On crossing cultures as a western visitor to Palestine

on 9 Comments

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.  :)

About Pamela Olson

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine. She blogs here.

Other posts by .

Posted In:

9 Responses

  1. Maximus Decimus Meridius
    November 29, 2012, 12:25 pm

    I’ve travelled in the Middle East fairly widely and have always been struck by how incredibly warm and friendly the people are. I always tell people that if they want to know what it’s like to be a film star – with people approaching you to shake your hand and have their photo taken with you – then go to Syria (not so much right now, of course). I had complete strangers walk up to me in the street and just start chatting, little girls giving me flowers, men carrying my bags and making sure I was on the right bus…. and so on. I had a similar experience in Iran. When I asked a family the way to the metro station (in my terrible Farsi) they insisted on walking me there, even buying tickets (for which they refused to let me pay, even though the cost of the ticket was not insignificant for them) so as to ensure they put me on the right train. The way people treat you like gold, and expect nothing in return, is almost embarrassing.

    • W.Jones
      November 29, 2012, 2:05 pm

      I don’t know about those countries, but in some the flip side can be that there is danger and other people may take advantage of you. I think there are bummed out places in the US where people care about you and take their time actually listening to what you say, and others where random “better off” “respected” “more important” people rip you up. Cie la vie.

  2. Sasha Gelzin
    November 29, 2012, 2:26 pm

    With all due respect, this post barely scratches the surface and sets a dangerous precedent for future generations of solidarity activists.

    The work of confronting the deep-seated racism and orientalism instilled in us by society is not nearly as painless as Pamela describes. It is not about recognizing Palestinians are humans and like us enjoy eating food and smiling at babies (ps this is a deeply problematic, orientalist paradigm that either infantilizes Palestinians as a people who do not understand the gravity of their circumstances or marginalizes justifiable anger).

    The space where we as witnesses, activists and organizers begin to confront our own racism and prejudice (some call this “the growing edge”) is a DEEPLY uncomfortable place. When I first confronted my own orientalism, in a moment that was significantly less public than Jodi Rudoren’s, I fought hard against accepting that I am a settler, I am a racist, and I am an orientalist. Because who wants to acknowledge that they benefit from a system of oppression, and that they are complicit in it? Yet that is where our assumptions are challenged, this is where we learn, and where our ideas evolve.

    It is also important to recognize that confronting orientialism, and all other forms of oppression, is an ongoing process for all of us because systems of oppression are an ongoing process.

    We are never done with the work of anti-oppression.

    • Empiricon
      November 29, 2012, 3:58 pm

      Sash, I applaud your recognition and your journey. But I think it depends on how much baggage you come in with. It seems that so many Americans are totally brainwashed vis-a-vis the humanity of Palestinians, Muslims or Arabs. So if you have that mindset to begin with, it’s a heavy load to lose. But, if like Pamlea or myself, you never were indoctrinated or somehow threw it off, there isn’t much you need to get over, other than the fact that you can’t fix over night conditions that are so clearly and maddeningly unjust.

    • pabelmont
      November 29, 2012, 4:06 pm

      Good remarks Sasha. In the USA, as a “white” American male, I am privileged in many ways I do not even know where a “black” American male (or female) may be distinctly unprivileged. As a preliminary example, I am able to walk in various neighborhoods and not be stopped or frisked (or afraid of) the police. In the workplace I probably had privilege over equally qualified women. Etc.

      In Israel, well-fed people in a few towns think themselves horribly, horribly oppressed because a rocket occasionally comes their way from Gaza, but spend no time at all thinking about being in Gaza under the threat and reality of the Israeli military machine (and the blockade, of course).

      Privilege. Oppression.

    • tokyobk
      November 29, 2012, 4:42 pm

      Thinking that you must be an orientalist is frankly orientalist and that term usually means Westerners who don’t agree entirely with elite “non-Westerners” educated in and speaking to a Western audience in English or French through a global medium.

      The East-West paradigm through which all encounters must flow is better for textbooks and seminars than actual human interaction between supposed representatives of both, supposed because there is so much blurred on this varied and shared planet.

      Pamela’s narration sounds like a human talking about other humans, not lecture notes.

    • GJB
      November 30, 2012, 8:10 am

      You make some good points, Sasha. Even having grown up in a family that has fought for progressive causes for generations, I have come to realize that even those of us who grew up truly believing that “we’re all equals” are not immune to the effects of racism and privilege, and cannot always truly appreciate what oppressed people go through.

      Having said that, however, sometimes we need to guard against over-analyzing and, as tokyobk says in a comment above, “talk about other humans, not lecture notes”. And that is what is so striking about Pamela’s comment, and her book. What she has accomplished is to “humanize” people that have been largely “dehumanized” by not only the right, but by liberal zionists as well.

      I myself found Pamela’s book transformational. While I have always supported the Palestinians – perhaps even with more fervor than for other oppressed groups since as an American and a Jew I feel a special responsibility for what is happening to them – it took reading Pamela’s book to fully appreciate who these people are and what they are going through. There is nothing simplistic about it; far from “barely scratching the surface”, I think Pamela gives us a picture of the Palestinians at a gut level, in a way that reaches not only lifelong progressives like myself, but (as I have found by sharing the book with less progressive friends and family) the average person who has seen the Palestinian people only through the tainted lens of the mainstream media.

  3. seafoid
    November 30, 2012, 3:55 am

    This reminded me of being in the Middle East and speaking to people in their own language


    “I followed Makoti out of the village and on to an elephant trail, where we found a comfortable log on which to sit, smoke a cigarette and talk in hushed tones about relationships between the Bantu and the pygmies. “Bantu, mondele, babendjele: makila ya ndenge moko” – “The Bantu, the whites, the pygmies: we all have the same blood.” He pinched the skin of his forearm. “Kasi, bayebi te,” he told me. “But they don’t know that.” He meant the Bantu. This was my first conversation in Lingala without a translator at my side. Even though I had to keep telling him, “Malembe, malembe” – “Slow down, slow down” – I realised I was understanding quite a bit of what he was telling me”

    It is such a privilege to hang out with people who are used to being ignored or stereotyped as worthless. Making a connection in a foreign language, getting the noor al ain, is priceless.

    The other thing about the Levant is that the base culture is different. They don’t refer to the Brothers Grimm for their kids stories or Elvis Presley for their songs. They don’t boil vegetables to death and add salt for flavour.

    Lazim ykuun fi ihtiram. There must always be respect.

  4. AhVee
    November 30, 2012, 3:56 am

    Wonderful article, thanks for that.

Leave a Reply