Monday, June 2, 2008

Abu-Asa’ad’s Homecoming

Abu-Asa’ad’s Homecoming

June 1, 2008

For over a week Arrabeh has been in a visibly celebratory mood: telephone poles and rooftops adorned with Palestinian flags, welcoming banners stretched across the main village roads, barrages of fireworks, and teenagers honking their car horns as the village asserts its modernity with tight traffic gridlocked roads.

Last week I took part in the event that was at the root of all the commotion and found it to be a well-balanced mix of old-style village communal celebration and of national-level political activism. Mohammad As’ad Kanaaneh, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu-As’ad, Secretary General of the nationalist Abna’-el-Balad movement, was released from four-and-a-half-years of political incarceration. On the minds and lips of all the participants were the names of three other co-villagers still in jail, two single women and one young man. The latter, Husam, who is Abu-As’ad’s younger brother, was jailed for innocently contacting a double agent in Jordan. Regardless of what the Israeli Secret Service must have secretly shared with the Israeli judges to convict him, no one in Arrabeh doubts the young man’s innocence. All politically aware members of the community take it for granted that his case is one of ‘collateral damage’, so to speak. He wound up with an eleven year sentence, heavier than his brother because of his lack of political sophistication. The authorities, the accepted explanation goes, had it in for the older and more experienced brother because of the excessive zeal he showed leading the demonstrations at the Durban Anti-Discrimination Conference. His vocal protesting there of Israel’s occupation, Israel’s apartheid policies, and Israel’s war crimes resulted in his picture waving a Palestinian flag at the head of a column of protesters being flashed across TV screens around the world. And it was all legal! So they set out a trap that snared not only him but also his less hardened brother who had recently returned from his university studies abroad. That, in a nutshell, is the verdict of Arrabeh regardless of what all the Israeli Supreme Court justices thought.

“And mark my word,” a local news correspondent, following the same logic, entrusted to me, “there will be many arrests and trumped up charges soon. It was a miracle the police didn’t use violence and arrests already. I advised everyone to lower the Palestinian flags from atop the cars in the procession that brought Abu-As’ad home today. The secret services has cameras and they will trace the car numbers and the drivers and go after them with vengeance. It is alright to carry a Palestinian flag in your hand if you wish. But to hoist it high over your car or house is another matter. It is not illegal. But they will not put up with it. You will see!”

Things do change after all. I recall when it was legally prohibited to display the Palestinian flag in any ‘public space’ in Israel. In the late 1980s, Abed, my shopkeeper nephew, had received a present from a child who had created a heart-shaped pendant out of clay and painted it with the colors of the flag. Some one informed on him and he was put in the slammer while the prosecutor pondered the question of how public an area a man’s chest was. Abed claimed, in his own defense, that he wore the pendant under his shirt and it must have fallen out of hiding as he leaned forward to sweep the floor of his store, the very activity he was arrested while performing. He also argued that the abundant hairiness of his chest rendered its space very private indeed. Finally the police offered to release him if he would take them to the underground factory that made such jewelry. Since it was one of a kind and Abed felt that he could stand jail better than a young child, the bargain failed and he was let loose after thirty-five days of interrogation.

Abu As’ad’s father, always respectfully addressed as ‘Abu-Muhammad’, is a master plasterer cousin of mine who is married to my niece. (The few-thousand strong Kanaaneh neighborhood is one extended net of intermeshed and obligating relationships.) Abu-Muhammad has a different basis for objecting mildly to the multiplicity of flags around the neighborhood and on the main street of Arrabeh. “This is too much! Has he liberated Palestine? We all are under Israel’s rule,” he commented with a mix of pride and concern. The jailors’ treatment of his other son might have weighed on his mind. He is known to be a fearless man, and a happy go lucky one at that. He prides himself on being possibly the best Dabkeh lead-dancer in the whole of Galilee. On the occasion of Abu-As’ad’s homecoming he didn’t dance, though women did ululate and hours worth of fireworks were set off the night before. We all worry about our children, especially those under duress.

The day before, as I returned from the farmer’s market at the far edge of Arrabeh, I noticed a curious phenomenon that I had never seen before: Representatives of all four major political factions in the village -- the communist-allied Jabha, the Islamic movement, Azmi Bishara’s Tajamua’ and Abna’ el-balad -- together with a local authority worker encircled my car and shoved the same flyer through all four windows of the car at me and my sole passenger, my childhood friend Toufiq, himself a communist. Throughout my professional life I have religiously avoided identifying with any local political faction in the village. I still stick to this neutrality even in my retirement, a remnant of my own days of community activism when I assumed that political partisanship would be divisive and hence harmful to my mission of improving the community’s health. Living what I preach I have developed an obliviousness to local politics and politicians and it was Toufiq who first pointed out to me the curious phenomenon we were witnessing. He went on to interpret it with the seemingly far-fetched logic of regional politics: It is, he claimed, the copy-cat emulation of what everyone saw happening in Lebanon on the Aljazeera channel; political reconciliation and communal unity in the face of powerful manipulative outside forces.

This morning, the opening editorial of al-Ittihad, the communist party paper and the only Arabic language daily in Israel, was entitled simply ‘Abu-As’ad’. It praised and condemned, raved and ranted and ranged wide afield from praising Arrabeh’s sons’ proven heroism to condemning world-domineering colonial and Zionist forces and their evil globalization. Reading it I kept wondering which played a stronger hand in shaping its contents, ‘the Lebanon effect’ or the strong friendship of al-Ittihad’s editor with Abu-As’ad’s paternal uncle, another communist Toufiq age-mate of mine, jailed and much celebrated in our high school days for demonstrating and shouting slogans in praise of Jamal Abd-El-Nassir.

The night before Abu-Asa’ad’s release, my wife and I dropped in at his father’s diwan –guestroom-- for a cup of black coffee. Then we checked on my niece to assess how well she can take the pressure of the occasion. She struggled to her feet to greet us and hobbled over to bring fruits and cold drinks. She has thinned down considerably and her knees are the source of much pain. Still she is happy to be around to receive her firstborn son upon his release. She had thought otherwise. Shortly after her two children were incarcerated she was misdiagnosed with metastatic cancer to the bones and given only a few months to live. Fortunately it was a false alarm and she turned out to suffer only severe osteoporosis. I recall trying to comfort her when her two children were first jailed with the standard cliché that ‘jail is for men’ as distinct from children. I even added a cliché of my own that I actually do believe: “This is how Israel helps in creating Palestinian heroes.” She did not argue with me but decried her luck that she had to be the mother of two heroes not one. Now she will be praying to God five times a day to keep her alive till Husam is released.

I tell her she has to slow down a little if she wants to stay alive another six years. She is a traditional Palestinian housewife who sets herself a high standard of household cleanliness and order, of motherly and wifely duties, of village-style hosting, and of pleasantness, proper demeanor and personal attention to every well-wisher who comes calling ; she has a constant smile that never leaves her face and shines from her heart. And she has to host a crowd of several hundred people. There are many helpful neighbors and relatives, but she has to be sure everything is done right. “What would people say?” she constantly reminds herself and anyone suggesting that she should rest a little. With that she kept at her cooking and cleaning duties straight through the night. And in the morning she managed to smile and kiss and greet all relatives and well-wishers. Most importantly she managed not to collapse before her firstborn’s arrival home.

Early in the morning of May 28, tens of cars left Arrabeh to Shatta prison not far from the destroyed Palestinian town of Bissan, now Jewish Biet Shan. There, scores more must have joined them for by the time they returned it was a long car procession. Before noon I called a politically involved niece –I have scores of those too—and enquired about the expected time of the ‘Freedom Prisoner’s’ release. She contacted her daughter who was at Abu-As’ad’s house helping out with setting up the tables for the noon feast. She was in phone contact with her teenage brother at the prison’s gate and he in turn called me back to reassure me that when the procession leaves Shatta he will give me a call. By noon I joined other Kanaaneh respectables at al-Zawieh, the traditional clan guesthouse. In addition there were half a dozen guests, Druze elders from another village who had come calling in solidarity with the Kanaanehs. There is a historical alliance between our clan and theirs in Biet Jan near the Lebanese border that goes back many generations. Curiously, despite their compulsory service in the IDF and the much acclaimed blood brotherhood of the Jews and the Druze, old customs and traditional communal relationships within the Palestinian community survive and seem even to gain strength. Elders from both sides of this curious alliance have little to do with, and little appreciation for Abna’-el-Balad’s political struggle. They all are just playing their expected roles as dictated by traditions. Abna’-el-Balad’s politics are played out on the small clearing, once the ample village square fronting the guesthouse, where a crowed of several hundred youth are milling impatiently. Some of the young crowd is from the village but the majority is from other towns and villages all across the land celebrating the freeing of their leader, Abu-As’ad.

And, at long last, free he is. Cell phones break out all at the same time with a cacophony of music, local recorded songs, Nancy Ajram, calls for prayer and other ringtones; at 12 noon Abu-As’ad is released and every one at this end is being alerted by his or her representative at Shatta. I receive two calls and a recorded message announcing the news. My information chain of command is three posts deep and all three report dutifully on time: “He has seen his wife and four children; a press conference at the prison’s gate will be over soon; it will not take more than an hour before he is home.” Most importantly, the ‘groom’s’ parents have to know so that the food gets heated and the father gets a proper receiving line in order.

An hour later cell phones ring again. The procession has safely arrived at ‘al-Birkeh’- the pool- a landmark at the entrance to the village where the communal rainwater pool used to be. Everyone leaves his car at the football field there and joins the procession on foot. Over a thousand people move up the road with ‘the groom’ carried on the shoulders of his young followers. Arrabeh’s mayor struggles to maintain his proximity to the uncontested hero of the hour and to gain maximum visibility in the photo-op that has presented itself at his doorstep. The young crowd, peppered with a smattering of leftist Jews, claps energetically, waves Palestinian flags, shouts political slogans and sings nationalist songs. As the group gets close to the Kanaaneh neighborhood a couple of thugs -we have few of those too- block the traffic from all directions with their cars while a doctor is rushed to the scene to treat a diabetic cousin who ‘has burned-up his sugar’ in excitement and collapsed. Abu-Asa’ad then changes mounts and is now carried on the shoulders of relatives not political followers. Finally he dismounts and proceeds to greet the waiting crowd starting with the semi-formal receiving line of family elders.

Clearly, this last part is a traditional function cunningly used on this occasion by the Kanaaneh’s to usurp the heroism and honor of the occasion from its true owners, Abna’ El-Balad. Clan elders and some daring youth assume their respective positions in the receiving line, each physically negotiating his status and communal worth vis-à-vis that of others: Age, education, agility, attire, conformity with traditions, and blood proximity to the jailed brothers, all play into the equation. I weigh-in as third in line after Abu-As’ad’s paternal uncle and a butcher cousin of mine who has the loudest voice in town and has never abandoned the traditional Palestinian attire, two points that count in his favor. A contestant for the first position looses out, though he had donned a proper suit with a Palestinian necktie and adorned his shoulders with a Kaffiyeh for the occasion. Magnanimously, he moves to the end of the line. Mohammed bends down his tall torso, lean and well sculpted by five hours of daily exercise in jail, to be hugged and kissed three times on his hairy cheeks by each of us. Then, finally, with his huge black eyes filled with tears, he runs the last few meters home to the embrace of his indefatigable mother.

Abu-Mohammad, the father, addresses the assembled crowd with one loud ‘Tfaddalu’; Food and soft drinks are served in his front yard, first to people from outside the village, then to non-Kanaaneh village folks and finally to relatives. A separate smaller setting in the house is set aside for the women, though the liberated young eat and drink in unison. The wedding-like celebration continues throughout the daylight hours into the late evening. A similar spontaneous self-segregation ensues: Political support groups in self-contained circles crowd the square on rented plastic chairs. They compete for Abu-As’ad’s attention with the traditional will-wishers hobnobbing with the Kanaaneh elders in al-Zawieh, the classic men-only nook, and with the apolitical older women calling on his mother at the family’s home.

In the mildly intoxicating celebratory atmosphere a teacher relative of mine holds the hand of his son, also a government employee, and lets out a sigh of relief.

“I hope we two managed to stay off their screens” he addresses me, “you know uncle, we couldn’t have stayed away; he is family, one of us. Yet, with all the Palestinian flags and nationalist slogans, God only knows what consequences there will be. You know the battle Fulaneh has been fighting to keep her job since she was caught on video at a political rally with a flag in her hand. She has already been demoted.”

Reassuring them with dismissive machismo, I escape from the grip of my worried relatives to greet two old schoolmates of mine, both retired teachers. Jokingly, I raise the same topic with the two senior professionals, both having survived decades of close scrutiny by Israel’s Secret Services (aka Shin Bet). The educational system is known to be the backbone of Israel’s system of controlling its Palestinian citizens.

“Since when have we turned nationalist, for goodness sake?” I greet them with a warm handshake.

Jahshak elli faraqtu!-the same old ass” says my first friend, a refugee from the destroyed Palestinian village of Mi’ar, now Jewish Ya’ad, quoting a derogatory local saying.

“It is the Land Day effect,” says the more serious retiree. “March 30, 1976 is when we all lost our fear. No one dared speak up before that. And no one cares much about the consequences of defending our rights ever since.”

On that sobering note we all sought further sobriety by stepping in al-Zawieh, each to claim his sip of black Arabic coffee.

Delegations from all parts of the land continue to descend on Arrabeh to pay homage to our wronged and newly-released hero. Yet, and this morning’s al-Ittihad editorial not withstanding, Abu-As’ad’s is no longer Arrabeh’s top topic of conversation. It has been superseded by the Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange appropriately commenced with the Israeli release of a Lebanese Moslem whose mother is Jewish.

Toufiq was right; there is a Lebanon effect.

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