Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Land Day Tigers

The headline in Haaretz announced: “Police gearing up for possible Land Day trouble.” I called my village buddy and asked him what to make of that. Toufiq agreed that it foreboded ill. Thirty-five years have taught us all how to avoid violent confrontations between large numbers of Palestinian youth and armed Israeli policemen.
“The ball is in their court: If they want to stir up trouble they will show up in force at the licensed demonstration site; If they keep their distance our youth will shout out their anger at the imaginary enemies and go home peacefully,” Toufiq explained the obvious.
“It says in Haaretz that ‘the security forces are not ruling out the possibility of unrest given the recent events that have engulfed the Middle East in recent weeks.’”
“That shows how feeble-minded their big shots are. We don’t have the critical mass, the sheer numbers that are needed for the Tahreer Square phenomenon. And we can’t speak for the country as a whole. We are still struggling for the right to have rights in Israel beyond the gilded right to vote. After all that is what Land Day was all about: the right to say ‘no’ to the dictates of the Zionists. And it has gone from bad to worse. Just yesterday the Knesset passed two more racist laws specifically to disadvantage us. But we need to keep shouting. Perhaps the world will hear us one day even if Netanyahu and Lieberman remain deaf.”
“Some of us are hearing them clearly though. You heard about the dispute in the Bedouin village where the mayor chose to take all his employees on an all-expenses-paid picnic on Land Day instead of striking.”
“Will, he is ahead of his time. Remembering the Nakba is now banned. Land Day is next.”
“Sea you at the demonstration tomorrow.”

You don’t maintain your dignity in Arrabeh and keep away from Land Day events. Arrabeh, together with neighboring Sakhnin and Dier Hanna, was at the heart of the mini-Intifada in 1976 that established the landmark memorial now observed throughout the Palestinian community the world over. So, three days ago, Toufiq and I attended a youth function in honor of Land Day at our newly-constructed Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center. A shy and aspiring artist, one of my many nieces, waxed very effusive in conducting a tour for us of the many Land Day paintings by local artists on display at the center. By the time the evening started, the five-hundred seat auditorium was full. The Communist Youth Club in charge of the event added an extra row of plastic chairs up front for us, for the mayor and his wife who also arrived appropriately late, for Abed Abidy, the famed Palestinian Artist who designed the Land Day memorial in Sakhnin, and for few other Arrabeh elders. No singing of national anthems, no recitation of the Koran, and no flags on display; this was a strictly local and secular function. The mayor was invited to the podium and spoke. He sang the praises of so many men and women who made history in 1976, bragged about his administration’s achievements, chief among which was the newly appointed committee for street names, (Arrabeh is 22 thousand and addresses are still designated by clan areas), and finally complained of the continuing government neglect and the authorities’ continuing designs on our remaining village land. To this day, he explained, ‘they’ refuse to implement a combined winter drainage and summer irrigation scheme for our fertile Battouf Valley, the only agricultural land of its size in all of Israel that continues to lack irrigation. And what excuse ‘they’ give? ‘They’ want to guarantee the survival of a rare insect that lives only in the Battouf Valley, he reported. “They give priority to insects over us!” the mayor explained at the end of his speech to the tumultuous clapping of the large audience. I wasn’t sure if they clapped that hard in admiration or out of impatience.

Next came the star of the evening, the home-grown crooner Amal Murkus, a beautiful young woman from another Galilee village with big black doe eyes who couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything other than Arab and with a voice quality that matched the best of them in the whole Arab world. In midlife, she had put on a little weight, just enough for the perfect belly dance sexiness were she to dare and wiggle her god’s gifts a little. But no, she is a proper honorable Arab diva and she conducts herself with the proper aplomb. She sang a selection of songs of longing and hope from her various albums. The one song that really brought the house down with the entire audience clapping rhythmically and singing along was a catchy local tune with appropriately adapted words about the loss of land: “Pour out your copious tears, oh my eyes, for they have taken my land by oppression and rape,” the refrain went. At the end of the evening a hoard of teenagers stormed the stage for a closer look at Amal and perhaps a touch of her hand. I walked up and got a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I had been to her house a while back to pick up some of her albums for my grandchildren in NY and California.

I asked Amal to give my kind regards to her aging father. Briefly, in the early 1950s he was my Arabic language teacher before he was fired because of his communist leanings. He was small of build but had a very firm earth-molded farmer hand that left one’s cheek smarting for hours on the occasion that he punished one for some grammatical mistake. His name is Nimr, Arabic for ‘Tiger.’ We called him ‘Little Tiger’ in contradistinction to ‘Big Tiger,’ our other teacher by the same name who was large of build, darker of skin, and an internally displaced Palestinian or ‘present absentee.’ Big Tiger went on to become a school principle, on the strength, it is rumored, of having persuaded several relatives of his to sign away their right to their land in their former village, now a thriving Jewish-only community. He even was reputed to carry a handgun; he was that close to the authorities. Little Tiger, Amal’s father, made a living as a day laborer in Haifa and become a full-blooded communist, rising in the party’s hierarchy as his means of survival dwindled. To this day, every time I meet Little Tiger, a mysterious twitching develops in my left cheek, a sign of fondness I presume.

Yesterday, just before sunset, I heard the sound of a loudspeaker. I stepped out to my garden to make out what kind of announcement: Was it a wedding invitation, a death announcement, the call for another religious lecture in one of our seven mosques, or just another door-to-door salesman? It was none other than Zahi in his pickup truck, another communist, reminding all of their duty to turn out in mass today for the memorial march of Land Day. Zahi – Arabic for ‘the one who shines brightly’ – has a distinctive booming voice that I would recognize anywhere. It runs in the family. I knew his late father and his late grandmother before him and they all seemed to have boom boxes for larynx.

And successfully wrestling with boulders also ran in the family. Zahi had worked for years at a stone cutting shop in the village while his late father was the strongest compressor operator who would be called on by contractors when they encountered an especially solid layer of quarts. The grandmother, known in her time by her nickname of Dallua’a – the spoiled widow –was a legend in her own time. She lost her husband at an early age and raised her three young boys by the sweat of her brow, single-handedly clearing a good stretch of mountainside land of rocks, spurning many suitor and eking a living for herself and her three orphans against all odds. The three grew to be among the earliest communists in the village even before Israel’s rejection of communism made it the fashionable thing for Israel’s Arab citizens to stream to it in their droves. When the state contested her ownership of her land Dallua’a turned to Hanna Naqqara who found in her an admirable subject for his defense of Palestinian land. He was a city dweller, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, and a licensed lawyer when lawyers were so rare that ‘they could be found only in brides’ trousseaus,’ as we say locally. Still, when he would stay overnight in Arrabeh he would insist on spending the night at Dallua’a’s hovel and no one in our conservative community of the time would blink an eye about it; she was that independent a sole. In court, with Naqqara’s coaching, she put on a veritable show for the Israeli judge: She brought the prickly pears from the cactus she grew on her cleared land to prove how delicious, how healthy, and how natural the process of growing and eating it was: No need for any ploughing, for any watering or for any tending whatsoever. And you could collect and peal the fruit with your bare hands. That is why all those agricultural experts had testified to the court that her land had laid fellow for three years and hence should revert to the state. She even challenged the judge to come and see for himself if he could make any of the boulders she had pushed to the perimeter of her land budge at all, or alternatively if he were interested in wrestling with her as her way of proving how healthy the fruit was for you.

Commitment to land and Land Day runs in the family as well: in 1976 on ‘the mother of all land Days’ itself, women in Dallua’a’s neighborhood were rumored to have trapped an Israeli tank in a narrow alley and forced its commander to negotiate a withdrawal under a hail of stones. On the eves of the following Land Day memorial marches Abu-Zahi, her son, would be routinely arrested and fined and warned to behave to no avail. And to this day, no Land Day march is complete without the shrill voice of Zahi on the mobile loud speaker urging all to show their “commitment to Galilee, to Palestine, to the blood of our martyrs.”

By 13:00 hours a near thousand youth and striking men and women in Arrabeh marched to lay wreathes of wild spring flowers on the grave of Kheir Yasin, the first of the six unarmed youth who were killed 35 years ago in the mass protest against the confiscation of Palestinian land in Israel. A liberal Jewish friend showed up and gave me a sympathetic hug in full view of the military blimp that appears regularly on our southern horizon every Land Day. I suddenly remembered the many meetings I had attended in my days in the Ministry of Health for no other reason than to be counted as the token Arab participant. I insisted on giving my friend a second extended hug facing south. He had lost a son in a bus explosion and I felt the deeper significance of his solidarity. “Take our picture together!” I wanted to shout at the blimp. We marched to the Western entrance of Arrabeh to meet the gathering thousands from the rest of the country, mostly Arabs but with a few busloads of Jewish leftists. The three speakers at the farmers market where the official event took place this year were mercifully brief and said all the expected blather. Only one theme surfaced that was new: the repeated call for unity. Perhaps the police were right to be on the alert. But they saved themselves the trouble of showing up in force and the entire event ended peacefully enough.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Deaf and Blind of the World: Unite!

It is March the seventeenth and the morning is beautiful. It is the first day in a while that I feel physically normal, almost fully recovered from a nasty cold that made me continuously aware of every muscle fiber in my body as an uncomfortable liability and of every hair follicle in my scalp as a separate entity screaming for individual recognition in its suffering. It is the first time ever that I felt defeated by a cold, forced by it to skip my morning writing routine and to cancel my gardening activities for over a week.

I start with a quick foray into the citrus fruit corner in the garden for my morning supply of fresh juice and get nearly knocked over by the sight of the bodies of seven out of my nine free-range chickens, including all three beautiful roosters, strewn under the trees. Earlier in the month I had trimmed the citrus trees severely. Could I have somehow disturbed their nightly perch and exposed them to danger with that? But why did the damned mongooses kill seven birds if they didn’t plan on eating them, I wonder? Random evil, pure and simple. The mongoose is no better than humans, I conclude.

The sight of my dead chickens consolidates the mental anguish I continue to experience seeing all the death and destruction nature and over-industrialization have visited on the people of Japan. I am tempted to blame the Japanese for what they are suffering: After all, the term ‘tsunami’ was part of Japan’s heritage gifted to the world adorned with the associated image of Japan’s former stuffy and self-reassured full readiness for earthquakes and natural disasters. My chickens had the option of staying in a safe coop but chose to sleep in the trees. The Gods must be furious with my chickens and with the Japanese. It behooves us all to consider what the Japanese have done to deserve all of this punishment, the worst disaster that Japan has suffered since WWII. I am no expert on Japan’s national character and collective sins. I have a deep-seated admiration for Japan’s achievements in trade, industry, science and the arts. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was captivated by the magic of their first robotic marathon. And I harbor a great yearning for the comfort of cavorting with geisha girls and for the breezy sweep of their kimonos as they serve me Saki or whatever the hell they serve in those teahouses. That is as far as I can venture in my imaginings of what the Japanese could possibly have done to deserve all the punishment I see them receiving on TV.

I halt in my thought process to reconsider: Could Aljazeera have been feeding me its “propaganda rubbish” as so many Middle Eastern powers now call it? In recent weeks it has targeted such prominent Arab leaders and succeeded to label them as dictators, thugs and thieves including such long-serving dependable allies of the West as Zine al Abidine ben Ali, Husni Mobarak, and Muammar Kaddafi. The guys had such beautiful blooms and crowed with such shrill voices every morning even before the villages six different muezzins called for the dawn prayer. Shouldn’t we have preserved them for decorative purposes?

What trick does Aljazeera now have up its sleeve? Might there be a grand plan to prepare the Japanese to join Al-Qaida? If they can be convinced that the punishment comes from no one but Allah and that it is punishment for Japan’s lack of mosques and for their excessive cavorting with geisha girls even in the holy month of Ramadan, and if the punishment is hard enough, then perhaps they might turn around, face Mecca, and join Al-Qaida. At least to me, this sounds realistic enough a scenario for the Saudis to introduce Japanese in the curriculum of their madrasas.

But then, sheers in hand and teetering high atop my gardening ladder, poised to commence reducing the cumulative exuberance of my Indian jasmine and South African lily hedge, I hear on my radio headset a Japanese father and his two children recount the heroism of the family’s mother who managed to save her two children but, as a result, was herself swept away by the wall of water. Then I hear the two children chime something in Japanese in unison: “We will come back tomorrow and find our mother.”

I don’t know if it was the tenderness in the children’s voices, the image in my head of the death and destruction wreaked on Japan by the quake and the tsunami, or the still mounting threat of massive nuclear explosion, but something in that mix of fear and hope of a family for their loving mother released a flood of emotion in my heart and I started sobbing. Why did those mongooses kill my chickens if they did not want to eat them? Copious warm tears streamed from my eyes down my unshaven face and stirred a wave of quivering and pain in my facial muscles. I rushed in for some painkillers but the bigger torment of my soul continued.

The BBC now was reporting on Ireland’s economic woes: one interviewee after another decried their bad luck and the loss of their racehorses to slaughterhouses or euthanasia. I placed a call to my friend, Rita MacGahey and left a message wishing her a happy St. Patrick’s Day. I could hardly hide my sobbing till I finished recording my message.

I checked my email: Well, I was only one day late. March 16 was the eighth anniversary of Rachel Corrie’s murder while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza against Israel’s army caterpillars. I uploaded two brief videos from U-Tube in which Rachel’s parents remember their daughter and remind us all of her universal message of care and love, a message that has succeeded to involve Cindy and Craig Corrie in human rights issues in Palestine and beyond. “She became our eyes and ears in Gaza,” Cindy declares and goes on to read from her lovely daughter’s letters home. What motivates youth to face up to injustice that threatens lives totally unrelated to their own? What did Gaza and the Palestinians have to do with Rachel? Why bother with people so different from your own in the first place? Or are all people one and the same?

The answer comes to me in the rush of tears in my eyes. I am overwhelmed with sadness and sympathy for the Japanese, for the Libyans, for the Irish and for the Corries. But many questions remain unanswered: Did the Israeli D-9 Caterpillar driver realize as he obeyed orders to crush Rachel to death that he was robbing her parents of their ability to see and hear us the Palestinians? Or was that the reason he committed his crime in the first place? He seemed to have taken leave of his memory and his humanity with that split moment of murderous decision. Hate may have rendered him blind and deaf to Rachel’s humanitarian message. How can we reach the humane core in all of us, even the criminal ones, and appeal to its yearning to preserve its own senses? Why the unnecessary and random killing? How can we reach all the loose nasty mongooses and the hyenas?

I have practiced medicine for some four decades without having had a clue as to this surprising symptom of a common cold: becoming emotionally labile as an early sign of recovery.