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 naïve 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.