Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Yiddish Policemens Union

Welcome to the first book review of the blog!

I had heard about this book several times over the last year, and I picked it up for the 13+ hours in the air on the way to Cambodia. I ended up sleeping for most of the flight, so the book lasted for a few jet-lagged nights and unacompanied meals.

Granted, its a bit lighter than my usual reading material, but I enjoyed it. Its a bizzare but increadibly confident book - essentialy its a murder mistery. Simple enough, right? But no, this story takes place in a completely theoretical world, where WWII ended early, the Zionists lost the war of independence against the Arab states and the Jews of Europe were given a small strip of land in Alaska as a homeland, but only for a few decades. All this is very nice, but Chabon doesnt lay this out for you in the begning, and instead lets you pick it up as you go along.

Though the mystery itself is good reading, the interesting thing for me was comparing this theoretical land of the Jews to the real one that I lived in for so long. The most obvious difference is that after the crushing of Zionism, the jews speak Yiddish and have a purely religeous, not nationalist, calling for the promised land. The other important bit is that the Jews in Alaska are exclusively the european variety - none of the Morocan, Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian and Indian jews that make up the diversity of today's Israel.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Back home...

So I returned from Cambodia on Sunday, but the job isnt done yet. There is lots of work to be done on our budget and proposal - millions of dollars going back and forth and lots of work to create a strategy. Because the scope of this project is so huge, it really includes a lot of thought into how we can best use these resources to help Cambodians. That means working out what programs work best, how often they need to be extended and by how much. It also means figuring out where our organization and work fit among other organizations and bodies working in Cambodia - the public sector, the private sector, social marketing organizations, social franchising initiatives and private clinics and pharmacies. Like many things in the developing world, quantification is a bit of an oversimplification, as most private doctors are simply public sector doctors enhancing their regular income.

In true developing world form, there are a never ending supply of anomalies and contradictions. Siem Reap, the tourist-friendly province with the vast temples, and deluxe hotels, is also the poorest province in an all around poor country. Everywhere, people ride little motorbikes ("moto") and motorbike-drawn rickshaws ("tuk tuk"), usually in a state of perpetual chaos. Hardly anyone wears helmets, though you'll see people wearing masks to protect their lungs from polution!

One thing that has taken me aback is the closeness of the Khemer Rouge genocide. As a Jew, Ive always heard stories by or about elderly people being the only members of their families to escape Europe alive. The only one from a family of five, eight, ten, or the only one from a street, a neighborhood, a ghetto. Along with their stories of loss there are glimmers of ingenuity and survival. In Cambodia, these stories are told by people in their 40s. Many westerners wonder how Cambodians can recover when justice in the western sense has so long been delayed - tribunals are only recently underway, after the death of the genocidal leader Pol Pot. Its not hard to see why the tribunals would be so difficult here - unlike other massacres, here the perpetrators and victims look the same, live in the same towns and a few short decades later work in the same offices and send their children to the same schools. In purely technical terms, its not even a genocide by definition, as people were killed based on their class, not on the terms of their race, religion or language.

Cambodia is one of those places that attracts long-term expats, and it was great to hear from them about the improvements that they have seen in recent years. When my boss moved there 6 years ago, there was only one paved road, no ATMs and no postal service. Now there is still isnt a reliable postal service or constant electricity, but there are many paved roads, international banks, a growing middle class and education available for most (though not all) of the younger population. NGOs (both native and imported) are everywhere, and Cambodians seem dedicated to improving themselves. Its inspiring to see, and I hope that our project can contribute somewhat to helping these people take control of their lives.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

On the road!

Its been hard to update now that I am on the road - expect lots of retroactive postings! Im in Phnom Phen at the moment, but let me give you some basic background and reflection.

I came to Cambodia before a weekend so that I could spend time in Siem Reap, in the north, before starting work. I have seen many beautiful man-made places - Jerusalem, Petra, the Coliseum and many cathedrals, but I have never seen anything like the Ankor Temples. I really only had one full day to soak them up, but I was completely overwhelmed by their artistry. Huge temples, somehow majestic but not vain. In varying states of disrepair, but always dignified. Though it is heavily touristed, even in the most crowded temples it is possible to take a moment for solitude.

After seeing so many churches in my life, I was impressed by the modesty of the Buddhist shrines - lovingly draped in orange cloth, with incense and gifts offered by passersby. Many of the temples are pre-Buddhist, and are heavily decorated with traditional Khemer designs. The shrines are usually tucked away in far corners and up long, steep flights of stairs.

My favorite of the temples was the least restored - the trees, moss and animals re-ingesting the fallen stones made it all the more accessible and eerie. The contrast between the magnificent, serine temples and the world outside is harrowing - as soon as you leave the gates you are mobbed by hordes of people, usually children, trying to sell you souvenirs. They begin by trying to sell you things that they think you want (bracelets, flutes, etc), then resort to trying to guilt a purchase. I bought a bottle of water from one girl only to be harshly chastised by another for not buying from her as well. Some of the adults were very polite and kind, and I was happy to buy a few small things from them. I wonder about the future for all the children running up to me shouting "one dolla, one dolla". I only hope one day their parents will be able to send them to school instead of relying on them for income. I also know that selling trinkets to tourists, though harsh and limiting, is far better than being sucked into the horrifying pedophilia trade that is rife in much of this country.

After Seim Reap, I took the bus to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Phen. Its a city where you can feel the third worldliness in every breath - terrifying drivers, most of them on overburdened motorbikes, constant hassling and begging, spotty electricity, cheep clothes (some stolen from the local GAP factory, some faked), fake DVDs, bizarre food, over-the-counter access to loads of drugs, tragic sex workers, shows of wealth by the lucky few and NGOs of every kind in every direction. It's fascinating, distracting and dramatic.

I'm here to help our country office write a budget (and proposal) for a possibly massive grant. The results could be amazing and do so much for Cambodia. The country office is under lots of stress - recent elections have thrown our vital relationship with the government into question and various other problems have sprouted up along with it. As an organization that runs clinics, we really do have a huge responsibility to those we serve. I visited two of the clinics yesterday - though simple, they were immaculately clean and cheerfully staffed.

The other great exposure of this trip was the chance to peak into a hardcore NGO worker community. My current boss lived here for 5 years as part of her previous job, so she had friends to visit and experience living here. Among the whole community there is a strange mix of optimism and despair – its hard to believe that things will get better when everything is so difficult and subject to so many setbacks. Cambodia is rather monolithic ethnically, and even after years here westerners rarely have Khemer friends or speak more than a few sentences in the language. It's an inspiring but realistic group of people – and one that I can see becoming a part of as my life progresses.

Much more, including the other half of this blog, the books, on its way in the coming days!