Friday, October 16, 2009

What Is in a Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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