Saturday, June 18, 2011

Breast Milk Joe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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