You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.

I just posted eleven letters that I’ve been writing since January 2008, when I started writing a book called Fast Times in Palestine. Previously I was posting them on my main website,, but this new blog format should be clearer and more open to comments, subscription, and interaction.

For more info about me and the book, please see the About section. In brief, I’m writing about the year and a half I spent working as a journalist based in Ramallah. The book seeks to humanize and contextualize the less-well-know Palestinian perspective without falling into the trap of demonizing Israelis. It’s non-fiction, but it uses the devices that make novels so engaging — humor, suspense, narrative arc, and well-developed characters — in order to give it mass market appeal.

Personally, I hate finding a good new blog and then wading through the whole reverse-chronology thing. So here’s a table of contents for the first eleven blog posts. If you’re interested in my lastest stories from the Middle East (as opposed to the letters I wrote during the year and a half I spent writing full-time in Stigler, Oklahoma), feel free to skip to the eighth post, Cheeseburger in Paradise.


  1. Out of the Closet (Jan 2008) in which I come out and say it — I’m writing a book!
  2. Upstairs Update (May 2008) in which I move to Oklahoma, sit in my big brother’s old room eight hours a day, and give this whole book thing a go
  3. My Speech at OSSM Graduation (June 2008)
  4. Blue Okies (Sep 2008)
  5. California and 2009 (Jan 2009)
  6. Video of my Palestine Talk at Google (Feb 2009)
  7. Redbuds and Dogwoods (April 2009)
  8. Cheeseburger in Paradise (June 2009) in which I move back to Ramallah to finish up the book while living in this city I love so much
  9. Haifa, Nablus, Ramallah (July 2009) in which I visit an Israeli friend in Haifa and then begin my new life in the West Bank
  10. Yoga, Concerts, Prison (August 2009) in which I’m hit once again by the insane cognitive dissonance of this place — so much fun and beauty, and so much pointless pain
  11. Ramadan, Soccer, Canyon, Border (Sep 2009) in which I start a pick-up soccer club in Ramallah, rock climb in a Jordanian canyon river, and offer tips on how to navigate Israeli borders

September 17, 2009

First, an update on Rania’s situation. Her husband is still in prison, but we got good news a while ago that he would be released in February, a few months earlier than originally thought. It will still be another five months of separation, including the month of December, when Rania’s daughter is due. With the help of many generous people in Palestine and abroad, I’ve managed to gather enough resources to keep her afloat up until the end of October and also get her birth expenses taken care of. To the people who helped, I can’t say enough, and I can’t thank you enough. But thank you, so much.

Rania has been trying hard to find a job, but as I said before, the nonsense in the New York Times about the booming West Bank economy is a Potemkin village of the top few percent doing very well and most other people stagnating while prices rise. At best, the occasional lifting of a few checkpoints has slowed down the decline in some sectors, but not by much, and rewarding Israel for this kind of ‘concession’ (the partial lifting of an illegal collective punishment) is like rewarding someone for stealing ‘only’ a house, but not the car in the driveway. (Never mind the Gaza Strip, which is almost entirely under an Israeli siege, with catastrophic 75% unemployment.)

For pregnant women who are recent graduates and have small children and husbands in prison, finding a job only gets harder. If she does manage to find a job, the problem is solved. If not, I may make another appeal for funds in late October.

Sharif has found a way to call Rania cheaply, and he talks to her a few times a week. The other day, Karim said “Baba” into the phone for the first time. Both parents were overcome with emotion. I can’t imagine how the family’s reunion is going to be.

The story I wrote about Rania’s plight was published on a blog called Mondoweiss. You can find it here. No need to read it if you already read her story in the last email, but you can forward or post it if you like.

Book Update

As for the book, I’ve been making good progress and plan to have the final four chapters drafted by the end of this month. Two more months of editing should get them in good shape, then I’ll use December to work on the Epilogue. Insha’Allah the book will be finished by the end of the year, as planned.

I also recently received a very nice rejection letter from one of the last major publishers my agent sent my manuscript to:

“I apologize for taking so long with FAST TIMES (a great title!). Pamela Olson has a real voice and an appealing honesty and passion. In the end, though, her mixture of the personal and the reportorial doesn’t seem quite right for us. I wonder if this would make more sense as a trade paperback geared toward younger readers? In any case, I appreciate getting another look at this talented writer.”

It was painful to receive, of course, but then again, this particular mainstream publisher belongs to a large conglomerate that’s ultimately owned by Rupert Murdoch, which would make publication with them a kind of catch-22. If it doesn’t make money, I’m not getting the message out. If I get the message out, I’m making money for Rupert Murdoch.

If I thought it was the best way to get the message out, I would probably be willing to pay for Murdoch’s latest gold-plated bidet, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way anyway. Many mainstream publishers have a nasty habit of buying ten or so books and only promoting the one that looks like it will have the most mass market appeal, leaving the rest to languish.

It will almost be a relief if the last big New York publisher rejects us. (My agent knows about twenty mainstream publishers well, all in New York — the hardest place in the world to talk about Palestine — and we’re about to reach the end of them.) In that case, my agent and I will respectfully take leave from each other, and I’ll begin to speak directly to the people who know and care most about the Holy Land. I have a huge list of contacts I haven’t used because I wanted to give my agent a chance to sell it first.

It will be nice to speak with people who actually know and care about the subject rather than people whose only concern is whether, how much, and how quickly it will make money in an industry that is notoriously spineless of late. (No pun intended.) Last time I checked the bestseller lists, they were topped with soft-core vampire porn and Tori Spelling’s latest memoir. As for nonfiction, far too much is written with the intent to, as a friend of mine put it, “impress a select group of people who already share the same viewpoints as yourself.”

Mine is a bit more sneaky. It intends to reach a large audience, entertain and educate in a way that’s both visceral and intellectual (through sustained and engaging stories integrated with serious research and analysis), and potentially change things. Books like this are rare, and most publishers these days don’t like to take political or financial risks. Twenty mostly complimentary rejections from mainstream New York publishers is better than par for the course for a first book, especially a controversial one that doesn’t fit any pre-defined categories.

We’ll see what happens when people who actually care about the subject begin to get involved. I’m excited for this next phase.

Ramadan Blues

Oh yes, and it’s Ramadan. I’m not fasting this time, and since most of my friends are either ajanib (foreigners) or Palestinians who aren’t fasting and/or whose families live elsewhere, the usual Ramallah Ramadan problem arises — you have to sneak around to find lunch, and then you don’t get invited to many Iftars (the huge home-cooked meal just after the sunset call to prayer that breaks the day’s fast). Worst of both worlds. At the eerie sunset hour when the streets empty and luscious smells emanate from every home, you can’t help but feel a bit wistful if you’re having your usual cheap and lazy meal.

One particularly gloomy Sunday evening, I thought I’d cheer myself up by singing the Lonely Ajnabi Ramallah Ramadan Blues

    Walkin’ to the hisbah,
    Qataef on the streets,
    I step into a helweyat
    to buy some Ramadan sweets.

    The man, he charges plenty:
    Talatash,” he said.
    I hand the money over,
    wishin’ they was homemade sweets instead.

    Walk home with my sack of veggies,
    make hash browns and farmer’s salad.
    Sit down in my empty living room
    to compose this Ramadan ballad.

    I think of all the families
    sitting down to share Iftar.
    It’s happenin’ all around me,
    so near and yet so far.

    Allahu akbar,” the minaret calls,
    floating like a dream.
    “Maybe so,” I think to myself,
    “but man, sometimes Ramadan ain’t so karim…”

    Ajnabi = foreigner
    Hisbah = vegetable market
    Qataef = special Ramadan sweet often sold by street vendors
    Helweyat = sweet shop
    Talatash = 13 shekels ($3.25)
    Iftar = sunset breaking of the daily Ramadan fast
    Karim = generous (a common Ramadan greeting is “Ramadan Karim!”)

It’s not all bad by any means. (This was written mostly for a laugh.) And I have been invited to a few nice Iftars. There’s also the Bab al Hara phenomenon — a Syrian mini-series that comes on every Ramadan about a Syrian village living under French occupation between the World Wars. It has comedy, drama, obvious political overtones, great costumes, and phenomenal architecture — a glimpse into the life and culture of those times. Life doesn’t just stop for Iftar every day. It also stops from 9-10 for the latest installment of Bab al Hara.

Ramallah Football Club

The other way I cheered myself up during Ramadan was by founding FC Ramallah, an informal pick-up soccer club that meets every Monday on the concrete court next to the Lutheran Anglican church just uphill from my house. It’s an even mix of Palestinians and foreigner, and we welcome all skill levels and play a good, scrappy, competitive-but-not-too-competitive game, just the way I like it.

Despite all the scrappiness and various skill levels (and concrete), there have been relatively few injuries, especially compared to street hockey. (The bridge of my nose, which was smashed with the blade of a hockey stick a few weeks ago, is healing nicely. My sunglasses were not so lucky.) People tend to have a good attitude and not clobber each other too much. It’s a good group. Some of them are even fasting! Playing soccer for the last hour and a half of the fast under the hot sun — hardcore.

A guy I met playing soccer — a medical student studying neurosurgery in Cairo and just in Ramallah for the Ramadan holidays — introduced me to a club where people play basketball most evenings. It’s mostly Palestinian guys (a good mix of Christians and Muslims), but there’s one skilled young Palestinian woman in a long ponytail and athletic shorts who’s treated as an equal and a sister. I was treated well as I played, too, even though my skills haven’t developed much beyond middle school.

Several Palestinian-American kids were also there who had moved to Ramallah for high school. They were like a different species from the Palestinian-Palestinians, more surly and sullen, talking more trash (in their unmistakable American accents, and more often in a mean rather than joking way) yet whining more about fouls, injecting totally unnecessary tension into the game. (Perhaps it was in part because they were mostly teenagers and the Palestinians were mostly in their twenties.) An unappealing mix of bluster, self-consciousness, and entitlement that the Palestinians did their best to cheerfully ignore.

I asked my friend about this. He smiled and said, “They are not members of the club. We just let them play because we are friendly.”

It occurred to me as I was writing this that his statement could be understood in a more general sense. I’m not a member of the club, either. I am not and will never be a Palestinian. But I’m glad they’re friendly enough to let me play.

I’ve also noticed something lately. Usually in Ramallah, when I spoke to a waiter or shopkeeper in Arabic, they smiled in appreciation for my effort and then politely switched to English. My favorite are the taxi drivers who say to me, in English, “Ah, you speak Arabic better than me!”

But in the past couple of months, many have started answering me in Arabic, as if not even noticing it might not be my first language. It’s a good feeling, but it’s also an indication that I’m officially entering the most annoying phase of learning any language: The phase where people begin to assume you’re fluent even though you’re not. If people know you’re struggling with a language, they’ll slow down, use simpler vocabulary, switch to English sometimes, etc.

But if people assume you’re fluent, and if you’ve been chatting for a few minutes without problems (if they happen to follow a track of topics that you have a well-developed vocabulary for), and then they use a word or phrase (or paragraph) you don’t understand or start talking too fast or slangy, it’s awkward (and humbling) to backtrack and say, “Actually, I don’t speak Arabic that well.” It makes me feel like a fraud, and they tend to look at me like I’m playing a trick or avoiding whatever subject they just brought up. If I simply keep saying, “Na’am?” (Sorry?) hoping they’ll slow down or use simpler vocabulary, some look at me like they’re not sure whether I’m slightly deaf or learning impaired.

After so much work to get to this level, suddenly instead of applauding your efforts to try to learn their language, people start to get frustrated you don’t know it well enough. It’s a badge of honor in a way, but such an annoying one. The worst part is, it’s a very big plateau. I was still on it (but much further along) by the time I stopped studying Russian. I’ll be “the person who isn’t fluent yet” for a long time before I become fluent (if I ever do), at which point my language skills will simply be taken for granted.

It’s not much of an incentive structure.

A Week in Jordan

Probably the thing that stressed me out most about Ramadan, though, was the fact that my visa renewal trip fell right in the middle of it. In order to stay legally in the lands occupied by Israel, I would have to go to Jordan, re-enter Israel, and try to convince the Israeli border guard to give me another three-month tourist visa. The borders have become more difficult in recent years, with many people who had no trouble getting in and out for years suddenly finding themselves rejected, and many travelers, especially Arab-Americans or foreigners who admit they’re heading to the West Bank, denied entry.

To top it off, the Israelis have started giving “PA-only” visas at the airport and at the Allenby border crossing to some unlucky travelers, which means you can only enter the West Bank, not Israel. My flight leaves from Israel, so this would be a problem for me.

Also, there was the little issue of the fact that I didn’t have a visa. If you recall, they stamped a separate paper at the airport and then took the paper.

In a strange way, this actually turned out to be a blessing. When the girl at the Jordan River crossing asked what I had been doing in Israel, and I said I was a tourist, she didn’t see my stamp telling her I’d been there three months — and she didn’t ask. I was through in five minutes and on my way south to Amman.

Because the major cost of the trip was traveling to and from Jordan, and Jordan’s a nice and relatively cheap country (if you play your cards right), and I needed a break from sitting in my apartment writing all day, I decided to make a little vacation out of it.

On my first night in Amman, as I was walking toward a restaurant for dinner, someone yelled at me from an SUV. It turned out to be three Israelis looking for advice about what to do in Amman. The two guys were wearing jalabiyas (long white traditional Bedouin robes) that they’d picked up in the desert somewhere for a dollar, and the girl was wearing a tank top and holding hands with one of the guys. They were doing so many things wrong at once, I didn’t know where to begin.

But they were guests in town, and I would be ashamed not to treat other guests in the Arab world as kindly as I had always been treated there. I invited them to dinner and quietly told them they shouldn’t be engaging in public displays of affection during Ramadan. They also shouldn’t be walking in downtown Amman in ragged jalabiyas or tank tops, but that couldn’t be helped at the moment. It wasn’t that anything bad was likely to happen to them. It was just incredibly insensitive.

We found a little restaurant down an alleyway that served baked chicken and rice, fried eggplant in a spicy sauce, okra, and salad. The owner welcomed us warmly, and I chatted with the Israelis for a while. It was going well until one asked me where I was coming from.

“Ramallah,” I said.

There were a few moments of silence as they attempted to wrap their heads around this. Finally one said, “Well, I guess there’s money in Ramallah, so it’s easier for people not to be fanatics.”

I opened my mouth to say, “The settlers have all kinds of money. What’s their excuse?” But I was on vacation and not in any mood for anger or arguing.

The other guy asked if there were any bars in Amman.

I said, “Sure, there are plenty of bars in West Amman.”

“Whoah,” he said. “I would love to see that. A bar in a Muslim country!”

I looked at him strangely. “There are bars in Ramallah.”

He shook his head slowly. “Israel is not a Muslim country.”

I blinked a few times. Did he really just say that? Was he really in downtown Amman holding hands with a girl in a tank top in public during Ramadan and telling me Ramallah was part of Israel?

When they invited me to go to West Amman with them, I respectfully declined.

I walked instead to my friend Fayez’s hotel. It was great to see him, and also to catch up with a British/Spanish friend from DC and a friend of a friend from Amman who’s an aspiring (and talented) writer. I hit up some couch surfers in town as well (including the couchsurf ambassador, Simon, a Christian Palestinian-Jordanian who invited me and some other ‘surfers to his home for a huge feast of mahshi = stuffed squash and peppers in spicy yogurt sauce). I bought a cheap Jordanian SIM card, and pretty soon I had a mini-social life going on, calling and texting and inviting and being invited and running all over Amman in the ubiquitous cheap taxis ($3 gets you absolutely anywhere). I had to turn down at least one party just so I could get some sleep.

People were incredibly kind and welcoming, and I felt the way I’d felt the first time I came to Amman in 2003, experiencing it as something new and exciting and wholly itself. Amman has mostly been a stopping-off point for me for the past several years, a place I had to go to renew my visas. But now I was reminded — it’s a pretty cool city in its own right.

On Saturday I joined three couch surfer girls for a trip to Wadi Mujib, a steep canyon gorge carved into red-hued stone with a blue-green river running down the bottom of it. We hiked and climbed and splashed and swam our way up to a ninety-foot waterfall that was impassable without abseiling gear. There were huge boulders and rapids in the river, and there was rarely a bank on either side, just water and cliffs, so we were completely soaked. Some of the climbs were challenging, involving tricky leaps across raging rapids or sliding down a rock face to land on a submerged rock you could use to steady yourself for another leap. Some of the rapids and waterfalls were too dangerous and were blocked off with ropes.

The big waterfall at the end of our trek had a smaller side fall that you could get under and let it pound and massage your shoulders. Under the waterfall, in the peaceful pocket behind its crashing waters, some species of little fish would latch onto your legs in a kind of slimy tickle that I tried to withstand but couldn’t for long. Serious heebie jeebies.

Heading back to the trailhead was much more relaxing, floating with the current instead of fighting it, jumping from waterfalls and sliding down rapids, but our elbows and knees and butts were banged up pretty good by submerged stones. Good times.

I hadn’t eaten anything that day other than a small bag of Doritos and a mini-Snickers (this is the kind of thing lazy ajanib eat for lunch during Ramadan), so I was looking forward to the Iftar in Amman. Amman is a fantastic place to have Iftar, because you can find an excellent meal for 2 JD (Jordanian dinars), about $3 (a laughable notion in Ramallah, where a decent Iftar costs between $15 and $30). There’s a place called the Hashem Restaurant that only sells top-notch hummus, falafel, and fuul, along with bread, salad, and tea, for about 1.5 JD.

They’re always crowded, and I didn’t arrive until the crowd had already overflowed from the alley well into the street. I was told there was no room at the inn. I went to the Jerusalem Restaurant instead, but the harassed-looking host said they’d filled up long ago. I tried to find another alley restaurant that usually had space, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So when the call to prayer sounded, I was alone and hungry in the twilit streets.

I started walking, hoping to find some place with food to sell. As I walked, I noticed I wasn’t alone after all. Shopkeepers had gathered in alleyways to break their fast together. A few men who sold cigarettes or knickknacks from little stalls on the street were arranging their items forlornly or ducking into a doorway to pray and eat a small meal alone. I said, “Sahtein,” to one group of men (‘Good health,’ the Middle Eastern version of Bon appetit), and they invited me to join them with a friendly wave, but I politely declined. There was already too little food for too many people at their table.

Eventually I found a shop open that was selling small, spicy falafel sandwiches with tomatoes and tahini. I bought one for a quarter of a dinar and a small cup of tamar hindi (date punch with rose water) for a tenth of a dinar. Tamar hindi is divine when done well, and this was the best I had ever tasted, sweetly exotic and ice cold. Walking down the street with my cheap prizes and a sense of lonely solidarity with the millions of Muslims who don’t always get a big, traditional Iftar every Ramadan night, either, and a renewed sense of humble gratitude for what I did have was, I think, nicer than a crowded table at the Jerusalem restaurant.

At eight, I was invited to the Jerusalem restaurant by a Christian Jordanian friend for mansaf (goat meat with rice and a special sour yogurt sauce), and I ended up feasting anyway.

Leaving Amman the next day was difficult. I’d just made all these new friends and gotten to know the city, and now, five days later, it was time to go.

I was heading four hours south to Aqaba, where the border was much more relaxed than the more direct route into the West Bank through the Allenby border crossing (which is where Arabs and activists tend to cross). I figured I’d spend a couple of days relaxing on the Gulf of Aqaba beaches and a night under the desert stars in Wadi Rum before heading back to the border.

I quickly realized, however, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the beaches or the desert properly because I was so anxious about the crossing into Israel. The usual sense of helplessness, the dread of all the things I could lose — my plans, my friends, my flatmates, my plane ticket, the olive harvest, Ramallah…

So after one day of swimming laps at the Royal Diving Club south of Aqaba, snorkeling a bit, having an over-priced fish dinner and watching Bab al Hara on a projector screen near the giant Arab Revolt flagpole, I made a run for the border.

Tips on Crossing Israeli Borders

Here are some tips on crossing Israeli borders, picked up from many difficult years of trial and error involving upwards of thirty border crossings.

  1. Be white. In America we at least attempt to be discreet when it comes to racial profiling. In Israel, it is overt and unapologetic. If at all possible, be or at least look Caucasian.
  2. Don’t have anything Araby-sounding in your name or your family. You may look white as a lily, but if your last name is Rashid, be prepared for a long wait (hopefully not more than an hour, especially if you have an American accent and don’t claim to be visiting the West Bank or Gaza). Even I often get asked, “What is your father’s name?” “Robert,” I answer. “What is your grandfather’s name?” “Melvin.” So far they haven’t asked me for my great-grandfather’s name, but if they ever do, I will reply, “Ibrahim Yusif Mohammad Abdul Aziz bin Laden… D’oh!”
  3. Have a clean passport. Any evidence in your passport of travel to Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran… you get the idea. If you’ve been to a country that’s not friendly to Israel, they will not be friendly to you. They’ll probably let you through, but rarely in under an hour or four.
  4. Dress nicely. Even if you’re white, have nothing Arab-ish in your name, and haven’t visited any Axis of Evil countries, if you look like a raggedy activist, you may get pulled aside.
  5. Act confident. Don’t say “Shalom!” with a big friendly smile or look nervous. They respect people more if they are respectful but confident — if they treat the guards as equals (with guns). They’re less likely to pounce on you if you don’t look like a scared, grinning bunny rabbit. Remember, at the end of the day, they’re just kids, and you are an adult.
  6. Act clueless. You don’t know any Arabs, you don’t know any Arabic, you don’t know it’s Ramadan, you don’t know how to dress in Arabic countries (I came to the Aqaba border with a preppy tank top under my shirt and pulled the shirt off as soon as I was out of eyeshot of Aqaba), you’re not sure what the West Bank is (if they ask), and there’s certainly no such thing as ‘East’ Jerusalem! Needless to say, don’t have any keffiyas or Hezbollah flags, or even a Ramallah Bravo Supermarket card, in your luggage.
  7. Keep the internet clean. If you have a Facebook page with lots of Palestine links, change your privacy settings to maximum and change your picture to someone who’s clearly not you. If you have a website with Palestine stuff on it that can easily be changed, change it. Put someone else’s picture on it. Make the front page all about wildflowers. If you’ve written or published things in several places that can’t be easily changed — well, just hope they don’t Google you, as they have Googled several other people and rejected or questioned them based on what they found. (If you follow all the other steps, they probably won’t Google you.)
  8. Lie like a bad rug. Especially if they have no easy way to verify what you’re saying. Sometimes honesty is the best policy, but this is usually not the case at Israeli borders. If you believe it is your right to be in Palestine, don’t make a stand at the border and demand your rights. There are times and places for this; the Israeli border is not one of them. They have all the power, they don’t understand or care about your opinions at all, and there’s no media. Just quietly slip in and go about your life. Otherwise you’re giving eighteen-year-old Russian girls a lot more power than they deserve or know how to handle.

    I always lie, and I advise other people to lie, but most people haven’t been through as many Israeli borders as I have and aren’t used to lying to authority figures. People tend to believe the Israelis have more knowledge and power than they actually do, which de facto allows them to have more knowledge and power than they actually do. Don’t fall for it.

    If the tourist lie won’t work for whatever reason, lie anyway. If you’re a journalist, a writer, a photographer, an activist, an artist teaching art classes at a refugee camp, a student studying the occupation or the Bedouin’s plight in Israel, or just coming in to help with the olive harvest, don’t let on. Find something more politically neutral. Volunteer medical worker or English teacher has usually worked for me as a back-up lie.

  9. Keep it simple. Don’t have a big, elaborate story about what you’re doing or phone numbers of friends in Israel (they will call, and this puts your Israeli friends on the spot, and they may forget parts of your story or end up contradicting you, which does not help), and don’t sit there chattering about every hostel you’ll stay in from Eilat to Tiberias. Every new piece of information just gives them more to question you about, more threads to pick at, more chances for you to contradict yourself. You’re a tourist. You’ll stay in hostels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and take day trips from there, whatever the other travelers say is the best. You’ll go home after ten days. (They’ll give you a three-month visa anyway if they think you’re a tourist — this is standard.) Whatever. Just keep it simple.
  10. Keep your passport clean. If at all possible, avoid getting Israeli stamps in your passport. Always ask for the stamp on a separate sheet of paper. This may result in a few extra questions, but it’s better than the questions you’ll get at the next border when they see that you’ve already been staying in Israel for six months. The “tourist” lie won’t work then. (By the way, don’t ask me why they don’t have this in the computer, or do have it in the computer but only sometimes check. All I can say is, the tourist lie keeps working for me.) Have a politically neutral reason for not getting a stamp, such as an environmental conference in Beirut next year, a friend who’s doing business in Dubai, or an oil contract in the Sudan.

The Israeli border — so many chances to use your imagination!

(Don’t let any of this dissuade you from coming, though. In the end, they let almost everyone through, especially if you follow these steps, and even usually if you don’t. They just have a bizarre policy of trying to ‘persuade’ people not to come back by hassling and hanging the threat of deportation over everyone. But it’s manifestly worth it to see the Holy Land for yourself and you will, at least, be warmly welcomed on the Palestinian side. There are buses from the Old City of Jerusalem to Ramallah, Bethlehem, or Hebron for about two dollars, and from there you can get anywhere in the West Bank. Ahlan wa sahlan!)

Even armed with all this, I was a wreck by the time I got to the border. There’s always a chance they can throw you a curveball, catch you contradicting yourself, Google you or run your name in the computer, and end up ruining your day and/or your next three months anyway. So far these techniques have more or less worked for me, but my luck could run out any time.

I wore too much make-up, my preppy tank top, my hair down, my confidence (seemingly) high, and my skin white as a Cairene cloud. I had my story down, everything from my (nonexistent) job in DC to my (nonexistent) fabulous Turkish vacation as soon as I left Israel after ten days.

The only awkward question they asked was, “Why did you decide to travel alone?”

“That’s none of your business, darling,” I wanted to say.

“So I can more easily infiltrate your nuclear secrets,” was about the only answer I could think of that might have anything to do with Israeli national security, and even an idiotic terrorist in a tank top wouldn’t say that.

“Well, my husband recently died after a nasty divorce, so my children are estranged from me, and most of my friends abandoned me after they found out I had an inoperable brain tumor, so really this is the last trip of my life, and as you can see, I’m all alone. Do you know anyone in Israel who might be my friend?” I didn’t say that, either.

“It’s just easier to coordinate with one person,” I said.

Three month visa, on a separate paper. Booyah.


P.S. While I was writing this, Rania called and said the family’s lawyer said Sharif would most likely be in prison until July instead of February, after all.

She’s devastated. The funds I’m providing her with (with help from many people) are enough for basics for her and Karim (and so far only enough to cover the next month), but not enough to send money to help Sharif, who’s practically starving in prison in miserable conditions, crowded in with criminals when he’s not stuck in an isolation cell six feet square. Right now Rania’s having a hard time seeing any light at the end of this tunnel.

At least Karim’s teeth are finally coming in. There art thou happy.

August 12, 2009

Sorry for the long radio silence. My life can be summed up like this: Clear skies, pretty sunsets, rooftop yoga two evenings a week (spectacular view of homes and trees, hills and sky, minarets and church towers, rolling our shoulders open toward the sky, and final relaxation as the stars come out), street hockey once a week, hanging out on my veranda with its view over the Al Masyoon neighborhood (my favorite part of Ramallah) while one of my flatmates plays the oud (lute), swimming occasionally, meeting up with every friend-of-a-friend who comes through Ramallah (keep ’em coming!), and writing, writing, writing.

Also a few random jaunts like my recent trip to a concert in Zebabdeh by a traditional Arabic ensemble called Yalalan. It’s a group of twelve musicians — oud, buzuq (like an oud but smaller, longer, and twangier), and violin players, three percussionists, and six singers — managed by my oud-playing flatmate. Their ages range from twelve to twenty-nine, the violinist is blind, and one of the percussionists is African-Palestinian (from the small African community in Jerusalem — people whose African ancestors, decades before the founding of Israel, stopped in Jerusalem on the way to Mecca and decided to stay). The oldest and the youngest, the black and the Arab, the blind and the seeing all talked and joked together as friends and equals, with more easy unity than I would expect from a similarly diverse group in America.

Zebabdeh is a hilltop Christian village south of Jenin, and its lovely city hall park looks out over fertile valleys and tawny hills. The group sang songs from all over the Middle East, and the audience clapped along. The mood from the concert spilled over to the bus ride home, where they continued to sing and play the drums. I felt a bit jealous, as I didn’t know the words to any of the songs, but it was fun enough being an audience of one.

As soon as one song would peter out or come to an end, someone would start another one, and everyone would join in. They didn’t run out of material during the entire two-hour ride from Jenin to Ramallah, although the tempo slowed considerably after we stopped off in Huwara (the village, not the checkpoint — how nice it will be one day when the names of villages become more associated with the villages themselves than with the checkpoints near them!) to have kunafa (a sweet, cheesy traditional Palestinian dessert). Afterwards I still felt hungry, so I grabbed a falafel, too. I composed a rhyme in my head to remember a new rule I subsequently became aware of:

Falafel before kunafa,
you’re cool as Mustafa.
Kunafa before falafel,
never felt more awful.

Remember that, kids.

The only time they stopped singing was when we neared a checkpoint. My flatmate would say, “Khalas, ya shebab, fi machsom.” (Quiet down, guys, there’s a checkpoint.) (Qudsis, or Jerusalemites, tend to use the Hebrew word for checkpoint — machsom — instead of the Arabic one — hajez.) He always had to say it several times before they finally consented to muffle themselves, and as soon as we passed each checkpoint, they would burst into song again about how brave and fearless Palestinians were — making fun of themselves and their powerlessness in these situations.

In my experience, soldiers hate it when Palestinians sing at checkpoints. It makes them feel threatened somehow — maybe morally threatened, maybe they don’t like the cognitive dissonance, maybe they assume they’re songs of nationalism or resistance — and there’s no telling what soldiers will do when they feel threatened. It’s pointless to provoke them, at least at the moment. Who knows, though. Maybe the Third Intifada will involve a lot of singing.

About a week before that, I visited Atara, a village north of Ramallah, to watch a friend practice soccer with his local team. You have to pass the Atara checkpoint to get to Atara village (and the rest of the northern West Bank). Lately the checkpoint has been mostly open, and for the first time I took the turn-off to Atara itself instead of taking the other road toward Nablus. I figured after visiting the checkpoint approximately five million times, it was about time I visited the eponymous village.

It was lovely in the style of most villages near Ramallah — elegant stone homes, winding lanes, leafy trees — and the view from the soccer field was breathtaking. Miles and miles of hills and space turning pale rose-colored as the sun sank and the almost-full moon rose over the twinkling villages.

The soccer team was quite good, especially their passing game. My friend was the striker, and his powerful kicks and headers had the poor goalie quaking in his cleats. The pitch was a good-quality sand field, a soft kind of sand like they have in rodeo arenas, and it had been paid for in part by USAID. (Occasionally we get something right in the Middle East!)

Violence remains practically nonexistent in Ramallah. A few weeks ago I heard several loud bangs and thought, “Here we go again…” But it turned out to be fireworks. It was tawjihi time — the annual high school graduation exams — and kids who do well and have enough cash often celebrate with parties and fireworks. Even after tawjihi time, it’s normal to see fireworks several nights a week over the Al Masyoon valley for weddings and other events. As if Ramallah could get any prettier.

But as easy as it would be for me to enjoy life here and forget about the occupation, it’s still there, seeping into every mood and cutting the rug out from under you whenever you start feeling good again. Fatah policemen, trained by an American CIA school in Jordan, have been fanning out into a few towns, supposedly improving the rule of law but often targeting Hamas, making it look like an overtly political extension of the Israeli army — a subcontractor for the occupation. If no serious political movement occurs in conjunction with this ‘security’ improvement, Fatah will look even more like quislings. Easing a checkpoint here and there isn’t going to make a single Palestinian forget that the essence of the occupation is still growing.

Aside from workaday settlement expansion, there were recently a spate of brutal evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The Israeli government kicked almost sixty Palestinians, mostly children, out of their homes and immediately handed the homes over to Jewish settlers. Many of the family members are now sleeping on mattresses across the street from their former homes, which are protected on behalf of the settlers by a heavy Israeli police presence.

The most ridiculous part is their reasoning for kicking the Palestinians out. The settlers claim they have a document proving the land once belonged to Jews. First of all, by most credible accounts, the documents appear to be forgeries. Second — are they serious? Do they really want to set a precedent where documents proving previous ownership by a certain religion or ethnicity means anyone from that religion or ethnicity can evict anyone who lives there now? Wouldn’t it then follow that Palestinians having documentation of previous ownership should get their land back, too? In that case, virtually all of Israel would be handed back to Palestinian refugees. (And God help us if any Canaanites, Hittites, or Jebusites turn up… or Romans, or Babylonians, or…)

Another case in point is my friend Rania’s situation. Six years ago, during my first trip to the West Bank, I met a Palestinian woman named Rania who aspired to a college education. She was from a small village and her family wasn’t supportive, but she found jobs with international NGOs, saved enough to pay for one semester of college, and enrolled herself, knowing that would probably be all she could manage unless a miracle happened.

When I learned about her efforts to educate herself, I made an appeal to several friends and professional contacts to help her finish her second semester, and then her third. After four years, she graduated with a degree in social work and psychological counseling. In the meantime she met and married a man named Sharif and moved to the Palestinian city of Tulkarem. By the time I arrived in Ramallah this summer, they had a one-year-old son named Karim and a daughter on the way. Rania and Sharif were in the process of building their new home a little at a time whenever they could save some money.

Sharif is one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met. He supported Rania through the final semesters of her education, he loves his son Karim (Sharif’s mother died while giving birth to him, so the idea of an intact family is novel and wonderful for him), and he changes diapers and helps with the cooking and cleaning. He has a great sense of humor and a disarming smile. He’s had a difficult life, and so has Rania, but things were finally looking up for them. They both adore Karim (trust me, he’s impossible not to adore), and Rania is ecstatic about having a daughter and giving her every kind of love and support she wished she’d had growing up.

A month ago, there was loud banging on their door around 1:00 am. Frightened, Rania asked who it was. They said they were Israeli soldiers. Rania knew they were there to arrest Sharif, though neither of them knew why. This is standard operating procedure for Israeli army arrest operations — entering homes in the dead of night when people are at their most psychologically and physically vulnerable. She had no choice but to open the door, knowing it would be blown up or knocked down if she refused. They asked if her husband was home. She said no. They asked if they could come in and make sure. Again, she had no choice but to allow them.

When they found Sharif hiding in the bedroom, they gave a loud order, and twenty more armed soldiers stormed in. They beat Sharif in front of his wife and son, called Rania a lying sharmouta (whore) while holding a gun to her head, and took Sharif away. He’s been charged with car theft in Israel, an absurd charge. He’s never been to Israel, though he had recently been given a permit to work in Israel. Rania said to me, “It is very difficult for a Palestinian to get a permit to work in Israel. Why would they give him a permit if they thought he was stealing cars?”

An Israeli friend of mine guesses it might be to pad their statistics on cracking down on car theft, or they might be trying to recruit him as a spy — offering to let him go if he will inform on his neighbors or extended family members. This is one of the most devastating tactics an occupier has for tearing the fabric of a society apart, sowing suspicion and division between neighbors and family members. How can a man be forced to choose between lying about his neighbors and family members, or spending a year away from his wife, son, and soon new daughter, knowing that without his support, they may not have enough to live on? He may be in prison himself because another man chose to falsely inform on him rather than pay this terrible price.

I visited Rania in her brother-in-law’s home in Tulkarem as soon as I learned about the situation. She can’t stay in her own home because she’s too scared to be alone. She can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes she sees Israeli soldiers. Every time she hears a car outside she thinks it’s an Israeli army Jeep.

Because she and her husband have been putting most of their savings into their new home, she was left with only about a month’s budget when her husband was taken. She has been trying hard to get a job, but unemployment is bad in the West Bank even for people who don’t have a small child and aren’t five months pregnant.

She’s spent much of the past month crying. She says the worst is when Karim walks to the front door (where he’s used to seeing his father burst in and scoop him up and hug him after work) and says, “Baba?” (Daddy?) He doesn’t seem to be scarred by the violence he witnessed. His first birthday happened to be the day I visited Rania (Sharif had planned a nice party and to buy him a little car he could scoot around in)—he’s too young to understand what’s going on. He’s actually one of the happiest toddlers I’ve ever spent time with. But when he asks several times a day where his Baba is, Rania says quietly, “Baba fi sijin, habibi.” (Daddy’s in prison, sweetie.) It’s a hard thing to witness.

‘Prison,’ by the way, doesn’t carry the same stigma in Palestine as it does in America, given that most Palestinians in Israeli jails are held not because they are criminals but as a form of collective punishment, as political prisoners, as bargaining chips (sometimes Israel agrees to release a few hundred prisoners in exchange for some Palestinian concession or as a ‘gesture of goodwill,’ which makes them look generous to the Americans and the international community, most of whom don’t understand the true nature of the situation), or to recruit spies. The statistic that ‘only’ 10% of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel are held in administrative detention (imprisoned without charge or trial) is misleading. Many are in prison simply for belonging to the wrong political party. Rania’s husband was charged, but the charge is bogus, the Israeli court system for Palestinian prisoners does not meet international standards, and many Palestinians can’t afford the exorbitant lawyer fees.

It’s not a stigma — it’s just a massive violation of basic human rights.

During my visit, Rania kept asking me Job-like questions I couldn’t answer.

“Why does this happen to me? I am a good girl, I always do right. I love my husband and my child. Why do they do this? What right do they have to take my husband? Why do they have human rights in other places, but not in Palestine? How can I raise my children if I am alone? How can we have any security if soldiers can take my husband away any time they want, for no reason? I don’t hate the Jewish, but it makes it very hard for me to respect them when they do this. He is a good man, never any guns, no bad thing to anyone. He has had a hard life, but always he does his best. Why do they take him? If we do right and always bad things happen, maybe if we do wrong, something good will happen. I don’t know, I can’t imagine why the life is like this. What do you think?”

What can I say? “In my current understanding, they do this because they feel insecure (to an often delusional and self-fulfilling degree and/or as a post-rationalization for brute grabs of power and resources), and they have power and you don’t. They want to make life difficult for Palestinians so they will submit to Israel ’s dictates or leave. This is called power politics, or ‘Realism’ in American foreign policy circles.”

Does she really want a lecture on realpolitik?

“In my current understanding, you don’t have control over anything in this life but your own behavior. Behave with as much integrity as you can, and try to make peace with the things you don’t control. Unfortunately, you happen to have the short end of the stick when it comes to the things you don’t control.”

Of course I can’t say something like this to a frightened young mother. Not sure what else to say, I told her the story of Job (apparently it’s not in the Quran, unlike many Bible stories) and told her to take care of herself and her kids and be kind to her husband, that things would work out somehow, and in the end some good may even come of it (even though of course no one can guarantee any of this). It’s very strange for me to be in this position. I never imagined I would be trying to comfort a Muslim friend with Bible stories. I think more than anything it did her good just to be able to talk for hours about her fears and feelings. It’s ironic that she’s the one trained in psychological counseling. Part of me wanted to laugh and say, “Physician, heal thyself!” But it’s always different when it’s your own problem and not someone else’s. Just one more of the millions of stories of what the occupation means for the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

Aside from the post-traumatic stress, she has some hard economic realities to deal with in the medium-term. If, as the family’s lawyer seems to think, her husband will be in prison for about a year, and if Rania doesn’t manage to find a job soon, she will be ten months without any way to support herself. Normally she would ask her family or her husband’s family for help, but most of them are either barely scraping by themselves (Israel has built the Wall around her family’s village, and it has isolated most of its land from its owners, forcing many to move out, find work in Israel or the settlements, or become charity cases), also in prison, abroad, or dead. It’s a miracle there is any sense of society left in Palestine, much less one as strong as it is.

I and some friends have pitched in enough to keep her going for another month and a half, and she has a couple of possible leads on jobs. If she didn’t have a university degree, she would be in an even bigger mess. As it is, the strangled economy due to the Wall and closures and the loss of her husband for a year due to the occupation nearly destroyed her young family, and might yet if she doesn’t find a job and I can’t gather enough money to keep her afloat through the birth of her daughter and the many months of separation from her husband.

I will help her out as much as I can, and if anyone would like to PayPal me $5 or $10 or $20 to supplement the effort, it would be very much appreciated. My PayPal account is pamolson02 @ yahoo . com. Needless to say, 100% of whatever you give will go directly to her.

Thanks so much.

July 10, 2009

After I got to Ramallah and sorted out my housing situation, I still had a week to go until my room would open up on July 1. So I went to Haifa to visit an old friend, a Russian-Israeli named Dan. It was fantastic catching up. He has a knack for finding beautiful, out-of-the-way places to talk, meditate, do yoga, and watch the sunset, and we had an amazing time without spending a cent (the way I like it) except for a lavish dinner at an Arabic place on the ridge of the Carmel hills above Haifa after an afternoon of playing in the waves on the beach. He’s going to Technion University now (the top university in Israel), and it was fun walking around the hilltop campus and seeing the mixture of students, Arabs and Israelis and Russians, though they seemed to congregate with their own kind for the most part.

Dan (like many immigrants to Israel) came in a time of relative peace without being told what the situation was really like. The first map he bought for getting around Israel didn’t even have the West Bank delineated — only the settlements and their roads indicated, with West Bank Palestinian towns and villages placed on the map as if they, too, were in Israel, except for a few small areas shaded in grey — so-called Area A, the 17% of the West Bank that Palestinians supposedly have autonomy over and Israeli civilians aren’t allowed to enter. (The army, of course, goes in any time it wants.)

The Second Intifada erupted shortly after Dan got here, and I’m sure it seemed like a bolt from the blue at the time. In 2003 he met me, and I brought him to a Palestinian area in the West Bank to show him what the situation was like on the other side. He was horrified by the situation and charmed by the Palestinians’ hospitality, but he faced in Israel the same problem I face in America — the stories people already have in their heads are so radically different from reality, almost no one believed him or even wanted to hear it.

Part of me feels bad for laying this burden on him. But I guess I hold with Henry Thoreau that “Any truth is better than make-believe,” and it’s our job as adults to learn to live in reality, even if the fantasies of our cultures and the proclamations of our leaders and newscasters might be more simple and self-satisfying. Reality is actually a lot more friendly and interesting than the dim world I grew up in, full of strange foreign enemies, inevitability, images with nothing behind them, and rational economic actors (‘rationality’ being defined in large part by the folks who control the most capital, with many results that defy all logic or common sense). To each his own, I suppose, although it bothers me how often one person is compelled to suffer on account of someone else’s ignorance.

There was a nice article in the New York Times recently about a gay Israeli plumber who helps Palestinian farmers remain on their land despite persecution by Israeli settlers and soldiers. He’s being persecuted by the Israeli government and hounded by the settlers, and he’s likely to go to jail in Israel soon on the usual trumped-up charges.

What struck me most, though, was something he said: “I don’t consider my work political. I don’t have a solution to this dispute. I just know that what is going on here is wrong. This is not about ideology. It is about decency.”

That’s the kind of moral and intellectual courage we need more of — a simple, public “This is wrong” when something feels and seems deeply wrong and/or absurd. The ability to judge these things for ourselves instead of falling in line behind Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory or whoever else fancies him or herself an arbiter of mainstream truth and morality — I think this is a defining characteristic of humanity, and I don’t know why we don’t use it more often, especially after so many thousands of lessons and examples throughout history of what happens when millions of people abdicate their conscience to the state.

After leaving Haifa, I headed for Nablus. It’s only about 60 miles from Haifa, but because I had to travel all the way down to Jerusalem and then back up to Nablus due to the Wall (alternatively, I could have taken a settler bus into the settlement of Ariel in the middle of the northern West Bank and then walked to a Palestinian road and taken a cab from there, but I didn’t feel like dealing with settlers), the trip was more than three times longer than it should have been and took five hours.

As my bus from Ramallah to Nablus passed settlement areas in the West Bank, I noticed that a poster has been put up showing President Obama wearing an Arafat-style keffiya. I couldn’t read the Hebrew (and I personally thought the President looked dashing in the black-and-white scarf), but the implications were clear: The American president was an Arab-lover, betraying the Jewish race with his insistence on enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

Why does this sound familiar? Ask Alabama ca. 1961.

Note: Not all Israelis, much less all Jews, feel this way. But this is what we’re up against when it comes to the settlers in the West Bank. So many of them are living in Lala-Land, and all too many are willing to defend their fantasies with violence.

But here’s the amazing part — the Huwara checkpoint south of Nablus, the one I had been turned away from so many times and had to hike over the mountains to get into Nablus, the one that turned Nablus into a virtual prison camp, the one where so many horrific abuses had taken place, the human cattle chute of so much dread and lore — it was gone!

Not gone exactly… Israeli soldiers were still there. But they weren’t stopping anyone. They were just watching. The infrastructure of the checkpoint is still in place, and it can be shut down again at any time. But for now, buses and cars passed by in minutes instead of hours without being forced to get out and be checked and harassed and, often as not, detained or turned back (or worse) on arbitrary grounds. In fact, our bus drove straight from the center of Ramallah to the center of Nablus without being stopped at a single checkpoint! It was bizarre, but nice.

When I got into town and asked about the news, I found that the raids into Nablus’s Old City, which before were nightly and often deadly occurrences, have slowed significantly. Like in Ramallah, business in Nablus was taking off at a much faster clip than when I was here last. The situation is still dire, and settlers have stepped up their attacks on Palestinian farmers (beating them, burning or cutting down their trees and crops, etc.) in the wake of Obama’s calls to halt settlement expansion. But when you’ve spent nearly a decade with an elephant sitting on your face, it’s hard not to feel relief when suddenly it’s a slightly smaller elephant.

There are many theories about why some major checkpoints have been opened. (No one here listens to official news reports of why things are done, because these are almost always PC BS.) Some say it’s because Netanyahu is trying to use this relatively easy concession to cut down on pressure for him to halt settlement expansion. Others say that Netanyahu is pushing for “economic peace,” which means Palestinians will get certain areas that Israel is willing to “give up” but without the full rights of statehood such as control over their borders and airspace, and with much of their land annexed to settlements. Easing up and letting the economy get a little better is a way to keep the Palestinian population quiet while he tries to sell them a glorified Indian reservation (minus any rights of citizenship in Israel, but with ‘citizenship’ in a dummy state ultimately controlled by Israel) — a plan that has no chance of working. Palestinians may be quiet at the moment, but they’re not stupid.

Either way, for the moment it’s a stunning and welcome development. Nablus is now, as it should be, an easy 1.5-hour, ten-shekel ($2.50) jaunt from Ramallah by bus, less in a car, which is good for Ramallah and amazing for the Nablusis, who’ve been shut up in their city for so long.

It’s a beautiful place to be trapped in, though, as collective prisons go. Built in a long valley between two high hills, it’s one of the most unique and beautiful cities in the Middle East. Its Old City, largely intact and thoroughly lived in, is not only stunning, it’s virtually untouched by foreign tourists.

Here’s a letter I wrote about a visit to Nablus in 2005.

I was there to visit a Canadian friend whom I’d met six years earlier in Jayyous village during my very first visit to the West Bank. He runs a prominent humanitarian NGO (non-governmental organization) in Nablus with tens of Palestinian and international employees and volunteers who teach English, art, nursing, and other subjects in several locations around Nablus and engage in other awareness-raising and civil-society-building projects. It was fun to meet them, a more self-selected group than the Ramallah ajanib (foreigners), who these days pretty much come willy nilly and take over all my favorite cafes. But even in Nablus, you used to be able to count the number of foreigners on your fingers. Now your fingers and toes and your brother’s digits aren’t sufficient.

It was great to hang out on an Old City roof with some friends and watch the sun set over the Western end of the valley, framed by the hills and some of the prettiest white stone minarets in the West Bank in a haze of glowing rose and lavender under a darkening blue sky. And a bit sobering to see all the new construction in the city. The big ugly mall in the city center, which seems to be mostly parking on the first four floors and telecom offices on the upper floors, was finally finished, and there are scores of new buildings creeping up the sides of the picturesque hills. It’s still a beautiful city, and the mall does have a cinema (a luxury Nablus hasn’t enjoyed in years). But like most cities, the more it sprawls, the more charm it loses. Nablus will surely be a prime tourist destination if/when there’s peace, so they’d do well to preserve as much charm as possible. But it’s hard to think about that when your newly-married kid needs a house or your investors want a return.

On another evening, sitting on the veranda of the volunteers’ house with its little herb and squash garden and looking out over the city, unseen F-16 fighter jets were doing loud maneuvers over the city. We had to pause our conversation every time the decibel level got too high for us to be able to hear each other. A young Icelandic volunteer yelled over the roar, “Why are they doing this?”

My Canadian friend and I looked at each other. She was probably looking for a rational or strategic reason. Why the sonic booms over Gaza? Why did soldiers make a Palestinian play his violin at the Beit Iba checkpoint near Nablus and jeer at him in 2005? Why did a female Israeli soldier force a Palestinian woman to drink cleaning fluid at a checkpoint? Why do so many children get shot in the head by Israeli snipers in Gaza? Why suicide bombings? We could have been there all night trying to answer her question. I’m writing a book that tries to explain.

After that, I headed back to Ramallah. Two things I forgot about Ramallah in the summer: It’s hot and crowded. But the invasion of foreigners isn’t as bizarre as I thought at first — this happens almost every summer, although it’s a bit over-the-top at the moment. Now that the violence has gone down (and the global economy has, too), the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) seem to have exploded like a pinata from Europe. There are also a lot of college kids breezing in to learn a mite of Arabic over the summer break or demonstrate against the Wall. More power to ’em, but they sure do fill up the place like tourists in New York, wide-eyed, aghast, and sure they can change the world in a month. We old-timers remember our first time here, of course, and can’t and shouldn’t judge. Circle of life, I suppose. And who knows, maybe one of them will go on and shake things up somehow.

But if all these changes and the invasion of foreigners is this weird for us, whose memories mostly don’t start until 2003 or so, I wonder what it’s like for Palestinians, for whom time is probably frozen in 1986 or 1999 or whenever things were relatively normal and peaceful. The Second Intifada must be like a passing thunderstorm for them, an earthquake, a nightmare, a shock from which they will spend years recovering, if they ever quite do.

I think they will, more or less. It will be an amazing day if and when there’s finally freedom — like the Shire after being ransacked and devastated by the ruffians, like Minas Tirith after the hordes of Mordor were vanquished and things could be rebuilt for real rather than in a roughshod, ad hoc, emergency-development kind of way and have a hope of standing for at least a few generations. (Sorry, I read Return of the King on the plane.) Tearing down the Wall and settler fences, letting the sheep and goatherds roam free on their ancestral lands again, being able to hike without worrying about running into armed settlers and army bases, accessing all the fantastic hills now cordoned-off by settlements, and replanting all the trees and fields and irrigation systems and splendid homes that were destroyed by the occupation… Makes my spine tingle to think about it.

As nice as the West Bank is now, imagine if people could live like they’re meant to, using all their skills, building businesses and organizations that aren’t subject to draconian Palestinian Authority and Israeli restrictions or simply being beheaded by foreign NGO salaries for the best and brightest, and marketing some of the finest produce and dairy products in the world without movement blockades, economic stagnation, and competition from Israeli cast-offs? (I’ve been told that foreign NGOs sometimes actually serve to de-develop Palestine because after, say, a Palestinian statistician has spent ten years getting a PhD and becoming an expert and a leader in a Palestinian institution, a foreign NGO will sweep in, offer double the salary, and take them away. Then there’s the fact that the Palestinian CEOs of some companies have to apply for tourist visas to enter the West Bank because they don’t have Israeli-issued IDs and live with the constant fear they’ll be deported.)

Imagine Israel without armed 18-year-old children everywhere, insecurity and delusion poisoning their society, a mad compulsion to crowd loads of random people in (many of whom aren’t even Jewish but are willing to say they are in exchange for a free new life) in a land already stretched thin and low on water and build everything fast and cheap (and often ugly) to counter the “demographic threat” (i.e. the fact that Arabs have children faster than Jews do, threatening the somewhat oxymoronic idea of a “Jewish democracy” — ironically enough, the higher birthrates can be attributed in large part to the fact that Arabs are kept in a state of greater poverty by Israel’s policies), and security checks at every civilian gathering place? This could be a damn fine slice of earth.

As for the heat, I got here just in time for a miserable heat wave that meant sleeping in sweat, and then in Nablus contracted some kind of intestinal parasite, so my first couple of days back in Ramallah weren’t ideal. The heat is not as bad as in Oklahoma — neither as hot nor as humid — but I have to walk a lot more here, up and down a lot of hills, and most places don’t have air conditioning. Makes it hard to think.

Then on Friday, June 3, I played my first game of street hockey with the Ramallah Street Hockey League. Street hockey shouldn’t be confused with roller hockey — we have no skates, we just put on tennis shoes, grab sticks, and run around a parking lot batting a little rubber ball around in the vague direction of broken-down metal goals. It’s a rough and explosive game that requires more tenacity than skill, and the less skilled players (such as myself) are prone to hitting people’s shins as much as the ball. It was great fun and a good group of folks to meet, though I was sore for three days from both bruises and the stressing of underused hockey-stick-swinging muscles.

The heat wave also broke, to the point that it’s almost chilly at night and I have to close the door to my room to keep out the breeze. On Saturday I finally found some cool, quiet places to work, set up my new apartment in a more homey way, bought some fruits and vegetables from the market in town, got to know my (very busy) roommates better, and got to work on the book again. Finally I feel like I have arrived.

I’ve noticed also that the dress code in Ramallah has relaxed. You can see girls wearing almost-sleeveless shirts and capri pants that show off their calves (in addition to long pants so tight you would be forgiven for mistaking them for bare skin if not for the color), and men wear athletic shorts walking down the streets. The Muntaza Baladia Ramallah (Ramallah City Hall Park) has been spruced up, its fountains spraying water high in the air instead of sitting there like dusty shipwrecks, and there’s a bouncy castle with a ball pit, a big rubber pool with kid-sized paddle boats, a playground for kids, and tables set up under shady trees where people can order food, drinks, and hookahs.

I’ve always thought of Ramallah as a nearly-ideal blend of East and West, with the fantastic and welcoming hospitality and culture of Palestine, breezy parks, wind-swept Biblical hillsides, small shops and spice and vegetable markets mixed with virtually anything a Westerner could want, from lattes, Nutella, and Chinese food to hip hop and classical concerts. But lately it seems to have tilted a bit too far to the West.

The crowding in the cafes has turned the scene into a seller’s market, which means prices are higher, space scarcer, and waiters snootier. Some places have even instated a $10 cover charge for Thursday nights for the DJed dance parties. It’s upsetting the balance of the relatively rich folks with foreign NGO salaries and the rest of us — students, activists, volunteers, and artists. But they have to limit the clientele somehow, and this is an easy and lucrative way to do it. I’ve certainly been eliminated, but I’m not much into the big going out nights anyway — I prefer the intimacy of the off-nights — so it all works out.

In other news, in order to start re-instituting a respect for the rule of law in Palestine, which has eroded under the iron fist of occupation, there are policemen everywhere now, directing traffic and pedestrians and pulling cars over for the tiniest infractions. The traffic scene in Ramallah is kind of a divine mess with its own order and rhythym, and it requires a keen sense of awareness to navigate it successfully. So far the policemen seem to irritate people more than help them. People generally jaywalk among traffic just as they please anyway. Besides, when people start paying attention to rules instead of reality, that’s when accidents happen. Meanwhile, with the PA corrupt to the core and showing no sign of reform, this token forcing of the citizenry to obey petty traffic laws seems hypocritical if not ludicrous, but it’s slowly starting to reach an equilibrium where policemen don’t get too uptight and people don’t break the laws in front of them too flagrantly.

Incidentally, it’s also possible that the lessening of (some) checkpoints (others have intensified, and the vast majority, more than 600 including unmanned but impassable road blocks, are still there) is a concession not to the Palestinians but to the Palestinian Authority (PA) so that they can make more investments and skim off the top and therefore have less of an incentive to form a unity government with Hamas that might actually represent the Palestinian people in peace talks.

Palestinians are disgusted by the Palestinian Authority these days. It’s not that they love Hamas — they’re getting more fed up with Hamas by the day as well. But the PA has become little more than a fig leaf and security sub-contractor for the occupation, helping Israel round up Hamas members and other dissidents and caving into every Israeli demand without asking for anything tangible in return. They make requests now and then, but Israel ignores them. There is essentially no high-level push-back to the occupation other than Obama’s right now.

If the Western world ever talks to Hamas without the one-sided preconditions the Palestinian Authority accepted long ago, and they join the PA in a unity government, the PA might finally be able to represent the Palestinian people — which is part of why the Israeli government is so dead-set against this.

As for grassroots pushback, there are still the millions of individuals who continue to live with as much dignity as possible on their land, who challenge the Wall with non-violent protests and lawsuits, who bring foreigners in to see the situation for themselves, who charter boats full of humanitarian aid and try to sail to Gaza and break the Israeli blockade (these boats have been often rammed and/or boarded by the Israeli navy, the peace activists arrested — most recently former US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was among those arrested by Israel while on a humanitarian mission to Gaza), and who call for divestment and boycotts against Israel as long as it is in violation of international law.

Naomi Klein recently came to Ramallah to give a talk about this very subject, and with refreshing honesty said she should have joined the campaign to boycott Israel a long time ago, but cowardice stopped her until the horrific Israeli operations in Gaza earlier this year.

The UK, for its part, recently hit Israel with a partial arms embargo over its savagely disproportionate attacks on Gaza. Politically it could make waves — open the floodgates, albeit slowly most likely, as there’s a lot of money to be made selling hardware for Israel to discharge on the heads and bodies and homes and fields of Palestinian men, women, and children. Still, it’s yet another step in the right direction — an unprecedented step as far as I know.

But as for organized resistance coming from the Territories, it’s been pretty well neutered for the moment other than the frequent non-violent protests against home demolitions and the Wall that the Israeli army counters with extreme violence — such as shooting tear gas, rubber bullets, and live bullets at unarmed protesters, killing seven in the past year and grievously wounding many, including an American named Tristan Anderson whose head was split open by a high-velocity tear gas canister a few months ago — and the international press ignores.

But as a friend said the other day, people were about this demoralized just before the First Intifada erupted in 1987. If nothing moves in a good way in the next couple of years, times may be ripe for Round Three. Hopefully some important lessons have been learned from the first two Intifadas.

There is some dissention within Fatah, though. (Fatah is the other major party in the PA after Hamas. Fatah dominated the PA until Hamas won in January 2006, and they still dominate the West Bank since Israel arrested the Hamas Parliamentarians, and meanwhile Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force pre-emptively when they had reason to believe Fatah was about to oust them with the help of the CIA. I know, it’s like a bad soap opera over here.) Many younger members of Fatah are as fed up as the rest of us, so… Who knows? It’s a giant mess right now.

Here’s a good summary of the general feeling on the ground here these days.

In short, things are in a bit of a holding pattern, except for the continuously expanding settlements. Violent resistance, such as it is, hasn’t worked to throw off the occupation. The militants in Nablus and Jenin have been bought off and are virtually indistinguishable from the PA. Non-violent resistance worked up to a point during the First Intifada until it was co-opted by the Oslo Accords, and now it’s being totally ignored. Right now people seem to be in wait-and-see mode.

Maybe Obama will man up, stop the settlements, and engage Hamas in talks for a unity government that includes Hamas and Fatah under reasonable terms. Maybe all the millions of little ways the truth has to chip away at the edifice of lies surrounding Israel (blogs from Palestine, writers, filmmakers, travelers, activists, and even a few political leaders and pundits who call for a more even-handed approach) will start to bear fruit in a more systematic way, or the press will continue to speak a little more honestly, nudging public opinion toward a major policy shift.

It doesn’t hurt that the Israeli right wing are shooting themselves in the foot in a major way, sounding more absolutist and racist as the days go by. The Israeli Housing Minister recently said out in the open that the spread of Arab populations in Israel to Jewish areas had to be stopped. Projecting much? As if it’s Arabs who are colonizing Jewish land! As if it’s kosher in 2009 to say, “This race of people is undesirable, and we should segregate them.” These Israeli right-wingers are something else. As a friend of mine said, “Do they not hear what they are saying?”

So maybe, in the end, simple common sense and decency will prevail where titanic clashes between Israel’s PR machine and Palestinian resistance have merely muddied the waters over the years.

Either way, even now it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the most important thing I’ve learned here, vis-a-vis my happiness, is to try to think positively and look for the good even in very bad times. It’s always there, even though there’s also plenty to be cynical about. I’ve found that too much cynicism is not only unpleasant, it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So here are some good things: An Italian NGO is helping Bedouin live on their land in the West Bank by providing fodder for their animals while Israel restricts their access to their ancestral grazing lands.

Gazans, though devastated by the recent slaughter and destruction, are doggedly rebuilding (to the extent they can while Israel blockades them and refuses to allow concrete and other building materials into the Strip), finding beauty, and dreaming of better times to come.

Palestinian organizations are mapping and opening fantastic hiking trails all over the West Bank and inviting Western and Arab tourists to come see for themselves what an incomparable piece of land this is, and how it’s being sliced up and brutalized by ugly prefabricated settlements, Walls, and fanatic settlers. The Nativity Trail winds all the way from Nazareth and down through the West Bank to Bethlehem, through mountains, deserts, enchanting farmland, olive groves, and Palestinian family homes who put the hikers up each night, while the Abraham Trail goes from Nablus to Ramallah along high ridges and ancient archaeological sites. It’s a hot and dry but gorgeous walk in the summer. In the spring, it’s a crazy quilt of intense green with wildflowers.

The other day I was looking for something near the Palestinian Legislative Council building, but I wasn’t sure where it was. I was in a cafe, and I asked a waiter where the Legislative Council was. He didn’t understand, so I said, “Parliament, I’m looking for Parliament.”

He clucked his tongue regretfully and said, “No, sorry, we don’t sell cigarettes here.”

(For those not in the know, Parliament, usually pronounced ‘Barliman,’ is a brand of cigarette in the Arab world.)

Later as I was walking down a street toward Al Manara (Ramallah’s central traffic circle), I heard a plaintive little “Meow” and followed the sound to a couple of eight-year-old boys holding a cardboard box with a calico kitten in it. They couldn’t walk very fast because almost everyone they passed, including adult shopkeepers (and myself), stopped them with a “Ta’aal shway” (C’mere a minute) so they could open the box and have a look at the kitten.

Palestinian produce is as delicious and bountiful as ever, and at least half my meals are salads made of vegetables, lemon juice, olive oil, and eggs or tuna. Gonna buy some salty white cheese and black olives to add to next week’s salads. If I ever start feeling bereft of calories, I grab a hunk of sweet, cheesy kunafa or a $1 felafel sandwhich (used to be cheaper, but the dollar’s fallen relative to the shekel — stupid repeal of Glass-Steagall).

A few days later around sunset, I got nostalgic for the view from the hillside house where I lived in 2007, so I walked over to it and sat on the stone steps next to the house that connect an uphill road to a downhill one and watched the sun sink into hills blushing rose-colored in the dusk, darkened by shadow, or lit up by civilization. A woman walked by and toward the house where I used to live. I caught her attention and asked if my old roommate still lived there. She said no, but we started talking and soon found that we had several friends in common. She invited me to join her for a giant Palestinian dinner with some friends, two kittens, a bunny, and a tiny injured bird that the household was nursing back to health. About fifteen people showed up, many old and new friends, and at the end a Palestinian and a German grabbed two guitars and played the blues. (The German guy asked if anyone had a bottleneck — no one did, so he used a little ceramic coffee mug, with mixed results.)

Finally, it’s a jam-packed cultural scene this summer with festivals and concerts, dance and theater, films and craft fairs, from Outlandish and Chico and the Gypsies to DAM (Palestinian hip-hop) and a Turkish dance troupe from Anatolia that I was told by one of my roommates (the one who works for the Popular Arts Center) that I had to see. He got me a ticket (even with all the shows going on, tickets sell out fast), and it was great — about 50 dancers, 25 costume changes, an energy level so high it was completely exhausting to watch (don’t want to know how exhausting it was to actually do!), whirling dervishes, shirtless hunks, and a belly dancer who must have been at least half snake.

In short, it’s going to be tough to keep disciplined enough to finish the book by December, but so far I’m mostly on schedule, and August should slow down considerably when all the Euros go on vacation, then it’ll be Ramadan (I predict getting a LOT of work done then), then fall and winter and the end of outdoor nightlife and a slowdown of the cultural scene and a lot less crowding, so all in all things are looking good.

One of the festivals this summer is called Jerusalem: Capital of Arab Culture. Opening night was, naturally, shut down by the Israeli government, but Palestinians have learned by now not to take no for an answer. Alternate venues have sprung up all over the place, in both the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

Speaking of Arab East Jerusalem, check out this excerpt from an AFP (Agence France Presse) article about how Israel still refuses to stop expanding settlements:

“The presence of 470,000 Jewish settlers in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank, 190,000 of them in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, has long been seen as a major obstacle to the peace process and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The international community views all settlements in lands occupied during the 1967 Six Day war as illegal and the Middle East Quartet — made up of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — has called for a complete freeze.”

Hear that? They aren’t pretending East Jerusalem isn’t occupied. They called it “annexed Arab east Jerusalem.” They made no distinction between East Jerusalem settlements and other West Bank settlements. They called settlements “a major obstacle to the peace process.” They’re speaking in terms of international law rather than the usual politically correct nonsense like ignoring the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied and calling East Jerusalem settlements “Jerusalem neighborhoods.” More and more papers are starting to talk like this.

It’s a start.

June 26, 2009

I arrived in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv a few days ago, en route to Ramallah. Of course I didn’t tell that to Israeli passport control. Two of my friends recently got deported from the Israeli border/airport, one because he was googled and found to have written an article critical of the Israeli government, the other because she told the truth — that she was headed to Palestinian refugee camps to teach art classes — and then refused to give the Israeli guards information about everyone, foreign or Palestinian, whom she knew in the West Bank. Both cases made me ill for their own sake, but they also made me sick with fear that I might be turned back, too.

To be as safe as possible, I turned my Facebook privacy settings to maximum, changed my profile picture to some Swedish girl I found on the internet, changed my website to show someone else’s pictures, and removed all the Palestine-related stuff. (A few years ago they googled me at the border and found a picture of my family in Oklahoma brandishing firearms during our annual “head out to the country, shoot at paper targets, and take funny pictures” outing at Christmas — it can be found about one-third of the way down the page here — and gave me a hard time about it.) I still spent weeks developing minor ulcers over the thought of it while at the same time feeling ridiculous that they should get to me so badly even from two continents away, without yet having said a word.

I left Oklahoma during the second week of June and spent a week in New York visiting friends, which was amazing — so good to see everyone, meet great new people, and stay out ’til 6am most nights (which I was hoping would cancel out the upcoming jetlag, but in fact it doubled it). The cheapest flight to Tel Aviv went through Zurich with a two-hour layover. Zurich seemed like a cool place to visit, so I asked Swiss Air how much it would cost to extend my layover to three days instead of two hours. They said it would cost ten extra dollars. Somehow I scraped it together.

I found a very charming CouchSurfing host named Hannes who let me stay on his fold-out couch in his loft near the Zurich Old City. (If you haven’t checked out, I highly recommend it — great people to meet and free places to stay all over the world and interesting travelers to host right in your home town.)

Coincidentally that weekend in Zurich, a Belgian friend from college named Paul-Olivier Dehaye was having a huge party at his house, which was modeled after the co-op I lived in during my senior year at Stanford — Columbae — and full of interesting international characters. Another Columbae alum, Alby Chan, was also there on vacation, and the theme of the party, aside from wine, foosball, and painting on the walls (the house was going to be demolished soon to build something more profitable), was showing up in brightly-colored clothes that could be exchanged until everyone was wearing all one color, like a bunch of wandering Rubik’s Cube faces. Few people managed this goal, but many clothes were exchanged nonetheless. Good times.

Monday morning, after an anxious, sleepless night, it was time to board the final leg of my flight to Tel Aviv. I was naturally surrounded by American Jewish kids on their way to Israel for a Birthright tour — a free trip to Israel for American Jewish kids paid for by Jewish organizations to strengthen ties between Israel and American Jewry. I talked with them but stuck to my story about being a tourist in Israel just in case the guards decided to cross-examine us, or in case an Israeli plainclothes agent was listening in. (I know how ridiculous this sounds. All I can say is that things even more absurd have actually happened at Israeli border crossings, and I would rather be paranoid than sorry.)

At last our plane pulled into Ben Gurion Airport, and it was time to face the Gatekeepers of the Holy Land — Israeli passport control. My stomach was churning, but I did my best to look utterly unconcerned. It helped that on the way to passport control, an American Jewish girl asked me a question, and we started chatting, which gave me a chance to rehearse my story and took my mind off what was coming. She asked me where I went to college, and when I said I went to Stanford, class of 2002, she said, “Oh, then you totally probably know Justin Weinstein-Tull!” I totally did — he was in Columbae the year I was there.

We talked about him for a bit until we got to the passport control line, where without thinking I chose the shortest line instead of trying to size up which of the guards looked most lenient. It was too late to change now, but my guy looked reasonable, solidly-built with a shaved head but not unkind-looking. I had a big story cooked up about working at a think tank in DC and going to Jordan for work (my passport revealed that I’d spent four months in Jordan in 2007, when in fact I spent nearly all of those four months in the West Bank but didn’t get any Israeli stamps in my passport), etc. But in the end I scrapped all that and just said I was a tourist going to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Eilat. Luckily he didn’t ask me about Jordan.

I asked him to please stamp my passport on a separate paper because I said that after I left Israel, I was heading to Turkey via Syria. Not true. I just don’t like to have Israeli stamps in my passport because it makes it harder to claim I’m a tourist every time I come in. (And yes, you’d think Israel would have all this on the computer, but for whatever reason this has rarely stopped them from believing my usual touristy lies.)

He looked at me suspiciously, then gave me a Dick Cheney-esque smirk. He stamped a three-month tourist visa on a separate sheet of paper all right — my gate pass. My heart sank. I knew what was coming. As I passed the next gate, a female guard asked for it and tore it into four pieces.

I said innocently, “Wait, that’s my visa. Don’t I need that?”

She said, “No, you only needed it to give to me.”

I knew that wasn’t true, but I wasn’t in any mood to argue and risk getting deported after getting so achingly close. If I kept my mouth shut, I would at least get three months in Ramallah before I would have to go through another border and deal with all this again.

Last time they tore up my visa like this, they failed to put my information into the computer, which turned me into an instant illegal immigrant. It also made it more dicey to go through checkpoints in the West Bank. Without a valid visa, soldiers have an excuse to detain me at checkpoints, or worse. Luckily they usually just don’t care. If you tell them you lost your visa paper and you’re on your way to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to get a new one, they’re usually happy for you to be someone else’s problem. But you’re still, as always, subject to their whims, and sometimes they will hold up whatever vehicle you’re in, even if several other people are sharing your service taxi, while they decide your fate. It’s a massive pain, but that’s life here, and for me, even without a visa, it’s much easier than most.

When I tried to leave the country without a visa last time, sure enough, they treated me like an illegal immigrant who had no proof of legal entry. I tried to look all sweet and innocent and bewildered and outraged that the airport had lied to me, and somehow they let me pass after only a couple of hours of making me sweat. Hopefully something similar will happen next time. As always, there’s only one way to find out.

After the gate guard tore up my visa, another Israeli girl stepped up to me to ask a few questions — what I was doing in Israel, what I had been doing in Jordan, whether I had been here before, whether I was planning on doing any kind of volunteering while I was in Israel, etc. It was almost scary how easily all the friendly lies came. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience, like I imagine method acting must be like. Improvisation on the theme of Israeli tourism. It apparently worked — I got through without my luggage even being ransacked.

And without a visa. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.

(By the way, it apparently pays to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport a mainstream, busy kind of time. If you arrive at 7pm or 2am, as I have before, it gives them that many more hours to detain, question, and harass you.)

I caught a sherut (Israeli shared taxi) from the airport to Jerusalem, forgetting that sheruts from the airport to Jerusalem usually pass through half a dozen settlements and several Israeli-only roads in the West Bank before getting to Jerusalem proper. I shrank into my seat in shame every time we passed a Palestinian town whose access road had been blocked by the Israeli-only road (literally closed off with giant cement blocks) and every time we passed the scores of new Israeli-only apartment buildings being built illegally on West Bank land.

When the only people left in the sherut were me and an American Jewish girl on her way to the Hebrew University, we started chatting. I asked her innocently, “We were in the West Bank for a while, weren’t we?”

She smiled. “Yeah. Those roads used to be a problem, but not anymore.” She meant Palestinian resistance to them, both legitimate and illegitimate, had pretty much been quelled, at least for the moment, which was true.

“Hmm. And a lot of settlements seem to be expanding.”

She smiled again. “Yes, they’re expanding.”

“They’re all expanding,” I said in amazement. “They’re expanding like they’re going out of style.”

I’m too exhausted by the subject to talk too much about settlements right now, but here are some articles in case you’re interested.

Israel defies US with plan for 240 new homes on Palestinian land, The Guardian

Barak authorizes construction of 300 new homes in West Bank, Haaretz

Fictions on the Ground, New York Times

Seeing Through Israel’s Delay Tactics, The Boston Globe

The basic idea is that Obama said in no uncertain terms that Israel should immediately stop all expansion of illegal settlements (every single one of them is illegal according to international law), and Israel has ignored him despite the fact that the US government gives Israel $3 billion a year in aid. Not only are they expanding Jewish-only settlements, they continue to evacuate and demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.

It’s possible Obama will step up more serious pressure after giving Israel some kind of grace period while he figures out health care and the economy. I don’t know. I hope for the best and try to be prepared for the worst, as always. I suppose the silver lining at the moment is that the press continues to report Israel’s violations of international law with slightly more honesty than usual. Might actually presage a genuine policy change down the line.

I try to tell people to be patient — that political change of this magnitude takes time, like trying to turn the Titanic, and Obama’s trying to change or fix or generally un-FUBAR about 500 things at once while under crushing political constraints that are guaranteed to warp whatever he tries to do, even under the best and most generous assumptions about his intentions. But all the homes and trees still being knocked down, and all the construction cranes above brand new industrial colonial blights on this ancient landscape… It’s 2009 for Christ’s sake, not 1894. Khalas. (Enough.)

Finally we reached East Jerusalem at the entrance to the Old City near the bus stop where I could catch a cheap ride into Ramallah. The driver said, “I won’t get out here to help you with your baggage. You know why?”

“No,” I said, though I had an inkling.

“One time a taxi driver was in this area and got out to help someone, and an Arab got in and drove away, with the baggage and everything.”

I nodded tiredly. This was what usually happened when I made the mistake of taking an Israeli cab into East Jerusalem. They always had a random story about something bad an Arab once did as an excuse to avoid the whole area and not trust any of them.

The driver dumped me off a few hundred meters from where I wanted to be, rather dismissively, but I felt like kissing the ground. In short order I was on a bus to Ramallah…

…and stuck in a traffic jam at the Qalandia checkpoint.

Home sweet Palestine.

I found a cute, cozy apartment on the Ramallah version of Craig’s List. It’s near all the best nightlife in Ramallah, and I’m sharing it with two Palestinian guys, a dentist and an artist. The dentist, Mohammad, has a practice near Al Manara, the main traffic circle of Ramallah, and he studied in St. Petersburg, so he speaks Russian as well as Arabic and English. And Italian, I think — he studied in Italy for a while. The artist, Mahmoud, paints, sings, and plays the oud (lute). He’s performing in a play tonight at the Cultural Palace (the biggest cultural venue in the West Bank) to a sold-out show. Mohammad says Mahmoud sometimes plays the oud on the veranda in the evenings in our apartment. Sounds lovely to me.

I didn’t really announce I was coming to Ramallah, both to keep a low profile in case Israeli agents were trolling around on the internet (I know — ridiculous) and to minimize how much it would hurt if I got turned back at the airport. So it’s fun running into old friends who are surprised to see me turn up suddenly after all this time.

All in all, it’s good to be here. A bit surreal, like a video of someone else’s life. I still feel like a visitor, spending most of my time with people I don’t yet know sorting my housing situation out, etc. They say you can never step into the same river twice, and it’s certainly true of Ramallah. It will be interesting to get reacquainted with the city. The most obvious difference is that business seems to be booming more than ever.

Now that the violence has gone down, the foreigners have flocked in in force, so the nightlife is a bit crowded (and more expensive than it used to be, which means my idea of ‘nightlife’ will probably mostly involve sitting on rooftops smoking hookah with friends, tossing frisbees or kicking soccer balls around, and going to small, inexpensive concerts — not bad, really). Most of my favorite old places didn’t used to have signs announcing where they were. You just had to know. Now they all have signs and about three times the number of patrons. Good for the owners, bad for the sense of intimacy Ramallah used to have, but we’ll see how it is after I’ve settled in and checked it all out.

Here are some pics I took of Ramallah last time I was here, for reference.

At the same time, the reality of occupation is hitting me again (yeah, yeah, coffee and beer and breezy summer nights are all good, but horrors are still going on all around, especially in Gaza), and it may take me a while to remember how to deal with it in a reasonably healthy way. People feel so helpless and cynical — more than before, I think. Kind of crushed and just keeping their heads down and waiting to see what Obama will do, without much hope.

People appreciate Obama’s words so far, but they are well aware that words are very easy. If no actions follow — if Obama gives up on the very first and most obvious move of forbidding Israel to build any more illegal settlement housing units, which as I mentioned are popping up by the hundreds all over the West Bank — what hope is left will wither absolutely. Hard to tell what will happen then. Probably nothing good.

Already I feel exhausted by it, as if I just don’t want to hear anymore. I’m full of more stories and feelings than I can express from the previous times I was here. I think (hope) the worst of this feeling will pass once I’m writing again. During the year and a half I spent in Oklahoma getting the book off the ground, the only times I felt this antsy were when I took a week off from writing, and right now I haven’t written in about two weeks. On July 1 I’ll be able to move into my new apartment and start setting up house and trying to find an office with an extra desk (and air conditioning) where I can work every day without distractions.

The subject line is because when I started this email, I was eating a cheeseburger in the cafe under my apartment, which has free wireless and an ambient temperature of about 88 degrees. It’s called the Birth Cafe, which to me brings to mind a delivery room full of sweat and blood and screaming, but it’s a pretty chill little place with decent cheeseburgers, if not adequate air conditioning. If only Ramallah had a beach…

Of course, Ramallah is only about 30 miles from the Mediterranean as the crow flies, but Walls and checkpoints turn the journey into an all-day production if not an impossibility for Palestinians who don’t have permits to leave the West Bank (and writers who don’t have cars), and we haven’t yet figured out how to ride crows.

Much love,

P.S. For my blog from Ramallah in 2004-2005, click here.

For more information about Hamas and the elections of 2006, click here.

April 25, 2009

I finally finished Chapters 1-8 and sent them to my agent. It’s been a long slog, with many nights up writing past midnight (and a few close calls with aching forearms), but the book is really starting to come together. It’s a good feeling. Here’s hoping a publisher or two feels the same way.

Two publishers liked my first three chapters enough to ask to read five more before they made a decision. The drafts they saw of my first three chapters were very early ones, and they looked very amateurish compared to the drafts I have ready now. I’ll be waiting to hear from them in the coming weeks. I’ve sent in over 300 pages of material, including the proposal, and it’ll take agents and editors a while to get through it, talk to their colleagues and the money people about it, etc. The publishing world, alas, isn’t known for its lightning speed.

I decided recently, though, that I can’t spend much more time at the mercy of the publishing world. If I don’t have a deal soon, I plan on borrowing some money and moving back to Ramallah. I’ll probably leave Oklahoma at the beginning of June, spend a week in New York (where I have to catch my connecting flight anyway) catching up with friends and hopefully meeting my publisher (fingers crossed) before figuring out where to go next.

I hope to have the book finished by December, then I’ll come back home for Christmas and consider my options. If I have a book deal by then, great — I’ll finish editing this book, start publicizing it, and begin thinking about my next project. If not, I’ll get a job somewhere, pay off the loan, and think about self-publishing and publicizing. Self-publishing is cheap and easy these days, and I have a broad network of contacts on the Israel/Palestine circuit that I could use to good effect. In several cases, this kind of thing has led to more mainstream book deals.

I’m still confident about the project and looking forward to seeing it bear fruit in whatever ways the universe intends. For me, it’s already been its own reward despite many and massive frustrations. Writing well forces one toward uncomfortable levels of honesty, and it is far and away the most humbling thing I’ve ever done. But honesty and humility are bedrocks of a more genuine life, and I’m grateful for a chance to struggle fitfully toward them, as difficult as it is. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet and interact with other writers and filmmakers. Being in the process of writing a book gives you something to talk about with them — a place at a very interesting table. It’s comforting to find out everyone else is struggling as hard as I am.

But the ultimate goal is to get the information out to as many people as possible, and I hope it works out that way as well.

Now that I’m leaving Stigler, I have some space to reflect on how this unexpected year and a half has been. (I always do this — take a place for granted until it’s getting time to leave. Maybe that’s why I enjoy skipping around so much.) I say ‘unexpected’ because I fully expected to have the book mostly done and hopefully a book deal in the pipeline by last summer! Talk about naive. But I feel lucky for this naivete — sometimes you’ll never start something if you know up front how hard it’s going to be.

It’s spring now in Oklahoma, a season I always loved and missed while I was away in California and Palestine. First the Bradford pears bloom, white blossoms on an oblong frame of branches, like a ten-foot Faberge egg. Then the redbuds, with their pinkish-purplish-magenta buds, followed by the dogwoods, diminutive trees with disjointed rafts of delicate white flowers materializing like ghosts in the forest. Soon after, it’s a green explosion fed by spectacular thunderstorms. The pastures overflow with yellow blooms and crimson clover, and I still think there are few things on earth prettier than a great, perfect oak tree in full leaf standing in the middle of a rolling field of grass, cows, and wildflowers.

Near my house is a park of six or eight acres, and I go on walks there almost every evening. There’s a creek running through the middle of it that’s lined with trees. A path runs between the uneven rows of trees, which make a natural arch over the path, like a great leafy cathedral. Whenever I walk down that section of the path, I try hard not to think about anything — just to observe and be aware of everything going on in that moment, the colors and shapes of leaves, the phase of the moon and angle of the sun, birds calling and children playing in the playground on the north side of the park, branches that hang down like chandeliers. I call it the Cathedral of Awareness. Going through it is a good way to check on where my head is at.

Next to the park, and also behind our house, is the Haskell County Golf Course. It’s not one of those pretentious golf courses with a big clubhouse, exclusive membership, or caddies for hire. Anyone can join for a modest fee, the clubhouse is a small building that sells pop and candy bars, and sometimes cows wander onto the fairways. At sunset, it’s as pretty as anything in the storied valleys of France, with the pink and purple sky reflecting softly off the pond with dark green trees and misty blue hills in the background.

It’s also been good just to be close to family for so long at a stretch. I was lucky enough to be here for the birth of my twin nephews, Jake Austin and Jack Griffin. My older brother Doug and his wife Jaime are the proud parents, and their other son Dylan has been a big help (after he got over his initial fear of holding them for fear he might break them).

The babies are fraternal twins, and within an hour of being born, they had totally distinct personalities. Jack has darker hair and a quicker temper. He’s not quite sure how he feels about this world yet. He’s giving it a chance, but it better be nice, by God! Jake, on the other hand, is a little Buddha, blond and happy. Even when he has a legitimate reason to cry, he gives you fair warning in the form of a brief crying face before quieting down again and waiting for the world to figure out and solve his problem. He’s not afraid to howl, though, if the world makes him wait too long.

I’m sure you can tell in the photo who’s who. Jack is the one on the left with the comically suspicious look on his face. Jake is on the right with his little ‘it’s all good’ attitude. I’m the one wearing the necklace.

It’s been a bit of a baby-splosion in my immediate area. My cousin Lindsay gave birth to Campbell Avery last year, one of the prettiest babies on record, and her sister Lauren recently had Aiden, a bright-eyed little man who looks exactly like her, down to the dimples. My best friend Holly’s little sister gave birth to Ava Jane, who looks more like Holly than she looks like Holly’s sister. We’re very proud and happy aunts. It’s good to be around and see and appreciate this life in Stigler that I haven’t really been a part of since I left home almost fourteen years ago, at age 16. I have to admit, I’ve missed Grandma’s coconut cream pies. They are, as far as I’ve observed, the best in the world. And my Mom’s soups, dips, casseroles, and salad dressing, and Bill’s grilling and smoking. Mmmmmm.

It does get draining after a while, though, not having a friend my age within 100 miles (she said, as she sat typing a mass email on a Friday night). I’ve actually been invited out for beers tonight by some people I knew in high school, but as I’m fairly certain the evening would involve drunk driving and/or groping, I’ve respectfully declined. I’m very much looking forward to being able to attend the parties and concerts in Ramallah I keep getting invited to on Facebook. 🙂

Other than that, just still working on my book, reading other books, watching the Daily Show every night and drinking honey chai every morning. Our cat, a scrawny, skittish black and orange thing my mom found in the high school parking lot, has grown up into a sleek beauty, and she keeps me company while I write (when she’s not surprising me by sitting in my office chair and then biting my butt when I try to sit down). She and the 12-point deer my brother killed in 1994. Its head watches over me while I write or watch the maple tree in the backyard play with the wind.

Tomorrow I’m heading out to my Uncle Terry’s land near Tamaha to plant grapevines with a huge group of his and his wife’s extended families. Uncle Terry, a dentist in Bixby near Tulsa, is nearing retirement age and thinking about viticulture and possibly oenology as a new pastime, and his land is half an hour north of Stigler in the tip top of Haskell Country. I’m all in. Never planted grapes before, I’m always down for some homebrew hooch, and I’m pretty sure coconut cream pie will be involved.

[Update: We had an awesome time, thirty or forty people planting together in perfect weather on a green hillside overlooking two ponds, a pasture, and a tree-lined creek. Everyone brought their dogs, we all talked and laughed and had coconut cream pie and sandwiches for lunch, worked all afternoon, then we sat our sore asses on the porch, had some beers, and laughed some more. Good times.]

Our bell choir played two songs at Easter and did pretty well, although we had to commit the ultimate sin and start a song over after everyone got hopelessly lost due to a miscommunication about which count we were starting on. I don’t think anyone in the audience noticed. Afterwards, while I was looking at the illuminated stained-glass windows of our little Methodist church, I got an idea for my next book. I’m really excited about it. One book at a time, though.

Anyone who wants to read any or all of Chapters 1-8, they are ready. Just ask, and I will send. Feedback appreciated but not required.

Happy spring!

February 28, 2009

I just got back to Oklahoma after three amazing weeks in California visiting old friends and making a few new ones. I also gave a talk about Palestine at four different venues. The version I gave at Google was videotaped and posted on Youtube.

Feel free to check it out and pass it on. The first half-hour is pictures and stories about the good life in the beautiful West Bank (which two people told me made them want to travel there!) while the second half-hour is about the devastating effects of the occupation on ordinary Palestinians and how to end the occupation realistically. There are also twenty minutes of questions at the end.

Surprisingly, in all the venues where I gave the talk, and in the emails I’ve received from people who’ve watched it on Youtube, the reactions have been overwhelmingly thoughtful and positive. (Note for the uninitiated: Talks and events that even mention the word ‘Palestine’ are often met with harassment, vitriol, and sometimes outright censorship.) Only during my talk at Stanford was I confronted by two Ziobots, which I define as people who claim to support the Israeli side but have no rational arguments or thoughtful comments to make — only talking points, most of them already debunked, and classic debating fallacies used as obstructionist techniques. These folks can really waste a lot of time, when you’re trying to get useful information across, by monologuing for minutes at a time, arguing heatedly about an unrelated point, insulting the speaker (or, in one particularly egregious case, the speaker’s deceased daughter), and making bizarre demands. It’s incredibly irritating.

I finally came up with the idea of making up some index cards with a different debating fallacy written on each one — “Red herring,” “Ad hominem,” “Straw man,” “Argument from authority,” etc. (A partial list and explanation of debating fallacies can be found here.) Then I can just hold up the index card that corresponds to each obstructionist technique or fallacy they use so I don’t have to try to talk over them. Then I can politely say, “Next,” because it’s a waste of time to argue with people who have no real argument to make. Of course, even if I totally disagree with someone, if they have a substantive and intellectually honest question, I’ll appreciate it and do my best to answer.

Here’s an article on that comments on a trend I’ve been noticing lately. Some people fear that Israel’s voting in of a far-right-wing government, and the increasing shrillness of far-right-wing Israel-supporters in America, are signals that things are increasingly hopeless. I see it as more of the dying gasp of an ideological system that knows, deep in the cockles of its heart, that its days are numbered. They have nothing left up their sleeve. Their techniques (mostly violence and repression, which wouldn’t be possible without gross and systematic dehumanization) don’t work, their arguments make no sense, and their last trump card — their ability to define the debate in America — is slipping away. I just hope they don’t do too much (more) damage on their way down and out. An excerpt:

“Whereas these smear tactics [chiefly calling anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies an anti-Semite, up to and including Jimmy Carter, which not only stifles legitimate debate but ultimately waters down the ability of people to protest genuine anti-Semitism] once inspired fear in many people, now they just inspire pity. They no longer work. Very few Americans are going to refrain from expressing their views on American policy towards Israel out of fear that the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world are going to screech “anti-Semitism” at them. Neocons are far too discredited and their policies far too self-evidently destructive for them to intimidate anyone out of questioning their orthodoxies. Now, watching neocons [most of whom are Israel hawks] recklessly spew their bitter little epithets in lieu of (and in order to suppress) debate is like watching an old, dying dragon sadly trying to breathe mighty fire from its mouth but collapsing in a debilitating coughing fit instead — or is like watching a disgraced, post-censure Joe McCarthy in 1956 stand in an empty Senate chamber and rail against hidden Communists. Nobody cares.”

Here’s hoping. The tide certainly seems to be turning, slowly but surely, in the direction of a little more common sense in this country. As Israeli journalist Amir Oren said recently, Israel must accept its loss of influence in the U.S. Luckily, despite what the propagandists say, this is not some kind of end-of-days catastrophe for Israel. Israel will just have to grow and adapt to its new role, not as a regional colonialist state and military hegemon, but as a relatively ordinary nation among nations — which I think will be a massive change for the better for everyone involved. I just hope things don’t get too much uglier before Israel finally wakes up to this increasingly undeniable reality. If they don’t start showing some modicum of good will soon (at the VERY least stopping settlement expansion and letting the people of Gaza eat), the Arab Peace Initiative could very well expire. (All this is explained in the Google talk linked to above.)

As one Haaretz reader commented:

“After the Gold Rush, the good people in the Wild West had to adapt to the new situation and look out for new jobs. After Israel’s (political) “Gold Rush” in Washington D.C. over the past decades, the Israeli people will also have to adapt to the new situation and look out for new friends in this world. And as with all adjustments, that will require some (painful) sacrifices/concessions. [But also a lot of new opportunities.] The Israeli people know very well what is expected from them now [fair, negotiated peace based on international law — in other words, the West Bank, Gaza, and Arab East Jerusalem for a sovereign Palestinian state]… And I don’t think that it is too much.”

If anyone has any thoughtful counterarguments to this, I’ll be happy to hear them.

As for my book, Fast Times in Palestine, I’m still working on the final revisions of Chapters 1-8 (out of 12). My time in California and the feedback of several thoughtful friends have filled me with new ideas about how to round them out. Hopefully I can finish them by mid-March, send them off to my agent, and then to the two publishers who’ve expressed interest in reading them, plus a new round of publishers we haven’t hit up yet. Wish me luck landing a sweet book deal!

January 5, 2009

I’ll start with the good news: I’m making good progress on my book. Learning to write a book while simultaneously trying to write one has been a long, hard, humbling process, but it’s finally starting to come into a kind of shape that resembles the image I’ve always had in my head of the finished product.

So far, two publishers have liked the first three chapters enough to want to read the next five and decide whether to buy rights to the book based on them. I’m working on the final revisions to the next five chapters now and hoping to have them done in the next two weeks. Then they’ll be off to my agent and the publishers, and I’ll be off to California.

Near the beginning of February, I’ll head to the Bay Area for about three weeks, mostly Palo Alto and San Francisco, to visit friends I haven’t spent time with in far too long. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to hang out while I’m there.

If you have any chapters of mine that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet, don’t worry — and don’t read them. Everything has been revised substantially, and after the next round of revisions are done, I’ll have all-new updated stuff. Let me know if you might like to read and offer feedback on the new stuff.

Now for the less fun part: I won’t say Happy New Year just yet. There’s still too much of 2008 clinging like tar to the present. Bush is still in office, making the same counterproductive and inhumane statements about the latest Israeli outrage in Gaza. Like in Lebanon in 2006, this assault on Gaza will only result in more carnage, suffering, rage, hatred, and hopelessness. The world is getting more and more fed up with Israel’s constant violations of international law (even if America is the last to cotton on), and peace today is farther away than it was a week ago, and becoming daily more distant.

You may ask, What about Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli civilian areas? These attacks are, of course, wrong. You won’t catch me justifying them on either moral or strategic grounds. However, it is disingenuous to condemn these attacks (which I do) without also condemning Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip for the past eighteen months. Israel likes to claim it pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, and it is true that the settlers were pulled out — the settlers that never should have been there in the first place, since their presence violated the Geneva Conventions.

But Israel still maintained control of Gaza’s borders (it has strong leverage over Egypt because of its strong ties to America and Egypt’s dependence on American aid, so this includes Gaza’s Egypt border), maritime borders, air space, imports, exports, water, electricity, whether humanitarian aid can get in or not, and who can enter or exit the strip. The only way Gazans have even survived is through a network of smuggling tunnels to Egypt. The tunnels have also been used for smuggling weapons — right or wrong, the only leverage Palestinians have against Israel, other than total surrender.

So did Hamas deliberately and unilaterally end the ceasefire with its rocket attacks against Israeli cities? Depends on whom you ask. The Israeli government says yes. The Palestinian people, and not just Hamas, say that the ceasefire was conditioned on Israel lifting the siege of Gaza and allowing in food and humanitarian supplies in sufficient quantities. The siege has already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Gazan civilians because children couldn’t get food or clean water and sick people couldn’t get medicine or life-saving treatments because Israel restricted imports of humanitarian supplies and fuel for generators. Babies have died because Palestinians doctors couldn’t control the temperatures in incubators. Israel refused to lift the siege. Hamas fired its rockets.

It’s not right that Israeli civilians should die for political purposes. But it is equally wrong that Palestinian civilians should die because they elected a political party that Israel doesn’t like. Hamas could have been truly tested by Israel and the world if Israel had talked to them, offered them fair terms for a true ceasefire, including halting settlement expansion in the West Bank and allowing the Gaza Strip to begin recovering economically from the long occupation. If Hamas had refused that, then we could have said they were the main hindrance to peace in Israel/Palestine.

(Actually, Israel was besieging the Gaza Strip long before Hamas was elected — in my estimation, this is one of the biggest reasons why Hamas got elected there in the first place.)

Instead, the Israeli government has done nothing but try to overturn the democratic choice of the Palestinians by trying to destroy Hamas, first through a coup sponsored in part by the CIA that went horribly wrong, then by the siege, and now by bombing crowded civilian areas, killing and maiming hundreds, scores of them children whose only crime is to be Palestinian. This just never works. Ask Lebanon. Hezbollah is more powerful than ever after Israel’s assault in 2006 that killed hundreds of children and other civilians, and Hamas will probably be stronger after this. Certainly radical Islamists throughout the region will be stronger, and moderates will be weaker, after witnessing this latest round of pointless slaughter by a “Western democracy.” These kinds of things give both the West and democracy a bad name throughout the world.

Even the Bible only said an eye for an eye, not a hundred eyes plus scores of severed limbs plus destroyed universities, schools, homes, mosques, infrastructure, food, and medicine, for an eye. 550 Palestinians have been killed so far, at least 200 of them civilians, including many children. Hundreds of others are maimed for life. Whole neighborhoods are wiped out. And all for a threat that, despite Hamas’s best efforts, has only managed to kill four Israelis. Four is too many, of course. The death of one innocent is too many. But blowing up 550 people in the course of a week is beyond the pale, completely beyond the power of my words to describe. This video offers a fair summary.

There is no way this will bring peace.

As for the best and most realistic path forward from here, the very first step is that Israel halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. Few people in the West understand that the last scraps of land left for a future Palestinian state are daily eaten away by Israeli settlement expansion, and this more than anything else destroys Palestinian trust that Israelis are interested in a just peace. It makes them feel that Israelis are only interested in taking as much as they possibly can by force. This encourages Palestinians to respond in kind — with force.

I suppose that should actually be the second step. The first is to end the assault and siege on Gaza in exchange for Hamas stopping its rocket attacks. Hamas has expressed willingness to do this. The next is to exchange the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are being held without charge or trial. This, plus the halting of settlement expansion, could create a window of calm that everyone could be happy about. Once the window of calm is created, Israel can begin talking to the Arab League about the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which promises peace with Israel and the entire Arab world if Israel will withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, allow a Palestinian state to emerge with East Jerusalem as its capital, and negotiate a fair solution to the refugee problem from 1948.

Israel has a lot of reservations about both the idea of withdrawal and the idea of taking any responsibility for the 1948 refugees. But that’s why it’s called a negotiation. Israel should talk with the Arab world about this initiative. So far they refuse. If they can create the conditions for calm, as outlined above, and talk with the Arab world in good faith about a fair solution that respects everyone’s rights, I predict terrorism will lessen almost to nothing. Never quite to nothing — there will always be fanatics and holdouts and criminals in any society, including Israel’s — some settlers definitely won’t go quietly. But a very real possibility of decreasing all violence by 95% would, I think, be more than worth a little good faith and a few thousand acres of West Bank real estate that doesn’t belong to Israel in the first place. The problem is, the Israel government (apparently) has no faith that respecting these rights will lead to peace.

Let me tell you what won’t lead to peace. Attempting to defeat the Palestinians militarily, so that Israel can dictate the terms of a final settlement to serve their own perceived security needs instead of negotiating a just solution based on international law, won’t work. Maybe back in the days before international press, international law, and examples like Vietnam and Algeria, great powers could simply cow entire nations into total submission, or even quietly commit genocides. But that dog don’t hunt anymore. Even tiny Chechnya still hasn’t been fully pacified, and the “quiet” there now is the quiet of unimaginable devastation, not of peace. It is the “quiet” of the world failing in its moral duty, of increasingly radicalized Islamism, of ghettoes, disappearances, and torture, of Russia hollowing out its own soul and destroying the minds and bodies of its young soldiers. Is this the kind of “quiet” Israel wants?

Hamas has some realizing of its own to do as well. Namely, that terror against Israeli civilians is both morally wrong and strategically counterproductive. Every terror attack only turns Israeli public opinion further to the right.

But, after all, Israel is a modern democratic nation-state while Hamas is a stateless, besieged guerrilla organization. Forgive me if I hold Israel to a higher standard than Hamas, and for being gravely disappointed when Israel fails to live up even to that.

Feedback and questions about this analysis are welcome.

I should hasten to add that many in Israel are protesting this massacre, and they deserve our full support. The real enemy is not Israelis as such. It is a mentality that only the security of our race, our tribe, our nation matters, that our civilian deaths are a tragedy while theirs are just “collateral damage.” This mentality is making the world more dangerous by the day. We have the power to start setting things on a better course, and its time we start using it.

Here are a few relevant articles, for those who have interest.

The True Story Behind This War is Not the One Israel is Telling, Johann Hari, Huffington Post

Joe Scarborough getting smacked down by Zbigniew Brzezinski about his ignorance of the Middle East — an ignorance shared by most of the US (mostly through no fault of our own — our media is worse than useless when it comes to this conflict)

A webpage I made about the Lebanon Crisis in the summer of 2006, which has close parallels with what’s going on now.

A BBC article that debunks at least one instance of Israeli propaganda and includes a reference to the incredible fact that the Israeli government has banned all foreign correspondents from Gaza, despite a ruling from their own Supreme Court — a move that should make even the most authoritarian regime blush with shame.

A general article, from the Israeli press, about the habitual lies of the Israeli army, even to their own people.

Finally, a Vanity Fair article called The Gaza Bombshell. An excerpt:

“After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in 2006, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, the author reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”

In other words, the violent coup in Gaza that Hamas won in the summer of 2007, and was roundly condemned for, was in fact touched off by our own Bush Administration. Heckuva job.

Sorry to bring this bad news to your inbox. But next year is a new year — I will consider the new year to start on January 20, because this is when we will finally start to see what this new year might bring. Obama campaigned as a centrist, so I won’t be shocked if he doesn’t immediately start governing as an outright progressive.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic. After living in Washington, and seeing from the inside how things work, I think that if I were President, I would do something similar to what Obama is doing — invite people from all sides to have a voice (I might not have chosen Rick Warren to speak at my inauguration, but I think I understand why he did — in any case, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt), put people on my cabinet who know how to get things done but who also understand that I am the Commander in Chief and they ultimately answer to me, and start building political capital by starting out on consensus issues. This will give him more room to maneuver when he starts making his big moves.

Of course, we can’t just sit back and watch and wait and see what his big moves will be. Politics is a delicate business, and American democracy, as it is set up now, encourages politicians to pay special attention to well-organized and wealthy constituencies, no matter how unreasonable, immoral, and/or harmful they are to real American interests and principles — i.e., yours and mine.

The questions is, as always — what can we do to change things? Pointing fingers, while useful to a degree, isn’t enough. As a friend of mine said, “If more people had rational thinking skills, there’s no way a couple of people with fucked up ideas could control everybody.”

There is hope, but only if we organize and educate. Most people in Washington are followers, not leaders. We may think sometimes, in our more cynical days, that politicians know everything and purposely, even gleefully, ignore human suffering. But mostly they are just preoccupied with trying desperately to keep their seats, because they know they can’t do anything else unless they take care of that first. It’s not necessarily because they’re bad people. It’s how the system works. Democracy is not something that we can sit back and expect it to work out well on its own. If we do that, the special interests win every time. I think a lot of politicians actually want to be able to take more principled stands, but if they don’t have an organized constituency behind them, they can get creamed by the special interests.

In order to make sure Obama’s moves are in the right direction, we have to make it clear how we feel about things, before they happen and as they happen, in as organized and respectful a way as we can. (When politicians hear name-calling and sarcasm, they tend to tune it out, no matter how good the message may be, and no matter how apt and clever the sarcasm. This is something I have to watch out for, too. I do enjoy me some sarcasm.) Obama’s people don’t seem nearly as intellectually small or shamelessly venal as Bush’s men. But they are, after all, politicians, which means they operate under certain constraints. Still, I think they can be swayed, to a significant extent, by rational argument and pressure from constituents. It’s our job to make those arguments and build that pressure.

Slavery wasn’t ended in a day, and women weren’t given the right to vote after asking once or twice or complaining about it amongst themselves. These things required generational shifts in consciousness and a lot of hard, humbling work. The wars and occupations today are clearly on the wrong side of history. But history doesn’t make itself, and politicians (usually) won’t often take principled stands on their own.

Ideally, politicians should be willing to give up their seats in order to stand up for, e.g., oppressed and helpless people being blown apart on international television. The tragedy of politics is that if one person does take a stand, he or she is (generally) simply replaced by someone with even fewer principles. In other words, principled acts aren’t rewarded by our system the way it’s set up now, so you can’t expect to see them pop up very often in our system. This is the nature of democracy in an apathetic, disorganized, generally uneducated population. (Uneducated when it comes to political, economic, and scientific matters, that is, and a lot of that can be blamed on our nearly-useless press.) So we see no action on Darfur, Tibet, Rwanda, Palestine, etc. We see our sons sent to die in Iraq for no reason, we see our pensions disappear on Wall Street, and then our tax dollars disappear there, too. We see our bridges collapse and our cities drown.

It won’t take much for Obama to be a better President that George W. Bush. But in order for him to live up to his potential as a leader, a healer, and a peacemaker, he needs us to have his back, and to nudge him (respectfully) in the right direction when he fails to have ours.

Well, I meant to make this email a super short one, and I totally failed. Apologies. But anyway, hopefully if you’re in the Bay Area, you at least read the part about me coming to California. Looking forward to seeing you there, if so.

September 16, 2008

Sorry for not writing in so long. I wanted to wait until I got good news from a publisher to write, but, well…

Everyone told me that writing a book like Fast Times in Palestine would be harder than I thought and take longer than I thought. So, to be safe, I doubled my expectations on all that.

And it still wasn’t even close.

If I’d known how hard this would be and how long it would take in advance, I might never have done it. But so far, even though it’s had its downsides, I am definitely glad I’m doing it. The reasons are hard to express and measured in things like reading pages from my journal from a year ago and thinking, “Ah, now I understand the fundamental mistake I was making in that area of my life.” A year of dumping your brain out on paper and reading and thinking is apparently good for that. What I’ve gained can’t be measured in GDP or put on a CV, but it also can’t suddenly dissolve one day like a bank on Wall Street.

The other outcome is, of course, the book, which I’m hoping to have drafted up to the halfway point, Chapter 6, by the end of September. The last six chapters already exist as well, but they exist like blocks of wood or marble: Each of them is a hundred-page-or-so amalgamation of stories and characters and scenes and information that needs to be sculpted down to a 30-page narrative chapter that captures the essence of what I’m trying to get across, hopefully without being either lightweight or boring. Once all the chapters are drafted, I have another hundred pages of snippets and points and information that I want to include somewhere, and I’ll have to figure out where it’s most appropriate to put them and which ones to leave out.

And then I’ll have to go through and make sure the whole narrative arc holds up and makes sense and flows smoothly and says something coherent that’s worth all this trouble, and most importantly worth a reader’s good time. The book is trying to be a lot of things at once, and what it’s trying to be changes over the course of the book and also changes as I write it and think more about it, and I have to be careful to keep it all straight and prioritize which aspects are most important. That’s the only way I’ll be able to get it down to a nice, slender 360 pages (twelve 30-page chapters). It’ll be nice when (if) I finally have a good editor.

Meanwhile, my proposal package (book proposal and first three chapters, 104 pages all told) went out to a number of publishers, and near the end of July, a tragic thing happened: An editor from a major publishing house expressed immediate interest. I was an unknown author writing on an extremely controversial subject (not good-controversial like a politician’s affair, but bad-controversial like the play about Rachel Corrie that got shut down by New York ‘s powerful ‘pro-Israel’ community), and I was feeling pretty smug, thinking I was about to get a book deal in record time. The editor talked with me on the phone and told me she was interested, she just had to talk to the money people at her publishing house. I was already planning what to do with the advance money, including a fall trip to Palestine.

Then she went on vacation for all of August. Fair enough. All of New York goes on vacation in August. But surely after Labor Day, any minute, she’ll be calling me up. Any minute. Any second now.

Well, September’s halfway over, and we haven’t heard anything from her. (Has she been taking lessons from some of my ex-boyfriends?) And half a dozen rejections from other publishers have come in, most of them very nice and complimentary about the writing, but saying things like, “This isn’t really my area of expertise,” or “I wouldn’t know how to market this.” (Whether that’s true, they’re just being polite, or Daniel Pipes and Alan Dershowitz are marauding around Manhattan brandishing lead pipes, only Allah knows.)

So that’s where I’m sitting now. The proposal is still out with several publishers, and we’re still waiting to hear from them. This is a slow business, and my agent said that the pace at which I’ve been getting responses is actually faster than normal. And it only takes one publisher to get this off the ground.

But if that first editor hadn’t raised my hopes so high at the end of July, August and September would have been much easier to bear.

I kind of hit bottom last week. I miss Ramallah like it’s a person I love, and I recently got the shattering news that two of my best friends in Jayyous are there now but will leave soon to go abroad for an indeterminate amount of time to work and study. I had assumed I would see them this fall. Finding out that it wasn’t so was like a body blow. And the olive harvest is coming up soon, and I’ll probably end up missing that, too.

And then that snarkily vacuous moron Sarah Palin actually helped McCain’s popularity, which as far as I’m concerned has proven that at least half of Americans are dumber than my darkest fears had ever dared to suggest. Few things of late have been worse for my basic faith in the American people. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it was just our own country we’re screwing up. But the White House has the power to screw the entire world.

Trusting Sarah Palin to be the Vice President is akin to trusting Jessica Simpson to do surgery on your brain. It’s actually much scarier, because Jessica Simpson can only kill one person at a time while doing brain surgery. Palin the Impaler and That Old Guy Who’s Running With Her might very well start Cold World War on Terror XVII. They simply, and seemingly genuinely, don’t understand that our conventional military power is basically shot — hell, Bolivia isn’t even scared of us anymore — and the fundamentals of our economy are starting to show their system-wide vulnerabilities. We’d better start reigning it in and cutting our losses, build a more sound economy and engage in intelligent global diplomacy, or we and our allies are in very serious trouble.

And so, meanwhile, is the rest of the world. More of this pathetically ignorant and barbarously xenophobic worldview, more destroying the Constitution — formerly a light unto the nations — and refusing regulations and suppressing scientific research into stem cells and alternative energy and warming the world and drilling the last pristine places and being cruel to women and minorities and gays and foreigners and leaving people who take a year off to write a book without health care. It was really getting me down.

But then I talked to some friends in Palestine and gained some perspective, and I’ve bounced back to a kind of contented peace with what I’m doing and how things are going. This weekend I visited the Obama for President headquarters in Tulsa with my best friend Holly and her awesome husband Daniel, and it did my heart good to breathe some open-minded, optimistic Blue air, even here in the Reddest state in the union. (I understand that it will take more than open-minded optimism to solve the problems of the 21st century, but it sure as hell won’t take backwards-thinking, Lenscrafters-model-picking, intellectually-incurious, spineless, lying, cynical, foreign-policy-challenged, economically-retarded dinosaurs who agree with Bush on basically everything and then ludicrously pretend they are agents for change — and somehow get away with it, because our media is almost as useless as they are.) I registered to vote in Oklahoma and gave a little money to the Obama campaign and felt like I’d done what I could for now.

And I’ve broken through to a place where I’m focusing more on the process of writing than the objective of getting it published. It’s like they say: If you look up while you’re trying to hit a golf ball, all you’ll see is a bad shot. If you’re thinking about publishing when you’re supposed to be writing, you’re not only making yourself miserable, you’re losing your focus on the whole meat of the thing. And through focusing (more) on the writing, I’m moving toward having more faith in my project rather than less, which is nice. And it’s genuinely fun to get to write and process so many great and terrible, hilarious and tragic and beautiful stories from Palestine and inject into it the analysis I’ve worked so hard to develop. I have moments of doubt, but overall the trend is positive. Though I do start to get slight delirium tremens whenever Jon Stewart goes off the air for a week.

So anyway, it’s been a good summer, a lot of hard work with more intangible than tangible rewards, but I’m glad I’ve taken it on. If I get a publisher soon, even better. Wish me luck.

June 2, 2008

I was asked to give the commencement speech at the Oklahoma School of Science and Math for the class of 2008 graduation this weekend. Here’s a copy of my speech.

The book continues to go well. A little slower than I’d like, but hopefully I’ll have the final revisions for the proposal and first three chapters done next week and my agent will start shopping it to publishers soon thereafter. Then in Chapter 4, I finally get to start writing about Ramallah.

Cheers and love,


Commencement Speech for the
Oklahoma School of Science and Math
Class of 2008

Congratulations to all of you. You’ve just completed one of the most challenging and memorable chapters of your life at a place that is a world-class springboard for many more to come. And hopefully they won’t be quite as excruciating as this one was.

I’ve been asked to speak with you about what I’ve learned during the ten years that have passed since I was sitting where you’re sitting right now. As Laura mentioned, I went to Stanford, where I studied physics and minored in political science. I didn’t know much about anything besides science and math at the time, so I took classes in many different fields, from anthropology to yoga, just to see what was out there.

I kept myself so busy that one of my most vivid memories from college was the morning I woke up and realized I had nothing to do that day—no classes, no problem sets… even my to-do list was empty. And what I felt in that moment was… sheer panic. Because I realized that when I wasn’t overwhelmed by an enormous workload, I actually had no idea what to do with myself. This should have been an early warning sign, but soon enough my obligations closed in again and I forgot about the whole thing.

But then when I graduated in 2002, the same feeling of panic came back. Once again, without a list of well-defined obligations, I had no idea what to do with myself. I could have gone to grad school in physics, applied to be an investment banker in New York, done policy work in Washington, or picked something else entirely. And I had supposedly been working my entire life to be in a position where I could have all these options. But now that I was here, every career option I could think of filled me with dread, and I felt sick and scared and paralyzed. And I had no idea why.

The Lessons of Improv

To explain how this situation was resolved, I’m going to backtrack a little and tell you about the class I took at Stanford that taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned since leaving OSSM. The class was called Improvisation for Theater, and the lesson was to accept life’s offers instead of being lost in my own head all the time.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Imagine you and I are on stage and we’re given a prompt to do a scene about animals. Maybe I’m thinking of a scene about tracking cheetahs in the jungle, and you’re thinking of a story about a horse ranch in Nebraska. So let’s say the first thing you say is, “Those are some mighty fine stallions.”

Ordinarily this would catch me off guard, because I’m thinking about cheetahs. But if I’m trained in Improv, what I’m supposed to do is accept whatever you say and build on it. So I might say, “You’re right, Billy Bob. And those elephants are lookin’ fine, too.”

Now, if you’re still thinking about a horse ranch in Nebraska, this would throw you off. But if you’re trained in Improv, you’ll also accept whatever I say and build on it. So you might say, “Yup, this here circus is the best in Texas. And did you hear what the Bearded Lady did to that preacher over in Lubbock…?” And off you go.

It’s fascinating to watch this on stage, because if you don’t know the trick of ‘accept and build,’ it looks like the two people are either secretly acting out a script, or they’re telepathic. But that’s only because unconditionally accepting what other people say and then building on it is so counterintuitive in our culture, where we’re generally conditioned to protect our own ideas and opinions, and ultimately our own egos.

The essence of ‘accept and build’ is that it shifts you from thinking to awareness—from clinging to mental constructions to accepting and building on moments of reality as they occur. I took these concepts to heart and was soon performing on stage without a script, something I never imagined I’d be able to do.

This would have been great enough on its own. But my old roommate at OSSM, Emily Pyle, was fond of saying that life was one big improvisation. After a while I put two and two together and wondered whether the lessons from Improv might also make for a more interesting, creative, and successful life.

So I tried it. I tried accepting random offers when my reflex was to block them. I tried saying yes when my reflex was to say no. And almost immediately, life became more bright and interesting, and things tended to work out in unexpected ways, but almost always better than I could possibly have planned.

Back to the Post-College Panic Attack

So anyway, back to my post-graduation panic attack. I had no idea what to do, and the only thing I could come up with was just to stop. Stop doing, stop thinking, get rid of all the stress, open up some free time, and observe what fills it up.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing was what Improv had taught me to do: Shifting from thinking to awareness—from worrying about outcomes to accepting what life had to offer moment by moment. It was a terrifying leap of faith, but at the time it was the only idea that didn’t turn my stomach into knots of dread.

So I went back to California and got a job building environmental experiments on the Stanford campus. It was just an easy 40-hour-a-week manual labor job—a total vacation compared to being a student at OSSM and Stanford. And I found that working on campus had all the perks of being a student and none of the drawbacks—no tuition, no classes, no black cloud of constant obligations. For the first time in as long as I could remember, my free time was actually free. I read whatever books I wanted, played a lot of sports, enjoyed hours-long conversations with friends, and let my thoughts go.

After a couple of months passed like this, life finally made me an offer: A debilitating case of insomnia. For about a month I couldn’t sleep more than three hours in any give 24-hour period. I had a vague sense that some idea or revelation was trying to break through, but my subconscious was resisting it fiercely. I couldn’t do anything but wait it out.

After a month of semi-conscious hell, some light finally began to break through. And I realized, to my horror, that I had been living my life up to that point based primarily on a mental construction—a self-image—rather than on reality. When I was about eight years old, I had apparently decided that I was a scientist. Since then I had been adding bits and pieces to my image of who I was and working very hard to act the part, without ever questioning it. For the past several years I hadn’t even had time to question it. But finally the game was up—the image didn’t seem to resemble me at all anymore.

So here I was, at age 22, and not only did I have no idea what to do—it turned out I didn’t even know who I was.

I felt ashamed and scared, and I spent several days in denial. But when I finally let go and allowed myself to feel like a child taking her first steps at age twenty-two, the insomnia vanished, and most of the depression I’d been living with since middle school evaporated as well. Little by little, to my astonishment, for the first time in my life I could actually describe myself as a happy person. The future was still blank, but it no longer seemed threatening. It was merely… wide open.

This was such a novel state of affairs that I decided to explore it—to continue paying attention to reality instead of worrying about external definitions of success. This was difficult and humbling because many people had certain expectations about what I would do after I had worked so hard and paid so much to educate myself. But I figured that if I went back to being unhappy with my life, that would be the real waste of my education. In any case, a year or two of happiness probably wouldn’t destroy my future, and after that I could reevaluate.

So I decided to think up a near-term goal that would feed this new sense of freedom and happiness as much as possible. The idea that excited me most right then was going back to Russia. I’d studied in Moscow for a semester during my junior year at Stanford, and I fell in love with the language and landscape, I was fascinated by the culture, and I was only just starting to get the hang of things when I’d had to leave. So I looked around for an excuse to go back and found a program that placed Americans in Russian summer camps. I loved kids, I loved the outdoors, I loved Russia—I was thrilled.

Now I just needed to pay for it. The job on campus wasn’t paying very well, so I decided to become a bartender. I’d never actually worked as a bartender, but I liked mixing drinks at friends’ house parties, and bartending had the best dollars-to-stress ratio of any job I could think of. I was lucky enough to find a pub in Palo Alto that had a couple of day shifts open that no one wanted. I took them, got myself trained, and was soon working full-time.

The next six months, from January of 2003 until I left for Russia, passed like a dream. I got to spend 40 hours a week hanging out at a great bar… and the rest of my time was free. During all that free time I studied two years worth of Russian, got a yellow belt in jujitsu, finally learned how to surf, went on my first spring break trip (because I could finally afford one), and continued getting to know myself and my friends better. I also dated a Lebanese guy who was in my jujitsu class, and when he would speak to his friends in Arabic and I couldn’t understand, it drove me crazy. So I started studying Arabic, too.

By the time I left for Russia, my Russian was about third-year level, my Arabic skills were decidedly non-zero, and I had enough money saved up that I could continue traveling for a few months after the summer camp was over. And just as I was wondering where to go, a friend from France emailed and said, “I have some vacation coming up at the end of the summer. Why don’t we meet up in Egypt?”

It never would have occurred to me in a million years to go to Egypt, of all places, after I left Russia. But it was one of life’s random offers, and by then I had learned to accept such things.

So I met him in Egypt in September after the summer camp, and we saw the Pyramids, climbed Mt. Sinai, scuba dived in the Red Sea, and had an amazing time. After three weeks, he went back to France and I pushed on to Jordan. Jordan, if you don’t know, is right in the middle between Israel/Palestine and Iraq. It’s kind of the cheese in the middle of a war zone sandwich.

I certainly had no plans to visit any war zones—just being a tourist in the calm areas of the Middle East was exotic enough for me. But I happened to stay at a hotel in Amman, the capital of Jordan, where journalists and foreign aid workers gathered every night to tell their stories. And their stories had absolutely nothing in common with what the news had been telling us back home. I didn’t know whom to trust—them or CNN.

I finally decided the only thing I could really trust was my own eyes. So I asked around and was offered a ride to Baghdad for $200. (This was in the fall of 2003, only six months after “Mission Accomplished,” when most Americans still thought things were going fairly well in Iraq.) And I would have taken it, but luckily I asked a couple of journalists if my trip sounded wise, and they made it vividly clear that the violence in Baghdad was far too random and gruesome for tourists.

Then I met two guys who were in Jordan on vacation from doing charity work in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. From their stories, it seemed like Palestine was in many ways just as crazy as Iraq but a lot less dangerous. After a few days of getting to know them, I asked if I could tag along when they went back to the West Bank. They were kind enough to agree.

I don’t know how to explain what happened next except to say that the moment I stepped foot in the West Bank, it was like a round peg falling into a round hole. Within a month I fell in love with the people and the land, and I felt like the place had a tremendous amount to teach me, more than any other place I could imagine at that time.

I ran out of money and had to go home after a few weeks, but when I got back to California, all I could think about was Israel and Palestine. I spent six months researching the conflicts while making money so I could go back and volunteer. It took up every bit of my energy and creativity just getting up to speed on the conflicts; it got so bad that once my little sister came out to visit me, and in the course of her three-day visit, I dragged her to two lectures about Middle Eastern politics, two Middle East Issues dialogue groups, and lunch with a Jewish woman I had met at an Israeli film festival.

Six months later I moved to Ramallah, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem, with a plan to volunteer for a few months. But after two months, I was offered a full-time job as a local journalist for a small English-language publication. Two months after that, Yasser Arafat died and my boss at the paper, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, decided to run for President of Palestine. I was the only native English speaker in the office who was sticking around during the Christmas holidays, so I volunteered to be the foreign press coordinator for his Presidential campaign.

Now… I was a physics major ex-bartender from Stigler, Oklahoma, and here I was speaking to the world’s media on behalf of a Palestinian presidential candidate. To say that the cognitive dissonance was overwhelming wouldn’t begin to do it justice. But it went on and on like this; I kept Forrest Gumping my way into one crazy or historic situation after another. (Incidentally, knowing Russian was a great help as well—a lot of Palestinians had studied in Russia because of their Cold War alliance with the USSR, and a lot of Israelis were Russian immigrants.)

All in all, I was in Palestine for almost two years. Of course there were some very sad times, and more than once I found myself on the wrong end of an Israeli gun. But surprisingly, by the end, what I remembered most were the good times smoking hookahs, watching the sunset, and talking and joking with some of the most interesting, amazing, and thoughtful people I ever hope to meet in some of the most beautiful places I ever hope to see.

Instead of feeling more sad and cynical about life, as I had expected, I felt more empowered, with more peace and happiness in my heart, and with more faith in humanity than I had even during my most idealistic days as an undergraduate. It wasn’t a simple or straightforward process by any means, and I wish I could explain it in a twenty-minute speech. I’m writing a book right now that tries to explain it.

And then I moved to Washington, DC. One of the main things I learned was that if I had gotten a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies instead of doing what I did, I wouldn’t have learned one-quarter of what I learned. And probably the most upsetting thing about Washington was that many people, even so-called experts, only knew what they had read, yet many were so attached to the stories they thought they knew that they were unwilling to listen to countermanding evidence from someone who had actually been there.

After more than a year of working with the Defense Department and trying to relate what I had learned to everyone from State Department officials to Congressional staffers, I finally decided that I could do more good by writing a book about my experiences and sharing it with the American public. One of the major themes of the book is exactly this: that one of the main obstacles to peace all over the world is the people on all sides who become so identified with the stories they have in their heads that they become unwilling or unable to deal with reality as it actually occurs.

Present Moment

So that catches us up to the present moment. I’m 28 years old, and I’ve been living with my parents for the past few months trying to get my book off the ground. So far I have about a quarter of the book finished, and if all goes well my agent will start shopping it to publishers next month. And it might be a critical and financial success or it might not. That’s not up to me. All I can do is write the best book I can.

But a friend of mine once said, “When you’re following your destiny, the whole world conspires to help you.” I don’t claim to know anything about how this works; I can only say that when I finally dropped my guard and started working with the world as it was instead of trying to fit reality into my own preconceived notions, the world went from feeling like a hostile prison to feeling like a playground, and outrageous luck seemed to fall my way from every direction.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if another path may have been even better. Who knows what would have happened if I had landed in Colombia or East Timor, in the physics department of Cornell or on the south side of Chicago. That’s the problem with life: It’s not a controlled experiment. It’s just one long chaotic iteration with infinite potential, utterly unique in all of creation. That’s an awesome thing to have hold of, and no one can tell you how you manage it. I certainly don’t expect you to take any of my words on faith; no doubt you’ll go out and learn whether they’re true or not the hard way, same as I did.

But if I can say one thing to you that I feel fairly certain of, it’s to remember that no matter how overwhelmed or under-whelmed you may feel sometimes, the fact remains that life is not a stale Continental breakfast at Comfort Inn. It’s a grand buffet on golden tables stretched out as far as the eye can see that refreshes itself and renews itself every single moment. There’s more than enough for everyone, and it’s high-quality stuff. So go forth and enjoy.

Thank you.

May 1, 2008

It’s been a great 2008 so far, finally having time to sit down full-time and work on my book, Fast Times in Palestine. I’ve had to do a lot of research about the publishing world as well to find out the mechanics of the whole thing. My parents have been kind enough to let me stay in my old room in my old house in Stigler, OK, until I get my feet under me on this. It’s been a lot of trial and error (and terrible first drafts, and helpful feedback, and days and days of editing), but it’s finally starting to pay off a little.

I spent most of February researching literary agents, then I drafted a Query letter (the one-pager you send to agents to try to get them interested in reading your proposal and sample chapter) and sent it off to the 60 or 70 agents I thought had the best chance of being interested in representing my book to publishers.

While I waited to see who would respond, I wrote a Book Proposal (twenty-six-page document that describes the book’s outline and potential market and my credentials to write it) and sample chapter. Reputable agents only accept about five new clients per year, if that, so I expected to get a lot of rejections, and I did. Out of about 70 queries, I got seven positive responses and 63 rejections.

I did background checks (i.e., I googled them) and found one of the agents to have been involved in shady dealings in the past, so I exed her out. Another liked my Book Proposal but not my sample chapter. I spent most of March completely re-drafting Chapter 1 based on her feedback. Two others rejected the Book Proposal, which left three potential agents.

One of them, Susan Ramer in New York, who works with Don Congdon Associates, liked the proposal and (new) sample chapter and said she would like to represent my book to publishers. Another agent was still on the fence, and the last agent was my back-up in case Susan and the other agent weren’t interested.

But I preferred Susan anyway, so I signed a contract with her, and she’s now my agent. It was an enormous relief, after hacking away alone in an upstairs room like an old spinster aunt for so many months, to finally get some encouraging feedback from the outside world. We had our first phone meeting today to go over my Proposal and sample chapter, and she gave me a lot of great feedback. She says she feels pretty good that she’ll be able to sell it. Once I have the proposal and first three chapters polished up sharp, she’ll start shopping them around to publishers, hopefully in the next two or three weeks.

Susan’s agency is kind of old-school and very reputable. Her boss represented Ray Bradbury and David Sedaris, among others, and she has a good record of recent book sales with big publishing houses. If she does make a sale, she will get 15% of whatever the book makes, so her incentive is to sell it to whomever will pay the most — a nice little system. The reason I need an agent is because agents already have their foot in the door with major publishers and proven track records of finding books worth publishing. If I tried to go it alone, not only would I have a much worse chance of getting published at all, I’d also have no idea how to negotiate the best contract.

I’ve spent April drafting and editing Chapters 2 and 3 and reworking Chapter 1. So everything is a lot different from when (if) you saw it last. If you’d like to read the new Chapter 1 or 2, or if you wouldn’t mind reading through a draft of Chapter 3 and letting me know what you think, I’m happy to send them out. Everything’s much shorter and more streamlined than it used to be, thanks in part to a lot of helpful feedback. So thanks very much for that. Even the smallest comment can make a big difference and open my eyes to problems I couldn’t see before, so I really do appreciate it.

And I could never have gotten all this done if I was also working full-time at a real job. Or in any case it would have taken years instead of months. So I’m extremely grateful to my parents. Hopefully I can find a way to make it worth their while.

I’m hoping to have a full draft of the book done by the end of the summer, but it will probably take a bit longer. Luckily, non-fiction books have an advantage over fiction in that they can be sold before they’re finished, and I’m hoping to have a publishing deal and an advance before too long because, ya know, income of some kind would make me feel just a teeny bit less like a cosmic slacker. (Funny that I should feel that way when I’m working longer and harder hours than I’ve ever worked in my life… That whole ‘image vs. reality’ thing still gets me sometimes.)

It can take anywhere from two weeks to six months (to never) to get a publishing deal, and if I get one, editing and production will take another several months. In the ideal case, I would probably be looking at a publication date around the fall of 2009. In the worst case, I’ll print a few copies at my own expense and sell them on a street corner for booze money. Just kidding. Really it will be for crack.

Aside from that, there’s not too much going on. I write pretty much all day except to take a break to watch Survivor, The Bachelor, and the Daily Show. It’s getting bad, I’ve actually started having dreams about the characters on reality TV shows. But it’s my one break from thinking, and they’re my only friends within 100 miles. All work and no reality TV makes Pam… something something.

I also go on walks sometimes, and I’m in the middle of reading about twenty books. I’ve been recruited as a pinch-hitter for the Stigler Methodist Church handbell choir. We played a couple of songs in front of the church on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and we didn’t do half bad. My bells are the G, G#, and A above the treble clef. I miss a lot of people and I miss having a life, but I’m definitely happy to have a chance to get this done. It’s fun to relive so many things and sort of capture them in amber.

Spring is in full swing and everything is newly green and gorgeous here in Oklahoma. I hope you all are well, and I look forward to seeing you anon.

January 3, 2008

I realized about a month ago that a lot of the stress I’ve been carrying around with me for the past couple of years has been due to the fact that I’ve been doing everything except what I really wanted to do. So I’ve finally committed myself to it to the point that I’m willing to say it out loud: I’m writing a book.

It’s about the times I’ve spent in the Middle East, mostly in Palestine and Israel. All the stories are true, and my goal is for the book to read like a (non-fiction) novel rather than like a piece of journalism.

I’ll be heading back to my home town in Oklahoma for two months of full-time writing. Hopefully by April I’ll have an agent and a working draft, after which finals edits shouldn’t be nearly as time-consuming as preliminary edits, and securing a publisher will be largely in the hands of my agent. Most of the book is already written, it’s just in a million pieces that need to be strung together, filled out, and edited. But it won’t get done unless I cloister myself for a while and bang it out. There’s not even a bar in my home town, so distractions shouldn’t be an issue.

I’m all ears if any of you have friends in the writing or publishing world. It’s one thing to write a book, another to get it published, and yet another to get the best possible deal. I’m doing research on my own, but I would appreciate any advice from folks who’ve been at this longer than I have.

Also, let me know if you might be willing to read pieces of draft now and then for readability, clarity, and entertainment value. I’d appreciate help to make sure it doesn’t get ranty, confusing, or dull, because it’s easy for me to get caught up in my own context and lose sight of the sensibilities of my target audience. My target audience is any people, but particularly Americans, who have interest in Israel and Palestine, the Middle East, the Arab and Muslim worlds, foreign lands in general, or just good storytelling. Anyone from Middle East experts to people who aren’t quite sure who is occupying whom.

All my best for 2008, and please don’t be strangers. I’ll be locked away in an upstairs room this February and March, so contact with the outside world will be greatly appreciated.

My book

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

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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