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When I was drafting Chapter 10, I came across an email that was sent around my office in Ramallah (and apparently all over the Arab world) in early 2005. I had to cut it from the manuscript for reasons of brevity and style, but it always puts a smile on my face, so I thought I’d post it here.
An Ashcroft Fable
An old Arab lived close to New York City for more than 40 years. One day he decided that he would love to plant potatoes and herbs in his garden, but he knew he was alone and too old and weak.
His son was in college in Paris, so the old man sent him an e-mail explaining the problem:
“Beloved son, I am very sad, because I can’t plant potatoes in my garden. I am sure, if only you were here, that you would help me and dig up the garden for me. I love you, your father.”
The following day, the old man received a response from his son:
“Beloved father, please don’t touch the garden. That is where I have hidden ‘the THING.’ I love you, too, Ahmed.”
At 4pm the next day, the US Army, the Marines, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Office of Homeland Security visited the house of the old man and took the garden apart, searching every inch. But they couldn’t find anything. Disappointed, they left the house.
The next day, the old man received another e-mail from his son:
“Beloved father, I hope the garden is dug up by now and you can plant your potatoes. That is all I could do for you from here. Your loving son, Ahmed.”
UPDATE: I recently moved to New York to try to sell my book to a publisher. I found a shared studio in the East Village for a reasonable price, and I’m having an amazing time meeting great people, attending inspiring events, networking with friends who have contacts in the publishing world, and scoping out pick-up soccer spots and places to watch the World Cup. It’s been fabulous catching up with old friends, and I’m feeling more hopeful than ever about my book’s chance of success.
But I’m pretty much scraping by at the moment while also trying to support my good friend Rania and her two young kids until her husband gets out of jail. (You can read Rania’s story here.) After nearly eight months, Rania was finally able to get a permit from the Israelis to visit her husband in jail in Israel, and he was able to hold his baby daughter for the first time and to hug his adorable son and kiss his wife for the first time in months. I’ve raised enough money to keep the family afloat until the end of April, but Rania’s husband won’t get out of jail until the end of July.
So if you’ve enjoyed this blog and feel like contributing $5 or $10 toward publication efforts and helping a beautiful, loving Palestinian family, my Paypal account is email@example.com.
If you’d like to contribute $25 or more, I’ll be happy to send you a sneak peak of Chapters 2 and 3. Anyone who contributes $50 or more will be promised a first-edition, signed copy of Fast Times in Palestine after publication, free of charge, and sent to whatever address they choose.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the green and gold spring!
Below is Chapter One of Fast Times in Palestine. The purpose of the book is to ramp average Americans up to a sophisticated understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict in a way that is enjoyable and accessible to all.
It starts out as an easy-to-read travel/adventure narrative to get people acclimated to the Middle East before we start throwing in the heavier stuff. Each chapter builds on the knowledge gained in the previous chapters so that you end up with exponentially growing knowledge, like this:
- Yes, I used to be a physics major
By the last page, you’ll have greater knowledge and understanding than many so-called experts in Washington.
From the Midwest to the Middle East
“Why are you coming to Israel?”
The wide, suspicious eyes of the young Israeli border guard were a rude shock after all the laid-back hospitality in Jordan.
“I’m just a tourist,” I said, probably too nonchalantly.
“What kind of tourist?”
“Well, I’m a Christian,” I said, starting to sweat and wishing I’d worn a cross like I’d been advised, “and I want to see the holy sites.”
“What holy sites?”
His tone suggested he’d never heard of any ‘holy sites’ in Israel.
“You know,” I said carefully, as if one of us might be slightly insane, “like Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth—”
“Why Nazareth? What’s in Nazareth?” he cut me off sharply.
It was just a random Biblical name as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know it was an Arab town in Israel, or what that meant. I certainly didn’t know that the outcome of this, the first of what would be many Israeli interrogations, would change the course of my life forever.
But I had clearly picked the wrong answer.
“Because, I mean, that’s where Jesus was born and grew up and—”
“What? He was what?”
“He was… Oh, right! Sorry, obviously he wasn’t born there—”
“Where was he born?!”
“He was born in… uh…”
Christ. I’d sung about where Jesus was born every Sunday morning growing up in small-town Oklahoma. But I’d just finished reading a Middle East guidebook, so all my associations were shifted, everything was a jumble in my head, a border guard with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder was breathing down my neck, and I couldn’t think.
Just start at the beginning, I told my fevered mind. There was a woman on a donkey, and they went to an inn, and everybody sings O Little Town of—
“Bethlehem!” I smiled and shrugged expansively as if it were the most basic knowledge in the universe, trying desperately to look relaxed rather than relieved.
The guard finally calmed down. I just hoped he wouldn’t figure out the connection between me and the two men behind me. If he did, we could all be in trouble.
Degree of Freedom
This wasn’t where I expected to end up at age twenty-three — jobless, planless, and lying through my teeth to Israeli border security. I’d graduated a year earlier, in 2002, with a physics degree from Stanford only to realize I had no interest in spending any more young years in a basement lab doing problem sets. Several friends were heading to Wall Street, but I had even less interest in finance than in physics. The things I enjoyed most during college — travel, writing, languages, politics, sports — didn’t sound like serious career options for a math-and-science type like me.
Beyond that was only a massive mental block, an abyss of vague fear and paralysis. And I had no idea why.
Feeling lost and ashamed, I took a job at a local pub near the Stanford campus because it had the best dollars-to-stress ratio of any job I could think of, and the popular image of bartenders was almost sexy enough to make up for the savage beating my ego was taking.
Once I was settled in with the job, I joined a Jujitsu club — one of those things I had always wanted to do but never had time. I noticed a purple belt named Michel who had powerful shoulders, light olive skin, and slate blue eyes. He asked me out after practice one evening. He didn’t have to ask twice.
He mentioned over dinner that he was from Lebanon, a country I knew so little about, I couldn’t think of any intelligent questions to ask. I decided to start small. When he dropped me off at the end of the night, I asked him how to say ‘Thank you’ in Arabic.
“Shukran,” he said.
I repeated the strange word, tasting it in my mouth.
He bowed his head slightly in an utterly charming way and said, “No problem. Any time.”
We only had three months together before he moved out of state for graduate school, but they were three very good months. He talked incessantly about his native Beirut and its picturesque beaches, forested mountains, world-class food, and gorgeous women, which surprised me. I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic, bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it.
But Michel made Lebanon sound fabulous, and when he talked with his Lebanese friends and I couldn’t understand, it drove me crazy. So I borrowed a friend’s primer and started studying Arabic.
As the weeks passed, I began to notice a curious thing: I was pretty happy most of the time. I spent forty hours a week at a fantastic pub, and the rest of my time was wide open to enjoy friends and books, sandwiches and sunsets. I knew I’d been vaguely unhappy most of my life, but I never realized the extent of it until the fog gradually lifted and left me in an unfamiliar landscape so bright it almost hurt my eyes.
My ears burned, though, whenever I asked my patrons at the pub, in all seriousness, if they wanted fries with that. All this happiness and free time flew in the face of my deeply-ingrained rural middle-class upbringing. Whenever I started hyperventilating about it, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that God and society could take care of themselves for a year or two whether or not I was staring at Excel spreadsheets all day. After that, if nothing better came along, I could always dust myself off, buy an Ann Taylor suit on credit, and put together a quasi-fictitious résumé like everyone else.
* * *
One afternoon in March of 2003, I found a copy of The Wave, a San Francisco magazine, left behind at the pub. The Iraq War had just begun, so it was full of articles about the Arab world. I flipped it open to a satirical piece about spending Spring Break in the Middle East. It listed the major countries of the region (including Lebanon), their most impressive tourist attractions, and why the people of each country wanted to kill us.
I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but it bothered me. Curious, I biked to the Stanford Bookstore and picked up a guidebook called Lonely Planet: From Istanbul to Cairo on a Shoestring, expecting to see nothing but dire travel warnings. To my astonishment, it recommended the route as one of the most romantic, historically rich, and friendly in the world, and no more dangerous than Brazil or Thailand.
A month later, a friend in France named Olivier wrote to me and said he had three weeks of vacation coming up in September, and why didn’t we meet up somewhere? I had some money saved by now and was planning on using it to travel. So I said sure, sent him an off-hand list of half a dozen Mediterranean countries, and told him to pick one, imagining a lush late summer of Greek and Italian islands.
A week later he wrote back: “What do you think about Egypt?”
My heart sank into my toes. I didn’t even remember putting Egypt on the list. But I had given him his choice, and the Middle East was cheaper than Greece, which meant I could travel longer. Plus it bothered me that I didn’t know enough to have an informed opinion on the Iraq War. My political science classes had been full of disconnected anecdotes and competing theories that left me unsure what to believe. The post-9/11 newspapers and magazines hadn’t been much help, either. Here was a chance to bypass all that and have a look for myself.
It was nice, anyway, to think my Arabic studying suddenly had a purpose.
As my plane landed in Cairo in early September, it was clear that reading a guidebook hadn’t remotely prepared me for the Middle East. My knowledge of the culture was almost nil, my Arabic skills were pitiful, and I felt ridiculous in my cargo shorts, ponytail, and bare, sunburned face. All the other women wore stylish, diaphanous headscarves and subtle, lovely make-up, and if the aim of that get-up was to make them less attractive, it had failed miserably. When one of the more exquisite women — all luminous skin, full rose lips, and steady eyes — caught me looking at her and smiled kindly at me, I ducked my head like a frightened child.
Just then two boisterous college-age Egyptian guys came up to me and asked, “Where you from?”
“Uh, America,” I said, too taken aback to wonder whether it was wise to reveal my nationality on my first day in the Arab world when my country was at war with an Arab state.
“Ah, America!” They seemed delighted by the revelation. “First time in Egypt?”
“Welcome to Egypt!” They smiled and bounced away toward passport control.
As Olivier and I traveled from the Pyramids in the north to Luxor in the south, no one mentioned the Iraq war. All thought of politics was lost in the dusty, sweaty shuffle of catching buses, finding restaurants, haggling over prices, and visiting tombs and museums.
When our cultural duty was finally done, we headed to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a remote triangle of mountainous desert wedged between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, for some rest and relaxation. Our first stop was Dahab, a backpacker’s resort on the gulf coast whose main pedestrian drag ran along the water. Past the flat, shallow reef tables was a drop-off populated by living corals and psychedelic tropical fish, then the sapphire sea filling a mile-deep crack in the earth. The jagged gold-brown Sinai Mountains rose behind Dahab to the west, and twenty miles east across the gulf sat the hazy, sandy mountains of Saudi Arabia.
We settled in at a $3-a-night camp and stretched out on brightly-colored cushions in a Bedouin-style sitting area next to the sea. I put a Dire Straits tape on the camp’s sound system, ordered a strawberry milkshake, watched the little aquamarine waves breaking against the reefs, and finally felt like I was on vacation.
After three days, Olivier had to leave and catch his plane to Paris. I was planning on following my guidebook’s itinerary through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey over the next two or three months. But I was in no mood to pick up and be a tourist again any time soon.
I bade Olivier adieu and ordered another hookah.
A few days later, I gathered enough steam to walk two hours north to a tiny Bedouin village, a loose collection of grass huts and a few dozen camels tethered to a flat spit of desert between the mountains and the sea. There was no electricity in the village; the only illumination came from the sun, the moon, the stars, and candles. I hadn’t made any plans or reservations, but I was soon invited to have dinner and sleep on a foam mattress in one of the grass huts, for a nominal fee.
The next morning I hiked further north to a turquoise lagoon, where I met an Estonian free-diver named Dan. His hair was salty and sun-bleached and he wore a silver hoop earring, a wooden bead necklace, and a wry, dimpled smile. I snorkeled in the coral gardens near the surface while he, with his weight belt, wetsuit, and carefully-trained breath-holding ability, dove deep into the blue depths.
When the shadows of the Sinai mountains were getting long, Dan and I moseyed back to the Bedouin village and found a spacious octagonal thatched shelter with a gas stove that served as a hotel and restaurant. We sat on cushions in the candlelight and talked for hours while our host prepared a dinner of fish and rice and vegetables and Bedouin flatbread.
I felt more at ease than I had in months, and I soon felt like I’d known Dan for years. Our host, who called himself Abraham, wore the traditional white Egyptian tunic and a thin white scarf fashioned into a loose turban around his head. He served us food by candlelight and told us tales about Egypt and Israel dropping bombs on the Sinai, about treasures hidden in caves by fleeing Bedouins, and about smuggling hash on boats and camels. His manner of speech was bemused and ponderous, and he always had a clever, ironic expression on his face. He told us the names of the seasonal winds and said he liked octopus season best because “it’s no bones, just good, white meat.”
The next morning I walked back to Abraham’s place for some tea before I departed. Then I completely failed to depart. Dan and I floated lazily among the bright yellow butterfly fish, iridescent parrotfish, and flashy lionfish, waited three hours for breakfast while the sun climbed, snorkeled again, waited three hours for dinner while the sun descended, and passed out contentedly on our cushions. The next day we did the same.
At night we went swimming at the camp’s sandy beach under a new moon and got a surprise when we found that our moving hands and feet stirred up trails of bright pinpoints of light in the water. We laughed in wonder, and Dan said, “It’s like a fairy tale.” Abraham later told us they were billions and billions of bioluminescent plankton, but we felt like we were swimming in swirling fields of sparkling water stars.
The beauty of the world filled our senses completely. Every day the sun hurtled across a flawless sky, then the galaxy floated by like a majestically slow comet. The sea always shone deep blue against the Mars-like Saudi landscape. The coral gardens were incomprehensible miracles, hovering explosions of form and color below the water’s surface. There was no sense of time, just an endlessly marvelous present. For the first time I understood the meaning of the phrase, “My cup runneth over.”
Sadly, Dan was due to leave the Sinai after four days. As we were parting, he took me aside and said, “There’s something I haven’t told you. I’m not really Estonian. I grew up in Siberia, and a few years ago I moved to Israel. I’m an Israeli citizen now.” He fiddled with a strap on his backpack. “Sorry for not telling you earlier. It’s just easier not to say you’re Israeli around here. But if you plan on visiting Israel, my house is your house any time.”
“Well, don’t worry,” I said. “Your nationality makes no difference to me. And I’d really love to visit you in Israel. The problem is, if I get an Israeli visa stamp in my passport, they won’t let me in to Syria or Lebanon. And I have to go through Syria to get to Turkey.”
“I understand,” he said. “But let me know if you change your mind.”
Eye of the Storm
I caught the next ferry to Jordan and spent a week hiking the southern Jordanian deserts. Along the way, through some process of cultural osmosis, I began to learn how to greet people in the local ways, how to spot a petty scam artist, what the local prices ought to be, and how to cut down on mild harassment from unmarried young men — namely by covering my knees and shoulders and wearing a fake wedding ring.
When I made my way up north to the capital, Amman, I liked it immediately. The best view of the city was from the hilltop ruins of the Roman Citadel at sunset when the sky glowed pink and purple, the boxy white houses on the city’s seventeen hills glowed sand-colored, and the minarets glowed with green neon amid wheeling flocks of pigeons while the call to prayer echoed in stereo.
I took the advice of an Irish backpacker I’d met in southern Jordan and stayed at the Al Sarayya Hotel despite its astronomical price of 14 Jordanian Dinars ($20) per night. It was in the old downtown area where hospitality was still a way of life. I almost felt bad talking with shopkeepers and waiters there, because some refused to charge me for food and services after we’d chatted long enough to feel like friends.
The manager of my hotel was a droll and charming man named Fayez who’d been trained as an electrical engineer. He was an intelligent, clean-cut chain-smoker, tall and thin and distinguished-looking, the kind of guy you’d expect to see patiently explaining something obscure but important on CNN. I sat in his office with other guests, and he offered everyone sweet Arabic coffees, on the house.
Someone asked about the stuffed white wolf on one of his filing cabinets. Fayez explained that a reporter had nicked it from one of Saddam’s palaces. He left it in Fayez’s office and made him promise not to sell it.
“But I don’t know,” Fayez mused sardonically. “Probably I could get a few thousands for him on eBay. What do you think?”
My scalp began to prickle in an odd and unnerving way. This was war loot. And it wasn’t from a historical event that could safely be categorized as something done in other times by other people. This was here and now, and it was my country that had done the invading.
Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, is a jumping-off point for journalists on their way to Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the Al Sarayya was a favorite among independent journalists, filmmakers, and foreign aid workers. Every evening they congregated in Fayez’s office to share their stories over bottomless cups of sweet, strong tea and Arabic coffee. I joined them and listened, slack-jawed and silent.
A Swedish woman told us that an Iraqi waiter in Baghdad had once started talking excitedly to an Iraqi-born Swede she was traveling with. The rest of the Swedes were impatient and wanted service, but the Iraqi-born Swede told them to wait. The waiter was telling him that his sister and her family had been on a minibus a few days earlier, and the bus had stopped for an American soldier at a checkpoint. The soldier waved them through, but then a woman reached for a baby bottle. The soldier emptied his ammunition clip into the bus, killing six people. Apparently he had thought she was reaching for a grenade.
As their stories went on and on like this, my palms began sweating and my heart beat faster, I was almost shaking. Strangely, it wasn’t the stories themselves that upset me the most. It was the prickling realization of how thoroughly I had been misled by my own press and government. They’d made the war sound so clean and under control, abstract and far away. Here, it sounded like nothing short of a blood-soaked catastrophe.
Then again, maybe these ‘independent journalists’ were lying or exaggerating, trying to impress each other and tourists like me with their big talk. There was only one way to find out.
My head began buzzing as I realized what was possible. It was nice enough drinking tea with Bedouins and gazing at the stone monuments of bygone eras. But here was a chance to witness history as it was being made.
I asked about expeditions to Baghdad the next day and was offered a ride in a shared taxi for $200. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. I figured I could meet people like I had in Cairo, Dahab, and Amman, and things would work out somehow.
In the evening, I told two journalists about my plan and asked if it sounded wise.
“Are you a reporter?” one asked.
“Foreign aid worker?”
They narrowed their eyes. “Then why do you want to go?”
I shrugged. “Just to see.”
They looked at me like they couldn’t tell whether I was a maniac or an idiot. Then they made it vividly clear that the violence in Baghdad was far too random and gruesome for tourists.
I chafed at their patronizing tones. But I wasn’t suicidal. I grudgingly took their advice.
The next evening Fayez invited me to dinner along with two men, Yusif and Sebastian, who were on vacation from their work in the West Bank of the Palestinian territories.
Sebastian was a young, slim Canadian paramedic with close-cropped brown hair. Yusif was a skinny, white, blond British Muslim who had the aristocratic aura of a wandering ascetic. His face was drawn tight with laugh lines, his teeth were crooked, and his age was impossible to guess. There was something childlike, almost impish about him, yet he irresistibly commanded respect and attention. His words seemed to come from a deep well of spiritual confidence that was either brilliant or insane, yet he was humble and friendly. I’d never met anyone remotely like him.
They were on their way to Petra, the ancient Nabatean city carved into the living rock of a spectacular canyon in southern Jordan. Its most famous landmark was a matchless monument called Al Khazneh, which serves as the final resting place of the Holy Grail in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The massive, shimmering, rose-hued tomb, exquisitely ornamented and symmetrical, is accessible only through a mile-long crack in a mountain.
Sebastian found me the next day and invited me to join them. I hesitated. I’d already gone to Petra a week earlier. Going again would cut into my dwindling time and funds. But I had just been invited to one of the most magical places on earth in the company of one of the most intriguing people I had ever met. I didn’t hesitate long.
Along the way, Yusif mentioned that he had trained in survival in the Sudan from age 14 to 22. He claimed to have met Osama bin Laden there many years ago. He’d also lived in a cave in southern Spain for several years. Now he was on the town council of a Palestinian village called Jayyous. He spoke fluent Arabic, and Sebastian and I once watched him silence an entire busload of Jordanians with a sing-song recitation of the Quran.
Both men talked compulsively about their experiences in Palestine. Yusif was sometimes off-hand, almost clinical as he told his stories. Other times he was wide-eyed, like a kid describing a crime so outrageous, he feared no one would believe him.
Their stories, like the stories of the journalists earlier, were impossible to take at face value. But I had learned in Fayez’s office that the American government gave Israel more than $3 billion every year, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. If their stories were true, it seemed like something I should know. If I called their bluff and things weren’t really so bad, I could hang out with Dan in Israel and then move on and forget about it.
I hated the thought of missing out on Syria and Lebanon if my passport got stamped by Israel. But here was a chance to learn things for myself, experientially, that there was no other way to learn. The West Bank didn’t sound nearly as dangerous as the free-for-all in Baghdad, and I had just made friends with two ready-made tour-guides. I knew I’d never forgive myself if I passed all that up for the sake of being a tourist.
As we were heading back to Amman, I asked Yusif and Sebastian if I could go with them when they went back to the West Bank.
“You’re welcome to join us,” Sebastian said. “But you might get turned back at the Israeli border if the guards suspect you plan on visiting the West Bank. It’s better not to mention anything about that.”
“And it’s probably best if we pretend we don’t know each other,” Yusif said in his clipped patrician accent. “The interrogations will be much simpler that way.”
So, green and wide-eyed, I wandered into the Holy Land, an empty vessel.
The book’s Table of Contents has links to many more excerpts, including all of Chapters 2 and 3.
I’ll publish Chapter 1 of my book here soon. It tells the story of how I got involved in Palestine in the first place. But this gives you a sense of the state of mind I was in when I happened to wander into the Holy Land at age 23, seven years ago. It’s an email I sent to my mother in October of 2002, shortly after I graduated from college. Instead of going to Wall Street or physics grad school like many friends, I was bartending in northern California, studying Russian and Arabic on my own just because I wanted to, and spending three evenings a week learning Jujitsu just because I wanted to, with vague plans to travel somewhere in the world when I had enough money saved up — again, just because I wanted to. Frankly, at the time, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.
There was no indication that all of it was leading me to Palestine (or anywhere), and my mom was understandably nervous. So I tried to explain a little about where I was coming from, or hoped I was coming from. It was such a confusing time with no real guidance other than a feeling of absolute dread when I thought about following a conventional career track in anything I had studied. A lot of people do great with conventional career tracks, but something (punched me in the gut and) told me it wasn’t for me, and that if I didn’t listen, I would be miserable. So really I was just trying to post-rationalize my decision to do the only thing my viscera would let me do, for reasons unknown.
Reading this letter now, it sounds very naive. But I’m glad. I’m more of a realist now — I understand better how the world works — but I’m a progressive realist, which means I don’t simply accept the status quo as the best we can do. History is saturated with stories of people improving their societies and governments through hard, principled work. Too many people these days mistake cynicism for wisdom. I’d rather start my path too idealistic than too resigned to believing we already live in the best of all possible worlds, and we can’t do anything to improve it. As Carl Shurz said, “Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.”
I try to remind myself now and then that if not for “naive idealists,” I probably wouldn’t be able to vote.
Right now what’s making me feel good is being here in California with my friends and community and mentors and worldview-bending conversations with wildly diverse people who are helping shape my life and my choices more than any institutionalized class ever could. I’m living well and cheaply, having adventures and conversations and breakthroughs, making new friends and strengthening old friendships.
Of course I have the potential to be led astray or get freaked out or join a cult or waste all my money or get into bad substances or do stupid things, but you just have to have faith that I am a free agent, a relatively intelligent and motivated one who loves life and tries to think freely and live healthily, and I’ll make decent decisions. Maybe not the best, maybe not the ones you would have chosen, and maybe you won’t see the rhyme or reason to the path my heart follows. But no one ever promised me or you that things would make sense right away.
Mr. Thoreau dabbled in pencil manufacturing before he found his path and sat down by a lake and “frittered his life away” writing silly little stories that would later profoundly influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomas Paine worked as a corset-maker for years before he sailed to new lands and wrote books that helped foment the revolution that formed the country we now live in. Roald Dahl hiked aimlessly around Newfoundland and then took a post in humid, malaria-infested Africa before he joined the Royal Air Force and later wrote children’s books that we all grew up on.
I admire these people far more, and their lives make my eyes shine brighter, than whoever was the richest or most powerful man in Concord while Thoreau was eating lunch with his mom by a lake. That’s just how I am. I value freedom and adventure more than security and institutional validation. Not everyone who’s like that ends up a miserable failure, and I’m lucky enough to have a degree to fall back on, so I can follow a non-traditional path and probably not crash and burn. Why not? Who am I hurting, living this way?
My eyes are finally shining for something, I feel less lonely and repressed. And in any case, if it doesn’t work out in the next few years, then I’ll be only, what, 26 years old? Not too late to start over if necessary, humbler and wiser and full of stories.
I’m probably not going to influence nearly as many people as any of these men, but nonetheless, I want to forge a life less ordinary, a life off the beaten track, a life with heart if not with loads of cash and real estate. And I have enough friends all over the world that I’ll probably never starve. And I live healthy enough that I’m not making myself sick all the time. Insurance is not going to do a lot of good if the shit really hits the fan, but a huge network of friends will. That’s my insurance. And it’s a lot more fun than selling my time to someone I don’t care about and giving it to someone else I don’t care about in the name of “security.” I’m young and naive and glib, and it may catch up with me, and I may have to start over years in the future when it’s not so easy. But that’s what I choose for now, the uncertainty and the adventure.
I only have this one life. It’s just the way I am, and I’m not asking anyone to live like I do. I’m not even asking for permission or acceptance or respect. Just… give me a chance, and let me fail and succeed gracefully, as a human being as cognizant and imperfect as any other.
I’m 22 years old. I’m a freshman in the world, and I’m going to make mistakes. But I think it was you who introduced me to the Tallulah Bankhead quote: “If I had my life to do over, I’d make all the same mistakes, only I’d make them a lot sooner.”
So here I go.
I’m drafting the epilogue of the book now, and I just got to the part where the Lebanon war breaks out in the summer of 2006. I’m not going to say much about it now except to say it was the lowest point in my life.
But I just came across a blog post by Lawrence of Cyberia from that terrible summer that I liked very much. So I’ve decided to repost it here. I hope he doesn’t mind.
The Yellow Wind
Lawrence of Cyberia
August 27, 2006
It feels awkward to pick out one person from all those who have been killed in Lebanon, Israel and the Occupied Territories over the last few weeks, but I do want to say a few words about the death of Uri Grossman, the son of Israeli novelist David Grossman, killed while serving with an IDF tank crew in Lebanon on 12 August.
I suspect that for many people who grew up on the grotesque popular Zionism of Leon Uris — with his heroic, blond-haired, blue-eyed, European Zionists set upon by the bestial, backwards, incorrigible Arabs — it was David Grossman, and especially The Yellow Wind, his 1987 exposé of life under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, that helped to snap them out of it.
Personally, the part of the book that stayed with me for years after I read it was Chapter 7 (Catch-44), in which Grossman describes an afternoon he spent observing proceedings at an IDF military court in Nablus. Virtually every Palestinian brought before the judge has already “confessed” under interrogation, so most cases consist entirely of IDF officers discussing among themselves how much jail-time the defendant will serve, while the defendant himself — unable to speak Hebrew and served by bored and incompetent military translators — uncomprehendingly awaits his fate.
But then a real trial begins. The defendant, Jafer Haj Hassan, isn’t just accused of a technical violation like failing to get a permit for some everyday activity, but of being a terrorist. And as he — unlike all the others — has refused to confess, Grossman finally gets to witness an IDF court at work.
The charge is that Jafer Haj Hassan has been in contact with a terrorist organisation. The evidence against him is that years earlier, Hassan had asked his father to help him raise money to study overseas. His father had sought help from an old friend in Jordan who was a member of Fatah, and the friend had arranged for the movement to pay tuition for Hassan to study German at a univerity in West Germany. As it turned out, Hassan hadn’t really taken to German; the scholarship had been revoked, and Hassan had eventually come home to the West Bank. The prosecutor acknowledges that Hassan isn’t involved with terrorism, and has never actually been in touch with anyone in Fatah — which is the basis of the charge against him — but asks the judge to convict him anyway on the grounds that while in Germany he had remained in contact with his own father, who had in turn once been in contact with the old friend in Fatah.
Grossman can tell that the judge is skeptical that staying in touch with one’s own father is sufficient grounds for a terrorism conviction, but he can also see that the judge cannot bring himself to order an acquittal:
Since the defendant, Jafer Haj Hassan, had already spent forty-four days in prison, the judge faced a serious problem . Can a military court of an occupying power admit that the military government of the occupation made a mistake? And how will that influence its authority, esteem, and power, in the eyes of the inhabitants? Everything depends on the answer to this question.
The judge disappears to his chambers to consider how to deal with the dilemma. Two hours later he emerges, like Solomon triumphant, to announce that he has reached a verdict. Jafer Haj Hassan is not guilty of the charges he is facing, but the court has found him guilty of a charge he wasn’t facing, specifically, smuggling foreign currency into the territories! Grossman notes that Hassan never actually received any foreign currency (his tuition was paid for him); and he didn’t receive the scholarship in the Occupied Territories, but in Germany; and in fact it is illegal even under the IDF’s own regulations to convict a defendant of a charge he didn’t know he was facing… But none of that matters. What matters is that the defendant who was charged has been found guilty of something, proving to the natives that Israeli military justice does not make mistakes.
In recognition of the fact that Jafer Haj Hassan is really no more guilty of currency smuggling than he was of terrorism, the judge sentences him to time served — forty-four days (hence the title of the chapter) — which is effectively an acquittal. So the honour of the occupier is preserved. The court is spared from having to acknowledge that the defendant is innocent, but lets him go home, because everyone knows he is.
As the trial ends, all Grossman can think of is George Orwell’s classic essay on the White Man’s Burden, Shooting an Elephant:
Orwell, while serving in the British Army in Burma is drafted by a Burmese mob to kill a giant elephant in heat. As he strides toward the elephant — pressed by the expectations of the crowd — he first understands that he may not be as free to decide his own actions as he thought beforehand…
“I perceived in this moment,” Orwell, the colonial officer, says in his essay, “that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
The Yellow Wind is a call for Israelis to end their domination of the Palestinians, on the grounds that the occupation is neither just, nor moral, nor humane. But the book is also a warning to Israel that if it cannot end the occupation for morality’s sake, then it should do so out of simple self-interest, because the occupation is going to destroy it. In fact, that’s why the book is called The Yellow Wind. The term originates in a conversation that Grossman has with an elderly Palestinian refugee he encounters during his travels in the West Bank:
I tell Abu Harb that I called my book “The Yellow Time” in Hebrew, and he asks me if I have heard about the yellow wind. I say that I haven’t, so he begins telling me about it, and about the yellow wind that will come soon, maybe even in his lifetime: the wind will come from the gate of Hell (from the gates of Paradise comes only a pleasant, cool wind) — “rih asfar”, it is called by the local Arabs, a hot and terrible east wind which comes once in a few generations, sets the world afire, and people seek shelter from its heat in the caves and caverns, but even there it finds those it seeks, those who have performed cruel and unjust deeds, and there, in the cracks of the boulders, it exterminates them one by one. After that day, Abu Harb says, the land will be covered with bodies. The rocks will be white from the heat, and the mountains will crumble into a powder which will cover the land like yellow cotton…
David Grossman wrote his indictment of the occupation in the summer of 1987, when the Occupied Territories seemed to the outside world to be calm and subdued and its inhabitants resigned to their fate. The idea that Israel was sowing a wind and would reap a whirlwind seemed to be a problem for a distant future, if not outright scaremongering. Just six months later, the first intifada erupted, seemingly — to the vast majority who had never seen what Grossman had seen — inexplicable and out of nowhere.
Now, with the benefit of almost 20 years’ hindsight, we can assess how Grossman’s diagnosis played out. Clearly, Israel didn’t end the occupation, and for the most part remained too jealous of its own victimhood to be moved by Grossman’s argument that its treatment of the Palestinians is neither just, nor moral, nor humane. The need to end the occupation out of self-interest has certainly gained more traction, although the disconnect between knowing what needs to be done and electing a government capable of doing it remains profound.
The big difference between 1987 and now is that I think no-one now would look at the destructive, corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel and the entire region, and think this is a problem to be put off to a distant future. No-one can look at Israel’s internal and external situation at the moment and seriously believe that the status quo is tenable. The real question is whether Israel can accept the widely-accepted formula for regional coexistence or will choose instead to muscle it out through an escalating series of Gazas and south Lebanons.
Either way, I think that the moment of truth that David Grossman described as a yellow wind is upon Israel. How sad and ironic that one of the first people swept away by it should be the son of the author who looked at the false calm of the Occupied Territories in 1987, and knew what was coming.
I once asked an Israeli Facebook friend to explain to me how he could justify settlement expansion in the West Bank. He didn’t justify it, but rather explained it like this:
About expanding the settlements it goes like this (very simply):
- Israeli leftists are against
- Israeli right wingers are “pro”
- Most Israelis don’t give a shit about it (low participation in political decision-making. Normal phenomenon of “wealthy” countries)
The problem is:
- Leftists are trying to influence in a “peaceful way” — through demonstration, campaigns in the press, etc.
- Right wing puts facts in the ground — they just go and build settlements [presumably he’s including the Israeli government, the largest sponsor of settlement construction, among the ‘right-wingers’]
- Leftists are proven wrong every day with the Palestinians’ non-stop violence
- Hence — nobody cares about the leftists, and people who were type 1 (see above) become more and more type 3
I replied to him by putting his words in a Palestinian context. Please note that I’m not justifying terrorism. I’m merely explaining it, as he explained settlement expansion above.
About terrorism it goes like this (very simply):
- Palestinian leftists are against
- Palestinian right wingers are “pro”
- Most Palestinians feel helpless and just want to live their lives (low participation in political decision-making. Normal phenomenon of populations living under occupation and an ‘Authority’ that doesn’t really represent them and a world that disrespects and reverses their democratic choice when they try to vote for a less quisling party)
The problem is:
- Leftists are trying to influence in a “peaceful way” — through demonstration, campaigns in the press, etc.
- Right wing puts facts in the ground — they just go and build bombs and rockets
- Leftists are proven wrong every day with the Israelis’ non-stop settlement expansion, assassinations, mass imprisonments, sieges, humiliations at checkpoints, mass killings in Gaza, refusal to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, etc.
- Hence — nobody cares about the leftists, and people who were type 1 (see above) become more and more type 3
This little exchange captures certain persistent elements of the conflict. But there’s more at work, particularly now that the Second Intifada’s over, than just “extremists on both sides” and jaded apathy.
First of all, there’s the fact that Palestinians have virtually stopped attacks against Israeli civilians since the Intifada ended 2005, mostly due to their realization that such attacks are futile. Worse than futile — they legitimize right-wingers in Israel and turn international public opinion against Palestinians.
More and more Palestinians are hoping peaceful means will be more effective in ending the occupation. I’ve written a little about the massive and growing campaign of non-violent resistance in Palestine and around the world, and I predict it will become a major factor in the not-too-distant future.
(Another hopeful development is the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a formidable panel of experts and diplomats who seek to pressure the European Union to stop supporting Israeli policies that are illegal under international and European law.)
But despite the restraint shown by Palestinians in the past four years, Israeli violence has remained consistent and at times escalated enormously. The numbers tell the story.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,* in all of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, 54 Israeli civilians (including 13 settlers, 8 children, and 7 killed by Qassam rockets) and 23 soldiers were killed by Palestinians, for a total of 77 Israelis killed.
11 of them were killed by Fatah-affiliated groups. 16 were killed by Hamas. 18 were killed by Islamic Jihad. 32 were killed by lone gunmen or people with unknown affiliations.
In other words, Israelis lost fewer than twenty people per year during these four years, nearly half of them to lone angry criminals — fewer than the 30 soldiers they lose to suicide each year, surely far fewer than they lost to non-political crime, and probably fewer than they lost to food allergies.
It’s too many, of course. One is too many.
But compare this to the Palestinian casualties.
As Samuel L. Jackson might say: Hold on to your butts.
In 2006, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, 657 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers.
In 2007, 384 were killed.
In 2008, not including the offensive on Gaza called Operation Cast Lead, 460 were killed.
When you add in Operation Cast Lead and the rest of 2009, you double the total number killed, and the number of dead children jumps to 661.
Thus the total number of Palestinians killed in the past four years is about 3,000 — more people than live in my home town of Stigler, OK. This is about 750 people per year for the past four years — two people dying violent deaths every day, a child every other day. Despite the stunning drop in Israeli casualties (which reached a sharp peak in 2002 when 269 civilians and 153 soldiers killed and was in the single digits by 2009), the rate of Palestinian death has actually been slightly greater over the past four years than it was during 2001-2004, the height of the Second Intifada!
But again, casualties tell only part of the story. There’s also the fact that Palestinians aren’t building Muslim-only colonies inside Israel while Israel continues to expand Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, that Palestinians are holding a grand total of one Israeli soldier prisoner while Israelis hold more than 10,000 Palestinians in jail, many of them without charge or trial, hundreds of them children, or that Gazans (and to a lesser extent, West Bankers) are held under a state of siege while Israelis are free to travel almost anywhere in the world and import, export, and purchase whatever they like. Etc.
Still, this picture is vastly incomplete. There are factors of history, politics, culture, and strategy that a blog post can’t begin to touch on.
For that, I had to write a book.
- * To read Israel’s list of its casualties since September 2000, google “Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism since September 2000.”