Passover, Ronaldo, Richard Gere

Pamela Olson
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 can.

* * *

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 else.

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 sides.

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 Palestinians;

(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 matter; and

(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 of me.

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 OK.

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 Ramallah.

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 be nice!

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 to Ronaldo.

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 settlement.

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. Thanks, Ronaldo.

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

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