In 2003, Pamela Olson, a small town girl from Eastern Oklahoma in the United States, decided to let her degree in physics from Stanford take a backseat and, rather than spend her young years “in a basement lab doing problem sets”, decided to backpack her way to Palestine.
Becoming the head-writer and editor at Palestine Monitor was not part of her plans: "I became a journalist by accident, I went to Palestine, first, just as a tourist, then I started volunteering and teaching English, and later on I became so fascinated with the political situation there, I wanted to learn more about it. So, I volunteered with the Palestinian National Initiative, led by Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi."
This remarkable American journalist Olson, who is also the author of the riveting and eye-opening book, Fast Times in Palestine, delivered a book-talk at the charming, newly built National Library of Kuwait (NLK) on the evening of 12 April.
FAST TIMES IN PALESTINE
In the book she chronicles the memoirs of her journey there, which turned out to become "a love affair with a homeless homeland". The book depicts the journey of an aimless ex-bartender, her transition into a Ramallah-based journalist and eventually foreign press coordinator for a Palestinian presidential candidate.
The book, which "starts as a travelogue" of her venture in Palestine, turns, in the second-half, into a fast-paced "meaty" bite of a third person's view of the country and its daily bargains with life. It sheds light on the political, administrative and cultural aspects and its impact on daily life, as well as the dramatic difficulties and the Western world's propaganda on the subject.
While the mainstream media, for the most part, completely ignored ‘Fast Times in Palestine’, it was picked up as one of the 'Top 10 Travel Book of 2013' by Publishers Weekly and the 'Best Travel Book of Spring' by the National Geographic. Copies of the book have sold out in respectable numbers, over 20,000 copies, so far. Olson is currently, on a book talk and book signing tour of Scotland, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey.
BOOK TALK AND BOOK SIGNING IN KUWAIT
At the NLK, she spoke at length of the Western media and Israeli lobbyists' interest in the conflict, of the unseen side of Palestine; the many celebrations, thriving art scene, film festivals, musicians, and of her love for the olive groves, as well as dating a Palestinian from a conservative village.
She also spoke, in brief, of her next book Palestine DC, which focuses on the forces that work in the Western world which impact on what happens in Palestine and why.
When she sat down with The Times Kuwait, Olson spoke of her time in Palestine working as a journalist, the politics, the violence, terror and the mounting number of Palestinian deaths: "On an average, when I was there, two Palestinians were violently killed every day and about 20 percent of the victims were children. So, when you wake up and go to work, it is – who has been killed, and where they were killed and who killed them, what has been destroyed; what homes have been destroyed, how many trees have been destroyed, where is the lobbying built, who has been denied access to the land, where have settlers been attacking people or, beating people or, trying to force people off their land – and you collect all of this barrage of depressing and demoralizing information and distribute it."
Giving her views – from inside the Gaza Strip – on the 2005 disengagement and her work as ‘Foreign-press coordinator’ for Mustafa Barghouthi's 2005 presidential campaign, she said, “I liked what he had to say about a secular, non-violent, inclusive kind of political party that focused on civil society and on ending corruption, which I thought could possibly be effective."
SUDDENLY A JOURNALIST
By the time she landed a job as the head-writer and editor for the Palestine Monitor, she had already spent a couple of months working with the Palestinian National Initiative, when one day she got a call. “They said, ‘The head-writer and editor of the Palestine Monitor, next door, is stepping down. Would you like the job?’ I was shocked, but they said, 'don’t worry, you'll figure it out.'
For the first couple of months, it was like drinking from a fire-hose. It was like two full-time jobs – doing the job and learning everything I needed to learn to catch up with where things were. For example, a colleague would say, 'today, we are going to write about Bil'in'; so I would say, 'Ok, good', and then I had to Google where Bil'in is and what is going on," remarked Olson on the multi-faceted nuances of things.
"Just when I started getting comfortable and it was down to one full-time job, Yasser Arafat died and Dr. Barghouthi decided to run for President of Palestinian Authority. He asked me to be his press coordinator. So, now, I once again had two full-time jobs. It was pretty crazy," she said.
On being a female journalist in Ramallah for two years, she said, "I think it is an advantage because, as a female, you have access to male-spaces as well to exclusively-female-spaces. You are always treated with respect."
Olson notices a tremendously huge difference in the way news is presented in the Western media, Israeli media and the way it is in Palestinian media: "We got information more directly from sources; we called the hospitals, the families."
Of her own experience in bringing a well-rounded piece of news for the readers, she said, "I would try to triangulate it with the American source or, the Israeli source or, with the UN or another source, so that I have as accurate a picture as possible because you do not want to be found printing something untrue and inadvertently be accused of lying wholesale. That is a big danger when you trying to tell a Palestinian story, when you are essentially considered biased until proven otherwise. It is a very sensitive thing to talk about."
Expanding on the subject, she commented, "A Palestinian nine-year-old probably knows more about politics in the region than an average American adult. So, for us to think they are ignorant is pretty backwards. It is very humbling to find that you are being schooled not only in politics, but also in basic humanity, by these people who your government said were backwards."
"When you see Palestine first hand, you are like Alice in Wonderland; you feel that things are not just 15-degree different but 175 degrees different than what you thought. The Arab world coverage is not perfect but it is much closer to reality than you hear in the US."
STEERING AWAY FROM ROADBLOCKS
Olson explains why she wrote the book, the stonewalling she received, as well as what she is up to next: "After ending up with my job as a journalist, I went to Washington for two years, trying to go to the belly of the beast – to the Bush administration – with a lot more confidence with what I knew. I tried in many ways to spread that information and spread that knowledge. My next book is about why it did not work, why there are too many roadblocks, why Washington is not interested in the truth. By and large, they are more interested in their careers and this is not helped by knowing what is happening in Palestine. So, that is when I decided to leave Washington and write the book, to try and influence people with the facts. I try to give ordinary Americans, both, sort of facts and this wonderful and beautiful cinematic story so that they can actually see it as an actual place; a place full of amazing people and not just abstract news story they do not care about."