As someone who’s written about Romanian culture and food among things, I must admit that I have been rather irritated  by Folgers Coffee’s most recent ad offering.

The new ad features an American Aid worker receiving a package from America containing none other than Folgers coffee. The aid worker then proceeds to create a make-shift coffee filter so that he can enjoy a taste of liquid Americana in the backwards frozen tundra of Romania, while his local friends stare at the coffee in total amazement as if they had never seen anything like it before. What nonsense.

Check out the video of the ad and some screen shots below:


On a side note, Romanians – as Folgers should know – do not drink much American drip-style coffee. Instead, they drink what is popularly known in the U.S. as “Turkish” or “Arabic” coffee.

But in any case, the sight of American drip coffee should not in anyway be a completely foreign thing for most Romanians as it is commonly sold in supermarkets throughout the country.

…and don’t even get me started on Burger King’s latest marketing move.



Rashid Khalidi speaks out

Among the professors whom I most admired during my time at SIPA was Rashid Khalidi (Director of the Middle East Institute – Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies), the prominent academic and author of numerous books on the Middle East including Resurrecting Empire and The Iron Cage. I took several classes with him and his seminar on The U.S., the Middle East and the Cold War remains one the highlights of my time as a graduate student.

Given my admiration for the man and his intellect, you might imagine my surprise and dismay when America’s right-wing media tried to show that Khalidi’s friendship with President-elect Obama proved that Obama was a supporter of terrorism.

Moreover, I was disillusioned that Obama did not come to Khalidi’s defense, neither during the campaign nor after his victory, and that the news networks carried on without a single apology.

That said, I was more than happy to see Prof. Khalidi finally speak out in an extensive interview with Akiva Eldar in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

In his first interview since the scandal-that-wasn’t broke, Khalidi took time during his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank to discuss the last 8 years of the Bush Administration – calling them a “catastrophe” – and the challenges  faced by the Jewish and Arab left in the U.S. in helping to foment better U.S. policy towards Israel. He also seems to express “disappointment at Obama’s treatment of the Arab and Islamic community in the United States” and “discomfort with the President-elect’s response to reports about the ties between them.” Furthermore, he warns about the recycling of Middle East advisers who are in part responsible for the failure of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for the past 17 years, since the Madrid Conference in 1991.

Khalidi also discusses the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians, the fading possibility of a two-state solution, the state of Palestinian politics and society, and his thoughts on the new administration’s role in the region. He also offers interesting analysis into some of the iron myths that surround a lot of the history of the peace process e.g. the idea that the Oslo Accords were a success.

For those interested in these matters, the interview is a must read.

Click here for the full article.

Some thoughts after volunteering for “Coalition for the Homeless”

Amidst the Friday evening buzz in mid-town Manhattan, office workers hurry to the subway, couples rush to make their dinner reservations and drivers in Lincoln town cars line Lexington Avenue, waiting for Citibank executives to make their way out of corporate headquarters.

Nearby, an entirely different queue is forming in front of St Bartholomew’s Church, where three white vans pull up and park on East 51st Street.

For most people, this is the start of the weekend. But for Juan De La Cruz, senior organizer at New York Coalition for the Homeless, there is no respite. He is the manager for the Grand Central Food Program, a mobile food kitchen that serves 31 sites throughout Manhattan and the Bronx 365 days a year. His white vans’ first stop, like every night, is St Bart’s.

And like every evening, there is a small group of volunteers that is going to join him. Tonight, I am among them.

Juan has been working with the program for six years. Given the current economic climate, his job has become more difficult and more important at the same time.

“We are serving more people than ever before and we are being asked to do more, with less funding,” says Juan as he prepares to start the evening routes.

A record number of 1,464 new homeless families entered the shelter system in New York City in September 2008, according to recent data released by the Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct action group dedicated to helping the homeless. This is the highest number of new entrants to the family system in any month since the city began keeping records 25 years ago.

These statistics have surfaced in the wake of a growing economic crisis and various New York City budget cuts to homelessness prevention programs.

“The current temperature is 34 degrees and dropping,” announces WABC radio as we load meal boxes and board the vehicles, shivering but unfazed in our mission to make the feeding routes tonight. Continue Reading »

Dudamel in da House


Venezuela is known for Hugo Chavez, oil exports and its record number of Miss World pageant winners. But if classical music fans had their way, it would also be synonymous with Gustavo Dudamel, its 27-year old star conductor, and El Sistema, the state-sponsored music education system that gave him his start.

Dudamel, with his rousing energy and trademark locks of curly brown hair, burst onto the international classical music scene in 2004 when, at age 23, he won the prestigious Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany.

The New York Times has hailed him “one of the hottest—and youngest—conducting properties around” and Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” While Dudamel’s ascension to the select club of leading international conductors has been dazzling, he remains surprisingly level-headed.

“My life is so normal. Of course I have to study a lot,” says Dudamel, referring to the musical scores he carries with him everywhere he goes. “And I travel every week to different places to give concerts, but I do the same things as before. I love to be with my friends, to go to the movies… I love wine, I looove to eat and to dance,” says Dudamel in a phone interview from Gothenburg, Sweden, where he is Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Dudamel is also Music Director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela and was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—a post that will begin in 2009 and that caused heartbreaks at other symphony orchestras across the U.S. who had hoped to snatch him up first. Though it may seem impossible that one man could manage all these positions simultaneously, he does—and still finds time to appear as a guest conductor with orchestras around the world.

Excerpted from Janera.com

To read more, click here

Also check out these two videos featuring trailers for documentaries about El Sistema:

Trailer for “El Sistema”, a film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier

This film shows the gripping way ‘El Sistema’ functions on a daily basis in a typical nucléo (this is the term used for El Sistema’s local neighborhood clusters): the ‘La Rinconada’ nucléo is located adjoining the barrio of the same name. The area around the nucléo is considered as one of the most dangerous and poorest areas in Caracas.

Trailer for “The Promise of Music”, a short film that aired on Deutsche Welle-TV

Sunday, October 26 – At 7.30 a.m. tomorrow morning, Mia Tamarin, a 19-year-old high school graduate, will return to military prison. Her bag is packed and she knows the routine: it’s her third time in two months.

“I am a little tired, a little scared,” she says in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, Israel, just hours before she reports for incarceration.

Mia is a pacifist and a conscientious objector. She is being punished for the crime of refusing to serve in the Israeli military, where conscription is compulsory for men and women.

For Israelis, military service is not only considered a basic pillar in the defense of the country, but also a barometer of acceptance in society. Refuseniks, as conscientious objectors are sometimes called, are usually considered traitors and enjoy very little support, even from political parties and groups that stand firmly within the “peace camp.”

“My family’s reaction was the hardest,” says Mia. “They dislike the way I am doing things, it bothers them. Of course they are worried about me, and every pain I feel hurts them too, but my father thinks I should serve.” For him, refusal stands in complete contradiction with loving and supporting the country, she explains.

For Israelis, refusing to serve in the army is a murky and complicated process. While the Israeli army accepts refusal on the basis of religion or pacifism, it does so very selectively in the latter case, only rarely accepting a radical interpretation of universal pacifism. All other motives – such as political refusal or “partial refusal” to serve in the occupied territories – are considered, in the words of former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, “incitement and defiance of the foundations of the government and of democracy.” Continue Reading »

Robert Caplin for NYT)

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (Photo: Robert Caplin for NYT)

Finding a place to live in New York City is hard. Finding a place to be buried is even harder.

As Manhattan grew into a thriving metropolis throughout the 19th century, the city ran out of space and prohibited the construction of new cemeteries as it became unsanitary to accommodate burials on the island. Property in Manhattan boomed and the dead had to move to the outer boroughs.

One of the biggest and most famous is Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery; across the East River, more than 600,000 souls rest there. Founded in 1838 as part of the rural cemetery movement which sought to move burial grounds to the countryside as cities expanded, Green-Wood was the second “garden cemetery” in the United States after Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. As a National Historic Landmark, it is both the custodian of the souls that rest in its landscaped hills and of a chapter of American history.

Acoustically cut off from the city, the cemetery is an oasis if tranquility spreading over an area the size of 400 football fields. With rolling hills, meandering walkways, four lakes, a bird sanctuary and myriad trees – some of which are more than 150 years old – Green-Wood continues to operate as a cemetery but also draws in visitors and tourists, attracted by the serene environment and the famous and infamous dwellers.

But on a Monday afternoon, the bucolic grounds were almost deserted. After walking through the majestic gates, I allowed myself to get lost in the maze of paths that cut through the green hills. Continue Reading »

Memories of Berlin

Bebelplatz during the day

Bebelplatz, Berlin

Strolling down Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s oldest boulevards, an uncanny white light beaming out of the ground in a grandiose dark square on my right caught my attention.

As I made my way over, trying hard not to jam my heels in the cobbled stones and battling the freezing wind that had suddenly picked up in the open space of the Bebelplatz, I came to a square-shaped glass plate set into the ground. Peering down, I could clearly make out a small room with four empty book shelves enveloped in a bright, naked, almost aggressive, light that radiated out of the earth into the night.

It suddenly struck me that I was standing on the site of the infamous May 1933 book burning ceremony in which the Nazis set ablaze over 20,000 books by various Jewish, communist and pacifist authors on a pyre. Some of the books included works by Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Walther Rathenau, Stefan Zweig, Sigmund Freud and Heinrich Heine, to name but a few. Right next to this eerie memorial lays a plaque engraved with one of Heinrich Heine’s (1797-1856) most famous citations.

Cold shivers ran through my body, but they were not from the wind. The quote is dated 1820.

Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

This was but a prelude. Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.

Memorial Plaque Bebelpatz

Memorial Plaque Bebelpatz

Momunment in memory of the May 10, 1933 Nazi book burning

Monument in memory of the May 10, 1933 Nazi book burning

Interesting side note: few visitors to Bebelplatz know that Heine’s quote is actually taken from his play “Almansor” in which he was referring to the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.