LETTERS FROM PALESTINE 2
Olives and Movie Stars
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
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
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
(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
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
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
"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
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
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
'On the heavily-guarded settler-only roads,' she
I said, "But what about all the violence of the past
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
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
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.
"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".
"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.
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
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
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
(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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"Now I could see," he said, "they aren't just crazy
people trying to take my land. They are also human
(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 --
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
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
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."