Saturday, June 13, 2015

Triple F

I am still readjusting to my summer routine at home in Galilee. I have no choice in subscribing to ‘Al-Ittihad,’ the only Arabic daily in the country. It is delivered to my front door whether I pay my subscription or not. And I do subscribe to the International New York Times mainly for the sophisticated four-dimensional Sudoku and the Jumble puzzle. With that comes the English Haaretz, selective and sanitized for English readers as I presume it is. I scan all three papers over a fresh cup of hazelnut drip coffee for a break from my morning writing routine. A constant supply of the scented delight is courtesy of dear friends in Hawaii. It usually works wonders in transforming one to the idyllic mood of vacationing in Hawaii.

But it is a bitch to read the news here; it is not about the surf on North Shore: “The people behind BDS are ‘the people responsible for 9/11, for the terror attacks in Madrid and London, and for the 250,000 people already killed in Syria,’ Yair Lapid, an Israeli ‘centrist’ opposition leader, tells a NY synagogue,” says one news item. I know I am innocent of all such accusations. Still, I add this one to the list of cautionary notes in the back of my mind; it is my responsibility to prove my innocence to my Jewish friend who will visit me later today. BDS sounds like Ebola. Would my sympathies with the movement cause him to die?

As if to confirm the guilt feeling gnawing at my subconscious another item speaks of the impending change in Israeli law that will do away with the need for prosecutors of Palestinian children accused of stone throwing to prove any intention to do harm to Israeli soldiers. Essentially, this will free the Israeli occupying forces from the standard procedure of extracting an admission of ill intent from Palestinian children. Everyone accused of such act will receive an automatic ten-year sentence. If you stop to think about it, this is a significant gesture of benevolence on Israel’s part. It frees the children, usually abducted from their beds at ungodly hours of the night, from the routine beatings to obtain those admissions of “intent to harm.” And the new law reduces the period from 20 to a mere 10 years in Israeli military prisons. Think of the benefits that accrue to the kids on the way, a free rounded education: you learn Hebrew from your jailors and the basic tenants of Islamic religion from jailed Hamas functionaries.

And there is the snippet I had already seen on Facebook: Israeli police train their dogs, usually German shepherds (I know every thing Germans is bad for Jews but these are mainly for use against Arabs) to attack the source of any cry of “Allahu akbar!”—God is great, one of the most commonly used phrases in the Arabic language. It is a compulsory part of a Moslem’s prayer routine. By my calculation, Moslems are required to repeat “Allahu akbar” 102 times a day at a minimum during their five prayer sessions. Just imagine an army division with their trained dogs passing by a mosque at prayer time. And you automatically blurt out the phrase anytime you are upset by something you see or hear. Here, for example, I find it hard to refrain from asking for God’s wrath to be poured on the infidels’ heads by shouting “Allahu akbar!” myself. One has to be very careful though. Not long ago a religious Jew with questionable mental faculties decided to test the system’s alertness by shouting the Islamic phrase at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and was shot on the spot by a vigilant guard.

It is beyond my ability, intellectually and emotionally, to recount all the upsetting news I read at one sitting. But some have a unique flavor that causes one to drool were they not so stupid. Take for example the headline spread across the entire front page: Aida Touma Heads the Parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women. Then in smaller letters the clearly bragging statement that she is the first Arab ever to head a parliamentary committee. How many committees does the Knesset have? And how many sessions has the Israeli parliament had? We are talking of hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for such a precedent to be set. No one seems to have the intellectual courage or honesty to ask the question, not among the slighted 20% minority or among the aggressor majority. And this is the democracy stick with which Israel defenders hit us over the head every time we complain: Israel is a democracy and you have the right to vote.

At a lecture last night, my friend Gideon Levy expressed his support for the one-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. “It is already one state. What is left is to struggle for equal rights for all who reside between the river and the sea.” To illustrate the daunting nature of the challenging task facing all of us believers in the one-state cause he mentioned the fact that Mekurot, the Israeli water supply company, charges Palestinians in the occupied West Bank five times what it charges settlers there. The obvious solution is to end occupation and demand equality for occupied Palestinians by granting them citizenship. Except that now I read in the paper that on average the Ministry of the Interior grants Jewish citizens of Israel five fold what it grants Arab citizens in budgetary support to their respective local authorities.

Gideon, it is your ethnicity, not your citizenship that makes the difference.
We are talking not of Palestinians under occupation but of those of us who were “liberated” nearly seven decades ago to be among the first citizens of the state. But “our” state has defined us out of its Jewish essence. We are no longer even fit to be its “hewers of wood and carriers of water,” witness its continued importation of foreign labor while our unemployment rate sores in the double-digit range. The news from China is that it will not permit its citizens to be employed in the OTs. The commentators are outraged by this ‘political’ move. My own interpretation is that it is tit for tat. It is in response to the new rule that Israel is imposing on members of the imported Chinese labor force. They, almost exclusively men, are now required to sign a binding document, a pledge to abstain from sex while in Israel. Standard racial purity practices, you know! It must feel good to be a Palestinian laborer from the Occupied Territories in comparison, at least in consideration of quelling basic sexual urges even when there is little difference in terms of anatomical structures. At least you get to escape from the temporary shacks you construct as shelters at the construction sites and go home once a month to practice sex with your own kind, even at the risk of damaging the said tools, what with climbing across barbwire fences and jumping over high walls with glass shards.

It is enough to give one a case of mortal despair, this Israeli democracy. Recently, at a lecture I gave at a hospital in the USA I used the F-word in referring to the results of the recent Israeli elections. A gentleman objected sharply saying: “You can’t mean that. You can’t refer to anything in Israel as fascist.” I asked him what did he call a country where at football games and political rallies calls of “Death to Arabs’ ring out regularly and the system doesn’t bat an eyelash? He got up and left in anger at my impudence. I want the creep to come and read the paper with me right now. I want to rub his nose in it. Yes: F…! F…! F…!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Requited Obsession: Rachel Corrie and Light at the End of the Tunnel 

Jun 4 2015 / 1:13 pm 
The Corries are so faithful to Rachel’s vision of peace and justice that they let it take over their lives.
The Corries are so faithful to Rachel’s vision of peace and justice that they let it take over their lives. 
By Hatim Kanaaneh
April 5, 2015
My romance with Americans began on October 15, 1960 when I disembarked from my trans-Atlantic flight in pursuit of higher education. It has continued to grow and accumulate ever since to where it now regularly overflows my reality and floods my dreams.
Last night I received notice that the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice will host a book function for me in Olympia. I had read Rachel’s posthumous book, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” and it shines in my soul with the effect of a bright sunrise. I fall asleep after listening on the Real News Network to Paul Jay interviewing Cindy and Craig Corrie. This dawn, upon arising, I listen to all three parts again. Then, on the nippy early spring morning, I accompany my eight-year old granddaughter to her school. As we walk at the edge of the park, I muss Laiali’s silky mane to call her attention to a flock of pigeons flying overhead in formation. She gives me a sleepy-eyed smile and I shiver: She is neither green-eyed nor blonde. But I clearly caress Rachel Corrie’s head as I stroke Laiali’s hair. On the bus we sit on opposite seats. She pulls out her Kindle to read. That girl will get ahead, I tell myself, pride brimming in my heart; she will go places. Malaika, her ninth-grade sister is closer to the finish line, studying French, Chinese and Arabic and engaging in school projects addressing world-level issues. How much pride, pleasure and, yes, pain will we all reap from her ambitious insistence on making the world a better place? A young woman in shoulder-length blonde hair shakes her head in apparent disgust as she drops the New York Times on her seat. “It is a troubled world,” she wants to say. “And our media is of no help.” She exits the bus at the back door beaming a smile at me. Did she wave? How could two women look so much alike! But no, this one wears an Afro hairdo. She is an African Rachel Corrie! How can that be?!
As Laiali and I hold hands and walk sideways to slice into the breeze off the Hudson we hear a loud “Shalom!” It is another parent we had seen only a day earlier at a friend’s home where we were invited for Passover Seder.
“Salam!” I respond. “She is learning Arabic from her friend, one of the Nasrallah boys in Gaza,” I blurt confused.
Laiali looks askance at me and hides in my coat from the chill wind.
“Are you ok Sidi?” she asks.
Heading back alone, I hurry diagonally across Washington Square Park toward my apartment building. I halt midway. Green-eyed blonde young women enter the park from all its eight entrances. They converge at me from every direction. I resist the urge to call 9-11. Instead I resort to a gentle plea:
“Please Rachel, leave me alone. I have a function to attend, a reading from my new book.”
“Am I in it? Did you address issues of concern to me?”
“Yes, indeed, my friend. It is all about you and your issues, about our common humanity.”
“And Gaza?”
“Yes, Gaza, and Iraq and Vietnam before it and about the International Court of Justice.”
“Ok, then you can go!”
A warm feeling spreads like a tsunami from my belly to my chest and out to my head and extremities. Hot flashes? For a man? At my age?
Like the prophet Mohammad was reported to have done when he first received his holy mission, I crash in my bed shivering. Shortly, I wake up from a vivid dream in which I speak at the Rachelle Corrie Foundation for Justice and Freedom in Olympia, her hometown in Washington State. I see myself addressing a crowd with Cindy and Craig Corrie sitting in the first row:
“Moslems, the world over, are required to pay a visit to their holiest of holies in Mecca. In the new faith that I hereby decree, Palestinians everywhere are commanded at pain of God’s wrath to ascend to your Olympian shrine a minimum of once in a lifetime ‘liman istata’a ‘ilayhe sabila.’ Here I am, your humble servant, fulfilling my faith’s command, for I am ‘able to make the way’ to your shrine. As for all of you sinners, Palestinian and otherwise, the Rachel Corrie Foundation is the site to seek salvation. Come one; come all; confess and be saved. Come all ye sinners and be purified of the arrogance of militarism, of the violent racism of the occupier and of the bent-up anger and vengeful thoughts of the occupied. Admit your sins and be forgiven: The captain who killed little Iman Darwish Al-Hams and then “went out and emptied his gun into this girl, saying that he was confirming the kill of a 13-year-old child;” the commanders who are proud to consider themselves above the law; Supreme Court judges who put Israeli soldiers above accountability and the international law; and soldiers who would claim that they were following orders if only Nuremberg had not already found them to be still culpable. Come and learn from the example of Rachel, our high priestess, how to be human. Then you will be able to deal with your nightmares and to survive your urge to commit suicide. Come to New York for Rachel’s birthday on April 10 and be enlightened by her example as she presents her play ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie.’
“You never knew, Rachel, that in a distant village in Galilee, where Jesus, the son of Mary, once trod, another native son held your hand in friendship across time and space. I had no way of discovering it then but, yes, I always knew you in my dream of a better world brimming with justice and concern for the other. In the cold winter nights of my deprived childhood I snuggled to my mother and you warmed my body and heart. In the loneliness of my exile from my home and native culture in search of a better future, your image kept me company and inspired me with tenderness, love and friendship. And when I cuddled my children to sleep, you smiled at me through their eyes reassuring us all of a better future. How can I pay you back, Rachel?
“Most of us have five senses. Few lucky ones have extra sensory perception. You, Rachel, had a well-developed facility for detecting human suffering. You glowed with justice and equality. Rays emanated from your inner being to circumvent the globe and pick up messages of distress from its four corners. Scanning the globe you knew that, for humanity at large, the litmus test for compassion was the individual’s level of sympathy with the Palestinian people, the pain he or she felt for them “because Gaza is one of the most forsaken places in the world.” That challenged you. The International Solidarity Movement gave the answer. You left the world of ample opportunity and crossed the privilege divide choosing to come to our side. Physically and emotionally you connected the disenfranchised in Rafah and Olympia. You chose to educate America about the facts filtered out by their reporters’ mikes and the TV screens in the comfort of their living rooms, about the meaningful things in life: the dignity of the powerless and how they hold on to hope. Armed with your compassion and convictions and a luminescent orange vest you travelled to Gaza to practice your nonviolent direct action against belligerence. And to stop the dehumanization of Palestinians. You gave Palestinians in Gaza an audible voice and a visible image. And you stood there in contrast to the violence that the mere presence of armed soldiers, tanks and bulldozers in an otherwise normal neighborhood constituted. By your insistent presence you resisted the occupiers’ inherent racism and their dehumanizing of us, Palestinians. You “refused to look away from marginalized people” or to blink facing aggression. And you won. For all of us. For all humanity.
“When the powerful wouldn’t allow the UN to send observers to Gaza you decided to shoulder the world’s responsibility of protecting its weak from the wrath of their oppressors. There is the emblematic Palestinian child confronting a tank with a fistful of stones. And there is you holding your blow horn against the weaponized D-9 Caterpillar.
‘She was a brilliant, bright and amazing person, immensely brave and committed,’ Tom Dale, your British fellow ISM volunteer declares.
‘As the bulldozer approached [Rachel] stood her ground. Rachel was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket,’ Greg Schnabel, another US ISM volunteer says.
‘We thought this might happen eventually. We often spoke in the abstract that eventually one of us would get killed, but we always figured they’d shoot us, or it’d be an “accident”, like in a house that is missiled or a stray bullet gets an unlucky activist. I never dreamed it’d be like this, the intentional crushing of a human being,’ Joe Smith, a third ISM volunteer says.
‘I think my back is broken,’ were your last words gasped to your friend Alice. But it was only the human tissues that yielded. Your spirit still stands its ground against the injustice in Rafah, against the dictates that ‘Each time there’s any resistance, we need to take another row of houses.’
‘How far?’ we, humans, ask.
‘Up to the next row of houses,’ the Israeli zombie commander answers.
“Cindy, your mother, relates an experience of regaining her joy of life through a mystical experience on a moon-lit night in a mountain wilderness. Suddenly, ‘all the color came back into my life,’ she says. Thanks for shining those lights for her and for all of us. Craig, your father, says that he inherited some friends and a cause from you. Thank you for introducing us. You proved George W Bush wrong. You knew I didn’t hate your parents for their freedom.
“Standing here before you, Rachel, I am reminded of the awe that overwhelmed me when I first viewed the Himalayas from the shores of Lake Pokara. You bring home to me my utter insignificance. And yet you reassure me of the power of my human love and creativity. I salute you from the bottom of my heart with all my feelings, intellect and physical being. As Mahmoud Darwish sang to his mother I sing to you, Rachel:
‘Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
So I might become immortal
Become a God.’”
May 23, 2015
We have been guests of Olympia for two days and the reality outshines the dream. The peacefulness of the place and its people drives one sane. We ask to visit three sites. Cindy and Craig gracefully accompany us and answer our questions. At the modest offices of the Rachel Corrie Foundation quiet energy overflows the space. Dedicated volunteers sit with Cindy around a table peering in their laptops, recording in notebooks, opening envelopes, sealing others and keeping the outside world at bay with the pleasant smiles on their faces. Rachel oversees the quiet buzz from her panoramic perch in Jerusalem’s sky in the portrait hanging on the wall by the entrance, a personal gift from Arafat to the bereaved parents before he joined Rachel as another Shaheed of the cause. Did the same arrogant claimants to the exclusive right to holiness pluck them both off? I attended Rachel’s court case and have no doubt who and why she was martyred. I don’t know much about Arafat’s case.
Craig takes us to the Olympia-Rafah mural, a 400-square-meter rough wall covered by the image of an ancient olive tree, not unlike the one in my front yard back in Arrabeh. Except that each of its stylized leaves carries an image, a message from an artist or a group in one of 120 countries. Craig explains what messages some of the artwork carries. Two images nest in my head and explode to fill my consciousness: One is a photo of some children in Gaza, one of them cuddling a rabbit. The distraught child needed consolation and the psychologist recommended getting her an animal friend. On the wall she worships that rabbit in a physical and touching way. Another is of salmon fish swimming, jumping and dancing their way upriver to their spawning grounds, the same waters where they hatched, a local self-evident analogy of the right of return of Palestinians exiled from their homes and native land. And of the Israelis fishing them thin.
At the spacious yard fronting the hall housing Rachel’s memorial at her alma mater, Evergreen State College, Cindy recalls another anecdote that carries meaning beyond its simple narrative: Khalid Nasrallah, one of the Palestinian ‘terrorists’ whose house Rachel died defending, visited the spacious campus and stood where we now did. He looked around at the lush evergreen vegetation and said: “This is paradise! And Rachel left it and came to Gaza to help us!” Yes ISM volunteers leave beautiful lives and promising careers and follow the dictates of their conscience. And yes, Palestinians defined by Israel as terrorists, whether Fulbright scholars or sulfur-bomb amputees, are regularly found fit to obtain American visas. But Israel has succeeded to paint us all as the enemies of civilization, irredeemable ‘terrorists’ by birth.
I stand by the indoor memorial still contemplating my culpability. I stare at the metallic pyramid mounted at comfortable viewing height and am struck how the reflection of the title from the glass casing “Rachel Corrie 1979-2003” fits exactly under the peace dove perched atop the apex of the pyramid. Even more subtly, facing the shiny triangular surface, I view my own reflection in it and I get the message: We all are Rachel Corrie. Indeed, as we say our goodbyes, I fight my tears feeling diminished as I face the two stoic Corrie giants. For a moment I am back to my helpless childhood years, dependent on the loving care of others. I want these ideal parents to take me under their wing, to adopt me. As the infantile core I am reduced to grows again to my present old self I find reassurance in the commonality of goodwill. There is nothing in this average American couple to make them so special except the circumstances that demanded from them to stand up and be counted. And they have withstood the test of proving their humanity. They took a stand on the most flagrant ongoing human rights abuses on the face of the earth. Gaza lives in the conscience of the world in a great part thanks to them and to their, our, daughter Rachel.
That night the thought of the Corries’ example assaults my somnolent mind. It needs explaining. Math was once my strong point and this equation is simple: The Corries are so faithful to Rachel’s vision of peace and justice that they let it take over their lives. Rachel is their daughter. Others are related to her as well but to varying degrees: as siblings, friends, fellow Evergreen College alumni or citizens of Olympia. All these categories have born their relative share in sustaining Rachel’s legacy. Let us extend that equation out further and do the calculus. What about all the residents of Washington State? They can bear their share of commitment in proportion to their diminished connection to Rachel. In similar fashion and with relatively more miniscule degrees, so will citizens of the USA, sisters across the world and every member of the human race, each with his kernel of Rachel Corrie humanity. You see why I have hope! All we have to do is to spread the new faith.
As the Holy Quran promised us, “And its seal is musk”: With their acquired Palestinian sensibility, the Corries accede to the wishes of local Palestinian friends. We are hosted at the beautiful home of the Bushnaqs, fellow countrymen of nearly the same age as we are. Reminiscing over what is sure to be the best cardamom-scented sweet Arabic coffee this side of the Mississippi, we discover multiple layers of friendship and interrelated connections going all the way back to birthplaces less than 50 miles apart. As we enjoy the waterfront verdant ambiance we plot our future get-togethers. And we leave Olympia to link up to two other friends in the environs of Seattle one after the other. The one was an intern at the Galilee Society over two decades ago and the other a volunteer at the organization at its inception a decade before that.
Mahmoud Darwish said it before me: “There are things in this life worth living for.” The world is full of goodwill. Ariel Sharon and the drivers of his weaponized Caterpillars did not taint the whole of humanity in the eyes of the Corries or of the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his ilk will fail at the attempt as well. For me, the example of the Corries will keep the light at the end of the tunnel lambent.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Alberto Manguel wrote: “Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth.” Writing is even more dramatic a rebirth. After an elephantine pregnancy of an indeterminate length my collection of short stories was born on February 24, 2015. As is common in the fiction species the conflicted naming process was negotiated in advance. My publisher and I debated the original title that I proposed. I had chosen “Chief Complaint” for my collection of clinical vignettes in conscious parallelism to the chemist Primo Levi’s title, “The Periodic Table.” I wasn’t quite convinced by Just World Book’s reservations about this title as outdated from an American readership’s perspective. We left the decision till later and proceeded to fix other loose ends. By the time we had to opt for a final name for our baby, Chief Complaint had grown familiar though it still needed some explaining. A few phrases were considered as subtitles. I walked into the closest Starbucks CafĂ© and polled a dozen customers. They came down in favor of “A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee.”

A series of obstetricians, midwives, nurses and aids expertly handled the birth. With their creative intervention they made sure that the newborn was correctly proportioned and has few blemishes. They even slapped a beautiful nineteen-century painting of the village of Nazareth as a showy skin.

Edward Said is about as prominent an intellectual persona to call on as a godfather as one can dream of. Had he been alive I would have given that a try. After all, his plea to let Palestinians narrate their truth was my original prompt to publish my writing, first in the form of an autobiography (A Doctor in Galilee, the Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel, Pluto Press, 2008) and now in fiction form. Absent the option of formal sponsorship I chose the next best thing, associating with the Palestinian giant’s academic image. My daughter who studied and teaches at Columbia University, Edward Said’s academic home, arranged with her colleagues to have the official launch ceremony of Chief Complaint at the university’s Center for Palestine Studies. Mrs. Mariam Said graced the occasion with her presence and Dr. Moustafa Bayoumi, an Edward Said scholar emceed the event masterfully.

Practical considerations made us reserve other likely events in the Big Apple till later. Instead we moved to the American capital, home turf of JWB. The academic home of another Palestinian luminary, Georgetown University, proud base of the late Hisham Sharaby, held the first of a series of events there. A third eminent Palestinian, Prof. Salim Tamari, hosted and directed my opening presentation in DC. The presence there of his wife, the celebrated author, Suad Amery, added further glamor and fecundity to the event. This was followed by another prized venue, the Palestine Center, home of the well-regarded activist project, the Jerusalem Fund. Particularly this choice brought together a number of former contacts from my heydays of fundraising and project promotion some three decades earlier for the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, my civil society development tool on behalf of my community. The positive vibes generated there kept me floating on a cloud for the next stretch and emboldened me to blabber political jargon to the likes of Amy Goodman on Democracy Now and Ms. Perez of the Real News Network. Israeli elections, Netanyahu’s bumbling though ultimately successful electioneering and the novelty of the ‘Arab’ Joint List with its bright new star, Aymen Odeh, afforded me ample opportunity to speak as a local expert from the area. I willingly did so to several journalists who, of course, introduced me as the author of Chief Complaint.

As if to balance this frivolity, I accepted an invitation from friends who offered to host a book event at their home. Acting in the best of Palestinian traditions Mohammad Nimr and Ilham Nasir invited a houseful of friends not only to hear me tell them things they mostly knew but also to a buffet of home-cooked delicacies. It turned out that my wife had taught the lady of the house at high school. And our hosts were another interfaith couple who are comfortable with their differences. All through our visit to DC a niece and her husband put us at their home and drove us about. The two are practicing Moslems in the newly fashionable style of hijab for the teacher wife and a stylish beard for the engineer husband. Their son, another inspired Mohammad, temporarily exiled from his room for our benefit, worked on completing his memorization of the holy Koran and recited it artfully every free break he had. My niece asked if I could talk about Chief Complaint at her M&M (It is not the candy nor a repetition of the prophet’s name but Moslem and Moslema) Learning Center. I asked my wife to join me and we spoke to the high-school-age group more about our life together than about my new book. I never saw a better behaved or a more worthy audience of my uplifting message of persistence and mutual support and understanding for each to succeed in his or her life. Later, my niece brought me a stack of handwritten messages of thanks and admiration. The gig didn’t sell any books but earned us such accolades as “inspiring” and “a cute couple.” Judging by the group’s promise we are in for a future wave of physician fiction writers in the DC Moslem community.

The San Francisco Bay area representative of JWB, a hardened veteran of liberal causes, extended her outreach all the way to Arizona and Washington State. Every new exposure brought with it its particular justification as a special case: Two departments of Middle Eastern Studies had their own captive student audience, one even asking me to speak in Arabic; the San Francisco Arab American Cultural Center secured the accompaniment of a Palestinian poet and an oud-playing musician in the youthful spirit of the venue and its patrons; the grand rounds at the Santa Rosa County Hospital put me to the test of choosing a story with the right clinical focus for the medical personnel among the standing-room only attendees; and the revolutionary zest of the Jewish Voice for Peace at Berkeley was palpable as was the commitment of so many church members at the Berkeley Methodist Church.

“The last is dearest” goes a Palestinian adage. The closing event in this book tour was held at Orca Bookstore in Olympia. This afforded my wife and me the once-in-a-lifetime chance of visiting The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, of seeing the great mural that pays tribute to Rachel’s work and the memorial at her alma matter, the Evergreen State College, and of associating with some great Palestinian compatriots.

If I have to draw one single lesson that I can offer as advice to any author facing the daunting prospect of an extensive book promotion tour, it would be this: Be sure to field out as many nephews and nieces in the area as you can. In addition to Haifa in DC, there were Tarik in Santa Rosa and Jamil in San Francisco who offered warm homes, Arabic cuisine, speedy hybrid transport and a guaranteed minimum of enthusiastic audience. All those painful injections back in Arrabeh didn’t blunt their love and dedication. For them and for all interested others here is a bonbon from the Palestine Institute/Jerusalem Fund:

Saturday, May 9, 2015

My Brother Djon Indra Lim

 Wednesday, April 15, 2015:

“He glances in his mirror
And sees a stranger like him
Glancing at him.”
            Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Djon Lim, my Catholic Chinese Indonesian good friend from college days, the one who dragged me kicking to the University of Hawaii as refugees from the frozen winters of Yankton College, South Dakota, will have to forgive me this computerized entry in his memory. We have an ongoing debate about the matter: He prefers to write in his beautiful cursive longhand script. I kid him about his willful refusal to keep up with the flood of new technology including the email. I mention to him a colleague at home who refuses to use a calculator for fear of brain disuse atrophy. Djon agrees with the fellow’s analysis and has correctly predicted my loss of ability for handwriting. In my defense, I blame my unreadable chicken scratch in old age on my familial intention tremor. Like on many other occasions, we agree on the factual information but we differ on the interpretation. And we live comfortably with our difference of opinion. That has been one of the beautiful aspects of our relationship over the years since we met in 1960: Each is entitled to his own opinion, be the contested subject the looks of a certain girl on campus or my relative hairiness compared to his smooth facial skin that never needs shaving. He interprets this latter phenomenon as evidence of a higher level on the Darwinian development scale and I blame it on an aberrant stroke of luck.

In 1963, we two served as janitors and groundkeepers at the fancy Nuuanu mansion that had been newly dedicated as Honolulu’s Unitarian Church. In exchange we occupied the mansion’s attic. We invested our combined savings, he from teaching Tagalog to Peace Corps volunteers and I from rough-necking the previous summer in Wyoming’s oil fields, in purchasing a Vespa scooter. Djon taught me to ride it and he would ferry me daily at sunset to forage for fruit in the guava forests of Tantalus Heights. That was our regular second and last meal of the day. The main meal was our all-you-can-eat breakfast to which we subscribed on monthly basis at the campus’s Atherton House YMCA. We had a never-settled debate in principle as to what was a more sustaining midday snack, boiled rice sprinkled with soy sauce or reheated day-old Leonard’s Bakery bread with a touch of olive oil and salt? On weekends we splurged: We would cut up a storm of vegetables, add a few pieces of chicken and douse it all thoroughly with hot chile sauce. We alternated in claiming our invented dish as authentic Indonesian or Palestinian cuisine. On occasion Djon would fake a full ritual of prostrating himself on the floor and muttering loud chants before touching the food and see if our dates would follow through. He called it ‘Salibahoo.’ Djon never told me if that was the dish or the compulsory ritual that preceded it.  You have to come to Indonesia to find for yourself, he said.

In our college days, whenever I pulled a fast one on Djon, as roommates sometimes do, I would go around crestfallen and looking guilty all day. Whenever I caught him doing the same to me he would lean over, place his arm on my shoulder and flash his beautiful full-faced smile and say “Brother, I forgot!” even when the occasion had nothing to do with memory. Then he would intentionally skip an obvious step in our daily routine, smile broadly and say: “See, I forget, Brother!” while his loud giggling and body language would clearly declare: ‘I am just fooling.’ His game worked every time.

Young and unhindered in our imagination as college roommates we dreamt up a wild scheme where I would marry a niece of his named Su Lin and he would marry Salwa, my youngest sister, and we would practice our combined medical skills on members of our native communities switching back and forth between Indonesia and Palestine. The third member of this medical dream team was our dear college friend, Bessel van der Kolk, who at the time renounced his colonial heritage to join us on our imagined humanitarian mission. He has since committed himself no less grandiose a scheme codifying, investigating and innovating treatment modalities for trauma and its resultant PTSD. In the dream, our countries were free democracies and we moved at will across time and space. Then greed and politics wrecked the childish dream for us: Israel brought the remainder of Palestine under its cruel occupation and Suharto came to power and forced my brother to change his official family name from the Chinese ‘Lim’ to the Indonesian ‘Indra’ if he wanted to keep his citizenship. That was one of the few times that I heard Djon utter the foulest of foul terms to curse his luck. But even before that, the whims of our hearts had played the expected tricks on both of us and blown our joint dream to smithereens: I met and married Didi and he, Sherry. When I reminded him of our old unbinding promises, Djon had one explanation: He beamed his million dollar smile at me and said: “Sherry gives me all the TLC I need, Brother!”

In the summer of 1997, in celebration of our combined 60th birthday, Djon and Jagy visited me in Arrabeh, my home village, and got to meet my family and neighbors. When we hiked up to Lavra Netofa on a nearby Galilee peak, my friend, the late Father Jacob Willibrands, the head monk of the monastery, insisted that he had seen my guests before and that they were members of the Fawwaz Bedouin tribe. That got us on a roll: I couldn’t stop laughing, Jagy started eating wild grasses and Djon willfully misread the name of another exclusively Jewish settlement built on our usurped land, from ‘Moreshit,’ Hebrew for ‘Heritage,’ to ‘More Shit.’ That was the last time on the trip that I brought up the subject of Israel’s Apartheid. My guests apparently had had enough.

We then packed our luggage and left on a ten-day singles wild trip to Andalusia. We rented a car and made our itinerary as we went, stopping nights at pensions that we selected mainly on the strength of the designs of the tiles in their central courtyards. On a late evening stop at what we thought was a secluded restaurant at an exit from the freeway, we had the surprise of our life. Djon, who had the use of a Spanish travelers’ dictionary, went in first. By the time we realized what joint we had stumbled into as the first customers of the evening, Djon bolted out, Jagy struggling to keep after him and I bringing the rear of the parade, each with several scantily dressed babes hanging on his arms. Hungry and tired, we were in no shape to take advantage of the free drinks they kept offering us. That kept us laughing for few days. All any of us had to say was “What was the name of that joint?”

Djon loved cherimoya. He would make me drool singing the praises of semitropical fruit. Loafing around Granada’s marketplace we were surprised to see ripe cherimoyas on display in a shop’s window. We went in and purchased three large ripe ones. As soon as we found a bench in a shady spot, Djon opened the paper bag, got out the fruit, whipped out a stainless steel teaspoon with serrated edge from the inside pocket of his jacket and proceeded to wolf down his sweet prize. “I am always prepared for emergencies,” he explained. “Good doctors should be, Brother.” To this day I never found out how he came up with that grapefruit spoon when we needed it.

Today I am on my way to Hilo, Hawaii to see Djon for a last time. Dewi, his loving daughter, called to tell me that her father is giving up the fight and is asking to see me right away. She had already spoken to Jagy, the other member of our incongruous trio since the UH student days, and he was traveling in a couple of hours from Honolulu where he had recently returned to live. The phone caught me at JFK Airport as Didi and I were about to board our flight to California where I have a series of scheduled book events, readings from my just-released short story collection, Chief Complaint. Dewi gave the phone to her father, and between sobs, I gasped my “It is goodbye, brother,” and asked his daughter to give him a warm hug from me in case I didn’t make it in time. Ty, my son, met us at the arrival hall in San Jose and proceeded to look into the earliest possible flight to Hilo while driving us home. After we arrived he showered and got on the phone again. Taking command and using his executive voice, he demanded from Hawaiian airlines and succeeded to advance our ‘unchangeable un-refundable’ tickets to Hilo by two weeks and to cut our stay from one week to one day, today.

A month or so ago, in response to my weekly phone call to his clinic to check on him, Djon said: “Brother, I am fighting for my life.” That was indication enough to me that he was on the last leg of his beautiful life journey. I already knew a month earlier, even before his wife and two children did, of the recurrence of his liver cancer that we had assumed was fully excised over three years ago. It was then, with the ominous news of the disseminated recurrence that I had booked our weeklong visit later this month. Jagy did the same so we, all three former UH students and roommates, could be together for a last time. On the phone Jagy wanted to know if he should go earlier since he was close by in Honolulu. I hadn’t admitted it to myself but I encouraged Jagy to rush to Hilo and give Djon hugs for both of us. He called back saying that Djon was in good spirits and sounded more hopeful, still carrying his full clinical load at his office and at the hospital. I suspected that Djon was deluding himself. Still, I relented reassuring myself that Djon’s clinical judgment was better than mine.

Some two weeks later I could detect weakness in his voice on the phone when he told me “Brother, I am still fighting the good fight. But I am loosing the battle fast.” That night I sent him a lengthy email, which I now know he didn’t get to read. It centered on a poem in the colloquial Palestinian dialect by my friend, the famed folksinger and Nazarene literary figure, Saud Al-Asadi, in which he decries the loss of another ancient Palestinian village, Saffouryi, destroyed by Israel except for some byzantine edifices. I had read many of Saud’s nostalgic poems before but this was the first time I just couldn’t stop crying till I finished translating it for Djon and sent it off. I also included a link to a recent article by the famed American neurologist, Oliver Saks, in the New York Review of Books about his metastatic liver cancer and how debilitating chemotherapy was. I went on to suggest half jokingly that the two or three of us should take a last swim in the Pacific never to return. But before that I wanted him to strum his guitar and lead us in singing some of his favorite Indonesian songs. I expressed my reluctance to see him weakened by illness. Perhaps I shouldn’t visit him, I suggested.

On the next call, four days ago Djon answered his mobile and was still hopeful though he was now in the hospital as a patient. His abdomen was filling with fluid (ascites) because his liver had failed. And it hurt, he told me.
“All of my family is here with me: Sherry, Dewi and Justin. They are taking good care of me.”

That was the clearest indication that Djon was on his final retreat. He always took care of everyone around him, pampered his beautiful wife and two children to excess.
“But the pain was relieved when the doctors tapped it dry and the fluid is tumor free,” Djon added to reassure himself through me though his shortness of breath (SOB, we doctors call it) forced a couple of breaks in the sentence. The image of a long-departed Nazarene physician friend, the late Dr. Anis Kardoush, a bright internist and the first head of our Land Defense Committee, flashed across my mind, momentarily replacing Djon’s smiling face. After his death of acute leukemia we found that his copy of Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine was open at a page about the differential diagnosis of leukemia and that all the various possibilities of benign forms of disease that could have been mistakenly diagnosis as leukemia were repeatedly underlined in various colored pens.

Three days later Djon finally accepted defeat. His kidneys had failed and he asked Dewi to call and tell Jagy and me to fly over right away. That is the mission on which I find myself now over the Pacific attempting to pay my debt of love and brotherhood to my adoptive brother.

My brother was the quiet but studious type, a perfectionist without the disturbing fussiness or nerdy seclusion: Whatever he did, he did well and with care, methodically sharing his sense of excitement and letting his infectious quest for excellence seep through to those around him. Born the youngest boy in an eighteen-child Catholic Chinese family in Medan, Indonesia, Djon climbed up all the way to where he became the top cardiologist in Hilo, Hawaii, respected by colleagues and loved by his patients and many friends. He founded and led Hilo’s annual Heart and Stroke Walk. And Djon brought a couple of special skills with him from Indonesia: Guitar strumming and badminton playing. He rose to the rank of senior champion, officially in the latter and privately in my heart in the former.

However, since our student days at the UH he always bragged to me about his hobby of photographing Hawaiian flowers. The camera he could afford at the time had very limited possibilities. Still, he overcame that with his dexterity and creativity in composition and perspective. Professor Innskeep, the head of the Chemistry Department at the time, recognized Djon’s artistic skill and befriended him on the strength of his impressive achievement in their shared hobby. With time and better cameras, Djon became even more obsessed with photographing Hawaiian flora and with digging detailed scientific information about it. For years he dreamt of putting together a tabletop artistic book of Hawaiian flowers. Lugging progressively heavier cameras, he repeatedly visited the hidden valleys and high peaks of all of Hawaii’s inhabited islands in search of their rare seasonal blooms. He became the best source of encyclopedic knowledge about their botany, better informed than anyone who ever combed Hawaii’s beaches. And he spoke incessantly about the topic every time we met or spoke on the phone. That is what I should whisper in his ear if I find him unresponsive when I get to the hospital. I am sure he will open his eyes to that.

Thursday, April 16, 2015:

While in transit at Honolulu airport yesterday afternoon I called Yusuf Tamimi, my Palestinian friend in Hilo and professor emeritus of soil science at its branch of the UH. We, the wayward foreign student trio, were indebted to Yusuf, another errant adventurer, for bequeathing us his apartment on University Avenue when he moved to Hilo. Contrary to all logic, I continue to collect on the debt I owe him to this day. Yusuf and his wife, Siham, are friends of Djon as well as his patients. Siham had no end of cardiac troubles and she credits Djon of keeping her alive. They had visited him in the hospital and wanted to do that again with us. They waited for us at the Hilo terminal and we made it to Djon’s private room in the ICU by 5:30pm to find him in toxic coma surrounded by his wife, his two children, Jagy and the attentive nursing staff. We were received with hugs and kisses and expressions of relief for making it before Djon’s surrender to the cruelest of victors.

“Uncle Hatim and Aunt Didi are here, Dad,“ both children said stroking my best friends sunken cheeks. “He is waiting for you, Hatim. Talk to him.” Jagy insisted and everyone there agreed. “He will respond to you.”

I needed no further encouragement. I reined back my emotions and tears, clasped Djon’s cold hand and kissed him half screaming my usual greeting to him of “Hi Djon! I love you, Brother!”
Djon opened his eyes, looked at me and said “Hatim! Didi! I love you! Love you all!” and with all the strength he could muster squeezed my hand and raised his head to kiss us. He then saw Siham and reached out to give her a hug muttering her name. Everyone kissed Djon and reassured him of the depth of their love. He repeated his “Love you all!” and lapsed back into his comatose state to the collective repeated expression of love and the gentle touching of his face and arms.

The nurse cleaned and changed the dressing on the IV in his arm. Djon seemed rested though his breathing was labored. Dewi, tears streaming down her beautiful always-smiling face sought to comfort her father and ease his departure, “his transition” as she repeatedly referred to it, with music. She said Djon was not religious in the ritualistic sense. But he was very spiritual. She played some beautiful tunes on a Hawaiian reed nose-flute. Everyone cried. She had placed a lemon-size painted Hawaiian pebble on the bedcover between his two hands. She said it was Djon’s favorite. He called it “Blue #11.” I placed a string of imitation black coral prayer bead set (mesbaha or rosary) that a friend had given me once on the occasion of her return from pilgrimage to Mecca around the stone. I thought Djon would appreciate the gesture. I am sure I had given him a similar set when he visited me in Arrabeh. But that was an occasion permitting a more jovial interpretation of what the implement meant to Moslems and Catholics.

Didi and I left the hospital to check in at our hotel against the loud objections of Yusuf and Siham who are fighting a different sort of losing battle, a cultural and demographic one to recreate a slice of Palestine in the shadow of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountain.  Another hour and a half and we were at Djon’s bedside again.  A new medical team had taken over: the nurse, a pleasant and respectful yet efficient type who exuded a comforting sense of confidence and intimacy with the family (I hadn’t been much around hospitals in recent years; I didn’t know they still made those)  and a midcareer physician who turned out to be Syrian in origin joined the celebration of his departing colleague’s humanity. Djon was obviously in deeper coma. His breathing was severely labored. Still Jagy, Justin and Dewi encouraged me to speak to him. They thought Djon may still respond to me; that was the level of our mutual Aloha. But Djon was not responsive. To ease his air hunger in his last moments he was given IV morphine.

Dewi played her nose flute again and sang one of her Dad’s favorite Indonesian songs, ‘sueliram, sueliram.’ We all held hands forming a ring around Djon’s bed, tears streaming down our faces including those of the doctor and the nurse. Djon was sure to be proud of his daughter who then led a joyful round of narrating memorable moments from our life with Djon. I related my unforgettable first encounter with the unfamiliar smiling oriental face that took the initiative in calling me “brother,” a term that permeated our relationship for an entire lifetime. Others shared their memories, each from his or her perspective, smiling, laughing and exchanging hugs to fortify one another before the approaching final moment.  Then Djon ‘forgot’ to breath. Except that this time Djon didn’t explain or apologize. One after the other, we kissed him then each other then hugged and cried.

Sherry, Dewi and Justin promised to visit me in Arrabeh, my home village.