A possible cover design for the book
Fast Times in Palestine is a non-fiction novel about my two years in Israel/Palestine. I worked as a journalist, managed the foreign press for a Palestinian presidential candidate, and witnessed the 2005 Gaza Disengagement from inside the Gaza Strip. I also went to dance clubs and house parties, saw amazing concerts at the Ramallah Cultural Palace, and harvested several million olives.
To my surprise, the balance of my memories in Palestine were not just good—they were some of the best times of my life, getting to know the colorful diversity of students and young professionals, musicians and actors, farmers and shopkeepers, professors and politicians, Communists and traffic cops, doctors and lawyers, Christians and artists, and everything in between who make Palestine so delightful, addictive, and unforgettable.
Mixed in with all the sunset barbecues and Dead Sea road trips, though, were some of the most devastating experiences of my life, witnessing and reporting on extremes of oppression, violence, destruction, and pain. Again to my surprise, after struggling through more shock and despair than I realized I was capable of enduring, I emerged with greater faith in the basic goodness of humanity and the reasons to have hope for peace, if only we can recognize and seize them.
Fast Times is one of the few books that seeks to humanize and contextualize the less-well-know Palestinian side without falling into the trap of demonizing Israelis. It is one of the fewer still that does so using the devices that make novels so engaging—humor, suspense, romance, narrative arc, and well-developed characters.
The format of the book is unique in that it starts from zero and gradually ramps the reader up to a wide-angle and sophisticated understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It begins as a travelogue about my first bewildered trips to the Middle East. This introduces readers to the basic questions and many surprises every newcomer comes into contact with and gives good a sense of the culture, atmosphere, and situation on the ground in both relatively sheltered cities like Ramallah and besieged villages like Jayyous.
Once the reader cares about the characters, what’s happening to them, and why, I transition to narrative journalism—a natural transition, given that I worked as a journalist based in Ramallah during these chapters. The stories become more serious and personal, delving into the psychology of living under a military occupation. Extensive footnotes from respected sources generalize the specific stories told.
The years most intensely covered by the book—2004 to 2007—include the death of Yasser Arafat, the Presidential elections of 2005, the ceasefire that ended the Second Intifada without solving any of the outstanding issues, increased settlement activity in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Disengagement and its aftermath, the Hamas elections victory, and the schism between Hamas and Fatah. It is nearly impossible to make sense of what's happening now without understanding these events.
The last four chapters are deeply infused with political, moral, and legal analysis. The Epilogue brings it all home in Washington, DC, where I worked at a federally-funded think tank for more than a year. This final section explains the results and aftermath of the January 2006 Hamas election victory and describes the mindset and policies of Washington, why they are out of touch and harmful to all parties involved, and what ordinary Americans can do about it.
The market couldn’t be more ripe for this book. America has a new President, more and more scholars and public figures challenging our current policies, and the Gaza war and Goldstone Report raising public awareness to unprecedented levels. What’s missing is a book that offers a thorough explanation of this intractable conflict—from the First Zionist Congress to the Second Intifada—in way ordinary Americans can relate to and enjoy.
In addition to being an excellent primer on Middle Eastern history, culture, and politics, Fast Times is a great travel memoir in its own right. From idyllic olive groves to Palestinian beer gardens, from Passover Seders in Tel Aviv to Ramadan in Hamas villages, from the latte-sipping elites of Ramallah to militant rallies in Nablus, everyone from Middle East experts to total neophytes will enjoy this fascinating journey of beauty and terror, of hospitality and homicide, of the absurd and the sublime constantly together—a microcosmic view of an ageless human story with global implications.
To stay in the loop about when the book will be available for purchase, join the "Fast Times in Palestine" Facebook group. If you have contacts who might be interested in representing or promoting Fast Times in Palestine, or if you have questions or comments, you can reach me on pamolson (a) gmail.
Chapter 1: From the Midwest to the Middle East
Also in January of 2006, Hamas won a sweeping Palestinian Legislative Council election victory. While I was no particular fan of Hamas, I was appalled by how badly their victory was misread and mishandled by the US media and the American and Israeli governments. Hamas had run on a platform of ‘change and reform,’ not ‘Islamism and violence.’ They knew their victory was a protest vote against Fatah more than an endorsement of their charter, and they knew they would be tested for the first time not as an opposition party accountable to no one but as a governing party accountable to everyone. They showed early signs that they were willing to respect a comprehensive ceasefire, allow Abbas to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, and abide by a peace deal that passed a Palestinian referendum.
When a strong, previously rejectionist party moves toward the moderate political fold, it can signal the possibility of a real breakthrough after a long stalemate. It can be a real test. If they pass, genuine progress might be made because they have the legitimacy, authority, and security apparatus to enforce calm.
Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost. Israel and the world slapped sanctions on the PA, arrested elected Hamas leaders, and imposed preconditions for talks that Hamas could not accept without meaningful parallel concessions from the Israelis. With America and Israel supporting Fatah at the expense of Hamas, tensions increased within Palestine. Fighting broke out between the factions, and the territories are now split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
While I was in Washington, Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby were published in quick succession. Together, they opened a crack in the taboo against questioning America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel and paved the way for serious consideration of a more thoughtful and balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine question. But the myths and taboos surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict are dying hard, in large part due to the vacuum of information surrounding the Palestinians.
I finally realized that for my analysis to be intelligible to most Americans, I would have to go back to the beginning and explain how my worldview was turned upside-down in the Holy Land as my ‘conventional wisdom’ assumptions were blasted one-by-one through personal experiences followed by years of careful research and analysis. I’d have to put a human face on the Palestinians and their situation in order to paint a compelling picture of the lives, land, and cultures being lost on our watch. And I would have to make it clear why America and Israel’s current policies toward the Palestinians are hurting both Israel’s and our own prospects for peace and security. The best way I could do that was by writing a book that took readers through the same steps I went through in a clear, engaging, and relatable way.
So in the fall of 2007, I quit my job in Washington, DC, moved back to Ramallah, and got to work writing Fast Times in Palestine.
The wide, suspicious eyes of the young Israeli border guard were a rude shock after all the laid-back hospitality in Jordan.
“I’m just a tourist,” I said, probably too nonchalantly.
“What kind of tourist?”
“Well, I’m a Christian,” I said, starting to sweat and wishing I’d worn a cross like I’d been advised, “and I want to see the holy sites.”
“What holy sites?” His tone suggested he’d never heard of any ‘holy sites’ in Israel.
I stared for a moment. “You know,” I said carefully, as if one of us might be slightly insane, “like Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth—”
He cut me off sharply: “Why Nazareth? What’s in Nazareth?”
It was just a random Biblical-sounding name as far as I was concerned, an ancient hamlet whose modern manifestation I hadn’t even tried to imagine. In my fog of near-total ignorance, it was impossible to imagine I would one day be working with a Palestinian presidential candidate, witnessing and reporting on historic events in the Gaza Strip, and advocating for Middle East peace in Washington, DC. But I had clearly picked the wrong answer.
“Because, I mean, that’s where Jesus was born and grew up and—”
“What? He was what?” The guard’s eyes darted around nervously, as if making sure he had back-up nearby.
“He…” What have I said now? “Oh, right! Sorry, obviously he wasn’t born there—”
“Where was he born?!”
“He was born in… uh…”
Christ. I’d sung about where Jesus was born every Sunday of my Bible Belt upbringing. But I’d just finished reading a Middle East guidebook, so all my associations were shifted, everything was a jumble in my head, a border guard with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder was breathing down my neck, and I couldn’t think.
Just start at the beginning, I told my fevered mind. There was a woman on a donkey, and they went to an inn, and everybody sings O Little Town of—
“Bethlehem!” I smiled and shrugged expansively, as if it were the most basic knowledge in the universe, trying desperately to look relaxed rather than relieved.
The guard finally calmed down. I just hoped he wouldn’t figure out the connection between me and the two men behind me. If he did, we could all be in trouble.