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Chapter 5: Suddenly a Journalist
Grapevines and Sea Breezes
Outtake from this section (after the underlined part), p. 94:
I spent the next few days [in Jayyous] meeting and catching up with old and new friends, helping Mohammad the Charmer and his equally charming fiancée pick out fixtures for their new house, and visiting one of their cousins who had just finished medical school in Tunisia. He was clearly the star of the day, sitting in his mother’s parlor wearing a white Polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, surrounded by relatives and exuding an air of benevolent wisdom and almost boyish pride. I tried to speak Arabic with him, and he answered in a mixture of English and French.
After the first paragraph on p. 101 (all except the underlined part, which was left in):
When I got back to the Al Sarayya Hotel, Fayez invited me to dinner. We walked to a restaurant called Anwar Makka (Lights of Mecca). One of its walls was covered with a stunning mural of Mecca and its mosque lit up against the desert night. We ordered kofta tahina—spiced minced lamb baked with potatoes, tahini, garlic, and lemon. He asked about my week, and I filled him in as we enjoyed the food and ambience. I offered to split the bill at the end, but Fayez responded with a look of such withering indignation, I never dared offer again.
I sighed. “It was the same with Laila. Every time I tried to pick up a bill—even if I tried to do it before the food even arrived—I always found that she’d already paid. She’s like some kind of bill-paying ninja. And this morning her relatives fed me an enormous breakfast, then another friend bought me an amazing lunch, and now you’re buying me dinner. This is getting out of hand. I’m starting to feel bad.”
Fayez laughed. “Don’t feel bad. Maybe you feel bad because it is not your way. But it is our way.” He shrugged. “We like people.”
I made my way to the Pasha Palace Hammam (Turkish bath) the next day, where I enjoyed a sauna, pool, exfoliation, scrubbing, and divinely inspired massage in an old Arabian palace for less than $20. The main steam room had the customary tiny, round stained-glass windows in the central dome that broke the sun into colorful beams as it cut through the steam. I left as soft and relaxed as a baby in a blanket.
I’d been sleeping better in Jordan and feeling more carefree than I had in ages. I ate like a happy camel while I was the perpetual guest and gained back all the weight I’d lost in Ramallah. (I never told Qais the real reason I’d been losing weight. Sometimes when I was reading Catch-22 and hearing about the senseless death and destruction all around me, the world seemed so bleak and crazy and mean I wanted to go hungry and not sleep just to take my mind off it.)
Home Sweet Ramallah
OK, now for a couple of outtakes from this section:
Like in any office, we emailed jokes and videos back and forth. This one in particular made me smile:
An old Arab man lived near New York City for more than forty years. One day he decided to plant potatoes and herbs in his garden, but he knew he was too old and weak. His son was in college in Paris, so the old man sent him an e-mail explaining the problem:
“Beloved son, I am very sad, because I can’t plant potatoes in my garden. I am sure, if only you were here, that you would help me dig up the garden. I love you, your father.”
The following day, the old man received a response from his son:
“Beloved father, please don’t touch the garden. That is where I have hidden ‘the THING.’ I love you, too, Ahmed.”
Within hours the US Army, the Marines, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the Office of Homeland Security came to the house of the old man and took the garden apart, searching every cubic inch. They didn’t find anything. Disappointed, they mumbled an apology and left.
The next day, the old man received another e-mail from his son:
“Beloved father, I hope the garden is dug up by now and you can plant your potatoes. That is all I could do for you from here. Your loving son, Ahmed.”
This outtake came at the end of this section:
For lunch we usually went to Osama’s Pizza for Italian food, Zeit ou Zaatar (Olive Oil and Thyme) for traditional Palestinian fare, or the Nazareth Restaurant, which had cheap and tasty falafel sandwiches. One day I accidentally walked out of the Nazareth Restaurant without paying and didn’t realize until I was back at my desk. Embarrassed, I walked back to the restaurant and said, “I’m so sorry, I forgot to pay.”
The man behind the counter was thin and distinguished-looking and wore silver wire-rim glasses. He put his hand over his heart and said, “That is OK, you are our customer. Next time.”
“No, no, please, it is OK. Maybe next time it will be a very big order.” He smiled mock-suggestively, and I laughed.
Ramallah International Film Festival
A woman in a business suit announced the winners, mostly female, of a scriptwriting contest among Palestinian high school students, then we were shown a videotaped message from Omar Sharif, the Egyptian actor who starred in Funny Girl and Lawrence of Arabia.
Cold War and Peace
This passage, the last in the chapter, was shortened to just the underlined sentences in the new version (plus an edited bit about slavery, Jim Crow, and Apartheid):
She was right, of course. This conflict was a symptom of a much more fundamental disorder. Was it a problem with human nature itself, I wondered, or just a massive failure of imagination? It was easy to talk about ‘cycles of violence,’ but what did that really mean? The basic units of any conflict were human beings, and human beings supposedly had some degree of rationality and free will. How was that will so utterly subsumed into roles that seemingly benefited no one? What kept them in motion, and how could they be stopped? Could it be transcended one day like slavery, Jim Crow, and Apartheid? It seemed tantalizingly plausible. Who could have guessed, when a fractured Europe was massacring itself in the depths of World War II, that two generations later there’d be a European Union? Why shouldn’t something similar be possible in the Middle East?
There were difficult legal disputes that needed to be settled in the Holy Land, but the amount of stonewalling and violence was out of all proportion to the amount of land that was truly under discussion at this point. If we could figure out why—find the bottleneck—in one of the most bitter, deadlocked conflicts on earth, perhaps a way could be found to generalize it and extract ourselves from other irrational patterns of human behavior. It was thrilling to think about. That spark I’d had as a kid, the passion for learning about the world through my own senses, was reigniting.
I smiled at the ridiculousness of a physics major from Oklahoma taking on a quest that had eluded Presidents and generals, scholars and religious leaders. The near-certainty of my failure didn’t bother me too much, though. The path itself was irresistibly rich and interesting. Power and violence, fear and intrigue, inspiration and beauty, real and right in front of me, all around and undeniable. There was no way to know where it might lead—whether to utter cynicism and despair, renewed faith and hope, or something else, something totally unexpected—except to follow it and find out.
My ‘quest’ didn’t look like much now: editing documents for no pay, living with a loud-mouthed Gaza Communist, and already getting tired of falafel. Even if it came to nothing, though, the consolation prizes were traveling, learning Arabic, harvesting olives, drinking Taybeh beer, and rounding it out with a nargila on the porch.
I supposed one could do worse in her twenty-fourth year.
Here are several photos that go with these chapters. Pictures can’t really capture the beauty or the atmosphere of the places or the people. But it’s a start.
The text of Chapters 2 and 3 didn’t change much since they were first written in 2008. Just a few tiny passages were left out:
On p. 15, after “Into the West Bank”:
“You know what my last girlfriend said she liked about me?” asked Rami.
“Your nose?” said Yusif.
“Girls like my nose. They say it turns them on.”
“No, not my nose.”
“What, your eyes?”
“No, it’s not what you’d expect.”
“Your hair?” I offered. He had nice hair.
“Nope. Give up? My neck.”
“Yeah, isn’t that strange? My neck. Of all things. She said my neck was sexy.” He shook his head atop that irresistible neck.
It was the next morning, and Rami was treating us to breakfast at a hilltop restaurant owned by a friend of his…
On p. 46:
Baarafish means ‘I don’t know’ and Maa al salaama means ‘Good-bye.’ Al yom means ‘today,’ bukra means ‘tomorrow.’ Tisbah ala khair means ‘Good night’ and Sabah al khair is ‘Good morning.’ If someone bids you good morning, the proper response is Sabah al noor, or ‘Morning of light.’
On p. 47:
Amjad went in and grabbed one of his engineering textbooks, which was in English. Dan seemed surprised. Amjad explained, “Yes, we have to study many things in English because we don’t always have textbooks in Arabic for them.”
On p. 48:
As we were driving out of the West Bank, I said, “So, what did you think?”
Dan just looked at me, eyebrows raised.
“Come on, what did you expect?” I asked teasingly. “A bunch of bearded masked maniacs with a Kalashnikov in each hand just waiting for you to cross the Green Line so they could shoot you?”
He laughed. “Yeah, pretty much.” I laughed, too, because I’d halfway suspected the same thing not long before. We felt almost giddy. How little we knew!
P.S. For more olive harvest stories (and pictures), see the post called “Olives and Rabbis” from my visit to Palestine in 2009.
You can click here to read a Brief History of the Conflict (from the first Zionist congress to the second Intifada), written by me but left out of the book to save space.
To learn more about the book (Fast Times in Palestine), click here.