Thursday, June 9, 2011

Take-aways from a Discussion with Sandy Tolan

Last night I went to a book discussion event held by Sandy Tolan, author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.” You can read about Tolan here and more on “The Lemon Tree” here, but basically it’s a historical narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict told via the collision of two families and two histories – one Israeli and one Palestinian. The book was recommended to me before coming here, and I used it as a “primer” of sorts - an entry narrative into the more than half-century-old conflict that I never learned about growing up, nor during my Latin America focused academic studies.

Of course, I had my copy of the book signed. I also learned that Tolan is living in Ramallah similarly to me, which means I will likely see him around since this place is so small. All of these things are cool in their own right, but the most important impression that I took away stemmed from Tolan’s personal journey into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He, like me, was born in the U.S. Midwest, was raised Catholic, and only has vague memories of any mention of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Such a mention could be summed up as “the Jews needed a homeland after such mind-shocking persecution, and in Palestine (er, Israel), they found one.” No reason to question that.

My parents were undoubtedly progressive and critical thinkers in the sea of conservative America, and as a child I can remember heavy conversations after nightly news with Dan Rather, but the Israeli/Palestinian conflict never stuck out as a particularly important world headline. Why should it, after all? We had no ancestral connection to either side, and it wasn’t at the heart of our nation’s foreign affairs. I can’t remember the first time I heard “Palestine,” but I can promise you it wasn’t before college. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent my college years studying Latin America, so news of Israel/Palestine was just headlines that didn’t stay in my mind for long.

Listening to Tolan talk about his former ignorant background on the conflict, and then listening to him speak passionately about his recent and current involvement in this small but twisted part of the world, made me feel better about my own presence here. I often feel ashamed of my lack of historical knowledge on Palestine when I’m sharing food or drink with Palestinians, Palestinian Americans, or Americans with Middle Eastern academic backgrounds. I didn’t grow up reading Mahmoud Darwish, and Edward Said or Sara Roy was never on my syllabi in college. And even though I’m devouring relevant literature on the Israel/Palestinian conflict, I still have a lot to learn. But I’m coming around to the idea that coming in with fresh eyes is an advantage. Cynicism, apathy, boredom, numbness, and jadedness are pretty abundant here – rightfully so. It’s too early to tell the impressions I will take away from my time in Palestine, but I’d like to think that the fact that I’m taking away an impression is important.

I come from the land of Palestinian ignorance. And I’ll go back, at a minimum, with an understanding of what the word “occupation” means for Palestinians. That’s more than what 95% of Americans know. And who knows, maybe this is the first encounter of a life long relationship. It will certainly shape the rest of my life. This place has a force unlike any other country I’ve spent time in.  

No comments: