Friday, January 23, 2015

Palestinian Treasure Hunt

Today’s (22 February, 2015) New York Times health section declares: “Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.” Believe me, I am trying my best. It is five in the morning and I am already at it. But will it work?

I have known Mazin Qumsiyeh for several years and thought he was a serious scientist and another human rights advocate. Yesterday I discovered I had been mistaken: The man is a VERY serious scientist. And indeed he is a world-class activist and a campaigner committed to Palestinian freedom that doesn’t shy away from world-class challenges. His current undertaking is the establishment of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. For those not familiar with this compact dynamo of a scientist, let me attempt a brief introduction: Mazin is the scion of the venerable Qumsiyeh clan of Beit Sahur, born not far from the Shepherds Field of biblical fame to another woman hailing from Nazareth. Yesterday, when we sat for breakfast, she spoke of paying taxes and other bothersome impositions of the current central authorities. Her brother was the earliest Palestinian modern-day zoologist. When he died at an early age, young Mazin decided to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and pursue his uncharted path.

There is a uniquely inspirational air about Mazin. He obviously takes himself seriously, a rare quality that never fails to impress. As he goes about his chores, whether checking the hundreds of emails on his computer from members of his extensive mailing list, leading his team of young volunteers at the museum, scanning another freshly caught insect from the Jordan Valley environs under the microscope, or preparing breakfast, he is constantly in active thinking mode. You can see sparks flying. The motto he chose for his museum sums it all: “Respect yourself, respect others and respect nature.” And he is not alone in his dedication. He has a 24/7-support ‘team.’ Jessy, his Chinese wife, is the weather system that feeds his tempest. To see her fawning over him, hosting his many guests, tidying his environment, moving around with forceps and bag picking the paper and plastic dropped by visitors and the wind on the grounds of the emerging sustainable agricultural experimental station around the museum building is to see quiet dedication at its best. And the woman pronounces all the guttural Arabic sounds so perfectly that it is incongruous to hear the local sounds issuing from the kind foreign face.

As I said, Mazin thinks: Responding to the short notice of my planned visit he had alerted a local friend he knew would click with me. After our morning visit to the evolving museum we met Osama Alaysa on the campus of Bethlehem University. Mazin had already shown me this fellow author’s Arabic language book, The Madmen of Bethlehem. He now obtained a copy for Osama to autograph for me and left us to chat over a cup of coffee on campus while he tended to some of his professorial duties. The weather was warm enough for us to seek a shady spot in the yard. We struck up a conversation of mutual discovery of each other’s whats and whys. The younger journalist turned out to know well some other academician Kanaanehs, my brother and nephew who teach a t Beir Zeit University. He wanted to know why I write in English and how come my wife speaks such good Palestinian colloquial Arabic. One thing led to the other and I shared with Osama our short wish list of a field trip to Battir and a bottle of authentic grape molasses, the dibis for which the Hebron rural communities are famous. We had bought some from a commercial source and it didn’t match my expectations. I produce my own carob molasses and can taste a product’s authenticity. And Didi and I had dreamt of visiting Battir, the famed Palestinian village that had managed to twist the Israeli military occupation’s arm and deflect the evil path of the Apartheid Wall on the strength of the village’s traditional irrigation system being recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Like the expert journalist that he was, Osama whipped out his mobile phone and contacted friends who contacted friends and came back with a plan if we would be willing to proceed right then and there. We borrowed Mazin’s car and were on our way. We eventually got to tour Beit Jala, Walaja (where we visited the colossal olive tree venerated as the tree whose shade was sought by Sidi Elbadawi, the Sufi sheikh, for rest and meditation. And we drove through Wadi el-Makhrour to Battir, all thanks to Osama and his (and now our) great friend Ibraheem Mizher and his 1980s Hyundai ‘old faithful’.

More about that later perhaps. But first the dibis: The mother of a fellow journalist had a bottle of the homemade brown gold and she was willing to part with it for the benefit of a guest coming all the way from Galilee. We drove through the extensive Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Osama’s family’s ‘temporary’ home since 1948, to reach Al-Khader, a rural extension of Bethlehem with another name that reverberates with biblical lore, this one claiming homage as the community of St. George. The fertile basin, known to the locals as El-Balou’aa for ‘swallowing’ the runoff rainwater from the surrounding hills, is one endless vineyard dotted with farmers’ homes. We drove to our destination and the kind people insisted on us coming in for coffee. With this excuse, and knowing that we were debis connoisseurs, a quick brunch was imposed on our schedule. The gracious lady of the house happened to be baking the family’s daily supply of wheat bread and all she had to do is to stick to the best of Palestinian traditions of hospitality and pour out a sample of whatever food supplies she had around her pantry. In no time flat we were wolfing down the homemade molasses we came for, together with homemade hawthorn jam, homemade za’ater, homemade cheese and virgin olive oil from the family’s trees, all savored with the freshly baked bread from the modern indoor oven fashioned in imitation of the classic outdoor taboon. I swear, as I waited impatiently for my lightly browned loaf to cool off enough for me to relish, it looked at me with the same pleasant welcoming smile like our hostess urging us to pitch in. The flavors have stayed with me after the coffee and made it home with me to bed in Arrabeh even after I brushed my teeth last night. In the night’s dream sequence the brunch got all admixed and confused with Saud El-Asadi’s love poem that I read on his Facebook before going to sleep describing a youthful kiss that echoed in his heart’s mind of the crunching under one’s teeth of the first green almonds of spring. The pleasures of the senses are hard to delimit in a dream and one can be excused for mixing one kind of love with another.

True, I am a physician. But I can’t tell you why I am feeling so refreshed and regenerated after writing this. It must be one of those rare occasions when the New York Times gets it right about Palestinians.

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