|Pamela Olson's book|
You probably heard about this book long before I did, but just in case it's new to you, please, please read it.
I've spent twenty of the last 24 hours in airports and on airplanes, and during many of those hours I had the bittersweet pleasure of Pamela J. Olson's company in the form of this book. All of my own visits to Israel and the West Bank added up, maybe, to six weeks, whereas she spent two years there. Still, I had enough experiences while in and around Ramallah (and also seven years of participating in the administration of the Ramallah Friends Schools through my job at Friends United Meeting) to be able to look you in the eye and promise you that, in describing life in Palestine, she is not exaggerating. It's that good--the extraordinary hospitality, the amazing food, the humor and affection and perseverance, the sudden unveiling of rolling vistas that seem far bigger than should be possible in such a tiny land). It's that bad--Olson covers perfectly the soul-crushing progression of the occupation/colonization's daily disasters, tragedies, and indignities, each one inviting you to think, "I didn't think it could get any worse, but I was wrong."
The first time Pamela Olson went to Middle East she was more or less a tourist, traveling and exploring in a sort of Brownian motion, bounced forward in ever-widening circles through her capacity to find friends (and meals and a bit of foam mattress to sleep on) just about everywhere she set foot. And it's this chain of relationships that raises this book far above more analytical approaches to the intractable conflicts of the region. Not that she's incapable of analysis; she provides thoughtful commentary in the book and related resources on her Web site, but she doesn't let this commentary gum up her perpetual-motion personality.
The relationships driving the dialogue and emotional growth of this book are not just with the Palestinian activists with whom she might feel political affinity. International NGO workers, and Jewish allies also occupy her stage, but so do the parents and grandparents of these activists, the little children in their communities, the farmers, the village mayors, and--over and over again--the ancient and dignified olive trees. She finally convinces her own parents to visit her, and so we get a capsule-sized version of her own joys and tears as they follow her around.
Olson's episodic and energetic approach allows the reader to share her experiences with pacing and randomness of real life, both its high points and its low points. There are plenty of funny moments, heartwarming encounters, and strange insights. For example, I remember a lively visit to a Christian-owned restaurant and night club during a Muslim holiday period, so I know exactly how Olson feels when she says, "I wished I could explain how funny it was, coming from the Bible Belt of America, to be in a country where Christians are considered the licentious ones."
But, inevitably, she can't help but describe Palestinians' disproportionate death toll in the clashes with Israel--not just the "collateral damage" of large-scale military operations, but also sniper fire from settlers, and medical treatment fatally delayed at a checkpoint. Equally horrifying are the petty (and sometimes not so petty) acts of gratuitous violence and humiliation that blight the lives of young Palestinians. The apartheid represented by the Wall, the checkpoints, the special license plates, destruction of olive trees, and other "security" arrangements gradually reveal their true purpose: In the minds of some politicians and their supporters, these policies are part of deliberate plans to squeeze the Palestinians out of their remaining land.
If security were honestly the sole priority that some Israeli leaders claim, and government policies and actions were truly organized around this specific priority, there would be no necessity to treat a whole people with such systematic and searing contempt. Good police work doesn't require bullying innocent people and taking their land and water and limiting their freedom to isolated reservations that can be invaded or bombed at any time--and any country that respects the impartial rule of law knows this. These daily humiliations witnessed by Olson, by me, and by so many others--financed in part by U.S. taxpayers' money--could end the moment when a significant number of people stop living in complacent ignorance, or pretending they don't see and hear, and begin to require accountability of the Israeli leaders--and, for that matter, the Palestinian leaders as well. This book is important because it doesn't simply wheel out the good old creaky machine of polarized vituperation; instead, we see a young woman simply trying to make sense of what she sees around her, and asking questions. They're the questions we should be asking, too.
And while we're asking those questions together, we can also enjoy Olson's delightful and generous character sketches, her passionate arguments against cynicism, and her long list of recommended Ramallah restaurants and coffeehouses. While defending life, Olson doesn't forget to live.
I came back home to Elektrostal this evening. I could hear the cats distress calls through the door. As I opened it, I thought I heard someone taking a shower. It's not implausible; three friends have keys to our apartment, and 'tis the season for hot water outages. But as I walked in, I was soon ankle-deep in water. A hose had broken in the toilet room and water was everywhere, even blocking the cats' paths to their food. I rushed to turn off the cold water and moved the cats' essential services to higher ground, and then spent much of the next six hours trying to mop up the floor and repair the leak. (The latter without success.) At last I've experienced one of the legendary disasters of the Russian renter. But we live on the first floor, so our disaster doesn't have to be someone else's as well.
To make matters worse, as I looked for dry socks in my suitcase, I found that a container of molasses had leaked all over my clothing--at the very moment when water for running the washing machine was unavailable! How could this have happened?--I had seen Judy's thorough packing job for this gift, but then all became clear as I looked closer at the soggy mess and saw "Transportation Safety Administration" tape all over the container, along with a note stating that my luggage had been selected for inspection.
I was tempted to post photos, but it wouldn't be terribly edifying. Instead, just imagine cats sending out distress calls.
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