Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Soft Underbelly of Being the Underdog

The Soft Underbelly of Being the Underdog

My wife and I are now in Hawaii with our two children and their families for our annual R&R get-together. And what a restful and regenerating occasion it is! Yet, a minor incident before leaving home continues to weigh on my mind, demanding to be recorded lest it be forgotten: an undeserved favor from a fellow Palestinian rendered in the semi-conspiratorial spirit of mutual help that constitutes one of the weapons of the weak.

Ten days before leaving on our current trip I needed to clarify a medical question that could potentially annul the whole plan. I called on a trusted colleague and through the services of a contact of hers, a cog in the bureaucratic healthcare machine, an emergency CT scan was scheduled. In preparation for that process I had to do a blood test which was again arranged on emergency basis through a contact of mine with the promise that the results would be on my electronic record by the time I showed up for the CT scan. Unfortunately, when I did no blood test had been entered in my computerized record and I was prevented from proceeding with the CT scan. No other time slot was available before I leave the country to reschedule the procedure. Promptly I sweet-talked a secretary, one I must have selected for her particular looks, to put me in touch on her phone with the central lab. On the other end it was a veritable jungle of Russian accented technicians and secretaries that confined themselves strictly to the set rules of the Lab. I kept asking for the next level in the chain of command and each went through the same steps. I would hear the clicking on the keyboard and then they would announce to me: “No results entered for this ID number” and hang up and I am back to my chosen secretary with the ‘particular looks’ to start the process again. I tried to explain to the dozen Russian lab personnel that I reached that I had the same access to the computerized record as they do and what I needed was someone to break out of the routine and to physically track my blood sample and matching sheet of paper with a large red ‘URGENT’ stamp on it and to see if that sample can be processed on the spot. None was able to comprehend the favor I was asking. They couldn’t imagine such departure from the routine.

On the umpteenth trial I heard a different accent on the phone, that of an Arab young man. In Arabic, I told him who I was and what I wanted and within ten minutes he traced down my blood sample and ran it through the analyzer and had the responsible Russian colleague enter it on record. My problem was solved.

It was then that it dawned on me that the half dozen links in the facilitation process from beginning to end were all Arabs like me and that the ‘particular looks’ of my selected secretary were nothing more than her Non-Ashkenazi features. On occasion, being the underdog helps. Sadly, more often it doesn’t. Here is a recent entry in my memoirs when the trick didn’t work:

20 September, 2007,
Hassan Bezeq

Back in Arrabeh I am itching to communicate with the three new positive interlocutors that have picked up on my manuscript submission. But I am faced with the inefficiency of the Israeli system when it comes to an Arab village. To save money we had asked Bezeq, the landline phone monopoly in Israel, to freeze our connection for the period of our stay abroad. When we asked for the service to be renewed we were told that there was a one month waiting period. As I pointed out that in the neighboring Jewish town of Karmeil the service was provided within 48 hours I was informed that there were some technical hitch in our area and “please, be patient!” This did not prevent the friendly clerk from selling me a higher speed internet connection at double the original monthly charges. When the working crew did not show up on the appointed day I went to a friend’s office and started calling Bezeq. I shouted at several low-level employees and insisted on talking to their bosses. Eventually I reached a woman supervisor who said that she was the highest level I can speak to on the phone and that she will handle my complaint. I explained what had happened and she had me wait on the line while she checked with the head of the repair crew. After a pause she came back with the explanation:
“Hassan says it is the security situation in Arrabeh.”
“Who is Hassan?”
“The head of the work crew in the Battouf area.”
“And what security situation are we talking about? Did war break out with Syria or did Israel attack Iran?”
After another long wait she came back on the line: “No. It is Arrabeh’s high security rating. Since violence broke out in your villages in October 2000 standing regulations require Bezeq crews to coordinate their work in your area with the security forces.”
I couldn’t believe my ears: “Are you joking? Do you comprehend what you are saying? A man with a name like Hassan is scared to enter Arrabeh seven years after the Al-Aqsa demonstrations? Sharon who started it all is long brain-dead and the Or committee has come and gone and issued its recommendations to the government to deal with its discrimination against Arabs, and Hassan still can hide behind security excuses to cover his team’s tardiness? Hassan still needs police escort to enter an Arab village?”
“That is what Hassan says. You can lodge a written complaint by fax at …”
“Well, why doesn’t Bezeq hire a technician or two from the Battouf villages? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?”
“That is not for me to decide. You can complain in writing and suggest whatever you want. Besides, such technicians will need security clearance.”
Later I learned that Hassan is not an imaginary creature. People in Arrabeh knew him by the name of Hassan Bezeq.

After the weekend I was at it again bright and early.
“Yes, it shows up here on the screen that they should have contacted you this morning to deal with the problem. Sorry, sir, if they haven’t! I am sure they will tomorrow.”
Again I demanded to speak to a supervisor. This time it was a young sounding man with a self-confident formal tone of voice. He assured me that he will see to it that my line will be fixed that day although it was customary to wait for weeks to have a line transferred to a new address.
“But I only asked for the line to be frozen for six months; I didn’t move.”
“Fine, then it should have been a simple press of a button at our central, but it says here on the computer that that didn’t work. You must have moved home!”
As I argued back he asked politely to wait on the line while he checked. A few minutes later he came back thanking me profusely for my patience and asking for my mobile phone number so he can contact me the moment he located the head technician. I got in my car and decided to drive over to Karmeil to badger the woman clerk who sold me the fast wi-fi virtual connection. She had assured me that she will put in a note in my file for the technicians that mine was a specially urgent case and that they should arrive before the scheduled date. As I was fighting the usual traffic jam in the center of Arrabeh I had to maneuver around a parked Bezeq truck. I pulled the hand break and jumped out of my car to the dismay and repeated honking of drivers behind me. The technician said that he will do me a favor and come with me to look at the problem. I waved my arms high in a gesture of apology to fellow villagers for adding to a bad situation and turned into a side street with the Bezeq truck in tow. Shortly I was up on a ladder with my hedge cutter shaving down the overgrown thurbingia climber that had damaged the phone line with its weight. As I was fifteen feet up in the air trying to maintain my balance while hacking at the overgrowth my mobile rang. It was Itziq from Bezeq.
“Dr. Kanaaneh, I am sorry to tell you that it is not possible to fix the problem today. Hassan says that the security situation doesn’t permit our technicians to enter Arrabeh today! Your name is at the top of the list once the security situation improves.”
“I hate to tell you that right now I am at my house in Arrabeh with your technicians. Here, you can speak to Moshe yourself.”
“No need. I am happy the security situation has improved and permission granted for our crews to enter Arrabeh. I hope you guys will maintain the peace.”
With a bang the line went dead. It is back to square one. My phone is working again. But the ADSL connection is another story. The technicians said it will be connected centrally in two days. Three days have gone by with daily calls and protesting to no avail. It is now the start of the Jewish holiday season when most government and utility offices operate on emergency basis. I am sure that when I contact them again in six weeks, after we come back from our trip to China, clerks will still be making up excuses. And even Hassan knows the one about security.

On the whole, Arabic features, an Arab name or address, or anything that reeks of Arabic culture has a negative connotation in Israel. Particularly troubling is the fact that we, the Arab citizens of Israel, have internalized the prejudiced mindset so ingrained in the larger Israeli society. This dawned on me sending a sudden shiver down my spine at the Tel Aviv airport on our way out of the country. As we left home in the morning I took with me the Arabic daily that had been delivered to my door with the thought that I could while away some of the waiting time at the airport doing the daily Sudoku puzzle. However, standing in the passport control line at the airport and having commenced figuring out the Sudoku solution, the women behind me glanced at the paper and I caught my self hiding the paper away with a clear sense of guilt. Then I rebounded: what was I hiding and why? Was this a reflex defense mechanism or a logical secrecy inspired maneuver? Was it just the telltale Arabic print I was hiding or could it be the fact that the paper is that of the local communist party? After all, both are fully legal and I regularly get the VIP treatment every time I go through the airport, thanks to my clear Arabic name and place of residence. I have even been put on the US Transportation Authority’s no-fly list, a step apparently initiated by my own country. [See account on p 246 of my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee.] So what is there to hide?

Thinking this rationally through, I took out my paper and triumphantly finished solving my Sudoku.

No comments: