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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Joys of Israeli Bureaucracy

For a while now I've been meaning to write about the infernal bureaucratic road one has to follow when building a new house in Israel. But every time I started writing I found myself wondering where to begin, how to convey the horror of it all in one post - thoughts which quickly led to despair and abandonment of the effort. The labyrinthian nature of this kafkaesque experience requires writing skill that are beyond my capabilities.

So instead of a comprehensive post I will tell of one small incident.

Our house is a semi-detached one, built behind a 5-storey building. The entrance to our house (and the other three adjacent to ours) is from the parking lot of the building, so one has to walk through the car entrance to the rear of the building before reaching the house. To the left of our house (and the building) is a public path that is about a metre below the level of the parking lot. Today, there is a fence between the parking lot and this public path.

A while ago, the four families living in the houses requested the local authorities to open a small opening in the fence and build a few stairs leading down to the public path. This way, people could enter our houses by walking down the public path and up the stairs, instead of walking all the way around the building and through the car entrance. Not to mention the safety issues of walking through the same road as the cars. Our request was backed with photographs and a draft engineering plan. After a short meeting at the city hall, the appropriate bureaucrat approved the concept "in principle" and everyone was happy.

A couple of months ago we received a letter saying that upon re-consideration the request was denied. No explanations given. We wrote a letter back requesting another meeting to understand this reversal of decision. After a few weeks of silence, and several phone calls, another bureaucrat agreed to see us. In the meeting, she produced a letter (supposedly sent to us but which we never received) saying that the decision was reversed because after a "visit by professionals" to the area they realized the height difference between the public path and the parking lot is "more than 2.5 metres" and thus requires a "significant" flight of stairs, which is unacceptable.

Sounds fair enough, right? After all, why construce a massive of more than 10 stairs on a public path just to satisfy four families? Well, not so easy. This morning I took a measuring tape and checked the height difference. Turns out it is less than a metre... All it takes is 3-4 stairs.

So what are the possibilities? Perhaps nobody ever came on-site and the city hall just thought they could brush us off with a letter? Or perhaps the measuring tape of the "professionals" they sent was a biblical one and they measured amot instead of metres? Or perhaps this is just standard procedure and we need to go through the "proper" number of meetings, phone calls, letters and voice-raising scenarios before getting to a positive resolution of the matter.

And this is just a drop in the ocean. Oh, if I were to start writing about the other hundreds (yes, hundreds) of problems one has to solve in order to find peace and tranquility under a new roof. A heartfelt recommendation to anyone considering building a new house in Israel: DON'T. Buy an existing one instead and spend your time and energy in renovating it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Sennacherib at the British Museum

I had a free half-day in London yesterday and decided to pay the British Museum a rather overdue visit (I think it's been 10 years since the last time). Not having too much time, I headed straight for the Ancient Far East rooms, which I remembered as being pretty impressive from my last visit.

As it turned out, I spent most of my time in and around the "Lachish" and the "Nineveh Palace" rooms, displaying items excavated in and around modern-day Iraq from the Sennacherib period. Sennacherib, king of Assyria in the 8th century BCE, is mentioned in the Bible and in the Talmud as the evil king from the North that descended upon Judah to try and quench the rebellion of the Jews in the times of king Hezekiah (helped by the Egyptians). He succeeded in conquering the city of Lachish, south-west of Jerusalem, but despite a long siege could not take Jerusalem and returned to his city of Nineveh. The Bible attributes this failure to a divine intervention: the angel of God descended upon Sennachrib's camp and killed 185,000 men (Melachim Bet). The Assyrian chronicles, on display at the British Museum, obviously tell a different story: Hezekiah was forced to surrender and to pay large sums of money to Sennacherib, and this is why the Assyrian king retreated back to his kingdom and spared the city.

Most of the reliefs in the Niniveh Palace room are partial, but the battle scenes they depict are still grandiose. Even more astounding are the reliefs in the Lachish room. One of the more interesting reliefs shows prisoners of war being brought before Sennacherib, who is sat on a throne and sentences some of them to death. Interestingly, the relief is almost intact and spans across an entire wall, but the king's face was deliberately defaced, probably after the end of his reign, when Nineveh fell in 612 BCE.

Now I need to visit the site at Nineveh, where apparently the Iraqi department of Antiquities did a fabulous job of preserving the excavated remains of Sennacherib's palace.