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.