Fast Times in Palestine: Interview with Pamela Olson

“Most Americans have a framework in their head that doesn’t include anything about Arabs or Muslims other than stereotypes,” said Pamela Olson, author of the book Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair With a Homeless Homeland. “If you say something counter to those frameworks they have in their minds, it tends to bounce off because it doesn't fit within the narratives they construct about what’s going on. So, in order to really build up this world that’s been so badly misrepresented, you really have to start from the ground up.”

Ms. Olson’s travel memoir, published earlier this year, covers her time working as a journalist for more than two years in Palestine, which she described as "a place that most people have a very skewed and undeveloped understanding of.” She decided to write the book to share her experiences and show Americans a different point of view.

“People don’t really know anything about the geography, they don’t know anything about the culture, they don’t understand the sense of humor, they don’t know about the occupation, they don’t know about the political situation,” she explained. She said she knew that building “this very complex and complete and fascinating world” for an American audience would be a big challenge.

Ms. Olson was surprised about how good the reception has been on her book and how relatively little push back she received, noting a big shift in US public opinion on the conflict.

“It’s clear that between 2003 when I started this and 2013, things have changed an enormous amount…There’s many books being written, articles are getting better, a little bit, little by little in the American press. Things are changing. I don’t know when it’s going to reach a tipping point or what’s going to happen when it does, but we keep chipping away at it,” she said.

The interview also covered Ms. Olson's view of the current peace process between Israel and Palestine, in which she sees a number of issues. For her, it seems the Palestinians are divided between two political parties: Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. She said that Hamas—which gave up terrorism and moderated its political positions when its representatives ran for office—became marginalized and returned to extremism because the US and Israel refused to recognize the democratic results.

“The leadership in the Palestinian territories is fractured. They haven’t been able to [have] elections because the two territories are estranged from each other. There’s really no Palestinian leadership now that actually represents Palestinians,” she said.

She said that the difficulties with the two sides conflicting views of the two-state solution and the questionable brokering of the United States also pose problems for the peace process.

The interview was conducted by Nadia Mughal, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

Nadia Mughal: We’re pleased to welcome Pamela Olson, author of the book Fast Times in Palestine, a travel memoir of her two year stay in Ramallah, Palestine during which she served as head writer and editor for the Palestine Monitor and foreign press coordinator for the Palestinian presidential candidate Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. The book offers an inside look into the realities of life in Palestine while addressing the political and historical challenges of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pamela, thank you for joining us at the Global Observatory today.

I want to begin by asking you, how did you find yourself in Palestine, and what made you write the book?

Pamela Olson: Well, I found myself in Palestine by accident. After I graduated from college with a degree in physics, I decided to go traveling for a while, and I found myself in the Middle East for a number of reasons, one of which was the Iraq War [that] was just getting ramped up at that time in my life. And this was the fall of 2003, and I was dating a Lebanese guy, who talked about the Middle East as if it was Club Med. He said the women were gorgeous, the beaches were amazing, the food was the best in the world, and I am thinking, okay I am hearing this from him, and then on the news, I am hearing it’s a vast desert full of Kalashnikov-wielding maniacs who want to kill you for your freedom. So, there’s kind of a cognitive dissonance going on. So, I kind of wanted to check it out. And by then I learned to speak a little bit of Arabic and learned the Arabic alphabet. And a friend from France emailed me unexpectedly and said hey, why we don’t travel in Egypt together. So we did, and we were just kind of tourists for a few weeks, and I wandered up to Amman, Jordan.

Up until now, I had just been like doing the pyramids, scuba diving in the Sinai, and whatever; it was a lot of fun. But now, it was starting to get like oh, we’re sort of sandwiched between two major conflict zones, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, which according to the news back home, the Iraq war was more or less under control and it’s fine. According to the journalists I was meeting in Amman, Jordan, it was bloody chaos and getting worse. I didn’t know who to believe exactly, so I wanted to go to Bagdad and check it out, but I got talked out of it from some journalists, they were like, look kid, don’t even think about going to Bagdad right about now, it’s way too dangerous. And I met a couple of guys on their way to Palestine and I thought, it’s also a conflict my country’s involved in, not as directly, but still involved. Also, the stories they were telling me were very different from what I had heard in the news and it seems a lot less crazy than what’s happening in Bagdad, so I followed them in, and, sure enough, it was like, a 180 degrees different from what I had been hearing in the mainstream American press all my life.

As bad as the stories they were telling, it turns out, they were toning them down so that I wouldn’t just reject them outright. The thing that was shocking was not just the violence and the repression, but also how kind and welcoming the Palestinians were, and how much fun we had, and how funny they were and how like, half the people in this tiny village of Jayyous spoke English, which, you know, I am from a small town in Oklahoma, we barely speak English in Oklahoma, much less a second, third and fourth language. 

I met somebody who spoke English, Russia, Hebrew, and Arabic, and other people who spoke Hebrew and Arabic and English. I was very impressed by the people I was meeting. And it happened to be the olive harvest, and I had an amazing time doing that. Ramadan came up pretty soon and I had an amazing time being invited to five different places for dinner every night. And all of this together, I just became really intrigued, and I ended up staying there two and half years, which were two and half of the best years of my life. So I wanted to share all of that—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly—and try to educate Americans about a place that most people have a very skewed and undeveloped understanding of.

NM: What were some of the challenges you faced in trying to convey what life is like for the Palestinians under occupation?

PO: There are a huge number of challenges, because most Americans have a framework in their head that doesn’t include anything about Arabs or Muslims other than stereotypes. If you say something counter to those frameworks they have in their minds, it tends to bounce off, because it doesn’t fit within the narratives they construct about what’s going on. So, in order to really build up this world that’s been so badly misrepresented, you really have to start from the ground up. People don’t really know anything about the geography, they don’t know anything about the culture, they don’t understand the sense of humor, they don’t know about the occupation, they don’t know about the political situation. So, all of these things that make up this very complex and complete and fascinating world–to build it for an American audience that knows nothing–like I knew nothing before I went over there–I knew it was going to be a big challenge, and I knew I was really going to have to start with stories and characters people can relate to, and settings and adventures and even, in some cases romance, that a Western mind can grasp on to and fit that to their view of the world somehow, as just human beings like anybody else but also in a really extraordinary situation. Getting all that across was a challenge, but people have been kind in their remarks about the book, of saying, oh now I want to visit Palestine. There have been two different people who’ve told me they visited Palestine because of my book.

NM: President Obama visited Israel and the West Bank in March this year, in which he urged both sides to return to direct negotiations for a two state solution. What is your take on the current peace process? What do you think leaders in the US and Palestine should do to move forward?

PO: There are a number of problems with the possibility of a peace process right now. I am going to sort of outline those a little bit before we move into what we should do to move forward. So, for one thing, you have the Palestinians divided between Fatah and the West Bank and Hamas and the Gaza Strip. Hamas was elected the leaders of the [Palestinian Authority] in 2006, and when most Americans hear that Hamas was elected, they say, oh they’re extremists, they’re terrorists, they’re Islamists, if the Palestinians voted for them they obviously want those things. But in fact what I watch in 2005 when I was there, was Hamas giving up terrorism, not running on any kind of Islamism, because most Palestinians don’t want that, and most Palestinians didn’t want suicide bombings. And moderating their positions politically, even saying they’d support a two-state solution if it passed a Palestinian referendum. I am no fan of Hamas, but I was actually hopeful when they were elected because I could see if they can moderate as well and then you have Fatah and Hamas both moving in a moderate direction, then, who knows what could happen, maybe there can finally be a breakthrough. But, of course, the world, led by the US and Israel, refused to recognize the democratic results, and as a result, Hamas was marginalized, they have gone back to extremism, they have nothing to lose now. The leadership in the Palestinian territories is fractured. They haven’t been able to [have] elections because the two territories are estranged from each other.

There’s really no Palestinian leadership now that actually represents Palestinians, that’s problem number one. Problem number two, the Israeli government, lead by Netanyahu – he’s very reluctant to say two-state solution, but even when he says two-state solution, what he means is, East Jerusalem and most of the settlements annexed to Israel, the Jordan River valley having a presence on the eastern side of the West Bank, and essentially all that’s left is a little silver in the middle of kind of isolated cantons, which Palestinians would never accept that as a state. When they say two-state solution, Palestinians mean the 1967 borders, the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and control over their own borders, over air space, electromagnetic spectrum, water–genuine sovereignty. So, even when they talk about two-state solution, they’re saying two very different things. And even in Israel when you say two-state solution, a lot of people and Netanyahu’s cabinet that don’t even go that far. So, the two positions are so far apart. That’s difficulty number two.

Difficulty number three: the United States is one sided. You know there was a press conference not too long ago when a spokesperson for the State Department essentially admitted that if Palestinians do something unhelpful to the peace process, they’re going to be swiftly and severely punished. If Israelis do something such as expand settlements, there’s no consequences. So, when a broker is sort of on the side of the country that already has all the power, has the military, has the nuclear weapons, has the settlements built on Palestinian land where as the Palestinians have no settlements built on Israeli land, it’s hopelessly one sided. And unfortunately, the vast majority of Palestinians don’t have any hope for this process, and in fact, most Israelis don’t either. So, that’s a lot of big problems.

As for what to do to move forward, one excellent place to start is to allow Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government, stop trying to sabotage that. Allow them to do it, allow Hamas to actually have accountability to the Palestinian public. Right now they don’t have it because there’s no elections, but if there can be some kind of unity government deal allow, real elections, see what happens next, you may finally have a Palestinian government that’s more legitimately representing the Palestinian people.

And the other thing to do that’s obvious is that the US can [make sure there are] real consequences when Israel does things that makes the two-state solution more and more difficult, or even impossible. Unfortunately, I don’t see a horizon for either of those things at the moment.

NM: As you talk about in your book, you worked as a foreign press coordinator for the Palestinian presidential candidate Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who ran against Mahmoud Abbas in 2005. Tell us a little more about that experience.

PO: Speaking of Palestinian leaders, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, when he ran for president in 2005, he ran with the Palestinian National Initiative, Al Mubadara – they’re moderates, pro-peace, two-state solution, based on international law, non-violent resistance, building civil society, equal rights for women and minorities, and everything else, all these great things that nobody in the West should have a problem with. But when he ran for president against Fatah, these guys have been in power for decades, they’re known as the Fatah old guard. They haven’t brought any new ideas since the 60s and Palestinians were getting fed-up with it.

After Arafat died, they were willing to give Mahmoud Abbas a chance, but a lot of people were skeptical for various reasons, because a lot of the head honchos of the Palestinian Authority, they have special VIP check-points, they can travel where ever they want, they have preferential business deals, they can hire their nephews and their nephew’s wife, they’re fat and happy, they’re fine with this occupation whereas for everybody else—obviously, it’s a very different story. So for them to have Dr. Mustafa Barghouti trying to kind of upset the apple carts, and get elected of all things, they tried to put the kibosh on it as much as they could. Abbas—he has more control over Palestinian state TV, and I think 94% of coverage was allocated pro-Abbas coverage. He has security forces all over the place that gave Dr. Mustafa’s volunteers a hard time.

But the biggest problem, by far, for Dr. Mustafa was Israel. The Israeli government said of course we’re going to minimize checkpoints, in the run up to elections, we’ll let everybody vote. We’ll allow free movement for Palestinian presidential candidates, and then, you know, on the ground, as we’re trying to campaign, you watch as he’s prevented from going to East Jerusalem, prevented from going to the Al-Aqsa mosque, prevented from going to Hebron, had a really hard time getting into Gaza, where a million and a half voters live. He was arrested a couple of times, he was beaten at one point, by Israeli soldiers on his way from one campaign stop to another. He was hospitalized and he said, how are we supposed to have free and fair elections when not only can the population not really move, the candidates, other than Mahmoud Abbas, can’t really move. The campaign season was about two months–I know that’s impossible to imagine for Americans – but two months to reach all these people including in remote areas where the people never heard of them before. It’s extremely difficult, and when there are all these restrictions and all these problems and this and that, it’s incredibility difficult.

Despite all that, he still received about 20% of the popular vote, which in my mind, among other things, it was a massive protest vote against Fatah –people very fed-up with Fatah being corrupt and complacent and not really representing people. But they were ready to give Abbas a chance. By the time Hamas was elected in 2006, it was pretty clear. It wasn’t like, “yes we support Islamism and terrorism,” it’s like, we hate Fatah and Hamas is moderating enough that we give them a chance.

NM: Finally, you recently finished a book tour that took you all across the United States. What kind of reception did the book received during your tour? Do you feel that US public opinion and discourse on the conflict is changing?

PO: Yes, so, I was actually really pleasantly surprised on the book tour how good the reception has been and how relatively little opposition or push back there has been. It’s almost scary, actually, because I kept bracing myself and waiting for it and it never comes. One thing that happen was, I was going to speak at a high school in California, and one of the parents of the children found out about it and complained to the principal and said, ‘how can you let this person speak? She’s married to a Palestinian, she has an obvious anti-Israel agenda.’ And I was like, ‘oh great, okay, that’s it I guess.’ Because five years ago, it would have been. All you needed to do was throw out the accusation and people just don’t even want to deal with you. 

But in this case, the principal talked to the organizer, the organizer talked to me, and I said, ‘well, you know, here’s xyz evidence that in fact I don’t have any anti-Israel agenda, I am not married to a Palestinian. Even if I was, that shouldn’t disqualify me, but as it happens, I am not.’ And the way the principal reacted; he was frustrated with that parent. But he did his due diligence, he talked to me and it was fine. I talked and the kids were very receptive and it was really exciting.

There were some hecklers at a book tour stop at a Barnes and Noble in the Upper West Side, but it was clear that even in the Upper West Side, the crowd was on my side. It’s been going really well as far as that goes. I’ve been getting good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, National Geographic. I had an interview with Rick Steves. And the sales have been good and steady, and I am happy with that.

And it’s clear that between 2003 when I started this and 2013, things have changed an enormous amount. One friend summed it up by saying you used to need security detail to bring a Palestinian speaker on campus and now you need a security detail to bring an Israeli speaker on campus. Things have shifted so much –especially on campuses [which] are usually the vanguard. They sort of presage what’s coming. If you read articles in The New York Times about Israel and Palestine, they still tend to skew towards the Israeli view of things. But, then you read the reader recommended comments at the bottom and seven, eight or nine of them of the first ten reader recommended comments, will be right on point, right where reality actually is, and not where The New York Times says it is.

Yes, I am seeing a big shift in public opinion, and the question is, how do you translate that shift into some kind of political action or outcome. There’s different things afoot; one of them is the boycott, divestment and sanctions initiative which essentially says until Israel obeys international law and these different points, we shouldn’t allow them to continue the occupation with no pain whatsoever, no consequences whatsoever. Right now, the Israeli elections are tacking to the right because moderate Israelis who would sort of otherwise be pro-peace, they’re complacent, they’re happy –things are fine, so they’re not active. And the right wing is very active and so they have all of the power. There’s nothing really giving any leverage for Israelis to be actively moderate. So that’s one initiative. There are others as well. There’s many books being written, articles are getting better, a little bit, little by little in the American press. Things are changing. I don’t know when it’s going to reach a tipping point or what’s going to happen when it does, but we keep chipping away at it.

NM: Pamela, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

PO: It’s my pleasure, thank you.



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