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Pamela Olson on Life Inside the Palestinian Territories

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I visited Israel and Palestine for the first time in the summer of 2008, and like many who step on the Holy Land's soil, I was confused, overwhelmed, and struck by the intensity of everything from the heat to the political climate. If you have already visited this part of the world, you may have a sense of what I'm describing. If not, I recently came across Pamela Olson's first book, Fast Times in Palestine, which is sort of a Holy Land version of Eat, Pray, Love with more of an awareness of politics.

Describing her two years living and working as a journalist in Ramallah, Olson offers the reader a picture of friendships formed and relationships cultivated as a way to humanize the conflict there. In that way, Olson's book is unique in that it starts first with people, their present experiences and their struggles, instead of seeking to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole. While she spends most of her time in Palestine -- and the goal of the book is primarily to explore the experiences of those Palestinians who are not often depicted in the American media -- she also describes relationships with Israelis as well.

Because the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is such a sensitive issue, I was curious to know more. What follows is a series of questions that I asked to Pamela Olson, a journalist and Stanford graduate, who also worked at a Defense Department think tank after returning from Ramallah.

Why did you decide to move to Palestine?

I decided to backpack in the Middle East after college (when the Iraq war was just getting started) to check out this mysterious region, which the news said was such a maniacal hell hole and Lonely Planet said was such a charming adventure. I planned to skip Israel/Palestine, mostly because it seemed more expensive, and I was short on cash. Then I met some volunteers in Amman, Jordan, who told stories about life in the Palestinian territories that blew my mind. I think a big part of why I went was simply to call their bluff. But the actual reality was even more mind-blowing.

Why did I stay for two years instead of one week, as I had originally planned? The overwhelming kindness of the Palestinian people combined with the beauty of the landscape and the incomprehensibility of the political situation made it like this enormous, enchanting, horrifying puzzle that I couldn't put down once I'd picked it up. As I say in the book, I couldn't imagine a better university of human nature. But more than anything, I think what kept me going was my good friends there and the amazing times we had.

Why did you decide to write this book?

When I tried to describe the things I had seen in Israel and Palestine, people in the U.S. tended to assume I was exaggerating, because it didn't match at all with what they were used to hearing on the news. I decided to write something that started from zero and told an engaging story, so that people would "hear me out" while I painted the full picture. I hope it can help spark a more honest discussion here in the U.S. about the part we play in this conflict.

You worked as a journalist in Ramallah. How is the media coverage you provided different from the kind of coverage you see provided by American media outlets?

American media coverage tends to privilege the Israeli point of view, for example in reporting on casualties (Israeli casualties tend to be covered more extensively in the U.S. media, while the vast majority of casualties are Palestinian) and in privileging Israeli negotiating positions over international law. My reporting came primarily from the Palestinian point of view (though we heavily cited Israeli news sources and human rights organizations) and privileged international law over anyone's negotiating positions. Unlike the U.S. media, which does not explicitly reveal its biases, I was clear in what I was doing, which was helping to present an underrepresented perspective.

In the last chapter of the book, you write, "It's scary to realize how easily we can be manipulated to justify immoral actions, even by books that claim to be moral guideposts." Is this something you worried about as you wrote -- the possibility that you might mislead the reader, especially given the sensitive topics about which you write? How did you handle that?

It's one reason I didn't start writing the book until two years after I left Palestine. It all needed time to cook and settle in my heart and mind. Once I started writing, I made a pledge to myself that I would not simply add to the problem by demonizing anyone, misrepresenting anything, or letting anger or despair overcome reason and empathy. It's clear from the title that the book mostly takes place in Palestine in the context of an American spending most of her time with Palestinians. But I read the Israeli media extensively and have many Israeli friends, and I tried to be fair to their points of view as well, without promoting any false equivalencies. I hope I succeeded.

You yourself are an atheist. Do you think religion can play a positive role in creating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

I would not consider myself an atheist. I did for a long time, but it has evolved since then into a contented not-knowing combined with a healthy personal spirituality that respects many parts of all religions. In any case, this conflict is not primarily a religious one. It is primarily a conflict over land, water, resources, and human rights with an unfortunate veneer of religion slung over it. Neither religion can be said by any serious and honest person to support the policies that prolong this conflict.

Can religion play a positive role? Religion is like anything else. It can be used for good or ill. I hope it can be used in a good way.

One of the things I loved about this book is how you personalize politically charged groups on both sides of the conflict. Why did you choose to do that, to give a human face to, say, a suicide bomber or an Israeli settlement resident?

At the end of the day, whatever divides us, we are all human. There's a quote by Terence, a Berber playwright of the Roman republic: "I am a man; nothing human is alien to me." We have no idea what we might be capable of if we were in the shoes of any of these people. It's good to have a little humility. Recognizing shared humanity can help defuse tensions in many ways, and that can lead to more honest discussions, which can hopefully help lead to human rights and more security for all.

Many Americans identify with the Israeli cause, and they may be disturbed or not believe what you write as a result. What might you want these individuals -- who may struggle with some of what you write -- to get out of reading your book?

First, I would ask them to simply read the stories. They don't have to accept anything, just read. Afterwards I hope they might ask themselves questions such as, "What if this were true?" Or, "What would I do if I were living under the conditions described in this book?" For the record, the book doesn't condone or justify violence of any kind, but I think it can help explain how things have come to this pass. I want security for all people in the region, and even if a given reader cares only about Israeli security, I hope this book will help them consider new methods of achieving that in a sustainable way.

I lived for a summer in Jerusalem and have returned to the region several times afterwards. I always hoped I would gain greater insight into what peace might look like between Israelis and Palestinians, and yet, I usually left feeling that the task of creating lasting peace was daunting. What do you think needs to be done to create peaceful coexistence?

If I knew that, I'd have a Nobel Prize around my neck in no time! It's not an easy thing. Right now no one can see what's around the corner. All I'm trying to do is help people have a more honest understanding of the present. I think that's a good place to start.

Readers may finish this book and want to do something to help. Yet, living on a different continent, it may feel like the task of creating peace is best left to politicians or aid workers. What would you say to these readers?

For one thing, keep reading -- there's much more to learn after you finish my book. Read blogs like Mondoweiss, read books and articles by Palestinians and Israelis themselves, read an Israeli newspaper called Haaretz (a left-leaning paper), and read right-wing news sources in Israel to see how they see the situation. One thing often leads to another, so just get started, and pretty soon you'll be joining the conversation like a pro.

Also seek out local groups that are active on this issue. Learn from them and see what you can contribute. A lot of people don't get involved because they feel intimidated, like they don't even know where to start. My advice is, just start. Anywhere. Once you set the intention and begin the actions, your path begins to open up in front of you.

Also, by all means visit Israel and Palestine if you can! I tried to paint as vivid a picture as I could with my book, but there is no substitute for seeing it for yourself. It's virtually guaranteed to be an amazing, life-changing experience, and that is priceless. This section of my website outlines a few ways to do it: http://www.pamolson.org/visitpal.htm.