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That pretty much sums up the atmosphere in the West Bank following Abbas’ recent trip to the UN in New York to submit an application for statehood for Palestine. There was some anticipation leading up to his speech in the same way there might be excitement for a favorite football team playing on a particularly big stage. But the football team wasn’t Abbas, it was Palestine. Abbas just happened to be the guy with the microphone.

The excitement was mainly due to the fact that something was happening, as opposed to the usual nothing at all. The world was looking this way even though the Palestinians had not engaged in any violence. (Usually the world ignores the Palestinians totally unless they do something violent, which sets up an unfortunate incentive structure.) And Fatah had set up a big stage in the Duwar al Saa’a (Clock Circle), Ramallah’s second-biggest traffic circle, which they hastily renamed Arafat Square (though no one actually calls it that). They had also paid musicians, traditional dancers, and poets to give free performances. And they let everyone off work.

So those “spontaneous” “rallies” in support of Abbas—yeah, that was pretty much a free concert and a lot of people who support Palestine (not necessarily Abbas). It was surreal—not to say a bit silly—to be sitting in my flat a block from the Clock Circle watching a reporter on Al Jazeera English talking about “Arafat Square” and pointing to a group of ten people within the larger crowd waving identical placards with portraits of Abbas and calling it “a massive, spontaneous show of support for President Mahmoud Abbas.”

It was made abundantly clear in the leaked Palestine Papers that Abbas has made major concessions on Palestinian rights, which are totally unacceptable to the Palestinian public, and the Israeli government still has no serious interest in talking with him. Therefore it was a smart political move for Abbas to refuse to ‘negotiate’ with Israel as long as settlement expansion was ongoing. He knew the settlements wouldn’t stop expanding in any case, and he knew he wouldn’t get anything out of negotiations anyway. So it looked like he was ‘standing up’ to Israel when in fact he was just letting them keep doing what they wanted to do anyway, without humiliating himself through a sham ‘peace process.’

This statehood bid was also good domestic politics. It was smart because his presidential term ended years ago, and people are less and less sure why the hell he’s still the president. He hasn’t accomplished anything, and nobody voted for him to be president this long. With the statehood bid, it once again looks like he’s standing up to the US and Israel when in fact the bid is sure to languish in committee until it’s effectively buried, at which point it will be quietly vetoed by the US.

Lucky for Abbas, no one here seriously had any expectations that anything would change on the ground due to a piece of paper handed over at the UN. The barista at the Karameh cafe in Ramallah offered the typical sentiment here when I asked him, “What did you think about Abbas’ speech?”

He shrugged. “Kwayyis.” (Good. Fine.) There is a consensus here that it was a good speech.

Bas, esh fi?” (But now what do we find here?)

He laughed. “Just talking.” He made the universal hand sign for, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ “That’s it.”

So Abbas got his little party in Ramallah. But by the very next day, life was back to ‘normal’ (occupation as usual) as if nothing had happened. There are more soldiers in the West Bank these days manning checkpoints and harassing people, and slightly more settler pogroms. A friend offered to drive me to Tulkarem to visit another friend, and we used an alternate route to bypass a main road where settlers were randomly attacking cars. But otherwise nothing has changed at all. And nothing is expected to change any time soon.

Journalist Joseph Dana put it best: “The Palestinian leadership is trying to save a peace process based on the two-state solution by implementing the ‘corrective measure’ of seeking a state within the 1967 borders. On the surface, this seems to be a bold move. But it is really the PA’s attempt at self-preservation in a system designed to prolong the status quo.”

Amazingly, even this won’t succeed, because the US and Israel, due to domestic political considerations, foolishly reject even a slightly more sustainable status quo with a slightly larger fig leaf, but instead support Netanyahu’s utterly unsustainable project of total Israeli domination and intransigence, without even minor checks allowed by anyone whatsoever. It’s Bibi’s way or the highway. I think the reason even American elites are taking exception to Netanyahu is because he’s so obviously driving Israel toward a cliff.

In case you need a reminder, here’s what the status quo means. This Saturday I was invited to give a talk about my book (Fast Times in Palestine) at the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour, a town north of Bethlehem. I decided to take the route bypassing Jerusalem, mainly to save myself the hassle of passing the Qalandia checkpoint and then walking from one bus station to another in East Jerusalem.

As Sandy Tolan remarked in his recent excellent article, it’s hard to go a full minute in the West Bank in any direction without seeing some sign of the occupation: a graveyard of trees that have been uprooted by soldiers or slashed and burned by settlers, masses of electrical wires strung up by the Israeli government for the settlements, an illegal Israeli garbage dump next to a Palestinian village, a massive quarry stealing even the stones, Hebrew signs pointing to settlements, sniper nests, the heart-stopping Wall or its incarnation as a Fence with a blasted perimeter and army access road flanking it, ‘industrial areas’ flying Israeli flags, segregated roads, gated communities, stolen springs. All of it expanding continuously.

In the fabled wilderness east of Jerusalem, you can still see shepherds with their flocks, but they are pushed ever further to the margins. This is no longer their domain. Idyllic scenes have become islands in a surrounding sea of devastation and disfigurement. It makes me think of a kid who wants a smaller kid’s popsicle. Knowing he can’t legally get it outright, he yanks it out of the kid’s hands, takes a giant bite that he doesn’t even really enjoy, and then throws the rest of it in the mud. The word that kept repeating over and over in my mind was, “Maniacs.”

Of course there was a checkpoint even in the bypass road (which goes through Wadi Nar, ‘Valley of Fire,’ a dramatic pass between dry hills), but the soldiers didn’t happen to stop my service taxi. I arrived in Beit Sahour and met Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a long-time activist and writer, who was on his way to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp to bring grapes, bread, and greetings to a family he knew. They were from Al Walajeh, a village that was emptied and destroyed in 1948. Most of the village’s land fell on the Israeli side of the Green Line, but some was still left on the Palestinian side, and they rebuilt their village a couple of miles from the one that was destroyed on the land they had left.

Of course, now Israel wants this land, too. The Wall is not content to turn Bethlehem into a ghetto. It splits off perpendicular to the Bethlehem Wall to crash through Al Walajeh and separate it both from much of its remaining land, from Jerusalem, and from the two massive settlements built east and south of it.

This family had their home demolished in Al Walajeh by the Israeli army, and in a separate incident, the father was beaten severely by soldiers and hospitalized. His house has been rebuilt in Al Walajeh, but he refuses to live there because he now suffers from mental problems and is both too terrified of soldiers to set foot in his village and too heavily medicated to work. So his family moved into a refugee camp.

See how enlightened the Israeli occupation is? They didn’t kick this man out of his village. He left voluntarily!

I asked Dr. Qumsiyeh if we could visit Al Walajeh next, and he said sure. After a lovely drive through Beit Jala (a suburb of Bethlehem), we approached the invisible line marking the transition from Area A to the dreaded Area C (the 60% of the West Bank where Israel has full civil and military control and wields it with extreme prejudice). Dr. Qumsiyeh pointed out the road signs pointing left and right—one to Jerusalem and the other to a settlement.

“But you will notice, there is no sign saying where the middle road goes. I guess we are driving into the abyss.”

Of course this road went to Al Walajeh, a place Israel wishes didn’t exist. It’s such an inconvenient location—a beautiful hilltop right between several Israeli built-up areas. What were they thinking, rebuilding their village on land Israel might someday want?

I have to admit that as shocking as the Wall and settlements were, I was struck more than anything by the beauty of the location. In everything I had read about Al Walajeh, nothing at all had prepared me for how stunning it was. The sun was setting, which sent a soft purple light on everything, and the hills were rich with trees, and the view of West Jerusalem and the hills beyond was gorgeous. No wonder they want it, I thought. Who wouldn’t?

“You see how the Wall goes right up next to the houses,” Dr. Qumsiyeh said. “And it takes all the land. And there’s a huge hole in it that I can drive my car through. So you can see it’s not about security.”

That much has been obvious for a very long time.

He drove to another spot where the Israel army was building some kind of tunnel. “This tunnel is so one man can get to his house. The Wall will surround it on four sides. I’ve heard it will cost $2 million to build this tunnel.”

I looked at him strangely. “It’s not like I want them to, but… why don’t they just tear the house down?”

“They can’t find any excuse. It was built before 1967. So they will do this, and he can ‘voluntarily’ transfer himself if he wants.”

I did a poor job capturing the beauty of Al Walajeh and its expansive view, but I hope these pictures give some idea

I did a poor job capturing the beauty of Al Walajeh and its expansive view, but I hope these pictures give some idea

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As we were driving back into Area A, the road was plastered with signs in Hebrew only, obviously warning passengers to turn around as fast as they can because otherwise they might come face to face with scary, scary Arabs. Insatiable crocodiles, don’t ya know.

Confidential to Netanyahu: Projecting much?

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Despite all this, there is some amount of hope in three places. One is the dramatic shift in American and global public opinion. Even Thomas Friedman has started lamenting the Israel lobby’s stranglehold on US foreign policy (two years ago he wouldn’t even have dared suggest there was any such thing as an Israel lobby), and other news sources have started asking questions, inviting guests, and boldly making suggestions they’d never made before.

And Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN was fantastic. It was like some kind of cartoon alien spouting every tired line of campy hasbara kitsch all in one long string of mendacious, tone-deaf nonsense. It was like he was trying to get all the talking points in at once because somewhere deep down, he understood that this was their eulogy. He didn’t want to leave any of his old friends out of what I predict will be a historic speech—the last major event when anyone dared to say such utter crap on the world stage with a straight face.

The world’s reaction to his cringe-worthily sophomoric bluster spoke for itself (though apparently his popularity in Israel actually rose after it—which just goes to show how mentally isolated Israel is from the rest of the world).

The second place of hope is in the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which already has several victories to its name, and which is clearly terrifying the Israeli establishment. Along with non-violent direct actions like the Gaza flotillas, it’s the ultimate non-violent tactic to burst a dangerous bubble, and it’s just getting started.

The third is mass non-violent resistance by the Palestinians themselves, first Intifada-style. But there are three things suppressing this option. One is the Palestinian Authority, which is paid by Israel and the US to keep the Palestinians from taking matters into their own hands in this manner in any large-scale way. (Hamas is doing the same in Gaza to protect their own monopoly on power.)

The second is that people are still utterly exhausted from the evisceration of their economy by Israel’s occupation policies and the never-ending attacks by settlers and harassment by soldiers. People just want to scratch out a living and send their kids to school. This is enough of a massive burden given the conditions of occupation. To resist in a serious and sustained way means to risk losing every last scrap of what they hold dear.

The third is that the Palestinian people have understood for a long time what Amos Gilad, the head of Israel’s Defense Ministry’s political department, was recently quoted as saying by Wikileaks: “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”

Israelis are terrified of non-violent resistance. It’s not their strong suit. It’s not good for the world to see them bashing in the heads and shooting out the eyes of unarmed men, women, and children on their own land. So there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that if there is a mass non-violent uprising, Israel will do everything in its power to turn it into a military struggle.

This is where Israel is comfortable. This is where they win, especially where it matters most, in American public opinion: When they can point to someone else’s violence to justify their own massively more deadly violence. In this scenario, the framework switches from Palestinian human rights to Israeli security. And once the framework revolves around Israeli security, anything goes.

Most people forget that the second Intifada started as a mass non-violent movement. Israel responded by firing more than one million bullets into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Six months later, the suicide bombings started. And we all know the rest.

A sustained non-violent movement on a massive scale in Palestine would be no passive Kumbaya sit-in. It would involve serious danger and horrible risk, and it would require many people to die while others would be forced to watch and do nothing but continue to protest peacefully. And it would take only one spark to turn it into another all-out militarized conflict, and all the devastation that brings.

But who knows? No one predicted that the Soviet Union would fall when it did. Apartheid fell, French control of Algeria fell apart, and one way or another this insane occupation, this rotten house of cards, is not long for this earth.

Another Palestinian I talked to, a pilot who used to fly Yasser Arafat around the world, said, “Netanyahu thinks he has everything under control.”

I replied, “So did Hosni Mubarak.”

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine

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Here’s my schedule so far:

Book Fair in Tulkarem
Monday, Sept 19

Alternative Information Center
Beit Sahour
Saturday, Sept 24, 8pm

Educational Bookshop
Salah ad-Din St.
East Jerusalem
Tuesday, Sept 27, 6pm

Friends Meeting House
Across from Rukab Ice Cream
Ramallah
Wednesday, Sept 28, 6pm

Bir Zeit University
Department of English Language and Literature
Thursday, Sept 29, 2-3pm

So excited for all of this — and thanks to everyone who has done so much to help me set it up! It means the world to be launching the book in the place where it all happened…

I came not as a conquering army, but as a fake tourist. Still, there’s something about that trek from the desert to the Promised Land… I only spent five days in the Sinai this time, not forty years, but even that was transformative.

After three and a half years of working on this book and a full summer of being a one-woman publicity machine with good but not spectacular results, and the inevitable dozens of rejections (the latest being my rejection as a guest on the Daily Show), I was feeling exhausted and depleted and at odds with the world. I’d forgotten how to feel that simple, almost dumb joy of life. I was too stressed out and results-oriented to enjoy the ride. I was spending all my time promoting a book whose lessons I was forgetting to apply to my own life.

So. The Sinai. It’s a holy place, close to God. By which I mean, it’s a place where it’s easy to feel closer to God (or whatever you want to call the awesome spirit of the universe, the flame flickering at the base of who we are).

There’s something awe-inspiring yet welcoming about it. The mountains and the sea and the sky would be way more than enough, but then you go under the sea, and it’s a whole new world again, a jungle of colored corals and Dr. Seuss fish and shipwrecks. You can’t go there and forget for any length of time that life is awesome after all.

So the first day I sat alone writing in my journal, trying to chisel out some of the crud that had accumulated in my soul and get back to feeling light and grateful. By the morning of the second day, I already felt so much better. After dinner, I was sitting and writing again in a Bedouin-style cafe, and I wrote a last sentence and looked up, because I didn’t really feel like writing anymore, just existing.

That’s when a guy sitting a few feet away from me asked me if I smoked.

“Not cigarettes,” I said.

We lit up and talked a while, me and Karim and Nabil, two childhood friends from Cairo. Nabil was an ex-scuba diving instructor now working in a family business, and Karim studied computer science and then realized he didn’t like working in an office and decided to become a flight attendant.

The next day they were heading to Ras Sheitan, an area in the northern part of the Gulf of Aqaba where there are no towns, just Bedouin-style camps of varying prices and degrees of development (which is to say, some of the grass huts are nicer than others). It’s a little bit expensive because Israelis like to go there (though there are no Israelis now because of the recent incident in Eilat), and it drives up the prices. Still, $50 for three days of food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, and lodging is not bad, even if the lodging wouldn’t survive a stiff wind and we mostly slept outside. (I watched three sunrises in a row. I’d never done that before.)

We did pretty much absolutely nothing for three days. No TV, no phone, no internet, we didn’t even crack open a book. We snorkeled twice. That’s as active as we got. Otherwise we sat around and drank coffee or tea, talked, looked around at things, ate occasionally… It’s hard to describe the degree to which we did nothing, and how immeasurably content we were to do it.

Part of my problem, I think, was that after writing a book about so many shatteringly vivid experiences — sort of capturing them in amber — it took some of the vitality out of the memories for me. It’s almost like I painted a landscape, and then I looked at the painting and forgot the landscape.

Art, no matter how good it is, is only a shadow of life. And my book is definitely a shadow of the millions of impressions and emotions and views and sounds and smells of my actual experience. It was incredibly painful to get it down to 120,000 words, and even that is probably a shade too long for today’s market. Ugh — worrying about some ethereal “market” while trying to tell your little truth adds a whole other layer of pain.

I wrote in my journal:

“It’s funny — your art is what’s left of you after you’re dead, and even before you’re dead, it’s the most distilled snapshot of your soul most people will ever see. But until you’re dead, you can’t let your art replace you or stand in for you. Otherwise it’s like you’re already dead, because what’s the point of being alive if an object contains and defines you? No wonder so many artists are unhappy. So many traps!

I remember wishing, years ago, that I didn’t have to prove myself worthy to every new person, that I could just hand out a book that explains who I am. This is ludicrous, of course, for so many reasons. But even now that I have a book, it only explains some parts of who I was at a particular point in my life. I’m infinitely more interesting than that book, just like all people are infinitely more interesting than any object. We are dynamic, we have volition, we can change profoundly at any moment on any road to Damascus.”

You always have to be new. You always have to be now. There are no shortcuts.

I wonder why I can’t just learn this lesson once and for all — why I have to keep learning it. I guess because there are no shortcuts. You can’t stick anything in your cosmic pocket. It just keeps flowing.

The only thing that marred my three days in Ras Sheitan was the feeling of dread that built up like a tsunami in my gut until I could feel the ulcers forming every time I thought about it: The Israeli border. The people with the power to treat me like a criminal and take Palestine away from me. I had just sent 72 books to a bookstore in East Jerusalem, and only 71 of the books arrived. One of the boxes had been opened and re-closed, and one of the books had been stolen.

Routine security measures I’m sure — after all, who knows what dangerous incitement might be embedded in an Oklahoma girl’s memoir with a hookah on the cover. I just prayed they wouldn’t put me on some “extra security screening” list (or worse) based on the fact that I’d written a book with the word “Palestine” in the title. Paranoid? Sure. But a lot of people have been harassed and denied entry for less. They make sure we feel sick and paranoid every time we go through their damn border.

It goes without saying that this is all a million times worse for Palestinians, especially the ones who have never been allowed to visit Palestine at all.

Anyway, the guys were kind enough to drop me off at the border, and

Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

I’m being melodramatic and ridiculous, but seriously, I was about to throw up. I wore a spaghetti-strap tank top and silly fishing hat to look as much like a clueless tourist as possible, and I practiced pronouncing Arabic words wrong. (Sharm Al Sheek?) I refused to talk to anyone in line even though I was standing next to a Palestinian-Israeli family from Nazareth, and I longed to chat with them.

Long story short, by the time I was in front of the border guards, I was calm as an aluminum cucumber, and I had run through enough potential questions and answers that they didn’t trip me up with their random curveball questions. They waved me through as a nobody without even taking time to consult any lists. I felt a bit silly then for all the stress and preparations. But the thing is, you just never know. You can play your part as well as you want, and they can still decide to needle you until… well, I’m just glad they didn’t this time.

I got to the bus station in Eilat just as the last bus to Jerusalem was pulling out of the parking lot. That’s another whole story. Anyway, I finally got to a hostel I know in Jerusalem at 2am, and there was no one at reception, so I just found an empty dorm bed, passed out, and paid in the morning.

And then, on to Ramallah. It’s really so good to be here. The light and the hills and the buildings and the charming cafes. It’s a million times more beautiful than any words in any book can ever describe. People like to hate on Ramallah, and I understand why. But it’s really throwing the baby out with the bath water. Ramallah is a complex, organic, gorgeous city of just-right-sized hills, trees, elegant homes, proud history, graceful verandas, fine schools and mosques and churches and nooks and crannies and hidden gardens. Walking around Ramallah at sunset is one of my favorite activities in the world.

Everything is a lot more expensive than it used to be, though. More and more foreigners just keep pouring in, and it drives the prices up. But you can still find the places where the menu is only in Arabic (or there’s no menu at all), and eat good food for reasonable prices, or just go to the farmer’s market and make a salad.

I’ve been working like mad to set up my book tour here, with events so far at the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem, at a book fair in Tulkarem, at the Friend’s Meeting House in Ramallah, and at the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour. I’m talking to people about launching in Bethlehem, Nablus, and Bir Zeit as well and selling copies to several bookstores. (I just sold five copies to the prestigious American Colony Hotel bookstore, and the owner got my contact info to potentially buy more.) People so far have been incredibly kind and helpful. It’s so great to feel so much support from the community here.

Because shipping and customs control are so expensive, and bookstores demand large discounts, I’m selling most of my books to bookstores at a small loss. But I’m happy to support Palestinian businesses, and it’s exciting to have it available in the place where it all happened.

I played street hockey Friday, and that was a lot of fun, too. Very few people I knew back in the day are still here, but some are, and there are cool new people, and it’s fun to run around a parking lot while the Mediterranean sun sets and you occasionally have to suspend the game because a herd of goats crosses a corner of the field of play. And then walk home and be passed by a man on a galloping horse. Ramallah is very modern and Western in so many ways, but Palestine finds ways to shine through.

I’ll see Rania in Tulkarem, and finally meet her baby daughter Lusan, on Monday. Big brother Karam is talking up a storm now, and he gets cuter by the day.

Thanks so much to the people who’ve contributed to the Rania fund. Since I sent the last email, people have sent or pledged $930! More than half of it came from a single generous donor. One young man in Egypt heard Rania’s story and immediately pledged $200. The next time he had a chance, he went to an ATM and withdrew the money for her. I wasn’t even asking him for anything, just making conversation after he noticed her name in my journal and asked about her. These acts of generosity are so humbling. I feel so grateful to know all of you.

That only leaves $570 to raise to more or less break even for the year to date. As always, my Paypal address is pamolson02@yahoo.com. Thank you so much for anything you can spare.

Yalla, time for bed. I have to get up early tomorrow to pass through the Qalandia checkpoint before a scheduled demonstration of Israeli and Palestinian women. I’d love to join the demo, but I have too many time-sensitive errands to run in Jerusalem to risk not being able to get through the checkpoint. These are the kinds of decisions one has to make on a Saturday morning in Palestine.

We’re all gearing up for the UN vote on Palestinian statehood on September 23. Everyone has wildly different theories about what will happen (or not happen). As usual, there’s only one way to find out. I’ll keep my eyes open and let you know.

Today I went to Al Karameh Cafe, where I used to get my $1 cappuccino after lunch every day (now it’s $2), and I told the guy who made my cappuccino that I wrote a book, and Al Karameh Cafe is mentioned in the book in a really nice way. He smiled really big and said, “Thank you so much!” He called over someone who was sitting in the cafe to talk to me, and it turned out he was a pilot who used to fly Yasser Arafat around the world.

We stood at the counter and talked politics for half an hour. We agreed the UN vote itself probably won’t change much, but it’s a strong symbol of things changing very fast. Not fast enough, of course, but nothing lasts forever, especially if it’s fundamentally unsustainable and inhumane. Apartheid fell, the Soviet Union fell, French control of Algeria fell apart, and this insane occupation is not long for this earth.

He said, “Netanyahu thinks he has everything under control.”

I replied, “So did Hosni Mubarak.”

Much love,
Pamela

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I was recently emailed this great article by Professor Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and a contributor at Foreign Policy. It speaks pretty well for itself — though it’s extremely sad that something so obvious has to be repeated over and over and over in our insane media environment, as it should go without saying:

How not to learn from past mistakes

By Stephen M. Walt
Foreign Policy
September 12, 2011

If you’re still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free.

The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there’s only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.

Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from “a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack.”

Excuse me? I’m all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller’s to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?

Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the “I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk Club.” This defense amounts to saying “Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys.”

What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller’s very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times’ editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.

Finally, Keller’s reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let’s not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn’t work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times’ learning curve.

To cap it all off, turn to yesterday’s Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum’s review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase “axis of evil,” and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the “war on terror.” And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.

There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did.

Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times — like most of the foreign policy establishment — continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?

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I wrote the following as a response

I was just in Egypt talking to some people from Cairo, and they were asking me why America supports Israel so uncritically, and why they engage in all the disasters (like the Iraq War) that follow from this support.

“What is the benefit?” they asked.

“There is no benefit,” I said rather miserably, knowing what was coming next.

“So why do they do it? It’s not hard to learn about the Middle East and behave in a different way. Yani, we don’t want to be your enemy. We respect your country. But we can’t respect the way it behaves. There is no sense to it.”

I tried to explain. I told them about the Israel lobby — how there are wealthy groups that know how to wield political influence so that there is a price to pay for making Israel angry, but there’s no price to pay for making Israel happy.

“How can they have so much power?” they asked. “Surely they don’t have infinite money, and it causes the US so many problems.”

“Well,” I said, feeling silly, “our politicians tend to take the path of least resistance. There’s no leadership. If it’s easy, they do it, because they care first of all about getting elected, second about everything else. Most of our journalists are the same way — they care about their jobs, not about the truth. Even when I was at Stanford studying political science, you could see the classes the kids took seriously — the ones about “security” and “strategy” — and the classes they only took “for fun,” like human rights and the environment or whatever. By the time they get into office, they don’t know how to care about anything, and a lot of time they don’t know anything except politics. There’s no culture of real vigilance or independent thought. So they can be led around by the nose by anyone who wants to pressure them.”

Even as I was saying all this, I was thinking, “These are not good enough reasons. People are being destroyed. Everyone thinks we’re crazy. And the only reason I can come up with is because our elites are too lazy to care.”

It’s really shocking when you think about it. I wonder how we can fix it.

Your thoughts are welcome.

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Just arrived in beautiful Ramallah after five incredible days in the Sinai, where I can always count on falling in love with life. So happy to be here, and I’ll be writing more soon, after I settle in and have time to catch up with some friends.

Did I mention I’m so happy to be here? 🙂

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After a long summer of marketing my book, arranging my book tour in the fall, publishing five new eBooks, and a million and a half other things, and my Turkish boyfriend Ahmed working long hours six days a week, we decided we could use a little getaway.

We found a reasonably-priced four-day off-season package deal to the Turks & Caicos Islands, south and east of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. Neither of us had been to the Caribbean or experienced a carefree resort-and-beach vacation, so we decided to go for it. No adventures, we thought, just a few days pure thoughtless laziness on a white sand beach.

Well… Our first indication that things wouldn’t go exactly like we thought came when we arrived at the airport an hour and five minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart. I’m the type who shows up two and a half hours before departure just in case my Subway train derails or something. But since the flight was at 7am, and it takes an hour and a half to get to the airport, I decided to go along with Ahmed’s idea that it’d be totally fine to get there only an hour early.

But when we got there and asked a sales rep where to check in for our flight, she tsked like we were idiot delinquent students and said the ticket office closed an hour before takeoff. No one had bothered to warn us about that when we bought the tickets.

Long story short, after sweating bullets for more than half an hour and trying to get someone to help us, a kind woman finally decided to sympathize with us, and after some intense wrangling, she got us our boarding passes about twenty minutes before take-off.

I ran to the security check line, intending to ask a kind soul to let us cut in front because we were about to miss our plane. Before I could open my mouth, a TSA official started yelling at me. I couldn’t figure out what she was so upset about, but finally I realized I had run straight past the station where they check IDs and boarding passes.

After another TSA agent took her sweet time examining our passports and boarding passes and rolling her eyes and waving us through, a very kind family in their sock feet immediately recognized our desperation and let us go ahead of them through the x-ray and metal detector biz. Thank God for kind people. Our gate was the last one in the last corridor of the gigantic terminal, and we ran to it in a full sprint. My throat and legs were burning by the time we got there.

And guess what? The plane hadn’t even finished boarding yet. They were just then calling for “All passengers, all rows.” There had been absolutely no reason to d*ck us around for forty minutes instead of just printing our boarding passes and letting us go.

But whatever. We took our seats gratefully, and I quoted from Pulp Fiction, which we had just watched: “L’aventure commence.”

The adventure begins.

We landed on Saturday afternoon, August 20, on the island of Providenciales, the most touristy and developed of the Turks & Caicos Islands. (“Turks” because they have an indigenous cactus that looks like it’s wearing a fez hat, “Caicos” after the Spanish word for “cays.”) It’s still not very developed except along the northern stretch of white sugar sand beaches called Grace Bay, and our resort, the Alexandra, was just steps away from the calm, clear turquoise waters.

As we were walking back from our first foray to the idyllic and not-at-all crowded beach (August is the off-season because it’s 90 degrees with a refreshing trade wind breeze instead of 75 degrees), we met our hotel’s concierge, Al, who suggested a “Caicos Dream Tour” the following day. There’d be a boat tour of some small cays (pronounced “keys”), some snorkeling on the barrier reef a few hundred meters off shore, and a conch hunt in some shallow waters, followed by the freshest conch ceviche ever, plus all the rum punch we could drink.

Sounded good to us, so we signed up. The snorkeling was sweet, but not as good as Dahab in the Sinai, and I made the amateur mistake of using mere sunscreen instead of wearing a shirt while I snorkeled. My back got scorched. (In a few days I looked like Neopolitan ice cream, all brown and pink and white.) Then we explored a tiny uninhabited island ruled by foot-long iguanas, and we walked from one side to the other and all the way around it from the Atlantic side to the Caribbean side and back again.

Best of all was hunting for fresh conch (pronounced “konk”) in warm waters with a sandy bottom about five feet deep. The smaller ones were easy to spot, but we were only allowed to take larger ones. The larger ones were usually covered in sea plants, which camouflaged them, and surprisingly heavy, like stones. We swam around and gathered about twenty, then motored to a beach where our guides prepared them, first knocking and slicing them out of their shells, cutting off and throwing away the guts, then dicing them up and mixing them with tomatoes, peppers, lemon, and oil. Delicious.

Back at the hotel the next morning, I found Al and asked about other activities I was thinking about — scuba diving, parasailing, getting a massage, touring other nearby islands, etc.

He said matter-of-factly, “Well, the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so…”

Hold the phone. “Uh, wait, sorry, did you say hurricane?”

I’m no devotee of the weather channel, and I was in full-on thoughtless lazy vacation mode. It hadn’t occurred to me to pro-actively check to make sure no hurricanes happened to be coming in the four short days we would be there. What are the odds, right?

“Yeah, the hurricane will be here tomorrow, so today everyone’s taking off work to prepare their houses. The party tonight at the hotel is canceled, and there’s too much wind to parasail, and our masseuses have left already.” Seeing my expression, he quickly added, “Don’t worry, the hurricane will probably go over the Dominican Republic before it gets here, so it will only be category one or so.”

“But everyone’s taking the day off to prepare?”

“Sure. You can’t be too careful.”

So everything was shut down today, the hurricane was coming on Tuesday, and Wednesday we were leaving. Some four-day vacation.

But oh well, Ahmed and I had plenty of books, and each other, and the novel experience of watching a hurricane go by. How bad could it be?

The hurricane was actually quite cool. As predicted, it was only a category one, but let’s just say that after seeing a category one, I have little interest in seeing a category two or above. Sustained 95 mph winds are something to see (and hear) for hours and hours and hours. When it was just getting started, we went to the beach, but we didn’t last long because the sand stung us like millions of tiny bullets in the fierce winds.

We stayed in our hotel room for the rest of the evening and night as the wind howled and the palm trees thrashed like sea anemones helplessly flailing in a strong sea current. Impressively, not a single palm tree, and only a few branches, went down — natural selection built them well. But two non-native-looking trees were knocked over.

We lost power for a while, and internet for a much longer while, but we still had phone connection as we frantically called Jet Blue to see if our flight was cancelled on Wednesday (it was — in fact, the whole airport was shut down) and if so, when we could get a new flight. It was nearly impossible to get in touch with them. By the time we finally did, the next flight they had available was on Sunday — four days later, doubling our vacation.

Having no choice, we took it, and booked another four days at our resort. At least we’d have time to do some of the things we’d wanted to do on our first four days, and we did some of them and had a great time.

But every time we came back to our room, we flipped between CNN and the weather channel to see what the hell was going on with Hurricane Irene. Soon it was clear the hurricane would be in New York on Sunday and most likely cancel that flight as well. Since everyone was trying to get in touch with them at once, we had little chance to get through in a timely fashion. By the time Ahmed went to the airport physically to try to get us a new flight, the only flight we could get was on the next Friday! So now our four-day vacation would be thirteen days…

I also had a flight to Jordan that had long since taken off, and I’d changed it once, incurring a hefty fee, and now I had to change it again, plus the difference in ticket price.

Then, by the grace of Ramadan, Ahmed called Jet Blue again on Monday and must have called just as another couple canceled their Tuesday flight. We snapped it up. So now our thirteen-day vacation was only a ten-day vacation. And we had one more day to enjoy it.

After an afternoon of sitting under umbrellas on the beach reading novels, Ahmed suggested we take the resort’s two kayaks out to the reef waaaaay off shore. The waters were clear, warm, and calm, and I’m a good swimmer, so I thought nothing of it.

It was an effort to paddle all the way out there, where the sandy bottom gives way to shallow, rocky reefs that break up the waves before they get anywhere near the shore. (The little wavelets on the sugar sand beach are barely enough to challenge a three-year-old.) But it was a good way to work up an appetite for the free cocktail party the resort puts on Monday evenings.

As we turned around to paddle home, I noticed a little headwind blowing offshore. It wasn’t too strong, but it would make it a slightly bigger challenge to paddle back to shore. No worries. We decided to race to make it more interesting. After ten minutes of hard paddling, I suggested we take a breather and just enjoy bobbing around under the soft white clouds for a few minutes.

“How deep is it here?” Ahmed asked idly.

“I’ll find out,” I said, and slipped over the side of my kayak and plunged feet-first toward the bottom.

“Only about fifteen feet,” I said in surprise as I surfaced and threw my goggles into my boat. That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was capsizing my little craft as I was trying to get back in. There’s an art to keeping a dynamic balance while boarding a small boat in softly rolling seas, and I should have practiced in shallower waters instead of assuming I’d be able to do it so far off shore. All my things — my shirt, my hat, my goggles, my paddle, my mojito — dumped out, and I grabbed what I could — my hat, shirt, and paddle.

I really liked my goggles, though, and didn’t want to lose them. I handed my upside-down kayak to Ahmed and asked for his goggles so I could search for mine. That was my third mistake.

After literally 90 seconds of searching, I looked around to see where Ahmed was, and to my horror, I saw that the headwinds had picked up and were blowing Ahmed’s and my kayak out to sea like leaves on the surface of a lake. They were already 50 yards away from me. There was no way I could reach them before they were back over the jagged reefs, and possibly even past them into the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. And Ahmed couldn’t paddle toward me without letting go of the other kayak, and we had no rope to lash the kayaks together.

So he did the only safe and sensible thing he could do: He let the other kayak go and paddled toward me. By the time he got to me, the other kayak was 100 yards away and beyond recovery. We paddled back to shore together, without my goggles and without the other kayak, struggling all the while against the offshore wind. It felt like it took hours, though it probably only took about 45 minutes.

The sun was about to set by now, and the resort groundskeeper was waiting for us on the beach, arms crossed.

“You come back with only one kayak,” he said once we were in earshot. “You take two kayak, you bring back only one kayak.”

“Yes, we know,” I said. “We lost the other one.”

“You take two kayak, you bring back only one,” he insisted.

“Yes, we know. The other one was lost.”

“This only one,” he said. “You take out two kayak, you bring back only one kayak.”

This went on for a while. I assume he didn’t speak English very well and wanted to make sure we understood that this was our fault, and that it wouldn’t end up coming out of his paycheck. We assured him he could take us directly to the front desk, where we would take full responsibility for the loss.

The next morning there was a bill for $620 on our tab for a new kayak, in addition to the six extra days of lodging and incidentals. We could only shake our heads. From a humble budget long-weekend package deal, this had turned into something else entirely.

The good news is, we did have a great time, and we came back refreshed and rejuvenated and with a new outlook on life. I feel entirely different than I did two weeks ago. And I have now officially been to the Caribbean after a lifetime of wanting to see those crystal-clear waters and Corona-commercial-grade white sand beaches for myself. Ahmed remained wonderfully calm through what could have been bucketloads of stress, and we really enjoyed each other and our time.

I’m really excited about the book tour as well, and even though I’m having to pay for a huge number of books up front to send to bookstores, campuses, and events around the country, and my travel, I shouldn’t have too many problems piecing it together.

But there’d be a whole lot more breathing space if I wasn’t sending Rania $300 per month to help her family get through some very tough times with less and less help. The donations have tapered off to one or two every couple of months, and by now I’m $1500 in the hole, not counting the $400 I put in initially and the $12 per month I pay in Western Union fees.

I know how many emails and requests and appeals everyone gets all the time, and I hate to add to the burden. But if a few dozen people could pledge just one month’s worth of Western Union fees — $12 — it would go an enormously long way.

If you’re uncomfortable giving straight-up charity to a family in immediate need (rather than something more long-term or sustainable), think of it as a Kickstarter campaign to help fund my book tour (which is part of a long-term project to change American public opinion on Palestine and our policies in the Middle East in general).

Like a Kickstarter campaign, I’ll offer incentives to people who donate. Anyone who gives $6 or more will get a free copy of my new eBook, Siberian Travels: An Oklahoma Girl’s Journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan, an account of my Trans-Siberian adventure in December 2000:

Anyone who donates $12 or more will also get a copy of Camp Golden Shaft, a series of letters and stories about my summer teaching at a ridiculous and often hilarious Russian summer camp and then backpacking from Cairo to Istanbul. (These events take place during the time covered in Chapter 1 of Fast Times in Palestine, but they were either summarized or passed over completely in my haste to get to the point.)

If you donate $24 or more, you’ll also get Tribute for Ronan, a true story that spans three years and three continents and explains how I ended up on the front page of an Irish tabloid at age 24:

I can send these in any format you like — Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Kobo, PC, etc. My Paypal address is pamolson02@yahoo.com

Thank you so much.

It’s shaping up to be an exciting September, not least because of the UN vote on Palestinian statehood coming up in a couple of weeks. The debate is fierce on whether it’s a good thing or not. Either way, I expect it to be looked back upon as a major turning point. Inshallah khair (hopefully for the better).

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Not that I’m complaining. The shoe does kinda fit.

A Palestinian magazine called This Week in Palestine is featuring my book, Fast Times in Palestine, in its September issue, and they put together a charming review — probably my favorite review so far.

They really get what I’m trying to do: “There is an element of entrapment in the way Olson’s innocent, honeyed tones casually shatter accepted ideas about the conflict.”

Yup — I reel the readers in with a fun travel/adventure/romance story and then sucker punch them with the reality in Palestine. If that’s entrapment, call me Catherine Zeta Jones.
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Review: Fast Times in Palestine

By Pamela Olson
Mason Hill Press, May 2011, 356 pages, $14.95

A rare piece of literature about Palestine that places its main emphasis on pleasure of reading. Its author, Pamela Olson, arrived in the country at age 22 and fell in love with its people, culture, and struggle.

This hymn to her adopted land is an engaging mix of travel diary, novel, and political journalism. We follow an enraptured Olson as she makes her way in Palestine; through cultural experiences, the development of her career in media, and most of all her relationships with Palestinian people.

In her words: “What makes Palestine (for foreign visitors) is the Palestinian people. Their warmth and strength and sense of humour and their total belonging to this land…Palestinians have this incredible capacity to make strangers feel like they belong. And once you feel you belong, it becomes your struggle, too. Like them, you are forced to struggle not only with the occupation but also with yourself. How can I be most effective without turning into what I hate?”

Her story contains numerous accounts of the everyday hardships inflicted by the Israeli occupation. Told in stark yet human terms, Olson makes them plainly accessible to the casual, uninformed foreign reader who remains to be persuaded.

The author has professed that her main intention was to raise awareness within this demographic. “My hope is that it will galvanise ordinary people to act, or at least continue to learn more,” she told us.

A powerful method to this end is rooting her narrative in human experience. She draws on a number of personal friendships that illustrate the charm and variety of Palestinian culture that so many abroad are unfamiliar with. Tales of gathering the olive harvest, New Year’s Eve in Jericho, and an ever-so-sweet romance succeed in removing the politics from the population, through engaging and well-nuanced characterisation that any reader can engage with.

As a personal story it carries shades of beat literature, with its laidback sense of morality and its tone of narration. The author is the central character but is positioned as the eager listener, the blank canvas; she is coloured in by the events and people.

Yet her affable and quintessentially liberal voice is the most receptive of prisms through which an American reader can see the injustice lost in media representations. There is an element of entrapment in the way Olson’s innocent, honeyed tones casually shatter accepted ideas about the conflict…

No wonder, then, that her book has been so well received in the United States. The worlds of media, academia, and activism have combined to shower Fast Times with praise, while Jewish and Palestinian organisations have joined the chorus.

Essential reading for the casually interested, valuable insight for devotees, and a damn good story for everyone else.


(Click the image to view the book’s Amazon.com page)

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My book

Fast Times in Palestine is in bookstores worldwide! Order on Amazon, or check out the book's website.

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Maintaining this blog and my website is an unpaid labor of love. If you'd like to help me keep it up, my Paypal email is pamolson02@yahoo.com

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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