Thursday, November 5, 2015

Romancing the Cherimoya

Laiali, my third-grader granddaughter guides me to the roof garden of her home where my daughter is busy tidying up the space. She collects the fallen leaves and deadheads the roses, adding by her presence to the garden’s sunny exuberance while the second Indian summer lasts. Many annuals are patiently awaiting the first frost to take their frigid leave. Laiali points excitedly overhead to the neighborhood’s resident hawk circling above Tomkins Square Park. Dozens of park pigeons take notice and take flight in wavelike formation undulating in synch with their neighbor’s fitful bursts of vertical energy. Suddenly Laiali gets distracted and turns her attention to a more immediate diversion: One incidental tomato plant has taken root between the flowers, grown and bore fruit. She hands me the one ripe strawberry tomato. She doesn’t like the veggie-fruit. Besides, my wife and I had just arrived and our granddaughter is keen to show us her welcome. Back in August, at our home in Galilee, our visiting two sets of grandchildren had a great time every morning feeding the chickens, collecting eggs and picking apples, pears, lychees, passion fruits and figs. Laiali is paying me back, I sense.

I bite into the tiny tomato and tears run down my cheeks. It is sugary sweet. Why couldn’t we have stayed home for a couple of weeks longer? But missing my garden never brought tears to my eyes before. Why now?  True, the persimmons were just ripening when we left. I had put a few dozen fruits underwater to take away their astringent bite. At the height of the season it takes only three daily water refreshments to render the fruit edible. But this was early in the season and I misjudged. They needed four or five daily water changes. I left them for friends to savor; I totally missed out on the persimmon season this year. The pomegranates as well were just short of their peak ripeness. I had been feasting on them with my morning cereal for a couple of weeks already, comparing the gradually less tangy flavors of the four varieties in my yard. One more week and the balance of citric acid and fructose would have peaked together with the antioxidant explosion that justifies the festive individual aril-by-aril culling and careful juicing for a yearlong supply of the aging antidote. I had to trust my nephew and his wife with the delectable task on the traditional farming understanding of sharing the liquid product equally. The same unspoken agreement holds for the prodigious carob crop. I can already taste the fresh molasses over whole-wheat pancakes.

I know my nephew will keep some of the ripe feijoas in our icebox for us. But, alas, with storage the fruit looses much of its exotic flavor and despite the low temperature most of the tropical fruit will rot before we get back. But the cherimoyas! My God! Those custard apples with their candy-like tangy sweetness must be what brought tears to my eyes. I had been indulging myself with them for one full week before I was dragged away kicking to the airport. What adds to the pleasure of eating the fresh fruit is the needed delicate swishing around in one’s mouth of all those smooth black seeds that help squeeze the delectable juice out of the tender white chunks before you manage to separate what to swallow from the small hard projectiles you, or rather I, so love to spew in rapid succession to keep the roosters and the cats away from me in the garden.  Absent-mindedly I relish the arty essence of the fruit’s constituent parts.

That was how Djon, my Indonesian college roommate and lifelong brother thereafter, had introduced me to the exotic fruit. It was in Hawaii with our Indian brother, Jagy. We couldn’t afford to buy one for each of us. So we must have borrowed the fruits from someone’s tree:
“ There is nothing like it except perhaps for durian.” Djon insisted. “But no one can slight the fresh fragrance of cherimoya or the celadon tinge of its outer covering. Just touch the surface of those dips between the tiny ridges. It is like glazed porcelain. And yet it is tender to the touch, almost inviting your fingertips to caress and squeeze it. You know how amorous wahines respond to your touch, brother!? That is the feel of fresh ripe cherimoyas to my hands. And you haven’t gotten to the magic of the flesh yet, brother! You take out that plug at the center, which by releasing its centripetal hold on the surrounding meat admits to the ripeness of the fruit. Only then can you split the virginal flesh open to feast your eyes before you do your taste buds. Just look at the way those closed-flower-shaped chunks of glistening white pudding await the touch of your tongue. And look at the central shiny black seed in each chunk giving it its individual charm as the whole bunch of them compete which will be the first to tickle your throat.”
Djon was in love with cherimoya and tried and succeeded to infect me with the affliction. No wonder when we travelled to AndalucĂ­a he never stepped out without a serrated edge spoon carefully tucked in the inner pocket of his his sport coat.

Yes, Djon had the imagination, the intimate friendliness and the touch of humor to bring a fruit to life and give it sex appeal. But, no, this second most favored fruit of his never got enough under my skin to bring tears to my eyes as I take leave from it. Of course, I must have cried for Djon, not for the fruit.

The night before my crying fit I had attended a presentation by another dear friend, Dr. Ghada Karmi, the grand dame of Palestinian Londoners, and picked up a copy of her latest book, Return: A Palestinian Memoir. I fell asleep mentally and emotionally ruminating on the way she expresses her sense of loss as she is forced to deny her dying father his request to go home and is mentally transported to another scene of colossal loss, her forced expulsion from her family’s Jerusalem home:

“He sank back and closed his eyes. This memory returns to me even now, because I know that passionate longing for normality, for life to resume as it has always been, and yet be powerless to make it happen. It took me back to an April morning long ago and to the child I was then, standing helplessly at the closed garden gates of our house in Jerusalem that my heart feared I would never see again.”

Finally I comprehend my tearful reaction to tasting that cherry tomato: I bet you I can draw a four-dimensional map of the neuronal synapses that led from the taste buds on my tongue to my subconscious brain, via stored memories of fun and intimacy from college days, to the neural record of my and Djon’s drifting apart to separate commitments and raising of families, to his illness and my partaking with his family of his love as he passed on, back to my own private loss of my mother, dead and buried in my village while I was away attending school in the city, to Ghada’s loss of her father and home, to the collective loss of the homeland experienced by all Palestinians, back to Djon, my family and home away from home, to the beautiful taste of cherimoyas in my orchard.

I love you, Djon!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Health Advisory

Sept. 8, 2015:
Today we woke up to a sandstorm blanketing the entire country. In Arrabeh it is so thick streetlights are on at noon. I don’t know if it is done automatically or if our mayor still turns them on and off manually himself because of budgetary constraints. Regardless, it is obvious that somebody up there is upset with someone down here. So, who is doing this to whom? I’ll leave figuring out the angry party to others and invest some thought in figuring out who angered Him or Her. Since this all is happening in Israel and Palestine, let me try and guess who is to blame, Abbas or Netanyahu. Abbas is threatening to resign. I think that should bring a smile if not a snicker to the continence of the Gods. The first page headline in Haaretz warns of him disturbing the status quo with his forthcoming UN speech. No wonder he goes around with that permanent whimsical look in his eye. I recall a fellow worker at the Ministry of Health once threatening to revolt if he didn’t get a pay raise; he would start referring to himself as ‘Palestinian,’ he said. Would Abbas do that now?

In my judgment it must be the Israelis who are raising all the dust. I just shared an outrageous piece on my Facebook account about teaching the Arabic Language at Jewish schools in Israel. It turns out that it is all done under the auspices of Israel’s security apparatus and in the context of stopping terrorist acts by Arabic speakers. The texts taught are inimical to the language and to its speakers and the overall scheme revolves around knowing thy enemy. That, of course, has meant that no Arabs are involved in the program thus leading to the current state of affairs where less than 10% of the teachers of the subject at Jewish schools are actually fluent in the Arabic language. For the several centuries that the Philippines was a Spanish colony, its educational system focused on teaching Catholicism to the locals. Many priests who served as school principles were actually illiterate. The important thing was to spread the faith.

Remember, we are speaking here of the Department of Jewish Education. In the Department of Arab Education in Israel, where for years a non-native Arabic speaker ran the show, the goal seemed to have been to help Arabs forget the language or at least not to be as stir crazy about its hypnotic charm, what with all its classic poetry and Koranic roots. Arabic language connoisseurs are regularly seen retching their guts out at hearing our youth speak Arabic with its generous sprinkling of Hebrew terms and structures.

And here is another potential brewing dust storm for you: This year, two weeks from now, Jewish and Islamic holidays coincide. Jewish customers calling to book rooms at the Crown Plaza (and some other resorts) in Tiberius and Eilat regularly receive an unsolicited advisory about the high likelihood that there will be many Arabs on site. As vacationers, that is, and not only as cooks, waiters, dishwashers, busboys, gardeners, maintenance staff and parking attendants. In some resorts officials went into some detail about known Arab characteristics such as offensive smell and tendency to messiness. The Channel 10 News team that aired the program went the extra mile and attempted to reserve rooms at the facilities under Arabic names and was not warned about the likelihood of finding Jewish vacationers there. It seems self-evident that Arab families would love for their children to brush against Jewish kids at the playgrounds.

I wonder if Israeli tour agencies issue regular travel warnings to their American and European pilgrim clients about the likelihood of running into some Arabs in Jerusalem despite the state’s persistent efforts to sanitize the holy site of such life forms.

WARNING: Because of the high atmospheric particle count, people with compromised lung and heart functions, pregnant woman, and the elderly should stay indoors and avoid physical exertion. Whatever you do, avoid exposure to Arabs, especially Palestinians.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of Chief Complaint by a Harvard classmate

I am aware of half a dozen reviews of my book, Chief Complaint, having appeared in print or online, all enchantingly positive, I have collected those in a Word file that I treasure and keep expanding. But I haven't posted them on my blog. This is different. It has a certain value added at source; it is from a Harvard Medical School class mate (1968) who is the world expert on the subject of kinship and fertility. He posted his review to the class listserve. I expect some noise to be generated by this review. But noise is always good for sales. I hasten to add that the esoteric few last paragraphs left me less than clear about what my dear classmate exactly means. I visited his website and emerged not much clearer about his aim though, on the whole, it sounds positive. But that is Harvardese for you and I have been weaned from it for near half a century. Still, I am happy to gloat about all the praise and the bright spotlights that my classmate shines on my book in his first few paragraphs. Here it is for your (and my) enjoyment:

Review of Chief Complaint:
I have had the great pleasure of reading Chief Complaint by Hatim Kanaaneh MD (Just World Books, Alexandria, Virginia 2015 and available from Amazon).

It is with some trepidation that I discuss a book that touches on such sacred things. It is a collection of short stories, which is like saying a Mozart sonata is a collection of notes.  The stories are partly fictionalized, as the author points out, with most of the names being changed and some episodes that happened to different people being linked in one person.  The book is disarmingly simple in its organization, being the tales of people who came to Dr. Kanaaneh put together by chief complaint in the routine order of a systems review by a good clinician.

Beneath that inviting cover I found a narrative of different levels, which I shall try to describe. 

The easiest level for me is the political.  Let me quote the first two sentences from “The Gray Champion” by Nathanial Hawthorne.  “There was once a time when New England groaned under the actual pressure of heavier wrongs than those threatened ones that brought on the Revolution.  James II, the bigoted successor of Charles the Voluptuous, had annulled the charters of all of the colonies, and sent a harsh and unprincipled soldier to take away our liberties and endanger our religion.”  Chief Complaint makes clear that British rule was not improved by time, nor was the puppet government they installed.  As with Hawthorne, the doctor’s tale is one of the persecuted as seen by the persecuted – in flagrant defiance of the commonplace that history is written by the victors.  This is Palestine under Israeli rule, British Mandate rule and even Ottoman rule.  The protest is most clear.

The second level is still manageable for me.  That is the narrative style.  I graduated with high honors in English from Wesleyan University, so if this next paragraph is folly, at least it is by a fool with credentials.  There are multiple themes woven into the tale.  It is like spending days on a sailboat accompanied by an enormous pod of many-colored cetaceans.  Sometimes one passes submerged and the is only the hint of color gliding below the surface followed by another and another or more than one.  Then one of them breaches clear of the water and for a time all too brief shines resplendent in the sun.  And there are characters, many characters.  I think I have met more people of the village of Arrabeh than I can recall with such distinctness and understanding from my childhood plus present life.  We see them at their best and at their worst, their injuries and ailments, their deepest woes and their highest dreams, through the attentive eye of the clinician. 

At the third level I panic.  Long years among many different cultures have taught me that some things are fair game for conversation with anyone: family, weather, sports, ghosts, machinery and so forth.  One might not agree, but at least one knows the lie of the land.  But when one ventures into what is precious, sacred memory or dream, table manners and alcohol or tobacco, things immediately in touch with the physical body, one may all unintentionally offend.  The story is set with the constant presence of a wistful, mistful past when the people owned land, the land was bounteous and mouthwatering delicacies were available in their season.  It took hard work to wrest a living from the soil, from the goats and especially from the trappable wild things.  I have no doubt that these sweet memories are valid.  My own experience has been that the past is forgotten or seen through a distorting lens such that friends who seemed to be bounding with joy when they were with me recall later unfairness, squalor and privation I do not recall.  And yet the dream of this lost past summons problems; what would fix things?  Arrabeh is now a city of over twenty thousand.  It could never support itself on the produce of the land.  Nobody could possibly, any longer, be friends with every adult.  Natural increase has dimmed the dream.  Some things could be fixed, obviously, but all? 

The fourth level takes me where others might not choose to venture.  So if you have problems, let me say, “READ THIS BOOK.”  Now you can bolt any time you like.  The thing is that I see in this book not only the past but the future.  The rich countries of the world have an unsustainably low birth rate.  That is common coin.  My own work suggests that the middle class the world over will have a birth rate fall that will be extremely abrupt and profound.  But I do not see that in Arrabeh.  A large proportion of the Palestinians are highly educated and highly skilled.  They make money.  And they make babies.  Nobody else seems to be able to do both.  I imagine the reason is that there is such a close emotional attachment to the land, to the place, to the community, that they marry cousins frequently enough to keep the babies coming.  So the rest of us (I can’t even get a date, and that is really no new thing.) will not leave the world to the places that still have substantial growth: Yemen and Afghanistan I’m thinking, and sub-Saharan Africa.  Nice folk.  Love ‘em all.  Not so keen on the education thing.  But the Palestinians will endure.

And the fifth and final level is a voice that says, “Why wait?” Marrying cousins, specifically third and fourth cousins, maximizes your birth rate.  Tell them.  Ah, but high birth rate is already a problem; don’t blame global warming on the Palestinians, but just maintaining their society is difficult.  And I, after years of study, can’t tell you just what to do.  Go to my last summary of January 1, 2015 on and you can verify in the Iceland study that those third and fourth couple pairings are the most fertile, first cousins less so in the second generation and that distant ones, say ninth cousin or greater, even less so still.  Incidentally there is no difference between ninth cousin and somebody from the far side of the world.  Nature doesn’t care how distant your distant kinship is; what matters is how many generations it goes on.  (It doesn’t matter how far from the building you jump, it’s how long you fall.)  The Icelanders have looked at children and grandchildren, and it is the same story.  They have not seen fit to extend, as it seems they could, their study to great grandchildren.  I’ve written to encourage that.

Again on the web site I mentioned there is a Swedish study showing that rich people (who presumably leave forever their ancestral villages) have the same decrease in children and grand children and the decrease in great grandchildren is greater than the first two generations of outbreeding combined.

Ah but people keep track of such things in Arrabeh.  Do memories go back that far into the Ottoman regime?  Do the elders still chat?  Could they put together their own genealogies and see whether the rule holds, “Each generation of mating outside ninth cousin cuts fertility in half?”  That does not seem to be exactly the case, but something close to it.  Even so, it’s tricky.  The family trees will not be symmetrical at any level.  But we are talking about people intelligent and well educated who like to use their minds.  Maybe they can work it out.

But this summons another demon.  Now you know.  What do you do about it?

In the end, thank you, Dr. Kanaaneh, for this warm hearted, gripping and well woven book. 


Friday, August 21, 2015

A Tribute To Mohammed Allaan

At the risk of offending some of my fellow countrymen, I will express my disagreement with what is happening in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. (and I use the term Palestinian Occupation advisedly for it is the accursed Palestinian miscreants who have occupied the sacred land on which our forefathers trod millennia of years ago.) In fact my opinion about those running the Palestinian Occupation for us is rather negative. To be quite frank, they are the stupidest officials on the face of the planet. And believe you me there are stupid officials whichever way you look; need I mention the USA occupation of Iraq or of Saudi Arabia? Ours though take the grand prize for stupidity; they cannot put two and two together. We on this side of the Green Line do all we can to simplify things for them by passing all the necessary and expedient laws for them and they still mishandle everything. Take this Mohammed Allaan for example, the hunger striking Palestinian who is making so much noise we have to deploy the iron dome in the south of the country in another preemptive step for him. And what is his objection to being held in Jail? It is the fact that he is a lawyer and we treat him like other Palestinians which is to say we hold him in administrative detention without trial and extend the period by another six months every time the magic period expires. The first stupidity is why the number six? You are putting so many of them in administrative detention that the six month limit keeps so many court clerks, lawyers and military judges busy with paper work that it is self defeating. What about them, you say? Well, the Palestinians are mostly unemployed anyway. So why not choose a nice round figure like ten or a hundred from the start? Did someone think it was easier to count to six since it was the number of the fingers on one’s hand?

And why the administrative detention in the first place? We just passed a law to put anyone who throws a stone in jail for ten years with no need to prove an intention to harm. And our military courts are quite efficient on this one: 98% of youth who are accused of throwing stones are indicted provided they are proven to be Palestinian. And this Allaan guy is unconscious. So why not put a stone in his hand and have him take a selfie that you find accidentally when you bring him his lunch?

Oh, the hell with it! I forgot that he is on hunger strike in the first place. But we gave you the legal right to force-feed him anyway. You say that is torture and the doctors will not do it? Tell me again! Haven’t you read Eva Illouz’s discourse about the loss of humanity in our hospitals? I am a doctor and I was part of the system; After two decades of trying in vain, I gave up and left defeated. I know the system from the inside! ‘We buried him together,’ as the saying goes. Besides we are talking about Palestinians here! So what is all the talk about ‘human’ rights?

At the risk of boring you, I will tell you the story behind the village saying: It speaks of two merchants who owned a donkey in partnership that they called Sabir – tolerant --, a proper Arabic first name for a man as well as for a young donkey since Arabs classically nickname a donkey Abu-Sabir for putting up with so much abuse. On one of their joint trips their donkey tripped, fell and broke its neck. The two merchants were devastated by the loss. They buried their beloved donkey in a proper grave by the roadside, placed a huge pile of stones over it, and planted a shade tree in the style of the graves of holy men.  Passers by started to show their respect by making presents of lit candles and green satin cloth that they hung on the boughs of the tree or over the stone pile. The two merchants liked what they saw and kept their secret to themselves. Years later, on one of their trips, an argument concerning the division of their profits broke out between the two as they sat to rest in the shade of the tree by the holy shrine known far and wide as the “shrine of Sheikh Sabir.” One of the two raised his right hand in the air and swore “by the grave of Sheikh Sabir” that he was telling the truth. The other reached up and pulled his partner’s hand down saying: “We buried him together, remember?”

Let me go back to the stone throwing stupidity: It turns out that we plan to spend millions of Shekels on keeping East Jerusalem teenage boys a little longer at school each day, so that they will have less time to throw stones. Conveniently, most high schools in East Jerusalem are segregated by sex. So they decide that there will be no long school days for girl schools. I call that stupid for a couple of reasons. First girls are the ones behind stone throwing in East Jerusalem. It is the girls raucous applaud of stone sharpshooters that keeps those young men at it all their free time. And contrary to your plans of keeping stone throwing boys longer at school, our sources tell us that most stone throwers are dropouts on the first place. So there!!

More seriously though, the whole mess of occupation and the Israel-Palestine conflict could have been avoided all together from the very start. Had it not been for the exclusivist mindset of the Zionist founders of Israel things could have looked different. Here is an illustration of what I mean: A friend of mine was reminiscing earlier today about the first celebration of Israel’s independence day that he attended. A group of young men and of fully grown ones from our village got in the back of two trucks and drove to Tel-Aviv the night before independence Day. They even took Uncle Hassan, the village’s blind reed pipe player, with them as well as an agile leader of the classic Palestinian group dance, the Dabkah. It so happened that the young man was a refugee from Mi’ar, the 1948 destroyed village that a couple of decades later would became the site of the Jewish settlement of Ya’ad. The municipality of Tel-Aviv had closed one of its widest avenues, Zionism Avenue, to traffic. The group joined the other celebrants from all over the country and started its own spontaneous show forming a circle and proceeding to do their dance with full enthusiasm. Curious onlookers gathered around them, clapping and singing along. Suddenly a strapping young man of huge proportions and a thick beard stepped to the center of the circle, grabbed the reed pipe from Uncle Hassan and wanted to know in Arabic where was the group of dancers from. They told him and he cursed loudly, spat in their direction and threatened violence against them. The circle broke up and they headed to the nearby historic Hassan-Bik Mosque to sleep the night off. The weird sheikh of the mosque let them in on the condition that they had to do the dawn prayer there. My friend doesn’t remember how the rest of the night went or how early they left Tel-Aviv, they all were so ashamed. In response to my disdain and disbelief he explained that that was the first time anyone could leave the village and go to the big city without a special permit. The Military governor had let it be known that no written permits were required and no traffic violations would be issued regardless of how many passengers the two village drivers loaded in their trucks. I remember myself going down to Haifa that night with three high school friends. But we had a vey clear justification: We wanted to see all the Kibbutz girls dancing in their short shorts. What excuse did my friend’s circle of village men, especially the grown-up ones, had, I wondered?
“Remember, we were used to following orders. The police would come and heavily fine any shop in the village that was open on the Holocaust Remembrance Day or closed on Israel’s Independence Day. You had to be open and sell candy, colored balloons and noisemakers. They had us well trained. Someone in our group must have been ordered to go down and celebrate and the rest of us followed. We were like caged birds let loose. You didn’t consider who saw you taking flight or which direction you flew,” my friend explained. “Besides, at the time we all knew that the refugees would return and that Israel would join the Soviet Block and peace and equality between Arabs and Jews would reign.”
Mind you, my friend was and still is a communist. He sees all positive things colored red. But he has a point: The Palestinian community in Israel was as leaderless, unsophisticated and frightened as a group of nursery children abandoned by their attendants. Had someone bothered to give us a warm hug and a bottle we would have settled down and gone to sleep. It took us nearly three decades before we gathered enough courage and trust in each other to stand up together on Land Day and say “NO!” to the government’s continued designs on our land.
“We had a chance to be together for one night with no one to tell us what to do,” my friend added in conclusion. “What was more natural than to join hands and dance the Dabkah? But, at a deeper level, we must have felt guilty. Otherwise how did it happen that we all cowered in front of that bearded Palestinian young man? We all simply folded our tails between our legs and withdrew whimpering. He was strong because he was right.”

Suddenly my friend’s face glowed with an inspired flash of genius:

“I think his name was Mohammed Allaan!”