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 email@example.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.”