An Inside Look at Palestine

In our month of the woman, we are talking about strong, sometimes unconventional women in the world. Today an American learns about Palestine.

Book Cover: Fast Times in Palestine
Destination: Palestine

Book: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland (2011) by Pamela Olson

Palestine. The very name of the country evokes emotions.  For many, hearing the names of the countries Palestine OR Israel tends to make them stuff in the ear plugs and pull down the blinders. Maybe if we ignore it the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict, (amazingly the NICEST word that can be applied to the situation)  it won’t touch us. After all–they are way over there, and we vaguely know their seemingly intractable history of revenge and bloodshed, are over here.

Palestine olive grove
Woman sifting olives in a Palestine olive grove

What gets lost in the emotion of our response? The people. It is easier to dismiss political philosophies–even entire governments–if we can just ignore that there are living, breathing people who are born, fall in love, have families, struggle to get food on the table and a roof over their heads, celebrate life, mourn death.  Pamela Olson brings us the whole depressing, messy current political situation of Palestine through her memoir of real people–a few Israelis, many outsiders visiting Palestine for various motivations, and many, many Palestinians.

Even though Olson makes no attempt to hide her love of Palestine and sympathy with the people, she bolsters her emotional stories with towering stacks of facts, meticulously footnoted.

I felt very fortunate to be invited on a Jewish-sponsored tour of Israel in 1990.  Some people worried that it wasn’t a safe time to go. When has it ever been safe in that tiny part of the earth? It turned out that 1990 was practically a golden age for travelers, even though it was during the 1st intifada.  That was before the proliferation of check points in Palestine, that now can prevent Palestinians from getting to their own fields, or to hospitals for urgently needed care.

Israel Palestine wall
Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem

It was before the “wall” (Security Fence) and “safe zones” that have cleared agricultural land and thousands of olive trees that supported Palestinian families for generations. Olson points out an Israeli military report that confirms after several years that although the wall was supposed to be built to protect the borders of Israel, in many places, it was instead used to secure land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, the military determined that it did not deter Hamas suicide bombers from getting into Israel. She describes the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah (the main city of Palestine), Qalandiya.

The mammoth encroaching Wall and its sniper towers dominated the scene.  More than six hundred checkpoints and roadblocks, big and small, saturate the West Bank, which has an area only slightly larger than the state of Delaware.

When we visited, we could easily travel to Bethlehem  which is now walled off. We walked up to the Dome of the Rock and wandered in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, areas that are now either forbidden or difficult to access.

Olson sets out to show us that Palestinians are people who show fortitude in the face of a life made terribly difficult by the depersonalization of all “Arabs” because of the acts of some.  When we visited Israel, we were frequently reminded of rocket attacks into Jewish settlements and the insecurity of people living on borders.  But rarely have I read the comparison of Jewish lives lost versus Palestinian lives lost–broken down by military, civilian, adult and children–in the way that Pamela Olson presents it.

Painting of Israel Security Wall
Painting with photo of sunset taken before the wall was built. Photo by Ian Burt

Olson presents herself as a very naive American college graduate who knew nothing about the countries of the Middle East when she decided to take time off and travel.  Given her intelligent approach to the book, and the fact that she wound up working as the editor of an English language newspaper while she lived in Ramallah, it is a little hard to accept that she is the kind of young traveler who was only interested in partying their way around the world with a total lack of preparation. Nevertheless, presenting herself as a blank slate, allows her to slowly build up the information and make the case for the importance of looking for humane solutions.

As she tries to understand this world, and feels overwhelmed with unexpected kindness,  she says to a Palestinian friend, “But it’s hard sometimes, letting go of the stories you think you know.”  “It’s true,” he said, “some say the battle with your ego is the toughest jihad.”

Preconceptions turn out to be more dangerous than bombs and bullets. If you are ready to question some of yours, this book is for you. Olson writes with passion, but she constantly questions her own reasoning. As you read, you enter into the dialogue. What makes a suicide bombers do what he does? What does being an Israeli soldier at a check point do to the thinking of a young person? What is the role of the United States government? Why does the United Nations not act on its own findings? Why do the Palestinians allow this violence?  Why must killing always result in more killing? Why do the Israelis condone lawless acts in the settlements? Whose land is it, anyway?

Olson quotes a hadith (saying of the Prophet)

…if the day of judgment came and you had a baby palm tree in your hand, even if you saw imminent death approaching, you should still plant it.  Every moment is an integral part of the totality of existence, and any act of faith, and kindness is a victory in itself.

In addition to her passion and facts, Olson presents useful information in the form of maps and a glossary of terms. Even if you are just curious about how on earth a thinking person could actually fall in love with such a downtrodden country–such a nest of dangerous fanatics–Fast Times in Palestine belongs in your traveler’s library.

Note: The publisher provided a digital copy of the book for review, but my opinions are my own.  Photos are from Flickr. Please click on the picture for more information about the photographer. I have included a link to Amazon for your convenience. Even though it costs you no more, A Traveler’s Library gets a few cents for each sale made through those links, so you will be showing your support for the site.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “An Inside Look at Palestine

  1. so many memories and stories of Northern Ireland and the border during the harder times of the Troubles when reading this. I am sure others have memories of other borders.
    your comment about people in other countries not remembering that there are real people living their lives day to day in the midst of all this sort of situation also resonates. thanks for the thoughtful review.

    since you mention your earlier trip, I wonder, would you travel in that area today? or have you?

    1. Kerry: When I went to Israeli, it was as the guest of a Jewish organization, so I felt perfectly safe. They are very cautious with American visitors, as you might imagine. For example, they didn’t take us to the Dome of the Rock,although it wasn’t forbidden at that time– we went on our own. Would I go now? Depends on who would be protecting me. No, I’ve never gone back, however my sister-in-law and her husband have gone to Israel three times in recent years. Palestine might take a bit more sense of adventure.

  2. I bought this book when it first came out on Kindle and loved it – it’s still one of my favourite travel and history books. It’s complicated and beautiful, and Olson is SUCH an evocative writer.

    1. Thanks, Kerry, and as I read your linked article on the book on Judaism and learned that you are Jewish, I think it is particularly meaningful that you liked Olson’s book. Her website sites many reviews in Arab sources, but I’d love to know what Israeli reviewers and Jewish Americans had to say about Fast Times in Palestine.

      1. Hi Pen4hire,

        Here is a review by a Jewish American:

        As well as some blurbs by Jewish Americans (and one Jewish Israeli):

        “Harrowing, funny, vivid, entertaining and deeply humane, Fast Times in Palestine opens a rare window onto Palestinian life. It’s impossible not to be moved on nearly every page.”

        — Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree

        “A moving, inspiring account of life in Palestine that’s enormously informative yet reads like a novel.”

        — Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace

        “As an Israeli whose life was shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found Fast Times in Palestine moving and refreshing. Pamela Olson comes to the Middle East with a blank slate and is therefore able to hold up an undistorted mirror to the reality she encounters.”

        — Miko Peled, author of The General’s Son

        “In a field overcrowded with arcane academic texts and strident polemics, Pamela Olson has broken through with a refreshing read that packs gritty journalism into a fast-paced, intimate personal narrative.”

        — Max Blumenthal, journalist and author

        At least two of the top three reviewers on my book’s amazon page are Jewish and/or Israeli.

        Unfortunately my book has not been published or reviewed in Israel yet — I’m working on it, though! Thanks for your question, hope this answers it.

        1. Thanks so much for replying, Pamela. I understand that there are sympathetic Israelis and Jewish-Americans. I was wondering more about the question of reviews IN Israel, and I hope you are able to get that accomplished! Congratulations on an excellent book and best wishes with spreading the word.

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