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After about five minutes of celebration, I’ve begun rolling out the marketing campaign for my book. I spoke this weekend at the Move Over AIPAC conference, attended by about 400 people, where I read an excerpt from Chapter Two called ‘Qais.’
I don’t know what it is about reading to a group, but it seems to encourage a lot of laughing out loud, and I got about ten LOLs in the course of five minutes. Always so much fun connecting with real live people. Most of the folks who read my book will do so far away from me. Plus, it’s not often you have an occasion to say “I am a penis” in front of 400 people without being drunk, arrested, or socially shunned.
I told everyone I had published my book less than 48 hours earlier, and I hadn’t received my first shipment of books yet, so this was “a book launch without any books.” But I told them about my website and gave away several business cards, so hopefully it will translate into some sales. I told them I didn’t know whom I’d be reading with when I signed up to read at the Author’s Salon, but I was pleased with the lineup because it featured a Jew with family in Israel (Rich Forer), a Palestinian Muslim (Laila El Haddad), a political insider who became an outsider due to his bias toward factual reality (Amb. Chas Freeman), and me, a normal WASPy American who grew up singing about Jerusalem and Bethlehem in church, never once thinking to wonder what was happening there now.
The conference was held just outside the Washington Convention Center, where AIPAC’s annual festival of being fellated by the Washington power elite was taking place. On Sunday the organizers put together a massive, colorful, impossible-to-ignore protest outside the AIPAC conference, and you could tell the well-heeled AIPAC attendees were seething every time they saw us. I’m sure they wished they could have thrown a few tear gas and stun grenades at us, beaten and arrested the rest, and been done with it. Alas, we weren’t in the West Bank.
My book has also been shipped to three reviewers who’ve either promised or strongly suggested that they will read and review the book, all for outlets with broad audiences. So that’s exciting. And I just got back from my first day at Book Expo America, where I’ll be attending a Book Bloggers Convention on Friday. As an author and a blogger, I should fit right in.
I have a million more marketing ideas but only so much time and energy. Still recovering from the final months of getting the book published and in beautiful shape in the first place. People keep asking me, “So, what’s your next book gonna be about?”
It makes me feel like a woman who just gave birth lying on the bed in the hospital, and someone asking, “So, when are you going to have another kid?”
I know you mean well. But please let me rest and raise this book for a little while before you start asking me about the next one! 🙂
A real live book launch, with actual books, will be planned in New York in June. I’ll be sure to let you know the details.
Meanwhile I rolled it out on Mondoweiss along with a teaser excerpt (below).
Pamela Olson’s ‘Fast Times in Palestine’ published
After three and a half years, I’m delighted to announce that my book, Fast Times in Palestine, is between covers. It’s modeled in a sense after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that didn’t try to pontificate about the evils of slavery but simply displayed these evils in the context of a story full of love, beauty, suspense, cruelty, and deeply human characters. It was therefore able to reach and move broad audiences.
Fast Times is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, with as many laugh-out-loud scenes as there are crushing horrors. The aim is to put things in a context that any American with half a heart can relate to at this crucial time. The hope is that after people like Mondoweiss regulars read it, they’ll pass it on to friends and relatives who can’t imagine why they’re so passionate about Palestine.
Below is an excerpt followed by ordering information. The main character in this excerpt is Qais, a Palestinian from Jayyous whom I was sort of almost dating, except that we could never get a moment to ourselves because of our crazy schedules — I worked in Ramallah while he studied in Jenin and helped his dad on their farm whenever he had time off — and because his family welcomed me as a daughter whenever I visited Jayyous, but they never let us be alone together. The only reason we could get to know each other well was because both of us spoke Russian and no one else did, so we could at least speak freely.
In this scene, Qais has carefully arranged his schedule so he can visit me in Ramallah for the first time.
A few days later, Qais called.
“I’m coming to Ramallah on Saturday morning, insha’Allah.”
My eyes widened. “Seriozna?” (Seriously?) The coming weekend would be his last before classes started again. And he wanted to spend it together. Maybe there was hope for us after all.
He laughed. “Yes. Insha’Allah.”
He called again on Saturday morning and said he was on the bus and would arrive in forty minutes if there were no checkpoints. I happily began cleaning the house, buzzing with energy, humming with possibilities.
By the time I finished and looked at a clock, I was startled to realize nearly two hours had passed. I called Qais’s number. He rejected the call.
Feeling some mixture of alarm and irritation, I texted, Bolshoi checkpoint?
Several minutes later, he texted back:
They booked my ID and the bus went i dont know wat wil happen. I am stopped with some bodyelse. Dont try to cal. I wil cal wen they leave me. My kissing to u.
My blood runs cold. This is how it starts. The soldiers take them off their bus, off the street, out of their house, and they disappear, maybe for hours, maybe for days, maybe for years. Palestinians can be held in Israeli jails for up to three months without charge or trial, a practice known as ‘administrative detention.’ The three-month sentences can be renewed indefinitely. I’ve heard stories of innocent people being held for years in Israeli prisons, of people being destroyed by the experience. No warrant. No charge. No phone call.
This isn’t arrest in any sense I recognize. This is government-sponsored kidnapping.
If the soldiers are just harassing him, he’ll call in a couple of hours. If they’re taking him for days or months, I’ll have to sit here as dreadful minutes drag into unbearable hours waiting for his call, my imagination getting worse as time goes on. I can’t concentrate enough to do anything but stare at my silent phone.
By the time four hours have passed, I am a basket case.
Shadi [Qais’s older brother] calls at four in the afternoon and says he’s been trying to call his brother all day with no luck. He asks me if Qais reached Ramallah.
“No,” I say. “He was stopped at a checkpoint. Soldiers took him off his bus.”
Shadi is silent for a moment. “Please call me if you hear anything.”
“I will. Same to you, OK?”
“Of course.” I hang up and think, Qais must have told Shadi he was coming to visit me, even though it was supposed to be a secret. A slight pang of betrayal is quickly replaced by the realization that it was a very sensible thing to do in a time and place where he knows he can disappear at any moment without warning.
Yasmine [my roommate, a sassy Communist from Gaza] shows up half an hour later with a cheeseburger and fries from the Checkers on Main Street. I haven’t eaten all day. She splits her food with me. I numbly choke it down.
She says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, habibti, they do this all the time. One time they took me off my bus at a checkpoint and made me stand in the sun for ten hours.”
She scoffed. “There is no reason. They just do this to humiliate us. He is not politically active is he? He is just a student. Maximum they will beat him and throw him in prison for a few days.”
I hope to God she’s right. But even that is more than I can bear imagining. He’s never been in prison before. If they keep him more than two days, he’ll miss the beginning of class. Even if he misses a single hour of his life, a day with his family, a week of class, it’s more than I can bear. Anything worse is beyond imagination, but I imagine it all the same.
Once while we were sitting on his porch in Jayyous, Qais told me about a cousin who’d been in prison for two months in unsanitary conditions and was suffering from terrible hemorrhoids and back pains, neither of which he’d suffered before. I think of Qais sitting next to me on the porch, whole and perfect, telling me about his poor cousin. Now maybe it is his turn.
The worst part is that even if they let him go and don’t hurt him, for every friend and mother and sister and daughter who’s ever felt what I am feeling (and much, much worse), the fears of some are justified. Some loved ones never come back or spend years of their lives being broken, caged, tortured, starved, injured and sickened, their dreams curtailed by the year, their hopes ground down into the most basic things they’d taken for granted before: respect, decent food, seeing their family. Never mind what they want to study, what lessons they want to teach their kids, where they want to travel or how they want to arrange their garden.
Hours before, my hopes for a nice visit with Qais were very important to me. Now all I dare dream is that he’ll be treated reasonably well and get to school on time. These dreams seem like almost too much to ask, whereas before they were a given. Imagine the whims of teenaged soldiers defining the boundaries of people’s hopes and dreams!
I call Shadi, but he still hasn’t heard anything. He sounds as worried as I am.
I call a friend named Mohammad Othman, a wiry peace activist from Jayyous who travels the world educating people about the situation in Palestine. We meet in a coffee house on Main Street.
“My brother was arrested one time while he was eating falafel in a restaurant,” he says. “The official report said he was throwing stones. But many witnesses, including Israelis, said he was not. I called a lawyer and human rights groups, and he was released after six days.”
“Six days! Surely they won’t keep Qais for six days…”
“And my best friend, who is also not political, was arrested eight days ago. He is still missing. We think he is in the Shin Bet interrogation facility in Petah Tikvah. I hope not. I’ve heard stories about the Shin Bet torturing and fatiguing prisoners to the point that they will admit to killing Yitzhak Rabin if only they can be left alone.”
My mind and stomach are spinning. I’m reminded of a time when I was fifteen and my mom asked me if I knew how to drive a stick shift.
“Sure,” I said confidently.
“How do you know how to drive a stick shift,” she asked, “if you’ve never tried?”
“I read a book about it.” They all laughed at me. Sure enough, when I tried to drive my brother’s little Honda Civic, I nearly dropped the engine out of the bottom of the car.
It’s the same difference, it turns out, between reading a thousand human rights violations reports and then having someone you personally care about disappear.
My body feels like I’ve been crying all day, but I’m too wrung out to cry. Yasmine and Mohammad seem almost embarrassed by how sensitive I am. In so many words they tell me to grow up. These things happen. If you want to live in Palestine and not be a complete greenhorn ajnabiya (foreigner), you’ve got to put a little starch in your spine.
On the one hand, I dread and fight against losing this sensitivity, because if I begin to accept things no one should ever accept, I’ll have lost a part of my humanity. But if I weep for every kid killed in Gaza, if I waste a day with my gut aching hollow and my back bent in dread and fatigue every time a friend disappears, I’ll never stand up.
But if we don’t put ourselves in others’ shoes now and then, we risk losing sight of the silent helpless horror that lies just below the surface of what we think we know. We can’t ignore it just because it is silent, snuffed out and shut up. It is there, manifestly, and it will come for all of us if we don’t put out the fires somehow.
I can’t stand the thought of going to bed without knowing where he is or what’s being done to him. But I don’t know what else to do. I lie in bed with my phone next to me until unconsciousness overtakes me.
I wake up in the morning, and the nightmare continues. I go to the office for something to do besides stare at my silent phone. I start writing the story of my weekend, trying to capture some of the feelings while they are still raw. It is impossible.
At half past seven, 32 hours after Qais disappeared, my phone rings. I see his name on my phone. My stomach seizes. Maybe it’s his family telling me that—
“Privyet.” (Hi.) It’s his voice, full of sardonic exasperation.
Warm tears of relief stream over my fingers and onto my phone. The only utterances I can manage sound clumsy and inarticulate.
“Qais, are you OK? What happened?”
He spoke in an indignant stream of Russian so fast I couldn’t understand it all, but I gathered that they had “checked his ID” for a few hours. “Kto ya, Bin Laden ili shto?” he asked. (Who am I, Bin Laden or what?) Then they tied his hands, blindfolded him, and told him to get into an army Jeep. He asked why. They said, “Just go.”
They took him to a settlement, tied him to a chair, and interrogated him about every aspect of his life. He had no idea if he would be in there for hours or years, and he was afraid he’d miss the beginning of school. They repeated questions incessantly. They terrorized and tormented a completely innocent person for thirty-two hours, not to mention his friends and family, and ruined all of our weekends. And there’s no one to appeal to. They are the law.
After we said good-night and hung up, I felt like a thread of unbearable tension holding me up sickeningly by the armpits had been cut. I was left fallen in a dazed heap in an old landscape of everyday concerns that now seemed unfamiliar and strange.
After all that, I just had to catch a taxi. Go home. Brush my teeth. Wake up the next morning, go to work, check my email. Life goes on. It keeps going on and on, with or without you. You ride the wave called ‘normal life’ because it seems easier. Every now and then, though, you catch a glimpse of just how mad it all really is.
You can find reviews, excerpts, and other information about Fast Times in Palestine at the author’s website. You can purchase the paperback for $14.95 directly from the author, through her Amazon-affiliated sell page, or from Amazon.com. You can also purchase it for Amazon Kindle or for iPhone, iPad, and other eReaders for $5.99.
Today I held my book in my hands for the first time. It is a thing of beauty. The formatting is more elegant than almost any book I’ve seen. The cover is gorgeous — I owe thanks to so many people for that. For everything. Thank you all for being along for the ride for all these years, for your patience and encouragement. And to some of you for help without which the project truly wouldn’t be what it is — or might never have gotten done at all.
I wish I could send free copies to all of you. To the whole world. Unfortunately I lack the means for that. But I’ve kept the prices as low as I reasonably could given the margins, the market, and the work I’ve put in.
My website (pamolson.org) has undergone a complete overhaul, and it links to all the different ways to buy the book.
You can purchase the paperback for $14.95 directly from me or through my Amazon-affiliated sell page. The book is also available from Amazon.com (but my royalty is quite a bit smaller through Amazon than through my sell page).
If you ordered a signed copy, it’s on the way — should reach you in two or three weeks.
Hard to believe this day is really here. I’m still pinching myself, in a state of semi-shock.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living and writing it.
Love to all,
Click here to purchase the Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Also, I just got my first ever Amazon.com review, which I think is lovely and heartfelt — and so heartening:
By H. Starr (USA)
This review is from: Fast Times in Palestine (Kindle Edition)
This is a deeply personal story about a decent and intelligent, if initially uninformed and sheltered, American who gets swept off her feet by the beauty and wonder of Palestine and the people who live there. Her love for the people and the place shine on every page. And when you love someone, it hurts to see them bullied, humiliated and marginalized. It hurts to see a land you love carved into unnatural pieces by a concrete wall or lives you treasure ripped apart by machine gun fire or a suicide bomber. This book isn’t about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s an intense, first person narrative about the beauty and danger of life in Palestine.
But what I think most readers will come away with is the belief that underneath the ugliness of the occupation and the intifada there is something that is beautiful and absolutely worth protecting. And in the small acts where Israelis and Palestinians work together, the author shows you a future that we must insist upon: where Palestinians and Israelis have equal measures of peace, freedom, political power, and access to resources. If the world fails to make this a reality, this book shows you just how very much we all have to lose.
Apologies for the scattered nature of my posts lately. I’ve been too busy with the last details of publishing Fast Times in Palestine to have much time for serious blogging. However, I can’t let the events of this weekend pass by.
May 15 — Nakba Day, the day when Palestinians commemmorate the loss of their historic homeland when Israel was founded amid months of brutal ethnic cleansing — is always a day of demonstrations for Palestinians. (Right now I’m reading The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe — no matter how bad you imagine the Nakba to have been, Pappe’s book hits like a cannonball to the gut.)
But the events of this weekend were unprecedented for so many reasons. First of all, they involved all three components of Palestinian society, namely the ones living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, the ones living as third-class citizens in Israel, and the diaspora who live as refugees outside the borders of historic Palestine, all of them coordinated in an unprecedented way.
Second, they happened in the wake of the Arab Spring, the mass nonviolent movements that toppled despised dictators in Egypt and Tunisia after decades of oppression, thus showing Palestinians that intelligent, coordinated, unified, mass non-violent resistance really can change the world, and can do it more effectively than just about anything else. Particularly if you have very little at your disposal other than crude homemade explosives that are only “effective” if used in ways so horrifically immoral it corrodes your soul along with your cause and is anyway only “effective” at sowing more chaos, despair, and brutality.
Third, it caught the Israeli army completely flat-footed. All they could do was kill and maim a few people and watch the rest, “without so much as a sidearm, penetrate farther into the country than any army in a generation.”
The best article I could find on these astonishing events was in TIME, which is usually ahead of the curve on Israel/Palestine, no doubt thanks in part to the fact that the great Tony Karon (who was kind enough to blurb my book) is one of their senior editors. I’ve pasted the full article below, or you can click here to read it in its native habitat.
(By the way, the Fadi Quran mentioned below is a Stanford graduate!)
Palestinian Border Protests: The Arab Spring Model for Confronting Israel
May 16, 2011
After more than 100 Palestinians breached Israel’s border with Syria on Sunday, May 15, knocking down a fence and striding into a village in the Golan Heights, overmatched Israeli security forces scrambled to glean what they could from the protesters who had just, without so much as a sidearm, penetrated farther into the country than any army in a generation.
Under close questioning, the infiltrators closed the intelligence gap with a shrug and one word: Facebook. The operation that had caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence complex flat-footed was announced, nursed and triggered on the social-networking site that has figured in every uprising around the Arab world — and is helping young Palestinians change the terms of their fight against Israel.
The headlines Sunday were all about the violence of the day: at least four people were shot dead by Israeli forces on the Syrian fence line, and as many as 10 were killed either by Israeli or Lebanese army gunfire at a similar demonstration on the nearby frontier with southern Lebanon. The death toll, along with the accounts of stone-throwing and tear gas, comports with the familiar narrative of the conflict, one constructed over years of Israel’s describing efforts to defend itself. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged that narrative on Sunday, arguing that the protesters were undermining the very existence of the state of Israel.
But those closer to events found in the day the makings of a new narrative. The Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the occupied Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank approached Israeli gun positions on Sunday without arms of their own. If some teenagers threw rocks, a protest leader said, they had apparently failed to attend the workshops on nonviolence the organizers had arranged in what they call a new paradigm for the conflict. The aim, which appears to be building support, aims to recast the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the same terms that brought down dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.
Massive nonviolent protests are aimed at winning international sympathy for the Palestinian perspective and, as a result, forcing Israel to pull out of territories its army has occupied since 1967. As the dust settled Sunday, senior Israeli officers acknowledged their vulnerability to the approach, which dovetails with the strategy of Palestinian leaders to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state in September.
“What we saw today was the promo for what we might see in September on the day the United Nations declares a state: thousands of Palestinians marching toward Israeli checkpoints, Israeli settlements and the fence along the West Bank, and Gaza Palestinians coming with their bare hands to demonstrate,” a senior Israeli officer tells TIME. “This is a huge problem. We’ll have to study what happened today to do better.”
Sunday’s protests marked the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood, a day known as Nakba, or the catastrophe, to Palestinians who lost their land to the Jewish state. The day is routinely occasion for protests, and Israel had prepared for unrest. But in the Golan Heights, high ground Israel took from Syria in 1967, only 30 to 40 soldiers were on duty when hundreds of Palestinians began arriving by bus and marching toward the fence. Troops were ordered to shoot to maim. Four protesters were killed, and at least 100 scrambled into Majdal Shams, a Druze village so close to the Syrian frontier that it’s known for the “shouting hill,” where families separated by the fence gather to exchange news by hollering across no-man’s-land.
Less clear was how the protesters navigated the Syrian security, which usually maintains strict control over the border area. Israeli officials interpreted protesters’ apparent ease of access to a military zone as evidence of sponsorship by the battered government of President Bashar Assad. With street protests threatening his regime in cities across Syria, the reasoning goes, Assad found in the Nakba protests a perfect opportunity to shift the focus to Israel.
But Fadi Quran, a Ramallah organizer in the Palestinian youth movement that promoted the marches, says his contacts in Syria were actually terrified of the Assad government, which took steps to prevent some from traveling to the protests from refugee camps near Damascus, where they have lived since fleeing their homes in what is now northern Israel.
Governments of other neighboring states that host large Palestinian populations apparently were aware of the protest plans and responded according to their own interests. Egypt and Jordan, which have treaties with Israel, impeded the demonstrations. Those who are hostile, including Lebanon, eased their way into military zones. But Damascus appeared to be preoccupied with its own domestic unrest, according to Quran. “I honestly think, to a very large extent, they took the Syrian government by surprise,” he tells TIME.
Demonstrators also gathered in Gaza and on the West Bank. Even there, on a march toward the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah, Quran insists no stones were thrown until Israeli troops fired tear gas, and then only by adolescents. But the overall makeup of the crowd, featuring older women and men as well as students, was a change from previous years, according to Shawan Jabarin of the human-rights advocacy group Al Haq.
“They say the Arab Spring gives people encouragement and makes people feel they can make a difference,” says Jabarin. “The consciousness of the people, you feel it’s something different.”
Also encouraging people into the streets: the complete breakdown of peace talks with Israel. If Palestinians needed any additional reminder, the resignation of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as President Obama’s special envoy for peace was announced two days before Nakba.
“We have to come up with an improvement in nonlethal weapons, no doubt,” says an aide to an Israeli Cabinet Minister. “But if we have a new approach to peace talks, then we won’t have to deal with nonlethal weapons in September.”
For their part, Palestinian protesters feel they’ve found a winning formula. The main political factions, Hamas and Fatah, were forced into embrace by the same nonviolent youth movement that now summons ordinary Palestinians to unite in shaming Israel into concessions.
“They understand the path to freedom is going to be long,” Quran says, “but we’re going to continue training in nonviolence, and we’re going to continue marching in nonviolence until it is very clear in the international media who is violating human rights.”
— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein
See also: Peter Beinart, “Israel’s Palestinian Arab Spring: Jews and Americans Losing Ability to Shape Mideast,” The Daily Beast, May 16, 2011.
Beinart’s article spells out the paternalistic American and Israeli attitudes toward the Middle East and then explains why such attitudes will soon be anachronisms. The TIME article is actually an example of what Beinart is talking about. Palestinians got the last word in that article. Nearly always in the mainstream press, Israelis get the last word. But that’s starting to change. In print as in life.
Great news — a friend of mine pointed out that my old website just wasn’t cutting the mustard as a bookselling website. He said he’d put together a quick prototype to show me how he thought it should look.
Then he wrote to me to inform me that he got “carried away” and went ahead and designed a new website for me. I tweaked it a bit, and here it is!
Here’s a screen grab:
I’d love to hear what you think of the new design!
But the best option is to order directly from me. It makes me more money (because I can buy my own books at the author discount), and it’s also cheaper for you.
Just email me the number of books you want and your shipping address. My email address is pamolson @ gmail . com (without the spaces). I’ll send payment instructions. You can pay with Paypal, check, or credit card.
Book Clubs, Peace and Justice Groups, Bookstores, and people interested in selling copies in their area are eligible to receive deeper discounts. Contact me to learn more.
For individual buyers, if you order one book, it’s just $12 plus $2 shipping (shipping on Amazon is $3.99 for one book).
If you order two or more books, shipping is free!
If you order five or more, they’re only $11 each plus free shipping.
Ten or more, $10 each plus free shipping.
Twenty or more, $9 each plus free shipping.
These shipping rates apply in the 48 contiguous US states, and they apply per shipping address. If I ship to you out of country, by default I’ll choose the cheapest method and charge you whatever I pay.
If you like, you can become a mini-distributor in your area, selling them to friends and family for whatever price you want. If you charge the $15 recommended price, you’ll make a little profit. If you want even more books to sell — say, 30 or 50 or 100 — at a deeper discount, I bet we can work out a deal.
Also, I’m looking to sell UK and European paperback distribution rights as well as foreign language rights (French, Italian, etc.) If you happen to know of any publishers who might be interested, feel free to direct them my way.
I’m thrilled with how the book has turned out, and I hope you enjoy it just as much!
Love and excitement,
P.S. I’ve also published an electronic copy on Amazon for Kindle. The formatting is beautiful there, too, and there are 30 pictures and maps instead of the 11 in the book, and they’re in color (if your device supports color). The End Notes also contain live links to all reports and articles cited.
You can download a free Kindle reader for PC here:
or for Mac here:
First, a quick book update: The cover has been finalized, and it looks gorgeous. All that’s left is to get my first proof copy of the book, which should happen in about ten days. If nothing is amiss, the book will go on sale shortly thereafter. I’ll post pre-order instructions here very soon!
Meanwhile, a very good friend in Palestine (and a major character in my book) is going through a tough time right now. Two years ago, her husband was arrested by the Israeli army on absurd and bogus charges, and he was held for a year during which their second child, a girl, was born. The family had no income during that year other than what I was able to raise for them to live on. When the husband was released, he had a hard time getting a job (the West Bank economy is terrible), and everything he manages to make as a day laborer goes to their piled-up debts and legal bills.
Here is the story of his brutal arrest, which I wrote two years ago:
An arrest on the West Bank
August 20, 2009
Six years ago, during my first trip to the West Bank, I met a Palestinian woman named Rania who aspired to a college education. She was from a small village and her family wasn’t supportive, but she found jobs with international NGOs, saved enough to pay for one semester of college, and enrolled herself, knowing that would probably be all she could manage unless a miracle happened.
When I learned about her efforts to educate herself, I made an appeal to several friends and professional contacts to help her finish her second semester, and then her third. After four years, she graduated with a degree in social work and psychological counseling. In the meantime she met and married a man named Sharif and moved to the Palestinian city of Tulkarem. By the time I arrived in Ramallah this summer, they had a one-year-old son named Karim and a daughter on the way. Rania and Sharif were in the process of building their new home a little at a time whenever they could save some money.
Sharif is one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met. He supported Rania through the final semesters of her education, he loves his son Karim (Sharif’s mother died while giving birth to him, so the idea of an intact family is novel and wonderful for him), and he changes diapers and helps with the cooking and cleaning. He has a great sense of humor and a disarming smile. He’s had a difficult life, and so has Rania, but things were finally looking up for them. They both adore Karim (trust me, he’s impossible not to adore), and Rania is ecstatic about having a daughter and giving her every kind of love and support she wished she’d had growing up.
A month ago, there was loud banging on their door around 1:00 am. Frightened, Rania asked who it was. They said they were Israeli soldiers. Rania knew they were there to arrest Sharif, though neither of them knew why. This is standard operating procedure for Israeli army arrest operations — entering homes in the dead of night when people are at their most psychologically and physically vulnerable. She had no choice but to open the door, knowing it would be blown up or knocked down if she refused. They asked if her husband was home. She said no. They asked if they could come in and make sure. Again, she had no choice but to allow them.
When they found Sharif hiding in the bedroom, they gave a loud order, and twenty more armed soldiers stormed in. They beat Sharif in front of his wife and son, called Rania a lying sharmouta (whore) while holding a gun to her head, and took Sharif away. He’s been charged with car theft in Israel, an absurd charge. He’s never been to Israel. He had just been given a permit to work in Israel, but he hadn’t yet had time to use it. Rania said to me, “It is very difficult for a Palestinian to get a permit to work in Israel. Why would they give him a permit if they thought he was stealing cars?”
An Israeli friend of mine guesses it might be to pad their statistics on cracking down on car theft, or they might be trying to recruit him as a spy — offering to let him go if he will inform on his neighbors or extended family members. This is one of the most devastating tactics an occupier has for tearing the fabric of a society apart, sowing suspicion and division between neighbors and family members. How can a man be forced to choose between lying about his neighbors and family members, or spending a year away from his wife, son, and soon new daughter, knowing that without his support, they may not have enough to live on? He may be in prison himself because another man chose to falsely inform on him rather than pay this terrible price.
I visited Rania in her brother-in-law’s home in Tulkarem as soon as I learned about the situation. She can’t stay in her own home because she’s too scared to be alone. She can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes she sees Israeli soldiers. Every time she hears a car outside she thinks it’s an Israeli army Jeep.
Because she and her husband have been putting most of their savings into their new home, she was left with only about a month’s budget when her husband was taken. She has been trying hard to get a job, but unemployment is bad in the West Bank even for people who don’t have a small child and aren’t five months pregnant.
She’s spent much of the past month crying. She says the worst is when Karim walks to the front door (where he’s used to seeing his father burst in and scoop him up after work) and says, “Baba?” (Daddy?) He doesn’t seem to be scarred by the violence he witnessed. He’s too young to understand what’s going on. His first birthday happened to be the day I visited Rania. (Sharif had planned a nice party and to buy him a little car he could scoot around in.) He’s actually one of the happiest toddlers I’ve ever spent time with. But when he asks several times a day where his Baba is, Rania says quietly, “Baba fi sijin, habibi.” (Daddy’s in prison, sweetie.) It’s a hard thing to witness.
‘Prison,’ by the way, doesn’t carry the same stigma in Palestine as it does in America, given that most Palestinians in Israeli jails are held not because they are criminals but as a form of collective punishment, as political prisoners, as bargaining chips (sometimes Israel agrees to release a few hundred prisoners in exchange for some Palestinian concession or as a ‘gesture of goodwill,’ which makes them look generous to the Americans and the international community, most of whom don’t understand the true nature of the situation), or to recruit spies. The statistic that ‘only’ 10% of prisoners are held in administrative detention (imprisoned without charge or trial) is misleading. Many are in prison simply for belonging to the wrong political party. Rania’s husband was charged, but the charge is bogus, the Israeli court system for Palestinian prisoners does not meet international standards, and many Palestinians can’t afford the exorbitant lawyer fees.
It’s not a stigma — it’s just a massive violation of basic human rights.
During my visit, Rania kept asking me Job-like questions I couldn’t answer.
“Why does this happen to me? I am a good girl, I always do right. I love my husband and my child. Why do they do this? What right do they have to take my husband? Why do they have human rights in other places, but not in Palestine? How can I raise my children if I am alone? How can we have any security if soldiers can take my husband away any time they want, for no reason? I don’t hate the Jewish, but it makes it very hard for me to respect them when they do this. He is a good man, never any guns, no bad thing to anyone. He has had a hard life, but always he does his best. Why do they take him? If we do right and always bad things happen, maybe if we do wrong, something good will happen. I don’t know, I can’t imagine why the life is like this. What do you think?”
What can I say? “In my current understanding, they do this because they feel insecure (to an often delusional and self-fulfilling degree and/or as a post-rationalization for brute grabs of power and resources), and they have power and you don’t. They want to make life difficult for Palestinians so they will submit to Israel ’s dictates or leave. This is called power politics, or ‘Realism’ in American foreign policy circles.”
Does she really want a lecture on realpolitik?
“In my current understanding, you don’t have control over anything in this life but your own behavior. Behave with as much integrity as you can, and try to make peace with the things you don’t control. Unfortunately, you happen to have the short end of the stick when it comes to the things you don’t control.”
Of course I can’t say something like this to a frightened young mother. Not sure what else to say, I told her the story of Job (apparently it’s not in the Quran, unlike many Bible stories) and told her to take care of herself and her kids and be kind to her husband, that things would work out somehow, and in the end some good may even come of it (even though of course no one can guarantee any of this). It’s very strange for me to be in this position — I never imagined I would be trying to comfort a Muslim friend with Bible stories. I think more than anything it did her good just to be able to talk for hours about her fears and feelings. It’s ironic that she’s the one trained in psychological counseling.
Aside from the post-traumatic stress, she has some hard economic realities to deal with in the medium-term. If, as the family’s lawyer seems to think, her husband will be in prison for about a year, and if Rania doesn’t manage to find a job soon, she will be ten months without any way to support herself. Normally she would ask her family or her husband’s family for help, but most of them are either barely scraping by themselves (Israel has built the Wall around her family’s village, and it has isolated most of its land from its owners, forcing many to move out, find work in Israel or the settlements, or become charity cases), also in prison, abroad, or dead. It’s a miracle there is any sense of society left in Palestine, much less one as strong as it is.
I and some friends have pitched in enough to keep her going for another month and a half, and she has a couple of possible leads on jobs. If she didn’t have a university degree, she would be in an even bigger mess. As it is, the strangled economy due to the Wall and closures and the loss of her husband for a year due to the occupation nearly destroyed her young family, and might yet if she doesn’t find a job and I can’t gather enough money to keep her afloat through the birth of her daughter and the many months of separation from her husband.
Just one more of the millions of stories of what the occupation means for the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza.
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Sharif was released after a year, but as I said, they’re still struggling to survive. If he hadn’t been arrested, and if he had been allowed to work in Israel (they were so excited about that, about the money he would have been able to make), they would have finished building their house by now, they’d have no debts or legal bills, and Sharif wouldn’t be psychologically scarred from his ordeal. But there’s not much we can do about that.
But there is something we can do. I’m doing all I can to try to find funding for the psychological counseling NGO where Rania works as an intern so they can pay her a salary, and in the meantime I’m raising money again to keep the family afloat through this difficult time of readjustment. If you can pitch in — even $5 or $10 adds up very quickly — it would be hugely appreciated. Every penny will go to the family. My Paypal address is pamolson02 (at) yahoo, or I can let you know how to send a check.
Here are a couple of pictures of the kids, just to let you know whom you’re helping.
Thank you, and Happy Spring.
Whatever your opinion about our current president… This made me cry with laughter.