Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh, No! Bagger Befriends Cashier. You Need a Whip to Teach People a Lesson After Something Like This Happens

The following is an exercise in open plagiarism. Even the title above is taken from the text of the article as it appears in the Tuesday, July 26, 2011 issue of the Israeli paper,Haaretz, and on its website at the following link:
Someone posted the comment: “It's really a pity that this kind of news doesn't get into the US media.” Upon reading that, I decided to take up the challenge. The article was featured on the first page of the English version of the respected Haaretz Paper as another news item with no editorial comment or fanfare and the reporter’s tone lacked any sense of bafflement or condemnation. To give the piece the right ring I decided to alter the setting to one more familiar to US citizens who are not that involved in Middle East politics. I reverted to my limited acquaintance with Hawaii and the continuing struggle of Native Hawaiians against racism and the theft of their land. I realize that the simile would be even more striking if I were to choose the Navajos for example. But I know little about that nation. So bear with me please and imagine reading the following in the Tuesday, July 26, 2011 issue of the Honolulu Star Bulletin. At the end I appended a list of the terms that I have changed:

American grocery store keeps Hawaiian baggers and white cashiers apart
It appears that RL chain has given in to a demand from local pastors at Nanakuli branch, in wake of romance between a Hawaiian bagger and White cashier.

In an effort to prevent fraternizing between the Hawaiian packers and the female White cashiers, baggers are no longer working at the checkout counters most of the week. An exception was made for the Wednesday and Thursday night shifts, when the checkout counters are so busy that there is little opportunity for conversation.
The decision followed a storm that arose in the Nanakuli White-only suburbs after it was reported that a local (White) girl working as a cashier had become romantically involved with one of the Hawaiian baggers.
Workers at the supermarket and a leading local pastor say the Hawaiian worker was fired, but RL denies that, saying, “He’s gone off to California. When he returns, we’ll see.” The cashier quit on her own.
Ever since RL Marketing opened its Nanakuli branch, it has been a source of local controversy. It is located near a gas station and not within a white only suburb, making it possible for Whites and Polynesian shoppers to mingle freely. Most of the workers are Hawaiians from the area, who handle deliveries, bag groceries and stack shelves. The cashiers are mostly young women from the Whites-only suburbs.
While there have been periodic media reports lauding the supermarket as an island of Hawaiian-White coexistence, right-wing groups and some locals have issued calls to boycott it, saying it was leading to inter-religious relationships. These campaigns did not fare well. In fact, the supermarket has been so crowded that small grocers in the area’s communities have started to fear for their business.
Over the past two weeks, however, after reports of the cashier-packer affair spread, Pastor GP, the pastor of a neighboring Whites-only suburb, met with chain owner RL and demanded that he take action to prevent a recurrence.
“There was an affair between a cashier and a bagger that nearly resulted in her leaving home,” GP told our paper. “There was a plan to take her to his village.
“I was asked to talk to RL and his staff about the problem, and told them that one of the things we had feared when the store opened a year ago was exactly this.
“I’m pleased by the steps RL has taken. The Hawaiians don’t particularly like this [interreligious relationships] either, and it seems that RL understands the problem. The worker was fired and will not return. You need a whip to teach people a lesson after something like this happens.”
RL denies the worker was fired. He declared himself “against assimilation” and insisted that “there was suspicion of an affair. There was no affair. These extremist groups keep getting involved and making everybody crazy. “This is the ‘peace supermarket,’ he said. “Extremist Hawaiians and Whites don’t like it.”

Changes made from the original article:
Israeli to American
Palestinian to Hawaiian
Jewish to White
Chaim Levinston to CL
Rami Levi to RL
Gush Etzion to Nanakuli
Rabbi to pastor
Settlements to Whites-only suburbs
Jordan to California
Rami Levi Shivuk Hashikma to RL Marketing
Arab to Polynesian
Settler to White
Gideon Perl to GP
Alon Shvut to a neighboring Whites-only suburb
Haaretz to our paper

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Olive Conversion

The Olive Conversion
Review of Pamela Olson’s “Fast Times in Palestine,” Mason Hill Press, New York, 2011

Right after glancing at the first page, I knew I fancied this book and envied its author. For a few years now I have been struggling with the urge to write an account of life in my community that would attract readers not because of its subject matter or politics but because of its style and plot. It would be read for pleasure and inform incidentally. Right away I realized Pamela Olson had done exactly that. The first blurb on the first page said it: “The result is a moving, inspiring account of life in Palestine that’s enormously informative yet reads like a novel.”

Yet, as I speed-read through the enchanted account of Olson’s year and a half in Palestine, I realized that my scheme was easier dreamt than implemented: In Ramallah she adopts and adapts to Journalism as a default profession, and on a couple of occasions she lapses into pure journalistic and political discourse, such as when she reports on the results of the presidential elections, on the issue of East Jerusalem or on her visit to a settlement. But then, how else does one convey the reality of the wicked injustices committed in connivance with the misinformed Western public? Olson gives an early inkling of what she was up against (p. 66):

“I got my first clue when I began talking with friends about what I had seen. Some were skeptical, which was understandable. Others refused to believe things I have seen with my own eyes. Several, who had never been anywhere near the Middle East, informed me that I was na├»ve and I must have been brainwashed. More than one made vicious generalizations about Arabs and Muslims that they would never dare make about any other race or religion. It was so bizarre to see friends turn into different people around this issue, I almost began to question my own sanity.”

As a young American college graduate, Olson had shared the usual media-inspired preconceived ideas (p. 3):

“I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic, bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it.”

Fortunately, eventually she found herself in the West Bank village of Jayyous through a combination of curiosity, adventurism and sheer luck. Like Rachel Corrie shortly before her [Let Me Stand Alone, Norton, New York, 2008], Anna Baltzer at about the same time [Witness In Palestine, Paradigm, Boulder, Co, 2007], and scores of unpublished international activists before and since, she was in the throes of her private search for meaning in life. “That spark I’d had as a kid, the passion for learning about the world through my own senses, was reigniting,” as she puts it (p. 96.)

That was when she discovered the ultimate contradiction of a people, oppressed and dehumanized through her own unwilling and unknowing connivance, extending extreme hospitality to her. This is the moment I will call Olson’s “olive-ahlan-wa-sahlan” conversion: a sudden realization that the Palestinians, victims of her own government’s policies, were not only human but also generous and welcoming beyond belief. “If you ask for directions, you get invited to dinner.” They took the wayward American tourist as one of their own, repeating their incessant welcoming mantra beseeching her to “Be at ease, like one of the family.”

As if to prove the point, they take her to pick olives in their fields, ravaged by the American-funded occupation and violated by Israel’s apartheid wall. Beyond the camaraderie of toiling together in the presence of the historic witness that each ancient olive tree stands for, the experience inspires a miraculous spiritual enlightenment of sorts: Not only are Palestinians generous (like most Middle Eastern natives are), they also display stunning resilience and lack of bitterness despite all their suffering, a kind of grace the author finds incredibly inspiring. Soon Olson begins to fall in love with this land into which she has stumbled (p. 118):

“The thought of olive oil literally flowing like water out of this land enchanted me beyond all reason. As we turned to walk home I was infused with a sensation I’d never felt before, a feeling of having arrived, of finding myself in just the right place on earth at exactly the right time. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Palestine, close to olive trees and white stone houses and Bible hills turning blue as the sun set over a sea we couldn’t walk to and touch without crossing walls and checkpoints. Life here was hard and lonely and confusing, but it was also full and exciting, cynical and funny, and often lovely beyond description. For the first time since I’d arrived in Ramallah I wasn’t looking forward or back anymore. I was just here, now, and happy.”

Or again (p. 165):

“We harvested each day until we couldn’t see anymore, then we would take tea and watch the last lights of sunset fade, chat or just think our thoughts while the stars broke out of the crystal sky one by one. In those moments, leaning against an ever-growing pile of ripe olives, breathing in the deep, rich subterranean scent of a hard day’s work, I felt completely content and at peace… On evenings like this, in a world like this, it seemed downright ungracious ever to despair. It was, after all, absurd to hate the slaughter and waste and hardship and destruction without acknowledging the flipside: that life was here, that the whole reason we hated waste and destruction was because we loved life and this world so much.”

Olson’s conversion was not purely of the intellectual or spiritual variety, however. She also met a handsome young Palestinian named Qais who, like her, had studied in Russia and spoke Russian, which served them, I imagine, as a means of illicit communication in conservative rural Palestine. Eventually, in her role as journalist and foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s bid for the presidency of the PNA, she befriended many Palestinian peers, including her “loud-mouthed Gaza Communist” roommate, as well as countless international volunteers and activists. She even ventured some cross-border visits with Israeli friends, which must have served as subconscious reality checks and occasional escapes to her more familiar former sociopolitical surroundings, the usual Western milieu. And more than once she tour-guided Jewish and/or Israeli friends, some not even all that liberal, on tours of Palestinian towns, villages, and refugee camps.

Before I commenced reading ‘Fast Times in Palestine,’ I had been emotionally immersed in the journals of Rachel Corrie. Now I missed Rachel’s intimate conversations with her parents in her emails home as she tried to explain to them what she was doing in Gaza. I was curious about the trickledown effect of Olson’s intense exposure to the lives of Palestinians under occupation on her next of kin. Just as the suspicion started sneaking into my mind that here we were dealing with a super-intelligent but rootless and freaky American kid on the loose, she revealed that she had been writing home regularly. She then gives a moving account of her parents’ experience on visiting her in the Holy Land, an experience best summed up with the line (p. 278):

“Good Lord,” Mom said. “How can this be happening over here and no one in America even know or care?”

And again (p. 280):

“Seeing a soldier arbitrarily deny my mother a glimpse of one of the wonders of the world on her once-in-a-lifetime vacation awakened a primal rage I didn’t realize I was capable of. For the first time I experienced the literal truth of ‘seeing red.’ I started yelling at the soldier, much to his amusement and my mother’s horror… I can’t imagine what I would have felt, or what I might have been capable of, if the soldier had been denying my mother life-saving medical treatment instead of just messing up her vacation.”

That evoked vivid memories of my own parents-in-law on their first visit to Israel and of their fretful sobbing over the depravity their daughter had chosen to live under with her Palestinian husband in Galilee. And we weren’t even under occupation in the narrow sense of international law; we were Israeli citizens.

All through the book, Olson writes in an animated, lively, engaging, witty and intimate style. But in expressing her inner feelings and her acute sense of empathy with the other, she often waxes touchingly poetic (p. 176):

“But who could watch so many proud young women and dignified old men humiliated at checkpoints? Who could watch the obscenity of helpless, impoverished, dispossessed people being bombed in Gaza like fish in a barrel? [‘Like cockroaches in a bottle,’ an Israeli leader once put it.] How long could and should someone stand it? A diminished life was better than no life. There was always a secret space no oppression could ever touch. But how could a valiant or a sensitive soul bear it?

We all thinking it, Qais. We all miss God, or whatever you want to call the pure thing that runs through all this. And you’re trapped here, imprisoned, in a way so obscene it’s impossible to contemplate. And still you have to live it. You, a lucky kid who made it past his twentieth birthday.

Qais asked why I was crying. He said he didn’t want to hear me cry; he couldn’t endure it. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I could endure it, either. How I was supposed to think about a world where the life of a Palestinian was utterly disposable?…

I thought about suicide for the first time not as an abstraction but as a genuine option – a way to drop out of the whole diabolical game. But I dismissed it immediately. When I thought of what I would go through if Qais was killed, by his own hand or anyone else’s, it was impossible to justify putting anyone else through that just to ease my own conscience and end my own pain.”

Or take, for example, her brief, acerbic, almost photographic rendition of a common Palestinian scene (p. 272):

“It was standard fare for a Palestinian refugee camp -- narrow streets, concrete buildings, cramped alleys, and occasional touches of bougainvillea or decorative tiles to lend a whiff of dignity.”

Olson’s empathy and good vibes envelop even those literally on the other side of the fence: (p. 222)

“But [the Israeli soldier] was, after all, just a teenager. Wars and occupation were innately abhorrent things, poisoning the soul and society of all involved. Here was another kid caught in the maw of it, standing at a checkpoint instead of off at a college somewhere studying and partying. It seemed like such a pointless waste.”

And she never loses her sense of humor. It flows throughout her narrative and seems to come handy in tight spots as a form of comic relief:

“Abir and I agreed the soldier was cute, but I said, ‘Does that ever work? Picking up chicks while you’re oppressing them?’
‘Who knows?’ said Abir. ‘Why do construction workers whistle at girls who pass by?’
‘I guess men with big metal objects in their hands get overconfident or something.’”

No less poetic are her descriptions of scenes of the wilderness and relaxed romantic settings she finds herself privy to, whether in the Sinai, Jordan or the West Bank (p. 287):

“The moon had a bright ring around it twenty moon-diameters across, which made it look like the dome of a great cathedral. The jagged stone mountains were like pillars conjured by God. The surrounding sea of silken sand softly refracted the moonlight’s radiance. The stars, subtly colored, brilliant, three-dimensional, embedded in the silvery ink of unlikely existence, were unbearably beautiful. The breeze, neither warm nor cool, seemed to blow through me.”

Poetic and romantic when feeling one with nature, fun-loving yet acutely observant and closely connected to the people around her, and moving in her compassion for the downtrodden and oppressed, Olson comes across as innately humane and witty. Palestinians couldn’t have befriended a better advocate.

Yet, as a Public Health specialist, I permit myself to end on a critical note: All through her beautifully written book, Olson romanticizes the Nargila [hookah], the new scourge of youth in the Middle East, a much more harmful fad than cigarette smoking. Unintentionally she sows the seed of harm in her endearing description of life in Palestine. I do hope, and plead, that she will insist on banishing that from the film version.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Contradictions Be Damned: Colonel Pinky’s Last Stand in the Case of Rachel Corrie

The last session of the Rachel Corrie court case in Haifa had been repeatedly postponed on account of the weightiness of the witness. Colonel Pinhas Zuaretz, better known by his nickname, Pinky, was the commanding officer of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade at the time the late peace activist was killed. I decided to display my solidarity with my fellow countryman, to wear my heart on my sleeve so to speak. Lacking pink in my wardrobe I donned the loudest Aloha shirt I had with large off-pink flowery pattern. Pinky turned out to be weighty indeed: a rotund, dark-skinned, middle-aged man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper scalp, thick black eyebrows and bulldoggish jowls. Despite the reassurance of our shared Semitic features, his presence evoked in me the same gut-level discomfort I had always sensed whenever seeing Ariel Sharon or our current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Don’t jump to conclusions, please! Some of my best friends are rotund. I have a teenage neighbor who on occasion helps me collect my free-range chicken eggs. He has a low IQ and an inborn glandular disorder that stores excessive fat on his short torso. Also I have many American friends who tower a foot or more over me. Whether a war criminal, a bar bouncer, a simpleton, or an average well-fed person, the sheer bulk of a corpulent man is enough to intimidate and rile me on the inside. Today’s witness was no exception: I wished I had worn black.

Even before he spoke, I decided that I wouldn’t want to wrestle with the man. His body language and his automatic assumption of priority in communicating with the judge, whose ruddy complexion suggested another longish repose on some tropical seaside, did little to reassure me. But Husain Abu-Husain proceeded right away to tangle with the man and to try to cut him down to size: How can a man of his rank make so many spelling mistakes in his written affidavit, Abu-Husain asked? Would he care to comment about the sexual harassment case a woman soldier once brought against him? Would he commit to the principle of protecting human life? To this last one Colonel Pinky acquiesced begrudgingly after stressing his first allegiance to protecting the life of his soldiers. And was he still convinced of his conclusion after his rushed investigation of the case of the late Rachel Corrie only hours after his soldiers’ D9R Caterpillars had crushed her to death that their conduct was flawless? To this he responded in the positive stating that Rachel had died through her own carelessness and willful interference on the side of the terrorists who had sent her to disrupt the soldiers’ orderly carrying out of their duty of leveling an area. The presence of the home of a certain Dr. Khalil and another ‘yellow house’ repeatedly mentioned in the military investigations was considered immaterial not only by the witness but also by the judge who struck the line of questioning from the record.

In Colonel Pinky’s logic there seemed to be no place for doubt: things were either white or black. What he repeatedly asserted was that the whole area was a war zone and anyone present in it was as good as dead, “ben mavit -- mortal” by definition. Rachel was on the side of the enemy and her death should have been a forgone conclusion. How could someone miss such simple logic? Pinky shook his head repeatedly in exasperation at the unbelievable stupidity of his doubters. And his soldiers were performing their duties in a war zone. That included the killing of enemy combatants or of their supporters and messengers, he seemed to imply. And yet his soldiers acted in a humane manner. They tried to give first aid to the accidentally injured woman. Pinky emphasized this ‘humane gesture’ that his soldiers extended to another victim whom they had shot dead as well. This last bit of logic made perfect sense to me: When you willfully shoot to kill someone, why would you want to extend first aid to him or her? Indeed this was beyond the call of duty.

When Abu-Husain pointed out a contradiction between Pinky’s written affidavit and other documents on record regarding an injury he claimed he had suffered, the judge stepped in to rule that as irrelevant. This protective intervention was to be repeated by the judge several times, usually in response to the objection of the defense lawyer raised with such animated movement of her brightly manicured pretty hands over her head out of synch with whatever she was saying. I figured the woman would be something to behold with her favorite witness on a dance floor; she seemed so twirly and sympathetic to his preposterous who-the-hell-is-this-Arab-questioning-my-judgment stance.

Twice, in his attempt to shield the witness from the aggression of his unjust doubters, the judge made pronouncements so damning of the IDF that I expected Pinky to get up and slug him in the mouth: When Abu-Husain brought up the case of a soldier under Pinky’s command who had killed another international activist, lied about the circumstances of the murder and his story was taken as the honest truth by Pinky, the judge did not allow that into the record because he thought it was irrelevant to Rachel’s case. Besides, the judge rationalized, soldiers lie just as others do including in his court. Then there was the issue of drug abuse in the unit the members of which were involved in Rachel’s demise. Again the judge threw that out explaining that drug abuse was widespread in all units of the IDF. I expected Pinky to maul him so hard that he would need to go back to R&R at some far off rehab facility. But the commander swallowed the insult quietly. After all, from the start he gave signs of a common understanding between him, the defense, and the judge, not the result of some collusion, God forbid, but of each doing his duty in repulsing the onslaught of so many goyim on “the most ethical army in the world.” But especially Pinky had an expression of disgust at being badgered by a team of Palestinian lawyers. It didn’t make sense to me: True Abu-Husain is of darker skin and that may have justified Pinky’s look of condescension in his own eyes. But Dakwar, the second prosecution lawyer, is as fair-skinned as they come, fairer than the judge himself. I figured it must be size that decides status this time around.

In Colonel Pinky’s clear-minded view, the last question that Abu-Husain lobbed at him must have looked like the nastiest of curveballs: Abu-Husain must have seemed to him to be intent on adding insult to injury. He, a former ranking colonel and currently the Deputy Head of the FIDF (Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces,) had been already dragged enough through the mud: He had to defend himself against the attacks of a scrawny (by comparison) dark-skinned (also relatively so) Palestinian (also relatively so since his Palestinianism had been compromised by an Israeli citizenship in Pinky’s black-and-white world,) reminiscent in his private thoughts, no doubt, of the standard IDF practice dummies. And now the dark-faced, kaffiyah-clad, hole-riddled scarecrow wanted him to apologize to the parents of that foreign pro-terrorist provocateur! These Ishmaelites, our leaders told us, were supposed to serve us as “Hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Look at them now, biting the hand that feeds them. How terribly insulting it must have felt to the colonel. Thanks God the judge interfered and promptly halted the assault on the defenseless soldier even before the defense lawyers objected. He angrily explained the inappropriateness of such a gesture before He Himself had a chance to issue His ruling.

In rural Galilee the older folks tell a story about a wild Bedouin’s first encounter with the law. He was dragged into town and kept overnight in a cell repeatedly threatened by his jailers with having to face the judge. After the affair was over he was heard explaining gleefully: “I was scared stiff by the prospect of tangling with the judge. But the judge turned out to be a man.”

After all, our judge turns out to be an Israeli man. I bet you my last Aloha shirt the Corries will not get the one dollar they are suing for.