‘Each tree was like a member of the family’ –Olson on Palestinians and the land

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Pamela Olson, second from right
Pamela Olson and husband Ahmed, on right, along with organizers of her talks in Columbus

Pamela Olson transports audiences with Palestine’s enchantments in her bookwebsite, and talks.  Fast Times in Palestine‘s “Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland” describes the warm welcome of Palestine’s famously generous people and their courage in outlasting the “unendurable.”  Olson recently charmed receptive listeners at two hospitable Columbus churches–the First Unitarian Universalist, March 23, and St. John’s Evangelical Protestant, March 24–with stories like these, choosing different episodes for each gathering.

The people of Palestine help Olson everywhere. She feels “flooded by good fortune, of stumbling into a place so exotic, yet strangely homelike,” where but to ask for directions is to be invited to dinner.  Even when she finally steps into the Gaza Strip, which had “seemed less an actual place than a metaphor for human suffering,” she is comforted:

two Palestinian women in hijab greeted me with shy smiles and warm Arabic pleasantries….[M]y fear began to ease. A familiar feeling of calm and safety settled over me….unmistakable: I was back in Palestine.

A girl of Jayyous, Azhar Salim, shares half her clementine with Olson, then gives the other half to another stranger, and teaches Olson tenderness for all, including a lizard: “I moved a black olive toward the frightened animal’s open mouth….Azhar stilled my arm…. and said gently, ‘Haraam‘ [‘forbidden’] …. Harassing a helpless creature apparently [was indecent] in Azhar’s mind.  I nodded, … and let the lizard go.”

Pamela Olson’s description of Palestinian generosity includes the parents of Ahmed Khatib–a boy murdered by the IDF–donating his organs to save the lives of six Israelis. Olson–drawing on Chris McGreal’s report–focuses on Ahmed’s solicitousness toward his mother Abla Khatib, and her altruism despite agony (in contrast to a PBS program, where we glimpse her only in the background).  As Pamela’s friend Osama tells her, the torture, imprisonment, and even murder of children is “hard on the mothers.”

Olson admires how all her companions in Palestine bear with dignity being “imprisoned and humiliated on [their] own land.”  Their resilience comes “not because they didn’t care or were saints,” but because being miserable and resisting were “probably futile” at that moment.  So, instead, they choose to carry on with camaraderie, and “still go home and joke around on the porch.”

Palestinian kindness to the world, and to their home, yields treasures I long for in the U.S. Olson depicts feasts of the life-giving delicacies Palestine grows, including her favorite maqlouba–a casserole of chicken, cauliflower, eggplant, rice, cinnamon, spices, toasted almonds and pine nuts–“served with fresh yogurt, vegetable soup infused with cardamom, and shepherd’s salad” of tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon juice, and olive oil. Even the almonds she helps shell taste “almost as sweet as marzipan.”

Olson honors Palestinian civilization’s attachment to its countryside.  She mourns how the Palestinian ethos — “each tree was like a member of the family” — is mangled by the architecture of occupation.  “The massive ribbon of metal, concrete, and emptiness,” cuts “through the Biblical hills in jarring contrast to the ancient aesthetic.”

She describes a ghastly 200-foot-wide boundary created by the occupation: a twenty-foot-high chain-link fence topped with razor wire and flanked by access roads and land blasted bare, bounded by trenches and “six-foot pyramid-shaped piles of razor wire.” What used to be home now posed the threat of death to any Palestinian.

For those like me, who’ve never been to Palestine, but are sickened that our government pays as Israel persecutes its people and the ancient landscapes, history, art, trees, water they’ve cherished, Olson’s details give fresh horror.  At a crowded dinner, I mentioned my pained gratitude to Pamela. Her wise response: “Palestinians believe they belong to the land; Israelis believe the land belongs to them.”

Pamela Olson’s book and blog offer incomparable touches.  When, for instance, she notices that a friend cares romantically for her, she tells us,

Until this moment I had merely noted that Qais was tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, funny, and kind.  But there was nothing I could do about it.

How original an expression of tentative longing and reflexive dissuasion–mostly unconscious–that pass into delicately-growing intimacy: “But these thoughts had only masked feelings that were suddenly undeniable.” No spoilers here, but simply lovely.

In Columbus, Olson commented that her audiences have changed in the last year. The truths about Palestine’s oppression by Israel are seeping in. For our part, we found Pamela and her husband Ahmed as winning as the spirit that shines through every page.  One delightful bit of sagacity, as we chatted about how “Hollywood” reverses the “good” and “bad guys”: Ahmed confided that the “Westerns” he’d soaked up as a youngster in Turkey had given him nightmares about being attacked by Native Americans.  We all laughed, marveling at how art can con us into siding against our values, valorizing conquerors over those they obliterate.

That’s why Pamela Olson’s stories matter: they’re adventures in letting prejudice go and seeing anew.  She’d been drawn to Palestine after disillusionment at “how thoroughly I had been misled by my own press and government.”  She enjoyed the “preternatural friendliness and curiosity…mixed with a healthy, humorous cynicism that I never expected.”

For a funny tale of an ugly truth about one gatekeeper turning away from Pamela’s “really interesting book” on the illegal Israeli occupation, see “I got a Birthday Present from Jon Stewart!

Pamela Olson posts her schedule here, including her part in the Portland, OR, Sabeel Conference last weekend:

The line-up is incredible and includes Max Blumenthal, Miko Peled, Dr. Mads Gilbert, Mazin Qumsiyeh, Cindy and Craig Corrie, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Chris McGreal (one of my favorite journalists when I lived in Palestine), Phyllis Bennis, Mark Braverman, Josh Reubner, Rev. Don Wagner, and many others. I can’t wait!

I can’t wait to read and see video about it.

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Thanks for posting this. We all fell in love with Pamela and Ahmed! What a wonderful experience to meet these amazing young people. Everyone is still talking the events….