Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring Has Sprung in My Garden

Spring has sprung in my garden. It is the afternoon of the official start of spring. The playful near horizontal rays of the setting sun affect a shadow dance with the freshly arrayed mastic, oak and hawthorn trees. It is the stuff for expert nature photographers to capture. But I am committed to writing as an art form and a friend had asked for an encore in the afternoon installment of electronic correspondence. The late hour is chilly and my favorite natural stone ‘stool’ in the rock garden is damp. Still, I dare nature’s wintry challenge and take a seat on one of the two olive press stones that I have mounted as garden tables. From that spot I face the source of the day’s ebbing warmth. The lower boughs of my native Galilee trees toss the sunrays every which way intent on blinding me, it seems. I turn my back to the bright celestial fire to contemplate my gardening handiwork, the neat ground cover of flat rock slabs interspersed with pumice gravel from the Golan, all personally assembled in younger years. It cost me double inguinal hernias that I have since repaired and a diaphragmatic one still pushing into my lung space. A dozen cyclamens, illegally borrowed from the surrounding hills, mine as a child but Israel’s protected loot in adulthood, have multiplied over the years to where hundreds poke their white, pink and violet flower bouquets to provide every rock with a living edge and crowd my garden pathways. What a shame they lack the scent to match their exuberant color display.

Two steps up and I am in the center courtyard of the house. Didi, my wife is busy gathering the ripe kumquats from the three trees intended more for their showy evergreen decorative effect. She promised Laiali, our granddaughter in New York, a fresh supply of the tangy delight Didi will cook the fruit into. The small orange fruit gives the impression of glass beads carefully sprinkled over the evergreen surface of the two vertically stacked spheres into which each tree has been shaped. Years of careful trimming have given the desired shape to the exotic fruit trees, a concession together with two lychees in the orchard below to my wife’s Chinese ancestry on her mother’s side. In summer the photogenic display is supplemented with the two flowery climbers on the fence behind the manicured trees, an Indian red jasmine and an African lily. But that is to come later in a riot of red and orange flower bunches and heavenly odor. For now the narrow strip on the edge of the courtyard has to do with visual appeal alone: The ground of the kumquat border strip is covered with red poppies, one of the commonest and proudest Galilee spring flowers. Another two to three weeks, with the advent of Easter, the Madonna lilies will infuse the air with their perfume. Years back Didi borrowed a couple of the dormant onions from her friend, the botanic artist Lois Nakhli, another American transplant in Galilee, and the beautiful native spring flower has taken over one corner of the yard. Last year I moved a dozen pulps to the shade of my prize olive tree at the entrance to the yard. Come Easter a couple of years from now and that space will be taken over by the pure white lily with the dizzying holy scent. Locally we call it St. Joseph’s lily. It is interesting how much more recognition ‘Joe the Carpenter’ is afforded in his native Galilee than he is in Rome. Is it the local patriarchic tradition, I wonder?

The hawthorn is in full bloom. A faint pleasant scent rewards me as I move closer to the white riot against the soft green of the new foliage. Local herbalists would kill for the permission to harvest the standard asthma remedy. I protect the tree for its tangy yellow fruit, apple-like except for the hard seeds that take up half of the small delicacy. As I get close to the white-clad giant, the pleasant scent of the adjacent citrus trees attracts me. I open the gate and step down the two stairs to the lower grounds of the fruit orchard. My wife and I, admitted amateurs, lucked out with planting the dozen varieties of citrus fruits at the western end of my inherited acre of Canaanite-settled Galilee. (Kanaaneh, Canaanites! Got it?!) That way the heavenly fragrance suffuses the westerly Mediterranean breeze as it buffets our residence in the spring. In summer it is the Indian red jasmine. The scentless figs and the unpleasant autumn carob flowers are in the back area, a potential irritant to neighbors to the east. Now I can’t resist a spin with basket in hand. Three apple trees are bursting with blooms: pink, white and deep red. The pear and plum trees are loaded with blooms as well, completing the rainbow range of colors.

I return, nearly swooning, with a dozen oranges and a sweet variety of grapefruit, an offering to evening visitors. I smile as I recollect a mix-up from a week earlier. I had climbed a navel orange to pick a few fruits for the day’s expected visitors. Over the years the citrus trees have grown into a single overhead canopy laden with a variety of fruit. Among the orange branches that I targeted was one with lemons. I traced it down and sure enough the bough had ascended from the orange tree stock, I thought. I was struck with awe at the botanical miracle. I had never grafted lemon on my favorite orange tree. That afternoon a grand niece of mine came visiting dragging along her husband, parents and few siblings. She is a good pediatric nurse who is proud enough of her village heritage in the traditional nomad-versus-farmer tug of cultural war to have kept her maiden name and kept in close touch after she married her high school Bedouin sweetheart. I figured the couple were good subjects on whom to spring my unique discovery. I took the group down to the orchard and showed them my miracle fruit. The young Bedouin withdrew quietly to his car and came back with a length of red thread. He climbed the tree in an agile circus-like performance, tied the string to the bough at the top and kept twisting it around the branch all the way to the lemon stock, deflating my proud claim without saying a word.

Now, on the way back, absentmindedly, I gather a handful of green almonds to munch with a sprinkling of salt. As I close the gate I pick a few wild onion leaves for the salad. I never looked up the proper name of the sharp-tasting variety. We call it ‘Bedouin garlic,’ both terms infused with a pungent essence and a touch of romance. It always grew among the olives and must have come with the multi-millennial olive I had transplanted into my front yard. Sprinkled with salt and wrapped in olive-oil-soaked fresh wheat bread it still wipes the memory slate of my childhood hunger clean. Now I use it as a condiment for our salad. Low and behold, I arrive to find a niece waylaying me with a dish of greens she had prepared with “Aunt Didi and you in mind.” Im- and Abu-Bashar take care of our home, yard and orchard while we travel. She starts with inquiring about the house and the grounds and if the chickens have started laying.  They do their expected job well, I explain: They keep the orchard clean of pests and weeds and naturally fertilize the trees. I invite her to pick grapefruit for her family and the families of her sisters. And she is welcome to pick all the green loof, the Palestinian arum, that she wants. It is one of thee few ‘weeds’ the chickens avoid and it fills up the sunny spaces between the trees. It is the classic local aphrodisiac leaving one’s tongue burning for hours while working its magic effect. In a while it will explode with the showy white and black funnel-like bloom that slowly turns to an oversized orang candy-tipped lollypop.

Im-Bashar doesn’t hide her ulterior motive for long: She loves us, she declares, and knows that her husband respects our opinion. She wants to use our influence with him to have him agree to her plans for their firstborn’s wedding come summer. He and his fiancĂ© have been engaged for three years and rumors of inappropriate comportment are flying across the social spheres of both their villages. Besides, the girl is pennywise and is sure to help mend the profligate ways of the young barber. And she had finished her secretarial training and has been promised a job at the new chain pharmacy branch due to open soon in Arrabeh. With two incomes they can afford the thousand- shekel-plus apartment rent and save for adding a third story to the family home in due time. The woman is a practiced lobbyist. She smiles knowingly at me as she suggests that I eat the greens she brought me with goat yogurt for added flavor and better health effect. Then she divulges the real reason behind the urgency of her appeal for my interference: Three age-mate cousins of Bashar have reserved banquet halls for their summer weddings and she doesn’t want to be a social dropout. I promise to sound Abu-Bashar out on the matter though she has to do the convincing herself, I insist. She agrees and leaves dangling the promise of more fresh bread and greens. Akkoub, the wild thistle, is in season and she plans a trip to the Golan Heights to pick some “for you.”

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hossam Haick: Giving a local historical rooting to a celebrity

As a Palestinian citizen of Israel I want to claim Prof. Haick as ‘mine’ on all kinds of levels. It is difficult to believe this super-scientist is one of us. To appreciate why, I wish you would first read the laudatory Associated Press report in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/02/23/world/middleeast/ap-ml-israel-arab-academic.html

First of all Prof. Haick is my neighbor. He was born and grew up in Nazareth and attended the same school, St. Joseph High School, that my daughter attended briefly, though she did that a couple of years before him. And I attended high school in Nazareth as well but in a different school and in an altogether different epoch. Need I remind the reader who else grew up in that town? Or who St. Joseph was? So Hossam and I have a lot of proud connections.

There are many Palestinian Haick families, I am sure. But in the vicinity of Nazareth most of the Haicks I know are originally from the village of Eilaboun, which makes Hossam my next-door neighbor. Here is something from my book of memoirs about the special relationship between our two villages in 1948, provided, that is, my hunch about his Eilaboun roots is proven correct; it is an account from an old man I meet on the road one day:

“Your good father must have told you about how the farmers of Arrabeh and Sakhnin worked the land of Eilaboun in the Battouf when its Christian residents were driven out to Lebanon [in 1948 by the Jewish forces].  Their priest, al-Khouri Murqus al-Mualem, may his soul rest in peace, an honorable man if there ever was one in these parts, sent out an SOS message asking for help.  Every farmer in your and my village took their work animals and equipment to the abandoned land of Eilaboun in the valley and in no time had it plowed and planted with wheat.  By the time al-Khouri Murqus managed to use his influence with the Pope to bring his people back, they returned to find their crops ready for harvest.  We helped them bring it in as well.  That is how honorable neighbors care for each other, not by selling the land to the Jews for paper money.”

‘Haick’ as in Hossam or ‘Hayek’ as in Selma is Arabic for Weaver or one who nets or crochets or does needlework on cloth. From there, I am tempted to believe, the distance to nanotechnology is short. So, you see, Professor Hossam Haick is part and parcel of our daily rural Palestinian lifestyle, not some distant intellectual or scientific prodigy orbiting in the mysterious academic space of scientific institutions whether in Israel or California. As I said, I am trying hard to believe he is one of us.

In my eagerness to claim a share in the good professor/researcher/inventor, I am happy to discover that we agree on several points of principle. Take the opening statement in the above-mentioned report that I hope you have already read by now:

“Hossam Haick, whose breakthrough work in nanotechnology has garnered global accolades, says his success as an Arab citizen of Israel proves that education knows no boundaries and is key to improving his community's lot.”

Of course, I agree with my good neighbor’s assessment! Notice though while reading the article that its author takes the cautious stand of using the politically accepted practice in official Israeli circles, and hence in America as well, of referring to us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as ‘Israel’s Arabs’ except later on when speaking of “Palestinian-Israeli violence”, the one single time that the un-kosher term is used. Here is my take on the subject, this time from the introduction to my collection of short stories, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, (Just World Books, 2015.)

“Yes, in the ‘state of the Jews’ education is the Palestinians’ strong card: We are proud sumud and education freaks. Entire families pool their combined labor wages to support a student through college. Young professionals are hard at work to guarantee their community a future and measure up to the high expectations of their hard slugging artisan fathers and mothers, descendants of land-stripped subsistence farmers. The practice and the tradition should be enough to sustain us in the face of the gathering storm.”

The head of the Technion, the oldest Israeli university and the home research and teaching institute of Prof. Haick, sees the same factual situation and reaches the same conclusion. Except that he puts the onus of their relative regressive state, by implication, on the Arab students:

"He is an extraordinary talent," said Peretz Lavie, the president of the Technion. "He shows ... there is no glass ceiling and no discrimination in science. He serves as a role model to youth in the (Arab) sector, that if they invest in education they can go far."

I am not accusing the Associated Press or the NYT of open enmity to Palestinians in this report but rather of abiding by the self-imposed Israeli and AIPAC rules of discourse in which positive terminology is reserved for Jewish Israel and negative associations for Palestine and Palestinians. The latter are best not mentioned at all by specific name so as not to grant them linguistic recognition that may well lead to them agitating for political recognition. For more on the charged topic of partiality in reporting please see the article at the following link:

And here is one last connection I want to claim: quite early on, in 2013 I registered for Prof. Haick’s online course on nanotechnology and nanosensors . Unfortunately, I wasn’t persistent enough to gain all the potential benefits. In my own defense I will say this: I registered in the course more as a vote of confidence in and a gesture of seeking to associate with the rising star even if only intellectually and at a distance. It was that rather than gaining new knowledge that drove me subconsciously, I now admit in retrospect. Contrary to the classic saying, it is never too late to learn ‘new tricks.’ But, starting with the premise based on which I registered for the course, I faced a wide array of choices. As a physician I am impressed daily by the names and achievements of so many young physicians right in my neck of the woods. In 1970 when I returned to my home village of Arrabeh I was the only western-trained physician in an area of Galilee of over 50 thousand people, including Eilaboun. In a recent survey Arrabeh alone boasts having 280 physicians. There are too many stars for me to gaze at, you understand, Prof. Haick. I guess I blinked and missed out on all the benefits of your full course. I know you will forgive me this once.

You know what! I almost forgot! I also was knighted by the French. Except that my armor never shined because I don’t speak their language.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Pure Rubbish

We had hardly survived the wrath of Donald Trump against all of us Moslems before it was the folks in Lubbock, Texas up in arms about Arabs and their Language. Someone displayed a sign in Arabic declaring “Love to all” and Texans read hate and danger as the message behind that slogan. Here is an example of how the incident was reported:
Banner Bearing Arabic Message of Love Reported to Homeland Security and FBI: Officials in Lubbock, Texas, shut down traffic and called for an investigation in response to a publicly displayed banner.
I know you don’t believe me. Here is the link. Go ahead and read it for yourself: http://www.alternet.org/grayzone-project/banner-bearing-arabic-message-love-reported-homeland-security-and-fbi

You would be forgiven to ask what was wrong with declaring “Love to all” on Valentine’s Day. Let me share a secret about the sick logic of those behind the ruse. In the Arabic language there is an accepted linguistic trick that may well be applicable here. It involves the speaker taking poetic license by using the opposite word of what one wants to say but would rather avoid saying. Just bear with me while I illustrate this slight of linguistic hand for you: Like Arabs, their desert snakes tend to be nasty in the extreme.  One bite from one of those shiny orange ones with the baklava-shaped* marking on its head and you better say your good-byes in a hurry. Now guess what Arabs call a man bitten by a snake? They call him ‘saleem’. In the original, that is Arabic for ‘healthy’ or ‘well.’ How more sick can you get, figuratively and literally speaking?

To the few among us who keep track of the underhanded ways of Arabs -- and you have to know their impossible language and its devious Islamic underpinnings to be able to do that -- it is no surprise that Arabs and Moslems are targeting Lubbock, the pulsating heart of all that America stands for: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The conspiracy is much wider than anyone realizes though. It all started in 2008 when the Arabs managed to sneak an undercover Moslem into the White House. “Allahu Akbar,”** is all I say to that! They then looked at the United States’ political structure and decided to cover the opposite side of the spectrum as well. They wanted to gain the sympathies of the conservatives as well. That is when they decided to go to the heart of the matter, so to speak. Very few people know it, of course, but you ask the leadership of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the former commanders of Saddam Hussein’s Palace Guards, and they will share a dark secret with you***: For five years, two months and twenty-four days****, they kept Saddam’s heart in liquid nitrogen and then snuck it in to be inserted in Dick Cheney’s chest when he needed a transplant. Need I tell you that Cheney’s behavior has changed since he had an Arab heart in his chest? How many “hunting accidents” has he had with his fellow Muslim President?!

You speak to any Arab and they will admit to being guilty as charged: They will admit, if not declare proudly, that their Quran with its poetry and eloquence and all the wisdom that they claim it is chuck full of, exemplifies the highest achievement of the Arabic language. They, Muslims and Arabs, -- and believe you me, you cannot tell the two apart, especially when all their women walk around in black mini-tents and their men wear those colorful big turbans with bands under their bushy beards to hold them in place***** -- will tell you, if they know how to speak in the first place, that their holy book and its language is the only miracle that their prophet ever claimed to have performed. So, let us step back and look at their mess for a moment: Their Arabic language is so darn mixed up with their religion and their religion so inseparable from their daily lives that it is enough to give a Texan sheriff a headache if not a scare. And that, in short, is exactly what has happened.

“Love to all!” Who are they fooling?! And the sneakiness is a basic trait of all Semitics. I am not sure if the two were connected, but I swear to you, on the same fateful day I saw an ambulance on the streets of New York that had “Hatzala” written on it in big Hebrew letters. The term meant “saving” people's lives. I started running but my companion, an American of European extraction who couldn't read Hebrew, stopped me. I translated the term for him and expressed my fear of the opposite intentions of the ambulance operators.  He reassured me. Those in the ambulance must be out collecting the blood of healthy Christian children for their matzoth******, he explained. I had nothing to fear since I didn’t qualify on all three counts, he reassured me.

* The Middle-Eastern sweet comes in diamond-shaped bite-size pieces.
** An expression meaning “God is great” used by Moslems to express amazement.
*** If they trust you enough, that is.
**** The period between the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the operation in which Dick Cheney received a heart implant from an anonymous donor.
***** Since 9/11 several attacks on Sikhs in the USA, including one death, have been reported based on them being mistaken for Moslems.

****** This is the mother of all anti-Semitic blood libels based on which pogroms were committed against Jewish communities in Europe.

Monday, February 15, 2016

‘New Yorker’ glosses my reality

‘New Yorker’ glosses my reality (when it renders ‘Death to Arabs’ chant as ‘I hate all Arabs’)

I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel since day one of its establishment.  I studied in the USA and am familiar enough with American media to appreciate the lead place of The New Yorker in it as well as the dearth of positive articles on Palestinians, not to mention Palestinian citizens of Israel, in this realm.  You can imagine how surprised I was to discover that my fellow Palestinian, Ayman Odeh, was featured front and centre in the coveted pages of the prime intellectual weekly of the United States (Seeds of Peace: Ayman Odeh’s unlikely crusade, The New Yorker, Jan.25, 2016.)  And the lengthy account is by the periodical’s chief editor, no less, David Remnick.  I read it right away and was duly impressed by the many accolades my friend Ayman is awarded in it.  
Only four months before I had read another positive piece by Ruth Margalit about the Palestinian writer from Israel Sayed Kashua (An Exile in the Corn Belt: Israel’s funniest Palestinian writer decamps to the Midwest, The New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2015.) Now I was positively elated.  Finally our issues were getting significant attention in America, I wanted to believe.  Average Americans can no longer claim that they didn’t know we existed.  That has protective value for us; it makes it less likely that anyone will  rub us off or throw us out – such existential fears resurface every time we hear sabre rattling at the borders with Lebanon or Syria.  Exaggerated you say?  But the top military echelons have leaked such ‘drawer’ contingency plans.
I’ve reread both articles repeatedly.  Very well written indeed.  But there is a bitter aftertaste.  Its source in the end is quite basic:  both writers unequivocally favour Israel over my ilk and me.  I know my two friends, the subjects of the articles, live with that and so do I– we have done so for decades.  We are aware of the American tendency to favour our Jewish co-citizens that parallels the same injustice those co-citizens inflict on us daily by making us second class to them. In fact it is systemic throughout American media, academia and politics. Over the many decades of suffering this disenfranchisement we have developed the ability to sniff its existence at a considerable distance.

Sayed Kashua:
The older of the two articles, the one about Kashua, rates a score of eight on my scale of one to ten degrees of favoritism.  True, Margalit does justice to her subject, our Palestinian Hebrew-language author, in her literary assessment of him.  He comes across as the insightful and skilfully self-and-other-mocking writer whose weekly column I have followed in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. And that is great.  But Margalit tones down the negativity of the negative in Israel every chance she has.  Kashua’s TV series, Arab Labor, for example is reported to have won him fans even among “taxi drivers and supporters of Beitar.”  Margalit has to explain to her American reader what that means.  “[A] Jerusalem soccer club whose right-wing fans have been known to chant ‘I hate all Arabs.'”  I live in Israel.  And this stuff is online.  I know Beitar’s chants.  They usually are “Death to Arabs,” a chant heard regularly at political rallies of the right.  I don’t believe I’ve come across the chanting of “I hate all Arabs”.  
But the death chant seems too vulgar for Margalit to include.  Hating is less uncivil. Theodor Herzl threw himself into Zionism after he heard people shouting “Death to the Jews” in Paris. Is there any question how the New Yorker would report that?
While describing Kashua’s living arrangement in Jerusalem, the author fails to explain Israel’s near total residential segregation by ethnicity as well as the separate educational systems and the prioritization of the Jewish towns and schools over the Arab ones.  The American reader who lacks the background to appreciate the steep gradients in both arenas, is unlikely to grasp the significance of Kashua’s move to the Jewish Jerusalem suburb.  The exceptional circumstance of his escape with his wife and children from the depravity and drudgery of state enforced segregation to the upscale adequacy of the American suburb such as it is, is willingly glossed over. Only recent violence is highlighted.
Then this:
“Many Arabs, like Kashua, consider themselves both Palestinian and Israeli, a bifurcated identity that speaks to years of strife and longing.”
Very nicely put!  And in such a poetic turn of phrase, almost romantic. When in fact the real experience that people such as myself can’t stop bemoaning is one of loss of land and culture and the absolute negation of everything that we once were proud of. “Bifurcated identity” is far too mild a term for the dormant anger and disappointment that roils us.  Israel destroyed a thriving culture and is hard at work replacing it with another from which it excludes us.  That is not only “bifurcated.”  It is a bitch!  I know because I live it.
But why raise contentious issues when all we are talking about is TV entertainment.  Margalit provides some facts on that front:
“Although Arab Israelis represent a fifth of the the population, in 2011 they made up one per cent of the characters on national TV and, according to a report by the agency that oversees commercial broadcasts in Israel, ‘usually appear in the context of crime and violence.'”
Yet there is no field, socio-economic, cultural, educational or juridical, where the two groups approach anything like equity.  Shouldn’t that be mentioned as background?  And it is all based on rules and regulations grounded in the legislative inventiveness of the “only democracy in the Middle East.”  And we haven’t touched on the trigger-happy security forces who kill fellow Arab citizens with impunity.

Ayman Odeh:
I can’t stop admiring David Remnick’s astuteness in picking Ayman Odeh as his subject and for spotlighting Nardin, his good wife and daughter of my neighbours and friends.  The two exemplify the generation we, the levelheaded in Israel, hang our hopes on.  But Remnick’s account too is skewed starting with the context-setting.  In defining the Palestinian Nakbah he states:
“In 1947-48, the Palestinians rejected a United Nations plan to create a Jewish state and an Arab state by partition….”
Except that this occurs after a successful decades-old European colonial project that continues to swallow up Palestine and erase Palestinians to this day.
Another example of guile:
“This was the moment when Yasir Arafat, who had ordered terror attacks against Israelis for decades, and Yitzhak Rabin, who had reportedly ordered Israeli soldiers to “break the bones” of young Palestinians who hurled stones at them during the first intifada, signed a peace agreement and shook hands on the White House lawn.”
Notice the confirmed “terror” labeling of Arafat against the “reportedly” qualification when speaking of Rabin.  Though it is a historical fact that Rabin had commanded over the killing of many more Palestinians than Arafat ever did Israelis.  One doesn’t have to include mention of massacres of 1948 like that of Lydda– but you could have balanced the language a little.
Closer to home, Remnick speaks of Ayman living in Haifa, “a mixed city.”  Haifa (like the handful of other so-called mixed cities in Israel) is a Jewish city with an Arab slum or two, sometimes bordered with barbwire.  “Mixed” glosses ghettoisation.
Likewise, he refers to Land Day as “the commemoration among Palestinian Israelis of a 1976 rally.”  This severely undercuts the event’s significance, an occasion commemorated across the entire Palestinian nation as the first peaceful uprising against Israel after 1948.  I lived it.  We intended to strike for one day and Rabin ordered his crack troops in tanks into our peaceful villages and killed six of our youth.  It certainly was not “a rally” and you are docked brownie points again. So you get an eight as well.

To be honest, I have mixed feeling about the New Yorker’s new awareness of the existence of the minoritized Palestinians in Israel.  I would probably part with an arm and a leg to have one of my short stories featured in your pages, David Remnick.  But would you do that if the spirit of such a story were to go against the pro-Israel grain?  To judge by my analysis so far, I would have to demonstrate a more accepting, if not admiring or loving attitude toward my country of citizenship if I am to even be considered.  Mind you, I am not accusing anyone of selling out.  But both Ayman – a parliament member — and Sayed–a writer in Hebrew–are easy to integrate into the image of a democratic and inclusive Israel.  And it is the shaky groundwork upon which they are introduced that limits the impact they may have.
This piece was originally published at The Institute for Palestine Studies.