After three and a half years, I’m delighted to announce that my book, Fast Times in Palestine, is between covers. It’s modeled in a sense after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that didn’t try to pontificate about the evils of slavery but simply displayed these evils in the context of a story full of love, beauty, suspense, cruelty, and deeply human characters. It was therefore able to reach and move broad audiences.
Fast Times is non-fiction but it reads like a novel, with as many laugh-out-loud scenes as there are crushing horrors. The aim is to put things in a context that any American with half a heart can relate to at this crucial time. The hope is that after people like Mondoweiss regulars read it, they’ll pass it on to friends and relatives who can’t imagine why they’re so passionate about Palestine.
Below is an excerpt followed by ordering information. The main character in this excerpt is Qais, a Palestinian from Jayyous whom I was sort of almost dating, except that we could never get a moment to ourselves because of our crazy schedules — I worked in Ramallah while he studied in Jenin and helped his dad on their farm whenever he had time off — and because his family welcomed me as a daughter whenever I visited Jayyous, but they never let us be alone together. The only reason we could get to know each other well was because both of us spoke Russian and no one else did, so we could at least speak freely.
In this scene, Qais has carefully arranged his schedule so he can visit me in Ramallah for the first time.
A few days later, Qais called.
“I’m coming to Ramallah on Saturday morning, insha’Allah.”
My eyes widened. “Seriozna?” (Seriously?) The coming weekend would be his last before classes started again. And he wanted to spend it together. Maybe there was hope for us after all.
He laughed. “Yes. Insha’Allah.”
He called again on Saturday morning and said he was on the bus and would arrive in forty minutes if there were no checkpoints. I happily began cleaning the house, buzzing with energy, humming with possibilities.
By the time I finished and looked at a clock, I was startled to realize nearly two hours had passed. I called Qais’s number. He rejected the call.
Feeling some mixture of alarm and irritation, I texted, Bolshoi checkpoint?
Several minutes later, he texted back:
They booked my ID and the bus went i dont know wat wil happen. I am stopped with some bodyelse. Dont try to cal. I wil cal wen they leave me. My kissing to u.
My blood runs cold. This is how it starts. The soldiers take them off their bus, off the street, out of their house, and they disappear, maybe for hours, maybe for days, maybe for years. Palestinians can be held in Israeli jails for up to three months without charge or trial, a practice known as ‘administrative detention.’ The three-month sentences can be renewed indefinitely. I’ve heard stories of innocent people being held for years in Israeli prisons, of people being destroyed by the experience. No warrant. No charge. No phone call.
This isn’t arrest in any sense I recognize. This is government-sponsored kidnapping.
If the soldiers are just harassing him, he’ll call in a couple of hours. If they’re taking him for days or months, I’ll have to sit here as dreadful minutes drag into unbearable hours waiting for his call, my imagination getting worse as time goes on. I can’t concentrate enough to do anything but stare at my silent phone.
By the time four hours have passed, I am a basket case.
Shadi [Qais’s older brother] calls at four in the afternoon and says he’s been trying to call his brother all day with no luck. He asks me if Qais reached Ramallah.
“No,” I say. “He was stopped at a checkpoint. Soldiers took him off his bus.”
Shadi is silent for a moment. “Please call me if you hear anything.”
“I will. Same to you, OK?”
“Of course.” I hang up and think, Qais must have told Shadi he was coming to visit me, even though it was supposed to be a secret. A slight pang of betrayal is quickly replaced by the realization that it was a very sensible thing to do in a time and place where he knows he can disappear at any moment without warning.
Yasmine [my roommate, a sassy Communist from Gaza] shows up half an hour later with a cheeseburger and fries from the Checkers on Main Street. I haven’t eaten all day. She splits her food with me. I numbly choke it down.
She says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, habibti, they do this all the time. One time they took me off my bus at a checkpoint and made me stand in the sun for ten hours.”
She scoffed. “There is no reason. They just do this to humiliate us. He is not politically active is he? He is just a student. Maximum they will beat him and throw him in prison for a few days.”
I hope to God she’s right. But even that is more than I can bear imagining. He’s never been in prison before. If they keep him more than two days, he’ll miss the beginning of class. Even if he misses a single hour of his life, a day with his family, a week of class, it’s more than I can bear. Anything worse is beyond imagination, but I imagine it all the same.
Once while we were sitting on his porch in Jayyous, Qais told me about a cousin who’d been in prison for two months in unsanitary conditions and was suffering from terrible hemorrhoids and back pains, neither of which he’d suffered before. I think of Qais sitting next to me on the porch, whole and perfect, telling me about his poor cousin. Now maybe it is his turn.
The worst part is that even if they let him go and don’t hurt him, for every friend and mother and sister and daughter who’s ever felt what I am feeling (and much, much worse), the fears of some are justified. Some loved ones never come back or spend years of their lives being broken, caged, tortured, starved, injured and sickened, their dreams curtailed by the year, their hopes ground down into the most basic things they’d taken for granted before: respect, decent food, seeing their family. Never mind what they want to study, what lessons they want to teach their kids, where they want to travel or how they want to arrange their garden.
Hours before, my hopes for a nice visit with Qais were very important to me. Now all I dare dream is that he’ll be treated reasonably well and get to school on time. These dreams seem like almost too much to ask, whereas before they were a given. Imagine the whims of teenaged soldiers defining the boundaries of people’s hopes and dreams!
I call Shadi, but he still hasn’t heard anything. He sounds as worried as I am.
I call a friend named Mohammad Othman, a wiry peace activist from Jayyous who travels the world educating people about the situation in Palestine. We meet in a coffee house on Main Street.
“My brother was arrested one time while he was eating falafel in a restaurant,” he says. “The official report said he was throwing stones. But many witnesses, including Israelis, said he was not. I called a lawyer and human rights groups, and he was released after six days.”
“Six days! Surely they won’t keep Qais for six days…”
“And my best friend, who is also not political, was arrested eight days ago. He is still missing. We think he is in the Shin Bet interrogation facility in Petah Tikvah. I hope not. I’ve heard stories about the Shin Bet torturing and fatiguing prisoners to the point that they will admit to killing Yitzhak Rabin if only they can be left alone.”
My mind and stomach are spinning. I’m reminded of a time when I was fifteen and my mom asked me if I knew how to drive a stick shift.
“Sure,” I said confidently.
“How do you know how to drive a stick shift,” she asked, “if you’ve never tried?”
“I read a book about it.” They all laughed at me. Sure enough, when I tried to drive my brother’s little Honda Civic, I nearly dropped the engine out of the bottom of the car.
It’s the same difference, it turns out, between reading a thousand human rights violations reports and then having someone you personally care about disappear.
My body feels like I’ve been crying all day, but I’m too wrung out to cry. Yasmine and Mohammad seem almost embarrassed by how sensitive I am. In so many words they tell me to grow up. These things happen. If you want to live in Palestine and not be a complete greenhorn ajnabiya (foreigner), you’ve got to put a little starch in your spine.
On the one hand, I dread and fight against losing this sensitivity, because if I begin to accept things no one should ever accept, I’ll have lost a part of my humanity. But if I weep for every kid killed in Gaza, if I waste a day with my gut aching hollow and my back bent in dread and fatigue every time a friend disappears, I’ll never stand up.
But if we don’t put ourselves in others’ shoes now and then, we risk losing sight of the silent helpless horror that lies just below the surface of what we think we know. We can’t ignore it just because it is silent, snuffed out and shut up. It is there, manifestly, and it will come for all of us if we don’t put out the fires somehow.
I can’t stand the thought of going to bed without knowing where he is or what’s being done to him. But I don’t know what else to do. I lie in bed with my phone next to me until unconsciousness overtakes me.
I wake up in the morning, and the nightmare continues. I go to the office for something to do besides stare at my silent phone. I start writing the story of my weekend, trying to capture some of the feelings while they are still raw. It is impossible.
At half past seven, 32 hours after Qais disappeared, my phone rings. I see his name on my phone. My stomach seizes. Maybe it’s his family telling me that—
“Privyet.” (Hi.) It’s his voice, full of sardonic exasperation.
Warm tears of relief stream over my fingers and onto my phone. The only utterances I can manage sound clumsy and inarticulate.
“Qais, are you OK? What happened?”
He spoke in an indignant stream of Russian so fast I couldn’t understand it all, but I gathered that they had “checked his ID” for a few hours. “Kto ya, Bin Laden ili shto?” he asked. (Who am I, Bin Laden or what?) Then they tied his hands, blindfolded him, and told him to get into an army Jeep. He asked why. They said, “Just go.”
They took him to a settlement, tied him to a chair, and interrogated him about every aspect of his life. He had no idea if he would be in there for hours or years, and he was afraid he’d miss the beginning of school. They repeated questions incessantly. They terrorized and tormented a completely innocent person for thirty-two hours, not to mention his friends and family, and ruined all of our weekends. And there’s no one to appeal to. They are the law.
After we said good-night and hung up, I felt like a thread of unbearable tension holding me up sickeningly by the armpits had been cut. I was left fallen in a dazed heap in an old landscape of everyday concerns that now seemed unfamiliar and strange.
After all that, I just had to catch a taxi. Go home. Brush my teeth. Wake up the next morning, go to work, check my email. Life goes on. It keeps going on and on, with or without you. You ride the wave called ‘normal life’ because it seems easier. Every now and then, though, you catch a glimpse of just how mad it all really is.
You can find reviews, excerpts, and other information about Fast Times in Palestine at the author’s website. You can purchase the paperback for $14.95 directly from the author, through her Amazon-affiliated sell page, or from Amazon.com. You can also purchase it for Amazon Kindle or for iPhone, iPad, and other eReaders for $8.99.