Friday, January 23, 2015

Palestinian Treasure Hunt


Today’s (22 February, 2015) New York Times health section declares: “Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.” Believe me, I am trying my best. It is five in the morning and I am already at it. But will it work?

I have known Mazin Qumsiyeh for several years and thought he was a serious scientist and another human rights advocate. Yesterday I discovered I had been mistaken: The man is a VERY serious scientist. And indeed he is a world-class activist and a campaigner committed to Palestinian freedom that doesn’t shy away from world-class challenges. His current undertaking is the establishment of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. For those not familiar with this compact dynamo of a scientist, let me attempt a brief introduction: Mazin is the scion of the venerable Qumsiyeh clan of Beit Sahur, born not far from the Shepherds Field of biblical fame to another woman hailing from Nazareth. Yesterday, when we sat for breakfast, she spoke of paying taxes and other bothersome impositions of the current central authorities. Her brother was the earliest Palestinian modern-day zoologist. When he died at an early age, young Mazin decided to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and pursue his uncharted path.

There is a uniquely inspirational air about Mazin. He obviously takes himself seriously, a rare quality that never fails to impress. As he goes about his chores, whether checking the hundreds of emails on his computer from members of his extensive mailing list, leading his team of young volunteers at the museum, scanning another freshly caught insect from the Jordan Valley environs under the microscope, or preparing breakfast, he is constantly in active thinking mode. You can see sparks flying. The motto he chose for his museum sums it all: “Respect yourself, respect others and respect nature.” And he is not alone in his dedication. He has a 24/7-support ‘team.’ Jessy, his Chinese wife, is the weather system that feeds his tempest. To see her fawning over him, hosting his many guests, tidying his environment, moving around with forceps and bag picking the paper and plastic dropped by visitors and the wind on the grounds of the emerging sustainable agricultural experimental station around the museum building is to see quiet dedication at its best. And the woman pronounces all the guttural Arabic sounds so perfectly that it is incongruous to hear the local sounds issuing from the kind foreign face.

As I said, Mazin thinks: Responding to the short notice of my planned visit he had alerted a local friend he knew would click with me. After our morning visit to the evolving museum we met Osama Alaysa on the campus of Bethlehem University. Mazin had already shown me this fellow author’s Arabic language book, The Madmen of Bethlehem. He now obtained a copy for Osama to autograph for me and left us to chat over a cup of coffee on campus while he tended to some of his professorial duties. The weather was warm enough for us to seek a shady spot in the yard. We struck up a conversation of mutual discovery of each other’s whats and whys. The younger journalist turned out to know well some other academician Kanaanehs, my brother and nephew who teach a t Beir Zeit University. He wanted to know why I write in English and how come my wife speaks such good Palestinian colloquial Arabic. One thing led to the other and I shared with Osama our short wish list of a field trip to Battir and a bottle of authentic grape molasses, the dibis for which the Hebron rural communities are famous. We had bought some from a commercial source and it didn’t match my expectations. I produce my own carob molasses and can taste a product’s authenticity. And Didi and I had dreamt of visiting Battir, the famed Palestinian village that had managed to twist the Israeli military occupation’s arm and deflect the evil path of the Apartheid Wall on the strength of the village’s traditional irrigation system being recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Like the expert journalist that he was, Osama whipped out his mobile phone and contacted friends who contacted friends and came back with a plan if we would be willing to proceed right then and there. We borrowed Mazin’s car and were on our way. We eventually got to tour Beit Jala, Walaja (where we visited the colossal olive tree venerated as the tree whose shade was sought by Sidi Elbadawi, the Sufi sheikh, for rest and meditation. And we drove through Wadi el-Makhrour to Battir, all thanks to Osama and his (and now our) great friend Ibraheem Mizher and his 1980s Hyundai ‘old faithful’.

More about that later perhaps. But first the dibis: The mother of a fellow journalist had a bottle of the homemade brown gold and she was willing to part with it for the benefit of a guest coming all the way from Galilee. We drove through the extensive Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Osama’s family’s ‘temporary’ home since 1948, to reach Al-Khader, a rural extension of Bethlehem with another name that reverberates with biblical lore, this one claiming homage as the community of St. George. The fertile basin, known to the locals as El-Balou’aa for ‘swallowing’ the runoff rainwater from the surrounding hills, is one endless vineyard dotted with farmers’ homes. We drove to our destination and the kind people insisted on us coming in for coffee. With this excuse, and knowing that we were debis connoisseurs, a quick brunch was imposed on our schedule. The gracious lady of the house happened to be baking the family’s daily supply of wheat bread and all she had to do is to stick to the best of Palestinian traditions of hospitality and pour out a sample of whatever food supplies she had around her pantry. In no time flat we were wolfing down the homemade molasses we came for, together with homemade hawthorn jam, homemade za’ater, homemade cheese and virgin olive oil from the family’s trees, all savored with the freshly baked bread from the modern indoor oven fashioned in imitation of the classic outdoor taboon. I swear, as I waited impatiently for my lightly browned loaf to cool off enough for me to relish, it looked at me with the same pleasant welcoming smile like our hostess urging us to pitch in. The flavors have stayed with me after the coffee and made it home with me to bed in Arrabeh even after I brushed my teeth last night. In the night’s dream sequence the brunch got all admixed and confused with Saud El-Asadi’s love poem that I read on his Facebook before going to sleep describing a youthful kiss that echoed in his heart’s mind of the crunching under one’s teeth of the first green almonds of spring. The pleasures of the senses are hard to delimit in a dream and one can be excused for mixing one kind of love with another.


True, I am a physician. But I can’t tell you why I am feeling so refreshed and regenerated after writing this. It must be one of those rare occasions when the New York Times gets it right about Palestinians.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Psychiatry for the laity: "The Body Keeps The Score"

The following is a review I wrote of a highly successful book written by my dear Dutch American friend, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk . The book has been on the New York Times best seller list for over three consecutive months. It has received 105 five-star reviews (against one1-star review) on Amazon where it has outsold DMS-5, the psychiatrists’ professional bible. So far it has gained contracts for translation into several languages including Chinese and Japanese.

The Body Keeps the Score
By Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

Let me take a reality-based swipe at explaining Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) whose nature and therapy constitute the core of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s new book, “The Body Keeps the Score.” Bessel has been to my village residence in Galilee. In the fruit-tree orchard around it we keep a small flock of chickens. One dawn a wild mongoose party snuck in the cage and massacred all the chickens in it except for two agile birds that flew out to safety. They were at the prime of their egg-laying careers. We acquired a new clutch of chicks and paid more attention to locking their cage at night. The two surviving chickens stopped laying eggs, slept in the trees and never associated with the younger brood even as it reached maturity. The moral of the story is that it may take a genius a lifetime to explore the mechanism of PTSD but it takes little brain to suffer from it. It impacts the most elemental structures of the brain. It is an issue of survival not intellect.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a medical colleague and my personal friend since college days in Hawaii in the beautiful sixties. I divulge this information to alert readers to my likely partiality to his views. To forestall likely accusations of undue bias or allegations against me of succumbing to hyperbole, I shall start with expressing my discontent with the books range of coverage. But more on that point later.

In the prologue to the well-ordered book based on Dr. van der Kolk’s career in searching to understand trauma and assessing the usefulness of various modes of alleviating its lifelong damaging effects he asserts that:

“We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives. There are fundamentally three avenues: 1) top down, by talking, (re-)connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma; 2) by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and 3) bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma. Which one of these is best for any particular survivor is an empirical question. Most people I have worked with require a combination. This has been my life’s work.”

But this level of comprehension and enlightened outlook comes with the author’s retrospective accumulated wisdom. At the very start, as we are introduced to Tom, the disturbed Vietnam war veteran, we get the impression that Dr. van der Kolk happened to be at the right place at the right time. He happened to be at the Boston Veterans Administration Clinic after Vietnam. He made the most of the opportunity that presented itself. Or, perhaps, his presence of mind and intellectual curiosity made it the right time and the right place to question the accepted frame of reference regarding the time-honored talking therapy for trauma victims. This same combination of nosiness and daring to question accepted wisdom has kept the man at the cutting edge of research efforts in the field that he seemed to have accidentally walked into: from Rorschaching combat veterans to participating at a very basic level in the creation of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  (DSM), the psychiatrists’ modern bible, and of PTSD as a new psychiatric diagnosis; from researching the brain wave patterns in sleep to the testing of such novel neuropharmacological wonder drugs as Prozac; from experimenting with such bodily modalities of therapy as kickboxing to yoga; and from attempting to mainstream massage therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), neurofeedback, psychomotor therapy and theater to establishing the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Throughout all of these career development stages in the author’s account, his fairylike life story is related with a focus on his subjects, whether combat veterans or survivors of childhood domestic violence and violation. Reading through the intimate accounts of PTSD victims’ life stories and their reliving of their traumas, we witness the enlightening of caregivers and of us with the victims’ truth. All along we are exposed to the author’s efforts together with his research associates and fellow accomplices to widen the professional horizons of American psychiatry. Reading through, I had a constant and unaltered image of my friend: He always stood hugging a patient or strode alongside a colleague with his arm on her shoulder. I envied his patients for the level of empathy and understanding that they gained from my friend even if the initial contact was not always all that friendly.

“I was surprised and alarmed by the satisfaction I sometimes felt after I’d wrestled a patient to the floor so a nurse could give an injection, and I gradually realized how much of our professional training was geared to helping us stay in control in the face of terrifying and confusing realities.”

“… because in my experience patients get better only if they develop deep positive feelings for their therapists. … Therapy is a collaborative process— a mutual exploration of your self.”

 At least that is how empathetic Dr. van der Kolk comes across in his case reports, so artfully and smoothly woven into the telling of the story of his “life’s work.” And no wonder; Bessel weaves in intimate accounts of traumatic experiences from his own childhood and from that of his son, for example, to exemplify and buttress his understanding of trauma and its modes of therapy.

“If you’ve been hurt, you need to acknowledge and name what happened to you. I know that from personal experience: As long as I had no place where I could let myself know what it was like when my father locked me in the cellar of our house for various three-year-old offenses, I was chronically preoccupied with being exiled and abandoned. Only when I could talk about how that little boy felt, only when I could forgive him for having been as scared and submissive as he was, did I start to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.”

This type of sincerity and personal involvement with his subject matter makes the author so much more readable. And he has “a lot to say about how trauma is held in people’s bodies,” knowledge that implies and inspires intimacy. The direct real-life accounts of his many encounters with children and adult patients make this personalized memoir-like book so fascinating. Bessel excels in making his point in this manner. He drags the reader through the muck of a psychiatrist’s daily drudgery to where the conclusion becomes self-evident. Then he shines a redundant light on the inevitable conclusion.

Early on in his career this healer observed that

“Mainstream medicine [including psychiatry] is firmly committed to a better life through chemistry, and the fact that we can actually change our own physiology and inner equilibrium by means other than drugs is rarely considered.”

And again,

“… my professional training, with its focus on understanding and insight, had largely ignored the relevance of the living, breathing body, the foundation of our selves.”
 
Here he pauses the question to himself “if we could find more natural ways to help people deal with their post-traumatic responses?“ He seems to have spent the rest of his professional life trying to answer his own question to the consternation and opposition of many colleagues and most of the established professional power centers. Repeatedly he gets refused and lectured about his unorthodox views. But he persists and, against all odds, establishes his own trauma center. Gradually he attains credit and prominence to where he is sought out by like-minded colleagues not to mention impressed patients and established care and research institutions.

Masterfully, my colleague slips in several purely didactic but very succinct segments in his skilled discourse. Thus he dwells at length on the anatomy of the brain and the newly visualized connections between its various functional centers, and on issues of neuropharmacology and of physiology. I found much of this of little interest to me, perhaps because of my familiarity, even if limited, with its content. Yet, even such less dramatic and less engagingly autobiographical segments have enough charm and poetry to be quite readable. Their simplified explanations must be very instructive and helpful to the lay reader:

“However, our scans clearly showed that images of past trauma  activate the right hemisphere of the brain and deactivate the left. We now know that the two halves of the brain do speak different languages. The right is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual, and the left is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. While the left half of the brain does all the talking, the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking. The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants. We know the left hemisphere has come online when children start to understand language and learn how to speak. This enables them to name things, compare them, understand their interrelations, and begin to communicate their own unique, subjective experiences to others.”
Or take for example:
… the brain is formed in a “use-dependent manner.” This is another way of describing neuroplasticity, the relatively recent discovery that neurons that “fire together, wire together.”

There are several such priceless summary explanations throughout the text. I know my friend is grounded in the classic school of European education with Latin and Greek as foundational blocks. He fancies poetics and mysticism and prefers a turn of phrase that leaves much to fancy and to experiential interpretation. I must acknowledge finding many of my friend’s pithy nuggets quite enlightening. Yet, on occasion he seems to oversimplify things.  Or perhaps we, the laity, have grown to feel that neuropsychology is complex and not understandable, so that when someone like him explains it he/she sounds overly mundane. Several times I found myself adding my own interpretations to his statements. On one occasion, for example, as I read his assertion that “most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others” I made a mental note to the effect that this is the rock base of tribalism. Then I thought about it and reached the exact opposite conclusion. Why can’t you make up your mind, Bessel?

Speed-reading through the early chapters of “The Body Keeps the Score” I felt a level of reluctance to accept some of the author’s conclusions. They seemed to be based more on the author’s particular understanding of his field of study and sound to the non-specialist more like oversimplifications and jumping to conclusions. Yet, these conclusions are so much common sense that they sound downright self-evident and need no proving.  What is remarkable is the man’s daring to act on such seemingly circuitous logic. What is even more striking is his successful interventions based on those ‘hunches.’ But then, to the outsider, the entire discipline of psychiatry is fraught with massive, even if inspirational, jumping to conclusions:

“Suppressing our inner cries for help does not stop our stress hormones from mobilizing the body. Even though Sandy had learned to ignore her relationship problems and block out her physical distress signals, they showed up in symptoms that demanded her attention. Her therapy focused on identifying the link between her physical sensations and her emotions, and I also encouraged her to enroll in a kickboxing program. She had no emergency room visits during the three years she was my patient.”

Yet, there was always an alternative image to that of the attuned healer and teacher lurking in the background behind the pages, that of the rebel standing his ground against all odds and managing to stare down such powerful adversaries as the NIH bureaucracy, the American Psychiatric Association and their DSM advisory committees, before his hunches were proven right again and again. In reporting on his rebellious tendencies, Bessel coopts the non-specialist reader and wins him/her over with the deception that he, Bessel, is on their side. In doing this he risks alienating many colleagues with his damning statement against the profession:

“Psychiatry, as a subspecialty of medicine, aspires to define mental illness as precisely as, let’s say, cancer of the pancreas, or streptococcal infection of the lungs. However, given the complexity of mind, brain, and human attachment systems, we have not come even close to achieving that sort of precision. Understanding what is “wrong” with people currently is more a question of the mind-set of the practitioner (and of what insurance companies will pay for) than of verifiable, objective facts.”
And again:
“In this chapter, and the next, I will discuss the chasm between official diagnoses and what our patients actually suffer from and discuss how my colleagues and I have tried to change the way patients with chronic trauma histories are diagnosed.”

The man has the courage and strength of his convictions to go out on a limb and to gamble on his unconventional understanding of his friends, the patients with whom he seems to sympathize so much. He conducts research denied funding by the NIH and convinces funded colleagues of his point of view. “When does a hypothesis become a scientifically established fact?” he repeatedly and justifiably asks. He opens his account with a bang about veterans of the Vietnam War and his push for the acceptance of the PTSD diagnosis. After four decades he is on the professional warpath on another front, domestic abuse of children. Here he is at odds again with the traditional gurus of his profession and the purse string holders, the Developmental Trauma Disorder deniers at whom he leashes out with his considerable outrage. With one case report after the other, he leads the readers in conceptually formulating the diagnosis and sways them to join him in castigating developmental trauma deniers. But then we get the authorities’ response of “There is no known evidence of developmental disruptions that were preceded in time in a causal fashion by any type of trauma syndrome.”  That sounds to me like the same impossible argument that invested energy companies offer to counter global warming believers: prove it to us in a direct observable causal fashion.

Dr. van der Kolk repeatedly declares that he utilizes all three psycho-therapeutic approaches, talking therapy, psychoactive drugs and psychomotor therapy in varying combinations adjusted to the needs of the individual patient. Yet, quite early-on we get an inkling of his general bias when we are warned that

“The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement.”

By the time we get to the epilogue, he is clearly siding with this last modality. In fact he waxes quite verbose and patronizing in preaching the preventive value of the practice of its various modalities through the public school system. Here my good friend seems to step down from his high pedestal as the grand master of the “Bessel van der Kolk Trauma Center” to mix with commoners and school teachers and preach to them again on the benefits of such commonsense measures as maintaining the school activities enumerated above.

I will end with reverting to my sense of disappointment in my friend’s huge achievement in this successful amalgam of textbook and memoir: The focus of Bessel’s concern and the subject matter of his discourse, whether we consider the topics of his many reported research achievements or the case reports he so excels in recounting for his readers, is limited mainly to two groups. These are the survivors of childhood domestic trauma and the veterans of war, both within the confines of the USA. The author, and in my estimation, with the publication of his The Body Keeps the Score, the greatest world authority on trauma therapy, seems to do himself and his subject matter a disservice by limiting his range of discourse geopolitically to America. There are other trauma sufferers in the world, not least survivors of natural disasters, of motor vehicle and industrial accidents and of household violence abroad, especially, from my perspective, the problem of ‘honor killing’ of women in the Middle East countries for example. Here and there, Dr. van der Kolk does touch on some of those other victims of trauma, including survivors of Nazi concentration camps, but very lightly and tangentially and with little reference to research done on them.

And now I will get personal: My colleague ends his book with an epilogue that opens a trifle triumphantly: “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.” Upon reading that I first hastened to add: “Thanks to Dr. van der Kolk’s lifelong dedication and tireless advocacy.” Then quickly I added: “But it is a self-contained and selfish consciousness that seems to begin and end with the USA public.” The author declares himself “close to despair” with, among other things, “psychiatry’s obtuse refusal to make connection between psychic suffering and social conditions.” I can hardly resist asserting my own despair at my colleague’s myopic focus on his privileged country’s trauma sufferers. I am at loss for words! From the focus on combat veterans, I am left with the impression that war is more traumatic to its perpetrators than to their victims. The most glaring defect I find in my friend’s scholarly discourse in this volume is the absence of relevant discussion of the trauma of war victims: How can we deal at length with the trauma of American Vietnam combat veterans without addressing the trauma of sufferers among the Vietnamese. And what about the Abu-Ghraib detainees and all of Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s orphans and bereaved families? What about the trauma of all the maimed survivors and witnesses of death and devastation on the other side? Had no one done any research on trauma and its therapy there? How can anyone write about any aspect of trauma in the year of our lord of 2014 without visiting Gaza? The AIDS awareness slogan, Silence=Death, is good for what happens there as well, Bessel! Except that it is the international community’s (and your) silence and the Palestinians’ death.

And yet, I can imagine myself defending my friend against others blaming him for such a blatant shortcoming: “Folks, let us keep clear of politics and partisan arguing, please! The target readership of this volume is the educated American public as a whole and not only its specialist psychiatrists.  Hence, the context of its discourse has to match the American public’s concerns and largely local horizons. And remember, my friend had always to adjust his research subject matter and parameters to what major American research funding sources were willing to fund. Besides, my friends conclusions regarding his American PTSD sufferers have universal applicability.”

Well, Bessel, my friend: Just between the two of us, now that we have made the world class rank of science writers, it is time to embark on writing the next volume, the one summing up all of the world’s scientific literature on trauma therapy. You need to rise to the next level and address yourself to the global trauma scene.
Also you took a lead part in establishing the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Why not make it the International CTSN? It may well lead you to the same ‘commonsense’ conclusions. But at least I will sleep better and love you even more.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Argentine Vacation

Family traditions shape themselves around the lives of their participant founders. So, in retirement, the convenience of joining our children’s families during their school vacations has worked itself into an annual routine. Conceptually, we do not subscribe to the colonialist essence of the American Thanksgiving Holiday. If anything we feel morally obligated to join Native Americans on the occasion of their day of mourning, their commemorating of their Nakba. Lacking such practical alternative and with the coincidence of the extended weekend holiday in our grandchildren’s American school calendar with the ebb of our gardening duties and end of summer fruits in our home garden in Galilee, it has become a sort of family tradition of ours to fly to San Jose, California before Ty’s family and those of two Northern California resident cousins of his get together during the holiday.

Our daughter’s family often joins the same occasion as well. But the more significant tradition for her family is for us to join them for the Christmas and New Year holidays with the excuse of rendering our babysitting services gratis as the three generational family travels abroad. This tradition has gotten so well rooted that we get only a week’s advance notice of the exact dates and destination of the annual trip. This year it was Argentina, a big place for the ten-day escape from New York’s deep freeze. In reality it was a five-day sojourn on a ranch bracketed by a couple-of-days peek on our way in and back at the highlights of what touristic attractions Buenos Aires has to offer.

The unexpected highlight of this brief Argentinian exposure for me came at the very end. Helena Cobban, the founder and CEO of Just World Books, the publishing house that will bring out “Chief Complaint,” my forthcoming short story collection from my solo general practice days in Arrabeh, saw fit to introduce me at the last minute to a fellow publisher in Buenos Aires. The octogenarian Argentinian of Lebanese origins showed up for our last breakfast and turned out to be a real gem of a committed Palestinian defender, a contemporary and personal friend of Edward Said and Abu-Lughud. A diminutive old bundle of energy and intellect, Dr. Saad Chadid had spent an eventful life in the study of philosophy, religion and politics with a special knack for ferreting out the meaning of loaded words and splitting significant hairs at the border between these domains. With the passing away of his friend Edward Said, Saad dedicated his resourceful skills and web of academic contacts to establishing chairs for Palestinian studies at Latin American universities. He has already set up six such Edward Said Chairs and hopes to do at least four more. At eighty-six years of age, he looks well and plans to last till age 105 relying on a common bit of Indian wisdom from his days of studying peaceful resistance at Gandhi’s home village. The adage guarantees 105 years of life to those who dedicatee themselves to others. Gandhi lived only to 78. Saad’s dedication to the Palestinian cause is that absolute. Even his wife had too much of it and split.

The other highlight of the trip was the daily horseback ride at the Ave Maria Ranch. One could ride all day long if they so desired. Marten, the resident Gaucho was always ready, a gentle soul if I ever saw one. He accompanied me when I wanted to go horseback riding while everyone else went to the pool for a swim. We had difficulty communicating beyond the bare essentials of riding. Trotting and galloping are nearly identical in English and Spanish. All the staff seemed so polite and friendly but none was more genuinely so than the owner and manager of the ranch and guest house, Ascension. She also spoke English. I felt truly welcome and at ease till on an afternoon ride we stopped for our picnic lunch and looked for a bottle opener. Marten reached back with his hand and casually drew a huge knife from its sheath hanging from his leather belt. I decided to keep my distance. The glint of the thing in the noon sun made me blink and I wondered what he usually did with his knife other than open beer bottles. I never found out; that was my last ride. Malaika, my teen granddaughter, and her father rode out twice a day and managed to squeeze a last ride before our trip back to the city the last morning of our stay. The ranch also offered nature walks in the gentle slopes of its near fifty thousand dunams. And one could pick organic berries and fruits to one’s heart’s or stomach’s content. Malaika, the vegetarian in the family, went wild with the early season figs and the raspberries. And gourmet home-cooked meals twice a day. All one had to do was to relax and enjoy.

We did make a trip one noon to Tandil, the region’s main town, to sample the cheese and salami, the two specialties of the town. After five hours of flat land driving from Buenos Aires, the well-worn-out hills of Tandil’s terrain were a welcome relief in the endless open horizons in all four directions. We are told that this fades in comparison with the open spaces of Patagonia, Argentina’s major landmass that Hertzl initially considered for his state of the Jews when the Europeans decimated its native peoples around the turn of the 19th century. Why did the guy change his mind, I wondered. And how would it be like for me to visit these parts had he not gone religious with his dream inspired and powered by Europe’s anti-Semitism?


The flight back to New York was delayed by ten hours, a minor nightmare especially for my daughter, the overall organizer of the whole vacation. But apparently the stress affected me as well. Few hours into the flight my wife woke me up from a screaming fit.  I told her what I was screaming about; we were with our extended family on a picnic in a vast meadow. One of my nieces insisted on riding her new truck and circling around the picnic site. (In reality she had posted on Facebook pictures of the new car she had bought though her last one was only a year or two old.) Her truck was so powerful and she was showing it off, making it rear on its back wheels and turnaround in circles (just as my horse did when it threw me off its back!) endangering the children. My wife and I laughed this off.  I drank some water, reclined my seat and dozed off again but to a different dream: We were vacationing in Patagonia this time. Everyone was really polite and friendly, exact copies of our hosts at Ave Maria. They wore Star of David Jewelry instead of crosses. I was very proud and self-confident as I spoke Hebrew with everyone. Many of them spoke fluent Arabic. And they didn’t mind me saying I was Palestinian.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Indian Summer: An Open Letter to Sayed Kashua on the occasion of his piece in the New Yorker


Dear Sayed,

Congratulations! You have made the pages of the New Yorker. That is major. I think it is a first for a contemporary Palestinian voice, even if it is originally in Hebrew and in the company of a ‘real’ Israeli writer.

Though we have never met in person, I am a fellow countryman and a big fan of yours. I have read all your three translated books in English and every article I have run across in the English issue of Haaretz. Once or twice I have even taken the unusual step of watching “Arab Labor” though I had stopped seeing Israeli TV. Long before you I had given up and defected to the American side even if physically I have stayed on my little plot of land in my Galilee village, Arrabeh. It is a matter of fidelity to my inheritance.

Let me hasten to add that, like you, I am a half-breed, an Arab struggling to make sense of our conundrum to speakers of a foreign language, English in my case. But I enlisted for the cause late in the game, in retirement. In the introduction to her English poetry collection, My Voice Sought The Wind, Susan Abulhawa says she feels phantom pains deep in her heart where her Arabic once dwelled. Does estrangement from Hebrew hurt at such a deep level? I am curious if it did send such roots in your soul? To this day English hasn’t in mine.

As to your friend, Etgar Keret, we have never met before in person or on the page. I guess one local cynic is enough for me. But let me be frank and register my discomfort with his first name “Challenge.” What parents want to burden their child with such a load of Chutzpah from birth! Still, Just for your sake, I will read his short story collection before I decide if he is allowed in my living room or is to join my list of boycotted Israeli authors, the likes of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. No liberal Zionists on my father’s piece of land, I have long decided.

Now let me address the central point I want to communicate to you regarding your published correspondence with Keret in the New Yorker: Stick with Haaretz my friend! They know the facts on the ground a little better though I often catch them cheating a little on those facts especially when I compare the full original Hebrew with the contracted English version. It all is relative, I guess. But let us stay away from conspiracy theories and look closely at their editors’ note about your exchange of letters with Keret: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/tell-story-happy-ending-exchange-etgar-keret-sayed-kashua

On July 19th, just days after Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua published a piece in the Guardian, titled “Why I Have to Leave Israel.”

Well, well! To the folks it was just “a ground invasion.” What about air raids and bombardment from the sea? Had the editors placed their empathetic conscience where your thoughts and heart had been in those days, Mr. Kashua, they would have stated it a little more realistically. It was the heaviest testing run of modern weaponry from air land and sea. What about drones, smart bombs, Apaches and F-16s? Readers are left high and dry, thirsting for a taste of Gaza’s bitter reality, the physical and mental suffering that lasted an eternity of over seven weeks. They deserve a little more telling line than just “a ground invasion.” It is like referring to the Vietnam War as America’s South East Asian skirmish. It feels insulting to all involved especially to the memory of those targeted kids on the beach.

Or take the following innocent-sounding neutral piece of information.

Kashua, who was born in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

“Predominantly” as in ‘one hundred percent.’ An essential element of truth is missing here that doesn’t even occur to the American reader. The smoke screen is so heavy one doesn’t even know it is there. You and I know better. I am a regular reader of the New Yorker. For the sake of maintaining my one-sided love affair with the iconic weekly I will blame this on pure ignorance. The reader is left with the impression that Arabs and Jews in Israel mix at will in their residential choices. But Mr. Keret, you and I know that Arabs and Jews in Israel live in segregated communities. And the racial exclusion mechanism on the Jewish side has just been given the blessing of the Supreme Court of Israel. In so-called mixed cities like Lod and Ramla, Arab slums are separated from Jewish neighborhoods by concrete walls and barbed wire. And Tira, if it has any Jews at all, has only the errant Jewish women who had married Arabs and had so far escaped the outreach of Lehava, the NGO dedicated to saving their souls and to returning them, by force if need be, to the warm bosom of their tribe. Correct me if I am wrong Mr. Kashua, but I am wagering that members of the said genre in Tira do not exceed the fingers of one hand. In Arrabeh we had five at one time. Only two have not returned to the fold.

Then the editors drop another silent smoke bomb. They casually use “Jerusalem” without any comment, reservation or explanation as if it were the most normal of places. Did you actually live in West or East Jerusalem? Within the original city boundaries or within the massively expanded borders nibbling at the edges of Ramallah? Within or outside the wall? The Old fortress wall or the new apartheid one? 

Then this:

He devoted his weekly column in Haaretz to telling “the Palestinian story,” and he is the creator of “Arab Labor,” a popular sitcom that is a sendup of problems experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens.

I don’t object to this characterization of your literary contribution. But it lacks the needed emphasis on the one nuance that I consistently find in your writing: mocking the image of the Arab as seen by Jews in Israel. That tongue-in-cheek flare is what endears your style to my heart. That, my friend, would be the greatest gift I would emphasize for your American and international readers.

For whatever it is worth, here are a few comments about your exchange of letters, starting with the most objectionable:

You and your friend, Mr. Challenge, seem to feel at liberty to grab all the Mid-West prairies, fold them neatly and lug them away in your luggage. How many Native Americans have you consulted before deciding on that? Have you even met any members of the indigenous Illinois tribe? They had given their name and color to the physical space you so covet. They are the Azazmi, the Turshan and the Jahaleen of the Midwest. Haven’t you yourself been at the losing end of land theft practices? Now you turn around and want to do unto others what you don’t want done unto you! For shame’s sake, Sayed! I am going to tell on you! I will go to Tira and tell your parents. And, while at it, I will find out how many Jews live in your “predominantly Arab” town.

Now, about those kernels of corn you worry Obama might spill on your balcony: You have every reason to object. I have it on good authority that he is a neat and careful person. His parents and I attended the same university at the same time and I was aware of their presence on campus, especially Hussein’s. I spoke to a good friend who remembers pushing little Barak in his stroller around the lush campus of the University of Hawaii. She assured me that, contrary to the impression the wild flare of his ears gave the toddler, he was not messy. So any kernels he drops are intentional and targeted. Look around you from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria!

In your second letter to your friend you go off the deep end to discuss such trivia as ISIS, Israel’s legitimacy and the setting of its borders and apartheid and distinguishing the system from the people behind it. Believe me that all is sick.

But take it from a health professional and an intrepid practitioner of the art of psychic fencing: Your wife is wrong. You are not “a coward with a paranoid-personality disorder.” You are just another serial survivor adept at walking between raindrops and at interpreting the new looks in the eyes of kindhearted neighbors. We all develop the acute wariness and sensibility. How else did Keret’s father know that he needed to take a coat?


That little story about him having “survived because he took a coat,” is a true gem. I am going to take your advice and invest in coats for all the members of the Kanaaneh clan. It is getting so chilly for us here in Israel that we may freeze on the way to the mall. Pray for warmer weather. In America they call it Indian summer.