Poverty Tourism and a Refusal to Question Worldviews

I was in India this past Christmas and New Year’s, visiting family. I was there for about three weeks, and while there, I noticed something that bothered me.

It started when my mom’s friend mentioned that her son had come back from school in Australia for the holidays. A couple of this guy’s friends – white and Australian – came to visit him as well, and when my mom’s friend asked if there was anything they wanted to see in Mumbai, they answered with Dharavi. Which happens to be the largest slum in India. A few days after I heard that story, I noticed a taxi with a sign advertising “Slum Tours”.

People take a sick pleasure in observing other people’s suffering. This is unashamed exploitation of the poor and homeless, and thousands of people being seen as nothing more than a form of entertainment. And travelling to a foreign country only to go to a deeply impoverished neighbourhood and gawk at the people living there a way of pretending that there’s no such thing as poverty in the West and a way of refusing to look at the whole picture of a place that’s often inaccurately represented.

India is a huge country, with a billion people, a very long history, and so much diversity in culture and language. It’s absolutely not all homeless people and poverty. There’s so, so much to see, but there are tourists that don’t seem to want to see any of it, and instead seem to be intentionally avoiding anything that challenges their existing perspective of what the country is like.

And yes! Of course it’s important to not bury your head in the sand. It’s important to not sanitize and gloss over the unpleasant things. But poverty, disease, and crime is what most people in the West see when it comes to just about any developing country, not just India.There’s more to all of these places than that.

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The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine

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This book was beautifully written. Miko Peled, son of General Matti Peled, tells the story of how he began to question the worldviews he’d grown up with and how he became a peace activist.

So often, the Middle East is viewed as black and white. You support one side of the Arab Israeli conflict or you support the other. This book takes a different perspective, instead focusing upon how beyond the military and the violence, Israel and Palestine are made up of two peoples that love a common homeland. It’s a beautiful simplicity at the heart of a complicated, painful issue.

Perhaps the main points Peled makes aren’t particularly sophisticated – the essence of the book boils down to, we’re all people. But what makes this more interesting, more appealing, than so many other books that present the same basic point is how it goes into the specifics of the inequality that exists in ways that aren’t often addressed – how Nader got hassled at the border. How he, as an Israeli in the United States, felt more at home among the Palestinians he met than the American Jews. How the proposed “land swaps” would be inherently unfair, and how with a two state solution, the issue of the Palestinian refugees will never be resolved.

It’s a deeply emotional plea, and more personal than anything else I’ve ever read on the issue. It comes from a person that clearly cares deeply about the issue, someone that values peace.

Something I find fascinating is the conclusion Peled comes to in the middle of the book – that the only hope for peace was no longer a two state solution, but “a complete removal of all the barriers between Israelis and Palestinians”. It’s interesting to me because the person that first comes to mind when I think of this perspective is Reuven Rivlin, a man that I’m never quite sure what to make of. And while instinctively, when Rivlin pushes for a one state solution, I want to say that it’s not a good solution, a right one, I don’t think that impulse is entirely based on fact.

I think it’s based on my dislike of the Likud party and my distrust of Netanyahu. The fact that Rivlin is aligned with them makes me skeptical of him, and makes me instinctively doubt his intentions. I have a hard time reconciling the actions of the current Israeli government with Rivlin’s personal actions to achieve equal treatment for Palestinian-Israelis. I do believe that he wants what’s best for the people of both Israel and Palestine. And yet, as a liberal, I find it difficult to trust that his party cares about creating one state where all the people of the region can live in peace.

This book is very persuasive in that regard. The one state solution, as I so often see it, is something that’s almost inevitable at this point that will be achieved through Israel’s continued settlements and the suppression of Palestinian rights. However, Peled regards it as the only way to ensure equality – a binational state, after all, will be the only way for all the people forced to leave to be able to return. He presents a rational, logical argument that manages to make the idea of one secular, democratic state, as difficult as it will be to achieve, sound perfectly simple and reasonable.

There are times when the book seems disjointed – Peled jumps around a lot in regards to chronology, which would be fine if he had at least had clear divisions by theme, but he didn’t. There is also a lot of material crammed into a short book. It feels a little rushed, when I’d have enjoyed reading Peled go into more depth on some of the issues. On the whole, the book could have done with better editing, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.