Reversal of Fortune

Pamela Olson
September 27, 2007

NOTE: It looks like my Letters from Palestine list is being resurrected. If you would like to be on the list, please email me: pamolson02 @ yahoo dot com.

Remember that new job and new house I had a while back? Well, I left the job, and I'm leaving the house, too. The trip to Palestine in June kind of did me in. The difference in the way I felt there as opposed to here was undeniable. My heart felt like the Grinch's when it grew three sizes overnight.

(When someone asked me why, it occurred to me that I would have to write a book to really explain it. Maybe I'll actually try to write that book some day.)

Winter and spring of 2006, I was getting over the culture shock of leaving Palestine and coming to DC. It was a long and painful process, but I got through it and learned to enjoy and appreciate life in DC.

I did all kinds of activities, went to talks and concerts and parties, visited my member of Congress and went out with one of his staffers, played soccer and ultimate frisbee, sat in on a discussion in the House of Representatives and met Keith Ellison, walked around the monuments, hung out at museums and sculpture gardens and the Kennedy Center, helped host a high-level meeting between U.S. Government officials and prominent American Muslims, did ballet classes, worked at and visited premier think tanks and international institutions, met a young economic advisor to President Bush who almost sounded sane, went to protests and marches and fundraisers for or against this or that, studied Arabic, and blew through my cash going out all the time. I went to the beach a few times and met tons of people, many of them fantastic.

But by the time I left for Palestine three months ago, things had started slowing down. At the end, the only thing I really enjoyed enough to keep putting time into it was soccer. All the rest was nice enough, but it didn't hold my attention somehow. The learning curves were dropping off. Doing so many things at once made me feel burned out and directionless after a while. I was kind of a social butterfly. And even my writing seemed to come out forced and uninspired.

And the Interstates are either entirely surrounded by trees, which makes it like you're traveling in a tunnel, or entirely surrounded by big box stores, which makes it like you're traveling in New Jersey. There's no view! Anywhere! In Oklahoma, in California, in Palestine, you're never far from a picture postcard view across miles of emptiness. On the East Coast, the crowded ugliness of civilization Just. Never. Ends. Even the Atlantic Ocean doesn't quite seem like a real ocean after the mighty Pacific and the exotic Mediterranean and the sapphire Gulf of Aqaba.

(Harper's Ferry is gorgeous, though. Rafting down the Upper Potomac was fun, and I'd love to do the Shenandoah. And King's Dominion's Water Park was great. And that ultimate frisbee tournament last summer on the Jersey Shore -- that was awesome. And my soccer team is fantastic. And this one time I had a smoke and took a walk in the snow through Malcolm X Park at sunset -- one of the few places near me where there actually is a reasonably nice view -- which was stunning. That park was also my favorite place to play pick-up soccer, but for some reason the city ripped it up and closed it for all of 2007 -- boo.)

And I realize that civilization's hand has had a far longer impact in the Old Countries -- the Fertile Crescent isn't so fertile anymore, and lions no longer roam the hills of Palestine. But the centuries seemed to have tempered the landscape organically with thought and care, making it in some places even more beautiful. Whereas the stoplights and electrical towers and Best Buys along the Interstates seem awkward and alien to me. I think I've come to the conclusion that I don't want CDs and air conditioning if it makes my surroundings so ugly and devoid of care, pride, and elegance. I'm sure there's a better way, at least for my tastes. (And why does almost nobody in America hang out on their roofs, even when their roofs are flat? What better place is there to hang out, really?)

And everyone knows politics is mostly horse-trading. But now it's more clear to me than ever that so is journalism, so are think tanks and institutions, and even academia gets caught up in it.

Problem is, almost no one is given real leeway to make value judgments on the big picture. Everyone has to get grants and sponsors (even the organizations that hand out the grants), and everyone's more afraid of losing those than of losing their integrity. "Neutral" and "Balanced" are words they use to mean "not stirring up the power establishment or the established narrative." "Professional" and "Serious" are words people use to refer to those who dress, talk, and think like they're supposed to, even if it goes against the Constitution, basic morality, and common sense. Language and sense have been perverted almost past the point of recognition around here.

People like Carter, Walt, Mearsheimer, and Kucinich get called horrid names just for speaking basic, undeniable, thoroughly-researched truths (or get hounded for being 5% wrong by critics who are regularly 85% wrong yet still have their own TV shows). And all the papers jump on the bandwagon -- I even had colleagues at the Institute for Defense Analyses saying things like, "I heard about Carter's book, didn't the New York Times say it was anti-Semitic?" And people like Dershowitz at Harvard libel and slander people at will and get away with it.

(Although in happy news, I saw Walt and Mearsheimer speak yesterday about their new book, The Israel Lobby. The usual suspects asked the usual questions, and the professors handled them brilliantly. Very nice to see. They have also been savvy enough to bend over backwards pre-emptively to combat the epithet the Israel lobby is so fond of over-using: Anti-Semitic. Obviously it's nuts to assume bigotry when someone is making an argument about a political lobby. Imagine if someone said, "The anti-Castro Cuban lobby is harming American interests, and we should change our policies vis-a-vis Cuba." And a critic retorted, "You're an anti-Hispanic bigot!" That's no argument at all, just an unsupported ad hominem -- slander. Whether the Israel lobby genuinely thinks anti-Semitism is afoot or just uses the name-calling as a cynical tool is irrelevant. It works. It's a horrible thing to call someone. It muddies the debate and puts people on the defensive. So Walt and Mearsheimer have to be very careful.)

And the recent scene at Columbia University, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a sitting head of state, was invited to speak and then slandered mercilessly right to his face by the university president, was a very sorry show. I'm no particular fan of Mr. Ahmadinejad, but he was both a guest and a representative of a proud nation.

Yet because the American press and academia are currently rife with anti-Iran propaganda (such as that Mr. Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map -- this never happened, though he did express his hope that the Zionist supremacy in Palestine, which he views as fundamentally unjust, will vanish from the pages of time like the Apartheid regime in South Africa did), and because the man threatens perceived American power interests, Columbia University President Bollinger feels safe to hop on to the bandwagon and call his guest names ("petty, cruel dictator," "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated") that could just as easily be thrown at many of America's staunchest so-called allies, including Dick Cheney.

Can anyone imagine Bollinger giving the same dressing-down to Hu Jintao or Hosni Mubarak or Prince Bandar or George W. Bush? Yet is Ahmadinejad fundamentally worse than these other men, or does Bollinger's moral outrage extend only to those whom it's perfectly safe to demonize in the current media and political and academic environment in America?

For anyone who believes that Ahmadinejad is so much worse than everyone else because he wants to destroy the world's only Jewish state using nuclear weapons, I ask: Has Iran ever given any indication that it is suicidally insane? Israel has a well-known survivable nuclear deterrent that could turn the whole Middle East into smoking ruin even if someone else struck first. Has Iran invaded a neighboring country in living memory? Also, several thousand Jews live peacefully in Iran and are represented in Parliament there. If Ahmadinejad truly and suicidally loathed Jews enough to incinerate the entire Holy Land and all its mosques and Palestinians as well as ensure the destruction of his own country just to get at them, what would stop him from starting the pogrom he dreams of at home?

The anti-Iran scaremongers today don't make any more sense than the anti-Iraq scaremongers did four years ago. In fact, I think they make quite a bit less. At least Saddam having WMDs was plausible, given that we had sold so many to him (though that would still have been no justification for the unthinkably drastic measures of unprovoked war and occupation).

And yet, the same people gunning for what turned out to be a hideous fiasco in Iraq are still at it, turning their sights on a man who, granted, makes it rather easy for the media to demonize him. His Holocaust conference didn't officially deny the obviously factual event but rather professed to want to open it up to freer dialogue. Still, it was manna from heaven for those who wanted to paint the man as alien and insane.

But even if he's a few bricks shy of a smart PR machine in the West (his comment that there are no homosexuals in Iran also showed both humanistic backwardness and ridiculously bad PR savvy at a place like Columbia), and his worldview is not one I subscribe to, he's objectively no worse than many of our allies and in many ways very much less bad than our own heads of state.

The number of innocent people the Bush Administration has killed for its own questionable ideologies and through even more questionable methods dwarfs absolutely the number of innocent people killed by Ahmadinejad (which, of course, does not and cannot justify his regime's crimes). One can say, "But, oh, people killed by American weapons were killed in good faith, because we really thought we were bringing Iraqis (and Vietnamese and Nicaraguans and...) freedom and stability."

But if someone invaded our country and killed tens of thousands of our civilians and left chaos and destruction and hopelessness in our streets and created 4 million American refugees, would we really care whether or not they thought they had our best interests at heart? Even if they genuinely did, we would probably think they were incomprenensible monsters for bringing their little experiment -- known in advance by most experts and most nations in the world to be an almost certain disaster -- to our beloved country without even asking our leave.

Anyway, however good or bad Ahmadinejad is, a war against his country would not be productive for anyone, even Israel, although the Israel lobby is pushing very hard for it, as they pushed hard for the Iraq war. I don't know what they're smoking exactly, but it was clear we'd get something worse than Saddam if we invaded Iraq, and we'll end up with something much worse than Ahmadinejad if we invade Iran. (And we'll just end up with a stronger and more determined Ahmadinejad if we merely bomb them.)

We need to get over the notion that we have the right and the means to control the entire world. We don't and we can't. Sometimes, other people are going to have a say, too.

And Iran getting nukes will not mean the end of the world or the end of Israel. It will just mean the end of America and Israel's total military hegemony in the Middle East. And it turns out that there's a non-zero chance that will happen -- a chance that is greatly increased the more tough talk we send Iran's way. As Stephen Colbert would say: "Deal with it!"

I just read The Unbearable Lightness of Being again, and its characters live under the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. In the book, the professionals and intellectuals who stand up against the occupation regime are punished, exiled, or merely stripped of their credentials and forced to wash windows for a living. The ones who collaborate with the regime are given rewards and promotions. Some of the collaborators later said, "But we didn't know how bad it would be! And we had no idea how bad things were in the Soviet Union!"

Maybe they didn't know, though that would require an impressive ignorance of history and current events. Maybe they just didn't care.

Similarly, professionals and intellectuals and politicians and journalists and generals who stood up against the Iraq War were marginalized and humiliated, while those who collaborated with the scheme (which involved a much more deadly and brutal occupation than Russia's of Czechslovakia) were rewarded with access and promotions and rewards.

Of course, now many of them now say, "But we didn't know how bad it would be! And we had no idea that our leaders were so incompetent, ignorant, and willing to commit that level of indiscriminate violence without any rational planning for the aftermath!"

Maybe they didn't know, though that would require an impressive ignorance of history and current events. Maybe they just didn't care.

(Though I have to admit that although I believed with 90% certainty that the Iraq War would be a disaster, even I was surprised by the brazen scope of the neverending fuck-ups.)

But what on earth can anyone's excuse possibly be for continuing to support this war now?

Anyway, watching all this nonsense unfold day by day here as innocent people burn elsewhere, I thought, how spineless people must be, how unschooled in basic logic, how devoid of confidence and self-worth to sell common sense down the river without a second thought whenever someone makes the most vague, veiled threat that their "Seriousness" and "Professionalism" and "Neutrality" (i.e. their funding, promotions, and social status) may be called into question if they don't fall into line. Somehow people need to be educated to be intellectually courageous. Otherwise these things will just keep happening, and what's to stop them?

Western civilization is all localized, specialized rationality these days, without any human confidence or algorithm for questioning more broadly. A lot of it is madness disguised as rationality. And this makes it that much more dangerous.

And it's one thing to suspect these things; another to witness people you otherwise respect talking breezily about all the horse-trading and compromising as if it's all in a day's work. Of course it is all in a day's work. That's the problem. But that doesn't make it any more palatable; doesn't make it any less sad to think of all the people all over the country and the world who believe (or at least hope) something more honorable is going on, at least in a general sense.

Meanwhile, how must it affect good people who play a rotten game all day, and know it's rotten?

In Palestine, people know how rotten the game is, because they're sitting on the rotten butt-end of it. And part of me wanted to go to Washington and play the rotten game to see if I could influence it, or at least understand it better. On the second part, I feel like I have succeeded to some extent. I do understand it better now. But as for influencing it -- I don't think I'm cut out for it. It's too frustrating and demoralizing. A professor in Moscow referred to the "moral valves" people have to pass through in order to get to positions of influence. And I'm just too squeamish, even if it is supposedly a means to an honorable end.

Some people are cut out for changing the system from the inside, and for them I am eternally thankful -- many of them do make a real difference. But not everyone can or needs to do that, and there's no sense trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. No matter how well-intentioned, I am just not cut out for the Bush Beltway.

Although if Obama becomes President, I wouldn't mind trying out for his advisor on Middle East affairs, or maybe an assistant to an advisor.

Anyway, long story short, between the endless mind-numbingly insulting non-debates about the Iraq War and the pathetic political theater of the candidates' debates, I was kind of getting jaded and tired. I felt a deep need to get out of the sordid Twilight Zone of politics for a while and just be human. To think things over in a more inspiring setting and figure out what's important to me.

And then I went to Palestine three months ago and saw all the old familiar places, the party scene better than ever, the sun shining on ancient hills, the same cultural institutions and events still there and new ones added, concerts all the time -- concerts that people can afford, and that everyone goes to, so that venues seem intimate and genuine -- and an incredible number of great people (both Palestinian and foreign) either still there or just returning after a year or two away. (The ones who came back after a year or two away, we understood each other perfectly; they looked at me with a knowing smile, as if expecting I'd be back soon as well.)

And there I was with nearly two years of Professional Work behind me. I realized that I no longer felt like such a sloppy backpacker kid. I felt more confident and grown-up than I had before, and things looked new to me. I'd gone into the belly of the beast and found that (a) I could hack it -- it was clear to me that I had a much better grasp of reality than a lot of so-called "experts," and (b) I would likely be much happier and more productive elsewhere. These were good things to learn. It was wonderful to find that I had grown since I'd been there last.

In those two weeks in Palestine, I experienced more drama and adventures than I had in all my time in DC. My friend Nafis was supposed to join me, which would have kept me busy tour-guiding him around. But he missed his flight, so I was left with enough time on my hands to dive back into life in Palestine.

Coming back to DC after that, and after all the twenty-mile views off the hilltop city of Ramallah and up through the postcard Biblical heartland to Jenin, and the amazing international characters who all live within spitting distance of each other (not spread out all over Virginia and Maryland and Capitol Hill), all of whom either have time or make time for hours-long conversations in the moonlight on the roof or in the pub. You don't have to make a date a week ahead of time to see someone. They're just there. I've rarely made as many good friends in as short a span of time as I did in Ramallah.

And all the beer from just over the hill in Taybeh, the wine from Bethlehem and Lebanon, the hookah tobacco from Jordan, the weed from the Sinai... It's all unbearably cozy and homelike somehow, and at the same time exotic and exciting. All the same and all different. The idiocy of politics tearing everyone apart and simple rituals of fellowship (and endless dark jokes) uniting us in shared humanity.

And the fruits and vegetables all sitting there out in the open at the market, locally grown and cheap as hell, with a seller or two making friendly conversation and an old woman in a headscarf sizing you up for marriage potential, and this strange language surrounding you starting to sound more and more natural every day, and a sheep in the back of the taxi sometimes, and the olive oil you cook (and massage) with was often harvested by friends on their own land, if not by you yourself...

I could go on. But after all that color and fun, coming back to DC was like being shut back in prison. (Which is rather ironic, and I am sure there are many people who would classify the West Bank as a prison and DC as a colorful haven of fun and opportunity -- to each his own.) The fruits and vegetables at the supermarket looked like plastic mock-ups. I lost motivation at work. It was torture researching and writing about all the horrible things being done to Palestinians without the joy of actually being there and the healing properties of having people around who really understand what's going on.

The Lebanon War nearly killed me last summer, not so much because of what was done, although that was monstrous, but because everyone around me was so oblivious to the horror -- oblivious by design, by the moral and professional and intellectual cowardice of our media and politicians. It was a nightmare. It was like walking around the funeral of a loved one, and everyone's laughing, and you can't believe it.

So, I started hatching a plan to go back to Palestine in January. It seemed like a long, dark tunnel 'til then, but it kept me going.

Then one day the boss called me and said he could tell I wasn't motivated. He could tell I wasn't happy. And he suggested that maybe this wasn't working out.

He was right to suss out that I was only staying on out of a sense of duty, which had blinded me to how miserable I was. But I was miserable. And when I'm miserable, I can't do good work.

The job itself wasn't bad, and my coworkers are great. But personally and professionally, for many reasons, it wasn't the right place for me right now.

And for all the ease and leisure and money-making I thought DC would be (compared to my full schedule and tiny salary in Ramallah), my two years in DC have left me with less savings than I came in with and less time to do the things I cherish than I used to have.

And the thrust of our activities at work was more about marketing than substance. I guess somebody needs to do it. But isn't there any space anywhere to assume the best in people, and not to pigeonhole people and insult their intelligence constantly?

So anyway, abashed but relieved, I gathered my personal belongings and headed home and thought to myself, "What now?" After a year and a half working full-time in DC, I had less savings than I'd come back from Palestine with in 2005. I did have my student loans paid off, which was lovely and gave me a lot of extra freedom. But what could I do 'til January to make money?

Probably bartend, I thought. I remember bartending at age 23, and it was fabulous. The job actually gave me energy and made the days seem crazy long, since it wasn't just straight 9-5 sitting in front of some Excel spreadsheet and MicroSoft Outlook all day. I got paid to hang out in a bar. A good one. Talk with people who paid me good tips to be their captive little friend and/or pretend to flirt and/or just provide friendly service, none of which I particularly minded, and all of which directly brought joy to someone. And I could sip Porto whenever I could sneak it. That's just a hell of a deal.

And then one sleepless night, it occurred to me: Why not just go to Palestine now? Give it a whirl for a few months. Keep my options open in DC (sublet my room so I can come back in February if I want to without having to find another house and buy all my furniture again) and take off. I have the savings for it (barely). It's all I can think about. Why not?

So that's it. I'm leaving for Palestine in early October. I'll stay 'til Christmas, then come home for the holidays, then join an Australian friend for his trips to New York, DC, and Austin, TX (where I'll also get to see my lovely high school roomie Emily!), and then...

I have no idea. But I'll jump off that bridge when I come to it.

Meanwhile I'll harvest olives -- real, honest-to-God work! -- and do volunteer work with kids and see if the spirit doesn't start seeping back into me again. Have a little time to think and talk and reflect and gaze at the Arabian moon over a hookah and the incomparable Ramallah cityscape and see if anything jells out of my experiences of the past several years. Work more seriously on some writing projects and see if I can't do something with them.

I'm stoked.

And I understand that Palestine isn't perfect -- I'm idealizing it with these descriptions and leaving out plenty of hassles and inanities. But all of these descriptions are true, and for me right now, that's enough. Just to be around landscapes that inspire introspection and poetry again, to give my soul space to breathe in a community I feel comfortable in... It'll be nice.

Other news -- After I lost my job, I went up to New York for a week to watch a couple of U.S. Open games (I never was a tennis fan before, but Rafael Nadal's arms gave me cause to reconsider), see some high school friends, and wander around. Unfortunately I didn't get to do as much wandering as I would have liked since I was nursing a soccer injury on my left foot. But it was nice to see Skye, Bernie, Gorav, Bharathram, Lea Ann, and Liz Aab's sister Allison, who was wonderfully kind enough to host me in her flat in Brooklyn.

I also met the brother of a Palestinian friend, who works at Price Waterhouse Coopers. We had coffee and talked about the craziness of Palestine and the craziness of New York. Maher (the brother) prefers New York. To each his own.

But a full week in New York's gorgeous fall weather, without any particular stress or hassles or timetables (or benchmarks), gave me time to see a little more of a glimpse into what it is about that town. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and all their millions of neighborhoods, there's something fantastic about it.

A Stanford friend of mine was also in from India and gave an incredible performance of music, poetry, and dance at the University of Maryland. The stunningness of the performance was rivalled by the discussion afterwards, in which frank talk about genuine hopes and fears for this old world came out of surprising sources. There's a deep river running under all of us that's been ignored and suppressed for a very long time. Who knows what will happen if anyone learns how to tap it.

Also I found my favorite yoga studio ever, just a few blocks from my house. The instructors actually like to get to know the students -- if the class is small enough, they have tea and cookies afterwards and everyone chats. That kills me, how the classes always go on longer than intended, and then half the class still stays on for lukewarm tea and stale cookies, as if time didn't exist. It's so un-DC.

So now I'm just getting prepared and counting down the days. Some of you I haven't caught up with in far too long, but all of you are in my thoughts. I look forward to our paths crossing again.

Peace, love, and olive oil massages,


Next: Ramadan Cappuccino

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