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In honor of Ramadan — a month that means so many things to so many people, but to me will always mean nightly feasts in Jayyous — I’m posting the last excerpt from my book that I plan to post on this blog: the conclusion of Chapter 3: Behind the Fence.

To read all posted excerpts (including all of Chapters 1, 2, and 3), go to the online Table of Contents on my website.

Ramadan blessings to all!

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CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE — Part 3

The Eid

When Ramadan was almost over, I called Dan to see if we could hang out one last time before I headed back to Jordan. He said he could pick me up at the Gates of Azzun and drive me to the bus station in Jerusalem whenever I was ready. I said I couldn’t thank him enough.

“By the way,” he said, “did I ever tell you what happened when I was leaving the West Bank last time?”

“No.”

“Yeah, well… The checkpoint near the Green Line had been moved, and I didn’t notice. I drove straight through. Army Jeeps started chasing me with their lights flashing. Somehow I didn’t notice that, either. I was listening to music, you know, kind of distracted. Finally they put their sirens on and ordered me to pull over and get out. When I got out of the car, they were all aiming their guns at me.”

I could feel the blood drain from my face. “What happened?”

I could tell he was still shaken up, but he just laughed and said, “I told them in Hebrew that I was Israeli. They looked very relieved I didn’t look like a terrorist.”

My head dropped into my hands. My God, if that had gone badly…

* * *

Near the end of November, a silver sliver of moon signaled the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid al Fitr, the three-day Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. At first I could hardly bear to eat in the middle of the day because my stomach was so shriveled from fasting, but soon my natural appetite began to come back. Two neighborhood boys sang jubilant calls to prayer from the mosque’s minaret, and by the end of three days, I had eaten my weight in the signature dessert of the holiday, a syrupy pancake folded over sweet cheese called qatayef.

Sweet, sweet qatayef

Packs of kids occasionally set off fireworks to celebrate the holiday, which set my teeth on edge, and some of the boys got toy guns for their Eid presents. I’d played with plenty of guns as a kid in Oklahoma, both fake and real, and the guns of the Israeli soldiers literally ruled these kids’ lives. It must have been empowering to get behind one now and then, even a fake one. Still, every time I saw a munchkin emerge from a side street carrying what looked like a rifle, my heart jumped into my throat.

If the hospitality gauntlet of Jayyous was bad during Ramadan, it was positively oppressive during the Eid. I couldn’t walk ten feet without being invited into someone’s doorway with a cry of “Tfadaleh!” (‘Come on in!’). The five-minute walk across town could easily take two hours. It was like walking through wet tar. I was torn between feeling exhausted by Jayyous and knowing how terribly I would miss it as soon as I left.

At the end of the first Eid day I joined the men on Amjad’s porch. Qais was there, back from Jenin, and Yusif, and all the usual suspects, talking and joking and being outraged and delighted, sometimes both at the same time.

Before I left, he asked when I would uyezhaesh (leave) from Palestine. I told him I planned on leaving after the Eid was over. He asked if I would ever vernioshsya (return).

Konechno,” I said. (Of course.)

As I said it, it occurred to me that it might even be true.

The Last Picnic

On the last day of the Eid, I made my rounds saying good-bye to everyone I knew in Jayyous. It was impossible to see everyone I wanted because each family insisted I stay for lunch, or a snack, or dinner, or dessert, or coffee, or fruit, or all six. I saved Amjad, Yusif, and Qais for last because I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

I was ridiculously behind schedule by the time I got to Rania’s house. After Rania and I said tearful good-byes, Rania’s mother waved and said, “Ashufik, ah?” (We’ll see you, yes?)

I put my hand over my heart. “Always.”

She looked startled. Rania turned to me and asked, “What you say?”

“I said ‘always.’”

She laughed her girlish laugh. “Ah, Bamila, she does not know this word. For us it is a kind of… how you say… sanitary napkin.”

“Ah.” My face flushed. “Well, for us it is, too, but it’s also a word. How do you say ‘always’ in Arabic?”

Daiman.”

“Ah, daiman!” Rania’s mother said. “Yes. Always. See you always.” She laughed.

When I got to Amjad’s place, my second-to-last stop, I was overjoyed to see that Qais was already there watching TV in the living room. He stood up when he saw me.

“Where have you been?” he asked. “I came here specially to see you.”

As I fumbled for words in Russian to explain, I finally realized. Until this moment, I had merely noted that Qais was tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, funny, and kind. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was Jayyous, after all, and I was just passing through. But such thoughts had only masked feelings that were suddenly undeniable.

Amjad and Amir soon showed up and sat with us for a last evening chatting together and watching the world go by. When it was time to go, I wasn’t sure how to say good-bye to the brothers or express what my times on their porch had meant to me.

As I opened my mouth to try, Amir suddenly asked, “How many brothers you have?”

“Um, just one,” I answered, taken aback by the apparent non sequitur.

“No.” His eyes smiled. “You have three.” He looked at Amjad, and Amjad’s eyes smiled, too.

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Maa al salaama, ya akhuy.”

Qais and I slowly walked toward his house for a last nargila together. Along the way we ran into the mayor and his son Mohammad the Charmer, who shook my hand and said all the warm, poetic good-byes I had learned in Arabic and some I didn’t know. I smiled gratefully through stinging tears. It was impossible to imagine I might never see these people again.

Yusif and Shadi were hanging out on the porch when we got to Qais’s place. They were talking about a barbecue planned for the next day near a cave on Jayyous’s land. The more they talked about it the better it sounded until I was practically fidgeting in my chair I wanted to go so badly.

“It’s really a shame you won’t be there,” Yusif said kindly.

“I know,” I said miserably. “It’s just that Dan is picking me up tomorrow to take me to Jerusalem so I can catch a bus to Jordan.”

Qais, never one to be perturbed, said, “Invite him to come, too.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? I called Dan, and he agreed to join us the next day.

Yusif slept over at Qais and Shadi’s house that night and arranged for me to stay with them. We slept on foam mattresses in the living room floor with Qais positioned as far from me as possible. (Yusif and Shadi took it upon themselves to be the haraam police.) The electricity went off at midnight, and we stayed up talking by the light of an oil lamp for another hour. Qais reached over once to trim the wick and brushed his hand against mine. We met eyes and smiled. It was a maddening taste of what might be possible if only it weren’t impossible.

In the morning Qais and Shadi, wearing white cotton undershirts, wet and combed their hair in the sink on the front porch with its little broken mirror, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Shadi and Yusif seasoned pieces of chicken and put them in a bucket. Other folks brought tea and veggies, a small grill and a nargila.

Dan drove in and joined us, and we all caravanned out to a spot whose view was unsullied by the Fence or any settlements—one of the few such places left. We made our way to a clearing with a soft, pretty view down into a valley, and Shadi showed me a little cave where they’d stored provisions. Someone dragged an old mattress out, and one of Qais’s cousins did amateur gymnastics on it. Qais told me he’d studied kickboxing in Russia, and he showed off some impressive spin kicks. The big boys threw one of Qais’s nephews around like a football, and he laughed and laughed.

After we thoroughly tired ourselves out, we sat down for a rest. Qais told me his classes would start again in Jenin the next day, and he’d be leaving early the next morning. “I was going to leave last night,” he said, “but I couldn’t miss this.”

“When will you come back to Jayyous next?” I asked.

“It will be a long time, probably.”

“Why?”

He half-smiled. “Because you won’t be here.”

Dinner was called soon. We feasted on grilled chicken and onions and tomatoes, hummus and olives and fresh yogurt and pickles and tea. We used bread to scoop the food and threw chicken bones and olive pits behind our heads with a careless feeling of infinite space and plenty. Qais and Dan, a Palestinian and an Israeli, chatted in perfect Russian — Qais with his dark, intelligent, slightly mischievous black eyes and Dan who’d been brave enough not only to venture into enemy territory but to find friends there.

After dinner we walked around and talked and picked wildflowers. I took a picture of Yusif, Qais, and Shadi with their arms slung around each other, smiling as freely as children against a backdrop of olive tree hills, feathery clouds, and a powder-blue sky.

I tried to capture the larger image of the day in my mind, a fleeting feeling of being flooded by good fortune, of stumbling into a place so exotic yet strangely homelike, witnessing for myself that even in the middle of one of the most protracted and ugly conflicts on earth, moments like this were still possible.

Home Again

My three weeks in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey were a lovely blur infused with missing the Holy Land so badly it was an almost physical pain.

As soon as I got back to California, I felt desperate to share what I had learned and find out what it meant. Whenever Dan was hanging out with us in Jayyous, it seemed like the whole conflict should evaporate any second, shriveled and shamed by its own depraved pointlessness. Yet thousands of highly-qualified people had been working on the problem for decades with no end in sight. I wanted to understand why.

I got my first clue when I began talking with friends about what I had seen. Some were skeptical, which was understandable. Others refused to believe things I had seen with my own eyes. Several, who had never been anywhere near the Middle East, informed me that I was naïve and I must have been brainwashed. More than one made vicious generalizations about Arabs and Muslims that they’d never dare make about any other race or religion. It was so bizarre to see friends turn into different people around this issue, I almost began to question my own sanity.

Then I talked with Michel, my Lebanese ex-boyfriend, who had grown up in Beirut during the wars. I poured out my stories to him, and he smiled knowingly. When we’d been dating, he’d never talked about the conflicts he’d lived through, and now I understood why. Trying to explain that kind of situation to someone who had never been in it was virtually impossible. I also joined Arab student groups on the Stanford campus, and they welcomed me as one of their own. It was such a relief to find people who understood the feelings and experiences I had been through, with no explanations necessary.

But I also wanted to understand the mentality that lived on the other side of this strange psychological wall. I audited a class on the history of Zionism, attended Israeli film festivals, spoke with Jewish professors, attended every lecture and discussion and read every book I could find, and joined an Israel/Palestine dialogue group. I had to research furiously to keep up, and soon it was impossible to see things in black and white. The deeper I dug, the deeper I saw there was to dig, right down to foundational questions of human nature itself. I’d never studied half as hard for anything when I was a student.

By spring there was no question in my mind that I would go back to the Middle East as soon as I could. The longer I was away the more I missed the place, with its olive trees and ancient seas, sweet herb teas and night-blooming jasmine, cute Israeli filmmakers and crazy British Muslims, dark jokes and devastating lessons. Things were happening in Palestine while folks in America sat around arguing and intellectualizing about it.

By summer I’d have enough money saved up to live in the West Bank for about six months. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. Yusif had left Jayyous and the English teaching program had been discontinued, so that was out. I was ready for something new anyway, probably in a city rather than a village. I just needed an excuse, a contact, something to lash my raft to while I figured out the lay of the land.

It arrived in the form of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian medical doctor and politician who gave a talk on the Stanford campus in March. His presentation laid out the facts clearly and brilliantly, and when hostile audience members asked insulting or absurd questions, he kept his cool and handled them with reason and confidence — exactly the way I hoped I could some day.

Dr. Barghouthi had co-founded a new political party, the Palestinian National Initiative (Al Mubadara), in 2002 as an alternative to the corruption of Fatah and the Islamism of Hamas. About half of Palestinians, he said, identified with neither Fatah nor Hamas, and Al Mubadara was an attempt to build a reformist, inclusive party to fill that vacuum. They were committed to non-violent resistance, providing public services, building international support for Palestinian human rights, developing democracy, and negotiating peace with Israel based on international law.

I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, if anything. But if his methods worked, it would be thrilling to see them in action. If they didn’t, I wanted to understand why, even though I also feared that understanding. It was terrifying to think my cozy view of the world — my beliefs in things like human rights, fair trials, and respect for other cultures — might break down out in the real world of politics, violence, and implacable ideologies, or the wrenching emotions of the place might destroy my ability to reason altogether.

I hoped I’d be able to swallow my heart and stare down my assumptions and adjust without going crazy or sinking into cynicism and despair. Either way, I wanted to know. The Holy Land was the most intriguing combination of colorful and friendly and devastating and insane. I couldn’t imagine a better university of human nature.

Dr. Barghouthi did a meet-and-greet at the end. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said, “I’m thinking of moving to Palestine, and I might like to volunteer with Al Mubadara.”

He smiled kindly. “Take one of my business cards. It has the number of my office in Ramallah on it.”

I took one and held onto it like a first-class ticket.

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“Salt of the Sea,” an excellent Palestinian film with rare Hollywood power behind it — the first ever with a Palestinian-American lead — is opening in New York this weekend. It’s the story of a Palestinian woman from Brooklyn who travels to the Holy Land to reclaim what’s hers only to find past injustices still locked down and an occupation destroying the hopes of a new generation. She and a Palestinian man — whose dream is to leave Palestine for good — set off on a madcap adventure to defy injustice, no matter the cost.

Nora, a filmmaker friend of mine, realized a couple of days ago that not nearly enough people knew about the film considering the caliber of the cast and production and the importance of the story. She’s passionate about getting the Palestinian narrative to the American mainstream, so she’s launched a last-minute campaign to sell out the theater on opening weekend and make sure this Palestinian film, and future Palestinian films, are distributed as widely as possible.

If this film does well on its opening weekend, it means this film stays in theaters longer and future Palestinian films are thought of as box office draws rather than deficits. Here is an appeal to help promote the film, which is being forwarded around to pro-justice groups in New York. Feel free to forward it widely!

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SALT OF THIS SEA (Milh Hadha al-Bahr)

OPENS FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, IN NEW YORK CITY!

Exclusive Engagement at the Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St., near Union Square

** SUHEIR HAMMAD IN PERSON FRIDAY AT 7:30! **

TRAILER
QUAD CINEMA WEBSITE
PURCHASE ADVANCE TICKETS
PRESS RELEASE
: Follows below
DAILY SHOWTIMES: 1:00, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30, 9:50

Dear Friends of Palestine:

Have you been waiting for a Hollywood-style film to reach out to the American voting public and tell a real story from Palestine — to describe from a personal point of view the history of dispossession, bring it into the present with searing images of the current reality of occupation, and set it in an engaging adventure?

This film has arrived! Even if you can’t attend, PURCHASE A TICKET NOW TO SUPPORT “SALT OF THIS SEA!”

Opening in New York Friday, August 13, Salt of This Sea (Milh Hadha al-Bahr), is a wrenching, beautifully shot film from Palestine, produced by Hollywood strongman Danny Glover, directed by Tony-Award winning Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, and starring Brooklyn’s own Suheir Hammad. Now is the moment to support mainstreaming cinematic images of Palestine in America.

Why is this appeal reaching you less than 24 hours before the film’s opening? Salt of This Sea’s distributor apparently began asking organizations to partner with them for group sales just two days before opening night — far too late for effective outreach for most films — and Quad Cinema revealed that NOT ONE GROUP BLOCK OR ADVANCE TICKET HAD BEEN SOLD! Given the caliber of this film, we don’t know why this oversight occurred. But we must act now to remedy this missed marketing opportunity.

WHY IT’S CRITICAL TO SUPPORT THIS FILM AT THE BOX OFFICE OPENING WEEKEND

Monday morning after reviewing weekend box office sales, cinemas decide which films to keep in the theatre, and which to drop from the marquee. If Salt of This Sea does not sell more tickets that the other films at the Quad this weekend, it will be gone from the theatre in less than a week.

WHY DOES IT MATTER WHETHER A FILM FROM PALESTINE STAYS IN CINEMAS ANOTHER WEEK?

– It’s the difference between distributors viewing films from Palestine as “box office deficits” and “passing” on these films in the future vs. distributors viewing films from Palestine as commercially viable for American audiences, and seeking them out

– It’s the difference between dissemination of more negative stereotypes and false narratives vs. dissemination of realistic stories from Palestine, by Palestinian directors, portraying fully-realized characters

Why do American perceptions of Palestine matter? Because images form concepts, concepts influence voting habits, and voting habits influence American foreign policy, in support of Palestine – or not. I think we all know how the record stands now. Let’s take steps to change that!

HOW YOU CAN HELP KEEP SALT OF THIS SEA IN THE CINEMA

1. Even if you can’t attend the screening, PURCHASE A TICKET for this film at MovieTickets.com. Consider it a $12 donation to promote media from Palestine, about Palestine, and for Palestine.

2. If you can attend a screening this weekend, we have a deal with the Quad Cinema for “Mainstreaming Palestine” with which you can receive $8 tickets once we sell the first block of 10. Contact Nora at norfilm@gmail.com if you’d like to be included in the first block of 10 to get this ball rolling.

3. Forward this to every individual and organization you know who is concerned about American media images of Palestine. (Press release follows below.)

4. Write Kino-Lorber Films and thank them for distributing Salt of This Sea. Ask them to bring more films from, about, and for Palestine, and remind them you’re voting for the media you want with your film ticket purchase.

5. Write or call the Quad Cinema, and thank them for booking Salt of This Sea at their cinema. The managing director is Eva Rode. Email: QuadCinema@aol.com. Phone: (212) 225 2243.

TICKET PURCHASING STRATEGY

THE GOAL: SELL OUT FIVE SHOWS DAILY ON OPENING WEEKEND. The Quad Cinema hosts five screenings per day. Each screening holds 139 seats. To sell out every show this weekend we need to purchase 2085 tickets in total.

We can! If the USA to Gaza Flotilla fundraiser could sell out, if hundreds of people can sail on boats to Gaza with the goal of ending the blockade, if activists worldwide stand up to IDF bullets in the West Bank to defy land grabs and occupation, certainly we can click “Purchase ticket” from the comfort of our home to sell out Salt of This Sea opening weekend – and participate in the media battle for American public opinion.

Or, think of it this way: If Friends of the IDF can raise $120 million at a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City in March 2010 – we MUST.

Salt of This Sea is a rare theatrical release with great potential to educate the American public about the real story in Palestine. The battle for Palestine begins with the media. Let’s start now!

_________________________________________________________________________

PRESS RELEASE:

SALT OF THIS SEA (Milh Hadha al-Bahr)
DISTRIBUTED BY KINO-LORBER FILMS, USA

OPENS FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, IN NEW YORK CITY!
Exclusive Engagement at the Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St, near Union Square

SUHEIR HAMMAD IN PERSON FRIDAY AT 7:30!

TRAILER
PURCHASE ADVANCE TICKETS
DAILY SHOWTIMES
: 1:00, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30, 9:50

SALT OF THIS SEA

Annemarie Jacir’s politically charged feature debut is the story of Soraya (Tony Award winner Suheir Hammad), a Brooklyn-born woman who travels to Palestine to retrieve her grandfather’s savings, frozen in a Jaffa bank account after his 1948 exile. Struggling to feel at home in the land of her ancestors — and rebuffed by the country’s financial institutions — she meets Emad, a young Palestinian whose ambition, contrary to hers, is to leave forever. Tired of the constraints that dictate their lives, they devise a plan to reclaim what is theirs — whatever the consequences may be.


“Brilliant, emotional, intense and fresh… the kind of powerful film that stays with you long after you leave the theater. It profoundly moved me.” — Michael Moore

“Realized with verve, sincerity, and an unusual blend of documentary texture and theatrical energy.” — Richard Brody, The New Yorker

After five months in New York, I can finally feel some real momentum building behind my book. I can’t go into specifics yet, but I’m feeling more hopeful than I have since a certain major publisher asked for five more chapters many moons ago. And then of course crushed my hopes some moons later. Which is probably a good thing in the end. Now I have a chance to make a fresh start with much better material, a lot more confidence, and a better understanding of my book’s purpose, its market, and the publishing industry. And people are starting to respond.

It started in mid-July when I was having dinner with my Ohioan flatmate Nora (who’s working on a film about Palestine) and our friend Noor Elashi, whom Nora introduced me to before I got to the City. Noor is a Palestinian-American writer studying for her MFA at the New School whose father, a principled, generous, energetic man, was imprisoned by the US government for allegedly funneling money to terrorist groups.

The only evidence they had against him was that his charity, the Holy Land Foundation, gave money to Zakat charity committees in Palestine. These same Zakat committees have received money from USAID, the Red Cross, and the UN. “After several years of wiretapping phone lines, seizing documents and following money trails, the prosecution couldn’t support its allegations” of any ties to Hamas. They resorted to calling on an anonymous Israeli intelligence officer who called himself ‘Avi’ and claimed he was an expert and could “smell Hamas.” (You can read more about the case here.)

Based on this, they gave the man a 65-year prison sentence. The whole debacle began in 2001, when Noor was a young teenager, just after 9/11 happened. The Patriot Act and the Bush Administration’s after-the-fact hysteria caught her family in their wide dragnet. She had to grow up fast after a shocking expulsion from adolescence.

By the time I met her, she was a widely-known public speaker and a defender of Constitutional rights who looks like a young Angelina Jolie in a hijab. Her luminous stormy seafoam green eyes are so striking, people regularly approach her, mesmerized, and compliment them. Yet she’s humble and down to earth, and she has a way of speaking, direct and intense and without pretense, that’s totally disarming. And she’s thoughtlessly generous in that Palestinian way, as you’ll see shortly. I was introduced to her because she’s also a writer, currently writing a memoir about her family’s displacement both in Palestine and here in America.

Noor and her Baba (Daddy)

Nora and Noor and I were having dinner on July 15 after a fundraiser for a film by a woman from Gaza when Noor mentioned that she was heading to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Dallas the next weekend. Her eyes widened. “Pamela, you have to come. If you come to any writer’s conference in the country, you should come to this one. Just trust me, you won’t regret it. I’m serious.”

I did some calculations in my head. With the usual registration fees and plane fare, we were already talking several hundred dollars. “Do you think there will be any hotel rooms left a week before the event?”

She smiled and rolled her eyes. “Don’t even think about it. You can stay with my family. We live half an hour from the place where the conference is held.”

I debated it over the next few days, but in the end it seemed like one of those offers from the universe that a good former Improvisation for Theater student just doesn’t pass up.

And I didn’t regret a minute of it. I had no idea I could learn so much in three days. It was my first writing conference ever, and Noor was right, I couldn’t have picked a better one. It was exactly my field of interest, literary nonfiction, and this conference has become one of the foremost in the country in just a few years, drawing huge names in the narrative nonfiction world, most of whom, I’m chastened to say, I had never heard of. (I studied physics, remember?) It was nicely humbling to be reminded just how much I don’t know.

The keynote speaker was Mary Karr, the best-selling memoirist who wrote The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. She was funny and direct and profane like her books (which I perused in the bookstore afterwards), with a charmingly confident air of vulnerability. I asked her a question at the end of her talk about the difficulties of writing a memoir when you’re not (yet) famous, which prompted another memoirist in the audience to walk over and tap me on the shoulder and offer me the name and email of a well-respected agent she knew in New York. Whoah.

Noor met another New York agent who seemed very keen on her work (as did a big-name editor at a major publishing house), and Noor introduced me to the agent, who asked to see my manuscript. I ran into Mary Karr at the hotel bar that night and told her about my book that’s about an Oklahoma girl stumbling into the Middle East and finding romance and adventure and a career, how it’s a novelistic memoir seamlessly embedded with crucial, little-known information and analysis, and how everyone loves the writing but certain agents keep saying they don’t know how to market it.

She looked genuinely baffled. “What’s not marketable about that?”

I laughed. “I know, right?”

It was three days like that, chatting with journalists and historians, authors and editors, agents and songwriters, all of them brutally honest, down-to-earth, friendly, and good at what they do, a huge community of people from all over the country who care deeply about the written word and know what it takes to succeed. Noor, who’d been to the conference before, went around introducing me to everyone, so I felt like I had a kind of backstage pass. I’m still processing everything I learned there.

And Noor’s family was an absolute delight, an instant trip into the warmth and beauty and intensity of Palestine. I could write a whole other post on my stay with them, and part of it may make its way into Noor’s book…

[By the way, if I ever make good in this world, never for a second think I did it on my own. Aside from my wonderfully supportive family, to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara: “I have always depended on the kindness of Palestinians.”]

US Boat to Gaza

Then it was back to New York and its activist community, which is charmingly idealistic and egalitarian but also smart, tough, and serious-minded enough to make a real impact. I’m feeling the momentum building here, too.

There are so many projects and campaigns I can’t go into even a small fraction of them, but Code Pink is hard at work on a boycott campaign against the Ahava cosmetics company, which is based in a West Bank settlement that steals Palestinian land as well as resources from the Dead Sea, Jewish Voice for Peace is spearheading a national campaign to get TIAA-CREF to divest from the occupation (I wrote about the campaign here), and everyone is pitching in to help out with the US Boat to Gaza campaign.

Less than two months ago, I was at a hastily-organized report-back from survivors of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara when someone, almost as an afterthought, suggested that an American boat should go to Gaza with the next Flotilla, proudly flying the red, white, and blue to show the world that not all Americans supported Israel’s policies. It would also be an implicit challenge to Israel, who thought nothing of assaulting a Turkish ship, to try the same trick with a ship full of citizens of its closest ally. The crowd cheered enthusiastically.

Later someone said half-jokingly, “We should call it The Audacity of Hope!” The crowd cheered even louder.

A matter of weeks later, more than half of the $370,000 necessary to send a US boat, The Audacity of Hope, has already been raised. (Read more about the campaign here.)

Last Thursday was the most ambitious fundraiser so far, a sunset cruise around New York on a giant boat that (barely) held 400 passengers. As Phil Weiss noted, one of the most striking things was that most of the speakers at the program that night were young Palestinians articulately (often artistically) voicing feelings and opinions that their elders would never have dared speak in public. What Phil Weiss called the “monopoly” of “smart Jews” on speaking about this matter and being heard by the mainstream of the left appears to be ending.

Which brings up another important point. The “center” of the left is shifting. And this issue is finding a tremendous amount of traction there. Things are moving faster than we ever dreamed.

There was, naturally, a small protest against our sunset cruise with about half a dozen angry-looking people holding placards accusing us of supporting terrorism. It was the most pathetic counter-protest yet. I truly felt bad for them. They looked like clowns, like some kind of bizarre anachronism.

But that wasn’t the real threat. The day before the fundraiser party boat was scheduled to depart, the organizers got a call from the owners saying the engine was missing a part, so they would have to reschedule the event. The organizers were savvy enough to know this had nothing to do with engine parts. They suspected some individuals or organizations had gotten hold of the owners of the boat and pressured them to cancel the cruise.

Pressured them how, I wonder? Threatened bad publicity? Tried to convince them it was a mission tied somehow to terrorist groups, which meant they might be prosecutable under the vague and slippery Material Support Law that snagged Noor’s father? Called them anti-Semites? Offered a bribe? We may never know. But if you think I’m being paranoid, read on.

Normally when these unnamed groups try to shut down Palestine-related events, the owners of the venues cave and the organizers of the events mourn their tough luck. Not this time. This time the organizers held firm. They had a written contract, they had 400 people coming from all over the US, and they said the company would owe them for all the travelers’ losses if they cancelled at the last minute like this, not to mention the fact that 400 people would show up the next day and stage a protest against the boat company for breaching the contract. They kept arguing, countering any arguments by the owners, until…

Lo and behold! The engine could be “fixed” after all! But… would the organizers please reconsider flying the banner that said, “US BOAT TO GAZA — THE AUDACITY OF HOPE”?

Absolutely not, the organizers said. It’s called free speech.

And that was it. Whoever had tried to twist the arm of the boat company lost. The good guys won. And they’re winning more and more. They’re not scared anymore. Bring it on.

As Chris Hedges (a former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief who quit the Times rather than submit to their pro-Iraq-war dictates in 2003) said in his powerful speech that night:
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I would like to remind them that it is they who hide in the darkness. It is we who stand in the light. It is they who deceive. It is we who openly proclaim our compassion and demand justice for those who suffer in Gaza. We are not afraid to name our names. We are not afraid to name our beliefs. And we know something you perhaps sense with a kind of dread. As Martin Luther King said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, and that arc is descending with a righteous fury that is thundering down upon the Israeli government…

Note this well. It is you who are afraid of us. We are not afraid of you. We will keep working and praying, keep protesting and denouncing, keep pushing up against your navy and your army, with nothing but our bodies, until we prove that the force of morality and justice is greater than hate and violence. And then, when there is freedom in Gaza, we will forgive you. We will ask you to break bread with us. We will bless your children even if you did not find it in your heart to bless the children of those you occupied. And maybe it is this forgiveness, maybe it is the final, insurmountable power of love, which unsettles you the most.

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The only annoying thing about the cruise was that the sunset was gorgeous, and it was awesome to stand on deck and watch the city float past. But the speakers held me in thrall, so I missed it. Another cruise, anyone?

One of many other honored guests on the boat was Emily Henochowicz, an utterly adorable slip of an artist. She’s a rising senior at New York’s prestigious Cooper Union, and two months ago an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister at her face and destroyed her left eye. She was protesting the killings on the Gaza flotilla at the time, non-violently, away from the main action, just like I was when I got hit by the concussion grenade in Bil’in. I don’t think the soldier actually fired that one at me, though. It seemed to come from a high-arced trajectory (like they’re supposed to — it’s supposed to be crowd dispersal, not target practice).

But in Emily’s case, a tear gas canister was fired straight at her. The Israeli army claims it ricocheted off a wall, but there are photos from the event that clear show there’s no wall for it to ricochet off of. Still, the Israeli government refuses to pay her medical expenses. C’est typique.

Emily was waving a Turkish flag when she was shot in the face by an Israeli tear gas canister

She was speaking with Amy Goodman and some others before we boarded the boat. She had her hair combed over the still-somewhat-livid empty eye socket and was wearing a thin pink sweater and black skirt. I was most astonished by how cute she was. None of her pictures did her justice. I joined their little circle, and Emily looked at me expectantly as if waiting for me to introduce myself. I told her I had lived in Palestine for a couple of years, and how much I admired not just her principled bravery but how she was handling it all with such grace.

Emily Henochowicz is cute in this picture, way cuter in real life

“I was lucky,” she said sincerely, proving my point. “My injury is just cosmetic, it’s not debilitating. Not like what happened to Tristan Anderson. If the canister had hit just a few inches higher, I might be missing part of my brain.”

Anderson, another American citizen, took another direct hit from another tear gas canister in the forehead at another non-violent protest in Bil’in in March 2009. He suffered a skull fracture and brain damage, and he may never fully recover. Furkan Dogan, another young American citizen, was killed by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara. In that company, she’s certainly lucky. Still, that kind of perspective is rare in such a young and beautiful American artist, most of whom would be wailing like Nancy Kerrigan.

The Village Voice did the best piece on her of any I saw. I dare you to read it and not fall completely in love with her. (She’s a Jewish grandchild of Holocaust survivors, by the way.) You can also view her blog and some of her art here.

The whole thing was yet another indication of a real shift in discourse. The energy was so positive, and the fact that $150,000 had been raised in just a few weeks was breathtaking. A clear signal — a strong signal coming straight from the pocketbooks of Americans — that people are sick and tired of standing around watching Israel become increasingly insane while innocent people pay the price in our name. They’re just looking for leadership, and the US Boat campaign (among many others) is providing it — the Freedom Riders of our time.

For anyone who thinks such a project is “too radical” or it’s “not the right time,” I give you the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., written from a Birmingham Jail:
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I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’

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And these words from the International Solidarity Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1993:
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You will remember the contempt with which they responded when, one after the other, international organisations in all walks of life expelled the representatives of apartheid and committed themselves to the perspective of a free and democratic South Africa.

And as the actions and the words of condemnation by the peoples of the world grew stronger and more stern, so did the brutality of the Pretoria regime grow more bestial, as though reason and justice could be expunged by the baton, the gun and the hangman’s noose [or the settler rampage, or the bulldozer].

It may be that the beginning of the world movement against apartheid appeared then as but a small and lonely voice of protest. When India spoke at the United Nations against apartheid at the end of the 1940s she stood alone to speak. When those who did, began boycotting Cape grapes and wines and Outspan oranges and picketed supermarkets, they were few in number. Their governments, accustomed to treat the apartheid regime as a legitimate entity, neither saw nor heard those demonstrators. When we needed to fight with arms in hand, there were few countries even in Africa which had the possibility to extend assistance to us.

And yet, because apartheid is truly evil and because there are men and women of conscience such as you who are gathered here, who would not connive at the perpetration of a crime by refusing to act against it, the antiapartheid movement grew into perhaps the strongest international solidarity movement this century, bringing together citizens of all countries, governments and international organisations.

In the end this broad movement against apartheid gave enormous strength to our liberation movement, sustained and helped to free those who were in prison, maintained those who were in exile, enabling us to build… lasting monuments to international friendship and solidarity… and has brought us to the point where we can now say that victory is in sight.

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Inshallah.

Ramadan Kareem to all.

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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