Wednesday, July 18, 2012



Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

For most of my life, I believed that I was destined to become an opera singer. My mother put me into voice lessons at the age of seven, after nearly getting into a car accident with me attempting to sing “Der Hölle Rache,” stating that I needed some new repertoire. I initially started lessons with a college student majoring in vocal performance, who enjoyed being an “opera rebel.” In short, no Disney songs for me! Instead, I learned Italian art songs. Becoming a local novelty as the child opera singer, I was frequently asked to perform at community events, churches, and sporting games. Throughout middle school, I studied classical singing intensely, believing that I would eventually attend a music conservatory and become a full-fledged opera singer.  Long story short: only a few years after, I found myself at a liberal arts institution without a music degree, studying economics.

This doesn’t mean that I gave up singing or my passion for opera. On the contrary, I have been pursuing these interests in unique ways – combining them with my academic interests. One example is the year-end project I completed for my German 102 language class: “The Wagner Paradox,” contrasting the brilliance of Wagner’s musical and artistic vision, with the bigotry of his personal life and views.

Richard Wagner was a man of extremes – there is no doubt about it. Perhaps he is most well-known for composing a series of operas entitled the Ring Cycle (which contains the song “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which has been made famous in part by Bugs Bunny and in part by Apocalypse Now.) Interestingly, it is singlehandedly through the works of composer Richard Wagner that opera has achieved its status of unbearably long operas featuring large-statured women brandishing spears and wearing horned helmets.

However, as I stated before, Wagner was man of extremes. Besides his opera, he is probably known for his many strong anti-Semitic writings. Although he was dead before the Nazi regime’s ascension to power, Wagner and his music served as inspirations to Adolf Hitler. For these reasons, despite the strong classical music community in Israel, the music of Richard Wagner has often been viewed as off-limits. A debate regarding breaking the Wagner-taboo was recently resurrected just this past year. However, in my research I found myself fascinated by the 2001 incident in which composer Daniel Barenboim conducted a Wagner work as an encore, and the public outcry which ensued.

Thus, when it came to finding a book on Israel, I wanted to find a book which captured the essence of the unique Israeli society. When I read the synopsis to “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economics Miracle” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, I was immediately intrigued. (You can check out the book’s own website here.) However, I was not prepared for how interesting or thought-provoking this book was. Perhaps it is the economics student in me, but despite the fact that I was reading it while on vacation, I had a hard time setting the book down.  

So what is this book about? I will begin by sharing a section from the book: “…in addition to boasting the highest density of start-ups in the world (a total of 3,850 start-ups, one for every 1,844 Israelis), more Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ exchange than all companies from the entire European continent” (page 11.) While Israel is often compared to other small, exporting-based nations such as Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, Israel has a key difference: the innovation factor, which has made the “start-up” business model one of everyday life. This book seeks to find the many different components which contribute to Israel’s atmosphere, which is primed for entrepreneurs.

There are many influences; some of which are cultural and others of which are government-based. These include:

  • The diversity of the Israeli people: Although Israel is often viewed on the outside as a homogenous population with similar goals, “Israel’s tiny population is made up of some seventy nationalities” (page 17.) For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Israel’s citizens shared very little – lacking a unified language or similar cultural norms.
  • Chutzpah: This term is defined as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to” (page 30.) According to the authors, this is a cultural practice which is permeated throughout all aspects of Israeli society – employee/employer relations, relationships between members of the military, mentor/mentee relationships, etc. The idea is that actions and ideas are always questioned, even if a so-called ‘superior’ has shared them.
  • Military Conscription: The authors view the military conscription, which affects most members of the Israeli population at the age of 18, conducive to the atmosphere of start-ups. First, it gives future business leaders the leadership opportunities and the problem-solving skills that are required from entrepreneurs. It also introduces Israelis to a diverse assortment of people – often outside of their socio-economic status – broadening their experiences.

Several other reasons for a pro-business atmosphere are also detailed. For example, the authors state that regional isolation has created an Israeli population that is knowledgeable of the outside world, and prepared to take advantage of business opportunities in different areas. Also, Israel is a leader when it comes to Research and Development – with one of the largest percentages of GDPs dedicated to R&D in the world. The book also describes Israel’s possible hindrances to further growth and development in the future.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Palestinian Territories

Palestinian Territories

A Wall in Palestine

For several years, my father owned an insurance agency in the Hispanic area of town. I would venture to say that about 70% of his customers were Hispanic; with a large portion of those being undocumented workers. Wanting to build a proficiency in the Spanish language, I would often just hang out at the office; jumping into conversations with his Spanish-speaking customers.

At first, the conversations were limited by my lack of proficiency. But as my skills developed, we began discussing much more serious topics: how they came across the border; how much money they sent “home” at the end of each month; their fear of the police and desperate attempts to remain under the radar. I think it is an unusual situation for undocumented workers to be this open about their situation – but they genuinely seemed to be comfortable in the office. Everyone – with the exception of my father – was bilingual. Even so, my father learned a good deal of Spanish. He tried to be an ally to their community in a silent way – notarizing documents, calling up and demanding car towing companies to return cars to their rightful owners (whether they be illegal or not), and writing letters to politicians.  

Day in and day out, I was able to experience second-hand the life of an undocumented worker. I genuinely ached when I heard of raids and deportations – often leading to the separation of U.S.-born children and their foreign-born parents.  Based on my experience, I adopted the belief that neither political party in the United States had the right solution – neither in theory nor in practice.

Many people advocate a wall being built on the United States-Mexican border in order to stop illegal immigration. (Based on my conversations, people use many other methods of entering into the United States than crossing the border by foot.) Perhaps these strong feelings about walls and borders caused me to choose René Backmann’s book, “A Wall in Palestine” when searching for a book about the Palestinian territories in Israel.

I decided to divide up my reading on Israel into two parts - a book on Israel and a book based on the occupied Palestinian territories– in order to be respectful toward both of the cultures. I have read enough books and sat through enough lectures to know that this was the best course of action. For those with a limited knowledge of the Palestinian territory, it consists of two separate areas: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Both of these territories were occupied by Israel after the 6-Day War. In 1967, Israel launched an offensive attack against its neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) after increased tension and won a decisive victory in only six days. The Gaza Strip is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and borders Egypt. However, this book focuses on the West Bank, which is an area on the eastern side of Israel which borders the Dead Sea and the Jordan River – an area that used to belong to Jordan. The West Bank also includes “East Jerusalem,” which includes the eastern part of the historic city.
After my time in Spain, I noticed a very pronounced difference between American and European views towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. While Americans often favor the Israeli side, Europeans often side with the Palestinians. Being written by French reporter René Backmann, this book does not challenge the typical European view – it is decisively pro-Palestine. Although it does include interviews with some Israelis, the interviews only serve the purpose to support the conclusions of the author. There are no compelling examples of Israeli voices on the opposing side. That being said, the book is extremely interesting and a quick read. I would recommend it as a supplement for other reads to people wanting to understand the multiple sides of a very complex issue.

The book tells the social and economic hardships faced by the Palestinians following the creation of the Israeli West Bank barrier. Constructed by the Israeli government starting in 2003, the wall received much support among Israelis fearful of terrorist attacks following the Second Intifada. The Second Intifada which took place in the early 2000s saw a large rise in Israeli-Palestinian conflict – with Palestinian groups utilizing tactics, such as suicide bombing, guerrilla warfare, car bombs, etc.

Economically-speaking, the wall has had great economic implications. Before the barrier, while movement for Palestinians was often difficult between East and West Jerusalem, it was not impossible. According to Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet (the equivalent of Israel’s FBI), who supported the creation of a wall: “Ninety-nine percent of them [illegal Palestinian workers] were coming only to work, but one percent could be terrorists” (page 43.) The wall has had further implications than unemployment, which “jumped from 16.9% in 2000 to 25.2% in 2007” (page 139). After the construction of the barrier, property declined in value, farmers were sometimes separated from their land, and shops that catered to Israeli customers lost a huge customer base. Moreover, the barrier has made trade much more difficult for the Palestinians and has even made legal Palestine workers experience hardship while trying to get to their jobs in Israel.

The book quotes a Palestinian, stating that the purpose of the wall is to “make our lives as difficult as possible. They don’t let anyone pass through [the checkpoints], even for weddings or funerals. The truth, you see, is that they want to make us leave. They want the land, not the people” (page 93.) Although my limited understanding of the intricacies of the situation prevents me from drawing any conclusions based on this statement, I found it resonating in my mind as I read this book.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012



Married to a Bedouin

For those readers who have been to Spartanburg, South Carolina – you are bound to know that there are not a lot of exciting things happening in this city. This is not an objective opinion; it is a pretty well-known fact to which the students of the eight local colleges can attest.

With the nature of my hometown in mind, I want to share a gem I found on the internet: a list published by Spartanburg Revolutionary (the local tourism department) entitled, “200 things you must do when you visit Spartanburg, South Carolina.” To come up with 200 attractions in Spartanburg is a real stretch.  Thus, some of the list’s suggestions are repetitive, and others are just bizarre. I recently started organizing some of my friends to create a Facebook group entitled Spartanburg’s Must-Do List, photo-documenting the actual implementation of these 200 suggestions.

Spartanburg seems to be the type of place where anybody who is somebody tries to avoid. Once in a while, some political candidates will ride through on their buses and stay for a few hours – eat some hamburgers, shake some hands, ask for votes, etc.

When I was searching for a book about Jordan, a wide assortment of political memoirs and biographies popped up on the Amazon site; including those of King Hussein, King Abdullah, and Queen Noor. It was then that I remembered a point in my childhood when my sleepy hometown awoke to prepare for the visit of Queen Noor. I was fascinated by the idea of a queen visiting my town not because of childhood fantasies of grandeur but rather because I just couldn’t put my head around the concept of a monarchy.

In the end, I decided to set aside the political memoirs and biographies, as they have never been my favorite genres. I also found a memoir which I believed trumped them all: Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s “Married to a Bedouin.” This western woman left behind all modern conveniences to marry a Jordanian and live in a cave in Petra, Jordan. Once I read the description, I was fascinated: Having been abroad, I tried to imagine what sort of person would make this sort of life-changing decision.

In order to describe the book, I must first introduce a key player in the book: the city of Petra in Jordan. Petra was actually chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It has become a popular tourist destination for its architecture which was carved in stone on the faces of mountains. According to Marguerite, who lived in the community from the late 1970s to about 1985 – after which the people who inhabited the area were relocated to an outside settlement so that Petra could be preserved – the Bedouin made Petra their home. Although I often associated the Bedouin as nomadic tribes, the author states that, “Although many families had settled in Petra and no longer wandered the desert with their herds of milk-goats looking for water and food, they insisted they were Bedouin. It was a racial thing, depending on ancestry, not place of abode…” (page 52.)  
The book is a memoir and shares not only the culture of the Bedouin but – perhaps just as interestingly – also the story of a young nomadic woman finding a fixed and stable community with the Bedouin. While traveling the Middle East with her friend, New Zealand-born Marguerite finds herself falling in love with her Bedouin host, Mohammad, and decides to stay in Petra. I was very interested to compare her “western persona” and her “Bedouin persona.” Her western persona is unfettered, as she travels around the world without roots. However, after deciding to remain in conservative Petra, it seems as if she truly begins to find herself as a productive member of a community. She lives in a cave, learns Arabic, works as a nurse in Petra, brews tea in the mornings, bakes over a fire in the afternoons, gets married, and starts a family. Eventually converting to Islam, she even takes up the conservative traditional style of dress of the other Bedouin women.

While her book offers many insights, I would like to learn more about other issues regarding Jordan. While the book mentions conflict in passing (basically saying that conflict did not affect the Bedouin way of life), I know that conflict is bound to have a more far-reaching effect. For those who are from Jordan, I would love to hear: (1) the impact of conflict in your country and your society; (2) the importance of the Bedouin in history and in the modern day; and (3) which parts of the Bedouin life do you think are the most important to preserve.

This is a truly fascinating read. Marguerite van Geldermalsen describes the Bedouin culture through the eyes of a westerner, but also through the eyes of an insider. Her insights provide amazing details of this way of life, which today cannot be found inside the caves of Petra. For readers of the book, I would like to ask:  (1) How did the author transform through the book? At what point in life do you find her most likeable? Why?; and (2) How did the concept of “community” affect the author? What is the importance of joining a community?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012



Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself

I had heard about price discrimination in my economics classes, however, I had never quite realized its relevancy to my life until then. I looked at the Pakistani man holding up the Barcelona t-shirt, smiling and prattling on about its fine design. The only thing I could think about was that there was no way that I was going to spend the equivalent of 30 USD for that crappy little t-shirt. I began to walk out of the store, and as I began to do so, he began to name lower and lower prices.

Price discrimination is when a seller charges different prices to different people for the same exact goods. Upon getting outside of the store, I realized his tactic in doing this: All of the items were marked at ridiculously high prices – just in case I was willing to pay that price. Since I wasn’t willing to pay, he was willing to offer me lower prices. Based on my reading, I knew that this was a common practice in other areas of the world, so I decided that I might as well give it a shot. There were 20 Pakistani tourist shops on this street alone – lots of opportunities for experimentation.

And experiment I did: Every store I went into, I took on a different persona. I quickly learned that my American English accent didn’t do me any favors – so Spanish it was. I soon discovered that even mentioning the words “United States” in whatever language led to higher prices. I will admit that I tried to be a little flirty in one of the stores, which quite embarrassingly did not lead to the low prices I so desired. (First lesson learned: I am a terrible flirt.) As the grand finale to my experiment, I decided to pretend that I spoke neither English nor Spanish - the greatest challenge yet to my acting abilities, as it is very difficult to hear a conversation of which every word you understand and trying to feign a lack of recognition on your face. Luckily, I play this role well: with this approach, items marked 30 euros suddenly dropped down to 5 euros. (Second lesson learned: I will never complain about Walmart again and I will rejoice every time I step foot in Marshalls.)

When searching for a book about Pakistan, I had absolutely no idea of where to begin. If the basic system of shopping was so different between the American and Pakistani cultures, I knew that I would be embarking on a journey to learn about a culture completely different from my own. I eventually decided upon the book “Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself” by Pamela Constable. It was one of the first books I read in this book challenge, and thus, my system for choosing books was not yet perfected. Needless to say, this book might be a little subjective. In order to gain a better understanding, I met with a friend of mine – a young Pakistani graduate from my college who has ambitions to go to medical school – and requested that she read the book and give me her opinions. She has since returned the book and we have plans to get together soon to discuss the book.

Aspects that I found particularly interesting about the book are:
  • Justice System in Pakistan: The way that the justice system in Pakistan is described in this book is very negative. According to the author, trials last so long that it essentially puts the lives of anyone involved “on hold” for years. Trials can be easily swayed by bribes to corrupt judges. In the countryside, often justice is administered by a local leader – often leading to devastating results for women. For this reason, the author states that many are advocating the implementation of sharia law, or law based on solely Islam. (The sharia law is what the Taliban implemented during their rule in Afghanistan.) To those from Pakistan, how would you describe the administration of justice? Does the author describe it well? Do you support the implementation of sharia law? Why or why not?
  • Conflict with India: For a long time, Britain controlled most of South Asia through the one Indian administration. Due to the politics during and immediately following World War II, the area divided into two main parts, Pakistan and India. I know that there is a great deal of competition and disdain between the two countries – which were the underlining motivations for Pakistan to develop the "Islamic bomb," or become a nuclear power. I know a great deal about the current events of this relationship, but not its history: When and how did this conflict begin?
  • Image of the United States: I was interested to read about Pakistani opinions of the United States. I didn’t expect them to be very high, based on my observations of a frequent viewer of Al Jezeera. In 2010, the Pew Research Center discovered that it was extreme with “only 17 percent of respondents saying they had a ‘favorable’ view of the country” (page 239.) I can understand this – as I myself feel uncomfortable with the drones (and they aren’t even being fired into my country.) However, I was interested to read how much aid is given to Pakistan – billions of dollars. How is it that the United States can give such exorbitant amounts of money, while at the same time, be received with disdain by the local people? Perhaps a part of the answer is the social rigidity of Pakistan and the importance of the army – making the money inaccessible to the common people. Perhaps another part of the answer is that the United States has an agenda when it gives aid. I would love to hear Pakistani people’s opinions on how the United States can better its public image in this country.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

Most people think opera is outdated. I beg to differ. My belief does not only stem from the fact that I sing opera, but also historical and modern events. I mean, is it a coincidence that whenever a country obtains a certain degree of wealth, it constructs an opera house? Historically-speaking, opera was an early cultural import of European colonizers as they settled across the world. Interestingly, the precedent for opera has not only continued, but flourished, in these areas of the world. For example, South Africa boasts not one, but two, opera companies. Both India and Vietnam feature beautiful opera houses, remnants from its history of colonization. However, we can also see the relationship of opera and wealth in the modern day, exemplified by the rise of both opera and opera houses in China. The National Center for Performing Artsin Beijing hosted its first ever western-style opera festival in 2009. Moreover, China boasts two other modern opera houses in Shanghai and Guangzhou, the latter whose opening in 2010 marked the end of a 202 million USD construction process.

While I knew a good deal about operatic communities elsewhere, I had very little knowledge of opera in the Middle East. When I got Robert Lacey’s book, “Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Terrorists, and the Strugglefor Saudi Arabia,” I had no expectations that opera would be mentioned – and was subsequently interested to discover that “[Fahd, the Crown Prince] liked to joke with European friends that he would one day commission the construction of a grand national opera house in Riyadh, in which Aida would be performed with not one, but ten elephants” (page 38.) This book is very interesting in that it details Saudi Arabia’s recent acquisition of wealth – as well as the gains and the consequences of this newly-found wealth.

(The relationship between opera and wealth throughout history and modern times is a topic in which I am very interested. In fact, I applied for a travel grant to study this topic, only for my proposal to be rejected – like so many of my other grants and scholarship applications this year. One of these scholarship committees had the nerve to send a rejection email on Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, after a lonely day of 4 ½ hours of classes and an additional 6 hours of writing a 10-page paper on a topic I was convinced didn’t deserve more than 2 pages, I melodramatically vowed that I would never apply for another scholarship again. A few months older, I am proud to say that I am over these disappointments - until the next rejected scholarship/grant, that is.)

This book makes so many connections between concepts, that I am afraid that I will not do it justice in my blog post. The purpose of the book is to describe the political, social, and economic reasons for Islamic radicalism in Saudi Arabia – the home country of not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 out of the 17 plane hijackers on 9/11.

Throughout recent history, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been a relatively strong and productive one, as described in Chapter 8. In the midst of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia engaged in operations to hinder the spread of Soviet influence alongside the United States (perhaps most famously offering Afghanistan support for its jihad following Soviet invasion.) Saudi Prince Turki stated, “We saw it as our job to fight against Soviet atheism wherever it might threaten” (page 66.) An American company provided much-needed financial resources to the Saudi government during the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, for the rights for oil. The United States provided assistance to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm (following Sadam Hussein’s invasion) – a meaningful act, as countries like Egypt and Jordan did not provide support. Disagreements have often arisen over the issue of Israel/Palestine. However, shortly before 9/11 occurred, the king has successfully lobbied for then-president George W. Bush to support a “2 state solution” – the first U.S. president to do so publicly. Following 9/11, however, the attention of the United States in the Middle East turned to the elimination of terrorism.

Islamic radicalism in Saudi Arabia was a main topic in this book. I found three aspects of this topic particularly noteworthy:
  • Monarchy’s Relationship with Religion: Saudi Arabia is run by a monarchy. In fact, “Saudi Arabia” actually stands for the Arabia of the House of Saud. Due to this, there are no democratic elections for high officials – all are appointed. There have been reports that the ruling family recognizes that if democratic elections were to be implemented, the religious establishment would gain considerable control. Anticipating this, Saudi Arabia has tried to encompass the demands and the beliefs of the religious establishment – creating a society that is very conservative by Western standards.   
  • Islam and Education: To appease the religious establishment, Islam has become a key component in child education. The author notes that many Islamic clergy were even threatened by the increased use of the English language, thinking that students might believe that it was more important than the language of Arabic, the language in which Muhammad dictated the Koran. Many believe that this increased emphasis in Islam has not only led to students not having the skills to take advantage of opportunities in a modern economy, but also to put a higher emphasis on religion – perhaps leading to more radicalism.
  • Economic Boom from Oil: This led to more money invested in the healthcare system – leading to a rise in the birth rate. However, as the price of oil began to fall, there were less employment opportunities for these young people. Lacking the skills to take advantage of opportunities abroad, many young men became unemployed. Being unemployed, they are unable to pay the family of their future wives in order to start families of their own. Thus, the growing numbers of single, unemployed men lacking the necessary skills has also been attributed to the rise of radicalism.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!