Thursday, March 21, 2013

Historicizing the Ten Plagues: Hail, Locusts, Darkness and Mass Death

 The locust swarms that attacked Egypt and Israel this past week have perked the ears of farmers, agronomists and a few Orthodox Yemenite Jews on the hunt for a crunchy kosher treat, but not many others.  Most of us don’t think much about locusts these days.  We have pesticides that do most of thinking—or rather killing—for us. 

But this wasn’t always the case.  Locusts have been at the heart and soul of the region’s history since time immemorial.  References to locusts are littered throughout the Bible, most infamously, in the story of the ten plagues:

“Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.”

Now, a little anecdote to share at your Passover Seder that may just turn some heads: what leads to locust plagues?  The locusts that attacked Egypt as recorded in the Bible—and again this past week—typically live a life of solitude in the mass desert expanse stretching from Morocco in the West to the Bay of Bengal in East.  Most of the time, the vast majority of their eggs—which can number in the many dozens—will die in the dry desert sand, an inhospitable environment for the yet unhatched ovular shaped pods.  But, with enough rain, the desert sand turns moist, and the pods turn into locusts.  That same rain will also give birth to scattered patches of desert vegetation, something the baby locusts will need for food and shelter to grow winged-bodies big and strong enough to carry them out of the desert and lay pillage to anything and everything green throughout the plains and fields of North, West and East Africa, the Levant, Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

Now, look back at plague number seven: hail.  Coincidence, I think not. 

Now, turn to plague number nine: darkness.   What could possibly lead to an extended period of darkness?  Locusts!  As Reuters reported on Wednesday last week, “locust clouds darkened [the] skies.”  Indeed, anyone familiar with the annals of the history of locusts—an admittedly small number of people—will agree that this is the single most common description in the historical record. 

Consider, for instance, the single worst locust attack recorded in modern Middle East history, a plague of cataclysmic proportions that befell Greater Syria during World War I.

The New Zealand staff corps stationed at the Suez Canal noted in mid-March 1915, almost exactly 98 years ago—that  “flying about two feet above the ground, and reaching to a height that could not be estimated, these insects came from the desert, making towards the cultivations … wherever one looked were locusts as far as the eye could see.  One was given the impression that a huge dark veil hung over the earth.”

Antun Yamin, a eye-witness from Lebanon, made much the same observation: “On the 9th of April [1915] we could not see the sun that day. Gigantic locusts blocked out all vision, and light became darkness…for an entire week they blocked out all sunlight.” 

And my personal favorite, Wasif Jawhariyya, a Jerusalemite musician and Ottoman conscript who left us his voluminous memoirs, recalled gazing at the sky in Jerusalem and seeing nothing but locusts.  “We could not see the sun at all.  The evanescent locusts looked like dense clouds in the air.” 

Hail leads to locust plagues.  Locusts plagues leads to darkness.  How about the death of first-born?  Historians, I imagine, will struggle with this one. 

What is clear, however, is that locusts have always been an important cause of famine – and hence mass death – in the region.  This was certainly the case in 1915, remembered by survivors as ‘Am al-Jarad (the year of the locust, in Arabic). The locusts, with their insatiable appetites, devoured virtually all of the region’s foodstuffs, including olive groves, fruits, vegetables, fodder fields, almonds, barely and cereals.  By the end of World War I, some 500,000 people had perished throughout the Greater Syria region (1/7th of the population)—in large measure, because the locusts ate all the bloody food. 

So perhaps what was later interpreted as the death of the first-born was simply a mass famine, something entirely plausible based on what we know about locust attacks.

So, if your in Israel/Palestine or Egypt and looking to spice up your Seder: snatch up a few locusts and surprise the little buggers who find afikoman with a treat that almost certainly bring history to life!  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Israeli Stand-up comedy and the Rise of Uri Hizkiya

So this post isn't directly related to East Jerusalem, but it fits the broader goal of introducing English-speaking audiences to important personalities in the city, and more broadly, Israel and Palestine.  Today's discussion will center around a rising star in the arena of Israeli Stand-up Comedy: Uri Hezkiya (אורי חזקיה.)

The first thing your going to do when you see the title of this post is wiki the guy.  The reason I know that is because that is precisely what I did when I sat down to write this post.  I wikied the bastard, except he didn't have an English language page, you have to find him under אורי חזקיה. So maybe someone can copy and paste some of this shit here into the wiki page. Only they'de be citing an unreliable "blog."  Fuck em.

Thanks to the Hebrew wiki page we can learn a great deal about his upbringing, his early childhood, his earliest gigs and his military service in the Air Force, all very typical a nice Jewish Ashkenazi boy from North Tel Aviv.

Today the guy has become an Israeli sensation, an Israeli Jerry Seinfeld.  As the kind Israeli wiki contributors have shared for us, he has won the "man of year" award by Israel's leading magazine for Youth, מעריב לנוער (Ma'ariv Le-Noar), an apparently popular Israeli weekly magazine.

Hizkiye's humor is every day humor.  What differentiates Uri from Jerry is that Uri's situations are Israeli every day situations situations: Tel Aviv parking, Aroma Coffee, going on a 2-year trip to India, leaving a plate of dirty humous in the sink, and so on.  I would call the humor reaching to as broad an Israeli audience as possibile.  No nitches.  You know, for instance, how you prepare a coffee for a friend.  You are in the kitchen.  You see those three bins: sugar, coffee and tea.  You open the tea, there's coffee, you open the coffee, there's tea, you open the sugar, there's laundry detergent.  Then, you reach for a spoon to mix the sugar.   Ohh, glorrrrriously, there's a clean spoon!!!  Glod Bless. No need to wash.  Now, all you can think about it which mug is mine as which is his.  Ani, ezkor, smol ze she-loooooo.  (the left  cup is his).... You start singing it to yourself.... smol ve shelooooooooo......smol ze she-loooooooo.....(that's Uri singing) You pick up your drinks, and half way to the living room until you realize, and ohhhh noooo...... Od Lo Irbavti (I forgot to stir!).

His own co-hosts clearly acknowledge his popularity.  Shalom Asiyag, the host of show, even asked him once in the free talk segment they do after someone does some stand-up what's it's like being a hot shot these days.  Getting invited to so many parties and shit.

But it is the everyday humor that Uri excels at.  The kind where you make fun of the little things in life.  You're at a party, and you girlfriend rings.  What's up?!? Who you with?? You start going through the names... of the people in the circle, Shmolik, Rivka, Uri....

(Meanwhile, everyone stops their conversations to listen in on the delightful pleasantries of another couples intamacy.( Ok, that was my addition).

Back to Hezkiya:  He's going through the names of everyone in the circle.  Out of the corner of his eye he spots someone who's name he is suppose to know, but has obviously forgotton.  Nu.... Ani Amur lizkor et kulam?  Am I going to start naming everyone here?!?  We've all been there.  It's Seinfeld humor (although one wonders how much Seinfeld Uri could have watched as a kid.  His Israeli accent in his English is pretty epic--for instance, when we breaks out into singing American pop music.

What makes Uri Hezkiya so good is that he knows how to stay on a topic long enough to keep the story going.  This a common problem for people just getting started in stand-up comedy.  A story should not swerve in different directions, jump from topic to topic or proceed at rapidly varyingpaces and pauses.  The audience must develop momentum, build-ups, references to prior jokes, a bigger story to tell.  Think Chris Rock and gun control.  Rrecall the 5 dollar bullets.  I'd pop a cap in your ass--if I could afford it.   Uri has all of that.  We get a good 6-7 minutes on a single topic.

Take, for instance, the whole process of asking for directions to a stranger while trying to find a friend's house party.  Mi ze tipus she-yodeah???  How can he 'look like' he's the right person to ask?  Once, did you ever see a guy with a cloud above his head that read: I know what da fuck is up!  Then he continues with his story about getting lost.  We've all gotten lost driving to a friend's house party.  Uri excels at the punchlines and the big themes.

Your walking up the staircase to your house (i.e. in a 5 story apartment building).  You smell some amazing Mizrakhi house wife preparing a feast for the wedding of a third cousin.  You smell the Russians baking some delicious pork chops... you walk into your house.  There's your dad, his ass on the floor reading a newspaper, mekapel cleminta (pealing a clementine).  Wassssuuupppp?  How was school?????  How's Shmulik doing?  (that's you laughing while he's saying wasssuuupppp???)  Youre dad, staring at you as you walk in dying for something yummy and getting a clementine in return (Jaffa is famous for its Oranges)/  Uri let's you ride out your laughter naturally.

Some of humor is really Israeli.  Tizenabi?  Where the fuck is Tizenabi?  Has anyone ever been to Tizenabi?  Mishehu ba-kahal yodeh eifo ze tizenabi?  I, of course, had never heard of Tizenabi--thank you expert linguist Dror Weil for his assistance.  I think the best translation to English is: where the fuck is But Fucking Egypt?  Has anyone ever been to But Fucking Egypt?  At least that's how B.F.E. was used in white suburban Detroit middle-school slang in the late 1990s.  

Khas ve-khalila... where the hell did it come from?  Who the fuck are khas and khalila?  So how about we just starting making shit up.  Katz ve-garjuba.  I suppose this is just one of those things you have to be a native speaker to find funny.  I really hope nothing bad happens to him on his trip to India, "katz ve-garjuba.

Whatever the case may be, for the past three years Uri has been the star of one of if not the most successful comedy shows in Israel, called צחוק מהעבודה (tzhok me-ha-avodah).  And there seems to be no doubt among the viewers that Uri is the funniest of the bunch.  The audiences laugh a lot more when Uri performs.  His stand-up blows away that of the other co-hosts ,ליטל שוורץ  קובי מימון, שחר חסון, ארז שלום.  Don't get me wrong, I think all of these guys are reasonably funny, and certainly have their strong spots.  So does the show's host, שלום אסייג (Shalom Asiyag), a more established figure in the annals of Israeli stand-up comedy--a household name approximating perhaps an Edie Murphy, Tom Hanks or Robin Williams.  Again, Asiyag has no English language wiki page either, neither do away of the other popular Israeli television personalities mentioned in this article.  Go watch some Uri and translate the bloddy wiki pages to English!