Where does all the rain go?

Down the drain

At a time when Israel’s mountain and coastal aquifers are severely depleted, the government has put in place what is know as the “Drought Tax”. People in Israel already have to pay for the amount of water they use, however the new drought tax is actually a levy on excessive water use with the apparent aim of encouraging people to save water.

A number of solutions for the present water emergency in Israel have been suggested, such as importing water from Turkey and establishing temporary, movable desalinization plants along the coast. These solutions are very expensive however, are limited in the volume of water they can produce and are only temporary solutions. The most obvious and promising solution is water saving, through informing the public and, more recently, by introducing a heavy drought tax – water consumption fell by 15% this past summer compared to the summer of 2008.

Viennale ’09: Notes and Reviews



This is the third Viennale that I have attended, and it’s exciting to see its increasing popularity and appeal. Aside from the surge in ticket sales (apparently 25,000 were sold on the opening day, and I had to queue up for 3 hours to get mine), it is also apparent in the excellent mix of mainstream movies and world cinema that the Viennale brings every year. The festival gives out no awards, hence sparing it the rush of celebrity, media and studio-execs and focusing distinctly on the movies. I am also a big fan of the Gartenbaukino, as its one of the biggest screens in Vienna, making refreshing change from Artis or Haydn. Here are a few reviews:

Films that I watched:

Un Prophéte: Easily the most exciting movie that I have seen at the Viennale. The movie begins as realist prison-drama, but soon grows bigger than its setting into faiytale bildungsroman, stuff of myths and legends. However, the core of the movie is the thrill of watching it’s protagonist-a young French-Arab named Mallik-el-Tjebna-perilous rise to power, with all the odds stacked up against him. Malliks world looks dire as he enters the prison as a small time crook to serve a six year jail sentence, and is soon blackmailed by the Corsican mafia that controls the jail into murdering their rival-another French-Arab named Reyeb. Before he’s killed, Reyeb tells Mallik that the whole point of prison life is to learn something here (Reyeb is present throughout the movie, a sort of Gabriel to Mallik’s prophet) . And learn Mallik does, from reading and writing to negotiating the ,power relations and racial tensions of the prison yard.  He has a treacherous mentor in César, the leader of the Corsicans, and their relationship forms the emotional center of the film as we watch Mallik growing stronger and mature, while César grows more insecure and irrelevant.

The brilliance of the movie lies in its direction and how Audiard manages to imbibe poetry and mysticism in an

The Fun Theory

Most of us want to make a difference in some observable way to this world, but the best of our intentions give way to the day’s demands, fatigue and inertia. For instance, just like any other decent, environmentally-conscious organization, my workplace too hopes to encourage its employees to go at least a little bit green and make a difference. One of the more obvious initiatives is taking the staircase instead of the elevator so that we reduce electricity usage and stay fit. As part of the plan, there are big posters outside and inside elevators that advice us in green, friendly alphabets: TAKE THE STAIRS FOR ONE UP AND DOWN TWO. Yet till date, the few times I’ve taken the stairs, I’ve never encountered even a trace of a human being except for a lingering, stale smell of cigarettes.

The problem lies, however, not with the people, but with the staircase. The entire experience of taking the staircase is not a very pleasurable one. At best, it is boring and at its worst, claustrophobic and depressing. Something that is good for you and the environment, ought not to be so uninviting. This is where the Fun Theory comes in. The Fun Theory believes that “something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better”. Perhaps more people would take the stairs if taking them was made more fun, like this:

‘The Dalits of Europe’


While reading Pardeep Singh Attri’s account of his experiences as a Dalit activist traveling in Hungary in the brilliant Insight Young Voices blog, I was struck by the similarity of the plight of Hungarian Romas and the Dalits ( regarded as Untouchables) in India. Both groups are victims of deep and persisting discriminations arising from their historical status in society. What struck me even more though was the appropriation of the ideas B. R Ambedkar by the Roma in their struggle for equal rights. Writes Pradeep:

One of the most interesting facts that Derdak Tibor informed me was that his group of Roma activists and community leaders in Hungary derive their inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar and Buddhism and trying to inculcate Ambedkarite thoughts in their movement towards equal rights for the Roma community. They have created a support network called Jai Bhim Network, embraced Buddhism and opened an high school in the name of Dr Ambedkar High School for the Roma children in Hungary.

Roma activists find their situation in the otherwise ‘white’ Hungary almost akin to the Dalits of India and therefore they now call their community, ‘the Dalits of Europe’ as the Romas are also found in other European countries too and face the similar prejudices and discrimination every where.

Culture Choc

Arabic Chocolate Letter

Having spent most of the last three months in South Africa, a minor culture shock was to be expected when I arrived back in the Netherlands last week. As beautiful a country as South Africa is, it is still dealing with the aftermath of apartheid; while racial segregation has legally been abolished, it persists in socio-economic terms. This in turn feeds into continuing socio-spatial segregation, as the ability to make use of certain amenities is inextricably linked to income. Moreover, having spoken to a bunch of white and black South Africans myself, it is clear that divisive attitudes are still in place, as a large portion of the black population lament their unrelenting marginalization, whereas many whites are fearing a Mugabe-like policy of land and income redistribution that will ‘rob’ them of opportunities. Thus, in de facto terms, South Africa is still by and large an apartheid-state.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, is internationally renowned for its tolerance towards pretty much everything. From hash to hookers to homosexuality, the Dutch condone seemingly everything and anything. While this is something that I am proud of, it has to be said that this widely held image is often a gross exaggeration. The Netherlands itself has been grappling for decades with issues of immigration and integration, and a growing xenophobia has been reflected my the make-up of the Second Chamber (the Dutch version of the House of Commons). Nonetheless, generally speaking, the Dutch remain relatively tolerant and are dedicated towards multi- or even polyculturalism.

This contrast between South Africa and The Netherlands became particularly clear to me when I was doing some groceries in a quintessentially Dutch store, the HEMA. There I noticed that the store was already full of chocolate and candy for Sinterklaas, a Christian holiday that is held every year on December 5. While the name itself, which is derived from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas, already indicates that this holiday has its roots in Christianity, religious elements have over time been eroded and has become much akin to Christmas in spirit and materialism. Despite this, it is not very common for Dutch Muslims to celebrate Sinterklaas. That is to say, they don’t watch the arrival of Sinterklaas with his steam ship; they don’t put their shoes near the window sill and fill it with sugar and carrots for the saint’s horse; they don’t get presents from a dirty brown bag; and they don’t get candy from the white saint’s helpers, who are called Black Peters (oh, the irony of this if you just spent some months in South Africa).

Freddy ‘Mustapha’ Mercury

Check out Queen’s brilliant, hysterical song  ‘Mustapha’. I could not be sure, but Freddie Mercury is singing in Arabic, Persian and English, mashing names of prophets with ‘As-salam-alalikum’. The song is part of the Queen’s 1978 album Jazz, and they performed it live regularly.

In live performances, Mercury would often sing the opening vocals of “Mustapha” in place of the complex introduction to “Bohemian Rhapsody“, going from “Allah we’ll pray for you” to “Mama, just killed a man…”. However, sometimes the band performed an almost full version of the song from the Crazy Tour in late 1979 to The Game Tour in 1980, with Mercury at the piano. They dropped the second verse and went from the first chorus to the third. Also notable is that the song was often requested by the audience, as can be heard on Live Killers.- Wiki

How cool does this make Freddie Mercury then? Son of Parsee-Indian immigrants, described as Britains first Asian star, singing ‘Allah we pray for you’  in racially charged late 1970s Britain. Sheer Awesomeness.

Obama Love-Fest Continues


While I count myself amongst fans of Barack Obama, the Nobel Committee’s decision to award him with the Peace Prize did come as a WTF moment this morning (to lots of people judging by FB news-feed). The Nobel Committee honoured him this morning for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.

Obama excels at  public diplomacy, and has a cult-like following around the world. No other world leader shares his commitment towards nuclear disarmament and a multilateral world.  However, awarding the Nobel to him with the war in Afghanistan bringing new dead everyday, Guantanamo still open and troops still in Iraq strikes as  pre-mature. Further, he has been active as president for only 10 months. Granted that he has made significant departures in that period, would it not have been more seemly to honour a longer commitment to human-rights and world-peace.

Not that the Nobel Prize is a sign of anything. Gandhi, being amongst the famous non-recipients.

But for now the Obama love-fest continues.

The Economist published yesterday the favourites to win, foremost amongst whom were

Ian Buruma on Enlightenment, Language and Multiculturalism

I spent a large part of today watching Prof. Ian Buruma’s brilliant lecture series at Princeton university entitled ‘No Divine Rights: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents’ which I am posting here. Buruma is a scholar of great versatility. His subjects range from a fictional-biography of an Indian cricketer-prince, to works on European and Japanese history. In this lecture series he tackles the relation between state and religion in America, Asia and Europe, in which he makes extremely revelatory connections between religion and state in different societies. All the lectures here are extremely interesting especially for students of global history.

Buruma’s assessment of how elitism, liberalism and democracy interacted with religion in Europe is particularly informative. Throughout the series he is concerned with the changes affecting Europe, which he addresses directly in his last lecture posted here. His views on the changing meaning of the Enlightenment, the role of language in forming identities amongst immigrants and his examination of the kulturkampf between Europe and Islam is deeply informed, as is evident from the range of his examples, and deeply relevant.

Update: Also posting the other two lectures in the series:

The On-going trials and tribulations of an Austrian-American living in Japan

(Written originally as an email and adapted slightly for posting here)
Greetings from the east side (of the world). Hope everything is going well over in the Occident, life is rocking over here. I’m loving it here and am seriously contemplating staying for two years. Anyway, there is weird and bizarre shit going on all the time around here, I never quite know what to expect…I figure I should stay the second year so that by that time i can hopefully have some sort of idea of what’s going on around me 🙂 At any rate, I’ve been here 2 months now and it has been really good.
So, getting on with business–some more general observations that I have made in this country, made mostly through the fact that every day of my life here is some ridiculous new experience which is only made that much better by the fact that I can’t really understand what people are talking about half the time.
1. The Japanese have totally got it figured out when it comes to making life convenient. One of the best things ever is that the ATM machines balance your bank book for you. People don’t really write checks here so they don’t have checkbooks, but everyone has a bankbook and you just insert the book into the machine and it balances all your transactions for you. Amazing. Life is so convenient sometimes. Less convenient however, is that ATM’s close at 9pm. Who ever heard of an ATM closing????? Also I love that they come up with the wonderfully convenient idea of balancing your checkbook for you, but then inconvenience you with the fact that you can never use the ATM when you want to. Ahh Japan.
2. The fashion in this country is out of control!!!! I cannot even describe this to you, only seeing is believing in terms of the crazy shit people wear around here. They are all about the layering of totally weird clothes that don’t really go together, which sometimes is pretty cool-very funky and eclectic–and sometimes is just a hot ghetto mess from top to bottom.

The trials and tribulations of an Austrian-American in Japan

(This article was written originally as an email and has been modified only slightly for publication here. It is written in a somewhat hyperbolic, jesting tone and is meant to both amuse and inform).

So I have been living in Japan for about a week now, and am sort of starting to figure some things out. There have definitely been some moments of absolute confusion in which I just stare blankly at whomever is trying to explain something to me, but overall it has been ok. I don’t have internet yet, which is inconvenient, but I can use internet at the school where I’m teaching so it’s not too bad. I also got a cell phone which is totally sweet and does a bunch of absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary things that I haven’t quite figured out yet since the manual is all in Japanese. From what I’ve been able to figure out, there’s a camera, a radio, and a GPS system on it. Yaaaay for technology that I don’t understand!

Alright, as we all know, Japan is famous for its kooky game shows and wacky fashions so it should come as no surprise that things have been a little crazy. Here are a few of my initial observations:

1. EVERYTHING in this country is backwards. Water faucets turn on in the wrong direction; people drive on the wrong side of the road, which has already resulted in quite a few near-death experiences due to the fact that my little Austrian-American mind is seemingly incapable of comprehending the dynamics of left-side driving and the corresponding road-crossing survival techniques; people take off their shoes backwards, meaning they turn around and slip backwards out of their shoes thereby facilitating a quick get-away when putting their shoes back on (apparently this is important in a country where shoes get taken off and put on approximately 64 times a day); people back into parking spaces rather than pulling in from the front because it supposedly makes leaving easier and faster…is anyone else sensing a pattern of behavior geared toward making a quick a get-away as possible? Hmm, sehr interessant…

2. Roads don`t have names, which is the most irritating thing on earth. It results in a lot of confused directions, and having to draw maps for people so that they know where to go. Also, giving directions is always done in the form of “you’ll see a big tree, turn right there and then there’s a big building with a pink sign where you will need to turn left…”. Yeah, this does not really make for the clearest of directions… I’m sure I will get lost many a time because, shockingly, there will presumably be more than one big tree at which I could turn right.