LETTERS FROM PALESTINE 2
Reversal of Fortune
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
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
(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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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,