squaresville – the shantipi
world music festival
may 19-22, 1999
ever since my arrival two weeks ago, the big event in alternative circles - besides the election - is the shantipi world music festival. somewhere a mix between cultural anthropology, serious party, and rampant capitalism, it's a long five day weekend during the shavuot holiday just off the coast between haifa and tel aviv, near a small town called hadera. an outgrowth, but now well-marketed version, of the renowned rainbow people festival, the roving ecological, modern-day hippie festival still promoting and living the values of peace, love, and the american 60s, this year's shantipi is bigger than ever, over 20,000 people pouring into this large, vacant plot of hot, arid land.
you see, there's a phenomenon that occurs with israeli youth, having undergone the pressures of serving in the army at the tender age of eighteen. it's a very young age to deal with things such as national defense, routine, discipline, responsibility, following orders, life, and death. it makes them grow up fast. like in most countries in the world, it's the kids who are shouldering the rifles, who are dying for their nation, who are paying the price for their parents security and their politicians disagreements. in israel, it's the adolescents who are drafted into the army immediately after high school who conflictedly shoot the rubber bullets at hostile palestinians, who diligently work in the offices of the defense ministry, who unwittingly sacrifice their freedom and innocence to the allegiance and protection of their proud and aggressively defensive country.
so after three years in the army for men (two for women), many of these kids are walking time bombs, particularly the ones in the fighting units. they need some time and place to unwind and chill out. many go off to the far east - india, nepal, thailand - and some spend years there. the equivalent to the post college american trip to europe, but on an extended scale, the east is cheap, exotic, and spiritually alluring. young israelis of this persuasion come back (sooner or later) with a strong dose of buddhism, yoga, raga, sari, and all things oriental. they form a counter culture in israel that is healthy and alive. they influence fashion, music, art, commerce, and recreation.
so when i arrive at shantipi on the second day of the five day festival, it seems like i've wandered into a full-fledged thai-indian-nepalese campout. there are thousands of beautiful looking people donning turbans, saris, kaffias, and multi-colored pants, shirts, and caftans from all over the globe. i think i'm having another 60s flashback (maybe the rave in the judean desert was just a mirage.) i've arrived with dan, my filmmaker friend, who has provided me with an extra sleeping bag (me being dumb enough to travel without one), and we stake out a small, open plot of land, spread out our bags on the hard soil and prickly grass, and fuse into the still growing crowd of thousands.
again i feel like a stranger in a strange land. totally alone. among these thousands of people, i know only one - dan, and he's quickly disappeared into the crowd. i have always heard that you can feel more alone in a huge crowd than you can all by yourself, but when i was younger, this was generally not the case. i liked traveling alone - roaming into a new town, seeking like a homing missile a friendly face or interesting-looking group in a coffee shop, introducing myself, charming and ingratiating myself, trying to find a welcoming place to rest my head for the night. but now, thirty years later - and thirty years older than most of these festivalites, reading & speaking a language that moves left to right instead of vice versa, not even being able to contribute a few clever words of latin-based pidgin french or italian, the concept is sinking in. i am - alone. and sure, most israelis understand, and can speak english. but do they as a matter of choice? among themselves? definitely not. if i approach someone and speak english, they give me a polite but perfunctory answer. to them, i'm an american tourist. although i still prefer to think of myself as the american “traveler”, they only see this old(er) dude who speaks english.
but the other thing i'm noticing at this "happening" - is that as a collective, a culture, as a young vital nation of kids, young adults, makers and shakers of tomorrow - these people seem very closed-minded to me. just last year when i traveled through italy, germany, switzerland, even france, people seemed curious, alive, open minded, open-hearted. they seemed interested in me. they were friendly, curious. same thing in mexico the year before. when i told people i was fifty, they couldn't believe it. they made me feel young. had i suddenly gotten "old", aged so much in the last two years? had i suddenly become mr. boring? mr. un-cool? was i more closed, less open-minded, less curious? reflect, pal. look at yourself. what? no -- i don't think so. what then? could it be -- these people? this culture?
i contemplated as i walked around alone, listening to the throbbing world beat music from the stage, sipping nana tea from makeshift bedouin tents, rubbing shoulders with these thousands of beautifully bedecked revelers. and -- yes, i thought -- i mean, definitely no. this was not woodstock at all. these were young kids with neither much experience nor much wisdom. of course, thirty years does bring a bit of each. and of course, in retrospect, we were quite probably just as callow in upstate new york in 1969. but this was the land of israel. one year before the end of the millennium. not freedom-loving america. not comfortable, seen-it-all europe. this was fifty year old, defensive, patriotic israel. neighbors hating, doubting, cursing neighbors. potential attackers, enemies. even americans. like me. sure, they needed us. but they didn't need to like us. this was an inbred, protectionist society. young. principled - but definitely closed in many ways. everyone had their own ideas. it was a society that liked to argue with itself. everyone had an opinion and expressed it openly. no tact. no politesse. this land offered a hard, in-your-face dose of reality. yet -- it was friendly at the same time. servas/open doors. people could welcome you, open up their hearts and homes to you. i was confused again. too many contradictions.
maybe i should just pack up and go home. back pedal seventy-five hundred miles in reverse - back to LA. away from this foreign, contentious, fractious land. back to my safe little piece of hillside with the fruit trees and rabbits, overlooking the silver rim of the pacific, with my hot tub and garden, with my best friend, my dog clay. yeah, what a life. LA -- epicenter of the american epidemic. money, ego, power, selfishness, pretense, artificial-superficiality. loneliness with fast cars and palm trees. yeah, right, go home, pal.
geez, it must be me. at home and homeless every place i went. eternally dissatisfied. looking for instantaneous love, friendship, adventure. finding only separation and imperfection. seeing in the mirror of other lands and other people -- myself.
i stumble into dan. howse he doing? not much better, he says. “these kids are all dressed up in their weekend indian playsuits. on monday morning they'll all go back to their everyday lives, their college and high school classes, their clerical army jobs. these are the future accountants, clerks, lawyers, and businessmen and women of israel.” i paraphrase as he continues: “you think you have it bad in america - with your demonized capitalism. what about socialism? it has crippled israel. everyone's the same here. no one takes any chances. we all settle for mediocrity. there's no motivation to compete, create, improve. when i grew up, you couldn't complain about the way a restaurant served food. if it was bad, if it was served poorly, it didn't matter. there was no darwinian, no adam smithian survival of the fittest, pull yourself by your bootstraps, evolutionary process. no need to self correct. you had to take it or leave it. only now, with mcdonald's, do you get clean, standardized food. good service. the other restaurants have to conform, compete - or go out of business. that's capitalism. that's america.”
hmmm! there were always two sides to every coin. at least. sometimes three or four or five. especially in israel. capitalism - socialism. competition - mediocrity. individuality - community. but hey, who was i to judge? why couldn't i just lay back, be here now, and enjoy the damn weekend? because - all i knew was - that this world music festival was getting to be less and less fun. it was trendy, conformist, and expensive. even the music itself - was far from stimulating or authentic. it all started to sound like world muzak. israelis imitating century-old arab music. israelis borrowing classic, now re-tread american rock 'n roll. new age "world music" with las vegas style stage shows. rope twirling, slick, glitzy costumes, light shows. there didn't seem to be a lick of originality about it.
i mean, what could you say about this fifty year old country? what was original about it? certainly its history. its politics, its geography, its people. but did it have its own culture, its own art, music, dance, painting, architecture, its own imagination, vision? or was it merely a strange hybrid clone of arab and american culture? i mean, everything in modern israeli seemed to me - so square - not just in the beatnik or bohemian sense, but in its rationality, measuredness, predictability, in its symmetry. israelis seemed uncomfortable with disorder, with chaos, with irrationality. i mean, it seemed to me that the founding fathers - ben gurion, meir, dayan, etc. just had no time for art or culture. there were too many practical things to do simply to survive. defense, agriculture, war, more war, the whole social/political experiment. after almost two millennium of wandering, the jews needed to work hard to forge and secure their new, threatened nationhood. i understood. but somehow, in the process, the whole beautiful, highly developed and sophisticated art and culture of eastern europe, of northern africa, of gershwin, berlin, billy wilder, berthold brecht, ernst lubitsch - got left behind. or imported to america.
yes, there were a few mature artists of international stature in this holy land. but they - seemingly had to re-invent the wheel. i mean, yes, contemporary artists had flocked to tel aviv - dance companies, theaters, painters, filmmakers - and yes, they did have their followings and were supported by the government. but once again, i found most of the work derivative - american or arab influenced. sufi dance. nike fashion. i mean, i was a year older than this entire country, but whereas i hated mcdonald's and corporate consciousness with a passion, these former socialists, now aspiring capitalists, worshipped it!
of all people, i run into my german pal, benny, at shantipi. since i've last seen him, he's put another thousand kilometers on his trusty mercedes, and he's just driven down from haifa, where he attempted to take a ferry back to italy - but failed. it seems he's also had second thoughts about his place in israel, and besides, he's been missing his german girlfriends. apparently, he's not the only visitor who has found the israeli women less than inviting. but not finding a nautical reservation back to germany, benny's showed up at shantipi, has spent the weekend, and will now leave his car in tel aviv, flying home to the rhineland for a short romantic interlude. (i'm not sure "romantic" is exactly the right word.) anyway, since my friend dan has left me at the festival, it's benny who scoops me up monday morning and shuttles me back to tel aviv. he too, has been underwhelmed by the festival.
on the way back, we stop at the beach town of shefayim. we have to make our way around a road block, because it seems mr. barak has made a post-electoral shavuot stop at the kibbutz here. once again, benny is in the know; he's intent on showing me a nude beach just north of the kibbutz. will we run into the new prime minister in the buff? benny tells me not to count on it. nevertheless, it's been plenty hot all weekend, and now i realize, along with not showering in four days, i've also never actually taken a dip in the great mediterranean. so -- we do -- strip down on the empty beach -- and tumble in. it's beautiful -- warm -- buoyant -- totally refreshing. we swim and swim. it seems like the first time benny and i have been in sync. we take a couple of photos, have a little camper's snack (leftovers from shantipi), go back into the water... everything's ideal -- until suddenly, from out of the blue, some outraged local john bircher (israeli style) comes running up to us, screaming at the top of his lungs - in hebrew - something - that most likely means, "get the fuck out of the water, you crude, heathen, indecent tourist pigs!" we do -- and -- our perfect moment now completely shattered, we hightail it back into tel aviv by mid afternoon.
mr. john birch. mr. john wayne. maybe that’s who these shantipi revelers will grow up to be…
to be continued……