Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Wet Dream

The News From Spain agency reported recently that Judge Baltasar Garzon had initiated legal action against several officials of the Bush administration.
“If I were any of those former honchos I wouldn't travel to Spain,” my NFS source said. “Or anywhere else for that matter. Garzon is the judge who nabbed General Augusto Pinochet In London, you know.”
The NFS correspondent, who wished to remain anonymous, also reminded me that Garzon is a descendant of Francisco Pizarro, the head conquistador who foisted Spain and its civilizing church on Peru.
“Apparently, some two-dozen generations have not diluted the family’s vindictive spirit of old,” she explained. “But Garzon is more honest than his famous progenitor was: When a former Bush associate with oil connections put up his hand to the wall as high as he could reach saying: ‘I will flood all of Spain for you this high with black gold if you leave me alone,’ unlike his great granddad, Garzon refused to consider the offer.”
As the historic record shows, Pizarro and his fellow conquistadors got a roomful of gold then reneged on their promise to release Emperor Inca Atahualpa whom they held in Cusco, the capital of his extensive empire.
“And what did we gain from all his cheating? His own men killed my great grandfather and we, his descendants, have lived in poverty ever since. Justice is more valuable than gold, glinting yellow or black,” the NFS correspondent quoted the judge to have declared.
For his part, the taciturn Machiavellian former US politician apparently was duly alarmed. “This is truly ominous,” he reportedly stated with a touch of paranoia. “It won’t be the first time Spain decimates a thriving empire in the Americas.”
As a research psychologist specializing in intercultural cross influences, the historical allusion piqued my curiosity. At the first opportunity I chose to tour Peru with my family. In Cusco we smelled our way along a stone-paved alley off of the Plaza de Armas to some authentic local cuisine. That is how we first discovered The Alternative Inca Tour Service. We entered through another trapezoid doorway, its two sides precisely cut out of massive black rock at the optimal angle to withstand the Goddess Patcha Mama’s frequent willful shaking of Her mountainous Andean domain. A young native beauty greeted us at the door and proceeded to outline in Spanish the various tours on offer, including one with an overnight visit to an Inca Shaman who specialized in native hallucinogenic teas. We were in luck, we were told, since there would be full moon and no rain on the appointed night. “And the shaman is well versed in the occult sciences,” the woman added.

We debated the degree of adventurism appropriate for the three-generation mix of our travel party. We decided to shelter the children and womenfolk from the vagaries of such full immersion in native culture; only my son and I would dare the challenge; that was the family consensus. Later, the party shrank by another fifty percent due to attrition from food poisoning. I had to decide whether to forego the down payment altogether or to venture alone on a nightlong foray among the Incas. Then the assigned translator, who had already collected her fee in advance, claimed a family emergency. I was faced with another fateful decision. Trouble was I was the frugal type; I never had the fiscal latitude or the inner fortitude to forego a monetary debt owed me. And I loved to ride a good horse. I went.


We started at Ollataytambo where we sampled the local Pisco Sour, Corn Chicha, coca tea and coca candy. At the horse ranch, baring all seemed to be the operative mode for the journey: Flanked by two bare-breasted maiden guides I rode my mare bareback. The narrow path turned and twisted with the Urubamba River on its wild rush to loose itself into the grandeur of the Amazon thousands of miles down the craggy Andes. We were following the ancient Inca Trail in the belly of The Sacred Valley, my companions explained. My consciousness had already started its beneficent obfuscation. We stopped briefly for them to clear some overgrowth from our path with their machetes. I objected to my companions’ carrying of weapons as well as to the overgrowth itself. I explained as best as I could that such scene was more suitable for the tropical forest of the Amazon basin further down, not here with the sparse vegetation of the mountain terrain.

“And who knows,” I added. “You may well be wasting a singularly valuable yet-to-be-discovered plant form.”

“You are right,” my two guides responded simultaneously. “Prior to the twentieth century no one valued our native rubber tree.”

“Where would we all be without rubber?” I said making a silly dig. “You should have held on to the patent.”

“Those rubber kings in Iquitos got so fat they shipped their laundry to be done in Paris. Can you imagine?”

“Who knows but I might be on my way to fame and riches then,” I joked.

“Not you,” they responded together. “We research our clients and we know you are one with us. You would not enslave us as the Europeans on the rubber plantations did."

They were winning me over. Since we arrived in Lima I had sought to connect with Peruvians around me. With my Middle Eastern looks I thought I could pass for a mestizo. The hint at my acceptance into the native fold sent me orbiting at the far edges of the Milky Way whose outline had started to decorate the evening skies. I felt one not only with the Incas but with all natives, indeed with all humanity and with the entire universe. I was already circling in the realm of the unimaginable.

That was when it first struck me how adept at sign language I had become after those drinks at the horse ranch and they at understanding me. I knew how alcohol affected me and this was not it. I broke out laughing wildly for I realized that it couldn’t be only the latent effect of the tea we had had. It had been offered with the explanation that it should tide us over till we made it to the shaman’s home up the slopes. Some of the discourse of Professor Timothy Leary in my college days came to mind: Could this be the magical ‘before-effect’ of the powerful hallucinogenic concoctions I was about to take? I seemed to remember him explaining that if we accept that some drugs may have a lifelong aftereffect then we should expect the sequential reverse of that in some cases. I never fully understood Leary’s theories in the first place and decided to drop his doubtful line of reasoning right then and there.

We arrived at our destination with the night still young. The entire length of the street leading from the village Plaza to the shaman’s house was lined on both sides with basalt boulders, each the size of a small tent, topped by precisely cut and fitted smaller black stones with an occasional narrow window opening at such a height that it was not possible to see through it from the street. Each window faced slightly differently from all the others. I understood instinctively that, like those of the Great Mosque in Cordova, each window was designed to allow the sunrays in for one specific day of the year. My maiden guides signaled to me that, in recognition of the shaman’s special stature as the high priest, the window of his private room admitted the sunrays on the day of the summer solstice.

The shaman waited for us at the door. Though he wore a large black stone cross on his chest, he was still fully committed to Inti, the Inca Sun God, he explained. He wore an armless woolen vest over faded blue jeans and walked barefoot. Fiber bracelets adorned his muscular upper arms and one held back his long hair in a thick braid. I queried my two companions with a gesture: “Are we in Macho Picchu?”

They understood my gut-inspired gesturing style and confirmed my suspicion with nods and a big smile, apparently in reverence and appreciation of my mentioning the name of the sacred locale at the center of which we stood. The amazing thing was that the same happy and proud smile spread across their two faces. This was a revelation for me. It was not two maidens smiling at me simultaneously. That would have been charming enough. It was a single smile shared by two separate faces. The effect of this strange phenomenon went way beyond exhilaration. Absorbing its cogency, I was instantaneously transformed into emotional omniscience. I understood my inner reality better than I had in all of my seven decades of earthbound awareness. When I inquired about that shared smile, the two maidens explained in unison that it was on account of their being in Macho Picchu, the proudest relic of Inca civilization, in the presence of the high priest who was a descendant of Emperor Huayna Capac, founder of the Inca empire, and the reigning personification of Inti, the sun god.

It is difficult to describe the depth of my delight not only at receiving this explanation from the two lovely Incan supplicants but also at being able to comprehend their sign language. I neglected to mention that at the teeming plaza of the sacred village we were treated to another cup of local herbal tea, possibly facilitating my comprehension beyond my realization. In unison, yet privately, my two companions had already explained to me that the essence of all the psychedelic experience they were guiding me through was sexual in nature, and hence my unlimited pleasure throughout the night even though no sexual contact was necessary. “The smile is the culmination of all positive feelings,” the two explained. “It is the flowering of love beyond which extends the emptiness of the universe and the nothingness of the Gods. Love is the ultimate reality and the smile is its spring flower. That is where we all are heading tonight.”

At the door, the shaman pounded his clenched fest emphatically to the V-opening in his baby alpaca wool vest where his cross lay:


"I had hoped for a different name; something authentic," I said hoping he understood English.

"Autentic," he repeated with a nod of his head. His prominent nose, which bisected his wide-open and deeply furrowed chocolate brown face, dominated the head motion. " Velcome, Autentic!" he added.

I had studied a pamphlet at the hotel that gave a dozen Quechua words of which I managed to retain only two. But ‘cat’ and ‘sneeze’ did little to facilitate our interaction. I had to work on bridging the communication gap between us so he could read my exact thoughts and I his. I had already achieved that degree of fluency in sign language with his two followers. We had some more tea and a couple of spiked green corn tamales. These did the trick.

When we entered the shaman’s living room, none other but Dark Vader, the former American official, was sitting there with a lopsided snide smirk on his face.

“We have been waiting for you, fellow!” he said casually, doing away with introductions.

“What brings you here, partner?” I responded likewise.

“I was visiting with some of my Contra friends in Nicaragua and they suggested I consult with this man about my condition. Now that you are here to translate for us we can proceed with the business at hand.”

I thought he was pulling my leg.

“No translators, no guards, no state-level ceremonies? What is this?” I asked.

He shook his head dismissively.

“I am here on a private visit. Few know about this.” He sounded convincing.

“You speak Spanish then?” I asked.

“Not on your life. I don’t want anything to do with that country. You translate for me,” he insisted

I hesitated, remembering how quickly the Americans went through translators in Iraq for example. I wanted to see my family again and hated the risk of becoming another honor-killing statistic or, worse, having shoes thrown at me. He promised to keep our liaison a secret and I agreed reluctantly.

“Tell the shaman I am here because of my weak heart,” he said taking command of the situation.

I did and the shaman cited the example of his own brave ancestors explaining that it was entirely a matter of attitude and that it was all in the gringo’s head and that he should gather the courage to go to Spain and face his accusers. I explained as best as I could that the man was speaking of his physical heart condition but to no avail.

“I should have accepted the CIA’s offer and not let them throw that one to the sharks,” the former official said. “They told me it was a perfect DNA match,” he added. “It is too late now; I have to wait in the transplant queue.”

My host went back to our planned hallucinogenic tour. He labored to give us a clearer idea of what to expect:

“We will guide you through an unforgettable experience,” he said in sign language.

I hadn’t realized before that the royal ‘we’ had a completely different essence and sign than the plural pronoun.

“The first level of spiritual gymnastics involves the suspending of ordinary logic and the expanding of consciousness,” he explained. “You need imagination and trust in the other; you have to permit us into your soul for this to work. "

“Let me tell you,” I hastened to admit, “in my case, the process is already well on its way, what with the potions I have imbibed so far and the hours of horseback trotting.”

“The physical is the gateway to the spiritual,” our host responded. “Your Sufi tradition must have taught you that, no doubt. I can see by your receptive frame of mind that you have already been mystically transformed beyond the limiting concepts of the possible.”

He was obviously buttering me up, I realized.

“I am already comfortable in the realm of the paradoxical,” I acknowledged. I was about to explain that the thin Andean air must have played a role in inducing my total openness of mind, but this physiologically based reasoning seemed trite in the extreme.

“We will now proceed to the second level where you will gain an intimation of the divine and peer into the soul of the universe. You will travel to where no frame of reference is of any use, to the flaming borders of the cosmos. This we will achieve with a different tea extracted from the ‘Spirit Vine’ and with more willful abandon from your side. The Vine reveals the primordial to the human spirit and induces clairvoyance. But you need to let your imagination roam. Try to align yourself with the philosophy of the Vine. Imagine yourself a cosmic serpent that swallows the whole of humanity, nay, the entire creation.”

I had no problem translating his sign language to English for the benefit of the other visitor. The shaman nodded to the two maiden companions who, gold chalices in hand, strode towards us in ephemeral dance steps and tried to induce us to scoff down the brew. I took my drink in one gulp. The American former official refused to touch his.

“One is yours and the other is his for the night,” my host motioned to me from an adjacent galaxy. “But beware of the inner fires or we may lose you. Keep Patcha Mamma in your sight; Mother Earth is where you belong even when you soar to the distant heavens.”

“I am here for a physical ailment, not for this kind of monkey business,” the American insisted.

The shaman suggested an injection he had for him but this was refused as well. Slowly, I surrendered the last memory of sensibility and willingly let myself be swept up by the perfumed whirlwind of intimacy swirling around my maiden muse and me. We spiraled up the moonlit skies to where All was clear to the senses. I traced the initiatory path of the prophets to the sacred seat of power. The universal order was one flawless consciousness. Bright and luminous scintillating patterns of colored light ignited the skies from one wide horizon to the other. But the other guest kept the same somber expression, constantly jumping at the least motion.

“All this and we are only at the middle stage,” I marveled to the shaman hours later upon regaining a measure of balance in our post-rapture repose.

“We shall head back now,” he explained. “Only the few can reenter the mythic era and pass from the sensual to the numinous to achieve the coveted union with Inti. You retain traces of sensibility. With that His light will annihilate you, I am afraid."

I objected but to no avail. I explained our argument to the American guest.

“Travel insurance doesn’t cover this, I know,” he said wearing his usual self-assured, all-knowing expression.

“He doesn’t want to budge from his geo-temporal cage,” the shaman gestured in response. “He never dropped his guard for a moment. How can a man of the spirit like me do anything for him?”

“What you have led me through is not totally strange to my field,” I said seeking to get even closer to the shaman.

“Who said it had to be?” he answered. “Truth is unitary.”

“I am familiar with such states of altered consciousness as out of body voyages and near death experiences.”

“Except that those places you have just visited are real. That is my incontestable truth.”

“Only in the biological sense that ‘junk DNA in our cells may contain dormant mystical knowledge,’ as I have heard it explained,” the American said with certainty. Leave it to this guy to ponder the mysteries of cellular memory, I thought. Perhaps that is why he refused that enemy donor.

“That is the old Byzantine riddle of what came first, the quail or the egg?” the shaman said mocking. “I find it easier to accept that at source we humans were ideations and only later discovered we could inhabit matter.”

“And hence our physicality, you want me to believe,” I joined the argument on the American’s side. “I am not totally convinced. I exist and therefore I dream.”

“I exist, period!” the man declared.

"Infinite love is the way out of all illusion,” the shaman concluded on a conciliatory note.

We retired to the shaman’s Andean stone guestroom, the other guest still wearing his expression of impatient disbelief. In a timeless mythical diorama I witnessed all the past, present, and future simultaneously compressed in a four-dimensional plane. With a sense of relief, I accepted the shaman’s explanations in lieu of the experience itself: The four short arms of the cross-like diagram cut in stone in the floor of the room symbolized the four forces of the universe: earth, water, wind and fire or Itni, the Sun God.

“At the center of the four potencies of the cross is the human community, the Arabs, the Americans, the Incas, the Spanish and everyone else,” he explained.

“Leave the Spaniards out of it,” the American shouted.

The shaman continued, paying little attention:

“The physical multi-dimensionality, the social complexity, and the historical development of all peoples are thus completely incorporated and given full expression in this unique Inca symbolic representation,” he explained.

He seemed convinced of what he said. When I tried to augment my understanding and acceptance of that reality by drawing him into expounding on the wisdom of his revelations he declared harmony as the basis of it all and pointed to the bottomless hole at the center of the diagram that drained all negativity from the four corners of our four-dimensional existence.

“It is the whole of humanity, not the Inca and the Arabs alone,” he added. And, let me tell you, it was all real and clear as the midday sun though it was all conveyed to me in sign language.

As my good friend, the shaman, said something in Quechua to our companions, the two maidens shared another horizon-wide single smile as bright and promising as the break of dawn. He signaled to me: “Let’s follow the girls,” and we did. They brought us a third but milder offering, a wooden bowl of beer each. We took our seats at the back of his “House of the Sun.” The balcony was made of rough-hewn native wood supported by sturdy pillars above the abundant wild growth at the edge of the Amazon waters on our left. A huge uniformly green plot of yucca was at our right. My host signaled to me that our beer was made from thoroughly chewed and fermented yucca:

“The fermentation does not dilute the arousing effects of women’s saliva on a man’s lips,” he explained wistfully as he ogled our two partners who had brought it for us with the freshly roasted farofa. “You sip the beer, swish the remnants of that honey around in your mouth and imagine all the virginal lips behind it,”

Suddenly, I realized the improbability of the geographic transition we had made by traversing his house. I put up my hands in the classic timeout signal. He read my thoughts and raised his hands to answer when the American politician showed up on that balcony looking very upset.

“I Thought I saw some of those NFS crews around the square today,” I said. “Is that what upsets you?”

“No, not the NFS,” he answered. “Ultimately they work for us even if they don’t know it. But now they have some of my Contra friends with them and I had no advance notice of that. It means someone is double-crossing me.”

“What exactly do they have against the man?” the shaman asked as we went in again.

The politician still didn’t comprehend much sign language. I continued to translate.

“I don’t really know what they hold against me. I hope they realize I am a changed man,” he said. “I am now for gay marriage and all, you know. And I never liked war in the first place. I got seven draft deferments during the Vietnam War; I didn’t want to fight, period!”

“How do you like the logic of that?” the shaman said smiling. He and I felt quite close now. “What would it take to relax this guy a little?” he asked rhetorically.

He paused for a moment, his face assumed a grave expression, and then he embarked on a lengthy expose of Incan history as if to compensate me for skipping the third and ultimate stage of the mind-expanding tour. He knew that interested me:

“Emperor Huayna Capac and his descendants built a huge empire in a single century,” he bragged.

“Mohammad and his followers did the same a millennium before that,” I signaled back. There was a slight hesitancy as I expressed the concept of ‘millennium.’ I found Roman numerals easier to signal than Arabic ones.

“Our man, General Quiso Yupanqui, whipped the ass of the Spaniards right at the head of the valley you came through,” he added. “He buried them with boulders rolled from up high.”

“We are good with stones too, you know!” I responded. “And not only because of the Rock of Gibraltar.”

“All to no avail,” the shaman added overcome by a rueful mood.

I sought to console him.

“We enslaved the Spaniards long before they did you,” I explained in fluid sign language with expressive dexterity and much boxing-of-ears-and-chopping-of-heads motion of my hands. “But I admit to some complicity of my people in destroying your great empire. After all, we taught the Spaniards navigation and gave them the astrolabe.”

“True, they weren’t as familiar with the heavenly constellations as our two peoples were. And those Arabian horses,” he reminded me.

“Were the horses they brought with them really Arabian? The gun powder came from China, though.”

“All is forgiven,” he signed magnanimously. ” We bear no grudge.”

“We are on the same side now,” I responded. ”The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes.”

“The gringo tried to convince me of that when you stepped out. I refused to collaborate with him against the Spaniards. He said they were after him. That is why he chose to vacation here and not in Europe.”

“He seems too tense to enjoy his vacation,” I explained. “And he refuses your potions.”

“Let us try the last one,” he said. “You deserve that third round of the real stuff.”

He called our two beauties and ordered the tea. We all headed to the Amazon side of the house to partake of the magic potion in the bosom of nature. The river flowed at a languid pace, its surface one reflective glass sheet extending from the dark forest at its distant bank to the adjacent border fractured by the eddied flow at the edge of our balcony. Two full moons shone brightly from the east. As we stepped out we detected the half-hidden shadows of a dozen figures, some with their distinctive NFS badges flashing occasionally in the moonlight. Slowly and in hushed motion, they snuck toward the stairway of our balcony on the terra firma side.

“The Contras have switched sides,” the American guest said and ran. Before we realized what was happening, he aimed at the moon in the depth and took a head dive.

“He won’t survive this one. He has a weak heart,” I signed hoping to save the man’s life, my hands spinning over my head in alarm like the blades of a helicopter.

“He’s escaped,” the shaman screamed in perfect English. “Go after him,” he ordered the two women. “I’ll get the raft. Jump! Now!”

“Guard our backs,” shouted the two women in perfect English as well.

Hoping to save the man’s precarious life, I too dove in the calm warm waters. Surprisingly the nibbling of a school of piranhas at my flesh had a pleasant tickling effect

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It Is All Relative

[This post was published online at Mondoweiss on Dec. 10, 2012 with the title 'Roots of Resistance: From the Galilee to Gaza – Supporting the first Intifada from inside the Green Line' as part of the series "Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada."]

Of late I am busy writing a fictional saga of a mixed Palestinian-Israeli couple. In an attempt to gain a sense of the intimate charm that must inhabit the life of such couples, I spoke recently with a pair of lovers.
“Our love bloomed first during the promising years of Rabin’s premiership, when peace and coexistence beckoned brightly on the horizon,” the good doctor explained.
I cringed. Rabin commanded over the ethnic cleansing of Lydd and Ramla in 1948. And he oversaw the calling up of Israeli crack troops into our villages in Israel in 1976 to prevent us from striking for one day in protest against his government’s confiscation of our land.
“Wasn’t Rabin the one to order the systematic breaking of Palestinian children’s bones in the First Intifada?” I asked in objection. No wonder the fictional love story in my novel ends in divorce, I thought to myself.
“But it is all relative,” my young Arab colleague answered. “Imagine how Sharon would have reacted.”
Of course, I could imagine that. Sharon sparked off the gore and violence of the Second Intifada. I pondered my friend’s relativist view: He was young, relative to me, even a child who knows little of our history. And yet, unlike his beautiful Jewish wife, another young colleague, he recognized all the references I made. For Palestinians anywhere, and likely for all generations to come, few historical landmarks stand out in their collective memory more distinctly than the Nakba, Land Day and ‘The Intifada.’ At least in my own memory these stand out sharply with a clear connecting thread, not because of the level of ‘gore and violence’ but because of the meaning.
Historians have traced and will continue to trace the common thread between these mass resistance highlights in Palestine and from them onward clear through to the Arab Spring. Here, I will attempt to reconstruct the way this thread has insinuated itself through my own life as Palestinian and as citizen of Israel: Israel was declared an independent state on my eleventh birthday. The attendant ethnic cleansing left 135,000 of us, Palestinians, confused and leaderless. It was my luck to be among the first of this vulnerable, indigenous group to get a professional training and return with a clear commitment to service. For six years I tried my best to fulfill my self-imposed obligation through the state system as the highest-ranking Palestinian professional in the Israeli Ministry of Health at the time. Then Land Day dawned on us with its two main lessons: (1) Israel covets all of our land, and (2) Israel will not tolerate peaceful resistance by Palestinians and will kill to stop it. I resigned from my government job to escape the castrating contradiction it embodied: a civil servant in a system that denied me services on equal basis. It denied my people’s collective existence and rights altogether.
Two years later I returned with a new determination: to use my official position to seek an alternative route for my community’s development and better health. I recruited three other local colleagues and we established a nongovernmental organization (NGO), The Galilee Society for Health Research and Services. Eventually I took leave again from my government position and worked full time as director of The Galilee Society. Quickly the Galilee Society morphed into a lead civil society organ active throughout the Palestinian minority within the Green Line. It became the focal point of health related activism within our minority including hosting the First Arab Health Conference in Israel and a permanent public committee on Arab health issues. Overseeing these activities inevitably put me in direct contact with similarly minded development-oriented NGO leaders in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).
Then came the Intifada and emboldened us to call ourselves Palestinian, a term prohibited at penalty of loss of employment. Let me now quote some selected and edited entries from my recently digitized audio memoirs recorded in real time:
“May 1, 1988:
In every Palestinian village, town, and city within Israel, as well as in Arab neighborhoods in mixed cities, a popular committee for the support of the Intifada has spontaneously sprung into existence. Such committees, popularly called ‘Local Relief Committees,’ are usually made up of active young people from the different clans or neighborhoods with a smattering of trustworthy and perhaps religious elders. They collect money, food, clothing, blankets, medications and other items of humanitarian aid for Palestinian brothers and sisters rising up in peaceful resistance against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
As the coordinator for the Standing Committee on Arab Health Issues in Israel I found myself at center stage in this theater of activism with the whole world as audience. We called for a meeting of interested physicians, nurses and other health professionals and obtained a mandate to act at the national level to coordinate medically related humanitarian aid from our public to Palestinians in the oPt in their hour of need and glory. We do not only collect drugs per se but also receive some of the money collected by the various local committees to purchase required medical equipment and supplies, including basic medications such as analgesics, sedatives, chronic disease meds, antibiotics, and iron and multivitamins.
At the start I had the occasion to revive some contacts that I had made previously with a group in Jerusalem, the Union of Medical Relief Committees (UMRC). I had previously invited leaders of this group to attend our First Arab Health Conference in Nazareth in 1986, long before the Intifada. Since then we have known of each other but not much more. Now, with this most significant development for Palestinians on both sides of the green line, I found it appropriate to use the occasion to rekindle the spontaneously warm relationship between us. I called and invited myself to their headquarters in Jerusalem where I met again with their chairman, Dr. Mustafa Bargouthy, and his aids. From my above-mentioned public position, I made the offer of extending to them some assistance, even if token, both professionally and materially. The offer was graciously and thankfully accepted. I came back and alerted the SCAH to the opportunity of extending humanitarian assistance to our Palestinian brethren and sisters in the oPt and through our professional counterparts who are actively involved in providing medical relief to their Palestinian sick and injured and the challenge was accepted enthusiastically.
The UMRC has about a thousand professional members, over three hundred of them physicians trained by-and-large in the Soviet Union. The organization is quite active on the public relations front and maintains an extensive network of international contacts. They are very active at the community level as well, especially in the outlying villages. More recently, with the outbreak of the Intifada and the breakdown of what health care system there was under occupation as well as the inability of many of UNRWA’s medical facilities in the refugee camps to function, the UMRC and similar community-based bodies came into their own. They have become very active in the camps, in rural communities and in the inner cities as well. Following on the heels of the closure of communities by the Israeli armed forces or the imposition of curfew or, oftentimes, during such curfew periods, UMRC volunteers manage to enter the communities and offer emergency medical relief to the patients most in need and to the injured.
On our side we have been supplying them with some basic medications and first aid equipment and supplies. We do this openly and over the board as a humanitarian function that nobody really dares question. More recently we have been able to offer some assistance to a wider range of groups active in emergency health care other than UMRC. For example, UNRWA in Jerusalem and Gaza has asked us to supply them with spare oxygen tanks. The standard one oxygen tank per clinic arrangement is no longer adequate because of the greater need for oxygen and the difficulty they now face in replenishing the oxygen supply. With a single tank it has to be taken some distance to be refilled, a task often not possible because of curfews, closures and roadblocks. So we have provided them with dozens of spare oxygen tanks to distribute to their outlying clinics as they see fit. Another example is the Ahli hospital in Gaza that, much like the hospitals in Nazareth, though it is a missionary hospital, functions as a community hospital. It is the only community hospital available to the population of Gaza and the surrounding areas for providing first aid to the Intifada wounded or carrying out needed surgical procedures. Palestinian youth feel safe seeking help there. This is unlike the situation in the Shifa government hospital whose attendance is extremely limited because all patients are reported regularly to the Israeli military authorities who are responsible for running it. Obviously, any injured person does not want his or her name to appear on the hospital’s daily roster. No such registration is maintained at the Ahli hospital or at any of the several active volunteer community medical facilities. All is done clandestinely and false names and addresses are provided if at all. The injured are given first aid instantly and clear the seen to be followed up at home. The Ahli hospital management has issued an appeal for some equipment and supplies. We supplied them with ten thousand shekels worth of sutures for example.
The Ahli management had also issued an appeal for assistance to install an elevator in their surgical department. The hospital was built in 1920 and since then that department with its three stories has been without a lift. Patients are carried up and down the stairs bodily on stretchers. My wife and I happened to witness how this is done on one occasion when we were visiting there, courtesy of a friend at the Gaza UNRWA office. The patient, after being operated on the ground floor, had to be taken to his bed on the second floor. Four orderlies stood at the bottom of the stairs, yelled loudly “clear the stairs, a patient is coming up” and charged up full speed with the stretcher and the post-op unconscious patient on their shoulders, apparently confident that no other patient would be carried down the stairs that same instant. I thought their plan to install a lift in the surgical department was a logical and justifiable one. Unfortunately, so far I have not been able to convince anyone on this side of the green line to donate the needed money. Everyone I have discussed the subject with wanted something that is more directly related to the immediate needs of those involved in the Intifada, be it oxygen needed for people exposed to tear gas and poisonous materials used by the Israeli forces, needles and sutures to saw up Intifada wounds, or first aid salves and bandages to dress them. The important thing is that their donations are used to provide items directly used for intifada participants short of arms, arms being banned by the leaders of the intifada. Mysteriously, one generous donor offered to buy us a sacksful of onions. I hadn’t known till then the beneficial effect of onion juice for eyes exposed to teargas. [As the man said, it is all relative: I have read that in Gaza they now use a mixture of cow manure and sugar to propel their missiles.]
What is striking is the overwhelming readiness of members of our public, men and women, old and young, to donate blood if only our brothers and sisters in the oPt would accept it. We have to remember that this comes from a group known in Israel to be particularly problematic when it comes to donating blood, so much so that health education programs have been specifically devised targeting Arab schools on the topic. But how effective is health education against rampant rumors that blood donations in Israel go mainly to the IDF?
Apparently the local response to calls for blood donations in the oPt is such that it precludes any need for such donations from our side. In fact, early on, the head of Al-Maqassid hospital in Jerusalem allowed few busloads from our side to arrive and donate blood merely as a token of solidarity. He was clearly doing us a favor when he instructed his blood bank staff to give us first priority in donating blood. That way we can be satisfied that we have participated in an active and direct way; one’s conscience can rest assured that he or she had shared in bearing the ‘blood burden’ of the uprising. People want to pay this ‘blood tax’ and to feel that they are actual participants in this Intifada, the ‘shaking off’ of the Israeli occupation. We have managed to take few groups from this side to visit there and to see where their donations went.
My colleague, TS, is actively involved in this matter at the local level in his village. He was gloating to me about the large donations of milk from local Israeli suppliers including Tnuva, the national Israeli quasi-governmental milk industry giant, and including a kibbutz-based producer of infant milk formula. In both cases, apparently stocks approaching their expiration date were donated to him by his contacts from the Mapam party, the leftist Zionist party in which he is active at election time. This is an election year and Mapam must think that in this manner it may secure some Arab votes. So every time I speak to him in person or on the phone, he pipes up about how many liters of this grade milk his group had delivered to Qalqilia, how many cartons of infant formula they have transported to Tulkarim, how he had just finished convincing this official in that Israeli institution to give him a cut off rate on these materials, etc. etc. Somehow he gets so carried away and forgets that he is acting strictly as part of the system. It gets to be embarrassing in the presence of Palestinian activists who are calling for boycotting all Israeli products while this guy, my friend, is spouting off about his conquests and the loot of goods with nearly expired dates.
At least in terms of medical supplies and drugs we have managed from the start to avoid such pitfalls saying to recipients of our assistance: “Look guys! You have your own local suppliers. You fax us a list, we order it for you from your own supplier and cover the cost. It also avoids the very tough task of delivering the materials physically to their destination. This opens the way for possible graft. Therefore we spend much time on verifying the deliveries and the prices and the like.
The boycott movement in the oPt is catching on despite the difficulty it involves. Intellectuals and leaders of the Intifada are serious about it and several have been jailed by Israeli forces for holding meetings in which self-dependence techniques such as rooftop gardens and rabbit hutches are explained and advocated. [Here were the seeds of the BDS, now a worldwide movement.]
There are several groups who prefer to act in parallel with us, the National Relief Committee, as the intermediaries between their local population and some preferred community or institution in the oPt. Sometimes the link is through a family connection or through political party affiliation or whatever. The Nazareth Local Relief Committee, for example, has decided to act on its own. It is headed by several heavyweight and well-recognized community leaders. Who am I to butt in on their turf? They have gone to Gaza with a good amount of collected donations and managed to buy and distribute a considerable amount of medical and food supplies through the good offices of the local member organization of the World Council of Churches there. Dr. Sami Geraisy, head of the Middle East section of the WCC, led the group and they met various active groups and institutions, such as the Red Crescent Society, UNRWA and the Ahli hospital.
When I visited there with another delegation we were received and thoroughly briefed by three prominent local figures: the head of UNRWA’s medical services in the Gaza strip, the head of the local branch of the WCC and Dr. Haider Abd-el-Shafi, the solid community leader and head of the Red Crescent Society. Dr. Abd-el-Shafi had been strongly recommended to us by colleagues at the UMRC as one of the most experienced and best-informed medical professionals in Gaza. I found him to be quite clear-headed about his vision of the future, competent and experienced as a health professional, a sympathetic father figure even for me at fifty and a confidence-inspiring pillar of the community, a natural leader if I ever saw one in Palestine.
December 10, 1989:
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the Intifada. The Israeli armed forces are getting even more aggressive and brutal in their desperate attempts to control what goes on in the oPt. The chief of staff declares that if he were to try to control the Intifada one hundred percent he will not have an army left. On the Palestinian side, life goes on with the Intifada becoming an integral part of it. NGOs, local committees and volunteerism have taken root replacing the Israel-imposed civil administration in people’s mind.
This all has had a significant impact on our status within Israel as well. An example I am happy to report is the new development for us at the Galilee Society in accessing funding from the EC, the first such precedence for any NGO in Israel. The Dutch organization ICCO, has submitted a proposal on our behalf to the EC using my argument that we, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as a group, represent an underdeveloped enclave within the developed country of Israel. Therefore an exception should be made in our case and we should be supported directly on that basis and not through bilateral aid to Israel, since that automatically excludes us and its benefits hardly ever trickle down to our communities. In promoting our cause to EC officials we flaunted our significant role in working with Palestinian NGOs active in the Intifada. And lo and behold, the argument stuck. I suspect that the current level of world awareness of the term ‘Palestinian’ and of the distress signals sent by the Intifada somehow fed into this decision in such a way that it worked to our advantage. Apparently EC officials at the Directorate General for Development and at the Political DG both discussed our project proposal and approved it in principle. This is a very significant gain in strategic terms. It gives us a glimpse of hope. We can build on this initial gain for further reaching out to the international circles. And everyone will recognize us when we call ourselves ‘Palestinian,’ thanks to the Intifada.
I suspect this has been my secret plan all along. We at the Galilee Society have managed well at the local level within the Palestinian community in Israel. There is little space for us to gain favor at the larger national level. We have no chance of being accepted for what we are, of being granted any leeway, as long as we do not plan to sell out or to turn to party politics, another form of selling out the way I see things. When you get to the level of Israel as a nation, the Palestinian minority does not place at all in the leadership’s consciousness or plans except as a negative variable, as a problem to avoid or to overcome if you have to face up to it at all. We can't possibly build on that. Therefore, the next level for our growth and development has to be the international community. The logical thing is to bypass the national arena and go from the local level directly to the international one. That is what I have been trying to achieve consciously in the decade since I hit on the idea of establishing a nongovernmental organization: to internationalize our issues as a large national minority. This first recognition by the EC bureaucracy did not come out of thin air; I have been attempting to do that for the last four years; I have stopped at the EC Brussels headquarters twice before for that purpose; and I alerted ICCO to the specific aid item in the EC budget that could be targeted on our behalf. Now the atmosphere is just right, thanks to the awareness-raising effect of the intifada On behalf of all of us Palestinians. The iconic images of ‘the children of the stone’ have reflected positively on us as well. The EC precedence is very significant, and we plan to make a big media event of it once we have the money in the bank and the decision cannot be rescinded.”
The Intifada, Arabic for shaking oneself awake and clean of accumulated shag and dirt, seemed to work both ways: On Israel’s side and at the public policy level, an attempt was made to stem off the wave of NGOs that sprouted across the civil society landscape of the Palestinian minority in Israel like mushrooms after a blessed rain. It took the enlistment of Jewish human rights organizations in Israel and, through them, the pressure of hundreds of American, mostly Jewish, academicians and legal experts to shelf a Knesset law proposal that would have put the fate of NGOs at the mercy of the local police chief in each district. (In the oPt, military ordinances to that effect were already on the books, of course.) Had the law been approved, the ground had already been prepared for the closure of the Galilee Society with accusation of suspect funding resources abroad, the accusation coming from two well-connected journalists in a book about the Intifada.
At the personal level, at about the same time as the Madrid Conference, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Minister of Health at the time, personally interfered to terminate any association I still had with his ministry. “Good riddance,” I was able to say then. Not now! There are laws and draft laws about how ‘Israel’s Arabs’ should feel and think. And their civil society leaders better learn their lesson from Ameer Makhoul, one of my friends in the current generation of activists who reached out and attained prominence in international circles. He sits in jail serving ten years for the alleged treason of divulging information to enemies of the state, information that you and I can find on Google Maps at the touch of a button.
How many times need my friend repeat: “It is all relative?” Israel is a Jewish and Democratic state, you see! If you don’t like it, find yourself an Arab and democratic state if you can. Did I hear you say Saudi Arabia? Or Qatar?