An executive speaks his mind

I am still trying to write a chapter on real estate capital and land defense, so I’m going through all these old interviews with Ramallah businessmen. Reading through some of them reminds me of this passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem in which Joan Didion is reflecting on interviews. She writes: “I am bad at interviewing people […] My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” (Incidentally, this passage also always makes me feel better about doing bad interviews.) 

In 2013, when this whole project was just starting to take shape, I had some idea that I wanted to research Palestinian capitalism. It seemed the most obvious place to start would be to hang out with some capitalists. So I went and bought some dress shirts and pants, a belt that matched the color of my shoes, and some new glasses to blend in. Then, for the better part of the summer, I spent my time wandering in and out of air-conditioned offices in Ramallah.

The most memorable encounter that summer was with an executive at a pretty big Palestinian insurance company. I had been trying to meet him for awhile to talk about this weird kind of property insurance they were offering, and after a number of visits I was finally granted an audience. We sat down, and I asked him about the policy. "What kind of service does it provide, how does it protect property?” I asked. I waited for some packaged answer, something about how their company is building the Palestinian economy and fighting the occupation and doing the Lord’s work. “Its like flight insurance," he said. Given that I am unfamiliar with almost everything I choose to research, I told him that I had no idea what that meant. “OK, flight insurance," he said, "is just a way for insurance companies to make money. Not only are there a ton of situations that it doesn’t cover, but its also usually possible for the buyer of the ticket to change it himself. Flight insurance works because people don’t know how the system works. We make money because we have the money and know the legal system, and other people don’t. We just sue everyone, and we can sit through long lawsuits." 

This candor was not what was I was expecting, but it was definitely what I was wanting. And then he kept going, about how “our government is retarded” and how dealing with the Palestinian Authority was like “working with a bunch of apes.” At a certain point, I couldn’t remember my questions because I had to concentrate on not letting my mouth hang open. Then the power cut and his computer shut down, and he exploded about all the "fucking people” that live there and can do nothing right. 

I remember leaving that office elated. I loved the directness that accompanies power and the conviction that you’re the smartest guy in the room. I loved it when these guys trusted me, and it always felt OK taking advantage of that trust. But later, when I abandoned the Ramallah businessmen (it turns out they are really not that interesting) and began spending time with other kinds of people, it was different. Because during fieldwork it is really rare, I think, for it to be in someone’s best interest to talk to you. You’re looking for contradictions, conflicts, tensions, the things that people don’t always really want to share. And when people – especially people that you feel some solidarity or empathy with, some of whom may even be friends – choose to reveal something, or when the things you’re hoping to find explode out into the open when you happen to be in the vicinity, it doesn’t feel great, even though its what you’re there for. Because you know that one way or another, even the people you care about, you’re probably going to sell them out.