Saturday, October 18, 2014

Indian Summer: An Open Letter to Sayed Kashua on the occasion of his piece in the New Yorker

Dear Sayed,

Congratulations! You have made the pages of the New Yorker. That is major. I think it is a first for a contemporary Palestinian voice, even if it is originally in Hebrew and in the company of a ‘real’ Israeli writer.

Though we have never met in person, I am a fellow countryman and a big fan of yours. I have read all your three translated books in English and every article I have run across in the English issue of Haaretz. Once or twice I have even taken the unusual step of watching “Arab Labor” though I had stopped seeing Israeli TV. Long before you I had given up and defected to the American side even if physically I have stayed on my little plot of land in my Galilee village, Arrabeh. It is a matter of fidelity to my inheritance.

Let me hasten to add that, like you, I am a half-breed, an Arab struggling to make sense of our conundrum to speakers of a foreign language, English in my case. But I enlisted for the cause late in the game, in retirement. In the introduction to her English poetry collection, My Voice Sought The Wind, Susan Abulhawa says she feels phantom pains deep in her heart where her Arabic once dwelled. Does estrangement from Hebrew hurt at such a deep level? I am curious if it did send such roots in your soul? To this day English hasn’t in mine.

As to your friend, Etgar Keret, we have never met before in person or on the page. I guess one local cynic is enough for me. But let me be frank and register my discomfort with his first name “Challenge.” What parents want to burden their child with such a load of Chutzpah from birth! Still, Just for your sake, I will read his short story collection before I decide if he is allowed in my living room or is to join my list of boycotted Israeli authors, the likes of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. No liberal Zionists on my father’s piece of land, I have long decided.

Now let me address the central point I want to communicate to you regarding your published correspondence with Keret in the New Yorker: Stick with Haaretz my friend! They know the facts on the ground a little better though I often catch them cheating a little on those facts especially when I compare the full original Hebrew with the contracted English version. It all is relative, I guess. But let us stay away from conspiracy theories and look closely at their editors’ note about your exchange of letters with Keret:

On July 19th, just days after Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua published a piece in the Guardian, titled “Why I Have to Leave Israel.”

Well, well! To the folks it was just “a ground invasion.” What about air raids and bombardment from the sea? Had the editors placed their empathetic conscience where your thoughts and heart had been in those days, Mr. Kashua, they would have stated it a little more realistically. It was the heaviest testing run of modern weaponry from air land and sea. What about drones, smart bombs, Apaches and F-16s? Readers are left high and dry, thirsting for a taste of Gaza’s bitter reality, the physical and mental suffering that lasted an eternity of over seven weeks. They deserve a little more telling line than just “a ground invasion.” It is like referring to the Vietnam War as America’s South East Asian skirmish. It feels insulting to all involved especially to the memory of those targeted kids on the beach.

Or take the following innocent-sounding neutral piece of information.

Kashua, who was born in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

“Predominantly” as in ‘one hundred percent.’ An essential element of truth is missing here that doesn’t even occur to the American reader. The smoke screen is so heavy one doesn’t even know it is there. You and I know better. I am a regular reader of the New Yorker. For the sake of maintaining my one-sided love affair with the iconic weekly I will blame this on pure ignorance. The reader is left with the impression that Arabs and Jews in Israel mix at will in their residential choices. But Mr. Keret, you and I know that Arabs and Jews in Israel live in segregated communities. And the racial exclusion mechanism on the Jewish side has just been given the blessing of the Supreme Court of Israel. In so-called mixed cities like Lod and Ramla, Arab slums are separated from Jewish neighborhoods by concrete walls and barbed wire. And Tira, if it has any Jews at all, has only the errant Jewish women who had married Arabs and had so far escaped the outreach of Lehava, the NGO dedicated to saving their souls and to returning them, by force if need be, to the warm bosom of their tribe. Correct me if I am wrong Mr. Kashua, but I am wagering that members of the said genre in Tira do not exceed the fingers of one hand. In Arrabeh we had five at one time. Only two have not returned to the fold.

Then the editors drop another silent smoke bomb. They casually use “Jerusalem” without any comment, reservation or explanation as if it were the most normal of places. Did you actually live in West or East Jerusalem? Within the original city boundaries or within the massively expanded borders nibbling at the edges of Ramallah? Within or outside the wall? The Old fortress wall or the new apartheid one? 

Then this:

He devoted his weekly column in Haaretz to telling “the Palestinian story,” and he is the creator of “Arab Labor,” a popular sitcom that is a sendup of problems experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens.

I don’t object to this characterization of your literary contribution. But it lacks the needed emphasis on the one nuance that I consistently find in your writing: mocking the image of the Arab as seen by Jews in Israel. That tongue-in-cheek flare is what endears your style to my heart. That, my friend, would be the greatest gift I would emphasize for your American and international readers.

For whatever it is worth, here are a few comments about your exchange of letters, starting with the most objectionable:

You and your friend, Mr. Challenge, seem to feel at liberty to grab all the Mid-West prairies, fold them neatly and lug them away in your luggage. How many Native Americans have you consulted before deciding on that? Have you even met any members of the indigenous Illinois tribe? They had given their name and color to the physical space you so covet. They are the Azazmi, the Turshan and the Jahaleen of the Midwest. Haven’t you yourself been at the losing end of land theft practices? Now you turn around and want to do unto others what you don’t want done unto you! For shame’s sake, Sayed! I am going to tell on you! I will go to Tira and tell your parents. And, while at it, I will find out how many Jews live in your “predominantly Arab” town.

Now, about those kernels of corn you worry Obama might spill on your balcony: You have every reason to object. I have it on good authority that he is a neat and careful person. His parents and I attended the same university at the same time and I was aware of their presence on campus, especially Hussein’s. I spoke to a good friend who remembers pushing little Barak in his stroller around the lush campus of the University of Hawaii. She assured me that, contrary to the impression the wild flare of his ears gave the toddler, he was not messy. So any kernels he drops are intentional and targeted. Look around you from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria!

In your second letter to your friend you go off the deep end to discuss such trivia as ISIS, Israel’s legitimacy and the setting of its borders and apartheid and distinguishing the system from the people behind it. Believe me that all is sick.

But take it from a health professional and an intrepid practitioner of the art of psychic fencing: Your wife is wrong. You are not “a coward with a paranoid-personality disorder.” You are just another serial survivor adept at walking between raindrops and at interpreting the new looks in the eyes of kindhearted neighbors. We all develop the acute wariness and sensibility. How else did Keret’s father know that he needed to take a coat?

That little story about him having “survived because he took a coat,” is a true gem. I am going to take your advice and invest in coats for all the members of the Kanaaneh clan. It is getting so chilly for us here in Israel that we may freeze on the way to the mall. Pray for warmer weather. In America they call it Indian summer.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


The Name Games are on in Israel. On the eve of the 5775 Jewish New Year the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced the winning first name most commonly given to a newborn boy in Israel in the preceding year as Youssef, which is used by both Arabs and Jews. The spokesperson neglected to mention that what the Authority had in mind was names among Jews only. When questioned the woman hid behind explanations of who her regular customers demanding the statistics were. Of course, her motives were pure and egalitarian.

You can’t really blame this one branch of government. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, an institute reputed for its precision and comprehensiveness would have done the same. After all, everyone knows that Israel is the state of the Jews and that the negligible Arab minority of over 20% is only that, a minority, a mere impurity and a blemish on the wholesomeness of the state’s exclusive ethnicity. The CBS, like other branches of the system in the state of the Jews, has always labored hard at actualizing the dream of ethnic purity with all the means at its disposal: It has always kept its statistics for the miniscule minority split by religion: Moslem, Christian and Druze. On occasion it throws in other random lines of division such as Bedouin versus settled non-Jews. It is not long now before we will have Aramean Christians. Anything but the ‘A’ word because that would imply the presence within our borders, holy and inviolable even if still undetermined, of a non-Jewish contaminant of the same ethnic substance like the sea of undesirables surrounding us on all sides (except, of course, for our Mediterranean escape route to our former cradle of civilized bliss for which we have never stopped longing.)

Then one unprincipled Haaretz correspondent (Ilan Lior, September 22) insisted on toppling the applecart, right on the eve of the holiday when apples are so much in demand: He looked closely at the statistics and as a misinformed non-statistician discovered that the actual winner should have been Muhammad. Ouy-ve!! as we say in Yiddish. What the hell!! What that means is that the 16-or-so% Muslims in Israel use the name Muhammad more than six times as often as its Jews use Youssef. Boy! That is fidelity all right! But I could have told you that without the bother of statistics. My three oldest brothers, may they rest in piece, were named after the prophet. And there are dozens of families in our village with multiple children named after the prophet.

Back in my younger days I taught school in the neighboring village of Sakhnin. We lacked textbooks and I spent a lot of time writing on the blackboard. Whenever the class got too noisy I would shout without turning around: “Muhammad and his neighbor, stop talking.” And for a minute or two you could hear a pin drop. And in the British Mandate days, before Israel elevated our individualistic consciousness with its numbered ID cards, the name Muhammad and its derivatives wreaked havoc with our subsistence farming in the fertile Battouf Valley. You see, Bedouins had the nasty habit of letting their cattle feed on the crops in our land at the peak of its productivity. When a farmer took a Bedouin to court the latter would produce a verifiable alibi proving that the accused, Muhammad the son of Ahmad the son of Mahmoud Mrisat, was in Jordan that day. There simply were ten Bedouins with the same string of the prophet’s alternate names.

Which reminds me: The correspondent of Haaretz also discovered that among the ten top-ranking names Ahmad actually came in at number nine. This is the place to divulge a closely guarded secret of our community. Endearing nicknames, derived from twisting the actual name around to a catchy and playful-sounding shortened version, are a relatively recent phenomenon in our community, an Israeli fad if I am not mistaken. Anxious to maintain our lead position in the Name Game, our leaders have come up with the trickiest of tricks. All three forms of the interrelated prophet’s names, Muhammad, Ahmad and Mahmoud are given the cutie nickname of ‘Hammoudi.’ Now let your flaky ‘Yossi’ compete with that! Muhammad alone beat the s… out of your lead name.

But you try, I know. I just read that the administrators in Safad (I know, you call it Tzfat) College have appointed a student council, the only unelected one in the country, to preempt, I presume, the likelihood of a Mohammad being elected by the 70%-Arab student body.

Recently, in one of his op-ed pieces, Oudeh Bsharat related a personal incident with his son to illustrate a point. His son wanted to know the meaning of ‘mumis,’ a high Arabic term for a sex worker. He hummed and hawed and couldn’t come up with an appropriate explanation. A while later the child came back shouting ‘sharmouta!’ the vulgarity of the same meaning used colloquially as a cuss word.

Well, let me tell you: regardless who asks for what and who supplies the statistics to whom, It is a fucking sharmouta! Shameless apartheid, denial and exclusion of the other.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fraternizing With Minorities in Israel

Fraternizing with minorities in Israel
“Absent Kafka, my wife wants her case to be heard in the court of judge Jon Stewart”(photo: Salon)
I am divorcing my wife. I have to. Read this article and you too will understand: Don’t let the link fool you. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to the actual title of the article in today’s Haaretz newspaper, which declares: “Soldiers probed for non-offense of ‘fraternizing with minorities.’” As you read the article you come to realize that “the nonexistent offense” is pretty serious in nature. First of all, minorities “is a euphemism for Arabs.” And in the minds of the quoted members of the Military Police and the Military Advocate General Corps such transgressions seem to be associated with the crimes of “trafficking in illegal drugs” and “contact with a foreign agent.” That definitely puts an end to our life as a married couple. We both know that the IDF sets the tone for civilian life in Israel.
To be fair to my wife (I am tempted to say ‘my ex-wife’ but her lawyers may use my ‘jumping to conclusions’ against me in the coming court case) I must admit that she was the one to notice the article first and to call my attention to it, possibly out of fear of its logical implications for our marital life. She has been fraternizing with minorities for over half a century now. Psychologists are quick to point out the known phenomenon of criminals betraying their guilt through inadvertent symbolic gestures, Freudian slips and the display of inner tension. It is the basis for the Hebrew truism known to the laity as “the hat burning on the head of the thief”. Whether out of inner remorse for hiding her terrible offense from me, her legally wedded husband, all those long years or out of a sense of betrayal towards the state that has granted her permanent residency for most of our married life, my wife decided to face up to her terrible ‘non-offense’ and to admit it through reading the said article to me.
By now “that woman” knows I am not a violent man and that I have no guns in any of the drawers in my study. Still I found her behavior in reading the article to me rather audacious. I had to consult with our son who happened to be visiting us on vacation. As I read him the article and proceeded to explain my dilemma he seemed to question my sanity. He wanted to know if I hadn’t realized that his mother had a distinct tendency to hanging around minorities in her younger years. I suddenly realized what a dope I have been, what a fool she had made of me for fifty-one years. Everyone in Hawaii, her homeland, is a member of a minority. No wonder she liked living in Arrabeh, my home village in Galilee. She had seen the number of minority members in it double and quadruple over the years, a dream world for one addicted to “fraternizing with minorities.”
Next in line for me was my dear childhood village friend, Toufiq. His first reaction was that I should seek the help of an expert in dream interpretation. It wasn’t anything to do with me. But the article required explaining by such a specialist, he thought. The one nugget that he found to be the key to everything in this conundrum was the fact that “the officer who handled one case was himself a member of the minority Druze community.” Toufiq expressed his deep sorrow that Kafka is currently unreachable. But who wants to open such a Pandora’s box? The Israeli commander who led the Israeli troops in massacring residents of the Shujayah Neighborhood in Gaza was also a Druze. After treating his injuries he begged the doctors in the hospital to let him go back to finish the job he had started. I suspect that what upset him so much was when his commanders told him that in Gaza “the minorities” were in the majority.
Absent Kafka, my wife wants her case to be heard in the court of judge Jon Stewart.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bob Schieffer in a World Gone Mad

Bob Schieffer has been gravely misunderstood and misquoted by Palestinians and their sympathizers when in actual fact the ones he maligned were the Israelis: If you listen carefully to the man ( you will find him concise and to the point, delivering his message clearly in the best of CBS sound-bite traditions. Here is the main message for which he has been maliciously faulted:
“In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause - a strategy that might actually be working at least in some quarters.”
And yet many listeners think he is speaking of Palestinian self-abuse despite the clear giveaway. After all, who holds the Palestinians in his grip but Israel? Obviously Bob is talking about Israel. And you think he is slandering the Palestinians! No wonder he thinks that “we are in the midst of a world gone mad.”
Let me now guide you through the man’s statement a word at a time: To contextualize the message for Americans, whom we know are all pro-Palestinian, he starts with a familiar concept, the Middle East. That should be sufficient, Bob in his wisdom-fraught mind must think, to arouse their interest and set their senses on edge for the coming blitz. After all, who but our Palestinian allies have gotten us involved in our glorious crusades in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and the Ukraine? [Are all these countries in the Middle East, I wonder? Who is going to bother asking anyway? Let us just finish the thought.] Think of how profitable it all has been for our energy moguls. And the mere mention of “the Middle East” will undoubtedly evoke tender sentiments of sad longing for the lost millions of lives in those crusades. So much life has been wasted that Bob hasn’t slept well for years, and he looks it. So what if the lives are mostly those of non-Americans? That is Bob’s central message: We all are human brothers and sisters. The life of a Syrian farmer in the Beqa’a Valley, of an Afghan shepherd in Peshawar or of a Palestinian fisherman in Gaza, of any Moslem anywhere for that matter, is equally dear to Bob’s Orient-soaked heart.
Now that he has put his millions of mesmerized audience on edge, Bob has to sooth their nerves with a calming image they all love, that of “Palestinians.” What better word to arouse his American viewers’ tender sentiments. He knows his central message will be appreciated by the multitude of anti-Semitic pro-Palestinians across the land. Every American across the wide spectrum of Jew-haters and self-hating Jews viewing him on TV will be tantalized by the expectation of what comes next. Now is the time for Bob to release his heavy dose of venom against Israel and its backers.  Bob calls the entire pack of Israelis and their financial and weaponry backers “a terrorist group.” True, he doesn’t call Israelis by name. But he leaves no doubt about whom he means: He exaggerates of course: He accuses Israel and its backers of holding the Palestinians in their grip for the mere act of controlling their land, sea and air space even when the Israelis go to the trouble of calculating the Palestinian children’s caloric survival requirements and permitting that to seep across the borders. He then claims that Israel “has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause.”
With what more can you accuse Israel, Bob? Israel has built the most moral army in the world, as we all know. It sends its children to defend its innocent citizens. True some of those children die. But they take their revenge at a high rate, thanks to the testing of the new weaponry that their fighter-bombers with their sulfur payloads, their helicopters, their gunboats and their tanks spew. The Palestinian death rate in 2008-09 ran at one hundred to one Israeli soldier. And currently it is averaging some 20 Palestinians to one Israeli soldier. The high rate of collateral damage of civilians including children of 80% should be sufficient to let Bob realize that Israel’s children are not sent to die simply “in order to build sympathy for its cause.” You can’t level such an accusation against Israel when it passes no chance to levy a heavy price for the killing of its children. I will forgive you, Bob, for pointing accurately that Israel does willfully send its children to die on occasion. But it does its utmost to guarantee their safety, witness its Aldahiya principle by which any area, residential or otherwise, from which its boys are fired at will be considered a military target regardless of the consequences. The principle is not even debated anymore. It simply is given as the justification for its repeated elimination of whole families, a dozen or two relatives at a time, and for targeting playgrounds, mosques, clinics, hospitals and UN schools. Bob, what more atrocities you want Israel to commit before you stop making your fowl accusation against it?

You know what Bob? I think you are full of shit.