Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Blog open for comments again

Sorry. Just had an email pointing out that comments are turned off. I'd completely failed to notice.

This is because the blog was dormant for a year or so, and I blocked comments because I was getting fed up with the spam.

Now I'm blogging about my time in Jerusalem, I've re-enabled them, so on the off-chance anyone wants to say anything, they can do. Don't all rush in at once ...

Desert Roadtrip – Part Two, Ein Gedi

Once we’d finished at Qumran, we drove down to Ein Gedi, on the south-western shore of the Dead Sea. It’s a little oasis on the edge of the desert, and is well known for its nature reserve.

Joanna had booked us a room in a hostel there, and it was surprisingly nice: our own room between us; clean and modern, an all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner; plus a balcony to sit out on late at night, drinking Goldstar and playing card games. Couldn’t ask for more!

In the morning we set out for the nature reserve. Ein Gedi, which literally means “the spring of the goat”, unsurprisingly has a lot of goats (well, ibexes really) and, you’ve guessed it, a spring. On the way up the hillside towards the spring, there are four or five waterfalls with natural pools at the bottom, which are brilliant bathing spots. We had a dip in most of them on our way up. In the desert sun, we dried out completely walking from one pool to the next.

There’s a huge amount of wildlife. There are hyraxes scurrying in and out of the rocks – they look a bit like oversized hamsters. Dragonflies buzz around everywhere. You can see frogs and crabs in the bottom of the pools, and occasionally lizards by the poolside. Looking up to the cliffs, there are ibexes camouflaged against the rocks; they blend in perfectly. The sky is full of little black birds with orange wingtips, called Tristram’s starlings.

We left the nature reserve, and headed towards the Dead Sea. Rather than just run to the public beach and jump in, we decided to treat ourselves to an afternoon at the Ein Gedi spa complex, which offers a range of different pools, and access to the Dead Sea (which is really a lake, despite the name).

We started off at the indoor sulphur pools. The first thing that hits you is the smell: eggy and acrid and tangy. The water feels warm and oily, but it’s actually quite pleasant. The most striking thing is how buoyant you are in it – you float on the surface without even trying. You’re strictly limited to 15 minutes in the sulphur pools, and to be honest, that was about the longest my sinuses could take.

Outside the complex, there’s a mud bath. Or to be more accurate, it’s a big flat area with a huge tub of Dead Sea mud in the middle. You’re supposed to rub the stuff all over yourself, exfoliate a bit, and then rinse off. You get a choice of showers: sulphur water or normal.

Then, there’s the Dead Sea itself. Or rather: the huge salt flat where the Dead Sea used to be. When the spa complex was built, it was right on the shore, but the waters have been retreating at an alarming rate for many years. The Dead Sea is fed by the River Jordan, but both Israel and Jordan use the river as a water supply, and have dammed it further upstream. There just isn’t enough water coming through to keep the Dead Sea going, and the waters have receded to the point where they’re now about half a mile from the spa. You have to travel there by shuttle bus.

On the bus journey, you can see placards in the sand, showing where the waterline used to be at various dates. It’s terrifying. At what looks like a quarter of a mile from the Dead Sea, there’s a sign reading 2001. Maybe a few hundred yards away, there’s a sign reading 2004. It’s shrinking fast, and it’s been shrinking very recently. The place is an ecological disaster.

You need proper footwear to go into the Dead Sea. The lakebed is hard crystallised salt, and it’s spiky. The water is about 35% salt, and when you get in, you can feel every single minor cut and scrape on your body. After a day and a half of climbing up caves and springs and chasing ibexes, I had a fair few, and they stung like hell for the first few minutes.

Because of the high salt content, the water is much denser than normal water, and denser than human beings, so you can float very easily. In fact, you can’t really swim – you just sort of glide over the surface, and it’s hard to get any speed. You also need to really work hard to avoid getting the water in your eyes, or else you’re in real trouble. At one point, I accidentally got a faceful (whilst wearing contact lenses, ouch!) and was more or less blind. Jonathan had to guide me back to the showers on the shore so I could stick my head under them. It cleared up in seconds, thankfully, but it’s best avoided.

Once we finished in the Dead Sea, we got the shuttle bus back to the spa complex, got cleaned up, and hit the road in the direction of Masadah – which is where I’ll pick things up in Part Three. Assuming I survive preparations for my Hebrew speaking exam on Thursday.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Desert Roadtrip – Part One, Qumran

During my studies here in Jerusalem, I’ve met three PhD whizzkids from Harvard: Cian, Jonathan and Joanna. They’re researching biblical Hebrew, theology, ancient history, and loads of other exciting and esoteric stuff, I’m sure. They’d been thinking of going to visit some of the archaeological sites around the Dead Sea – Qumran, Masadah – and after I expressed an interest, they invited me along.

To maximise our time, we decided to skive off an afternoon of classes. Jonathan had hired a car, so we drove out of Jerusalem and due east into the heart of the West Bank. Jerusalem is up in the hills, and the terrain dips very sharply as you come out of the city. There’s what appears to be a checkpoint on the other side of the motorway, as you come back into the city, but no one stops you on the way out.

Qumran is on the coast of the Dead Sea, about 30 miles from Jerusalem, and it takes less than an hour to get there. It’s very much on the beaten track, just off the main road and well marked out with brown tourist roadsigns. It looks so normal, it’s easy to forget where you are.

The caves around Qumran are famous as the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 50s. As you look up into the cliffs around you, you can see the caves where the scrolls were found. On a rocky plateau in the middle stand the ruins of a settlement from the 1st centuries BCE and CE: possibly the home of the same sect of Jews who wrote the scrolls and hid them in clay pots in the surrounding terrain (although there is some serious debate about this in academic circles).

The site is not big – less than five minutes to walk the perimeter. Half broken-down walls show you exactly where the buildings would have been, and what size the rooms were. Looking around, you get the impression that it must have been very similar to a monastery. The Jews who lived there built no fewer than seven mikvehs – Jewish ritual baths – they had a large, long communal dining room, and a room for studying at night, where archaeologists discovered a large number of oil lamps.

We decided to hike up to one of the caves. This turned out to be a bad move. We were in a desert, it was the middle of the day, we were running out of water, and the cave we picked – although it had looked all right from the ground – turned out to be unreachable without climbing ropes, at least, according to a helpful signpost placed about three quarters of the way up the mountainside by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority, prophesying death and destruction upon our heads if we attempted to do it without professional equipment.

We took a break, recovered from the heat exhaustion in the shade of a large rocky outcrop, and clambered back down again. Once we were back at the ruins, we noticed a small, friendly looking cave much lower down, so we hiked up to that instead. It was small, not very exciting, full of batshit, and clearly didn’t have enough space for any ancient scrolls. It probably wasn’t an official Qumran cave at all. But we made it to a cave in the end, and that’s what counts.

From Qumran, we drove down back into Israel proper, towards our next stopover at Ein Gedi. There was a checkpoint on the way in, but in our tourist gear, and driving our hire car with Israeli numberplates, we were waved through.

I’ll pick up the rest of the story tomorrow in another exciting instalment.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Minor bus disaster

Minor disaster today.

One of my friends from the course here is called Marijn, from the Netherlands. Most people on campus know him as the one whose name they struggle to pronounce. He's a theologian, with a special interest in the Old Testament and a good grasp of classical Hebrew - but here to improve his modern spoken Hebrew. The two of us went into the modern city centre of west Jerusalem for a drink this afternoon.

We got off the no. 19 bus at King George Street, walked down to Zion Square, found a decent looking little bar, had our drink and a chat, then headed back up the hill to get the bus back to campus. We naturally assumed that the bus home would be on the same road as we'd got off, but on the opposite side, going the opposite direction.

We were wrong. For some reason, the no. 19 northbound and the no. 19 southbound both go in the same direction along King George Street. But with the legendary Jonny spatial awareness, I only realised this after we'd gone a mile and a half along King George Street in the wrong direction without finding a bus stop.

In other news, the Hebrew tuition is going fine. We were learning about rooms of the house today. We had to get into pairs and have a little dialogue; one person has put out a classified ad for a house to rent, and the other person rings up to ask about the house. It was all "how big is the bathroom" and "how many bedrooms" and stuff like that. Good for practising adjective agreements too.

After we'd all been doing that for a few minutes, my partner and I got unexpectedly hauled up to the front of the class to demonstrate our dialogue. We managed to get sidetracked into a massive haggle over the price: she wanted 9000 shekels a month; I was trying to get her down to 3000. The teacher thought we could have spent more time on the new vocabulary and the adjective endings, but said I was clearly getting into the Israeli mentality!

I do at least feel like I can have a very basic conversation with some degree of fluency now. It's all in the present tense, and on a limited range of subjects, but I can actually talk and listen, without being reliant on the script from the textbooks, and I'm starting to build some confidence. I think I can probably achieve a respectable amount in the five weeks I'm here for. Here's hoping.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

In Jerusalem

This blog has been dormant for a while. Back when I had the time and the motivation, I used to write stuff about liberalism and UK politics. Over the last couple of years, I’m afraid I got out of the habit. Now, I’m studying in Israel for a few weeks, and I’d like to keep my family and friends posted. This old blog seems as good a place as any. If my Facebook friends, Twitter followers and former Lib Dem readership want to join the party too, you’re more than welcome.

I’m in Jerusalem, on the top of Mount Scopus, watching the sun set through the window of my dorm room. If I walked round the other side of the building, I’d see the Dome of the Rock glowing red below me in the heart of the Old City. I’ve decided to come to Israel to lean the Hebrew language, and I’m on an intensive five-week course at the Hebrew University.

As a modern linguist, it'll be a great challenge learning a new language, especially one that's unrelated to anything I've studied before. As a Jew, I hope having a basic grasp of Hebrew will make it easier to explore my own culture and heritage. As someone who cares about the politics of the Middle East, I hope my time here will give me more of an insight into this complex, beautiful and war-torn region.

I flew out from Manchester nearly a week ago, and spent a few days with my cousins in Ra’anana, which is a coastal town slightly to the north of Tel Aviv. On Sunday, I got the bus over to Jerusalem, and registered at the University for one of their summer crash courses.

Hebrew U has two campuses. Humanities are on Mount Scopus, which is where I’m based. The Mount Scopus campus, overlooking the Old City, was the original home of the university from 1925, but after the 1948 war, it was cut off – a little exclave of Israeli territory surrounded on all sides by the Jordanian-occupied West Bank. As a result, the university built its other campus in Givat Ram, central Jerusalem, which nowadays houses the science faculty.

In typical Jonny style, I managed to apply for the course about six weeks after the deadline. I don’t think I would even have found the course if it hadn’t been for my brother Alex, who sent me a link to Hebrew U’s website. I rang them up and pestered them in pidgin Hebrew for a bit, and they caved in. Within three days of the first phonecall, I was getting on the plane, and my formal acceptance letter from the University was waiting in my inbox when I touched down at Ben Gurion.

So far, I’ve had three days of tuition, and it’s been a challenge. Before you start, you sit a test, and get sorted into a class based on ability, starting with Aleph (beginners), and working through the Hebrew alphabet to Heh (advanced). Aleph is sub-divided into levels 1-5. I could already read and write Hebrew script, and had a smattering of vocab, so they’ve put me in Aleph 3. The tuition is entirely in Hebrew. If I said it was intense, it'd be an understatement.

First thoughts: I need to start picking it up quickly. I hate being in a country where I can’t string a sentence together. It feels like losing a limb, especially having studied modern languages, and being able to at least get by in most of Western Europe.

Best get cracking with the homework, then. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

This hypocritical Labour campaign

Like many of my fellow Liberal Democrats, I’ve spent a lot of time recently defending the party’s decision to go into government with the Tories. Much of the debate is happening on Twitter, which leads to two problems. Firstly, you have to squeeze your arguments into 140 characters, which doesn’t leave much room for nuance or for factual background. Secondly, there’s a large contingent of tribalist Labourites trolling around.

Put those two together, and you get this (as well as the accompanying facebook campaign). Seems like a lot of people are quite angry with the Lib Dems for dropping our policy for a phased withdrawal of student tuition fees.

Look at the list of names signed up to the campaign. I can’t see all that many Lib Dems. In fact, it’s peppered with Labour Party members, including NUS President Aaron Porter. I’m sure a lot of these people are sincere and genuine in their opposition to tuition fees, but they’re not exactly running this campaign out of a selfless desire to improve the Lib Dems’ policy position.

Worryingly, the Labour campaigners don’t seem to grasp the concept of a coalition. No party has a mandate to carry out its policies in full. There has to be compromise. Unfortunately, this time, our position on tuition fees didn’t make the cut.

Truth is, we didn’t decide against scrapping tuition fees. The British people did, when they failed to give a majority to the only party proposing to scrap them: the Lib Dems. If we were running the show, there’d be a bill going through this year, abolishing top-up fees for final-year students. Compare and contrast with the Labour Party in 2004: a thumping majority, enough to do what they liked (even with 71 of their own MPs rebelling) - and they chose to break a cast-iron manifesto promise, condemning a generation of young people to crippling debts. Against that background, this sanctimonious and tactically-motivated posturing from Labourites really sticks in the gullet.

If, like me, you’re a student, and if, like me, you’re wondering how to get rid of tuition fees, then consider this. In power, Labour introduced the damn things. The Lib Dems want to scrap them, and if ever we’re in a position to do so, we will.

Now, which party should you spent your efforts fighting against?

Friday, 18 December 2009

Legal fees scandal

Personal injury lawyers are under fire today. The Tories have asked some well-aimed parliamentary questions, and discovered that the NHS is paying out a staggering amount of money to meet victims' legal fees in clinical negligence cases. In over 10% of successful claims against the NHS, the lawyers receive more money than the patient, with NHS legal costs adding up to £700m over the past five years.

It's easy to blame this on the lawyers, a profession whose popularity ratings are only marginally higher than Labour MPs and City bankers. But the real cause of this scandal is the lack of any legal aid funding for patients that have suffered from clinical negligence.

If your operation has been botched and you can't afford a lawyer, you have to enter a "no win, no fee" arrangement. Law firms doing "no win, no fee" work end up losing a lot of their cases, and get paid nothing at all. They then have to charge a "success fee" in the cases they actually win (which gets paid by the losing side, ie. the NHS). Supposing the firms lose 50% of their cases, they have to charge double the rest of the time, just to break even. (In fact, the formula is slightly more complicated than this, and takes into account the likelihood of winning each case, but the basic idea still holds.)

The obvious solution is to give legal aid funding to patients who have suffered from clinical negligence. Then, lawyers would get a fixed and fair wage, depending simply on the complexity of the case. If the legal costs clearly outstripped the value of the likely payout, claimants could make an informed choice about whether or not to proceed. The system would arguably be much fairer.

Unfortunately, our gut reaction is exactly the opposite: to cut the legal aid budget, and to feel very smug about wasting less public money on parasite lawyers. The legal aid budget has been slashed, year on year, but rather than save money, it's stopped everyone but the rich from having fair access to the courts. Both claimants and defendants are thrown at the mercy of the casino-style odds game that is the "no win, no fee" system. Populist anti-lawyer rhetoric may make us feel better for a while, but it won't solve the fundamental problems that have led to this latest scandal.