Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rachel Corrie’s Revenge: Israeli Young Adults Struck by Early Onset of Alzheimer’s

"Human kind cannot bear too much reality."
T. S. Eliot.

I arrived at the Haifa District Court with a deep sense of foreboding. On my way there, as I drove through Arrabeh’s sleepy streets (It is Ramadan and most fellow Moslem villagers go back to sleep after their dawn meal and prayer.) I saw clear signs of trouble: Two police cars with their lights flashing entered the village just I was on my way out. Stopped in my tracks by the daily traffic jam on the outskirts of Haifa, I turned the radio dial from my usual BBC morning news to the local Arabic FM station and heard the name of my village on the news: A seven-month pregnant young woman whose name I recognized had been slain by her mentally-ill husband in full view of her four children. She bled to death in the bathroom from her seven stab wounds before the husband escaped.

“The man is mentally ill,” I imagined the mayor explaining away our collective shame.

“We all are to blame; it is a symptom of an ailing society in the throes of disintegration,” I could hear Toufiq, my village friend since childhood, arguing back.

At the entrance to the new and imposing courthouse complex, built over the cleared area of an entire neighborhood of old Haifa, I greeted the few members I recognized among the group of mostly Jewish ‘peace junkies’ holding signs of solidarity with Rachel Corrie’s family and cause. Rachel’s rather spry-looking parents seemed duly impressed, thanking people for their good sentiments and expressing their hope to a couple of journalists that finally here was their chance to show the formal investigation of the IDF of their daughter’s death for the hasty slipshod cover-up that it actually was. The small crowd of demonstrators and media people were cordoned off against the wall to the side of the spacious entryway to the courts complex so as not to affect the security processing of arrivals. Except that the parking area elevators emptied out on the cordoned-off side of the yard. My wife recorded visually and communicated to me a ratio of ten to one who crawled under the red plastic tape rather than bothering to take the extra dozen steps required to get into the queue at the entrance. Two women dressed in lawyery black and white clothes belonging to the latter variety, the minority of upright and obedient citizens, shouted insults at the demonstrators.

My wife and I introduced ourselves to the Corries and exchanged visiting cards with them. Rachel’s mother wore an appropriate brooch on the lapel of her light summer coat, a mother-of-pearl peace dove. I used to give the same dove, handmade in Bethlehem, to foreign visitors at the Galilee Society when I headed it. We thought it only proper to extend an open invitation to the Corries to honor us with a visit to our home should they get bored with Haifa, another port city, and wish to spend a day in a rural setting and pick their fill of figs, passion fruit, pomegranate, and carob right from the tree. We felt this was the least a Palestinian family could offer to reciprocate Rachel’s own gesture of solidarity and ultimate sacrifice.

As we lined up to go through security, the young officer asked the usual “Do you carry any weapons?” and I shot back a comical “Nooo!” She explained in a rather plaintive tone of voice: “A knife is a weapon, you know!” She caught me off guard. Was she referring to the murder in my village, I wondered? How did she know I was from Arrabeh?

We cleared security, stopped at the cafeteria for a quick cup of coffee, chatted with a couple of other Palestinians of similar convictions and made it to the sun-drenched courtroom on the sixth floor.

In the court I sat next to the American consul who used the waiting time to study Hebrew from a phrasebook he must have downloaded to his I-phone. He looked so Semitic I had to resist the urge to give him a hug: We Semites have to stick together in the face of the alien hordes. The Corries sat in the front raw and a translator leaned forward from the second row to whisper the translated proceedings to them. They were so obviously Nordic-looking that a touch of hostility almost snuck into my heart. Awaiting the judge, another fellow Israelite, to commence the proceedings, I busied my head with assessing the relative inequality of the resultant triangular configuration of relationships: the consul, the judge and the Corries. I fantasized a world of peace and stability in which a level of international solidarity and cooperation is attained in which the diplomatic corps representing one state, say France, to another, say Saudi Arabia, would be drawn almost entirely from citizens of the host country. That is the level of trust and understanding that has been reached between the USA and Israel. But how well would such chummy relationship serve the interests of the Corries, I wondered? Quickly, I reached the conclusion that it all depended on the individual diplomat and his allegiance to his country of origin vis a vis his country of assigned diplomatic mission. The double jeopardy of belonging to both is a bind that only the most committed of nationalists in one or the other can maneuver through.

Soon the start of the Corries vs, the State of Israel case was announced and I prepared for the full engagement of my senses and intellect in absorbing the details of all that was going on around me. I was aware of the tremendous potential the Corrie’s case had in blowing Israel’s cover in its well-rehearsed claim to the high moral standards of its armed forces. Admittedly, I am a physician. But I am not a neurologist and I had no intention of focusing on medical issues. I had missed the chance for that back in March when Dr. Hiss, Israel’s organ-snatching chief forensic pathologist who had done the postmortem on Rachel’s body had taken the stand in this same courtroom. Still, unexpectedly, my attention was drawn to all sort of neurological phenomena. Suddenly and against my conscious attempt to follow the details of the question and answer exchange between the lawyers and the witnesses, the whole court instead became the scene for my innovative observation of certain behavioral peculiarities of the human species: I had noted that the judge had a mild form of tic where he would seem to prepare to rise up by leaning forward slightly and stretching out his neck with a slight turn of the head to the left, as if he were straining to butt an oncoming football in midair, but would then stop in mid motion, stick the index finger of his right hand under his shirt collar as if to loosen it and then, with a shake of his head, would return to his master-of-the-court upright posture. My attention was now fully engaged in the scrutiny of this seemingly insignificant involuntary motion. It shifted my attention from the proceedings I had fought the morning traffic for an hour and a half to follow. I started making mental notes of the shape and frequency of the odd motion: I studied its different permutations to such a degree that I thought I could observe its initial onset even when my patient, (for in my own mind this was how I had started to relate to the man,) could suppress it to a mere blink of his right eye. I knew this was a sign of psychological stress, though a certain suspicion started to surface from my subconscious about my own need to escape from the stress of the reality that was unfolding around me: Here was a most capable pair of Palestinian lawyers bearing down with full force on a series of witnesses representing the best Israel could produce in its defense, formerly in the face of the intruding ISM and now to counter the petty claims of a sad family set on discrediting ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ and its valiant soldiers, members of the ‘most moral army in the world.’ I had seen and heard of innumerable cases where again and again the Israeli judicial system squeezes Palestinian defendants literally lifeless. But here I was witnessing the reverse process: Palestinians pressing proud Israelis, former and current members of Israel’s proud and mighty field units, into a state of denial, meekness, confusion and regression. The novelty of the unusual situation I was observing for the first time made me distinctly uncomfortable. I knew something was grossly amiss when I suddenly realized that I was concentrating so intensely on the body language of all the actors around me that I lost tract of what they were saying. I made a quick mental note of the fact that my interest was so piqued by the psychodrama unfolding around me that I had totally lost the ever disturbing chronic tinnitus in my ears.

I shifted back to observing the judge. I had been warned in advance that his record is most lean on rulings in favor of human rights defenders. Is that why he gave such clear signs of so much mental anguish? I returned to my observations of his neuromuscular oddity. Readers may think this a crude comment on a judge of justice. Yet we all do this all the time. All drivers rely on observing the lights in the back of the car in front of them to pick up the indications of its driver’s intentions. That is how a physician relates to the physical signs of those ‘cruising around’ in his vicinity. So, please, excuse this casual attitude to what you may consider to be a sensitive issue. Overall, the tic was quite frequent, perhaps once every one and a half minutes on average. But it was not regular. First I noticed that it did not occur during the rare occasions when the defense team of lawyers from the State Prosecutor Office spoke. It also occurred very rarely when the witnesses spoke. One witness made a clearly outrageous statement he should never have made: “In war there are no civilians,” he declared. The good judge strained his neck so vigorously and stuck his head out so far he nearly swept the computer screen in front of him off the table. At another juncture, the judge had a cascade of successive neck-stretching exercises as he admonished the Corrie’s lawyer, Hussein Abu-Hussein, to abandon the line of questioning he was pursuing with the witness. It was irrelevant, the judge decided. I felt the lawyer was treading very close to the red line sequestering the truth behind it. Obviously, the witness was being bamboozled.

Suddenly, the judge cut my intense inner hilarity short: He had to leave the court early for a physician’s appointment. Was he seeing a neurologist? I could certainly assist the physician with my professional observations, I thought. Or perhaps he had something more serious, a terribly bad heart or a nasty brain aneurism? Don’t rush to conclusions about possible wishful thinking on my part, please! At Harvard Medical School they taught us always to start by ruling out the worst case scenario. That is also the reason I figured that at least two out of the three witnesses who appeared before us were probably examples of a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease. Not only that they had forgotten nearly all the relevant facts, detailed or general, of incidents in which they had taken active part some six years earlier, but also that, by the time they left the witness stand, they appeared to have been pitifully reduced physically to mere shadows of the imposing macho figures that had strode into court earlier in the day. I am not a bad shot when it comes to diagnosing medical entities, believe me. I assure you that in my active clinical career I was an astute diagnostician able on occasion to figure out what brought a patient to see me from the way he or she walked into my office. I swear to you that on occasion I would start writing my hospital referral letter while a case of Appendicitis or Maltese Fever was still changing into the examining gown behind the examining curtain, not to mention the occasional term pregnancy of a teenager brought by her anxious parents because of excruciating abdominal colic. So it was no major challenge for me to pick up the clear signs of Alzheimer’s, though, going by the rapid physical deterioration they evidenced, these probably were some of the fastest developing such cases ever reported in the medical literature.

In a ten-minute break in the court proceedings, I strode to the back of the spacious hallway to feast my eyes on what I could see of Haifa’s wonderful views. Lo and behold, the view was one of extensive ruination and well-guarded abandonment of the whole base of the Carmel Mountain as it slopes down toward the port area. The entire neighborhood, once the thriving residential area for the well-off and nouveau-riche Haifan Arab families, seems to have been cordoned off from the outside world, with its majestic multi-arched fa├žades’ dignity still preserved thanks to its stone structure. One could imagine the pleasure and the pride of the former residents of such homes on a breezy late afternoon, sitting in their luxurious living rooms or northern balconies with Haifa’s port and the many ships taking refuge in it in full view as the sun tipped behind the soaring Carmel Mount. Now the Custodian of Absentee Property and his colluding housing agency, Amidar, seem to have decided to deny such imagined pleasures by continuing to deny the area the option of residential use. One can only hope that the former residents of such majestic homes, still awaiting return in their shacks in Lebanese refugee camps, will never see the intolerable neglect to which their palaces have been subjected.

I looked at Rachel’s parents and they seemed tired, worn out, no doubt, by the rigors of the intense delving into details of their late daughter’s death. I felt like offering them my sympathy and physical support as they ambulated out of the court. Till I went to the bathroom and took a good look at myself in the mirror: I should have asked the Corries to help me to my car, I decided.

Heading home I was elated by the prospect of my impending rise to fame in medical circles by virtue of my forthcoming first-ever report of two consecutive cases of the instantaneous onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. To rest my mind and gain some emotional respite from the excitement of it all, I turned my car radio on: The dial had been left on the local FM station. Arrabeh’s stabbing murder case was still dominating the free-for-all call-in program. Callers were speculating about what could have irked the presumably insane husband to act in the murderous way he did. For a moment I entertained the thought of calling in and alerting the program’s host, whom I knew personally, and his audience to the Corries versus the State of Israel case. I wanted to let everyone know that here was another case of murder by way of insanity. Except that here, a whole nation had gone insane.