Namena-Soft-Corals-10

. . .
EPIGRAPH

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.

~ George Bernard Shaw

. . .
CHAPTER ONE

Something sparkled among the corals.

Lauren lifted her head to see if anyone else might be searching for something. But the others were paddling along placidly, their snorkels angling out from their heads like tiny smokestacks. She pushed her dark hair out of her face, took a deep breath, and dove to get a closer look.

Her eyes widened when she saw what it was. She looked left and right, almost guiltily, before gently pulling it free from the protrusion of coral it was caught on.

Back at the surface she watched the others, waiting for one of the women would exclaim at the realization of her loss. But even after the whole group had climbed back onto the boat, no one made any mention of losing an expensive piece of jewelry.

Finally Lauren cleared her throat: “Did any of you lose anything while you were snorkeling?” The other tourists looked at Lauren, then at each other, and shrugged. She noticed no woman checked her wrist.

“Why, did you find something?” asked the boat operator.

Lauren opened her mouth to tell the truth, then quickly changed her mind. “I thought I saw something while I was snorkeling,” she said. “But I guess it must have been nothing.”

“Hm.” The boat operator lost interest, and Lauren felt relieved. She knew she should probably relinquish it to a lost and found. But which one? There were dozens of hotels along this Turks and Caicos beachfront spewing thousands of tourists into the coral gardens every day. And if she made a general announcement about a find so valuable, dozens of people might claim it. How would she know who was telling the truth?

Besides, who went snorkeling wearing a diamond bracelet? Maybe someone rich enough not to miss one…

When Lauren reached her hotel lobby, she asked the manager, a dapper Cuban, if anyone had come looking for a piece of jewelry. “No, senorita,” he said. She tried several more hotels, but the only hit she got was for an engagement ring that had been thrown into the surf after a man got so blind drunk, he accidentally proposed to a passing cocktail waitress instead of to his girlfriend.

By the time Lauren was scheduled to catch her flight back to New York, no one had come forward. She slowly began to think of the bracelet as her own, but she didn’t quite dare put it on until she was on the plane.

The bracelet was of a delicate design, its silvery metal flawless, twisted into a simple pattern like two vines entwining. In the space between each twist, five small diamonds were set in a row, with the largest in the center. Lauren marveled at the way it caught even the dull airplane lights and refracted them into glittering brilliance.

As she slipped it around her wrist, the ends came together as if joined by strong magnets. It fit perfectly. She smiled. At least there was this bit of luck. She sighed and sank back into her seat, dreading what awaited her at home.

* * *

New York’s Subways are a forlorn place, Lauren thought glumly as she rode the A-Train from JFK Airport to her tiny apartment in Washington Heights, north of Harlem. It wasn’t just that the Subways were such a rat-hole compared to the palatial Metros of Moscow, the clean, efficient lines of Paris, or the charming trams of Istanbul. The people here also seemed depressed, with broken dreams and resignation written on their faces. Lauren scowled at the profiles of men in suits more expensive than the neighborhoods they were rumbling toward.
Fakers, she thought darkly. But she was the one who felt like a failure.

She’d been in New York a year now, working temp jobs to pay the bills while she tried to jumpstart her writing career. From an early age she’d wanted to be a writer, in the way kids want to be astronauts or ballerinas or professional basketball players. Soon enough she realized it wasn’t practical and decided to become an electrical engineer instead.

But when it came time to apply for the positions she was qualified for — most of which required at least fifty hours in an office fifty weeks per year — something pressed against her chest and made it difficult to breathe. Not sure what else to do, she decided to take a “gap year,” European style. She worked for nine months at a research lab and saved every penny, enough for a year of budget travel.

Her meandering journey began in France and Italy, where she met fellow travelers who told stories of destinations she had never even thought of. Her curiosity piqued, she continued on to places like Bosnia, the Caucasus, and Morocco. She started writing freelance articles to pay her way, and it rekindled her love of writing. In between assignments, she wrote a book called Balkan Bruise about her experiences and how they had changed her sheltered American views. As she was writing it, she knew she had found her calling.

She signed with an agent who quickly sold her book to a major publisher for a twenty-thousand-dollar advance — enough for two more years of carefully-budgeted travel, this time in the Middle East. She felt like she was living the dream. She had carved her own path and made it viable, and she saw no reason why she couldn’t keep doing it indefinitely, building her reputation and career as she went.

Unfortunately, by the time she finished writing her second book, The Silver Olive Tree — which she thought much better than her first — Balkan Bruise had barely sold 5,000 copies. Her publisher passed on her new book without even reading it. After a year of trying other publishers, her agent gave up. So Lauren moved to New York and threw herself into networking, attending literary conferences, and doing everything she could think of to try to get the new book published.

After a solid year, she hadn’t made any real progress. And it seemed stupid to write a third book when her first two had failed.

So, after ten years of following her dreams, it seemed they had crashed and burned and skidded to an unceremonious halt. It was summer now, and she would turn thirty-three in the fall. Her young, promising years were behind her, and they hadn’t amounted to anything. Her horizons, which had once seemed so wide, now felt crushingly narrow. She was nauseated at the thought of facing all the people who had rolled their eyes when she’d decided to delay the start of her ‘serious adult life’ to go rambling and scribbling across the globe. Because her worst fear had been realized.

They had all been proven right.

* * *

The brief Caribbean escape did little to ease the bitter transition from ‘working temp jobs to pursue a dream’ to ‘unemployed.’ She started avoiding people, staying home hunched over her laptop, tapping feverishly, going in futile circles from one job search site to another, not even wanting any of the jobs she was applying for. She began to hate life even more profoundly than she had feared.

She glanced up at her wall one evening, to a spot where she had taped several inspirational quotes. One read: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Theodore Roosevelt.

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “You were a President of the United States. Immortalized in history. I worked so hard on two books — that’s more books than most people write in their entire lives — and what was the reward? Having to start life over at age thirty-two with no money, no transferable skills, no meaningful connections…”

She sank back in her tattered second-hand office chair and closed her laptop in frustration. Her roommate Sara heard the slam from the kitchen and laughed.

“Maybe you should think about a job in construction.”

Lauren sighed. It was another Friday night in. Sara was a waitress and aspiring actress, a Lebanese-American with black ringlets, gorgeous pale olive skin, and enormous blue eyes. Lauren thought it would be a waste if Sara’s face was never on a movie poster. But for now she was almost as broke and exhausted as Lauren. Sometimes Sara came home late at night after a 15-hour double shift and collapsed into bed, only to get up early the next morning and do it again.

Lauren was starving but not in the mood for any more pasta or beans and rice or any of the other cheap staples they lived on (except when Sara, lucky girl that she was, got to eat the fancy leftovers at her Asian fusion restaurant).

Lauren said out loud, without thinking, “I wish we had a tiramisu in the fridge. Like the one I had at that little café in northwestern Italy. It was so humble, a mess of ingredients in a thick glass bowl. It looked terrible, actually. But then I bit into the first spoonful, and it was like… I can’t even describe it. Like eating love. The mascarpone cheese was probably made in the hills behind the village. I’m sure the waiter’s grandmother sifted the cocoa by hand.” Lauren sighed deeply. “There’s just nothing like that around here.”

Sara gasped. “Lauren! Where did you get this?”

“What?”

“Did you make it?”

“What are you talking about?”

Sara marched into Lauren’s room. “Don’t play dumb. It looks amazing! You’re going to share, right?”

“What looks amazing?”

Sara rolled her eyes. “The giant dessert in our refrigerator. The one you were just describing.”

Lauren blinked. She thought for a moment that Sara must be playing a trick on her. But she didn’t remember Sara being that good an actress.

Perplexed but curious, she followed Sara into the kitchen. Sure enough, in the middle shelf of their refrigerator sat a jumbo-sized version of the tiramisu she had enjoyed so thoroughly in the Cinque Terre.

The hairs on the back of Lauren’s neck stood up. She looked at Sara, her mouth agape. Sara rolled her eyes again and shifted on her feet impatiently. Apparently Sara thought Lauren was the one who was acting.

“Come on, give it up,” she said, pulling it out of the fridge. “Get some spoons, I’m starving!” Lauren numbly did as she was told. “Seriously, when did you make this?” Before Lauren could answer, Sara took a bite directly from the bowl. “Oh my God!” Her eyes fluttered in rapture. “This is, like, the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth.”

Lauren dipped her spoon into the cool, creamy layers and brought it to her lips. It tasted exactly as she remembered. For a moment she was transported back to the carefree time when her only concerns were food, shelter, new friends, and beautiful views. She’d felt so free and strong and surprised, fighting her blindness and ego, a young force surrounded by teachers and unspeakable beauty and hard lessons and figs and clementines and the brilliant, terrifying abyss of consciousness without framework, of life without the usual limits… and then finding an Internet café to write about it all.

Her eyes stung with renewed sadness and shame. Somehow she had let it all slip away, replaced by a creeping deadness she couldn’t seem to shake.

Sensing Lauren’s mood, Sara stopped asking questions and quietly helped herself to a generous plateful of the tiramisu. Lauren filled a plate of her own and went back to her tiny room to try to figure out what the hell had just happened.

After going around and around with it in her head, she finally gave up, took the bracelet off, put it in the jewelry box on her desk, dropped off to sleep and dreamed of sweet, creamy puzzles with no sane solutions.

* * *

When she woke up the next morning, her thoughts flew immediately to the mysterious dessert from the night before. She walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. It was still there.

“OK,” she said aloud. “Now I’d really like some eggs Benedict.”

She waited. Looked around. “Damn,” she said. “I guess my fairy godmother only gave me one wish.”

She closed the fridge, made some instant apple cinnamon oatmeal and Earl Grey tea, and shuffled back to her room. When she had finished her meager breakfast and scraped every last gooey drop out of the bowl, she picked up her cell phone to call her mom in Kansas.

“Hi, hon, how was your trip?”

“It was great.” Lauren sighed. “Really nice.”

“You don’t sound like you just got back from the Caribbean.”

“Well, it was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t even want to think about my next credit card bill, especially when I have no idea when I’m going to see another paycheck.”

“It’s just money. You’ll figure it out. If I could raise two girls on my own…”

“I know, I know. That’s not really it. I also decided to give up on publishing my book. And on being a writer. I’m done.”

There was a silence on the line. “I’m sorry. You know I’d help if I could…”

“I know. I’ll be OK. Just gotta get a job like everyone else, right? It’s not like I’m sick or starving, just…”

“I know. It’s hard. I wanted to be an actress until I met your father.”

Lauren winced. Her mom’s acting dreams had withered after she’d accidentally gotten pregnant at age twenty — with Lauren. She knew her mom was trying to empathize, but it only made her feel worse.

They changed the subject and chatted for a while until Lauren said, “Anyway, I’ve gotta go. There’s a party tonight, kind of. Some ritzy college reunion type thing. Who knows, I might meet my future boss there.”

Lauren could almost hear her mother’s smirk on the other end of the line. “Good luck with that.”

* * *

The party was basically Lauren’s idea of hell. But it was a good opportunity to get out of her bathrobe and see how the other half lived. Most of her college classmates in New York were working in conventional fields making good money, and this was a chance to get a feel for what it might be like to join them.

She let her hair dry in large curlers, which made her slightly wavy hair more orderly than usual. She put on a little black dress she’d bought at Goodwill ten years earlier, dabbed her face with powder, brushed on some eyeliner, and finished with shiny lipgloss. She wore lightly scuffed black ballet flats, turquoise drop earrings, and her diamond bracelet — the only item she owned that seemed like a real fit for the occasion.

The party was at a private residence on Central Park West. The doorman pointed her to a gilded elevator, which carried her up fourteen floors and opened into a spacious apartment with a wall of windows overlooking the green trees of Central Park. The couches were cream-colored, the rugs lush with patterns of cream and beige, and expensive-looking abstract paintings hung on the walls.

Bracing herself, she walked toward what looked like a promising group and tried to join the conversation. Everyone looked a little too polished, the smiles on their faces too rehearsed. She knew everyone was here for the same reason: not to enjoy themselves or make friends but to “network,” to try to expand their reach into the upper crust of New York, to feel they belonged to something exclusive. She hated herself for being one of them and desperately wished she were smoking hookahs on a rooftop somewhere in the Mediterranean with people who couldn’t care less about anyone’s status or job title.

“Lauren!” she heard from the direction of the elevator. She turned around and saw Anna, her freshman year roommate. Vivacious and blonde, she was totally at ease at these types of gatherings. But underneath it all she was thoughtful and kind. Lauren wondered how many other people in the room were similarly thoughtful and kind if you got to know them.

“Hi Anna,” Lauren said, relieved to see a familiar face.

“Where’s the wine?”

Lauren laughed. “Good question.” They walked together to the dining room, where bottles of Chardonnay were lined up next to bottles of Zinfandel. Behind them lay an impressive spread of appetizers.

“Great,” Lauren said, grabbing a bottle of Zin. “The only two kinds of wine I don’t like. I wish they had just one bottle of Cabernet.”

“That’s a Cab, isn’t it?” Anna asked.

Lauren looked at the bottle in her hands. It was a Cabernet. Chilean. Her favorite. Lauren’s scalp prickled unnervingly. It had been a Zinfandel when she picked it up, she was sure.

“Lucky you,” Anna continued. “I wish they had a Riesling, but oh well.”

“I… also wish they had a Riesling,” Lauren said hesitantly.

Anna raised an eyebrow. “Double-fisting tonight?”

“No, I wish they had it for you.”

“Well, I… Oh.”

“What?”

Anna was looking in confusion at the line-up of Chardonnay. One stood out. Its profile was taller and slimmer, and its label was different. Looking more closely, both could see it was a Riesling.

“What the hell?” Anna asked. “I thought this was all Chardonnay.”

“I did, too,” Lauren said, frozen in place.

“That’s weird.”

“Very weird,” Lauren agreed.

They were silent for a moment. Finally Anna said, “Oh well. Can’t argue with wine, I guess.” She shrugged and picked up a corkscrew.

“Guess not,” said Lauren lightly, but her stomach and mind were churning.

She soon made an excuse and went home, changed into pajama pants and a t-shirt, and sat on her bed as thoughts slowly percolated through her mind. That’s three times now that I’ve wanted something — the tiramisu and the two bottles of wine — and what I wanted seemed to appear from thin air. She shook her head. Either someone was playing a bizarre prank on her, or she was having severe mental lapses… or something embarrassingly irrational was going on.

“Well, let’s try it again,” she said aloud, feeling game but very silly. “I wish for a cappuccino, right here on my desk.”

A foamy mug appeared on a coaster next to her laptop.

Lauren’s breath stopped. She glanced toward the door, then back at the innocently steaming coffee drink. She blinked several times and squinted her eyes, hoping it would disappear again. But she could smell it, too. Cautiously, she reached out and touched it. Hot and solid. She drew her hand back and stared at it warily, as if it were a wild animal that might attack if she made the wrong move. What the hell is going on? she thought, fighting rising panic. Have I lost my mind? Is it a hallucination? Schizophrenia? A brain tumor?

There was a sudden knock on the door followed by Sara striding into the room.

“I thought I smelled coffee,” she said, walking to the desk and taking a rapturous whiff of the cappuccino. “Mmm, it’s the good stuff. You didn’t bring me one did you— Hey, what’s wrong?”

She must have noticed the terrified, confused, deer-in-headlights look on Lauren’s face. Lauren slowly looked at her with haunted eyes.

“What is it, honey?” Sara asked fearfully. “Did someone…”

Lauren shook her head. “No… no…” she said with difficulty. “But you can…” She stopped herself. She was going to point to the cappuccino and say, “You can see this?” But that would have sounded insane, whether she could see it or not. In any case, Sara had made it clear that she had seen it.

Lauren suddenly felt exhausted. She just wished Sara would leave. “It’s fine, I’m just… depressed. Still getting used to giving up the dream, I guess.”

“Mmm,” Sara said, seeming relieved and reaching over to rub her shoulder sympathetically. “Anything I can do?”

“Just let me drown my sorrows in coffee for a while.”

“I can do that. Let me know if you want to talk later, OK?”

“Thanks, Sara.”

Alone again, Lauren stared into space, her heart pounding in her chest. As her mind raced, a feeling was surging behind her lingering fear, softly at first, far in the background. But slowly it seeped forward until it dominated her emotional field of vision: a warm thrill of excitement, of deliverance. Feeling dangerously unhinged, she said aloud, “Now I wish for a wool carpet.”

A circular cornflower blue rug appeared on her cracked hardwood floor with a design of concentric aquamarine curlicues, big enough to cover most of the bare floor space. She flinched away from it and tried to get her ragged breathing under control. Holy shit.

“And a silk robe,” she went on unsteadily. A lavender robe with pale blue piping materialized on the bed next to her. She slipped it on cautiously. The fabric was cool and supple. A pang in her stomach reminded her how hungry she was. “And some French toast?” The food appeared as requested, along with silverware and a cloth napkin. She sat at her desk, folded the napkin across in her lap, and took a bite. It was piping hot, not too sweet, and soft on the inside, just the way she liked it. Jesus Christ, she thought shakily. Either I’ve completely lost touch with reality, or—

“Anyway,” Sara said, bursting into the room again, “you can always write, you know, even if you—” She stopped, looked at the rug, then the robe, then the food. “What the…”

Lauren froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. Shit.

“Where did you get this stuff? I was just here, it was…” Sara looked as confused as Lauren had been a few minutes ago, trying to do a calculation that didn’t add up.

“I just got these out, they were in the closet,” Lauren said quickly, indicating the robe and the rug, “and I got the French toast from the diner across the street. It was in a to-go box. Sorry, I didn’t want to share. But I can go and get you some after I finish this.” She tried to look contrite.

Sara didn’t seem convinced. After a pause she said, “Looks like a pricey rug. Do we have a sugar daddy I need to know about?”

Lauren laughed. “No, it was a gift from… my uncle. He sent it to me for… an early birthday present?” She resisted the urge to cringe. She’d never been good at lying. Then she had an idea. She closed her eyes. I wish Sara would go away and forget about the things she saw here. She opened her eyes. Sara was still standing in the doorway staring at her in increasing incredulity. “Your birthday’s not for three months, hon.”

“Look,” Lauren said, “can I ask you a big favor? As a friend?”

Sara sighed. “What?”

“Don’t ask any more questions today. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. OK?”

Sara narrowed her eyes. “All right, fine. Tomorrow. Promise?”

“Promise.”

But Lauren knew it was a promise she probably wouldn’t keep.

# # #

I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. As you can see, The Bracelet is a lightly paranormal adventure, and it will soon take Lauren all over the world and, eventually, into federal prison. (More on that in Chapter 8.)

The book is, at heart, a meditation on the freedom we have as humans and the boxes we tend to put around ourselves to keep us from realizing that freedom. It’s a spirited journey, and I look forward to sharing it when it’s done.

Meanwhile, I’m raising money to help a friend in Palestine survive and continue important work for children, the disabled, and the traumatized in her community. “Perks” are offered for various levels of contributions (starting at $5), and anyone who contributes from now on will receive instant access to Chapter Two of the novel on request.

Click here to learn more.

Thanks so much for anything you can chip in! FYI, these are the kids you’ll be helping. :)

Rania1a

tree_corals

My book was just published in Turkish as Duvardakiler, or “People of the Wall.” My Turkish publicist scored me extensive interviews in three major Turkish newspapers. The first was with Aksam. You can read it online here, but of course it’s in Turkish. The English version is below.

Can you tell us about yourself? Who is Pamela J. Olson? What kind of a life does she have in the USA?

I am from a small town in Oklahoma, a relatively conservative and isolated place in the middle of the US. I didn’t know much about the world growing up. The first time I met a foreign person (a German), I was in college.

But I read a lot of books, and by the time I got to college I really wanted to learn more. I studied mostly physics but also philosophy, history, anthropology, and the Russian and Chinese languages, and I traveled to Russia to study abroad. I realized I had a passion for travel, politics, and writing.

After ten years of traveling, learning, writing, and working various jobs in Palestine, Washington, DC, and New York City, I’m back in Oklahoma (at least for the next few years) living with my Turkish husband, Ahmed. We met while playing soccer in a park in New York City.

You lived 2 years in Ramallah. What were the emotions that brought you from America to Ramallah? Why did you leave the comfortable life in America and go to a land where death was everywhere?

My first trip abroad was to Russia. I had a nasty stereotypical view of Russians growing up because they were always the “bad guys” in our movies. But I found Russians themselves just as human as anyone else, fascinating and funny and mostly very kind. I realized if I was so wrong about Russia, I might also be wrong about other places and peoples.

In 2003, when I was saving money to travel again after college, the United States was getting ready to invade Iraq. I knew nothing about the Middle East, but I had a feeling my government was hiding things, because the propaganda sounded ridiculous. It didn’t seem logical that millions of human beings “hated us for our freedom.” I wanted to go to the Middle East to find out the truth for myself. It helped that I had Lebanese friends who talked about Lebanon like it was the most beautiful place on earth.

I went to Egypt first because another friend wanted to meet me there for his summer vacation. After he left, I was in Jordan on my way to Lebanon when I met some people who had been to Palestine and told me about the occupation. The things they told me sounded unbelievable—and they also said the United States government was paying Israel $3 billion per year—so I wanted to find out if they were true.

Of course, things were worse. It’s almost impossible to describe what Palestinians have to go through just in everyday life, not to mention during escalations of violence. But to be honest, even more surprising was how amazing Palestine was in so many ways. People were so open and kind and hospitable and funny and intelligent. More than half the people I met spoke English, even in small villages. Somehow I felt at home. I still think of it as a second home, and I miss it all the time.

It was a place where I could meet amazing people, live in a beautiful land, learn about fascinating things, and do meaningful work. What more could I ask for?

Can you tell us about the Pamela before and after Ramallah? What did this journey teach you about life? Because in the acknowledgements chapter you said: “You taught an egocentric and presumptuous American what is to be a good person.”

There is nothing more humbling than meeting people who live under bombs that your government pays for, expecting to find extremism and hatred, and instead finding some of the kindest and most interesting people you ever hope to meet.

Extremism does exist, of course, but after seeing and feeling what Palestinians go through every day, you honestly expect the whole population to have gone crazy. Yet the vast majority are doing everything they can not only to keep their humanity intact but also to welcome outsiders and strive toward life and freedom despite terrible odds. I have never felt more welcome anywhere else in the world, and I have never felt more humbled and inspired by people. Palestinians showed me there is more potential in human nature than I ever realized.

You have said that in this hectic world, you found a kind of peace in Palestine. How did you find peace among all that poverty, suppression and atrocity?

Palestinians may be poor in possessions, but many are rich in spirit, kindness, education (which is very important to Palestinians), family, love of land, and belief in justice — if not now, then in the time of their children or grandchildren. They call it sumoud — steadfastness.

If they can have this patience and endure these hardships and still maintain their humanity and believe a better world is possible (and work toward it, tirelessly, in a million ways that we mostly never hear about), I feel like I have no excuse not to at least try to follow their example.

Palestinians are also amazing in the ways they enjoy their time even in the most difficult days. There’s a picture, for example, of women in Gaza making special Ramadan Eid pastries at a UN shelter even as bombs were dropping around them. It touched me very deeply. It’s a lesson that if you’re not enjoying your time, if you’re not maintaining what brings joy to you and others, everything else is meaningless. And it’s a reminder that life strives to exist and thrive, even when outside forces try to destroy it.

But still, Palestinians shouldn’t be asked to endure so many hardships. We can’t abandon them to it. We have to do what we can.

What was your motivation to write “Fast Times in Palestine”? What made you write this book?

When I came back to the US after living in Palestine, I tried to tell people about my experiences, and no one wanted to listen. They said I had somehow been brainwashed by the Palestinians, even though I was talking about things I had experienced personally. Many people in the US have a certain vision of the Middle East based on the media, and when you imply that everything they believe is wrong, it tends to make them upset.

I moved to Washington, DC, to try to speak with think tanks and policymakers about what I had learned in Palestine and how supporting Israel’s policies, even when they are brutal or illegal, is bad for America’s standing in the world, bad for our security, and morally wrong.

While some individuals were willing to listen, institutions tended to be systematically pro-Israel, largely due to the Israel lobby. After a year of being constantly frustrated, I decided to stop trying to change things “from the top down.” Instead, I decided to try to change things “from the bottom up,” which meant educating Americans and urging them to put pressure on their elected representatives to change. Most humans are good people, and that includes Americans. We just need the correct information told to us in a way we can digest and relate to.

So that was the idea of writing a book about Palestine. But not in the usual depressing journalistic way. Instead, I wrote it as a suspenseful, funny, even romantic coming-of-age narrative that, along the way, shows and tells about the Palestinians I met and what their life is like under Israeli occupation. Palestinians aren’t saints, by any means, but they also aren’t devils. They are humans, just as interesting and funny and full of dreams as anyone else. I wanted to show that side. I hope it will change some people’s minds and inspire them to learn more and become active in the struggle for justice.

What does “Fast Times in Palestine” tell? What will readers find?

In essence, it is the story of an American woman — rather average, though maybe more curious than usual — going out into the world to see what it’s really like. I could have ended up in Iraq or Kashmir or Tibet—there is no shortage of struggles all over the world—but I ended up in Palestine, where I found so much beauty, so many questions, so much horror. In the book I call it a “university of human nature.” I wanted to learn as deeply as I could. And I found, of course, that it’s bottomless. But ultimately, in the end, still hopeful despite it all.

I think a quote by Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who unfortunately was killed in the Holocaust, sums it up nicely: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

I like to think if she were alive today, she would be working for peace and equal rights for all.

How are other Americans’ perceptions of the Middle East formed through the Palestine issue? Are these perceptions correct? How do Americans understand things that happen there? Do you think they are sensitive enough?

Most Americans have lived all their lives in a secure and powerful country, so it can be hard for them to imagine what other people’s lives are like. Our military-industrial complex is powerful, and it has an interest in promoting conflicts that give it more power and money. As a result, it’s easier for a war-maker to come to power in the US than a peace-maker. Sadly, our news media often supports the government line on foreign policy instead of challenging it.

The Israel/Palestine situation is one of the most distorted issues in the American media. When I was living in Palestine, I would often see something happen in Ramallah, then go watch a report about it on CNN, and it would be nothing like what I had just seen. It often missed the point entirely. And unlike Al Jazeera, the American media never shows the casualties of air strikes in Baghdad or Gaza. So most Americans don’t understand the true realities of the conflicts in the Middle East, especially the ones we are involved in. Most Americans are also told that Israel is a democracy like us, with a Western style of life, while Palestinians are impoverished extremists who are nothing like us. Which makes it sadly easy to dehumanize Palestinians. And when your media dehumanizes people, it’s hard to be as sensitive as you should be about their suffering.

As far as we understood from the book, you were impressed by the traditions, hospitality and life there aside from the war. Can you share some of your memories that affected you most?

My favorite times in Palestine were the olive harvests. It’s such a wonderful occasion, with the entire West Bank gathering their families and going out to the land to work and talk and laugh and climb trees and have picnics. I wrote about olive harvests extensively in the book. Every single fall, if I’m not in Palestine, I feel sad that I’m missing the olive harvest.

I also fondly remember the Taybeh Octoberfest, a beer festival in a small Christian village near Ramallah. They have a brewery and make a delicious beer that is enjoyed in all the major Palestinian cities and even in some places in Israel. The festival always gathers Palestinians from all walks of life (they have a non-alcoholic beer for observant Muslims) as well as thousands of foreign tourists to get a taste of Palestine when it parties.

There are very interesting, very real characters in your book. What have these encounters added to your life? Are you still in contact with any of them?

The people I met in Palestine changed my life profoundly. I could only write about a fraction of the people I met, because I preferred to have a few well-rounded characters rather than a hundred less substantial ones. (This is a problem with Palestine writing in general—there are so many incredible stories to tell, there’s a natural urge to tell a million stories weakly rather than a few stories strongly. As a result, stories and characters that deeply humanize Palestinians tend to be rare.)

More than anything, their kindness affected me. When I came to Palestine, I was no one, just another American tourist asking annoying questions. But people took me in, explained things to me, fed me, sang to me, invited me to barbecues, told me jokes (and explained them if I didn’t understand), smoked hookahs with me, shared their lives and work and hopes and dreams and sorrows. I still get overwhelmed when I try to talk about it. Thank God now I can just say, “Read the book!”

I am in touch with most of the people in the book. Qais, the young man I had a sweet relationship with, is happily married with two beautiful children. Rania also has two lovely children, and we Skype every couple of weeks. On a recent book tour in Canada, I visited the Canadians I was with when we were held at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. I feel very lucky to know all these people.

What would you like to say about the role of the West, as a Westerner who lived in the region for 2 years?

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of World War I was a colonial power grab by the British and French, with much of the Middle East carved up in the interest of “dividing and conquering” rather than making life better for the people who lived there. Many sectarian conflicts today were born from that legacy, including the Palestine/Israel conflict, which arose when European Zionists interpreted Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 as permission to begin building a state in Palestine that would be dominated by European Jews. I believe Jewish people deserve a home and safety as much as anyone else. But no people would accept to be kicked out of their own homes and land by outsiders to solve a problem they had nothing to do with. That’s the root cause of this conflict.

Unfortunately, the West has continued meddling since then, usually in destructive ways. In 1953, British and American forces overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government of Iran when he tried to nationalize Iran’s oil. This led eventually to the revolution in 1979. The US funded Iraq during its war with Iran, which prolonged a bloody conflict and cost tens of thousands of lives, then later sanctioned Iraq, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, an act of collective punishment. The 2003 war in Iraq was a brutal series of embarrassing blunders based on lies. It still shocks me to think my own people are capable of such barbarity and stupidity. Many Americans are very ashamed of that war. All Americans should be.

And for decades the United States has supported almost everything Israel has done, no matter how wrong, which caused Israel to become more belligerent, stealing more land and punishing innocent people, helping create more extremism in the region and beyond. This is not good for the Israeli or Palestinian people, in my opinion, or for Americans.

In short, I’m deeply embarrassed by the role Western governments have played in the region overall. But there are many good-hearted people in America and Europe, and I hope more Westerners will learn about the region in a truthful way and pressure their representatives to have a more productive role that treats all lives as equally valuable.

Do you have any message that you would like to give to common citizens in the West?

The world is, in general, so much nicer and less scary than we’ve been led to believe.

Funny story: When my husband Ahmed was in New York, his sister in Istanbul read a story about an anti-Muslim hate crime in New York and called her brother, worried. He told her not to worry—crimes happened, but they were very rare. When I went to Istanbul later, my mom heard about cross-border violence between Turkey and Syria and called me, worried. I told her not to worry—the Syrian border was hundreds of miles away and no threat to me at all.

There are people doing bad things in the world, but they are far less common than we would think if we only watched the news and its sensationalistic headlines. Most people simply want to educate their kids and live a nice life. We can help people do that, but not by bombing, conquering, and occupying nations we don’t understand, or by telling defenseless populations to vote and then punishing them for voting for the “wrong” party.

Instead, we should try to really understand each other, see the humanity in each other, and realize that at the end of the day, most of us want the same thing: a stable, peaceful world where everyone has a chance to maximize his or her potential to contribute to their community and culture, both locally and globally. Increasing numbers of people, including Palestinians, want nothing more than their rights under international law. The US should support international law instead of undermining it, in the interest of peace and security for everyone, including ourselves.

America and Europe have tremendous potential to do good in the world. Despite all they’ve done, few people actually hate them. People just want them to live up to their own ideals and laws. In the US, because of campaign finance laws, it’s very difficult for peacemakers to gain power in Washington. Changing those laws so that wealthy corporations and special interests have less power would be an excellent place to start.

How did you feel when you heard about the recent Israeli attacks on Palestine? What does it feel like that nothing has changed for the Palestinian people after all these years?

I thought I couldn’t be shocked anymore, but the assault on Gaza this summer was unbelievable. Gazans are mostly refugees, mostly children, mostly defenseless. And this latest escalation was deliberately provoked by Netanyahu to prevent a Palestinian unity government that might be more representative of Palestinians. Netanyahu has never had any intention of negotiating fairly with Palestinians, and he sees a unity government as a threat to his rejectionism.

To besiege people for nearly a decade, then deliberately provoke rockets on a dishonest pretext, and “retaliate” by creating an apocalypse where nearly 2000 human beings were killed, including 400 children, and tens of thousands left with no homes, no jobs, nothing… It’s beyond words.

But it was interesting to watch the American coverage of this assault, which was quite different than usual. We actually heard from Palestinians on the news, and from journalists who saw for themselves the horrors Israel unleashed, which in some cases were even more shocking than scenes they had witnessed in Syria. On Twitter and Facebook, we saw pictures of destruction and carnage, and celebrities began to break the taboo and publicly condemn the slaughter. Israeli spokesmen were in the uncomfortable position of trying to defend blowing up hundreds of children, and commentators weren’t quite as willing to accept their dishonest talking points.

Our media is still very biased toward Israel’s overall narrative, and our Congress is nearly hopeless because Israel has such a powerful lobby and the Palestinians don’t. But ordinary Americans, especially young ones, are starting to change their minds, and increasing numbers of American Jews are disillusioned by Israel’s policies and joining groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that work for justice in Palestine. People all over the world are becoming active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Turkey does a huge amount of trade with Israel, so there is of course potential for Turkish people to get involved, too.

So there is hope, and things are moving in the right direction. I just wish they would move faster.

Do you have anything to add?

I have friends in Israel, and I want their children to grow up knowing their neighbors instead of being forced to join an army that oppresses and provokes them. (Increasing numbers of Israelis are refusing to join the army, but it is still a small number overall.) And of course, I want the next generation of Palestinians to grow up with freedom and dignity. I hope some day soon all of the land will be a place where all are welcomed without fear or discrimination. It’s a beautiful land, and it deserves to be known by the world as itself, beyond the context of conflict. Inshallah.

Chapter 11 of my book recounts the heady days leading up to the 2005 Disengagement, Israel’s removal of 7,500 illegal settlers from the choice lands in Gaza they had occupied for years. (Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor Dov Weisglass admitted that the point of the Disengagement was to put any chance of a real peace process “in formaldehyde” so that Israel could continue colonizing the West Bank with a freer hand.)

Below is the last section of the chapter, in which I visited Gaza for the first time just as the settlers were evacuated.

Drinking by the Sea in Gaza

Even after a year in the West Bank, it was difficult for me to imagine life in the Gaza Strip. It seemed less an actual place than a metaphor for human suffering, the modern world’s dirty little secret, a forbidden, forgotten, crowded, impoverished, dangerous, besieged penal colony. Over a million people squeezed into a 27-by-5-mile strip of land choked by settlements, ‘security zones,’ sniper towers, and military bases, like a super-concentrated version of the West Bank.

An Israeli officer had recently admitted the army’s raids into Gaza were characterized by chaos and the indiscriminate use of force. “Gaza was considered a playground for sharpshooters,” he explained.

I remembered many of the names and faces of the hundreds of Gazans I had reported on who’d been gunned down. Schools and homes, roads and restaurants—nowhere was safe. The Gazans’ framework had become so warped, most truly couldn’t fathom why Israelis were so scared of Qassam rockets. They could only dream of their only torment being an occasional barrage of unguided missiles with a half-percent kill rate.

I arrived at the Erez crossing on Thursday, September 8, not entirely sure whether I hoped I’d be allowed in or turned back. I walked nervously toward a huge parking lot. It had been teeming with trucks and commerce before the near-hermetic sealing of this crossing, but it was deserted now. Two guards called to me and asked to see my passport. I gave it to them. They nodded at each other and directed me to a building further on.

Inside the building, a friendly Israeli guard took my passport and luggage. I waited in a small room with other aid workers and journalists, many of whom had probably been forced to misrepresent themselves in order to have any hope of access. I certainly hadn’t mentioned anything about my job in my application. We all avoided eye contact, fearful that anything we said might be used against us.

Half an hour later I was called up, given my passport back, and directed to the entrance to the Gaza Strip. I gathered my bags and made my way to the rather intimidating portal, a shabby affair of chipped concrete and metal bars. It led to a passage between concrete walls, a dark tunnel-like path that stretched on for nearly a mile. My feeling of fear and desolation intensified the further I walked down that Kafkaesque lane into God knew what.

Presently I came upon a closed metal gate. An unseen Israeli soldier was making blowing noises over a microphone. The blowing noises stopped as I approached. I tried the gate. It was shut tight. I looked around the empty hall.

“Hello?” I ventured. Nothing. Feeling silly, I knocked on the gate. Still nothing. “Hello?” I banged on the gate. I knew they could see me. It was unnerving to be trapped, watched, ignored. I felt very much like a gerbil in a cage. Were they waiting for me to do something? Entertain them? Hop on one foot? Say the magic word? I suppressed an almost irresistible urge to intone, “OPEN SESAME.”

Finally I gave up and sat on a concrete block and started playing with my cell phone to pass the time. Twenty minutes later several Palestinian workers approached from behind me.

“Salaam alaykum,” I greeted one of them, and he returned the greeting. “I’ve been waiting here twenty minutes,” I complained in Arabic.

He was unimpressed. “Sometimes we wait half an hour, one hour.” He shrugged.

Five minutes later the gate creaked opened. A soldier barked unintelligible orders over the loudspeaker. I grabbed my bags, and we all made our way through.

At last I neared the end of the tunnel. Two Palestinian women in hijab greeted me with shy smiles and warm Arabic pleasantries. As they carefully recorded my passport information in a tattered green volume, my fear began to ease. A familiar feeling of calm and safety settled over me. It was unmistakable: I was back in Palestine.

When I emerged, I got my first view of the Gaza Strip. It looked deceptively normal. Agricultural fields spread toward two villages on lows hills. The towns, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, had once been famous for their oranges, but the Israeli army had razed most of their groves. Beit Lahiya was where seven kids had been killed by Israeli tank fire in a strawberry field in January.

I caught a cab into Gaza City. It looked similar to Ramallah but more flat and dense, larger and more overwhelming. A banner across a main intersection declared in dark green letters, “Palestinian Unity is a Must.” It was signed in red, “HAMAS.”

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I made my way to a hotel on the beach, the Grand Palace, one of many swank venues built after Arafat returned in 1994. It was airy and elegant with white arches, and its verandas had fantastic sea views. With its air conditioning, satellite TV, hot showers and soft beds, it was easy to forget I was in a conflict zone on the verge of historic upheaval.

Gaza’s economy had been valued at $1 billion before the second Intifada, and the service sector was its largest segment. This hotel was a symbol of what could have been—an entire service industry, an international vacation destination, lost.

***

I went for a walk on the beach the next morning and said hello to a family sitting in a circle of lawn chairs enjoying coffee and cakes. They invited me to join them. A plump, friendly woman fished a pan of crumb cake out of her beach bag and insisted I sample it. I happily obliged, and we chatted and laughed for nearly an hour.

When I got up to leave, they expressed the usual mock-outrage that a guest should think of doing anything other than sitting with them and accepting their hospitality until the end of time. I thanked them over and over, and they made me promise to find them if I ever came back to the beach, or to Gaza, again.

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Gaza’s seaport came into view as I continued walking, a small harbor surrounded by a stone breakwater. Ramshackle fishing vessels bobbed on the wavelets. It was another deceptively idyllic scene. Gaza fishermen were routinely fired on by the Israeli navy if they ventured past the limit of 12 nautical miles imposed in 2002—far less than the 20-mile limit agreed to under the Oslo Accords. [The limit is now down to 3 nautical miles.] Old photographs showed Gaza’s fish markets overflowing with red mullet, bream, flounder, tuna, sea bass, sardines, squids, shrimps, and crabs. The market today was a sad, scrawny shadow of those days. Everyone hoped Israel would remove the restrictions after the Disengagement, which forced Gaza’s fishermen to over-fish young populations near shore, and allow the construction of a deep water port to serve larger fishing and cargo vessels.

My primary concern on this aimless day was whether and when the Abu Holi checkpoint would open. It was the main barrier between the northern and southern Gaza Strip. I’d have to cross it to get to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, by most accounts one of the friendliest and most brutalized towns in the Palestinian territories. I had a contact named Nader, a friend of an American Jewish journalist friend, waiting to meet me there.

Located on the Egyptian border, Rafah had seen the worst of the violence, home demolitions, and restrictions. Even though the city was only two miles from the Mediterranean, security for settlements dictated that the residents of Rafah were forbidden from accessing the beach. When the last soldiers left in a couple of days, Rafah’s residents would flood into the settlements and run to the long-lost sea. If the checkpoint stayed closed, I would miss this extraordinary moment.

Abu Holi had been closed almost continuously for the past several days, open only at midnight on weekdays and all day Fridays. But on this Friday it was shut tight. No reason was given, no timetable made public for when it might open. Everyone was left to hope and wonder. Rumors were flying, and the most widespread and persistent was that it would open at 11:00pm.

As eleven o’clock approached, I found a service taxi that was heading south. I and a few other hopefuls crowded in and took off.

The landscape around the Abu Holi checkpoint was monitored by a monolithic sniper tower. Acres around it had been bulldozed bereft of homes and trees and fields. The checkpoint was a prime target for suicide bombers, which meant security was on a hair trigger. A bad read of a soldier’s hand could mean a quick and pointless death. I held my breath as our service taxi inched toward it. We made it through in a little over an hour.

Nader met my taxi in Rafah and introduced himself briefly as we walked toward his house. He was a lanky young man with a crooked nose and a wary, almost manic friendliness.

“We will probably meet some militants before we get to my house,” he informed me. “But don’t worry, you are with me.”

Before I had a chance to respond, we turned a corner and came face to face with half a dozen masked gunmen, probably from Hamas. All of us froze like deer in headlights. Nader said something in Arabic that sounded sarcastic. The militants looked at each other. If it was possible for a gang of masked men sporting assault rifles to look sheepish, they did. We continued on to his house without another word.

He insisted I have some tea before we turn in, then he offered me a foam mattress on the floor to sleep on. I fell asleep gratefully, exhausted but euphoric. Somehow I had made it to the least accessible of the least accessible places in Palestine in one of its most historic times.

***

Nader’s mother fixed us a breakfast of falafel, hummus, yogurt, and fried potatoes, then Nader and I ventured outside and I got my first heart-stopping glimpse of the destroyed neighborhoods of southern Rafah. The area is famous for the huge number of homes obliterated in the hundred-meter-wide ‘buffer zone’ along the border with Egypt in order to deter smuggling tunnels. The former swath of neighborhoods is now a rocky, uneven field covered in scrub brush.

More than 4,500 Palestinian homes had been demolished in the Gaza Strip since September 2000, most of them in Rafah, and 22,000 homes had been partially destroyed or damaged. Nader’s house was in the last row of homes that hadn’t yet been totally destroyed, though one of the back walls of his house had been blown out by tank shells.

The roof of the house to our left was caved in, but a black water tank, a salvaged satellite dish, and clothes lines hung with laundry indicated that someone lived there anyway. A house further to our left leaned at a forty-five-degree angle, and kids were climbing on it like it was a colossal jungle gym. Every exposed wall was riddled with bullet holes. Across the street a man and his two young kids were starting a fire with dry brush, perhaps to cook or make tea. Their house had one wall busted out so that you could see into the bathroom. When I held my camera up to ask if I could take their picture, the father smiled as if he was standing in front of a proud home instead of squatting over a makeshift fire in a dusty street next to wreckage.

Many parts of Rafah reduced to rubble

Many parts of Rafah reduced to rubble

Beautiful homes in shambles

Beautiful homes in shambles

The water tank and clotheslines mean people are still living here

The water tank and clotheslines mean people are still living here

Another house leaning at a 45 degree angle

Another house leaning at a 45 degree angle

Warm smiles despite it all

Warm smiles despite it all

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[In May 2004 the head of Israel's secular-liberal Shinui Party, Tommy Lapid, said to the Israeli cabinet, "The demolition of houses in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish, and causes us grave damage in the world... At the end of the day, they'll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak with us." He said seeing a picture of an elderly woman searching in the debris of her bulldozed home for her medication reminded him of his own grandmother, who had perished in the Holocaust. His comments were met with outrage by other Israeli politicians, and the demolitions continued. See: Gideon Alon, "Prominent Israeli denounces home demolitions in Gaza," Haaretz, May 24, 2004.]

Nader said, “Come, I will show you a place they really destroyed.”

He directed me to some quarters of Rafah that had been bulldozed in the course of a recent military incursion. If the ethnically cleansed neighborhoods of Hebron looked post-Apocalyptic, this looked like ground zero of the Apocalypse itself. A few wire-reinforced concrete support beams stood crookedly, but everything else had been pulverized into thick, grey, ashy dust. My brain clicked off, as if some outer layer of judgment had been blown away in self-defense. All that was left was a childlike observation and acceptance of what I was seeing with no pass through the limbic system to attach emotions to it. I found a child’s marble and a small blue bathroom tile half-buried in the dust. I pocketed them as mementos of this scene and the feeling of horrible numbness it evoked.

When we emerged from this netherworld, we walked to the Rachel Corrie Center, which hosted art classes, after school programs, an internet café, and summer camps for local youths. The community center was named in honor of a 23-year-old American college student who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003 while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist in Rafah. The Israeli army claimed there was a smuggling tunnel inside the home. A few months after they crushed Rachel, they destroyed the house. No evidence of tunnels was found.

After walking through the center and checking our emails, Nader seemed at a loss for what to do next.

“Why don’t we check out the zoo?” I suggested. I’d heard there was a zoo in Gaza, but I didn’t think I would fully believe it until I saw it for myself.

Nader said apologetically, “We can go, but the old zoo was much nicer.”

“Old zoo?”

“Yeah. Before the Israelis bulldozed it.”

My mouth fell open. “They bulldozed a zoo?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to the animals?”

“They killed some of them, and others escaped and we had to try to find them. The fountain was destroyed, and the pool, and the games and slides for kids.” He shrugged. “We built it again, but it’s not as nice.”

When we got there, he insisted on paying my three-shekel (seventy-cent) zoo entry fee, and we walked into a courtyard surrounded by cages. A boy about eight years old was riding around on a Shetland pony trailed by two friends. Among the exhibits was a twelve-foot boa constrictor, dozens of colorful birds, rabbits, puppies, house cats, and a young mountain lion, which the owner proudly said came all the way from America. A monkey lived alone in a cage in the center of the courtyard. He’d taken to an endless routine of jumping up on one wall, jumping back to the ground, spinning around twice, then climbing to the ceiling and screaming. Nader and I watched him in silence. The parallel was almost too obvious, but Nader said it anyway.

“You know, I call the whole Gaza Strip the Gaza Zoo,” he said. “We are like this monkey. We can’t go left or right, we have nowhere to play. We are trapped here, and the world looks down at us like we are insects.”

“At least the monkey doesn’t have to worry about invasions or home demolitions,” I started to say, but I stopped myself. This monkey may have been here when Israeli bulldozers demolished his previous home. He certainly heard the F-16s and Apache helicopters screaming overhead, the gunfire, the explosions, the tanks rumbling by, and the omnipresent unmanned Israeli drones with their psyche-destroying buzz, like mosquitoes the size of elephants. Maybe these terrifying events as much as the cage itself had driven the monkey mad.

Nader sighed. “OK, what next?”

“I’d love to see the airport.”

Gaza’s international airport had opened with much fanfare in 1998 only to be shut down three years later when the second Intifada started and the Israeli army bombed the control tower and destroyed the runways. Only the passenger terminal was left standing. It was an elegant edifice with modern check-in desks, handsome decorative arches, and marble walls and floors inset with mosaic tile designs. It was the prettiest little airport I had ever seen. Nader and I took pictures of each other as if we were tourists. But we were the only people wandering its ghostly interior.

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***

We awoke the next morning — Sunday, September 11 — to an explosion. Nader snapped awake, and we walked blinking into the sunlight. A crowd had gathered a few houses north of us. A white car emerged from the crowd. Three young men were in the back, but I could only see one clearly as the car sped past us. His face and arm were covered with blood.

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Nader looked at me and grinned disconcertingly. “The Israelis must have shelled us one last time.”

I nodded, though the whole scene seemed psychotic, as if bleeding kids were just one of the Gaza Strip’s quintessential experiences, like how Wisconsin has cheese.

“What is the matter, ya Bamila?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just… they’re everywhere, they might—”

“Don’t worry,” he interrupted with apparently total confidence. “If they try to shoot any one bullet at you, you won’t even see what I will do.”

I smiled wryly. Was that supposed to be comforting? Oddly enough it was in a giddy, dangerous way. There was a constant background sense of my life hanging by a slightly thinner thread than usual. Nader’s conviction that he could stop bullets was better than no reassurance at all.

In the evening we sat on Nader’s roof watching the sun set over what we hoped would be the last day of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip. Nader’s nephew Mohammad joined us on the roof. He was a handsome boy of about eleven with a haunted innocence in his eyes that seemed disconnected from his calm words and shy smile. I asked him what it was like when Israel invaded. Nader translated when I didn’t understand.

He said, “The house always shakes when the F-16s and helicopters bomb the area.”

“Does it scare you?”

“Of course. I peed myself five times.” He shrugged. “But after a while it’s normal. I mean, not normal…” He trailed off and looked away, unsure how to put it into words. He was disconcertingly unashamed and unemotional talking about such things.

“You know, you look a little like Ronaldo,” I said in Arabic, trying to change the subject.

“Ronaldo?” The way he tasted the word in his mouth, it was clear he had no idea who I was talking about.

“You know, Ronaldo,” I said. “The soccer player from Brazil.”

“Brazil?” He looked even more confused now.

Nader cuffed his neck. “The country, not the camp, you idiot.”

I had forgotten there was a refugee camp nearby called Brazil Camp. He had thought I was referring to someone from Gaza.

“Is it nice?” he asked, referring to the country Brazil. “Better than here?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never been there,” I said, feeling depressed. “But I hear it’s beautiful.” He blinked and nodded, considering this.

Mohammad

Mohammad

After the sun went down, we went back inside for dinner. Just as we were finishing, another deafening explosion rocked the air about three hundred yards away. We all instinctively ducked, but no one was willing to go outside and find out what had blown up this time.

We later found out that it had been the Israelis demolishing one of their own sniper towers. Gaza’s neighborhoods had been watched and controlled by these towers for years, plagued by the horror of being surrounded by faceless soldiers who had the power to end your life with no repercussions and little oversight.

Never again, we hoped, after tomorrow.

***

It was scorching hot the next morning when we stepped outside and looked hopefully toward the border with Egypt. The buffer zone between Nader’s house and the border had been a closed, forbidden, deadly military zone for as long as anyone could remember. Two Palestinian policemen walked gingerly into it and planted a small Palestinian flag on a mound of earth halfway between the last row of houses and the rusty metal border wall.

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Young boys, heedless of the danger, ran around gathering the millions of spent cartridge shells that blanketed the field to sell for scrap metal. A juice vendor set up shop for the spectacle. I bought an ice cold cup of carob juice, and its refreshing sweetness sang through my body. A few more people began cautiously walking toward the border, gaining momentum as they became more confident no one would shoot them. Soon a steady stream was walking toward the wall, and Nader and I joined the strange pilgrimage. I wore a headscarf to blend in. It was still obvious that I was a foreigner, but no one paid me any mind.

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A section of the border wall had been pulled apart, and we walked through it into the no-man’s-land between the Palestinian and Egyptian border walls. The space between was as wide as a football field, a featureless stretch of land rutted with tank tracks. Men in black from both Fatah and Hamas scaled the walls to plant their flags. Several vans and pick-up trucks rolled by loaded down with masked militants sporting rocket-propelled grenades as a show of power. It was probably also an attempt by Hamas to claim credit for the Disengagement.

We walked down the barren thoroughfare until we saw a section of wall on the Egyptian side that was only five feet high and topped by a chain-link fence. Palestinians and Egyptians who hadn’t interacted in years were saying hello and clutching each other’s fingers. Many of the kids looked in astonishment at seeing Egyptian people for the first time. Everyone was cheerful and excited. It was a day of rare freedom.

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The next day they would tear down this wall and cross at will. Hundreds of stranded students, travelers, and medical patients streamed over the wall to get out or get back home. Egyptian customers went all the way to Gaza City to shop for apples and blankets while Gazans came back from Egypt with goats and sheep and cigarettes they had bought for a fraction of the usual cost. Shops on both sides sold out of their goods in a matter of hours, indicating how badly both economies had been distorted by this hermetic separation enforced by Israel and the widely despised Mubarak regime in Cairo.

We continued walking until our view opened up to a white sand beach and an aquamarine sea fading to deep blue at the horizon. We joined hundreds of Palestinians, children bobbing in the shallows and young men splashing and laughing in the waves or seining for minnows. It was the first time many of them had ever seen the sea, and the younger ones were especially ecstatic.

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After taking in this scene for several happy minutes, we hired a cab to take us to one of the destroyed settlements. Caravans of trucks and donkey carts met us on the road carrying anything of even marginal value that had been left behind in the settlements, including roof tiles, sections of chain-link fence, pipes, wiring, rebar, doors, insulation, siding, and chains. Israeli garbage was apparently rich pickings. Some of the children on the donkey carts bore traces of deep poverty, the kind that stunts growth. They had probably come from the nearby refugee camps, where raw sewage runs down the middle of alleys and the brackish drinking water cause major health problems. Or from Mawasi, a formerly productive (and now deeply impoverished) strip of land near the beach that for many years had been locked away behind a ruinous checkpoint and a string of Israeli settlements.

The settlements had until recently featured horse riding trails, a tourist hotel, and a golf course. Now they looked like an upscale version of the pulverized neighborhoods of Rafah. Bushes, trees, and flower beds surrounded rubble-strewn wastes. A half-destroyed school still had kids’ paintings tacked up on the crumbling walls. Palestinian policemen in blue camouflage uniforms watched as people had a curious look or hunted for anything of value. There wasn’t much they could do to prevent the looting. Turning arms against their own desperate people for stripping illegal buildings on their own land would have been bad for their fragile popularity.

Roof tiles taken from a settlement building

Roof tiles taken from a settlement building

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An abandoned settlement building

An abandoned settlement building

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Palestinian police

Palestinian police

Abandoned Israeli settlement school

Abandoned Israeli settlement school

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A feeling of hope and wonder hung in the air along with a faint, alarming stench of toxic burning. It was hard to believe the occupation might really be over, that people could roam their Gaza prison without fear of Israeli snipers, that they could finally repair their broken and bullet-scarred houses without fear that the next wave of violence would destroy everything again.

The next day, astoundingly, Nader and I were able to catch a taxi directly to Gaza City in broad daylight. The trip only took half an hour. The Abu Holi checkpoint had ceased to exist, as if that all-powerful obstruction had merely been a bad dream.

I found a gift shop in downtown Gaza City and bought a commemorative mug with a picture of a dove and a Palestinian flag on it. The mug said, “Congratulations for the evacuation of Gaza… and hopefully for the West Bank…” It was a lukewarm victory cheer, but I supposed Palestinians were used to taking what they could get.

Triumphant Palestinian flags flew everywhere, and Nader and I soaked it all in, a feeling of pressure being released, of hamsters being given a slightly bigger cage with fewer daily cruelties and a hope, however slim, that things would continue to improve.

It’s heartbreaking now to remember how we felt standing there, holding our breath and hoping.

###

To understand what happened next in Gaza, the best summary I’ve seen is a brilliant article by Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, called “What American Jews Haven’t Been Told about Gaza.” It demolishes a lot of talking points about Gaza that have come to be accepted truth in the US media, namely: Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping it would lead to peace. Instead, Hamas seized power, ransacked greenhouses, threw its opponents off rooftops and began launching thousands of rockets at Israel.

This narrative bears little resemblance to reality on the ground and its true dynamics. The truth is much more grim, and important for all Americans to know, since our tax dollars and government give Israel virtually 100% support for whatever it does.

###

For more colorful, suspenseful, funny, tragic, and sometimes romantic stories (Palestine is kinda like that) about life under occupation, check out my book Fast Times in Palestine, published in March 2013.

You can view the book’s Amazon page here.

You can read Chapter One here.

THE REST OF THE STORY (which was cut from the book for reasons of length)

Nader, of course, insisted on going all the way to the Erez Crossing to drop me off. He waited while I got permission from the Palestinian Authority to pass. A Palestinian policeman chatted with me for a while, then took my documents and frowned at them for a long while. He asked me to wait and walked into an office. When he came back a few minutes later, he said, “Assif, mamnou.” (I’m sorry, it’s forbidden.)

My mind struggled with cognitive dissonance mixed with the beginnings of panic. I knew the Israelis could trap me here, but I didn’t think the Palestinians had that power, and even if they did, why would they—

Then I noticed the guard’s lip twitch slightly, and I laughed with relief. He’d only been joking. Nader had probably put him up to it. I punched Nader’s arm lightly. The soldier smiled and handed me my passport back and motioned for me to pass toward the gate.

Nader and I said our good-byes. Palestinians have a way of making guests feel like they’re the greatest people who ever lived, and that the community simply won’t survive if they leave. This was no exception. I exchanged untranslatable pleasantries with the guard who had joked with me, then another guard quickly checked my luggage. Two women took down my passport information, and after a final wave, I set out down the long, dark tunnel to Israel.

Soon I reached the electronic gate in the center. It was shut tight. I looked around the empty hall and wondered what to do. I knew the soldiers could see me with their camera, but no one said anything.

After ten minutes, two more Palestinian men approached from behind me. I asked them in Arabic, “How can I open the gate? It’s closed.”

One answered in English, “Try to say something. He can see you. You just have to wait until he wants to open it.” I didn’t feel like playing this game, so I sat down on a concrete block to wait.

After several more minutes, the gate opened and the Palestinians started walking through. I grabbed my bags and followed them until a voice said, “Stop.” It said something else, but I couldn’t understand through the bad sound system. Nonetheless, when his orders to “Stop, go back, stop, go back,” reached an almost fevered pitch, I found it impossible to ignore them. I stopped. “Go back,” the voice said. I stayed put. “Go back!”

“Why?” I asked. “Is there a problem?”

“Go back!”

“What is the problem?” I started to retreat back to the Gaza side of the gate. What else could I do?

The voice relaxed. “Just go back. You can go in a few minutes. Just a few minutes.”

The gate clanged shut again. I sat down for another ten minutes until a few more workers came through. This time when the gate opened, the voice said, “You can go through gate number four.”

I walked down the tunnel until I saw an electric turnstile labeled ‘4,’ which let me pass. The next section had metal fences that wrapped around like lines at Disneyland rides. People were hopping the gates since the lines were empty and there was no point doubling back.

As soon as I’d jumped a gate, another voice said, “Stop. Go back!” I looked nowhere in particular in surprise. There wasn’t anything to focus on or look at like it was stupid. I was talking to thin air.

“Go back?” I asked.

“Go back.”

I started walking back toward the electric turnstile, bewildered and amused and uneasy.

“Stop!” the voice said again. I stopped. “Put your bag down.” I put my bag down. Then he said something garbled that made no sense.

“What?” I asked.

“Put all of them!”

What does that mean? Oh, maybe he wants me to put my purse down, too. I did. The voice relaxed again.

“Turn around.” I blinked. Then I turned my back to… where my front had been before. I felt helpless and exposed. Were they hitting me with X-rays or just jerking me around? Would they ask me to pull my shirt up in public?

“Turn around again.” I turned back around, rolling my eyes with my whole body.

Another pause. “OK, you can go.”

And off I went. The guards at the VIP terminal were friendly and didn’t keep me long. One said in surprise, “You just came back from Gaza?”

“Yes,” I said, though I was tempted to say, No, I just teleported in from Nepal. Where the hell do you think I just came back from?

“Really?” He hesitated a moment, as if he wanted to ask further questions. As if he was genuinely curious about the place I had just come from, a place that in Israeli discourse was synonymous with hell — not a place any sane, normal person would ever live or visit. But he couldn’t seem to formulate any coherent questions, and I knew it would be months or years before I could formulate any coherent answers.

“Yes,” I said again with finality, and grabbed my bags and left.

POSTSCRIPT

Though about 8,000 settlers were pulled out of Gaza and a few small West Bank outposts in 2005, the settler population in the West Bank increased by more than 12,000 that year. And it has continued growing ever since.

The Disengagement was also unilateral, which meant there was no coordination with the Palestinians. No core Palestinian requests were met, such as allowing free commerce, free sea access, and the reopening of the Gaza International Airport. Palestinians were effectively blockaded even before Hamas won elections in 2006 with a 45% plurality of the vote.

What followed was, among other things, an increasingly brutal siege that turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison (collective punishment is a war crime) and three massive bombing campaigns in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 — attempts to force Palestinians to accept their subjugated and imprisoned status indefinitely without protest or resistance.

It is not clear what will happen next.

.

I was thinking of writing an op-ed on this very subject, but Peter Beinart beat me to it and did a brilliant job. A very important set of realities to understand, and a prime example of the utter mendacity of many oft-repeated Israeli talking point truisms.

Haaretz

What American Jews Haven’t Been Told about Gaza

July 30, 2014
Peter Beinart

If you’ve been anywhere near the American Jewish community over the past few weeks, you’ve heard the following morality tale: Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping the newly independent country would become the Singapore of the Middle East. Instead, Hamas seized power, ransacked greenhouses, threw its opponents off rooftops and began launching thousands of rockets at Israel.

American Jewish leaders use this narrative to justify their skepticism of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. But in crucial ways, it’s wrong. And without understanding why it’s wrong, you can’t understand why this war is wrong too.

Let’s take the claims in turn.

Israel Left Gaza

It’s true that in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israel’s more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza. (At America’s urging, he also dismantled four small settlements in the West Bank). But at no point did Gaza become its own country. Had Gaza become its own country, it would have gained control over its borders. It never did. As the Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed, even before the election of Hamas, Israel controlled whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip (In conjunction with Egypt, which controlled the Rafah checkpoint in Gaza’s south). Israel controlled the population registry through which Gazans were issued identification cards. Upon evacuating its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Israel even created a security perimeter inside the Strip from which Gazans were barred from entry. (Unfortunately for Gazans, this perimeter included some of the Strip’s best farmland).

“Pro-Israel” commentators claim Israel had legitimate security reasons for all this. But that concedes the point. A necessary occupation is still an occupation. That’s why it’s silly to analogize Hamas’ rockets—repugnant as they are—to Mexico or Canada attacking the United States. The United States is not occupying Mexico or Canada. Israel — according to the United States government — has been occupying Gaza without interruption since 1967.

To grasp the perversity of using Gaza as an explanation for why Israel can’t risk a Palestinian state, it helps to realize that Sharon withdrew Gaza’s settlers in large measure because he didn’t want a Palestinian state. By 2004, when Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal, the Road Map for Peace that he had signed with Mahmoud Abbas was going nowhere. Into the void came two international proposals for a two state solution. The first was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which every member of the Arab League offered to recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. The second was the 2003 Geneva Initiative, in which former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators publicly agreed upon the details of a two state plan. As the political scientists Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman have detailed, Sharon feared the United States would get behind one or both plans, and pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. “Only an Israeli initiative,” Sharon argued, “will keep us from being dragged into dangerous initiatives like the Geneva and Saudi initiatives.”

Sharon saw several advantages to withdrawing settlers from Gaza. First, it would save money, since in Gaza Israel was deploying a disproportionately high number of soldiers to protect a relatively small number of settlers. Second, by (supposedly) ridding Israel of its responsibility for millions of Palestinians, the withdrawal would leave Israel and the West Bank with a larger Jewish majority. Third, the withdrawal would prevent the administration of George W. Bush from embracing the Saudi or Geneva plans, and pushing hard—as Bill Clinton had done—for a Palestinian state. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, put it bluntly: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Gaza withdrawal did not meet minimal Palestinian demands. Not even the most moderate Palestinian leader would have accepted a long-term arrangement in which Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza while maintaining control of the Strip’s borders and deepening Israeli control of the West Bank. (Even in the 2005, the year Sharon withdrew from Gaza, the overall settler population rose, in part because some Gazan settlers relocated to the West Bank).

In fact, Sharon’s advisors did not expect withdrawing Gaza’s settlers to satisfy the Palestinians. Nor did not they expect it to end Palestinian terrorism. Ehud Olmert, a key figure in the disengagement plan (and someone who himself later embraced Palestinian statehood), acknowledged that “terror will continue” after the removal of Gaza’s settlers. The key word is “continue.” Contrary to the American Jewish narrative, militants in Gaza didn’t start launching rockets at Israel after the settlers left. They began a half-decade earlier, at the start of the second intifada. The Gaza disengagement did not stop this rocket fire. But it did not cause it either.

Hamas Seized Power

I can already hear the objections. Even if withdrawing settlers from Gaza didn’t give the Palestinians a state, it might have made Israelis more willing to support one in the future – if only Hamas had not seized power and turned Gaza into a citadel of terror.

But Hamas didn’t seize power. It won an election. In January 2006, four months after the last settlers left, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem chose representatives to the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. (The previous year, they had separately elected Abbas to be the Palestinian Authority’s President). Hamas won a plurality of the vote – forty-five percent – but because of the PA’s voting system, and Fatah’s idiotic decision to run more than one candidate in several districts, Hamas garnered 58 percent of the seats in parliament.

To the extent American Jewish leaders acknowledge that Hamas won an election (as opposed to taking power by force), they usually chalk its victory up to Palestinian enthusiasm for the organization’s 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction (The president of the New York board of rabbis said recently that anyone who voted for Hamas should be considered a combatant, not a civilian). But that’s almost certainly not the reason Hamas won. For starters, Hamas didn’t make Israel’s destruction a major theme of its election campaign. In its 2006 campaign manifesto, the group actually fudged the question by saying only that it wanted an “independent state whose capital is Jerusalem” plus fulfillment of the right of return.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that by 2006 Hamas had embraced the two state solution. Only that Hamas recognized that running against the two state solution was not the best way to win Palestinian votes. The polling bears this out. According to exit polls conducted by the prominent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, 75 percent of Palestinian voters—and a remarkable 60 percent of Hamas voters—said they supported a Palestinian unity government dedicated to achieving a two state solution.

So why did Hamas win? Because, according to Shikaki, only fifteen percent of voters called the peace process their most important issue. A full two-thirds cited either corruption or law and order. It’s vital to remember that 2006 was the first Palestinian election in more than ten years. During the previous decade, Palestinians had grown increasingly frustrated by Fatah’s unaccountable, lawless and incompetent rule. According to exit polls, 85 percent of voters called Fatah corrupt. Hamas, by contrast, because it had never wielded power and because its charitable arm effectively delivered social services, enjoyed a reputation for competence and honesty.

Hamas won, in other words, for the same reason voters all across the world boot out parties that have grown unresponsive and self-interested after years in power. That’s not just Shikaki’s judgment. It’s also Bill Clinton’s. As Clinton explained in 2009, “a lot of Palestinians were upset that they [Fatah] were not delivering the services. They didn’t think it [Fatah] was an entirely honest operation and a lot of people were going to vote for Hamas not because they wanted terrorist tactics…but because they thought they might get better service, better government…They [also] won because Fatah carelessly and foolishly ran both its slates in too many parliamentary seats.”

This doesn’t change the fact that Hamas’ election confronted Israel and the United States with a serious problem. After its victory, Hamas called for a national unity government with Fatah “for the purpose of ending the occupation and settlements and achieving a complete withdrawal from the lands occupied [by Israel] in 1967, including Jerusalem, so that the region enjoys calm and stability during this phase.” But those final words—“this phase”—made Israelis understandably skeptical that Hamas had changed its long-term goals. The organization still refused to recognize Israel, and given that Israel had refused to talk to the PLO until it formally accepted Israel’s right to exist in 1993, it’s not surprising that Israel demanded Hamas meet the same standard.

Still, Israel and the U.S. would have been wiser to follow the counsel of former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who called for Sharon to try to forge a long-term truce with Hamas. Israel could also have pushed Hamas to pledge that if Abbas—who remained PA president—negotiated a deal with Israel, Hamas would accept the will of the Palestinian people as expressed in a referendum, something the group’s leaders have subsequently promised to do.

Instead, the Bush administration—suddenly less enamored of Middle Eastern democracy–pressured Abbas to dissolve the Palestinian parliament and rule by emergency decree. Israel, which also wanted Abbas to defy the election results, withheld the tax and customs revenue it had collected on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf. Knowing Hamas would resist Abbas’ efforts to annul the election, especially in Gaza, where it was strong on the ground, the Bushies also began urging Abbas’ former national security advisor, a Gazan named Mohammed Dahlan, to seize power in the Strip by force. As David Rose later detailed in an extraordinary article in Vanity Fair, Condoleezza Rice pushed Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to buy weapons for Dahlan, and for Israel to allow them to enter Gaza. As General Mark Dayton, US security coordinator for the Palestinians, told Dahlan in November 2006, “We also need you to build up your forces in order to take on Hamas.”

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, Dahlan’s forces were weaker than they looked. And when the battle for Gaza began, Hamas won it easily, and brutally. In response, Abbas declared emergency rule in the West Bank.

So yes, members of Hamas did throw their Fatah opponents off rooftops. Some of that may have been payback because Dahlan was widely believed to have overseen the torture of Hamas members in the 1990s. Regardless, in winning the battle for Gaza, Hamas—which had already shed much Israeli blood – shed Palestinian blood too.

But to suggest that Hamas “seized power” – as American Jewish leaders often do – ignores the fact that Hamas’ brutal takeover occurred in response to an attempted Fatah coup backed by the United States and Israel. In the words of David Wurmser, who resigned as Dick Cheney’s Middle East advisor a month after Hamas’ takeover, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”

The Greenhouses

Israel responded to Hamas’ election victory by further restricting access in and out of Gaza. As it happens, these restrictions played a key role in explaining why Gaza’s greenhouses did not help it become Singapore. American Jewish leaders usually tell the story this way: When the settlers left, Israel handed over their greenhouses to the Palestinians, hoping they would use them to create jobs. Instead, Palestinians tore them down in an anti-Jewish rage.

But one person who does not endorse that narrative is the prime mover behind the greenhouse deal, Australian-Jewish businessman James Wolfensohn, who served as the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement. In his memoir, Wolfensohn notes that “some damage was done to the greenhouses [as the result of post-disengagement looting] but they came through essentially intact” and were subsequently guarded by Palestinian Authority police. What really doomed the greenhouse initiative, Wolfensohn argues, were Israeli restrictions on Gazan exports. “In early December [2005], he writes, “the much-awaited first harvest of quality cash crops—strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers—began. These crops were intended for export via Israel for Europe. But their success relied upon the Karni crossing [between Gaza and Israel], which, beginning in mid-January 2006, was closed more than not. The Palestine Economic Development Corporation, which was managing the greenhouses taken over from the settlers, said that it was experiencing losses in excess of $120,000 per day…It was excruciating. This lost harvest was the most recognizable sign of Gaza’s declining fortunes and the biggest personal disappointment during my mandate.”

The point of dredging up this history is not to suggest that Israel deserves all the blame for its long and bitter conflict with Hamas. It does not. Hamas bears the blame for every rocket it fires, and those rockets have not only left Israelis scarred and disillusioned. They have also badly undermined the Palestinian cause.

The point is to show—contrary to the establishment American Jewish narrative—that Israel has repeatedly played into Hamas’ hands by not strengthening those Palestinians willing to pursue statehood through nonviolence and mutual recognition. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when Sharon refused to seriously entertain the Arab and Geneva peace plans. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it refused to support a Palestinian unity government that could have given Abbas the democratic legitimacy that would have strengthened his ability to cut a two state deal. And Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it responded to the group’s takeover of Gaza with a blockade that—although it has some legitimate security features—has destroyed Gaza’s economy, breeding the hatred and despair on which Hamas thrives.

In the ten years since Jewish settlers left, Israeli policy toward Gaza has been as militarily resourceful as it has been politically blind. Tragically, that remains the case during this war. Yet tragically, the American Jewish establishment keeps cheering Israel on.

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.608008

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A Jewish journalist friend wrote to me:

Anna Karenina sure. But Gone with the Wind???? [He had asked me what I had been reading]

So your [Palestinian] friend’s kid is asking questions. Here is mine. It has intrigued me for some time, even more so since reading Shavit’s book. I don’t mean it polemically, and I only use the Christian phrase because there is no better one. When did the Jews commit the original sin? I mean since some Jews the came up wIth the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. I don’t want to narrow the question down because that would make it too easy for you.

I replied:

My friend’s kid (8 years old) is advising her to get pregnant again so that if he gets kidnapped and burned alive like that other kid, she’ll still have a son.

Probably you’re being flip, but I would never say “the Jews” committed any original sin. Jews, like any collection of more than one human being, are individuals with wildly diverse opinions, beliefs, and experiences.

If you mean where did the main thrust of the Zionist movement go wrong, I’d say it’s when they decided Palestinians were less human than Jews and fundamentally less deserving of basic human rights. There was never a serious attempt to deal with them as equals. It was basically, “Accept our idea (which is domination of your homeland by people who mostly aren’t here yet, despite the fact that you’ve lived here for far more centuries than the ancient Israelite kingdom ever existed), or we’ll probably do it anyway.”

That was made clear by the Balfour Declaration. It was really a declaration of war. European Jews were going to go over the heads of the Palestinians to seek great power support for an essentially colonial project in the Palestinian homeland. The British tried to play both sides, but neither was fooled.

The Hebron massacre against Jews in 1929, though it can never be justified or condoned (not least because the mob who descended on Hebron targeted people who were some of the most likely to treat their neighbors as equals), did not come out of a vacuum. Jabotinsky’s young thugs at that time were marching through Jerusalem shouting the equivalent of today’s prevalent “Death to Arabs.” Their message was clear then as it is today: This land is ours. Get out or pay the price.

The Arab Revolt in Palestine (1936-39) was an attempt to gain independence instead of watching their homeland be given away. It was crushed, and Palestinians were left even more helpless in the face of what soon became well-armed and well-trained Zionist militias.

What followed in 1948 was no accident. Ethnically cleansing 750,000 people doesn’t just happen. There were Zionist terrorist attacks and rapes and massacres against the Natives, just like there always are in colonial conflicts.

(The high irony is that the Palestinians themselves are more likely to be descendents of Roman-era Jews than European Jews are. Not that distant, uprovable ancestry should confer any special privileges.) [The other high irony is if Israel had been a bit earlier to the colonialism table, they could have just committed genocide and been done with it.]

Some visionaries like Judah Magnes had another vision. But they were left out of the “serious adult” conversations. Count Bernadotte was just plain assassinated by Stern Gang terrorists when he tried to mediate a more equitable peace.

Ari Shavit is excellent at eliding just the right truths to make Israel seem as innocent as possible without seeming to be outright lying. He constantly goes to the brink and then lightly steps back, sweeping the most important realities neatly under the rug, or just shrugging at them. Lots of people are fooled by it.

But here’s what Moshe Dayan had to say in 1956 at the funeral of a Kibbutznik killed by a fighter from Gaza:

“Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we deplore their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.”

Today, more than 70% of Gaza’s population comprises refugees from Israel’s coastal plain and their descendants.

Simple fact is, no people enjoy being colonized and dominated (much less thrown out) by outsiders. That’s just natural. Ben Gurion knew very well that there would be no “Jewish democratic state of Israel” in Palestine without some very dirty work.

Once you do this to another people, and convince yourself to feel OK about it, you have to keep doubling down. Because your only other option is to finally give up and denounce it, realize Palestinians did nothing to deserve their horrific fate, and call for equal rights for all humans in the Holy Land.

If you can’t bear to let go of the Zionist dream of a Jewish majority state on most of historic Palestine, then you have to keep doubling down. And that is an ugly spiral. There will always be resistance to theft and oppression. And you keep having to whack it, thwart it, brutalize people into submission, which just begets more resistance. (Stealing even more after the 1967 war was just plain greedy madness.)

Pretty soon the only way you can justify the reality you see around you is that “The Arabs just hate us for no reason. They’d rather kill their own children than make peace because they are barbarians, not sensitive humans like us.” And that’s racism, madness, a lie. You can use it to justify any atrocity. (You may not hear that in your circles in Israel, but proud, overt racism and bloodlust is becoming more and more prevalent and tolerated.)

Shavit manages to seem relatively genteel in his racism and elisions, but what he’s doing is saying that ethnically cleansing Palestinians — and maintaining that cleansing indefinitely — is OK because he likes it that way. Keeping millions more under a brutal occupation is OK, too, if necessary. He feels like he needs a state that caters to his religion / ethnicity even if he has to steal and kill for it. Too bad for the Palestinians. Wrong place at the wrong time. Oh well.

I haven’t even seen him show one real move toward working to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Lip service, sure, but nothing more than that. No call for boycotts, no plea to the US government to stop funding the madness.

What’s funny is that Israel could have won — they could have had a state on most of historic Palestine, despite the injustices they perpetrated. 78% of it! Palestinians were willing to do it for a long time, even though it was a bitter pil, as long as Israel acknowledged the 1948 Nakba (and made some reparations and allowed some agreed-upon number of refugees to return), removed most of the settlements, and shared Jerusalem fairly.

It would have been a bitter pill for many Zionists as well, though they have about 1% as much right to complain. As Lord Sydenham of the House of Lords said in 1922:

“They [European Zionists] have no more valid claim to Palestine than the descendants of the ancient Romans have to this country. The Romans occupied Britain as long as the Israelites occupied Palestine, and they left behind them in this country far more valuable and useful work. If we are going to admit claims based on conquest thousands of years ago, the whole world will have to be turned upside down.”

(Romans who stayed behind and became Britons are, of course, a different matter. So are Romans who wish to move to England and obey its laws. I know several Jews who live in Ramallah today.)

But Israel would never accept anything close to a two-state solution based on international law — giving up that last 22% — the minimum of Palestinian demands. They held all the cards, and they started to believe their own lies. Even Rabin increased the number of settlers during the Oslo “peace process” years.

And now it’s come to this. This slaughter in Gaza is unbelievable. Two random assholes, not affiliated with Hamas, allegedly committed a heinous crime (not long after Israeli snipers shot two unarmed Palestinian teenagers walking down the street, apparently for sport). Netanyahu then escalated it into holy hell for everyone.

For three kids killed by two criminals, the Israeli army has killed and maimed dozens of kids, to say nothing of the mass destruction (including of a center for the disabled, mosques, schools, and hospitals, and hundreds of civilian homes), or the other kid kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish extremists. Jewish extremists are encouraged every day by extremist members of the Knesset. No one in the US media talks about their incitement to racism and violence.

Extremists are also encouraged by the police, who rarely do anything to stop anti-Arab chants, harassment, intimidation, or beatings within Israel. They are encouraged by the army, who are in the West Bank to defend the settlers and don’t care if settlers harass, steal from, destroy the property of, or even murder Palestinians. Only when something threatens to become a PR disaster are any measures taken. More often than not, the quiet end result is a slap on the wrist, and the daily horrors go on.

I really, truly don’t understand how Palestinians stand this year after year and don’t lose their minds or their humanity entirely.

And I’m less and less tolerant of how otherwise fine Israelis (and Americans) are able to do the mental gymnastics necessary to justify systematic theft and violence against a mostly helpless civilian population.

Sorry if my tone isn’t as gentle as one might hope. Pointless mass murder does that to me.

Until Operation Cast Lead, I had both hope and sympathy for a two-state solution that let Israel keep its Zionism — and that was hard-won, given what I had seen. Now I have neither.

The bottom line is, Israel keeps creating enemies and then using those enemies as pretexts for more theft and brutality.

Where do you think it will end?

Pamela

P.S. Gone with the Wind is fascinating, if exhausting. I’m learning all kinds of unsavory things about the origins of Southern culture. It reminds me, actually, of Israeli culture, in that a goodly number of them genuinely managed to convince themselves that the slaves were better off enslaved, and all those stories about horse whips and bloodhounds were just rumors started by Yankee troublemakers.

He wrote back:

My question has to do with one’s vision of the conflict. It certainly doesn’t have an “answer” as such, but has preoccupied me for some time.

Is there one moment which signalled the end of the Napoleonic Empire? Yes, it was when Napoleon made a tactical blunder at Waterloo.

Was there one moment which signalled the failure of the American campaign to conquer Vietnam? Yes, it was the Tet Offensive of 1968.

In your mind, can you pinpoint that moment in the israeli-Palestinian conflict? That is, the moment when the Zionist enterprise went wrong?

Me again:

I’m sure you’ve heard of “The Iron Wall,” the essay by Jabotinsky written in 1923 (originally in Russian). It basically said the Palestinians won’t let us take over most or all of their land willingly, so:

“Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.” The only solution to achieve peace and a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, he argued, would be for Jews to first establish a strong Jewish state, which would eventually prompt the Arabs to “drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘never!’ and pass the leadership to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions.”

So basically, they won’t give it to us, so we take it and hold onto it no matter what we have to do until they learn to accept their position as supplicants to us. And that’s basically what mainstream Zionists did and have been doing ever since.

And that was just bound to get ugly. More and more and greater and greater power and brutality rarely lead to a conciliatory attitude from either side. It leads to a “tiger by the tail” scenario, and also an arrogance of power. (The racism that justifies violence rarely abates after the violence is done.)

What Israelis truly don’t understand is that Palestinians are, by and large, some of the most magnanimous and forgiving people on the face of the earth. But they’ve never really been approached with respect, never with anything but imperious contempt and suspicion and brutality.

The Oslo years were a rare time of tremendous and real hope, but even Rabin kept building settlements during those years (they ultimately doubled during the “peace process”), and the settlers were effectively rewarded after the Baruch Goldstein massacre, Arafat was promised he wouldn’t be blamed if the Camp David talks fell through, and then he was solely blamed, and on and on. A million little humiliations and thefts, all the time. Interspersed with occasional mass destruction and massacres.

There wasn’t just one moment when Zionism went wrong. It’s always been infused with “Our people are better and more important than your people” (i.e., racism) and deep trauma that’s easy to transfer onto whoever’s in front of you and seems to be threatening you. Palestinians become “Nazis” in the minds of many Israelis, and brutality becomes misplaced revenge, and the whole thing feeds on itself.

Now Israelis fear that if they give half an inch, they’ll lose everything. And they may be right. But not in the way they think. They think losing Zionism, and permitting equal rights for all, will be tantamount to their destruction. When in fact it’s the only way to save not only their lives but also their souls.

I don’t see a good result otherwise. Palestinians will never just disappear, or totally submit. And the more Israel keeps trying, the more extremists will get a foothold in an otherwise fairly reasonable population. (The unity deal Hamas was trying to sign when all this broke out would have made them effectively subordinate to Fatah, who have bent over backwards to try to appease the Israelis, always getting a kick to the teeth for their trouble.)

Israelis are still waiting for Palestinians to say, “You were right all along and you can have what you want. We’re sorry for all we’ve done to you. You didn’t deserve any of it. We should have just given our land away to begin with [because you have a greater claim than we do].”

Sorry, but Palestinians aren’t going to say that. Especially while Israel is still actively brutalizing and stealing from them. Most non-religious Zionists, who think of land as a possession and a fortress, have no inkling of what the land means for the Palestinians. Religious Zionists of all people, who pined for the land for 2000 years, should know that 60 or 100 years is nothing.

The West Bank and Gaza settlements were a kind of Waterloo, though. It created a whole massive and impassioned settler population whose very existence was threatened by real respect and peace based on international law. I don’t think that was accidental.

Problem is, Israel’s brainwashing has wound everyone up so tight that a fair two-state solution is basically impossible, and a one-state solution will probably be a bloody mess, at least for a while. The majority of Israeli Jews just can’t conceive of giving up their special privileges (which they see as natural rights).

Any more than antebellum Southern whites could imagine paying slaves, or letting them up and leave whenever they wanted to. And they hung onto subjugating black people as long and as hard as they could, even after they lost the war. Luckily Palestinians have had more opportunities to be educated and connected in this modern world, so maybe it wouldn’t be quite so ugly, once they have some modicum of leverage. One can hope.

(Read A Doctor in Galilee and The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist for a taste of the Kafkaesque fourth-class status of Palestinian-Israelis, who are ostensibly full citizens of Israel.)

Of course, the Palestinians don’t have a bunch of Yankees to fight their slavemasters. But they do have what black South Africans had: world opinion on their side, and a devastating boycott that is rapidly picking up steam. Here’s hoping that’ll have a non-violent if very painful effect.

Question back to you: How do you define “Zionism”? You asked me if I condemned the very concept. What I condemn is how it’s turned out, how the racists and extremists in a time of crisis won out (as usual) and never stopped upping the ante.

How do you wish it had turned out? What would you see as acceptable, realistic Zionism?

(I haven’t heard back from him yet. Will let you know if/when I do.)

Meanwhile, here’s a poem I wrote on the subject of “claiming” Palestine:

Ajnabiya [Foreign Girl] in Palestine

Palestine is mine
as much as anyone’s,
which is to say
not at all.

If you are very lucky
and very quiet
you may find
that you belong
to Palestine.

But Palestine
can never belong
to you.

Palestine, Fall 2009

I’m posting extensively on Facebook about the current round of insanely disproportionate violence against mostly innocent Palestinians. Please follow me there if you’d like to follow the links and commentary I post.

Peace and justice for all.

.

Dear friends,

Hello from Tulsa! Ahmed and I are settling into our new apartment south of downtown, with a gorgeous view of the sunset over the Arkansas River. We also have — luxury of luxuries — a balcony, where we’re growing herbs and tomatoes. I’ve set my writing desk up to look out over the river. Much more inspiring (and less distracting) than the concrete canyons of NYC, at least for now.

A wider-angle shot of our balcony view

A shot of our balcony view

Tulsa is unreasonably beautiful in spring, with many well-maintained running trails, parks, and open lawns full of flowering trees. There’s a surprising stateliness to Tulsa. The downtown is known for its art deco architecture, and it’s been revitalized lately by some forward-thinking investors who turned an inner city desert into a cool neighborhood of shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and the new Guthrie Green, a beautiful outdoor venue.

Last week we went there with a friend and her daughter to watch a simulcast of a symphonic performance in the park. Best of both worlds, really. How often do you get to watch a symphony in shorts and flip flops AND watch the sun set (and kids playing), all while drinking wine?

Our little herb garden

Our little herb garden

The road trip through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee was a lot of fun. Our newly acquired car, a midnight blue 2005 Dodge Stratus named Jasmine, made it through beautifully, and we enjoyed no less than five home-cooked Palestinian feasts along the way. (I don’t do this work for the food, but it’s a nice perk!)

At Wright State University in Dayton, OH

At Wright State University in Dayton, OH

Most of the venues on this tour were churches and universities. The good news and the bad news is that most of the audiences were pretty savvy. Good because they do exist. Bad because, well, the people we need to reach most are apparently hard to reach. But it’s been incredibly heartening to meet such dedicated and knowledgeable groups literally all over the country. Everywhere you go, you can find them (a good percentage of them being Jewish), and it’s wonderful to feel myself a part of this community. And there are always a few people who come in just curious and leave with rather wide eyes (and usually a copy of the book).

Even better has been meeting with church leaders. There’s starting to be serious push-back against Christian Zionism, both as politics and as theology. I don’t think the younger generations are going to be so blinded by it.

Sunset over the Arkansas River

Sunset over the Arkansas River

A visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis underscored the challenges and rewards of being on the right side of history. It’s easy to forget how much people in our own country—supposedly a democracy—have had to work and suffer just to be afforded their most basic rights. While watching videos of African Americans being beaten for simply sitting at lunch counters, I couldn’t help but think: One day there will be a museum of Israel’s outrages against the Palestinians, and our children will have NO IDEA how anyone could have let something like that happen.

Sounds familiar, BDS activists?

Sound familiar, BDS activists?

After we got back from the road trip, I caught a plane to Portland for a conference hosted by Sabeel, a Palestinian-led Christian peace and justice organization. The line-up was incredible and included Max Blumenthal, Miko Peled, Dr. Mads Gilbert, Mazin Qumsiyeh, Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Chris McGreal (one of my favorite journalists when I lived in Palestine), Phyllis Bennis, Mark Braverman, Josh Reubner, Rev. Don Wagner, Brian McLaren (a successful Christian author who speaks in the best tradition of Christianity, humbly and honestly seeking truth and peace for all), and many others.

It was truly an honor to be among them. I just wish we’d had more time together than two days!

No big deal -- just Easter with the family for the first time in years!

No big deal — just Easter with the family for the first time in years!

Ahmed is making connections in the Oklahoma soccer world and will lead his first practice session for a team of twelve-year-olds this week. And I’m pretty excited about many months in a row with no major book tours — just good writing time.

We’ll see where soccer coaching and writing will take us in the next few years. Just trying to “follow our bliss” and hoping the universe will lay out a nice path for us.

Love and light and flowering trees,

Pamela

P.S. My husband has also been trying his hand at graphic design. (He designed the first cover for my book, the one with the hookah girl.)

His latest project was to create a gorgeous high-quality World Cup bracket poster, with spaces to write in the scores and six sheets of 32 stickers with the flags of each team, so you can place them on the bracket as the tournament goes on. It’s a fun way to follow the games, and a great way to support an up-and-coming coach/graphic designer. :)

Ahmed and I just bought our first car together, and we’re heading out soon on a tour through Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the second half of March. (I’ll also be at the Sabeel Conference in Portland April 4-5.) We’d love to see some of you along the way!

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch: pamolson (a) gmail. You can learn more about Fast Times in Palestine on the book’s website.

ftc2

Here are the tour dates:

LOUISVILLE, KY

Sunday, March 16
Food for Thought
Crescent Hill Church
142 Crescent Avenue
Phone: (502) 893-5381
Noon

Carmichael’s Bookstore
2720 Frankfort Ave
4pm

Tuesday, March 18
Presbyterian Church Luncheon
100 Witherspoon St
Room 4000
Noon

Crescent Hill Library
2762 Frankfort Avenue Louisville
Phone: (502) 574-1793
4:30pm

Church of the Epiphany
914 Old Harrods Creek Rd
Phone: (502) 245-9733
7:15pm

Wednesday, March 19
University of Louisville
Ekstrom Library Chao Auditorium
12:30pm

University of Louisville
J.B. Speed Auditorium (Room 100)
6:00pm

DAYTON, OH

Thursday, March 20
Wright State University
Health Science Building, Room 116
7pm
(contact: Rana Odeh, rkodeh@gmail.com)

Friday, March 21
Greater Discussions Group
Dayton International Peace Museum
208 W Monument Ave, Dayton, OH
10am
(contact: Anthony Massoud, tmassoud211@cs.com)

Saturday, March 22
Dayton Islamic Center
3662 E Patterson Rd, Beaver Creek, OH (937) 429 9477
7pm
(contact: Bashir Ahmed, bgakingfisher@yahoo.com)

COLUMBUS, OH

Sunday, March 23
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus
93 W. Weisheimer
3pm

Monday, March 24
Currents Forum
St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church
59 East Mound St
7pm

LEXINGTON, KY

Tuesday, March 25
University of Kentucky
Memorial Hall
610 S. Limestone
7pm

PORTLAND, OR

Friday and Saturday, April 4-5

I’ll also be speaking April 4-5 at the Sabeel Conference in Portland.

The line-up is incredible and includes Max Blumenthal, Miko Peled, Dr. Mads Gilbert, Mazin Qumsiyeh, Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Chris McGreal (one of my favorite journalists when I lived in Palestine), Phyllis Bennis, Mark Braverman, Josh Reubner, Rev. Don Wagner, and many others. I can’t wait!

Details and registration can be found here. It should be an amazing gathering.

.

Dear friends,

Apologies for the long radio silence. Last year was a bit buried in book tours and just enjoying married life. (Wedding pics here if you haven’t seen them yet.) This year has been great so far, with flying trapeze lessons and a surprise birthday gift from Jon Stewart. And it’ll bring many changes, including a big move (we’re leaving New York) and a road trip book tour with my husband (in the mid-South).

My last tour of 2013 took me through Upstate New York, Canada, and the Midwest, with a very quick stop in Tulsa to interview with Teresa Miller on “Writing Out Loud,” a PBS program. It aired on January 13. It was one of my favorite interviews of the year. You can view it at this link.

In December, a long article of mine was published in The Link about the one-sided farce of the “peace process,” and how it will hopefully die once and for all this year. It’s called “Farewell, Fig Leaf.”

I got a little Christmas money, so I found a trapeze school in NYC and signed up for two lessons. The first time I did it, I was swimming in adrenaline for hours. The second time, I was able to calm down and learn a pretty neat release trick (straddle whip) and be caught in midair. Ahmed took videos, and you can see a short highlight reel here.

My first catch trick

My first catch trick

I’ve also been beefing up my website with resources for people interested in going further after reading Fast Times in Palestine — learning more, visiting the region, or becoming active in the struggle for justice. I finished half the Chapter Companions and posted links to every section that’s been cut from the book. You can find it all here.

And here’s the story of the birthday present from Jon Stewart. I’ll cherish it always. Though I would rather it have been an invitation to appear on his show…

As for the big move: Ahmed and I are leaving New York at the end of February and heading to Tulsa! He wants to switch careers from finance to soccer coaching. I think it’s a much better fit for him, and he’s been volunteering, working, and studying toward that end for quite a while. Tulsa is a good soccer town, and I’ll be happy to be near many good friends and family, with clean air, big skies, and an abode larger than a shoebox. Gorgeous sunsets, grass, lakes, thunderstorms, the Big Splash water park, cousins, nephews, and a much calmer environment in which to write. Sounds great to me.

After three years, Ahmed will have his citizenship and we’ll be free agents. It’ll be interesting to see where his career is by then, and where it might take us. Luckily I can write anywhere — and hopefully by then I’ll have another couple of books under my belt. (I’m working on two now — a novel and a sequel to Fast Times.)

Finally, I’ve been invited to give talks in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky on March 19 and 25. We’re planning on making a road trip out of it, and swinging through other states and cities as well.

So if you know of anyone in Missouri, Kentucky, southern Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, or areas nearby who might wish to put together an event with me in March about my book, writing, or Palestine in general, please let me know. Or just friends who might like to meet an Okie and a Turk along the way.

Thanks so much and lots of love!

Pamela and Ahmed

pamolson.org

.

So, Ahmed and I are leaving New York at the end of February and heading to Tulsa! He wants to switch careers from finance to soccer coaching. I think it’s a much better fit for him, and he’s been volunteering, working, and studying toward that end for quite a while. Tulsa is a good soccer town, and I’ll be happy to be near many good friends and family, with clean air, big skies, and an abode larger than a shoebox.

We’ll be there for at least the next few years. Really excited. After three years, Ahmed will have his citizenship and we’ll be free agents. It’ll be interesting to see where his career is by then, and where it might take us. Luckily I can write anywhere — and hopefully by then I’ll have another couple of books under my belt as well.

Finally, I’ve been invited to give talks in northern Kentucky in mid-late March. We’re thinking of making a road trip out of it, swinging through other states in the area that might be interested in hosting me for a book talk.

I don’t have time to do the outreach and organizing this time. But if you know of anyone in Missouri, Kentucky, southern Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, or areas nearby who might wish to put together an event with me in March about my book, writing, or Palestine in general (or just friends to meet along the way), please let me know.

And please feel free to send this link to anyone who may be interested!

Thanks so much and lots of love,

Pamela and Ahmed

For the past few months, I’ve been beefing up my website with resources for people interested in going further after reading Fast Times in Palestine — from learning more to visiting the region to becoming active in the struggle for justice.

I’ve also finished around half of the Chapter Companions and posted all of the sections that have been cut from the book for reasons of length.

Here’s everything I’ve posted so far:

Suggestions for improvement are most welcome.

I hope you’ll find it useful, and if so, spread the word!

.

OK, it’s not quite as awesome as it sounds… but pretty awesome.

So I still haven’t fulfilled my dream of appearing on the Daily Show. My publicist tried to get me on — no luck. I mailed the Daily Show a copy of my book with a nice letter — no luck. I watch his show like every single night — he doesn’t even seem to notice.

So I finally decided to go for broke and just go to the show (I live six blocks from the studio) and hand deliver a copy of my book to Jon. Of course the day I manage to get tickets is (a) my birthday and (b) a blizzard. (My toes are still recovering.)

Whatever. I hike in the snow to get my ticket, wait in a godforsaken Subway Sandwich shop for two hours, wait out in the snow again to be let into the studio, and I’m one of the last 20 people who make it in by the skin of our teeth. In the back row. Of course.

So the warm-up comedian comes out, followed by Jon himself, and Jon riffs on the terrible weather and asks people if they came from somewhere warm. He glances in the direction of my section and says, “Was there a question over here?”

I seize the opportunity and raise my hand high. He calls on me. I say, “I don’t have a question, but it’s my birthday!”

He goes, “Oh, happy birthday! Did someone bring you here?”

“I brought myself.” (My husband had to work. I live six blocks away. Just got the ticket last night. No big deal.)

His face falls and he says, “Wow, that is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

The audience titters and I say, “And I brought you a gift!”

Jon pauses. “You’re here alone, on your birthday, and you brought ME a gift? Oh man, uh… I got you something, too!” He looks at his hand, which is holding a pen. “A pen!”

The audience laughs again. He hands it to the front row to hand back to me, and I pass my book down to him. He takes it and reads, “Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland. This sounds like a really interesting book. Is that something you wrote?”

I say, “Yeah. And there’s a dick joke in it!”

The audience laughs big and Jon looks mock-stunned. (Even the camera guys are smiling.) He says, “That was going to be my next question: Is there a dick joke in it?” He flips the book over and says, “So you lived there?”

“Yeah, for two years.”

“What did you do?”

“I was there first as a tourist, then a volunteer, then a journalist, then I worked with a Palestinian presidential candidate.”

“Wait, how long did you say you lived there?”

“Two years.”

“So, in other words, you did more in two years than most of us do in our whole lives.” The audience chuckles again. “So what’s the dick joke? Is it something lewd, something raunchy? Like, ‘Hey, I got your Dome of the Rock right here…'”

I laugh. “No, it’s a… translation problem.”

“Ah. Nice. Thanks. Anyway, we gotta get started…” And soon the show began and the cameras were rolling.

So tonight when the episode airs, if Jon isn’t playing with a pen as usual… It’s because I have it. :)

.

P.S. If you’re wondering WHY I brought up a dick joke instead of something more serious, it came from a Facebook thread where I was lamenting the fact that I still hadn’t managed to appear on The Daily Show. A friend said, “Maybe he doesn’t know how to convert your particular story into ‘funny.'” He suggested I let him know there’s a pretty funny dick joke in my book. (Jon is always talking about and making dick jokes — it’s a recurring theme.)

I thought about it and realized it would certainly be better (in that setting) than trying to be earnest, or worse, begging to be on the show like a schmuck. :)

.

My book

Fast Times in Palestine is in bookstores worldwide! Order on Amazon, or check out the book's website.

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Maintaining this blog and my website is an unpaid labor of love. If you'd like to help me keep it up, my Paypal email is pamolson02@yahoo.com

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Books I Love


A Doctor in Galilee,
by Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh

The Hour of Sunlight, by Sami al Jundi and Jen Marlowe

The Goldstone Report, edited by Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss

Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe

Zabelle, by Nancy Kricorian

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan

Impro, by Keith Johnstone

Improv Wisdom,
by Patricia Ryan Madson

Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau

To Kill a Mockingbird,
50th Anniversary Edition,
by Harper Lee
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