ISRAEL: The Dead Sea is dying

The Dead Sea is dying – it’s going the way of the Aral Sea, and is dropping by about a metre a year. If this continues, it’ll likely be gone in 30 years. The video below sets out why, but the tl;dr is that both Israel and Jordan are using evaporation pools to extract the potash and other valuable minerals, and are also drawing deep on the Jordan River for hydroelectricity and fresh water. Essentially, not enough new water is flowing into the Dead Sea to replace what evaporates. (Climate change is not helping either, with hotter weather and less rain in the winter.)

This video talks hopefully about the Red-Dead Sea pipeline, a plan to bring salt water from the Red Sea by pipe to the Dead Sea, providing hydroelectricity and desalinated water along the way – something Jordan needs badly. Israel used to be as desperate for water, until it discovered huge natural gas reserves and invested that into fuelling its own desalination from the Mediterranean.

However, the Red-Dead Sea pipeline was cancelled last year due to lack of cooperation between the two countries, who have a “cold peace”, plus financing issues, environmental concerns, and the ever-changing Israeli government. Jordan instead will continue to buy water from Israel, but that does nothing for the Dead Sea.

The exposed lakebed of the Dead Sea – that used to be all underwater just a few decades ago.

On our trip, as we drove down to a resort on the Israeli side, I could see the exposed lakebed, stretching many metres from the old shore. We also saw the sinkholes that have taken out resorts, and even took a stretch of new highway that detoured around the old one, collapsed into the ground.

A section of highway closed off due to sinkholes from the dropping water level

While it was extremely fun to float in the Dead Sea (the buoyancy is really surreal), the drive down really gives you a sinking feeling, pun intended. The Aral Sea has shown us that we’re fully capable of destroying bodies of water on this scale in a single human lifetime, and Israel, Jordan, and the international community seem fully prepared to let the Dead Sea die too.

Fun while it lasts

ISRAEL: My First Rocket Scare

Tel Aviv from Jaffa

I’m just back from three weeks in Israel – the first week was on a work trip, and then two weeks of vacation (first time out of Canada since the pandemic started!) I covered a lot of ground – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea, down to the Dead Sea and Masada, up to the Golan Heights, plus trips into the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan.

I met lots of interesting people – both Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Canadian diplomats, UN peacekeepers, and more. I got a glimpse at the diversity and complexity of Israel itself, including the massive range of politics and viewpoints. There’s the secular vs the religious, the political left vs the right, the Jewish communities who came at different times and for different reasons – not just Ashkenazi vs Sephardic Jews, but Yemeni, Algerian, Russian, Iraqi, French, Ethiopian, Bukharan, Canadian, Ukrainian, Argentinian, American, and more, plus all those born and raised in Israel.

There’s a huge non-Jewish population too – 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, both Muslim and Christian, plus there are religious minorities like the Druze and Baha’i. There’s deep debate in Israeli society not just on the ever-changing conflict with the Palestinian territories, but also domestic matters like the place of religion in society, the size of government, cost of living, the economy, relations with other countries, and much more. Bonus for a political nerd like me, they’re in an election – their fifth in three years.

But last week, an Israeli friend warned me that I was about to get “the real Israel experience” – rocket attacks. Things had started to spin up in Gaza – warnings grew about a threatened terrorist attack in Israel, highways in the south were closed, then news broke that the IDF had taken out a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The PIJ is different from Hamas, which de-facto governs Gaza. Both are widely considered terrorist groups worldwide (they’re both on Canada’s terrorist group list), and are deep enemies of the Palestinian Authority, who govern the West Bank. With control of the Palestinian territories split, the PA unable to do anything in Gaza, and with both Israel and Egypt tightly controlling their border access to Gaza (as opposed to the more open West Bank), it’s a pressure cooker.

As the news broke, my friends advised me to download a Red Alert app – it gives you alerts for incoming missiles for any part of Israel, including how long you have to get to shelter. In Tel Aviv, it’s about a minute and a half, but in places further south, it’s only a few seconds. My hotel also gave us the rundown and showed where the bomb shelter was, and what to do if you’re caught outside when the sirens go off, and that even if the Iron Dome successfully stops an incoming missile, you should wait at least ten minutes to leave shelter in case of falling debris.

Over last weekend, there were two big rocket alerts for Tel Aviv. I was staying there at the time, but thankfully, I missed both – I had gone on a day trip to Petra over in Jordan one day, and the next day I had just left on the train to Haifa. It was surreal to look at video of people running for shelter on the same beach I had hung out on a few days before.

Petra is super neat, by the way

It was even more surreal, as my tour bus back from Petra dropped people off in Jerusalem, to see what looked like an orange firework far to the south – the telltale spark of the Iron Dome shooting down a missile.

Over the weekend, over 800 rockets were fired from Gaza by the PIJ – it felt truly indiscriminate, especially as the most targeted part of Tel Aviv was Jaffa, a majority Arab Muslim neighbourhood on the south side of the city.

Jaffa

Many PIJ missiles also fell short into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, on top of Israel targeting PIJ missile launch sites. The situation seemed even more confusing and messy (though less likely to lead to a full war) since Hamas, despite having it’s own history of similar rocket attacks, didn’t join in. A weird ceasefire was eventually agreed to, moderated by Egypt. The rockets stopped, and people picked up their beach volleyball games and went back to election speculation.

The Israelis have a kind of sangfroid about all this – they speak about the threat of rockets the way we Canadians speak about bad winter storms: be prepared, be careful on the roads, but it’s not the end of the world. But under that bravado, you could feel a taut coil of anxiety. It was truly surreal.

ISRAEL: The Haifa Carmelit funicular

My hotel room view in Haifa

I’ve got a whole bunch of Israel travel posts I want to make – there’s so much sublime and complicated and controversial. But I also want to share a very mundane, slightly silly, thing that I’ve fallen in love with: the Haifa Carmelit funicular.

Haifa is up in the north of Israel; you can see the hills of Lebanon on a clear day. It’s a relaxed port city, with a very mixed Jewish and Arab population, and a lot of Italian tourists. It’s also an immensely hilly city, built right into the side of Mt. Carmel.

The Baha’i Gardens

My hotel was at the top of the hill, up by the top of the Baha’i Gardens. As much as I love hiking, with the heat of the Middle East in August, I quickly appreciated a quick and convenient route back uphill.

The Carmelit is the only subway in Israel (though they’re opening soon a partially-underground LRT in Tel Aviv). The funicular is extremely mid-century, opened in 1959, though the cars are more modern.

The weirdest thing is that it’s only two cars … on a single cable. The cars don’t move independently – when one leaves the top station, the other leaves the bottom. There’s a spot in the middle where the track splits so they can pass, always at the same place. It also means that the stations are all equidistant to each other – so some of the middle ones are in weird places.

Both the stations and the cars are terraced into steps, but since the hill is steeper at the top, it’s only at the middle stations that the train floor is even with the platform. If you ride it facing away from the hill, you’ll be leaning forward at the top, and back at the bottom – only slightly, but noticeably.

It’s only practical if you need to travel along the line, so the rest of Haifa is served by a good bus system. But I’m totally sold by this odd little underground train up a mountain.

This month: ISRAEL (Part 2!)

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be picking a new country every month! I already covered Israel – it was the second country I looked at, back in January 2021.

But the pandemic is weakening (for now), and so I finally get to travel abroad again – I haven’t been out of Canada since fall 2019. And I’m going to Israel for the first time!

I’ll be there three weeks (I’m actually there right now) – one week for work and two for an actual vacation. I’ll share some of my experiences there this month, so my posts will be a bit more “travel bloggy”.

One of my biggest regrets from covering Israel was not exploring the food better; I know I’ll be in for a treat. I’m also looking forward to the historic and religious sites, and get a real crash course on the complexity on the ground.

I am also packing a LOT of sunscreen – I sunburn bad enough here in Canada, so who knows how I’ll face in the Middle East in August.

What did I learn: CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Celebrating the Assumption of Mary at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Bangui – Source

When I picked the Central African Republic for this month’s country, I knew it was a troubled country with chronic instability. I had hoped learn more about everyday life in CAR and to focus away from “doom and gloom“. But what I’ve learned this month is that the instability in CAR goes bone deep in everyday life.

I learned more about the excesses of la Françafrique, the French supporting and deposing chosen leaders, like the infamous Emperor Bokassa, the subsequent string of coups, including the fighting between Séléka and anti-Balaka insurgents, which has added a new Muslim vs. Christian dynamic that did not exist before.

CAR is an extremely fragile state, with limited government control outside of the capital of Bangui and more coups than elections. It is, however, very rich in natural resources – diamonds, gold, uranium, and illegally ivory. This means that CAR is open to interference from both inside forces, like the various insurgent groups, and outside ones. Chad, Libya, and South Africa all have had had a hand in CAR, and France even today continues its neo-colonial influence, but China, the EU, and most recently Russia have all staked claims.

For more detail into the geopolitics of CAR, I’d strongly recommend Making Sense of the Central African Republic.

A lot of Central African popular culture reflects these influences on everyday life. Didier Kassaï’s startling graphic novel Tempête sur Bangui is an eye-opening example, but there’s also a long thread of artists navigating their political reality through their work – from Prosper Mayélé’s run-ins with Bokassa, to current artists resisting and adapting through music, to Majora’s calls for peace, and Jospin Pendere-Yé’s balalaika for Putin.

But there is lots more than just about the conflict – there’s interesting books and music. I learned about the history and use of Sango, and got to try a dish that was really new to me – caterpillars. It was also really interesting to learn more about the Pygmy communities in the south – their music, their work on wildlife conservation, and the discrimination they face from other Africans.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Jospin Pendere-Yé, Aka Pygmy music, and a song for Putin

I know, there’s a lot going on in this title. Jospin Pendere-Yé is a Central African artist who focuses on traditional music. He’s an accomplished ngombi harpist, and was featured in Résistances Rythmiques.

Here’s a really cool song he did with Aka Pygmy singers – traditional Pygmy music has such complex polyphonies that it’s on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

However, there’s one song of Pendere-Yé’s that’s really caught my attention. I get that Russian influence is growing in the Central African Republic, and the use of a balalaika is a neat cross cultural blend, but Putin’s judo?

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Wagner Group and Russia

I keep on touching on France’s involvement in CAR – military, political, economic – but other countries are also competing for influence in the country and over its resources. Russia has a growing presence, as officially they’ve been invited by the Central African government to train troops to combat rebels and insurgents. This is some bold reporting from Al-Jazeera in 2019, including meeting with Russian military representatives in the same place where Russian journalists were killed investigating the same:

However, it’s not just military trainers. Russian mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have been in active combat in CAR. There have been reports of violence and killing of civilians, and Russian mercenaries been taking hold of Central African resources, ostensibly to protect them from insurgents. Again, more bold journalism, this time Vice in 2021, including an interview with the insurgents themselves:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Prosper Mayélé and Centrafrican Jazz

There’s some cool West African funk from the 70s and 80s, but before that, there was Centrafrican Jazz – kind of a “relaxed rumba” from the Central African Republic.

One of the biggest artists in CAR through the 50s and 60s was Prosper Mayélé and his Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz. Not only did Mayélé become one of the biggest stars in the country, but he founded the Groupement Orchestral de la République Centrafricaine, a musicians’ organization to support Central African artists, help them grow their careers, and get Central Africa a platform for its own music.

Continuing in the tradition of Central African musicians being “non-political” but still deeply tied to politics as a matter of survival, there are many songs that boost whoever the current government was – this one a paean to Bokassa, shortly after he took power in a coup in 1966.

Prosper Mayélé was successful enough in his career that, while he was favoured by the regime, he still came up as a threat to President Bokassa’s ego, and was conscripted in his late 30s into a military orchestra. He outlasted Bokassa’s government, and lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 1997.

There is an absolute wealth of Centafrican jazz and rumba from the 60s and 70s on a Youtube channel run by Jean-Claude Mayélé Gérard (I think a family member), and it’s truly a historic musical treasure trove.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique (2011)

I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.

It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.