On crossing cultures as a western visitor to Palestine

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Editor: Following the recent controversy over the New York Times correspondent’s statements about Palestinian culture, we asked Pamela Olson, the American author of Fast Times in Palestine, how she had dealt with issues of culture shock as a western woman when she went to Palestine. Her response follows.

There was some culture shock, of course, but by the the time I went to the Middle East I had spent time in about two dozen countries, so I was used to acclimating to other people’s contexts.  A lot of things were new, and some were irritating or perplexing at first, but I knew better than to make snap judgments of others based on a mix of ignorance and my own particular sensibilities.  Plus my impressions were overshadowed by how kind and welcoming people were, and how politically aware they were compared to Americans.  It helped that so many of them spoke stunningly good English.

It also helped, I think, that I went to the Middle East without any deep-seated bias.  Just the usual bias of growing up on the US media, but I was already starting to get very skeptical of that.  I also believed, from what I had learned from books and travel, that people are basically the same.  They all love babies, food, beautiful outdoor spaces, jokes, weddings, socializing, and enough freedom to put together a dignified life for their family.  Perhaps since I assumed that beyond the foam and dross of various cultural artifacts mixed with political exigencies, there were just human beings inside, that is what I saw.

As Terence said, “I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.”

Frankly I was like a kid in a candy store.  I love new things and steep learning curves, and people were very patient with my (often deeply inane) questions.  I’ve learned to approach new cultures with a sense of humility, because people are much more open and I learn a lot more.

For a NYT reporter who’s supposed to be an “instant expert,” I guess that must be a bit harder.  Which is a double shame, because people tend to clam up a bit when you come at them full force with your already-formed assumptions, which can lead the uninitiated to think they are being snobbish or inscrutable, which just entrenches your own bias.

Also, I didn’t think of myself as a judge or commentator on the Palestinian predicament or their reactions (much less a judge or commentator with an audience).  I was just a visitor, an observer.  It was only later that I became a writer, and by that time I had already spent a lot of time as not-a-writer.

This is a huge problem among Middle East “experts” in general.  Most of them come at the Middle East from the framework of “trying to become an expert” instead of just inhabiting the framework of the Middle East for a while.  They end up interacting mostly with people who confirm the biases necessary for them to get to the next step in their “experthood.”  When they do interact with people who challenge their framework, they tend to write them off as exceptions or extremists.

If these proto-experts start off their journey saying, “Hang on, I know I just got here but all the conventional wisdom seems wrong,” they tend not to get a high profile advisor, promotion, book deal, plum spot at a think tank or university, or whatever else starts to seem like the rewards of being an “expert.”  And once they’re entrenched, the “epistemic closure” gets even worse.  ( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/28/books/28conserv.html )  You end up with “experts” coming to speak at the think tank where I used to work in Washington, speaking utter nonsense and getting paid good money to do it.

But I’m getting off-topic.  As for the question of culture shock in Palestine, it helped that the society in general made allowances for foreigners, Christians, leftists, etc., and we were left alone to live like we wanted for the most part.  (Though this was more difficult in villages than cities, of course.)  There were some restrictions (like not wearing shorts in public, not drinking alcohol publicly except in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, and some boy/girl stuff that was, in some times and places, various shades of verboten), but we just took it as part of the atmosphere.  (Some foreigners were bothered more than others, and you can always find some people breaking the rules and getting away with it.)

Of course there are things that drive me crazy about any conservative culture (including my own in small town Oklahoma), but I don’t think it’s my place to critique Palestinian culture in a public forum.  I’m neither an expert nor an anthropologist, and while I’m not a complete cultural relativist by any means, I do think it can dip into “bad taste” territory to judge an occupied people, especially if we know very little about them, based solely on what we think of as “our Western” values.

That’s why I love TV shows like Jericho and Revolution.  I shudder to think to what levels of barbarism Americans might descend if our state failed or if we were militarily occupied by a heavily-armed foreign force that didn’t speak our language except for curt orders and curses.  Imagine what our gun-toting fundamentalists would do.  Imagine who would seize power.  (Also, two words:  Hurricane Katrina.)

What is it my place to do?  I think it’s my place to be responsible for what I’m responsible for — such as the unqualified US support for Israel — and let the rest take care of itself.  “Take the log out of your own eye,” and all that.  Like Abraham Lincoln, I believe people will make pretty good choices when given enough freedom and information.  The best I can do now, I think, is try to get the boot I’m responsible for off the necks of people who are (quite predictably) more radicalized and “conservativized” the more they are ground down in fettered misery and slandered in the Western world’s press.

The miracle of all this — and it just doesn’t get enough play in the narrative anywhere — is how kind and welcoming most Palestinians still are despite everything.  It’s absolutely stunning that even now, even after everything that’s happened and continues to happen, wealthy Westerners and Israeli Jews who decide to visit the West Bank or Gaza in a respectful and unarmed way are welcomed as honored guests, taken care of and protected and fed and, perhaps most difficult of all, treated kindly even when they ask enormously stupid and presumptuous questions (though of course some Palestinians aren’t above smirking among themselves once the questioner has departed).  It’s a phenomenon that I can’t describe adequately to people who haven’t experienced it, because it seems too far-fetched to be true.

As I said to Ahmed Moor after he wrote positively about Jodi Rudoren’s writing in the NYT:

And by the way, Ahmed, thanks for your generosity of spirit.  I think this is the most important “weapon” Palestinians have.  For me, at least, it turned a four-day visit into ten years of activism.  :)

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