I was recently in Los Angeles. It is summer there, so like a real Angeleno I decided to spend my time at the beach.
Specifically at Venice, set up as an independent town in 1905 by a tobacco millionaire who had the rather grand idea of building a replica of Venice, Italy, only this one in southern California. He financed the purchase of land, the construction of an assortment of canals, a pier, various grand buildings in Venetian-style architecture, and a train line to bring in the tourists.
Eventually Venice was gobbled up by the urban sprawl of greater Los Angeles, becoming a suburb best known for its four kilometre long boardwalk-cum-freak show. A daily carnival by the seaside, made up of tourists, hippies, buskers, sidewalk merchants, skate boarders, surfers, bikini-clad California beach babes, and muscle builders pumping iron in an open-air gym.
The rest of Venice fell into disrepair, and away from the beach was a no-go land of urban decay, gang shoot-outs and drug dealers. That is until about fifteen years ago, when young trendy folks, attracted by the relatively accessible seaside location and low real estate prices, began reclaiming the suburb, block by block. Many tech-type businesses followed suit and set up shop in the neighbourhood.
Roll forward to today, and what was once a very grubby part of LA has been washed clean by this wave of gentrification. A place that for years was known as “the slum by the sea” is now more often referred to as “Silicon Beach” (of the computing, not breast implant, sort). The oceanfront promenade is still a tourist trap, but the rest of Venice is now a collection of quiet and quaint residential streets. Many original bungalows have been artfully renovated, and can now sell for $5 million or more.
These days Venice is home to super-chic people, all ridiculously good-looking, fit and deeply tanned. They drift effortlessly between the beach, various organic eateries, and the gigantic nearby Whole Foods market. In this brave new world of Zen-hipster-techies, all work happens on laptops in artisan coffee shops; yoga is an essential part of the day; bicycles are the preferred mode of transport; and the local dress code is strictly faded jeans and t-shirts.
Abbott Kinney Street, five blocks back from the sea, has become the main commercial hub of the “new” Venice. Unlike the crappy souvenir and burger bars at the beach, in Abbott Kinney you will only find über-stylish restaurants and cafes, boutiques and independent stores, art galleries, juice bars, and exercise studios.
In short, Venice in 2014 is an achingly “in” kind of place. If it was any cooler, there would be ice on the sidewalks.
In line with its newly acquired cool-kid status, on the first Friday of each month Abbott Kinney hosts a street fair of sorts. Shops, restaurants and bars stay open until past midnight, augmented by an assortment of sidewalk vendors and buskers. From about 6pm mobile food trucks assemble along the street as well, to dish out gourmet fare to a huge crowd that gathers for this truly unique, quintessentially LA experience. And which last Friday night included me.
I arrived at about 8pm, and on the very first corner came to some food trucks – five in total – parked side by side, each with a long queue in front. Meaning I had an immediate dilemma: custom-built waffle (with topping choices ranging from chilli to salted chocolate) or middle-eastern inspired falafel creation? Gourmet burger (from the awesomely named Lamburgerini truck) or a “legendary trash plate” (from The Garbage Truck – a mountain of meat piled onto another mountain of macaroni cheese, and then drowned in sauce).
In the end I decided to keep it simple, and got a quesadilla (two tortillas, stuffed to bursting with grilled chicken and melted cheese) from the Mexican truck. I took a huge bite, and with gooey strings of cheese dangling from my chin walked on. At which point I got my first proper glimpse at just how big First Friday‘s food truck gathering actually is.
You see, the five trucks I had stumbled on were just a teaser – the tip of a very large culinary iceberg. Once past them I saw there were at least fifty others, of all shapes and sizes, parked all along Abbott Kinney on both sides of the street. They were surrounded by a huge crush of people, creating one of the biggest, most mouth-watering food ensembles I have ever come across.
Sheer volume meant it would be nearly impossible for me to try everything, so I needed to be careful with selections. Drawing on every ounce of inner fortitude, I skipped the India Jones curry truck (festooned with pictures of its Hollywood celebrity clientele); a bratwurst truck; the Sushi Pirate truck; a Southern-style BBQ truck; a couple of Thai and Korean noodle trucks; a rotisserie chicken truck; and many trucks offering every imaginable American “staple”: burgers, sliders, pizzas, burritos, etc.
But eventually my stoicism faltered at a truck offering Peking duck tacos and French fries with sweet sauce. How on earth could anyone pass up the chance to try this sort of fusion food? Although I confess: it did feel a bit like I was mainlining cholesterol and fat directly into my veins, especially when followed directly by a lobster roll from The Lobsta Truck. Let’s just say that to adequately describe how superbly good it was would require mildly pornographic language.
It became a bit of a blur after that, one truck blending into the next, and I was in heaven: a long stroll on a warm summer night punctuated by occasional bouts of feasting and gluttony.
As much as I was enjoying the food though, I was also enjoying the crowd. There were thousands out in Abbott Kinney Street for First Friday: families, young couples on dates, tourists, and groups of friends. Hipsters walking dogs crossed paths with 30-something mummies pushing prams and retirees on excursion. There were people of every colour, ethnicity and nationality, and I caught snippets of English and Spanish and a dozen other languages as well.
Complete strangers joked with each other in the long queues. Spontaneous parties broke out as people from all walks of life sat together on every available inch of sidewalk, happily munching away, turning Abbott Kinney Street into a giant picnic.
At one point I found myself standing in a queue alongside a pair of Muslim ladies in head coverings, eight people representing three generations of the one Hispanic family, a very much in love gay couple holding hands, and a group of sun-bleached surfer dudes. An incredible diversity of people that seemed entirely normal in the context; everyone was happy, talked to each other, and mingled freely without any regard to their differences.
Earlier on that evening a deep fryer in one of the food trucks had ignited. Once the fire had been put out, the police blocked off the area with yellow police tape, and two female police officers stood guard, directing the crowd away from the still smouldering remains. One of the policewomen had her mobile phone out, and from time to time snapped selfies with passers-by. Evidently, even the cops were enjoying the fabulously festive, communal atmosphere.
It felt like a microcosm of the whole world had been gathered up in Abbot Kinney Street that night, for no reason other than to walk, eat, and enjoy life together. It was wonderful.
Just when I began to think it couldn’t possibly get any better, I stumbled onto Frach’s fried ice-cream truck, which was serving up balls of ice-cream the size of a fist, wrapped in a sponge-cake shell, coated in tempura, and then deep-fried before being topped with whipped cream and fudge sauce. Although my real interest was with the only-in-California fusions, like “the Mexican”: the same deep-fried ice-cream formula, only with cheesy tortilla chips thrown in as well. Or like “the Thai”, combining deep-fried lychee ice-cream with lemongrass, chilli and coriander.
A lot of people were milling about in front of the truck, and so I asked a group of college kids: “Is this the end of the queue?” One of the girls looked at me like I was retarded, and replied: “You mean the line?” I bit my tongue – now was not the time to lecture on proper use of the Queen’s English – and joined the queue. Twenty minutes later I was in proud possession of my very own Mexican fried ice-cream, about the size of a small football, and weighing roughly the same, too.
I dug my spoon in, cracked through the crisp outer layer of fried batter, and took my first bite. Then I almost passed out in sheer bliss. This was one delicious-beyond-belief dish, an addictive and dangerously unhealthy creation that was magically salty and sweet, crunchy and soft, and hot and cold, all at the same time. A near perfect conclusion to a near perfect eating extravaganza, really, and I headed home from Venice’s First Friday a happy, contented, albeit bloated man.
This piece would have ended there, except that once home I flopped onto the couch and turned on the TV – I needed to digest the evening’s excesses. Only to be ruthlessly dragged back into “the real world”, by blanket coverage of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza. This of course being very personal to me, and so I sat glued to the news for the next hour, flicking from channel to channel, and reading stories on the internet.
I listened to the usual gamut of commentators pontificate; I watched live footage of Hamas rockets and Israeli military strikes, and thought of my parents near Tel Aviv, in their bomb shelter, while graphic images of the dead and wounded flashed across the screen.
But most of all I sat dumbstruck at the sight of synagogues being burned, Jews being assaulted in the street, and placards at mass demonstrations being waved saying things like “Hitler was Right”.
Not in Teheran and Cairo, mind you, but in cities like Boston, Paris, Athens and London. Worst of all, even in my hometown of Sydney, where a mob at a supposedly anti-Israel demonstration chanted “Kill the Jews”; where Jewish school kids were threatened on a public bus; and where the city’s leading newspaper published a cartoon showing a hook-nosed Jew pressing a remote control button to blow up Gaza. The sort of thing you’d expect in Germany circa 1938, and not Australia circa 2014.
For the first time it really dawned on me that what is going on in Gaza has unleashed a global outpouring of something ugly, which has a lot less to do with views on Israel and a lot more to do with good-old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Something I found to be deeply disturbing, not to mention downright fucking terrifying, as well.
But perhaps because of my very recent Venice street fiesta experience, I also had a moment of insight, where it occurred to me that all these folks all over the world, so angry with Israel, are basically missing the point. They fail to see that the whole Israel-Gaza thing is really just a distraction – a convenient way of turning a blind eye to a far more unpleasant, insidious truth. Like the first food trucks I had encountered in Abbott Kinney earlier, you need to step back and look up the street ahead to see what is really going on.
I have written about it before, but it suddenly seemed so blindingly obvious to me. The real issue is not Israel-Hamas, or any one of a dozen other specific conflicts around the globe, but the fact that the world is rapidly dividing into two basic groups. There is “Us”, being you, me and everyone else who shares a global, humanist, secular perspective on life; and there is “Them”, being those who do not.
For “Us”, individual religions and ideologies don’t really matter that much, beyond providing some cultural texture to life on a globalised, hyper-connected planet. So while you might have Christmas or Deepavali and I might have Hanukah, at heart we still have the same world view. Rooted in a shared belief that everyone is generally free to live their life however they please, as long as they inflict no harm on others. A common thread that binds “Us”, far more than our differences may divide.
But for “Them”, there is only unwavering fundamentalism, a belief that theirs is the only right way, and thus by definition, ours must be wrong. There is no real difference between extremists wherever they are, whether they be radical Islamists, Hindu separatists, or White supremacists, to name but a few. And yes, sadly, there are also extremist Jews who fall into this same category. All are the same in that if given the power, “They” will do what it takes to ensure that their way prevails to the exclusion of everything else. Even if it might mean “They” need to suppress or eradicate “Us” in the process.
This is asymmetry in the truest sense of the word. An inherent inequality, where most of “Us” have no desire to impose our way of life on anyone else, but most of “Them” do, violently if needs be. Where most of “Us” aren’t that enthusiastic about dying in pursuit of any cause, but where “They” are more than ready to sacrifice their lives, and even that of their children, for theirs.
It is like the forces of globalisation have lit the fire under a world-wide pressure-cooker, and sooner or later, it is going to blow. A showdown is coming, where those in the “Us” camp will have to take a principled stand against those in the “Them” camp. No matter how uncomfortable and antithetical to our liberalism this may be.
Because unless we do this “They” will use the very tolerance and diversity cherished by “Us” to propagate their fundamentalist views, and won’t rest until “They” are in charge. Although once this happens, the same courtesy will not be extended in reverse. If “They” prevail, there will be no more “Us”, simple as that. To believe otherwise is about as naive as believing that if you ignore a cancer in your body it won’t eventually grow and consume you.
All of which might not mean much to you if you know nobody in Israel. And when faced with graphic images of death and destruction on TV, it is easy to find sympathy for those portrayed as the victims, and to criticise Israel, and to point fingers at “the Jews”.
But next time you see something about the conflict in Gaza, no matter what your views, try to remember just for a moment that Israel’s enemy, Hamas, is extremist and fundamentalist by nature, and firmly part of the global “Them” network. Remember that the folks who make up Hamas, ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaida and the rest of “Them” do not just have an issue with Israel, but have the exact same issue with you – with America, with Western Europe, with Christians and Buddhists and atheists, with pacifists and anti-Israel activists and even with other Muslims who don’t agree with them.
No matter who you are, if “They” don’t like you, you are eventually going to find yourself in their line of fire. Israel, living right next door and being an open, media-friendly Western country, just happens to be copping it first. But make no mistake: “They” despise you and everything you stand for with as much passion and hatred as they do Israel.
So if it makes you feel better for now, go ahead and take to the streets to protest against Israel, or boycott Israeli goods and services. Although for whatever criticism you may have, Israel poses no threat to you or to your way of life, whereas “They” do. If Hamas and its pals were ever given the opportunity, you can say goodbye to things like Venice’s beachfront freak-show, First Friday, gay couples holding hands, female police officers, bikini-clad California beach babes, and so on. If left unchecked, “They” will one day be coming after you too, and “They” will not hesitate to subjugate, terrorise, and even slaughter every single one of “Us”.
Think I am exaggerating? You may recall that not too long ago some guys flew a couple of planes into some tall buildings in New York, to make exactly that point. Other guys making the same point bombed London and Madrid’s subway systems. Others bombed the Boston marathon. Others attacked central Bombay. Others blew up tourist bars in Bali. And so on and so on.
Or look around you right now, at what “They” are doing in places where the media cameras aren’t as sharply focused as in Gaza. Mass slaughter continues daily in Syria. This includes public crucifixion of people “They” don’t like. Radical Islamists in Iraq are beheading Christians and other “opponents” by the thousands, while young girls are being systematically kidnapped, raped, mutilated or worse, simply for being female. Similar stuff is happening in Nigeria, and in Indonesia, and the Philippines, and in other parts of Africa. Ultra-right wing nationalism – another virulent strain of “Them” – is on the rise everywhere.
Plus, these ambitions are not limited by geography. A recent ISIS video has a young boy proclaiming: “I swear to God, we will divide America in two and destroy all the enemies of our religion and the Islamic State”. On another, a spokesman says: “We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House”. In London, a furore recently erupted when signs in a local park declared: “This is an Islamic area now”. In Norway, a radical group is demanding that part of Oslo be made Sharia compliant, or they will launch a 9/11 style attack. In Belgium, where Muslims now make up about 25% of the population, an Islamic organisation is seriously advocating adoption of Sharia law for the whole country.
As far away as Australia, dozens of young men have left home to join radical armies in Asia and the Middle East. One of these guys set off a national bout of soul-searching when he tweeted “That’s my Boy” in response to a photo of his pre-teen son, holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. Those very same Sydney protesters I watched on the news that night in LA didn’t just chant anti-Israel and anti-Jewish stuff, but also the far more chilling: “Jihad is the answer. You cannot stop Islam, from Australia to Al Sham (Syria)”.
Wake the fuck up, world. You don’t have to love, or even like, Israel. You don’t have to agree with everything the Israeli government does – I certainly don’t. But don’t reflexively blame Israel for all the ills in the Middle East. Don’t fixate on the conflict in one small corner of the world at the expense of all others. Don’t assume that if Israel rolls over and plays dead “They” will suddenly be happy. And for God’s sake, don’t resort to centuries old Jew-bashing just so you can assuage the discomfort to your liberal sensibilities that facing up to the real problem might cause.
See the present conflict in Gaza for what it really is: an early skirmish in the war between “Us” and “Them”. A conflict that, like it or not, is global – your fight as much as it is mine. And which is pitting all those of “Us” who treasure events like Venice’s First Friday against all of “Them”, who would rather die than allow you to enjoy it in peace.