I got back from the California/Oklahoma book tour late last Friday, exhausted but happy. With 12 events in nine cities, and without a car, it was a major project to get all the books where they needed to go, arrange rides and places to stay, and endless other logistics that kept multiplying like hydras.
But it all went as smoothly as could be expected, thanks to many generous people who helped out along the way with couches, guest bedrooms, venues, meals, pick-ups, and drop-offs. You know who you are, and I can’t thank you enough.
It all started in Los Angeles, where I gave a presentation at the Levantine Cultural Center and also got set up with a radio interview with Don Bustany at Pacifica Radio KPFK. Here’s the interview (my part starts at 33:50).
Then it was on to the Bay Area, first stop was Palo Alto, where I stayed with some friends in a community known as Magic, Inc., and attended a three-day reunion of the Stanford Improvisers, better known as SImps, a theater improv troupe founded by Professor Patricia Ryan Madson.
Her Improvisation for Theater class was my favorite class at Stanford, and it changed my life profoundly. We studied from a text called Impro by Keith Johnstone, which turned out to be a kind of spiritual practice disguised as lessons in unscripted theater. Because what is life, after all, if not unscripted theater? After you learn the tenets of interacting in constructive and supportive and creative and beautiful and hilarious ways on stage, you can take the lessons to every interaction you ever have.
I’m pretty sure I never would have ended up in Palestine if I hadn’t internalized lessons like, “Accept offers from your partners, even if they are unexpected or make you uncomfortable.” Of course, in real life you have to leaven this with a little reason. But if you read my book, you’ll find lots of strange offers that I accepted even though my initial impulse was to reject them.
Be obvious. See what needs to be done, and do it. Don’t try to raise your status by lowering others (unless it’s part of a scene about a charmless or sociopathic person). Make your partner look good; it’s their job to make you look good. Don’t fear not knowing, and don’t worry about failure. We’re all here to support each other.
It’s all simple stuff, but putting it into practice is incredibly powerful. I was on a SImps alumni panel with engineers, doctors, and spiritual advisors, and we talked about how Improv informed our everyday lives. We also did workshops and Theatersports (unscripted theater with audience participation and scores from judges), and there was far too much hilarity to record here.
But there is something eerie about Improv. I kept looking around, seeing large numbers of people doing a dance or singing a song and wondering, “How do they all know that song/dance? Is there some giant piece of American culture that I’m missing?” Then I’d be like, “Oh, right. Improv.” It just looked like they were reading each other’s minds. It’s something that looks like magic until you know the tricks.
On the last day, we happened to meet for brunch at the Stanford Hillel Center for Jewish student life. It was a bit bizarre to go to the bathroom and see a sign on the wall that said, “California is low on water. Israel is low on water. Think about conserving water.” I was thinking, Er, what does Israel have to do with California being low on water? A stretch if ever there was one.
But in fact, all the artwork on the wall had to do with either Israel or anti-Semitism. One of the displays, by a Jewish-America woman, was particularly puzzling. It depicted the wall Israel built around Gaza, and I was thinking, “Oh, maybe it will have something about how much the Palestinians have been suffering, too.” Then I read the caption, which explained how much Israelis (and American visitors) are suffering in the kibbutzim around Gaza because of the ugly wall Israel was forced to build that blocks their nice view.
It’s just kind of dumbfounding.
In any case, I left a copy of my book at the Hillel Center signed over to them as a gift. Crossing my fingers that someone might read it.
On the Road
On Monday, October 17, I spoke at Magic in Palo Alto. Tuesday I went south to San Jose State University, then Stanford the next day. Thursday I took an Amtrak train all the way up to Davis, near Sacramento, where I was greeted warmly by a student hostess, and I also met Alison Weir of IfAmericansKnew.org. Friday and Saturday I visited Walnut Creek and Berkeley, then the Arab American Cultural Center in San Jose (whew!), then my little sister’s birthday party in Sunnyvale, where I met a very smart and eclectic group of people, including her boyfriend Galen.
On Sunday I had a day off to spend with friends in Palo Alto, and it was lovely. I flew the next day to Oklahoma City, where my Mom met me at the airport. We got a hotel room and had lunch the next day, then she drove me to Oklahoma City University, where I spoke at Dr. Mohamed Daadaoui’s Middle East Studies class. The students asked a lot of great questions, and Dr. Daadaoui was a hip and relatively young Moroccan who was a breath of fresh air to find in the middle of Oklahoma.
The next day at the Oklahoma School of Science and Math, every single student had to attend my talk, all 160 of them — my biggest crowd ever. (Mandatory attendance: the two sweetest words a writer on tour can hear.) They were very engaged throughout, and afterwards my 25 books sold out within minutes. There were nearly a dozen disappointed people still in line who had to leave me their names and addresses so I could send more.
I also forgot to save one for Bill Moyers. He was speaking at Oklahoma City University just after my gig at OSSM. After his stirring talk, I asked Dr. Daadaoui if I could give Mr. Moyers a copy of my book. I was shown backstage, where I had a chance to shake Mr. Moyer’s hand and speak with him briefly. I ended up giving him my own personal copy of my book, the one I’d been using while giving my talks.
I hope he’ll read it. He’s pretty good on Middle East issues, but he could definitely be better. When I asked him how he’d gotten through such an illustrious career with his integrity (relatively) intact, he admitted that he’d made some compromises along the way, though he didn’t mention what they were, and talked about how lucky he’d been. How lovely would it be if he could end his career as a stalwart truth-teller on Israel/Palestine?
Oklahoma University was the last stop, and it was so nice meeting the students and organizers there. It’s such a vibrant pro-justice group with strong ties and support from the wider community, and everyone was amazingly supportive.
In fact, other than one supercilious lady in LA (who accused me of being naive and informed me that it was counterproductive to support the rights of Palestinian refugees — don’t you hate it when someone else’s rights are inconvenient for you to respect?), I had no hecklers or hassles whatsoever. Things went pretty smoothly, with great audiences and kind hosts, and I met so many amazing people. I sold over 300 books and didn’t have to ship a single one back to New York.
On the airplane home (finally), a woman was sitting next to me editing a thick Word document. I asked if she was a literary editor. She laughed and said, “Thank you, but no. I actually had to hire an editor to help me with my Master’s thesis.” Turned out her company was sponsoring her to study some fascinating topics in human behavior and psychology. “What about you, what do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a writer. I just published a book in May.”
“Oh, mazel tov! What’s it about?”
Now it was my turn to chuckle. “Well…” I was tired and not in the mood for a political discussion. I said simply, “It’s about my time as a journalist in Israel/Palestine.”
“Oh.” Turned out she had lived in Israel for a while at an impressionable age. She asked more questions about the book, and I told her I’d be happy to send her a free electronic copy. She thanked me. Then she asked warily, “Did you ever see any Israelis treating Palestinians badly?”
She sighed. “I was afraid of that. I think it might upset me… It’s so strange to think about people who’ve been oppressed throughout history doing it to other people.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s like the American soldiers in Iraq, to some extent. It’s an asymmetric relationship, and those often end up being abusive.”
“That’s a good way to put it.”
“I mean, I understand why some Israelis think they have to do these things. But at some point it becomes counter-productive, to say the least.”
She nodded, looking somewhat upset already. I was biting my tongue so hard it was almost bleeding. But I hope she’ll read it. She seemed really cool and might just need a nudge toward understanding more about what’s going on on the other side of the Wall… inshallah.
Then I was delighted last week to open the news and find that Palestine had been voted to be the newest member of UNESCO! And the margin was overwhelming. 107 in favor, 52 abstentions, and only 14 voting against, including, of course, the US and Israel (plus Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sweden, and that stalwart ally, Vanuatu).
When the US voted against, there was stony silence. When Israel voted against, there was laughter. When the needed majority was reached, there was wild applause. It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the winds are blowing.
The US government can’t stand the UN because despite its best efforts, it doesn’t rule everything there. And when it gets ticked off, it just takes its marbles and goes home. Of course, in this case, it wasn’t the US as such, but Israel that was ticked off. And due to longstanding (and insane) anti-Palestinian legislation, the US immediately had to withdraw its funding from UNESCO, including an upcoming $60 million contribution.
More than 20% of UNESCO’s funding comes from the US, and now it’s gone. All because of America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. Due to the same legislation, the US might be also forced to withdraw from the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and even the IAEA, thus isolating the US even further from the world community.
At least this journalist was willing to say out loud that the only reason the US is acting this way is because Israel wants it to.
The discourse is definitely changing.
Naturally, Israel’s government condemned this Palestinian ‘provocation.’ (How dare they want membership in a cultural organization, and how dare the world welcome them with open arms!) The government of Israel responded by withholding tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (i.e., denying money that belongs to a rump authority under Israel’s own occupation, and preventing public employees like teachers and policemen from being paid) and announcing plans to speed up illegal settlement construction.
The Obama Administration’s response? Nothing but a feeble statement of half-hearted disapproval.
It’s all quite mind-boggling. During my talks, people asked a lot of questions about how things managed to come to this pass. I told a group at Stanford, “It’s not like you study this conflict for enough years, and suddenly there comes a point when you’re like, ‘Ah, now I get it!’ No. It’s pretty much insane. The more I look into it, the more astonished I get.”
It’s one of those things that’s been built up, ad hoc, one card at a time, into an unstable monstrosity, and ever more insane things have to be done to keep shoring it up. Until one day, like Apartheid, like slavery, like the Soviet Union, modern Zionism will collapse under its own unsustainable contradictions. It could have been a contender at many points, but it keeps making terrible choices, backed up by a cowed US Congress.
I remain hopeful that my humble book can help tell the side of the story that never gets heard here, or in Israel. My fondest wish is that it can help to change enough people’s minds (which are much more stubborn things to change than facts on the ground) so that less blood will be spilled when the earthquake finally comes.
That was probably the most frequently asked question on the tour. I still have the Epilogue of my book to write, which will be a major project. It’s more like “Part 2” than an epilogue, as it covers another year and a half of my life living in Washington and watching events unfold in Palestine from there.
Plus I have a new literary agent who’s helping me edit Fast Times down a bit so we can try to sell it to commercial publishers. (She’s not asking me to change anything substantial, just cut some of the stories she sees as somewhat redundant so we can get it down to a more manageable 300 pages.)
It’s all a lot of work, and hopefully I can get most of it done before the new year. We’ll see what happens after that.
P.S. My boyfriend and I just moved into Manhattan, a few blocks from the Occupy Wall Street movement. If you’re fed up with corruption in big banks, too, you can make an impact by simply moving your money from a behemoth corporation into a small local bank or credit union. My California credit union has treated me right for 14 years. You can find a local bank and report how much money you moved here.
P.P.S. Keep those Amazon reviews coming. I promise I’ll stop bugging you after I reach 50 reviews. 🙂
If you’re on Goodreads, a review there would be even better. Dozens of people have marked it as “to read” because of their friends rating it highly. Be honest, of course, but any mention is appreciated if you read and enjoyed it!