The waitress at this café on Milano Street in Tel Aviv gave me a little chocolate coconut sweet thing this morning as she handed me my second cup of coffee, with much the same expression as though a cat had just shown up on their doorstep for the third day in a row.

The dull ache of my back has lessened somewhat in the last day or so, and it’s especially better when I’m writing. I missed one day of writing this week — I spent Monday shuffling painfully between the GP and the medical supply store and had was in too much pain to write. Happily, I met the goal Tuesday, Wednesday, and today, and writing changed from being too much work to a welcome diversion for two hours, in which I forgot for a bit that I had injured my back at all.

I’m under strict orders to rest this week, which is totally fine by me. Each morning, I’ve gone down for my morning constitutional (coffee…) to one of two cafés which are side-by-side on Milano Street — the GP specifically said that bed-rest and sitting for too long hinders recovery, and the 500 metre schlep there and back has been good for stretching me out. A ginger on crutches is somewhat memorable, so the staff tend to remember me when I come by.

Onward toward recovery, I suppose.

By The Book

One of my favorite part of the New York Times is called “By The Book,” which they describe as a section on “writers on literature and the literary life.” I love people talk about their favorite books, and especially love the opportunity to talk about books I love. I’m afraid that I’ll never be cool enough to be one of the people featured in “By The Book,” I’ve stolen some of their common questions and answered them here. Some of my favorites: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Lin-Manual MirandaSiddhartha Mukherjee.

What books are currently on your night stand?

My bedside locker in New York currently belongs to a subletter, but back when it was mine, it was occupied by the last three volumes of Scott Pilgrim, a graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which I never got around to reading, and Season of Migration to the North, a book by Tayeb Salih which I kept there in the hope that friends who crashed in my bed would pick it up out of curiosity — it’s a terrific book.

Here in Tel Aviv, I have a copy of Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally. On my digital nightstand, aka my Kindle, I’m currently reading My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a history of the hip-hop movement by Jeff Chang.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?

The standout books from my childhood are Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, The Witches, by Roald Dahl, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling. Lyra, from Northern Lights, is probably my favorite literary character — she was adventurous and determined and everything I wanted to be. I love the Harry Potter series in part because Dad read the first four books to me, a chapter a night, as bedtime stories, and I loved them.

I dipped into Stephen King as a teenager, reading Salem’s Lot or Pet Semetary first, I think. I remember scaring myself silly on a holiday in the south of France. By that time I was 11 or 12, but it was Stephen King that cemented the idea that reading fiction was a pastime in the way that watching 5 hours of TV was a pastime for the average American. I read a lot for college, but even now that I’m writing a non-fiction book, I try to keep a ratio of 1:3 fiction to nonfiction ratio going in my read pile.

Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?

I have a very distinct memory of my childhood reading habits. I was so engrossed in the autobiography of the director of the early James Bond movies, Albert R. Broccoli, that my mum wouldn’t let me bring the book to school with me for fear of not paying attention. It was probably a founded fear, although I should say that my parents were nothing but encouraging of my reading habits, and introduced me to many of my favorite books.

What’s the last book that made you laugh?

I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in two sittings (on a plane to and from Minneapolis) in May and then thrust a copy into my mum’s hands (as I said — the book swapping is a two-way street). It’s monumentally funny, and Diaz is one of the best storytellers writing today.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill if we’re using this opportunity to try and convince him (or, hopefully, her) to change some governmental policy. Being There, by Jerzy Kosinski, if he/she just wants a fun short book to get his/her mind off the fact that Donald Trump exists.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I started The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins on my flight to Israel, and was astounded by how bad it was. This is a book that Audible and Amazon have been putting front and centre of my recommendations, and I couldn’t make it past the first hour or two of the audiobook. I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when it came out and found that it got painful toward the end.

I try to finish everything I start, though, and am successful maybe 9 times out 10. Not finishing a book feels like being in the wrong in a particularly messy breakup.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I just read Stephen King’s On Writing for a second time. I read it first in September 2012, the last time I started a long writing project, which I guess means it’s a habit now.

I also just finished a reread of the Harry Potter series, but working from the seventh down to the first. Before this year I hadn’t read the books in maybe 6 or 7 years, and I found myself noticing a lot of new things that went over my head the first time.

I tend to read sections of my favorite fiction book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, every so often. I went back to check a detail in it over the summer and ended up reading around a hundred pages in an afternoon.

What do you plan to read next?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader who already has a stack of six books will still find time to slink into a bookstore and pick up six more. Those 12 books notwithstanding, enough people have sung the praises of Katherine Boo’s Beyond The Beautiful Forevers that I feel sufficiently guilty not having read it yet, and will probably bump it to the top of my list.

Campaign Launches Urging Obama to Pardon Edward Snowden

I love the smell of a good activist campaign in the morning.

Prez Obama has some 120 days left in the Oval Office, and a new campaign launched this week is calling for him to pardon Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed NSA domestic surveillance programs which extended beyond the bounds of the Constitution. He catapulted the issue into the public conscienceless and is currently living in Russia.

Thanks to his act of conscience, America’s surveillance programs have been subjected to democratic scrutiny, the NSA’s surveillance powers were reined in for the first time in decades, and technology companies around the world are newly invigorated to protect their customers and strengthen our communications infrastructure.

Snowden should be hailed as a hero. Instead, he is exiled in Moscow, and faces decades in prison under World War One-era charges that treat him like a spy. Ed stood up for us, and it’s time for us to stand up for him. Urge President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, and let him come home with dignity.

Quite proud of this notion, and of my friends involved in the campaign.

I’ve signed on, and you should too.

Thorny moments on the record

Being a journalist is a fairly thankless job, owing to the fact that everyone has an opinion of your work and nobody is shy when it comes to sharing it. So on one hand I can understand why the New York Times got its back up this week and went fully into defensive we-did-nothing-wrong mode this week.

A journalist for the NYT quoted an author badmouthing other authors in an article about a festival in Australia. The quoted comments didn’t occur during an interview — just a conversation during “what was billed by the conference hosts as an “artist-only” private conversation over cocktails.” The journalist was there in the room, but made no mention that he was writing a story.

The author, Suki Kim, is understandably furious. The NYT’s public editor, Liz Spayd, acting in her capacity as an independent journalist who muses each week on the paper’s thorny ethical quandaries, weighed in and, shock of shocks, came down heavily on the side of the journalist who quoted the author. Spayd goes on to quote the standards editor, who says there was nothing untoward about what happened —but maybe it was “unfortunate,” as if it were a rain shower— and goes on to say that since Kim was in a room full of journalists, she had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

I don’t buy this explanation, and I think the idea that any interactions with journalists are automatically on the record to be unreasonable and shitty. Ordinary folks —non-journalists— should not have to go around and be on the record during their every waking moment. It makes potential sources cagey, and does none of us any favors at a time when public perceptions of journalists are tanking.

From my perspective, what’ll happen at the next writing festival is that known journalists won’t be invited to the informal “artist-only” private events. Someone will kick up a stink about closing out the journalists, but you can very much understand the thinking behind the decision, can’t you?

Despite saying in the public editor article that the quote wouldn’t be removed, I can’t see it in the original linked article. I hope I’m right, and that the Times reverted on their decision to let the quote stand just because they didn’t go through the is-this-off-the-record dance with everyone who attended the thing.

Exhalation

One of my favorite theories about creativity is that writers/artists/etc. do their best work when they mix inhalation (reading, traveling, absorbing) with exhalation (writing, working, touring). It’s an idea I got from Amanda Palmer, who in turn credits it to Henry Rollins. The idea is that you should go through periods of both, and they exist in a symbiotic relationship.

I think I made some comment at some stage in a blogpost or a newsletter about my semester at NYU in Tel Aviv being more relaxed than my other semesters. An inhale semester, as it were.

Yeah, it’s not.

My classes aren’t any more demanding than normal but taking two language classes is a handful. My Hebrew’s improving steadily and my Arabic is tootling along.

More important to me than class, and roughly equal to travel, the book is my number-one priority right now. I’m working on making it into a full-length nonfiction book on leaks and data breaches over the last 10 years. Think The Pacific or Blown to Bits or Flashpoints — a series of 8-10 events and anecdotes, linked together by common theme and packaged in a distinct thesis.

My goal for the book is to write a minimum of 400 words a day. That’s a little bit over my actual goal of 250 words, an optimistic goal which gives me a first draft by sometime next April. I’ve never done anything this long before — coming from journalism where you write 700 words in a day and then the article is published and done and you move onto the next thing, it’s a very new experience to have a project and to have it sitting with me all this time.

A lot of the writers I know scoff at daily writing goals, saying that they’re artificial. They seem to be suggesting that you should only write when you feel like it. But to me that feels like cheating, an abdication of the hard work that goes into writing something of this length. I wrote a newsletter with some detail about how waiting around for flashes of inspiration is for amateurs, and that you write a book in much the same way as you eat an elephant. Piece by piece.

Some days the writing comes easy — some days I write 1,700 words of one chapter because I know where I want to go and I can think of the right words and the work doesn’t feel like work. Other days, I limp along, jumping between chapters, working on a little bit here and a little bit there until I collapse at the 400-word finish line. It varies between coming easily, pulling teeth, and cutting a tunnel through a mountain armed with only a spoon and a vague notion of a tunnel you once drove through in Switzerland for guidance.

But the work waits. And it goes. The spring and the summer were spent inhaling, and now I’ve got something I want out in the world.

A clear blue sky, and an Israeli town under a cloud

SDEROT — On Friday, I went with two friends down to Sderot, an Israeli town (pop. 24,000) bordering the Gaza Strip. Because of its proximity to the Gaza, it’s a common target for rocket attacks fired from the strip. I did some quick research — one rocket was fired on August 21, ten days before our visit, which landed “between two homes” in Sderot. Another, in July, hit a children’s centre. No casualties in either case, as far as I can tell.

The town is also home to a memorial monument to the IDF soldiers who carried out reprisal strikes on Arab State armies who attacked Israel. From the monument, you can see Gaza, and since you’re only a couple hundred metres from the Gaza Strip, and you can pick out towers (of the guard and water varieties) as well as individual buildings and cities.

IMG_0899

The town of Sderot itself is… interesting. My two friends and I wandered around for a while, and it was like being in a Twilight Zone episode where there’s a time warp and a small town is stuck in a perpetual wake after a very sad funeral.

I was honestly fascinated by the place. It’s probably a good microcosm to study, in that it’s small (I think I saw all of it in 2.5 hours) and it’s literally on the frontline of the conflict with Hamas.

IMG_0901

Al-Qassam rockets, named for Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian preacher born in the 1880s who was famous for speaking out against the British and French mandates in the Middle East. He immigrated to Palestine, became one of the first Palestinian nationalists, and his death in 1935 contributed to the revolt there, 1936-9.

 

TA Diary 3: In which your reporter begins exploring

A minaret overlooking the Mediterranean

A minaret overlooking the Mediterranean

I had my first Shabbat dinner last night, which was a lot of fun. I didn’t take photos, because that didn’t seem to be the done thing, but it was a charming end to the orientation week, especially when one of the RAs broke out her guitar. This morning, we had a picnic in HaYarkon Park, an 850-acre park literally across the street from our dorm.

I mentioned in a previous update that I expected 30 or 40 students to be coming from NYU New York, with about the same again coming from NYU Shanghai. As it turns out, we’re a group of 11 students total — 9 from NYU NY, one from NYU Shanghai, and one from NYU Abu Dhabi. The smaller group means that even by the end of Week 1, we all know one another, where we’re all from, etc. NYU Tel Aviv as a study-abroad site is also interesting because all of the students study Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies or Politics (with an international bent) or International Relations, so we’re studying a lot of the same things and we have a lot of the same interests. The other thing abut having such a small group is that the class sizes are teeny — I’ll know for sure next week, but I think my biggest class has 7 people; my smallest has either 1 or 2, depending on whether somebody takes Beginner Hebrew with me.

Earlier this week, we visited the border between Israel and Lebanon, aka The Blue Line, about 2.5 hours north of Tel Aviv. Considering that the two countries are technically still in a state of war, and apparently the only cars that can get through the border are UN peacekeeping vehicles, and even they’re often held up or denied passage. The border’s sometimes used for prisoner exchanges, and in 2013, an Israeli soldier was killed by a Lebanese sniper.

On the way back to TA, we stopped in Jisr Az-Zirqa (the blue bridge), one of the last remaining Arab villages on the Israeli coast I got to trot out some of my Arabic as we watched the sun set on the Mediterranean. Notbad.jpg.

This week also pleasantly included two trips to Jaffa — the oldest and Arabest quarter of Tel Aviv. One was at night, when we had a look around (and a late dinner and a beer) as the mosques were calling for the last prayer of the day, around 8:30pm. The other was during the day when we could get a sense of Jaffa and the literally awesome views. This is a too-big-for-Tiny-Letter panorama (JPEG, 16.4MB) I took from Ramses Gate Park in Jaffa gives a sense of how East meets West in Israel — from the low buildings and old streets of Jaffa to the left to the now-iconic skyline of Tel Aviv to the right.

 

I’ve only been here a week, and so it’s obviously too early to make a call, but I’m exploring the possibility of staying here for the spring semester as well as the fall. If I want to work from the region (and I think I might), it’s definitely worth my while to pick up Hebrew and to get as good a feel for the place as I can while still in college. It would require a lot of talking to administrators — I started my Middle Eastern major late, and have been scrambling to finish everything in time at the best of times, but I think with multiple petitions to my advisors back in NYU New York, I can manage it.

In terms of books — I read Stephen King’s The Green Mile on the plane over here, and I recommend it if you’re looking for a good bubblegum airplane read. I just started Israel, which was recommended to me as the best history of the country, by Anita Shapiro, and after that I want to sink my teeth into The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winner.

Ok, all for now. I think a contingent of us is going to the beach at 4:30. Hard life.

TA Diary: The very model of a model Sunday morning

IMG_0434

A chill Sunday morning breakfast. Not pictured are the eggs and salmon that soon graced my table.

At NYU Tel Aviv, students experience life in one of the world’s most intriguing and multidimensional cities. A vibrant coastal metropolis on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv is the cultural, financial, and technological center of Israel. Students explore this truly global city and acquire a sophisticated understanding of Israel, the Middle East, and the interrelationships between cultures, political movements, and religious traditions. Students benefit from high caliber local professors, who teach students in areas such as biology, chemistry, politics, Hebrew, and Arabic. Students connect with local culture through experiential learning, partnerships with a local university, and excursions to surrounding areas in Israel.
— Extract from my welcome brochure, given out to all NYU Tel Aviv students.

Quiet first morning here. I fell asleep around 1am and woke up around 6am. I would’ve liked to sleep more but assuming I can make it to 9 or 10pm, I should be alright.

IMG_0454

Tel Aviv’s gay beach, described to me by my RA as “a real hotspot (pun intended)”

I went to breakfast at Café Zurik, two blocks from the dorm, which had an eggselent breakfast and two of those Israeli café con leches. I sat there for about 2 hours watching Tel Aviv wake up and reading THE PACIFIC, by Simon Winchester. What a great Sunday morning.

From there, I caught the bus ($1.25 each way) to the city center and, in Dizengoff Mall and bought an Israeli sim card ($10.30/month) and some toiletries.

After that, I headed east to Frishman Beach and walked up the promenade. Israel has about 250KM of coast, along the Mediterranean, and Tel Aviv is a city glued to the water. I walked the 40 minutes back to Bnei Dan, my dorm, along that promenade.

IMG_0457In the afternoon, I mostly mooched about — one of my best friends from Arabic arrived this afternoon, and we spent some time catching up and getting some groceries. NYU Tel Aviv doesn’t provide students with a meal plan, which is why the kitchen is so good. I imagine I’ll subsist on hummus and falafel when at home but want to try my hand at something more complicated once in a while.

At 5pm, we have a short orientation, which is when all the students will meet one another, and then a communal dinner on the patio.

That’s all for today, I think. This week is mostly going to be orientation, which is nice. I’ve to finalize my classes and plan some travel, but those are nice jobs to have.

 

TA Diary: “We begin!”

IMG_0422They say Tel Aviv is one of the food capitals of the world, and the setup of the NYU TA campus would seem to back that up — the bedrooms are all organized around one central kitchen area, with large doors that open up onto a patio area with more places to sit and eat. They don’t call them companions for nothing, I suppose.

I’m sitting in that kitchen now, chilling with one of the Residential Assistants who’s preparing for the arrival of the rest of the students tomorrow. She made me a cup of Israel’s version of café con leche (espresso topped with milk and sugar) and gave me some figs, so I was set as far as dinner was concerned. It’s nice to have the chance to meet people and get to know them before a deluge of students

I’m one of two students who arrived a day early — the other, who I met briefly this evening, arrived in at 8am this morning and promptly slept for 12 hours. It’s now 11:16pm and my plan is to go to bed within the hour and set an alarm for 8am. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Screenshot 2016-08-20 23.08.25
This is my dorm in north Tel Aviv. The park across the Yarkon is supposed to be lovely, and it’s only a 20-25 minute walk to Ha-Yarkon St., which sounds like the main thoroughfare through TA.  The area I’m in was described to me as “the Upper West Side” of Tel Aviv.

Orientation doesn’t start tomorrow until 6pm, so I’m planning to spend most of the day tomorrow wandering around and exploring my new neighborhood.It’s supposed to be a fairly warm 83ºF/28ºC all next week, which is only slightly warmer than where I spent the summer in Oakland, California.

I’m in Tel Aviv, and just to the south is another port city, Jaffa. It’s known for (among other things) as being where Jonah set out on his journey whence he was eaten by a whale. Hopefully this is not a metaphor for my visit.

Okay, bedtime. Catch you soon!

You can read previous entries about my time in Tel Aviv here.

That time I took a capital V Vacation, and all that followed

IMG_0360I’m sitting here on the balcony of my hotel with a book and a Corona. The sun set about 20 minutes ago, one of those satisfyingly photogenic sunsets that I caught on camera yesterday and just sat and enjoyed today. The sound of the ocean in that photo has been my soundtrack for the last four days as I paused any and all responsibilities and took my first actual vacation in a couple of years.

Sure, I’ve had some time off during semesters, but this is the first time I’ve blocked off a few days in my calendar, said Sorry; I’m not going to get to you just now to my email inbox, and made decent headway through a pile of books that have been eying me for a few months.

I made a good stab at the books. I picked up THE NEXT DECADE: EMPIRE AND REPUBLIC IN A CHANGING WORLD, by George Friedman in the airport bookstore and finished it in two great gulps. The book was written in 2011 and he seems reasonably on track with his predictions — the book is a series of short essays on the challenges facing the undeclared empire that is the USA. On the fiction front, I thoroughly enjoyed THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by G.K. Chesterton and can’t wait to find a child in my life which I can share THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman with. Finally, because no vacation’s complete without a Stephen King book, I read 11/22/63 by the pool — his best in a while.

Considering that I’m going to be spending some 25 hours on planes in the next 7 days, I’ve restarted my to-read pile: King’s THE GREEN MILE (I have another 24 hours of vacation!), Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren’s HOW TO READ A BOOK, and Robert Fisk’s THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION. Incidentally, if I end up one hundredth as good a journalist as Fisk, I’ll have done exceedingly well.

This week is going to be eaten up by last-minute preparations for Tel Aviv, ahead of my flight on Friday. It seemed far off and distant all summer, and now my four month stint abroad is coming in less than 7 days. I’m looking forward to more Arabic, good food, and the chance to do some traveling in a new region. Now that I’ve finished Middlebury, I think I’m going to sit down and try reading هاري بوتر و حجر الفيلسفر — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Just maybe not on the plane or in an airport.)

My orientation for NYU in Tel Aviv starts this day next week, but given that I mostly know how college works, I think the week will mostly be making friends with the 60-student cohort and planning weekend trips in the region. I definitely want to hit Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, and maybe Turkey depending on what happens. Expect lots of pictures!