The Rumpus Interview with Ben Ehrenreich


I should tell you that although I haven’t known him too long, I became instantly fond of Ben. I live in a small area of Los Angeles along the LA River between Echo Park and Glendale. The river covered in ducks and shopping carts and other long necked birds whose name I don’t know. There is a banner strung between two trees on the island in the center of the LA River that reads ‘River Thug.’ Thursdays is laundry day for the people who live on the island. The River Thug and other squatters ride bikes and the women are mostly toothless and shy. One morning when walking along the river I came across two young homeless women with two adorable dogs. I asked them if they needed dog food and they stayed looking forward as if they hadn’t heard me. The next day on my walk I noticed a sign:


One of the guys who lived in the river had ridden by my house and made kissy faces at me, at the time I was on the phone with an editor, and so I flicked him off and the guy responded by riding around in slow circles and telling me exactly what he would do with my finger that was flicking him off, where he would put it and how long it would take.

I had the matter of the dog food—when thinking of who I knew who would possibly be willing to go down to the homeless encampment in the river to deliver the dog food—it was no contest—Ben!

An older Bolshevik woman sat beside me at an interview of Ben at the Mark Taper forum. She sat with her back hunched, her hair in a bun. Someone from the audience asked, “How can you decipher between who is an activist and who is just doing their thing?” She jumped up excitedly and exclaimed, “Because they are risking their lives!” After the talk she pulled me close and made me promise: “You tell him—he gave me hope.”

This guy does this to people.


The Rumpus: Okay so let’s start off with truth. You begin with this statement:

“No spectators at chasm’s door,” wrote the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “and no one is neutral here. Not anywhere, but especially not in Palestine. I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity. I don’t believe it to be a virtue, or even a possibility. We are all of us subjects, stuck fast to bodies, places, histories, points of view.”

“The truth of this soon becomes clear to any journalist or any morally sensitive individual—who chooses to work and live in the West Bank.”

I’m sorry that this is a thing that so many readers will focus on… but it’s definitely a statement. An opinion! This writer has an opinion! people may exclaim—which for journalism may be a cardinal sin but what you are saying here is that you cannot exist in this area without being implicated in some way.

I’m guessing the argument for objectivity would be that one can be blinded from the truth, or somehow manipulating the reader in some way, but perhaps to not own an opinion is dishonest as well. Isn’t all retelling somehow a distortion of fact? As you quote later in the book: “Memory,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, “is a process of organizing what to forget.”

Ben Ehrenreich: Yeah, objectivity always seemed to me more an obstacle to truth than anything else, this fantasy that journalists are these magical, bloodless beasts who are uniquely able to float above events and purify themselves of the very existential situatedness that, if they would only acknowledge it, might make their voices worth listening to. I think it mainly works as a diversionary tactic that the mainstream press uses to disguise its otherwise clear biases. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times caught some heat for putting the word “occupation” in quotes. I suppose they had their reasons: some people (most people on the planet) call it an occupation while others (Israelis of a certain political stripe and their bullying apologists abroad) do not. That is objectively true. But it is nonetheless an occupation.

The problems with objectivity are more obvious in Palestine than anywhere I’ve worked. Just by naming it you’ve already taken sides. If you decide to live in the West Bank or in Gaza, you’ll be accused of partisanship, but if you live in Tel Aviv or in West Jerusalem, as most American and European correspondents do, no one will think to complain. You can somehow be objective from Tel Aviv but not from Ramallah or Nablus. Which is to say that hiding behind objectivity is invariably a cover for taking the side of power. Challenging the powerful—really challenging them, not just objecting to this or that aspect of their dominion—means stepping outside that narrative entirely. This is the greater problem: that a narrative centered on Palestinian realities not only by definition fails to be objective, it’s not even legible within the mainstream discourse. Because that discourse is hinged on their exclusion. The silencing and other-ing of Palestinians—or of Blacks and Latinos and poor people of any race in this country—is not an accidental effect. It’s the whole point. It’s what that discourse does, what its terms and rhetorical figures are designed to accomplish, whether its individual authors are conscious of it or not.

But discarding objectivity doesn’t let me off the hook. You still have to do all the hard work of asking questions and doubting everything you see and hear and backing it all up with hard reporting. In that same section that you quote I go on to say that instead of objectivity I’m interested in truth. Which of course presents its own set of gnarly philosophical problems, but those ones are at least worth grappling with.

The Way to the SpringRumpus: I think it might be interesting for the reader to hear about whether or not you set out to write a particular story—and what your thoughts are on putting narratives out into the world with an Agenda in mind.

I remember in an interview I’d done previously with Roxane Gay for VIDA I asked if it was gross to have an agenda and she said, “No, not unless your agenda is gross.”

Ehrenreich: That’s a good line. I guess it also depends what you count as an agenda. I didn’t go into this wanting to tell a particular story. Most of the story hadn’t happened yet when I started reporting it. I went in with a set of questions, things I wanted badly to understand. Questions about the occupation and how it functioned but more than anything about resistance and what it means to struggle against an opponent who is in every measurable way far stronger than you are, what it takes to know that and to do it anyway, day after day and year after year. I’m sure that my interest in those questions shaped the kind of stories I was able to tell, but I’m not sure that counts as an agenda.

It was clear to me that I wanted to tell stories that reflected Palestinian realities and not Israeli ones. Not because there’s no legitimacy to Israeli perspectives, but because they were and are abundantly available in the US media, while Palestinian points of view have been quite systematically excluded. If telling stories that otherwise would not be heard here counts as an agenda then I’m okay with it.

Rumpus: I have to say from a craft level this is such a beautiful book.

Ehrenreich: Thank you!

Rumpus: I have been aching for a book that offers an argument in favor of collectivism. It seems that the millennial generation, the children of libertarians have all had narratives of individualism. Their politics preoccupied with identity. Which is a bit ironic because if you think about it identity seems to be so much of what this struggle is about, yet this book speaks of radical solidarity. I wonder if as an American that feeling of solidarity made you more aware of this aspect of individualism for Americans or was it lonely-making?

Ehrenreich: I know what you mean, but I ended up seeing a very American brand of individualism everywhere at work in Palestine too. Most of the activists I spent time with identified that as their greatest obstacle—not Israeli bullets or bombs, but the fragmentation of Palestinian society, the growth of an individualistic consumerism that made any kind of radical solidarity exceedingly difficult to achieve. You see it particularly in Ramallah, where a certain degree of insulation from the immediate violence of the occupation is possible, and the culture is more materialistic and atomized than elsewhere in the West Bank. But it was true everywhere, even in very small rural villages. This was particularly painful for people old enough to remember the First Intifada, which, especially in the beginning, was a grassroots uprising characterized by a kind of solidarity that’s now almost unimaginable, here or there.

That said, there are still far more communal structures intact there than here and spending time there did put the much more advanced individualism here in sharper contrast. We’re having this conversation in Los Angeles, and as much as I love LA. I also know that it is a very particular sort of lonely late capitalist hell. Or maybe not so particular anymore—most southwestern cities and towns are organized on the same model, with infrastructure designed to atomize and fragment, to prevent people from coming together in meaningful ways. You can’t organize a revolution on the freeways. Even at rush hour when people slow down. Which I suppose is why it feels so transgressive when demonstrations spill out onto the freeways and stop traffic, like the Black Lives Matter protests did a couple of years ago, as if they were challenging the very structure of the city. Which they were.

Rumpus: I have a memory of organizing my first meeting of the Young Communist League. Eighty kids RSVP’d. I think I bought twelve pizzas. Three kids showed up. I have about twelve different versions of this story, when it comes to public sector union members, or protests designed to shut down downtown LA.

Ehrenreich: This is good to know. Next time you call a meeting I’m bringing twenty hungry friends. Though I guess in LA even pizza wouldn’t necessarily bring people together. There’s the gluten/non-gluten divide to get over, and the dairy/non-dairy rift, and the ever-divisive question of pineapple. It hurts me to say it, but going with individual pizzas might be a smart plan here.

Rumpus: Ha! Now I have no idea where I was going with that… Oh yeah wait.. Kabuki organizing—I wondered about the stones and stoning—you mentioned:

Americans have always had a hard time with stones. While visiting Palestine in 1857, Herman Melville wrote in his journals that the region “is one accumulation of stones—Stony mountains & stony plains; stony torrents & stony roads; stony walls & stony fields, stony houses & stones to the left. You see heaps of stones here & there; and stone walls of immense thickness are thrown together, less for boundaries than to get them out of the way. But in vain; the removal of one stone only serves to reveal there are stones still larger below it.”

Ehrenreich: Yeah, people here get really caught up by the fact that Palestinians often throw stones during protests. Sometimes at soldiers, sometimes at inanimate symbols of the occupation like checkpoints and concrete guard towers. It’s puzzling if you spend any time there. Seeing the overwhelming power of the Israeli military, stone-throwing is pretty close to the last thing you’d think to get upset about.

Rumpus: It’s true when I think of stoning I think of the violent homophobic exhortation from Leviticus. But then upon reading that the demonstrations were theater, a ritual performance repeated week after week I thought of the taxonomy of community engagement developed by Dr. Manuel Pastor:

Potemkin: A process that is for show with the decisions already made and the process is perfunctory

Kabuki: A staged conflict with no clear search for common ground, usually done with dueling experts

Authentic: Dialogue is sought and community-based participatory research is a key element—as well as structures explicitly focused on resourcing the least powerful in the process (Corburn 2009)

Did you feel that these actions were staged at all, especially with the viral photos of adorable young girls shaking their fists in the faces of soldiers?

Ehrenreich: They were staged in the sense that all demonstrations are staged. There is always a theatrical element to protest, right? Unless you’re actually storming the Bastille, the point is to be seen, to convey a message with your presence. Because there’s not much room for dialogue under military occupation. Soldiers speak with their guns, so people in Nabi Saleh and the other popular resistance villages had to find a way to get their voices heard in which they wouldn’t be so easily silenced. They chose to march every week, to let their very presence and the vulnerability of their bodies serve as an act of refusal. An act that like all effective ritual was at once symbolic and concrete. Even the stones are a message of rejection, a symbol, which is pretty much all they can be when tossed at soldiers in helmets and body armor carrying M16s and Galils. And the military has done everything it could to crush the resistance in the village, invariably (ritually…) opening fire with tear gas before a single stone is thrown and before the marchers make it more than a few meters down the road. Often with more lethal projectiles than gas canisters. Their projectiles are definitely not just symbols. They killed two men from the village, Mustafa and Rushdie Tamimi, and have injured many dozens more. So there is a performative aspect to it all, but it is not theater.

The little girl you’re talking about is named Ahed Tamimi. She’s sixteen now and is the daughter of Bassem and Nariman Tamimi, two of the leaders of the protest movement in Nabi Saleh. There’s a particularly ugly and racist strain of zealotry on the Internet that characterizes the demos there as “Pallywood,” i.e. as events staged for the cameras to make Israel look bad. (As if the army doesn’t do that on its own.) The blogger who coined that term has a degrading nickname for Ahed, which I won’t repeat here. In other words, she’s famous, though not because she wanted to be. The photo of her that went viral was shot in 2012, just after her older brother Waed, who was fifteen or sixteen then, was arrested and locked in the back of an armored vehicle. If you watch the entire video, you see that Ahed is completely and wildly distraught. They’ve taken her brother and she has just utterly lost it with trauma and is screaming at the soldiers, demanding that they let him go. It is very hard to watch. But that one shot—of a tiny Palestinian girl bravely shaking her fist in the Israeli soldier’s face—began jumping around the Internet and quickly became an iconic image of Palestinian resistance. That was not staged, and I’m quite sure that Ahed and her parents and siblings, especially Waed, would have preferred that he had not been arrested at all. But because the cameras were there, that incident and that image became a victory for Nabi Saleh. It expressed realities of the occupation that a million articles and fact sheets could never so effectively convey. Of course it did so in a highly romanticized way, one that erased the real traumas inflicted on those children that day. The victory had a high cost. This is one of the tragedies of the sort of resistance that places like Nabi Saleh have chosen. They can win only by losing, and the losses become harder and harder to bear.

Rumpus: Since many of the readers at The Rumpus are writers as well, I wanted to get back to the craft of the book. I could not stop thinking of Charles Baxter’s craft essay from Burning Down The House, “Stillness.” He’s speaking of fiction but also storytelling in general and that in American literature stillness is often framed with violence on both ends. He uses Huck Finn as an example. Between Huck’s pal Buck Grangerford being shot in chapter 18 and Boggs being shot by Colonel Sherburn in chapter 21, there is a nineteen-line sentence which is one of the longest and perhaps most beautiful sentences in American literature.

What this sentence represents is stillness but also, Baxter argues with stillness comes the deep reward of wonderment.

Some of my most favorite moments in this book are these moments of reprieve with the children, that are sandwiched by violence, but their presence allows for the wonderment that follows:

Here are some examples of pure joy and beauty with the kids:

Outside, the young men couldn’t keep up the solemnity for long. They started with the little Hamoudi, tossing him back and forth between them and then high in the air above the yard. Soon Hamoudi’s giggles turned to howls and they took pity and set him down and grabbed another slightly older boy named Ahmad and threw him back and forth and up like a kicking and wriggling ball. Shireen and Irene stood behind them, laughing while the guys put Ahmad down and worked their way up to a full grown and bearded American photographer, throwing him and catching him then setting him down too and taking turns tossing one another into the night sky as high as they could, hooting and shouting in the small circle carved out of the fog by the harsh fluorescent light above the door.

The sun was low and the shadows of the trees and the children as they jogged ahead of us were long. Bilal had brought a plastic bag and he and I began to fill with ripe figs as the kids scurried through the branches, sticky handed, eating more than they picked. Samer was eight but tiny, a squirming, giggly boy. Rand was maybe three years older, with long and straight brown hair and a sideways smile. She and Samer were laughing it up in the high branches of a low tree. “He’s crazy,” she said of her brother, using the English adjective and the Arabic pronoun.

“The whole world is crazy,” I responded.

“You’re crazy!” she said, delighted with the direction the conversation had taken.

“Of course,” I agreed.

And I think having those scenes allowed for these scenes:

Umm-al-Kheir looked like rocks against rocks against rocks with its few unpainted concrete structures and shacks of torn metal, everything else just tarp roofed tents and cockeyed shelters cobbled together from scraps, here and there a stunted fig tree or a cactus, barefoot children and goats toddling about, cats and dogs lazing where they could, birds flying from tent to shack and back, singing from the rooftops and the crumbling stone walls. It occurred to me that whenever I returned, it would not look the same.

By the time I had landed in the United States, taken a taxi to my sister’s home, slept and showed and hugged my nieces, the death toll in Gaza had passed 1000.

Did you intentionally structure the book this way? Or were you hoping to capture just how complicated it is?

Ehrenreich: Yeah, I love Baxter’s idea of wonder as “the ground floor” of stillness. Because not only in literature, violence—if only by contrast—creates these moments of almost impossible silence and stillness. They’re very often moments of great beauty and an uncanny kind of intimacy. That was a pretty constant part of my experience there, a kind of absolute stillness that was at the same time just quivering and humming with beauty and that tended to arrive when you least expected it, often in situations of real chaos. That was something I wanted to capture in the book, the strange pace of things, the way time can seem to bend, the fact that reality has more and stranger rooms in it than anyone might guess.

More generally, and it feels a little funny to say this, Palestine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Maybe it’s the light more than the actual landscape, which has been so thoroughly brutalized by the occupation. It’s not all that different from the light in LA, at once harsh and almost impossibly soft. Even in the worst of times, which arrive quite regularly, it lends everything a certain grace. I know I wanted to capture that. Not just the screams and heartbreak but the laughter and love that are as much a part of life there as they are anywhere else. Perhaps more so there than in a lot of places. If I wrote a book that was all violence and drudgery and despair it would have been as much of an insult to the people I was writing about as it would be to pretend they didn’t suffer at all. Human beings do horrible things to one another. We’re really terrible animals. But humans are also beautiful, even at the worst of times. Maybe especially at the worst of times. And that, if little else, gives me hope.


Author photograph © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

Melissa Chadburn is a fellow with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, she has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring of 2017 More from this author →