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’?”

1 comment:

Abed said...

I have no word to describe it out of رائع GREAT