Sunday, March 29, 2009

An Open Letter to Dr. Bernard Kouchner

An Open Letter to Dr. Bernard Kouchner,
French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs.

Dear Dr. Kouchner,

The news that you have preemptively spoken against any official objection to the expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to the post of Foreign Minister of Israel distresses me. By making this diplomatic move in the service of Israel’s international image you have encroached on my rights and on my community’s aspirations to ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’.

But first let me introduce myself: I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a Public Health physician who, for nearly four decades, has served humanity through serving his own people by promoting their better health and community development. For engaging in these efforts, your late president Francois Mitterrand awarded me the medal of “Ordre National du Merite”. In connection with that recognition I visited France as the guest of the Ministry of the Interior. You were gracious enough to receive me in your office while serving as the Minister of Health, though my special enchantment with your personage was, and still is, as the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

As a fellow physician, I want to ask you, Dr Kouchner, to put yourself momentarily in my position and consider how I should react to the step you have taken: Here is another presumably equal co-citizen of Israel who calls openly for my disqualification from our shared citizenship because I want to be equal to him under the laws of our common country. He insists on having me step down from our presumed common stand of equality and kowtow openly to his privileged status as the son of a certain race and religion. Would you do that, Dr. Kouchner, were it to be demanded from you by a fellow French citizen who is an immigrant from Algeria?

Barring that, Mr. Lieberman wants me transferred out of the country though I have lived on land I inherited legally from forefathers who may have better claim to descent from the ancient Jews than his do. And mind you, Dr. Kouchner, my residence in the home he wants me evacuated from predates the establishment of the state he wants to appropriate as his, and his alone, while he is a recent immigrant from Moldova. Would you, Dr Kouchner, take a loyalty oath confirming your second class status?

Mr. Lieberman’s best-case scenario for tolerating my existence in his vicinity is to have the homes of the likes of me re-zoned into one of the Bantustans he envisions creating and running by remote control from behind an ethnic separation wall. Would you succumb peacefully to such a scheme, Dr. Kouchner?

Sir, you have to understand that I am speaking of existential issues for me and my family. Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, head of “Israel is Our Home” party and Israeli Foreign Minister designate attained this impressive status through an openly racist election campaign that featured mass gatherings at which calls of “Death to Arabs” were standard. Would you trust such a man with your future in the international arena, Dr. Kouchner, especially knowing that the man earned a living in the past through reliance on his muscle power?

These are matters of record, Dr. Kouchner. When you call on your fellow diplomats to accept this man as an equal and to forget about his announced plans for my further subjugation and for the infringement of my human rights, if not for my physical elimination, you are aiding and abetting him in his evil scheme.

As a colleague and a former acquaintance, I call on you to openly commit to protecting me before it is too late. I ask you to act on the basis of our shared professional dictum of “primum non nocere - first, to not harm!” and to withdraw your call to accept Mr. Lieberman to the diplomatic fold for that is sure to do me harm. As the founder of a humanitarian organization that recognizes no borders in seeking to alleviate suffering, you owe me and my community, as per your organizations humanitarian standards, a pledge to defend us against this man’s evil designs.

If you are unable to stand up to the degradation and injustice the man promises to reek against me and my family, then please, step aside, withdraw your diplomatic initiative on his behalf, and allow the many courageous and impartial souls to act on the basis of their conscience.

As to the license the chauvinistic far rightist government he joins takes in dealing with me and my community, I intend to fall back on my equally tenuous claim to camaraderie with President Obama.

With Highest Regards,
Your colleague,
Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH

Saturday, March 28, 2009


The olive is no match to the cedar of Lebanon in majestic looks or to the Atlantic Oak in grace when in full spring attire. Yet no tree in the Mediterranean basin inspires more respect and deeper love than the olive. Worship is no exaggeration in describing the ardent regard in which we hold the life-giving native plant that had sustained us through the ages.

As I arose from my bed this morning, early as if I were one of the good practicing Moslems anxious to perform the first of their five daily prayer rituals at the crack of dawn when they are first able to distinguish a black from a white thread, I had a deep feeling of disappointment at having received the news that my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, had not been shortlisted for the year’s Orwell Prize for political writing. I wished I were religious enough to beat a quick retreat to the mosque to immerse myself in pious blaming of my failure on Allah’s all enveloping will.

Disappointed that I had failed both Allah and George Orwell, I sit now as a supplicant to the olive. The closing chapter of my book does pay homage to a multi-millennium old olive tree. Yet I am perturbed by a sense of failure at having fallen short of giving the reader the full sense of the special relationship between a Palestinian farmer and his/her olive tree. Recently, this dawned on me again as I sat awe-struck listening to a Palestinian grandmother describing her struggle to stop the Israeli settlers and army from uprooting the olives in her field on the far side of the apartheid wall. Her picture clutching for life, both the tree’s and her own, at the trunk of her olive has become an icon of Palestinian struggle for their land, life and liberty. The particular enmity the settlers and the Israeli Occupation Forces seem to hold against the olive is understood by all to illustrate their conscious attempt at erasing Palestinian memory and culture.

A week earlier I had made a trip to Rehovot to visit Yoav, a Jewish friend I inherited in the line of family obligations from my late brother Mahmoud who once taught him. Yoav once mentioned to me that he knows of an olive tree with a more massive trunk than the one I had transplanted to my front yard. He challenged me to come, see and compare. It turned out to be an amazing specimen in the fields of an Italian monastery near Beit-Jammal in the Jerusalem hills. True, its gargantuan trunk is larger than that of my tree but it had split open and a fire had eaten a side away. It may well be older than mine and age may take precedence over beauty but I would never consider a swap.

The missing side of this other ancient tree has been replaced by a spry shoot, a decade or two old that has risen sphinx-like from the ashes of the scorched roots. I was reminded of a passage in Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, in which he describes how imported pine forests replacing uprooted Palestinian olive groves in modern Israel have succumbed to disease. To everyone’s surprise new growth from olive stumps that have survived for over half a century in the ground has pushed through often splitting asunder the failing pine trunks, a botanical metaphor writ in the Jerusalem hills.

The olive seed is encased in a hard cover that prevents it from sprouting unless it undergoes a natural softening process in the gut of a bird. Nowadays olives are fed to flocks in turkey farms before they are collected and delivered to specialized nurseries. In the old days, in early spring farmers would scout the hills for the wild seedlings to bring back to their land. There were known locations for this, the sites of nesting of wild birds. One such famous spot in these parts was the summit of Abu-Qarad or ‘tick hill’, a steep and rocky mountain two-hours walk from Arrabeh that has long been tamed into a Jewish-only settlement with a winding paved road, an electric gate, and barbwire fence around its modern homes and lush green lawns.

If one looks hard enough one can still find some wild olives among the boulders that intermingle with the tin shacks of the unrecognized village of el-Naim next door. That was one of the rewards of my frequent solidarity visits to the Bedouin community in support of their struggle to gain access to such basic amenities as water, electricity and access road, not to mention their struggle to stay put in their ancestral village against the state’s designs to relocate them.

The communal celebratory atmosphere of the olive harvesting season in Palestinian villages is a childhood memory I still cherish decades after my estrangement from active agricultural involvement beyond maintaining my showy fruit and flower garden. Still today I make it a habit every fall when not traveling to invite myself to the grove of a friend or a relative and to join in their family’s arduous labor of olive picking. I time it to coincide with their noon mealtime and may have secretly connived to have the lady of the household prepare mjaddarah, the local cracked wheat, lentil, onion and olive oil dish savored with fresh yogurt. Prof. McLaren, the famed child nutritionist, once told me that he experimented for years with locally-based infant weaning preparations before he came up with a most nutritious mixture which he was surprised to learn was nothing but the classic mjaddarah and yogurt. Locals traditionally consider it musmar el-batin; it ‘nails’ your stomach firm for the day. But I eat it for its satisfying taste not nutritional value.

As a side dish when dining out in the fields, it is customary to eat home-preserved veggies including both green and black olives. A standard joke mocking foreigners is about how they think that the two types of preserved olives come from different tree varieties and not two stages in the ripening process of the same fruit. Such ignorance of people who have reached the moon is always entertaining. A friend of ours from Galilee who married and moved to live in California tried once to share her special recipe for preserving olives with a neighbor. With her limited English she tried to explain that you add enough salt to the water you use to preserve the green olives till an egg floats in it. With her limited English communicating skills her neighbor must have misunderstood. When our friend enquired later about the success of her neighbor’s experiment, the latter expressed satisfaction with the taste of the product but complained of the smell of the rotting raw egg she had cracked on top of the container.

On such occasions, passing through the empty village streets –everyone is in the olive fields- I am struck by what an uplifting effect the sharp acrid scent of akar, the rancid liquid refuse from the olive presses in the various neighborhoods, has on my soul. My late brother who ran the perfect country store would close it in season and join everyone in the fields. When I would chide him for abandoning his shop he would respond: “I feel as if there is a wedding to which everyone in the village is invited except for me.” Ahmad was handicapped, his lift arm paralyzed by a childhood accident that must have torn his axillary nerve plexus. But he lived his entire life in full denial of his disability and often outdid others in functions that required the coordination of two hands. At the end of each day when the collected olives needed to be brought home in huge bags, Ahmad was the expert in sealing them shut. He would fashion a series of long thin spikes out of the suckers, the useless new shoots at the base of the trees, that he would use to drive through the joined edges of each sack’s opening to sew it shut. And Ahmad would join forces with the strongest member of the team to pick up each sack and load it on our donkey’s back.

The real big finale was always the day when the olive crop that we had collected for the season was taken to my uncle Salih’s press for the golden magic liquid to be squeezed out of it. We lived not far from the press which we called el-babour, a generic Arabic term for an engine, whether the one that drives an olive press, a train or a ship. Everyone would pitch in to bring the olives to the press: women carrying open containers on their heads, men sacks on their shoulders and donkeys heavier ones on their backs. The olives were piled up in one of the wide concrete-rimmed basins along the sidewall of the babour. We all hung around and waited our turn. My father would be torn between using his prerogative as the brother of the owner of the press to secure an early turn and his wish not to alienate strangers and loose their business. When our turn came, the two baddads, or press workers, shabby dress and unwashed skin thoroughly drenched with the semi-sacred juice of the olive, would start dipping their measuring devices, Jeri cans opened at the top and with hefty sticks affixed across them as handles, and delivering their content under the two huge rotating stones while keeping count so that they put aside every twelfth measure as charge for the chore.

As a child I would stand to the side and try to memorize the entertaining counting system they used, the same one I would hear my parents using when measuring out olive oil or wheat from our field to sell to a merchant or to another villager. The counting system relies on altering the Arabic words for the numbers one to ten to expressions of blessing the produce, the moment and the contract of sale to protect from envy and the evil eye. It goes something like this: Baraki, blessing, for one; min karim, God’s generous gift, for two, … samha, forgiveness, for seven, yella el-amani, God’s trust, for eight, and so on. Those alternative numbers would be shouted loud and clear to overcome the noise of the machinery in the press. Yet the same was done also in the calm of our house, the blessing numbers repeated several times each while my parents scooped out the produce to fill the standard volume measure in use, the ratil for oil and the saa’ for wheat. The party at the receiving end of the transaction often would repeat the same pronouncement in equally loud and reverential voice. The whole process had a ritualistic serenity to it and would put my parents and their interlocutors in a semi-trance not unlike the one they entered into five times a day to perform their prayers.

As a child and a member of the owner’s extended family my presence in the inner sanctum of the press was tolerated by the beddads and their bosses, my older cousins, who frequently kept an eye on what was happening there. I was fascinated by the mechanical magic of the process from beginning to end. Every so often one of the workers would reach under the humongous rotating stones and swipe a handful of the crushed olives to assess how fine the mush has become. When he judged it right a side outlet would be opened manually and the pulp pushed out by the metal side arms attached to the rotating stones. Donut-shaped flat jute baskets are filled with the crushed pulp and stacked up around the central metal rod jutting from the base component of a hydraulic press. As the pressure is applied with the turning of a lever the precious fluid flows into massive vats on the side. Jift, the solid refuse remaining after all the liquid has been pressed, is an excellent fuel valued by housewives for heating, cooking and baking of bread.

For hours at end I would sit atop a pile of jift, enjoy the warmth emanating from its fermenting innards, and wait for the moment when a mechanical failure occurred so I could go closer and touch all the magic parts of the engine. Babours were the only modern mechanical equipment in our village. On the very rare occasion when a taxi arrived from the city, we children would run after it and compete in sneaking a ride on the back fender till the driver would stop and chase us away. With the advent of WWII the British established a training camp at the edge of our village and we got the chance to ride in their armored trucks and even tanks, thanks to our mutual curiosity with so many thick mustachioed Sikh’s, nimble Indians, and skeleton-thin Senegalese conscripts.

What fascinated me most as I sat in my warm jift perch was the two piston engine mounted such that the two arms, ‘dancers’ the beddads called them in warning me to keep away from them, stood upright and alternated in their labored up-sideways-then-downward strokes to force the metal rim that transmitted the mechanical energy through thick leather belts to all the moving parts of the press. I would watch and watch till I would fall asleep marveling at the fact that those two dancers never once moved out of synch with each other. Still today, the hypnotic effect of the synchronous circular motion of the two pistons hugging the opposite sides of the metal rim and cooperatively moving it round and round provides a better remedy for my occasional insomnia than the flock of sheep jumping over that imaginary green fence.

There were no electric centrifuges in those days, only huge open barrels in the dark back area of the babour, for the mixed extract to sit in. Within hours the oil would float to the top and be decanted into smaller containers and carried home to be stored in large glazed ceramic jars imported from France where they apparently were intended originally for wine storage. As I sit now in my study I look out at one of the half-dozen jars that my family once owned and that I now display in my center courtyard atop a wine press stone dating back few centuries before Christ. Those jars were bought, I was told, from Gazan traders who transported them on camelback from Jaffa’s port to outlying villages.

The day we pressed our olives would always end with a gala celebration. My mother would have made a stack of msachan, bread soaked in fresh olive oil, topped with chopped onions flavored with sumac and sweet paprika, and roasted with chickens in our outdoor oven, the taboun. For the finale we always indulged in a treat of sweets, especially halva bartered from the country store for a ratil or two of oil.

As the oil was skimmed off in frequent consecutive visits from my parents to the final fruit of their year-long labor, the separating oil would diminish to the thinnest of layers. My mother would carefully and patiently touch her flat palm to the liquid surface, bring it out over a flat container held in her other hand and with the tips of her fingers massage the drops of oil from it in a repetitive milking motion. The process even has a specific term for it locally, yqaffi. The minor impurities floating in the oil gave it an additional bite, a burning aftertaste that I never ceased to appreciate. To this day, my favorite dish in season is fresh olive oil savored with freshly-baked flat bread and a few green onion leaves. Recently I have discovered that you can freeze the special fresh taste of olive oil direct from the press. I have several liter-size bottles in my freezer. Especially when Didi is not around to force a proper meal on me, that is what I eat.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Rumman – Arabic for pomegranate, originally the Pharonic name for the Iranian native fruit - has a special romantic ring to it in my heart. Rummaneh – pomegranate tree - is a pretty sounding girl’s name locally. One of the first tunes I whistled as a teenager was from a song that spoke of the girl whose ‘breasts are like two pomegranates crackling in my hands’. And romance is what comes to my mind when I think of Granada, a name derived directly from the fruit that became the symbol for the city and is still to be seen engraved in relief on the arch over the entryway to the walled historical fortress of Alhambra Palace. Granada is where Arab culture reached its very zenith and Alhambra is where one can still get a glimpse of the architectural and artistic sophistication and the heavenly sweetness that once was Andalusia. Rumman encapsulates all of that for me.

In Jewish tradition, the pomegranate features so highly that claims were made by ancient scholars of the religion that the number of the seeds of the fruit matches the number of its commandments, 613. Unfortunately the number of seeds varies between different fruits. A more disturbing recent development is the usage of the Hebrew word from the same ancient Egyptian root, rimon, for a weapon, ‘grenade’. Come to think of it, the Latin usage is equally corrupting of my romantic image of the fruit.

In my childhood I spent many hours in the shade of the row of pomegranate trees that my father had planted just inside the wall enclosing the courtyard of our traditional Arab-style home, a more spacious mud-plastered version of your standard Andalusian pension. In early summer we would gather the fallen dumbbell-shaped forming fruit buds, still decorated with red petals, assign them names and pretend they were human, children that we sat in imagined schoolrooms drawn with a stick in the dirt, or soldiers we stood in rows performing military drills or packed in trucks we constructed out of cactus leaves. There were also one apple tree and one lemon. Dropped fruits from these were less common and assumed higher ranks in our magic play world.

Just recently a visit to a Palestinian friend’s home in Ramallah awakened in me all of the romance and childhood memories I associate with the fruit. Our friend’s hobby is botanical painting. She spends long hours copying exact details from actual plant specimens placed under a special microscope. Of the dozens of beautiful paintings strewn around her workshop, the most beautiful was of rumman. It had various views of the fruit: whole, split open, or in the bud.

In the old days our pomegranates gave three varieties of fruit, one large with glistening red cover and extra sweet kernels when ripe, the second with golden yellow-green cover and sweet-and-sour taste and the last smallish in size with green-colored, celadon-like peelings and strong lemony sour flavor. The last was the most valued by my mother who incorporated it in her cooking at well. In season, no degree of pre-warning and repeated castigation was enough to stop us children from raiding the trees when my father took his daily siesta. The telltale permanent stains on our clothes and black fingertips from scraping the skin off the delicious fruit left us with little option but to fall back on our feigned honesty and admit our crime day in and day out till the end of the season.

Those pomegranate trees were older than I was. My father used to relate the story from the first year they bore fruit, when they were the envy of everyone in the village including a mentally handicapped cousin and age mate of his. This cousin could perform the miraculous feat of climbing over the high wall of the courtyard and steal the fruits. One night my father caught him in the act. As he tried to deliver a punishing spanking with his open hand to the cousin’s rear the latter protected his buttock with his bony elbow causing my fathers arm to fracture at the wrest. For the rest of his life my father accepted that as well-deserved punishment for his intended cruelty to a mentally handicapped person. Never again in all of his life did he commit a cruel act or say no to requests from simpletons.

Obviously, my father’s hard learned lesson was not the cause of the special regard in which villagers, even today, hold those with a mental handicap. They credit them with special powers, almost magical, mystic and holy in nature. Especially pregnant women trust the predictions of Mahel, another village ‘saint’ with divining powers and reward him generously especially when his prediction is of a male outcome of a pregnancy.

Those trees lived to see the establishment of the state of Israel as did my father. Two days after our area succumbed to the invading army the trees succumbed to the dozens of work animals pillaged from their owners by the Israeli army and herded in our court yard because of its wall, gate and location fronting the central square in the village. Having nothing else to eat for the period of their incarceration the animals stripped the bark off of the trees before they were trucked away to the army’s slaughterhouse. My father lived for a dozen more unhappy years without ever replanting the pomegranate row.

So, long before its antioxidant healing properties made the pomegranate the culinary rage of the rich, my family had a year-round supply of home-made grenadine concentrate. Now-a-days, each summer, pests, family and friends literally eat into our ample pomegranate crop. And we join in the effort with our daily breakfast cereal supplement and my after-siesta snacks direct from the tree. Just this year I discovered a new combination: fresh pomegranate and passion fruit; heavenly! And each autumn we salvage what is left after all such parties have claimed their share; we squeeze the peeled fruit and boil down the juice into a constant supply of concentrate for our use and for guest receiving at our home.

My first attempt at establishing my own orchard, while the home it now surrounds was still but a fuzzy dream, was to plant a row of pomegranates. I recall forcing myself to make time for the chore in late winter one year and suffering a major disappointment a few weeks later when all of the cuttings I had stuck in the ground failed to sprout. For years I envied my good friend, Abu-Ayman, who had pursued a successful professional career as a medical technician, rising in the ranks to head the lab in our regional hospital, while at the same time keeping an active lifestyle as a successful farmer who managed to accrue, by sheer persistence and hard work, more land in the village’s fertile Battouf Valley than the generous share he had inherited from his father. Since ever I started practicing medicine in Arrabeh I had dreamt of matching his work ethic. He married a traditional villager from a conservative family, a distant cousin whose fair skin, blue eyes and reputation as an adroit fine Palestinian needlework artist had made her the subject of fierce competition between eligible cousins before my friend successfully gained her hand in marriage thus outdoing all others thanks to his college degree and offers of gold jewelry by the kilogram. All through the year, day in and day out, come hell or high water, he rises at dawn and puts in few hours of physical labor in his land before he drives to work. And in the evening, especially in summer, he drives back from work directly to join his family in the fields where they eat what his equally diligent wife had prepared for them and spends the remaining hours of light enjoying the late afternoon cool breeze and the lovely audiovisual show of sunset and twilight augmented by nature’s own daily songfest.

To see Abu-Ayman and his ever-doting wife at work is to know the meaning of a healthy lifestyle. Here is this brown-skinned thin man in baggy pants who had just downed a meal fit for a camel, a baseball hat covering his balding head in the old visor-forward style, wielding a hoe and zigzagging at the speed of light between the vegetables he had planted individually with his own hands, whacking a weed here or straightening the direction of a watermelon vine there. And he is constantly mindful of the needs of the two goats at home saving greens for them and assigning the task of milking to one child or the other.

One spring day I had it with my siblings’ envy; I imposed on my cousin and brother-in-law at whose house we were staying to allow me to prepare a dozen pomegranate cuttings from his trees for planting. The next morning I was up at dawn and had a cup of coffee with my early-rising sister and her first-cousin husband. I grabbed my prepared cuttings and a hoe and walked energetically to my own field inherited from my farmer father. I prepared the holes with the prescribed distances between them, stuck the cuttings in, inserting them in what I judged to be the upright direction, packed the ground well around them and left directly to work in copy-cat imitation of Abu-Ayman. That day it rained and I felt happy for the prospect of life for my pomegranates.

For a few days I did rise early and make it to my land to putter around my first independent farming experiment and to make measurements of the land at the eastern edge of the village shared with my four brothers and to imagine putting a house in a corner of that inherited land. (It never occurred to me that any of my four sisters might demand her rightful share of the land, and indeed when the time came all four sisters happily signed the customary release papers relinquishing their rights to it.) By mid-spring it was obvious that all my efforts had been in vain. Apparently I had misjudged the direction of growth of the cuttings I had made and planted them upside down. Since then I have learned the way knowledgeable farmers make cuttings: you snip the twig straight at the bottom and at a bevel at the top so the direction of growth is obvious.

Or perhaps it was the fact that the cuttings sat for a whole day in the open causing the tips to dry up and fail to take root. I had learned a thing or two about that as well: locally everyone knows that you should wrap the cuttings in a newspaper, drench the paper with water and wrap the bundle in a plastic bag. A while back I discovered a more primitive, yet a cleverer way of achieving the same end using natural products only.

Dr. Ali Badarneh, my friend from a much younger generation and co-founder of Elrazi, the Center for Child Rehabilitation, is married to Maria, a fellow student of psychology he met at the Russian institute of neuropsychology famous for its founder the world-renowned Luria. They reside in Arrabeh but spend their vacations in Crete, her island of origin. Both consider it highly damaging for the psyche of their three young children to spend one whole uninterrupted year in violent Israel especially when a child is a member of the trauma-ridden Palestinian minority. On more than one occasion we have joined them for part of their summer vacation in Crete and befriended Maria’s family and especially her grandparents who, in their eighties, still lead an active farming life. When the old man came to visit his granddaughter in Arrabeh Maria and Ali brought him to see my garden. They acted as translators as I showed him around and bragged about the variety of trees I have. It was spring and when I described the special properties of one variety of pest-resistant and late ripening pomegranates, he got interested. He asked for a potato, pulled out his pocketknife, cut a length from a spry twig and stuck it in the potato to keep its base moist.

The following spring Didi and I visited Crete on our own. We wanted to hike the Samaria Gorge, reputed to be the home of the greatest number of native flowers in all of Europe, and Ali and Maria had no vacation. On one of our drives we came to a familiar spot where the previous summer I had made a scene by pulling off the road and climbing over a fence to eat some particularly luscious figs to the objection and consternation of my wife. I figured that rural Cretans would be as generous as Palestinians and would be certain to welcome a stranger quenching his lust for their delicious fruits. It is not only a custom but also a commandment to feed a wayward stranger. The prophet, we are told, would eat a fruit from the side of the road without asking permission from the owners. No hording though; just enough to reflect the evil eye from damaging the envied tree.

Now I recognized the same tree and broke off three small twigs from it, one each for me, for Ali and for my fellow village gardener, Toufiq. Then we drove over to Grandpa’s house in Arvi on the southern coast, stopping on the way at a store to pick a kilogram of potatoes. As we arrived we found Grandma down with the flu. Grandpa however was well and received us with smiles, hugs and all sorts of physical gestures of welcome. There was no one around to translate. I handed him the bag with the potatoes and the twigs and explained in detailed hand gestures what I wanted done with the contents expecting that, as the source of the wise farming trick, he would understand my purpose. A peculiar faint smile spread across his weathered Mediterranean face as he stowed the loot away. Soon an English-speaking young woman arrived and I asked her to explain to her grandfather that I needed my bag back together with a kitchen knife to shape the cuttings the right way. As she did he broke out roaring with laughter and reached out for a jug of raki and a set of glasses. He had thought the bag was a present we brought on the occasion of visiting his sick wife.

He took us to his field to show me how well the pomegranate seedlings started from my tree were doing. The source was one of many exotic fruit varieties that Kamel, my fruit tree advisor and source, had supplied me with. It was part of a deal in the best of our subsistence farming bartering traditions that came about spontaneously without it ever being openly formulated into a binding agreement: I took care of his children and he of my trees. He is much younger than I am, one of Toufiq’s few dozen nephews. When I came back from the States he was still in agricultural high school, a middling student with limited promise beyond the prospect of turning into the standard semi-skilled construction worker that most of our boys become after high school. But he landed a job at an experimental agricultural station and climbed through the ranks from weeding and ditch-digging to the head of the fruit tree section. He dabbles with developing new fruit varieties by bombarding seeds with ionizing radiation and has one variety of pomegranate named after him, ‘Kamel’. It has huge fruits with pinkish skin but tastes less satisfying than it looks promise. And that is Kamel for you; the year his youngest child grew to where he needed less care Kamel stopped visiting my orchard regularly.

A memorable story from Kamel is instructive in explaining his adaptive skills at work: In October 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada and at the height of the demonstrations that frequently exploded into riots and confrontations with the police, Kamel did a favor to a soldier. As he drove his car back from work he saw her standing at the bus station at the entrance to Arrabeh, obviously panicked and uncomfortable with where she had found herself. Israeli media had pictured our communities as the aggressors and a danger to neighboring settlements. Kamel picked the young woman up, reassured her, turned around and drove her to her home in the nearby settlement of Tzivia. She asked for his address. Two weeks later Kamel offered me two entrance tickets to the famous Country Club outside of Tel Aviv where the soldier’s father worked. He had received them by mail with a card thanking him for “saving our daughters’ life.” Kamel felt uncomfortable with the prospect of going to the country club for a weekend and thought that I may jump on the opportunity. He related to me that he had shared his story with his boss at work emphasizing his different attitude with a literal translation of a local expression: “You think all Arabs are Arabs. In fact there are Arabs and there are Arabs!”

With the exception of the dark-skinned variety that I exported to Crete, pomegranates are often subject to damage by pests. Last year I introduced a new fruit-farming trick I learned in China and it worked well. In October of 2007 when we visited China, while climbing up the side of the massive mound over the undisturbed mausoleum of China’s first emperor, not far from the site where China’s most famous relics, the Terracotta Soldiers, were discovered, I stopped to pick a couple of ripe pomegranates from a farmer’s stall at the edge of his field. Through a translator I learned the details of how and when to wrap each individual fruit in the bud with a thin translucent plastic bag. Later we were to see thousands of acres of apple orchards loaded with luscious red apples all individually wrapped in plastic bags. What remained was for me to figure out which was more damaging to the environment, chemical spray or plastic.

In my garden I used this labor-intensive preventive treatment on my pomegranates, apricots, apples, pears and persimmons. With the exception of the pomegranates, fruits benefiting from this modality of Chinese wisdom seem to ripen earlier but to be slightly more watery and less flavorful. But for my rumman it was perfect.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Palestinian Rendevous

Jordan is a less exciting country than many we have visited. Take away Petra, and Wadi Rum and you are left with very little to see. At least that is how it seems to me.

There are a couple of biblical sites, of course: There is Madaba with its famed mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of a Byzantine church; there is Mount Nebo, where Moses is reported to have seen the Promised Land for the first time after forty years of going round in circles in the desert, blinded, no doubt, by sandstorms; and there is Bethabara, the site on the Jordan River where John the Baptist immersed Jesus. But none of that is particularly exciting for a secular person like me, especially when in my case Islam is the alternative to secularism.

The whole idea of the Promised Land is a fairly unjust deal from my perspective. After all, the piece of real estate that Abraham’s God promised him and his descendents was the land of the Canaanites, my own ancestors’ property, myself being a Kanaaneh, Arabic for Canaanite. Mind you, history in general, and that of these parts in particular, is fairly flexible. When it suits me I can fall back on my equally valid claim to Arab ancestry. Arabs are the descendents of Abraham, albeit from the less favored second wife, Hagar the slave women. Her status as Sarah’s servant has been fixed in perpetuity in the West’s mind by the Greek-derived term ‘Saracens’ or ‘Sarah’s servants’ for Arabs. Still, as we Saracens say, “elli khalafu abouk ilak ow-la-akhouk – what your father bequeathed is for you and your brother.” So the Promised Land is equally mine by any fair judgment. Some smart aleck is going to come up with a legalistic counterargument about the inheritance rights of half siblings from one’s fathers’ slave women, or the lack thereof. You just wait till we, the slave descendents, get to Durban II; we are going to ask again not only for our share of inheritance but also for reparations for all the unpaid labors of our slave ancestors and for all of their suffering too. Though he does not come from a line of slaves, we have the ear of the USA president this time around, we hope.

As to the baptismal site in Jordan, you may forget about that as well; Israel contests that and offers an alternative location right at the exit of the Jordan River from The Sea of Galilee, less than an hour’s drive from my home. Considering the fact that the Jordanian site is down river from the Israeli one, it is more likely to be polluted. Sorry to disappoint all of you potential fervent pilgrims, but the Jordan River is but a thin stream and the Sea of Galilee is polluted enough to warrant a cautionary note from our health authorities to all picnickers on its shores. Agricultural settlements around it, including those in the Golan Heights, dump their sewage into it and we keep drawing water from it for irrigation and drinking (not to worry, we have chlorine!), so much so that it has gone way below the designated danger line. At the way things are going, desertification of both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is creeping at an ever faster pace, all in the good cause of ‘making the desert bloom’. Development is an oxymoronic two-way street. You can’t compete with Egyptian cotton if you don’t have a Nile of your own. Or, to put it in the crude village idiom, ‘you don’t fry eggs with farts’; you need a more substantive source of heat.

And the ancient schematic map in Madaba is less than accurate. Also Arrabeh is full of Byzantine mosaic floors. I probably am sitting on top of one right now. My next-door neighbor once found a well preserved mosaic floor in his front yard. It was appropriated by the Israeli Archeological Authority and moved to a museum. Byzantine archeological wonders are plentiful right here. They are worth no more than one visit to Madaba and we have already done that twice.

Petra is something else; it is a site worth a special visit in and of itself even if you have to travel from Patagonia, Inner Mongolia or outer space. We have made the pilgrimage to Petra twice before. As to Wadi Rum, famed for its sand dunes where Laurence of Arabia footage was shot and one of the reasons we acquired our four-wheel drive Subaru Outback, it is still on our schedule. But winter is the wrong season for it; desert flash floods are too much of a challenge for me. There is also the well preserved Ajloun Crusader Citadel. We have visited that one a few times before and we have Crusader Citadels on this side of the Jordan River as well. And there is the famous Roman ruins of Jerash in whose amphitheater an annual songfest is held featuring on more than one occasion my and many Arabs’ idol, Fairouz. But again this is the off season for the Jerash Festival.

So, if we go to Jordan, there has to be a better excuse for it than archeology or ecotourism. And we limited our visit this time around to the capital city of Amman, a place Palestinians give themselves credit for elevating to the status of a city in the first place. But both Armenians and Circassians make similar claims with equally valid historical reasons though you wouldn’t know it by their small numbers nowadays. Amman’s residents are over 80% Palestinians who arrived there as refugees in two waves, in 1948 and again in 1967. Palestinians are the clear majority in the whole of Jordan, a country reputed to have been created for the first time by Winston Churchill when, between two puffs on his cigar, he drew a line on a map, called it Jordan and put his Hashemite interlocutor in charge of it. Despite Amman’s vibrant marketplaces and some modern and new neighborhoods, many still doubt the validity of Jordan’s claims to proper countryhood. As a friend of mine explains, ‘it is little more than a bunch of people with a king’.

In fact we were struck by the absolute number of cars on the roads of Amman, as well as by the good condition of some of the roads and of the cars crowding them. We were informed that two factors could explain this change: the recent drop in vehicle sales tax and the wealth infused into the city’s coffers by better-off Iraqi refugees and returning Palestinians from Kuwait and the Gulf States.

What brought us to Amman is the recent discovery of a fellow public health physician who is a third generation descendent of my late Aunt Samiyeh who was driven out of Dannoun, her coastal village, in 1948 to become a refugee in Lebanon. Suha is employed by UNRWA and is rising in the ranks fast, considering her young age. She came to Amman for an in-service training course. Didi and I, with my sister and her cousin-husband in tow, crossed the border, a simple and well facilitated process at this stage of normalization of Israel-Jordan relations, to meet her. I had also to tend to some other business related to promoting my book of memoirs, ‘A Doctor in Galilee’.

Suha’s entry to Jordan is not as casual a matter as ours is. She travels on as a UN staffer and has to have a good excuse to gain clearance from the responsible authorities in three sets of bureaucracy: Lebanese, Jordanian and UN. She tells us that one outlet Palestinian refugees like her had from the near total incarceration as a stateless people in Lebanon was to travel to Cyprus. Alas, that has recently ceased to be available with the Cyprus’ association with the European Union.

Suha had studied medicine in Baghdad on an Iraqi state scholarship. She admits to a sense of personal indebtedness to Saddam Hussein which she attempts to repay with prayers for Allah’s forgiveness of his many sins. She thinks of him more as a cruel and super-strict father than a political dictator; red was out because it betrayed allegiance to communism and so no red was acceptable in anything you put on, not even as a stripe on a pair of pajamas. That must have been why he was the darling of the Americans early in his career when the Cold War was at its zenith.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Suha also owns up to having had a degree of abstract romanticism when it came to imagining Palestine. Till, as a teenager, she took a trip that brought her to a mountain top close to the western end of the border with Israel. Suddenly she realized that Palestine was right there under her nose; Acre, the regional center city of which her parents and uncles spoke so often was right there at the distance just before Haifa at the horizon. Closer yet was the coastal plane, lands that once fed her mother’s family, the Rustoms of Dannoun, and her father’s family, the Khalils of El-Bassah. After that trip, she says, her infatuation with her nearby homeland grew even stronger and her sense of belonging to the soil her feet never walked redoubled.

Again and again Suha repeated her special appeal to the four of us, her relatives from Paradise Lost: “Ihna akalnaha!- We have suffered the worst possible loss! The only hope we still have is the connection through you. Khalliku mahalku-Stay put, please!”

Suha relates an incident during a UN function in a European capital. “A fellow UN worker from Slovenia sat next to me on the bus. She asked where I was from and I told her in detail. All of a sudden she started sobbing. During the whole period we were there her eyes would fill with tears every time she saw me. I never found out if she had suffered some family separation of her own or what was behind that. Perhaps she just was a sensitive human being.”

On our trip back our luggage was lighter. We had parted with a load of home-made Palestinian olive oil soap that cousin Amineh, Suha’s mother, had asked for from another cousin here in Arrabeh. And I had taken with me a 1.5 liter coke bottle refilled with Rubb, my own homemade carob molasses, as a special present. She promised to share it not only with her mother but also with her uncle Faisal, my own playmate from the Nakba days who has retired from a career of medical practice in Libya. Suha’s sister, married to an Iraqi engineer and living in Canada will miss out. And so will relatives in the Gulf and in Syria. "We have scattered across the face of the earth; globalization at its best!", Suha adds with bitter sarcasm.

As the taxicab drove down the barren hills of Jordan I was tired enough to fall asleep. I had a restless and nightmare-interrupted sleep the night before. I kept dreaming of being forced out of my home and becoming a refugee myself. I woke up in the midst of the Jordan Valley fields brimming with fresh vegetable produce. Were we in a ‘normal situation’ these farmers could sell their vegetables in Arrabeh’s bustling framers’ market every Tuesday and Saturday.