He doesn’t exactly have the typical diplomat’s resumé: Overthrew father in a coup; travels with his own orchestra; and comes from a country that until relatively recently didn’t have newspapers.
But Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch of Oman since 1970, reportedly played a key role in facilitating the secret US-Iran talks leading up to today’s “historic” nuclear deal, according to the Associated Press. His involvement offers a reminder of the colorful deal-making, sometimes by unlikely characters, that has long been an integral part of the Middle Eastern landscape.
Sultan Qaboos was educated first in India and then at Britian’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – that venerable institution that claims among its diverse alumni Winston Churchill, King George Tupou V of Tonga, and Maj. Allan Cameron, a Scot who helped establish the International Curling Federation.
His worldly education may help explain how the sultan became something of a renaissance man. Not only does he play the organ and lute himself, but in 1985 he established what may be the Arab world’s only homegrown symphony orchestra.
He is also credited with gradually modernizing the country and improving education. Oman’s first newspaper was established a year after he took over, and while the country still has limited press freedom and the sultan has struggled to mollify a restive youth population, it’s generally seen as more liberal than some of its neighbors.
Robert Kaplan, a writer for the Atlantic who visited the country before the Arab upheavals of 2011, wrote that he had “never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way,” likening Sultan Qaboos to minimalist Scandinavian leaders.
Perhaps part of the difference stems from the fact that Oman is isolated from much of the rest of the Arabian peninsula by a formidable mountain range, while Iran is just across the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway for global oil shipments that has at times raised tensions between the US and Iran.
As early as 2009, according to Wikileaks, the sultanate offered to arrange talks between the US and Iran – which hadn’t had diplomatic relations for 30 years – on condition that they were kept quiet to avoid “heated atmospherics.” But it was reportedly the hostage crisis of three American “hikers” that brought him into a mediating role between the two sides and helped win the release of Sarah Shroud, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal, who were arrested and accused of spying while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border.
With that success in his pocket, he offered to facilitate a US-Iran rapprochement, the AP reports. In March, US and Iranian officials met in Oman, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up in May, and the talks took on a momentum of their own after Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s June elections.
Sultan Qaboos wasn’t in front of the cameras in Geneva, nor were there any missives from Oman today trumpeting his success. But he is no doubt enjoying the fruits of his work, perhaps over a cup of British tea with Mozart playing in the background.
The commute between Ramallah and Jerusalem has just become easier – or at least those enduring the daily ordeal now have company – thanks to a new Facebook page that provides drivers with live updates, advice, and jokes on the road conditions of one of the West Bank’s most notorious checkpoints.
The Arabic page titled, “Qalandia conditions,” with some 13,000 members, has become the go-to site to find out whether to go through the checkpoint right now, wait for a bit longer, or take one of several significantly longer roads to avoid the insane drivers who go over roundabouts and blithely speed ahead in the wrong lane to get to the front of the line.
“How’s Qalandia looking this morning?” asks one user. Split seconds later, several people jump in. "painful,” says one, while another offers more colorful advice: “You might as well take a mattress, you might be sleeping there.”
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Another user posted a picture of a car trying to cut the line, commenting: “Good job, smart pants.”
In 2000, after the second Palestinian intifada began, Israel built a permanent checkpoint at Qalandia, a Palestinian village and refugee camp located on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem. Over the years, it has been become a symbol of how the Israeli occupation disrupts Palestinian lives on a daily basis.
With a large container and a pedestrian crossing hemmed in by narrow metal bars and turnstiles, it looks more like a terminal. Manned by Israeli soldiers 24/7, it is the site of frequent confrontations between rock–throwing young Palestinians and Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas. Firebombs and live ammunition have been used, too, and the Israeli watchtower is scorched from firebombs and car oil hurled by Palestinian youth during protests. A large mural on Israel’s towering cement separation barrier features the late Yasser Arafat, who led the Palestinian national struggle for decades.
Locals and foreigners alike generally have plenty of time to gaze at the art or the chaos, since it can take up to three hours to get through the checkpoint, and it is unpredictable, too.
“It’s true it’s Friday,” a weekend day that should reduce the commuter traffic, “but here we are essentially parked,” one user says.
Another complains about the dozens of young children selling knickknacks or begging for money in exchange for wiping your car windshield with a dirty rag: “The boy selling [at] Qalandia has superglue on him, he sticks onto your window.”
Many have complained for years about such woes at Qalandia, but now they have a creative outlet for their frustrations and wisecracks.
One shows a man arriving home, and his elderly mother asks, “Where have you been all this time, your brother from the United States is already here.”
“Mom, I’ve been stuck in Qalandia traffic,” he answers, implying it takes longer to get home from Qalandia than the US.
A recent meme on the Facebook page shows a man standing in front of the judges of the “Arabs got talent” show and says, “I can queue in Qalandia for three hours without letting out a sound.”
When Ardie Geldman and his wife bought a car in Bethlehem, back when Israelis still flocked there to shop at lower prices, they struck up a friendship with the Palestinian car salesman that lasted a decade.
When the couple took their car back to service it, the salesman would return it to their home in the nearby settlement of Efrat – sometimes with a bouquet of flowers for Mrs. Geldman.
While such relationships have largely been suspended due to the Palestinian uprisings and Israel’s heightened restrictions on Palestinian movement, many Israeli settlers still interact with Palestinians who work on their homes or at supermarkets like the Rami Levi down the road. That may come as a surprise to foreigners who come to see the towering cement walls, covered in Palestinian graffiti about apartheid and oppression, that form part of the separation wall Israel built after the second Intifada began.
For such tourists, Israeli settlers may seem like faceless interlopers trespassing on justice. So Geldman carved out a niche for himself, first as a member of the Efrat municipality and now as an independent speaker, to explain the narrative of the more than 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria, the biblical names they prefer to use because they allude to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old ties to the land.
“I’ve always believed in what I considered to be fairness as a personal value that I uphold, and I think that these people – many of them – are not getting the whole story. They’re being told lies and half-lies,” he says, estimating that their itineraries are “97 percent biased in favor of the Palestinian narrative.”
Sometimes, when a group heads back to the bus after an hour or hour-and-a-half with Geldman, a few linger behind and thank him under their breath for telling a part of the story they’re not hearing from anybody else. “To me, that makes it worth it,” he says.
On a recent morning, he hosted a small group of Canadians at his home, explaining his story and answering their questions over coffee and tea.
He and his wife were raised in secular Jewish homes in the US, but both became religious as young adults and moved here in the early 1980s with their infant. They were one of the only homes on this dead-end road then (the population of Efrat has since grown from 1,000 to 10,000). He recounts the days when Palestinian laborers would come in and use their phone or their bathroom.
“But unfortunately those neighborly relations have come to an end,” he says, speaking the day after an 18-year-old Israeli soldier was fatally stabbed by a Palestinian teenager on a public bus in Israel. “Because we don't know if some strange Arab might have a knife in his hand and do to us what that guy from Jenin did to the Israeli soldier sleeping on the bus.”
One of the visitors asks: If Efrat became part of an eventual Palestinian state, would he and his wife stay?
“We wouldn't stay, we'd never want to live under Palestinian rule,” Geldman says, although he knows of a “leftist” settler who says he would remain. “That said, that's never going to happen, I don't think. It's like saying, what if Chicago went back to the Chippewa Indians?”
While some have drawn unfavorable parallels between Israel and America’s treatment of local populations, at least the Jewish people have an ancient tie to the land they are accused of illegally occupying, Geldman says.
“What is legitimate and illegitimate in world history?” he asks, mentioning the case of Australia as well. “People are calling us illegitimate whose entire continents were stolen.”
For 25 years, the Jewish feminist activists known as Women of the Wall have faced arrests, court battles, and allegations of upsetting public order for wrapping themselves in prayer shawls and carrying Torah scrolls – two accoutrements normally reserved for men – at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
Though the WOW movement has gained momentum in recent months, it has largely failed to garner much mainstream support in Israel, where much of the population is secular and the more modern, gender-egalitarian Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are fairly marginal among religious Jews.
But the women activists have caught the eye of designers at Comme Il Faut, one of Tel Aviv’s most cutting-edge fashion houses, and inspired their 2013-14 winter collection – entitled "There is none other besides her."
“We heard that the Women of the Wall wanted to pray out loud, which in Judaism is: Oi va voy, the responsibility is for men, and women have to shut up,” says the company's secular CEO and founder Sybil Goldfiner, who adds it's a perfect match given her company’s penchant for social commentary. “We saw their stand for women’s rights really admirable.”
Tapping into the styles worn by men in the most conservative and socially insulated Jewish community in Israel, the designers tailored elegant silhouettes that are still patently feminine. Starchy white button-down shirts, the fringed prayer shawl (or tallit), and the heavy coat were reinterpreted for pieces such as “Rachel,” which like all of the collection’s pieces is named after a biblical figure.
Beyond the aesthetics, both the designers and the activists hope to bring the controversy around religious pluralism and women’s rights to Israel’s mainstream. The world of Tel Aviv – considered the country’s commercial and cultural “bubble” – and Jerusalem, its religious and political center, "couldn't be farther apart," says WOW's PR director Shira Pruce. “But Jewish women in Israel are hungry for a way to be empowered religiously, without being stifled or silenced.”
The Comme Il Faut designers attended WOW's 25th anniversary gathering at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and proceeds from a T-shirt featuring the slogan, We lovingly give permission to one another will go to the organization.
Ms. Goldfiner, the CEO, acknowledges that her line is a political statement, but asserts that from challenging conventional images of beauty to supporting women’s prayer rights, the fashion industry has a social responsibility.
“We don’t want to just be provocative, but for us the personal is political,” she says.
For Auschwitz survivor Nahman Kahana, memories of the trains, the bodies, and the hunger were too much to bear once he arrived, “euphorically,” to Israel in 1948, he says. Plus, it wasn't a popular topic in the new state, where Jews were trying to carve out a new identity as strong and independent. (Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Kahana's name.)
Holocaust survivors were known here by the derogatory moniker, “sabon,” or soap, in reference to the rumors that Nazis made soap from the skin of Jews in the camps. Mr. Kahana preferred to forget the shameful memory of being “sheep led to the slaughter.”
So only recently has he found the fortitude to remember the “day-to-day hell” of an adolescence spent in German Nazi death camps, so he winces at a new Israeli plan to start teaching the Holocaust as early as first grade.
“This story is even difficult for an adult,” he tells me over tea in his modest Jerusalem apartment. “How can a child understand it?”
But in recent years interest in the Holocaust has grown, and has increasingly been used by Israel as a siren call to warn new generations – and the world – of the dangers of not acting against existential threats facing the state of Israel.
Israeli schools formally teach the Holocaust beginning in the 11th grade, which is often followed by a class trip to the sites of former German Nazi camps in present-day Poland, and it is not uncommon for Israeli soldiers to tour Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem, as they prepare to defend the country against its enemies.
Now, however, Israel is planning to introduce a new curriculum, designed in coordination with Yad Vashem, to teach the Holocaust to all students, beginning in first grade, Education Minister Shai Piron announced last month.
Supporters say the plan will provide a platform through which young Israelis can understand their people’s history, and Mr. Piron has promised it will be age-appropriate, but Kahana and others say it will scar children unnecessarily. Many are also calling the plan a political ploy meant to guilt and traumatize children into a certain kind of patriotism.
“In the first grade you learn how to read and write, not about Treblinka,” wrote columnist Uri Misgav in a blog for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. “As it is, the kids in the education system are being frightened by numerous memorial ceremonies and endless drills to prepare them for catastrophes…. Enough with this psychosis.”
A profusion of psychologists and teachers have also come out in the Israeli press, backing parents' fears that their 6-year-olds may simply be too young for such a demanding subject.
“Even if they only hear stories of the persecution and annihilation of Jews, they may think that others want to do similar acts to them. This could raise fears that young children are less able to manage,” Anat Zohar, an education professor at Hebrew University, told Channel 2 news.
Indeed, focus on the Holocaust is often linked to fear of enemies. Only in 1982, after successive wars with neighboring Arab countries had fostered the fear of an “existential threat,” to the state, did Israel mandate Holocaust education in high schools. And today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently invokes the Holocaust in urging the international community to crack down on Iran's nuclear program.
Kahana says Netanyahu's comparison may be an exaggeration, but admits that they resonate with mainstream Israeli mentality. And while he is ambivalent about the sense of survivalism as a reality of Israeli identity, he also hopes that "young children will not be brought into that war just yet, raised in that stress – the Holocaust."
“I see my children and they don’t feel safe in their country,” Kahana says. “When we’re at war, our fighters may think, my parents and grandparents fought here, we need to [do] everything in order not to be victimized.”
As representatives of the 700,000 Filipinos living in the United Arab Emirates prepared for a typhoon fundraising brunch this weekend, the UAE president promised to organize assistance programs worth 37 million dirhams ($10 million) to help the Philippines recover from typhoon Haiyan, Arab News has reported.
“It’s so heart-warming to know that other nationalities are also willing to help our compatriots back home,” said Matilyn Bagunu, the president of Filcom, which represents Filipino community groups in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
Meanwhile, Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz pledged $100,000 on behalf of the regional Arab Gulf Program for Development (AGFUND), and the Israeli government as well as the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID have sent preliminary teams to help with medical care and search and rescue missions.
With an estimated 2 million Filipinos living in the Middle East, these countries all have a very human link to the Philippines. But it is also a problematic one, since some Filipino migrant workers arrive illegally or stay on after their visas have expired, risking deportation of themselves and/or their children.
And even those with the proper documentation have – together with other migrant workers from Southeast Asia – faced inhumane conditions in the Gulf countries, including working in scorching temperatures without adequate water; living in unsanitary conditions; and being denied access to their passports by employers who force them to work extremely long days, sometimes without pay or days off. And they often enjoy very little legal protection, as illustrated by the execution of a 17-year-old Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia last year, which sparked widespread criticism not only from human rights organizations but Saudis themselves.
Saudi Arabia is currently rounding up illegal workers, after an amnesty recently expired. So even as Prince Talal was pledging $100,000, hundreds of Filipino workers were being brought to a deportation center. And Israel, which for years had a relatively liberal policy of allowing family members to accompany migrant workers, also has been strongly criticized for a 2009 decision to deport immigrant children who do not meet strict criteria, inspiring the Filipino film “Transit” that came out this year.
While many migrant workers have lived in the region for years, and raised funds for previous disasters, typhoon Haiyan is on a far bigger scale.
Even for those whose families are safe, the destruction of their homes represents years of hard-earned remittances washed away in a moment. Though Filipino migrant workers’ remittances account for nearly 10 percent of the national GDP back home, according to The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, they have little influence over political decisions – such as how much to invest in disaster preparedness.
But Filipino ambassador to the UAE Grace Princesa says she plans to launch a disaster management education program for Filipinos in the Emirates. That way, she suggests, they will be able to send back not only remittances but also knowledge that could help save their families from future disasters.
Step over the threshold of Ali Al-Wahsh’s home, and your eye will be immediately drawn to the brilliant reds in a painting on the wall. A captivating mountain scene, perhaps just before a storm, it’s just one of several art pieces that lend an elegance to his modest home, located in a quiet Palestinian village outside Bethlehem. The painter? Mr. Al-Wahsh himself.
He cultivated that talent while surrounded by very different walls – those of an Israeli prison. Arrested in 2002 during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Al-Wahsh – then 20 years old – decided to use his abundant spare time to hone his artistic skills. But he had neither a teacher nor proper materials, at least at first.
“I used to burn bread to turn it into coal to draw,” says Al-Wahsh, who would draw portraits of his fellow inmates’ children, based on photographs they gave him. After two years Israeli authorities at last allowed his family to visit him, and they brought him new supplies.
When he got out of jail in 2007, he went to Al Quds University in Jerusalem to study art, focusing on his two favorite mediums: painting and mosaics. For him, art has proved to be not only a pastime in prison but also a way to escape the confines of living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, where many Palestinians struggle to hold on to not just their land but also their dignity.
“Because of the occupation, the relationship between mankind and the land gets stronger,” says Al-Wahsh, whose work includes murals on the Israeli separation wall that runs through Jerusalem and Bethlehem. “Therefore, in every painting I highlight the land.”
But lately, between his disappointment in the political situation and his responsibilities as a young husband and father, he has barely been painting. When he does, it’s hard to sell his work in nearby Bethlehem; two painted canvasses are just sitting in a corner of his living room. And while the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Culture gave him a certificate recognizing the quality of his work, there is no state support for artists like himself, he says.
“Nobody cares about art, especially because of the situation,” says Al-Wahsh, sitting with a nephew who says his brother died at an Israeli checkpoint while trying to get to an Israeli hospital after a bad car accident. “People are interested in making money and supporting families.”
Still, he hasn’t given up on art altogether, even though he’s busy being a good father to his first child, 1-year-old Jawwad.
“I will teach him to paint, of course,” he says, before leaving to wake Jawwad up from his nap.
Israelis are criticized often for a lack of manners – practically driving people off the road, blithely cutting to the front of a long supermarket line, and generally making little apparent effort to be polite in public.
But when crisis hits, Israelis really shine.
Just ask Aharon Karov, whose inspiring story was reported by Rachel Delia Benaim in The Times of Israel this week.
Mr. Karov was called up to serve in the Gaza war the day after he was married in 2008. According to religious and military law, he was not obliged to go as a newlywed. But 30 men whom he had trained during his regular army service were going, and he didn’t want them to go alone.
“In Israel, if there is a war, everyone goes because there a collectivity, a community. It was clear to me, to both of us, that I had to go,” he told the Times of Israel. So he left his 19-year-old bride (he was just 22) and reported to duty.
The three-week war was brutal and involved not only heavy air strikes, but also urban warfare; in the end, the fighting killed 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians in an operation Israel said was necessary to stem the tide of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. At one point, Karov and his men were sweeping homes for explosives when he was caught in a blast that brought the house down on him. His men cleared away the debris, but his injuries seemed so grave that Karov was nearly left for dead until someone noticed a faint pulse.
But that ended up being just the beginning of a monumental effort to help him not only survive, but to live life to the fullest. He surprised his doctors with a “miraculous” recovery, but it was tough going; he couldn’t speak at all for the first three months. Buoyed by support from all over the country, he persisted.
“All of Israel was writing me letters — haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], dati’im [religious Jews], hilonim [secular Israelis], people from America, France — from all over the world,” Karov told the Times of Israel. “Everyone wrote to me, they were praying for me, and together gave me the strength to say, ‘Yes, I will beat this.’”
Six months ago he finally was able to start running again, and made it a goal to run the New York City marathon with the encouragement of the OneFamily Fund, which had been supporting him and his family throughout his recovery.
He did so, and crossed the line in 4:14:31, raising some $40,000 for the OneFamily Fund, which helps those affected by terrorist attacks.
Next time someone cuts me off when I’ve been waiting in line forever, I’m going to take that extra minute of waiting to think about that popular analogy that compares Israelis to the sabra cactus – prickly on the outside, but sweet and soft on the inside. Indeed, there is something very good on the inside.
“Let’s make more babies, Israel absolutely hates that.”
That may not be a popular pick-up line in most bars, but it’s worth a try in the West Bank.
A new wave of tongue-in-cheek #PalestinianPickUpLines are making the rounds on Twitter, as they do periodically, adding to compilations such as this one from 2012. The pick-up lines are definitely worth a laugh, but they also point to different ways that Israel’s control over their daily lives grates at Palestinians – and how humor helps them stay afloat.
Some of the lines refer to Palestinian loss of territory since 1948, when Israel declared independence according to the 1947 United Nations partition plan, and an estimated 700,000 or more Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes by Israeli troops amid fighting on both sides. “you're the prettiest thing iv[e] seen since 1948,” wrote @asharasif.
Others get to the heart of internal Palestinian divisions, such as the overriding one between the secular Fatah faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas movement that’s been in charge of Gaza since 2007. “Our love is like Romeo & Juliet; Fatah & Hamas,” wrote @YasirTineh, a driving force behind #PalestinianPickUpLines.
Whatever the frustrations of daily life caused by Israeli-Palestinian tensions as well as internal Palestinian issues, love may help ease the situation, as @drmbaraka suggested: “I never notice the Electricity cut offs when you’re around.” Gaza in particular has struggled to keep the lights on, which requires Hamas to cooperate with both the PA and, indirectly, Israel, which supplies much of the electricity.
More realistic, at least outside the Ramallah bubble, might be this dry one from @deannaothman “Hey girl. How's about [sic] my mom gives your mom a call to arrange an awkward meeting where you serve me shaay [tea]?” or @amg9170: “my mom saw you at a wedding, now my dad wants to talk to your dad.”
In some rural areas, still staunchly patriarchal, the dads really do have to agree before there will be any more weddings, so pick-up lines may only get you so far.
When Nitsan Levy used to inspect potential construction sites, he would wear a helmet – not because there were cranes operating or sparks flying, but because the second Palestinian intifada was in full swing.
He also had a bulletproof vest. And after a near miss during the first intifada in 1988, when a stone came flying through the windshield of his fast-moving Ford Fiesta, he upgraded to a rugged truck with bulletproof windows.
Such is the life of an environmental quality guru in the West Bank, where Israeli settlers have decided not to wait for a peace agreement with Palestinians to address the area’s numerous environmental challenges.
As director general of the Municipal Association for Environmental Quality in Judea, Dr. Levy works with eight Israeli settlement municipalities in the southern half of the West Bank, including the cities of Betar Illit and Maale Adumim and settlement blocs like Gush Etzion.
His counterpart to the north is Yitzhak Meyer, director general of the Environmental Protection Association in Samaria and the Jordan Valley, who spearheaded the idea of Israeli environmental management in the West Bank.
“It was very difficult for me that we built settlements without thinking about the environment,” says Mr. Meyer, who has lived in Ofra for 37 years. All the momentum, he says, was to “come back to the holy places of the Bible. Nobody thought about what would be [there for] the next generation.”
When Meyer first started in 1992, and Levy in 1995, companies treated the territory as a "pollution haven" – there was virtually no environmental regulation – and it was hard to get Israeli settlers to listen. Israelis living in hilltop settlements, sometimes with only a few caravans and encircled by Palestinian villages, were getting kidnapped and sometimes killed by Palestinians who saw their presence as a threat to Palestinian nationhood. “When people are afraid about their security, they don’t think about the environment,” notes Meyer.
But that’s gradually changing, perhaps in part due to improved security.
“They cannot ignore us anymore because we are in a very important position,” says Levy, who currently holds the rotating chair for the roughly 60 Israeli municipal environmental units. “All planning … comes through us.”
“Today nobody can bring a factory here if we don’t see [plans] beforehand and give the authorization,” adds Meyer.
There have also been some opportunities to work together with Palestinians on issues of mutual concern, says Levy, who did his dissertation in trans-boundary environmental management between asymmetrical political entities such as the US and Mexico.
One such issue of mutual concern is garbage; Levy and Meyer have met with local Bedouins and a lawyer for Palestinian villagers, all of whom are opposed to a proposed landfill between the settlement of Rimonim and the Arab village of Ramun northeast of Ramallah. Together they have launched a formal objection against the 15 million euro ($20.6 million) project.
If Israelis and Palestinians don’t find peace at the negotiating table, maybe they will find it while sorting their trash. “Peace will be at the garbage,” says Meyer, perhaps only half-joking.