Below is an excerpt from the conversation I had with Noor Elashi during my book launch. It’s mostly written from memory, so it’s not word-for-word, just gives the gist of the questions and answers. A video should be up in a few weeks, and I’ll post a link to it here as soon as I can!
How’d you get involved with Palestine in the first place?
(I answered with an off-the-cuff summary of how it happened, but whenever people ask me this, I always wish I could just recite Chapter 1 of my book. So read Chapter 1 if you’d like to know. )
Why write a book of this nature — literary, narrative, personal — instead of straight, traditional journalism?
I worked as a journalist in Palestine for a year, and after a while I started to feel like it was the same thing over and over, just names and numbers and modes of death, and I felt like no one was listening. This ‘objective’ voice you’re supposed to have with journalism, it doesn’t leave much room for humanity, for roundness and color and tension and drama. So it doesn’t stick. What really sticks in people’s minds is strong images, round characters they really care about, settings they can feel themselves in.
Basically, for better or worse, human beings are programmed to respond more to narratives than to facts or statements. We like to think we’re so rational, but basic psychology shows that if you don’t believe what a journalist says before he says it, you probably won’t believe it afterwards. Even when people are presented with scientific studies that contradict their worldviews, they tend to double down on their beliefs instead of changing them.
I wanted to write something that would show, not tell — that would enlighten in a very compelling and personal way. I also wanted the reader’s relationship to Palestine to develop organically, the same way it did with me. In my book, you learn as I learn, so it’s not like I’m lecturing to you. It’s like you’re walking along with me in this big university called life.
I also wanted to incorporate the devices of good story telling to keep people turning the pages. I have a shelf full of factual books about Israel/Palestine, and I’ve barely cracked open a lot of them, even though I want the information that’s inside. Why? Because when I finally have some free time, I don’t want to sit down and read something dry and depressing. I want drama, humor, romance, pacing, plot, suspense — all the things that make reading fun.
In other words, writing factual books and telling people they should read them is like trying to get kids to eat steamed broccoli. Put a little cheese on it, and they’ll eat it on their own.
Where do you find your inspiration?
If you read the book, you’ll see why I find so much inspiration from the Palestinian people. They could have given up long ago. The odds have been so badly stacked against them for so long. And yet, not only are they still there, still fighting — overwhelmingly mostly non-violently — for nothing more than the chance to be treated as human beings with basic human rights. They’re also the kindest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I start feeling like I want to give up on humanity, I think of the Palestinians and think, if they can keep going like that, what’s my excuse?
Who did you write this book for?
I wrote this to be a book that truly anyone can enjoy, regardless of their level of knowledge about the Middle East, or even interest in the Middle East. People who know everything I know and more say they enjoy it because it takes them back to this place they love. People who’ve never given the Middle East a second thought say they can’t put it down because it’s a gripping story with a lot of color and humor and tragedy and all the things that make us human, told from the point of view of a narrator they can relate to.
But I guess the person I had in mind when I was writing it was myself at age 22. Back then I wanted to learn about the Middle East, but I didn’t know where to start. Whenever I tried to read something by an American ‘expert,’ I always suspected there might be some bias or agenda I didn’t know enough to be aware of. When I tried to read books by Arab authors, I felt like their books kind of started at 60 miles an hour, and I could never catch up. There was so much back story, so many cultural nuances, so many dates and places and names whose meanings were taken for granted.
So my book starts at zero and ramps people up to 60 so they can go read more authentic voices with deeper understanding. It’s kind of an on-ramp to the Palestinian narrative, and from there to the greater Middle East. It’s also, I think, helpful in understanding a little more about the whole mass of humanity that lives on the other end of American-funded guns.
You’re not Palestinian or Jewish, yet you still tackled this head on through narrative writing as a concerned citizen. Why is your voice important?
I think my voice is valuable precisely because I’m not Jewish or Muslim or Palestinian or Israeli. I grew up knowing virtually nothing about the Holy Land other than the stereotypes on the news (which I never fully believed) and that movie with Charlton Heston that they play every year at Easter.
So I came in as a blank slate and was able to absorb it all from a fresh perspective. This makes it more difficult for the usual suspects to accuse me of bias. But most importantly, when I started writing, I knew very intimately what it felt like to know nothing. I could write to that audience, and I had a motivation to write to that audience. To really start from zero, like I started from zero, and respect the sensibilities of ordinary Americans, whose ignorance can be infuriating once you know what’s happening, but who aren’t necessarily bad people. They’ve just never been educated about this in a way they can relate to their own life experience, so they tune it out — the same way I’m ashamed to say I mostly did before traveling to the Middle East myself.
I think a big reason why most Americans are still so ignorant is because experts and activists tend to write books that appeal mostly to other experts and other activists. Which is fine — there’s a lot of space for books that convey very difficult, unvarnished truths and concepts and that take all the entry-level stuff for granted. But it leaves a lot of ordinary people out in the cold. I wrote this book to try to bring them in.
And if you think about books that have really changed history, they’ve often been written by outsiders who’ve acted as a kind of bridge between estranged communities. Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe writing a narrative about slavery, or Leon Uris, an American, writing about Israel. These books weren’t as scholarly or as authentic as certain other books on the market at the time. But they made a difference because they really spoke to their target audience’s sensibilities, and they changed people’s minds.
As Americans, what can we do to make to make a difference?
There are so many things we can do. Number one, if you can visit Palestine, by all means do it. Not only will you become a more educated and empowered world citizen, you’ll have the time of your life. You’ll see horrible things, things you previously couldn’t imagine. But most people come back full of hope and energy more than despair. Young or old, doesn’t matter, it changes your life in ways that are almost impossible to describe.
If you can’t go, there are still a lot of ways to educate yourself. I wrote my book specifically to be a good place to start that’s also enjoyable and accessible.
There’s a blog called Mondoweiss that’s kind of a clearinghouse for the pro-justice community in the US. By pro-justice, I mean people who are truly progressive on the Israel/Palestine conflict in the sense that first principles are that all humans are created equal, and everything else has to flow from that. It’s almost the first thing I check every morning after my email. The blog has created its own virtual community, and through it you can learn about other communities, other great books on the subject, realities on the ground in Palestine, activism all over the world, and so on.
It might seem daunting to get involved, like you don’t know where to start. My advice is, just start. Once you plug in, you can start to find your place, whether it’s writing letters to Congressmen, joining Jewish Voice for Peace or the US Campaign to End the Occupation, going to protests, supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law, or joining the next Freedom Flotilla. Every level of involvement is important.
P.S. Here’s one audience member’s take on an interesting incident that happened during the Q&A.