Saturday, September 24, 2016

Escape to Tirana

September 8-18, 
Tirana beats Arrabeh; let me count the ways: The olive oil I have savored in restaurants here in Tirana is more flavorful. Granted, it is Italian in origin and the salt I sprinkled on it is very special, red salt from Hawaii—via Italy as well. Also Tirana’s watermelons are tastier, sweeter. Ours, mind you, are still grown in the Battouf Valley without the benefit of irrigation. You see, the canal serving as the national water carrier diverting the Jordan River goes the length of the valley from one end to the other but we cannot use that water. It is for the benefit of Jewish agriculture. We lost part of our farmland in the valley to the project since it serves the ultimate goal of the state, empowering its Jewish majority. In the end it all meant that our watermelons are watered by nature’s nightly dewdrops causing them to be the best in all of Israel. Excuse the diversion, but I feel choked and have to explain: I am not comfortable saying this aloud because it is admitting defeat on a much more serious level than the competition between Arrabeh and Tirana. Once we used to say “the best in Palestine.” Now, on occasion, I catch myself making the faulty switch. So, let us agree that from now on it is Israel/Palestine. Believe me, this is what I am trying to escape from by coming to Tirana in the first place.

Not to worry though. There is a calming sense of peacefulness about the city of Tirana. And people are friendly. They go out of their way to be helpful with directions, etc. But the expressions on the faces of the older generation are quite somber, almost glum, the men more so. And cars are mainly German with a preponderance of old Mercedes. In the section of ‘downtown’ where our B&B is located the street is wide and relatively clean and the building facades are colorful. The neighborhood is not far from The Block, the former ritzy area where the communist bosses had their homes, offices and hangouts such as Hotel Rogner. In addition to the parks and squares, there is much open space fronting the various government office buildings and institutions of the state. You see the mountains in the distance as you stroll at sunset along the Boulevard from the Skanderbeg Square next to the Et’Hem Bey Mosque and the Museum of National History heading south to Mother Teresa Square and the University of Tirana campus. On the way a crowd of teenagers and young adults seems to build up from tens to hundreds to a veritable mass before you reach the part of the boulevard blocked off to traffic. Before that you pass the Pyramid that Anwar Hoxha’s daughter designed and built in memory of her father. One block further on the opposite side of the boulevard is the ‘BunkArt’ display of that lost era’s atrocities. This latter memorial entitled “Checkpoint” includes an actual original bunker for two, now upgraded with a clear glass ring around it. Not far from it there is the bare frame of the mine-shaft style entrance to the Stanci prison for enemies of the state. A graffiti-covered concrete slab borrowed from the Berlin wall completes the ghastly display. The wall is much lower, by the way, than the Apartheid wall that Israel built to keep its ‘barbarian’ enemies out. The trilogy of Soviet era items mocks the communist regime’s dictatorial mentality and the quirky fancy and paranoia that drove Hoxha from his start as the intellectual revolutionary and father of modern Albania into the infamy of murderous dictatorship. One trip to North Korea and he came back ready for the worst: He commenced the insane project of bunker building to guarantee the survival of the top echelon of the state system in case of a nuclear attack. In total he built close to two hundred thousand bunkers. Of late a group of Albanian creative artists have converted the largest of those into a maze of audio-visual parodies of the horror that the whole psychotic mess must have inspired in its worshippers. I admit, I found it enough to drive one deeper in the ground than they could have imagined. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. But the absence in the underground maze of any sense of the four directions bothered me terribly.

When you stop to think about it, Enver Hoxha’s paranoia was not out of proportion to what was actually happening in the nuclear arena. True, only a lunatic could grant himself the level of centrality and indispensability that the man assigned to himself to justify such an underground metropolis. But think of the other side of the equation: Not one and not two countries had built nuclear weapons. And one country had used them. Twice in fact. So why is basing the act of building nuclear weapons on the logic of expecting to use them sane while building bunkers that could possibly protect one from a nuclear attack nuts? I am not denying the insanity of what we saw in the BunkArt maze that we visited. It is the other half of the equation that I find illogical. When will we see an AtombombArt display? When will Israeli artists treat us to a display of the skill, the effort, the meticulous science and the insanity that went into building a nuclear bomb and readying it for actual use? Until that does happen, I will withhold passing judgment on Enver Hoxha. The insanity of his egomania dims in comparison to the megalomania of whoever holds the trigger to a nuclear weapon. Convoluted as the logic sounds, compelled by a sense of solidarity with the Albanian people for their entrapment between the paranoia of their late leader and the psychosis of nuclear arms’ developers, the next day I combed the bazaar in search of a folding trooper’s shovel like the ones I saw in the BunkArt display. Failing to find one, I settled for a military periscope, which I now keep on my desk next to my laptop. At least I will be able to tell the directions.

Another insane thought crossed my mind as we left the underground maze: True, most of the bunkers in Albania are of the small dome-shaped variety, not the communal size type. Still, why not use them to house Syrian refugees? Just a thought! Both the Levant and the Balkans once were under the same Ottoman rule. And we exchanged unplanned favors. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of the line of Egyptian rulers who introduced cotton to Egypt and lit the spark of modernity in the region was an Albanian. And many exiled Bosnians have settled as part and parcel of Middle Eastern society. Why not continue the exchange of favors under duress?

The Pyramid, though mostly neglected and in disrepair, is put to some inventive use on occasion. The night after our pioneering stroll down the boulevard we returned at sunset again and were treated to the hair-raising experience of the annual gathering of Tirana’s motorcyclists. The same Hell’s Angels style of burly, longhaired and leather-clad cyclists poured in in twos and threes till the spacious parking area assigned to them in front of The Pyramid was full. They alighted and greeted one another with hugs, kisses and slaps on the back. They climbed the few stairs that the crowd of onlookers used as seats and assembled to mill around in rowdy bunches on the large elevated concrete space fronting The Pyramid. A couple of soft drink stands and one tattoo booth were kept busy. (there was also beer and kebabs available) A band with a flashy and loud show was making it impossible for me and my wife to communicate. The wide entrance to The Pyramid provided the perfect space for the huge screen under which the band performed. My wife thought the music was of the Metallica genre. To me it was all horrible noise, enough for me not only to take out both of my hearing aids but also to move out to the sidewalk on the other side of the boulevard till the big parade started. Didi noted that none of the riders were women though many gathered and added to the milling crowd. As the guys climbed on their cycles and started revving their engines many women joined them on the back seats. A young woman declaring “AC-DC” on her T-shirt was one of the first to climb on the back seat of a Harley Davidson. Half a dozen of those took the lead as they emerged noisily to the boulevard that the police had blocked to other traffic. Large Yamahas, Suzukis, etc. followed. A few Vespas brought up the rear while a young man did showy tricks on his bicycle to demonstrate how useless all motors were.

Another plus for Tirana is that it has street names while Arrabeh doesn’t even though such names are seen more on maps of the city than on actual street signs. You ask for directions to the bus to Kruje, the hometown of Albania’s most heroic historical figure who rose against the Turks, and you are told to go to the train station and ask again. The problem is that the train station is a virtual one. Everyone knows where it is but there is no actual station and no train stops or starts there. And when you do locate the presumed spot it turns out to be quite a distance from the bus station, which is a real space with buses in it.

Another virtual reality experience was the Tirana Beer Fest. It coincided with our stay and was held in our neighborhood. It turned out to be a tame affair especially compared to the festival still inscribed in our memory from Darmstadt, Germany some three decades ago. Perhaps the fact that the street that was blocked for the purpose in Tirana was right next to the old mosque, the one Enver Hoxha did not destroy considering it a cultural site and not a religious one.

Exploring the center of the city, you realize how much public space it has and how much people walk, for pleasure in the evenings and to do chores at other times. That is another endearing attribute to their “primitive” lifestyle besides the striking absence of Macdonald’s and Starbucks. But if you look carefully you will discover the first signs of the vicious nibbling of “modernizing” forces at the socio-economic flesh of this traditional people: In many shops you can use the Euro instead of the Lek; the embassy of Kuwait has placed a Sabeel—drinking water outlet—in the shape of huge coffee decanter in the park not far from us; and the ancient clock tower by the mosque has been renovated with American aid while Turkey is footing the $30 million bill for a huge mosque right next to the Parliament. And you see some women dressed in hijab. Older women in traditional ‘respectable’ Islamic costume are encountered frequently. But they don’t don the uniform black attire. The difference is minimal but I find it significant in that it reflects traditionalism among older women and not the dogma of fundamentalism; one shows a consciousness of decency in the mind of its wearer while the other the imposed rules of conduct and the dress code of restrictive religiosity, be it of the Nuns’ order of Mother Teresa or the Wahhabi sect.

Religion seems to play very little role in the daily lives of Albanians. This obviously is part of the legacy of the communist system that banned religion and did away with mosques and churches. There are relatively few such worship houses and interfaith marriages are common, we are told. By and large religion has little to do with the way people dress or interact on the street: Like secular people the world over, teenagers and young adults of both sexes flaunt their youth and its bodily gifts, going around in Bermuda’s, half-open shirts and blouses and stylish threadbare tight jeans. They greet one another with kisses on the cheeks, once, twice and thrice, regardless whether of the same or opposite gender. Older people, long past the stage that must inspire the freaky sexual obsession of intolerant religiosity, act in exactly the same fashion. It is my deep appreciation of Albania’s liberality that makes such a step as the Turkish mosque construction project appear threatening. No less threatening, it seems to the uninvolved like us, is the incursion of uncontrolled capitalism and free market projects like the showy massive commercial center being constructed not far from Skanderbeg Square. What rubs me the wrong way is the seeming lack of a parallel social welfare net to alleviate the plight of so many disabled beggars scattered in public spaces. The country’s economic woes are still such that some hardy ‘entrepreneurs’ sell single cigarettes to park visitors while others repair lighters. The capitalists will tell me that the coming free market economic boom will take care of such irksome trivia. I am ready with the counter argument based on all the homeless in the richest Western capitals. At moments like this I regret not having taken up the assistantship offer one professor of economics made me in my senior year at the University of Hawaii. Think what I could have done for Albania. Or for Palestine.

We had inquired from our host about the possibility of attending a Sufi zikr. Instead, on the occasion of Eid el-Adha, he took us on a ceremonial visit to the world headquarters of the Bektashi Sufi sect. It is a branch of Sufism that prides itself on mysticism and liberality. It was established in Turkey in the thirteenth century. In Albania it is the third largest religious group after mainstream Islam and Christianity. We paid a visit to the head of the sect, Baba Edmond Brahimaj, to wish him a happy Kurban Bayram. Edmond is a member of the group and a personal friend. We were received along with a line of well-wishers including government ministers and foreign dignitaries. The kindly old man offered his hand in greeting for followers to kiss and for us to shake and we were treated to delicious nut cookies. The reception hall is part of an impressive ongoing construction project potentially on the scale of the Baha’i World Center in Haifa. It includes a massive open hall, its high ceiling held atop 12 hefty marble columns with the intervening walls and arches beautifully decorated with Islamic calligraphy. The tekke stands over a large basement serving as a museum housing the faith’s relics and documenting its history. Of special interest to us was a full illustration of the traditional festive communal meal of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Shia Islam’s saints Hassan and Husain. The actual ingredients and utensils were on display and life-size models and photographic images decorated the walls. Later, we mentioned Ashura to Rita, our hostess, and that night we feasted on the crunchy delicacy, especially prepared for us. The third part of the complex is a mausoleum housing the graves of a dozen late leaders of the faith. Visitors light candles in the special stand on the grounds, touch the raised wooden grave covers decorated with Arabic calligraphy and kiss and some cry openly perhaps for their own dead. A planned fourth component of the compound is a Bektashi religious university. On the way out I purchased a set of red prayer beads from the souvenir shop. Had we planned our Bektashi foray right I would have done that first and had the masbaha—beads—with me to ask the head of the tariqa to bless it for me. I had also missed the chance to have my photo taken with the master. I made up for that by having one taken with the image of his late predecessor at the entrance to the museum.

One thing we in Arrabeh do better is the group dance, our traditional Dabki. As is my custom whenever I set out to discover a new country, I had asked our host if we could attend a local wedding. With his rich circle of contacts the good professor arranged for us to join a wedding party at a palatial banquet hall on the outskirts of Tirana. Rita joined us to mediate the encounter and we were accommodated at a table with four couples nearly our age. Wasting much food at wedding parties must be a worldwide phenomenon. Even though we overate, enough leftovers remained from our table to feed a dozen troopers. And the wine flowed generously as well since frequent toasting was our only means of communication. The deafening level of the live music, mainly of a kazoo-like clarinet, issuing from the loudspeakers forced me to take out my hearing aids to protect my eardrums. With the exception of the occasional ballroom dance, the partying involved nonstop mixed line-dances with the lead dancer twirling a kerchief in his or her free hand. By comparison our traditional Dabki is more energetic and its complicated steps are more arty. No wonder Arrabeh’s dance troop just stole the show, placing first in another international competition. Had it been a Jewish Hura dance group it would have been the first item in all Israeli news media, right up there with Hilary Trump and Donald Clinton. (Yes, I know I am mixing up the two presidential candidates; but from where I stand it is all confused.)  Too bad, with the current wave of Wahhabi-inspired gender sensitivity in Arrabeh, we no longer see the old way of alternating mixed gender line dance known as Habl Mwada’a—pearly string. It is just as confusing for us as it is for the folks in Tirana: Do we follow the glitter of Saudi money and don Burkas or let the frayed jeans and deep V-necks of the Wahhabi’s masters and protectors dazzle our youth? Between the two I vote for the Bektashi.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Through a Glass Darkly: A Poetry Review - I Remember My Name

Reviewed by Hatim Kanaaneh
(I Remember My Name - Poetry by Samah Sabawi, Ramzy Baroud and Jehan Bseiso. Vacy Vlazna, ed., 2016, Novum Publishing. Kindle Edition.)
In penning this review, the primacy of Israel in North America's hegemonic cultural circles limits my expectation of a sympathetic Western readership. The recent furor in Israeli government circles over the public broadcasting of Mahmoud Darwish's poem is only a warning signal. Thugs and war criminals take on the mantel of literary critics to attack Palestine's national poet and ascribe to him their own internalized fascist values. Judging from experience the malicious smear is bound to gain traction in Zionist-aligned literary circles at home and abroad. Our lead Palestinian politician in Israel, Ayman Odeh, explains well the Israeli officials' fear: "If we were to know and acknowledge each other's culture we may finally want to live together," [al-Ittihad, July 21, 2016.]
I am an Israeli citizen and know firsthand how Israel's rightist leaders view the world. I know precisely where my place is in their narrow field of vision. I experience daily how they deal with my issues of the heart; such issues always fall outside the purview of the Israeli majority's definition of itself. Their politically inspired national, religious and racial exclusionism debases what I and other outfielders say. I live that reality and it strains my ability to reach out to the world, to humanity as a whole. It threatens my poetic and intellectual freedom. I worry that the pro-Israel hegemonic sway in Western culture will affect a 'security wall' around my intellectual property and that of other Palestinian writers and of kindred marginalized groups. That, in turn, dims my hope to be understood by the world at large and hence my worry.
The dedication of the current thin collection of poetry by the three internationally savvy poets, Samah Sabawi, Ramzy Baroud and Jehan Bseiso, to Gaza and Gazans blows their cover: They are diaspora Palestinians, world citizens and enemies of hegemonic cultural Zionism from within its field of operation; they are Trojan horses. Between them they span the globe in poetic exile seeming to be in constant flight from the inescapable curse of who they are, Palestinians by nature and nurture.
The book is by four poets, not three, for I cried just as much peering into the illustrations as I did reading the lines that inspired them. The way David Borrington renders the feelings behind the words of the poets in heartfelt visual images is a form of poetry as well. How else can he show you again and again what it means to be "anxious at the cellular level" for example?
Samah Sabawi admits to using her "140 characters to liberate Palestine." Within Israel lesser thought crimes led to a pre-dawn police raid and landed the poetDareen Tatour first in jail and later in exile from home. The state has deemed her too much a threat to have access to the Internet, or to be free on her own recognizance till the formal court proceedings. But Samah Sabawi, Ramzy Baroud and Jehan Bseiso all have escaped the geographic confines of Palestine/Israel to their emotional and physical global exile. Tethered by their heartstrings to their shared homeland and Gazan suffering, all three transcend their Palestinian roots to a universal core that snares readers everywhere. They soar across the globe to share in the pain of others whether in Kashmir, South Africa, Chile, Burma or Mali.
Between the three of them our poets cover a wide span of the literary field and the physical globe: There isn't a continent or a writing art they haven't visited. Whether they cut their sentiments in stone or siphon them from an ocean, the classic similes for the craft of Arabic poetry, all three share the common demeanor coloring the lives of Palestinians everywhere: They harbor a sense of injured pride at the deferred and devalued, even if no longer totally denied, innate justice of their case, the Palestinian Nakba. The hue each of them reflects of this shared, heartfelt and pervasive Palestinian sentiment sets them apart from each other. The editor tells us:
"Although Samah, Ramzy and Jehan have distinctive styles, they possess in common incisive intellects, finely tuned by a sense of justice inherent in the Palestinian experience and in their love for Palestine particularly besieged and suffering Gaza."
All three poets harbor a deep sense of history, of time and place that always translates to Palestine. I have travelled and met many fellow Palestinians in their diaspora. The phenomenon of Nakba-centered existence is near universal among us. Like a hereditary trait it spans generations and transcends time and space, it colors a Palestinian's existence wherever he/she treads and whatever air he/she breathes. Take Samah for example: She smiles at us brightly from the first page of her contribution. There is no mistaking her striking Greek (or is it Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Native American or South-East Asian) looks. Speaking for her fellow Palestinian poets, her words live up to the global sentiment her looks spark:
"I am a Palestinian-Canadian-Australian writer, commentator and playwright. ...  I travelled the world and lived in its far corners, yet always felt haunted by the violence and injustice perpetrated against the poor, the marginalized, the colonized and stateless. No matter where I was, or how vast the world appeared around me, I always felt as though I remained trapped in my place of birth Gaza. The war torn besieged and isolated strip shaped my understanding of my identity and my humanity."
Ramzy concurs:
"Wherever I am in the world, from Seattle to Chile to South Africa and regardless of which struggle I am involved in, from Mali to the Rohingya, I am always thinking Palestine, even when I am not conscious of it.
"So, don't talk to me about the Pharaoh:
My Father's blood drenched the skin of Jesus
After the Romans caught him at a checkpoint
Hiding a recipe for revolution, and a love poem"
And here is Jehan Bseiso:
"Since 2008 I have been working with Médecins Sans Frontières - Doctors Without Borders. My work has taken me to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Ethiopia and others. In all my travels and encounters, I've experienced how support and understanding of the Palestinian cause can cross borders and traverse barriers of culture and language."
The with-it modernity of the three exiled Palestinian poets is such that it makes it possible to include such scribbles as "@ CNN@ Foxnews" meaningfully in a poem. Yet on the first reading, it is only at the very end that the picture becomes stunningly clear, explained in a single exclamation "Hashtag Gaza." This gives the entire collection its full clarity: Samah floats on an ethereal atmosphere focusing on Gaza willingly or against her will, Ramzy fills every internationally significant calamity with his remembered Gazan content and Jehan experiences everything firsthand as #Gaza.
"How [else] can we remember what we can't forget?"
Aversion to hyperbole limits one's choices for comparison. Still, Gaza's reality is of the same genre as the Holocaust or Hiroshima. Except that Gaza's plight is stretched out over decades with the perpetrators' skilled consistency and aggressive projection of inner violence on its victim so artfully that violence becomes the norm for Gaza if not for the whole of Palestine. The 'international community' is numbed into accepting the buzz of its drones, helicopters and F-16s as part of the standard background noise and its fireworks as another light show to observe and to report on occasionally to fill the bulk requirements of international dailies.
"Counting lashes is unlike receiving them," a Palestinian saying goes. The Palestinian experience, especially in Gaza, not only of suffering but also of being ignored, shunned and ridiculed for incurring such punishment is extremely private. It is so private and foreign it is difficult to communicate to others. The basic elements of their private world are so harshly incomprehensible that even when you scream them at 'normal people' you do it out of despair knowing that such reality is unexplainable, that only living such reality permits one to understand it.
Hence, and logically, some of the language is so unusual as poetry that it rubs against the grain. And yet, there is an amateurish freshness to the raw rub and the sanguinity of it all. It is so painfully touching it sinks and sticks to the depth of the heart:
"Habeebi, I thought you lost my number, turns out you lost your legs."
How else can one perceive such nightmarish reality as:
"In the hospital, they put the pregnant women alone, because they're carrying hope, because they don't want them to see what can happen to children.
... There's more blood than water today in Gaza."

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hatim, King of the Natoufians

A college friend of mine has a crude sense of humor that belies his academic turn of mind. At one point he reached the rank of top expert on Abraham Lincoln’s economic policy. I still recall my pride at seeing him serving as personal guide to president George W. Bush around Gettysburg before both men slipped quietly into the historical background to the nation’s greatness. Not withstanding such prominence, my friend is capable of posting a story on his Facebook page straight out of our collage days over half a century ago. Please bear with me while I share it here to make a point: It speaks of a farmer who buys an especially fecund rooster to service his large flock of chickens. He advises the bird to take it easy. But the super stud proceeds to mount every hen on the farm including ducks, geese, turkeys and more. By sunset the farmer finds the rooster “dead as a doorknob” with vultures circling overhead. He utters some words of blame and the dead rooster opens one eye and winks conspiratorially at its owner begging him not to scare the tricked vultures away.
That all flashed across my mind as I read Gili Cohen’s first page article in Haaretz entitled “IDF general indicted for rape and indecent acts” about Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris, a resident of neighboring Mitzpe Netoufa. Here are few relevant quotes from the investigative report:
He was charged with three counts of rape, one count of sodomy and six indecent acts against a lower-ranking female soldier, identified only by her first initial, A. He is also accused of six indecent acts against a female IDF officer identified as L.
Neither weather conditions nor the terrain seem to hamper our top rooster’s urges:
Buchris is alleged to have committed the offenses against the women at his office, in his military vehicle, at an army camp, in his living quarters and at several other locations.
The prosecution alleges that Buchris raped A. three times, beginning in April 2011, when she is said to have accompanied him to buy supplies for a weekend stay that he and his family had arranged at a bed-and-breakfast in the north.
It is alleged that on several occasions when A. reported directly to Buchris as a Golani brigade commander, he allegedly called her to his living quarters, undressed her and touched her against her will.
Mind you, all the infractions the prosecutors allege against our neighbor were presumably committed against fellow Jews. If true they were immoral acts. I would add that they were plain foolish as well. After all he could satisfy his urges without violating the accepted rules of the game. All through the many years of our general’s alleged repeated offenses Israel has been at war with the Palestinians. As such, and according to the fatwa issued by the IDF’s current chief Rabbi, “in time of war it is permissible for soldiers to have sex with comely gentile women against their will” to relieve the anguish of war. Besides, some Israeli academicians have advocated the practice as a weapon against Hamas in Gaza. So instead of wasting his energy (and precious seed, one may add) he could have served “our goal” of “the success of the whole at war” while satisfying his “evil urge.”
To be frank, I find Rabbi Eyal Karim’s ruling and Dr. Mordechai Keidars recommendation wicked; they reek of misogyny on two counts: First, the concept of rape as a weapon is repulsive and masochistic. Second, it is discriminatory. Woman serve in the IDF’s combat units despite Rabbi Karim’s express objection. How are they to satisfy their evil urges. Does the rape fatwa apply to them as well? And can we interpret the phrase “comely gentile women” to include comely gentile men? What are we to do about all the ‘uncomely’ enemy folk dying for intercourse with top generals of “the most moral army in the world?” This last thought calls forth an unending litany of worries: Given the weighing of options and of relative psychological pros and cons on each side of the inter-racial and intersexual dual finely balanced in each such case of battle sex, how do we know who would be raping whom? And what would the criteria for comeliness be? Would Ashkenazi or Mizrahi features be given higher marks? Our fighting cock himself may well not pass the selection threshold for participation in the official Sex Hunger Games.
Part of my anguish about the said report is the geographic location of the accused general’s residence; Mitzpe Netoufa is practically in my backyard. The basic concept of a Mitzpe—Hebrew for ‘lookout’—the hilltop-positioned barbed-wire-encircled Jewish-only settlement dreamt up by Ariel Sharon in the 1970s, possibly after battling it out with another comely enemy woman, is to protect the promised land of the Jews from potential ‘goy’ usurpers. Those ‘goys’ turn out actually to be us, the Palestinians who have been ‘squatting’ on the land since the Romans destroyed their second temple and eventually abandoned them to the whims of Christian and Moslem conquerors who have converted them out of Judaism while the Khazari ancestors of Sharon were welcomed into the Jewish faith. Be that as it may, the good general’s purpose in life and that of his fellow Mitzpe Netoufa religious Jewish residents, is to watch over me so I won’t steal my own Netoufa (Battouf) Valley Land. But mind you, I have already sinned against the folks: Let me quote from page 93 of my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee (Pluto Press, 2008) about my father selling his land to put two brothers and me through high school in the city of Nazareth:
For a total of seven years he had to cover our not so negligible expenses. For that entire period he stood the shaming of and the social pressure brought on him by relatives and peers to change his ways and to refrain from selling his land to [put us through school.] By the time I graduated he had only one last piece of land in the Battouf Valley, the village’s fertile source of livelihood. Even that last piece he had to sell to pay for my ticket to travel to the States in pursuit of my own wacky dream [of studying medicine].
In recent years I attempted to re-own that specific last piece of my father’s land. Failing that, I managed to purchase another piece of farmland of equal size in the same vicinity from a fellow villager. With the help of another village friend who is a better farmer than us, my wife and I now enjoy summer vegetables from our little slice of the magic Battouf Valley, our community’s own Promised Land.  That is how we have become intruders on the sensitivities of the residents of Mitzpe Netoufa. Who knows but we may well be the descendants of those Natufians of old who invented agriculture in the first place. It is difficult to prove, I know. But no one is watching so I might as well lay claim to the conjuncture. It is no less valid than the priest Nadaff’s recent claim to being Aramaic is or the once popular slogan of “Sharon, King of Israel” was.
I am sure, our neighbor, THE GENERAL, spots us on occasion in our land from his watchtower whether through his binoculars or through the crosshairs of his automatic weapon. That is not scaring us off of our little piece of heaven. But in light of the man’s indictment “for rape and indecent acts,” and until he is proven innocent or is incarcerated, my wife and I will not be running around picking vegetables from our land in shorts.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016


[This article was published in Mondoweiss on July 17, 216 under a different title]

With all the recent events in Europe and the Middle East, you would think Israeli officials would be very busy keeping tabs on events in the neighborhood. But no, they are keeping faithful to their non-interference policies. They stay doggedly focused on issues of justice and equality within the country. That is why the other day, while touring the Golan Heights with friends from the USA, I kept thinking of Haneen Zoubi.
Israel’s Arab Educational Council had as its foundational goal helping the Minister of Education “formulate policy  … that will ensure the equal status of Israel’s Arab citizens.” Too bad many of its members resigned and it went defunct shortly after its establishment two decades ago. We shouldn’t be quick to judge those fountains of educational wisdom for their reluctance to offer their advice. There is precedence for this kind of outcome when Israel is intent on addressing weighty issues of special relevance to its Palestinian citizens. Take for example the Constitutional Assembly that was appointed shortly after the declaration of Israel’s independence. It was tasked with the job of drafting a constitution for the only democracy in the Middle East. It has yet to meet. Very likely the Messiah will act as its head since it will have to meet in heaven. And why the delay, you may ask?  There seems to be a basic conflict between two sparks of enlightenment: the framers of the new state’s insistence on democracy on the one hand and their commitment to its Jewishness on the other with all the absolutism and inborn privilege and superiority of the chosen people that such commitment involves. Simple! Just put the implementation of such side issues off. Besides, how can we be expected to have a constitution when we don’t even have set borders? How can we have equality for all citizens when that means granting equal rights to a 20% “nest of terrorism?” The logical thing to do is to finish the ethnic cleansing that we messed up so badly in 1948 (witness the moral reawakening of Benny Morris on this matter) before dealing with such tiddlywink issues as a constitution and borders. When God is the founder of a country all such issues are secondary, Benny Morris and ISIS can tell you. And I am refraining from mentioning Netanyahu here out of respect for Morris’s historiographical integrity.
The Arab Educational Council’s input is sorely missed in the current tempest in a teacup that the country’s liberal Zionist (yes, I am aware of the oxymoron!) paper, Haaretz, is intent on stirring. On July 7, 2016 it featured the following investigative report as its lead front page article: “Arab teacher trainees to get half of Jewish peers’ budget.” It further highlights the issue with a first-page analysis piece entitled “Separate and unequal.” The entire hubbub is about “a new method of budgeting” that is not new at all. You turn the page and here is what you find:
Meanwhile, from elementary school up, Jewish students receive more state funding than their Arab peers. In high school, per-student funding in 2013-14 was 35 percent to 68 percent higher for Jews than for Arabs at the same socioeconomic level. That statistic comes from the Education Ministry itself.
It has always been there but no one seemed to notice. Nearly four decades ago I sat on a committee headed by the late Dr. Sami Geraisy that looked at the various government services to Palestinian citizens of Israel. If my memory serves me right we found them greatly deficient, some less than a tenth of what a Jewish citizen gets. When little response was forthcoming we leaked the report to the press. Still little happened. Since then hundreds of reports have confirmed this. The official response has since shifted from total denial to explaining the facts away and giving false promises. But this is the wrong approach altogether. The scheme at hand now addresses an altogether different issue. It is designed to deal with the problem of unemployment among Arab graduates of teacher training colleges. Some ten thousand such teachers are unemployed. The obvious remedy is to discourage further production of the unemployable cadre, the simple logic of the shortest distance between two points. So you pay teacher-training colleges half as much for an Arab student as you pay them for a Jewish student. You don’t have to beat around the bush: yes there is demand for teachers in the fields of English and mathematics and in Jewish schools in general as well as in Bedouin schools in the south of the country. But the Minister of Education is a sane man who admits proudly that he has killed many a Palestinian and it never caused him any loss of sleep. So why should he encumber the progress of the Jewish mind by the drag on it of the feebleness of the Arab mind? Why would you expect him to scramble the dividing line between the Arab and Jewish educational systems? That would be intolerable.
With Bennett’s remarkable honesty and openness, the budgeting method is reduced to ferreting of names. A teachers college submits a list of the names of its students and the two ethnic groups are clearly distinguishable: An Arab name (except for those of Bedouins in the south of the country) gets 56% of what a Jewish name does. What happens if the geographic and ethnic coordinates conflict with the subject of specialization, you may ask? What if an Arab teacher trainee, say Ahmad from the north, is registered to study math or English? Tough luck. 56% it is, period! Ethnicity trumps (oh, oh! For some reason that verb sounds vulgar!) specialty. The minister’s straight-line logic now gets fuzzy: Arabs are quick to brandish the libel of racism every time they are faced with their ineptitude.
“In my view it’s real racism,” said a senior official at one of the Arab teacher training colleges. “There’s no other explanation for it.”
Faced with the libel of racism, Bennett’s ministry officials enlighten us about the real reason underlying the difference in support of teacher training between Arabs and Jews. Apparently it is to empower Arab women in Israel.
“Most of our students are women,” the [same] official continued. “In other words, we’re not only talking about studies for the purpose of finding work, but about the empowerment of Arab women. What will happen now – the women won’t work and won’t get an education either? 
“Because there’s no work, they’re not entitled to get an education? The problem of unemployment exists in the Arab community in other areas as well. Not only in education.”
And who is to blame for that? 
He added that when he and others complained to the Education Ministry that its decision was racist, “they told us that it’s because of the Arab Knesset members, who say constantly that there is a glut of Arab teachers and it’s a problem. And they asked that we stop training teachers.”
Every time Haneen Zoabi appears in her burka behind the Knesset speakers’ podium she appeals to all her compassionate colleagues to stop training Arab women teachers. Otherwise alternative methods of reducing their numbers may have to be borrowed from the armed forces’ experience in recent years in dealing with Gaza’s civilians.
That was when my eureka moment hit. One of my American guests lifted his eyes from the newspaper (notice: I intentionally did not use any descriptive for the paper; I am sick and tired of interruptions and bracketed remarks and innuendos) and interrupted me while I pointed out the exact spot where Jesus walked on water to ask why don’t Arab (he actually used ‘Palestinian’ but I am taking into consideration the likelihood that my reader may have gotten irked by my insistence on using the ‘P’ word to identify my people) students study more employable specialties. Why don’t the poor devils shift to atomic science, space science, aeronautics or pilot training? “Who is going to fly and service all the F-35s that Israel is getting?”
Bennett doesn’t seem to worry about that. What bothers him, I think, are those Bedouins who may fall in the cracks. How does he expect his ministry’s Ferreting the Arab Race Taskforce (FART) to tell Ahmad the Bedouin from a village Ahmad? If nothing else, that must keep him up nights.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

After the Last [Climatic] Sky

June 21, 2016:
My wife and I are back in our home in Galilee after tarrying for several months in New York. Last night we visited family and dear friends. The sky was phenomenally clear and we stayed up past midnight, a rare event for an early riser like me. It was the coincidence of June’s Strawberry Moon, a reminder of the rich environmental legacy of Native Americans, those forgotten sacrificial victims of othering and settler colonialism, and the summer solstice, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Our last visit for the night was with our age mates Said—Arabic for ‘Happy’--and Nabiha—‘Witty Woman’—, better known in our village parlance by their first born son’s name as Abu- and Umm-Ayman. Said is my retired biochemist fellow villager who has spent more time in his land in the Battouf Valley for pleasure than he ever did in the hospital laboratory that he headed as a career. His hobby farming had kept his family, as well as mine, supplied with fresh vegetables throughout the summer months for many years. Last night he and Nabiha were apologetic about the limited amounts of fresh peas and melons that they insisted on gifting us. Alas, the heat this summer had ruined the crops. As you know, they explained, the Battouf’s best vegetables are grown ba’il—without irrigation—thanks to the nightly dew precipitation in the valley. This year the morning fog lifts early, the dew is evaporated with the first rays of sun that desiccate the vegetation except for a hardy okra plant here and a mutant melon there. To keep himself busy in retirement, my friend had increased the number of goats in his yard and we were treated to our fill of qataif, freshly baked light pancakes stuffed with homemade cheese then deep-fried in olive oil and smothered with spicy syrup. Yummm!!

Always a super housewife, Nabiha still supervises all the household chores despite her failing vision, limited mobility and the confinement of home dialysis. Thank God for small favors! Not everyone has an accomplished biochemist for a husband and not every husband is so loving and dedicated. Said had won her hand in marriage competing with a dozen other suitors, including closer relatives of hers than he was. But that all is history. By the time he retired, they had raised a good family and lived happily for over four decades. It has been only few years now that she stopped her daily trips to their Battouf fields where she pulled more than her fare share of physical labor. She did it more to pamper her children with fresh produce and to keep the traditions of the good old days than for the extra income. Tending the fertile land and gathering the fresh produce was a joy, second nature to the old couple. They passed it on to the next generation effortlessly. You don’t teach kids how to breathe, Umm-Aymen says. By the time Said retired, the family was quite well-off by village standards: He collected a good retirement pay, three out of the four girls worked in the village and their boy, Ayman, was a pharmacist at a hospital in the south of the country. Now Nabiha can hardly ambulate within the house with the help of a cane. She sits in the kitchen and the two surviving daughters are always at the ready to follow her tuitions. She does most of the food preparation for all four remaining members of the family, the two parents and their attentive two daughters. Ayman’s widow and his baby girl, named after one of her late paternal aunts, come to visit every few weeks and that is when everyone gets a life again.

Now, the old couple constantly pleads with God for forgiveness. The good lord continues to test their faith and endurance. But how does one deal with the added curse of the fields losing their productivity. Of late the Battouf Valley is turning sterile. But they insist on sharing what little vegetables Said picks every few days with friends and neighbors. Stores are full of fresh produce from the irrigated fields of Jewish commercial farms. But the stuff lacks the bite of Ba’il produce. It tastes like soggy hay and sinks in your stomach, never fills your body and soul with the flavor of the land in which it grew. Nabiha recalls how her late father used to know from the first bite from which exact area of the Battouf Valley a fresh tomato, a watermelon or a dish of cooked greens came. And Said, like some other locals, believes that there is a direct link between the name “Battouf” and the Netufa Spring at its eastern edge. From there the jump is easy to the Netufians who happened to have introduced agriculture to the human race a dozen millennia ago. Alas, it seems like it all is coming to an end. Unless God envelopes us with his mercy and blesses the Battouf again with more rain at the height of winter and with cooler summers.
This morning I woke up with a peculiar sense of dislocation, a fugue state I first attributed to jetlag. I was fully aware of my time and space coordinates and felt in full command of my senses and memory. But when I looked at the newspaper headlines from yesterday I didn’t understand what I read. The meaning seemed to seep out of the words: First, several headings in Arabic, my mother’s tongue, seemed to be confused: “Government approves additional 82 million shekels to build settlement homes,” one said. Then right next to that another heading read: “Government approves 20 million shekels in a plan to demolish thousands of homes of its Arab citizens.” Yes, we are 20% of Israel’s population and the budgets are proportionate, I figured. But I sensed I missed something. For some reason the two statements didn’t make sense. A third heading said “Saudi Arabia supported Netanyahu with $16 billion.” I could already imagine the next double-speak heading about the ‘Green Patrol’ spraying Bedouin crops in the Negev with Agent Orange. First I was lost between the real and the imagined headings. Then I missed the inner coherence of each statement. Finally words seemed to have been stripped of their meaning, the concepts becoming empty shells: What did ‘state,’ ‘king’ or ‘citizen’ mean? They were collections of letters that I could read and I sounded the words out several times. But each had no significance beyond the auditory impact it made on my neurological system. Looking at words and sentences on the page seemed like scooping ladles of alphabet soup. The whole page meant nothing beyond the different black dots, lines, twists and turns on a white background.

Did I suffer from a serious brain dysfunction, I wondered? I checked my memory again by reciting a few lines of poetry from elementary school days. They flowed nicely with rhythm and rhyme. But I couldn’t tell what they signified. Then I recited ‘Alfatiha,’ the opening chapter of the Koran. I didn’t miss a beat. But what did the word ‘God’ mean? I put the paper down, closed my eyes and breathed slow and deep. This was a peculiar neurological symptom, I could tell and I hoped it was a passing one. I went to my study and turned my Mackintosh laptop on. I immediately connected to the instrument and could navigate in its myriad functions. I felt reassured. I checked my email. A welcome name glared at me from the screen: Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh had sent out another one of his weekly messages to his many thousands of contacts. I recognized the name and immediately connected it to the dark face, the bespectacled focused black eyes and the persistent smile, all stored in my memory. I ticked on the message and read. Slowly I made out words other than the inspiring name. The guy is so spot-on! OMG! His words made sense. Yes, ‘God’ is the friendly big guy in the sky. I Knew Him well, of course. Thank you, Mazin, for bringing me back to reality and full comprehension. Your words make sense:
“From Palestine we send our deepest condolences to Brenden Cox and all the family of the murdered British labor party MP Jo Cox. … The best thing we can do to honor Jo is to redouble our efforts for peace and justice. … Please think of how World Wars were started and the devastations they caused. It was not bad leaders but an acquiescent public. …”

 Mazin then quotes a lovely fable from Kurt Kauter’s  “New Fables: Thus Spoke the Marabou,” to buttress the need for the peace-minded to speak up. He then provides three more links to significant current events and signs off with his standard “Stay Human!”
My wife interrupts me with a loud chuckle from the bedroom. I go over, sit on the edge of the bed next to her and listen to the funny news item from the New York Times: A woman in the Big Apple is offering her sexless cuddling services at the rate of $80 an hour.

I give my wife a good-morning kiss and go back to my study. I choose the last link from Mazin’s email on the strength of Naomi Klein’s name recognition. Lo and behold, in her eloquent 2016 Edward Said Lecture delivered in London on May 5, she speaks directly to me and to my village friends. She addresses our issues and personal concerns more meaningfully than I ever dreamt possible from a lead global environmental campaigner. I wish she were here right now so I can thank her with a sincere hug. Her lecture is entitled “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.” It ranges far and wide yet feels personal and immediate. She is talking about our Battouf Valley, of course. I can hardly distinguish her voice from that of my village friends. I swear I can detect in her voice that telling twang of mixed fear and hope I heard during my last visit last night. She decries the fact that “… climate refugees aren’t recognized under international law.” And there is no legal recourse for my friends, local, national or international.

Naomi Klein doesn’t shy away from addressing the mother of all Middle East conflicts, Europe’s settler colonialist project in Palestine. The intellectual legacy of Edward Said, another ‘Happy’ Palestinian, and his mythic relationship to land and exile necessitates that. She avers that environmental racism, designated ‘sacrifice areas’ and ‘sacrifice peoples’ and “The trauma associated with these layers of forced separation—from land, from culture, from family” is at the base of the continuing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Said, the legendary exposer of Orientalism, didn’t trust “tree huggers” apparently because of the special experience of the Palestinians with the Jewish National Fund’s successful camouflaging of its “green colonialism” and of its “feel-good conifers” replacing Palestinian habitats. The roots of colonialism, Othering, and massive human rights abuses on one side and of environmental neglect and international debauchery to control carbon resources on the other are one and the same: insatiable greed.

Edward Said “was and remains among our most achingly eloquent theorists of exile and homelessness.” In the spirit of his many relevant insights on the matter, Naomi suggests “climate Sumud” as a strategy. She points to the example of “staying put” practices of the locals in Nauru as they struggle to face the rising seas. Environmental Sumud and the struggle for freedom know no borders. I am reminded of the legacy of such unsung heroes as David Eggers’ Zeitoun in New Orleans (Vintage, 2010), which is one and the same eons-old tradition of steadfastness born of physical rootedness in one’s piece of our shared terra firma. In this same spirit of human solidarity, the one state solution is the ultimate Sumud strategy for us sane Palestinians and Israelis alike. It has been practiced in this crossroads locale over the millennia thus depositing in my native Canaanite genes the layered residues of all the invaders and their slave gladiators from Hittites, Hyksos, Egyptians and Hebrews through Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantine and European Crusaders all the way to the Arabs with a light Turkish flavoring.

Abu- and Umm-Ayman would agree with Naomi a hundred percent. The soil of the Battouf Valley under their fingernails drenched with the oil of the olives they collect from the adjacent hillside gives them instant comprehension of her words. And, like me, they would reach out and hug her. We are ready to offer her all the cuddling she needs free of charge. Who else could better illuminate the relevance of Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Othering’ to the global climate change and of ‘Sumud’ as the last global weapon of the weak in facing the impending climate Nakba? Sumud is all that all of us have left. Without Sumud, where would we all set up camp after the last climatic sky?