Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flying Rabbis, Lady Gaga and Hider's 'Spiders of Allah': Sects and Violence

Fifty flying rabbis recently took to the sky in an aircraft, blowing on sacred ram's horns in an effort to purge swine flu from the airspace over Zion. And now Lady Gaga has arrived in Israel, wearing a spiked Star of David on her black leather fetish gear. Truth can be far weirder than fiction on the frontlines of holy war, whether the fight is against the H1N1 virus, moral depravity, or zealous terrorists clad in suicide vests.

Lady Gaga-hermaphrodite moral laxity?

After a sojourn in the Holy Land, writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg have come away with the notion that, regardless of any outsider's road map, peace in the Middle East will be achieved...when pigs fly.

Enter James Hider, an intrepid war correspondent for the Times of London who sometimes dyes his gingery eyebrows black to better blend in with the Arab Street. His prolific and authoritative coverage of conflict in Fallujah, Baghdad, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for Rupert Murdoch's newspaper has been essential reading for years. Now, in his first book, The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War, published this summer by St Martin's Griffin, Hider unleashes his dark humor and angry wit in a troll through the atrocities that result when religious fanaticism and ignorance are given unlimited fire power. Hider goes beyond the jaded truisms of most eyewitness post - 9/11 war reportage. To Hider, an ardent atheist, religion in the Midde East has mutated beyond Karl Marx's "opium of the people" into "the crack cocaine of fanatical fundamentalism."

The book's odd title comes from an Iraqi urban myth which went viral online in the early days of the war. Jihadis were rumored to be onto a secret weapon: shrieking camel spiders "the size of dinner plates", primed to sprint at 25 mph on eight legs and attack infidel invaders like the US Marines. The timeline of Hider's personal chronicle sometimes is perplexing because the action surges ahead or casts back a couple of millennia. It's written in a self-deprecating Blackwater stream of consciousness-- complete with rapids, whirlpools, and the occasional snag.

As he gets "sucked back into the 3,000- year-old vortex of fighting between Israel and its neighbors", Hider jolts away from any anticipated script. For instance, his take on how the Islamist group Hamas and its Al Aqsa tv channel hijacked Disney characters to whip up pre-teen Palestinian martyrs against the Israeli occupation ends up in a rock fight with the "feral children" of Gaza, who got bored by the squeaky rodent on the program.

More thoughtful than the usual Gonzo danger junkie writing from a war zone, Hider doesn't tout his own brushes with death as courageous. At one point he castigates himself for his cynicism after he sees so many killings that they start losing news-worthiness. His eye for repellant detail, the kind of graphic description that copy editors would spike out of concern for readers at the breakfast table, has put me off Turkish delight forever. But there are other delights, particularly the droll accounts of unexpected encounters as he tracks sects and violence across the region.

Crossposted on the Huffington Post

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fishy tale about Israeli mermaid swamps the net! $4 million shekels offered for a snap

Have you seen something curious in the water? Huffington Post apparently took the bait and linked to a cute ABC news online filler piece about how Israeli officials are offering a million bucks...or four million shekels...for a verifiable snap of an Israeli mermaid. This certainly is not the typical siren that concerns Israelis in places like Sderot --- and this sea creature supposedly was spotted off the coast of Haifa. Multiple sightings, according to Murdoch's SKY News.

"Many people are telling us they are sure they've seen a mermaid and they are all independent of each other. People say it is half girl, half fish, jumping like a dolphin"
Hmmm. Good score for the tourist board. Some snide commentators suggest that photoshoppers will be working overtime and that a Jewish siren would be known as Ethel Merman! Even though mummified mermaid remains have proven to be a hoax, it's remotely possible that a Mediterranean version of a Stellar Sea Cow or dugong,
has surfaced. But the whole thing is, er, fishy -- so it must be August Silly Season!

(crossposted from Feral Beast. Hat-tip, or tail flip, fellas.)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Bloodbath in "Hell Aviv" Gay Club caused by lone gunman clad in black

Hot or Not.

Being gay wasn't an option for us, comments Paul Bentley, in shock after learning that two people were killed in a gay Tel Aviv teen club and at least 11 more wounded by a masked gunman spraying bullets around the room from his automatic pistol. Police said the bloody incident was more likely criminal activity, not a terror attack. [Translation: no Arab involvement.] The city is reeling.

Israeli friends of mine are horrified by Saturday's shooting. They thought their country had come further than this. One of them is disappointed because after urging British non-Jewish friends to visit Tel Aviv for years, now he knows they won't.

But they forget where Tel Aviv is – just half an hour by car from Gaza and 20 minutes away from Bnei Brak, one of the most ultra-orthodox areas in Israel. There is a bus you can get from the beach in Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak. The journey begins with string bikinis and boys in tight shorts. Half an hour later the bus is full of long skirts and black hats. And the genders are segregated; men at the front, women at the back.

Five years ago, I spent four months of my gap year studying Talmud at a biblical college in Maalot Daphna, an ultra-orthodox area of Jerusalem. The Rabbis at the college were kind but their views were entrenched. We argued about the role of women and the dangers of assimilating with non-Jews but we never discussed homosexuality. It wasn't an option for us to be gay so there wasn't anything to talk about. I hadn't yet come out as gay and there was no way I was going to declare my abominable secret.

Nothing illustrates the ideological divide in Israel between dati'im and chilonim – the orthodox and secular – better than the difference in attitudes of people in the country's two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – or "Hell Aviv" as my Talmud teachers called it.

Guest commentator, crossposted from The Independent of London. Meanwhile, the Independent's correspondent Ben Lynfield adds:

Leaders of Shas, a party that has depicted homosexuality as blasphemy evoking divine retribution, condemned the attack but stressed that the motives were unclear.

Conditions for gay Israelis have improved in many ways over recent years. Gay couples es have been recognised by the courts, gay soldiers serve openly in the military and openly gay musicians and actors are among the country's most popular. Rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows in Tel Aviv. Mr Tsror, the league spokesman, said that the number of Israelis coming out has been on the increase in recent years.

But accompanying this has been an incitement to violence. Last year, a lawmaker from Shas declared in parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity. Earlier, another MP from the same party said that a homosexual is "worse than a beast". In 2005, an ultra-orthodox youth stabbed three people at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. In May this year, a group of youths attacked a man during a gay pride parade in the southern city of Eilat.