Monday, November 27, 2000

Next Year In Palestine

Dear Friends and Family,

Jerusalem is a magical city. I’m not sure whether there is a God, but after visiting Jerusalem I’m pretty sure that if there is one, he or she is hanging out there. It’s a magical city. Thanks to the preponderance of Jerusalem rock, the city has an architectural and aesthetic unity as well as a sort of golden glow.

We knew we didn't have much time to spend in the city, so we decided it would be best not to push it and just do one or two traditional things. We thought about waging holy war on each other, but changed our minds when we heard that there was a good exhibit going on at the museum. It was the collection of an ancient Hebrew glass blower called Chihuly. It cost a few shekels more than a catapult and battering ram, but was definitely worth it. The exhibit was great: the kind of thing you just couldn't see back home.

It was getting dark after the exhibit, so we decided to grab a beer and call it a night. On our way back to the hotel we had a little problem and needed to run our own personal relief mission. Luckily, we found this old Wailing Wall where we could relieve ourselves.

Due to the recent violence (a few days before we arrived a bomb went of a couple blocks from the school and right outside the main market, by the time we went to the market there was almost no trace of the explosion) there haven't been a lot of tourists running around Israel and the coast was pretty much clear in the old city.

As you can imagine, it is difficult to capture the essence and wonder of being in the holiest of Holy cities. So why try when below we have a first-hand perspective on the situation. It is from a law student at UW, who received a grant to do a year-long study in Israel. She's a mother of two and has been in Ramallah for about three months now on her grant/study.

At about the same time that we were in Jerusalem, my parents were in Ireland kissing the Blarney stone. With this in mind, I thought I would end our Jerusalem account with the following little limerick:

There once was a man named Kevin
Who knew the Deadly Sins, all seven
He's not a good Jew
But he's better 'n you
For he made Aliyah and can go to Heaven


Well....what can I say about this place?!! I have a love hate relationship with it. I don't even know
where to begin.

First of all...I feel like I am hostage to the Israeli media. Every day when I watch the news I know I am being brain washed. I get angry at the way they talk about Arabs of both the territories and inside Israel.

One thing that is very apparent is how they demonize Palestinians. They hardly ever talk about them as a people....they keep referring to Arafat this and Arafat that-ad nauseum. In doing so they focus the hatred on this supposed demon. I feel angry because there is no empathy towards the "other". I know that I am not family and friends are not Arafat....and the Palestinian people are not Arafat.

My auntie and her husband who live in Ramallah are doing fine. This is the worst situation they have seen since 1967....not even then did they experience such an intense Israeli shelling and closure. They have everything they need in terms of food and other needs and they just take the shelling noise in stride. They don't complain because they don't want people to worry about them. Their two daughters who live in Jerusalem try and visit them as much as they can. They have to time the visits around closures and events. They don't visit anywhere near as often or as long as they would like to in fear of being caught inside Ramallah or in the demonstrations and rock throwing that take place every day...usually after school is out.

My friend Maha, a social worker, and her husband Zuhair, a lecturer at Bir Zeit, also live in Ramallah. Maha was not able to go to work in East Jerusalem for two weeks during the height of the events. Their eight year old daughter asks them every morning..."is there a war today"? Her dad took her to see the confrontations from a distance and explained to her what was going on...this was an attempt to get her to be less fearful of the news and the shelling sounds. Still she is very scared. Two nights ago they were awakened at midnight by Israeli shelling in nearby
Betunia. This shelling continued until 3:00 a.m. Zuhair told me that he stayed up looking outside his balcony. He kept listening for shots from the Palestinian side but heard none...yet the Israeli shelling continued. He believes that the shelling is an attempt to unnerve the people and is paving the way for Israeli recapture of some of the regions which had been returned to the Palestinians in the Oslo agreement. This recapture would allow the Israeli's more control especially close to some of their settlements. The settlements that are not
supposed to be there in the first place under international law. The settlements that continued to
grow despite Oslo.

Inside Israel...things have calmed down considerably. However, there is tension. Jews are avoiding Arab populated areas and Arabs are avoiding areas where extremist Jews live. Businesses such as restaurants in Jaffa and Arab stores in Wadi Nisnas in Haifa are
suffering a noticeable drop. Political activities have been banned at all Israeli Universities for the
first four weeks of classes....we are now in the second week. However, I did hear that there will be a demonstration on campus next Wednesday....I plan to keep a distance.

What is really striking to me is that no matter how much politically to the left Israeli Jews are....They just don't get it that their Zionism came at a high price to the Palestinians and why the Palestinians fought Zionism in the first place. They don't understand how the Palestinians are Palestinian first and Arabs Arabs are not all the same and how they have different interests. They still don't get why the Palestinians are mad and why Oslo gave
them nothing. They are convinced that Barak offered Arafat some kind of unbelievable treasure at Camp David...which Arafat so ungratefully turned down. And then...if they go that far...they always get where can we go? We are not wanted anywhere...besides..this is now our home. was home to another people at one time. All I hear from them is this fear fear fear fear of annihilation as a people. I know and understand where it is coming from but how are they going to break this cycle of fear with its accompanying aggression....whose responsibility is it to do the healing?

One final story:
Two weeks ago I attended orientation in the Overseas Department at the University of Haifa. One of the directors assured the students...mostly young Americans coming to live in Israel for a year of "the Jewish experience"...that she is there to take care of their every need. If they needed to not have an Arab roommate or apartment mate in the dorms (there are two to a room and six to an apartment)...they just need to let her know and she will accommodate. I was so shocked I did not speak. I just felt a very sharp pain as if I was emotionally stabbed in my core. I felt very sad that she was giving the students a way out of what could be a very healing opportunity they may never get anywhere else. I remembered how the beginning of the process that brought me to the point of being able to be here amidst Jews was that I had the opportunity to work with an Israeli Jew on a paper when I was taking a summer course at GeorgetownUniversity in 1986. I remember how I felt when I first met my fellow student and how I felt at the end of the course...having gotten to know him as a human being and not just as the enemy. Not that we agreed in the end...but what a difference. Yet, here..this director was offering the students a way out of growth and understanding.

Well...i thought to myself....most of these students are American...they have studied the civil rights movement...they know the struggle of blacks against racism in the U.S....they are enlightened beings...surely no one will take her up. Unfortunately...the second stab in the core I felt that evening came after orientation was over and when I heard one student tell the director that he and his roommate do not wish to be in an apartment with Arabs.

On this sad note.....I will end. Call me an eternal optimist but I still have hope despite the sadness.


Thursday, November 16, 2000

Eastern Bloc and Roll

The country of Eastern Europe was formed as a result of the French-Indian War. A group of 'les indiens' moved from Monte Carlo after losing their money and needing a new place to settle.

Our journey began in Kiev which is a lot like Disneyland, except all the buildings are gray cinderblock, people wear a lot more black leather, listen to Bryan Adams and don't smile as much.

Upon landing we were greeted by a large woman with mustache answering to the name of Boris. She handed us our immigration cards and we realized that capitalism had definitely begun to breach the iron curtain. Advertisements for casinos, Aquanet, and Rubik's cubes covered the form. We had never seen anything like it.

People here are tough: men can regularly be seen chewing nails and shaving with rusty razors, and women wear mini-skirts in two feet of snow.

Actually, Kiev is a pretty cool place, with a busy and friendly downtown. And, yes, the Beatles were correct.

Next stop Zagreb, Croatia. A beautiful town with the highest café/bar per capita ratio this side of the Dagobah system. With so many cafes, restaurants, theaters and boutiques, Zagreb reminded us of Western Europe-without the scads of tourists.

Croatia has fought hard for its independence and wants to maintain their unique cultural identity. Nevertheless, there was something familiar about this fast food restaurant we found, and we were pleasantly surprised with the 'Big Mark'.

In the 15th century, Orthodox Byzantines, Catholic Romans, Jews of the Diaspora and Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully in the Balkan peninsula which at that time was part of the Turkish Empire. In the late 19th and early 20th century the ethnic and religious mix began to fall out of balance. In 1991, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina all declared independence from Yugoslavia. This lead to a bloody and confusing three-way war (not even counting the ethnic cleansings of Albanians in Kosovo) which basically centered around our next stop, Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

After landing, we drove through what used to be called "snipers' alley". Thankfully, the violence has stopped now and Sarajevo is working hard to rebuild itself. Although life has returned to normal and shops have quickly reopened, it still kind of looks like someone made Swiss cheese out of Sarajevo and forgot to pass out the crackers. Bullet holes and shell damage can be seen everywhere, and a huge cemetery dominates the hillside as you enter the city. The National Stadium's practice field was even converted into a cemetery to accommodate the overload of bodies from the war.

Still recovering from tragedy, Sarajevo strikes us as a tough place to be. So tough, in fact, that they had to fly in Robert De Niro to drive one of their city buses.

Vienna, our final stop in Eastern(ish) Europe, reminded us of Paris, only cleaner, with less attitude and with more schnitzel. Lots of museums, classical music and old important looking buildings. Very stylish. Walking around for the day, we discovered that Vienna has one classy establishment that even Paris doesn't have (yet): Hooters!

The city happened to be holding tryouts for the Boys Choir and we were lucky to get a call back to the second round. We refused to perform any further, however, when we found out that if we were picked to join the choir we would have to become eunuchs.


Sunday, October 29, 2000

Jesse for President

Ducci, I was at a local indian restaraunt in Chennai (madras) and everyone was eating with their fingers so I did too. People were laughing at me because

1. I was a foreigner eating like a local
2. I was making a mess all over myself.

I said to the guy across from me that I liked eating with my hands and he replied to me in an indian accent. 'God gave you five fingers and that's better than a fork'

cheers and take care,

From: "Jeff Howell"
To: "Kevin Lapin"
Subject: painting the passports brown
Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2000 14:36:35 -0800

I'm sitting over here in this United States of America place, watching the news...the politicians... the 'candidates and I'm these guys suck! What we need is a genuine grassroots campaign. Jesse long for President. Of course we wouldn't change a thing about him, there'd be no spin doctors, no handlers, hell, we wouldn't really even keep him informed on the issues. We'd just throw him up there behind the podium and let him work his magic. This country needs a feller who knows himself. A fella not afraid to go a few days without washing. A fella who once wore jackets that looked like they were made from carpet patterns. A guy with a closet, not full of skeletons...but useless Kung Fu pads. A fella with a dog named Duke and Samuel Clemens for a father. A scrabble lover. A traveler. The type of man who'll give up sugar for a while. And a guy who's not afraid to throw back a few shots of wheat grass. Because when it comes down to it, there are very few people have what it takes to run a country...few who have the ability to motivate the peoples! See, when it comes to getting folks off their asses and into motion some know the way, but most, how should I put this... do not have way. Jesse has way.

All the way.

Just one man's opinion.


Monday, October 23, 2000


Pakistan, where we have spent the last ten days, gets its name from an 'Urdu' word meaning 'land of no lingerie stores'. It is a vibrant and colorful country and one of the crazier places you'll ever go--unless, of course you go, like, you know, to the funny farm.

Right away on our plane ride into Islamabad, our first stop, we knew Pakistan would be different when we saw three different passengers on the plane travelling with hawks. It seems that the country really appreciates birds as aviaries abound.

There are also these sort of mini-van buses that would make Gaudi blush everywhere you go. These colorful buses are privately owned and decorated, and run regular routes. The proud owners will spend as much as $3,000 to have one of their buses hand-decorated, and this is a lot of money when you consider the people taking the bus are generally working over 12 hours a day for less than a dollar.

The Pakistani aesthetic tends to a sort of circus baroque where more is definitely more. You can see this in the garish colors, ornate mosques decorated with gold and silver, bright clothes and in the saccharine histrionics of the thousands of music videos and movies produced every year in 'Bollywood'. It's very happy and energetic, like the Pakistanis themselves.

Pakistani ebullience literally pours out into the streets, as going somewhere in Pakistan consists of getting on, or hanging on, one of the crowded buses; loading up your camel and cart; hailing a three-wheeled motorized (or not) rickshaw; riding a bicycle with huge bales of cargo strapped to it; or cramming your whole family onto a small motorcycle (I'm not kidding, we regularly saw a man driving with a woman sitting side-saddle and two young kids on a motor bike that was probably no more than 100cc). The only rule of the road seemed to be that of Inshallah, or god willing. What's amazing is that despite this mayhem of dust and traffic and zig-zagging, pedestrians and vendors coming to your window offering papadam or coconut and the staccato symphony of short honks, which everyone uses to let other drivers know that they are overtaking, or that, yes, they are running that red light and cutting across three lanes of traffic containing five lanes worth of vehicles to make a left turn, that through all of this, everyone seems to be fairly calm and enjoying themselves. There's no road rage!

The people, and there are at least 15 million of them crammed into Karachi, are incredibly friendly and helpful, unless, I suppose, you're from India. One taxi driver explained to us as that he didn't like the people from India because he thought that they put on nice faces but had empty hearts. While this may show the driver's prejudice (a prejudice which may be understandable given the two countries' ongoing strained relationship) it also shows the Pakistani value on 'having heart'.

The countryside is beautiful, but there is no work. There are also a fair amount of armed terrorists wandering around in the north. Artisans still practice their craft of weaving, carving, needle pointing etc. exactly as it has been done for hundreds of years. They may work for a week on decorating one cloth band that sells in the market for the equivalent of a dollar.

So, many Pakistani men are faced with the decision of staying in their home village where there is no work and little to no facilities (school, clean water, Internet etc.), or move to the crowded, polluted city and work for almost nothing (by even their standards). Luckily, there are no bars in predominantly Muslim Pakistan and 'Keno' hasn't been invented yet, so most of the money they earn makes it home to their families, which on average consists of seven or eight children a wife and parents or grand-parents. No pressure, right? The other choice is to join a work gang in Saudi Arabia or Dubai or another of the wealthy oil countries in the Gulf. This generally entails getting and then giving up your passport (the employers keep the passports “for your protection”) and working for several years at a time without returning home.

As a result of this cheap and abundant labor force, all the hotels and nice restaurants are ridiculously overstaffed. It was almost a nuisance to arrive at the hotel and have three people trying to open doors and help us with our luggage (tip, tip, tip), then we would get to our room and every five minutes there would be a knock at our door with someone offering to get us water or do laundry or clean our room, again! Despite or because of this extra-help, I'm not sure which, you still never quite get what you want. And that, of course, is what makes Pakistan so crazy and so much fun.

I think it would be difficult to live in Pakistan for several reasons. First, although I loved the energy and craziness, you would want at least a few things to work like you expected, for instance a flight leaving when it says, rather than earlier, later or just not at all. Second, it is still a primarily Muslim culture which means that men and women don't talk much (or hold hands) until they are married, which even then is generally arranged for them. Third, it ain't easy to find what Jesse calls a 'brew-ha'. Fourth, and most significantly, it would be hard to live around so much poverty. I would feel uncomfortable having a cook, a driver and a gardener, but would also feel guilty not hiring them with so many people in need of work. Alas, life is a paradox and I lost one of my dox in the washing machine!

Speaking of washing machines, you won't find many here. What you see in the photos below is the enormous laundry land in Karachi. We were told that this sprawling maze of concrete troughs, basins, children and piles of clothes services the whole city. Like a Fed-Ex fleet on foot, women work their routes picking up dirty laundry from people’s houses and delivering them, dunked, beaten, twisted and cleaned laundry several days later.


Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Bye Bye Dubai

Dear Friends and Family,

Our five days in Dubai were a welcome break after our month stretch in Saudi Arabia. Dubai is an oasis and gem in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. It is a beautiful and bustling city in the United Arab of Emirates. It is also one of the few places in the Arab world where you can get a beer (legally).

As far as cosmopolitan centers goes, Dubai is a great place to visit. If you are going to build massive steel and glass altars to commerce, then this is how they should be done. The offices and sky-scrapers of Dubai are brilliant and give the city a boost of energy and light. One of the most famous hotels, called the Burj-Al-Arab is here. It’s the only five-star hotel or something like that and each room comes with it’s own valet.

We have reason to believe that there are some interesting museums and tourist type things to do in Dubai as well, although we wouldn't know because we quickly decided to spend our few days of vacation in a different emirate, Fujirah, at the Sandy Beach Resort.

From the picture of the beach, you can get an idea of how little we did for two days straight. The snorkeling was great. They say that the Gulf War put a dent in the flora and fauna, but it looked pretty good to us. The sand was warm and the sound of the sea relaxing.

One of our creative projects 'en cours' is to put together a un-phonetic alphabet with things like ‘p as in pneumonia’ and ‘k as in knife’. Our other project is a book of weird and surreal signs from around the world. Here are a couple interesting ones to give you an idea. If you see any more let us know.

Bye-bye Dubai, Hello Pakistan...


Friday, October 6, 2000

Heading to Dammam (Dishtar Aramco Rock Version)

Heading to Dammam
(Dishtar Aramco Rock Version)

Head out on the highway
Driving to Dammam today.
Driving through the desert
You gotta pray five times a day
No way, no way,
No way, no way.

If you're a woman in Saudi
Then you've gotta wear a veil.
When you're driving through the desert
The weather's never cloudy, oh well.

All the men, so sheik,
Ya' know they pray five times a day
Better get down on your knees for Allah
Or you know you're goin' to hell.

Head out on the highway
Heading to Dammam.
Driving through the desert,
The cradle of Islam.
Dammam (4x).

Camels to the left,
Camels to the right,
Sleeping with bedouins
Gives me such a fright.

No alcohol, no bourbon
Hide, hide, hide it
Under your turban.
Bet you didn't know that the Kingdom's kind of urban.
(triple rhyme)

In the desert dry of water
Mint tea in my eye (ouch).
Is this Arab guy offering me a camel or his daughter.


Mostly sand, not much soil,
Katsudon lots of oil.
All the princes, oh so many
Ruling country
Petrolled hands clenched so tight.
The Koran says if you're riding a camel you ain't Shi'ite.
(go Sunnis)

That's the way it goes in Saudi of Arabia (ah, ah).
I say, maybe, oh maybe
I'll get back some day (eh, eh).
There's just ain't much social life
And it's hard to have fun and play (hey, hey)
When all the parties you go to are BYOW (Bring Your Own Wife),
Ya' know it's true-oooh.

chorus (2x)

Hope you enjoyed and keep it Pretty Simple,
Kevin & Jesse

PS email us if you are interested in the tab for the sung version.


Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The Saudi Shuffle

Friends and Family,

I hope this will be the first of a series of emails documenting Jesse and my super-photolicious-Fall-trip.

Today was day 3 of 90 and our first shooting day. All I can say so far is, “well, we made it”. I’m reminded of the guy who jumped off the Empire State building and as he was falling past each floor was heard to say, “So far, so good.” It’s not the fall that counts, though, it’s the landing. Anyway, I guess it takes a funny sort of optimism to undertake this kind of adventure.

Although our journey began a number years ago, I’ll skip right to our actual departure. In the photo below, you can see Jesse and I standing outside the Harden House Saturday afternoon with all of our gear. As you can see there is about 295 pounds of lights and photo equipment and about 5 pounds of clothing, all of which has to last us 3 months.

At the British Airways counter, the ticket agent told Jesse that his carry-on was too heavy and would have to be checked for safety reasons. Jesse explained that we were already paying a couple hundred dollars in excess baggage fees (which was nothing compared to the $1,000 that Air Africa tried to charge him on his last trip). Jesse didn’t want to check any more bags than necessary, so he offered to make his computer bag lighter by removing a couple of CDs. Are you kidding me?

Before dropping us off, Jesse’s parents told me to look out for Jesse while we travelled. At the airport, my Dad pulled Jesse aside to tell him that he was personally responsible for my safety. Jesse and responsible are two words that are not normally found in the same sentence. In fact, the idea that our parents were relying on us to keep each other out of trouble struck me as some sort of zero-sum chiasmus.

Luckily we were saved from looking up any more big words in the dictionary by our now best friends Von and Amy, who surprised us at the airport with a bag of Red Mill burgers (thanks again Von and Amy, you rock!). The combination of Red Mill bacon burger and Xanax made for a very relaxed flight to London.

After a short eight-hour layover in Heathrow (where we had ample time to worry about the baggage return system), we boarded our flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As our plane taxied for take-off I was having some second thoughts and reservations about what kind of trip this would turn out to be, travelling throughout the Middle East and Africa for three months as Jesse’s assistant. Just then the little girl in the next seat wearing traditional Saudi robes turned to me and vomited all over my lap. Ce n’est pas la chute qui compte, n’est-ce pas, c’est l’aterrisage…

From the moment you land in Riyadh, you get a feeling of how different (and how hot) it is here. I think Jesse described it best when he said, “It’s weird, it’s like being in a foreign country.” There you have it. You can see from the two pictures below some of the foreign foods and places we have already found:

By the way, you have to be careful about taking pictures in Saudi Arabia, as you can get into a lot of trouble. I learned this the hard way taking the picture of the Washington apples above.

There’s an old saying in Saudi Arabia which goes, “All roads lead to Dammam.” Although this isn’t quite true, it is true that Jesse and I seem to end up on one of the ones that do lead there every time we get into our rental car. We were told by one of the administrator’s of the school that we are taking pictures for that you can’t get lost in Riyadh as long as you use the tower below, which is the only tall building around, as a landmark. It's the one near chop-chop square which is named for the corporal punishments that are still publicly carried out there.

Maybe it was the jet-lag, but the tower kept moving around on us as we tried to make our way to visit the U.S. Embassy in the Diplomatic Quarter. In the end we made it, although were not sure how. The DQ turned out to be pretty cool. I would have taken some pictures to show you, but the armed guards looked even more threatening than the manager at Safeway--especially the armed guards who look like their fifteen.

Despite the armed guards and ‘compounds’ everywhere, Saudi Arabia turns out to be a pretty safe and friendly place. I suppose the public beheadings and stonings, the strict prohibition, and the religious fundamentalism have something to do with it.