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
Active Blog:

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.