Olives and Movie Stars

Pamela Olson
November 5, 2007

(Pictures from around Ramallah, etc.)

It's been pretty non-stop since I got here, with olive harvesting, a new job (sort of), parties, concerts, and a film shoot of a wedding scene for a movie in which I played a wedding guest (an Arab-in-law).

It's strange in Palestine -- the days seem longer and more chill and colorful. I don't even have a full-time job, yet the days effortlessly fill to capacity and leave me wishing there was more time. In a good way. It's lovely.

Olives in Salem

I had a contact up in Salem village near Nablus, a friend of a friend, and it happened that some other foreigners from Ramallah were heading up for the harvest at the same time. So we went together in a service taxi, walked through the Huwara checkpoint south of Nablus, and then caught another taxi to Salem.

We ran into my contact on the road, a tall guy in a cowboy hat named Nasir, and followed him and his sisters and aunts and cousins and brothers to the first little olive grove. He pointed out landmarks along the way, including the cemetery. He said, "That's where my uncle and my sister are. My only uncle was killed by the Jewish when he was herding sheep in 1970."

"What happened?" I asked.

"They just found him and shot him," he said.

And it wasn't difficult to believe. Of the hundreds of deaths I covered as a journalist in Palestine, a substantial percentage were found, not just by me but also by Israeli and international newspapers and human rights organizations, to have been willful killings (or maimings) of unarmed noncombatants and/or outrageously excessive use of force. And there is a clear record of impunity from thousands of actions by soldiers and settlers that clearly qualify as murder and/or war crimes, and the impunity continues to encourage more of the same behavior.

Two miniscule examples of the widespread abuses (the tip of the tip of the iceberg).

"And my little sister was killed by Israeli soldiers in the First Intifada," he continued.

These sorts of stories from Palestinians are so common they're almost banal. People speak of them relatively matter-of-factly in day-to-day conversation because there's little choice. It's either that or give yourself ulcers (which doesn't help anything) or go completely insane. But his voice had a clear edge to it.

He quickly changed the subject to something more cheerful, though, and we finished the trees on the first piece of land in no time. We moved on to another area overlooking the broad valley below, and for the first time we saw the massive trench that the Israelis had dug through Salem's land. An Israeli-only settler road has been built through Salem's land, and it already isolates the villagers from most of their land. They can still access the land, but not always, and certainly not freely. Settlers and soldiers can deny them access and/or harass and intimidate them whenever they get the notion in their heads to do so.

As if this weren't enough, one night the Israeli army dug a massive trench 100 yards past the Salem side of the road, something like twelve feet deep and half a mile long, which both isolates them from this additional strip of productive land and isolates them even further from the rest. (To get tractors to their land, for example, they have to go far out of their way, and often they're not allowed to pass at all.) Not to mention putting a huge, devastating scar on this idyllic landscape.

It's a jaw-droppingly maniacal thing to see. Like if some random stranger wandered into your house and not only put duct tape on the floor to demarcate "her" area -- she put it in such a way that she takes the vast majority of your space, and she tells you which days and times you are allowed to access it. And then just acts like it's OK. Perfect shamelessness.

"I guess it's to keep out all the Palestinian tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers," I said, and everyone laughed.

(In case anyone's not sure, Palestinians don't have any tanks or APCs. Or Apache helicopters or Hellfire missiles. Or nuclear weapons. Etc.)

At the end of the long day of harvesting, we rested on the family's gorgeous porch, which also looks out on the panorama of the valley (and the trench) with a view as big as a movie screen -- the Palestinian version of HDTV.

And we got a show that night, too. As some villagers who had ventured out past the trench were making their way back to the village, an Israeli army jeep pulled up and three soldiers got out and ran toward them, ordering them to stop and shooting live bullets in the air. Of course the soldiers had no sensible right to arrest the men for venturing onto their own land. But the soldiers could easily shoot, maim, kill, whatever, the villagers anyway and get away with it. Maybe file a report that says, "Three saboteurs were neutralized while trying to infiltrate a settlement area" or "Two Palestinians were killed while resisting arrest in a closed military zone," which no one in the chain of command would have much incentive to question. Everyone knows this.

So the villagers stopped and allowed themselves to be arrested and put in the jeeps and taken away. (The second jeep joined the first one as backup. How insecure does an army have to be to need two jeeps and six soldiers with automatic weapons to arrest three unarmed farmers?)

The women came back without their men, weary and worried but calm and composed. They've been through this (and much worse) so many times.

The brother of a British friend was visiting, and he had only been here a week -- enough time to be shocked several times but not yet enough to hit his limit and start to go numb. The scene he witnessed clearly left him feeling ill and startled, and Nasir noticed and apologized to him. He said, "I'm sorry for you to see this. It seems like it upset you, ya'ni. But we are used to it. Don't worry."

A few years ago I was talking to an Australian friend who lived in Nablus for a year. We were talking about how (relatively) chill Palestinians seem to be vis-a-vis the excruciating things they keep going through, things that made us feel sometimes like we were going insane even though we didn't have anything like the worst of it and could leave whenever we liked.

We were talking about the way Palestinians talked about things, and the way they welcomed foreigners and Israeli peace activists and really anyone who seemed to come in good faith, despite everything. It seemed almost unbelievable.

"I felt like I understood what they were going through, to some extent, and I was prepared for that," my Australian friend said, sounding stunned.

"I just never figured they'd be so bloody reasonable about it."

The sun went down shortly after the live arrest scene on the big screen, and we weary harvesters were soon presented with a table full of mansaf, a dish with chicken and rice and bread and an addictively savory yogurt sauce. (Traditionally it's made with goat, but chicken is just as good.) It was fabulously delicious, and we ate contentedly and gratefully.

The other foreigners had commitments the next day and left shortly thereafter, but I stayed on for the next day's jaunt out past the trench. The minaret of the town mosque announced that the villagers had been given permission by the Israeli authorities to access their own land past the trench the next day (how kind of the occupiers). And the next morning Nasir's sister woke me up at 8:00 (long after everyone else had already headed out) to take me and the family's horse out to their land.

I felt my skin crawl a little as we passed the trench. As I often do in these situations, I hoped I didn't look too Palestinian, so that if any random soldier or settler decided to take a potshot, hopefully they wouldn't aim at me. Perhaps they would fear there might actually be an inquiry of some kind if a foreigner were killed. Of course this is a terrible thing to think for so many reasons, and it always makes me feel rather bad.

We crossed it and the settler road without incident, though. It's always bizarre watching Jewish settlers, many of them from New York, cruising around this old landscape as if they owned the place, or as if whatever parts they didn't own and control and understand simply didn't exist.

In 2005 I visited Elon Moreh, one of the large nearby hilltop settlements, where the settlers gaze down on Nablus and the land and villages surrounding it as if they're looking down on ants or termites. I and the American friend with me pretended to be sympathetic Christian Zionists.

When I asked one of the settlers (who was from New York) all innocent-like what he figured should be done with the Arabs we saw inhabiting the valleys below, he told me it would be best if they could be persuaded to leave peacefully. Barring that, though, he figured the Arabs (he never called them "Palestinians") were welcome to stay as long as they stayed in their built-up areas and didn't cause any trouble.

"Like Indian reservations?" I ventured.

"Yes!" he said. "Yes, exactly like that. America's got it right."

Later the settler's daughter dropped us off at a major junction between Palestinian and Israeli roads in the middle of the West Bank (so that we could walk to the nearest Palestinian town and catch a taxi, although we told her we were on our way to Tel Aviv).

I asked her if she felt safe driving through the West Bank like this.

She said, "Yeah, they don't cause us too much problems here."

'On the heavily-guarded settler-only roads,' she didn't add.

I said, "But what about all the violence of the past few years?"

She said in what seemed like genuine surprise, "I don't know! I don't understand it. When I was a kid, the Arabs would clean our house and tend our gardens and build things for us, and everything was fine. I don't know what they got so upset about."

Anyhow... So Nasir's sister and the horse and I headed up to the little island of a hill in the center of Salem's valley, which is planted with many "Roman" olive trees, so-called because they're something like 500 years old. Up here the air was fresher and the trees less dusty, and the view of the village across the valley was lovely. We took some pictures of each other on the horse and in trees, etc., and harvested and chatted all day in a mix of Arabic and English. Mostly Arabic. It's great practice for me to go to villages, where fewer people speak English.

We shared another gorgeous dinner that evening, then I took off back to Ramallah, where I had a job interview the next morning.

I got a minor scare on the way back, though. I was walking through Huwara checkpoint in the dark when a spotlight suddenly shone on me from one of the guard towers, nearly blinding me. I stopped, unsure of what to do. I reached toward my bag for my documents, but then the light started flashing at me, like a warning, so I put my hands up to wait for instructions. A Palestinian shouted at me from the other side of the fence on my left, "You have to walk this way."

D'oh. I had been really tired and was thinking of something else, and I'd accidentally tried to walk through the car lane. I quickly retreated and switched to the pedestrian lane.

I was lucky. God knows how many Palestinians and Iraqis have been killed for making similar mistakes.

Development in Ramallah

I didn't even really want a job, to be honest. I was enjoying my free-wheeling lifestyle of reading and writing and thinking and harvesting and working on several projects, including a plan to practice piano seriously for the first time in years at the Al Kamandjati conservatory. And only at the beginning of next year, when my savings would be depleted, did I plan on looking for full-time work if I didn't have a writing gig or something else to support me.

But this opportunity came up, and I figured I'd explore it. I'm interested in development as a potential future field of work and/or study, and this could be excellent experience. So I agreed to start working with them two days a week on a provisional basis, to potentially transition to full-time work next year.

My first project was brainstorming for an upcoming conference in Amman about how to deal with the relationship between politics and development.

The two clearly should be kept as independent as possible in many cases. But on the other hand, suppose some country's tax dollars, via an international development organization, fund a development initiative in Palestine -- say, a permaculture center that teaches organic farming methods and provides compost to the entire northern West Bank -- and then Israel comes in and destroys and/or confiscates it.

What should be done? Is this a development problem? A political problem? Both? Should the center be rebuilt, knowing it could be destroyed again? Should Palestinians be left without, and satisfaction given to the deplorable actions of an illegal occupation regime? Whose responsibility is it to decide, and what criteria should they use?

I'm not speaking hypothetically here:

"Villagers in Marda, a village in the Salfit region of the West Bank, set up a permaculture and sustainable agriculture centre in 1993 in order to develop 'local resources for local needs.' The centre became a valuable hub for training on subjects such as composting, organic pest control, irrigation methods and grey water recycling, with senior agriculturalists from all over Palestine visiting to expand their knowledge of sustainable methods. Over 300 varieties of native seeds were cultivated and conserved, many plants, seeds and trees distributed, and a range of other resources offered, including training for women in literacy, English and computer skills.

"However, such a demonstration of self-sufficiency incited the hostility of the Israeli army, who raided the centre in November 2000, destroying the computers, files, seed banks and plant nursery. According to Maggie, a worker at Ma'an, a Ramallah NGO which supported the centre, no-one was allowed to enter the site for four years, and although some of the activities started there have managed to continue, the building itself remains unused and inaccessible."

Indeed, how can one even talk about development when people don't have freedom? And are aid organizations merely making the occupation tolerable -- paying for things that Israel, under international law, as the occupying power, really should be paying for and serving as a release valve to keep the whole untenable situation from exploding -- and thereby actually helping Israel maintain its hold on the West Bank?

And yet the international community can't use the Palestinians as pawns and let them rot as a way to pressure Israel, particularly when it comes to emergency aid. (And Israel is excellent at manufacturing humanitarian emergencies.) Israel engages in quite enough collective punishment, holding the entire population hostage for political ends; the international community shouldn't start doing it, too.

And oops, even as I write this, Israel just decided to cut off fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip which, among other things, will affect hospitals, water pumping stations, and sewage treatment plants, nevermind vehicles:

In a radio interview Saturday, [Israeli] Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai insisted the fuel and electricity cutoff is not a response to the rocket fire. Instead, he said the move was the latest step by Israel to "disengage" from Gaza following its withdrawal of all troops and settlers from the area two years ago.

"This is the continuation of our disengagement, since the troops pulled out," he told Israel Radio. "This is not connected to Qassams (rockets)," he added. "It is a deeper, broader disengagement."

He said the sanctions are meant to wean Gaza's dependence on Israel and conceded they are unlikely to halt rocket fire.

Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say that Israel remains responsible for the well-being of Gaza's 1.4 million people. They say that despite the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Israel still controls the area's borders - limiting imports, exports and the movement of human beings in and out of the area - and therefore continues to occupy the strip.

"Wean Gaza's dependence on Israel"? Um... last I checked, Israel controlled all imports, exports, and borders to and from the Gaza Strip. So what Israel is doing is like putting someone in prison and slowly decreasing his food supply so as to "wean his dependence on the prison staff".

So what are international development organizations going to do? Let Gazans rot in their prison without drinking water or sewage treatment or incubators for premature babies? Provide the fuel that Israel refuses to provide? Is this what Israel means when it says it wants to "wean" Gaza from Israel? Let someone else worry about the population Israel keeps under military occupation in order to make the occupation as cheap as possible?

Anyway, there are a lot of interesting problems to think about, even if it's distracting from my many other projects, and even if it threatens to put me back in an office writing more depressing reports.

Olives in Battir

On Friday, October 26, I accompanied a friend to Battir village, which is one of the most picturesque villages in Palestine (and that's really saying something). It's built on a hillside not far from Bethlehem, and some of its buildings are carved in part from the living rock of the mountain.

Here's a picture that doesn't begin to capture the beauty of the village but at least gives some indication.

The village is surrounded by national park land -- the hilly land of four nearby Palestinian villages that Israel destroyed in 1948 and then forested with conifers in order to hide the evidence. You can still find the ruins of these villages if you know where to look. The residents of these villages are mostly living in Dheisheh and Aida refugee camps near Bethlehem now, and they still maintain their identities and their ties with Battir.

(I took a Jewish friend on a tour guide of the Dheisheh camp one time, and it so happened that there was a performance that night of disarmingly self-possessed children from the camp singing and dancing with the names of their destroyed villages -- locations that were no more than a few miles away -- written on signs hanging around their necks. My friend seemed deeply shaken by it and said something to the effect that he'd always figured the Right of Return was a non-starter, a frivolous and obstructionist demand by an irredentist people stuck hopelessly in the past. But by the end of the day in Dheisheh, he seemed to believe he had cause to reconsider that opinion.)

A spring runs down from the center of town into the narrow valley below, where it's caught in a large reservoir at night and apportioned to the farmers during the day according to law and custom.

Battir has a unique relationship with Israel because the village is right on the Green Line, and somehow enough people managed to stay behind and resist enough to keep Israel from destroying it in 1948. However, most of Battir's land is on the Israeli side of the Green Line. And Israel wanted control of a Jerusalem-to-Tel Aviv railroad line that follows the Green Line as it passes right through the middle of Battir's land.

The deal they worked out seems almost inconceivable today: Israel agreed to allow Battiris to access their land on both sides of the Green Line if the village would allow Israel to control the track through it. (Today, of course, if Israel had wanted any part of Battir's land, they would simply have built a Wall and taken it.) Unfortunately for Israel, the agreement with Battir still carries legal weight. But the villagers fear the Israeli government is trying its best to figure out how to get around the problem.

(The Wall in this area, by the way, is being built to the east of Battir village, effectively isolating the village and all of its land from the rest of the West Bank. So it seems that Israel hopes eventually to annex all of it -- particularly since there are so many large settlements in this area -- and is just trying to figure out how to go about it.)

We caravanned out to some land on the other side of a hill, out of sight of the village, to harvest with two older Battiris and their two grown daughters, both of whom live and work in Ramallah. They and another American girl with us, who works with a Palestinian Ministry, chatted about fascinating issues in international law, development, Ministry planning, and scholarships for various international graduate schools while we climbed around the dusty trees. They also mentioned that they have a neighbor in town who looks exactly like George Clooney.

The daughters told us Battir was known in the area as a relatively progressive village, and Battiris sort of looked down their noses at the other villages for being less educated and more closed-minded.

Of course, I said, the surrounding villages probably looked down on Battiris for being more likely to go to hell. Just like Methodists and Baptists in my home town of Stigler. Everybody's gotta have some reason to feel better than everyone else.

Battir's call to prayer was prettier than the one from the nearest village, though. Battir definitely gets a point for that.

A carload of Swedes joined us eventually (they were in Palestine working on some sort of student radio journalism project), just in time to sit down to a massive picnic lunch of home-made maqloubeh and farmer's salad.

After another half an hour of work the olives were done, and we headed back into town to wash our hands in the spring and munch on grapes, home-made fruit-roll-up-like things made with grapes and sesame seeds, and coffee on yet another porch looking out on yet another breathtaking panorama.

Porches with great views seem to be one of Palestine's most abundant natural resources. If one could put a price on and export such things, I have no doubt Palestine would be rich as the Emirates.

Film Shoot in the Pines

Back in Ramallah the next day, I'd been told there was going to be a film shoot at Snobar (an outdoor cafe and public pool nestled in pine trees on a hillside, hence the name, which means "pine"). The film is being made jointly by various Europeans, Palestinians from Israel, and Palestinians from the West Bank, and mostly with Palestinian money, which I was told was a first.

I arrived on time (which translates into Arab time as "two hours early") in order to play an extra during a wedding scene, and I chatted with the Palestinian boom operator from Nazareth and the German sound man while I waited for the shoot to begin.

Snobar was done up beautifully with lights in the overhanging vines and trees and on the bushes, little bowls with flames scattered around, centerpieces of local green grapes and pomegranates and fuchshia flowers on the white-clothed tables, stone steps for the wedding procession, and tall lighted delicate silver wire cylinders.

My friend Muzna soon showed up with her French boyfriend, and we were also joined at our table by the wife of the "actor" who was playing the Best Man -- actually the owner of the Zeit ou Zaatar restaurant on Main Street in Ramallah (which was also doing the catering for the shoot), who walked around in his tux and red bow tie and slick hair and make-up like he'd been doing it all his life. He jokingly offered our table autographs for five shekels each.

Three other men joined us at our table and we all talked and joked in a mix of Arabic and English and French, and we didn't mind too much even when there was another delay in the shooting that left us sitting there together for an extra half hour. I suggested we merely pretend we were hanging out at Snobar, and a couple of us even managed to finagle a beer out of the owner, even though you're not really supposed to have alcohol on a film set. Any time you say "supposed to" in Palestine, it's generally taken as a challenge.

The technicians worked around us setting up the camera track and the lighting as the sun set and the moon rose. The lighting made it seem like broad daylight on set all night.

And finally the actors playing the bride and groom showed up. The bride was a slim, radiant, curly-haired half-Egyptian half-Palestinian who grew up in Lebanon, and the groom was an impossibly handsome Palestinian man who looked like Cary Grant dressed up as James Bond.

The wife of the "Best Man" at our table, eyebrows raised, said what we were all thinking:

"Al Arees ktir zaki, ah?"

It's difficult to translate this well. Al arees means the groom. Ktir means very. Zaki means delicious or tasty or savory, but in kind of a delightfully unctuous way. And Ah is slang for yes. So you can say, "The groom is quite tasty, yes?" But it sounds infinitely better in patrician, matter-of-fact Arabic.

The bride was a delight, too. Even between takes she would dance around and flirt with everyone. And half a dozen actors from Nazareth came dressed up in baggy pants, black shoes, gold cummerbunds, maroon shirts and gold vests, to provide the drumming and singing for the wedding party.

The trouble was, once you got them started drumming and singing, it was hard to get them to stop. They'd get into the music like it was the real thing and not even hear the director yell, "Cut!"

At the end of the wedding scene, too, when all the guests were supposed to go out onto the floor and dance to a Nancy Ajram song along with the bride and groom and family, the guy in charge of the music would let everyone dance and clap long after the director yelled "Cut!" He almost seemed to forget it wasn't a wedding; as if it would be rude to cut the music off while everyone was having such a good time.

And then they'd have a scene of guests at the wedding talking, and some of the guests would wander off while the cameras were rolling in order to talk to a (real, not pretend) friend at the next table. Same when the sound guy would ask a table just to give him twenty seconds of straight clapping. Within five seconds of starting to clap, they would be adding counter-rhytms, singing, and shouts, and sometimes the drummer would start up, too, unbidden. It was like herding ducks.

But it was genuine. If they were going for verisimilitude, they had it.

I wondered if people on most film shoots had this much fun.

The Best Man threatened to steal the show, though, because his personality was so singular and unabashed. He was a terrific actor, playing his part with effortless commitment. He seemed so generally singular and talented that he would probably excel at just about anything he tried. And indeed, he owns one of the zakiest restaurants in town. His wife told us he gets up sometimes late at night and cooks feasts for her. She said he loves doing it.

He came by our table after the shoot was finished, when we were finally served our free dinner from Zeit ou Zaatar, which was our only pay, with a single large clove of roasted garlic in his hand. He squeezed it out onto his wife's plate, scooped it up with some of his restaurant's bread, and fed it to her. Then he skipped away saying cheerfully in Arabic, "No kissing tonight!"

Lucky woman.

During the scenes where our table was filmed with everyone talking and laughing, the Best Man guy kept trying to get us to just whisper, "Zeit ou Zaatar, Zeit ou Zaatar, Zeit ou Zaatar." And during the scene where the Best Man was supposed to do some kind of ceremonial shaving of the groom, I turned to his wife and said, "He'll probably write 'Zeit ou Zaatar' in shaving cream on the groom's face."

It was all good fun. I can't wait to see how it comes out on film.

Afterwards I was all dressed up with no place to go, so I headed to Zan bar in my formal make-up and black dress to see who I might run into. And sure enough I ran into six people I knew (and this was on a slow night), one of them a Palestinian from Qalandia who speaks almost accentless English and looks European. He welcomed me back to town (this was the first he'd seen me since I came back to Ramallah) and asked what I was up to and why I had come back. I said, "I don't know, it just feels home-like somehow. I couldn't stay away."

He asked me why I thought that was.

I answer this question in a different way each time, and this time the answer I came up with was, "Because the place has a nice culture, a very welcoming culture, that I'm not really a part of, but that I'm always welcome in. So it doesn't impose on me in any way. I can go off and be whatever I want to be and do whatever I want, and nobody bothers me. But it's always there waiting if I need it. Kind of a nice safety net."

He nodded, lost in thought for a moment. Then he half-smiled and said, "You know, you're making me fall in love with Palestine even more."

Bach in Ramallah

Tuesday night, October 30, there was a concert by musicians from the Kamandjati music school here in Ramallah, three Italians and two Arabs playing concertos and string quartets by Bach, Brahms, and Ravel in memory of Edward Said.

Bach is a favorite of mine, and they played him soaringly. At one point the next song on the program was supposed to be another Bach, but within three notes I could tell it definitely wasn't Bach. (Which is strange if you think about it. How can a person's entire style be differentiated based on three notes? Sounds vaguely holographic.) And then I remembered that they'd been talking about Ravel, and I figured there must have been a change.

So I was listening to this Ravel piece, and it sounded sad, like a requiem. For some reason I imagined the earth being destroyed and this page of music by Ravel being the only thing left, floating in space.

I wondered if any alien species who found it would be able to (1) figure out that it was a kind of meaningful language, (2) discern that it was a map of frequencies for periods of time, (3) imagine which frequencies to choose, which scale, and which medium -- vibrations in gaseous air with a certain density and composition -- to bring the original meaning back out, (4) imagine a wooden instrument with metal strings and a rosined horsehair bow that would produce the correct frequencies and sounds, and then (5) extract the complex wealth of emotions and meaning humans feel when they hear the song played.

It seemed hopelessly unlikely.

So I thought of it as a "Requiem for Itself." And it made me feel deeply sad. But in a satisfying kind of way. Because the earth is still here, after all, in its own devastatingly singular way.

Another Voice

The next night there was another concert at the Orthodox Club featuring several Palestinian artists. It was a counter-concert to the recently-cancelled One Voice concert, which had had a platform for "peace" that participants were supposed to sign on to, but that was discovered to be deeply problematic by discerning Palestinians. (For one thing, it operated on the assumption that the occupier and occupied had no power differential, and it made no reference whatsoever to international law.) Younger students from Kamandjati played first, followed by lute players and singers and Dabka dancers, and finally DAM, a kick-ass Palestinian-Israeli hip hop group.

But before the music started, as is unfortunately customary around here, several people had to get up and speak and remind everyone that people are in prison and houses are being destroyed and land is being stolen and Palestine isn't free and we have to be steadfast, etc. Which is fine. But they really do tend to go on and on about it, and it was chilly out. And there was not a single person in the audience who didn't know people were in prison and land was being stolen. There's a time and a place to be reminded of these things, but I wish they would just let us enjoy a concert once in a while.

But one of the speakers was actually quite enjoyable. He came on stage, an imposing figure with a long white beard, flowing black robes, a cylindrical black hat with a train of black cloth flowing from the back and sides, an enormous golden amulet necklace, and a long black staff with a silver orb on top.

I heard a Belgian guy ask an American girl next to me, "What is he, a priest?"

The American girl whispered, "I don't know, maybe he's Greek Orthodox?"

I leaned over and whispered, "Actually, I think he's a wizard." She laughed, but I went on seriously, "They have wizards here, you know."

He was a Greek Orthodox priest, and he spoke in ringing formal Arabic to the audience of mostly Muslim Palestinians about steadfastness and human dignity and freedom for this little nation, and the crowd loved him.

He really did look like he should be teaching Dark Arts at Hogwarts, though. Talk about pageantry. The Holy Land is kind of adorable that way. All the real power has moved to Rome and Riyadh and New York. But this dusty little strip of land still has style.

Combatants for Partying

The night after that there was a party on my Dutch friend's roof with several of her friends from Combatants for Peace, "a group of Israeli and Palestinian individuals who were actively involved in the cycle of violence in our area. The Israelis served as combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinians were involved in acts of violence in the name of Palestinian liberation. We all used weapons against one another, and looked at each other only through weapon sights; however today we cooperate and commit ourselves to" a non-violent resolution to the conflict.

Three Israelis braved the checkpoints to come to the party (and three others would have come if their car hadn't broken down in Tel Aviv) along with a handful of Palestinian ex-militants/freedom fighters, other Palestinians, and some internationals, including a Jewish guy from Canada who's working as a journalist for the Palestine Monitor. One of the Palestinians brought an enormous fruit salad, and another cooked kofta bandoora (spiced minced lamb baked with succulently tender, delicately-spiced potatoes and tomatoes), and we feasted on that and wine and beer in the cool night air.

It was humbling to speak with Israelis who had previously been in the very same role as the people who currently make life so pointlessly difficult for so many good people here. The same people I ridicule and excoriate in these letters sometimes, the people who in reality are caught up in the terrible game almost as helplessly as the rest of us.

These Israelis had been big enough to look past their brainwashing and humbly change their lifestyles and accept the consequences of realizing and accepting their own truths. Even enough to come to scary scary Ramallah after dark for a kofta party on a rooftop without a trace of fear. (And no one who's ever been a guest in Palestine will be surprised that the Palestinian ex-militants stressed to them over and over that "You are most welcome here any time.")

One of the young Israeli women, now a photographer, said that the first thing that caused her to reexamine her belief that Arabs were nothing but crazed enemies was when she was manning a checkpoint in the West Bank and a random Palestinian woman about the same age as her mother brought her a gift of home-baked bread.

The story reminded me of the practice of 'impressment,' which allowed occupying Roman soldiers to conscript any Jewish person in the Judean provinces to carry his equipment for one Roman mile. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "If a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles" (Matthew 5:41). This is an (admittedly back-breaking) way of turning a situation of slavery into a situation of free will and service to a higher law.

And there's an undeniable power in this. Christianity didn't spread to 1/3 of the world's population by the sword (and the whole burning-alleged-heretics-alive thing) alone.

One of the ex-militants, who was one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, said his epiphany came when he was hiking in Wadi Qelt, a valley located between Jericho and Jerusalem, with some Palestinian friends when the weather suddenly turned bad. As they were trying to figure out what to do, they came across some Israeli settlers who were also hiking the valley, and they all worked together to get safely back to civilization.

"Now I could see," he said, "they aren't just crazy people trying to take my land. They are also human beings."

(Dire Straits just came on the RamFM radio station here at Pronto. Life is good. I just wish I could afford more wine.)

After that there was another party at the Grand Park Hotel, which I normally avoid because it's generally full of people who are too stylish and self-conscious for my taste. But "everybody" was supposed to be there, including a couple of Palestinian hip hop artists, and someone offered me a ride to it, and I was already dressed up, so I went.

The music choice was unfortunate (mostly loud and monotonous Israeli-style techno -- they could have just put a metronome next to a microphone and it would have been approximately as danceable) until about 3am, when the hip hop guys did some songs, and then the DJs switched to infectiously danceable Arabic pop music. And it was nice to see "everybody".

At one point, though, I was talking to someone and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my throat, as if I'd inhaled a bit of burning cigarette ash or something. Soon the pain spread and I realized what it was -- tear gas.

The guests retreated to the fresh air outside, and the security guys worked on sealing the exits, airing out the dance floor and bar, and seeing if they could find any clues as to who the culprit had been. (Probably just some idiot who couldn't score with some girl he liked.)

In any case, after half an hour the party was back on. Almost everyone had inhaled tear gas before, so nobody panicked too bad. People were kinda pissed, but on the scale of things, this was a non-event.

Whoever this minor terrorist was, he didn't win.

Just as I was sitting here writing this in Pronto, two Palestinian friends showed up, and one of them was talking about how it was always the public that initiated change and the leadership that co-opted and capitalized on it, and in the process often perverted it toward their own personal ends. Like how Arafat had nothing to do with the First Intifada, but he ended it by signing the Oslo Accords and then allowed Israel to double the settlements in the West Bank between 1993 and 2000 without complaining.

He spoke of one particular Palestinian politician who had signed on to a peace deal with Israel that was not a good deal and did not pave the way for a just peace. But he did go quickly from being nearly penniless to driving a late-model BMW. And of course there's the infamous case of a certain high-level Palestinian politician making money by investing in a company that had secured a contract to build the Wall.

My friend said, "It's always the same here. The people make history; The leaders make investments."

Halliburton, Blackwater, KBR... same same. Sadly, even in a supposedly free and democratic country, our leaders don't treat us much better.

Anyway, it was great catching up with them and with other friends who wandered by presently. Good times.

Yesterday I and a friend enjoyed a bacon-and-eggs brunch with stone-baked rosemary Italian bread and fresh apple-orange-carrot juice cocktail and then visited a Swedish girl whose cat had just had kittens. I rounded out the day with a three-hour Turkish bath -- steam sauna, small cold bathing pool, hot stone platform to lay out on, full-body exfoliation, stone basins of warm water and olive oil soap to wash with, and top-notch full-body massage, all for $25. A perfect Sunday.

I hope all of you are well! As you can probably tell, I'm giddy as a schoolgirl.


"Grotesque and frightening things are released as soon as people begin to work with spontaneity. Even if a class works on improvisation every day for only a week or so, then they start producing very 'sick' scenes: they become cannibals pretending to eat each other, and so on. But when you give the student permission to explore this material he very soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siecle Vienna. We repress our benevolence and tenderness."

    ~ Keith Johnstone, Impro


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