Pamela Olson

Waterfalls and Hurricanes

Note: This story takes place in 2005, when the author worked as a journalist based in Ramallah, Palestine, north of Jerusalem.

A British friend named Nick, living in Nablus and learning Arabic, had put the idea into my head of trying to get into Gaza for the Disengagement. I applied for a permit to enter and was astonished when it was granted. I called Nick to tell him the good news. He congratulated me and told me some good news of his own—a road next to a famously pretty ravine just north of Nablus near a village called Badhan had been opened to Palestinian traffic after years of closure. It was apparently one of the most strikingly beautiful stretches in all of the West Bank.

“Why don’t we check it out?” I asked. “I can come up to Nablus the weekend before I head to Gaza.”

“Naw. Didn’t I tell you? I’m on the run now.”

“What do you mean?”

He had made the mistake of trying to renew his tourist visa at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior instead of going to Jordan and back like everyone else. They’d turned him down and told him to try his luck at the border. Nick suspected this was a soft way to deport him—that they would deny him entry when he tried to come back. So he fled to Nablus instead, managing to bypass one of the checkpoints that surrounded the city. His visa was long expired by now, and he’d been trapped in Nablus for weeks, unable to pass a single checkpoint. He was getting the real Palestinian experience now, and I could tell the pressure was getting to him.

“Come on,” I said. “We can send a scout ahead to make sure the Badhan checkpoint is open.”

“Naw, mate,” he said. “Even if I get past it, they might close it behind me. I’m not ready to be arrested and kicked out of here.”

I went to Nablus anyway, and after much cajoling, I managed to convince him to let me send a scout ahead. When we got the all-clear, we caught a service taxi. He didn’t relax until we were dropped off at an open-air restaurant in the center of Badhan. The restaurant had been built into the side of a hill, and a powerful spring had been channeled into several waterfalls and pools in the restaurant. We sat on the fourth floor between two waterfalls and enjoyed lunch and black tea with sage and lemongrass, our view framed by grapevines overhead and green treetops spread out below, chatting for hours with the water crashing luxuriously around us.

The land around Badhan was impossibly picturesque. To the east a high, rocky hill plunged vertiginously into a deep canyon carved by the swift river whose source was the spring above our restaurant. The wealth of water made everything lush and green even this late into the dry season. The West Bank is an old landscape, softened by time. The ravine was a refreshing surge of youth.

In the afternoon we hiked down into the ravine, bushwhacking a bit until we stumbled upon another little restaurant with tables and chairs set up in the clear creek. We sat with our feet and hookahs in the water while enjoying our meal and coffee. Fig and orange and olive trees surrounded us, grapevines trailed overhead, and the proprietor chatted with us for an hour. Despite our protestations, he refused to charge us for the refreshments.

Another young man showed us deeper into the ravine, where we startled some slender white cranes and sampled cold, clear water from a small drinking reservoir. Later, as we walked back up toward the village, I caught the view of the river’s valley winding its way toward the Jordan River far in the distance, lined all the way with crops, groves, and homes spreading like velvet toward Jordan, lush and gorgeous, green and cultivated, with a few stone ruins dotted here and there, as verdant and idyllic as a Renaissance painting. I felt like I was in another world.

* * *

By the time I got home Saturday night, the Disengagement had been wiped off the news screens by a hurricane that had obliterated large sections of New Orleans. I went upstairs to watch CNN with Hussein and Fares. Hussein, a volunteer with Palestinian Medical Relief, breathed, “Wo-o-o-o-ow. Why isn’t anybody helping them?”

“I don’t know,” I said, aghast.

“They should call us,” he said in a pained voice. “Really, I think they need help.”

I looked at him to see if he was having fun at America’s expense in our most desperate hour. But there was no trace of humor or irony on his face. Only frank shock and horror.

* * *

Later, in Gaza, my host Nader remarked that it had never occurred to him that there were poor people in America until he saw the Hurricane Katrina footage.

“And why should there be?” he asked. “It’s the richest, most powerful nation on earth. Why should they have poor people? And why wasn’t anyone helping them?”

I shook my head. “I wish I had a good answer for that.”


Pamela Olson, Writing for Peace AdviserPamela Olson grew up in small-town Oklahoma and studied physics and political science at Stanford University, class of 2002. She lived in Ramallah for two years, during which she served as head writer and editor for the Palestine Monitor and as foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s 2005 presidential campaign. Her book Fast Times in Palestine (Seal Press, 2013) recounts her many adventures from those years. After leaving Palestine, she moved to Washington, DC and worked at a Defense Department think tank to try to bring what she had learned to the halls of power — an educational but disillusioning experience. She is now a freelance editor and nearly finished with her first novel. She lives in Oklahoma with her Turkish husband and toddler son and new baby girl. Check out her website here.


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