and soil anchored down by bamboo rods. We learnt there are lots of nutrients in the lake-water, which is known for its ecological diversity. Like a scene from a B-grade movie called “What Tourists Want”, we were on a 3-hour quest for a glimpse of ‘the authentic’, propelled by an intrusive and creepy inclination ‘to experience…life through the perspective of an “Other”’. And one noisy boat-motor.

This brief view of aquaculture and what it’s like to live on stilts/not be able to step out your front door was interesting, but I still felt like a gawker in a human zoo – a pale, sedentary, self-loathing gawker hiding their post-modern tourist gaze uncomfortably behind a pair of UV-protective sunglasses[4], my filter of privilege, my 1st world neoliberal capitalist lens.

Inle Lake is a tourist trap but it’s not the rule. For the moment, tourists can still pretty much get what they (we, sigh!!) want in Burma/Myanmar because the encounters are still novel and, unlike the rest of South East Asia, I think for the most part the buzz is felt on both sides. This makes it feel more equal, more genuine, more ‘real’ – like human beings from different cultures in a part-meaningful, part-economic exchange with one another. A two-way street, not a cheap transaction.

Not like handing over thousands of mould-ridden kyats for a jade bracelet that I’m still wondering whether I should have bought.


[1] The question of what name to use is a loaded one. Identity labels are rarely straightforward in Burma/Myanmar, where even the name of the country is a raw bone of contention.

[2] Reasons proposed for why the rings are worn have included: to protect from tiger bites, to discourage slave-traders, to enhance femininity and attractiveness to Padaung men (hmnph). These days it’s mostly thought to be worn as a marker of cultural identity.

[3] It’s cheap to hire a boat partly because the drivers earn even more from commissions at the shops they take you to. Now I feel guilty for diverting ours to the village. Lose-lose aaargh!!

[4] A good idea given the relatively high altitude and my/KG’s anxieties about fine lines.

On the tourist trail Part 1

This morning was taken up wandering around Nyaungshwe town, Shan State, on a quest for a cheaper guesthouse. It was hot and our backpacks are heavy and KG is still unwell. After the sixth monotonous  ‘…….No’, we scratched our heads, looked around and realized we’re surrounded by Chinese tourists. Busloads of them, literally. With new buses arriving every day. Now almost everything’s booked out. Ugh.

Tourism has been a major driver of Myanmar’s rapidly unfurling economy since the 1996 boycott was lifted three years ago. The number of international visitors shot up from 300,000 in 2010 to about a million in 2012; last year hit a record high of 2 million; and there’s a ‘Master Plan’ in place for a yearly forecast of 7.5 million by 2020. The service industry in a scramble to keep up is apparently experiencing some growing pains in the form of rising travel costs and hotel shortages. In the words of one European restaurant owner it’s ‘a big baby’, in need of intensive support and supervision. This means more trainings, HR, oversight, investment – the rusk sticks and Bonjela for economic teething woes.

This view was echoed even less diplomatically by an incensed young German one night in a bar, where we had found ourselves out late with a bunch of earlytwentysomething travelers. He had been in Bagan for 3 months trying to instil order and reason and systems of accountability into the hotel he had been somehow charged with managing.

After the second bottle of Myanmar beer, at the climax of a never-ending rant about his valiant but futile attempts to raise the baseline salaries of his unappreciative employees, he went a bit livid with sweat beads, bulging forehead veins and tense jaw muscles appearing. I think at one point even threw his large menacing hands up into the air in a display of moral despair.[1]

I guess with this sort of exponential influx it’s bound to be a bumpy ride. But from an economically ignorant outsider’s perspective things seem pretty on track. It’s true that often our requests to order something or inquire about room availability have been met with expressions of blank apathy, incomprehension and mild fear, and that most of the teenage-looking waiters and hotel receptionists don’t seem 100% engaged with their new jobs, and that the prices are a lot, lot higher than in good old Thailand. But aside from this morning’s room situation, I’ve felt all my touristy needs are being scarily well-catered to. In fact, everything’s too easy. I feel like a big tourist baby, one with some very big handfuls of kyats and US dollars on her person.

Economic efficiency is a laudable aim blah blah but I nevertheless hope the ongoing international influx doesn’t bring with it too many more German managers.

[1] N.B. Jerk factor aside, German/Burmese is not an ideal culture combination.