Monday, February 18, 2013

This Year In Palestine: Review of "5 Broken Cameras"

In 2003-04,  after Israel began construction of its 425-mile security fence in the West Bank,  a Middle East Affairs listserv I belonged to at the time, started circulating news tips, alerts, and sources for those of us interested in developing stories. 

One news alert  was a catalog of hardships faced by Palestinians as a consequence of the fence, culled from various news sources.  Farmers on the West Bank were angry that they could not lead their sheep to pasture or harvest their olive and guava trees because Israel's new fence separated them from their land.

There was a quote from a Palestinian farmer that burrowed under my skin. "Can somebody intervene here? We cannot get through the Israeli fence to our land. All the sheep owned by the village are going to starve. Many of our ewes have miscarried. We cannot bear to watch. You know when birds get stuck in oil slicks or whales get beached, everybody rushes to help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated. But if the world could help the sheep, that should be simple ..."

As easy as that seemed, we in America didn't have "the bandwidth" to take this on. We were trying to make sense of our own confounding adventure in Iraq--bomb a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 to avenge 9/11, and seed democracy there, for freedom to bloom like cactus flowers--in the manure of 48 hour mushroom clouds and loamy yellowcake from Niger.

In the face of international media indifference, the Palestinian people decided to start telling their own stories of living under occupation. One of those stories, a film, has been nominated for an a Academy Award this year for Best Documentary Feature. 5 Broken Cameras is an astonishing film by a Palestinian farmer from Bilin, a village in the West Bank.

In 2005, the farmer, Emad Burnat, bought a video camera to record the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel. He soon became the village videographer and chronicler of Bilin's communal life. From 2005 to 2011, he began filming Bilin's non-violent weekly demonstrations against Israel's wall construction with a succession of five cameras. Each became a casualty of war--collateral damage--broken by angry Jewish settlers, by the Israeli military, with fists, bullets, and tear gas canisters. This is a David and Goliath story where David doesn't have a slingshot or a stone and Goliath has the full arsenal of gleaming military hardware.

Doe-eyed Gibreel is a new born at the beginning of the film. By the end of it, he has witnessed more violence, pain, and loss than any six year old should ever have to endure.  "The only protection I can offer him is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes so he can confront just how vulnerable life is," Mr. Burnat says at the end of the film,  as Gibreel grieves the death of someone he loved--Baseem Abu Rahme, aka Phil, the village's gentle giant.

Phil was killed by an Israeli soldier while the people of Bilin, joined by Israeli and international peace activists, were testing the experiment of non-violent resistance started by Mahatma Gandhi, continued by Nelson Mandela, and carried on by Martin Luther King Jnr.

My Huff Post Review of John Wood's "Creating Room to Read"

"Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books." The words were uttered in 1998 by the headmaster of a grade school in Bahundanda, Nepal -- that had a library, but no books -- to John Wood, a stressed out American senior executive at Microsoft, who was trekking the area's famed Annapurna Circuit. "...maybe if you went high enough into the Himalayas, you could not hear Steve Ballmer (CEO of Microsoft) screaming at you," Wood had told a friend before the trip.

The headmaster's remark, less a Jedi mind trick than the formal vernacular of British English spoken in the East, would irrevocably change Wood's life and eventually the lives of impoverished children and girls in Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia.

Wood's just released book, "Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy," a sequel to his stellar, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, is a riveting memoir, an inspirational handbook for social innovators, a career guide for young people, a witness for children in faraway places who could go under if we turn away, and alternative policy for the architects of American foreign policy and expensive wars.

Bahundanda was only the third stop of the three week trek through one of the great natural wonders of the world, a perfect setup conspired by the forces of the universe to initiate Wood into his life's calling. This was Jungian synchronicity at work--at high altitude, on the roof of the world, on behalf of children in peril in the developing world.

Wood was living the expat high life in Australia at the time while leading Microsoft's push in Asia. At 35, he was by every definition a Master of the Universe living an enchanted life. He lived in Sydney in an apartment overlooking the harbor, had a a company car and driver at his disposal, and a glamorous girlfriend with a dueling resume. Within a year, Wood gave up his old life to join the long line of idealistic fools enamored with the Quixotic enterprise of trying to change the world.

Gary White, co-founder with actor, Matt Damon of --which funds clean water projects in Africa and India -said that he was inspired throughout his career in water engineering by a particular notion. "Your life should be about finding the intersection of the world's greatest need and your greatest passion." Wood recalls reading as the most significant experience of his childhood. "It is impossible for me to imagine a childhood that wasn't filled with books."

With a motivated team of co-creators and zealous 'boots on the ground' country leaders who yearned to see their nation's children educated, Room to Read grew at hyperspeed. Since 1998, Room to Read has impacted the lives of millions of children in the developing world stretching across two continents. It has built more than 12,000 libraries. Nearly 10 million books were checked out by children from Room to Read libraries. Girls who desperately want to be educated receive scholarships, books, backpacks, school uniforms, and women mentors to keep them in school.

Wood, a classic obsessional workaholic, took his executive coach's words - "Figure out what you want to say on your deathbed, Then work backwards from there." - literally. Everything was sacrificed to his cause to bring books and education to children the world had found easy to ignore.

Creating Room to Read is the second book in a planned trilogy. Read it, as well as Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, if you wake up Monday mornings tempted to send a "take this job and shove it," email to the boss, or if you're a young person wanting to know what to do with your life, or if you want to find a way to help the dispossessed become possessed of their own worth and dignity, or if you just want to read about risk and self-actualization. "The pearl is the oyster's autobiography," Fellini once wrote. Wood's books compel you to think about the nature of work and right livelihood, risk and consequences, service to others as a key to happiness, and money and the meaning of life.