Chaotic Order (or Ordered Chaos?)

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The Passover Seder Plate

The word balagan has the dual benefit of being both a useful description of Israeli culture and a very fun word to say. Read the word a few times, and notice how smoothly it rolls off your tongue! Say it to Israeli taxi drivers, and they’ll flash you an appreciative smile that says, “Now you understand life here – welcome to Israel.”

Today, balagan is used in Israel to describe a messy and chaotic thing, person or state of affairs. As I learned in this Haaretz article, the word has its roots not in Hebrew but in Farsi. The Farsi word balakhaana means “balcony” or “external room”, and this word was modified and incorporated into Turkish and then Russian, in which the word balagan refers to an attic where comedic performances took place in the 18th century. Over time, the word was used to refer to the type of performance itself – joyful, lively, and disorderly. That theatrical description is applied to the drama of life in Israel.

Balagan can be seen on Israeli roads, which are full of reckless and impatient drivers. It’s there in the supermarkets, where queues are cut, items are misplaced, and old grandmothers hold up the line. I see it outside my apartment, where there is almost always a car parked on the sidewalk and construction work every Thursday night till 2 am. Parliament is fragmented, lessons are interrupted by (often irrelevant) questions and derailed by spontaneous discussions, and everyone has a different idea of what it means to be Jewish.

And yet, systems work, decisions are made, businesses function, and life goes on. Many times, the world’s greatest ideas and solutions emerge from this balagan, as seen in the latest $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye by Intel. As someone in my university recently explained to me, life in Israel is “ordered chaos”.

That got me thinking –  could it be called “chaotic order” instead? Is there a difference? I think there is. The first word – “ordered” or “chaotic” – is merely a descriptor of the essence captured by the second word – “chaos” or “order”.  So the term you choose depends on your perception of the essence of Israeli society – chaos or order.

Thus, I resort to the typical university answer: “It depends.”

In any case, there is one setting in which the term “chaotic order” is definitely more appropriate – the Israeli Passover Seder. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal that marks the beginning of Pesach, or Passover. The meal follows the haggadah, which is an established set of narratives, rituals, prayers and songs centred on the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The word seder itself means “order”. But the Israeli seder that I was fortunate to attend was anything but.

My professor was very generous to invite me to join her family for the Passover seder. I dressed nicely and prepared myself for polite conversation at the family dinner table. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a ballroom with nearly 200 people. It was actually a joint seder with many participating families, dozens of waiters, a pianist and a rabbi.

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All I’m missing are pe’ot, a shtreimel and a thick beard

As I sat at the table reserved for my professor’s family, I heard Hebrew, English and Russian in Israeli, American, British and Russian accents. I was fascinated by the diversity in just one family! Then I looked around the room and realised that I was overdressed as usual. In fact, there was no dress code at all. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans, some were in dresses, some had mini-skirts, and some were in shorts. But at least one person was dressed as nicely as me – the rabbi.

The rabbi began recounting the story of the Exodus and exhorting others to participate in the night’s prayers, songs and rituals. There was some degree of compliance for about ten minutes, after which things naturally slipped into a state of balagan. People were walking around and chatting, kids were crying, the family patriarchs were dozing off, the matzah was uncovered early, and some started eating the gefilte fish. The noise level was kept in check by the occasional shush, and the rabbi soldiered on.

At the table, someone whipped out his phone and started chatting with a friend. The artist of the family worked on a pencil sketch of his relative. Someone else complained about the rabbi using the word “goy” in the haggadah, calling it offensive and outdated. Another man pointed out that the rabbi had thrown in the towel and skipped a few pages in the haggadah. “The same thing happens every year!” he chuckled.

The noise eventually died down as dinner was served. During my dinner conversation, I learned that I was seated at the same table as a top Google executive, a commander in the IDF’s elite intelligence unit (8200), and the son of a famous Russian poet who was part of the intelligentsia rounded up by Stalin. (This doesn’t really have anything to do with balagan, but it was too awesome to leave out of the story.)

Halfway through the meal, the singing started. The pianist played traditional Jewish Passover songs and the dinner guests sang heartily between bites. Some even decided to add percussion with their cutlery. The family closest to the stage obviously thought it was a music competition, and they belted out the songs with great gusto. At some point, the overenthusiastic family stole the microphone and changed both the song and the key. The pianist tried frantically to follow along but eventually gave up and stared angrily at them. Eventually, the singing died down, dessert was consumed, and families started shuffling out of the ballroom.

What a night! It was one of the most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever attended, even though I often had no idea what was going on. There was no pretence, even in such an illustrious family. There was never a dull moment. And ironically, there was very little order. But I cherished the laughter, the spontaneity, and the balagan.

Accept, Reject, Don’t Ignore

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Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field, Bethlehem

Last week in Bethlehem, I tried to help two tourists who had just gotten off the bus from Jerusalem and were poring over a map of the city. It was quite obvious to me that these European girls had never been to Bethlehem before, and so I decided to point them in the right direction.

I approached them and asked if they were searching for the Church of the Nativity. But the girls completely ignored me and continued scrutinising their map. It took me a few seconds to realise that they thought I was a local taxi driver trying to fleece them.

“I’m a tourist like you. I’m also walking to the church,” I said. Again, complete silence. I walked off in disgust.

To some degree, I understand the girls’ behaviour. They had just been accosted by an army of taxi drivers and tour guides, and were feeling insecure in an unfamiliar environment. Also, even Arabs think I’m Arab, so it’s no surprise that these girls thought so too.

But at the very least, they could have replied with a polite but firm “No, thank you”. They didn’t even acknowledge my presence. It was quite a dehumanising experience.

Of course, I can easily brush this experience off. But hundreds of Palestinians experience this everyday. So do thousands of taxi drivers, tour guides, salesmen, advertisers, and beggars around the world. As much as possible, I’ve decided that no matter how annoyed or inconvenienced I am by such people on the streets, I will either accept or reject their offers, but will not ignore them.

A little empathy goes a long way.

Real Steel: Usumain Baraka

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I first heard the incredible story of Usumain’s perilous journey from Sudan to Israel on the same day that he tried to treat me to dinner.

I was almost moved to tears when I witnessed his warmth and generosity. A young man who came to Israel with nothing but the shirt on his back now wanted to pay for my meal.

Usumain’s graciousness is equalled by his drive and determination. He is a BA student in Government in IDC Herzliya, one of the top colleges in Israel. He aspires to work either in an international NGO or in a foreign embassy in Israel. But his big dream is to return to Sudan and help build relations between Israelis and Sudanese. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Sudan is ruled by an Islamist dictator and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. From Usumain’s report, anti-Semitism runs deep in the population – as a young boy, he was told by his uncle that Jews have devil’s horns on their head.

But Usumain is an optimist fuelled by aspiration. When he saw the name “Canada-Israel” prominently displayed on an office building in Herzliya Pituach, he turned to me and said, “One day, I will open an office with a big sign that says “Darfur-Israel”.


“Darfur” usually conjures bloodcurdling images of massacres and mayhem, but it is home for Usumain. He fled from the Darfur genocide in 2003 when his village was attacked by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. His father and older brother were killed by the militants, and the entire village was razed to the ground. He was only nine.

He miraculously escaped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, where he spent the next four years of his life with his mother and siblings. As he interacted with the UN workers, he picked up English and was inspired to leave the refugee camp to further his education. With childlike innocence and wisdom beyond his years, he promised his mother that he would “learn to be a leader without spilling any blood” and went off to Libya to study at the age of 13.

Although he benefited from the English lessons in the international school he attended in Libya, Usumain struggled tremendously since he was not granted refugee status. He eventually left for Egypt because he had heard that school fees were cheaper there. He travelled across the border with his friend who was barely a year older than him.

While in Cairo, the two boys went into hiding when they heard that there were Egyptian and Sudanese agents collaborating to arrest and deport Darfurians. While watching TV one day, they chanced upon a documentary about Israel on Al-Jazeera. For the first time in his life, Usumain learned about the Holocaust and the waves of Jewish refugees to Israel. It dawned on him that of all the countries he had passed through, none of them had ever experienced the horrors of genocide. Chad, Libya and Egypt have certainly been ravaged by internecine fighting and violent oppression, but not ethnic cleansing like in Darfur. Usumain thought that Israel would truly understand his plight. He decided to make his own Exodus from Egypt.

Usumain convinced his friend that brighter prospects awaited them in Israel. They managed to contact a Bedouin smuggler, who grouped the duo together with ten other refugees. The twelve refugees hid in the smuggler’s delivery truck, with nylon draped over them and boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads. The smuggler drove them through the Sinai and was stopped twice by the police. In one inspection, the policeman took an apple from the box atop Usumain’s head! He sat like a statue, and was not discovered.

After several nights of travelling under the cloak of darkness, the smuggler stopped a distance from the border and told the group that they were on their own. They approached the border with caution, crawling as they got closer. They were like the 12 spies of Israel, scouting out the Promised Land. But instead of the giants of Canaan, they faced armed Egyptian soldiers.

Every nerve-wracking step towards the border was possible only because fear was suppressed by desperation. But the mental strain was too much to bear for one member of the crew, who had a panic attack and started screaming uncontrollably. He was immediately shot by the Egyptian border guard.

All caution was abandoned. The remaining eleven ran to the border with all their might. In the frenzy, another refugee was shot and wounded, and his loyal friend refused to leave his side. Both were tragically killed by the Egyptians.

On the other side of the fence, Israeli soldiers prepared to receive the survivors, but could not fire back at the Egyptians. The soldiers instructed the refugees in Arabic to run towards them for safety. But they didn’t heed their call, because they hadn’t expected Israeli soldiers to speak Arabic and thought that they were still in Egypt. Ironically, the language that should have inspired trust in the soldiers served instead to arouse suspicion. At last, the refugees realised that the soldiers’ uniforms were different from the Egyptians, and they turned to them for help.


I stared at Usumain in disbelief as he recounted his harrowing brush with death. He was animated in his narration but seemed surprisingly calm. He paused for a while, allowing me to digest everything I had just heard.

“I’ve met good and bad people here in Israel,” he said, “just like in every other country.”

He recalled the moment when one of the Israeli soldiers at the border took off his own socks to help a barefooted refugee. That auspicious beginning was then overshadowed by the deceit of another soldier who collected the refugees’ money and valuables for “safekeeping”. They never saw their money or belongings again.

Usumain was transported with the other refugees to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, a detention centre for African asylum seekers. He spent 6 weeks there, during which he was referred to by number and not by name. When he was released at Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station, he was left completely alone as an unaccompanied minor who knew no Hebrew. The only Arabic he saw was the sign for the taxi stand, so he approached a driver, handed him the US dollars that he had hidden under his collar, and was on the road to Eilat.

Standing in the central bus station of Eilat, he saw an African man in the distance and ran headlong towards him. As it turned out, the man was Ghanaian but knew other Sudanese refugees that he could put Usumain in touch with. Through a series of miraculous connections, Usumain was enrolled in Yemin Orde, a boarding school on Mount Carmel for at-risk and immigrant youth. Not only did he study Hebrew in Ulpan, he had to study every subject in Hebrew too!

Grateful for the opportunity to study, Usumain believed that he needed to make an effort to integrate with the school population. In an impressive display of leadership and influence, he convinced his five other Sudanese friends that they should participate in religious services, even though they were not required to do so. He dressed like an Orthodox Jew with a kippah, white shirt and black trousers, read the Tanakh (Bible), and ate only kosher food.

Through grit and perseverance, Usumain excelled in his studies and qualified for university. But motivated by his desire to integrate, he volunteered to serve in the IDF. To his disappointment, he was rejected because he was not a citizen. He decided to further his education in university, and was accepted to the BA Government programme in IDC Herzliya.


Usumain came to Israel eight years ago believing that the country would identify with his experience and show him compassion as a refugee. Was he right?

Despite his harsh and terrifying stint in the detention centre, he was welcomed by an Israeli boarding school and his education was sponsored by the Israeli government. He developed strong friendships with Israelis and was assisted by NGOs and volunteers. He is now studying in a top-notch Israeli university with the support of Jewish philanthropists and netizens who donated to his Indiegogo campaign.

However, life is not all smooth-sailing for him. He has no passport or refugee status in Israel. All he has is a visa that has to be renewed every two months in Bnei Brak – a process which requires waiting in line for hours. He is also not permitted to work on his visa. Apparently, enforcement of this rule is ambiguous, but he has been rejected at multiple job interviews.

Worst of all, asylum seekers like Usumain are subject to interminable haranguing from right-wing politicians and religious leaders who tell them they do not belong to the Jewish nation. Miri Regev, for example, called African migrants a “cancer” to Israeli society. According to current policy, African asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally can be detained for a year without trial. As for refugee status, of the 3,165 asylum applications received between 2009 and 2015, only 5 were granted temporary residency. These policies are designed to encourage asylum seekers to accept government-assisted repatriation to Uganda or Rwanda.

Usumain knows all this. And yet, he keeps his chin up and smiles. He has been tested severely through his life, and has shown the famously resilient Israelis that he too is made of real steel.

Bureaucratic Spiderwebs

It’s been many months since I’ve written anything on this blog, but I’m going to try to revive it. After spending 2 weeks in the US, away from my notes and books and laptop in London, I’ve realised that I’ve lost sight of the fact that my university readings and essays do not represent the totality of my learning experience. Writing is also part of my learning process, and so I shall press on on WordPress 🙂

I want to begin the process of resurrecting my blog by recounting a personal battle with bureaucracy. Granted, it’s not the most exciting start, but it weighs heavy on my heart and I’m sure there are others with similar experiences. Upon attaining 21 years of age, every Singaporean who was born in another country and/or is a citizen of another country has one year to take an Oath of Renunciation, Allegiance and Loyalty, aka ORAL (another fine example of Singaporean abbreviations). This oath is necessary because Singapore does not allow dual citizenship. Before taking the oath, it is imperative that the young adult acquires an official letter from the government/embassy of the second country which states that he/she is no longer a citizen of that country. Without this letter, the applicant has no proof that he has renounced all other citizenships.

It didn’t sound like a big deal to me when I was told that I had to go through this process. After all, I’ve lived in Singapore all my life – everyone in my family is a Singapore citizen, I’ve gone through all 12 years of the Singapore education system, and I’ve started my National Service (yah I know I haven’t finished it, but I will eventually!). I was born in India, but my allegiance is to Singapore, so I’ll gladly take the oath!

So why haven’t I taken the oath yet? Because I don’t have a letter of renunciation of my Indian citizenship. When I turned 21 in January 2014, I diligently surrendered my Indian passport to the Indian High Commission in London, only to be slapped with a 300+ GBP fine for “renewing an Indian passport after attaining foreign (Singapore) citizenship” back in 1998. I tried to explain that the Indian passport was issued to me by the Indian High Commission in Singapore back in 1998 after cancelling my first Indian passport (the staff claimed then that I could hold both Singaporean and Indian passports until I turned 21 and issued me another passport without my parents applying for one), but since I can’t prove what happened 16 years ago, my case fell flat. I tried to appeal to their better senses, claiming that I had no idea that I had broken the law and that I had never travelled on that Indian passport anyway, but they stonewalled me and demanded that I pay the fine. I tried everything short of a hunger fast outside the Indian embassy, but to no avail. I’m being penalised for trying to do the right thing.

To make matters worse, the staff at the Singapore Embassy in London informed me that I cannot proceed with the ORAL even though my Indian passport is impounded at the Indian High Commission, because I don’t have a letter of renunciation of Indian citizenship. And even if I pay that exorbitant fine, I will only get a letter from the Indian High Commission stating that I have officially surrendered my Indian passport, which is still insufficient for the Singapore government, because surrendering my Indian passport is not equivalent to surrendering my Indian citizenship. That means that I wasted my time trying to surrender my Indian passport! According to Section 9 of the Indian Citizenship Act 1955, any citizen of India (including minors) who acquires the citizenship of another country ceases to be a citizen of India. So technically, I haven’t been a citizen of India since 1998! But I can’t prove this without an official letter from the Indian government, which is technically not obliged to help me.

The situation is not hopeless though – I’ll get that doggone letter of renunciation eventually. Other Singaporean citizens who were previously Indian citizens have slain this dragon of bureaucracy. Anyway, I have no choice – if I don’t take the ORAL by the time I turn 22, I’ll lose my Singapore citizenship. I’m sure my bureaucratic tangle pales in comparison to other people’s problems, but it’s quite discomfiting to have the spectre of losing my citizenship looming over my head.

I know that this isn’t a personal attack on me, and that the ORAL is needed to ensure that Singapore’s “no dual citizenship” policy is enforced, but this entire process has made me feel like a small cog in two bureaucratic machines. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for many others – a timely reminder to me that the public service is meant to serve people, not documents, statistics or identity numbers.

I’m going to do a bit of research about Singapore’s citizenship laws – after my experience, I’m convinced that it may be time to rethink some of these policies. I’m not just referring to the ORAL – how about the official age at which a dual citizen needs to choose between citizenships? I have a friend with Malaysian and Singaporean citizenship who has lived in Malaysia all his life but returned to Singapore at the age of 18 to serve in the military. At the age of 21, he now wants to renounce his Singaporean citizenship and live in Malaysia – something he has always wanted to do. Couldn’t he have done that before National Service? Nope, because he’s only allowed to renounce his Singaporean citizenship at the age of 21, and if he decided not to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces at the age of 18, he wouldn’t be allowed to set foot in Singapore ever again. Of course, bringing the “age of renunciation” down from 21 to 18 might encourage more dual citizens to give up their Singaporean citizenship before NS, but what allegiance would such individuals have to Singapore anyway? And if we’re worried about the reduction in troop forces as a result of this policy change, well, my friend is no longer a part of the SAF anyway…

I realise that I may be oversimplifying this issue, but I shall conduct my research soon. In the meantime, I hope to continue writing about other thoughts and experiences 🙂