Sunday, January 30, 2011

Flippant About the Philippines

It has become my standard practice, perhaps even a tradition, one is excused to say, to report early each year on another trip to a distant land in search of sun, beautiful beaches and warm company. Vacationing with our daughter and her family for the Christmas season has become an established practice, ten consecutive years being in my judgment adequate to solidify the claim for such a practice as a sort of tradition. It is in the spirit of such a tradition that I seek now to report about our three-week trip to the Philippine Islands. Over these ten annual trips we have functioned as travel companions and babysitters to our two beautiful granddaughters, Malaika and Laiali, the trips always preceded by a lengthy sojourn with my son’s family to entertain and run around with our other two grandchildren, Hatim and Callia, in the lovely California Autumn weather.

The relaxed and worry-free travel has encouraged in me a certain irresponsibility and superficial sophistry that allows the identification of each country we have visited, as well as many we have not, with a single overall characteristic or image in a classic free mental association style: China is a country of youthful energy, Costa Rica a peaceful nation of nature preservation emblemized by a nesting turtle, India evokes the image of Taj Mahal and beggar children, with South Africa the image of a giant Mandela flashes across my mental screen, California has Disneyland and Israel brings up mangled corpses of Palestinian children superimposed over a borderless map. But you have to be flippant about the Philippines if you want to give your reader a flavor of the country and its people. The Philippines seems to lack a single solid identifying characteristic: It is a tropical green island nation with poor but extra friendly smiling people. Then out of the blue a far-fetched iconic image materializes: Mahmoud Abbas. Yes, the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA.) Don’t panic! Seriously! I will explain:

I just read a piece on the Internet by an astute political analyst about America’s relationship with the PNA. He claims that America’s plan for Palestine has been one of making the PNA an American security arm. The model after which the PNA is being fashioned is the one in which America has shaped democratic Philippines. That is to say that it will always be a subservient agency dedicated to serving the security needs of the USA in the region. Except that the PNA was intended to serve as a security mechanism to aid America’s major defense contractor in our region, Israel. Secret documents just aired by Aljazeera expose the method in which such shaping of the PNAs behavior has been practiced: It amounts to making it dependent on the USA for its continued survival but punishing it sternly if it strays from the straight and narrow path. It is reminiscent of a workhorse with blinders, except that ours block not only the sides but also what is in front. A current trick question Palestinians ask is: What animal has two eyes and sees just as much front and back? Formerly, the surprise answer used to be ’a blind horse.’ You already know the new answer.

In preparation for our visit to the Philippines I rejected the temptation to leaf through the standard tourist guidebooks and instead read a couple of classic novels, “Noli Me Tangere,” Spanish for “Touch Me Not,” the revolution-inspiring novel by Jose Rizal, the acclaimed father of the uprising of the Philippines against three centuries of Spanish colonization of the worst kind, and “Don Vincente,” by F. Sionil Jose, part of the Rosales Saga quintet depicting the social turmoil following the overthrow of the Spaniards and their replacement by ‘the enlightened’ Americans then the brief Japanese occupation of the WW II and what followed afterword. From this brief introduction and from what I saw and experienced over a three-week period I came to see the island nation as a characterless actualization of America’s globalization dream: A mass of consumers poor enough to strive non-stop for American goods and the American lifestyle, sustaining a thin crust of corrupt rich who do live the coveted American middle class life. Don’t misunderstand me, please: I am not exempting myself from this generalized condemnation of the better-off few. On the contrary, I admit to enjoying the servitude of the hard-working poor slaving at an average wage of no more than a hundred US dollars a month to provide excellent and luxurious accommodations and services to tourists like us at high prices, even when these are reasonable by comparison to facilities of equal luxury in Europe and the USA. The generous returns from such enterprises go to the European and American owners with a smattering of successful local entrepreneurs. An established and well-accepted fact tells the whole story in a nutshell: The law of the land prohibits the ownership of real estate in the Philippines by foreigners with the exception of citizens of the USA. Several European resort owners at whose facilities we stayed seem to have gotten around this hurdle by marrying a local, all of those that I can now recall being European males married to Filipina woman. In the posh middle class neighborhoods of Manila, the capital, one enters a shopping mall and is transplanted, body and soul, to USA suburbia with its standard fancy outlets and restaurants. One is excused in feeling a sense of abhorrence at the steep economic gradient between the haves within and the have-nots without. I couldn’t but assume that such vast gap underlies the heavy security precautions on display at the entrance to such facilities or upscale hotels, the privatized security providers being another stroke in the socioeconomic collage that spells out this reality of globalization in practice. As we used small airports for our internal flights I noticed more than once the sniffing dogs guarding the security of the public asleep. Not at the gate to the private hotels.

This is the place to bring up a unique phenomenon, that of transvestite male Filipinas: At a resort where we stayed, owned by a Dane who, upon learning that I was a physician, introduced himself as the son of the inventor of vein stripping surgery, the cook was named Amanda. She was of overly muscular build and doubled as a masseur but sashayed in a convincingly feminine way; her fellow women kitchen workers seemed to take her as a total equal. I asked a veteran European resident of Manila vacationing at the resort about the country’s male transvestites and he opined that this was an accepted and traditionally tolerated practice and that, to his knowledge, some 20% of Filipino males undergo such behavioral sexual conversion. He ascribed this to the simple economic principle of supply and demand, starting, to his opinion, around the major American military base at Subic Bay. There simply was such a high demand for female companionship that the custom of male transvestites thrived and spread out to the rest of society. It then flourished further due to the greater job opportunity for Filipino women care providers in the international arena, a fact supported by formal statistics showing the country to be heavily dependent on the money transfer from such employment abroad.

I checked with a popular tourist guide: No exact figure was quoted but it was stated that the practice was indeed common and that it was looked at with kindness by society despite the doctrinaire Catholicism of the country. In fact, this resource stated, the feminine dress and body language did not necessarily imply true homosexuality. Rather the phenomenon is taken by all to be that of the heart of a girl residing in the body of a boy, what leads naturally to their genre being known as “boy ladys.” I wanted to speak about the subject with Amanda but my wife warned against it in light of what she had read about the pride and social sensitivity of Filipinas. I did the next best thing and enquired about this from a local friend who accompanied our party for several days. He concurred about the commonality of transvestite behavior among males but thought that the demand for their companionship was highest among Japanese young men tourists. He supported his statement with the assertion that many such transvestites wind up traveling with their rich Japanese lovers to Tokyo where they undergo an all-expenses-paid combined sex-change operation and wedding celebration. Later I googled the topic and learned that there is an official organization for the group in Manila and that they hold an annual beauty contest at which a queen is elected annually.

Despite my son-in-law’s jibes about my attentive focus on Amanda’s behavior, I did not submit to a massage from her nor have I lost much sleep over what part of all this to buy into. Still, it does seem that there is some validity to the socially-based reverse penis envy phenomenon, though one could support the opposite point of view with equal validity: It is a well-established fact that Filipino women are traditionally known to be entrepreneurial and very often the bread winners in their families. Presumably, this is based in the preferential status of the husband whose favor is to be gained and loving approval to be sought, won, and maintained by the dutiful wife in the face of the ever-present threat of the socially tolerated concubine. The wife, it is assumed, is to blame if her husband feels neglected enough to seek a concubine or two. Hence the constant and often furtive effort at excelling in a side-business in addition to house duties.

And another bit of Philippine tradition brings that nation close to the Arab heart, that of strong and binding family loyalty. Family relatives, including those gained through godparents, are the back-up team and the responsibility of a person at all times. American-style individualism and privacy concerns take a low position on a Filipino’s list of priorities. Additionally, the folks are known to be quite touchy about anything that might be interpreted as publicly insulting. Reportedly, fights are often started on basis of what is interpreted as an unkind look in a public arena. I experienced none of this myself, but my wife warned me repeatedly about it in light of my constantly darting eyes at so many public and not so public spaces. One last connection to the Filipino people that I experienced on this trip and that I need to mention here is that of meeting more than one young woman that would greet me in Arabic. They had worked or were still employed in the Arab Emirates.

The Philippines is a nation of over seven thousand islands, the archipelago having been united for the first time by the colonial Spaniards who ruled it with a holy iron fist for over three centuries, the natives being treated with heartless disdain that gives slavery a bad name. It is reliably reported that the Hispanic clergy not only conducted themselves in the most worldly manner, accruing massive wealth, multiple wives and many descendents, but also discouraging the natives from learning Spanish, the language of the master race, for fear of the rabble becoming too uppity. Such transgression was commonplace to such a degree that having priestly blood in one’s veins became a mark of distinction, Imelda Marcos, for one, bragging of such honor in her days of glamour as the country’s first lady. In my mind she stands out not only for her famous collection of thousands of pairs of shoes but for two additional distinctions: While she and her husband, Ferdinand, were still ruling the Philippines as their dictatorial private fiefdom, they enjoyed the full backing of America under Ronald Reagan. As Reagan’s envoy, George Bush the father famously thanked the couple for their defense of democracy. This reverberates deeply with me for its setting the stage for George Bush the son, as president of the USA, to anoint Ariel Sharon, probably the most belligerent man in the history of the Middle East, as “a man of peace.” Furthermore, with her husband’s fall from grace, Imelda escaped with him to Hawaii where she associated with, among others, the exiled family of King Farouk of Egypt. When I would visit Hawaii each summer I would hear reports about both royal families from a Palestinian friend of mine who had settled in the Islands and who was a connoisseur of good times and special wines and hence had the temerity to rub shoulders with such has-beens.

Religion apparently was pounded into the natives’ primitive heads and sinful souls through scare tactics and rote memory, such that on occasion illiterate headmasters ran their schools relying entirely on brute force. And the affairs of the entire country were managed in proxy via the Spanish colonial administration of Mexico. I am at a loss as to how to avoid demeaning the Filipinos for the crimes of the Spaniards: It does seem to me, from my most limited vantage point as a visiting tourist, that the country, even today, lacks the social cohesion of a nation: The official language of the country is English, which, though it is taught in schools, still is spoken by a select minority. India suffers from a similar colonially-based contradiction in terms of language. But India had unifying historical and cultural roots that seem to be lacking in the case of the Philippines. Since, because of my Israeli passport, I have not visited Malaysia or Indonesia, the closest country with which I can compare the Philippines culturally seems to be Thailand. Again, Thailand has a longstanding history of independence as a cohesive unit despite the many encroachments by neighboring enemy countries and the resultant historical border adjustments. This is lacking in the case of the Philippines, a country which seems to have gained unity and nationhood through the aggression of colonialism. Indeed, its independence came about through the interference of seemingly helpful outsiders hiding selfish motives and colonial ambitions. Prior to Spain’s aggressive colonization the archipelago seems to have been a collection of separate native Malay groups with varying degrees of language similarity and the classic north-south gradation of skin color that can be discerned still today. With little need for apology, given Europe’s penchant for justifying the theft of the world’s riches with the selfless need to civilize and redeem the natives, Spain stuck around for three frightful centuries ending with enough intelligent natives questioning its motives to rock the boat and demand independence at the risk of martyrdom. At the turn of the nineteenth century the USA came to the aid of the Filipino rebels to turn around at the moment of victory and try to subjugate them to its own expansive dreams, liberal and enlightened as these may have seemed to the new masters. With that the enchantment of the Filipino elite with the former Spanish masters and their ways gave way to the total worship of all that is American, a total cultural surrender that thrives to this day. True the Americans introduced an extensive public educational system, albeit English language-based. Then the Japanese empire-building mania led them to supplant the Americans with a logical appeal to Asian pride and pan nationalism. The ill-conceived and heavy-handed bloody interference lasted only few years before the victorious Americans returned, this time with true concessions to Filipino nationalism and liberation dreams. Except that by this time America had devised its own model of remote-control style of occupation with all the required military bases that victory necessitated and justified. All of the Philippines became, as if, an extension of America’s military bases and a human and physical buffer zone around them.

This history of continued subjugation, vicious or benign and direct or otherwise, and my own limited, twisted, selective, and expedient understanding of it is perhaps the cause for my occasional disorientation while on this trip: In my days I have seen Filipinos in groups, usually of young adults, in various parts of the world: I recall hearing the rapid-fire Tagalog language in the marketplace in Nazareth and at shopping centers in more than one European capital. And of course there was the Filipino population of Hawaii with their typical rendition of the letter ‘f’ (which their native language lacks) as ‘p,’ thus being known locally as ‘Pilipinos.’ In fact, as an intern at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, I had the pleasure of providing medical care to a large group of single old Pilipino men who apparently came to Hawaii as indentured plantation workers and never had the chance to return to their native land or to be fully absorbed in Hawaii’s multi-ethnic society. In old age they lived in dorms in downtown Honolulu and formed distinctive cliques in their lonesome old age. For a while I was quite close to several individuals in this group. Still, I always viewed Filipinos as an out-of-place collection of individuals, even now that I was the intruder in their country. This led to the repetitive strange psychological phenomenon that resembled that of ‘deja vu:‘ I would be in the back seat of a taxi, waiting for my change at the cashier in a shop, or waiting to be served in a restaurant and all of a sudden the thought crosses my mind that I was looking at a Filipino individual. It then would take me a moment or two to remember that I was in the country named the Philippines and that everyone around me was a Filipino. I have traveled to many countries and this never happened to me anywhere else. The only explanation I can come up with for this strange feeling is that I am psychologically denying the Filipinos a country of their own; they are citizens of the world, the domestic aids and caregivers to all of humanity.

In our ambitious island hopping on this vacation we stayed at four different resorts selected for their diving facilities, diving and snorkeling being the main enchantment of the trip planners, my daughter and son-in-law. Getting to each resort involved flying back to Manila, flying out to the nearest airport to our destination, boarding a boat to an adjacent smaller island and finding our way to our destination, mainly by small boat or tricycle, both being amazingly efficient ways of transport though they couldn’t hold a candle to the national favorite means of transportation, the ubiquitous excessively stretched-out Jeep known to all as the jeepney, apparently another relic of America’s military presence of recent times. The local boats, however are original: a central hollowed hull extended sideways for better balance by two thick bamboo outrigger pieces of equal length attached to the central body by several cross-links of thinner bamboo. With midsized boats, the outrigger contraptions are attached such that cross-connections come down from atop the cargo and passenger central hull, giving the boat the overall look of a giant spider. I found this fascinating enough to rate several dozen photos to capture the spidery shape. I even felt personally insulted when one of our hosts, a less enchanted European resort owner, gave this traditional boat a failing grade for stability in rough weather by comparison with European sailboats. In fact, I found it to be so stable that for the first time in my life I needed no preventive seasickness medication. And I am so extremely sensitive on this matter that even writing about it now gives me a queasy and nauseous feeling.

I hope that you understand that I recount these adventures with much pride, for I fear the sea and, despite my ability to swim or to float around for hours if need be, I panic whenever I attempt to stand and my feet do not reach solid ground. Given such real reservations, it was no small matter that I didn’t only go snorkeling more than once but even was enticed to try scuba diving. The half-hour period that I spent in diving attire and with an oxygen tank on my back was the full responsibility of the German diving instructor who took me to the depth of some ten meters to inspect the wreck of a Japanese gunboat from WWII. Conveniently, my sinus headache, the physiologic outcome of the lack of pressure equilibrium between my innards and the liquid depths in which I was immersed, prevented me from extending my enjoyment of the reef and the rich variety of fish and sea life and from repeating the adventure again. What I found most striking about this existential experience was the ability of sea diving experts to contract the entire range of human communication to a total of three signals when submerged under water: a circle made with one’s thumb and index finger to indicate good comfort level, a quivering of the open hand to say “my condition is so so,” and thumbs up to say “get me to the surface,” the one signal I excelled at. Safe on land I found an explanation for the brevity of my diving experience. This time last year we were in Costa Rica where I learned to signal ‘thumps up’ to indicate comfort and full approval. That, I now claimed, was what I was trying to tell my diving instructor. Apparently, with his limited Costa Rican exposure, the young man thought I wanted out. What can you do? Not everyone is a world traveler who recognizes Costa Rican sign language.

Be that as it may, scuba diving over a Japanese gunboat has some other untoward consequences: Somewhere on that dive I must have come in contact with a vicious jellyfish. I removed my diving suit to find the skin of the whole front of my left thigh red as strawberry. Within the hour it started to blister, itch and burn. That night I dreamt the follow-up to my adventure: I climbed the steep cliff of the small island by the sunken boat in hope of rescuing any escaped sailors that may have hid in the jungle for the past sixty some years. Sure enough, there was one. But he turned out to be a Samurai and he slashed my left thigh with his sword. And a second frightful event, in reality and not in a dream occurred early on when the resort hosts encouraged us to raw out in their two small boats beyond the safety buoy. Just as we got there and as we jumped out of the boats for a swim, one of us broke the bamboo outrigger piece. As I rushed to climb into my boat to come to his aid I tipped the boat with my wife and three-year-old granddaughter in it over and we all had to be saved by a motorized rescue boat.

And one more embarrassing near brush with disaster: We celebrated New Year’s Eve with Filipino friends at the beachfront resort owned by their friends in Boracay, dubbed ‘the Waikiki of the Philippines.’ The food was plentiful, the music loud and the dancing wild, all led by a Brazilian singer and her Samba dancers. As the count down for the New Year started the whole width of the miles-long beachfront exploded into one massive and continuous bonanza of fireworks. We have seen New Year celebrations in a dozen countries; this was the wildest and brightest ever. Couples kissed and embraced nonstop and total strangers matched the closest of lovers in intimacy as they celebrated the occasion. And we were right there in the midst of it all participating fully. It left one with the thrill of youthful escapades and the prurient pleasure of having broken the usual bounds of good taste. Then came the surprising downside of the night to remember: The New Year issue of the Philippine Chronicle reported that a local TV station had aired footage of lovers lolling naked on the beach where we had spent a good part of the night. It further reported that the Parliament is considering passing legislation to criminalize such acts of innocence. What happened to freedom of expression!

Ameer's Day of Judgment

"Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."
--Franz Kafka

So far I have missed two sessions of Ameer's court case. What no one among us, his friends, seems to realize or accept is that Ameer kasar muzrab el-ain -- has broken the outlet of the community spring -- as Fairuz would put it; he has drilled a hole in the bottom of the world, an unforgivable sin that no one can prove or disprove. Look what he has gone and done! Look at Tunisia and Egypt, and perhaps Yemen, and what remains of Palestine! Who knows where the fire he has started will burn next? Perhaps in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAR, or Morocco. Who knows if it may not reach Syria or Iran?

No! Not Libya and Israel; the lid of democracy is screwed on too tight there. The will of the people who count in both democratic systems is given full expression to the detriment and exclusion of those defined out of its frame. It is democracy for those who count in the way the system was designed: for eighty percent of the population in one case and for one person in the other.

Ameer, our man was indicted, by his own admission in a negotiated plea bargain, of committing the nebulous crime of coming in contact with an agent of an enemy state. This was a cut below the treasonous crime with which he was originally accused, that of aiding an enemy in time of war, an accusation that was sure to carry with it 25 years to life. And what are we talking about? Let us think about it: It boils down to having spoken to someone not fully sympathetic to Israel’s case during one of its wars with one of its neighbors. It is having spoken Arabic abroad during a time of war, for what else would a Palestinian use his mother’s tongue to communicate with another Arabic speaker, say a Lebanese you meet in Jordan in the Summer of 2006 or a Gazan you meet in Egypt in the Winter of 2008, if not to inquire about how Israel’s current aggression had affected them and their families and dear ones? But then the exact dictum you use may be interpreted ‘intelligently’ by ‘the enemy at war with Israel,’ i.e. Hezbollah or Hamas, to gain ‘sensitive information about Israel’s military installations and the locations and movements of its troops.’ Those enemy bastards can mine every word you say innocently (and you should try once as a Palestinian to prove your innocent intentions in an Israeli court of justice!) for its possible security content. Even your tone of voice and inflection could have been coded to transmit information to an enemy agent. We have evidence of you doing that, Ameer, but you don’t expect us to share such sensitive intelligence information with you and your lawyers. No, it is enough that we let the judge peek at our thick secret files about your secret exchanges of information, which constitute an existential threat to the state of Israel.

And we have photos showing you sharing the same physical space with agents of enemy states under the guise of attending international conferences. And, mind you, we have tracked your movements on your way to more than one such international spy ring meetings. We know that on your way to the airport you passed by more than one military installation to update your information on our military camps. Israel is one intensive grid of secondary and tertiary dirt roads but you always chose to travel from your home in Haifa on the freeway in order to monitor our military installation adjacent to it. Your brother Issam before you, using his parliamentary privileges, went ahead and openly betrayed the country that gave him those privileges and discussed Israel’s nuclear weapons openly in international forums. We will take all the necessary preventive steps to stop you from passing information to the enemy about our military installations even when they can obtain better-detailed information from Google Maps.

You should be thankful we don't use all the evidence we have at our disposal to put you away for good. Should we decide on it we can generate proof of payments made to you for services rendered to the enemy through secret and circuitous channels for money laundering disguised as funding agencies for civil society and human rights activities on both sides of the Green Line. We have proof that the NGO that you head receives funding from the same anti-Semitic agencies in Europe that fund troublemakers groups across the Middle East. Who knows better than us what behind the scenes arrangements and exchanges of monetory favors can be promulgated on your behalf. We even can bring forth proof of your organization's banking activities abroad and we will share the privileged information with the court. And we will tighten the screws on all of your organizations with specific laws to stop the whole lot of you from functioning. But we will hold back on all of that for later when we want to banish you out of the country as we did your friend Azmi Bishara before you.

As if to thank us for not using such lethal weapon, look what you and your international civil society and human rights rabblerousing friends have done to the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. We know for sure, based on our information resources, that Mohammad Bouazizi had heard the slogans all of you have been repeating. His mind had been poisoned by your misleading discourse. He was brainwashed by your empty talk about freedom, equality and the promise of peace and a better future for all. You and your friends in all those international gatherings you use to conduct your behind-the-scenes treasonous activities appropriate the moral high ground and presume to represent your people. You take advantage of the attention lapses of such responsible fellow Arabs and stalwarts of regional stability and progress as Ben-Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt to badmouth them when they had been elected by over 100% of their fellow countrymen. Perhaps the next thing you will be telling us is that Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent you when he and his cabinet negotiate away the right of return of Palestinian refugees or agree to accept you as his subject in one of his Bantustans.

Of course, I am only speculating. I am in New York and have not heard the news about the judgment scheduled to be issued today in Ameer’s case. I expect the worst. Still I hope the news about Tunisia and Egypt reaches Ameer's cell for it is sure to cheer him up regardless what those bigoted judges slap him with.


Below is what I had written about the last session I had attended before leaving to visit with my two children's families. I had held back from posting it for fear of possibly affecting the court's decision:

My African Mona Lisa
Oct. 28, 2010

I am contemplating submitting my candidacy for judgeship in Israel. I like the Haifa courtroom’s high-ceiling and air-conditioned interior with all the modern electronic equipment and secret passages from two opposite sides, one for the judges and the other for their trembling customers. Better yet, I like the attention a judge gets with everyone rising as he enters and as he leaves and all those scurrying around to cater to his wishes from the half dozen security guards who regularly shout at us, the audience, to squeeze tighter in our two rows of seats and to stop taking any photos though the room is half-full with journalist and their cameramen zooming on our faces. But best of all, there is the secretarial staff who always seem to distinguish themselves from the judges by donning the tightest of blue jeans and the wildest of T-shirts, including one with “Rabble Rouser” inscribed across her ample bosom. My aspiration to become a judge is buttressed in my own mind by my total ignorance of all matters judicial. The goddess of justice is always depicted blindfolded and in the two cases that I have been following recently, the case of Rachel Corrie and that of Ameer Makhoul, I am willing to bet my last penny on the outcomes without seeing or hearing the arguments of the lawyers or the statements of their witnesses. In both cases I can decree my judgment as well as the next guy with my eyes closed. Or look at the equally wasteful judicial system in Iraq: It took them all these years to condemn Tariq Aziz to hanging, the delay apparently just because he speaks English well. I would have hanged the whole lot of them from day one. Speedy justice is more my style.

It is not only expediency and economic considerations that encourage me to apply for judgeship in Israel. A precedence or two come to mind: For years in the 1970s, we in the Battouf region of Galilee had a social worker, a fulltime government employee, whose only qualification was that he was a licensed taxi driver who rented his vehicle and personal services to the right political party during elections. He was very sociable, which is the essence of social work, it was argued. I personally almost acted in this egalitarian fashion on one occasion as well. At the time I headed the regional office of the Ministry of Health. A man from my village with a well-earned reputation for non-convoluted thinking showed up at my home one night with a couple of watermelons, some freshly picked okra. a few squashes and a bagful of tomatoes from his fields. He was quick to reassure me that it was just a neighborly visit. After coffee he divulged his secret mission: His newlywed daughter had been barred from finishing her high school studies. She wasn’t the brightest of students to start with and now the law gave the principle an excuse to dismiss her altogether: The law at the time did not allow a married woman to study in a regular high school. The system had to guard against promiscuity, I guess. What the father came to enquire about was whether, given the circumstances, I wouldn’t be willing to appoint his failing daughter a nurse.

Last Tuesday there was an emergency meeting at Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights. Ameer’s defense lawyers, his family and the committee for his defense were all represented at the meeting. It is no secret that the secret police has trouble with the folks at Adalah. Once they raided Adalah’s offices and did their best to ruin it altogether. The incident had figured prominently in the local Arabic press at the time but has since faded into the cloudy background of anti-Arab routine incidents compacted and stored away on disc D in my brain. I no longer remember its details or exact nature. I vaguely recall an incendiary attempt by police agents aborted by the office cleaning woman. Be that as it may, Adalah, Arabic for ‘justice’ will meet its own just punishment when the time is right. I recall one case early on in Adalah’s career in which they took the Ministry of Health to task for not providing Bedouin villages in the Negev with Maternal and Child Health services and in which I served as an expert witness. The Supreme Court judge openly praised Adalah’s lawyers and I held my breath expecting the worse. Shortly I heard the news of the fire arson attempt and scored another ‘I told you so’ point against myself.

Now, the defense lawyers proceeded to explain to the rest of us the nature of the plea bargain they had been haggling over with the state prosecutors. [Two terms were made clear to me by my English-native-speaker wife in the process of writing this piece: “It is ‘plea’ and not ‘flea,’” she explained to me when she reviewed my writing for spelling and grammatical errors. All my life I had taken it to mean bargaining as one would in a flea market. For the non-Arabic speaker I should add that Arabic lacks the sound ‘p.’ “And it is the state ‘prosecutor’ not ‘persecutor,’” she added.] We, the laity, wanted to know why someone as innocent as we all knew Ameer was should accept a minimum jail term of seven years? And who started the defeatist negotiations in the first place? A lawyer with a penchant for similes and folksy sayings explained in a circumspect manner the trap in which he thought Ameer had fallen: “He who has swallowed turtles has a hard time sleeping; they keep rattling inside him,” he explained. “We are the ones running scared of a life sentence for our man, not the prosecutors. Why should we be so worried, you ask? In all criminal court cases, admission of the accused is the prime proof of guilt. Israeli statistics show that in 96% of criminal cases the accused is found guilty, another Israeli world record. To that should be added the weighty consideration that here we speak of a security violation and that the accused is a Palestinian. And he happens to be a Christian who signed an admission of cooperating with Hezbollah. Think of the special lesson the powers that be must think they have to teach all of us through this case. We should also consider the poisoned racist atmosphere currently dominating Israeli politics, and you reach near certainty that Ameer will bear the full brunt of Israel’s ire by way of its system of justice.”

The fact that Ameer was sleep-deprived to a point where he could no longer remember his own home phone number or recall the features of his two teenage daughters is immaterial in Israeli courts. Sixty two years of experimenting with physical, psychological and possibly pharmaceutical modalities in manipulating the Palestinian mind are not about to be thrown out the window in this or any ‘security case’. That the admission was extracted under duress is impossible to prove in Israeli courts. The review just published of 645 such cases of Palestinians interrogated at the same specialized facility in Petah Tikva (Window of Hope!!) shows the efficiency of the system: Admission of committing the crimes that each was accused of was achieved in 100% of cases. It is of little help that there was no factual evidence to corroborate the accusations against Ameer. The police investigator in the case admitted in court “with the bone of his tongue” that surveillance of some 30,000 of Ameer’s phone calls, years of his emails, ten computer hard discs, and masses of files from his office and home lead to zero evidence against him. Even the money safe at Ittijah was expectantly opened and yielded only 200 Euros and 5 Egyptian Ginehs And yet, the lawyers expected the court will find him guilty as charged.

At Adalah, as we sat in judgment of the Israeli system of justice, the logical conclusion was clear: We all should be on the run. The moment the Shin Bet targeted any of us he or she is as good as guilty by his or her own admission. Stay under their radar screen.

Amira Hass has just reported in Haaretz on a rare case of a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories, from the village of Na’alin to be exact, who was found innocent in a military court. “The translator in the courtroom was confused. He looked around him, wondering out loud how one translates ‘innocent’ into Arabic.” I find that the report of Amira, the Hebrew feminine namesake of our man, resonates with me for another reason: She mentions that 28 other fellow Palestinians were found guilty on basis of the testimony of the same mentally compromised man. They all were advised by their lawyers to accept a plea bargain and admitted to whatever the mentally compromised witness accused them of doing so as to submit to shorter terms of jail. But that all happened under military rule, and our lawyers now long for those good old days. Which brings back a well known case in Arrabeh during our two-decade-long experience with the military rule in Galilee Palestinian communities: In Arrabeh we had a mentally compromised young man as well and he was interrogated as the sole witness who admitted to seeing the two criminal neighbors who had taken down the Israeli flag from atop the school in the center of the village. And he identified the two by name. Except that in court the witness changed his story and testified under oath that the two friends whom he had seen taking the flag down actually were not his neighbors, Ali and Yusuf, but rather Ali’s rooster and Yusuf’s puppy dog. Still Ali and Yusuf served time based on their admissions.

Then the lawyer advising us on Ameer’s case added a well-known classic Arabic line: “It is compulsion not heroism that drives your man,” meaning himself. “When faced with the near certainty of 16 years to life, I hardly have a choice but to recommend the 7-10 years bargain to my client.” Another lawyer thought it was advisable at this stage to lie low and cease and desist from statements that might irritate the judges even when the statements were true in content and spirit. A third lawyer pointed out an article that Ameer had published in an Arabic weekly calling on Arab youth in Israel to stand up to racism using all ‘legal means.’ He thought that this should continue to be his proud stand in court when he is called on to recant and apologize: “The lower you stoop and beg for mercy the harder the system will come down on your head,” he opined. He then ventured the cruelest of jokes: “We should challenge the court to rise above the racism and fascist atmosphere of the Israeli street,” he suggested. He seemed to forget that ours is a true democracy in which leaders lead and ‘the street’ is only responding to the prompting and dictates of Netanyahu and Lieberman.
“Why should we blame the street when the Knesset is favorably considering a law proposal to withdraw citizenship from security violators like Ameer?” a fellow member of our Public Committee objected. “It comes right on the eve of this session of Ameer’s court case? Are we fools enough to believe this is a coincidence?”

On Wednesday I attended Amir’s court case. I arrived early in the morning to find that the case was delayed, obviously by the wasteful haggling of lawyers, till later in the morning. I went for coffee at Ittijah, the organization Ameer and I had shared in the conspiracy of founding. The two young women in the office were going crazy with answering phones, sending and receiving deliveries of posters, flyers and emails. It was the eve of the World Education Forum, an activity in the planning of which Ameer had played a key role. To start with, his plans were for Ittijah and other lead Palestinian NGOs, here, in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and in Lebanon, to host the World Social Forum. But more cautious actors deemed it too much of a risk to hold such a function in the tall shadow of Israel’s occupation. They downgraded the Palestinian hosting role to the education segment of the original forum. Be that as it may, I arrived at Ittijah with Abu-Asa’ad, another Palestinian activist who shared Ameer’s prominence on TV screens across the world during the UN Anti-Racism Conference in Durbin and served time for his role, I am convinced. Our hostesses were so busy that we men had to make our own cup of coffee. Imagine! Abu Asa’ad and I considered how we all can turn the table on Ameer’s persecutors and prosecutors and the best way for Ittijah to continue on the path of international solidarity and networking that Ameer has launched it on.

Back in court, after Ameer had arrived, raised his cuffed hands in a sign of steadfastness, and beamed his big sunny smile at us all, I withdrew into my imaginary private cocoon and proceeded to doodle. I was once the top dog in a government office, many of whose workers had already burnt out, their motivation verging on the nonexistent to start with, witness their need to carry a handgun to protect themselves from the mothers and children they were serving. Over the many years of boring routine, I had perfected my doodling skills. I had become such an expert doodler that I could produce likenesses of people attending meetings in my office that were recognizable enough that the models would ask to keep their portraits in their scrap books as precious mementos. Especially when they needed such favors from me as an approval of a pay raise, such staff members would remind me of how fund they were of my drawings. Still, I never realized what an artistic flare I had developed over those long years. I was truly surprised and greatly elated when I discovered, just as the judges arrived in the courtroom, that I had created a veritable likeness of the Mona Lisa that sat directly in front of me. I had captured the Mona Lisa image with her beautiful hair allowed in a studied and meticulous casualness to stream around her beautiful face with her quizzical smile and that magic gaze of her sumptuous eyes that forever follow all of her viewers regardless of which side of the room they look at her portrait from, the hair then flaring out and down over the tips of her lovely shoulders, so sensuously inviting with the imagined suggestive exposure of their soft skin just beyond the generously wide semicircle of the collar of her dress. Alas, the only view that I had of the Mona Lisa was from the back and hence the exact likeness I drew may look to the casual viewer as a simple triangle of wavy lines spreading from a small rounded tip, indicating the top of her small head, down to a wide horizontal line suggesting the end of her waist-long hair. That is all that can be seen by the casual unimaginative viewer of my art.

The woman prosecutor with the long hair had the edge over our defense lawyers, for she had swallowed no turtles. I knew already what was going to happen and I didn’t quite like it. I was bored. And my mind was preoccupied with my own private affairs: I had asked a fellow farmer to bring me a load of the dark brown gold his goats produce for my garden. What if he were to arrive and find the gate locked and unload his cargo of goat manure on the street outside the gate? He might end up fouling up the air of the whole neighborhood if the residents had to drive over the smelly soft stuff. For the uninformed among you, let me elaborate: Goat manure comes in two distinct forms, the nice rounded small hard pellets and the softer clumpy teardrop-shaped tufts better known as ‘dingle berries.’ The latter are usually the result of a goat being afflicted by diarrhea, apparently a common occurrence considering the less-than-selective diet of the animal. [I recall once seeing goats eating plastic sheeting and considering approaching responsible world environmental agencies with a proposal on how to solve the problem of plastic waste.] As the soft fecal matter flows out and down over the hind quarters of a goat, it sticks to the goat’s leg hairs cumulatively forming those teardrop-shaped berries. If they are allowed to dry fully, they produce a characteristic soft rhythmic sound as the goat ambulates, a sound not unpleasant to peasant ears. And the smell is not entirely offensive to my nostrils either. But do I dare admit such damning confessions to my readers?

Those were the thoughts that weighed on my mind as I dosed off while waiting for the judges to dismiss us all. In my dream, I was still preoccupied with the goat manure problem. Still, my deeply felt pride in my artistic achievement broke through from my subconscious into the dream: I recall once seeing on the National Geographic channel some African tribal beauties using cow dung as a form of hairstyling. The beautiful Mona Lisa was now transformed into a tribal woman. Perfectly shaped dingle berries hung from the end of her long hair in a straight row across the width of her back. As she twirled her head in triumphant condemnation of Ameer and his supporters, her hair swished about releasing the pleasant smell and soft musical clinking of dingle berries.