Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh, No! Bagger Befriends Cashier. You Need a Whip to Teach People a Lesson After Something Like This Happens

The following is an exercise in open plagiarism. Even the title above is taken from the text of the article as it appears in the Tuesday, July 26, 2011 issue of the Israeli paper,Haaretz, and on its website at the following link:
Someone posted the comment: “It's really a pity that this kind of news doesn't get into the US media.” Upon reading that, I decided to take up the challenge. The article was featured on the first page of the English version of the respected Haaretz Paper as another news item with no editorial comment or fanfare and the reporter’s tone lacked any sense of bafflement or condemnation. To give the piece the right ring I decided to alter the setting to one more familiar to US citizens who are not that involved in Middle East politics. I reverted to my limited acquaintance with Hawaii and the continuing struggle of Native Hawaiians against racism and the theft of their land. I realize that the simile would be even more striking if I were to choose the Navajos for example. But I know little about that nation. So bear with me please and imagine reading the following in the Tuesday, July 26, 2011 issue of the Honolulu Star Bulletin. At the end I appended a list of the terms that I have changed:

American grocery store keeps Hawaiian baggers and white cashiers apart
It appears that RL chain has given in to a demand from local pastors at Nanakuli branch, in wake of romance between a Hawaiian bagger and White cashier.

In an effort to prevent fraternizing between the Hawaiian packers and the female White cashiers, baggers are no longer working at the checkout counters most of the week. An exception was made for the Wednesday and Thursday night shifts, when the checkout counters are so busy that there is little opportunity for conversation.
The decision followed a storm that arose in the Nanakuli White-only suburbs after it was reported that a local (White) girl working as a cashier had become romantically involved with one of the Hawaiian baggers.
Workers at the supermarket and a leading local pastor say the Hawaiian worker was fired, but RL denies that, saying, “He’s gone off to California. When he returns, we’ll see.” The cashier quit on her own.
Ever since RL Marketing opened its Nanakuli branch, it has been a source of local controversy. It is located near a gas station and not within a white only suburb, making it possible for Whites and Polynesian shoppers to mingle freely. Most of the workers are Hawaiians from the area, who handle deliveries, bag groceries and stack shelves. The cashiers are mostly young women from the Whites-only suburbs.
While there have been periodic media reports lauding the supermarket as an island of Hawaiian-White coexistence, right-wing groups and some locals have issued calls to boycott it, saying it was leading to inter-religious relationships. These campaigns did not fare well. In fact, the supermarket has been so crowded that small grocers in the area’s communities have started to fear for their business.
Over the past two weeks, however, after reports of the cashier-packer affair spread, Pastor GP, the pastor of a neighboring Whites-only suburb, met with chain owner RL and demanded that he take action to prevent a recurrence.
“There was an affair between a cashier and a bagger that nearly resulted in her leaving home,” GP told our paper. “There was a plan to take her to his village.
“I was asked to talk to RL and his staff about the problem, and told them that one of the things we had feared when the store opened a year ago was exactly this.
“I’m pleased by the steps RL has taken. The Hawaiians don’t particularly like this [interreligious relationships] either, and it seems that RL understands the problem. The worker was fired and will not return. You need a whip to teach people a lesson after something like this happens.”
RL denies the worker was fired. He declared himself “against assimilation” and insisted that “there was suspicion of an affair. There was no affair. These extremist groups keep getting involved and making everybody crazy. “This is the ‘peace supermarket,’ he said. “Extremist Hawaiians and Whites don’t like it.”

Changes made from the original article:
Israeli to American
Palestinian to Hawaiian
Jewish to White
Chaim Levinston to CL
Rami Levi to RL
Gush Etzion to Nanakuli
Rabbi to pastor
Settlements to Whites-only suburbs
Jordan to California
Rami Levi Shivuk Hashikma to RL Marketing
Arab to Polynesian
Settler to White
Gideon Perl to GP
Alon Shvut to a neighboring Whites-only suburb
Haaretz to our paper

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Olive Conversion

The Olive Conversion
Review of Pamela Olson’s “Fast Times in Palestine,” Mason Hill Press, New York, 2011

Right after glancing at the first page, I knew I fancied this book and envied its author. For a few years now I have been struggling with the urge to write an account of life in my community that would attract readers not because of its subject matter or politics but because of its style and plot. It would be read for pleasure and inform incidentally. Right away I realized Pamela Olson had done exactly that. The first blurb on the first page said it: “The result is a moving, inspiring account of life in Palestine that’s enormously informative yet reads like a novel.”

Yet, as I speed-read through the enchanted account of Olson’s year and a half in Palestine, I realized that my scheme was easier dreamt than implemented: In Ramallah she adopts and adapts to Journalism as a default profession, and on a couple of occasions she lapses into pure journalistic and political discourse, such as when she reports on the results of the presidential elections, on the issue of East Jerusalem or on her visit to a settlement. But then, how else does one convey the reality of the wicked injustices committed in connivance with the misinformed Western public? Olson gives an early inkling of what she was up against (p. 66):

“I got my first clue when I began talking with friends about what I had seen. Some were skeptical, which was understandable. Others refused to believe things I have seen with my own eyes. Several, who had never been anywhere near the Middle East, informed me that I was naïve and I must have been brainwashed. More than one made vicious generalizations about Arabs and Muslims that they would never dare make about any other race or religion. It was so bizarre to see friends turn into different people around this issue, I almost began to question my own sanity.”

As a young American college graduate, Olson had shared the usual media-inspired preconceived ideas (p. 3):

“I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic, bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it.”

Fortunately, eventually she found herself in the West Bank village of Jayyous through a combination of curiosity, adventurism and sheer luck. Like Rachel Corrie shortly before her [Let Me Stand Alone, Norton, New York, 2008], Anna Baltzer at about the same time [Witness In Palestine, Paradigm, Boulder, Co, 2007], and scores of unpublished international activists before and since, she was in the throes of her private search for meaning in life. “That spark I’d had as a kid, the passion for learning about the world through my own senses, was reigniting,” as she puts it (p. 96.)

That was when she discovered the ultimate contradiction of a people, oppressed and dehumanized through her own unwilling and unknowing connivance, extending extreme hospitality to her. This is the moment I will call Olson’s “olive-ahlan-wa-sahlan” conversion: a sudden realization that the Palestinians, victims of her own government’s policies, were not only human but also generous and welcoming beyond belief. “If you ask for directions, you get invited to dinner.” They took the wayward American tourist as one of their own, repeating their incessant welcoming mantra beseeching her to “Be at ease, like one of the family.”

As if to prove the point, they take her to pick olives in their fields, ravaged by the American-funded occupation and violated by Israel’s apartheid wall. Beyond the camaraderie of toiling together in the presence of the historic witness that each ancient olive tree stands for, the experience inspires a miraculous spiritual enlightenment of sorts: Not only are Palestinians generous (like most Middle Eastern natives are), they also display stunning resilience and lack of bitterness despite all their suffering, a kind of grace the author finds incredibly inspiring. Soon Olson begins to fall in love with this land into which she has stumbled (p. 118):

“The thought of olive oil literally flowing like water out of this land enchanted me beyond all reason. As we turned to walk home I was infused with a sensation I’d never felt before, a feeling of having arrived, of finding myself in just the right place on earth at exactly the right time. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Palestine, close to olive trees and white stone houses and Bible hills turning blue as the sun set over a sea we couldn’t walk to and touch without crossing walls and checkpoints. Life here was hard and lonely and confusing, but it was also full and exciting, cynical and funny, and often lovely beyond description. For the first time since I’d arrived in Ramallah I wasn’t looking forward or back anymore. I was just here, now, and happy.”

Or again (p. 165):

“We harvested each day until we couldn’t see anymore, then we would take tea and watch the last lights of sunset fade, chat or just think our thoughts while the stars broke out of the crystal sky one by one. In those moments, leaning against an ever-growing pile of ripe olives, breathing in the deep, rich subterranean scent of a hard day’s work, I felt completely content and at peace… On evenings like this, in a world like this, it seemed downright ungracious ever to despair. It was, after all, absurd to hate the slaughter and waste and hardship and destruction without acknowledging the flipside: that life was here, that the whole reason we hated waste and destruction was because we loved life and this world so much.”

Olson’s conversion was not purely of the intellectual or spiritual variety, however. She also met a handsome young Palestinian named Qais who, like her, had studied in Russia and spoke Russian, which served them, I imagine, as a means of illicit communication in conservative rural Palestine. Eventually, in her role as journalist and foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s bid for the presidency of the PNA, she befriended many Palestinian peers, including her “loud-mouthed Gaza Communist” roommate, as well as countless international volunteers and activists. She even ventured some cross-border visits with Israeli friends, which must have served as subconscious reality checks and occasional escapes to her more familiar former sociopolitical surroundings, the usual Western milieu. And more than once she tour-guided Jewish and/or Israeli friends, some not even all that liberal, on tours of Palestinian towns, villages, and refugee camps.

Before I commenced reading ‘Fast Times in Palestine,’ I had been emotionally immersed in the journals of Rachel Corrie. Now I missed Rachel’s intimate conversations with her parents in her emails home as she tried to explain to them what she was doing in Gaza. I was curious about the trickledown effect of Olson’s intense exposure to the lives of Palestinians under occupation on her next of kin. Just as the suspicion started sneaking into my mind that here we were dealing with a super-intelligent but rootless and freaky American kid on the loose, she revealed that she had been writing home regularly. She then gives a moving account of her parents’ experience on visiting her in the Holy Land, an experience best summed up with the line (p. 278):

“Good Lord,” Mom said. “How can this be happening over here and no one in America even know or care?”

And again (p. 280):

“Seeing a soldier arbitrarily deny my mother a glimpse of one of the wonders of the world on her once-in-a-lifetime vacation awakened a primal rage I didn’t realize I was capable of. For the first time I experienced the literal truth of ‘seeing red.’ I started yelling at the soldier, much to his amusement and my mother’s horror… I can’t imagine what I would have felt, or what I might have been capable of, if the soldier had been denying my mother life-saving medical treatment instead of just messing up her vacation.”

That evoked vivid memories of my own parents-in-law on their first visit to Israel and of their fretful sobbing over the depravity their daughter had chosen to live under with her Palestinian husband in Galilee. And we weren’t even under occupation in the narrow sense of international law; we were Israeli citizens.

All through the book, Olson writes in an animated, lively, engaging, witty and intimate style. But in expressing her inner feelings and her acute sense of empathy with the other, she often waxes touchingly poetic (p. 176):

“But who could watch so many proud young women and dignified old men humiliated at checkpoints? Who could watch the obscenity of helpless, impoverished, dispossessed people being bombed in Gaza like fish in a barrel? [‘Like cockroaches in a bottle,’ an Israeli leader once put it.] How long could and should someone stand it? A diminished life was better than no life. There was always a secret space no oppression could ever touch. But how could a valiant or a sensitive soul bear it?

We all thinking it, Qais. We all miss God, or whatever you want to call the pure thing that runs through all this. And you’re trapped here, imprisoned, in a way so obscene it’s impossible to contemplate. And still you have to live it. You, a lucky kid who made it past his twentieth birthday.

Qais asked why I was crying. He said he didn’t want to hear me cry; he couldn’t endure it. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I could endure it, either. How I was supposed to think about a world where the life of a Palestinian was utterly disposable?…

I thought about suicide for the first time not as an abstraction but as a genuine option – a way to drop out of the whole diabolical game. But I dismissed it immediately. When I thought of what I would go through if Qais was killed, by his own hand or anyone else’s, it was impossible to justify putting anyone else through that just to ease my own conscience and end my own pain.”

Or take, for example, her brief, acerbic, almost photographic rendition of a common Palestinian scene (p. 272):

“It was standard fare for a Palestinian refugee camp -- narrow streets, concrete buildings, cramped alleys, and occasional touches of bougainvillea or decorative tiles to lend a whiff of dignity.”

Olson’s empathy and good vibes envelop even those literally on the other side of the fence: (p. 222)

“But [the Israeli soldier] was, after all, just a teenager. Wars and occupation were innately abhorrent things, poisoning the soul and society of all involved. Here was another kid caught in the maw of it, standing at a checkpoint instead of off at a college somewhere studying and partying. It seemed like such a pointless waste.”

And she never loses her sense of humor. It flows throughout her narrative and seems to come handy in tight spots as a form of comic relief:

“Abir and I agreed the soldier was cute, but I said, ‘Does that ever work? Picking up chicks while you’re oppressing them?’
‘Who knows?’ said Abir. ‘Why do construction workers whistle at girls who pass by?’
‘I guess men with big metal objects in their hands get overconfident or something.’”

No less poetic are her descriptions of scenes of the wilderness and relaxed romantic settings she finds herself privy to, whether in the Sinai, Jordan or the West Bank (p. 287):

“The moon had a bright ring around it twenty moon-diameters across, which made it look like the dome of a great cathedral. The jagged stone mountains were like pillars conjured by God. The surrounding sea of silken sand softly refracted the moonlight’s radiance. The stars, subtly colored, brilliant, three-dimensional, embedded in the silvery ink of unlikely existence, were unbearably beautiful. The breeze, neither warm nor cool, seemed to blow through me.”

Poetic and romantic when feeling one with nature, fun-loving yet acutely observant and closely connected to the people around her, and moving in her compassion for the downtrodden and oppressed, Olson comes across as innately humane and witty. Palestinians couldn’t have befriended a better advocate.

Yet, as a Public Health specialist, I permit myself to end on a critical note: All through her beautifully written book, Olson romanticizes the Nargila [hookah], the new scourge of youth in the Middle East, a much more harmful fad than cigarette smoking. Unintentionally she sows the seed of harm in her endearing description of life in Palestine. I do hope, and plead, that she will insist on banishing that from the film version.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Contradictions Be Damned: Colonel Pinky’s Last Stand in the Case of Rachel Corrie

The last session of the Rachel Corrie court case in Haifa had been repeatedly postponed on account of the weightiness of the witness. Colonel Pinhas Zuaretz, better known by his nickname, Pinky, was the commanding officer of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade at the time the late peace activist was killed. I decided to display my solidarity with my fellow countryman, to wear my heart on my sleeve so to speak. Lacking pink in my wardrobe I donned the loudest Aloha shirt I had with large off-pink flowery pattern. Pinky turned out to be weighty indeed: a rotund, dark-skinned, middle-aged man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper scalp, thick black eyebrows and bulldoggish jowls. Despite the reassurance of our shared Semitic features, his presence evoked in me the same gut-level discomfort I had always sensed whenever seeing Ariel Sharon or our current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Don’t jump to conclusions, please! Some of my best friends are rotund. I have a teenage neighbor who on occasion helps me collect my free-range chicken eggs. He has a low IQ and an inborn glandular disorder that stores excessive fat on his short torso. Also I have many American friends who tower a foot or more over me. Whether a war criminal, a bar bouncer, a simpleton, or an average well-fed person, the sheer bulk of a corpulent man is enough to intimidate and rile me on the inside. Today’s witness was no exception: I wished I had worn black.

Even before he spoke, I decided that I wouldn’t want to wrestle with the man. His body language and his automatic assumption of priority in communicating with the judge, whose ruddy complexion suggested another longish repose on some tropical seaside, did little to reassure me. But Husain Abu-Husain proceeded right away to tangle with the man and to try to cut him down to size: How can a man of his rank make so many spelling mistakes in his written affidavit, Abu-Husain asked? Would he care to comment about the sexual harassment case a woman soldier once brought against him? Would he commit to the principle of protecting human life? To this last one Colonel Pinky acquiesced begrudgingly after stressing his first allegiance to protecting the life of his soldiers. And was he still convinced of his conclusion after his rushed investigation of the case of the late Rachel Corrie only hours after his soldiers’ D9R Caterpillars had crushed her to death that their conduct was flawless? To this he responded in the positive stating that Rachel had died through her own carelessness and willful interference on the side of the terrorists who had sent her to disrupt the soldiers’ orderly carrying out of their duty of leveling an area. The presence of the home of a certain Dr. Khalil and another ‘yellow house’ repeatedly mentioned in the military investigations was considered immaterial not only by the witness but also by the judge who struck the line of questioning from the record.

In Colonel Pinky’s logic there seemed to be no place for doubt: things were either white or black. What he repeatedly asserted was that the whole area was a war zone and anyone present in it was as good as dead, “ben mavit -- mortal” by definition. Rachel was on the side of the enemy and her death should have been a forgone conclusion. How could someone miss such simple logic? Pinky shook his head repeatedly in exasperation at the unbelievable stupidity of his doubters. And his soldiers were performing their duties in a war zone. That included the killing of enemy combatants or of their supporters and messengers, he seemed to imply. And yet his soldiers acted in a humane manner. They tried to give first aid to the accidentally injured woman. Pinky emphasized this ‘humane gesture’ that his soldiers extended to another victim whom they had shot dead as well. This last bit of logic made perfect sense to me: When you willfully shoot to kill someone, why would you want to extend first aid to him or her? Indeed this was beyond the call of duty.

When Abu-Husain pointed out a contradiction between Pinky’s written affidavit and other documents on record regarding an injury he claimed he had suffered, the judge stepped in to rule that as irrelevant. This protective intervention was to be repeated by the judge several times, usually in response to the objection of the defense lawyer raised with such animated movement of her brightly manicured pretty hands over her head out of synch with whatever she was saying. I figured the woman would be something to behold with her favorite witness on a dance floor; she seemed so twirly and sympathetic to his preposterous who-the-hell-is-this-Arab-questioning-my-judgment stance.

Twice, in his attempt to shield the witness from the aggression of his unjust doubters, the judge made pronouncements so damning of the IDF that I expected Pinky to get up and slug him in the mouth: When Abu-Husain brought up the case of a soldier under Pinky’s command who had killed another international activist, lied about the circumstances of the murder and his story was taken as the honest truth by Pinky, the judge did not allow that into the record because he thought it was irrelevant to Rachel’s case. Besides, the judge rationalized, soldiers lie just as others do including in his court. Then there was the issue of drug abuse in the unit the members of which were involved in Rachel’s demise. Again the judge threw that out explaining that drug abuse was widespread in all units of the IDF. I expected Pinky to maul him so hard that he would need to go back to R&R at some far off rehab facility. But the commander swallowed the insult quietly. After all, from the start he gave signs of a common understanding between him, the defense, and the judge, not the result of some collusion, God forbid, but of each doing his duty in repulsing the onslaught of so many goyim on “the most ethical army in the world.” But especially Pinky had an expression of disgust at being badgered by a team of Palestinian lawyers. It didn’t make sense to me: True Abu-Husain is of darker skin and that may have justified Pinky’s look of condescension in his own eyes. But Dakwar, the second prosecution lawyer, is as fair-skinned as they come, fairer than the judge himself. I figured it must be size that decides status this time around.

In Colonel Pinky’s clear-minded view, the last question that Abu-Husain lobbed at him must have looked like the nastiest of curveballs: Abu-Husain must have seemed to him to be intent on adding insult to injury. He, a former ranking colonel and currently the Deputy Head of the FIDF (Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces,) had been already dragged enough through the mud: He had to defend himself against the attacks of a scrawny (by comparison) dark-skinned (also relatively so) Palestinian (also relatively so since his Palestinianism had been compromised by an Israeli citizenship in Pinky’s black-and-white world,) reminiscent in his private thoughts, no doubt, of the standard IDF practice dummies. And now the dark-faced, kaffiyah-clad, hole-riddled scarecrow wanted him to apologize to the parents of that foreign pro-terrorist provocateur! These Ishmaelites, our leaders told us, were supposed to serve us as “Hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Look at them now, biting the hand that feeds them. How terribly insulting it must have felt to the colonel. Thanks God the judge interfered and promptly halted the assault on the defenseless soldier even before the defense lawyers objected. He angrily explained the inappropriateness of such a gesture before He Himself had a chance to issue His ruling.

In rural Galilee the older folks tell a story about a wild Bedouin’s first encounter with the law. He was dragged into town and kept overnight in a cell repeatedly threatened by his jailers with having to face the judge. After the affair was over he was heard explaining gleefully: “I was scared stiff by the prospect of tangling with the judge. But the judge turned out to be a man.”

After all, our judge turns out to be an Israeli man. I bet you my last Aloha shirt the Corries will not get the one dollar they are suing for.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Breast Milk Joe

Joe was known to all in Arrabeh by his Arabic nickname, one that is best approximated in translation by “breast-milk dandy,” referring to his five-year long suckling at his mother’s breast in her affectionate consecration of her youthful body to the memory of her late husband and first cousin. He had died while Joe was only a mere formless glob with a pulsating center in her womb kicking up a storm of mothering hormones and tender longings for the purloined intimacy in their constrained undercover privacy. Joe now occupied the vacant space of her man next to her in the midst of their other eight young children carefully arranged each night under shared covers on the floor of their single-room abode. Joe grew up pampered, envied and constantly intimidated by his siblings and innumerable doting but domineering uncles and aunts and an endless string of cousins on both sides of the family, nearly one and the same, with varying ratios of the love and hate admixture that comprises the essence of all clan relationships. By the time he entered school Joe had acquired a reputation for sneakiness and slight of hand, though his feats of deceit and small-time trickery were tolerated or even encouraged as displays of childhood cleverness and cute pranks. Except that Joe had the fair skin and shifty blue eyes to go with the cunning and treachery that he started perfecting into an art form by the time he hit his teen years. Some crusader must have jumped the fence and left his telltale genes in the family line to be reinterpreted after we came under the British mandate in line with the ambivalence of all natives towards their masters. Hence the white man’s skin and eye color are much desired but suspect and distrusted nevertheless.

By a stroke of good luck, at the relatively late age of 25 Joe married a childless divorcee who had struggled and, against all odds, regained her freedom from an arranged first-cousin marriage to a drug-addict and a wife beater. Like Joe, she had fair skin and pale blue eyes, the faint hints of familial Albinism. Except that in the female these are even more appreciated as signs of beauty. The young woman proved to be the serious and independent type. Not that it helped her avoid a miserable second union: After all, at first glance, Joe seemed like a good catch: Her match in looks and the descendent of landed village bosses with a good name and better than average rating on the local social scale of liberalism. In fact the Kanaaneh men were reputed to pamper their women, not to allow them to do the backbreaking fieldwork, and to conserve them for their amorous peruse. Alas, Joe turned out to have spent some of his youthful years on the periphery of modernity in Tel-Aviv where he picked up the habit of smoking marijuana. It was too early for AIDS. This connection might well have had something to do with him finding out , through the addicts’ own grapevine, about the breakup of the woman’s first marriage. As Joe slid down the slippery slope of drug use, drug pushing, underworld dealings and jail time, his wife earned a living for herself and for the four boys that she bore him by joining a fruit-picking crew.

I liked both Joe and his wife. Usually they came to my clinic separately. Most of the time when he came he would tell me his diagnoses and what medications he needed and I would find his diagnoses to be correct. And there was nothing suggestive in the kind of medications that he requested. He had a calm and respectful way about him and seemed as straight as an arrow. His wife came mostly with a sick child. She wore a constant smile, an aura of self-confidence and satisfaction with life as a whole. She never complained to me about any marital problems and had no suggestive psychosomatic complaints herself. Our family blood connection and my social and professional position were sufficient to warrant a measure of expectation and openness on her part. Yet she never took advantage of the escape door that this situation opened for her. What rumors I heard about Joe came from other distant relatives his age.

Like most young men in the village and with the help of so many brothers and cousins skilled in the various manual construction crafts, while still single Joe had built himself an adequate home. It was located at a relatively remote spot in the middle of a good-sized olive field he had inherited. After the standard one-day honeymoon of dining out and shopping in the city of Acre, he moved with his bride into his new home. Shortly after he had domesticated his first catch, a beautiful gazelle as per the consensus of all neighbors and friends, he started to take interest in the surrounding relative wilderness: He trapped rabbits, hedgehogs, coyotes, partridges and the like. He tried to raise several species in his yard next to the goat he kept for his morning glass of coffee with fresh milk. On the rare occasion that I found the time and an excuse to stop at his house for a delicious cup of coffee latte, he would insist on showing me all his collection of wild animals and the alterations in his yard he was making to accommodate them. There was a cave with clear evidence of ancient human habitation, possibly from the time of the Canaanites that he discovered in the sheer rock wall he had cut in the side of the hill to level the ground for the house. There was the artificial cave-like structure he fashioned out of loose rocks and mud for a pair of hedgehogs. And there was the huge pigeon tower he constructed to house the half dozen types of doves and messenger pigeons he raised.

Soon Joe’s lone homestead was overshadowed by a larger adjacent home. It was the home of a known crook and a polygamist who managed to keep three wives, illegally in Israel, and to spend time in jail in lieu of paying traffic tickets and fines for various and sundry small-time thefts and the like. Where the man found the money to purchase the land from Joe and to build his house will remain always a secret though it is assumed that he never paid for it in full. For that, it is assumed, the relations between the two neighbors have always been strained.. Additional neighbors eventually materialized as the extensive olive grove was gradually transformed into a new habitable neighborhood, Joe and his co-heirs benefiting from the inflated price in the process.

With the advent of urbanization to the neighborhood, Joe’s property shrank with successive sales of one parcel of land after another. But his relatively spacious front yard assumed a strange and arty look: whoever would think of placing a single ancient olive tree and an imposing life-size olive press in the center of his yard? The man had much to recommend him in terms of visual display of what a paradise of nostalgic rural life his yard could potentially be. He recreated a village scene from bygone days with a large pile of dry wheat stalks arranged in a circle, complete with the threshing equipment and all. The impressive sight was further extenuated with a backdrop of red bougainvilleas draped over a row of pine trees.

Joe had a touch of madness in imagining what he could do with his yard: He planned to develop a tourist attraction in his yard with accommodations for B&B alongside it. Soon he started constructing the facility with much flare and creativity as to what the youth who would use it would find attractive. Single-handedly he fashioned two-dozen adobe-walled cabins, each with built-in shelves, mirrors, cabinet space, mini bar, and an elevated platform with a mattress. There were single and double occupancy cabins. There even was one with a platform that sleeps three “in case some pervert arrives with two women. You haven’t seen Playboy?” Joe explained in defense of his own perversion. He then added a dining room and a series of showers. The outer walls of the entire structure were inundated with hanging village antiques and memorabilia. He then started a campaign at the local authority to have the dirt road leading to his property properly paved. When the response was slow to come, Joe tried to contact the Ministry of Tourism to bring pressure on the village council. But the MOT required a licensed facility with a proper building permit in accordance with a plan submitted with the stamp of a civil engineer, etc. etc. Joe had worked in Tel-Aviv and thought he knew how to handle government officials. “A bottle of fresh olive oil goes a long way in smoothing things over whether it is the lowly Arab inspector or our Jewish cousins in charge of the planning department,” he reasoned.

Alas, Joe’s originality and spontaneity backfired. What finally brought the deathblow to the ambitious plan was the second intifada at the turn of the millennium. In it Arrabeh and neighboring Sakhnin figured as lead Palestinian localities within the green line where young men and women demonstrated and some were picked off by snipers. Development dreams of local entrepreneurs like Joe were nipped in the bud by the near total boycott of Arab businesses and locales by the Jewish majority in the country. With that went the expected internal tourism that was to provide the customers Joe dreamt of hosting. Government officials limited their contacts with our villages and work crews of such public facilities as water, telephone and electricity would not enter them except under the protection of the security forces. Joe’s fancy rural pension started with zero occupancy and never rose above that. Local cynics gloated at his failure with expressions of satisfaction that Joe never attracted all the city and foreign youth he had dreamt of corrupting with his secret drug trade. It is generally assumed in our community that at this stage he turned to local youth as potential customers. To his disappointment, the consumer base was too limited, what with the remnants of traditional tribal allegiance and communal solidarity working against him.

As the bottom fell out of his ambitious scheme he must have sought solace in the drugs that he handled. The downhill spiral of his planned business enterprise led to the loss of any land that he had inherited other than the plot on which his house and dream project stood. Still his debtors demanded cash and he became more aggressive in his forbidden sales, with the occasional slipups landing him repeatedly in jail. In his free intervals he would try to get cash from his wife who never stopped working at her fruit-picking job. She refused and he threatened to kill her. To buttress his threats he accused her of cheating on him, an accusation that, in accordance with local customs would justify the death penalty on basis of protecting the family honor. Then the husband of one of her sisters, while on leave from the mental hospital, slit his wife’s throat in broad daylight. That forced Joe’s wife to complain to the police about his threats and occasional practice of physical violence against her and they locked him up again and again. Once while on furlough he was enticed into a rendezvous with debtors. Later that night passers-by, alerted incidentally by his beeping mobile phone, found him by the village road all but dead. He was rushed to the hospital where he was revived ad the fractures in his skull and limbs treated.

Joe never recovered fully from his injuries, the psychological ones apparently being more severe and longer lasting. To add insult to injury, he received a court order to demolish his never-used B&B facility. With the threat of fines and confiscation, he was forced to do the unthinkable: He physically demolished with his own hands the fruit of years of his diligent handiwork and artistic creation. After a stint at a mental hospital he was released on multiple drugs that left him looking physically disabled and pitifully ancient. And he was a social wreck as well: he was so constantly agitated that he could hardly sit down to sip his cup of coffee when he visited a neighbor. Most relatives and neighbors no longer extended the accepted social graces to him: He would enter the men’s diwan and say the standard greeting of ”Salaam – peace!” and most of those gathered there would pretend not to have heard him. To that was added the most insulting rumor spread by the malicious neighbors whose own son had stabbed one of Joe’s sons. They spread the allegation that his own brother had stabbed the boy.

Joe turned inward and withdrew into his own lonely shell. He seemed constantly preoccupied by his own inner demons. He took to intimidating those around him with the threat of hanging himself. The accepted axiom among psychiatrists is that those who threaten suicide often do not carry out their threats; it is the silent depressed that require the most attention. A neighboring pair of cousins had set the date for their son’s wedding and Joe promised not to sully their fun. “I cann’t stand it anymore. I have the rope. But I will let you finish the wedding celebration before I use it,” he told his cousins the night before they found him hanging from his ancient olive tree.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flamenco For Beginners

In Arrabeh most people of all ages recognize me on sight. Unfortunately, the reverse is far from true: Age, my retirement from active medical practice, and my reserve and limited social circulation in the village have made most young faces new to me. Still, there is hardly a face I cannot pin to a specific clan in the village. Even when I am unable to specify whose son or daughter a young person is, I recognize the general features and am able to categorize the individual as the descendent of a specific age-mate or acquaintance. Facial features alone, if one were to liken the mental process of recognition to that of artificial intelligence, provide endless possible combinations necessitating perhaps a decimal bit and byte system instead of the binary one currently in use. Integrate that, if you please, with the range of variations in skin color, physique, gait, voice quality, etc. etc. and you end up with a failsafe system that leaves little to brag about for me. It would be the first sign of Alzheimer’s for me to fail the test of clan categorization of members of the new generation in Arrabeh.

This is all to explain to myself the strange sense of comfortable familiarity that I experienced at the Flamenco club we attended one evening in Seville. I know little about musicology and less about dance. Still, sitting in the front row I struggled all through the performance against the urge to jump to the stage and join the riotous footwork, the fast-paced clapping and the incomprehensible inspired singing. The entire act spoke directly to my heart in familiar and meaningful ways. It was as if I were revisiting a long-lost childhood friend, enigmatic but loved and trusted. Toufiq, my co-villager and fellow traveler, read the singing as an expression of pain and suffering. “Those Gypsies are singing their anguish,” he declared. It brought to mind my previous encounter with the musical genre from fourteen years before. I had travelled with my two dear international brothers and former roommates from college days in Hawaii, Djon the Indonesian and Jagy the Indian, to celebrate our sixtieth birth year in Andalucía. In Seville we stumbled on a major Gypsy occasion. The pope had beatified the first ever Gypsy on the way to sainthood and the best of their artists celebrated the occasion by composing a Flamenco opera to be performed at the famous Seville Cathedral, the gesture of the pope no more usual than the flock’s response. Though the only explanation we received was in a written sheet in Spanish, which no one among us three spoke, I remember understanding the entire opera and sympathizing fully with its Gypsy heroes.

As an Arab heir to the culture of Al-Andalus and perhaps a descendent of one of those most enlightened of humans of their era, I felt fully entitled to stake a claim to emotional, artistic and intellectual ownership of Flamenco as ‘ours,’ in partnership with Gypsies and native Spaniards. More convincingly, as a Palestinian, the olives of Southern Spain were truly mine. After all, the olive started in the hills of greater Syria and it suckled our forbearers with its delicious oil long before the Romans took a fancy to it and caused it to go viral across the far corners of their pan-Mediterranean empire. No wonder I feel such closeness to the olive and derive so much comfort fro the sheer sight of olives in a field. Wandering leisurely between its former Arab capitals, from Malaga to Granada, Cordoba and Seville, the limitless vistas of well-tended olive fields enveloping one hill after another of rural Andalucía stirred in me a feeling of deep comfort and belonging admixed with pride and romantic attachment akin to what I remember feeling on my return to my family and village after an absence of ten years. I wanted just to sit in the red dirt in one of those fields and do nothing. And that is exactly what we had the luxury to do. We lodged for one day at a hacienda in the midst of the olive groves of the village of Zuheros an hour’s drive from Cordova. The name of the village was derived from the Arabic word for ‘little tree,’ its church was once a mosque and its museum, hanging precipitously at the edge of a rocky cliff, was once an Arab fortress, both features that apply to many Andalusian rural communities. It seems that those Arabs and Moors of old had a fetish of sorts: wherever they came across a rocky crag they had to hang a fortress over it for the world to admire and a mosque with a high minaret for the inquisition officials who were to come later so they would have something physical about which to grill the conquered infidel souls. And the tall minarets made perfect bell towers.

The spacious rooms we were assigned in the hacienda were in the center of the compound. When we asked for ones with windows opening out on the fields the clerk explained that they would rather not use those for a couple of weeks: the heavy pollen of the olives covers everything in those rooms when guests open the windows, which they always tend to do. Indeed, the olives were so completely covered with flowers that the dark green of the fields yielded to a pearly whitish gloss that enveloped the entire land. I was struck by the fact that the olives in Andalucía looked much more youthful than ours in Galilee. I read and discovered the secret: In Spain the farming tradition dictates that an olive is allowed to yield its life-giving fruit for a hundred year cycle before it is cut. Two or three vigorous new shoots rising from the old root system are selected and nurtured into young adulthood for another one hundred year cycle. That is why all the fields look in their prime and why one sees two, three or sometimes four beauties in each flamenco circle of olives in the field. When I closed my eyes for a moment at the edge of the hacienda I could hear the clicking of heels and the sentimental crooning of Gypsies singing their pain and hope.

Toufiq, my fellow traveler from Arrabeh and closest soul mate in the village, and I spent hours delving into our most charged deep sentiments and attempting to put in words for each other and for our accompanying wives the rapacious yearning Andalusca awakened in our souls. Toufiq was enchanted with the proposition that the time has come for a new interpretation of history. He started his theorizing at the Cathedral in Cordoba: The accepted standard narrative is about a church that Abdul-Rahman tore down to build the Great Mosque only for part of it to be torn down by the Catholic Monarchs for it to revert to a church. Essentially the same narrative applies to the sequence of historical events relevant to Seville’s Cathedral and its bell tower, the Giralda, and to many a church currently in use in Andalucía. Why not reconcile history to fit with peace and friendship between peoples? Why not look at these miraculous edifices as the fruit of the integration and not the clash of two peoples and their combined cultures. I understood this to be Toufiq’s communist rhetoric resurfacing on demand to deal with an irksome and conflicted reality. But no, he insisted, it is his sincere wish to see the people of Spain and the Arab world linked in a positive way to allow for the culmination of such a promising possibility. He kept repeating that he felt at a loss as to how to share the same elation he feels at seeing the integrated architectural skills of the two peoples. And why is there not a single brochure in Arabic about all the rich archeology of the Arabs in all the sites we visited from Alhambra to the Giralda and Alcazar? And there are so few Arabs touring those sites, despite the fact that in Marbella there is a whole compound for the Saudi king and his family. But that is the money speaking, not the people. Why shouldn’t Arab and Islamic tourism thrive in Andalucía? I told my friend that I read somewhere that Spain is having problems with fundamentalist Moslems wanting to claim part of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. He immediately dropped part of his grand plan: “Leave Islam and Christianity out of it. Give me a few million dollars and I will start a cooperative effort with the Spanish ministry of tourism based on all the positive aspects of what the Arabs and the people of Spain have achieved and could do together,” he shouted. “It is the greatness of our two peoples that excites me, not their religious conflicts. Look at those red and white stone arches soar into that white vaulted space of the cathedral. Doesn’t that magic integration excite and inspire anyone but me?”

My own incredulity came to stymied and confused expression when I tried to express my enchanted elation at the site of the endless vistas of olive groves enveloping the entire terrain of Andalucía through which we were traveling. An Arabic expression that defied my translation skills came to mind. The verb implies that a scene or a scent opens one’s heart – qalb in Arabic -- or inspires the soul. But that is not all. The meaning of ‘yashrahu al-qalb’ transcends that; the verb actually implies a degree of violence and forced entry. Its closest English literal equivalent would be ‘to splay’ one’s heart or to slice it open. I struggled with attempting to share the full sense and flavor of the expression with my wife. To my admittedly limited knowledge, no single word in the English language, her mother’s tongue, carries the same psychological and sentimental connotation. The linguistic field having failed to serve my full purpose I tried to explain the word through examples from our shared experience: The olive scene we were looking at ‘yashrahu al-qalb,’ I explained. So does the vista of wind-swept endless expanses of brown wheat we saw earlier in the foothills after we left Malaga, its vast sea stirred into wave-like motion. And so does the smell of wheat bread fresh out of the oven. Pleasure aroused through the auditory sense doesn’t qualify for the expression; it is limited to sight and smell but not the other senses. But listening to Fairuz’s lilting rendition of Andalucía’s romantic Arabic poetry comes very close to the experience of something that ‘yashrahu al-qalb.’ And so does feeling the gentle caress of the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in our front yard in Arrabeh. I think my wife understood the concept. But Toufiq nearly ruined it for me by claiming that for him the thought of the synchronous greatness of human minds from different cultures ‘yashrahu al-qalb’ as well. I contested that claim at the experiential level.

Then, toward the end, my friend and fellow traveler threw a monkey wrench in the works that nearly ruined the whole trip for all of us, especially as I felt challenged to match his misgivings with a corollary of my own. Toufiq acknowledged that he found meandering down the Arabian memory lane in Andalucía in springtime particularly refreshing. Alas, a vague sense of impending aggravation had accompanied him all through the spree. He did not dwell on it but could not free himself completely of its nagging. As he shared this with the rest of us, its exact nature dawned on him: At the end of this most liberating two-week sojourn, he knew deep in his subconscious, we will be returning to Israel and its oppressive airport security procedures. Our Arab identity, the very same secret source of distinct pride and elation in Al-Andalus, will serve to discredit and disadvantage us in Israel. And it won’t end at any foreseeable geographic or temporal deadline like our trip does.

My own vague sense of trepidation came from different psychological concerns. All through our trip I couldn’t but harbor a mild feeling of guilt, an undercurrent of negativity that nearly always perturbs my joy and comfort in any pleasurable circumstance: By what right did I qualify for such a treat while so many others who I knew would have enjoyed it just as much did not? I know all the standard responses I could marshal to justify my occasional forays into pleasurable adventure. And these are likely to be convincing to most. Still, I failed to submerge completely the uncomfortable tug of so many disadvantaged others at my heart.

In the privacy of my dreams I came up with a plan that frees me from all guilt: What I doubt others would have contemplated after such a trip is my secret plan for endless joy and rejuvenation: I will open a school for Flamenco in Arrabeh. True, I lack the musical bend, the booming voice, the rhythm and the physical agility. But I have the suffering and the hope.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Rachel Corrie Case: Reality imitating the Dream

The stage was set for the strangest of dreams but my dreams revolved around what was actually happening: I had arrived back on a night flight from a two-week pleasure tour of Andalucía and taken the train to arrive in Haifa at six in the morning. I got off at the central train station by the port and proceeded to walk around aimlessly till the district court opened its gates. I hadn’t wandered around these parts since my high school days when I used to tour the racy port area of Haifa with some local friends. At the time our inexperience and lack of funds limited the extent of our engagement in the area’s burgeoning sex enterprises to ogling the skimpily dressed professionals out on their hunt. Sadly, all that is but a vague memory now. Not a single hooker accosted me on this occasion. I wondered if it was my age, the hour of the day or the area’s dismal failure in terms of business, all thriving shops having moved up to the fancier sections of the Carmel Mount in recent times. I stopped at the one café that was open at this early hour. The host welcomed me in the best of local Galilee Arabic dialects but was equally proficient in Hebrew, English and German with other customers; he seemed to figure out people’s language preference by their looks. I sipped my coffee slowly over the next hour, paid my bill, answered the host’s questions about where I was from and what I did, and headed to the court just as the guards were setting up their security check apparatus and opening the doors. I directed my steps to the coffee shop for a second cup of coffee in the hope of keeping awake in court.

The Corries arrived and then their lawyers and the regular small crowd of correspondents, translators, American embassy staff and sundry Israeli leftists. As I chatted with Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother, I discovered to my absolute surprise that not everyone in the world is fully aware of the glorious history of the Arab rule in Spain. Who in the world but Arabs is to be credited with the original contribution of the Arabesque designs one finds in all kinds of Spanish-made tiles I wondered. In another millennium or two, when the whole Middle East is awash with the Star of David, will it be credited to Saudi Arabia for instance and not to Israel? Or would Saudi young women dancing the Hora take full credit for it? Why then doesn’t the world credit the Arabs with evolving the Flamenco? I was on the verge of launching an exposé of the Arabs’ salubrious contributions to Europe’s renaissance and enlightenment for Cindy’s benefit. Alas, others arrived and interrupted our conversation. It occurred to me that, with a little stretch of the imagination, I could personally lay claim to having contributed, through my ancestors in Andalucía, to so many valued underpinnings of science, the arts and American culture from the invention of the zero and the introduction of the guitar all the way to the very name of such familiar landmarks as Guadalajara in neighboring Mexico. And what did we get in return through this incontrovertible romantic chain of historic events? The tobacco weed and Israel!

In the courtroom at the top floor of the modern building, the setting was dreamlike: The morning sunrays shone through the tall windows on either side of the judge’s elevated platform rendering his seat not unlike what I imagined King Solomon’s throne would have looked like. The session started with a faux pas by the Corrie’s lawyer that left its damaging effect on the entire uninterrupted four-and-a-half-hour session: When the judge was finished with a minor procedural issue in an unrelated case he called for Hussein Abu-Hussein but was informed that the lawyer had gone to answer the call of nature. The Judge was visibly upset and stormed out to his adjacent private quarters. When he came back, the stenographer, who with the advent of the electronic recording equipment apparently has taken on the added task of modulating the judge’s mood, seemed to attempt to assuage his anger with one teacup after another till he returned to his usual level of tense normality. The session then proceeded with repeated angry outbursts at Abu-Hussein for not comprehending the witness’s answers the right way. I was not fully convinced that this all was because of the faulty start and theorized to myself between nodding in and out of light sleep about an alternative explanation. The judge had a ruddy tan and I hit on the explanation that he must have spent his Passover vacation in some resort on the Red Sea and was aggravated by the Egyptians’ new-found sense of dignity after their Spring uprising. The judge missed Mubarak, I figured.

The witness was none other than the spokeswoman of the IDF at the time of the Rachel Corrie ‘incident.’ I was disappointed. I had imagined such a high-ranking officer, the woman once charged with justifying the nation’s entire struggle to implement the dream of greater Israel on grounds of security needs, to be armed to the teeth. And I imagined her to be a big fierce hussy of Germanic stock, trained in martial arts, dressed in military uniform, and ready to shoot me at first sight, plant the extra handgun she always carries on my corpse and issue a statement to the press regarding her action in self-defense. None of this! In fact the woman was a diminutive but spry middle-aged run-of-the-mill oriental civilian with salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair ending in a breezy curl. The magic morning sunlight streaming from the windows framed her in profile from where I sat rendering her rather attractive. I was impressed by her apparent charm and self-confidence. She fit my mental image of queen Sheba of old.

Alas, the changing play of natural light and the constant chipping of Abu-Hussein at her display of self-confidence blemished her image despite the judge repeatedly coming to her aid. By noon she was diminished in my eyes to a mere shadow of her former charming self. The midday sun now emphasized her actual features revealing a dour menopausal white-haired damsel in considerable distress under the focused questioning of the bullying Palestinian lawyer trying to cast doubt on her former role and current credibility. Amazingly, in the process of dragging her through the mud of the IDF record of human rights violations, Abu-Hussein caused even the cute upturn at the neck of her initially fancily styled hair to slacken to a frizzle. He kept quoting to her from various press resources, managing in the process to call her ‘a liar,’ ‘Israel’s Goebbels,’ and more. The poor woman had to resort to some terrible means of verbal self-defense despite the judge’s obvious sympathy. At one point, when her opinion was asked regarding a statement to the effect that the IDF has a tradition of lying and manufacturing misleading information, she spit out the same venomous charges against the Palestinians.

By this time I had nodded off again to the domain of light sleep. In my dream I saw the women entertaining the troops battling at the borders of Greater Israel. She danced a wild Flamenco while holding a tray with Mahmud Abbass’s head on it over her head. I woke from the hilarious dream to find the woman still talking away at a-mile-a-minute speed about the antics of the Palestinian National Authority. A couple of times she stuck out her tongue in midsentence with a ghastly effect. As I dozed off again the image I visualized changed from a crow to a snake. I ran away in panic and the person next to me found it necessary to wake me up with a jab in the ribs. The judge was at it again admonishing the translators to lower their voices. “I am not sure in the USA they would extend the privilege of translating for the audience like I do for you,” he scolded. At this stage I dozed off again but this time into deeper sleep. My friend was there. She kept sticking her tongue at me. Except that it was definitely forked. It must come with the job description, I figured.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

I knew already that Haaretz bore a grudge against me: The editors never saw fit to publish any of my pieces, topical, deep and insightful as they all were. Now they let the cat out of the bag: In the first sentence of their April 20, 2011 editorial they call me “immoral wealthy.” They are cagy enough not to mention me by name. Rather they lump me along with all sorts of other villa-owning rich and mighty Israelis involved in the shady business of transplanting ancient olive trees into their front yards. You might be tempted to call me paranoid. But the whole world knows about my Roman olive tree; I wrote an account of my search for it and of the act of smuggling it into my garden in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, Pluto Press, 2008. Who doesn’t know of that book! Don’t tell me Haaretz editors want to play dumb and make believe they didn’t spend days peering through it to pick up hints of Israeli delegitimization so they can have an excuse to avoid reviewing it in their book section. After all, it now appears that some of their correspondents double as anti-Israel-delegitimization workers. Here, check it for yourself:

Believe me, I was not above having a mild quiver of excitement at being mentioned, by implication if not by name, in the same breath with the presumed operatives involved in this olive tree business, all those high military commanders and those multimillionaires of Savyon and Shavei Zion, even if we all were presumed to be criminally tainted by our front yard ancient olive trees. It took the reading of the investigative report that was published over a week later in the English version of Haaretz to appreciate the full significance of my being associated in the readers’ mind with that economic upper crust. In attempting to criminalize us, the upper economic crust of Israel, the editors identify me as one of the “upper thousandth percentile.” I did the calculation and it put us among the wealthiest twenty or so households in the country. Someone should inform my wife. She still feeds me leftovers and greens she picks with her own hands from under that same symbol of our filthy rich status.

Actually Maya Zinshtein, the investigative report who started it all in Haaretz, has a kinder outlook on the plight of some of those caught in the act of owning an ancient olive tree in their garden. She allows a certain way-out for those amongst us who are less than full members in the true olive mafia. “The other type of buyer is the person who loves the olive tree and invests in it the way a real art lover invests in a work of art – with no regard for the cost,” she states. I like that. It does not reduce me to a pauper economically while still distinguishing me from the other criminal types involved in ancient olive tree trade. After all, you have to be affluent to be one who “invests in a work of art.” Then Maya goes out of her way to be kind to me: “Arabs do not remove trees from the ground,” she declares. I really appreciate the gesture, Maya! I do have a very soft spot in my heart for the name. Maya was our part-poodle dog that was very close to my growing children. In fact Maya the dog was so loving and kind that she breastfed our two orphaned baby cats. I have pictures to prove it.

You can’t really blame the woman for her timidity in her pro-Arab bend of mind. After all, the whole shady business is fraught with Arab mendacity, witness ‘Al-Bustan’ the name given by its Jewish owner to the major nursery involved in the trade and located next to an Arab town to boot. As if that were not enough of a taint, the whole process of inventive maneuvering around the multiple authorities in moving an ancient olive tree is likened in the report to the documentation of a thoroughbred Arabian horse. All of this while we all know that such smuggling is fraught with “the introduction of disease and blight.” No wonder we allow Palestinians like those in the village of Hableh separated (what else?) by the separation wall from their olives to visit the trees only twice a year. It is dangerous!

As a matter of fact the editorial also reeks of the same pro-Palestinian prejudice, in itself a noteworthy rarity bordering on the criminal. “Many trees have been stolen from their owners in the territories, and in other cases, heavy pressure is brought to bear on Palestinian farmers to sell their trees, taking advantage of their powerlessness and making huge profits at their expense,” it states. Don’t let this fool you though. The olive tree is declared to be “one of the hallmarks of the land of Israel.” Never mind the Palestinian adoption of the olive as a symbol of their resistance and steadfastness. Like falafel it has been hijacked by the Israelis as part and parcel of their native culture and intrinsic identity. The day may yet come when the image of Arafat holding an olive branch as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly is adopted as a Zionist symbol and the white dove with the olive branch in its beak stands for Golda Meir. Don’t tell me the world is not ready for that! Remember, President George W. Bush declared Ariel Sharon “a man of peace” and no one seemed to mind.

The fading of the line between the real and the imagined in this experimental undertaking of mine in attempting to read between the lines of Haaretz reaches its most ridiculous in the parallel the reporter and the editors imply between the law enforcement authorities in Israel and in the Palestinian National Authority regarding the protection of olives “in the Land of Israel.” In fact some Israelis involved in the murky olive tree trade are reported to complain “that the PA has been making life difficult for them.” Just for the record, we should note the PA has no military camps, no settlements, and no illegal settler outposts inside Israel, and no security wall cutting through Israeli communities and separating their residents from their farms and olive trees. Notice also the multiplicity of Israeli authorities officially charged with the task of the legal powers to protect the olive both in Israel and in “Judea and Samaria,” the land of our forefathers in which we, the Israelis, are temporarily tolerating the continued presence of some Goyem: Two separate departments of the Ministry of Agriculture, The Jewish National Fund, The Police, the Border Police, the IDF, the Civil Administration, and the Tax authority, to name only those mentioned in the article. It takes little imagination to figure how many palms one has to grease for a safe trip from source to final destination. No wonder we, the select few, have to be multimillionaires to afford those trees.

If a simile is to be made on the other side of the defunct Green Line, there are only Hamas and Fatah with whom to negotiate on the way of a stolen olive out of its native Palestine to its new home in Occupied Palestine, aka the Zionist Entity to the newly reunited Palestinian leadership. The olive is such a potent Palestinian symbol that most likely one has to deal directly with the entire reconciled Palestinian leadership, Mahmud Abbas and Haneyeh themself included. And, barring their occasional pre-occupation with such weighty guests as Tony Blair, they probably will tend to the actual digging, hauling and replanting of the ancient olive for you. But you better have a lot of grease at hand.

I recall how intimidated I was by the massive monster of a tree hanging above me from a cable at the free end of a crane as I stood at the bottom of the hole I had dug in my front yard to receive my olive. Indeed, it is a risky undertaking, especially for a group habitually accident-prone and used to trusting others with its own fate. Who do you think would be interested in making that cable snap at the right moment above the group’s head? And will they be buried at sea like Osama or will they be left to push that olive tree?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

High Fever

This is the second sample of my writing posted here in the process of applying for the Writer's Institute. It is the first chapter in my forthcoming book called "Chief Complaint."

“On their faces are their marks, (being) the traces of their prostration.”
From the holy Koran

In the middle of a rainy dark night there was a knock at the door. Didi went to the door to deflect another disturbance to my fitful sleep. It was in the days when I had little choice but to receive emergencies regardless of how many there were in one night. She came back and shook me out of sleep into another physician’s nightmare:
“It sounds serious enough. And it is another house call. You think you could drive or should I drive you?”
I stumbled to the door but had to rub my eyes twice before I could believe who was there. It was a classmate I hadn’t seen since high-school days. Even under the exceptional circumstances I had the presence of mind to make the socially required gesture of asking him into our humble abode: “Tfaddal –honor us and come in!” I blurted after a vigorous hug.
“Not at this hour, thank you. And we need you to come see my father at home right away. You remember my father, old man Abd-el-’Athim – Servant of the Almighty --, don’t you? He is boiling with fever and has started to speak shatt wmaghyabani -- abstract nonsense.”
I got my bag and we were on our way on foot. The house was not far.

We found Abd-el-’Athim at the door of his single room home with his wife and daughter hanging onto his arms as he attempted to escape. And indeed he was speaking shatt, wanting to be let go off so he can fetch something black he needed. None of us understood exactly what that was or where he wanted to go. He was dressed in his standard three-piece outfit of blotchy and tired white shirwal, a gray woolen shirt thoroughly drenched with sweat, and a long lambskin coat, its bedraggled locks heavy with years of accumulated grime. And he looked exactly like I remembered him some fifteen years earlier when he came to see me off as I readied myself for my fateful departure to study medicine; nearly every man in the village attended that occasion, of course. He was a giant of a man, cause enough for his fellow villagers to contract his name simply to ‘Almighty,’ with roughhewn rock head over a short neck and broad sloping bearlike shoulders, red eyes with lash-less lids, a week’s worth of white stubble on his face that seemed to merge imperceptibly into his thick chest hair and around to his ears, and a tuft of thick matted curly graying red hair under an old hand-sewn skullcap. He immediately recognized me and treated me as his guest extending his huge hand in greeting. Despite its bulbous joints and firm locking grip around my hand, his rough hand felt feverish. He asked me in and welcomed me as best as he could, explaining that he was actually preparing to come to my home next to the diwan – classic men-only guesthouse -- of my uncle Salih, his former boss, and that he needed that black ointment from his friend, my father. I tried to explain that I no longer lived at that address and that my parents were both long dead and gone as was my uncle. But he didn’t seem to comprehend. He insisted that as soon as his wife finished making tea “lawajbak -- for your due welcome” and he di his morning two compulsory prostrations to God we would be going to my father’s place. His wife didn’t make tea; she went out the backdoor to the adjoining shed, we heard their cow moo in objection to being disturbed at that hour of night, their donkey responded with sharp braying, then the wife came back with some milk and made us fresh café latte on the rekindled embers in the primitive earthen fireplace right next to the couple’s sleeping floor space.

With the help of his son, my classmate, we managed to get Abd-el-’Athim to lie still in a supine position on his sheep’s-wool stuffed mattress. In the faint kerosene lamp’s light, augmented intermittently by the flickering of the revived fire in the hearth, the moss-like white fuzz on his ears and the permanent bemused smile of acceptance with undetermined reservations on his wrinkled face created the eerie impression of being in the presence of a sacrificial lamb, or rather a sacrificial ram. And his face spoke medical history to me: The moonscape, lit up only on one side, betrayed deep creases spreading out from the depth of his eye socket down to his ear, intercepted at right angle by deeper furrows around his toothless mouth, with the entire terrain interspaced with many dark craterlike depressions, the pockmarks of childhood small pox. Two brothers died and one sister went blind but Abd-el-’Athim escaped with only permanent deep scarring.

And there was that darkened fig-size coarse protuberance in the middle of his forehead declaring to the world that he was a practicing good Muslim prostrating himself in private communion with God five times a day. The repeated touching of the forehead to the ground, when done with enough vigor to emphasize devoutness and seriousness of intent, especially when the supplicant’s head is particularly heavy or dropped down with abandon, confirms the prescription in the holy Koran of “simahum fi wujuhihim – On their faces are their marks.” And Abd-el-’Athim had all it takes to cultivate a large and angry identifying sign. A neighbor was known to avoid standing next to Abd-el-’Athim at the Friday noon group prayer because the sudden collapsing style of his prostrating himself and the forceful pounding of his forehead on the mosque’s floor would distract this neighbor from his own focused attention on God in heaven. But then, this neighbor had a questionable commitment to the faith as per his family’s reports of his repeated doubts concerning the validity of the promised rewards in the afterlife for keeping on the straight and narrow path in this one. Especially on cold winter mornings when doing his ablutions with cold water in the open yard and after finishing the washing of his genitalia he would be heard talking to himself: “And what if there is no afterlife?” And when tilling one of his fields in the Battouf Valley he always chose to pray at the southeast corner of the field, leading people to speculate that as he prostrated himself on the ground he would nudge the border demarcation stone a few millimeters into the neighbor’s field.

I did a cursory medical examination in search of the source of Abd-el-’Athim’s 41 centigrade fever. It wasn’t hard to decipher; his leg was red, swollen and tender and his wife confirmed that the chronic pus flow from the open wound in it had lessened for the previous week. I touched his leg. He jerked it away and started hallucinating about needing to visit my father to bring that black ointment for his wound. It now dawned on me what residual memories must be swirling in his head. He must have heard his family discussing the need to call me over and remembered a pertinent incident from our shared past.

I explained, more to his wife, son and daughter than to him, that in my judgment he needed to be in a hospital and promised to visit him in a day or two. They must have already thought about that; they wouldn’t hear of it. “Is he that bad off?” they wanted to know. And if so, they preferred that he die at home. Much as I tried they stood their ground and enlisted the man of the house, in his massively incoherent way, to refuse the suggestion. Some of the best tricks of the medical trade that I had learned at Harvard came from its School of Public Health not Medical School. In the face of the family’s intransigence I recalled the words of Dr. Maurice King on the one occasion that he guest-lectured us on international health and the practice of medicine in developing countries based on his experience in Africa: “If you were to go out in the wild and were given the choice of taking a single medication with you, take an ampoule of Penicillin.” Any prescription of a broad-spectrum antibiotic meant waiting until the morning and a trip to the city. I gave Abd-el-’Athim a massive dose of intramuscular Penicillin and requested to see him in six hours at my clinic. I begged him to drink a lot of water, figuring that in his confusion he was no better than a child who may slip into dehydration. With his rough and redundant flaps it was impossible to judge his state of hydration based on skin elasticity.

The old man showed up only the next evening during my regular clinic hours. His wife explained that he had slept through the morning hours. And he ate a hearty lunch of Mjaddara, the local heavy-sinking near-daily stable dish of cooked bulgur wheat, lentils, olive oil and onions, the consumption of which is considered a testament and a supplement to a peasant’s health and vigor. Abd-el-’Athim’s elephantine appetite was legendary in the village. People claimed that in his youth he came home one moonlit night to find the family tin-plated copper dish on the floor next to the hearth with the moonlight from the chimney striking it at an angle. He mistook the light reflection on the empty dish for the scrumptious shine of homemade yogurt, sprinkled a little salt on it and polished off five loaves of his mother’s homemade bread dipped in the imaginary delicacy. Another account I have heard of his voracious appetite speaks of him in his teenage years. Because of his bulk and the absence of any caution, much less fear, in the way he conducted himself in confrontational circumstances, he once was entrusted with the task of guarding a whole neighborhood in the Christian village of Rama. A dispute had erupted between the Nakhlis and the Khuris, the two prominent clans there. The elders from other Galilee villages were alerted, interfered, separated the two warring parties and left one physically fit peacekeeper in charge of each of the two neighborhoods overnight. ‘The Almighty,’ armed with his hefty nabbout –fighting stick-- was put in charge of protecting the Nakhlis should the Khuris think of attacking them. That evening when he dined with his host family and managed to polish off all the prepared food for a dozen people before they had a chance to start, Jamil Nakhli, the respected head of the family, relieved him of his duty with the admonition that “My enemies, the Khuris, can never be crueler to my family than you!”

In my clinic Abd-el-’Athim was clear as a bell; no hallucinations; he remembered none of the previous night’s events. But he knew what black ointment he thought he still needed:
“You were a little child, not older than two years when those mules dragged you and bashed your head against the stone,” he now confirmed my suspicions. There is no doubt that my seemingly vivid recollection of the traumatic event is the result of having heard the story repeated so many times by my parents and others of their generation, and not a true memory. To this day, and right now as I stop typing and press my finger on the bare spot at the vortex of my scalp, it feels as if it gives way a little. Before I became a doctor and had a chance once to see a scan of my head, I had always assumed that a piece of bone was missing there.

It happened on a hot summer afternoon. My father was having a smoke and a sip of black coffee in the shade of the pomegranate tree at the gate to our compound. We, his two youngest children, were playing with age mates in the village square fronted by the entrance to our compound, with my uncle’s diwan on one side of the road and on the other by the wall of the same uncle Salih’s compound. Then there was the cross street and to its far side the huge round stone with a hole in its center that formed the opening to a communal rainwater cistern usually covered by a metal flap. Such hand-sculpted stone was called kharazi –a bead, because of its shape and next to it a stone trough fom which the work animals drank. A run-away team of two mules of my uncle’s came racing from the east with Abd-el-’Athim shouting, cursing, and running after them. Somehow, I became entangled in their reins. I was swept away by the mules that headed straight to that big stone, one on each side of it, and my head slammed against it causing the rope to snap and me to be released. Abd-el-’Athim abandoned his mule chase, grabbed me and brought me to my father who had seen it all happen and was sapped out of his ability to move at all. He was surprised that I was still alive; scooping a handful of coffee grounds, he pressed it against the gash in my scalp till the bleeding stopped. Others gathered at the scene and someone took a knife to his leather belt and scraped away at it to produce some organic powder to apply to the wound as a supplement to the coffee grounds. In the meantime, the team of wild mules was subdued and Abd-el-’Athim was dispatched on the back of one to Nazareth to bring ‘black ointment,’ a medicated petroleum jelly, from the French Nuns Infirmary there. My survival was taken by relatives to be a proof of my hard-headedness, some even claiming that there was a permanent chip in that kharazi stone. Abd-el-’Athim still remembered the beneficial effects of the black ointment that the nuns had given him gratis.

Abd-el-’Athim came to my clinic for his daily penicillin injection for a couple of weeks. I managed to take care of the acute flare-up but the chronic Osteomyelitis persisted. He lived most of his adult life with that running sore in his leg where he had taken a bullet in the 1936 Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate Government and against the creeping implementation of its Balfour Declaration. Partially because of it he had become a veritable living legend in the Arrabeh of my childhood, a role model of peasant simplicity, ingenuity and steadfastness, stretching all such noble qualities beyond reason and the acceptable. He was reputed, for example, as having once trapped a British army commander and made him the laughing stock of the village and his own company: British soldiers at the time often entered Palestinian homes and reeked havoc with the peasants’ stored food items for their families and animals of flour, grain and olive oil. They would spill it all on the house floor in one pile, mix it together, and leave feeling victorious, all as a punishment for the villagers’ presumed sympathies with the revolt. What Abd-el-‘Athim did was to dig a hole in the floor large enough to house a barrel of olive oil which he covered casually with a strawmat of his own handweaving, all before the army entered the house for their ‘peaceful’ exercise of authority. As the officer exited the house drenched with oil, he was cerenaded by a band of children raining stones over his head.

‘Athim was reputed also to have participated in the two seminal Palestinian resistance movements to British Mandate designs, the 1936 revolt and the 1948 war, armed with nothing more than a gun with no bullets and a dozen disabled hand grenades strung around his waist. Damarjan, a Syrian of Armenian descent who was the commander of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) in Arrabeh in 1948, tried to train Abd-el-’Athim in the use of hand grenades. When Abd-el-’Athim accidentally struck Demarjan with the defunct grenade in the chest, the latter dropped the attempt and went back to his favorite pastime of the war era, that of lying in his hammock in the shade of the cypress trees at Arrabeh’s school that his troops used as their headquarters with a couple of underlings swinging him in the breeze. Till now, this and other shameful such acts as demanding to be fed and commandeering donkeys from farmers are reported by surviving villagers as typical of the fighting skills, the help and the protection offered us by the ragtag ALA, actions spun by Zionist propagandists into “invasion by the armies of seven Arab countries.”

Abd-el-’Athim is remembered more for his daring and sheer physical strength than for his smarts. In his youth, caught stealing olives from the fields of the neighboring village of Dier Hanna, he was imprisoned in a second-story room. He swore to put all of that village’s farming efforts out of commission. At night he escaped by jumping out of a window while a pursuer broke his leg doing the same. On the way home he carried away a total of seven wooden plows from the village, each usually heavy enough for a mule.

Now, the old worrier related to me when and how he took that bullet. His sentimental reminiscing and the circumstantial details were almost as interesting to me as the clinical case:
“I was still young and used to be a loner, just me and my gun in the mountains harassing the British whenever I had a chance. But I spent most of my time at Ein Natif (the natural spring east of Arrabeh that was once copious enough for the entire village. Now Mekorot, the Israeli Water company, had tapped the source and reduced the spring’s flow to a trickle. To add insult to injury, by now the meager source is most likely contaminated by the settlement of Hararit on the hill above it.) You see, those were hard times and I had fashioned my own boots out of raw cowhide. But it kept drying up and getting tight and crinkly around my toes. So I would go to the spring, sit on the edge of the pool and dangle my feet in it for hours on end to soak those boots of mine. Not much of a fighter, believe me. Still one time they got me in the shin. I managed to hobble away and hide in the bushes where I nearly bled to death.”

Abd-el-’Athim’s ineptitude in the arts of war did not diminish his attachment to his old gun. In 1948 when all of Arrabeh’s men had surrendered what few guns they had, he hid his gun, camouflaging it as another stick in the roof of an abandoned shack in his yard. Next to it he stretched out his broad belt, strung with a supply of live bullets. A few months later, in early winter when the refuse from the pressed olives provided plentiful fuel for it, his wife decided to activate her taboun -- the outside oven -- in the abandoned shack. The very first night, when the temperature reached its peak in the shed, Abd-el-’Athim and most of his neighbors were awakened by volleys of live fire. He immediately tried to come up with another camouflage, this time for the disturbing telltale rapid-fire explosions. He reached for his nabbout -- fighting stick -- and started banging with it on an old corrugated iron sheet by the shed. The few neighbors who had slept through the initial disturbance were now awakened. Someone ratted and Abd-el-’Athim had to surrender his weapon and spend several months in jail.

Some ten years later Abd-el-’Athim had another brush with mortality. If he were not much of a fighter, as he himself admitted, he was not much of a farmer either, as his meager annual agricultural crops from his land proved. Like most of his fellow villagers, he owned a modest share of land mostly in our fertile Battouf Valley. He would let his relatives farm it and, on occasion, when not acting the rebel, would serve as a plowman for big landholders in the village like my uncle Saleh. He was a repository of great muscle power but not of much help in managing and directing that resource. When lining up say with a team of reapers in a wheat field, he would volunteer to “tame the field” by running wild with his sickle changing direction at random from one end to the other and then again crosswise. He claimed that this way the field would be terrorized into submission to fellow reapers as they moved in one organized sweep. His style became known by his name, Abd-el-’Athim’s reaping technique. On one such random venture he came across another unexploded mine left in the fields by the British armed forces and tried to examine it with the tip of his sickle. The explosion was heard clear across the valley but, miraculously, his only injury this time was to the area of his genitalia. News of the accidental explosion reached his wife and she ran down the long road wailing and shouting out Abd-el-’Athim’s name. A cynical old man who had been at the scene gave her the most enigmatic and unsettling news, reassuring her with the assertion that “Abd-el-’Athim will be all right. It is only your share in him that has gone missing.” And, in fact, they never brought into the world any more children other than the one boy (my classmate, who began this chapter by interrupting my sleep) and the one girl whom they already had.

Those two children would one day, so late in the game that many people had forgotten and others had never known Abd-el-’Athim or his wife, bring shame to the remaining traces of good memory of their parents. It all started at the turn of the millennium when the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were cleverly goaded by Sharon of Sabra and Shatella ill repute, on his way to becoming Israel’s prime minister, into launching their second intifada. The inheritance of the late Abd-el-’Athim and his wife had been settled in favor of their boy as is customary in Galilee Arab families, the girl not only accepting the Shari’a-based half share of the property in preference to a civil court option of an equal share to her brother’s but also signing over her half share to him. Each of the two siblings had started a new family, he in Arrabeh and she in a village in the occupied West Bank. Her husband was another Palestinian illegal worker in Israel who crossed the border in search of livelihood. At first it was forbidden for him to stay in Israel overnight and Abd-el-’Athim hid him in his humble abode as another member of the family, Then it became forbidden for Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to enter Israel altogether and the young man sneaked across in the belly of a five-kilometer-long sewer line wading in the liquid refuse of settlers like a rat. On occasion, a group of occupation soldiers would be waiting at the exit and they would force him to wade back in the sewer line to its Palestinian exit. Then his marriage itself became forbidden on this side so as to temper the Palestinians’ animalistic propensity to reproduction. The newly-wed couple had to escape back toٍ his West Bank village.

The siblings’ relations were normal till the sister lost her husband in the violence of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Her husband dead, she found herself with a slew of kids and no source of livelihood. That is when she reneged on her former traditional decision and asked to be given back her share of her parents’ land. The brother stonewalled and the two became avowed enemies. Then the brother’s kidneys failed and he needed a transplant. I was now brought again into the family’s saga as a physician and as someone whom both parties could possibly trust. The feud between the two had simmered long enough for most relatives to have taken sides and gained the enmity of one sibling or the other based on factual stand or, more often, on rumored pronouncements on the matter. I tried to seek some form of rapprochement between the two, enough to convince the woman, found to be the most appropriate match, to donate one of her kidneys to her sick brother. I spoke to the man about his sister’s need and dire circumstances and expressed my own conviction that she may have been unfairly pressured by next of kin to sign away her due share to him.
“Whoever heard of a man giving up his father’s land to a stranger? She was married to an outsider, not a relative. And her children are likely to sell the land to the government or to the Jewish Agency. Whoever heard of girls inheriting in Arrabeh? I ask you: Have you ever heard of a farmer agreeing to the sale of his father’s land to strangers, man? Here in Arrabeh, just last year, our neighbor killed his cousin over a disputed border between them. How can I give away my father’s land? It would disgrace his good name and memory as a pious farmer who lived and died by the dctates of his religion and local tradition”
She, in turn, stood her ground: “I never knew what I was signing. Besides, he has proven to be a stranger to me. He is no longer my brother. In fact he is so ugly that he could not have been the true seed of Abd-el-’Athim; he is a bastard. We are so different that my parts could never fit his body regardless what the doctors’ tests show.”

Regardless of his sister’s opinion, in the eyes of most villagers, Abd-el-’Athim’s son was no monster. He simply was acting in the best tradition of Galilee native farmers: To them land was not for sale or trade, not even for a promise of a new hold on life. I remember him making fun of his old man when we were in sixth grade and he reached the height to hold down the wooden plow and be trained in the honorable task of tilling the land:
“My old man drives me crazy. I make it all the way across the patch next to the house until our work team of ox and donkey pulling the plow are half way inside the cactus hedge and he still insists ‘a little further; keep going; a little more!’ Only when the animals refuse to go any further does he permit me to pull up the plow and turn around. And then he gives me the hoe and asks me to turn over the last bits by hand. You would think it is going to grow gold, that land, and not fava beans.”

Little of Abd-el-’Athim’s legendary tales was openly mentioned in my clinic as he came for his daily injections, though it all hung in the atmosphere like a pleasant familiar scent. On the last day, when he offered to make the extra payment for the initial house call, I refused to accept, considering it not only a justified step in the line of my professional duty but also a neighborly visit for the sake of the good old days. Abd-el-’Athim thereupon waxed poetic quoting from the Koran and sayings of the prophet and from the traditional elders of the faith. “They didn’t name you Hatim for nothing,” he ended, referring to the legendary pre-Islamic Christian Arab legendary model of generosity and good deeds with whom no Arab fails to identify the name. “I hope you don’t mind me saying it, but regardless of how hard you try, you will never be more of a friend to me than was your late father. As you know, people in Arrabeh consider me another simpleton who is happy to live from his land and do his required prayers. But your father never gave me that feeling; he always treated me as his equal.”
I don’t know if it worked, but I tried to give him that same feeling through the proper use of local parlance. I said that the course of treatment was now over. Then, to bridge the age gap between us, I added a differential parting endearment, a jovial pat of my hand on his shoulder just as I imagined my father would have done:
“Fargini a’rd ktafak –Show me the width of your shoulders!” I used the lighthearted colloquial way of saying ‘You can leave now.’

Abd-el-’Athim, my classmate’s venerable father, seemed pleased.

Olive Enchantment

Note: This is the last chapter in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, Pluto Press, 2008. It is posted here as the first sample of my writing in the process of applying to the Writers' Institute.

April 30, 2006
My central gardening achievement this spring has been the realization of my long-held dream of transplanting an ancient olive tree to grace the entrance to our yard. Friends and relatives have not stopped coming to view it. To guard against the evil eye of so many potential jealous admirers, my sister Jamileh has adorned its gnarled two-meter wide trunk with a huge blue bead and an amulet purchased on her pilgrimage to Mecca. Since its arrival I have reshaped the western side of the yard to measure up to its imposing stature and majestic look. I have refashioned the iron-gate, the ‘mosaic’ entryway, and the metal fence around the entire property. I find myself obsessed with daily tending to its welfare: watering its roots, manicuring its bark, and checking for signs of new growth sprouting from its branches, stripped clean during the transplanting process.
In Palestine, and probably in the wider Middle East, olive trees are described in terminology used to specify their relative age. ‘Rumi’ olives are those whose age is counted in millennia, their origin attributed to the golden era of the Roman Empire when the planting of olives was popularized throughout its domain -- though at one point a local ruler was apparently enraged enough to decree the destruction of all olive trees in Jerusalem. A local tour guidebook identifies as a ‘must-see landmark’ an olive tree on the Wadi Salameh hiking trail that winds among neighboring hills -- the location from which I moved my own tree. The guidebook estimates the age of that landmark tree to be over six thousand years. That is sacrilegious, of course, if you are a strict follower of the Jewish faith. According to that calendar, we are now in the year 5777 after creation. Obviously, that puts my tree at about the same age as God himself. Such an assertion is not so blasphemous to Galilean ears accustomed to hearing local bards declaim their lovesick song: ‘Tathal ahibbick ta-yikhatier rabbina’ -- I will still love you when God turns old and feeble.
The second age category is that of Amari olive trees, generally assumed to be from the era of Arab rule in the area. The age of Amari trees is estimated in centuries. A Rumi or an Amari olive tree is also known as a’amoud -- a pillar, in recognition of its stability, permanence and stature, physically, figuratively, and economically. This is in contradistinction to a nasbeh, Arabic for a monument or a memorial structure. A nasbeh is valued far in excess of its actual economic worth. To me as a villager, the term has romantic connotations evoking youthfulness, vigor, and the promise of future material wealth.
Ancient cultures had a mystical fascination with the olive. Adam was buried with an olive seed in his mouth, Noah eased his ark on land after the dove brought back an olive leaf as a sign of the return of tranquility, and the olive branch is the universal sign of peace and reconciliation. The Greeks received only two special gifts from their Gods: the olive and wisdom. Athena herself bequeathed the olive to her city, Athens, as an inviolable symbol; anyone desiring to harvest its sacred fruit had to take a vow of chastity. Olympic victors were crowned with olive wreaths and rewarded with huge amounts of olive oil, up to four tons. Hippocrates recognized the salutary health benefits of olive oil, while the ancient Egyptians used it for mummification and stocked their Pharaohs’ tombs with cured olives. The aphrodisiac powers of the olive fruit are legend the world over. The olive tree inspires and amazes: its majestic solitude in the stony Mediterranean terrain and magnanimous silence in the face of draughts and downpours have echoes of immortality.
In this, our holy land, the arrival and eventual hegemony of monotheism did little to contain the olive’s godly pretensions or to dislodge it from the inhabitants’ hearts. Jews incorporated the wood of the olive into their Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, and their most glorious revolt against the Romans was energized by the miraculous performance of its oil. The entire Christian church is referred to as an ‘Olive Tree’ and its prophets were anointed with olive oil. What Christian does not know about the Mount of Olives! In our local churches, till the present day, no baptism is complete without the priest marking the forehead of the baby with the cross, his forefinger dipped in holy olive oil.
Mention olives in any rural social setting here and an air of seriousness and veneration bordering on awe materializes instantaneously, even in the most secular of circles. People start mumbling the name of Allah and his blessed prophet, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, in due respect. Of all fruit-bearing trees only the fig, perhaps the first plant to be domesticated by humans anywhere on the face of the earth, has an equal moral stature, weighty enough for Allah to adorn with it the opening passage of a chapter in his holy book, the Koran. In another setting Allah, the creator and light of the universe, compares his own luminescence to that of a star-bright crystal lamp in a niche, the lamp fed oil from a blessed olive tree, the tree existing in a mystical location ‘neither easterly nor westerly.’ Could that be my tree, I wonder?
An olive tree produces more oil and of a higher quality as it ages. Like wine, the older the more rewarding and intriguing. Yet, a local turn of phrase in our region attests to the special emotional investment traditional farmers have in their olive seedlings. When someone commits a particularly heinous crime or speaks utter nonsense violating other people’s sensitivities, villagers commonly condemn the act as a deed deserving retribution by doing damage to the aggressor’s olives. ‘Haki bitqashshar aleh nasib’, they would opine, --talk deserving of stripping the bark off of young olive trees’, the harshest of all possible punishments short of physical elimination of the person himself.
In our fourth grade reader, a collection of Arabic literary gems selected by the venerable Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini, we read a story about Khisru, the wise Persian king. Seeing on one of his royal outings an old Arab farmer planting olive seedlings, the king questioned the man about the meaning of his labor. He must realize, he reasoned, that the trees would never come to fruition in his lifetime. “They planted, we eat; we plant, they will eat,” the old man responded, enigmatically summing up the multigenerational interdependence of olive farming. The king was struck by the simplicity and astuteness of the explanation. “Zih!” he shouted to his servants, using the Persian royal codeword for ordering a monetary gift for a subject.
“You see, your majesty, my olive seedlings have already yielded their first crop,” said the farmer pocketing his prize money.
“Zih!” the king shouted again, “and let us get away from this Arab before he robs us of all of our imperial reserves.”
For the past five years I have had an urge -- no, more, an infatuation -- to add an ancient olive tree to my garden. It started when I found the remains of an ancient Rumi olive tree lying on the edge of a field belonging to a fellow villager. I was taken aback by the crime of allowing such a living record of farming life in these parts to be chopped for wood. My attempt at resuscitating it apparently came too late, the tree trunk having been out of the ground for a couple of weeks before I saw it. Still, as I did my utmost to bring it back to life, it responded to the attention by sending a new shoot out of the ground. The trunk itself was never revived ,and now I use it as another stand for displaying my fossil finds from Mount Carmel.
As my failure fully to revive that wisp of ancient history sank in, I developed an obsession with Rumi olive trees, so firmly rooted, generously predisposed and wisely accepting of history’s perturbing turns and twists. Something about those trees evokes in my heart fond memories of my early childhood, days when we lived and labored in our olive orchards. I had to have one in my front yard. Every hike I took in the Galilee wound up being a hunt for the perfect Rumi tree. I saw thousands but each had something missing: some were not majestic enough in shape, squatty or too tall; the trunk of others was hollowed out to a mere thin shell that would not stand the physical injury of the transplanting process; and still others were not old enough. Last year, when a neighbor decided to pull out half a dozen old olive trees to empty the land for construction, I accepted his offer of one tree as a present. It was not exactly what I wanted but, then again, it was free of charge and I would be saving another venerable eyewitness to the history of our village. Even if its trunk was not carved that beautifully by the exigencies of history and natural phenomena, it still was of an age and height that compared favorably, for example, with those venerated olives in the Garden of Gethsemane. But alas, in the process of moving it, the trunk was damaged and I was left dreaming of my perfect olive tree again.
Then one weekend I accepted the offer of a friend to drive to his own olive grove in Wadi Salameh. He owed me a favor and had heard of my Rumi olive prospecting. We saw several worthy a’amouds that he or one of his relatives owned, but none fit the picture I had in my mind, my imagined tree occupying the space in my redesigned garden, a tree whose mere sight would inspire visitors and passers-by to reconnect instantaneously to our ancient roots in this historic land.
But leaving the site, my eye was caught by a beauty of an olive tree, a Rumi a’amoud of imperial stature, imposing configuration and monumental proportions. It stopped me in my tracks. I knew I belonged to that tree. It was the long-lost mother I had been searching for. It took total possession of my senses. The struggle of proving our relationship, our belonging to each other, to the rest of the world started right then and there. I had to find the person who had formal title to ‘my’ tree. That took the better part of a year. No one seemed to know to whom the well-tended piece of land around it belonged. A search of land records in the surrounding villages yielded the promising result that the land belonged to the Nassar family in Arrabeh, my village. I started inviting friends and distant acquaintances from that clan for rides in my new Subaru Outback. The rides invariably took us past that a’amoud. I had to be careful not to divulge my love story with the tree for fear of driving its price beyond my financial means. Eventually the trail led to the land’s owner, a school friend from my childhood days.
It was then that I discovered a historical curiosity about olive trees that is common knowledge to most farmers in the Galilee. Although the old school friend owned the land, he did not own the tree itself. That honor belonged to another former classmate of mine, one from Dier Hanna.
In the shadows of the Ottoman Empire, subsistence farming and heavy land taxes had yielded a real estate system that valued the productive olive tree more than the land on which it stood, thus allowing one to own a tree independently of the land. Once I uncovered this strange system, everyone in the village with whom I discussed it quoted an example of conflict and intrigue between neighbors or relatives prompted by this separation between ownership of the tree and ownership of the land on which it stood. Apparently, such circumstances obtain only in the case of ancient olive trees; no other tree has the permanence, status and traditional value as a source of livelihood to rate a special custom or even an Ottoman law recognizing its sanctity.
Though the owner of the tree does not own the land, he or she has at their disposal, for as long as the tree lives, 64 square meters of land around it, an area traditionally recognized as the olive tree’s mihrath or cultivation space. In other words, the olive tree ‘owns’ the land around it. In fact, that is the wording of a local axiom: ‘Ezzatoun bumluk’ -- Olives own, it states simply. At least in my case, that depicts the true relationship between me and my tree: it possesses me more than I it. And in the constricted perspective of rural life, that meant forever: the ownership of such an a’amoud devolved down the generations in patrilineal inheritance, just as the land did in a parallel, separate fashion. When the male descendants divided an inherited field between themselves, such a division took the number and known productive potential of the olive trees into consideration and not the area of the land.
No self-respecting villager would ever think of messing around with these sacred inheritance traditions, even when everyone knows that the rules of tree ownership would never stand the test of modern reality in an Israeli court of law. Both sides to such a conflict would probably end up losing out, somehow, to the superior interest of the Israel Lands Authority. So, everyone keeps away from the courts and settles land claims internally, in the traditional manner of consensus seeking among honorable neighbors. Only in one known case in Arrabeh did a farmer violate the honor code of conduct and set fire to an a’amoud on his land belonging to a distant relative. With the death of the tree, no further claim could be made to its mihrath. End of conflict. Shortly, though, he lost a son and one of his work oxen broke a leg.
The wife of the landowner from Arrabeh on whose field my Rumi a’amoud stood was effusive in welcoming my proposal. It would free their land of the intrusive presence of another family’s tree. She went as far as equating this intended good deed of mine with the time I cared for her little son, now himself a physician, when he came down with polio. I graciously accepted her thanks, black coffee and dish of home-made sweets.
Then I made a second visit, this time to my former classmate from Dier Hanna. He is a huge man and he gave me a long and sincere bear-hug leaving me momentarily breathless. After coffee and fruits, I broached the subject of the tree. He turned pale, twirled the tip of his mustache with his fingers, coughed nervously, while his breathing became noticeably labored. He seemed to be in a real bind. Apparently he found it difficult to deny me my first ever request for a favor from him, especially after the welcoming hug, but found it equally difficult to commit such a treasonous act as selling an olive tree that has been in the family for who knows how many centuries. He excused himself and left the room to consult with a brother. A short time later he returned beaming. Eureka! “The last wish of our late father when we gathered around his death bed in this room was that we guard our land, our olives and our womenfolk; in short, our honor. But you took good care of him in his old age; he was always pleased with the way you treated him when he fell ill and came to your clinic. We know he would have given you that tree if you had asked him for it. It is yours on two conditions: No money will be involved and you will put a sign identifying the tree as a present from the Khalaileh clan.” The deal was done and I tried to thank Ahmad with a failed bear hug of my own.
Last spring, when I first saw my tree, I started digging a hole in my garden where I planned for it to stand. In the cool afternoons I would be joined by Bashar, one of my many solicitous teenage grand-nephews. We would take turns digging and shoveling the earth out. By the time the rains started in late autumn, we thought we had accomplished the task; we had dug a circular hole, two meters across and one and a quarter meters deep.
On Thursday, two days before I was due to bring my bride home, I consulted with a friend, a civil engineer. We visited the tree together and he took exact measurements. Bashar’s and my labors had not been totally in vain. The depth of the hole was adequate but we needed to double its area. Bringing in any mechanical equipment was out of the question; it would mess up my garden. I contacted Camal, a good manual ditch digger, and he estimated the assignment would require a minimum of two days’ labor. He wanted to start on Saturday, the day the tree was due to arrive, as Friday was set aside for praying at the mosque. I pressed him and finally he agreed to do the work in a day, provided I pay him for the two days’ work. I did not quibble; I wanted to get the job done before somebody changed their mind about my tree.
On Friday morning, he showed up early. By noon he was finished, making it to the mosque just in time for the noon prayer. He even had enough time to do his ablutions in the hole he dug, an auspicious sign for the success of the transplanting operation. The water used in washing the head, face, hands and feet of a good Muslim in preparation for entering the mosque and standing before Allah has near-magic powers, almost sacred in its value. After he collected his money, he picked a bunch of grape leaves and a pocketful of green almonds from my orchard for his wife to satisfy her cravings in early pregnancy. She was carrying a boy this time, after four girls, so Camal was catering to her every wish. Camal is a borderline mentally handicapped young man, mainly due to cultural and environmental deprivation. But, boy, does he dig ditches! At this stage in my biological life, and with my current range of interests, I think I would opt for his muscle power if it were on offer for exchange with other bodily systems of mine.
Then came the mechanical part: the heavy equipment to dig my tree out; the lift with a minimum capacity of ten tons to raise it out of the ground and then lower it again into the welcoming womb Bashar, Camal and I had prepared for it; the wide platform truck to carry it the ten-mile distance between the two locations. Finally, Camal would return to cover its roots with few tons of fertile soil.
Fortunately, the operation took place on Saturday, the Sabbath day when Jewish agricultural and forestry inspectors rest. An Ottoman law, still on the books in Israel, prohibits endangering the life of an olive tree. To enforce it, a permit has to be obtained before an olive can be moved from one location to another. I learned of the requirement, however, only after we had finished digging around my tree. I could not leave its damaged roots exposed and jinx the whole project. But equally the contractor I had commissioned to do the task was afraid for his livelihood; if caught, he would be heavily fined and his equipment impounded for a month. It makes one wonder how Israeli contractors and military commanders have been arranging so easily the ‘transfer’ of so many ancient Palestinian olive trees from the occupied West Bank. According to reports in the Israeli media, this is big business, with the stolen trees sold for tens of thousands of dollars to the wealthier residents of Israeli suburbs.
To allay the contractor’s fear, I personally guided the truck over a rocky unpaved back road so as not to be seen with our illegal heist on the open road. The scariest part, though, was negotiating the roads through Arrabeh. Not only did we have to move through some particularly narrow alleys but also the height of my tree on top of the moving platform exceeded that of the electricity, phone and cable TV lines strung haphazardly across the village skies. The contractor wanted me to sit atop the tree and manually lift or cut obstructive wires. The thought of parading through the village in such fashion did not appeal to me. I paid him an extra amount and he enlisted the help of a friend for the task. I prayed for Allah’s protective graces all the way home. Mercifully the clandestine operation was completed, but not without the typical rural communal fanfare and curiosity-engendered assistance and interference from a dozen curious neighbors and twice as many children.
I do not feel any inkling of remorse about having broken the law. After all, the wise Ottomans wanted to protect olive trees, and mine shows every sign of being alive and vigorous. Had I been a Hellinic subject, however, I might not have taken the risk. In those days endangering the life of an olive tree was punishable by death, and I certainly want to be around to tend and enjoy the new addition to my garden.
The horrific sense of history inspired by this continuous biological link between me and my land is simply awesome. Are the Palestinians not the historical descendants of the Minoans of Crete? Were the Minoans not the first olive farmers in recorded history? Did Minoan culture not revolve around the trade in olive oil? Was the trade by way of Phoenicia? Could the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites, Egyptians, Hyxos, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Moguls, Crusaders and Turks have played a role in influencing the life and physique of my own tree? Yes, indeed, they may have. Any or all of them may have enjoyed the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in its cool shade. Any or all of them may have tied their trusted mounts to its sturdy trunk and cut a fresh shoot from its base to hurry the steed along -- the reason, most likely, for all the beautiful, football-size knots on its trunk. Any or all of them may have seduced, or raped, one of my maiden progenitors, leaving his telltale imprint on my amalgam of genes. And any or all of them may have dictated their rules and regulations to my ancestors, who submissively incorporated them as ‘ours’.
But at bottom, it was those Minoan olive oil traders and their Palestinian descendants, clinging to their land and subsisting in the shadow of their olive groves, that morphed into an ambitious nation laying claim to Arab culture, the last dominant culture of significant impact. My tree knows and attests to all of that; that is how it all started. This horrendous behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of in-your-face exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who …