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 cafĂ© 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 …

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Rachel Corrie Case Revisited

A Bedouin Goldstone Moment:
April 03, 2011:

I arrived an hour late to court this morning; in my hurry to make it on time I was picked up by the traffic police for speeding. “Winds blow contrary to the whims of ships,” a famous Arab poet once said. As I entered the court a whole new set of actors was there with the exception of the judge who addressed the defense lawyer as ‘Mr. Salameh,’ Arabic for Mr. Safety. I quickly assumed that there had been a change of mind at the highest level and that ‘they’ had decided to give the Corries a sympathetic hearing, switching to an Arab as the defense lawyer and picking one with a symbolic conciliatory name. Alas, the whole thing was a misconception. The judge was handling a totally different case and doing away with a quick procedural issue before starting the Corrie case. I wasn’t all that late, after all.

It is pitiful to see bumbling fools stray far afield and miss their opportunity to prove their point when the answer is right at hand. That was my thought when I read the full text of the Goldstone retraction of his former condemnation of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9 as ‘possible’ war crimes and crimes against humanity. I read the good judge’s retraction in the paper the night before this day, spent in contemplating the charade that passes for proper proceedings in a court of justice in Israel. Had he bothered to attend just one session in the ongoing saga that I have followed for nearly a year, Richard Goldstone would have learned the efficient way for a judge to reach his independent decision regardless of the facts and not to dillydally with assertions, retractions and the like. The man has formulated his foregone conclusion and no marching of evidence to the contrary will make a difference: The Corries will not get their shekel irregardless of facts. You will see.

We all have returned from a four-month hiatus in the proceedings of the civilian case brought by the parents of the late Rachel Corrie, the ISM activist killed by an armored military D_9 Caterpillar on March 16, 2003 while trying to prevent the IDF from demolishing Palestinian homes in Gaza. It happened in bright daylight and Rachill wore a florescent orange vest. But the soldiers in the D-9s simply didn’t see her. The IDF had conducted a “thorough, credible, and transparent investigation” as the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, told his friend, President George W. Bush of the USA. The investigation had revealed that the young woman had hid behind, under or over ‘a pool of dirt’ as the various participating soldiers have testified so far. Sharon’s credentials on the matter at hand are beyond doubt: President Bush had dubbed him “a man of peace,” and he was the father of the practice of clearing wide swaths of land of homes in Gaza from the days of the First Intifada. The specific activity that the ISM activists objected to was in the same ‘defensive’ military tradition, involving this time the continued clearance of some fifty-kilometer perimeter road in the Rafah border area known as the Philadelphi Axis, a random computer-generated IDF designation that has come since to signify civilian imprisonment, underground tunnels, F-16 air raids and underground steel barriers. But Rachel’s and her friends’ objection was totally alien to the wholesomeness of the original plan: The axis road had been already established and all the IDF was doing was to “level the ground” alongside the road, including a Gazan shack here and a home or two there to forestall the possibility of terrorists hiding in such incidental geographic adulterations of the purity of the original Sharonian military conception.

With such essentiality of the Philadelphi Axis and the qualifications of its founders, how could any sane person doubt the IDF’s conclusions regarding what had happened to the foreign intruders? Yet, here are these folks from Olympia, USA, claiming that the Israeli Defense Forces were negligent in protecting human life in a case that happened to be that of their 22 year-old daughter, Rachel. But their own lawyer, a Palestinian who is even more intent on discrediting the only democracy in the Middle East, has just heard representatives of IDF declare under oath that as early as 2006 they had used Caterpillars equipped with remote control electronics and bore the exorbitant expenses to avoid the loss of life of human beings that happened to be their soldiers carrying out the cleansing of areas cluttered with Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists. With such record, how can anyone accuse us of inattention to preserving human life?

No wonder both the judge and the head state defense lawyer seemed disinterested and even a little bored with the proceedings. The lady looked like she had aged a decade or more during my four-months away from her, explanation enough for her limited energy this time around. Every time she stood up to say something she would twirl her two diminutive hands high above her head in a dance-like motion of emphasis of what she said. But the motions were slow, and, in the absence of music accompaniment, seemed a bit silly. As to the judge, he was so relaxed he hardly twitched or strained at all; only a few loosening motions of his necktie and an occasional sipping of his tea. I know he has reached his decision a long time ago and all the proceedings were now a waste of his time. That is perhaps why he interfered to cut the claimants’ lawyer, Husain Abu-Husain, short and to ask him to close his line of questioning so many times. To expedite the process of establishing the facts in his court he had to step in more than once and explain to the badgered witness what he, the witness, had wanted to say. Why all the bother when we already know the facts? And that is what I wanted Richard Goldstone to come see and learn from: consistency; the system had already looked into the case and made its decision. Why confuse everyone and fowl up the case with useless reconsiderations. Get it right on the first try, dude!

The first witness of the day was another army technical expert in charge of D-9 driver training and he stuck to his narrow expertise and avoided treading on relevant case-specific grounds, falling back on failure of memory only when Abu-Husain would edge close to the fatal ‘incident’ itself.

The second witness was much more engaged and engaging, a bright-looking Bedouin man of obvious intelligence. His ready smile, his constant readjusting of his sitting arrangement, and his darting eyes betrayed a level of discomfort akin to that of a caged raccoon. He partially gave away his identity by responding brightly to Abu-Husain’s Arabic language greeting. The thought crossed my mind that the good judge must have thought that the man was dispensable because of tribal considerations: All previous witnesses directly involved in the murder case were shielded from the audience’s evil eyes by a screen. Except for this man who was present at the scene in his armored tank as the units commander protecting and overseeing the work of the two Caterpillars. Was he considered dispensable because of his DNA, ultimately a Bedouin Palestinian, even if an Israeli soldier, a sheep in wolf’s skin? After all, nearly the entire ‘Desert Division’ of the Israeli Army, the division in charge of the Philadelphi Axis, about the most dangerous assignment in Israel’s military adventurism, was mostly made of Bedouins. Arab volunteer soldiers in the Israeli security services, such as these hardy heroes have their reasons, mainly financial, my daughter, Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, says in her recent well-researched book on the subject entitled “Surrounded.” And they do feel altogether unequal in the army, she also found. Might their feeling of unequal treatment stem in part from different levels of exposure to danger?

My irresponsible doubts were later explained away. The man’s identity had been already exposed in the press and it was no use trying to hide it beyond calling him by his initial as Mr. R. instead of using his full name. The man was not your camel-driving Bedouin type; he had used his privileged status with the Israeli armed forces to get a college education and a BA degree. And he used his accumulated acumen and native intelligence to deflect Abu-Husain’s obvious attempts to trip him on his possible involvement in Rachel’s demise. He kept to his former conclusion in his own investigation immediately after the incident, which he had not seen, that a concrete slab must have fallen accidentally on the woman and killed her. And he was alert and committed enough to his IDF identity to insist on correcting loaded terms whenever they were used: His D-9s were involved in ‘leveling the area’ not demolishing homes, he insisted, even if in the process homes were demolished. And all Gazans were terrorists to him not ‘civilians.’ The judge himself, at a later stage in the proceedings had a similar enlightening objection: When Abu-Husain asked another witness if he saw the event of killing the late ISM activist, the judge corrected him rather angrily for his choice of words. He thought ‘killing’ implied guilt and intentionality, as judge Goldstone would have put it.

Despite R’s presence of mind and caginess, qualities that served to make him creative to a fault and oftentimes self-contradictory in reconstructing his role in the fateful day’s events, Abu-Husain managed to show him as an ignoramus. The soldier thought that the court case was being brought by the state of Israel against the late Rachel Corrie. And at one point he seemed to be cowed by the lawyer’s aggressive questioning to where he tried to shift responsibility up to his commander. He admitted to having worried about the safety of the international activist scurrying around in the operational arena to where he considered stopping work. But his commander insisted on continuing the mission despite the disturbance by the pesty ISM group.

Eventually Abu-Husain found a way to bridge the attitudinal gulf that separated the two of them, both lawyer and witness being ultimately fellow Arabs despite the state’s categorizing them differently on its scale of good-to-bad Arabs. The lawyer kept praising the witness’s intelligence and his achievements and high rank and dropping hints about his tribal identity and inclusion in the Bedouin, and hence the Arab, collective till the officer seemed to relent. Quite visibly, he waxed more at ease, nearly closing his eyes in a blissful repose. And Abu-Husain, his former tormentor, flashed a winsome smile at him. From there on the good Bedouin started referring to Gazans as ‘citizens of the area’ and not using the standard term ‘terrorists’ for the entire lot. It dawned on me right then that the young man was having a ‘Goldstone moment,’ an imagined fleeting instant of reacceptance in the fold and of lulling in the warm lap of tribal comfort and solidarity.

Alas, that is when the contradictory identities of the two current antagonists in court, not counting the judge, had to remerge and the separation walls re-erected: As he picked up another line of questioning of this central witness, lawyer Abu-Husain tiptoed gently around the man’s doubtful record of previous arrests and possible falsification of evidence. The judge sprang to the witness’s aid and declared the topic off limits. Abu-Husain relented but only to pursue another suspicious line and question the man about the mysterious bargaining by another free-range Bedouin offering to have the same commander switch sides and testify in court for the claimants against the payment of a certain fee. That line was quickly terminated as well.

The Dry Lab Technique:
April 6, 2011

Today the court had a relaxed atmosphere, brimming with palpable leisure and ease. All except for the pimply young Sephardi geek who serves as the technical clerk in charge of all the electronic equipment and who spends a good part of his day dozing off. The defense lawyers were fully at ease: The head of the three-lawyer team seemed to have regained at least five of the ten years in youthfulness I had thought she lost only three days ago. She had a constant bright smile that ebbed and flowed the whole day but never completely faded away. Her facial muscles relaxed and tensed alternatively, like a pretty jellyfish floating in sunny waters, without ever loosing its inner-tickled demeanor. As I secretly enjoyed my inspired analogy, drawn from my years in Hawaii, it dawned on me that the heavy makeup shined brightly in the well-lit court not unlike the sheen of the residue of an oil spill over distant still waters. The lady strode across the room to the door and turned her head to ascertain that the curtain that had been erected to shield the morning’s mystery witness didn’t permit the audience to see him. Her proud stride and threatening deliberate glance over her shoulder reminded one of a lioness in her den. But I have also seen our kitten, Bumblebee, practice the same game with mice he catches in our garden.

The second in command in the defense team, a dark-skinned tense and angry young man, appeared also to be more at ease: He sat calmly with his back to the audience alternatively bending his thick neck forward and straightening it up. For the first time I noticed a well-healed two-inch straight-line scar in the scalp at the nape right where the roundness of his shaven head yields to the muscular com adipose couple of horizontal rolls across the top of his thick neck. It brought to mind an old lawyer at the edge of Little Italy in Lower Manhattan where I used to stop on occasion to buy stamps, to make an additional copy of a key, or to notarize a document. The man was reputed to have been connected to the Mafia in his younger days and his shop, stocking tobacco and various NY memorabilia and offering whatever services were in high demand, was still considered a front for them. He sported many old slashes across his head and face.

The Corries’ attorneys also seemed to be in a relatively relaxed mood: Jamil Dakwar, the second in command, usually constantly on the move like a hyperactive child, running to whisper a suggestion to Abu-Husain, to hand him a document, to fling a photo at the judge’s table, or to operate his laptop and broadcast the soldiers’ famous last words on the audiotape from the murder scene, the incidental exchange of “Did you kill him?” and “God bless his soul!” that no one in uniform seems to have ever heard before, was now rather sated. Likewise, the judge showed no sign of high anxiety the whole day except on a couple of occasions to cut Abu-Husain off. Also on one occasion he noticed someone in the audience drinking from a water bottle and shouted at him rather angrily to cease and desist; only lawyers were allowed to drink in his court, he declared. As if to confirm his privileged position and gain favor with the good judge, Abu-Husain took a long swig from his bottle making loud gurgling noises. It didn’t seem to faze the judge one bit.

The first witness of the day was another post-camel Bedouin, an ambitious one with a master’s level education who had risen to become Deputy Commander of the Desert Division and who happened to have been in charge of the entire arena on the day of Rachel’s demise. A fleeting thought crossed my mind as to how high in the IDF hierarchy was an Arab allowed to rise and whether allegiance to one’s profession can ever trump his allegiance to the tribe. The image of Libyan crowds celebrating the defection of pilots from Gaddafi’s forces to join their next of kin in revolt insinuated itself in my conscience along with the imagined image of Richard Goldstone being chased in the streets of Johannesburg by his tribe, the angry mob emerging from the synagogue where his grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah is being celebrated. I struggled to reign in my wild imaginings from running even more amuck by applying my mental breaks. Alas, they have been worn thin by the regular practice of free association of thoughts at overdrive speed. I never realized before how many blacks have infiltrated Goldstone’s bloodline.

As I rejoined the courtroom proceedings, the soldier was speaking from behind his curtain and seemed quite convinced of his own gravitas, or so the casual observer may surmise from the quality of his voice. To me he sounded like he could benefit from an adenoidectomy. He indicated that on that specific day he sat in his command post some five kilometers from the site of the ‘incident.’ He kept track of what happened all along the fifty-kilometer length of the Philadelphi Axis through the watchful eyes and ears of a series of women soldiers, each in charge of tracking electronically what happened along a certain length of the axis. He admitted to having observed from the safety of his lair the forced evacuation of the same pesky foreign crowd of ten to fifteen activists from the roof of what his soldiers came to refer to as “the yellow house” before they proceeded to ‘level the ground’ on which it stood. Quickly, in my mind, I capitalized the name and populated the house with a dozen screaming children of various ages, four or five women in traditional attire letting out shrill cries of distress, an old lady singing dirges about the precious Yellow House she and her husband had toiled all their life to build and about her dead and imprisoned children, and a stoic old patriarch leaning on his cane and uttering the repetitive brief prayer of “May God punish the oppressors!” And, indeed, a group of foreign young men and women were clambering up and down the stairs to the roof. I couldn’t make out their faces except for that of Rachel Corrie, with the most serene and angelic look of concern and empathy beaming out the pain and suffering of Palestinian civilians to the whole world. Dignity enveloped her head to toe.

A new revelation in my slow and painful familiarization process with the IDF through Husain Abu-Husain’s piecemeal unveiling of its mundane closet ware came to light at this juncture: Commanders keep a ‘mission file’ for each assignment, a sort of ledger in which missions are listed and their actual execution is reported upon completion with the required details. It brought to mind my teaching days’ standard weekly lesson plan ledger in the late 1950’s. I had just successfully finished twelfth grade and was assigned to teach kindergarten in a neighboring village. I was supplied with the two essential pedagogical tools: a pointer, which served the additional function of whacking misbehaving and less studious pupils, and the planning and reporting ledger. Given my level of skill and experience, a typical entry in the log would look something like the following: Time: 8:00-9:00 AM. Lesson: Arabic Language. Planned Activity: Free practice of calligraphy. Execution: Implemented fully. The next line would be music, for example, and the activity free singing, then physical activity with free play, art with free drawing till the day was finished. All planned activities were reported as ‘implemented fully” or, to avoid repetition, “carried out in accordance with plan.” I now could imagine the IDF’s typical mission file being crammed full of free target practice, free bombing, free leveling of houses, etc. etc. And all missions would be reported as “completed successfully,” I presume.

The deputy commander had not seen the ‘incident’ of Rachel’s death. When he was informed of it, he reported, he quickly conducted four different investigations among the troops and came to the conclusion that a concrete slab had fallen on the woman and killed her. What irked me most was the diminutive term, betonada, sounding like a romantic term of endearment, that the witness used for the imagined concrete block. I say ‘imagined’ for I understand that no one ever saw such a block being scooped by the D-9 or falling from its blade at that moment. Rather it was the only conclusion that made sense to the investigators. The said commander asked, imagined and came to his conclusion. He and all the other investigators that were to come later never visited the site of the presumed accident. The official military police investigators, as I understand it, didn’t even speak directly to the D-9 drivers. In my college days we had a name for this type of practice: We called it “dry lab.” For example, you were given the assignment in the chemistry lab of identifying a certain substance by analyzing it chemically. You looked at it and knew what it was by right away. You went home and performed the mental exercise, starting with the end result and working backward. You put down all the relevant steps of analysis and the various calculated weights of the intermediary products in the analysis to the level of micrograms. You submitted the details of the presumed process of analysis and got a perfect grade. I was good at dry-labing. That is why you can still find my name engraved on a stone (or perhaps concrete) slab at the entrance to Bilger Hall at the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii as the top chemistry student of the class of 1964. Unless, of course, if that slab has fallen accidentally and killed someone nice.

By the end of the session everyone was tired and irritable. Abu-Husain wanted to know from the commander how many drug-smoking soldiers were deployed to perform the house demolition in the process of which Rachel’s killing took place, or something to that effect. You would think that after all the judge’s interruptions and admonitions over the past year the man would have learned to watch what he says. It was enough to make one’s blood boil. We all know that the task was ‘leveling’ the area and that Rachel was not ‘killed.’ And now the man is accusing our good soldiers of smoking hash on the job, five or six of them in the same tank with the mission’s commander. The judge had to prohibit that line of inquiry and he did it with the appropriate level of anger and display of tic-fraught irritability.

The next soldier witness apparently was not college material. No use wasting time and precious resources on one whose retentive ability is that limited. In the eight years since he witnessed the event he had forgotten all its details. About the only relevant memory that Abu-Husain could extract from the poor man was that he judged the foreign activists to be American by the lightness of their skin color. He couldn’t even remember if they were men or women, where they stood or anything else about them other than their skin color. I identified him in my mind as Mr. Forgot, another sad case of early onset of Alzheimer Syndrome.

There is more to come in another couple of months. Still, as we left the court, my friend, Mohammad Zidan, Director General of the Arab Human Rights Association in Nazareth, who has followed the proceedings, declared to me: “This all is not in vain. At least now when I read in the papers that the IDF has conducted an investigation I know what that means.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Goldstone's Hemorrhoidectomy

The call issued by angry human rights diehards, incensed by judge Richard Goldstone’s rebuttal of his own former ruling, solidified in its original undiluted form by his well-paid UN position, confirming Israel’s criminality in its attack on Gaza civilians, to dismiss him as a victim of senility makes my blood boil for reasons beyond my age-related infirmity of intentionality, the said judge being my junior by over five hundred days and much more capable of grammatical contortions in hiding what he wants to say so that you are at a loss as to where the subject of his sentence ends or senility sets in. Got that? And I am not a lawyer, mind you. If you didn’t get my drift, let me delve a bit deeper. Here is what the man says in a nutshell:

“Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn’t negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”

Let us not forget that the man had proven himself beyond a doubt as a veritable artist at adapting to constricting circumstances, a first-rate compromiser and double-dealer if viewed from the vintage point of his former employers. Imagine serving for fourteen years at the top of the Apartheid court system and coming out smelling like a rose. I wonder if anyone has tallied up the list of all the blacks in South Africa whom judge Goldstone sent to jail while he deliberately “undermined apartheid from within the system by tempering the worst effects of the country's racial laws,” as Wikipedia would have us believe. I actually appreciate the man’s slaving away at making a dent in the system while not abandoning his basic commitment to his own self-interest including, I presume, promotions and a better salary. In my delusional younger years I, for example, tried to work to improve the health of the Palestinian minority in Israel from within the Zionist state system while collecting a good salary and heading a good-size office. And I achieved some miniscule positive results. I appreciate the logical and moral acrobatics that such professional compromising exercises require. It is confusing and I can see why the good judge can’t quite come out and say what is on his cluttered mind at this late stage.

If I have lost you there for a moment, let me backtrack. The man never said he was anything other than Zionist. That does not allow condemnation of Israel under any circumstances. He seeks a moral compromise out of the conundrum: He makes his acceptance of the UN assignment to head the international committee to look into Israel’s possible war crimes in its 2008-9 war against Gaza conditional on investigating Hamas as well and the UN grants him his request. Had he relied on his common horse sense he would have saved himself and us all much time and effort: Hamas never denied targeting what Israel calls its civilian population. So what is there to investigate? Still, we all were impressed by the man’s conclusions putting the blame on both sides and implying equivalency between Israel and Hamas. Richard Goldstone must have thought this was enough of an achievement to blunt the expected outrage of fellow Zionists. Seen from Bibi Netanyahu’s angle this looks very bad for Israel and for Zionism. Richard was identified as another self-hating Jew and targeted for excommunication by the tribe.

I still live in a rural Palestinian community where the clan dominates social relations. For an individual to be shunned by his or her clan spells the ablation of that person’s social and psychological comfort zone. Imagine how much more painful it must be for one to be excommunicated by the entire tribe; your own family threatens to throw you out of your grandson’s bar-mitzvah, not to mention random threats of physical harm. Had Richard been physically eliminated, it would probably have fallen under the rubric of honor killing, not an unknown entity in tribal societies including my own. After all, it has happened in Israel before, and Bibi seemed to have given it an a’priori nod at the time. Would Bibi have named a major square in the center of Tel Aviv after the good judge had it happened to Goldstone before he found a way to appease his critics?

Let us not speculate. The fact of the matter is that Richard has wised up in due time and tried to recant. But he has his international name to worry about too. After all, the Palestinian National Authority saw fit to play with the man’s report as if it were a set of political playing cards, threatening to use it to trump Israel, then magically hiding it for a while and threatening to pull it out of a hat at the right moment. So Richard sets out to bamboozle all concerned with empty doublespeak. “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Wow! How profound. You could change a comma and, technically, it would be “a different document.” Yet the trick has worked wonders: It gave Richard another chance to come down on Hamas as if we all had thought he had fallen in love with them before. And Bibi is ready to accept the prodigal son back in the fold of the family, provided Richard issues a proper and full formal apology. The problem is that there were some other minor characters who had penned their signature to that document and some of them may not have strong tribal connections here.

It behooves the UN, and I hesitate to extend the generalization to the US, for that would render the recommendation impossible to implement, to refrain from putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop: You cannot appoint an avowed Zionist to investigate Israel unless you want to get a quick clearance. Mind you, I am not accusing my junior friend, Richard, with ill intent or anything unsavory, other than being a Zionist. What I am talking about is the standard precaution that we, physicians, are repeatedly admonished during our training to observe: Never treat a member of your immediate family, except in an emergency of course. The rationale is that you don’t want to let your emotions cloud your medical judgment. This is doubly so when we are dealing with self-diagnosis and treatment. And yet many physicians disregard such advice and treat their next of kin or even themselves. I recall the story in my medical training days in Boston of a third-year surgical resident at a Harvard-associated top-rate hospital who was fired for going overboard in disregarding the above accepted principle of professional conduct: He was caught operating on himself, lying supine on the operating table and using a series of large mirrors to enable himself to perform his own hemorrhoidectomy.

You shouldn’t have, Richard!