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Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Arafat’s Funeral.” It was the fall olive harvest season in 2004 and Yasser Arafat had just died. I was on holiday in Jayyous picking olives, happy for a brief escape from my journalistic duties, when a dear friend found me and told me some bad news.

Omar’s Story

I was harvesting with Qais’s family the next day when Ali found me.

“Ya Bam,” he said with a grave, apologetic look. “I would not ask you for this, but I think there is no other way.”

This didn’t sound good at all. “What’s up?”

He sighed. “There is a farmer’s son from here in Jayyous named Omar. A few days ago, when Arafat died, some of the shebab [youth] were burning tires at the south gate of the Wall as a demonstration. Omar’s father was on the land, and Omar went to the gate to wait for him. When the soldiers came, the shebab started throwing stones at them. I don’t know if Omar was throwing stones or just waiting. Anyway, the soldiers came through the gate with their guns, and Omar ran away with the others. A soldier shot him twice in the back.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. “My God.”

“Yes, and then they took him away to a hospital in Israel. We called and found the hospital he is in. It is in Kfar Saba. He is OK, he is alive, but he has had many surgeries. When we call the hospital, they are very rude and won’t tell us anything more. His parents are going crazy. They want to visit him, but the hospital says they cannot get a permit to visit him unless they come to the hospital and take a paper that tells about his condition. So you see…”

“Yeah, there’s only one catch,” I said disgustedly. “Well, look, I can go to the hospital and get the paper.”

He sighed again. “Really, Bamila, I know this is a holiday for you, and we wouldn’t ask…”

“I know.”

I called Dan [an Israeli friend who lived in Kfar Saba] to see if he could pick me up in Jayyous and take me to Kfar Saba. I’d forgotten he had recently sold his car. He apologized and said he didn’t have time to borrow one, either.

So I got up early the next morning and made my way through Ramallah down to the Qalandia checkpoint, crossed on foot, took a minibus to East Jerusalem, caught a cab to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and caught another bus back up north to Kfar Saba. It was a journey of more than a hundred miles and six hours to get to a place less than five miles from Jayyous. It would have taken ten minutes if Dan had been able to pick me up on the settler road.

Finding the hospital in Kfar Saba took a bit of hunting, but once I found it, the task didn’t seem so daunting anymore. All I had to do was ask for a paper, say hello to the injured young man, and be on my way back to Jayyous in no time. It might even be one of those bridging-the-divide moments with the Israeli doctors, because what human being could fail to sympathize with a young man who’d been shot in the back, or a young American woman trying to help him? It was easy to be rude over the phone. In person, I was confident they would see us as human beings and treat us as such.

I found a receptionist and said, “I have a friend from the West Bank who’s been injured and is being treated here. I need to get a paper that explains about his condition so his parents can come and visit.”

She looked uncomfortable, as if she feared I might be mildly crazy or criminal. “You’ll have to talk to someone in administration,” she said. “I don’t handle these things.” She directed me to a small back office, where I found a dark-haired man in his forties and asked if he spoke English.

“Of course!” he said, widening his eyes as if the likes of me asking if he spoke English were the most preposterous indignity he’d suffered that day. I told him what I was here for.

He waved his hand dismissively and looked away. “We don’t give papers about West Bank people here. We’re not allowed. It’s like a secret that he’s here.”

I checked his voice for irony or humor and found none. “I’m sorry, what do you mean you don’t give papers about people being here? That’s why they sent me. I just need a paper that says he is here to give to the DCO [District Coordination Office] so we can get a permit for his parents to visit.”

He shook his head. “We don’t give out information like that. You have to call Dalia in Beit El. She’s in charge of these things, not me.”

Beit El was a settlement north of Ramallah. Palestinians had to go there sometimes to take care of administrative matters related to the occupation. I said, “If we could have done this from Beit El, I’m sure it would have been done already. But they sent me here physically to get a paper. All I need is a paper that says—”

He smiled mock-patiently, as if I were simple or slow, and interrupted me. “Listen very carefully. You aren’t the first person who has come here looking for information about these people, and you won’t be the last. We don’t give out papers. That’s it. Don’t ask anymore.”

I had a distinct feeling he was lying through his teeth. But what could I do?

“Can I visit him?” I asked weakly.

“What do I care?”

I left his office with my face flushed and my fists clenched. The way he said “these people” had sent hot chills down my spine. If I had eaten anything that day, I feel fairly confident I would have thrown it up.

At least I could visit Omar, so maybe the day wasn’t a total wash. I walked up to his floor, and the nurses pointed me down to the basement, where he was having a CT scan. I asked the receptionist at CT if she knew where I could find the boy I was looking for.

She looked at me blankly. “Maybe that’s him?” she said, pointing behind me.

I looked back. There was a good-looking blue-eyed young man with pale skin and curly brown hair in a gurney in the middle of the waiting room. He had an IV drip in his arm and seemed alert but tired. His eyes looked naturally sharp but dulled now, resigned to a casual bit of violence that would drastically affect the rest of his life — something simultaneously offhand and unthinkable. “Omar?” I asked.

He nodded, his expression alternating between wariness and polite confusion.

Suddenly I felt shy. He wasn’t expecting anyone, least of all a foreign girl he didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told him I was a friend of Ali’s in Jayyous. He nodded.

“Keef halek?” I asked. [How are you?]

He gave the traditional pleasantly noncommittal answer: “Hamdulillah.” [Thanks to God.]

My eyes widened. “W’Allah?” [Really?] How could he even say it?

He looked down at himself. “Zai shufik.” (As you see.)

I reported on this kind of thing daily at my job. This was actually mild compared to the things that made the news. Omar had survived, had no brain damage, was not in critical condition, and had not lost several limbs and/or family members. He was just in a hospital having surgeries and CT scans done far away from his family, not knowing how bad his prognosis was. This was nothing.

And yet it was overwhelming. So where did that leave all the other things I reported on, all the bloody and senseless things I didn’t have to see for myself?

I swallowed hard and asked who else he knew in Jayyous. He named some names. I asked how old he was, and he said twenty. I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t know the Arabic for words like ‘prognosis’ or ‘paralysis.’ He made the Middle Eastern hand gesture, palm up and fingers pinched together, that meant, “Wait a moment.” He indicated that the doctor would be out soon and could translate for us.

When the doctor emerged, I introduced myself and asked if he spoke Arabic. He said yes.

“Would you mind translating a few things Omar might want me to tell his family?” I asked. “And can you explain to me about Omar’s condition?”

He looked at his watch. “I need to eat soon,” he said.

I smiled. “Yeah, me too.” It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was trying to highlight our shared humanity and gently suggest that this injured, helpless, isolated boy’s terrible predicament was slightly more important than lunch. He didn’t smile back.

“Wait fifteen minutes,” he said and wheeled Omar into the CT scan room. Fifteen minutes later, two orderlies wheeled him back out. The doctor had escaped out another door.

My ears burning from the latest rebuff, I followed Omar and the orderlies up to his room, where I found a pretty young nurse named Sofya from Netanya. I asked her about his condition.

She said brightly, “Well, his kidney is damaged and his spine is broken, and he can move one leg a little, but the other not at all.”

I steeled myself. “Will he ever walk again?”

She shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Mmm, I don’t think so, probably not.”

The room turned grey and looked sharper and further away as tears stung my eyes. For nothing he was in this state, no reason at all. Not just injured but paralyzed, handicapped, probably for life. And nobody cared. It was like a bad parody of man’s inhumanity to man.

I tried to keep my voice steady as I told the nurse what I was here for. She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. I asked if I could use the phone to call Ali in Jayyous. She allowed it.

When I heard Ali’s baritone voice, clear and reasonable and familiar and friendly in this sea of obtuse hostility, thick hot tears fell. I explained everything to him and gave the phone to Sofya so he could tell her exactly what we needed.

Ali was one of the most kind, diplomatic, and cool-headed people I had ever met, and I could tell he was getting further with Sofya than I had. She said she would try her best, but she didn’t sound very hopeful. She tried to call Dalia in Beit El, but there was no answer.

Sofya shrugged. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?”

It wasn’t clear how anything would be different tomorrow, and my desire to get back to Jayyous as soon as possible, among friends and olives and kindness, was so visceral it was painful. So I went on the trail of the paper again. After another hour of hunting and asking and negotiating, Sofya finally conceded that the paper could be issued here after all.

“But the doctor who does these things is busy today,” Sofya said apologetically. “Maybe she can do it tomorrow.”

“She can’t possibly do it today?”

“No, I’m sorry, she is receiving many children today, and she is the only one who can receive them. She is very busy.”

“How long does it take to make the paper?”

“I don’t know, about fifteen minutes.”

“She can’t spare fifteen minutes? It would help a lot of people so much.”

“I’m sorry.”

I’d learned an important lesson in Russia: If something important is at stake and hostile bureaucracy is standing in your way, you have to make it harder for them to ignore you than to fulfill your simple request. Otherwise they’ll blow you off every time.

“Look, can I just talk to her real quick?”

Sofya narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Come with me.”

I followed her into a darkened office. The doctor was a tasteful-looking Russian blonde woman who sneered slightly when she saw me. She was alone in the room and looked rather bored. She wasn’t receiving any children. I tried to explain what I needed, but before I could finish my sentence she was tearing a piece of paper off a pad and writing a few words in Hebrew about his condition. She affixed an official label and stamped it and handed it to me.

“Thank you so much. Is this is all I need?”


I breathed a sigh of deep relief. A kind orderly helped me fax the paper to Dalia in Beit El, then Sofya gave me the phone to call Dalia and see if she got the fax. Dalia finally answered. She grudgingly admitted that she got the fax and everything was in order.

“So that’s it?” I asked. “Is that what you need to give his parents a permit?”

She paused, then said challengingly, “We don’t know how long he will be there.”

I couldn’t believe it. She was acting like this was some kind of game and she was still trying to win. “His spine is broken,” I said evenly. “He is not going anywhere.”

Another pause, then testily, “I can give you three days. OK?”

“Perfect. Thank you very much.”

Back in Omar’s room, Sofya gave me the phone again and allowed me to dial Omar’s parents in Jayyous. Omar was so weak he could barely handle the phone, but he talked to his family for the first time and told them about his condition.

I’d been on the other end of the phone several times, in the family’s home when they were talking to a relative in an Israeli jail or in some faraway hospital. People always tried to act as cheerful as possible so as not to upset each other. The mother didn’t want her son to think about how she’d been sick with crying. The son didn’t want his mother to know he’d been lonely, injured, ill, humiliated, terrified, starving.

After Omar hung up, he touched my arm and pulled his shirt up. The surgery scar was immense, from his heart down past his waistband. He put his shirt down and pointed to a spot on one of his swollen legs, and I touched it. He shook his head, and tears welled slightly in his otherwise impassive young face. He couldn’t feel it.

It was time for me to go soon. Dan had agreed to pick me up and take me back to Jayyous in a borrowed van. I shook Omar’s hand and held it for a while as I met his pale blue eyes with mine. There was nothing to say. We were fundamentally no different from each other, yet he knew as well as I did that I would never have to come to terms with a misfortune anywhere near as incomprehensible as his. Something horrific might happen to me, but I probably wouldn’t be shot for no reason, and I certainly wouldn’t then be transferred to a foreign country and held captive by people whose indifference was somehow worse, more degrading, than cruelty.

I left the hospital in a daze. After walking a few steps in the fresh air, I ducked behind a column and sank to the ground and wept.

When Dan arrived, I mostly stayed quiet and felt terrible that I couldn’t bring myself to act happy to see him, or to express how grateful I was that he was taking me back to Jayyous. All I wanted, desperately, was to get back to the olive groves and to my friends in Jayyous who understood how I felt without words.

Dan and I had kept in touch over the phone, but I hadn’t seen him since he sold his car. Getting from Ramallah to Kfar Saba on public transportation was such an ordeal, and we were both so busy with work and life. Whenever I did see or talk to him, something horrible had usually just happened and I was depressed about it. I hated for him to always see me like this. Even though Dan was sitting right next to me, I missed him.

As we entered the West Bank on a settler road, I caught sight of the thirty-foot concrete Wall that encircled Qalqilia. Forty thousand people in a cage at the dawn of the twenty-first century. “Look at that!” I exploded stupidly, rising out of my seat and banging my head on the roof of the van.

“I know,” Dan said numbly. “I can’t believe it. It’s like some movie about South Africa or something. And it’s happening right here.”

My Boss Decides to Run for President

Dr. Barghouthi called an emergency meeting a few days after the Eid holidays were over. I was annoyed because I already had my evening planned. I was going to Beit Sini (China House) on Main Street to get some Kung Pao chicken, then I was going to go home and curl up around some hot cocoa and watch a mindless Angelina Jolie action movie on MBC2 in my pajamas. For two restful, thoughtless, soft, warm hours, I could forget about everything else.

Except now I had to sit through this meeting that probably had nothing to do with me. I desperately hoped it wouldn’t go on too long.

We gathered around the big wooden table in the conference room. As soon as we were seated and quiet, Dr. Barghouthi dropped the bombshell:

“So, I have decided to run for President against Mahmoud Abbas.”

That perked me up, but I still didn’t see what it had to do with me. I was sure he could run for President even if I was at home eating Chinese take-out.

As I surreptitiously glanced at the clock on my cell phone (it was already after six, and the movie started at seven), I heard him say he’d need someone to volunteer to be his foreign press coordinator. Whoever that unlucky person was would have to stay in the office tonight and compile, organize, and prioritize the contact information for all the foreign correspondents in Israel/Palestine. He or she would then represent Dr. Barghouthi to all the world’s press for the next two months, traveling, taking calls, helping organize press conferences, and writing press releases in addition to all the responsibilities of their usual job.

He said, “The election will be in early January, so we have less than two months to consult with our constituencies, prepare offices, organize supporters, design and distribute campaign materials, and many other things. Time is of the essence.”

Suddenly I had a sinking feeling. No one was looking at me, but everyone knew the other foreigners in the office would be jetting off to England or Spain or Australia for the Christmas holidays. I would be the only native English speaker left.

Slowly, through my hazy, unhappy sense of duty, something else began to filter through my thick head: My boss was running for President. And I was being offered a front-row seat. Was I simple?

I took a deep breath and braced myself. “I can do it.”

For more information about my book, Fast Times in Palestine, see my website.

Chapter Four is entitled Ramallah — Palestine has its own beer? The beer was one of the many surprises that greeted me when I moved to Ramallah, sight unseen, in the summer of 2004.

In this chapter, the book is still in ‘travelogue’ mode. Most books on the Middle East either start shallow and stay shallow, or start so deep most Americans get lost before they begin. Mine starts at zero and ramps the reader up to a wide-angle and sophisticated understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Once the reader has a good sense of the local flavor and the situation on the ground, I begin to transition into narrative journalism. Extensive footnotes from respected sources generalize the specific stories told.

Here’s a section from Chapter Four called “Sangria’s.” It was one of my first nights in Ramallah. Muzna was one of my coworkers. She’s still a good friend today.

Here’s the excerpt:


One day after work, Muzna invited me and a couple of other coworkers to join her for drinks at a place called Sangria’s. We walked to Al Manara and turned right toward another traffic circle called Duwar al Saa’a, the Clock Circle. There had apparently been a clock in the circle at some point in time, but now there was only a white stone column rising from a fenced-in circle of shrubbery. A massive candy shop, shawerma stands, office buildings, and trees surrounded the unmarked monument. One of the buildings had a cartoonishly large pair of glasses on the side that advertised an eye clinic.

We turned right again and walked downhill on a street I’d never been down before. The view opened up to the hills, valleys, trees, and white stone houses on that end of town. We soon arrived at a row of elegant old buildings made of tawny hand-cut stone. The one we turned into was unmarked except for a small wooden sign that had ‘Sangria’s’ carved into it.

Inside, an empty foyer led to an outdoor corridor that opened onto the most enchanting beer garden I had ever seen, built on a grassy hillside and enclosed by stone walls overhung with flowering vines. The tables on the upper terraces were shaded by large canvas umbrellas, and the lower tables sat under leafy trees hung with strings of lights. A grass hut in the center served as a bar. Waiters were busy distributing olive oil candles to each table under a clear, darkening sky. The crowd was young and stylish, the women dressed in club clothes, with almost no headscarves in sight. It was the last thing I expected to see in Ramallah.

We found a table and I asked our waiter for Turkish coffee and a nargila [hookah]. Everyone else ordered a beer called Taybeh.

“Where’s the beer from?” I asked once the beers had arrived.

“From here,” Muzna said. “Taybeh is a Christian village not far from Ramallah. They have a brewery there.”

“Really?” I was surprised again. I had assumed it was foreign, or possibly Israeli. “Can I try yours?” She handed over her frosty longneck, and I took a sip. It was medium-bodied, refreshing, with just the right amount of hops.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a good beer.” Muzna smiled.

Just then a goofy Happy Birthday song came on over the loudspeakers at ear-splitting volume in Egyptian-accented Arabic. Two waiters emerged carrying cakes with giant sparklers spewing fire out the top. The birthday party had ordered enough cake for everyone on the patio, and after the birthday girl made her wish and the sparklers burned themselves out, the waiters handed out pieces of it.

I happily accepted a plate, but when Muzna was offered one, she shook her head and said, “La, shukran.” (No, thanks.)

The waiter raised his eyebrows and asked chidingly, “Leish?” (Why?)

I laughed out loud. It was good to be back in the Arab world.




You can get Carlsberg or Heineken, too. Or Sex on the Beach or a Black Russian.


As promised, in honor of the fall olive harvest, I’m posting an excerpt from Chapter 2, when I harvested olives for the first time in October 2003.

Before you read, you might want to take a look at the book’s website to see what the book is about and how this section fits into the general scheme. You might also want to see my previous post, which offers maps, pictures, and comics that serve as a geographic primer on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In Chapter One I graduated from college, bartended and traveled for a while, and landed rather randomly in a village in the West Bank called Jayyous in the company of two men, a British Muslim named Yusif and a Canadian paramedic named Sebastian. During my first night in Jayyous, I was nervous to be in a place where I had no idea what was going on, but my fears were quickly dispelled by the kindness, hospitality, and sense of humor of the people I met. I was invited to stay the night with the mayor’s son’s family, and the next morning I joined them for the olive harvest.

NOTE: You can read the first part of Chapter 2 here and the second part of Chapter 2 here.

Now for the excerpt:

The Wall

The next morning we all got up early and headed out to the land. It was late October and the olive harvest was in full swing. I tagged along to help out, hoping to earn my keep for once. My karmic balance sheet was getting embarrassingly overdrawn.

Jayyous is built on a hilltop, and the land below it undulates and gradually flattens out until it meets the coastal plains of central Israel and the Mediterranean Sea fifteen miles to the west. We caravanned down the hill in donkey carts and tractors and on foot, excited for a long, fun day in the groves.

But our procession was stopped short at the bottom of the hill by a 20-foot-high chain-link Fence topped with razor wire. Two smoothly-paved access roads flanked the Fence. The land on either side of the roads was blasted bare. The whole 200-foot-wide structure was bounded by trenches and six-foot pyramid-shaped piles of razor wire. This massive ribbon of metal, concrete, and emptiness snaked through the Biblical hills in jarring contrast to the ancient aesthetic. A bright red sign said in Hebrew, English, and Arabic: “MORTAL DANGER – MILITARY ZONE. Anyone who passes or damages the Fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”

I was shocked to be confronted by such an aggressive-looking structure on a peaceful olive harvest morning. Everyone else gathered patiently around the locked gate and found places to sit in the warm, dusty morning. I swallowed my fear and followed suit.

I noticed that one of the donkey carts had ‘AGAINST TERRORISM’ scrawled in white paint across the back. I heard a boy point to the donkey cart and say something about simsim.

“Simsim?” I asked, and pointed toward the donkey cart. The boy hesitated, then nodded. “So simsim means ‘donkey’?” I envisioned myself learning Arabic one word at a time and slowly developing a native command, like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.

The boy looked at me blankly. One of his friends whispered something, and all the other boys burst into laughter. Seeing my bewildered look, Yusif whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “I think Simsim is the nickname of the boy in the cart.”

I looked at Simsim and winced apologetically. He smiled and shook his head.

I passed time with another group of kids by drawing on the back of an old envelope. They wrote a little English for me, and I wrote a little Arabic. I spelled my name ‘Bamila’ since there was no ‘P’ in Arabic, and ‘Bam’ sounded too much like ‘bomb.’

After nearly an hour of waiting, I caught Yusif’s eye. “How much of Jayyous’s land is on the other side of that Fence?”

“Most of it,” he said. “About seventy-five percent. More than ten square kilometers.”

“Seventy-five percent?”

“Yeah, you can see. The Fence goes right up next to the village. There are places where it’s just a few meters from people’s houses.”

“Where’s the border between the West Bank and Israel?”

“About four kilometers that way.”

I squinted through the Fence in confusion. “Why would Israel build a Fence here instead of on the border?”

“They say they’re building it to stop suicide bombers. But hundreds of Palestinians cross the Green Line every day to work illegally in Israel. If a bomber wants to get through, he can. If he doesn’t, the next one will. If there’s a decrease in bombers, it’s not because of the Wall.”

“So why the Wall, and why this route?”

He sighed as if he had been through this many times. “Jayyous has some of the most fertile land in the West Bank. They’ve got something like fifteen thousand olive trees, 50,000 fruit and citrus trees, mangoes, avocadoes, almonds, apricots, more than a hundred greenhouses, and six good water wells. Also, Jayyous sits near Israel’s narrowest point. There’s only about twenty kilometers between the Green Line and the sea right here.”

My eyes narrowed. “So what, you’re saying Israel is trying to take Jayyous’s land?”

He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, look, once we get through the Fence, there’s nothing stopping us from marching directly to Tel Aviv. You tell me what sense that makes.”

I couldn’t think of any. “How much land was destroyed to build the Wall? The scar looks enormous.”

“Yeah, it was a lot. About 2,500 olive trees were destroyed.”

“Did anybody get compensation?”

“No. Even when Israel offers compensation, no one takes it. It’s never anywhere near the value of what was lost, and it makes it look like a transaction instead of what it is. It would be an insult to accept that, and it’s considered treason if you do.”

“Has anyone tried to climb over the Wall or tear it down?”

“Electronic sensors can call an army Jeep to investigate any possible breach in minutes. And they’ve been known to shoot people on sight.”

A chill went down my spine. I looked at the Fence, at the villagers gathered around it, and then back at Yusif. It all sounded so insane. There had to be more to this than he was telling me. I had called Dan, the Russian-Israeli I’d met in the Sinai, as soon as I knew I’d be visiting Israel. We were due to meet at the end of the week. I was glad of that.

“Are they going to let us through today?” I asked.


“What happens if they don’t?”

“As you see. We wait.”

View of Jayyous’ land from Jayyous. You can see the Wall along the bottom right and snaking toward the center. Nearly everything in the frame is Jayyous land isolated from its owners.

Olive Rain

Two hours later, around 10:30am, when the day was getting good and hot, an armored Jeep turned on its engine and kicked up dust as it powered up to the army access road next to the Fence. It had apparently been sitting two hundred yards from us the entire time, hidden by a rise in the land. Two young Israeli soldiers with flak jackets and helmets and M-16 assault rifles got out and opened the gates. We passed single file as our documents were examined. Most of us seemed to get through.

The party that had been postponed at the gate resumed as we forgot all about the Fence and set about the day’s business. Rows of olive trees were evenly spaced on gently rolling hills, hemmed in beautifully by white stone retainer walls that curved in harmony with the natural topography. Their leaves were green on one side, silvery on the other, and the olives faded from bright green to dark purple. A fine chalky dust saturated the trees, muting the colors to sea foam green and deep lavender. When the wind rustled the leaves, the trees seemed to shimmer.

People began whacking at the trees with wooden sticks to knock the olives onto tarps spread out below. I watched until I thought I had an idea of what to do. After a while, I noticed Yusif looking at me funny. I asked if I was doing something wrong.

“Well, you’re not supposed to whack it quite so… randomly. It takes some amount of finesse to be gentle to the trees and still get the olives.”

I paid closer attention and soon developed a halfway-decent olive whack.

I noticed a guy around twenty years old with a t-shirt over his head to keep the sun off his face. Yusif said he was the mayor’s youngest son Mohammad. He was the most energetic and charismatic of the cheerful harvesters. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we could only say “Marhaba!” (Hi!) whenever we ran into each other. But his enormous brown eyes exuded such intense and benevolent interest in everything and everyone around him, I started calling him Mohammad the Charmer in my mind.

The fact that his lack of English skills was an exception drove home how many people in this tiny town spoke English as a second language. Jayyous was the same size as my home town, about 3,000 people. But in Stigler, Oklahoma, even the high school Spanish teacher didn’t really speak Spanish.

Welcome jugs of ice-cold water under the trees

I got thirsty after a while and went looking for water. Along the way I ran into Azhar, the mayor’s dark-eyed youngest daughter, an ethereally beautiful and unnervingly self-possessed eleven-year-old whose name means ‘flower’ in Arabic. She was peeling a clementine (kalamentina in Arabic). When she finished peeling it, she offered half to me.

Shukran,” I thanked her in Arabic. She smiled.

Azhar’s half of the clementine was halfway to her mouth when Sebastian wandered by also looking for water. Instead of eating it, she offered it to him.

Shukran,” he said.

I blinked in disbelief. Sebastian and I weren’t just strangers—we were foreigners who hadn’t even bothered to learn much of her language before visiting her country. She had every right in the world to be suspicious of us. Instead she was giving us her food without a second thought. I couldn’t help but think I’d been an ogre as a child compared to her. I wouldn’t even give my little sister half of anything unless someone forced me to.

When I got tired of whacking, I climbed the trees and combed olives from their shaded inner branches using a hand-held plastic rake. The tallest trees didn’t stand much more than fifteen feet high, but within each compact canopy was a vast and unique treasury of olives and leaves and sunlight and space.

Olive branches have long been symbols for power, beauty, prestige, peace, and plenty, and it was easy to see why. Olives can be used for oil, pickling, lotion, soap, even fuel. Some of these trees were older than the Renaissance, and combing their willow-like branches felt like a sacrament. Wild herbs and brambles flourished at their feet, and the leaves shimmering softly over acres and acres seemed too diffusely beautiful for this world.

At one point I noticed a lizard high in a tree looking at me curiously. I picked it up and held it in my hand, and it shifted to a slightly paler hue—a chameleon! I jumped out of the tree to show it to Azhar. I moved a black olive toward the frightened animal’s open mouth to see if it would flick its long tongue out or turn black or something. Before I could find out, Azhar stilled my arm. She clucked her tongue, shook her head, and said gently, “Haraam.”

Yusif had told me haraam meant something forbidden by the laws of Islam, or any basically sinful or indecent thing. Harassing a helpless creature apparently qualified in Azhar’s mind. I nodded, tossed the olive away, and let the chameleon go on a white stone wall.

Once a tree was done, people would gather up the tarps, consolidate the fallen olives, twigs, and leaves into a pile, and remove the twigs by hand. The prettiest green olives were put in buckets for pickling and the rest would be bagged up, sorted from the leaves in town, and turned into olive oil in Jayyous’s Italian olive press. It was nice to sit after standing for so long, and often we would get so deep into a conversation, we’d have the pile clean as a whistle and still be picking at specks and talking away. Eventually someone would come over with an empty grain sack, and we’d scoop them in and break it up and move on.

Always there was the soft, heavy patter of olives landing on tarps all around, a rich olive rain. It was a pregnant sound that promised good things, not the least of which was this day, chatting and whacking and picking under a clear blue sky.

It was a welcome relief when breakfast was called. Hot and hungry, we gathered around a tarp loaded down with bread and jam, hummus and pickled olives from past harvests, home-made falafel and crumbly white cheese, tomatoes and fresh yogurt and halaweh (a confection made from sesame paste). Some of the younger kids, packs of nieces and nephews and cousins, ran around shrieking and laughing and throwing olives at each other. It reminded me of the golden days in Stigler when my cousins and I used to climb trees and pick mulberries, gather eggs and shell peas, chase cows and play by the creek on my grandfather’s land.

As I was drinking my tea after the meal, I glanced up at Jayyous perched on its hilltop. Its white houses contrasted beautifully with the dark pine trees in the village, the shimmering olive groves surrounding it, and the powder-blue sky. I remembered seeing similar scenes in Renaissance paintings when I was a kid and wondering if places like that still existed.

It struck me all of a sudden that this wasn’t merely an interesting conflict zone. In many ways, Jayyous was an enviable place to call home.


After several more hours of picking, a delightful late lunch, and a last batch of olives loaded into sacks and hauled onto a waiting truck, we headed toward home.

After the day’s gaiety, I wasn’t prepared for what awaited us. The Fence was closed and locked. No soldier was manning it. Once again we had no choice but to put down our supplies, gather around the gate, and wait. An old woman in a white headscarf glanced up at the most devastated of Jayyous’s once-productive hillsides. Her eyes followed the Fence and its clear-cut and bulldozed perimeter, a huge area that used to be home and now meant a threat of death to any Palestinian who dared approach. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the piles of razor wire surrounding the structure, which were designed to corral not goats or sheep but human beings.

Haraam!” she exploded suddenly and shook her fist at it. “Haraam!”

Another old woman patted her on the shoulder. She looked down feebly and shook her head.

The entire hillside on the right — which used to be someone’s olive grove — was dynamited, bulldozed, and stripped of trees for the Wall and its army access road

This map shows how the Wall was built deep inside Palestinian territory to isolate most of Jayyous’ land from the village

An hour later it was time for the evening prayer. There was still no sign of anyone to let us back home. The men laid a tarp down on a rocky ledge. One man led the prayer while the others prayed in their jeans and dusty work shoes, silhouetted against a lovely setting sun. Another man went off by himself to pray next to a pile of razor wire. As I watched him pray solemnly, imprisoned and humiliated on his own land, I felt something I’d never felt before, as if I’d been kicked in the stomach by my best friend.

It was nearly dark when the soldiers finally arrived. As the once-merry villagers lined up somberly, making sure to behave while the young Israeli soldiers questioned them, checked their documents, and waved them uncaringly through, my shoulders bowed and my head ducked. A horrified weight of sorrow settled on my heart. I felt like I couldn’t bear to watch this awful scene, to quietly accept it. But there was nothing I could do.

After a few moments, it dawned on me that I was wrong. There was something I could do, even if it was a very small thing. I leveled my head. I straightened my shoulders. If nothing else, I could at least try to face this situation with as much honesty and dignity as I could muster.

With that I realized something else. I had always assumed, watching scenes like this on the news, that the people who bore such things must either not quite care about life as much as I did, or they must have some kind of supernatural coping mechanism I couldn’t begin to imagine. Because if anything like this happened to me, I assumed I would utterly fall apart.

Now I felt ridiculous for ever imagining such a thing. Here I was, and unendurable things were happening right in front of me to people who were no different from me at all. And they were bearing the situation with dignity not because they didn’t care or because they were saints. They simply had no other options except being miserable, which wouldn’t help anything, or resisting. And this was a point in time when resistance was probably futile.

Instead of feeling destroyed, I felt energized by a clarity of purpose I’d never felt before. This particular aspect of the global situation was no longer a blank horror. It was merely an extremely difficult series of challenges whose basic units were human beings. Surely enough people of good will could find a way to resolve them, and maybe after I learned a great deal more I could find a way to help. Either way, if the people of Jayyous could go through this every day and still go home and joke around on the porch—and apparently I could, too, because what else was I going to do, sit around and mope?—I wondered what else I might be able to bear that I never imagined I could.

Of course, I had no idea then how bad things could get. Still, it was strange and paradoxical that after witnessing something so awful, the world seemed less blindly terrifying. It was empowering to realize I could go into the world and learn things for myself that no professor could teach — that most probably didn’t even know.

NOTE: You can read the fourth and final part of Chapter 2 here.


You can view the book’s website here and Amazon page here.

You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.



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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