Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flamenco For Beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Rachel Corrie Case: Reality imitating the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

I knew already that Haaretz bore a grudge against me: The editors never saw fit to publish any of my pieces, topical, deep and insightful as they all were. Now they let the cat out of the bag: In the first sentence of their April 20, 2011 editorial they call me “immoral wealthy.” They are cagy enough not to mention me by name. Rather they lump me along with all sorts of other villa-owning rich and mighty Israelis involved in the shady business of transplanting ancient olive trees into their front yards. You might be tempted to call me paranoid. But the whole world knows about my Roman olive tree; I wrote an account of my search for it and of the act of smuggling it into my garden in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, Pluto Press, 2008. Who doesn’t know of that book! Don’t tell me Haaretz editors want to play dumb and make believe they didn’t spend days peering through it to pick up hints of Israeli delegitimization so they can have an excuse to avoid reviewing it in their book section. After all, it now appears that some of their correspondents double as anti-Israel-delegitimization workers. Here, check it for yourself: http://alethonews.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/haaretz-journalist-doubles-as-anti-delegitimization-operative/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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