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Two more Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem by the Israeli government today, leaving 18 people homeless. Earlier today Israeli bulldozers demolished another two-family home in the town of Isawiya in East Jerusalem. On Tuesday, a four-family home was bulldozed and its 30 residents made homeless. Meanwhile, Jewish-only settlements continue to expand on Palestinian land.

As many South Africans who’ve been here continue to attest, Apartheid wasn’t this bad.

In honor of the families made homeless over the past two days, I’m posting a story written by David Shulman about a neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Al Bustan in Silwan, a Palestinian town southeast of the Jerusalem Old City. It’s part of occupied Arab East Jerusalem. The entire neighborhood of Al Bustan, housing over 1,000 people, is threatened with demolition by the Israeli government.

Here’s a story of Israelis and Palestinians trying to prevent this by working together to clean and rehabilitate the town’s ancient aqueduct. It’s a simple but wrenchingly beautiful story written by a Jewish Israeli man. It brings me to tears every time I read it.

Two of the homes demolished today were in Silwan.

.
Work Day, Al Bustan, Silwan

David Shulman
Taayush
July 2, 2005

Ankle-deep in the pungent, turbid water of Silwan, we stand in the old ruined aqueduct, hoes and pick-axes in our hands. It is 9:30 in the morning and already hot. We have come to clean the aqueduct and make it functional again. We scrape away at its muddy bed, filling buckets with sandy clay and rocks to be emptied out on the hill below, where a new terrace is being built by our Palestinian friends.

The task is Sisyphean; the Palestinian locals keep reassuring us that we will hit bottom after 15 centimetres or so, but as the day progresses the channel becomes deeper and deeper, with no bottom in sight. The water flows downhill from an ancient spring somewhere up-mountain — so we are told — a spring older than King David, who lived here in Silwan, older even than the Jebusites from whom he captured the city 3000 years ago. The Silwanis think the spring was here from the beginning of time.

In the old days, the aqueduct carried this clean spring-water in a carved stone channel just under the wall of heavy stones that lines the road; in this way water reached down into the village for drinking, washing, irrigation. At some point in the last years, the Jerusalem municipality blocked it at one end and built a large concrete cess-pool just below it. So now the water still emerging from the ancient spring mostly stands stagnant in the aqueduct, evaporating in the hot sun of the Jerusalem summer.

The people of al Bustan have long wanted to unblock the channel, to clean it and let water flow back toward their neighborhood; but they have been afraid to do this on their own, knowing very well that the police or the Border Guards would almost certainly intervene to prevent them. Only our presence here today, some 100 volunteers from [Israeli peace groups] Ta’ayush [Arab-Jewish partnership], Bat Shalom, Machsom Watch [Checkpoint Watch], and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, has given them the freedom to put their ready plans into operation.

We are here, however, not just for the water and the terrace but mainly because of the [Jerusalem] Municipality’s plans to demolish 88 houses in al Bustan — in fact, to wipe out the neighborhood altogether, ostensibly in order to create an “archaeological park” in the heart of Silwan. In fact, the intention is very different and altogether transparent: al Bustan will fall victim to the latest attempt to Judaize east Jerusalem, pursuant to the settlers’ stated goal and the government’s clear policy of making the lives of Palestinian Jerusalemites as miserable as possible.

The sheer scale of the current attempt — some 1000 people will be rendered homeless — has sparked considerable protest as well as this collaborative venture between Israeli peace-groups and the local committee. We have come in the hope of drawing international attention to what Israel is planning, and thus of forcing the government to back down. We have come in solidarity with innocent victims. And we have come to work.

There is a lot of press, including a Korean TV journalist making a film about life in Israel-Palestine, a reporter from the Berliner Zeitung, and a Chinese crew; if they manage to get a few seconds on the evening news in China, possibly many millions will see this happy moment. Several video crews are filming continuously, and indeed the hillside looks, to my eyes, strikingly photogenic. There are teams of volunteers cleaning up the debris of decades — rusted spikes wrapped in barbed-wire, blocks of concrete, huge broken branches, and moldy piles of tin and plastic; others are breaking up the caked top-layer of soil just down from the aqueduct, readying it for the grassy terrace it will soon become; some are filling buckets with rocks and earth and pouring them out on the hill below to build up the emerging terrace.

The whole hillside is alive with color and movement; young men from the village, and some children, work side-by-side with the Israelis, and the site is changing rapidly, minute by minute, the long neglect over at last. Amnon, only recently recovered from a broken shoulder, is working heroically with his one uninjured arm, hoeing and raking and carrying buckets and branches and heavy stones.

I am not alone; three Sanskritists from our group at the Institute for Advanced Studies have joined me, along with R., my Tamilist friend and colleague from New Zealand; also P. — my closest friend in the world — is with us for the first time. Thirty years ago we were in the [Israeli] army together — an irrevocable bond. He is working — hard — on the Sabbath; he rode the bus down to the village with the rest of us; he is an observant Jew.

How does it feel, I ask him?

“Like Shabbat Bereshit,” he says — the Torah reading about the creation of the world.

From the start, the police are also with us, seeming, on the surface, rather benign — at first two blue jeeps, reinforced later by a detachment of Border Guards. They have promised that we would not be stopped on our way down into the village, and they do not appear to be unduly troubled by the notion of this work-day. It is not, after all, a demonstration. But around 11:00 a settler appears, dressed in his white Shabbat clothes, with conspicuous skull-cap and fringes and a well-fed belly. He looks scornfully at the Jews working beside Palestinian Arabs. He lives in a house seized from one of the Silwanis, overlooking this hillside.

He stops for a word with the police commander. It is not allowed, he claims — and, as usual, the settler calls the shots — to pour earth to make a terrace, or to plant a tree, or to repair a stone wall, without specific permits. We are intending to do all of the above, but now the officer informs us, bowing to the settler’s mysterious authority, that we can go on working so long as we refrain from these clearly criminal acts. They will stay here to make sure we keep within bounds.

The man working beside me says to me in Arabic: “He — the settler — is living in my house. He took my house.” He is, of course, enraged. “All the problems,” he says, “come from them; only from them. They won’t let us live. They won’t let us breathe.”

Another Silwani bursts out in a torrent of curses, and for a moment the rhythm of our hoes and buckets is rent by the pulsations of rage. The moment passes. We will wait a while before deciding about the tree.

Amiel has brought it, a huge mulberry, tut in Arabic and Hebrew; he and Ezra scoured the nurseries of Jerusalem looking for it, because this place was years ago known as “Tut Junction,” after a famous, ancient mulberry tree. That tree is gone, and we intend to replace it today, also to restore the street signs with the original names. Ezra, meanwhile, has been imprisoned by the army for visiting our friends in the south Hebron caves; tonight he will be brought before a Jerusalem court for an extension of his remand. They seem, this time, intent on punishing him. Nothing, truly nothing, threatens the army more than a man of peace.

From my position inside the aqueduct, I wonder out loud with P. at the hate that has risen up within me at the sight and sound of the arrogant settler. I can’t deny its existence. I can call up not even an iota of empathy, and I refuse to try to imagine his warped inner world. Hate, I say to P., is a part of us; like love. Better to acknowledge it.

Is that why you are here? he asks me. Is that why you act? Of course, he agrees, this settler is hateful: look at his swagger, look at the stolen house, look at the hate coursing through him. Who, after all, would try to stop a man from planting a tree in his own garden? But is that a reason to act?

No, I answer. I mostly seem to act from some other, obscure place. Maybe it is a need to be outside, away from my professor’s desk. Maybe it is a hunger for the intense connectedness of days like this, days of crossing the borders, one by one. Maybe it is love — for these people working beside me. Maybe, very likely, it is pure, uncontainable outrage at the immense injustice inflicted on them, day by day, and a refusal to let the Jews, or anyone else, perpetrate it without protest: being Jewish, so I thought, was mostly about just such a refusal. The prophets who lived here in Silwan, when David was king, sang mostly about that. If we had been alive in those days, I tell P., I would have been a ragged street urchin, mad with poetry, and you would have been one of those prophets. That is why you are here today.

Never before have I been so needed as a medic: there is a host of minor cuts and wounds which require cleaning and bandaging. I almost exhaust the medical supplies I brought with me; it is time to refresh my medic’s pouch. By now I am covered in mud and reeking of the stagnant water; will the stench ever leave my shoes, my jeans? I am also very thirsty, as the day wears on, an endless and relentless thirst no liquid can quench.

After lunch I climb with P. into the Roman antiquities farther up hill — a bath-house in the shadow of an overhanging cliff. Ta’ayush, P. says, reminds him of our days in the army; there is the same stark, unfamiliar eros of body and sun and smell, of the group living its life as a collective, of the simplicity of eating and working and using your hands.

Yes, I say — suddenly memory cascades back to Shomron and basic training, I can smell it again. But there we were slaves, and here we are free.

They ask us to climb up into the cemetery above the road for a few photos, for the Arabic newspaper Al Quds. Only men — women should not go into this space. We somewhat comically, artificially play at cleaning the grave-stones, mostly marked as children’s graves, for the sake of the picture. Why didn’t they photograph us working furiously downhill? Perhaps the sight of Israelis cleaning Muslim tombstones will have some power.

Pictures over, we go back to work. A little later someone climbs the tall electricity pole and ties a newly painted signpost on it, in Arabic and English, another fruit of today’s labors: maqbarat al atfal above, and below, an unconscious touch of poetry: “Children’s Symmetry.”

By now it is 3:00, the day begins to wane. Time to wind down: and time for the tree, come what may. Amiel carries it into the newly hoed plot. It is a splendid specimen, and within minutes it stands embedded in the soil, lightly tied to an iron stake; wrapped around the stake, covered in plastic, is a huge enlargement of an aerial photograph of the village, with a bright circle tracing the boundaries of this neighborhood threatened with extinction.. We pour buckets of water over the base of the tree, and a cheer goes up: “Silwan! Silwan!” People clap and sing and shout.

But now the police wake up, since we have at last broken the law. They march back and forth on the road, barking into their cell-phones. The Border Guards look restless, or agitated, as well, and for a few moments I wonder if at this final moment we will have to face a fracas, a police charge, or the arrest of some of our friends. In a way, I don’t much care. There is something about planting a tree that stands outside and beyond all other categories. It is always and ever auto-telic: its own intrinsic justification. I am glad we have planted this mulberry tree here, glad to have been part of it, glad also for the defiance. And now, as the policemen look on with anger, apparently hesitant to move, the Silwani spokesmen rise to speak through the loudspeaker to all of us who have worked here today.

“This is the day of Silwan,” says M., in Arabic, “a famous day, a day of peace. I thank you on behalf of the people of Silwan. You have come from all over, even from distant countries, to help us, who have been targeted by the Israeli authorities — one thousand men, women, and children from al Bustan. I thank you for the sake of peace. Let all people know. In Silwan we are not free. We want our liberty, we want our livelihood, we want an end to our agony. Make sure that the Israeli government knows, and the Jerusalem municipality knows: we will never give up our homes. Make sure for the sake of peace, the peace we all want.”

Again the cries: “Silwan! Silwan!” Mixed in with them is another shout, almost a rhyme: “Salaam!”

Now Khulood speaks for Ta’ayush in a swift, crystalline Arabic, every syllable a promise of human hope. “We are not afraid,” she says, “not afraid of the Border Guards or the Police or the soldiers, not afraid of anyone. We came here to stand beside you, and we will never abandon this struggle. Your struggle is ours.”

Someone suddenly thrusts the loudspeaker at me. I try to escape it, try to push it back at Amnon, at anyone, but they insist and I can see there is no choice. They want someone to say something in Hebrew, and it will have to be me. I have no idea what to say, but I press the button and start, without thinking.

“We had the honor, and the pleasure, of working here today as your guests. Thank you for inviting us. We loved this day, as we love and honor peace. We want you to know that we are with you and that we will never allow anyone to destroy your houses. We will come whenever you need us, whenever you invite us here, as your friends.”

I stop, the loudspeaker mercifully passes on to another, but one of the young Silwanis hurries over to me, takes my arm.

“You don’t need an invitation,” he says to me, speaking of all of us, his eyes full of light. “Silwan is your home.”

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Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Arafat’s Funeral.” It was the fall olive harvest season in 2004 and Yasser Arafat had just died. I was on holiday in Jayyous picking olives, happy for a brief escape from my journalistic duties, when a dear friend found me and told me some bad news.

Omar’s Story

I was harvesting with Qais’s family the next day when Ali found me.

“Ya Bam,” he said with a grave, apologetic look. “I would not ask you for this, but I think there is no other way.”

This didn’t sound good at all. “What’s up?”

He sighed. “There is a farmer’s son from here in Jayyous named Omar. A few days ago, when Arafat died, some of the shebab [youth] were burning tires at the south gate of the Wall as a demonstration. Omar’s father was on the land, and Omar went to the gate to wait for him. When the soldiers came, the shebab started throwing stones at them. I don’t know if Omar was throwing stones or just waiting. Anyway, the soldiers came through the gate with their guns, and Omar ran away with the others. A soldier shot him twice in the back.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. “My God.”

“Yes, and then they took him away to a hospital in Israel. We called and found the hospital he is in. It is in Kfar Saba. He is OK, he is alive, but he has had many surgeries. When we call the hospital, they are very rude and won’t tell us anything more. His parents are going crazy. They want to visit him, but the hospital says they cannot get a permit to visit him unless they come to the hospital and take a paper that tells about his condition. So you see…”

“Yeah, there’s only one catch,” I said disgustedly. “Well, look, I can go to the hospital and get the paper.”

He sighed again. “Really, Bamila, I know this is a holiday for you, and we wouldn’t ask…”

“I know.”

I called Dan [an Israeli friend who lived in Kfar Saba] to see if he could pick me up in Jayyous and take me to Kfar Saba. I’d forgotten he had recently sold his car. He apologized and said he didn’t have time to borrow one, either.

So I got up early the next morning and made my way through Ramallah down to the Qalandia checkpoint, crossed on foot, took a minibus to East Jerusalem, caught a cab to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and caught another bus back up north to Kfar Saba. It was a journey of more than a hundred miles and six hours to get to a place less than five miles from Jayyous. It would have taken ten minutes if Dan had been able to pick me up on the settler road.

Finding the hospital in Kfar Saba took a bit of hunting, but once I found it, the task didn’t seem so daunting anymore. All I had to do was ask for a paper, say hello to the injured young man, and be on my way back to Jayyous in no time. It might even be one of those bridging-the-divide moments with the Israeli doctors, because what human being could fail to sympathize with a young man who’d been shot in the back, or a young American woman trying to help him? It was easy to be rude over the phone. In person, I was confident they would see us as human beings and treat us as such.

I found a receptionist and said, “I have a friend from the West Bank who’s been injured and is being treated here. I need to get a paper that explains about his condition so his parents can come and visit.”

She looked uncomfortable, as if she feared I might be mildly crazy or criminal. “You’ll have to talk to someone in administration,” she said. “I don’t handle these things.” She directed me to a small back office, where I found a dark-haired man in his forties and asked if he spoke English.

“Of course!” he said, widening his eyes as if the likes of me asking if he spoke English were the most preposterous indignity he’d suffered that day. I told him what I was here for.

He waved his hand dismissively and looked away. “We don’t give papers about West Bank people here. We’re not allowed. It’s like a secret that he’s here.”

I checked his voice for irony or humor and found none. “I’m sorry, what do you mean you don’t give papers about people being here? That’s why they sent me. I just need a paper that says he is here to give to the DCO [District Coordination Office] so we can get a permit for his parents to visit.”

He shook his head. “We don’t give out information like that. You have to call Dalia in Beit El. She’s in charge of these things, not me.”

Beit El was a settlement north of Ramallah. Palestinians had to go there sometimes to take care of administrative matters related to the occupation. I said, “If we could have done this from Beit El, I’m sure it would have been done already. But they sent me here physically to get a paper. All I need is a paper that says—”

He smiled mock-patiently, as if I were simple or slow, and interrupted me. “Listen very carefully. You aren’t the first person who has come here looking for information about these people, and you won’t be the last. We don’t give out papers. That’s it. Don’t ask anymore.”

I had a distinct feeling he was lying through his teeth. But what could I do?

“Can I visit him?” I asked weakly.

“What do I care?”

I left his office with my face flushed and my fists clenched. The way he said “these people” had sent hot chills down my spine. If I had eaten anything that day, I feel fairly confident I would have thrown it up.

At least I could visit Omar, so maybe the day wasn’t a total wash. I walked up to his floor, and the nurses pointed me down to the basement, where he was having a CT scan. I asked the receptionist at CT if she knew where I could find the boy I was looking for.

She looked at me blankly. “Maybe that’s him?” she said, pointing behind me.

I looked back. There was a good-looking blue-eyed young man with pale skin and curly brown hair in a gurney in the middle of the waiting room. He had an IV drip in his arm and seemed alert but tired. His eyes looked naturally sharp but dulled now, resigned to a casual bit of violence that would drastically affect the rest of his life — something simultaneously offhand and unthinkable. “Omar?” I asked.

He nodded, his expression alternating between wariness and polite confusion.

Suddenly I felt shy. He wasn’t expecting anyone, least of all a foreign girl he didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told him I was a friend of Ali’s in Jayyous. He nodded.

“Keef halek?” I asked. [How are you?]

He gave the traditional pleasantly noncommittal answer: “Hamdulillah.” [Thanks to God.]

My eyes widened. “W’Allah?” [Really?] How could he even say it?

He looked down at himself. “Zai shufik.” (As you see.)

I reported on this kind of thing daily at my job. This was actually mild compared to the things that made the news. Omar had survived, had no brain damage, was not in critical condition, and had not lost several limbs and/or family members. He was just in a hospital having surgeries and CT scans done far away from his family, not knowing how bad his prognosis was. This was nothing.

And yet it was overwhelming. So where did that leave all the other things I reported on, all the bloody and senseless things I didn’t have to see for myself?

I swallowed hard and asked who else he knew in Jayyous. He named some names. I asked how old he was, and he said twenty. I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t know the Arabic for words like ‘prognosis’ or ‘paralysis.’ He made the Middle Eastern hand gesture, palm up and fingers pinched together, that meant, “Wait a moment.” He indicated that the doctor would be out soon and could translate for us.

When the doctor emerged, I introduced myself and asked if he spoke Arabic. He said yes.

“Would you mind translating a few things Omar might want me to tell his family?” I asked. “And can you explain to me about Omar’s condition?”

He looked at his watch. “I need to eat soon,” he said.

I smiled. “Yeah, me too.” It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was trying to highlight our shared humanity and gently suggest that this injured, helpless, isolated boy’s terrible predicament was slightly more important than lunch. He didn’t smile back.

“Wait fifteen minutes,” he said and wheeled Omar into the CT scan room. Fifteen minutes later, two orderlies wheeled him back out. The doctor had escaped out another door.

My ears burning from the latest rebuff, I followed Omar and the orderlies up to his room, where I found a pretty young nurse named Sofya from Netanya. I asked her about his condition.

She said brightly, “Well, his kidney is damaged and his spine is broken, and he can move one leg a little, but the other not at all.”

I steeled myself. “Will he ever walk again?”

She shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Mmm, I don’t think so, probably not.”

The room turned grey and looked sharper and further away as tears stung my eyes. For nothing he was in this state, no reason at all. Not just injured but paralyzed, handicapped, probably for life. And nobody cared. It was like a bad parody of man’s inhumanity to man.

I tried to keep my voice steady as I told the nurse what I was here for. She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. I asked if I could use the phone to call Ali in Jayyous. She allowed it.

When I heard Ali’s baritone voice, clear and reasonable and familiar and friendly in this sea of obtuse hostility, thick hot tears fell. I explained everything to him and gave the phone to Sofya so he could tell her exactly what we needed.

Ali was one of the most kind, diplomatic, and cool-headed people I had ever met, and I could tell he was getting further with Sofya than I had. She said she would try her best, but she didn’t sound very hopeful. She tried to call Dalia in Beit El, but there was no answer.

Sofya shrugged. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?”

It wasn’t clear how anything would be different tomorrow, and my desire to get back to Jayyous as soon as possible, among friends and olives and kindness, was so visceral it was painful. So I went on the trail of the paper again. After another hour of hunting and asking and negotiating, Sofya finally conceded that the paper could be issued here after all.

“But the doctor who does these things is busy today,” Sofya said apologetically. “Maybe she can do it tomorrow.”

“She can’t possibly do it today?”

“No, I’m sorry, she is receiving many children today, and she is the only one who can receive them. She is very busy.”

“How long does it take to make the paper?”

“I don’t know, about fifteen minutes.”

“She can’t spare fifteen minutes? It would help a lot of people so much.”

“I’m sorry.”

I’d learned an important lesson in Russia: If something important is at stake and hostile bureaucracy is standing in your way, you have to make it harder for them to ignore you than to fulfill your simple request. Otherwise they’ll blow you off every time.

“Look, can I just talk to her real quick?”

Sofya narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Come with me.”

I followed her into a darkened office. The doctor was a tasteful-looking Russian blonde woman who sneered slightly when she saw me. She was alone in the room and looked rather bored. She wasn’t receiving any children. I tried to explain what I needed, but before I could finish my sentence she was tearing a piece of paper off a pad and writing a few words in Hebrew about his condition. She affixed an official label and stamped it and handed it to me.

“Thank you so much. Is this is all I need?”

“Yes.”

I breathed a sigh of deep relief. A kind orderly helped me fax the paper to Dalia in Beit El, then Sofya gave me the phone to call Dalia and see if she got the fax. Dalia finally answered. She grudgingly admitted that she got the fax and everything was in order.

“So that’s it?” I asked. “Is that what you need to give his parents a permit?”

She paused, then said challengingly, “We don’t know how long he will be there.”

I couldn’t believe it. She was acting like this was some kind of game and she was still trying to win. “His spine is broken,” I said evenly. “He is not going anywhere.”

Another pause, then testily, “I can give you three days. OK?”

“Perfect. Thank you very much.”

Back in Omar’s room, Sofya gave me the phone again and allowed me to dial Omar’s parents in Jayyous. Omar was so weak he could barely handle the phone, but he talked to his family for the first time and told them about his condition.

I’d been on the other end of the phone several times, in the family’s home when they were talking to a relative in an Israeli jail or in some faraway hospital. People always tried to act as cheerful as possible so as not to upset each other. The mother didn’t want her son to think about how she’d been sick with crying. The son didn’t want his mother to know he’d been lonely, injured, ill, humiliated, terrified, starving.

After Omar hung up, he touched my arm and pulled his shirt up. The surgery scar was immense, from his heart down past his waistband. He put his shirt down and pointed to a spot on one of his swollen legs, and I touched it. He shook his head, and tears welled slightly in his otherwise impassive young face. He couldn’t feel it.

It was time for me to go soon. Dan had agreed to pick me up and take me back to Jayyous in a borrowed van. I shook Omar’s hand and held it for a while as I met his pale blue eyes with mine. There was nothing to say. We were fundamentally no different from each other, yet he knew as well as I did that I would never have to come to terms with a misfortune anywhere near as incomprehensible as his. Something horrific might happen to me, but I probably wouldn’t be shot for no reason, and I certainly wouldn’t then be transferred to a foreign country and held captive by people whose indifference was somehow worse, more degrading, than cruelty.

I left the hospital in a daze. After walking a few steps in the fresh air, I ducked behind a column and sank to the ground and wept.

When Dan arrived, I mostly stayed quiet and felt terrible that I couldn’t bring myself to act happy to see him, or to express how grateful I was that he was taking me back to Jayyous. All I wanted, desperately, was to get back to the olive groves and to my friends in Jayyous who understood how I felt without words.

Dan and I had kept in touch over the phone, but I hadn’t seen him since he sold his car. Getting from Ramallah to Kfar Saba on public transportation was such an ordeal, and we were both so busy with work and life. Whenever I did see or talk to him, something horrible had usually just happened and I was depressed about it. I hated for him to always see me like this. Even though Dan was sitting right next to me, I missed him.

As we entered the West Bank on a settler road, I caught sight of the thirty-foot concrete Wall that encircled Qalqilia. Forty thousand people in a cage at the dawn of the twenty-first century. “Look at that!” I exploded stupidly, rising out of my seat and banging my head on the roof of the van.

“I know,” Dan said numbly. “I can’t believe it. It’s like some movie about South Africa or something. And it’s happening right here.”

My Boss Decides to Run for President

Dr. Barghouthi called an emergency meeting a few days after the Eid holidays were over. I was annoyed because I already had my evening planned. I was going to Beit Sini (China House) on Main Street to get some Kung Pao chicken, then I was going to go home and curl up around some hot cocoa and watch a mindless Angelina Jolie action movie on MBC2 in my pajamas. For two restful, thoughtless, soft, warm hours, I could forget about everything else.

Except now I had to sit through this meeting that probably had nothing to do with me. I desperately hoped it wouldn’t go on too long.

We gathered around the big wooden table in the conference room. As soon as we were seated and quiet, Dr. Barghouthi dropped the bombshell:

“So, I have decided to run for President against Mahmoud Abbas.”

That perked me up, but I still didn’t see what it had to do with me. I was sure he could run for President even if I was at home eating Chinese take-out.

As I surreptitiously glanced at the clock on my cell phone (it was already after six, and the movie started at seven), I heard him say he’d need someone to volunteer to be his foreign press coordinator. Whoever that unlucky person was would have to stay in the office tonight and compile, organize, and prioritize the contact information for all the foreign correspondents in Israel/Palestine. He or she would then represent Dr. Barghouthi to all the world’s press for the next two months, traveling, taking calls, helping organize press conferences, and writing press releases in addition to all the responsibilities of their usual job.

He said, “The election will be in early January, so we have less than two months to consult with our constituencies, prepare offices, organize supporters, design and distribute campaign materials, and many other things. Time is of the essence.”

Suddenly I had a sinking feeling. No one was looking at me, but everyone knew the other foreigners in the office would be jetting off to England or Spain or Australia for the Christmas holidays. I would be the only native English speaker left.

Slowly, through my hazy, unhappy sense of duty, something else began to filter through my thick head: My boss was running for President. And I was being offered a front-row seat. Was I simple?

I took a deep breath and braced myself. “I can do it.”

For more information about my book, Fast Times in Palestine, see my 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