Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Comment by a Palestinian Colleague,Dr. Mustafa Bargouthy, About "A Doctor in Galilee"

The following is the transcript of the comments made by my esteemed Palestinian colleague and friend, Dr. Mustafa Bargouthy, on the occasion of the book launch for "A Doctor in Galilee" in Ramallah, November 2008:

It gives me great pleasure to be sharing this evening with Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh, who is a friend, a medical colleague and a comrade in our long common struggle. Before I give my response to many things that I saw in this book I want to express my admiration for it as a work of literature with sensitivity and a great sense of humanity.

One of the most interesting aspects of ‘A Doctor in Galilee’, though it is no where declared in the book itself, is the fete it has achieved. What Hatim has managed to achieve in writing this book is to reflect and preserve the sense of the moment of things that had happened around him by keeping all the tapes he recorded and all the pieces he wrote in real time and then putting them in the book. When you read his book you don’t just read his memory of what has happened but practically you live the same moment as he lived it when he put it on paper and that is something I particularly enjoyed. It shows great sensitivity. It is an interesting documentation not only of the life of a person, a Palestinian human being, but also the life of a village and the life of a community.

Moreover, in the account this person gives of his life in his village and community, there is a representation of the Palestinian narrative as a whole. This is something that we miss a lot and that has to be presented repeatedly in different ways, if no other reason at least to create some balance in the available narrative of what goes on here. So though the book is about Hatim it is also about the Galilee. But by talking about the Galilee Hatim is practically opening a window to the story of Palestine – to the whole of Palestine.

Israel’s policy, and that of the Zionist movement as a whole, has always been to try and divide us. Over time Israeli governments and those who stand behind them, regardless of who they are, have always tried to fragment us. They fragmented us into inside and outside, then diaspora and inside, Jerusalem and West Bank, West Bank and Gaza and now into several parts of the West Bank. But after all these divisions and fragmentations, all the insistence on dividing us, and I do see it very much in the book, amazingly and ironically, they are practically reuniting us. That is because today we all are subjected to the same system of discrimination. The same system of apartheid that exists in Jaffa exists in Ramallah and in every part of Palestine. That racism is practically reuniting Palestinians. That is why when you read what Hatim wrote about the Galilee in the 50s, 60s, and 70s it is no different from what happens today in different parts of the West Bank. It’s the same thing exactly, just a different time –what happened in Jaffa is what is happening today in Jerusalem. And in that sense you read about the Galilee and you see the West Bank. I read about the Galilee Society and I see Medical Relief. It’s the same story and the same process.

And it is not only about Palestine; what attracted me a lot also is something that Hatim describes very well, the amazing contradiction that all of us, health practitioners, encounter. It is that constant struggle between the biomedical and the public health approaches. In a beautiful, direct and humane way, Hatim describes the constant and long struggle between the two tracks. He describes well his own search for the right balance between the preventive approach and the curative approach. He reflects in his book on this and on the irony of the difference between what people really need and what they want. The story about the patient that we find everywhere, who insists on an injection when he or she doesn’t really need it – is an interesting part of that. These all are the same challenges we face also in the work we do here in the West Bank. And the final conclusion one reaches, of course, is that health, as is well known, is not only the absence of disease; good health is a situation where people can have socio-economic, psychological and political conditions that are healthy. That leads him, as it has led us, to the conclusion that you cannot have a healthy society without changing the political reality. And you cannot change the political reality or improve people’s health if you join those who are perpetrating the discrimination. In other words, if you want a change, you don’t join the system of discrimination but you fight against it and you try to create an alternative to it. And that is exactly, I think, what Hatim tried to do.

The third dimension that attracted my attention is the psychological and moral struggle that happens in the life of a person and that Hatim reflected in his book so honestly. Hatim comes from a poor family in a poor community. Yet he became, probably, one of the first public health graduates in Palestine, from one of the best, if not the best, universities in the world. And he comes back “to change the world”, as he says. He then discovers how difficult it is in reality not only to change the world but even to change a little village. In attempting that you encounter the system’s resistance and the traditions, the deeply entrenched history and the old ways and the intransigence of so many people who resist reform and change. And then there is the account of the constant disruption, the constant flight between Arrabeh and Hawaii – going back and forth. It is something the reader is sure to enjoy because it is written in a forthright and honest way reflecting the author’s alternating feelings of hope, optimism, desperation and frustration. Worst of all are the feeling of injustice when harm is done to you not by your enemies but by your closest friends, and that is something that all of us face in life, of course. And I think Hatim tried to explain to us how it is much easier to fight the enemy than to struggle with the people around you who do not understand what you are trying to do. I think there is also an interesting reflection, which I would not go into now, about the relationship of local NGOs and foreign donors and how the latter interfere with the life of the local NGOs in unhelpful and improper ways. Probably this is a subject for others to discuss.

Finally I want to come to another significant point, one of the last points that the author reflects on: the issue of identity crisis and where the person is most effective. Again here we see a lot of going and coming between Hawaii and Arrabeh. And I want to use the words that Hatim wrote which is that in Hawaii you have order, a system of proper medical practice. Still, he says, “when I was there I missed all the empowering confidence and dependency my patients in Arrabeh had on me and I missed my involvement in the life of my community.” He could have stayed in Hawaii and continued to practice medicine but I think his constant coming back to Arrabeh is a reflection of the difference between living to eat or eating to live. I think there is a sense of purpose in the book that Hatim describes very well. And at the end Hatim decisively makes his choices. He suffers but he doesn’t hesitate. He exposes his suffering in a way that does not affect or negate his humanity. But he never goes back. I know that Hatim could have become a big specialist in one of the medical fields and could have collected a lot of money and cars and houses and made a lot of stocks to lose them in the financial crisis today but he preferred to be a Palestinian sticking to that sense of dignity, hard work and commitment. For that I salute him and his wife and companion, Didi Kanaaneh.

An Open Letter to President Barak Obama

April, 6, 2009

Dear President Obama,

In approaching the task of addressing you directly about a personal issue, I feel daunted by the abyss that separates the two of us in status and power. I am a retired public health physician, attempting to maintain a hold on his sanity and physical health by puttering around his garden in a Palestinian village in Galilee. You are the president of the nation most of humanity envies and desires to join, burdened with the task of saving the world from economic and political chaos and now from nuclear war.

Yet I find enough shared experiences between us to embolden me to speak to you as an equal in humanity if in no other regard. Like you, I am a product of Hawaii, where I attended university at the time your late parents did, and of Harvard, where we both received our professional training. I subsequently returned to my village and worked among my people to treat their illnesses and improve their wellbeing physically, mentally and socially with varying degrees of success and frustration. Unlike you, I came up fast against the glass ceiling set very low for Palestinian citizens of Israel like me. I have written a book of memoirs (see last below) that documents my professional struggle over three and a half decades. It would be a great honor for me if you were to read it as part of your education on the issues of my community and of our potential as a bridge for peace in the Middle East.

Now to the subject of my message, Mr. President: The newly-elected prime minister of Israel, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, and his foreign minister, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, plan evict me from my home and to take away my garden. These two persons and their fellow ministers were democratically elected to their positions and will use ‘democratic’ means at their disposal to legitimize my disenfranchisement as have previous Israeli governments done in the past. The difference is that the current leaders are explicit and aggressive about disadvantaging me based on my ethnicity. They have devised a way to blame me for my victimhood. They intend to ask me to sign an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, a state that defines itself as exclusive of me and my people.

Democracy, Mr. President, may be the best political system, but, alas, it is no guarantee of justice and equality when it is abused to give unrestricted power to an exclusivist majority. My community, citizens of Israel since its establishment, makes up a fifth of the country’s population but owns a constantly shrinking share of the land that currently stands at 3% of the total. Our towns and villages receive 3-5% of municipal budgetary allocations. Our infants and children die at over twice the level of our Jewish co-citizens -- and the relative ratio is rising of late. Our two communities continue to live in racially segregated residential areas often separated by walls and barbwire. Mr. President, I am not writing of the West Bank or Gaza but of neighborhoods in ‘mixed cities’ within the Green line.

You are the lead protector and promoter of true democracy in the world. As such, I call on you, Mr. President, to stand up to such corrupting practices presented to the world under the guise of sound democratic principles.

And as a fellow human being, I ask you, Mr. President, to put yourself momentarily in my position and consider how I should react to the racially-based transfer designs of these politicians. Here, in the person of Avigdor Lieberman, is another presumably equal co-citizen of Israel who calls openly for my disqualification from our shared citizenship because I want to be equal to him under the laws of our common country. He insists on having me step down from our presumed common stand of equality and kowtow openly to his privileged status as the son of a certain race and religion. Would you do that, Mr. President, were it to be demanded from you by a fellow American citizen, be he Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic or Asian immigrant, or even a Native American?

As an alternative, Mr. Lieberman wants me transferred out of the country though I have lived on land I inherited legally from forefathers who almost surely have better claim to descent from the ancient Hebrews than his. And mind you, Mr. President, my residence in the home he wants me evicted from predates the establishment of the state he wants to appropriate as his, and his alone, while he is a recent immigrant from Moldova. Would you, Mr. President, take a loyalty oath confirming your second-class status?

Mr. Lieberman’s best-case scenario for tolerating my existence in his vicinity is to have the homes of the likes of me re-zoned into one of the Bantustans he envisions, to be created and run by remote control from behind an ethnic separation wall. Would you succumb gracefully, without protest, to such a scheme, Mr. President?

You have to understand, sir, that I speak here of life-and-death issues for me and my family. Mr. Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister, attained his impressive status through an openly racist election campaign that featured mass rallies at which calls of “Death to Arabs” were standard. Would you trust such a man with your future in the international arena, Mr. President? I surely hope not: but the majority of Israeli citizens seem to have done exactly that.

That is where I sense danger, sir; in the assigning of my fellow countrymen of responsibility for our common future to fascist and untrustworthy representatives. Past injustices, and those were many and massive against my people, were never so clearly foretold as the ones the current Israeli government threatens to perpetrate against me, my family, my village and my people. It is with this clearly articulated plan of my transfer in mind that I call on you to use the undeniable prestige of your office to stop such plans from being implemented. I ask you, sir, to reassure me that you will never permit such schemes to be on any agenda discussed in the presence of representatives of the United States of America. I need that in order to be able to sleep, Mr. President.

With my best wishes for a peaceful and happy Easter for you and your family and for all of humanity, I remain,


Hatim Kanaaneh , MD , MPH
Author of 'A Doctor in Galilee : the Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel ', Pluto Press, 2008
Active Blog:

PS: Because of the limitation on postings n the White House website this letter was abridged by about 20%. HK

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friends and Relations

A time was when the range of my human contacts was delimited by the physical space within my reach; people I saw, shook hands with, spoke to over a copper wire connection, or at least exchanged letters written on paper with ink. I personally knew everyone in this crowd and could see their faces before me even when separated by the axiomatic ‘seven seas’ of Arab imagery.

Two new developments have changed all of that: I have published a book of memoirs and someone has invented the internet. Now I am in touch with thousands of people I can only imagine the color of their eyes or the shape of their noses. And they are a fascinating bunch to handle and to please as I am always at pains to do with all my human contacts. It is a weakness I can never overcome much as I try: Every human I deal with is automatically my equal in status and rights. That obligates me to deal with him or her not only on the basis of equality but also as a shareholder in my own humanity. Buddhists may recognize this as karma, Sufis as the Divine Unity, and Quakers as the light of God in each and every one of us. But, believe me, it is a burden not always easy to shoulder.

Across the cyberspace I am called on to acknowledge a debt of sorts to four separate individuals, three of whom are fellow Palestinians, I never met except via email exchanges. All four stayed up all night to finish reading my book of memoirs at one sitting. I know they mean this as a compliment and I am duly flattered; but I sense that now they can make demands on me in line with their inflated appraisal of my writing skills. And here I am, sitting at my desk at four in the morning, computer alight and coffee-cup in hand, trying to respond to their implied urging of me to produce more readable memoirs.

Just to balance the picture I will now bring up the opposite end of the range of my newly expanded circle of human contacts. A woman psychotherapist, formerly an Israeli resident of Tel Aviv, writes me from Australia. Having finished her Army service in her country of birth and with the insight of a psychoanalyst she started to see it in a different and disturbing light and had to escape the lies and cheating by fleeing to a new and remote country. Avigail now writes me that she gets ‘psychological hives’, breaks out with itching all over her body, as she reads my book of memoirs. To her also I owe the debt of responding across cyberspace with words to sooth the itch that I have caused.

More close to home, several Israeli Jewish friends, the type I have met physically and not only as email addresses, and I do have a few of those, have expressed praise for my book, A Doctor in Galilee. Yet, without exception, their words of praise have focused on passages in it that relate intimate family anecdotes, cute stories about my children, or folksy tales about village culture. One such friend did state that the book should be published in Hebrew so that “our children would get a glimpse of the reality as experienced by the other side.” This is a true reflection of the kind of relationship I maintain with such friends: our encounters are purely social, devoid of political discourse beyond such clich├ęs as ‘this government is for the dogs’ or ‘the violence is mounting again’ … etc. Both sides struggle to keep the tenuous pretense of superficial normality despite the mutual constant awareness of the strain that the Zionist nature of Israel places on our friendship. Lois Nakhli, a Palestinian friend, has a simile for this; it is the elephant in the room that no one dares mention.

I admit that the number of my Israeli Jewish friends suffered a rapid decline shortly after my departure from the Ministry of Health in 1992.Until then I had a good number of colleagues and co-workers that I took to be my friends. Upon being forced out of my position with the ministry I attempted to stay in touch with many of them through visits to the office or by calling them, though I had little purpose in doing so beyond maintaining the nominal friendship between us. Then one morning I looked the guy in the mirror in the eyes and said; "This is the last time you keep up this hypocrisy. Friendship is mutual; If they are true friends they should reciprocate and take the initiative in contacting you." That day I called about a dozen such colleagues for the last time. No one called back and I stopped my nagging. I still am happy to see some of them on occasion in professional meetings and they act duly cordial to me. But that was before I published my book of memoirs, I am not sure how they will act the next time they see me.

One exception, though: Only two days ago, while visiting with a long-time friend I was properly chided for misbehaving: Biatte Davidson is a retired gynecologist who is now in her mid-nineties. She is a relative of the Peterkowskis, our weekend gracious hosts in Naharya in the days when I had to escape with my family out from our village, Arrabeh, to get one night of good sleep a week. She is still with it and a pleasant company who can carry her end of a meaningful conversation. Every so often we call and take her out from her nursing home for dinner for the sake of the good old days. This time we drove to the Jarhi Brothers by the boat harbor of old Acre. The Jarhis are fishmongers who had fixed up an adjacent old-style room, probably constructed in the Ottoman days, and put some tables and chairs in it. You choose your fish from their catch-of-the-day and they clean it and roast it right there for you to eat, our favorite dining experience.

On the occasion of our last visit with Biatte I had given her a copy of ‘A Doctor in Galilee’ as a present. She now tells me that she couldn’t read more than a few pages in it; it was that disturbing to her that she sent it to Hanna, another Peterkowski gynecologist in her nineties who had passed away only last week. Hanna and her late husband, at the time the head of the Danish Royal Space Research Institute, hosted us for few weeks in their house in Copenhagen in the summer of 1976 when we were struggling with the decision if to emigrate to Hawaii.

Biatte shared with me her true feeling of anger at the negative overall tone of my book and harsh assessment of Israel’s influence on my community’s life. She admitted to having avoided political discussions with us over the many years that we have known her but thought the time had now come for that. She also told me flat out that she had thought that she will never talk to me again, but now that we called on her again she still finds us the best of friends and can’t help but be pleasant. She admitted that many a mistake has been made by the successive Israeli governments in dealing with their Arab citizens but that I should give credit for such positive aspects of our life as the equal rights under the National Health Insurance law. And now that we had discussed politics, she will get her copy of my book back from our common dead friend in Denmark and finish reading it.

The political discussion that we had amounted to her spelling out her memories of all the horrible things that she suffered under the Nazi’s in Germany in the 1930’s, of escaping to Italy and the rough time she had studying medicine there with all the disturbing incidents that befell her as a single woman with no male protector in the Italian chauvinistic and fascist society, of her escape to Palestine and the difficulties of life as an outsider in a mainly Polish Jewish kibbutz, and of the crime of the extermination of her parents at the hands of the Nazis.

I am not one to argue with a grandmotherly pitiful old friend especially when there was nothing really to argue about in what she related to us. I decided to defer any mention of my people’s functioning as surrogate Europeans to be the target of her community’s anger, blame or revenge. I may bring that up at the next visit after she would have finished reading the book.

And yet another friend who decided to drop the book after the first few pages: Nadia is a friend, a daughter of close friends and a close friend of my daughter. Though she grew up in Germany she knew Arrabeh and the Galilee as a child from her annual vacations with her father’s extended family and friends here. She particularly remembers her childhood playmates, the many friends and cousins, who would attend her birthday party each summer. She now finds the reality revealed in my book too harsh and is reluctant to ruin her fond memories by knowing the full truth; she prefers to stay ignorant and to keep her beautiful dreams alive.

That is reminiscent of Seth, my son in law, who has never seen the videos we recorded of the three-night-long village celebration we held in Arrabeh for him and Rhoda two weeks after their Central Park wedding in New York. He knows it can never be as beautiful as the memory he holds in his head and heart. He thinks he may watch those videos with his grandchildren when they arrive.

Memories are a form of malleable reality, thanks to our ability to highlight and expand certain aspects of it and nearly erase others. That dawned on me again the other night as I chatted with an elder neighbor while sitting in the Diwan to receive condolences after the burial of a common distant cousin. He started reminiscing about the good old days and what nice neighbors my parents were to his family. He started by reminding me, in whispers as is appropriate to the occasion, that my sister Jamileh was also his sister; when he was only a few months old, his late mother fell ill and stopped producing milk while my late mother was still breastfeeding her two-year old daughter. After consulting with my late father she decided to wean her own daughter and breastfed her neighbor’s baby till he could take solid foods. “Where can you find that sort of kindness nowadays? I would be dead and buried if it had happen these days.”

I moved closer and prompted Falah for more.
“Your late father was the personification of honesty and neighborliness. Shortly after el-ihtilal -the occupation, the local usage for the 1948 Nakba- one of our cousins accused me of owning a gun that was found in a cave in our land, right there where my son’s house now stands. It turned out actually to belong to the accuser himself; someone else ratted on him and he, may he roast in hellfire, blamed me. The military governor was holding court in the olive fields to the west of the village, in Said el-Khalil’s almond field, to be exact. They dragged me there in the evening and tried to get me to admit to owning the gun that I had never touched or seen before. When I refused to admit to the false accusation an Arabic speaking soldier took me aside and offered me a bargain; he wanted me to be on the look-out for weapons and smugglers in the village and in exchange he would release me. I refused and they set the dogs on me. I kept saying to them ‘I am a farmer and the son of farmers. Ask me about land, about ploughs and whose threshing board is the fittest in the village and I will tell you.’ They wouldn’t listen and their dogs tore my clothes off completely. They then tied me to the trunk of an olive tree naked and bleeding from so many dog bites all over my body. Here you can see the scars on my arm!” and he lifted his shirtsleeve to show me. “Eventually they let me go and someone from the Nassar family saw me and brought me water and a’aba - the traditional woolen tunic men wear over their clothes for warmth and as a symbol of status – and I limbed home in the early hours of the morning to find the gate to our courtyard bolted. Much as I banged no one woke up. I then remembered that the gate to your family’s courtyard had a metal bolt, not the heavy wooden type that was in use in those days. I took a thin stick and managed to dislodge it and open the gate. Your father, Allah yerhamu – may god’s mercy be upon him - was still up reading the Koran. When he saw my condition he started crying and asking God to punish those who tortured me. His tears soaked the pages of his holy book. He swore he will never forgive his own nephew, the informer. Where do you find that sort of neighbor nowadays?”

“It all happened so long ago but I remember it as if it were only yesterday,” Falah continued as another wave of male well-wishers entered the room and conveyed their standard messages of condolence. “You see Hussain there? He is a grandfather no doubt. Yet when el-ihtilal happened he was still in his mother’s womb. His late father was not killed by the Jews; in the mayhem that they created after the English abandoned us to our fate someone who bore him a grudge waylaid him in Sakhnin’s olive fields and shot him dead. Hussain’s mother was astute enough to demand to be allowed to pass under his late father’s coffin as we carried him to the cemetery. Just short of nine months later Hussain was born and was given the same name as his father (a very unusual thing in Arab culture). And here he is already a grandfather. But I can still see it as if it had happened only yesterday. Time passes so fast! And it is always from bad to worse, believe me!”

I inquired about the mysterious ritual of a widow parading under her husband’s coffin in full view of the funeral procession crowd. Hussain himself explained the significance of the move. A widow who suspects that she might be pregnant takes the embarrassing step to avoid people’s ‘qeel-ow-qaal’ – speculation and rumors as to the paternity of the child when it is born. Everyone in the room knew at least one more such case, that of the recently departed Said Mustafa el-Daud, the son of a shaheed – martyr- from the preNakba uprising against the British Mandate whose mother had asked to take the same preemptive exhibitionist step at her husband’s funeral to avoid false rumors.

This all sounds distant and a bit quaint compared to current suffering of other Palestinians. Here is one example of that, discovered accidentally thanks to the availability of mobile phones. It illustrates the vulnerability of Palestinians in their current status as pariahs reduced to asking favors from world leaders for their daily survival needs:

While in Ramallah for my book launch held at the Friends Meeting House there, my sister-in-law, Pat, used her mobile phone to order a taxicab. The dispatcher started to inquire about who exactly she was and she hung up on him. Then the phone rang and it was the same dispatcher begging her to please put him in touch with Tony Blair; it was a matter of life and death for a young child, he said. She hung up again and related the story to her husband. Her tone of voice imparted a sense of intrigue admixed with halfway complaining and seeking her husband’s intervention and protection. Sharif called the number and proceeded to ask questions then asked us if anyone in the group knew how to reach Tony Blair. Sure enough someone knew the number of Blair’s press officer and this was conveyed to the man with apologies for the delay in responding to his request.

It turned out that the taxi dispatcher sensed from Pat’s accent in Arabic that she is an American and figured that she might be privy to information about how to reach the representative of The Quartet. The image that comes first to mind is of some PR wheeler-dealer seeking to engage a famous musical group to play at a banquet. But no, reality in Ramallah is much more sordid than you think. The Quartet is the group of four international actors, (the USA, Russia, the EU, and the UN) presumably pursuing peace in the Middle East. And Tony Blair is their envoy preoccupied, as indeed he should be, with efforts to get all parties to adhere to the agreed Roadmap to final status peace. Locals in Ramallah have come to value his services in his mighty capacity as the one man that could obtain a permit for a sick child in need of treatment unavailable locally to leave their collective prison, designated in the Roadmap speak as Area A, the most autonomous of the three types of Palestinian Bantustans, A, B, and C. The taxi dispatcher knows that and he has a weighty contact within the Palestinian National Authority in waiting with sufficient clout to appeal personally on behalf of the sick child to Blair’s office, for they would surely know who he is. All that is missing is the phone number of that office and someone fluent enough in English to explain the situation so that Mr. Blair can obtain the permit from the Israelis for the child and its mother to exit Area A and seek medical care abroad. But Mr. Blair is not available right now and in the meanwhile the child is reaching a critical stage. He probably is away from his office, missing the one day a month that he keeps office hours in Ramallah. As rumor has it, the man is in Tel Aviv in connection with the one-million-dollar prize that the Tel Aviv University is awarding him for "exceptional leadership and steadfast determination in helping to engineer agreements and forge lasting solutions to areas in conflict." That means Gaza, I am sure, witness the lasting solution forged there!

The taxi dispatcher and his terminally ill child surely will understand.