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The Palestine Chronicle reviewed my book this week. Here’s an excerpt:

“What can I say about such a well written book that has not already been said: well crafted, thought provoking, illuminating, enlightening, informative… most importantly, Fast Times in Palestine highlights the essential humanity of Palestinians and their struggle with the constant oppression of Israeli society that surrounds all facets of their lives.

“In the face of overwhelming power, the message that underlies this story is the very idea of Palestinian existence. Not just base existence, but existence of a culture, a distinct society, that dares to live and breathe within the confines of walls, and razor wire, bombs and bullets, and any and all daily harassments that few in the western world face.”

Read the full review here.

But I have to say, my favorite review so far came from a reader in Colorado. She had precisely the reaction I was hoping for when I wrote the book. I wrote it for smart, compassionate people who want to learn about this conflict but don’t know where to start. People who know the information they’re getting is fragmented and filtered, but don’t even really understand the filters, so how are they supposed to know what’s true and what’s not? The story they get is fuzzy, vague, and colored with unstated biases. How are they supposed to make sense of it?

How was I, before I saw it for myself?

I wrote the book for the millions of people who want to know, want to find out in a way they can relate to, but don’t necessarily have the luxury of visiting the Middle East — or are frightened to travel there because of all the nonsense they hear all the time.

Here’s the review, from a female college student in Colorado. It really did my heart good.

***

Before I read this book, I didn’t have a stance on the conflict because I didn’t know enough. My family is Jewish and very pro-Israel, but I am agnostic and I try not to form opinions without facts, so I have always taken everything they say with a grain of salt. “The Palestinians don’t want a state. They don’t want peace. They won’t be happy until every Jew on the face of the Earth is dead.” This is what I grew up with.

But this book opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed: the world of occupied Palestine. I consider myself very aware politically, so it’s hard to believe the truth has eluded me for so many years. Never underestimate the power of the media, I guess. I get my information from a decent variety of sources, but when all those sources are deliberately hiding so much information, how is a person supposed to know any better? The media portrays Palestine as the aggressor in the conflict, and speaks of the government as if it represents the feelings of the general population.

What I really appreciate about this book is not just that the author tells the other side of the story, but that she makes a point of separating the government and the people. It is too easy to generalize, and I could see a person reading this book and turning their hatred toward Israel as a whole if the author had not taken such extreme care to depict every person she encountered as a human being… I especially appreciated this author’s reference to Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, and the “power of the situation.” Even the soldiers committing atrocities at checkpoints are real people. It is only through the dehumanization of people that mass acts of evil are possible.

I bought this book with the hope of learning about Palestinian culture and writing a good paper for school, and what I got out of it was so much more. I believe it should be required reading in schools, and I’m encouraging everyone I know to read it.

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You can read the other fifteen Amazon reviews the book has received here. And please feel free to add your own. A full-length review is not necessary; a sentence or two will suffice. The main thing is, the more reviews the book has, the higher it will be displayed on search pages, and the more people will be exposed to an alternative narrative about Israel and Palestine.

P.S. I’m enjoying the fact that Amazon put my book in the category “Israel Travel Guides” (among others). My Kindle edition tends to bounce around in the top 20, and I hope it gives a few prospective travelers something to think about…

P.P.S. This quote by blogger Barry Eisler sums up why I wrote my book the way I did, instead of writing straight journalism or scholarly analysis:

“Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. And yet Notes, as excellent as it is, is read much less widely. Why? Because certain themes resonate more powerfully when presented within the structure of a thriller—when brought to life in the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page.”

Bingo! As Buckminster Fuller said, “Don’t fight forces, use them.” It’s human nature to process narratives more easily and robustly than facts. Why fight it when you have the potential to use it as your most effective fact delivery system?

P.P.P.S. I’ve got 50 signed copies of Fast Times in Palestine on sale now. If you order five or more, I’ll only charge $10 each. I’m trying to unload them before the touring starts in early fall. I don’t want to leave them in storage — I want them to be read! Email me at pamolson @ gmail . com if interested.

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This article at Haaretz is so brilliant, its metaphor so sublimely apt and disgusting, I feel I have little choice but to re-post it in its entirety.

It’s the occupation, stupid

Doron Rosenblum
Haaretz
July 15, 2011

Once upon a time there was a man who had a basement in his house where a giant mammoth died. At first, the slight smell that emanated from the basement bothered only those who had sensitive noses and gentle souls, but shortly afterward the neighbors also became aware of it, and then the stench spread far and wide.

As time went on, the carcass attracted insects and bugs of all kinds, but the owner of the house found it convenient to ignore this. What did it matter if there was a cockroach or ants here or there, running along the panels? Indeed he knew very well what this unpleasant thing was that was endangering the entire building already, swarming with pests and rotting there among the foundations, but because of the unpleasantness involved in getting rid of it, he preferred to put it off.

After some time, a new owner came to the building and decided the policy had to be changed – no longer should they delay taking care of the root of the problem – that is to say, getting rid of the carcass – but instead sanctify the existing situation by finding ideological reasons for not changing it.

“The problem is not the carcass in the basement,” he explained, “but rather the intolerable greediness of the creatures that are feeding on it. Until such time as these creatures change their nature and stop eating away at everything, there is no point in doing anything since even without the carcass they will merely look for another objective – bread crumbs or a jar of sugar in the kitchen.”

When it became known that there was no longer any chance or hope of removing the carcass in the future, the entire building became an object of repulsion; and meanwhile the ants and bugs that were swarming over the walls and floors increased in number until they created a feeling almost of siege. They came in through the window, and when that was sealed, they entered from under the door, and when that was shut off by a floor rag they burst out from the electricity switches.

“You see?” the man said to the members of his household. “This simply proves that they don’t want to eat the carcass; they want to eat us. They are not attacking the basement but rather the entire house.”

That being the case, and with the same internal logic, the man rose, picked up a clog in one hand and an anti-bug spray in the other, and began chasing every ant and insect individually to catch them, squash them or send them back, one after the other, to the place from where they had come. From time to time he went off craftily to spray the nests and the places of departure in the backyard too, as well as those that were far off, as a preventive measure.

After that, he even tried to shut up all those members of the household who complained and warned about the rot. And between running around here and running around there, our friend sat down panting and sweating on the edge of a chair, celebrating a temporary victory but preparing himself heroically for the next swarm, so that this “preparedness” became the spice of his life. Where would it come from the next time – from the window, from the door or through the sink?

This may be a scathing allegory and one that is not pleasant to read; but remember it the next time you see the hysterical rushing around of thousands of policemen and soldiers trying to push back protesters at the airports, the beaches, the borders (and soon at the eastern no-border in the heart of the land); remember it during the next daring operation to prevent “flotillas” and “flytillas” and the kamikazes carrying protest banners; during the next attempt to stop any criticism via legislation and to push back with pathetic legalistic attempts waves of protest from inside and outside the country; or every time you see an Israeli diplomat waving a thin fist at an empty hall in the losing battle against loneliness and ostracism; and especially remember this allegory every time they repeat the farce.

“We will fight on the beaches, we will fight on the landing strips, we will fight in the fields and on the streets,” as Benjamin Netanyahu stands at the head of the assaulting forces – the Churchill of the pesticide, spray and sealant services.

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, long-time public health advocate for Palestinian citizens of Israel and author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel, found out about my book shortly after it was published and requested a book swap. He sent me a copy of his, and I sent him a copy of mine. He said he would try to review Fast Times in Palestine but warned me it might take a while.

A few short weeks later he wrote to me, “I finished reading your book much earlier than I had expected. The reason should be obvious.” Attached was this review, which so far has been posted on Mondoweiss, on Dr. Hatim’s blog, and at The Palestine Chronicle.

Thanks, Dr. Hatim, for taking the time to read and review a book by a young ajnabiya (foreign) author. I’m pleased to say I enthusiastically recommend his book as well. It’s a devastating indictment of Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens (the ones who live in Israel proper, who are treated better than the ones living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, but sadly that’s not saying much). And sprinkled in are so many charming anecdotes about the past and present Galilee, so much gritty realism, an almost photographic sense of time and place, it’s truly a pleasure (and sometimes a horror) to read.

BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel until it grants equal rights to Palestinians, is one of the most simple and effective strategies for ending the subjugation of the Palestinian people. It works not only to punish companies that profit from the disenfranchisement of an occupied nation. It also works as a teaching tool and rallying point for bringing awareness to what Israel does that warrants being divested from. Even something as simple as campaigning to get your university to stop buying Israeli hummus can make hundreds or even thousands of people aware of a massive injustice that we as Americans unwittingly support.

Its effectiveness can be measured by how much it terrifies the Israeli government to have people all over the world even talking about boycotting and divesting from Israel until it complies with international law, much less doing it. Some initiatives have already caused significant harm to companies for abetting lawbreaking, though they don’t yet add up to a major financial threat to Israel’s comfort with the status quo.

But even the specter of boycott is enough to make other companies think twice before investing in the first place, and a rising global awareness of what Israel is really doing day by day in the West Bank and Gaza has many Israeli politicians quaking in their boots. Netanyahu calls it one of the five biggest threats faced by Israel (though by “Israel” he doesn’t mean the Israeli people — he means the prevailing world order that allows the Israeli government to break the law with impunity).

We can’t all stand with the people of Bil’in as they non-violently protest the takeover of their village lands and get tear-gassed, beaten, arrested, and sometimes killed in return. We can’t all work with olive harvesters and farmers who face armed settlers and soldiers who harass, beat, and sometimes shoot them on their own land. We can’t all walk with the children of Hebron as they run a gamut of checkpoints and violent settlers to get to school.

And sadly, we can’t seem to do much about our own government giving $3 billion of our tax dollars per year to the Israeli government, along with the political cover to keep doing to the Palestinians whatever they like, no matter how brutal, immoral, self-defeating or at odds with international law.

But we can refuse to spend or invest our money on companies that profit directly from the occupation of the Palestinian territories. As it happens, TIAA-CREF, a $400 billion finanical services and investment company, is one of the largest retirement funds in the world. It holds and invests a huge percentage of the pension funds of America’s teachers, professor, think tankers, and others in the cultural, research, and medical fields. (I have money in TIAA-CREF since I worked at a think tank in Washington.) Part of the reason for their success is that they bill themselves as the socially responsible choice. Their motto is, “Financial Services for the Greater Good.”

And yet they invest in companies that profit heavily from Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As a recent post in Mondoweiss put it, “We are not talking about subtle accusations. These companies:

· Supply armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes and olive orchards in the West Bank and Gaza (Caterpillar);

· Run segregated bus services for Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and manage the Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley, dumping trash from Jewish settlements and Israel into the West Bank (Veolia);

· Produce parts for Apache helicopters and F-16 aircrafts responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of civilians and massive destruction during the 2008-2009 Gaza assault (Northrop Grumman);

· Provide Israeli surveillance systems, unmanned drones, and construction of the Separation Wall which was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and UN Security Council (Elbit);

· Construct surveillance systems around Jewish settlements, checkpoints, and military bases in the West Bank (Motorola).”

It’s obviously unacceptable, not to say bizarre, for a company that divested from Sudan for moral reasons, and that bills itself as the socially responsible choice, to continue to invest in the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

So last year, Jewish Voice for Peace initiated a campaign to ask TIAA-CREF to divest from these five companies. By now they’ve gathered over 22,000 signatures in support of the initiative, and in the annual shareholder meeting last summer, which I attended, well over half the shareholder comments were urging TIAA-CREF to divest from the five companies listed above.

How did the company respond? The CEO hemmed and hawed and said he’d take it under advisement. Then this year, they moved their annual shareholder meeting from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, to which most of us in the New York activist community don’t have the time or means to travel. Presumably they were able to enjoy this “shareholder meeting” without being bothered by so many shareholders!

But they couldn’t escape us entirely. July 19, the day of the meeting, was a day of action by activists all over the country protesting at various TIAA-CREF offices. And Desmond Tutu, bless him, published an article in the Charlotte Observer with the title, “TIAA-CREF should hear us, divest from Israeli apartheid.”

They can run, but they can’t hide forever. Again quoting the recent article in Mondoweiss, “This is only the beginning of a long and critical struggle.”

There are so many interesting things going on in Israel/Palestine, I wish I had time to fill you in on all of it properly. But the book is taking all my energy at the moment. Just like there were so many more elements to writing a book than I ever imagined, the same is true of promotion and marketing!

In brief: Palestinian refugees have twice approached Israel’s borders unarmed in the past two months and tried to return to their homeland, both times resulting in live firing by the Israeli army and several killings. But dozens of people actually made it into territories controlled by Israel — one man made it all the way to Jaffa — for the first time in 63 years.

The Israeli government completely freaked out. But the refugees didn’t do anything but laugh and smile and visit. Which made it even worse for the Israeli government. Refugees returning home peacefully, without killing or maiming or pillaging like the propaganda says they would if they ever got the chance? It’s Netanyahu’s worst nightmare.

Then there’s the Flotilla that wasn’t (yet) because of Israel’s acts of sabotage and arm-twisting of the Greek government. Most of the ten ships scheduled to sail to Gaza in a show of solidarity and to publicize Israel’s brutal siege, including an American boat called The Audacity of Hope, have been either rendered unseaworthy by acts of clandestine sabotage or impounded by Greek port authorities at Israel’s “request.”

There’s also the “flytilla” of activists flying by the hundreds in to Tel Aviv and announcing they’re planning on visiting the West Bank (instead of cringing and lying like we usually do to slip through with minimal hassles and get on with our lives), about 200 of whom were turned back at their home airports because Israel spied on their Facebook accounts and got them blacklisted.

The activists who did get to Ben Gurion Airport were treated like dangerous terrorists instead of largely-geriatric peace activists, and most were arrested and/or deported. It’s a brilliant exposure of the length the Israeli government will go to to keep the Palestinian people isolated from the rest of the world, and the abject terror they have of principled non-violent activism.

But the cherry on top has to be the law just passed by Israel’s Knesset outlawing calls for boycotting anything in Israel, including the settlements. Here’s an excellent article by an Israeli about the asinine law, and the atmosphere in Israel in general these days.

And here’s how some American Zionists and other Americans are reacting.

Here’s a smart, sobering, on-point article about the mood in Palestine these days.

For everything else, just check the Mondoweiss blog like I do.

But all of this is peanuts compared to what’s expected this September, when Palestine’s claim to statehood will go before the UN General Assembly (inshallah). If it fails, it will be the final nail in the coffin of anyone’s hopes for peaceful international intervention based on international law at the government level. (Hopes in the “peace process” with the US and Israel being the main brokers died a long time ago.)

If it succeeds, the Palestinians will have a better platform from which to demand their rights under international law. But Israel is very adept at ignoring international law in all its forms, no matter who demands it. (It helps that its big brother is the most powerful country on earth, though it may soon also be the most broke country on earth.)

Either way, it’s a completely unsustainable and intolerable situation with no clear way out, and these massive isometric forces are just waiting for a spark to cause a slip that might lead to an earthquake.

Then again, these totally deadlocked situations sometimes evolve in surprising ways. Look at the fall of Apartheid, or of the Soviet Union. No one suspected these things to happen when they did, or with a relative minimum of violence. You just never know.

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P.S. Now that things have settled down slightly, I’m ready to offer signed copies again. Same deal — one book in the continental US is $15 plus $2 shipping. If you order two or more, shipping is free. Five or more, they’re $14 each. Ten or more they’re $12 each. You can pay with Paypal, check, or credit card. Just send me your mailing address, how many copies you want, and whom they should be signed to.

Below is an excerpt from the conversation I had with Noor Elashi during my book launch. It’s mostly written from memory, so it’s not word-for-word, just gives the gist of the questions and answers. A video should be up in a few weeks, and I’ll post a link to it here as soon as I can!

How’d you get involved with Palestine in the first place?

(I answered with an off-the-cuff summary of how it happened, but whenever people ask me this, I always wish I could just recite Chapter 1 of my book. So read Chapter 1 if you’d like to know. :))

Why write a book of this nature — literary, narrative, personal — instead of straight, traditional journalism?

I worked as a journalist in Palestine for a year, and after a while I started to feel like it was the same thing over and over, just names and numbers and modes of death, and I felt like no one was listening. This ‘objective’ voice you’re supposed to have with journalism, it doesn’t leave much room for humanity, for roundness and color and tension and drama. So it doesn’t stick. What really sticks in people’s minds is strong images, round characters they really care about, settings they can feel themselves in.

Basically, for better or worse, human beings are programmed to respond more to narratives than to facts or statements. We like to think we’re so rational, but basic psychology shows that if you don’t believe what a journalist says before he says it, you probably won’t believe it afterwards. Even when people are presented with scientific studies that contradict their worldviews, they tend to double down on their beliefs instead of changing them.

I wanted to write something that would show, not tell — that would enlighten in a very compelling and personal way. I also wanted the reader’s relationship to Palestine to develop organically, the same way it did with me. In my book, you learn as I learn, so it’s not like I’m lecturing to you. It’s like you’re walking along with me in this big university called life.

I also wanted to incorporate the devices of good story telling to keep people turning the pages. I have a shelf full of factual books about Israel/Palestine, and I’ve barely cracked open a lot of them, even though I want the information that’s inside. Why? Because when I finally have some free time, I don’t want to sit down and read something dry and depressing. I want drama, humor, romance, pacing, plot, suspense — all the things that make reading fun.

In other words, writing factual books and telling people they should read them is like trying to get kids to eat steamed broccoli. Put a little cheese on it, and they’ll eat it on their own.

Where do you find your inspiration?

If you read the book, you’ll see why I find so much inspiration from the Palestinian people. They could have given up long ago. The odds have been so badly stacked against them for so long. And yet, not only are they still there, still fighting — overwhelmingly mostly non-violently — for nothing more than the chance to be treated as human beings with basic human rights. They’re also the kindest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I start feeling like I want to give up on humanity, I think of the Palestinians and think, if they can keep going like that, what’s my excuse?

Who did you write this book for?

I wrote this to be a book that truly anyone can enjoy, regardless of their level of knowledge about the Middle East, or even interest in the Middle East. People who know everything I know and more say they enjoy it because it takes them back to this place they love. People who’ve never given the Middle East a second thought say they can’t put it down because it’s a gripping story with a lot of color and humor and tragedy and all the things that make us human, told from the point of view of a narrator they can relate to.

But I guess the person I had in mind when I was writing it was myself at age 22. Back then I wanted to learn about the Middle East, but I didn’t know where to start. Whenever I tried to read something by an American ‘expert,’ I always suspected there might be some bias or agenda I didn’t know enough to be aware of. When I tried to read books by Arab authors, I felt like their books kind of started at 60 miles an hour, and I could never catch up. There was so much back story, so many cultural nuances, so many dates and places and names whose meanings were taken for granted.

So my book starts at zero and ramps people up to 60 so they can go read more authentic voices with deeper understanding. It’s kind of an on-ramp to the Palestinian narrative, and from there to the greater Middle East. It’s also, I think, helpful in understanding a little more about the whole mass of humanity that lives on the other end of American-funded guns.

You’re not Palestinian or Jewish, yet you still tackled this head on through narrative writing as a concerned citizen. Why is your voice important?

I think my voice is valuable precisely because I’m not Jewish or Muslim or Palestinian or Israeli. I grew up knowing virtually nothing about the Holy Land other than the stereotypes on the news (which I never fully believed) and that movie with Charlton Heston that they play every year at Easter.

So I came in as a blank slate and was able to absorb it all from a fresh perspective. This makes it more difficult for the usual suspects to accuse me of bias. But most importantly, when I started writing, I knew very intimately what it felt like to know nothing. I could write to that audience, and I had a motivation to write to that audience. To really start from zero, like I started from zero, and respect the sensibilities of ordinary Americans, whose ignorance can be infuriating once you know what’s happening, but who aren’t necessarily bad people. They’ve just never been educated about this in a way they can relate to their own life experience, so they tune it out — the same way I’m ashamed to say I mostly did before traveling to the Middle East myself.

I think a big reason why most Americans are still so ignorant is because experts and activists tend to write books that appeal mostly to other experts and other activists. Which is fine — there’s a lot of space for books that convey very difficult, unvarnished truths and concepts and that take all the entry-level stuff for granted. But it leaves a lot of ordinary people out in the cold. I wrote this book to try to bring them in.

And if you think about books that have really changed history, they’ve often been written by outsiders who’ve acted as a kind of bridge between estranged communities. Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe writing a narrative about slavery, or Leon Uris, an American, writing about Israel. These books weren’t as scholarly or as authentic as certain other books on the market at the time. But they made a difference because they really spoke to their target audience’s sensibilities, and they changed people’s minds.

As Americans, what can we do to make to make a difference?

There are so many things we can do. Number one, if you can visit Palestine, by all means do it. Not only will you become a more educated and empowered world citizen, you’ll have the time of your life. You’ll see horrible things, things you previously couldn’t imagine. But most people come back full of hope and energy more than despair. Young or old, doesn’t matter, it changes your life in ways that are almost impossible to describe.

If you can’t go, there are still a lot of ways to educate yourself. I wrote my book specifically to be a good place to start that’s also enjoyable and accessible.

There’s a blog called Mondoweiss that’s kind of a clearinghouse for the pro-justice community in the US. By pro-justice, I mean people who are truly progressive on the Israel/Palestine conflict in the sense that first principles are that all humans are created equal, and everything else has to flow from that. It’s almost the first thing I check every morning after my email. The blog has created its own virtual community, and through it you can learn about other communities, other great books on the subject, realities on the ground in Palestine, activism all over the world, and so on.

It might seem daunting to get involved, like you don’t know where to start. My advice is, just start. Once you plug in, you can start to find your place, whether it’s writing letters to Congressmen, joining Jewish Voice for Peace or the US Campaign to End the Occupation, going to protests, supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law, or joining the next Freedom Flotilla. Every level of involvement is important.

P.S. Here’s one audience member’s take on an interesting incident that happened during the Q&A.

Before the launch

With the Aabs

During the launch

After the launch

About 80 people showed up, a very diverse and attentive crowd. Only one heckler spouted utterly predictable/silly talking points that had nothing to do with the discussion at hand, and I noted he was off-topic, and he backed off. The food was great (thanks, Waheed!), and I sold and signed about 50 books. Great discussions with people before and after.

So many thanks to Noor, Paul, Andy, Waheed, Debbie, and everyone who organized the event and turned it into such a fun evening! Wish you all could have been there. It was videotaped, and I’ll post the video as soon as it’s edited down to a few minutes of highlights.

I’ll probably have some kind of book party in the fall when the city’s more alive and all the Gaza Boat people are back in town — a less formal thing, just for fun. Maybe with a comedian or two. I’ll let you know…

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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