Monday, July 29, 2013

Enough To Blow Your Mind

photo 1373385332707 1 HD
Palestinian activist Nariman Tamimi (left) and Rana Hamadah sit for the verdict during their trial at Israel's Ofer military court near the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 9, 2013. An Israeli military court formally charged the two Palestinian women for their involvement in a peaceful demonstration in Nabi Saleh last month. (photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
It is Friday morning. I leaf through the weekly Haaretz Magazine and feel deeply discomforted. It is that unfocused panicky feeling that is hard to pin down to any single source. I try to make sense of my state of mind. I study Tal Niv’s one-page article entitled ‘Facing the Future.’ The young woman on the right side of the photo on top of the page with her thick black hair ‘cascading across her shoulder’ catches my attention. I scan the page for her story and think I’ve discovered the cause of my discomfort: She is accused, among other things ‘of interfering with a soldier … by moving her hands when the security forces tried to handcuff her.’ The specific detail disturbs me. A human rights worker recorded the event on video and it so happens that the same human rights worker later gets shot at close range with a rubber coated metal bullet. Could this ‘coincidence’ be the cause of my worry?

Totally out of the clear blue sky I want to run up the hill and check on one of my many cousins. We were classmates in the village school and, like all Palestinian kids, we competed in throwing stones at immobile objects or quails and rabbits in the fields. He bettered me every time. He was born with what I came later to know in my medical profession as a mild ‘varus deformity’ of the wrist joint of the right arm, an inward turn of the palm of the hand at such an angle and in such a manner that he had an advantage in holding and in throwing stones. There must be a law in Israel, or perhaps an amendment of the Anti-terror Ordinance from the British Mandate era that makes this advantageous anatomical variation illegal, I now think in my panicked mind. But then, how serious can such an offense be. Judging by the frequency of my being “randomly selected” for strip searches at airports, all Palestinians must have a mysterious identifying physical variation of the normal that renders them suspect. It sure is enough to instill doubt in one’s mind of the normality of his or her physical mold if not in the competence of Him who invented the faulty design.

I run away from the paper and take refuge in the morning routine of shaving and showering. The image in the mirror glares back at me ferociously: “Face up to your guilt,” the unshaven, red-eyed, dark face glowers at me from behind the mirror.

“What guilt?” I object. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I spent the whole night in bed. Ask my wife.”

“Identify the deep roots of your fears and you can shed away this undetermined sense of anxiety,” the doctor in me says from behind the glass. “Take courage. Go back to that page you looked at. Study the article closely and you will figure out what is really bothering you.”

“But I didn’t even read the whole article,” I try to wiggle out of responsibility for my sense of discomfort. “You can’t hold me accountable for the hidden nuances of the whole thing.”

“But you are. Go back and look at the article word for word. Let your mind roam while your eyes focus on each word. Let me know how you feel when you are finished.”

“No way! And look now what you made me do! Two cuts!”

“It is your bum skin. The blade must have hit a pimple or something.’

“You can’t blame it on pimples,” I object. “I haven’t had one for half a century. I am long past the stage where my testosterone flow is sufficient to raise a pimple or much of anything else for that matter.”

“Oh, just shut up and do what I say or else you will not be able to sleep tonight.”

I hate insomnia. I go out with blood-soaked patches of toilet paper hanging from my jowls and grab the magazine. The photo at the top of the page I looked at earlier is enough to explain everything, I am sure: I look at the two women in it and I know I am a partner in their crime, a Palestinian like them. They both were caught ‘entering a closed military zone.’  What does that mean? ‘Every square millimeter of Area C (under full Israeli control) can be declared a closed area at any moment, even on a person’s own land, even around his house, even around the person himself if necessary.
I sit up straight in my chair and prepare to argue with the older women, the more ‘battle-hardened’ of the two. When the battle rages around your identity, then the older you are the more battle-hardened you are. 

“Even if they declared your village, Nabi Saleh, a closed military zone while you were already there, you must have heard the declaration,” I tell the stoic more mature woman looking straight at me in total denial of her crime. She is a tricky sort of fighter, using the worst type of deviance in the war manual, disguise. ‘Her eyes are flicked with amber,’ a desperate attempt to pass for European. But whom is she fooling? No one with Tamimi for a last name can pass herself for Ashkenazi. I am not fooled by the camouflage.

“The 49 killed in Kafr Qasim in 1956 were in their fields,” I explain. “They were out of earshot from their village when the curfew was declared. Shadmi and his soldiers executed them for the crime they had committed of being in their fields and not waiting at home to hear the announcement of the curfew. There is a difference, even if infinitely fine, between the two cases.”

The stoic woman looks back at me from the page in total tranquility. She mocks me.
“For that alone you deserve a month or two in jail,” I tell her in the common telepathic mode of communication that all of us Palestinians share. “Israel is at its wit’s end with all your lawlessness. There is hardly enough cells in our prisons for all of you.”

I am going berserk with anxiety. My very identity is up for grabs. Who am I?
“Not to worry,” Tamimi answers in total silence. “Build more prisons and the USA will foot the bill.”
She goes on to remind me of what she told me the last time we met in Ramallah, that the USA had covered the expenses of added checkpoints erected between Jerusalem and Ramallah to relieve the massive pressure on the Qalandia checkpoint. Since this was done to reduce the time the Palestinians spent being entertained by Israaeli soldiers at the border, it was charged to the PNA’s American aid bill.

But the woman is lying. I never met her before. Oh, yes, I have met other Tamimi’s.
Here, in a sudden flash, like an epiphany, I think I finally realize the source of my anxiety.

“Yes, I met a Tamimi or two the day before yesterday,” I admit to my interrogator as I slump my head in the Murga position in which I have been held for hours in my cell.

“A Tamimi, you admit?” the interrogator dressed in casual genes, his handgun stuck casually under his belt.

“But he is the safe type,” I gasp with what little breath is left in my collapsed lungs, the pain in my broken ribs nearly killing me. “He is a retired professor in an American university. In fact, he still lives there. He is safe!”

“But a Tamimi nevertheless! And we know he left some stuff with you. Admit it. What did he give you? Spit it out. For your own safety. We want to save you from a violent death.”

“My God!” I gasp realizing the trick my presumed friend had played on me. He gave me a necktie, obviously booby-trapped. Once we shared an apartment as students at the University of Hawaii. He knows I like to wear my ties tight. As I pull at it for the last extra centimeter of length it will blow up severing my head off of my body. I look at the two women in the picture and they return my gaze absolutely unmoved by my suffering.

“The Tamimis are all cruel,” the interrogator reaffirms my suspicion. “That is why we sympathize with Baruch Goldstein for trying to mow down as many of them as he found in the Ibrahimi Mosque that morning.”

“Were all 29 of them Tamimi’s?” my severed head on the ground asks.

“Not necessarily,” the Shin Bet man answers kicking the head with his boot. “But the Tamimis are the worst bunch. They lay claim to the whole city of Hebron, the burial ground of our forefathers.”

That brings it all to a luminous point of clarity, closes the circle for my culpability with the Tamimis in their collective sin from birth. In fact I am right in the middle of a book about the Tamimis that I have read to sleep the last two nights. It is written by Dr. Nader Tamimi who has collected historical documents about the known fact that the prophet Mohammad, God’s blessings be upon him, had gifted Hebron and its environs to Tamim Aldari, the father of all the Tamimis in the Middle East, upon the latter’s conversion from Christianity to Islam in the 9th year of the Islamic calendar.

“But the prophet didn’t rule Palestine,” I argue with the Tamimi woman on the page. “Palestine fell under Moslem rule only years later, during the rule of Caliph Omar.”

“True,” the woman answered with confidence unbecoming of a woman, much less a Palestinian Moslem woman. My God! What happened to common decency and the proper order of the universe! “The gift was made on the expectation and full confidence that it will fall to the Moslems later on. The prophet knew what was coming.”

She is right. I have read the account many times over in the book I now keep next to my bed. The prophet also knew that a day would come when non-Moslems would contest his gift. So he was sure to make it valid in perpetuity to the Tamimi heirs. And he saw to it that the deed was recorded on a piece of leather from the cover of his cousin Ali’s shoe and that a group of reputable contemporaries of his attested to its validity with their signatures. I have read the same account with minor variations related by various historians from the era when Arabs were the victors and wrote their own history. In fact I read so many versions in the Tamimi book with minimal changes that I have decided to keep the book on my nightstand as the perfect recipe for the induction of instantaneous sleep. Every time I wake up I open the book to one of the dozens of accounts, read the first sentence then recite the rest of the mantra mainly in the dream phase:

“In the name of God the merciful the compassionate. This is what Mohammad the prophet gave to Tamim and his brothers: Hebron, Martom, Beit Inon, Beit Ibrahim and all that is in it, a final gift to share between them, implemented and handed over to them and to their descendants. He who harms them God will harm; he who harms them will be God-damned.”

Three caliphs are among the witnesses including Ali who wrote it. That means all Moslems, Sunnis and Shias alike, are behind the Tamimi’s claim to Hebron and its environs.  That must be sickening to Zionist Israelis. Turning this all in my head, I am emboldened to take on my cruel interrogators: They have put a noose around my neck to force me to recant. But I will not. I goad them, all three who have been taking turns in torturing me, to come close to me pretending that I want to confess to them. Then, as they move closer to me, with all my reserve of strength, with all my inspired convictions, with all my love for my Tamimi friends, with the imagined moral support of all 1.3 billion Moslems in the world, I jerk my neck back violently exploding that booby-trapped tie around my neck and blowing my tormenters to smithereens.

I open my eyes and the two women in the picture smile at me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Izzeldin Gandhi

A book review of  “I Shall Not Hate” by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, Bloomsbury, 2012 (Kindle edition)

Opinionated Israelis and Americans often ask accusingly why there is no Palestinian Gandhi. I have just met one in Izzeldin Abuelaish’s “I Shall Not Hate.” Her name was Bessan and she had participated with Israelis in a peace camp in the USA. Alas, she was eliminated by a shell fired into her bedroom killing her with two of her sisters and one cousin, not to mention maimed siblings. Which brings back fond memories of another Gandhi gosling that I knew personally before he was executed by a bullet to the back of the neck at close range while sitting under an olive tree at the outskirts of my village. His name was Aseel Asleh and he was a youth leader of the bi-national Seeds of Peace project before participating in the fateful demonstration in October 2000. He didn’t limit his leadership of age mates only to peace galas.

The tragic yet uplifting story of Dr. Abuelaish needs to be repeated even though it was broadcast live in real time on an Israeli news channel at the height of the Israeli 2008-9 Cast Led attack on the imprisoned population of Gaza. The larger saga was made famous through the UN document known as the Goldstone Report, which, contradictorily, has gained further credence through the eventual recanting of its chief author when he came under massive tribal pressure at home. At the time, Dr. Abuelaish was the first and only physician from Gaza working in an Israeli major hospital. But the attack caught him at home in Gaza and he was incarcerated there nearly for the entire twenty-three days of bombardment from land air and sea. He served as an eyewitness reporting from inside hell to Israeli TV audiences. Towards the end, his three daughters and a niece were killed by a cannon shell that was lobbed at a close range into their bedroom. What makes the horror story more poignant is that the doctor had lulled himself into believing that his home was safe. He had managed earlier to use his mobile phone to get his influential Israeli contacts to ask the IDF commanders to turn back an advancing tank with its cannon aimed at the home only minutes before it would have fired its explosive payload into the building. And he had just shared with his children some photos of him next to the two top Israeli leaders at the helm of the country’s decision-making team as if to reassure the agitated children of their home’s guaranteed safety thanks to those significant connections.

That, in part, was why I hesitated first to nominate the good doctor himself for the honorary Gandhi title. Clearly, he belonged to another category of heroes, the occasional Don Quixote intent on making our desert wilderness bloom with peace and equality through sheer persistence and loud prodding of all of us, especially the Palestinians in the crowd, to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. When first encountered, he seems to prefer the glory of a fantasy world of peace and understanding over our real world of conflict and daily death and destruction. But Izzeldin has another worthy title: He is a real Gazan, Gaza being a veritable mark of distinction among Palestinians that implies willpower, rock-solid obstinacy, persistence against all odds, tolerance of punishing life conditions and readiness to wrestle with giants. He is a refugee who grew up, I imagine, able to look out from the roof of his family’s hobble in the Jabalia camp, the most congested spot on the face of earth, and see the empty expanse of land that once was his ancestral village of Houg now turned to General Ariel Sharon’s ranch. He could see the village’s only remaining structure, the former mosque, left standing out of pious considerations, now serving as the pen for the General’s Arabian thoroughbred horses. As Izzeldin grows up struggling with the standard harsh conditions of Gaza refugees, Sharon pursues him, demolishing his family’s shack along with a whole section of the refugee camp to clear a safe passage for his tanks. This was long before Sharon’s protégés and heirs, the likes of Olmert and Barak with whom Ezziddin had rubbed shoulders and for whom he had provided exotic photo ops, let loose their tanks to target the doctor’s home, the eventuality that robbed us all of the promise of a Palestinian Gandhi named Bessan, if not of four Gandhis. And, as in the case of my teenage village friend, Aseel, before Bessan, no one has ever been punished or has ever apologized formally for the assassination of the promised Messiah. And yet those same potential peacemakers had been nurtured by liberal Israeli and American do-gooders who fret over the details of arranging peace encounters for youth from across the conflicted borders. I do not doubt such activists’ sincerity and dedication, witness for example, Anael Harpaz who wrote a moving ode in memory of Bessan and spent ten weeks next to the bed of her injured sister, Shatha.

Izzeldin takes stock of what has happened to his family that fateful day and decides he has a job to do: bring peace through his profession, the tired old mantra that his many Israeli friends and mentors readily reinforce. Faced with that, I am sad to admit that, unlike the good doctor, I am unable to bridge the moral and psychological gap between such liberal after-the-fact understanding of, or even commiserating with, Izzeldin’s suffering on one hand and, on the other hand, the culpability of the same colleagues and sympathizers as part and parcel of a public that gave its full support to its government in attacking Gaza, the vicious process that led to the loss of four Abuelaish girls. That is not to mention the trauma, physical and psychological, to all the other members of the family if not all of Gaza’s population or even humanity as a whole. Take for example the heroic role played by Shlomi Eldar, not as a person but as a representative of a genre: The caring and empathetic relationship between the daring newscaster and the doctor who endured the horrendous private nakba of gathering the body parts of his three daughters touches one’s heart. Yet, Eldar is a central cog in the Israeli media machine that prepared the atmosphere, led the parade and egged on the militant extremists in Israel in the clamor that led to the monstrous Cast Led campaign.

I worked for the Israeli Ministry of Health for many years. In 1976, on the eve of Land Day, I submitted my resignation in protest intending to abandon my self-assigned humanitarian mission in my home village in Galilee and to immigrate to the USA. After two years I was reconciled and returned still committed to my impossible mission. In 1992 an outbreak of measles among Bedouin children in the Negev brought to a head my conflict with my superiors about the system’s policy of neglect and discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially the Bedouins in the south. I resigned my position, at the time the highest-ranking professional position held by a Palestinian in the ministry. Much help it did! But I had reached the end of my tolerance. And I pride myself on my pacifism and tolerance. I relate this only to offer a contrast and to amplify my admiration and amazement at Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish stick-to-itiveness in his pursuit of peace and understanding come what may. For that I take my hat off for the man and nominate him for the title of the Palestinian Gandhi.

On re-reading the introduction written by Izzeldin’s mentor and boss at the Beer Sheba hospital, I feel a sense of letdown. Somehow, he comes across in this as another peace activists. But in the account in his book he looms bigger than life. In this land there once was another man who carried his cross and wouldn’t stop spouting off about peace and love. So Abuelaish is not the first Palestinian with a commitment to peace, understanding and reconciliation. Or was the man from Nazareth Jewish? I guess one can be Jewish and Palestinian at the same time.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Waiting For Godot

Gideon Levi is unique among Israeli journalists. He is a man of integrity. Because of it he is as controversial as one can get in Israel. From were I stand he towers like a giant, almost a demigod. ‘Godot Levi,’ I had grown accustomed to thinking of him. On more than one occasion I had spoken to him on the phone or exchanged brief emails with him. Last week I finally met him in person. He spoke at the Arab Human Rights Association in Nazareth about racial discrimination in Israel. His line of thinking went as follows: The underlying cause for discrimination by Israel’s Jewish majority against its Palestinian minority is twofold: Its belief in the superiority of the Jewish mind and all that follows in terms of the chosen people’s rights and God-given privileges and dehumanizing of the other, especially the Arab other and most especially the Palestinian other. The process is given legitimacy and full sway by a system-wide media conspiracy and unquestioning promotion. In conclusion, Mr. Levi opined that change on this matter would not come from within the Israeli society.
I may have missed some of the finer points of Mr. Levi’s discourse. Still, when the Q&A period came, I asked the leading question if, given this conclusion he supported the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel that a wide circle of Palestinian civil society activists had called for starting in 2005 and which seemed to be gaining strength and currency abroad. Mr. Levi gave a less than convincing response to the effect that he found the Israeli public so lacking in self understanding that it failed to link BSD to its actions and attitudes. I felt personally aggrieved. My idol was self-mutilating right in front of my eyes; he was hedging, perhaps because it is illegal in Israel to support the call for BDS, I thought. But he didn't hedge at all about another equally weighty political point. In fact he volunteered the information that he no longer draws a line under 1948 like so many soft-hearted Israeli liberals do. 
A young man named Ahmad raised a different point: In his near one-hour –long discourse on the sensitive issue Mr. Levi did not mention Zionism once. Didn’t Zionism contribute to the promotion of racial discrimination against its colonial native population? I waited for my idol to confirm my assumption regarding his anti-Zionism. To his credit he acknowledged the special importance of the issue raised by the young questioner, calling him Ahmad and not the usual ‘Achmid.’ But he went on to dodge the core issue stating that he no longer knew what Zionism was and hence he couldn’t take a stand on the matter. I found this even more disappointing than Mr. Levi’s response to my question. He also smoked and I am a public health physician. Alas my giant of a hero was disintegrating before my own eyes. It was enough to drive one to desperation.
Then today I read his op. ed. piece in Haaretz entitled “A patriot’s final refuge” in which he sees the light. The credit for this sudden change may well go to Tzipi Livni who seemed to see the writing on the wall, so to speak. It is not the Apartheid Wall as one may have hoped that she saw. Rather it is the more alarming wall of the EU where warnings are flashing for Israel to take notice or else its profitable occupation products will be banned. Mr. Levi now seems to tackle his reluctance to call for BDS frontally, making the link to South Africa and ending with “the call for a boycott is required as the last refuge of a patriot.”
Is anti-Zionism next Mr. Godot? I am waiting.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Other Palestinian Noble Laureate And His Jewish Connection

A review of “The Almond Tree”
By Michelle Cohen Corasanti, Garnet Publishing, 2012.

Achmid, the name of the narrator and main protagonist of Ms. Cohen’s debut novel, “The Almond Tree,” turned me off so badly that at first I was tempted to drop the miserable fake altogether. Didn’t the woman know that such rendition of one of the prophet’s names is offensive to Arabic speakers? Only now, after devouring the spellbinding account of the dramatic life of the Palestinian prodigy with the insulting misnomer from his dirt-poor village beginnings to the halls of the Swedish Academy of Science, do I really appreciate the cunning choice of the name. What better statement could the author have made about the mixed-up identity and muddled self-conception of the average Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel? Truly, the Ashkenazy cultural hegemony in Israel had taken hold of us all. We speak the Ashkenazy dialect of Hebrew even when conversing in Arabic with each other, we eat the Ashkenazi sheminit instead of labane for breakfast in our arabesque-tiled kitchens, and we hang Hebrew billboards at the entrance to our businesses catering to our 100% Arab cliental. There are no ‘Ahmads’ left among us. ‘Achmid’ gives a taste of the colonization of our indigenous culture, the appropriation of our falafel, hummus and tabbouleh as items of Israeli cuisine, and the violent mangling of our psyche.
But the novel is not another artful attempt at whitewashing Israel and singing the praises of its civilizing influence on its Palestinian citizens. On the contrary, it presents in full force and gory detail Israel’s violent suppression and merciless punishment of the Palestinians’ attempts at resisting its land theft and iron-fist practices of its military. Trigger-happy Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian children just as they continue to do daily in the West Bank and Gaza, and bulldozer operators and their commanders raze Palestinian homes crushing American activist protestors in a detailed and faithful recreation of the mechanized assassination of Rachel Corrie. If any figure shines in the narrative, it is Achmid’s father, a pillar of wisdom, kindness, sacrifice and understanding and an accomplished painter and traditional musician committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. A near perfect negative mirror image is Achmid’s boss and scientific guardian. He is bigoted and full of hate and accepts Achmid as his student against his will. Achmid’s wrongly jailed father’s image never leaves his mind. His constant wise admonition to his obedient son together with the family’s extreme poverty pacifies the young man’s every step of the way. His submissiveness and mathematical genius force the holocaust-scarred professor to put up with him. The compromise eventually succeeds in tethering the two scientists for life, a camaraderie that costs both dearly in terms of their respective family relationships.
Ms. Cohen does a good job of stringing a series of violent atrocities into a near believable sequence of events that shape the life of Achmid and his family. Along with this, she manages to visit traditional Palestinian customs and lore, with an occasional slip-up such as depicting them living on a steady diet of rice when in fact wheat is the Palestinian staple. But this is more than balanced by her lively and colorful portrayal of their daily life, take her description of the traditional wedding ceremony and the Dabkeh, the Palestinian group dance, for example. This incongruity and fluctuating fidelity in reporting the horrendous life experiences and many losses of the family at the core of the powerful narrative colors it with a hue of unreality though it hardly affects its truthfulness. Throughout the entire saga, the Palestinian is the underdog, the defeated and powerless sufferer left to survive by his wits and the kindness and care of his next of kin. The Jew, whether Israeli or American, is his occasional but obligatory benefactor, be it in obtaining a permit for him to build a house or to travel or securing him a post-doctorate position at MIT. The latter stipulation is an accurate account of the real experience of every Palestinian scientist in Israel that I know. This patronizing gesture, often processed through the collegial close contact with a fellow scientist at an American research institute, reflects the unequal relationship between the needy Palestinian and his magnanimous Jewish boss regardless how their relative scientific abilities compare. The fact that the deal is often sealed between two scientist who happen to be Jewish adds a further rub to the ethnically nuanced benevolent gesture. Overall, “The Almond Tree” conforms to this stratified ordering of the parties’ relative outreach and power: The Arab always needs the input of the Jew to get ahead in the world, a basic premise of Shimon Peres’s Oslo era dream of the New Middle East.
I may have stretched my feeling of awkwardness regarding the role of Achmid’s professor and enabler a bit too far. After all, there is a precedent: Arafat had to drag two Israeli's along to qualify for his prize. (just kidding! Actually all three were falsely accused.) Still, reading the novel did leave me wishing Ms. Cohen had invented a more equal relationship despite the contrary reality. Even more thought provoking was imagining reading the novel wearing the hat of an Israeli Jew: After dismissing the initial urge to call the author anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, more out of blind habit than out of conviction, I found myself kneeling to the ground under the weighty burden I needed to shoulder in seeking true peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, starting with those sharing Israel’s citizenship with me since day one, those on whom the author purports to shine the international spotlight.
Having sung the praise of this powerful and timely novel, I am still at a loss as to how to convey my gut-level revulsion at the choice of name for its hero, clever and meaningful as it truly is. For the Arabic speaking reader and the student of Arabic culture, I have just discovered a convincing illustration of what I mean: Go to the link and see how the IDF greets its Moslem soldiers and tell me how your stomach feels?
Others just have to believe me: “Achmid” stinks. Yet he is a true reflection of our reality. And who am I to complain? The hero of my forthcoming novel lives for two decades with the name “Eli” instead of the Arabic “Ali” for the sake of convenience and to keep peace in his mixed family.