Book Review: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by author Pamela J. Olson
This book really made me sad as I read it. Olson, a Stanford graduate from Oklahoma who studied physics and political science, is a very good writer. Her style is breezy but detailed and she captures what many writers who try to write about the Middle East fail to do, interesting facts meshed into her firsthand experiences. I say it made me sad because the Palestinian story is a sad story and Pamela Olson captures it so well and makes it interesting to read about.
Fast Times in Palestine is a fast read. But it is a sad read, too. Olson captures the tragedy of the Palestinians in a matter-of-fact manner that conveys the depth of the Palestinian experience as oppressed people under Israel’s brutal occupation. She is not Palestinian, although I know many Palestinians from Oklahoma who lived and grew up in the conservative red-dirt haunting grounds of the oppressed Native Americans. She tells the story of how she was drawn into Palestine by an acquaintance who was Lebanese. And clearly very adventurous, she decided to travel to Palestine with two friends.
The book opens with her experience passing through Israeli security. Here she is, a typical American Christian, being grilled by Israel’ border security determined to grind down any resistance from anyone who might be sympathetic to the Palestinians cause. The Q&A is humorous in a tragic way, similar to what I and I am sure many others have experienced going through Israel’s intrusive, “you are guilty until proven innocent” grilling style.
It’s funny that most Palestinians just don’t know how to write. They know how to yell. They know how to scream. They know how to denounce their own brethren who they disagree with. And they know how to denounce Israel. But they just don’t know how to tell their story. Olson, on the other hand, knows how to tell the story and she does it very well.
The key to a good book is ease of understanding and unburdened comprehensive reading. Not everyone knows how to write in an unobstructed style. Olson’s style is easy reading. And easy reading makes the concepts she is conveying in a very compelling way. even easier to understand and identify with.
No surprisingly, she has written for the online Arab community, mainly for the activists. The Arab media consists of professional media and activists who write a lot of opinion and commentary poorly disguised as news. It’s something Palestinians and Arabs just don’t understand, that you don’t have to beat someone over the head with a mallet in order to get them to understand and comprehend your tragedy. Olson immediately understood it, drawn in by another Arab’s good looks. But I have long ago given up on the idea of romancing every American woman to win over the support of at least half of America’s population. Because apparently, the only talent our activists have is winning over the hearts and minds of individuals, not large audiences or populations like Americans as a whole.
But I digress. If you really want to open up and sympathize with the Palestinian plight, read Olson’s book. It’s 306 pages of non-stop appeal. I wish she had written for some more impactful online news sites instead of Mondoweiss or the more popular Electronic Intifada where Palestinians who disagree with the One-Staters or who challenge the failure of the activism community are frequently pilloried, defamed and harassed not so much to harm them — words are meaningless to intended targets — but to discourage other Arabs and Palestinians from listening to their views. It’s a relic of the dictatorial environment in which most Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians have lived and are imprisoned. The Arab community is controlled by Presidents-for-Life who wrap Palestinian’s tragedy around their necks and use it like a whip to keep the cattle in line.
Fast Times in Palestine breaks free from all that, offering an in-depth look at the heart of the real Palestinian cause, the one that you won’t hear about on Mondoweiss, the Electronic Intifada or the other places like Palestine Monitor which is less of a journalism site and more of an activism hub that focuses less on attacking other Palestinians and instead documents Palestinian events better than most other sites. Oslon should be writing for the New York Times as a columnist. She’s far a better writer than Thomas Friedman and her message is clearly one of conveying an honest portrait of what’s really happening on the ground in Palestine, where she spent several years observing and documenting, firsthand.
Olson also has an understanding of when and how to bring in facts, as she does often in explaining complex issues such as suicide bombing. In writing about being in Ramallah during one suicide bombing in Israel, she puts it all in a context that might help strangers to the Palestinian cause (anyone whose minds have been headlocked by the pro-Israel PR media machine in America, for one). It becomes an opportunity to understand the role of Hamas, and how it began and how the Palestinians turned to suicide bombings after American Israeli settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims who were praying at a mosque in Hebron. When israel did nothing to respond to the tragedy, Hamas began a campaign to target Israeli civilians, an important fact lost in the “political translation” of Palestinian history when conveyed to pro-Israeli audiences that have been bought and sold by the Israeli lobby.
Even in describing meeting the family of a suicide bomber, Zaid up in Jenin, Olson manages to portray the people involved in a context of understanding. The family members, she wrote, described Zaid’s transition from a happy-go-lucky young man into someone harassed by the Jewish settlers who are, in my book, pure evil and who easily provoke anger from the easily provoke-able Palestinians.
Every story Oslon offers in her journey is a story that I have experienced in visiting Palestine and that many other Palestinians have experienced, too, but just have not been able to share so fully. This isn’t just a thin slice of Palestine but rather a deep portrait that captures so much.
She writes about her work for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, who inspired her to make her trip to Palestine after traveling through some Arab countries. Barghouthi is inspirational. He has a strong sense of understanding communications and the role it plays in politics and manipulating large uneducated audiences like Americans. I recall meeting with him and talking about offering to train his staff on communications, something most Palestinian organizations and leaders lacked. But I couldn’t stay long. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that he had hired Olson who did some great work in helping Barghouthi to get his message out not just to Palestinians but to Western audiences, too.
Fast Times in Palestine presents a representative blend of Palestinian life, from the violence we are forced to read in one-sided media accounts that place all the blame on the Palestinians to a rare portrait of the everyday life of human beings oppressed by a brutal military dictatorship. That she is able to preserve the softness of true Palestinian culture in the hard-edged events that she covered while in Palestine for two years beginning in 2003 is an achievement many other writers who have scribed books on Palestine have failed to do. Her writing is effective and I promise you that when you are done reading the book — and it won’t be a labored experience, but an easy enjoyable one — you will have a better understanding of the Middle East conflict from the one perspective rarely captured by Arab and Palestinian writers, the standpoint of the real victims, the Palestinians.
This is a great book. I hope you take the time to read it, too.
Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
By Pamela Olson
Seal Press (Perseus Books Group)
— Ray Hanania
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"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."
Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at www.TheArabDailyNews.com, www.TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com. He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, YNetNews.com, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.
The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website www.SuburbanChicagoland.com, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.
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