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.

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