maandag 28 januari 2013

The Closest Thing to Heaven in the Holy Land

A little under a year ago I wrote a blog post called From Araq to Zombie, dealing with the basis of truth behind the cliché that archaeologist and alcohol go together like gin and tonic. Part of the post was a brief description of most common locally brewed beer in Israel. Soon afterwards, I was asked why I hadn`t written anything about Taybeh. Ignorant as I was, I asked why it was such a big deal. I was promised that when we got to Israel, they were going to show me what the big deal was. I would not be disappointed.
It was not just the beer that didn`t dissapoint.

In a country where most beer hangs somewhere between swigable and survivable, Taybeh was a true revelation. It actually tastes half decent, which is saying a lot.  The trouble with Taybeh is that it`s not brewed within the “green-line” Israeli borders. Taybeh is brewed in the Christian-Palestinian village it takes its name from, on the West Bank. This presents a uniquely difficult situation.

On the one hand, production is quite difficult as most resources have to be brought in from abroad, seeing as the predominantly Islamic Palestinians authorities would rather not have a company producing beer in their midst. In order to try and come up with an acceptable product, Taybeh started non-alcoholic beer production in 2006, labeling their bottles in green. This in order to make the brand attractive to Muslims, who do not drink alcohol out of religious principle.

On the other hand, the brand has to ship its product outside of the Palestinian territories in order to get it sold. This means getting it through Israeli checkpoints and onto the markets beyond. The main problem here is that the majority of Israeli companies don`t exactly fancy stocking Palestinian produce. Therefore, the market for Taybeh in Israel is smaller than it could potentially be and you will be hard pressed to find a shop that sells Taybeh. The most common places to find Taybeh are restaurants and bars. Typically the ones with a somewhat non-Israeli background such as the Lebanese restaurants in Haifa or the German-styled Pilgerhaus in Tabgha, are good candidates for drinking the brew.

The interesting thing is that since my introduction to the brew, drinking Taybeh in Israel has always become the marker for an interesting story. The first one is about our trip to Haifa and Acco. For the long version, see the post Grime lines and Lucky Foam from last year, but the TL:DR version is that one of the girls we were with used a combination of charm and blond hair to persuade a waiter to let us walk out of a restaurant with a Taybeh glass. It`s come to epitomize the good times we had that weekend. 

But Taybeh brings back memories closer to “home” as well. The divine solemnity of the church at Tabgha; the beautiful view of the lake basking in the afternoon sun, white herons gliding low over the water… It reminds me very much of how the Northwestern shore of the lake is almost like paradise. Josephus was quite right when he called this area “the ambition of nature”.

...and so is this

It`s not surprising that because of its hard-to-get nature and its inherent association with memorable experiences, Taybeh has come to be viewed as something of a luxury commodity. Small wonder then, that it became such a discussion topic. This is something that goes beyond the we-don`t-have-this-at-home factor, this is something that will take on the same significance that a photo book, or a reunion would. Therefore, if anyone knows where to get a sixpack of Taybeh in Europa or via the internet, do let me know.
...and this

So the conclusion of this piece is that we enjoy Taybeh because it`s good beer (by Israeli standards) which holds many memories of good times with the dear people of Horvat Kur. But perhaps the reason Taybeh appeals to us goes beyond merely the fact that the taste of the stuff evokes these memories. Perhaps we archaeologists prefer it because we recognize ourselves in the idea of trying to brew beer in the Palestinian territories. The whole concept is so crazy to begin with that it actually becomes awesome, just like archaeology. 

Boiled down to its purest form, archaeology is about the justification of craziness. We travel to nature`s extremes to perform hard physical labor in order to try and help better understand humanity`s past; a prospect that would have the average person suffering from Historical Significance Deficit Disorder declares you ripe for the nearest mental institution.
In a way, Taybeh epitomizes the whole experience of taking part in the fieldwork at Horvat Kur: it`s a unique experience that will create lasting memories of good times. These memories will stand as beacons for valueing the good things in life, and that is something I can drink to…

…anyone else thirsty?

Singing off,

The Lost Dutchman

p.s.  On a short note, it seems that Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his dominant position and that the social matters of Israel will find a well-deserved, larger slot in politics. It seems that for the time being, Israeli politics will be about more than just regional conflict. To my mind, that is a good thing.

dinsdag 22 januari 2013

On Warm Thoughts and Frigid Politics

The average temperature is -5° Celsius and the world has turned white. A pale grey mantle covers the sky for the better part of the week, leaving very little sun to lighten this gloomy world. The Netherlands aren`t looking very joyful, yet still I have something to lighten my heart. My application for the Kinneret Regional Project`s excavation season for 2013 has been shipped off successfully. Yes, that`s right: the Lost Dutchman will be going to Israel again this season, so true to style I hope to annoy you with fresh blog updates on a weekly basis. It`s open season. 
Not surprisingly given the cold weather, my thoughts soon drifted to the warm days of summer in Israel. Freezing up slowly on a railway platform makes 40-plus temperatures seem like heaven on earth soon enough. Then you slip back into reality and decide to look at the current state of affairs.

Israel is in the middle of its elections. As it stands now, ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu looks to be coming out on top again, supported by the more radical Bayit Yehudi party, led by Naftali Bennett. Quite the respectable résumé this character boasts. He served in the elite Sayaret Matkal, an army unit focusing on reconnaissance and counter-terrorism operations, as well as in Maglan, which does the stuff that the IDF wants nobody to know about. After his service he became a successful business man. Couple this with a healthy dose of charisma and a good measure of devout religiosity and you have a candidate who embodies that which the Israeli respects.

The main focus in European media is on how this will affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the political left`s stances on the situation aren`t popular for being considered naïve. The discussion this could fuel is good food for other blogs more specialized on politics and since I don`t want mine to run the risk of degenerating into the battlefield of a flame war, I won`t touch that subject on a political level with a 20-foot pole. In my personal life I`m always open for discussion on that subject and those who know me personally are very welcome to it. Just not here and not now.

Here and now, I want to address some things which the above mentioned is sure to overlook. Prominent as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is and deserves to be, there are a few other problems of epic proportions which will I fear are not going to be addressed as they are constantly drowned out by the ever-looming specter of open conflict with the Palestinian territories.

The economy might be exhibiting a relative growth, but as it grows, so does the disparity inside Israel. Many people do not profit or see an increase in their standard of living, despite the numbers of the economy. Living costs are still expensive and whereas the economic crisis is finally driving down the prices of housing in many countries, this remains high in Israel. This tendency towards poverty and disuse was visible on quite a few buildings the past few years that I`ve been there.

But beyond financial disparity there is also something that could be classified as ‘societal disparity’.  This mainly revolves around conscription and service in the IDF. Orthodox Jews are still exempt from Military service in order to continue their religious studies. As the pool of orthodox Jews is growing, more and more people are starting to consider this exemption as unfair and a social injustice, seeing as service in the IDF is considered to be more a duty than a pleasure. There are orthodox Jews who choose to serve, but they do so mostly on voluntary basis. Social service has been mentioned as a possible midway-solution, but there is strong resistance to these ideas from the independent and vocal orthodox Jewish community.

Service in the IDF is nowadays not considered desirable. I mentioned already that most consider it a duty rather than a pleasure or an honor. Quite a few try to avoid have to do military service altogether and for good reason. Unlike armies in the Western world, the chances of dying are always larger and closer and most soldiers will end up in stressful situations. A documentary I saw recently about Hebron illustrated this perfectly. IDF troopers were heard saying that if it isn`t the Palestinians throwing rocks at the colonists, it`s the colonists throwing rocks at the Palestinians. It`s an ungrateful situation where you are constantly on the receiving end of someone`s verbal stick. Reports of drug use by conscripts during or after their service period are not that uncommon.  In fact, in a terrorism case right now in Israel, an IDF trooper is on trial for allegedly trading his ammunition to Bedouins for narcotics.

It saddens me that these problems are not going to be addressed in the coming four years. Israel is probably not going to change again. This summer it will be the same country with 18-year and 19-year olds lounging at bus stations, sporting combat fatigues, worn-out carbines and mobile phones; the same taxi drivers trying to charge far too much for a fare and getting a full tirade from those who know better; the same well-burnt people going along the broken-asphalt streets in their old and worn-out tank tops.

Fortunately it`s not all gloom and doom I see before me now when thinking of Israel. There`s still flying scorpions somewhere on the hills around the lake. The monks chant and sound the bells at Tabgha, there is still Taybeh (more on that later) and as it stands now, the rainy and cold winter is raising the Kinneret to its sharpest water level rise in 20 years. It will not be very nice having to swim among the flooded reeds again, but for a lake with a chronic shortage of it, more water is always very welcome news.
Coming soon to a blog near you...

This is the first of many blogposts that I will be putting out the coming year and I hope you`ve found it to be worth your time. I know that my blogposts tend to be quite long and this is something I will try to remedy in the coming year, especially as I want to give you all more frequent updates when I am in-country again. To whet your appetite for more of me yapping for no valid reason, here`s a list of things I aim to talk about in the future: mosaics, trowels, boots, why the best countries are the shitty ones, Taybeh beer, Tabgha, the development of field-memes and the various tasks of staff members and their importance to KRP. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks

Signing off for now,

The Lost Dutchman.