I first met the British journalist Arthur Neslen in Ramallah during the autumn of 2007 when he was researching his new book, In Your Eyes A Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian.
A cloud of disillusionment hung over the region at that juncture. The separation wall had all but severed the West Bank, the Gaza blockade was tightening and political division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was at its peak. Israeli raids across the West Bank, intended to round up the remnants of the resistance from the Second Intifada, were matched by PA reprisals and arrests against Hamas.
Conversely, Ramallah was enjoying something of a boom, awash as it was with western aid. As downtown rents rose above the affordability of most Palestinian salaries, bars would welcome internationals and turn away single men from nearby refugee camps. Indeed, it was at a party in the upmarket Ramallah apartment of an international NGO worker that I first met Neslen, who overheard me joking loudly about being the only Jew in Ramallah. "Not sure that's accurate, mate," he quipped. A friendship was forged.
He had just published Occupied Minds: A Journey into the Israeli Psyche, which explores the social structure and perception of an occupation society through interviews that spanned the Israeli spectrum (it is soon to be republished in Arabic). He told me he envisaged his next book, an examination of Palestinian identity, to be a companion volume to Occupied Minds. Neslen had recently relocated to Ramallah from Tel Aviv and it was amidst the political fatalism and social despair spreading across the Palestinian community that he set about conducting interviews with subjects who spanned the generations - from the present all the way back to the 1936 revolt against British colonial rule and mass Jewish immigration. It would take him on a three-year investigation criss-crossing Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.
Throughout 2007 and 2008 we travelled together to Jordan and around Palestine as he chased interviews for the book while I ran after stories for articles. I was with Neslen covering a Hamas women's demonstration in Ramallah in 2008 (an event he also examines in the book) when we were split apart as he was beaten by Palestinian Authority (PA) police for taking photos of a security crackdown on the protesters. Pushed across the road and through a shopping arcade by PA security armed with Kalashnikovs, I reunited with Neslen after he was released by police amidst the chaos of the dispersing demonstration.
In a Tel Aviv bar in 2009, still shaken from his recent post-invasion return to Gaza - where he spoke with doctors, Hamas political officials and tunnel workers, he recounted a bizarre and frightening incident in which he was chased down the street by a complete stranger wielding a knife. However, even with the terror still subsiding, Neslen was already preoccupied with finding out why he was attacked.
The drive to answer these questions is intimately connected to Neslen's dedication to producing this book. He had worked for a range of western media and his book is, in many ways, a response to those outlets that he had seen consistently misrepresent, distort and mask exactly who the Palestinians really are. Speaking to a cross section of the population, ranging from Ramallah and Gaza's political elites and iconic resistance fighters such as Leila Khaled to Gazan fishermen and refugees in Lebanon, Neslen weaves together a diverse tapestry of Palestine's collective experience. He explores how Palestinians depict their history, express their identities and view their current condition.
As the Arab Awakening spread across the region earlier this year, the opening shots of a now simmering Palestinian Spring were fired on March 15, 2011, as youth across the West Bank and Gaza seized public squares, demanded an end to national political division and called for the democratic transformation of the PLO. Standing with young Palestinians in Ramallah's Al Manara Square, leaders of the emerging movement spoke of a generational power struggle. And while initially both Hamas and the PA united to crack down on the young protesters, both authorities would later scramble to present themselves as builders of national reconciliation.