Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On enlightened self-interest

On enlightened self-interest

Dear Mazin:

Thank you for the thought provoking philosophical piece [below]. In responding to it I shall first analyze my own act of responding and try to understand myself and explain to others what is it that motivates me to do so and through that to formulate my own concept regarding the phenomenon of enlightened self interest (ESI). I am aware of the danger of the circuitous logic inherent in such an attempt . Still I am willing to try at the risk of perhaps sounding less than convincing.

Though I never met you, I am an admirer and have been reading your various postings. So, by responding to your call for comments on what you wrote I am paying myself a certain complement by putting myself in the same class of committed Palestinian activists and involved intellectuals. Perhaps I am also attracted by the promise you made of posting responses to your piece. After all, such posting serves as a form of self promotion to circles of better-informed academicians involved in seeking peace and justice for Palestinians, a group that I would probably have joined myself had I not gotten preoccupied by my medical career. In both of these aspects there is a certain gain for me, which I will try to discount from the balance of my account as I tally up credit to myself against debt I owe to humanity at large as exemplified by all the ‘selfless’ figures you mention and as embodied by you in your ‘selfless’ acts.

This brings me to my statement of principle: There is no such thing as a selfless act. That is why it is better to stay with your term of ‘enlightened self interest’. I assume my statement is not news to anyone steeped in philosophy, which I am not. I am making this statement based on my analysis of my own actions throughout my over half a century of adult life. I wish at this early point in my rambling-on to make the cautionary disclaimer that I speak of my own career and experience and mean what I say to reflect on no one else.

So first let me say a few words about myself: I was born in 1937 In Arrabeh Village in the Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate for its sympathy with and accommodation of the designs of the Zionist Movement on our land. On my eleventh birthday, Israel was officially declared an independent state, marking our Nakba. We, the few Palestinians who remained on their land, found ourselves on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless and alienated minority in an enemy state. For 18 years we were placed under oppressive military rule and ‘our state’ has proven to be most inventive in its persistent grab for our land.

As subsistence olive farmers my family sacrificed much to put me through the Nazareth Municipal High School . Two years later, in 1960, I struck out with a total of $500 to study medicine in the USA . In 1970, having obtained Harvard degrees in Medicine and Public Health and turning down several lucrative offers in America, I returned with my Hawaiian wife, a teacher, to Arrabeh and found employment with the Ministry of Health (MOH) in my field of specialty. The dearth of physicians in my region forced me to double as solo village general practitioner (GP). I lasted for six years before I could take it no more. I found my Public Health work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Arab citizens. This included policies of massive land confiscation that led to a mini uprising by my people, known thereafter as Land Day. Frustrated and angry, in 1976 I moved with my wife and two children to Hawaii . After two years of vacillating we returned home to the Galilee and to the same setting and jobs we had left. I started looking for a way around the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system in which I worked. Within three years I and three other disgruntled local physicians established a non-governmental organization, the Galilee Society, dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority in Israel . This NGO became the conduit for my professional endeavors actively challenging the system of which I was formally a part and to which, for pragmatic considerations, I continued to hold for another ten years. The MOH, under Ehud Olmert as a minister, eventually ejected me and I became persona non grata in my former professional home. For four additional years I continued to use the NGO service sector as a means of consciousness raising and community mobilization. I reached out to international circles and built alliances with like-minded minority rights activists abroad. This, together with a confrontation with the Israeli military-industrial complex over environmental protection of the Galilee , apparently was beyond the tolerance of all concerned. In 1995 I found myself out of a job at The Galilee Society, the institution I created and led for a decade and a half. On my way to retirement I then served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF’s mission to The Palestinian National Authority before returning to my home village to establish Elrazi Center for Child Rehabilitation, the first facility of its kind in an Arab rural community in Israel .

I have always enjoyed penning down my thoughts. But, alas, I became a physician. With the mounting demands on my time, I found an easy-out; I shifted to recording my ‘compositions’, my soul-searching diatribes, and my confessions, on audiotapes that I stored away never to hear again. The act of facing myself across the page or vocally, not the content, had the therapeutic effect I sought in my many hours of need. The above brief biography encapsulates what I have selected out of the massive amount of my written and audio-memoirs for publication by Pluto Press of London under the title “A Doctor in Galilee, the Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel due out on the market this June. As I sat down to sift through the accumulated records of my life I found it a daunting exercisein self-reinterpretation. Some of the sensitive recorded episodes of soul searching and self-questioning were emotionally devastating to listen to. Especially the audiotapes captured not only the words spoken, but also my mood and emotions. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the material would be highly charged, for it was when I sought to relieve myself of mental anguish that I turned to this escape rout. On occasion, the narrator on those tapes sounded so downcast, defeated and tormented that he would mumble under his breath; he would recoil, dim-out and hide behind his inaudible speech. I could hardly make out the words or guess at the content. Had it been on videotape, the body language would have been something to behold.

Now I shall return to our point, the meaning of ESI and why do we do what we do taking your own cue of “looking inward to our own motivation”. As I have stated already, to me there is no such thing as self-sacrifice but only self-interest with the endless range of qualifications from 'evil' to various degrees of 'enlightenment'. I happen to know personally a few of the names you list in your “hesitant meditations” as those “I think of” in connection with selfless acts and exemplary lives of sacrifice for others. I find it hard to exempt any of them from the applicability of my relativist scale of self-interest, with the exception perhaps of Jesus and Rachel Corrie whose premeditated crucifixion sanctifies their memory beyond my iconoclastic thoughts.

Leaving others alone for the moment I shall return to my own experience and convictions as displayed in the above described book of memoirs. In listening for the first time to my own audio-memoirs that I had kept over some thirty five years of professional life as a rural solo GP and a public health practitioner, I kept asking myself repeatedly why did I do what I did when I had lucrative alternative options at Harvard and in Hawaii. It turned out that throughout those years I kept debating that question and repeatedly addressing it to myself on tape. It had kept my life in focus for me as I repeatedly reminded myself of what was in it for me. Very early on, in 1978, during a period when I took my family to live and practice in Hawaii , a venture that lasted only two years, I realized that my life would be meaningless there. Here is the relevant and revealing entry from that period from my book of memoirs:

“It was difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of turning our backs on my promising medical career in the US, and on the paradise of Didi’s native state of Hawaii, where we had for a time considered settling. But head back to the Galilee and Arrabeh we did nonetheless. After all, that was why I studied medicine; any other decision would have robbed me of the rationale for accepting a profession I would never have chosen on my own. People in Arrabeh tell of the village simpleton who bought a donkey. When asked why he needed a donkey, he answered:

‘To carry loads of grass from the fields.’

‘But you own no cattle! What do you need the grass for?’

‘To feed my donkey, of course!’

That is how it would have been for me to have settled and practiced medicine in America .”

This is a clear case of self-interest. I needed to keep my psychological balance, to keep a grip on my sanity. I would have gone crazy practicing a profession that my family and community had drummed into my head in the first place outside of that same community. And I was lucky to have realized that before I got entrapped in the quagmire of Arrabeh’s simpleton's analogy.

On another occasion I face up to the same quandary on tape by admitting that I wanted to be “a big fish in a small pond,” that it would have been too strenuous a struggle to gain prominence through the Harvard public health/nutrition research team where I was offered a position. In Arrabeh I was prominent by definition, without even trying. Again and again I find myself admitting to myself on tape that I had returned to Arrabeh because of my vanity:

“During that decade [1960-70] I had obtained degrees in medicine and public health from Harvard University and completed an internship at the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu , Hawaii . I was Arrabeh’s first son ever to leave to study abroad, a historic moment made possible by my father’s agreement to sell some of his farming land to pay my way and by the charity of a childless American couple, Byrd and Amie Davis of Clarion, Pennsylvania, who had become my pen pals after meeting me during a visit to Nazareth. They sponsored me through college and, at the end of my studies, offered to adopt me and leave me their considerable fortune as an inheritance should I agree to carry on the family banking business in their hometown. Tempting though the offer was, rejecting it did not delay me long. As soon as I had reached the point in my medical training where I mustered the skill and fortitude to stand before another human and tell him or her what to do with their body, I rushed home to play God to my friends and next of kin. I had studied medicine so that one day I could return to repay the debt to my community. I was committed to the professional life of a physician, to a life dedicated to healing bodies, to guiding and uplifting spirits, and to improving the living conditions of my village -- a life, in short, dedicated to saving humanity through serving my people. More than a little optimistically, I thought I was going to change the world."

True, the decision meant spending many sleepless nights and fighting an uphill struggle against an airtight system of neglect and discrimination by ‘my’ government and the Zionist majority in Israel . To anyone looking from the outside, it would seem a reasonable example of altruistic community service and self sacrifice. But I know better. At the bottom of it were my own, perhaps unexplainable, personal psychological needs.

When I reached the clear conclusion that there is little to be gained by working from within the system, I devised a scheme that brought me quickly to the forefront of the nascent civil society movement in the Palestinian community in Israel . I established the Galilee Society and spearheaded its mission of campaigning for better health and development for my community for some fifteen years. Suffice it to say that the Galilee Society http://www.gal-soc.org/en/ survived my departure and that it and two of its daughter organizations, Adalah http://adalah.org and Ittijah http://ittijah.org still count for much in the current civil society movement in our community. To me that is the main professional contribution I have made in my career as a public health specialist. Of course it was a steep uphill struggle all the way through. Yet I drew satisfaction not only from fighting an unfair system and from alerting the world community to our existence and existential struggle but also from knocking at so many doors and meeting so many significant figures internationally. That and the many gains I reaped for my people, I realize now in retrospect, are difficult to separate from the self aggrandizement and pleasure that I derived from the process itself. Not only did it bring me name recognition throughout my community but even a citation of merit from the late President Mitterrand of France . I have always enjoyed meeting new people and going to new places. And that I did secure for myself through the establishment and nurturing of the Galilee Society. Obviously, as seen from this critical angle, it was a self-serving endeavor.

Again and again the theme of self-aggrandizement pops up on those tapes: In the summer of 1990, as the first gulf war was brewing, my family and I were vacationing in Hawaii and pressure was brought on us by relatives and friends to extend our vacation and perhaps stay there for good. Here is the rationale I found for returning to the Galilee , as recorded on tape in real time:

“We mull over our decision to return to our home in Israel against the advice of friends and exhortation of relatives. We try to dismiss doom’s-day predictions of Saddam targeting Israel with his missiles with their expected payload of poison gas or deadly germs.

‘Still, why should sane people like us, sitting in their swimming shorts here at water’s edge in Hawaii, turn away from the easy choice of continuing their vacation in paradise a while longer? Why go back to the eye of the storm?’ Didi wonders.

‘I try to tell myself that it is not sheer obstinacy or romantic attachment that is at the base of my insistence to go back home to Israel . There is a consideration that transcends my obligation to be there to offer my professional services should disaster strike my community. It is beyond our physical survival. It is the hope, conceited as it may sound, that my voice, and not only my profession, will count for something in such hour of need. My worst-case scenario is ethnic cleansing of Palestinians again. War breaks out and Israel takes the opportunity to throw us out of its still-undetermined borders as refugees. Regardless of who strikes first, a general war in the area directly involving Israel will provide its transfer strategists with the perfect cover to drive all Palestinians -- including us, the near-million minority of its citizens -- out of our homes and to deposit the survivors in the lap of UNRWA, as yet another batch of Palestinian refugees to deal with. Under the guise of war-time measures a news blackout can be imposed and the go-ahead given for the generals to activate their readymade contingency plans, or what Israelis call their ‘drawer plans’, for driving us out. This is the crux of my argument in favor of returning immediately home and staying put in Arrabeh regardless of everything. In such a development my voice and international connections may count for something in informing the world.’”

Clearly this is a case of self-aggrandizement. But despite my recognizing it as such in due time, we still did go back to Galilee before war broke out and we had to suffer the tense nerve-racking days sitting in our sealed rooms awaiting the scud missiles. To the outside world it may sound like self-sacrifice in the spirit of service to my community. But I know otherwise; I can read it, at least for the sake of my current argument, as an ego trip at the expense of my wife and children.

To close off this rambling bit of self flagellation, I will state for the last time that for me, on balance, there is no such thing as self-sacrifice and that we all are the beneficiaries of the self-interest component of our ‘acts of valor’ made more palatable by the self-serving qualifier ‘enlightened’. I even can sense the derivation of some pleasure from this admission itself, and from stating what I have just stated, and so on ad-infinitum.

Circuitous and self-serving, you say? Yes, I agree!

Hatim Kanaaneh , MD , MPH


Mazin Qumsiyeh’s piece to which the above is a response:

On enlightened self-interest

Waking up into a communal and peace farm in Luck, Wisconsin gives a new meaning to "sunrise of a new day". The families and activists gathered there provided inspiration to us beyond measure. They had built their own houses, they used solar energy for electricity and heat, grew their own foods, used composting toilets, and collected rainwater for their very minimal water needs. They were also all active in the peace movement. Their activities ranged from civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Georgia to playing key roles in the Wheels of Justice bus tour. See the website http://www.anathothcommunityfarm.org/ Our bus retreat brought members from the farm and volunteers from many part of the country. This experience at the farm and in talking to such people (e.g. Kathy Kelly, Abbie Coburn, Ceylon Mooney, Lama Nassar, Bill Hill, Bob Abplanalp, Mike Miles, Cecilia Lucas, Dan Pearson, Jessie Chang, etc.). We had a great time with these inspiring people and then the nearly 200 people in the Chicago Peace Walk Sunday (see http://www.cjpip.org/ ). In Greenwich, CT, three good people who happen to be Jewish spoke from the heart about how they came to view Israel and Zionism. I could not help but think that life is really good and these are people I truly love. It is a humbling experience to jot down some thoughts about the meaning of activism, self-sacrifice, love, and enlightened self-interest. I hope you will find those hesitant meditations/observations useful.

We ask ourselves many questions as we struggle through this short life of ours. What is the nature of activism? Why do we do what we do? How much self-sacrifice are we really willing to take? What do those of us feel after lost jobs, after time in jail, after being beaten and gassed by Israeli soldiers, or after all of the above? How does one distinguish between selfishness and enlightened self-interest? Is activism for peace and justice the ultimate love of humanity or the triumph of optimism over experience? Is activism and living live simply the ultimate love of mother nature or of God? The following rambling thoughts do not intend to give answers but hopefully give us time to reflect and think (please send my your comments and I will post and share them).

Several years ago a prominent person in the Palestinian right to return movement repeatedly criticized Prof. Edward Said (then at Columbia University) for "self-interest". While some are tempted to dismiss such comments by attributing other reasons for making them (jealousy, inability to get Said to help in key areas thought important etc), the subjects of self-interest, self-sacrifice, collective work are worthy of examination when we look at what makes activists "tick", what gets us to do the things we do, and this could help us get more people involved in the movement for peace and justice and remain active even after setbacks and challenges. Edward Said was a brilliant Professor of Literature, a prominent music critic, and a noted commentator on human conditions. What motivated him and millions like him is worthy of examination but perhaps looking inward to our own motivations is a more fruitful endeavor. Perhaps we can make some comments on issues of love and enlightened self-interest that could initiate a dialogue at least with ourselves.

My background is in evolutionary biology including genetic and behavioral biology. It would not be necessary for the sake of this discussion to review the exhaustive literature on evolution of human behaviors that relates to group and individual behavior. Scientific explanations can certainly give us certain insights but they are limited. We do know that each individual human being has certain basic needs that are easily recognized: water, food, shelter, safety, social interactions, and sex. In many parts of the world with limited technological development, people still have to focus on their day to day survival: scavenging for food, finding a shelter etc. In technologically advanced societies, we still find such people represented among our ranks as the homeless in cities around Europe and North America. Such a life is described as closest to the state of affairs for much of humanity throughout much of our history. But when basic survival issues are met, we do recognize that it is very hard to live without social interactions; hence solitary confinement is the most dreaded punishment for inmates. Lack of social interactions is known to depress the immune system, cause extreme behavior changes and even lead to premature death.

Humans unlike other mammals also have concepts of self-sacrifice, collective work, and work for the common good that emanate directly from a social society. Other social animal societies (ants, bees, elephants) do show many of the features we recognize in such groupings. But humans have complex communication systems and as far as we know the only species that ponders its existence, thinks of life after death and has other concepts that we cannot observe in other life forms. We do find many animals that exhibit self-sacrificial behaviors from losing their life to feed and protect their young to domesticated dogs that jump into dangerous situations to save their human companions. But why has human societies developed such highly amazing forms of complex behaviors that involve things like standing in front of a bulldozer that aims to demolish a house of someone totally unrelated to you (Rachel Corrie)? Such behaviors call for deeper explanations (most personal) that are very hard to analyze by objective and rational thought processes.

Could one argue that Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi were driven by a pure form of self-sacrifice and altruism or by what we may term as enlightened self-interest? Are these two things distinguishable? The diaries of Mother Teresa which she did not want published disturbed many of her supporters who were shocked to learn that throughout a life time of doing good for others, she had doubts about so many things (even the existence of God). Yet, this simple women I think epitomizes the love of the poor more than we can imagine. That love is the issue that we should start with when discussing sacrifice and enlightened self-interest.

Love between a child and a parent involve significant sacrifices and maybe the easiest to understand in linking biology (genetic relationship), learned behaviors, and perhaps much more. In ancient China, children sometimes cut off pieces of their own flesh to feed an ailing or starving parent. Caring for immediate family members is biologically ingrained for the obvious reason that they share some of our genes. But the human intellectual and social development produced other traits that sometimes overcome the biological wiring. Think of the love and sacrifice for adopted children for example. Think of people who donate to the point of impoverishing themselves to help children in far away places. These are not so easily explained by biology. The love of couples to each other also cannot be reduced to biological needs or even social needs. The caring of the people living at a communal farm for each other is obviously much more than their needs or desires. It is something much more profound and much less analyzable than mere language or analytic logic can describe.

The role of religion and morality cannot be underestimated. I think of how people like Clarence Jordan was raised as a privileged white man in the segregated south of the 1940s and 1950s and opposed wars (all wars including WWII and Vietnam). Learning ancient languages and learning what Jesus really taught transformed him. His faith led him to challenge the comfortable clergy in the south and then move on to establish Koinonia farms in Georgia where blacks and whites lived and worked together. They got firebombed and attacked frequently but never gave up. As I listened to his tapes, I am always impressed by the sense of optimism and the general goodness. His vision was validated while he lived and validated after he died (Habitats for Humanity was founded at Koinonia farms). I think of Dorothy Day ("my job is to comfort the afflicted and make the comfortable less comfortable"), Martin Luther King Jr (his vehement rejection of wars is forgotten by a government that names streets after him), Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Sheikh Mohammad Hussain, Father Naeem Atik, Abouna Hanna Atallah, Father Elias Chakour and countless others. A while back I started compiling names of people we honor at my website (http://www.qumsiyeh.org/honorlist/) but that task would be endless since there are literally millions of people, most of them we have never met. But even that task would be rather simple compared to the task of understanding what made one of these activists do what they do or did.

We can safely state as Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." But Mead cannot tell us why these people became committee or thoughtful. What makes a Kathy Kelly or a Clarence Jordan?

We can safely say indeed that human societies evolved in spite of sometimes incredible odds precisely because of such thoughtful committed (I would add loving) people. A good example of such a historical study is Howard Zinn's "A people history of the United states"). US historical development has shown that pure individual altruism is hard to come by but that enlightened self-interest was critical in key developments in the US going back hundreds of years. Advocates for native American rights helped save thousands of natives from the European colonial onslaught. These were examples of Enlightened Self-Interest (ESI). ESI drove abolitionists (white and black) to save thousands of slaves before the civil war. Reconciliation after the Civil War was also an example of ESI. ESI also got us the women's right to vote in the US elections (happened only in the 1920s). ESI got us the 40-hour workweek and other workers rights. ESI is what ended the war on Vietnam. It is what ended 30 years of US support to Apartheid South Africa (the State Department had designated Nelson Mandela and African National Congress as terrorist organizations). None of these actions were done by people who thought their actions were 100% altruistic. All thought they were doing what we now understand as enlightened self-interest. Many of them thought (many of us think) in fact that it is the only meaningful way to live.

Ofcourse many individuals may think they are engaged in ESI when they are not (or even when they are even racist or bigots). Members of many artificial grouping (including extended family, co-religionists, nation, people who think alike) have taken up arms against "others" that by definition did not belong to the self-defined grouping. These are actually the primary cause of wars and conflicts around the world. And as any independent and rational observer knows, there are no winners in wars only losers.

We can explain ESI in terms of nagging conscience, morality, religion, logic, psychological hedonism, or any combination thereof but we cannot deny its existence and widespread impact on human history. For example, I talked to people who think of Jesus as a Son of God, those who think of him as a prophet of God, and those who don't believe in God and all have agreed that Jesus lived on earth and did give of himself for humanity even as they differ on what his message was (would it not be good to acknowledge the example he provided?) or that it had a huge impact on human history.

We can cite genetic and behavioral studies to show that self-sacrifice for the group is a trait that does exist and evolve in mammalian societies. My son actually did a simulation via computer programming with random mutations and noted that group behaviors evolved that included altruism; It evolved without being programmed or encouraged so clearly groups that show these behaviors benefit. We can cite religious reasons for doing good to others even at the expense of our material well being (this is also enlightened self-interest as we think of ourselves as vessels and tools of God). We can cite moral or other reasons for helping others even if we are not religious (agnostic or atheist) such as a livable human and humane society. We can each come up with many ways of looking at these issues but again I think it is something deeply personal and that is where it must come from.

But we need not look beyond our own personal experiences to find who the people we admire are. If you take a moment to think of the person you personally knew/met that you most admire (whether they are still alive or dead). If you think what qualities made you admire this person. If you then think of what motivates that person. I think these are things that provide the best and most meaningful personal lessons for each of us. For me it was an uncle who was the first Zoologist in Palestine and who was killed in 1970 right after he finished his PHD (and after he had already made significant scientific and other contributions to humanity). His letters and motivation to help not just his relatives but humanity as a whole made a difference in my own life. Reading his letters and notes years later and speaking to his close friends showed me that he had truly epitomized the Buddhist statement of "having joyful participation in the sorrows of this world." I am sure each of us knows someone like that (either dead or alive).

The English language has limitations in describing the source of these desires that add to positive energy in the world. They are described differently by different people or even by the same person in different stages of understanding. They are deeply personal. Perhaps those who have the best skill to describe these emotions and desires are poets and we should read them more. My own favorite poet is Kahlil Gibran. For me his meditation on love speak directly to the issues at hand.

On Love, from The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran

When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather,
"I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

Send your comments and feedback to qumsi001@hotmail.com

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spain's Peace Minister

Spain's Peace Minister

The International Herald Tribune headline screams the news: “In Spain it is a Boy!” I look back in my running memoirs and dig out what I had written over a month earlier about the same subject:

“April 17, 2008:

I pick up the daily paper at the gate, the Herald Tribune with its accompanying English version of Haaretz. I skim through the depressing local news headlines. There is nothing uplifting till I reach the fourth page where a familiar picture seers my eyes, a massive olive tree from my village. The caption reads “Dr. Mordechai Kislav and a 3,000-year-old olive tree of the Syrian variety, in Arrabeh.” The article is totally irrelevant. It reeks of the standard pseudoscientific manipulations used by religious crazies the world over to explain their odd beliefs and practices whether it is creationists showing their ancestors herding dinosaurs or this ‘scholar’ determining the amount of matza that a Jew should eat at Passover. I am aware, of course, of the potential a photo of anything ancient with a man with a kippa – skullcap -- in it has as a proof of the Jewishness of the Galilee. Someone, somewhere, someday, when you least expect It, will surprise you with this photo as a proof that this spot and this tree are holy to the Jews and must revert to them. And it stands every chance of being proven in the highest court in the land. Still I am tickled pink with the mere presence in a mainstream paper in Israel of an article with the name of my village in its heading, even if misspelled. And, lo and behold, it is not a report on a crime or a treasonous activity by ‘Israel’s Arabs’. It gives credence to my own less than scientific claims for the astronomical age of my own olive tree in my front yard, the same age as the one in the picture, give or take a millennium or two.

I leaf through the Herald Tribune of the day and get some mild satisfaction from the fact that my candidate, Barack Obama, seems destined to win. Too bad I have no say-so in the matter. Twice I got a green card and twice I gave it up, once out of fear of being drafted into the Vietnam War and the second on the doubtful advice of an immigration officer who thought the green card is only an added bother if I didn’t intend to get my citizenship right away.

As I proceed to clean half a dozen old papers from the dining table I see another photo that grabs my attention. I read the caption and it blows my mind. It is the most uplifting news photo I have seen since Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly. It stuns me and I sit down and try to digest its true meaning. This photo of the new Spanish defense minister tugs deep at my very core unifying me with all humanity, screaming its hidden message ‘there is still hope!’ The new Spanish defense minister is reviewing an honor guard and SHE is seven months pregnant. I have always appreciated the prank-like message printed on a fashionable t-shirt: “God is watching you and SHE is pissed off”. It is not only my feminist predisposition that is piqued here; more, it is my pacifist commitment. I know there have been other women war ministers before and there are others now. But this one says it all. Look at her in the picture: a young, casually dressed, red-haired, obviously pregnant cutie with an endearing --at least to me as a physician-- slight pallor of the skin throwing a mildly apprehensive glance at the stiffly frozen members of the honor guard. I have no doubt what she is thinking: “fuck you, brutes!” or at least that is what I want her to say, and the fluttering edge of her pregnancy blouse outlining her life-giving bulging belly reassures me that, of course, that is exactly what she is saying under her breath. The high-riding constrictive black cloth belt reminding all of the once stylishly thin waste fit for the most elegant of Spanish dance partners to hold and to caress announces her total femininity by bringing into further relief both her full breasts above tingling with the promise of milk and her blooming uterus below. The ever so faint hint of a half annoyed smile is probably due to a kick from the fetus just at the right moment. As all mothers know fetuses know when to tease. In the face of it all, the good mother keeps on meditating on peace as you can surely tell from the way her two hands are held at her sides in the classic index finger tip to thumb ‘ohm’ position. And the casually knotted ends of that black cloth belt hanging on the left side of the fruitful uterus give added embellishment, a knotted black ribbon signaling mourning for all the war dead, to the in-your-face icon of pacifist rebellion I insist on assigning to my new friend, Carme Chaco’n.

My only worry is what if ‘they’ have already co-opted her to be the figure head of their killing machine? What if she is really another gong-ho aggressive bitch? That would be a real stab in the back for me. Still, my feminist/pacifist vision stands. Since I know zero about the woman behind the image in the photo, my interpretation of its message is a matter of free choice for me and I choose to worship her as the first Spanish Peace Minister.”

Saturday, May 17, 2008



May, 15, 2008:

Today is my 71st birthday. It also marks the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian People’s Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. This annual coincidence for the last sixty years obviously detracts from my sense of pleasure at being alive, active and in good health. Yet I do get my share of celebratory attention from family and friends and I enjoy it. It is the interference of total strangers that manages to fowl up the occasion, such killjoys as George W Bush squandering away the prestige of his mighty office to gain a tour of the Holy Land as another Zionist Christian sounding off one standard rightist slogan after another. Camouflaging his obviously touristic adventure as a political mission of support for the peace process in the Middle East, The President and his wife, fresh from their daughter’s wedding party, managed to ruin my own birthday occasion with such insulting (to me and to all indigenous people) statements as comparing the arrival of the first pilgrims to American shores with the creation of Israel and praising the Godly gift of the land of Canaan (i.e. my land; in fact it is my last name!) to the chosen race (i.e. the Jewish people and the WASPs). He must be joking, of course. With my sense of injured pride and justice I can’t believe that any God-fearing person would make such one-sided statement except in jest. It borders on the stand-up comedy to deliver such a one-liner and then plunge ahead with the congratulatory highfalutin accolades without mentioning the plight of Native Americans or Palestinians, not even in a condescending aside. Hearing this classic born-again comparison quoted on the BBC upon the president’s arrival brought tears to my eyes. First I found it so funny that I giggled loudly so much that tears streamed down my cheeks. Then, instantaneously, my inner mood shifted from merriment to deep despair. I could no longer stay up on my feet. I found myself kneeling down under the apricot tree I was tending in my orchard and sobbing silently. I was reminded that I am lucky to be still living on land I inherited from my ancestors. On this day sixty years ago most other Palestinians, including so many relatives of mine, lost their land and became refugees; the joke is on them; they have no apricot trees to tend.

At a later stage in his sightseeing and solidarity with Israel visit George Bush continued his dramatic act with “what has to be the most bizarre proposal yet for achieving peace: a ‘shelf agreement’" as The Guardian puts it. I had chuckled before at The President’s other one liners: He once called Sharon, a veritable war criminal, ‘a man of peace’ and on his way over here he called his host, the bribe and corruption-beleaguered Ehud Olmert, ‘an honest man’. But now he is outdoing himself: “This, Bush explained before he set out, would be a ‘description’ of a Palestinian state to be hammered out between the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert before the end of the year. The idea would then be to put this virtual state on the shelf until the time might be right for it to be turned into a reality.”

Funny, isn’t it?

Then a real comedian appeared on stage to build on the momentum that had reached a crescendo and to steal The President’s act. “In perfect step, Tony Blair announced that he has succeeded in negotiating the removal of three checkpoints and one roadblock on behalf of the Quartet of big powers and the UN - out of a total of 560 throughout the West Bank - but Israel will only actually remove them ‘in the future’", The Guardian adds.

If that is not funny I don’t know what is!

Apologies! I almost lost track of what I wanted to post on this blog on the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba. Here are a few relevant selections from my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, the Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel, published by Pluto Press and due on the market by June 20, 2008:

I. Memoir entry from February 25, 1979:

I have another connection to a ‘present absentee’ from Sha’ab: Wahsh al-Sha’aby, aka Abu-A’atif, who is married to my cousin Samiyeh. Last week I spoke with him about getting a colt for Ty in the hope that it will take my son’s mind off toy guns. Abu-A’atif is a traditional sort of guy, born and raised in a very respectable Sha’ab family during the British Mandate days.(4) He is very proud of the fact that he owns an Arabian horse from a good line, though it has to be admitted that nowadays he cuts a pathetic figure on it. Once he owned a lot of land, mainly olive groves, having inherited it all from his father because he was the only surviving son. He was given the name Wahsh (Beast) to protect him from the evil eye that had felled all his brothers in their infancy.

In 1948, during the Nakba, Sha’ab was one of the Arab villages that surrendered early to the Jewish army. The natural place for Abu-A’atif and his family to escape the fighting was to Arrabeh and his in-laws. Except that his old mother, out of an attachment to Sha’ab, adamantly refused to leave her home. She was in danger of being killed but took the view that she had lived long enough: she had seen her only son married and have a good number of children. If Sha’ab was going to be destroyed, then life had no purpose anymore -- or so she told her son. Abu-A’atif never stayed away from his mother or his home in Sha’ab for more than a day or two at a time. He feared marauders could rob the old lady, or worse. So, in fact he never abandoned his house and property. Within months, as some semblance of security returned to the area, he and his wife started living there for periods of time to be with his mother. Within a year or so they finally returned permanently to their home in Sha’ab.

But as far as the Israeli authorities are concerned, Abu-A’atif and his family are “present absentees”, refugees who have abandoned their home and thereby forfeited their right to it. So Abu-A’atif no longer owns any land in Sha’ab -- or rather, the state holds it in trust while he seeks justice in a judicial system designed to legitimize the theft of his property. But while the infinitely slow wheels of Israeli justice turn, he continues to live in his family’s home, a house which officially he does not own. In short, Abu-A’atif is a squatter in his own home, which now belongs instead to a state bureaucrat, the Custodian of Absentee Property. This proud ‘landless landowner’ is unable even to fix the roof over his head without a permit from the state, and the state always refuses to grant him a permit because it does not recognize him as the house’s rightful owner.

Abu-A’atif has one hope of being recognized as the house’s owner: if he signs away his claim to the family’s extensive farm land, which he also no longer officially owns, the authorities will allow him to rent his house from the state for 50 years at a nominal price. He continues to fight the case in court, like so many other internal refugees. Not one of them has ever won his case. But unlike Abu-A’atif, many have signed away their property in exchange for minor concessions from the state, and a small easing of their constant mental anguish and physical suffering.

Abu-A’atif is tall and has a thick moustache and booming manly voice. Despite all his woes, he acts ferocious and speaks big. Anyone who mentions land hears his well-rehearsed story: “When I was all by myself and my children were hungry and little, I did not kneel before Israel and did not accept its terms. Now that all my children are grown up, all my sons are big strong men and earn a good living, now that they are well-off and I have all the money I need, I am not about to knuckle under and be defeated by Israel.” His sons are all plasterers, like their uncles in Arrabeh.

Abu-A’atif is very proud that he has resisted the system -- his ‘sumud’ or steadfastness. But in truth he was defeated many years ago. Long before his children could make a living, he had to earn one. The job that he found and holds to this day satisfies his sense of pride and his nostalgic yearning for the good old days. He is employed by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemit Liyisrael) to guard the olive groves, including his own, now rented to Jewish agricultural contractors, and to guard the ‘national forests’ that have been planted on his own land and the lands of other refugees from Sha’ab and the neighboring destroyed village of Mia’ar. “There is no sign of Mia’ar anymore,” he says in a forlorn and lowered voice, “except for few fig trees and the remnants of the cactus hedges on the outskirts of the village. I used to come up on my horse to visit friends in Mia’ar and in season we would eat delicious figs and many other fruits from the orchards there. Believe me, now when I try to eat from those same fig trees I can’t swallow. The fruit has turned bitter since those pigs took it over.”

I have heard this one before! It was in Acre from the old Patriarch of the Ashqar (blond) family, apparently named in pun for their clearly African features. I was with a Jewish nurse collecting blood samples to conduct a survey of Sickle Cell Anemia in the area. After the kindly old man welcomed us into his seaside shack by the industrial zone south of Acre I explained the reason for our visit. He was suspicious:

“You are collecting blood for the Israeli Army. Ask someone else for blood donations. I have none; nashafu dammi –they have dried my blood up. I was born and raised on these sandy shores of Acre’s Sea and my children and grandchildren have survived thanks to its generosity. I have savored its daily gifts from the day I was born; I swam before I could walk. Since ever ‘your army’ conquered these parts and started harassing us fishermen, even the fish in the depth of the sea has changed. I swear to you by the graves of my father and mother, the fish I catch has lost its flavor; it has turned foul tasting.”

So paradoxically, Abu-A’atif is making a living guarding for the JNF the very same land he is fighting them to reclaim. He rides his thoroughbred horse, perhaps no longer so proudly or with such an upright posture, from one place to the other, checking that nobody has harmed the trees with their bitter fruit or the crops planted on the land he still claims as his own. And the party he does not recognize as the land’s rightful owner, the JNF, pays him for his labor. While he refuses to accept that the land is not his, he is forced to admit it to the extent that it offers him the chance to earn an honest living. What he does is the reverse side of the same coin used by the state: it will recognize his rights to his land only in so far as he is prepared to sign away his ownership of it.

Abu-A’atif, in his booming manly voice, promised to give me the next pony his horse delivers so that I can raise it on my own little piece of land.

II. Memoir entry from June 20, 1981:

“Al-Marah stands out in my memory as the village square where the conquering Jewish forces gathered all the men of our village in the summer of 1948 to choose the most physically fit and line them up against a wall—the same one I now look at. One soldier knelt behind his Bren gun poised to mow them down, or so everyone assumed at the time. We had heard that such massacres had occurred in other villages. Instead, the men were spared and put in trucks to be taken to hard labor camps as prisoners of war. My father was not taken as a POW, probably because of his age and frail build.

The fear and anxiety of the moment has totally evaporated from my memory. What remains is a sense of anger and revulsion at the way those soldiers manhandled my father, insulting him publicly with a slap across the face that sent his traditional headdress, the seat of a man’s honor, rolling in the dirt.

The next day they added a further insult, undercutting his authority within his own private domain. Our traditional walled courtyard with its gate opening on the village square was selected to house the cattle looted from the village farmers overnight, until the army trucks arrived to haul them away. Though two armed guards stood at the gate, one old woman made her way in and wouldn’t stop embracing her milking cow, calling it by its endearment, “Hamami”—”pigeon,” and begging my father to free her cow for her. When he tried to intervene with the two soldiers he was insultingly shoved back into the one room our family was cooped in. The old woman spent the night with us singing dirges for her cow till daybreak, when an army convoy arrived and she saw her Hamami forced with a rude twist of its tail up a wooden plank to the back of a truck and driven away. Her wailing and beseeching of my father: “Please, Abu-Mohammad, make them let Hamami go!” still rings in my ears.”

III. Memoir entry from June 25, 1981:

“Again I prepare to head for the second Umm Ahmad. But someone else is in greater distress. It is the younger of the two old refugee widows next door. They used to be the two wives of the respectable Hajj Abu-Hasan from the destroyed village of Lubyeh. Times were when Lubyeh lorded it over much of the Lower Galilee, including Tiberias, thanks to its fertile valley and the generosity and valor of its residents. The villagers even made claims to have hosted and aided Salah-eddin (Saladin) in defeating Richard the Lion Heart and his Crusader armies at the neighboring Horn of Hittin. Young men from Arrabeh often used to seek seasonal employment there, reaping the plentiful wheat crops for Lubyeh’s landowners. But in 1948 Lubyeh was demolished by the Jewish forces and its residents driven out across the border to southern Lebanon as refugees. A few found refuge in the neighboring villages that survived. Hajj Abu-Hasan made it to Arrabeh with his two wives, one young daughter and a disabled son. The more able-bodied members of his family fled to Lebanon.

The two old ladies are now all alone. They manage somehow to take care of each other physically and, more importantly, socially and psychologically. One, the younger of the two, is bedridden because of rheumatoid arthritis. She has a problem with peptic ulcers because of the massive doses of aspirin she is unable to manage without. They used to be regular patients of mine until the local sick fund clinic took over responsibility for their health care. They both collect old-age pension from the National Insurance and with that comes health insurance through the General Sick Fund. Inadequate as such care is in Arab villages, at least it is affordable. The older of the two takes care of the disabled younger one, washes and feeds her, combs her hair, gives her regular medications and scouts out for the occasional stray doctor making his rounds to beg him to come and visit her.

The last time I visited them was over a year ago, but I saw the healthier of the two in my clinic some four or five months ago for some transient acute problem. I always enjoy calling at their immaculately clean and tidy, thatched-roof, single-room residence. Although not entirely destitute, they fit very well the stereotype of the lonely, helpless, widowed, poor souls that they actually are. Still, they retain a large measure of self-respect, social graces, and the demeanor of Palestine’s landed aristocracy. What they lack in material goods, they make up for with their welcoming remarks as one enters their humble abode, and constant cajoling and smiling, especially from the older of the two, with her deeply furrowed tattooed open face and fully alert clear black eyes. Is it my mother’s face I see in hers? Mother died without ever having a photo taken of her and her image has faded from my memory with the passage of years. But she did have big black eyes and an open smiling face. The two widows always insist on paying for my services and, when I refuse, they send me eggs from their free-range chickens, a present much valued by my wife.

The bedridden half of this charming pair of ‘sisters in suffering’ tells how she has used self-hypnotism to overcome her insomnia: “I close my eyes and think of the days when I was young and in full health. I start at the edge of Lubyeh and walk up the village road slowly, greeting all the people I meet in the warm early summer morning. On occasion I even smile to a young man on his way to the fields. I stop by relatives and friends, asking for a drink of cold water here, a sip of coffee there, and accept a ripe fruit from a good friend back from her orchard. Sometimes I even join a relative’s family eating breakfast of freshly baked bread, olive oil and zaa’tar, or watermelon and labeneh. I chat with everyone I meet and am reassured of their good health and welfare. By the time I reach my home and see my family, I am tired out and fall fast asleep.”

IV. Memoir entry from March 3, 1983:

“I am planning a fund raising trip and am busy preparing information about the Galilee Society and its target population. I wonder how would my New York audience appreciate the following story my old cousin and neighbor, Mustafa al-Ibrahim, aka Abu-Ahmad, is telling to fellow villagers with much gusto and a mix of admiration and disbelief. Abu-Ahmad is a burly and rough-hewn old-timer with a limited circle of village social contacts, almost a recluse. He sports a massive moustache merging into the stubble of his weekly shaven beard. His piercing jet black eyes are half hidden by the single arch of his thick eyebrows. Normally Abu-Ahmad maintains an air of contented independence and scowling self-respect that shroud him in an air of mystery and render him threatening to neighborhood children. Of recent he has waxed sociable and started making the circle of evening village gatherings, clean-shaven and dressed in his best traditional qumbaz, all apparently to sing the praises of his honorable former employer, now a refugee in Kuwait.

I heard Abu-Ahmad’s story one sunny morning last week when he accosted me on my way to work, suddenly interrupting his incessant digging in his land with a firm ‘tfaddal – please drop in’ and a shout to his wife to make us coffee. Then with little introduction, as we leaned on opposite sides of the mortarless stone wall surrounding his yard, he proceeded to tell me his well rehearsed account of his recent strange encounter. I couldn’t help but stand still and listen:

‘Have you heard of my recent visitors from Kuwait?’ he started with the biggest smile I ever saw spread across his thick-featured face.

‘Kheir inshallah? - good tidings I hope?’ I feigned ignorance

‘Well, let us start at the beginning. As you of course know, in my younger days I used to work as a hassad – a crop reaper. I used to be much stronger than the shabah –the ghost-- you see now.’

I imagined him as a young man with a scythe in hand let loose on a field of ripe wheat on a hot summer day and I shuddered in awe.

‘They didn’t have combines in those days. I swear to you, as a young man I worked better than a combine. In 1948 I worked in Lubyeh harvesting wheat for Yahya el-Said, zalami maysoor– a God-favoured man-- with much fertile land. Every summer as we finished the harvesting and thrashing of the wheat I would bring my share home and it would be enough for my family for the year. You know I had only my wife and two little sons to feed. We had no doctors then and God claimed all of our other children to his mercy in their infancy. To make a long story short, that summer as we were busy thrashing the wheat the Jews invaded and we were lucky to escape alive. The people of Lubyeh were brave and defended their village like the heroes they really were. Still they lost and we were separated from our landlord and crops never to meet again. At the time I thought that may be I could go back in a week or two and finish thrashing and sifting the wheat. But it all went to waste and Lubyeh’s residents fled to Lebanon as part of the unending stream of refugees. I came home to my family empty-handed. Somehow we managed to survive on God-only-knows-what from relatives and friends. I never saw nor heard from Yahya el-Said again. Until this winter.

A couple of weeks back, one cold and rainy night, at about midnight I woke to loud knocking at the door. I was sure it was the police. They used to come often looking for my brother Salim because he was a communist as you know. But they haven’t bothered us in recent years. I rushed out expecting the worst. There were three young men that I didn’t recognize. I invited them in out of the cold and was about to have Im-Ahmad start a fire and put on a kettle of tea. But they were in a hurry and needed to finish their honorable mission. They asked for my full name and told me that their father, al-Hajj Yahya, on his deathbed had entrusted them with the task of paying me the debt he owed me from the Nakba days for harvesting his wheat. They said they were sorry it took them this long to pay me. He had performed his religious duty of hajj to the holy sites in Mecca and kept my pay for me in a bag since that day. With that he slept better and felt ready to meet his maker, they told me. And now they too can sleep better. I tried to convince them to take back the money. After all, he is a refuge and I live in my home, humble as it is. But they wouldn’t hear of it. I looked around for something to give them as a present to remember me with. The only thing I could find was my headset, my Hatta-wi-iqal, which they accepted.”

At that tears were streaming down Abu-Ahmad’s cheeks wetting his bushy moustache. And as he sipped his coffee you could hear his slurping noise clear across the neighborhood.

As I told the story to Didi[my Hawaiian wife] I had to add an explanation: The pilgrimage to Mecca, though a highly valued pillar of Islam, is not acceptable if it brings any kind of duress on the person or his family. This restriction specifically mandates that a person preparing to perform hajj has to clear all his debts first, both financial and social.

It is a peculiar thought, but would this tale of honesty and justice impress the people I need to win over in Europe and the US? Would they understand it as a testimony to the humanity and honor of my people or would Bernard Lewis, the current super-orientalist, somehow manage to squeeze it into his readymade mold of ‘blind Islamic fanaticism’?”