Monday, December 7, 2009

An Open Letter to Reviewers

Note: This is a letter I drafted but never sent out. It was addressed to all the reviewers who had commented so positively about my book, A Doctor in Galilee, to seek their advice in how to reach the mainstream reader in the West. H.K.

May 27, 2009
Dear friends,

This is a message of acknowledgment, thanks and celebration.

I woke up this morning feeling all renewed and invigorated. Out of the clear blue sky came this realization that in recent weeks I have crossed another landmark in my personal development, that I have metamorphosed into a new species, a new genre of the human race, no less caring, though not formally recognized as one of the caring professions, than my formerly well-fitting professional identity as a physician, and a publicly charged one as per the definition and moral code of public health.

Like a new garment, it still feels less than comfortable, this new identity. Its fiber still feels a little scratchy to the skin. I have dealt with the international community before, so that I can't blame the make-up of my new audience, the cyberspace-mediated circle of international friends and contacts, for the slight sensation of formication that keeps me up nights. And this is not the first time I have experienced the pleasant prurience of a transformed identity, nor is this the most drastic leap of faith I have taken. The list is long indeed: from peasant boy to a city slicker, from a third-world setting to life on an American college campus, from a college student to a care giver, from that to a civil society activist, and from a husband to a father and onward to a clan elder, to mention only the most drastic ones.

All along I willfully sought out intimate and transforming liaison with members of each new group to help me mold into the new role. When I first saw Woody Allen's film 'Chameleon' it spoke to me movingly. I was still adapting to a civil society role while still fulfilling my duties as a physician to my tribe, a layer of new garments atop of my white gown. Seeking a way out I took to a mix-and-match style mining new and inclusive public health concepts to meet my needs and new outlook. And this was how I emerged to grapple with the nascent NGO/civil society sector as a promotional agent of health and community development on behalf of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

True, my past contacts have been limited to the international health and development NGO crowd with a smattering of aspirants to sainthood at its edges, those associated with the church-centered or church-funded charities. Over the years I managed to gain sufficient comfort with this latter kindly bunch as we played at reaching a compromise between their basic grounding in self-congratulatory charitable work and my self-serving development-based experimentations.

Eventually this tug-of-war ground to a routine and I took to clawing at the hems of the real holy personages, by their own internally consistent appraisals, such as the Holy Land Latin Patriarch and the head of the Catholic Dioces of New York, real people I met. Though I never gave it much thought at the time, I must now admit, with the insight gained through the powerful focus of that marvelous old invention, the retrospectoscope, to a degree of fascination with the real holy men of my days, those bigger than life figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Marten Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama. Transgressing against my monotheistic upbringing while still abiding by the Islamic tradition of limiting worship to a private affair between two parties, I did make supplications to these private multiple gods of mine. In the 1960s I even joined a Civil Rights march in Washington, DC, at the peril of being deported as an alien. More recently I knocked at President Mandela’s door but could only befriend his late fellow freedom fighter and Minister of Justice, Dulla Omar. On the second attempt I wound up making contact with Archbishop Tutu, no less godly a figure were it not for his narrowed denominational identity. That was also a major problem with Marten Luther King: his specific church affiliation brought him down one notch from full godliness. In my college days in Hawaii I served as the resident custodian for the Unitarian Church in lush Nuuanu Valley and attended their rather secular Sunday meetings. And while at Harvard on occasion on Sundays I would drift to the Cambridge Quakers’ meeting house. I found both a bit too theologically confining. And for a while I even dabbled in Zen Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama fails the test on a different count. I met him in person twice, albeit not in private. His American idol status blemishes his godliness for me; he is too trendy. You cannot have it both ways; no one can be a celebrity in Hollywood and in heaven.

That leaves only Mandela and the Mahatma. Here is a piece from my first trip to India:

November 30, 2003
Gandhi, to my thinking, is the man who deserves the greatest respect of all the historical figures I know. He embodies all the values that I subscribe to: nonviolence, compassion, activism, and humility. As I stood at the simple memorial edifice at the site of his cremation I cried copious silent tears not for his loss to humanity, but for the defeat of his aspirations and for my own inability to hold on to my own internal equilibrium and self-respect in facing the human calamity that is India’s poor and disabled beggars. I cry very rarely and usually when physically exhausted and emotionally defeated. This time I was well rested despite some nightmares and wakeful early mornings. I found myself overwhelmed with the sense of my own defeat and loss of purpose. I lost all sense of self-respect and outward defenses that could afford me some equanimity. I could no longer face the world. How could I lay claim to sanity in the midst of the irrationality of India or maintain my dignity in the midst of the squalor and the degradation of its masses. How can I ever enjoy a meal in the plush surroundings of another hotel without severing all moral links to the majority of humanity that India personifies. A time was when I felt I could discharge my inborn and acquired debts to humanity through professional service as a caregiver to my own narrow slice of the human race. And when the time came I acted on this obligation in Arrabeh and the Galilee. Coming up against India at this late stage in the game (age and career-wise) the myth of the significance of my contribution to the alleviation of human suffering is suddenly and starkly exposed. In the past I have seen poverty and deprivation in Palestinian refugee camps and in the slums of Cairo and it impinged on my conscience and innermost feelings. Yet, before India, I managed to maintain my inner balance and to regard such situations as controllable if not curable. India is of another magnitude, both in depth and extent. In India my entire world of morality collapsed on me. It stunned me into regression and defeat. India missed the chance of benefiting from the cruelty of a Marxist dictatorship and Gandhi and Nehru are to blame!”

So we are back to monotheism: It is Mandela by a neck. And now you know my real spiritual standing: I belong to the UC group. No, not the Unitarian Church but the Utterly Confused or the Ultimately Condemned if you wish.

But I digress.
We started with a message of thanks. And I wanted to explain my sense of renewal and self reinvention. I am now starting to accept, though rather tentatively and with much trepidation, my new identity as a writer, or perhaps we can just say 'a person who writes'. I seem to be vaguely aware of having entered the literary world, albeit through its backdoor. And it all is your fault and that of my editor at Pluto Press, Dr. Roger van Swanenberg. You all managed to pry that back door open just enough for me to sneak in. Or was it that you cracked a window open for some fresh air and I snuck in? Be that as it may, you have already permitted me to crash your party and, now with cocktail in hand I hope to mingle with the crowd and to circulate among the regulars.

Damn! Even that is not going to work. I do suffer from GERD (I will explain if you will allow me to step back for a moment into my original medical stomping grounds: Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disorder, a form of severe heart burn if you wish.) and I cannot handle liquor especially evenings. Perhaps you will allow me just this once to fake it and go around with water in my glass. You won't divulge our little secret, would you! I will even pretend to be getting a little tipsy if you promise not to tell. I will share a secret with you: I can fake comfort in awkward situations. Here is another piece from my past:

“Tape-recorded on 19 June 1983:
This was a challenge not easy to live up to. The visible level of affluence as I entered the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York, for example, threw me for a loop. The classy garden entrance, the posh carpets in the hallways, the modern furniture, and the top of the line high-tech equipment were beyond my wildest dreams. Any one entering that office realizes full well that its occupants have money. I kept looking at the lining of the elevator and saying to myself how nice it would be to own a winter coat made out of that material.

Traveling abroad like this to knock at doors and to meet with officials of NGOs I feel remorseful about the time and energy I waste on people sitting in their air-conditioned offices and making a living by discussing the misery and dying of others. It brings back to mind the sudden fits of anger I often experience in the midst of bureaucratic Ministry of Health discussions of health policy; I get the urge to throw all their papers at those hypocritical soothsayers and rush out to treat the Bedouin kids I know are dying of neglect or boiling in the throws of a fever that very moment.

While waiting in the hallway of The Ford Foundation I feared an inevitable confrontation between my sense of urgency and the deliberate calculations and prying questions of the young woman I was waiting to meet. Suddenly I felt panicky; I broke in a run to escape the impending disaster. I hurried to the men’s room and splashed some cold water on my face, recalling swimming as a child in the cool spring at the western edge of Arrabeh.

To pretend that I was comfortable in those surroundings was one thing. But to step outside and see the destitution of the homeless man warming himself over the building’s hot air vent was simply incomprehensible. It knocked me off balance. Fortunately no one accompanied me out to hear me scream my foulest curses.

The field officer I had hosted in the Galilee had scheduled a luncheon appointment for me with Oscar (Bud) Harkevy, the head of the population and health department. No need here to go into the details of the luncheon itself, though it still makes my mouth water to think of it. I was put through the grind. I had to justify our project proposal and to give a description of what life is like in Galilee and of the health problems of the Palestinian community in Israel while treading lightly on the subject of Israel’s discriminatory policies. Then the gentleman wanted to know where I was heading to from New York. Proudly I said:
“To Washington, DC; I am invited to the International Conference on Polio Eradication.”
“Oh yes!” he responded, “The other day I was talking to my friends Jonas Salk and Robert McNamara, the head of the World Bank, and we were trying to figure out what it would cost to deliver polio immunization to every child in the world. What is striking is the difference in estimates. Salk thinks it will average three dollars per child while McNamara quotes twenty-two dollars. I said: ‘listen fellows, you have to make up your minds. After all, even at twenty two dollars apiece, if you estimate eighty million new babies a year, we are still talking peanuts, you know.’”
That was when I choked on the fruit salad I was trying to down at an acceptable speed. Like the man I was, I managed to swallow my food, to grin and bear the slap I felt across my face. I mumbled something appropriate about few billion dollars and feigned the body language to indicate that it didn’t raise a pimple on my ass. Right now as I do this recording a braying donkey in the background is trying to remind me of what a fake I can be when pressed against the wall.”

So now you know me a little more intimately. Having divulged so much personal details to you, I now feel more comfortable in your company. I will now tell you where I am heading, ‘inshallah!’ And I mean the term in its original literal meaning -if God wills it- invoking God’s permission and blessing on my plans. (And you thought I was an atheist!) Of recent years Middle East bureaucrats in their dealings with run-of-the-mill customers have imbued ‘inshallah’ with a new dismissive and more cynical meaning: ‘If God feels like helping you let Him do it!’ Which is why a commentator with Latin American experience interpreted ‘inshallah’ as ‘manyana but without the sense of urgency’.

Now to my future plan, the original reason for this longish stream-of-consciousness outpouring: I would like to take the next plunge, to ask for your help in reaching out to the wider circle of nonpartisan general public in the West. Of course, reaching that crowd is the dream of every writer on his way to the best-seller list. But hang on a second! That is not what I have in mind. Selling my book is for Pluto Press to handle. What I have in mind is conveying my narrative, the particularity of which you seem to have appreciated, to the widest possible public through print or any other possible way.

You are a select group of readers, a group that makes a habit, if not a profession, of critical reading. I judge by what you wrote about ‘A Doctor in Galilee’ that you found it worth your time and not only because of your pro-Palestinian convictions. I want to believe that you judge the book to be readable on its literary merits alone. Am I correct in assuming that? That is the part I want now to hang my hat on. How can I persuade the uninvolved masses in the West to sample my narrative? How can I reach out with this different Palestinian narrative as casual reading and not as targeted political discourse in the first instance? Can I afford the deceit of imagining my humanity and struggle against injustice seeping through to the apolitical reader’s mind without addressing the subject frontally? At the risk of boring you with overstating my case, here is what I wrote a Quaker friend recently:

"Dear ...,
I presume you may have noticed the alerts I have been sending out about the positive reviews my book of memoirs has been receiving, though mainly in sympathetic pro-Palestinian media.

I am writing you personally now to seek your input in a complex matter that is currently on my mind: I know well the efforts of the AFSC to call the world's attention to issues of the powerless, to empower the weak and the marginalized, and to give a voice to the voiceless. So far, with my book, I feel that I have gotten my foot in the door, so to speak, with the Palestinian and activist media. Yet that is not the main target readership I imagined reaching when I decided on publishing my memoirs. It is the less informed and seemingly less involved western and especially American public that I had in mind and the book was fashioned accordingly. It is aimed at the average churchgoing American housewife who couldn't care less about the lives of Palestinians and Israelis but who ultimately decides their fate. I have now reached the point where I want to knock at the door of that crowd. What tricks of the trade can I use? What channels can I try to utilize? How does one manage to grab the attention of the Western/American mainstream? Can you help me work out a strategy? Or does that require a brainstorming session? And if so can that be done on the phone?

Also recently one of you guys wrote me after reading my memoirs:
“I just wish I could grab Carter, or Oprah, or Zogby by the necks and tell them ‘This is your assignment, bearing on the humanity of all of us, and you may not read anything else or become involved in any other distraction until you finish it!’”.
Now, that would really help! But there must be other less aggressive ways of enticing people to sample my reality. And you people are the experts on the matter. I am at your party to learn first hand what you and your ilk excel in - promoting positive thoughts to the world. Technically I presume we are talking media, all sorts of media, and it may only need what we doctors often prescribe – tincture of time. I consider myself the patiently enduring type. But I am also the intrusive type, not the type to sit completely still and wait. As I linger I stay involved. That is why I crashed your party in the first place. Good Muslims are expected to carry their struggle, ‘jihad’, against the wrongs of the world physically with their sword, and if that is impractical then with their tongue and barring that, then in their hearts. “And that is the feeblest of commitments,” the good prophet decreed.
See you at the next party.