Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
(Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2013, 307pp.)
Pamela Olson has written a lively and personal account of her two years (2004-2006) in the West Bank of Palestine as an editor of the Palestine Monitor and as foreign press coordinator for Dr Mustafa Barghouthi's 2005 presidential campaign. Dr Mustafa Barghouthi was the founder of the Palestine Monitor and leader of a political party Al Mubadrra (Palestine National Initiative) which tried to fill the small political space between Fatah and Hamas. Barghouthi's positions were close to those of Mahmoud Abbas - a secular, democratic nationalism, open to negotiations with Israel - but without the corruption and financial advantages which colors the Fatah administration.
Nothing had particularly prepared Pam Olson to specialize in Palestine-Israel politics. Raised in a small rural Oklahoma community and a science major at Stanford University in California, it is by "fate" that she went on a post graduation three-week travels to Egypt, Jordan and then Palestine. Her one skill, pocked up by study in Russia, was her ability to speak Russian which helped her relate to Israelis who had come from the former Soviet Union and with some Palestinians who had also studied in Russia.
On her return to California, she heard a lecture by Dr Barghouthi, also a Stanford graduate, setting out his aims - a reformist, inclusive party. "It was committed to non-violent resistance, providing public services, building international support for Palestinian human rights, developing genuine democracy and negotiating peace with Israel based on international law."
Pam Olson was impressed by the presentation and writes "If his methods worked, it would be thrilling to see them in action. If they didn't, I wanted to understand why. I didn't know what I could contribute, if anything. And it was easy to be liberal in California. Out in the real world of politics, violence, and implacable ideologies, my cozy view of the world - my belief in things like human rights, fair trials and respect for other cultures - might break down, or the wrenching emotions of the place might destroy my ability to reason altogether."
Once living in Palestine, she wrote frequent letters to her worried parents describing the landscape, the small town streets and the people she met. She drew on these descriptions, and the book gives, with an artist's eye, the physical setting for the social and political events she experienced.
It turned out that an English-language editor was needed in the Ramallah-based Palestine Monitor and Pan Olson filled that need. Thus for nearly two years she reported on daily life, on difficulties, shootings, growing Israeli settlements, checkpoints and the extension of the separation wall. The Monitor reported on these events both for the Palestinians who were largely already informed and for the outside world, only intermittingly interested in what was happening.
As she wrote "The Holy Land brought out the best and the worst in people. It was inspiring and beautiful and terrifying and horrifying in equal measures. The absurd and the sublime constantly together. Like a giant Rorschach test, it was up to each of us which aspects we saw, which instincts we followed."
There is an interesting chapter "Running for President in a Nation Without a Country" which analyses the little-reported elsewhere 2005 campaign for president of the Palestinian Authority. Dr Barghouthi won 20 percent of the votes, with 63 percent going to Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas did not participate in the election.
As Pam Olson writes "Twenty percent was certainly an impressive figure given the enormity of what Dr Barghouti was up against. For an ex-Communist with a Christian wife, a man who both preached and practiced Gandhi-style non-violent resistance, to garner so much support in such a jaded, besieged, overwhelmingly Muslim population was at least as surprising as if Ralph Nader or Ron Paul won 20 percent of the popular vote in America. It was a hugh protest vote - a harbinger of things to come. Yet it was virtually unreported in the international and Israeli media."
The election campaign was a sign of things to come, even if they come slowly. "People are becoming more sophisticated, more aware of what's happening and why. They're starting to realize they have choices other than to suffer in silence. Individual human consciences have more power than they've ever had in the history of humankind. We just need to figure out how to organize and use this power effectively. Once people figure this out, weapons and real estate aren't going to be enough to protect the powerful. We can either take from this a siege mentality that guarantees endless conflict or figure out a new way to relate to the world."
In January 2006, Pam Olson moved to Washington, D.C. and worked in a think tank to try to bring what she had learned to the halls of US power - an educational but disillusioning experience. She is currently working on a sequel to be called "Palestine. D.C." She leaves the final observation to George Orwell writing on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War in Homage to Catalonia "When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this, the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings."