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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
“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:
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.’
And these words from the International Solidarity Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1993:
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.
Ramadan Kareem to all.