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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hoping for Nirvana

This morning I drove over the speed humps into the guarded parking lot, showed my passport at the heavily fortified door, went through a metal detector, had my bag confiscated, walked down a long walkway through another bomb-proof door, and then through another metal detector and announced,

“I’m here to vote!”

The room at the American Consulate was filled with others who – like me – requested their absentee ballots weeks ago, but had not yet received them. There was a special form for us, and books to help us find the addresses of where our absentee ballots should be sent (by county). The nice counselor officers helped us look up online whether or not there were Senate races in our states and the names of the candidates for the House of Representatives from our districts. The ballot was entirely “write-in” and we could only vote for national offices.

There was something about actually writing the names…

Barack Obama/Joseph Biden


Nita Lowey (my district’s fabulous liberal Congresswoman)

… that was whole-body satisfying – especially after 20 years of voting in DC where I suffered from a severe case of taxation without representation.


The past few weeks have been rather exciting for American political junkies in Tanzania.

Firstly… all my morose friends who have been predicting another four years of doom and gloom (“I don’t think Obama can pull this off.") (What would we Democrats do without our self-doubt?) have finally turned a corner and gotten excited and, dare I even say it…. confident about this election. Too bad it took the economy tanking to perk them up.

In the last week there have been two Barack Obama fundraising events for Americans living in Tanzania - complete with really cool t-shirts. One event, put together by my friends, was a combo fund-raiser/debate-watching party – and it was fun to see the candidates spar while drinking South African beer, sitting among my fellow partisans, on the top floor of an Irish pub, here in Dar es Salaam.

Since I’ve been homeless for the past several weeks I’ve been staying with my friends, Laura and Carl, who are part of the US Embassy community. They have a special cable TV package called the Armed Forces Network (AFN). For those of you not familiar with it – let’s just say it is an intoxicating and toxic mix of the best and worst of American TV programs and sports (OK- no The L Word or Will and Grace) meets scary over-the-top commercials about how to avoid a terrorist attack by staying under the radar when leaving your home. My favorite spot features a guy and his buddy just back from over there (presumably Iraq or Afghanistan). The buddy seemed not quite right in the head, but his friend was trying to distract him from his suspected post-traumatic stress by taking him on a relaxing hunting trip.

Precious, yeah?

But the reason I’m telling you this is because AFN has a “news” channel that is switched by the big satellite man in the sky from CNN to Fox News, to ABC and others… seemingly without rhyme or rhythm, except that Fox seems to ALWAYS be on at prime time here in TZ (and presumably also prime time in Iraq and a big chunk of Europe).

For me it has been fascinating watching the American news channels cover the election and the economic crisis. And while it is scary to see how badly stories are distorted from one network to another (Fox News being the biggest violator, of course) overall I’ve been really having fun. I was up at 4 AM last Friday morning to watch the Biden/Palin debate. And I’ve already set my alarm for 4 AM tomorrow so I can watch the second Obama/McCain debate. Somehow, seeing the actual American news makes me feel more connected to the election. It has also made me angrier… but that’s another story all together. Hell... I even pulled out my credit card and made another $250 contribution. Have you? You should.

If it is true that absentee ballots are only counted in tight races, then it is unlikely that mine will ever be opened. In 2004, Westchester County, NY went 58% for John Kerry, and Nita Lowey got more that 60% of the vote in 2006. (I can’t remember the exact figure).

Nevertheless… it felt good to glance over at the other 10 or so people sitting at the same table as me, from states as varied as West Virginia, Florida and New Mexico, all of whom had filled in Barack Obama/Joseph Biden under President/Vice President on the blank line of their ballots.

If only the population of Americans living in Tanzania actually reflected the population of Americans in general… Sure, there would be some conservative religious types, some people in the military, and a group of security-conscious folks (we call them “third floor” here). But there would also be a big group of civic minded folks who have a great understanding of how our actions as Americans affect our image abroad and the lives of everyone else in the world. (You don’t think America’s economic meltdown is just affecting the US, do you?)

OK… I’m waxing poetic, or perhaps even pathetic. But it can’t hurt a girl to dream, can it?
I’ve got my eyes on a big win on November 4th. I can’t wait to feel the joy

Rosh Ha Shenanigans

Shmuli with Jaden and Rowan
Don’t ask me why, but I’ve come to treasure the regular visits the Jewish “community” in Dar has been getting from the ultra-religious missionary Chabad these past few years. I suppose the kitsch value of a pair of Hassidic rabbis walking around the streets of the city is not lost on me. These guys show up – from what feels like the planet Mars – but with an earnestness and sincerity that I find attractive, even if their brand of Judaism has absolutely nothing to do with mine.

Last week I was at an Obama fundraiser and debate-watching party on the roof of the Irish Pub when I got the call from our resident Israeli Jew-organizers that the Chabad was back (earlier than expected – I was told they were coming for Yom Kippur) and that they were trying to organize an event for kids the next day.

So dutifully I schlepped my kids to over to Nargila – the Israeli restaurant which is the center of all things Jewish-Dar – only to discover that my favorite Chabadnick, Shmuli, was back! This was a big surprise, since only a week or so earlier Shumli sent me a mazel tov on my new job – but failed to mention that he was about to get on a plane.

I came close to wrapping Shumli in a big forbidden (the friendship that has no name) hug when I was headed off at the pass by Yaccov, Shumli’s traveling companion – and I’m guessing boss here in TZ.

Keeping a safe distance from me – a possibly menstruating woman – Yaccov offered me a warm virtual handshake (his words, not mine) and welcomed the kids and I to the pre-Rosh Hashana art activity.

I expected that the kids would be weirded out by the Hassidic outfits and long untrimed beards, but actually they seemed completely oblivious… and before long they were sitting with about 8 Israeli kids doing a complicated sand and glue project. And they particularly enjoyed their opportunity to blow (spit) into the shofars Shmuli and Yaccov brought out with them.

With this positive experience behind us, I returned to Nargila the next day for a Rosh Hashanah services.

Just like last year – it was touch and go for more than an hour on whether or not we would have a minyon. We had plenty of women (my friend, Laura and myself included)… but the men were only trickling in.

With the sun quickly setting – and still missing two men, the 9 year-old son of one of the families at the service was temporarily “deputized” as a “man” (the rabbis said it was an obscure Sephardic or Kabalistic rule that you could do that – but it seemed like a scam to me) while my friend Laura frantically called her husband, Carl, to get him over to Nargila in time to read the Torah.

Once the rabbis had gone as far as they could without a minyon, they got desperate and started telling us jokes. Shmuli told a joke only funny to a Hassidic rabbi:

A guy immigrating to Palestine (pre-Israel days) showed up with 7 refrigerators. The customs agent accused him of bringing the refrigerators in to sell but the man vehemently denied it. He explained that one fridge was for dairy, one for meat, and one for parve. When confronted about the remaining four fridges the man explained that Pesach was coming and he would need Kosher for Passover meat, dairy and parve fridges. And finally, when confronted about the remaining fridge the man explained that the seventh fridge is for the traif.

Ba-da bum…

Thank god, Carl, the 10th man, arrived just as Shumli was winding up for another joke. With Carl safely entrenched on the men’s side and handed a yarmulke, we were ready to being the Torah portion of our service.

Meanwhile, Penina, the outgoing and opinionated Israeli owner of Narglia set out on a mission to loudly complain to the rabbis about the fact that women don’t count.

Actually… I believe it would be safe to say that she heckled them for about an hour – including during the blowing of the shofar, the service, and even the Torah reading, with loud and wonderful zingers like (please use a strong Israeli accent to say these things in your head):

“Lucky I’m allowed to cook, thanks God. They spent the whole day standing over me like the police.”

“All my life I count – except when these nudnicks come to Tanzania”

Eventually she left the comfortable couches on the “woman’s side” and planted herself right in the middle of the divider during the reading of the Torah – staring over the Torah and watching the men on the other side. Despite pleas from the rabbis to please stop – and me pulling her aside to ask her why she hosts them every year if she hates what they are doing so much (to which she responded that she loves having them and learns so much from them every time they come), she continued to jar and tease and heckle.

It would be totally offensive if it wasn’t actually so hilarious. It was everything Laura and I could do to stop from doubling over with laughter as each comment was more outrageous than the last. And as if to highlight the points she was making, the rabbis put no prayer books on the women’s side until we complained after the service started, and eventually they threw the women’s side a bone, asking me to read a rabbinical commentary about how important women are on Rosh Hashanah, as evidenced by the fact that both Sarah and Hannah are said to have birthed babies on that day.

Lame, huh?

Let me just say that although I totally agreed with Penina’s sentiments about the exclusion and marginalization of women, I found the forum she chose to express them in rather inappropriate. This was a shit or get off the pot moment. Either participate and shut up, or boycott and stay out.

Nevertheless, the evening ended well with a small meal of delicious salads that Penina had prepared (overseen by the Kosher eagle-eye of Yaccov). All the participants were grateful for the hospitality, and even the rabbis seemed to relax a bit now that the show was over.

When I left I wondered how Yaccov and Shmuli would fare for the next 10 day until Yom Kippur living with Penina and her family.

Stay tuned here for the answer…. Yom Kippur is around the corner.