Monday, December 7, 2009

An Open Letter to Reviewers

Note: This is a letter I drafted but never sent out. It was addressed to all the reviewers who had commented so positively about my book, A Doctor in Galilee, to seek their advice in how to reach the mainstream reader in the West. H.K.

May 27, 2009
Dear friends,

This is a message of acknowledgment, thanks and celebration.

I woke up this morning feeling all renewed and invigorated. Out of the clear blue sky came this realization that in recent weeks I have crossed another landmark in my personal development, that I have metamorphosed into a new species, a new genre of the human race, no less caring, though not formally recognized as one of the caring professions, than my formerly well-fitting professional identity as a physician, and a publicly charged one as per the definition and moral code of public health.

Like a new garment, it still feels less than comfortable, this new identity. Its fiber still feels a little scratchy to the skin. I have dealt with the international community before, so that I can't blame the make-up of my new audience, the cyberspace-mediated circle of international friends and contacts, for the slight sensation of formication that keeps me up nights. And this is not the first time I have experienced the pleasant prurience of a transformed identity, nor is this the most drastic leap of faith I have taken. The list is long indeed: from peasant boy to a city slicker, from a third-world setting to life on an American college campus, from a college student to a care giver, from that to a civil society activist, and from a husband to a father and onward to a clan elder, to mention only the most drastic ones.

All along I willfully sought out intimate and transforming liaison with members of each new group to help me mold into the new role. When I first saw Woody Allen's film 'Chameleon' it spoke to me movingly. I was still adapting to a civil society role while still fulfilling my duties as a physician to my tribe, a layer of new garments atop of my white gown. Seeking a way out I took to a mix-and-match style mining new and inclusive public health concepts to meet my needs and new outlook. And this was how I emerged to grapple with the nascent NGO/civil society sector as a promotional agent of health and community development on behalf of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

True, my past contacts have been limited to the international health and development NGO crowd with a smattering of aspirants to sainthood at its edges, those associated with the church-centered or church-funded charities. Over the years I managed to gain sufficient comfort with this latter kindly bunch as we played at reaching a compromise between their basic grounding in self-congratulatory charitable work and my self-serving development-based experimentations.

Eventually this tug-of-war ground to a routine and I took to clawing at the hems of the real holy personages, by their own internally consistent appraisals, such as the Holy Land Latin Patriarch and the head of the Catholic Dioces of New York, real people I met. Though I never gave it much thought at the time, I must now admit, with the insight gained through the powerful focus of that marvelous old invention, the retrospectoscope, to a degree of fascination with the real holy men of my days, those bigger than life figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Marten Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama. Transgressing against my monotheistic upbringing while still abiding by the Islamic tradition of limiting worship to a private affair between two parties, I did make supplications to these private multiple gods of mine. In the 1960s I even joined a Civil Rights march in Washington, DC, at the peril of being deported as an alien. More recently I knocked at President Mandela’s door but could only befriend his late fellow freedom fighter and Minister of Justice, Dulla Omar. On the second attempt I wound up making contact with Archbishop Tutu, no less godly a figure were it not for his narrowed denominational identity. That was also a major problem with Marten Luther King: his specific church affiliation brought him down one notch from full godliness. In my college days in Hawaii I served as the resident custodian for the Unitarian Church in lush Nuuanu Valley and attended their rather secular Sunday meetings. And while at Harvard on occasion on Sundays I would drift to the Cambridge Quakers’ meeting house. I found both a bit too theologically confining. And for a while I even dabbled in Zen Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama fails the test on a different count. I met him in person twice, albeit not in private. His American idol status blemishes his godliness for me; he is too trendy. You cannot have it both ways; no one can be a celebrity in Hollywood and in heaven.

That leaves only Mandela and the Mahatma. Here is a piece from my first trip to India:

November 30, 2003
Gandhi, to my thinking, is the man who deserves the greatest respect of all the historical figures I know. He embodies all the values that I subscribe to: nonviolence, compassion, activism, and humility. As I stood at the simple memorial edifice at the site of his cremation I cried copious silent tears not for his loss to humanity, but for the defeat of his aspirations and for my own inability to hold on to my own internal equilibrium and self-respect in facing the human calamity that is India’s poor and disabled beggars. I cry very rarely and usually when physically exhausted and emotionally defeated. This time I was well rested despite some nightmares and wakeful early mornings. I found myself overwhelmed with the sense of my own defeat and loss of purpose. I lost all sense of self-respect and outward defenses that could afford me some equanimity. I could no longer face the world. How could I lay claim to sanity in the midst of the irrationality of India or maintain my dignity in the midst of the squalor and the degradation of its masses. How can I ever enjoy a meal in the plush surroundings of another hotel without severing all moral links to the majority of humanity that India personifies. A time was when I felt I could discharge my inborn and acquired debts to humanity through professional service as a caregiver to my own narrow slice of the human race. And when the time came I acted on this obligation in Arrabeh and the Galilee. Coming up against India at this late stage in the game (age and career-wise) the myth of the significance of my contribution to the alleviation of human suffering is suddenly and starkly exposed. In the past I have seen poverty and deprivation in Palestinian refugee camps and in the slums of Cairo and it impinged on my conscience and innermost feelings. Yet, before India, I managed to maintain my inner balance and to regard such situations as controllable if not curable. India is of another magnitude, both in depth and extent. In India my entire world of morality collapsed on me. It stunned me into regression and defeat. India missed the chance of benefiting from the cruelty of a Marxist dictatorship and Gandhi and Nehru are to blame!”

So we are back to monotheism: It is Mandela by a neck. And now you know my real spiritual standing: I belong to the UC group. No, not the Unitarian Church but the Utterly Confused or the Ultimately Condemned if you wish.

But I digress.
We started with a message of thanks. And I wanted to explain my sense of renewal and self reinvention. I am now starting to accept, though rather tentatively and with much trepidation, my new identity as a writer, or perhaps we can just say 'a person who writes'. I seem to be vaguely aware of having entered the literary world, albeit through its backdoor. And it all is your fault and that of my editor at Pluto Press, Dr. Roger van Swanenberg. You all managed to pry that back door open just enough for me to sneak in. Or was it that you cracked a window open for some fresh air and I snuck in? Be that as it may, you have already permitted me to crash your party and, now with cocktail in hand I hope to mingle with the crowd and to circulate among the regulars.

Damn! Even that is not going to work. I do suffer from GERD (I will explain if you will allow me to step back for a moment into my original medical stomping grounds: Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disorder, a form of severe heart burn if you wish.) and I cannot handle liquor especially evenings. Perhaps you will allow me just this once to fake it and go around with water in my glass. You won't divulge our little secret, would you! I will even pretend to be getting a little tipsy if you promise not to tell. I will share a secret with you: I can fake comfort in awkward situations. Here is another piece from my past:

“Tape-recorded on 19 June 1983:
This was a challenge not easy to live up to. The visible level of affluence as I entered the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York, for example, threw me for a loop. The classy garden entrance, the posh carpets in the hallways, the modern furniture, and the top of the line high-tech equipment were beyond my wildest dreams. Any one entering that office realizes full well that its occupants have money. I kept looking at the lining of the elevator and saying to myself how nice it would be to own a winter coat made out of that material.

Traveling abroad like this to knock at doors and to meet with officials of NGOs I feel remorseful about the time and energy I waste on people sitting in their air-conditioned offices and making a living by discussing the misery and dying of others. It brings back to mind the sudden fits of anger I often experience in the midst of bureaucratic Ministry of Health discussions of health policy; I get the urge to throw all their papers at those hypocritical soothsayers and rush out to treat the Bedouin kids I know are dying of neglect or boiling in the throws of a fever that very moment.

While waiting in the hallway of The Ford Foundation I feared an inevitable confrontation between my sense of urgency and the deliberate calculations and prying questions of the young woman I was waiting to meet. Suddenly I felt panicky; I broke in a run to escape the impending disaster. I hurried to the men’s room and splashed some cold water on my face, recalling swimming as a child in the cool spring at the western edge of Arrabeh.

To pretend that I was comfortable in those surroundings was one thing. But to step outside and see the destitution of the homeless man warming himself over the building’s hot air vent was simply incomprehensible. It knocked me off balance. Fortunately no one accompanied me out to hear me scream my foulest curses.

The field officer I had hosted in the Galilee had scheduled a luncheon appointment for me with Oscar (Bud) Harkevy, the head of the population and health department. No need here to go into the details of the luncheon itself, though it still makes my mouth water to think of it. I was put through the grind. I had to justify our project proposal and to give a description of what life is like in Galilee and of the health problems of the Palestinian community in Israel while treading lightly on the subject of Israel’s discriminatory policies. Then the gentleman wanted to know where I was heading to from New York. Proudly I said:
“To Washington, DC; I am invited to the International Conference on Polio Eradication.”
“Oh yes!” he responded, “The other day I was talking to my friends Jonas Salk and Robert McNamara, the head of the World Bank, and we were trying to figure out what it would cost to deliver polio immunization to every child in the world. What is striking is the difference in estimates. Salk thinks it will average three dollars per child while McNamara quotes twenty-two dollars. I said: ‘listen fellows, you have to make up your minds. After all, even at twenty two dollars apiece, if you estimate eighty million new babies a year, we are still talking peanuts, you know.’”
That was when I choked on the fruit salad I was trying to down at an acceptable speed. Like the man I was, I managed to swallow my food, to grin and bear the slap I felt across my face. I mumbled something appropriate about few billion dollars and feigned the body language to indicate that it didn’t raise a pimple on my ass. Right now as I do this recording a braying donkey in the background is trying to remind me of what a fake I can be when pressed against the wall.”

So now you know me a little more intimately. Having divulged so much personal details to you, I now feel more comfortable in your company. I will now tell you where I am heading, ‘inshallah!’ And I mean the term in its original literal meaning -if God wills it- invoking God’s permission and blessing on my plans. (And you thought I was an atheist!) Of recent years Middle East bureaucrats in their dealings with run-of-the-mill customers have imbued ‘inshallah’ with a new dismissive and more cynical meaning: ‘If God feels like helping you let Him do it!’ Which is why a commentator with Latin American experience interpreted ‘inshallah’ as ‘manyana but without the sense of urgency’.

Now to my future plan, the original reason for this longish stream-of-consciousness outpouring: I would like to take the next plunge, to ask for your help in reaching out to the wider circle of nonpartisan general public in the West. Of course, reaching that crowd is the dream of every writer on his way to the best-seller list. But hang on a second! That is not what I have in mind. Selling my book is for Pluto Press to handle. What I have in mind is conveying my narrative, the particularity of which you seem to have appreciated, to the widest possible public through print or any other possible way.

You are a select group of readers, a group that makes a habit, if not a profession, of critical reading. I judge by what you wrote about ‘A Doctor in Galilee’ that you found it worth your time and not only because of your pro-Palestinian convictions. I want to believe that you judge the book to be readable on its literary merits alone. Am I correct in assuming that? That is the part I want now to hang my hat on. How can I persuade the uninvolved masses in the West to sample my narrative? How can I reach out with this different Palestinian narrative as casual reading and not as targeted political discourse in the first instance? Can I afford the deceit of imagining my humanity and struggle against injustice seeping through to the apolitical reader’s mind without addressing the subject frontally? At the risk of boring you with overstating my case, here is what I wrote a Quaker friend recently:

"Dear ...,
I presume you may have noticed the alerts I have been sending out about the positive reviews my book of memoirs has been receiving, though mainly in sympathetic pro-Palestinian media.

I am writing you personally now to seek your input in a complex matter that is currently on my mind: I know well the efforts of the AFSC to call the world's attention to issues of the powerless, to empower the weak and the marginalized, and to give a voice to the voiceless. So far, with my book, I feel that I have gotten my foot in the door, so to speak, with the Palestinian and activist media. Yet that is not the main target readership I imagined reaching when I decided on publishing my memoirs. It is the less informed and seemingly less involved western and especially American public that I had in mind and the book was fashioned accordingly. It is aimed at the average churchgoing American housewife who couldn't care less about the lives of Palestinians and Israelis but who ultimately decides their fate. I have now reached the point where I want to knock at the door of that crowd. What tricks of the trade can I use? What channels can I try to utilize? How does one manage to grab the attention of the Western/American mainstream? Can you help me work out a strategy? Or does that require a brainstorming session? And if so can that be done on the phone?

Also recently one of you guys wrote me after reading my memoirs:
“I just wish I could grab Carter, or Oprah, or Zogby by the necks and tell them ‘This is your assignment, bearing on the humanity of all of us, and you may not read anything else or become involved in any other distraction until you finish it!’”.
Now, that would really help! But there must be other less aggressive ways of enticing people to sample my reality. And you people are the experts on the matter. I am at your party to learn first hand what you and your ilk excel in - promoting positive thoughts to the world. Technically I presume we are talking media, all sorts of media, and it may only need what we doctors often prescribe – tincture of time. I consider myself the patiently enduring type. But I am also the intrusive type, not the type to sit completely still and wait. As I linger I stay involved. That is why I crashed your party in the first place. Good Muslims are expected to carry their struggle, ‘jihad’, against the wrongs of the world physically with their sword, and if that is impractical then with their tongue and barring that, then in their hearts. “And that is the feeblest of commitments,” the good prophet decreed.
See you at the next party.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What Is in a Name

I look at the seventeen young women in the picture on the internet, the group photo of Palestinian women prisoners just released in exchange for a video of an Israeli prisoner in Gaza named Shalit, all in hijab with uniformly dark-colors. I cannot but wander in imagination and wonder what they would look like in western sports uniforms as a soccer team, the maximum I allow my mind to stray from their austere outer appearance. Then I consider their first names, chosen for them by joyous fathers and mothers, no doubt, some 15 to 25 years ago at the most, though the news item in Enrique Ferro’s daily bulletin states: “one … came back to find that all of her children were now grown up.” I try to imagine what those parents dreamed for their newborn girls at the moment they decided on their choices and how they imagined their infant girls as brides: Shirin, Nevine and Regina probably were not imagined by their mothers as anything but pretty Barbie doll types that will grow to marry and be pampered by Western-trained professionals serving in the appropriate Palestinian governmental department, the real thing and not the virtual ones of today’s constricted reality whether in Gaza or Ramallah. Twenty years ago we were riding the tsunami wave of the first Intifada with its promise of success of its peaceful resistance. Then the horizon looked wider and brighter.

Perhaps the same was true for the parents of the seven girls with the fragrant and buoyant, romantic first names: Sana (Glow), Hiam (Infatuation), Laila (That of the night), Najwa (Flirtatious), Baraa’ (Innocence), Nahid (Bosomy), and Zohoor (Flowers). Three more, Maymuneh (Lucky), Hiba (Gift), and Manal (Gain), have the inspired flamboyance of wishful thinking. Arabic is a rich and discriminating language with subtle nuances that may have escaped me in translating some of the names. Yet they all share an upbeat and hopeful feel that surely does not come unintentionally to a parent sizing up the sound and flavor of a name for his/her baby. Perhaps some parents had simply named their baby after an aunt, a grandmother or a dear friend. That is possible but more likely with the two traditional names in the list, Rima and Fatima. Perhaps Lebnan (Lebanon) could be added to the two or it could well be an expression of solidarity with the people of that country in their decades of struggle. Or the girl may have been born on her mother’s trip to visit a relative in a refugee camp in Lebanon when camp-hopping across the Arab world was still possible for a Palestinian.

And there are the straight forward ones deriving directly from Palestine’s Jihad (Struggle) Somood (Perseverance), and Kifah (Resistence). Only Ayat (Koranic Verses) can imply the religiosity that jumps at you out of the picture. To the best of my knowledge never before was Islam in Palestine associated with such prohibition of casual behavior and dress before. With the advent of the Ottomans the hijab of their harem was emulated only in the city. In rural areas their dress code for women, like their influence, never took hold. Elderly village women, including my mother and aunts, who ventured to the city felt obliged to cover up in deference to their more influenced urban hosts but only for the duration of their trip, usually one day. Upon return the black outside covers would be flung aside for the casually modest village attire, not different from what traditional women wear, say in Crete.

I had just returned from a celebration in honor of Samih el-Qassim, probably the best-known Palestinian poet alive today and my former schoolmate, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The man has an astounding record of published poems from which to read and he has a superb mastery of the Arabic language and a delivery style and touch of showmanship to match. I was happy I decided to attend the event held at the Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center and sponsored by the Toufiq Zayyad Institute for Creativity and National Culture. The implication of the choice of venue and sponsor, both named after dead colleagues and former close friends of Samih, was not lost on him. He chose to read a new poem remembering and eulogizing all of his departed fellow Palestinian poets. Only one contemporary and friend remained, Taha Muhammad Ali, and Samih acknowledged his presence in the front row of the hall repeatedly. The refrain and central message in the poem was to confirm the ever-lasting presence of all these departed men (and one woman, Fadwa Touqan) in our midst in spirit and in the word. Somehow, the message between the lines sounded very much like a goodbye. And I felt sad for this giant of a literary figure with his ever-youthful looks admitting to aging; he admitted it in words and in the ever-so-slight fading of the youthful glimmer in his eyes.
I am only two years his senior!

One of the celebrants was a man I knew from previous reincarnations, Rafiq (Arabic for gentle) Hussainy, formerly the head of the Jerusalem office of the international charity, Medical Aid for Palestine. This was in the days of the First Intifada when Jerusalem was still at the physical and emotional center of Palestinian nationalism. Later I reconnected to Rafiq as the head of a major private medical center in Ramallah, capitalized by rich Palestinian shareholders in the Diaspora. Now he has secured a more lucrative job, the Head of the Palestinian Presidential Staff. As such he was delegated for the honoring function by President Abbas of the PNA himself. After all, Samih is a national treasure shared by all Palestinians, nay, by all Arabs. When his turn at the podium came Rafiq spewed forth all the expected platitudes and added a sentence or two about the need for all Palestinians to unite in the face of the Zionist enemy. At the mention he made of the Palestinian President a timid flutter of applause came from the audience, for the title no doubt. I admired Rafiq’s command of the Arabic language, his extemporaneous speech abilities, his well-bred youthful looks and his blank baby face. On the way home I heard the news on the radio that the PNA had withdrawn its request to the UN Human Rights Council to adopt the Goldstone Committee report accusing Israel (and Hamas) of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza. The price the PNA collected for this retraction? Israel’s permission to be granted for a second mobile telephone network in Palestine (read 12% thereof). Who owns how many shares in the Watanya (nationalist, no less!) wireless network, I wondered!

Suddenly an image from my childhood flashed across my inner screen, that of another Abbas. He was the perennial ‘circumcision man’ of those days, trudging the streets of the village with his hard-leather briefcase hanging from his black-jacketed shoulder and shouting out his trade: “Mtahhir! Mtahhir!” As he would reach our neighborhood we would scuttle away and the older boys would run after us and pretend they wanted to catch us for Abbas to cut away our male genitalia. About the only safe place there was for us to run to was the mosque where we were sure to find some adult family relative to protect us. The man’s name alone which we interpreted literally, ‘the ever-frowning one’, evoked thoughts of bitter suffering at his hand. It was never the pain that we feared but rather the resultant aftereffect of impotence. And now here it comes again, the mental anguish of impending total impotence. Has Abbas just cut off our collective penis? Where can we run away from this man? Into the lap of Zionizm? Wouldn’t a single state bring with it a semblance of potency?

Not a single Zionist attended our celebration of Samih, ‘the ever-forgiving one’, and his poetry.

The day before was the 9th memorial day of the start in 2000 of the second Palestinian Intifada and the loss on this side of the Green Line of 13 of our youth killed by Israeli police, mainly by sharpshooters. The venue for commemoration was Arrabeh’s farmers’ market and a crowd estimated at some 30-40 thousand converged from all over Israel to protest the state’s discrimination and violence against its Palestinian minority. I decided to delegate the duty of visiting the graves of the two martyred teens from Arrabeh to the younger generation and took a roundabout route to the meeting place arriving an hour late according to the widely published schedule but just in time for the speeches. Arrabeh’s newly-elected young mayor, another man with a decent command of the Arabic language, tried to match the size of the crowd with the sheer pitch of his voice. Then came abu-Asil on behalf of the bereaved 13 families. He ranged all the way from Arrabeh to Iran and the USA and back; and so did the Head of the High Arab Monitoring Committee after him. Sheikh Ikrima of Jerusalem then opened and closed his mercifully brief speech by joining the youth in the crowd in chanting “With our souls, with our blood we redeem the Aqsa mosque!” And there was my friend Ilan Pappe who was brief and to the point: The racist Zionist system, especially the current Israeli ultra-rightist government, is dangerous and unjust to all of us and has to be defeated. And The Palestinian right of return is just and we all should hold it sacred.

Some may have interpreted his role at the meeting as that of a token Jewish speaker in this mostly Arab crowd. I even heard few racist rumblings from a group of youth objecting to having a Jew speak at this Aqsa-related occasion. I did see a few dozen other Jewish participants with their leftist political identity clearly splashed across their T-shirts. Especially among the youth, partisan political identity -Jabha, Tajammu’, Abnaa’ el-Balad, Islamic Movement, etc.- was worn as an item of dress or held up boldly on a banner. Yet the most striking symbols of identity I noticed were expressed in fashionable color combination and style of attire and not in a written statement: Two thin, tall, doe-eyed, young women with a proud, haughty and angry expression on their pretty faces combined the colors of the Palestinian flag in various items of outer dress with a touch of the symbolic Palestinian kafyieh to say unambiguously: “I am Palestinian and proud of it!” I recognized one of the two as the daughter of a former student of mine from Sakhnin and she confirmed my guess and posed for a picture with her friend. Not far from them stood the two medics who man our local authority’s ambulance. I snapped a photo of the two standing at the ready with a large Star of David on their backs. The message was clear: You can shout all the slogans you want. When it comes to life and death issues it is the Star of David that speaks. In Arrabeh there is one licensed ambulance; a Jewish community of an equal size may have a dozen. In the ever-mounting struggle for survival the odds are rigged. In Gaza it was hundred to one.

Perhaps there were no Zionists here as well. Except for the pilots of those helicopters encircling above for the duration of the event.

Yet, the day before, I hobnobbed with Zionists for the better part of the afternoon. I had arrived at the Galilee Society for the ceremonial opening of the new headquarters of its research facility. This is a new wing, the third floor added to the home I had built for my NGO and which wound up costing me my lead position in it. The Research and Development Center had started in a caravan placed at a scenic hilltop in Eilaboun some fifteen years earlier and received partial government funding thanks to the decision of Shulamit Aloni, the Minister of Science and Technology at the time. Now she was among the honorees on this special occasion and the hosts needed another old-timer to assist and keep her company. Aloni’s impeccable personal integrity and stand on issues of justice and equality does not stack well with her reluctance to renounce the Zionist movement so far. Her fight is with the tightening hold the Jewish fundamentalists are having on Israel. Still, I found myself joining her and the current minister and his entourage seated in the first row. As the religious minister, an avowed political enemy of hers by definition, rose to speak she kept a running commentary of jabs and one-liners whispering in my ear. Unfortunately I had forgotten my hearing aid and had to chuckle appreciatively on cue.

The praise of the minister and his chief scientist, and the impressive list of researchers and their research projects aside, there was a clear disconnect, if not full opposition, between the basic percept on which I and my colleagues had built the mother organization, the advancement of the health and wellbeing of the Palestinian community in Israel, and the vision the minister advanced as his rationale for supporting the daughter research facility, the advancement of Israel’s position in the world of science and technology. This may sound inane, for what else would a state support its scientific institutions for if not to advance its standing in the world of science? The contradiction I was unable to overlook sprang from the definition of Israel of itself as exclusive of its Palestinian citizens. The fundamental contradiction this exclusionary definition casts upon all of the state’s dealings with 20% of its citizens limits the zone of comfort of any amongst them receiving governmental research grants to personal gain and ulterior motives to the exclusion of any altruism. Ultimately, such recessive motivation undercuts, if not undermines, a researcher’s ambition and dreams. That is why in my days I never put much trust in governmental funding of our projects and reached out to the international community. I took the relationship with Shulamit (peaceful!) Aloni, then as now, to be an innocent ‘flirtation’ between two secular peace seekers.

Was Aloni conscious of the pulling of the rug from under the feet of our researchers when she committed her ministry to supporting them, I wonder! I doubt it, for she must have thought that she would succeed in redefining the state from her liberal perspective. I now asked her one question:
“Will we, the likes of you and me, survive the current racism?”
“I doubt it,” answered the frail but clear-minded woman.

An old friend of my wife’s with a pretty Hawaiian name (I studied at the University of Hawaii and married a Hawaiian wife and we still connect to all things Hawaiian) and her American Jewish husband have kept in touch with us for all the years since our Boston days in the 1960’s. The man has even read my book and apparently checks my blog on occasion. He wrote chiding me for my “riling against Zionism” and wanted me to let off the topic. He sites two models for me: himself as the enlightened “good Zionist” (“I voted for Livni” he explains) and a young Palestinian who co-directs an Israeli Arab-Jewish NGO I had co-founded and then left in consternation. This week the young man had a chance to express himself to the Israeli public in an op-ed in Haaretz, a lead national newspaper. I read his piece and found it less than inspiring. It raises the right issues but in the form of pleading that liberal Zionists find palatable coming from an Arab citizen of Israel as long as he doesn’t cross the line and start calling himself ‘Palestinian’.

I was about to email my liberal Zionist contact. We had kept in touch over the years for the sake of the god old daysand for the sake of the wife's lovely name. I reviewed our correspondence. He finds voting for Livni, no less racist a politician than her competitor Netanyahu, noble enough to offer as an enticement for me to continue contact with him. How come he votes in Israeli elections in the first place? He never lived here. I don’t have the time to spend on correspondence with people who think that they have the right to decide my fate just because of their race, I decided.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Open Letter to President Carter

September 10, 2009
Dear President Carter,

In Arrabeh, my Palestinian hometown in Galilee I also am considered an elder. Hardly a day passes by that I don’t receive gifts of food and when I speak a good number of people take what I say seriously. Like you and Rosalyn I have dedicated my life to improving people’s health and advocating for peace. Except that I had decided to act locally starting with my own people. This was not out of any lack of choices. I had finished my studies of Medicine and Public Health at Harvard and put aside my American dream of material comforts to return to my village and serve nonstop for close to four decades. I say all of this to gain some credibility with you, hopefully enough to encourage you to read the rest of what I have to say.

Let me start at a personal level by thanking you and Rosalyn for fasting with the people of Gaza and for praying for their deliverance from their merciless imprisonment. I am extremely moved by this sincere gesture; it nearly brings tears to my eyes because spending a day of prayer and fasting was what my late mother, a simple illiterate Palestinian peasant woman, did whenever she lost a child. I am tempted to call on all decent people in the world to fast for one day every time a child dies unnecessarily in Palestine or in Israel. But that may mean spending a lifetime of prayer and fasting.

Seeing your piece on behalf of The Elders in Sunday’s Washington Post resurrected in me the faint hope that the world will finally come to understand that the two-state solution for Israel/Palestine is actually dead and gone. Despite your diplomatic hesitance to announce its final demise your assertion that “a more likely alternative to the present debacle is one state …” should now shift the goal of all peace-loving people of the world to the struggle for equality and to end the apartheid practiced in all of historical Palestine west of the Jordan River. Let me right away share with you a personal secret: I have never felt superior to any other human being and have always successfully overcome any sense of inferiority even when in the presence of such bullies as the top echelon of the current Israeli government. And mind you, I have nothing to face their consistent threats of ethnic cleansing against me except for my reliance on the goodwill of people like you and your fellow Elders and, for a fleeting moment there, of President Obama. So, you understand, I am secure in the knowledge that the exclusionary claims of one race to my home will not stand the scrutiny of the world, elemental justice, or the common sense that will ultimately overcome all else. You see, Mr. President, I can make a more valid claim to ancient roots in this land, whither Canaanite or Jewish, than all those bullies combined. And all I am asking for is to be their equal as a citizen.

And let me thank you, Mr. President, on behalf of all Palestinians for your courage in ‘opening Pandora’s box’ a while back as well by recognizing in your book what is happening in the Palestinian Occupied Territories as apartheid. As a result now only few diehard Zionists deny it. I realize, of course, that for diplomatic and pragmatic considerations you chose to limit that accurate characterization to Israel’s practices beyond the Green Line. As one who has experienced it on my own skin for six out of my seven decades of life, I can testify to the accuracy of the characterization as applied within that imaginary line, whatever hue it has since taken, as well. For reasons of space limitation and so as not to overstay my welcome in this attempt to hold your attention I will refrain from venturing into any details to support my claim. Suffice it to say that a fellow Jewish activist, Uri Davis, and I have talked about it nearly two decades ago and he went on to document it in some detail.

Should this arouse your curiosity I would be delighted to invite you to hear the full details of what befell the Palestinian near 20% minority in ‘Israel proper’ at the time of al-Nakba and ever since. A small group of Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel is struggling with the task of holding a session of the International Bertrand Russell Tribunal on Palestine here in Nazareth. Our chosen topic is the war crimes committed in 1948 with a sharp focus on one single community, possibly the ancient village of Saffuriyya. We envision this as the first step toward our “Truth and Reconciliation” process. I am sure my colleagues on the BRTP National Committee would be honored to invite you and/or Rosalyn to sit as judges in this peoples’ court. Should you accept this invitation, and apropos of Saffuriyya, I would be happy to arrange an alternative tour of Galilee for you which I guarantee will be no less interesting and enlightening than The Elders day in Bil’in. Perhaps it will be guided by the ‘present absentee’ Suffouriyyan Poet, my friend Taha Muhammad Ali. He has been acclaimed as “perhaps the most accessible and delightful poet alive today”. To give you just a taste of his stuff, here is how he describes his community’s experience of violent expulsion from their homes(as translated from Arabic by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin in “So What: New & Selected Poems”):

We did not weep
when we were leaving –
for we had neither time nor tears,
and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting, so where would our weeping
have come from?

And if such a tour pans out, then I will insist on hosting you in my home in the best tradition of Palestinian hospitality as depicted in another of Taha’s poems:

In his life
didn’t raise his voice to a soul
except in his saying:
“Come in, please,
by God, you can’t refuse.”

And I can assure you,
were he to encounter
the entire crew
of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,
he’d serve them eggs
sunny-side up,
and Labneh
fresh from the bag.

And yet I do have a special offer to make. On your visit to my home I will treat you to a magic moment in the shade of the multi-millennia olive tree in my front yard. But I will stop here. If you are really interested you can check the link to another unsolicited letter I just wrote to another contemporary human rights fighter of mine, Jane Fonda: Or you can read about my tree and my roots in the last chapter of my book, “A Doctor in Galilee”.

Till we meet and with highest regards,

Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH
Author of 'A Doctor in Galilee: the Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel', Pluto Press, 2008
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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Another Man From Nazareth

A Review of “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness” By Adina Hoffman, Yale University Press, New Haven &London, 454 pages.

Adina Hoffman writes in a gripping rich language and with a charming poetic flare. Her avid documentary precision makes her obvious love for the subject of her biographical account and for his family, his surroundings and his people almost suspect, were such evil thoughts not rendered meaningless by her fidelity to the deeper nuances of Taha Muhammad Ali’s deceptively simple and un-classical poetry. Her penchant for linking his every word to the traumatic events of his life and the lives of his fellow internally displaced Saffuriyyans, stay-put Nazarenes and ethnically-cleansed Galileans gives special meaning to the book’s subtitle: “A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.” Her insistent delving into his private thoughts, and more significantly into his private life, makes his poetry almost as delectably meaningful read on the book’s English language page as it is when heard in Arabic from Taha’s own mouth and with his special delivery style and intonation in his now hesitant raspy voice.

The cover of “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness” gives the essence of the story inside: A dozen mug shots of Taha’s strong-featured post-mature face, two of which presumably overshadowed by the book’s title, all of which in various contemplative and silent pensive poses, the deeply furrowed face cupped and framed by his massive hand except for the very last in which the poet finally opens his mouth and speaks with an accusatory pointing of the finger. The autodidact Taha had spent a lifetime silently absorbing what went on around him and peacefully resisting by earning a living for his family, resisting by educating himself, resisting by occasionally expressing himself in the less enthusiastically popular local literary media, and resisting, above all, by honing his uniquely original poetic skill as the voice of the Palestinian Fellah from Saffuriyya whom we, his Palestinian contemporaries, all know and identify with as our next-door neighbor expelled from his home for no guilt of his own, and who the world at large can appreciate for his lack of frills and pretentions: a struggling refugee with a large heart and a measure of guile and universality.

All of that and more I learned from Hoffman’s book, though I have known Taha from as long ago as my teenage years. In the mid-1950s, the years I attended high school, Taha was a permanent fixture of the Nazareth landscape as one walked up from Sahit El-Karajat –Square of the Garages- to the Church of the Annunciation and the adjacent White Mosque or to the ancient souk. Later when I returned to Nazareth as Deputy District Physician for the Galilee I would always notice and greet him on my way to chat with a friend, no other than his brother Faisal across the way. Instead of being out hawking his souvenirs to the tourists, he sat in the shade of the corrugated-iron canopy in front of his small store or just inside it behind the glass vetrina. His impressive Abe Lincoln-minus-the-beard facial features and his total absorption in the books he constantly pored over added to the impression that one was looking at a part of the shop’s display for the benefit of the tourists. Until one asked about the price of an item and Taha’s thick lips parted with a broad smile and his deep raspy voice issued from his throat like a doomsday warning from a prophet let loose in the hills of Palestine of old.

My own close relationship then was with his younger brother, Faisal Essaffuri, the name we, his friends, called him, combining his proper first name meaning ‘sword of justice’ and a reference to Saffuryya, the formerly prosperous town north-west of Nazareth from which his family was violently driven out during the Nakba, in place of a family name. (The irony of this combination in light of the powerlessness of my friend and his fellow uprooted Saffuriyyans to remedy by force the injustice that befell them never dawned on me before.) Faisal always looked rather pensive, quoted often from the old masters of romantic Arabic poetry, and convoluted whatever topic any of us brought up into an issue of existential philosophical significance revolving around his Saffuriyya childhood. Faisal had dropped out of school because of the family’s limited means and opened another souvenir shop right across from his older brother, Taha.

I allow myself the luxury of this piece of reminiscence to make a point: There is little in it that is not covered in full by Adina Hoffman’s account with the added advantage of a selection of dated photographs. The Nazareth scene around Taha is further fleshed out with a full accoutrement of family, friends, literary contemporaries, those who frequented his literary salon of a souvenir shop and others who did not, and the social and political milieu of Nazareth, and that further afield encompassing people and events all the way to his refugee childhood fiancé, Amira of Saffuriyya and Ein el-Hiloui refugee camp. Yet Hoffman never loses sight of her focus on her protagonist, Taha, obsessively arranging all else around him in concentric and ever-widening circles of love and understanding that shine through the pages of her book.

And yet it is all documented through orally recounted history buttressed by ample archival references starting with Taha’s childhood in Saffuriyya, through his community’s forced expulsion to Lebanon, his families adventuresome return to Galilee, first to Reineh at the edge of their former fields and within sight of their destroyed village and then to Nazareth, his lifelong entrepreneurial spirit and acceptance of responsibility as the breadwinner of his family as the first surviving son and considering his father’s physical disability, his lifelong love of literature and striving to learn through self instruction bordering on self flagellation, his marriage to another loving Saffuriyya refugee, building a home and raising a family and suffering the death of a teenage grandchild, all the way to crystallizing a private and unique poetic style and being discovered, translated and celebrated at the far end of his rainbow of a life.

I feel particularly enriched by the author’s forays into the literary lives of not only Taha Muhammad Ali but also his fellow Palestinian contemporary poets. Those were also my contemporaries, give or take a decade or two, and I knew several among them on a first-name basis. In a manner of speaking, this book gave me, an outsider to the field of literature, a welcome reintroduction to those friends as literary luminaries, from Michel Haddad, a close friend of my late teacher and writer brother, to Samih el-Qasim, a fellow member of the Boy Scout troop that received Danny Kaye in Nazareth, to Nazareth’s forceful mayor and splendid poet, Tawfiq Zayyad. Of course, I had read some of their works with varying degrees of comprehension, appreciation and enthusiasm. But I never really knew any of them closely as literary figures. Now I feel I know all of them better, thanks to Adina Hoffman.

For example, I could never imagine anyone who didn't live in Nazareth in the 1950s being able to grasp the intricacies of the personality and mental anguish of such a character as Michel Haddad till I read Hoffman’s account of his literary dabbling (for he dabbled in many things as she mentions and more people probably remember him for his radio program for amateur singers than for his poetry.) I find it simply astounding that a person who didn't see or hear him daily could grasp his character so precisely.

Taha, as expected, is covered even more thoroughly and sensitively. What is more he emerges not only as a Palestinian poet but also as ‘another Palestinian’ from an era and a place that the author manages to un-camouflage for the uninformed, and, more importantly, for the misinformed reader. And for that we all, Palestinians, Israelis, Palestinian Israelis, and all uninvolved others, owe her a tremendous debt.

Hoffman’s recounting and acceptance of Taha’s remembered version of events and her insistence on aligning such accounts with recorded documents is far from an easy task given the highly oral Palestinian narrative and the most incessant documentarian yet no less skewed Israeli parallel narrative. Taha’s account of the events of Saffuriyya’s Nakba, for example, supported by other Saffuriyyan who lived through the horrific events brings her up against the contrary version accepted in the Israeli narrative. The contradiction is finally, and for the first time ever, resolved in favor of Taha’s truth by Hoffman delving in the Israeli military archives and discovering the previously unknown records of the air raid that actually did take place despite the denial of no less a trusted source than Dov Yarimya, the Hagana commander who entered the abandoned village and who has since converted to pacifism and renounced Zionism altogether. He himself had never known of the air attack.

Hoffman’s tome is written as a contribution to the study of Palestinian poetry and addresses the life of the poet as it shapes his art. Her account is rich with bits and pieces of Taha’s poems as illustrations, though at the end one is left with the feeling that the account of the poet’s life is no more than an explanatory note about the connived ‘simplicity’, directness, authenticity , splendor and infectious magic of his village-based universal poetry. That much becomes clear as she signs off with his last poem entitled ‘Revenge’ (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin) in which he imagines rising above taking revenge in a dual with his enemy,

the man who killed my father,
and razed our home,
expelling me
a narrow country

because Taha discovers that his enemy is another human being with family and friends. But even if this vile enemy were

without a mother or father
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions…

he would choose as his revenge only

to ignore him as I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

That done Adina and Taha go on a car ride to the fertile fields of Saffuriyya to buy fruits and vegetables for a feast celebrating the publication of his translated poems in the volume “So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

An Open Letter of Welcome to Jane Fonda

Sept. 5, 2009

Dear Jane,

Welcome aboard to the rank and file of those working for peace and justice in the Middle East. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that the day will come when I would be a step ahead of you in another effort to save humanity from itself. In the heady days of the nineteen sixties I marched against the war in Vietnam because you did. You were then, and you still are today, an idol of worship and adulation to me and my generation. To read now of your joining ‘my’ struggle for justice for the Palestinians, another different people in another faraway land, is as fantastic, refreshing and inspiring as reading the news of Rosalyn and Jimmy Carter fasting with the people of Gaza. Imagine how stirring such news to a people on the verge of losing hope in all of humanity for the way it has abandoned them.

As I read the news of your joining the group of more than 50 prominent international filmmakers, writers, artists and academics who have signed a letter protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s spotlighting of Israel in its forthcoming season I am tempted to embark on a range of grandiose schemes: I want to write the signatories to invite all of them to join the Palestinian Friday Bil’in villager’s demonstration against the apartheid wall that had separated them from their olive fields and farmland just as the group of The Elders did recently. But then Bil’in is in another land illegal for me to enter and its people are another people illegal for me to contact; on occasion I sneak illegally there and join the demonstration. But should I one day fall in love with a fellow Palestinian from Bil’in she can never join me in my home in Galilee. My Jewish neighbor not only can fall in love and marry across borders but is actively encouraged to do so provided the bride is another Jew who would help buttress Israel’s Jewishness. Can you comprehend the underlying racism!

So let us leave Bil’in alone for now. I am dreaming instead of hosting you in my neck of the woods, in Galilee, the stomping ground of the youthful Jesus. It would be indeed an honor to serve as your guide on your pilgrimage here. I am not a Christian but I do revere Jesus and know well his hometown of Nazareth where I attended high school a few years before we ‘met’ on those anti-war marches in California and DC. And if you want a more faith-based tour then Dolores, my wife and fellow marcher from the 1960s could do the honor of guiding you to all the holy sights of Nazareth. Incidentally, did you know that as a Muslim and a Christian we couldn’t have married across the denominational boundary in Israel? Be that as it may, we both would love to accompany you on your tour of Galilee and could take you to the homes of some of our Jewish friends.

And in Nazareth I would like to introduce you to my friend, Taha Muhammad Ali, acclaimed as “probably the most accessible and delightful poet alive today.” And while you chose some of the souvenirs on display in his shop I will impose on him to read us in his own hesitant and raspy septuagenarian voice from his “Revenge’ poem. Here for your perusal is how Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin translate it from the Arabic original
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!


But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.


Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.


But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

And if the spirit moves you, you may want to accompany Taha on a brief tear-jerking visit to the ruins of his village Saffuriyya, from which he and his family were violently expelled to make place for Jewish immigrants in turn unwanted in their place of residence in Christian Europe. We all share a measure of guilt for what happened to Jews in Europe, if for nothing else then at least for belonging to the same species as those Nazi monsters. But then again, you also share your cultural roots with them while Taha and I wound up paying up the guilt money for ‘your’ crime. Sorry to bring this up but every once in a while one needs to state the obvious just for the record.

Let me make that up to you, Jane! I will invite you to a cup of coffee, my special brew of hazelnut flavored Kona coffee (my wife is from Hawaii and we are kept in good supply of the world famous bean by friends and relatives in the islands) sipped in the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in the shade of the multi-millennia-old Roman olive tree in my front yard. You see, in the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), for reasons beyond our comprehension, we were spared the same fate as Taha’s and I still live on land that has been in my family for so many generations I have lost count. Apparently my folks came from the original stock of this area, Canaanites (for that is where my family name derives from) who may have intermixed with another Semitic group, the Jews and possibly adopted their faith converting later to Christianity and then, later yet, to Islam with all the attendant admixture of genes from all the conquerors who crisscrossed the region: Hyksos, Egyption, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, crusaders, … and the list goes on. I can hardly prove any of this to you, but neither can those who subscribe to the biblical myths of King David et. al. and of the Hebraic ethnic identity of all of Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews prove any of their claims.

But I digress. Back to my invitation: You have to come for your visit soon. A bully, recently arrived from Moldova, plans to take my home, garden and olive tree away from me and to send me packing across the border I don’t exactly know to where. And the man is no small fry; he is the foreign minister of the most powerful country and the only nuclear power in the Middle East, sustained, aided and abetted by your country. And his plan is acceptable to the clear majority of my fellow citizens of Israel. Perhaps if you come to visit me I can explain more. But do come because your visit may well give another glimpse of hope for all of the desperate peaceniks here, Arabs and Jews alike.

I am vain enough to think that you, Joan Baez and I stopped the Vietnam War. Perhaps we can change the course of history here as well.
By the way, whatever happened to Joan?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

China Revisited

August 4, 2009
At the break of dawn this morning I got out of bed to urinate. It was still dark and I felt hot and sweaty in the Chinese forest temple where I had fallen asleep on the edge of a cot in front of an altar. The overwhelming scent of incense made my stomach turn. I groped my way toward a wisp of morning light around the altar stand that was cut into the side of a huge tree trunk. But I walked into a solid wall. I turned and headed in a different direction in the dark and unfamiliar maze. With my mounting bladder urgency I frantically sought a way to the outdoor. It would be really pleasant, I felt, to stand between the rows of corn in those lovely and well-tended farm plots we walked through in Michael’s home village and piss in the breeze. Or to relieve myself in that traditional outhouse in his grandfather’s yard that was so traditional that I had to take a picture of its seating arrangement. Hands extended before me I kept traipsing around and hitting tree trunks, locked doors, solid walls and massive statues in the strange temple. Till my hands fell upon a recognizable object, the buckle of my wide belt still threaded in a pair of jeans draped over the back of my imitation-leather office chair. What in the name of heaven is my office chair doing in this side shack of the Chinese temple? I had no recollection of taking my clothes off or of how I got into the temple in the first place. I suddenly realized that something unusual was happening. I felt my way back to the edge of the cot, sat down and summoned all my reserve analytical brainpower under the physiologic stress of the urge to empty my bladder: When I got out of the bed it was Michael, our Shanghai host, who was sharing the cot with me. I now reached over to wake him up and ask for his ever-ready assistance. My hand touched another familiar object, my wife’s buttock. She reeked of the Tiger Balm ointment she had applied to her aching knees challenged in the extreme only two days earlier by climbing down 1600 steps from a Taoist holy site followed by a walking tour of Confucius Temple compound. In a wakeful flash I suddenly realized where I actually was. I reached over, turned my bedside light on, and walked to the bathroom.

I had been sleepwalking in a vivid dream for the first time in my life. China had stirred me beyond reason.

On July 29, 2009, another strange event had taken place in the village of Dongmajia, in Zhaoyuan county of Shandong province. It will probably be remembered for years to come not only by Didi and me but also by over a hundred Chinese villagers. Judging by the way everyone in the village acted it must have been the most memorable thing that had ever happened there since the liberation of the region by the Red Army: A strange-looking foreign couple were the guests of honor at a wedding there. And we were that couple.

And two days later, on the evening of July 31, I was paid a great compliment: We were eating dinner at a restaurant in Zibo, a Chinese eatery maintaining the old regional rural culinary style and atmosphere. Pictures of all the communist big shots adorned the walls, from Engels and Marx through Chairman Mao and the six field marshals of the Liberation Army all the way down to the current presidency of China. We were hosted by the locals: the librarian sister of our primary host, her young teenage daughter, both with sufficient English fluency for basic communication, and her civil servant husband. I felt a certain intimacy with the pleasant mother and daughter team struggling to keep us engaged on subjects of food and family. They had presented us with a real China cup and saucer decorated with a classic motif. But what endeared the two to me more was the fact that the daughter had recently recovered from a bout of glumerulonephritis, a nasty and life-threatening disease, and the mother questioned me about the future prognosis for her girl. That put me back in my old benevolent caregiver mode where empathy with a mother concerned about her child counted at least as much as the medicines I prescribed.

Then my temporary emotional high was suddenly interrupted. The husband spoke no English and was deep in conversation with his brother-in-law. I was gnawing at the last morsel of the tendons on a knuckle I extracted from the donkey stew that we had ordered. (Sorry if that turns your stomach! Would it have been better to change the item to a lamb shoulder or to pig trotters? You either are a carnivore or not a carnivore; if you are, then the kind of carnie you devour is only of secondary importance.) Suddenly Michael turned to us and said:
“We are talking about you. My brother-in-law works in the city’s Department of Social Services. I have told him about the two of you. He says that their ministry gives an annual prize for individuals who set a good example of volunteerism and service to others. He thinks that he would have nominated you if you two were citizens of the country.”
He may have been just trying to humor us. But the sudden unsolicited praise caused the chopsticks in my hand to quiver and the bone to drop in my shirt pocket. How come no Israeli official has ever thought of that, I wondered? Had we belonged to the Chosen People we would certainly have been rewarded. Or if I were another Palestinian physician who had three of his children executed by the Israeli ‘Defense’ Forces and still blurted empty slogans of love and peace, I would certainly have been rewarded.

But this all happened in the second half of our second trip to China. First we visited the province of Yunnan where we started with a stop at Stone Forest.

Stone Forest, not far from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is just that: a wild natural forest made out of rock. Not much can be added to the descriptive name in terms of a comment on the phenomenal outcropping of carstic rock that has been sculpted by natural forces and the flow of water over eons of years. The awe inspired by the scene forces one to fall back on the old cliché that a picture is better than a thousand words. And that is exactly what we did here and all along the three week trip; we took hundreds of pictures of natural scenery, of man-made edifices, of exotic and inspiring human forms and fashions, but above all of faces: faces of friends and acquaintances, faces of total strangers, of children and the aged, and of just about anyone we saw that had specially expressive features, faces shining with inner peace, trust and hope. And, of course, pictures of the two of us and of our beloved hosts, adding up together to the perfect three layered generational family package: Two children, their two parents and us, the adoptive or rather adopted grandparents. The Confucian tradition of filial piety and respect bordering on worship for one’s elders put us in the enviable position of demigods to whom the two younger generations in our group kowtowed and gave preference and primacy. Add to that the attentive care of the accompanying aunt of the family, attentive to every need of ours despite the absolute language barrier between us, who fits in the group rather well socially and chronologically, being of an age to be our daughter had we started procreating early, and you have a perfect setup for an enjoyable family vacation in the natural wonders of this beautiful region known to the Chinese as The Land of Eternal Spring.

This time around, our second visit to China, both times as guests of Michael and Limie Jiang, friends and former associates of our son, has a different flavor altogether. On our first visit our itinerary was planned as a sightseeing tour for visiting foreigners. This time we are joining the Jiangs on their holiday, seeing China as the Chinese see it. Originally the plan was to tour the more exotic Xinjiang but the outbreak of violent ethnic clashes in the region caused the travel agency to cancel all scheduled tours of the area for the summer. Our hosts switched their vacation destination to Yunnan and we followed suit. They must have taken our preference for rural environs into consideration for we wound up joining a busload of middle-class Shanghiese to a series of rural charming localities in Yunnan with a focus on the province’s exotic minority groups. The full exoticism of China having faded after our one-month long first tour, we were now looking at the matter as if through Chinese eyes, sharing our hosts’ experience and figuring things the way they do.

On the whole, most Chinese seem to deal with life as if they were totally neutral in terms of internal politics; The Communist Party runs the show and ‘we’ all trust in the ability of the leaders to make the right decisions. If political meddling is left alone, as it most certainly it was in the case of everyone we spoke to or associated with on this trip, China can be experienced as a most citizen-friendly system. For example, one is hardly aware of the existence of the traffic police. The speed and slalom-driving style of our bus driver combined with his minority ethnicity would have earned him a long rest in the slammer in an uptight legalistic system with ‘minority sensibilities’ like Israel’s. And at least on one occasion we associated socially with few village-level officials and they seemed like very decent people, not the sleaze balls they usually are in my community.

Yunnan had enough negative attributes to alienate me had I heard about it from a distance: Its financial prosperity derives mainly from its tobacco farming, a fact alone sufficient to dismay a public health hardliner like me. Add to that the indisputable fact that it is the world capital of mushrooms, the façade of many a house along our travel rout being decorated with murals of every shape and type of mushroom that exists from toadstools to the massive tree-leaf variety adorning the dilapidated trunks of old trees. Not that I have a gripe in principle with mushroom growing. It is rather a personal matter: It has taken me and my gastroenterologist colleague the better part of the last two years to discover the cause of my frequent intestinal obstruction-like attacks. Despite a most thorough work-up with multiple blood, urine and stool analysis and all the imaging procedures at the disposal of modern medicine requiring multiple technicians to assail my innards with their dredging equipment and contrast materials, the explanation remained a mystery. Till my village friend, Toufiq, overdid his hospitality routine with two cook-ups of a favorite dish of his, broccoli and mushrooms, and noticed that both times I started wreathing with intestinal colic an hour after the delicious meal. On further experimentation I confirmed his suspicion of a newly acquired sensitivity to mushrooms, formerly one of my favorite dishes, what with its zero calorie count and its old village romantic image as ‘the meat dish of the poor.’

And Yunnan has snakes, the curse that has inhabited my wife’s worst nightmares since ever she left snake-free Hawaii. Dali was the capital of a proud and separate nation from China till the Moguls conquered it some seven centuries ago. Today it is a major destination of internal tourism with a unique and engaging ambiance and a major Buddhist shrine, the Santasi (Three Pagoda) Temple. While stopping for a lunch break, we ventured to a visibly imposing old Pagoda, realizing that we lacked the time for a full visit to the Santasi Temple. Our taxi driver gave us the insiders’ scoop: It was named the Snake Pagoda in honor of the town’s legendary hero famed for ridding it of a massive snake that had menaced the farmers in the region for years, sacrificing his own life in the process. But with the dominance of the Three-Pagoda temple this one has fallen to disrepair and neglect. As we arrived to the out of-the-way compound the gate was barred with a length of bamboo pole which Michael pushed to the side. As we alighted from the car and headed to the abandoned structure at the far end of the enclosure, a woman we thought must be blind emerged from an equally ancient home to the side and came toward us swishing a long and thin bamboo stick on the surface of the ground overgrown with wild grass and bramble. She warned us not to go any further without the use of a similar stick; the grass was thoroughly infested with cobras. We beat a quick retreat.

In village after beautiful village in the green hilly countryside we came to appreciate the enviable Feng Shui geo-positioning of such communities with the requisite mountain behind it to the north, a river in front to the south and fertile fields on both sides. It is hard not to see the views as a series of brush strokes by a giant master artist. Houses are preferably oriented with the same plan as well, though China’s cities’ overcrowding has done away with such considerations in so many public housing divisions, not to mention those of the slum we found ourselves in late one night.

But that came later. In Yunnan our tour guide, himself a colorful member of a colorful local minority, went on for hours at end about what a great place the province was: It doesn’t take much imagination to see the outline of China’s map as a chicken. Yunnan corresponds with the part that lays the eggs. And what golden eggs it does produce, including 80% of China’s famed leaders and one third of China’s tax revenues, mostly from Dali’s tobacco agriculture. Dali’s unique historical grandeur and its long record of resistance to Mongol invaders was transmitted to us diluted and contracted down through translation. What seemed to enthuse our tour guide even more was the long spiel he gave about Tibet. He even sang a song allegedly written by the sixth Dalai Lama whom he informed us was a dandy and a womanizer. Though the man, a deity to his people, lived before air travel was known to man, the song spoke of how sweet it was to land from the air into Lhasa’s airport. Our guide proceeded to be down on Tibet picturing it as a dead-end stinking hole of little saving graces. It sounded like the man had a grudge against Tibet and its people, perhaps part of an inter-minority feud or something.

In Lejiang we witnessed the cultural edifices of the Naxi and the historical old city that has been granted the status of a World Heritage Site by UNISCO. The Naxi minority has the distinction of being a matriarchal polygamist society and, like the Tibetans, several brothers can share the same wife or vise versa. And they have the only living hieroglyphic written language in the world. Lejiang, their capital, has an endearing mix of natural beauty stemming from the layout of the ancient market town around a branching tame river together with a delicately reconstructed walls, waterwheels and cascading stone houses down the side of the hill that have been refashioned into tourist facilities. Somehow, the touristic hype doesn’t diminish the ancient town’s charm, thus turning it into the Chinese honeymooners’ Mecca. We walked along the riverbank one evening and soaked in some of the loud western music blaring out of the congested bars and the gaiety of the raucous nightlife and appreciated the magic of it all: a capital of exoticism, history, and joyful youthfulness. Somehow it symbolizes the stored regenerative energy of the Chinese people, their ongoing burst of reclaiming their history and their flourishing promise.

Then there were the other natural wonders of the high mountains of the region: The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with its live glaciers and the Pu Dacuo Natuional Park, fashioned to match in its scenery and size that of Yellowstone Park in the Rockies. Here again, it seems, generalizing is of the essence: The majority of the thousands of internal tourists took the advice of the guide, rented a full-length warm coat and purchased a mini oxygen tank for the trek. We did neither and walked a total of over seven kilometers with little distress from the low temperature or the thin air. This led me to accuse my fellow internal tourists of innocent consumerism: a guide interested in his kickback from a store recommends an item and everyone falls for the trick. That wouldn’t have happened with most of your hard boiled American tourists. Yet the Chinese rightly pride themselves on their hardiness and endurance, witness the heroic Long March of which we were reminded on more occasions than one whenever we crossed a bridge or narrow pass where the Liberation Army crossed.

In Shangri-La, another exotic town granted the name only recently in hope of attracting tourists, we had a full yak experience: We ate yak stew, drank yak yogurt and munched on yak cheese with homemade buckwheat thins. I could resist no more and successfully bargained with an old woman for a yak bone inscribed with some Naxi blessings in Naxi hieroglyphic script. From another woman I bought a yak horn fossil at a fifth of the asking price in full expectation of it being a fake.

For a full week I travelled next to a man whose face looked quite familiar. His very short stature and disproportioned arms added to the sense of familiarity though I couldn’t quite place the character. Till my wife made a comment and it clicked: Indeed he was a spitting image of Yitzhak Shamir, the underground leader of the Stern Gang during the British Mandate destined to become Israel’s prime minister. Except that this one spat in Chinese. It was on our long walk through the Pu Dacuo National Park, shortly before the near full eclipse of the sun gave added magic to the nature scene around us, a lush expansive meadow with a huge lake all in the midst of a thick green forest. A fellow traveler with minimal English fluency asked where I was from. When I answered she and half a dozen other hikers in their long red coats and with their oxygen tanks hanging from their elbows failed to recognize any of the names I mentioned: Nazareth, Palestine, Israel, Gaza, and Jerusalem, When I said ‘The Holy Land’ she smiled widely and explained to her group including my bus neighbor with the familiar face: “Holland!”

That is when my wife said: “At least he should know; he looks like Shamir.” In fact I was happy to be away from it all, to be free of the fatal pull of the black hole named Israel/ Palestine. I was cut off from the internet and engulfed by masses that never even heard of my homicidal background. Only on one occasion a learned and well-to-do man who hosted our friends, and us by extension, seemed familiar with Middle East issues. He recalled marching in his college days in demonstrations in support of ‘the Palestinian man with the funny headdress.’ He then posed the challenging question to me of: “Why is peace evading you in the Middle East for so long?”
Not wanting to spoil the party’s dinner or to burden my friends with the job of translating a long soliloquy, I tried to be very brief:
“The inalienable rights of the Palestinians have been totally trampled by Israel which feels free to do what it wants because the USA, the strongest player in the international arena, has given it full and blind support. Neither side is willing to compromise to the degree demanded by the other. The Palestinians ask for justice and recognition and Israel asks for them to disappear as a people. It is time China stepped in to put an end to the only colonial project still in progress in today’s world.”
Perhaps I even put it more concisely. Discussion ended with the serving of the soup.

In Kunming we had an unplanned visit with a Muslim family, a young couple who had just opened a soft drink and ice cream shop and their mother who hovered around the tiny shop with her hijab style dress and offered sunflower seeds to waiting customers. Like most Muslims in the region she was a member of the Ma, knew herself to be a Muslim, and recognized the Arabic script prayer affixed above the door of the shop when I read it but couldn’t read herself. The whole family seemed pleased to have us visit the shop and may have taken it as a good omen to have a Muslim from the land of al-Aqsa mosque enter their shop on its day of opening. We enquired about other children and she informed us that she had another daughter with whom she usually stays; the daughter had married a Li who is not a Muslim and has one child, the reason the grandmother stays with the couple so as to be sure it doesn’t grow up in the tradition of the Li. This struck me as a little strange given the fact that most Muslim restaurants we ate at offered alcohol and that the old woman was the only one I had noticed wearing the traditional Islamic garb.

We then flew back to Shanghai. We needed a little rest from the incomprehensible guide’s loudspeaker. The continuous raspy cacophonous sing-song of his harangues was getting to us. After a day’s rest we hit the road again, this time in the Jiangs’ private car, Michael serving as pilot, guide, translator and overall organizer. Our first stop was at a costal village outside of the city of Rizhao. The children enjoyed clamming at low tide after which we had a wealth of fresh seafood for dinner. The next morning Didi ad I rose early and took a walk in the village. The proprietor of the mini-beachfront motel we stayed at would not let us out of his sight. When we stopped at a small shack with a few rickety shelves stocked with canned goods, toys, cigarettes and candies he followed us in. We bought a food item, paid for it and then I picked up the shopkeepers abacus and enquired about its worth using hand gestures. The man dismissed the idea out of hand. I made an offer of RMB 20 and proceeded to show more bills till I made an offer of RMB 50, the equivalent of seven US dollars and a half. He seemed troubled but continued to wave his hand in a dismissive gesture. He offered me a plastic toy abacus but I insisted on taking the real thing. Didi kept asking me to stop it out of a sense of pity for the old shopkeeper figuring that he must have a deep attachment to the grimy old article. Our companion then stepped in, grabbed the money from my hand and forced it on the shopkeeper. The deal was sealed and we shook hands and took pictures together. Down the road the farmers market was in full swing and our friend came through again acquiring a handheld scale for me for RMB 30. On the way back he kept taking out the two items and showing them to the neighbors who beamed at us, nodded their heads in approval and muttered in Chinese. Our friend seemed proud of us and our achievement. But then he could have been making fun of us. Who knows!

Then came the absolute highlight of the whole trip. True, we enjoyed the sightseeing and the multitude of natural wonders and cultural fêtes that we saw so far in this exotic land. But we usually find the social encounters and sharing in the lives of other peoples, despite the language and culture barrier, much more meaningful and unforgettable. Add to that the common bond I automatically sense with villagers and their agricultural surroundings. Our hosts knew this and saw to it that we would be exposed to their rural roots in the most authentic way possible. We drove up to the Jiang’s ancestral village where we met Michael’s parents and his grandfather, the recognized community wise man and predictor of things to come who had built the house in which Michael grew up and which is still kept in its original solid form with the traditional stove releasing its appetizing smells throughout the house and its hot fumes through the traditional zigzag air vent that runs under the brick bed stand.

The gracious parents who divide their time between this traditional village dwelling of the aging wise grandfather and their city apartment had arranged for us to visit two neighbors and to the fields so as to appreciate the life of average villagers still engaged in farming, in building their families, and in modernizing their homes. Our estimate of the cost of some of the upscale new bedroom sets that we saw ran up to ten fold of the actual price. Yet the grandfather’s storage rooms had such a variety of used tools, stoneware, pots and pans that I found it even more enticing for the constant clicking of my camera.

Then came the wedding party to which the good father had arranged an invitation for us. He advised us about what is expected from us as honor guests, about the box of sweets and the amount of the monitory gift placed in a red envelope that we should present to the groom (RMB 800 and not 1000 because of the good luck associated with number 8), and about the speech I should make. First we joined the bride’s family, took group pictures with them, partook of the food and drink at the joyfully decorated home, and then had our car decorated as well and drove as part of the bride’s entourage. As she stepped into her car, assisted by two elder uncles and welcomed by the groom’s family representative, her sisters and other family members proceeded to load her car and other accompanying ones with traditional presents of silken pillows and bed-covers and other household items. The strangest items however were the various sizable animal forms and dragons and the smallish decorative flowers all fashioned out of baked dough, part of which was forced upon us at the end of the formal proceedings as mementos from the auspicious occasion.

Every step of the bride, and later on of the groom, was guided by the professional wedding director and recorded by the professional photographer, the two outsiders (except for us) in the whole process. We first drove to a city park on the way to the grooms village some 15Km away. There the wedding director insisted on having us pose with the bridal couple for one photo after the other. It was rather embarrassing but we took it all in our stride and clowned our way through it all.

As the bridal entourage arrived at the groom’s village the real excitement began: The entrance of the village was decorated with a red inflated plastic arch in the shape of a dragon. As the bride alighted from her car various family members, hers and the groom’s, tended to her every movement including putting her red sandals on her feet as she stepped out on the red carpet, crossing under the arch to trumpet music and the tremendous explosive sound of fireworks and of the dozen canon shots spreading confetti over her head as she advanced supported on the arm of the groom. Every few steps she would slow down while few village men rushed to grab the length of red carpet that she had cleared and run with it to cover another few meters of the dirt road ahead of her. Till the party arrived to the groom’s family home and the groom was instructed to carry her up the ramp which he did despite the incessant heckling and blocking of his older brother. It was all done with much laughter, gaiety and applause of the younger generation of villagers. The parents-in-law had been seated on two chairs in the courtyard of their house. And the wedding organizer proceeded to cheer the bride on and instruct and quiz her on her feelings toward the new parents. After this formal greeting I was introduced to the crowd and asked to give a word of blessing to the bridal couple which I managed to do hoping that it would sound better in translation than it sounded in English. Finally the bridal couple was put through an entertaining set of exercises including eating a length of noodle each starting at one end and advancing till their teeth touched and downing a drink each simultaneously while ones arm is looped around the other’s neck. The organizer continued with more such acrobatics after leading the couple to their bridal bed having them sit cross-legged and facing each other while family children and women crowded the tiny bedroom giggling and screaming with delight.

At this point we were led out to the adjacent village communal facility where the festive feast was being served. But not before the groom’s brother led us to the family’s pigpen where we were introduced to the siblings of the one we were about to be served. We sat in the special room with only two tables and not in the larger one where most of those attending crowded. One of the two tables was for the elders of the groom’s and the bride’s families. On our table we were joined by such honor guests as the young elected village secretary, and the regional interior ministry official as well as a couple of local venerable former officials who proceeded to relate to us through our good translator their record of service to their community and nation. Michael’s father joined the same table but did not mention his record of service. Immediately after his graduation from college he was assigned to a job in a far away province where he served till age forty, able to see his young wife and children only once a year. At one point I brought up the subject of minorities and heard a series of mild objections to the central government’s policies of positive discrimination such as exempting minorities from the one-child limit on reproduction or the higher priority for minority students at college.

As the thirty-plus course feast proceeded we were toasted again and again, each fellow celebrant insisting on a series of three drinks; one for the bridal couple, one for us the honor guests, and one for whatever the occasion called to his or her mind. I labored under the influence to find an appropriate toast that would reflect my admiration for all these guys’ record of service and at the same time include me. I could neither toast ‘our’ countries’ minority policies nor ‘our’ record of service to ‘our’ countries. At last I found the courage to stand up and toast their record of service to their country. It left a bitter taste in my mouth though it was the only glass I emptied to the end as they had been demanding from me to do in every toast. I have no country. It just doesn’t feel good to be an orphan, not to belong.

Perhaps I should seek political asylum in China, join one of its 56 minorities and see if that may not quench my thirst for belonging. Historically an American physician of Syrian origin with the last name of Hatim accompanied Chairman Mao on the Long March. Would that bit of history facilitate my entry in the system, I wonder? Would it give me a shot at the first spot in China’s hierarchy? After all, a Georgian headed Russia and a black is now the president of the USA. So why shouldn’t I dream of becoming the emperor of China? My plans for reforms I would dictate from that position are simple and straightforward: Ban men from rolling up their T-shirts on hot days, offer silicon breast implants free of charge for young women, and impose the introduction of the technology of the water seal in all rural bathrooms.
And stop all arms trade with Israel.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Revenge of the Colonies

With the revolutionary imaging techniques now available, neuroscientist are able to pinpoint brain activity down to the minutest of details. It has become clear that memory plays a much more significant role in our perceptions than we ever suspected before. It turns out that when looking at an object the image that one sees, as reflected in the visual cortex of the brain, is drawn more from stored memory than from the new input created by the light stimulus of the retina. In Paris, believe you me, I had the chance to verify this claim to my own satisfaction: Every which way I looked I saw Bridgette Bardot. True, more often than not, on closer inspection she would turn out to be African, Arab, Vietnamese, Indian, or any one of a dozen other racial imports from France’s former colonies. Yet the ravishing BB in the flesh was veritably there: the innocent flaunting of all that there is for a teenager to flaunt, the youthful indolent pomp, the reckless absent-minded and mischievous tease, and the silly abandon and cigarette smoking.

The colossal grandeur and opulence of Paris’s historical edifices, the glorious monuments to France’s past, the epic proportions and splendor of its public gardens, and the multiplicity and magnificence of its museums, all inspire awe and admiration of the cultural essence of this most European of Europe’s capitals. And yet, all of that is not enough to dispel the impression gained at first glance of a revolutionary transformation of Paris as a society, a veritable melting pot of France’s former colonized subjects. Historic examples abound of victors, France included, ravaging the capitals and cultural icons of the vanquished. The Taliban’s recent defacing of two Buddhist statues in Afghanistan was but a cruel reminder of the savagery and thievery of most conquerors. Need I mention what the Hispanic conquistadores did to the Aztec culture or the ancient Egyptian obelisk on display in Paris’s Place de la Concorde!

Paris as a whole appears to be more the image of its former colonies than the other way round when it comes to the varieties of humanity amassing at its center. It is tempting to conclude that the peoples of its former colonies have conquered Paris. And what benevolent occupiers they seem to have been, leaving all of its historical icons intact and preserving the essence of its cultural milieu by reinventing themselves in France’s image, the conqueror emulating the vanquished. It is the ultimate revenge of the colonies.

I had visited Paris at least three times that I remember: once as a starving university graduate touring Europe in a camper and twice “on business,” the business of promoting attention to the health and development needs of the Palestinian Minority in Israel. The very last time, I actually was the guest of the French Foreign Ministry in connection with President Mitterrand awarding me a medal of honor. As such, it was a little tedious and too stiff for my usual lifestyle, what with the standard official wining and dining that goes with France’s medal awarding fare. Each day I was accompanied by an English-speaking guide for the duration of my appointments. Then, when that was over, it would be the turn of my two ‘nephews’. The two brothers weren’t really my nephew’s but they are the children of cousins and they called me uncle out of respect. They made a living in Paris by serving as summertime drivers-cum-guides for “rich Arab princes” and/or their wives. The rest of the year they hung loose or did odd jobs whether at a garage, a fruit stand or a restaurant. The two insisted on taking me around and declared me more worthy of their attention and services than “the richest damned prince” that there ever was. And that was, dear reader, how I found myself one Saturday midnight in the company of two ‘dancers’, a mother and daughter team as it turned out, at a floating restaurant-bar on the Seine where one of my ‘nephews’ worked as a bouncer. The dancing was good but the pair’s profession was sure to be of an older sort.

One other highlight of that trip was my visit with Dr. Bernard Kouchner as Minister of Humanitarian Affairs. I was particularly enamored with him for being a founder of the NGO ‘Medicin sans Frontiers.’ After visiting him I was even more enamored with his personal secretary, one of the most elegantly beautiful young women I ever met. Very personable too. As she chatted me up in preparation for my meeting with her boss, several times I would choke on my coffee when she chuckled and winked at me. But that is all in the past. Now Kouchner is Foreign Minister and has taken on the task of clearing the international field of obstacles for Israel’s bulldog of a racist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. That is why I wrote him a letter chiding him for having distanced himself from the field of human rights and from the task of aiding the desperate and the voiceless, for opting to confine himself within the oppressive and exclusive borders of racist diplomacy.

To be fair I hasten to add that on the whole this time I found the French, the true blue-blood European French included, to be much friendlier than I ever found them before. I recall on the first trip to Paris being repeatedly ignored despite my wife’s usage of her practiced college French to get directions to the bank. “Ou est la Bank?’ she would twitter in as many charming turns of the phrase as she could muster to convince the Parisians to direct us. When that failed I took out my last dollar bill, waved it under people’s nose and shouted: “Bank? Bank?” and they still walked away. This time every one is helpful to a fault; gone seems to be the haughty dismissive Parisian aloofness. Old ladies with their poodles in tow would stop to offer unsolicited assistance to us, four lost-looking foreigners. If I ever doubted the efficacy of the European Union, this put an end to my doubts.

There were two pre-arranged meetings with Parisians as well: One was with a hippy and arty-looking type who gave us instructions to meet her “in front of the defunct movie house at the exit from the metro. You can’t miss me. I am a short woman with red dyed hair and green pants.” Sure enough she was there when we emerged from the metro station but she didn’t seem to be aware of our presence. Later, when I asked what happened to get her so preoccupied she explained: “That is a standard meeting place for hookers and their clients and I didn’t want to be taken for one, acknowledging every man that looked in my direction.”

The second prearranged meeting was no less surprising. We had arrived at the Resistance Bookstore to find a lecture in progress about the Algerian Revolution by one of its long-dimmed heroes. A couple of the people we ran across there turned out to be of Palestinian refugee stock. They inquired about our whereabouts in the old country. Hearing the name of Arrabeh, a Hijab adorned young woman became agitated with curiosity: What was our family name and did we know the Labans and who exactly among them did we know and was Bader Laban, the father of Qasim Laban, her sister’s husband who now lives in Canada, one of them? etc. etc. It turns out that she hails from a refugee family originally from Haifa. Her parents had fled their home to Lebanon in 1948. In the camps in Lebanon her sister met and married Qasim, the son of another refugee family, who is now an engineer working in Canada. I said I knew the father and his extended family. In fact they were next-door neighbors in the days of my childhood before the Nakba.

What I didn’t have the heart to share with the lady was the rumors I had heard in Arrabeh about her sister’s father-in-law. As a doctor I came to know Bader as a blind and frail old man who came to see me a few times to establish his disability status under Israeli law. The explanation he gave for his return from Lebanon was rather far-fetched; it was a gesture of good will by the Israeli authorities under the rubric of family unification, a lengthy process for which my medical report on his failing health would come handy as well, he claimed. But his miraculous return to the village in the midst of the confusion that followed Israel’s 1982 invasion of South Lebanon and the selective opening of the borders with it had sparked suspicions about the man’s past. There was hardly any precedent for this magnanimous gesture by the Israeli authorities toward an old Palestinian refugee desiring to return to “die in the lap of my Hamuli --the extended family-- in the village in former Palestine” as he put it. It was rumored that there was a death sentence issued against him in absentia in Lebanon for collaboration and spying for Israel.

I now recall that something seemed fishy about the way Bader insisted on seeing me after regular clinic hours to get his medical certificate and that it created a moral dilemma for me. You see, I had set a rule very early in my solo GP practice in Arrabeh to lighten my burden and avoid conflict of interest; I had decided never to accept payment for a deserved medical certificate. “I am here to treat the sick; I don’t trade in paperwork” I would declare to dissatisfied customers seeking false medical certification. “But lawyers live from that. Are you better than them?” some smart aleck would argue back to no avail. So, here I was being aroused from bed to supply a grimy old man with a sick report possibly as part of a process to cover his dubious past career. Shouldn’t I be skinning him alive with an exuberant charge for my services and in partial punishment for his treasonous past, I wondered?


The present trip to Paris was decided on the common assumption that every life deserves to be enriched by a leisurely week or two in the world’s fashion and cuisine capital so as to absorb some of its culture and savor some of its delectable specialties. A couple we know intended to meet this obligation, invited us to join them, and invested some six months in its planning. For every day of the two weeks we spent in Paris there was an hour-by-hour schedule with metro and bus details of how to navigate between the various museums, parks, gardens, churches and restaurants together with a plan B in case the original failed or we opted to split for a day. And for each sight detailed information was copied fro two dozen travel books with differing perspectives and historical accounts. Together with the general commentary about Paris as a whole, the standards of behavior for good tourists, the pictures of the Euro coins and bills, the range of temperatures, when to go where to avoid all the other tourists who, it would turn out, read the same directions, etc. etc. it added up to a sizable tome that we were provided gratis upon arrival. Never in all of my life did I ever have such thoroughly planned two weeks.

This all was the wife’s work. Like us, the husband followed the same game plan of his wife’s. Unlike us though, he came thoroughly prepared for all touristic eventualities. Take for example his top of the line miniature camera with capacity for video and still color photography, image stabilization, forty-fold zoom, infrared mode, and dark adaptability. It would probably pose in his place if he weren’t there at the right moment. And he had GPS in addition to being excellent in deciphering maps: you step out of the Paris Metro and he is automatically oriented and moves in the right direction. At the post office when we wanted to mail a package, right on the spot, like Inspector Gadget, he came up with the required masking tape and spring-scales. The man wore a 23-pocket jacket and had them all stocked with the right items. When at the Louvre, he led us to the original black marble column on which the Hammurabi code is inscribed in Cuneiform Chaldean script and had his picture taken standing next to it. That seemed to be the crowning event of the visit. He knew the details of the code and found the column awe-inspiring. I guess when you are that orderly in your own life and thoughts, you respect those who impose order on their surroundings, even if it means chopping few idle heads here and there.

If nothing else, I can now drop names of Parisian sites and cultural icons should I need to. I now have seen it all: from the Louvre to the Pantheon; from Notre Dame to the church where Dante worshipped when in Paris, to St. Eustach with its 8,000 pipes organ; from The Palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette’s old romping grounds, to the Concierge where she spent the last three months of her life and where she carefully applied her rouge before stepping up to the guillotine, and from Rodin’s garden to the bust of Dalida to that goofy saint Denis carrying his severed head in his arm and making a scene of it wherever he stopped in Paris. And we practically lived in the Eifel Tower, our hotel was that close to it.

And we visited The Pasteur Institute. In recent months we had discovered that Didi has a severe reaction to dust mites causing her an occasional allergic cough. About the worst cough spasm she suffered in Paris was at the Pasteur Museum, former home of the father of hygiene himself. It happened as we were leaving the mausoleum where he is buried. I could hear creaking and was sure it was Pasteur turning in his coffin. But it was only the old wooden stairs.

But to be fair, Paris is much more hygienic than I remember some of its poorer sections being in the past. And the metro system is such a vast improvement on that of New York, for example, though it still feels like living in an alien society with tunneling as its dominant cultural feature. Like Gazans nowadays, Parisians may well have descended from a mole-like branch of the human species. Not unlike moles, both seem to have adapted well to the subterranean conditions with so many of them fully at ease playing their music, asking for help or reading their papers. One destitute person particularly piqued my curiosity with her very proper upper-class apparel, including fashionable high heels and proper makeup, sitting primly in a respectable-looking chair and reading a book with her extended hand the only condescending admission of her need. Alas I was not alone to approach her and satisfy my curiosity; I handed her my change.

During the many hours we spent in the bowels of the metro a memory from rural childhood days kept recurring in my mind. Pesky moles were a common abomination in the small vegetable plots most village homes had for the family’s daily supply of fresh produce. I remember a neighbor explaining to his son why he needed him to catch a gecko and bring it back alive. Geckoes were plentiful and if you stood still next to any of the stonewalls or thorny cactus hedges separating the plots you were sure to see one popping out next to you to do its daily push-up routine. We used to think they were praying though they often didn’t seem to follow the rule of facing towards Mecca and prayed all day long and not five times at the appointed hours when the Muezzin called for prayer. If patient, gutsy and agile enough, a child was sure to manage to grab one alive. The animal often lost its tail in the process.

This task accomplished by his son, Abu-Salim clasped the rough-skinned animal with one hand and with the other took two cactus thorns and with them blinded its eyes. He then released the blind gecko in the single opening he had dug to the maze of mole tunnels in his vegetable garden. He held his ax high above his head and waited for the scared mole to run out of the opening and wacked it dead. The blind gecko doesn’t see the opening to escape and it drives the mole stir-crazy as it runs randomly in the unfamiliar metro maze.

The cruelty of my childhood neighbor was now haunting me as I sat at a bar-restaurant by one of the Metro stations in central Paris to savor a dish of chicken. It didn’t take me long to logically exonerate Abu-Salim of all charges of cruelty. He was acting to protect the foodstuffs that sustained his children. And he didn’t do anything worse than what I had just done to a once pretty bird. Also the Israelis do that to the Gazans every day. Though they don’t eat them, they destroy their tunnels in the sand and kill them in the process.


Whoever invented the axiom that all members of the human race need a measure of Parisian acculturation did not deal with the concomitant expense. The exorbitant prices of all aspects of Parisian life inspired me to develop a fancy dieting scheme. Potentially, it makes for a highly profitable enterprise for some ambitious and style-conscious young entrepreneur. And it is simple: The dieters are taken to Paris for a month on a tight budget.

There is no where better than Paris on an inadequate budget and with a developed taste for French cuisine to demonstrate the validity of the old adage: “necessity is the mother of invention.” Paris was the perfect place to try and shed the extra weight I have been lugging around all the last few months. Whether in the park, visiting a museum or using the metro, you wind up walking considerable distances and work up an appetite. But food is terribly expensive; hence your budget limitation has to be factored in. This brought back a quaint quasi-scientific explanation I used while still in medical practice: I had read a report by a Harvard team based on a review they did of the claims made by the various experimental dieting regimes and the claimants’ own figures and reported outcomes. The Harvard team’s bottom line was that there was no magic bullet; the deciding factor was how many calories a dieter eats and how many s/he burns up. I adapted this simple fact as my standard explanation in response to customers’ frequent queries about weight management: I would sum-up by alluding to the example of a bank account: “The calorie content of what you eat is like the amounts you deposit in your account; the energy you spend is equivalent to your withdrawals; and the weight gain is your savings. Let us see how much we can get you in the red within a month’s time.”

While in Paris it dawned on me that you can give a third dimension to the above two-dimensional equation by factoring in the actual funds to which you have access. While using the theoretical example of the bank account as a simile for losing weight you fall back on the limitation of your actual bank account as a compelling factor in such a plan. Whoever tries to implement my Parisian dieting scheme has to use something more binding than an honor system for it to work. I know because I didn’t loose much weight. Perhaps only the leader of the group should be allowed access to cash that s/he distributes daily with a heavy fine for cheaters.

Another compelling factor for losing weight in Paris is the clash in physical dimensions one is apt to experience in Paris, and I speak literally here. Accommodations are costly and space is at a premium. Hotel rooms in pensions and cozy bed-and-breakfast joints are highly utilitarian and functional in their design. Space is at a premium and a heavy-set person seems often to need a shoehorn to fit in some of the facilities. One is likely to have trouble fitting in his or her shower and on more than one occasion I would end up unintentionally changing the faucet setting of the water and getting a cold or a scalding gush of water. What better reminder of the need to slim down a little. Good thing I have never visited Tokyo where hotel rooms are reported to be even moreutilitarian.


While at the Louvre I had an inspiration: I have to reread Edward Said’s treatise on Orientalism. Hungry, exhausted and with my head spinning from running circles in its endless corridors, I sat down on a bench in the middle of one of the halls of the Louvre and gazed at the massive paintings covering the walls. After regaining a semblance of full consciousness I suddenly started comprehending the details of the painting I was looking at. It was another of Delacroix’s depictions of the Levant, full of violent and lascivious turbaned men and seductive lewd harem. It felt uncomfortable and insulting in the extreme: Here is what the average European child is brought up to assume about my culture, the images he or she incorporates into their subconscious as representing me and my world. It probably wouldn’t have meant so much to me and I wouldn’t have taken it so personally was I not looking that day for cards to mail to my four grandchildren. After all they are the product of Europe’s culture regardless how hard their American parents try to instill in them a sense of pride in their Arab roots.

Speaking of which I have to admit to an awful oversight. One of the Paris tourist attractions was not on our itinerary and when Didi suggested it I was too tired to pick up on the offer of another couple of miles’ urban hike. We ended never visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris and its North African surroundings. I learned later that the sight is underrated by others as well; few are aware today of the role it played in providing sanctuary for Jews hiding from German and Vichy troops when they ruled France. It came as a big surprise to me to read someone’s description of it “as a virtual Grand Central Station for the Underground Railroad of Jews in France." [The story is told in a 1991 film Une Resistance Oubliee: La Mosque de Paris (A Forgotten Resistance: The Mosque of Paris) by Derri Berkani, a French documentary filmmaker of Algerian Berber origin.]

One final piece of advice for the ambitious tourist in Paris: Don’t kill yourself trying to cover all its parks, all of its palaces or all of its museums. You need a lifetime for each genre. And if you have to visit one museum it should be the Picasso. It is one of a kind not only because of the genius of the man but also because when you walk in you suddenly realize that here finally is a museum that makes sense; it starts at the start, with his early years, and ends at the end, with his death. I didn’t see another with such obvious logic. What a fittingly simple way to celebrate a unique and complex giant.