ISRAEL: The Knesset, Chagall, and the endless election cycle

As part of my trip, we were given a tour of the Israeli Knesset. Our group were all political nerds, so we had a blast getting into the details of the political system and the functioning of the legislature.

One of the highlights was the stunning Chagall triptych in the main hall – setting out Jewish past, future, religion, and stories. Chagall’s work pops up all around Israel, but these massive tapestries are some of the most stunning, just overwhelmingly full of small details.

The Knesset was very quiet, as both it was summer break, and there was an election on. However, there will still a few MPs around, as there is a live board that shows which ones are in the building. It seems like it would be really useful for political staffers to find their MPs, but weirdly, this live board is also viewable online. It seems like a major security loophole in a country very focused on security, though our guide explained that in this case, transparency was more important.

While this was quite rosy and straightforward, Israel’s political system is anything but. They’re currently in the middle of their fifth election in three years. Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation, which ends up with messy coalitions of many parties, with minor party leaders becoming the “kingmakers”. There’s political parties along the left-right spectrum, like in any country, but there’s also identity-based parties, including Haredi and Arab ones. Religious vs. secular and Zionist vs. non-Zionist adds an extra dimension as well.

Here’s a really good primer on the Israeli political spectrum – it’s a few years old, but touches on a lot of deeper divides, voting patterns, and political priorities.

The time between elections in Israel is often spent forming and maintaining coalitions. The previous coalition was between eight parties, including leftist, centrist, right-wing, and Arab ones, and was notable for actually passing a budget. The coalition has since fallen apart, and this election this fall is once more a question of “Yes Bibi / No Bibi” – yes or no to a return of Netanyahu and his coalitions of right-wing and Haredi parties.

Somehow, voter turnout remains high (and higher than turnout in Canada), but most Israelis I spoke with expressed frustration at the constant cycle of elections, dealmaking, and coalitions – there seems to be very little time for actual governance.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

I posted about my trip to the Temple Mount in Israel last month, but I also found these two great explainer videos from Religion for Breakfast that give a lot of good additional background on both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and why the situation is all so … prickly.

He also got to go on an extremely rare visit inside the Dome, normally banned for non-Muslims.

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: 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.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018)

Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018) is a documentary that is beautifully done, takes a turn you don’t expect, and has some serious “how on earth did they get this footage” moments. It follows conservation staff at an endangered forest elephant preserve in southern CAR as they deal with poachers and the day to day work of elephant conservation, and then face armed Séléka rebels taking over the preserve and the town.

The setup at first makes you think it’s going to focus on the white American researcher, but she is reluctantly evacuated to snowy New York when the rebels arrive, and instead she is peripheral to the story, helplessly worried for the elephants and her colleagues in CAR and using her audio research to document the slaughter.

Instead, the documentary focuses primarily on her research partner, Sessely Bernard, who is a forest tracker, and how he works with both the sanctuary and his own Bayaka (pygmy) community to protect the elephants. The documentary also spotlights Zephirine Mbele, who is the head of an “eco-guard” armed unit that targets ivory poachers.

When the Séléka arrive, many of Sessely’s community retreats into the forest to survive, and the eco-guards are hopelessly outgunned, and unable to save many of the elephants from organized ivory raids by the insurgents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but with glimmers of hope, and the footage is incredible.

There’s footage of a show-trial of local poachers (a literal witchhunt), which is then mirrored by the astounding footage of the newly arrived Séléka commander laying down the law to community leaders and the eco-guards. I have no idea how anyone was able to get that footage without being shot – it’s almost surreal to have film-quality footage of actual armed insurgents taking over your community.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Résistances Rythmiques (2017)

Résistances Rythmiques is a short documentary on Central African musicians and how they’re using music careers as an alternative and as a tonic to the violence in CAR. Many of these artists describe themselves as “anti-political”, but really, they’re quite political. It’s only that “politics” in this context means violence, insurgencies, and ethno-religious divides, while music is a way to bring communities together, support CAR’s culture, and promote peace.

Some speak about friends or brothers who have joined the anti-Balaka insurgents and who have died in the fighting, and most just want peace and stability. The older artists are very clear eyed that the recent hate between Muslim and Christian communities is new and driven by the various insurgent groups – CAR had been comfortable with being multi-ethnic and multi-religious until very recently.

It’s also a great primer on Central African music and musicians – rap, rumba, traditional music (including ngombi harps) and the tradi-moderne music of Montenguéné.

It’s available on Youtube here (can’t be embedded), though only in French.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: What’s going on?

There’s over the last few decades in the Central African Republic there’s been fighting between Séléka (a coalition of northern Muslim rebels) and Anti-Balaka (mainly Christian anti-Séléka rebels). Things were starting to get a bit more stable in recent years, including holding elections and a major UN peacekeeping presence. However, as of 2021, former enemy rebel groups were forming alliances and actively fighting the government together. Here’s a short recap from the BBC last year on the rebel insurgencies in the Central African Republic:

The current situation is part of one larger story of instability. This history video below gives the best overall look at CAR’s history – France modelling the colony on Belgium’s Congo, WWII and decolonization, the optimism of first President Barthélemy Boganda‘s anti-racism and social policies, and his untimely death …which is where everything seems to really start to go wrong, including Bokassa’s Empire. Over the last 50 years, it’s been a confusing series of coups, crackdowns, French interventions, juntas, sectarian violence, UN interventions, and near-constant insurgencies.

There’s a ceasefire on right now that’s only partially successful, with the CAR government only having meaningful control over Bangui. The Central African Republic is an incredibly fragile state – poverty and colonialism gave the country a difficult start, and since then, it’s been grinding instability and violence.

There have been real efforts for peace and democracy, however, but it’s a slow, awkward process with many setbacks – not helped that CAR hasn’t captured the world’s attention the same way neighbours Sudan and DR Congo have.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Emperor Bokassa and the Central African Empire

I had heard about Jean-Bédel Bokassa‘s Napoleonic coronation in 1977 before, but it was always a vague “oh look at this crazy dictator”. But focusing on these extravagances in a vacuum makes takes away the human element – you can laugh at dictators claiming eleven holes in one, or renaming the months after their mother, but this overlooks the real people who had to live under these governments.

Bokassa had served as CAR’s President for about a decade before the coronation – he had fought for France in WWII, and was part of the crop of post-independence leaders supported by France across its former African colonies in the 60s (see La Françafrique).

However, Bokassa went down that well-trod path of dictatorial excess, to the point of declaring himself Emperor and blowing the equivalent of a quarter of CAR’s budget on the coronation to mimic Napoleon. It was partially bankrolled by the French, to keep their trade deals flowing. Here’s a good look from New Africa on Bokassa’s coronation – you can see why many African thinkers see the whole thing as an embarrassment:

The French, however, were not going to prop him up indefinitely – a few years after he declared himself Emperor, the French took part in Operation Barracuda, a coup to remove Bokassa and replace him with the government of David Dacko.

This, however, also kicked off the cycle of coups, rebel insurgencies, and instability that still plague the Central African Republic. This reporting below from France 24’s English channel looks at Bokassa’s rise and fall, and how he’s seen today in CAR. 50 years later, there’s a sense of nostalgia for Bokassa – including by his son, who is now a cabinet minister. Even more striking are Bokassa’s surviving opponents – while they’re still opposed to his rule, they too feel a nostalgia for strongman rule in the face of CAR’s current instability:

BANGLADESH: Shipbreaking

The shipbreaking yards of Chittagong really made the media a few years back – videos and pictures of giant container ships being manually taken apart by workers with no protection at all were everywhere. There’s a lot of news reporting from that time, like this good Vice short from 2013:

I’d also recommend this Dhaka Tribune article “Planning ahead: The ship recycling industry must transition to a more sustainable future” by Afsana Rubaiyat for a good recent overview of the issue from a Bangladeshi perspective.

The industry is still going strong – you can even see the ships individually on Google Maps. While the Bangladesh government has attempted to regulate this industry – banning child labour, stopping ships carrying toxic material, setting safety and work conditions – the informal nature of the industry and high corruption makes these rules extremely difficult to enforce.

It’s also not an industry Bangladesh wants to ban completely, since it desperately needs the metals from the scrap to fuel its massive urban growth, and the industry employs thousands of workers. However, deaths and accidents still happen – the NGO Shipbreaking Platform reports at least 18 serious accidents in the first half of 2022 alone – and these are documented, reported ones.

Interestingly, the Bangladeshi NGOs also recognize the economic importance of shipbreaking to the country – Shipbreaking Platform works for better environmental protection and worker safety, including COVID protection and stopping child labour.

BANGLADESH: Walking tour and traffic

I love these casual, no-talking walking tours – it’s immersive, like you’re there yourself. This one is of Dhaka – I’ve also found some cool ones of San Salvador, Porvoo and Tel Aviv.

Of note is just how bonkers the traffic is, and that doesn’t even seem like a bad day! Dhaka has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world – infrastructure is totally overwhelmed, and there’s basically no public transit. There’s a really good documentary about Dhaka’s traffic from 2010, including what it’s like to drive a rickshaw, below.

It hasn’t gotten any better in the last decade – I saw a Bangladeshi news articles from this year lamenting the lack of progress on traffic and the wasted opportunity during the pandemic lockdowns. It’s so bad, in fact, that researchers estimate that 6-10% of Bangladesh’s GDP is lost indirectly to traffic.

Dhaka traffic – Source: Daily Star