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Archive for February, 2009

In Bulgaria – In Principle

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 25, 2009

Another country, another language, other realities …

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this past Sunday night and quickly made the transition back to the Bulgarian language and to looking at the world through its constructs.

My favorite expression in Bulgarian is “po printsip,” literally “in principle” but actually the foundation for a separate reality in which all is as it should or at least could be. The positing of a parallel realm makes the imperfections of the more immediate world seem illusory and unworthy of thought or attention.

On Monday morning, I ventured out onto the iced-over streets of Sofia (note: Sofiotes do not clear sidewalks of ice; winter is winter and ice is part of it) for chores, a stroll, and an early lunch. My first stop was the dry-cleaner. A sign posted over its entry promised two-hour cleaning but when I asked when my trousers would be ready for pick-up I was told to come back Wednesday. When I mentioned the sign outside, the clerk replied, “Yes, po printsip everything could be ready in two hours but we haven’t done two-hour cleaning in years.” My next stop was an academic bookstore to track down a title on the history and geography of medieval Thrace. “Do you have the book?” I asked the clerk. The response: “Po printsip we do, but we don’t.” “Well, will you have it sometime soon?” “Po printsip we will, but it is out-of-stock and out-of-print.”

Unencumbered by purchases and free of the obligation of reading the book, I walked to a familiar non-fashionable neighborhood restaurant famed amongst local television and radio types for its grilled spiced meat patties and accompanying cabbage and carrot salad, baked beans, and reliably pure grape brandy. I had stopped at the restaurant at 8:30 the night before but had found it empty and closed. I asked the waiter if the restaurant still worked on Sundays. “Yes,” he answered, “we’re open every day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, po printsip.” “Po printsip,” I affirmed, “but you were closed last night. “Yes, we were but, po printsip, we are always open.” I remembered a conversation I had in the same restaurant many years ago with a very beautiful colleague who worked at a nearby film studio. “Well,” I said, observing her wedding-ring, “you are married.” “Yes.” “And,” I added with obligatory Balkan flirtatiousness, “you are faithful to your husband?” “Yes,” she replied,“… po printsip.”

Enough said. It is 4pm and I should finish up the day’s work, po printsip.

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And a Final Half-Step: More Mid-East Related (and Other) Links, Photo Resources, and Muckraking

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 24, 2009

Further to my last two posts, some additional Mid-East related (and other) links I have relied on these past two months, some but not all referring to Jewish affairs …


For those who read Turkish (or are willing to flip through Turkish-English dictionaries and grammars at high speed) there is KeHaber Turkish Media Watch, which also offer occasional entries in English. KeHaber features reports from the Turkish press indicative of attitudes toward Jews, Israel, and the Middle East. The negative side of KeHaber is that it disregards the weblogging convention of offering an “about” page identifying its authors and thus compromises its objectivity accordingly. My take is that the site is put together in Israel, but whether as an informative or propaganda site I do not know. If anyone from KeHaber reads this, my compliments on your fine work but please come out of the shadows and explain yourself.

Turkey and the Price of Magnanimity

For the moment, I am trying to avoid writing about the ambiguous situation of Jews in Turkey and the game played by Turkey’s leadership of speaking out against Antisemitism when abroad but manipulating it to solidify their support at home and their image in the Middle East. I am also avoiding writing about the increasingly common conflation of anti-Israeli policy sentiments and anti-Jewish sentiments and deeds. Having spent the last months in Istanbul, I feel too close to and momentarily too overwhelmed by these issues, as well as a bit overloaded by my recent readings on the late- and post-Ottoman history of Jews in Turkey and the Balkans. More on these subjects another time, thus – either here or at Bubkes.Org – and at length. As a temporary surrogate, see this report on the stance taken in the Turkish press last month by Turkish-Jewish psychologist and academic Layla Navaro. In an article in the Turkish newspaper Radikal, Navaro took a courageous stance against government and popular insinuations that Turkey’s Jews should realize that they are guests — albeit of more than 500-years duration — whose presence depends on their country’s magnanimity alone. “The Act of Magnanimity,” by the way, is the working title of a paper I hope to deliver on parallel phenomena in the Netherlands and in Bulgaria.

Point of No Return

Also worth looking at is the generally well-researched but also anonymously-issued site Point of No Return. This site is dedicated to the stance that the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin who comprise more than a third of the total population of the State of Israel – and who also constitute a substantial diaspora elsewhere in the world – are the mirror image of the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian naqba of 1948. I recently posted a comment on Point of No Return re: the derogatory Turkish-language term for Jews Çıfıt and its present-day use in Turkey and neighboring Bulgaria but I’ll refrain from further comments or contributions until the site adds a suitable “about” page. For those interested, the site’s thread on Turkey is worth perusing — with the exception of a recent PR-release-sounding profile of Turkish-Jewish construction magnate Ishak Alaton.

The Heart of the Enemy

On a related theme, Max Hartmuth of Balkan Cities brought to my attention this German-language review of Iraqi exile Najem Wali’s new book Reise in das Herz des Feindes (Journey Into the Heart of the Enemy), in which the author discovers in Israel, amongst other surprises, that Iraqi Jewish refugees and their descendents still preserve the language and ethos of Baghdadis of a past age.

Joods Actueel

For those who read Nederlands (i.e. Dutch/Flemish) I recommend the independent, courageous, and balanced voice of Joods Actueel (tr. Jewish Currents) — which I only became aware of in January through its coverage of attempts of crowds of local North African, Turkish, and Middle Eastern immigrants demonstrating against Israel’s Gaza fiasco and in support of Hamas to run amok through Orthodox Jewish quarter in the city of Antwerp.


Speaking of running amok, the English-language word “amok” is taken directly from Malay, in which it means to run about in a frenzy. Malay, in turn, is the foundation of Bahasa Indonesia, the contrived official “national” language of the multi-ethnic, multi-language Republic of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.

One of the sadder and more absurd side-shows of the reactions to last month’s tragedy in Gaza was the storming of the sole remaining synagogue in all of Indonesia and the harassment of its members by a crowd of hundreds of locals eager to avenge the suffering of Palestinians. The synagogue, in the eastern Java port city of Surabaya, is maintained by a few elderly Jews of Iraqi and Indian origin and their dozen or so children and grandchildren, most of whom are part Javanese and part Muslim.

Long ago, I had personal links to Surabaya and its Jewish past. I also remember the vicious massacres of local Communists and ethnic-Chinese citizens in Indonesia as well as the country’s brutal takeovers of western New Guinea and East Timor. The words “Indonesia Jaya!” (Indonesia Victorious!) deflate into farce.

Vintage Photo Resources

Turning to the more distant history of the Middle East, I recently came across Mideastimage, an online album of vintage photographs of the region. I discovered the site through a footnote in “Empire, Architecture, and the City”, a new volume by Ottoman-era urban history scholar Zeynep Çelik treating, in part, the effects of 19th century political and infrastructural changes on the layouts and faces of late- and post-Ottoman cities in the Middle East and North Africa. I look forward to reading the book in full and citing it in my part-time work on the history and future of infrastructure and identity. (I met Zeynep Celik seven or eight years ago but I do not have her current email address; if anyone reading this post does, could you please entrust it to me?) While on the subject of photo archives, for several years I’ve maintained a link on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org to the digitized contents of the famed Sultan Abdul Hamid II gift albums, available online via the US Library of Congress.

Plain Old-Fashioned Muckraking

To end on a totally different note, for some excellent “muckraking” coverage of the hazy terrain of corporate misdeeds in the Middle East and throughout the world check out CorpWatch.

In the next entry, back – via Bulgaria – to the usual subjects.

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And Another Half-Step: Israel’s Conscientious Objectors

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 16, 2009

Further to my previous entry — a gingerly first attempt at posting on matters related to the Middle East — an additional link in a series of less common perspectives and sources:

WWW.DECEMBER18TH.ORG is a site in support of young Israeli conscientious objectors jailed for refusing to serve in their country’s military, many out of objection to the occupation of the West Bank and the encirclement of Gaza.  Israel excuses ultra-orthodox religious Jews from conscription as part of political “gentlemen’s agreements” with the country’s coalition-making-and-breaking religious right.  However, Israel does not provide for exemption from military service on the grounds of individual conscience.  A short video that strings together sound bites from young Israelis sentenced to jail  for refusing military service  into a cogent statement of the cases for their conscientious-objector-ship can be viewed on David Bellel’s Knickerbocker Village, a weblog dedicated to the Lower East Side housing project of the same name.  Bellel notes in his posting that long-ago Knickerbocker Village resident Robert  Meerepool — a son of executed alleged atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and an adopted son of the late activist, teacher, and song-writer Abel Meerepool (click here) — is among the sponsors of the December 18th cause.  (As a coincidental  “bonus link,” click here for an excerpt from Philip Lopate’s book “Waterfront” describing Knickerbocker Village, the tenements it replaced, the Rosenbergs, and the old-school New York communist relatives many of us remember and remain proud of.)

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