Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Complaint Worth Repeating

Note: This is the review I posted on Amazon about Raja Shehadeh's new book entitled "a Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle" published by Profile Books, London, 2010.

I beg forgiveness for stating my first reaction to Raja Shehadeh's second book of hiking memoirs, this one with the emphasis provided by the desire to retrace the steps of a respected forbearer: We have been through this before. I had attended the author's reading in East Jerusalem and had my autographed copy for keepsake. Especially as a fellow involved Palestinian who reads on daily basis many a pained statement of our loss at the hands of the Zionist colonialist project, I was tempted to put the book aside. Except that the tale of Raja's legendary Ottoman uncle was compelling enough for me to keep on reading. Its setting in Galilee and the adjacent environs of the upper Rift Valley kept me going. After all, my own facination with Galilee and committment to its native residents had launched me as an author with my "A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel" thus, not unlike Raja, switching careers from a physician to a writer.

As I followed Raja and his wife Penny on their meanderings in and out of Galilee, his frequent asides about our loss as Palestinians and about the Zionists' well-planned and mercilessly executed dislodging of our people by diliberate force and geographic fragmentation, the elimination of their cultural and archeological heritage, and the spacial confinement and physical control of those who remained gained in freshness and legitimacy with repetition. It started with the bit of information about Najib Nassar, Raja's Ottoman uncle, being the first Palestinian writer to address the potential threat of the Zionist colonialist project to our people's future and continued clear through to the end of the narrative that I managed to get through by the end of the night of the same day I had started it: 'The best heir of the best forbearer' as we say in Arabic, I had to admit with tears in my eyes as Raja stands at his great great uncle's grave in Nazareth.

I was particularly taken by the artfully intermixed narrative of Raja's own present day nature walks with that of the forced flight of his predecessor into the wilderness: The two accounts are nearly seamlessly interwoven, so much so that I found the repeated assertions of the similarities between the two protagonists in thought and predilictions perhaps unnecessary, even though I found myself equally often thinking how much resemblance I also had to the two. The only part that I was surprized to read when I reached it was about Najib's second wife being the granddaughter of the Grand Bahai, founder of the Bahai faith. I would have baited the reader with a hint about it very early in the book.

And a second artful tactic that Raja Shahadeh uses as if it were the most normal of practices is the mixing of the intimate with the public and the general: Personal and family affairs are brought casually into focus to be transcended at will to historical events and world affairs. Had I not been open to similar villification I would have accused the auther of slight of hand magic. But then again, the focus of the whole account is family centered while it is the entire world, particularly the West, that is Raja's target readership and potentially his accused perpetrators of neglect if not agression against the Palestinian people. Hence it is only natural that Raja zooms in and out of focusing at homes and family life in Ramallah, Haifa, Nazareth and Eyn-Anoub rendering their evident humanity accessible to his world audience.

Also for the non-Palestinian there is much more to savor: the reflective pauses about the human condition at large, about nature, about the geology, the fauna and flora of Galilee, Palestine and the Rift Valley, and particularly about understanding the basic nature of Israel's agressive pursuit of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state west of the Jordan River. And, yes, indeed the repetitive message in the enlightening discourse woven around the record of Raja's and his Ottoman uncle's nature walks, one compelled by his Ottoman and the other by his Israeli persuers, is worthy of repeating to the wider world again and again. We will not be silenced by the world's inattentiveness.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obsessed with Fear

It is olive gathering season and people in Arrabeh are at it again. Fellow farmers no longer beat the dickens out of their olive trees as they did during Ottoman days. In ‘the good old days’ the tolerant trees, like submissive village wives then, took the abuse silently. That is no longer the case: The violent thrashing breaks so many fresh twigs that it affects the crop of the following year. As the rain comes the silently suffering trees lick their wounds and repair the damage with fresh growth. But that will bear fruit only the year after. That, it is now understood, leads to the periodicity of the olive yield alternating between good and poor years. That message from the rebellious olive has sunk in the conscience of the farmers and few of them beat their olives any more. Or their wives for that matter.

This year the crop is good. A friend from Jerusalem had asked us for two jerry cans of fresh olive oil direct from the press. Raja Shehadeh was scheduled to have a book launch in Jerusalem and we decided to kill two birds. That morning, the next session of the Rachel Corrie case was being held in Haifa. We loaded the olive oil and headed to Haifa to start the day with this third bird. Knowing our friends in Jerusalem to be olive oil connoisseurs we loaded the new fifty-liter Italian-made stainless steel special container that we had purchased for our own use in the trunk of the car and headed out for a day of adventure and Palestinian camaraderie.

But there was a hitch: how much hassle will the security guards at the entrance to the parking area under the Haifa court building give us? Will they insist on opening our overnight bags? How alarming will the empty container seem to them? Will they insist on verifying the nature of the liquid contents of the two jerry cans? Will they alert the special explosive experts in the Haifa police department? Will they hold me till the end of the proceedings? Will I miss the Corrie case session altogether? Might chemical analysis of the oil reveal traces of fertilizer, perhaps the explosive type? And what if the sneaky farmer who sold me the olive oil at the press had tampered with the olive oil? Recently there has been some friction between the youth of our two clans in the village. What if he decided to take revenge on me? And I had let him load the two oil containers in the trunk of my car in my absence. Who knows what he could have thrown in the trunk while I was busy sipping coffee with the press owner and talking nonsense about the year’s olive crop? I worried myself sick. That sneaky son of a bitch!

It was already too late; I had already arrived at the entrance to the underground parking area. In my anxious trembling I almost drove over the toes of the gate attendant sitting on his chair. He extended his arm out to stop me, made an attempt to stand up, but then put his hand on his back with a pained look on his face and motioned me to proceed. Wow! There is little that an Arabic saying didn’t cover: “God kills a big camel to feed a lame jackal.” He, in His wisdom had afflicted a good Jew with a painful back condition to save an Arab the trouble of inspection. It was a good omen for the day.

I found a parking space in the center area of level minus-two but I decided to skip it acting on a hunch. I circled the entire building three times thus descending to the bottom floor. I chose the furthest corner where I backed into a stall till my fender touched the wall. That way no one can pass behind my Subaru Outback and notice the suspicious load visible through the glass of the backdoor. The location also allayed my vague sense of insecurity: should any thing happen while I attended the court on the sixth floor, the damage would be most unlikely to reach me all the way from the depth of the far corner of minus-five. I walked across to the elevator feeling rather pleased with my level of smarts. As we emerged at ground level the day looked particularly bright. I gave my wife a tight hug. Even the security guards at the gate to the court complex seemed exceptionally kind. The first one motioned me through without a question. The second man did not sound as if he were mocking me with the standard question of “Do you carry a weapon on you? Any knife, scissors, fingernail clippers?” As I emptied my pockets of their contents of coins, car keys, mobile phone and wallet and walked through the metal detector, it occurred to me that there must be an easier way to confirm my innocence. So many others bypass the checkup by showing a certain certificate or a tag around their neck verifying their identity as lawyers, judges, or security people. Perhaps I should show them my card and explain how careful I had been in parking my car with its suspicious cargo. Perhaps that will help. But then I recalled an American senior citizen friend of mine who had happened to show her visiting card to inspectors upon arrival at the Tel-Aviv airport. She had already given them my address. That and the logo on her card from her previous position with the March of Dimes for the disabled which read “We shall overcome,” cost her a few hours of explaining as to what she was planning to overcome while visiting a Palestinian village in Galilee. I didn’t toy with the idea of showing them my card for too long. The voluntary gesture together with the address would have sufficed to make somebody suspicious. I kept the entertaining possibilities to my self, collected my belongings as they emerged from the x-ray machine and made it to the bathroom of the cafĂ© on the ground floor; I always get an urge to evacuate when scared. It is physiologic.

We arrived late as is my usual deliberate timing. (This is one more of my secret code messages to the world announcing my independence and uniqueness: I will not be beholden to European standards of punctuality! Rebellion knows no limits.) In court it was the same circus act as before: Husain Abu-Husain trying to force another mystery witness testifying behind a screen to jump through ignited hoops of logic and memory to no avail. Except that the atmosphere in court was more relaxed, almost jovial. For one thing the room was larger than before with more than double the space for audience. The Judge seemed to be in a tranquil mood. It could have been because of the seeming more elevated position of his seat in this room. In the two weeks since he had performed for us last he had grown a white beard that came to a point at its lower end giving him a sort of grandfatherly agreeable look with a faint hint of Mephisto-like mischief. He had a kindly twinkle in his darting blue eyes. Three times he descended from his elevated perch to help the witness orient himself and find his D-9’s position relative to other items on a photograph he was shown. This gesture, I should admit, uplifted my spirit, not unlike tales of the great royalty of old mixing with their subjects or of Greek deities consorting with earthly devotees. The judge’s kind condescension knew no limits: At one point, when the lawyer questioned the witness’s inability to distinguish Rachel Corrie from local Palestinians, the judge entered the fray arguing that some Palestinians can be as light-skinned (read: pretty) as Americans. A subdued titter went through the court in appreciation of the cross-cultural compliment.

The court session closed early; another witness had not shown up. A new date was set and we were on our way to Jerusalem: before leaving Haifa we stopped at Moshe’s Falafel and Shawarma joint, manned by Arabs and frequented by Asian foreign workers. In Jerusalem, to reach our destination we drove along the outskirts of Mea Sha’arim, the neighborhood of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The street was crowded with pedestrians of all ages, all with the outwardly display of their religious identity. We delivered the consignment of olive oil to its destination and headed to The Swedish Christian Study Center at Jaffa Gate to listen to Raja Shehadeh read from his new book, A Rift in Time, retracing the wanderings of his great-great uncle in this corner of the Ottoman empire. In this part of the old city soldiers and policemen on duty were outnumbered only by Christian nuns and monks. Later we ate fish and slept well. The next morning we took our leave from our friends, visited the Educational Book Store on Saladin Street then walked around Arab East Jerusalem. It was Friday high noon and people of all ages were streaming to Al-Aqsa Mosque for the weekly group prayer. I could hardly believe my eyes: These were the very same folks I had seen the day before at Jaffa Gate and in Mea Sha’arim with the very same hurried and purposeful stride of conviction and commitment. Except that their whiskers were trimmed differently and their women were enveloped in alternative wrappings. My Christian wife and I, a Moslem, both secular, felt we didn’t belong; we were triply excluded and insecure. What if one group or the other took umbrage at my wife’s bare arms?
“Let us get the hell back to Galilee,” I said in my manliest gruff voice.
My wife sought to deflate my contentious ego. She reminded me of our daily reality: “Why? The Galilee lacks bearded men and draped beauties? Or did you forget the Chief Rabbi of Safad and his fatwa against renting rooms to Arab students?”
“You are right. Galilee is next only to Jerusalem in holiness.”
“And it will get holier as time goes on. Judaizing Galilee will bring us more of what you are running away from in Jerusalem. It is not Moslems versus Jews only. The Christians are into it to their necks with moral and financial support from all the fundamentalists in Texas and DC.”
“Don’t let the religious veneer fool you. You know it is a fight over land and who tells whom how and where to live and when to breathe.”

Still, we headed home to Galilee. As we neared Arrabeh we remembered that our nephew’s family had begun gathering our olive crop of the year. We stopped in the field, a mere show of solidarity. My two dozen trees came down to me from my late father, one fifth of his field that had been in the family for centuries. As we were hanging around shooting the breeze with our relatives and milking away the ample fruit supply from the laden branches, a strange figure flitted across the field. It was an Orthodox Jewish young man. He obviously was heading to one of the hilltop settlements established by Sharon to guard against me and my people “stealing state lands.” He made as if he did not notice us. His fellow settlers in the Occupied Territories are reported to be active on daily basis driving Palestinians from their olive fields and confiscating their produce, right under the watchful eye of the IDF. How long it would be, I wondered, before he and his fellow settlers will start taking action against me, the usurper of their god-given Galilee holy land? Would his settlement decide one day to clear my field for their development needs? Would they call in the Army D-9s? Will I dare to put on a bright orange jacket, carry a bullhorn and challenge the Caterpillars like Rachel did?

Help, somebody! I want to keep my olives!