LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Passover, Ronaldo, Richard Gere
18 May 2005
I'm still doing great, keeping busy with visitors,
work, trips, projects, events, and living the
bourgeois Ramallah life.
A Jewish friend of mine from New York/California was
just down for a week, and we went all over the West
Bank -- from the ethnically cleansed Palestinian
neighborhoods of Hebron (where we almost had slop
water dumped on our heads by one of the settlers who
occupy the upper floors of the Old City and regularly
dump garbage on the Palestinians below) to the refugee
camps of Nablus.
We both learned a lot, and I'll write about it when I
In April I enjoyed my first Passover Seder in
Herzliyya, Israel, with an Israeli friend from college
and his family. They were predictably surprised that
I live in Ramallah, which is imagined by most Israelis
to be somewhere between the Wild West and the seventh
circle of hell.
By Israeli law, Israeli citizens are not allowed to
enter Palestinian cities like Ramallah unless they’re
wearing a uniform and carrying a gun, very often in
the dead of night, storming houses, blowing up doors,
arresting and shooting and terrorizing people... or
charging in in broad daylight in tanks or Jeeps,
pointing guns at pedestrians and emptying the busy
streets, hostility bristling like electricity behind
every hastily-closed door and pouring out of the
windows we barely dare peek out of at their
appallingly fascinating unwanted invasions and deeply
insulting violations of our day and our humanity.
We try to live and work and forget we're under
occupation, but they rarely let us forget for long
that we're Israel's subjects and captives, and that
they can essentially do with us as they please.
No wonder such a place is haunting to the young men
and women who have been forced to enter thriving
cities to do terrible and humiliating things to mostly
innocent people, acting as criminals and The Law at
the same time. That'll warp just about anyone.
But my friend's family seemed amazingly open-minded
about my opinion that Ramallah, although surrounded,
strangled, and threatened by settlements, checkpoints,
military bases, and Walls, is a charming and very
livable city with many great restaurants, coffee
houses, and a strong sense of culture, full of
gracious, educated people, and safe for just about
anyone who doesn't try to hurt or threaten anyone
One of the cousins, a yoga aficionado and peace
activist, had even been to Ramallah once for an hour
or so (as a civilian, which is technically illegal,
but you can usually just say you were visiting a
settlement) to attend a meeting. She kind of hurried
through and didn't see much, but it's a start.
Before dinner, a grand aunt who couldn’t make it in
for the holidays called from L.A. While someone else
was on the phone with her, my friend’s mom said, “She
is a Holocaust survivor. She saw all of the worst
things, she was in Dachau.”
I nodded, thinking about the probably very sweet old
lady on the other end of the phone and all she'd seen
as a kid in a place whose name I shudder to write. My
skin crawled. I've seen several Holocaust movies and
documentaries, but being this close to an actual
person involved in the Holocaust made it less abstract
in a shockingly sudden way.
I lost my appetite until chatting with people
distracted my mind and the delicious smells from the
kitchen brought my stomach around.
The food was homemade and lovely: the matzo and
parsley, of course, to symbolize the hasty retreat
from Egypt eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs;
my first gefilte fish, casserole, charoset (fruit wine
compote), guacamole with egg and onion, and delicious
tamar chicken, followed by baked bananas with almond
slivers and chocolate mousse.
I avoided politics almost entirely, but gradually it
came up after dinner. I spoke my mind (though not all
of it), and they generally agreed. Like most Israelis
(I hope), they think the Wall and settlements need to
go, and targeting civilians needs to stop on both
After the big meal, including several readings and
singings, we played Whist with some of my friend's
charming relatives. Most of them had served in the
Israeli military in one capacity or another, which I
was pretty ambivalent about. Then again, I have
friends and relatives in the U.S. armed forces, and
I'd never judge them personally for everything the
U.S. army has done wrong. I put it out of my head and
just enjoyed their company, which was delightful.
My friend said he has a friend who has lived in a West
Bank settlement for 16 years. But he says his friend
would pack up and leave tomorrow without looking back
if he thought peace was on the horizon. Fair enough.
Of course, it's kind of a catch-22, since his
continuing to be there is in itself a major obstacle
to peace. But it's nice to know some settlers are
more interested in peace than in stolen real estate,
at least in the abstract.
Now that the disengagement seems to be a done deal,
Sharon’s ephemeral popularity as Disengagement Guy is
starting to crack a little. Once the settlers
actually get out of Gaza (if in fact they ever do),
many supporters of peace are hoping to be done with
him, opening the way for a general Israeli
disengagement from pathological Messianism and
outdated militaristic thinking.
Unless Netanyahu gets in, and then God help us all.
Since I missed Christmas this year (or rather spent a
rainy underwhelming one in Bethlehem), it was nice to
get an extra family holiday thrown in for the year.
Really enjoyable. It was exceptionally kind and
open-minded of them to invite me. Another little
piece of hope and connection.
My little sister also went to a Passover Seder in L.A.
with a Jewish friend and her family. It was going
smoothly until she mentioned that she had a sister
living in Palestine. A tense silence ensued, after
which my sister was curtly informed that:
(a) There's no such thing as Palestine or
(b) Palestine is very dangerous and her sister is
very likely to get shot by Palestinians;
(c) There's no way Israeli soldiers ever pointed
any guns at her sister, or anyone else for that
(d) Her sister deserved to have Israelis guns
pointed at her because "if she’s with Palestinians,
then she’s a threat."
Ouch. It was her first encounter with that kind of
ugly clamp-minded Pavlovian bigotry coming from
otherwise kind, sane, and educated people she’d never
had any problem with before.
I remember my first few encounters with it after I
came back from Palestine the first time, and how
profoundly upsetting it was, especially coming from
people I thought I knew well. I'm sorry my little
sister had to come in contact with it in the context
When my sister mentioned the Wall to them, they
snapped, “The Wall is only 10%.” Which I guess means
they believe that the Wall only steals 10% of the
available land in the West Bank, the vast majority of
which is Palestinian private property.
The figure is actually much higher, and the land
they’re stealing destroys Palestinian society out of
all proportion to the percentage itself, but that’s
hardly the point. “Only” stealing 10% of the small
remaining land of an already brutalized and
disinherited nation by force is OK? Hm... I guess if
it’s a nation of sub-human undesirables, anything is
They were wearing their "I LOVE ISRAEL. I WANT PEACE.
I AM A ZIONIST." T-shirts, which are also popular on
the Stanford campus. I had to wonder what kind of
peace they meant.
When I got back to Ramallah the next day, there was a
massive parade marching down Main Street with marching
bands, flags, girl and boy scout troops, and several
rows of spectators. At first I didn’t know who or
what it was for. Hamas? Fatah? Communists?
Then I noticed a group of marchers carrying an ornate
brass cross on a wooden pole. Of course! It was the
Greek Orthodox Easter. Little kids were wearing
white, some dressed like angels, and all looking like,
well, kids at Easter.
The Christians of the city (Ramallah, after all, was
originally founded as a Christian town) had their day
in a big way.
On April 2, I took a cab from Nablus (which I’ll write
about shortly) back to my office in Ramallah, where I
was immediately asked to write a press release about
Richard Gere’s visit to a Musical Kindergarten in
Daniel Berenboim is a famous Israeli musician, and
Edward Said, apart from being a great Palestinian
scholar and humanist, was also a gifted pianist. The
Musical Kindergarten of Ramallah, the first of its
kind, founded by the Barenboim-Said Foundation,
teaches all subjects through music -- a pretty
fantastically ground-breaking concept. The students
are mostly poor children from refugee camps.
Dr. Barghouthi showed me several pictures of himself
and Richard Gere talking or playing with the kids.
(On the same day, in addition to his photo-op with
Gere, Dr. Barghouthi also visited several European
Members of Parliament and an entourage from Finland
including the Foreign Minister. And that was just
what he did before noon.)
I immediately forgave Richard Gere for his comically
absurd public service announcement “on behalf of the
world” in which he had urged Palestinians to vote in
the January elections and choose democracy over
violence. Something like that.
I think it’s fine that people like Sean Penn and
Angelina Jolie and Richard Gere are jetting around to
conflict zones. I mean, why not? But Gere’s message
was so bizarre and patronizing, coming from Hollywood
to the besieged villages and refugee camps of
Palestine. It was also completely out of place. The
Palestinians were perfectly capable of choosing
democracy on their own.
If Gere actually wanted to help them implement it, he
could have sent a heartfelt public service
announcement asking Israel to please choose to
renounce the illegal and violent occupation of
Palestinian land and the apartheid policies that make
a mockery of democracy in both Israel and Palestine.
And we all know how that would have been received.
Even the most professional woman in my office rolled
her eyes and sighed a bit when talking about meeting
him, and those of us who didn’t get to meet him were
more than a little jealous.
A few nights ago I sat in the control room of Al
Jazeera’s Ramallah studio while they taped a live show
featuring Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, Hamas Leader Sheikh
Hassan Yusif, and a senior Fatah bureaucrat. They
represented the secular democratic Left, people who
are fundamentalists and/or tired of failed
negotiations and corruption, and the Fatah Old Guard,
respectively. They each have a fragile hold on very
roughly 1/3 of the voting public.
They debated, head-on, no holds barred, but with the
utmost civility. It takes guts to face your
opposition on live global television, especially when
the power struggle is so intense and precarious.
I tried to imagine a talk show in which Ralph Nader,
Donald Rumsfeld, and John Kerry got together to debate
head-on in a civilized manner for 90 minutes right
before major Congressional elections. Wouldn’t that
The talk show host, a famous-ish white-haired guy
usually based in London, opened the LIVE show with,
"Ahlan wa sahlan min London... er, min Ramallah..."
The men in the ultra-modern control room groaned. The
first minute of the show, and already we're in the
wrong country. It was funny. Editing a live show in
real time looks extremely stressful, but your man did
it like a pro.
On Monday, May 16, soccer star Ronaldo was in town for
the day. A friend of mine said that a friend of his
from Al Jazeera was going to interview him. He’d
asked his friend if he could come along, and his
friend had said OK. I bit my tongue to keep from
asking him if I could tag along, too.
But then he came to my office shortly before he was to
meet with Ronaldo with another friend in tow, and none
of us could resist seeing how far we’d get on the path
As it turned out, there was no exclusive interview,
but rather we stood around with the rest of the
world’s media waiting for his entourage to drive up
and drop him off in front of the Prime Minister’s
office. PM Ahmed Qurei is the guy who sold concrete
to Israel for the Wall, among other dastardly and
corrupt deeds, and I had no idea why he of all people
had Ronaldo’s ear.
Anyway, Ronaldo drove up, the press crowded around
like mad, someone rubbed Ronaldo’s head, and the
futbolist fought his way up to the PM’s door.
When he emerged a few minutes later, the same crowds
swelled (including several teenaged boys in yellow
jerseys), and poor old Ahmed Qurei was left standing
with no one paying any attention to him.
Everyone jumped into cars and cabs and followed him to
his next destination in a long, swervy caravan, waving
Brazilian flags out the windows, honking horns, and
yelling all the way. He was heading to a high school
gym in Al Bireh up near the illegal Beit El
We didn’t even manage to get in the door of the gym,
but we heard that when a keffiyeh was put around his
shoulders, the crowd went absolutely wild.
We caught another cab to his next destination, but
when we saw that it was already monstrously crowded,
we went on ahead to the Cultural Palace, where he was
supposed to make a brief appearance at 3:00.
My friend had a press pass, the other girl with us
(who was not a journalist) carried a microphone, and I
flashed my HDIP card all over the place (which gives
me no press credentials whatsoever, but who’s
counting?). We made it through two different media
doors and into the auditorium, where a cute guy
translated Ronaldo’s Portuguese into Arabic and an
adorable little Palestinian girl put another
Palestinian scarf around his neck.
Ronaldo is a UNDP goodwill ambassador, and he brought
a message of peace, love, and football. Cool.
As he was leaving, he was swamped again by media and
teenage boys, but he made it upstairs into a private
room for some kind of private interview. The press
fought like mad dogs to get past the security cordon,
with little success.
And that was enough Ronaldo chasing for one day.
Said one Palestinian girl:
"It is an unforgettable moment for me, and an
unforgettable moment for Palestine to have someone
like Ronaldo visiting here," said Amani Mahfouth, 20,
who triumphantly waved her fist in the air after
shaking Ronaldo's hand.
She said the presence of Ronaldo was far more
exciting than the growing list of world leaders,
including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had recently
visited the city.
"There are a lot of political guests, but normal
people are not interested in them," she said. "We need
to be normal... to have soccer players, artists,
singers. Those kinds of people do not visit Palestine.
We want them."
Ramallah isn't exactly New York, but it's an exciting
little town sometimes.
Next: Nablus in April