Friday, February 27, 2015

My Book Launch: Conquering New York

 Last night at my book launch event at the U of Columbia Center for Palestine Studies, the room was full. But we are speaking of a classroom and not of a huge hall.  And Chief Complaint, my book, was sold out. But again the stock was rather modest. Earlier a friend had told me that the item had sold out on Amazon. They had one copy and she bought it. The significance of the event was mainly in the venue, the Academic home of the Late Professor Edward Said. Mariam, his widow, was there. Brinkley Messick, co-director (with Rashid Khalidi who is on sabbatical)of the Center for Palestine Studies, opened by recognizing Rhoda, my daughter, and her contribution as a faculty member there.

I had prepared an outline of my presentation to the audience, which I will share with you below. But the moderator, Prof. Moustafa Bayoumi, chose to have a less formal relaxed style and proceeded with a more spontaneous give and take conversation between the two of us. I had asked if he wanted to take a look at my notes and he reassured me that there was no need. And, indeed, in the course of the two hours we managed to cover all of the points I had listed and a few more. Prof. Lila Abu-Lughod sat in my direct line of vision and I used her level of interest in the presentation to gauge the audience’s degree of engagement. We must have held their attention fairly well throughout the evening.

As a moderator, Prof. Bayoumi had an air of confidence about him that I found reassuring. His alert eyes and studied casualness elevated the discussion to a higher plain of interest and authenticity. I felt at ease responding to his prompts and questions. Having run through my CV with the right combination of hilarity and dignity, he went on to coax the central points of my prepared talk out for the audience. I managed to get that across as part of the discussion avoiding lecturing or reading from my prepared text except for the few occasions when I read from my book. That way I treaded a fairly comfortable line between reading from my book for the audience (skipping that altogether would have been disingenuous) and jocularly making light of its serious content.

Then Moustafa opened the forum for questions and answers. Much of that was to be expected: The life of my community members under the military rule, our abandonment by our state, the special diseases and the extent of mental illness in my community, etc. The one question that stumped me came from a fellow Palestinian citizen of Israel: What did the experience of writing my book of fiction teach me about myself, she wanted to know? I hemmed and hawed and answered unconvincingly that it confirmed my love for my home village and its people. Later at night I fell asleep mulling that question. I woke up still trying to answer Reem Khamis-Dakwar’s query: What did I learn about my self? Now I sit down at the keyboard and it still escapes me. Perhaps the answer lies in the sneaky feeling that I may have wasted my life doing the wrong thing, practicing medicine instead of writing fiction. No, I did revel in my role as the healer to my people. Could it be discovering how comfortable I am facing a crowed to inform them about where I come from and what our issues are?  Then I remembered the warm feeling that percolated in my chest when I was told that Jamil Dakwar had talked to Malaika, my granddaughter, and praised my contribution to my community through establishing the Galilee Society. Yes that was it. What I have learned about myself from my entire life experience was the realization that I was just another sucker for recognition. That reconfirms my humanity. Now I can go back and sleep a little better, I thought. But the intrusive question kept nagged at me. Seeking recognition was not new to me. There had to be something deeper. Then it came in a flash of revelation: In seeking to decide on the voice in which I was addressing my stories and the target readership I aimed for I discovered a trace of megalomania in my inner being that I never faced up to before. I wanted to speak to the world including its commoners and its leaders. That, Ms. Dakwar-Khamis, is something new I learned about myself.

So here is the outline I had prepared for all of you who ignored me and didn’t show up at my wedding night to my new literary identity.

Outline of Book Launch Talk at Columbia CPS
February 24, 2015

1.    Introduction:
I want to thank all those who contributed to this book launch. I am especially grateful to the Center for Palestinian Studies for this honor. This is an important event for me. For someone tethered for life to land roots in rural Galilee, it is not a small matter to be standing here before you at this very special place.

a.     Also, this is a watershed event. It marks my official professional conversion from a public health physician to a writer. And I am celebrating the occasion at the academic home of Edward Said, the man whose call on Palestinians to narrate their truth to the world first inspired me to publish my writing.

b.     Now for those unfamiliar with Palestine’s recent history, let me share with you a brief sketch of the background to my community, the Palestinian Citizens of Israel from the preface to Chief Complaint:

In 1948, on the morrow of the Nakba, the group destined to become the Palestinian citizens of Israel woke up to a new and disturbing reality. Some 85 percent of the Palestinian residents of what was to become Israel had been forced to cross the borders and become refugees in neighboring countries. The remaining 15 percent found that “a brutal border crossed them,” and they became Israeli citizens through no choice of their own. Those Palestinians, together with residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, now make up more than one-fifth of the total population of Israel.
In 1948, between one-fourth and one-third of us were internally displaced to become what is officially known in Israel as “Present Absentees.” Laws were promulgated to deprive members of this sub- group of their homes and private property, including their land and bank accounts. The rest of us gradually lost most of our land to confiscation by the state through dozens of specifically designed and finely tuned laws and ordinances that claimed to serve the “public good” or the security needs of the state. The tacticians of the new state were inventive in applying all types of control and dispossession tactics to the group of defeated, thinly dispersed, and leader-less peasantry. They adapted the British Mandate emergency regulations, originally promulgated to deal with Jewish underground movements, including a draconian military rule that denied “Israel’s Arabs,” as the state liked to call us, freedom of movement and occupation for two full decades. In 1967, the entire system was moved lock, stock, and barrel to the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Simultaneously, the Jewish majority population proceeded to define the state it dominated as coterminous with itself, thus defining us, the Palestinian minority, for all practical purposes out of the emerging “public good” and the state’s security concerns. Thus, we now own less than three percent of Israel’s land and are essentially exempted from utilizing any of the remainder because it is owned by the Jewish National Fund or defined as state lands, the very essence of the Zionist enterprise. In contrast, about half of the constituent Jewish population of Israel arrived from the countries of the Middle East and North Africa with socio-cultural attributes not unlike those of the Palestinians. The main difference was that the state, backed by the world Jewish community, invested massive funds and efforts in well-coordinated programs for the socioeconomic betterment of one group. Not only did no parallel programs exist for us, the Palestinians, but also our agrarian communal underpinnings were undercut with massive land confiscations and limitations on crop selection and marketing, and on irrigation schemes for the benefit of Jewish cooperative farms. As the oriental Jews (Sephardim) in Israel were corralled into Ashkenazi cultural hegemony, members of our community were further marginalized to become day laborers in construction and agriculture in Jewish cities and new settlements. We lost our agricultural self-sufficiency while lacking an alternative base for development such as industry or commerce. The image of our villages as peripheral enemy locales added to our isolation. Our towns and villages became bedroom communities to which men returned nights and weekends. This was the actualization of Zionist biblical dreams of using us, the Palestinians, as “hewers of wood and carriers of water.”
Adding insult to injury, fellow Arabs across the malicious border portrayed us as a collection of lackeys of the Zionist state who chose to stay and hobnob with the enemy. This malformed image only started to fade with Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, a process that put us in touch again with fellow defeated Palestinians. Our politicians stepped in to offer what little favors they had within their means, our entrepreneurs assumed the ranks of subcontractors and middlemen between occupier and occupied, and our literary figures glowed in the new limelight of the national and literary fidelity they had never abandoned—witness the likes of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qasim, Taha Mohammad Ali, Toufiq Zayyad and Emile Habibi.”

2.     Conflicted mission:
a.      The switch was not easy. In retirement it was easier for me to abandon my career in public health, despite the occasional resurgence of its subliminal fever, than to gain formal entry into the world of creative writing.

b.     To my thinking I hadn’t changed my goal, loosely defined as improving my community’s health, welfare and development chances. I convinced myself that I was only changing my tactics. I was serving my community through breaking down the wall of isolation behind which my state saw fit to sequester us. I wanted to bring our issues to the attention of the world, especially to those making all the significant decisions on our behalf, the Americans and the Europeans. That was when I became aware of Edward Said’s call to service: Go forth and narrate your truth to the misinformed world. At least that was how I read his thinking. And that is what lies behind writing Chief Complaint.

c.      I started by publishing a book of memoirs entitled “A Doctor in Galilee.” Some four years later I was convinced that I was preaching to the converted: Most of the praise it received came from Palestinians and their sympathizers. I needed to reach across to the dormant masses of uninformed readers, uninformed or more likely misinformed, about the Palestinian people and their struggle. It was apparent to me that the average American reader goes more for fiction than for factual accounts. But my strong point is my experience as a physician residing and working in my home village. That was when I decided to fictionalize the real life events in my village that I could narrate from memory, though the stories took on a life of their own. This shaped itself into the book, Chief Complaint.

3.     A Different Fiction Writing Attempt:
a.     Aspiring to address myself to the American reader, three years ago, I spent one year as a fellow at the Writers Institute of the Graduate Center of CUNY. That was made possible thanks to my daughter and to her friend Humera Afridi. I didn’t manage to break into the central hard core of America’s literary circles. None of my writing has appeared in the New Yorker or in Paris Review-YET!

b.     In learning the tricks of the fiction writing trade as practiced in the West, I had to study many examples of recognized literary excellence. Little of this dealt with what pained me. And that little saw the world through Israeli eyes. Not only did the content not match my wishes but also I found the elements of style unfamiliar. Standard fiction writing manuals advise against flashbacks, diversions and tangential issues. There is a standard narrative structure to which one is expected to stick.  Where does that leave the authors of The Arabian Nights I wondered? Or my idol of modern Palestinian fiction, my late friend Emil Habibi? By the end of the course I had to content myself with what little confidence I gained of knowing which rules I was intentionally breaking.

c.      My taking the risk of straying from the accepted rules had more to do with where I come from and why I set on my writing venture in the first place. I am not here to build a literary career. Rather I am here to share the stories of my people, to introduce rural Palestine to the American reader in as realistic a manner as I can. The American standard short story narrative line is not how my people share their pain and joy with each other. But not many Westerners have entered a Palestinian home and not enjoyed Palestinian hospitality. So with my blending of fact and fiction, the qissa form with a dose of pain derived from reality, I fail to adhere to the concocted set of rules I was taught.

d.     That, of course, left me with the quandary of what publisher was ready to stray from the narrow and straight path and go against the grain in the highly competitive publishing market. Just World Books focus on justice suited my purposes well. And its editors didn’t seem to mind my different literary style. It was an automatic synch. It is my gamble as well that this adventure will be not only a commercial success but also a successful challenge to the tidy world of accepted modern American short story style. Only established best selling writers can get away with breaking the accepted rules, our teachers told us. I am going out on a limb and challenging that rule as well.

4.     Reading from Chief Complaint: I will now illustrate what I said with a selection from one of the stories in my book. It is entitled “Chills.”

a.     The central story has a simple narrative line: My senile aunt is constantly complaining of feeling cold even in the summer heat. I try my best to discover the presumed underlying medical problem, but to no avail. One day, she sees me trying on her late husband’s traditional woolen cloak, ‘abaa. She demands to be covered with it. The medical mystery is solved. She never complains of feeling cold again. This in itself is a worthy peek at the workings of the failing mind of a senior citizen who had lost her loving partner. But the medical framework of Chief Complaint is only that, a framework I use to narrate the disenfranchisement of my people.

b.     In this specific story I flash back to my uncle’s younger years and to his land roots as a subsistence farmer; I stray off to give an account of the establishment and persecution of the communist party in Arrabeh; I go off on a tangent to relate events from the peasant revolt against the British and their favored Zionist protégés; and I delve into events of the Nakba in my village, all of which seem extraneous to the story line:

“In the spring of 1949, Ammi Ibrahim turned overnight into a local hero of the Battouf area for reasons that had nothing to do with his acquired communist leanings or with his standing up to the military rule and enduring in his old age whatever that cruel system could dish out. It was his familiarity with the Battouf that bestowed on him a near divine mantle of knowledge and justice. That winter, Kibbutz Solilim brought in a number of tank-like weaponized tractors, plowed the western part of the valley as a single unit, and planted it with wheat. Everyone feared that that was the end: they were losing their ancestral land and livelihood. While people in all the villages wept in bewilderment and despair, ‘Ammi Ibrahim accompanied his nephew, the village mukhtar, on a trip to Nazareth to consult with Mr. Wonderman, an old Jewish acquaintance of yesteryears who was now entrusted with the job of Nazareth’s Chief of Police; the famous Mascubiyya, the Muscovite compound, was now his headquarters. He remembered the two guests well: they had once retrieved a number of cattle for him from the Bedouin marauders who had stolen them from his kibbutz not far from Tiberius.
He ordered a cup of traditional Arabic coffee for each of them. It was brought in by the cleaning woman at his office, no other than the daughter of an old friend of theirs from ‘Aylabun and the sister of two of the 14 young men killed in ‘Aylabun’s massacre less than a year before. Knowing that he was familiar with local Palestinian traditions, they expressed their wish for him to hear them first, for if he denied them the help and advice that they sought from him, they would not honor him with partaking of his coffee. He listened patiently to their tale of woe. He took a long time sitting across from his old Arab friends with his face cupped mysteriously and sympathetically, they thought, in his hands as he leaned over his desk. Then he said only one sentence, an old Arabic phrase that he thought was fitting for the situation: “Kul maf‘ulin jayiz.” All actions were permitted. They sipped their coffee, thanked him, and left.
Back in Arrabeh, they gathered all the elders of the various families and informed them of their decision to pick up the gauntlet flung to them by Mr. Wonderman. Each farmer was to go down and plow over the wheat that had already sprouted on his land and to sow a different crop—anything but wheat. The message was conveyed to all the other villages around. That was when ‘Ammi Ibrahim faced the most challenging task of his long life: he had to divide that part of the Battouf all over again. The intruders had removed all the simple stone markers by which farmers delineated their plots. He had first to decide where Arrabeh’s land ended and Sakhnin’s started. Then he had to decide where the Kanaanehs’ fields were located relative to the Yasins’. Then, within each clan’s area, he needed to separate specific plots of individual farmers. And so on ad infinitum. He had a lot of help, and much interference as well, from all of his fellow farmers. Each knew the approximate location of his plot and who his immediate neighbors were. That was helpful in arranging the plots relative to each other in my uncle’s mind. Inevitably, some villagers were disgruntled by what struck them as an arbitrary decision. But they all respected the man and, despite his single-minded obstinacy, no one ever suspected his motives or integrity. (The most difficult counterclaim to disprove was one put forth by a simple farmer who had ridden his donkey down to his land in the dark, and the donkey stopped at a plot assigned to a neighbor. Farmers had always relied on their donkeys to identify their land in the dark of night when one plot looked exactly like the other.)”

5.     Significance of the name: In closing, let me share with you the rationale for the name “Chief Complaint.”

“Each story carries a heading that was the “chief complaint” of its protagonist, the principal reason for him or her to seek medical attention at my clinic, the primary connecting thread between my patient and me as a healer. These then follow the simple ordering of the body’s working systems and their functional roles starting with the head and ending with the feet, with general complaints falling at the start or at the end of the list. This is the classic tool of the medical profession known as “review of systems.” If Primo Levi, a chemist, can utilize the periodic table to relate the memories of his personal suffering and that of his people, why can’t I, a physician, employ the system central to medical practice to narrate to the world some of my people’s struggle, pain, and joy?
In its totality, this collection of fictional short stories conveys my community’s foundational chief complaint, its conflicted relation- ship with the state of Israel. Through it, I strive to inform readers about my community as an integral constituent of the Palestinian people. With the increasing worldwide recognition of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement called for by Palestinian civil society, it is my hope that this contribution to Palestinian lore will help shine a tender light on my long-misunderstood people.
In the presentation, this planned last reading actually came in response to a question from the moderator. I prefaced it with the true story that my friend, professor Chuck Wachtel had read a piece on my blog and commented that my writing style reminded him of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. I inquired who that was and went and bought the book. That was where the inspiration came from. To illustrate the medical system that gave my book its logical order, Moustafa read out the table of contents:
Preface 9
High Fever 19
Chills 29
Hair Loss 43
Headache 55
Hearing Loss 67
Painful Swallowing 81
Neck Swelling 97
Cough 109
Chest Pain 123
Nausea 139
Vomiting 157
Abdominal Pain 179
Swollen Abdomen 191
Absence of Urine 203
Back Pain 217
Limping 229
Insomnia 243
About the Author 255

That explained the system I was struggling to convey to the audience. Why didn’t I think of it before?

Friday, February 13, 2015

What Is in a Name?

I wager that the hate criminal who assassinated “the Three Winners” in Chapel Hill acted mainly out of ignorance. Had he comprehended the literal meaning of their names and realized that these foreign looking young people had apparently lived and acted under the moral obligation inspired by their names, he would have chosen others to kill. The mainstream media seems to take the crime in its stride and not accord it much attention. Those who did apparently took it as another exceptional event committed by a crazy individual acting alone on his vengeance motive against neighbors with whom he had a running argument over a parking space.  That is the automatic explanation given the commonality of the offender’s characteristics: a white nominal Christian who is uncomfortable with people of different culture and looks. The responsible law enforcement authorities in North Carolina, as in most other locales across the USA, may well find the man to suffer from temporary insanity. But I am not absolving him of responsibility for his crime on such basis. Rather, even with his deep-seated hate of Islam and apparently of religiosity in general, I still think that simple ignorance must have had much to do with his criminal thinking and action. I don’t think that any human being with average intelligence and a conscience, flawed, dark and clouded as it may well be, , would have opted to kill three people with as much decency and potential of service to mankind.

Just dwell with me for a moment please on the deeper meaning of the names of the three people that Chapel Hill has lost. Accept for a moment please my simplistic assumption that, as innocent children or perhaps as ambitious young adults, they must have contemplated the meaning of their names and possibly aspired to act on the basis of their essence. We all know that children do that, don’t they? And who knows that better than Dr. Muhammad abu-Salha, the psychiatrist father of Yusor and Razan: First the family names: Barakat – Blessings – inspires a sense of decency and goodwill. Match that, if you will, with Abu-Salha – The One with Benevolence or of the Benevolent Deed. Now to the first names of “the Three Winners:” Razan had the least common sounding name, at least to my ear. Is that because of its Kurdish origin in one interpretation? Or is it because of abstract connotation of its Arabic root of respectability and aloofness. In contrast Deah’s bright ‘Lights’ shine on his surroundings. And it is combined with the second name of Shaddy, the ‘singer’ of pleasant tunes. Take a look at this recent video where he asks for donations in support of his pet project of reaching out to Syrian refugees in Turkey with dental supplies and equipment. You can see how luminous and sweet-sounding the young man’s promise was to the needy whether in his homeland of Syria or in his adopted home of North Carolina where he volunteered to care for the destitute and homeless. No wonder his target of $20,000 has been exceeded fifteen folds with168 days still to go. As to his bride, Yusor, you hear the name and your heart opens to the promise of ‘respite’ and ‘relief.’ In the Koran the good Lord reassures all believers; “Inna m’aa el-‘usri yusra – Verily relief will accompany hardship,” the promise sustaining Moslems under the most devastating of calamities, a refrain that must be repeating endlessly in the minds and hearts of the bereaved families in their hour of need and shattering loss.

The fiercest animals of prey are known to respond favorably to the kindness and good intentions of their keepers. Shouldn’t the jailors of the criminal assassin consider a session or two with an Arab linguist who could explain to the man the tender and decent essence of the names of his victims? Or would that be too harsh a punishment, I wonder, assuming he has a heart at all and a mind to comprehend? The American mainstream media first abstained from reporting this event altogether. Then it quoted the law-enforcement authority in offering a parking space dispute as the explanation for the murder. Does that represent the condition of its readership of seeing no evil, hearing no evil and saying no evil, and by extension of allowing no remediation of evil? Let us hope not. Let us all take to heart the inspirational meaning of those lovely Arabic names as a healing potion. Let us pray for all of us including the atheists!

Saturday, February 7, 2015


The last short story in my forthcoming collection, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, deals with memories and memorabilia of refugees from the village of Lubya. In preparation for the books launch this February 24 at The Center For Palestinian Studies, Columbia University, I decided to make a visit to the grounds of the destroyed village. Here is the account of my visit:

After a visit to the South Africa Forest and National Park I am struggling with my awakened chronic necrophobia. By and large, doctors are expected to grow used to death and dying, especially in their hospital-based practice. But I am a country doctor, and my ‘country,’ Arrabeh, has no hospital and no morgue. Throughout my medical career, I never accepted death as part of my operational arena. In my home village, as its first and, for several years, its only resident physician, I shunned funerals with the acceptable excuse of always having a more urgent calling to tend to. Yesterday, Toufiq Khateeb, my lifelong friend, and I imposed on Naif Hijjo, Abu-Maher to us and to his neighbors and friends in Dayr-Hanna, his host community since 1948, to take us for a visit to the ruins of his village of Lubya. The entire area of what once was Lubya is fully camouflaged by a pine forest with a well-advertised recreational park. A large sign at the official entrance welcomes visitors to the “Lavi Forest.” In large Hebrew letters, it prominently gives credit to the park’s sponsors and overseers: The Ministry of Education, The Sports Authority, The Lower Galilee Regional Council and the Kfar Tabor Local Authority. A map of the “Lavi Active Recreational Park” is shown with official recognition in smaller English letters given to the South African Jewish community that originally footed the bill for the forestation project. Abu Maher stood before the sign and shook his head as if to say: “How many authorities, local and worldwide, can one battle? How can we, refugees, make our voice heard over the din of their official discourse?” The well-attended playground at the lower reaches of the forest’s hilly expanse features swings, slides, wooden bridges and monkey bars. And picnic facilities with ample parking space is provided. Seen from Abu-Maher’s vantage point this all must seem criminally bizarre. However, by the end of our visit what haunted me personally even more was our visit to Lubya’s major cemetery.

We drove to the higher reaches of the forest through an unmapped semisecret road patronized mainly by Lubya’s native sons and daughters. We followed our guide on the dug-up road between huge eucalyptus trees, remnants of the British Mandate highway between Nazareth and Tiberius. We then turned up another narrow dirt road between barren terebinth trees and climbed up the hill, Lubya’s former residential area with its ruins now part of the extensive forest. Here we alighted and Abu-Maher led us on foot leaving his family at their regular picnic spot in the yard of their remembered ancestral home. It was Saturday, their day of rest, and a warm sunny day, a perfect chance for trans-generational nurturing of a sense of belonging to the land and of pride in who they once were and how they once lived as masters of their own fate in the midst of their inherited riches, not through the constant grind of the struggle to survive that a refugee’s life is. Some unemployed elder Lubyans prefer visiting the enchanted forest on Fridays when they pray at the sight of the mosque or in the cemetery. You need forty worshippers for a valid Friday group prayer. But, given the circumstances, Abu-Maher thinks that a dozen or less is acceptable. God knows proportionality. Even the tester in the traffic department is known to make exceptions. One faithful worshipper regularly performs his daily afternoon prayer in the solitude of the forest where his home once stood, drawing water for performing his ablutions from his family’s rainwater cistern. He drives over on his tractor from his “temporary residence” in Dayr Hanna. When he had to take the theoretical part of the test for his driving license he failed to recognize the traffic signal for railroad tracks. The tester wanted to fail him. But the man argued convincingly that there were no such tracks between Dayr Hanna and Lubya and getting to Lubya and back was the only reason he acquired his tractor.

Abu-Maher constantly cautioned us to follow in his footsteps; he didn’t want us, two septuagenarians, to stumble on hidden ledges and fall. Every few steps he would reach down and clear the groundcover around a doorstep or the stump of an iron rod sticking out of a knocked down concrete pillar or horse tether. In one scenic spot, the concrete rubble has been cleared to reveal a well-preserved section of a tiled floor. It was the home of one of Lubya’s well-off leaders, Hassan Abu-Dhais, we are told. The spot has a fantastic view spanning the fertile plane to the north, shared in the old days with the farmers of Tur’aan and Nemrin. Abu-Maher pointed out a copse of olive trees at the foot of the hill across the plane identifying it as his family’s grove. To the west you can see the recently widened Golani Junction, a large MacDonald sign and the Golani War Museum. On a clear day, if you mentally eliminated all the pine trees, you could see clear across to the Golan Heights in one direction and to the Mediterranean in the other. It is a shame, our guide bemoaned, that one of Abu-Dhais’s sons was a collaborator who was brought back from Syria, granted citizenship and given a piece of his father’s land to grow terebinth trees in the hope of grafting them with pistachio, the very area we crossed to enter Lubya. In exchange he is reported to have signed away his family’s right to their extensive land holdings. The whole “pistachio graft scheme” failed and the collaborator son fled, no one knows exactly where.

On our forest tour, unidentifiable rubble and cut limestone foundations of homes had to be expertly exposed by our native guide beneath the thick carpet of pine needles. Remnants of the proud and prosperous four-century-old Palestinian village were hard to hide. Deserted storage and animal husbandry caves dug in the side of the rocky hill, belied the virginity of the pine forest overhead. But the worst irksome reminders of the bustle of Lubya’s communal life, its memory still buzzing in the heads of all three intruders on the forest’s equanimity, were the tens of circular openings of water cisterns dug vertically in the rock, wide enough to admit a man’s torso but wider the deeper down one descended. Some of these rude reminders of the communal life their collected rainwater once nurtured were not all that modern. An expert hobby archeologist tells me that chemical analysis of the layers of plaster on the conical walls of such beers reveal traces of a dark blue dye in it. Could that be the famous Phoenician/Canaanite indigo dye? And what purpose did it serve other than reminding us who had dug all those manmade wonders that now pockmark the uniformly cushioned forest ground.

And we had to skirt around the occasional cactus hedge, the hardiest of the pre-forest plants surviving the flora-cide scheme of the foresters. The choice of the foreign coniferous trees was not accidental, Abu-Maher thinks. It turns out that Israel’s world-famous “greening of the desert” had actually operated in reverse fashion. The cumulative acidity of the dropped foliage from the forest’s pine canopy was sufficient to kill nearly every native plant it shaded. It was an inventive yet natural way to lay claim to the conquered land in the name of the foreign newcomers. Even native olives, hardy enough to survive the fickleness of the region’s weather for several millennia, struggle to survive the forestation holocaust. I added my own conspiratorial explanation that the roots of the pine trees are probably the most efficient agents in decomposing the archeological remains of Lubya and the other 530 Palestinian towns and villages that Israel’s Military archives admit to having cleansed of their native residents and razed to the ground. This kindled our guide’s ire not only against the Zionist scheme but also against my ignorance: Lubya is his family’s live reality and not an archeological dig. Ironically, to back up his argument, he took us to the most valid testimony to Lubya’s days of progress and glory, its main cemetery. Abu-Maher spread out two large laminated maps he was carrying: one a pre-Nakba aerial map of Lubya and the other a map drawn from memory by some of its surviving sons and daughters in the Yarmouk refugee camp before their current Nakba there. Only the pain of losing one’s childhood home can guarantee such accurate reproduction, our guide thought. He then proceeded to point out the various residential neighborhoods of the village, their adjacent vegetable gardens, threshing grounds and fruit orchards and the maze of alleyways and footpaths. Every aspect of the multi-millennial human existence in Lubya has been fully submerged under the forest. The only remaining sign of life, indeed, is the cemetery. And, it is a well-utilized burial ground with nearly every square foot of its area marked as part of an oblong south-facing space surrounded by a low natural stone perimeter, the classic Islamic humble grave marking. Graves pretentious enough to have headstones or a cut stone boundary had those knocked down and the occasional family mausoleum had been ravaged. It seemed strange that such jealous guardians of the sanctity of the dead as Fox News, the BBC and The New York Times, who never fail to highlight anti-Semitic desecration of graves anywhere in the world in their headlines, would neglect to feature such atrocities committed in the heart of their favorite area of news coverage, the Jewish State, of all places. Perhaps their correspondents never look down when JNF guides lead them on such treks. Or perhaps they take literally Moslem statements when they say that their dead have ascended to heaven. On the inside walls of the largest such remaining structure someone had spray-painted an Arabic message to the occupants: “Don’t cry, Grandma! We shall return.” The childish artist left a heart for a signature. Abu-Maher knew of a less tender message that was inscribed in Hebrew on the grave of the late Muhammad Mfaddi. “It said: ‘Here lies a dog.’ We washed that off, of course. But you can still see it on Dr. Mahmoud Issa’s website. This fellow Lubyan professor and activist provided us with the maps you saw as well.”

Obviously the cemetery had been intentionally spared the more deleterious effects of the pine forest. My chemistry knowhow is limited to the BA level. But I know the basics well. You can read my name etched in stone on the wall of the entrance to the University of Hawaii’s Bilger Hall as the top 1964 graduating student in Chemistry. That should be enough to authorize me to speculate on the possible effect of a pine forest on those buried in its midst. In time, the acidity of the forests groundcover of needles will penetrate the graves and dissolve their bones. And the voracious pine root systems would eventually leach out the released calcium and the organic matter. In the long run, they would break up the symbolic oblong stone markings. Could some god-fearing JNF official have made the decision not to plant pines right over the graves out of respect for the sanctity of the dead? Abu-Maher doesn’t believe so. God-fearing people don’t commit ethnic cleansing in the first place. And even if that were the case, it was the exception rather than the rule. After all, considerations of difference to the dead have not prevented the use of the large space to corral cattle over the years. It was the demands of Lubians like him that finally led the JNF a couple of years back to surround the cemetery with barbed wire. Now his Committee of Internally Displaced Palestinians badgers the Israeli authorities to allow it to replace that with a proper barrier to stop wild boars from entering it at night. And, indeed the graveyard is full of ruts from foraging wild pigs. The Israel Land Authority had hanged Many red warning signs on the fence, in Arabic this time, prohibiting entrance to the fenced off space. Like us, the boars seem not to notice.

We drive out of the forest bypassing the Jewish-only religious Kibbutz Lavie and skirt the other new settlement of Givat Avni. The red tile roofs of the latter’s fancier and more pretentious country homes, custom-made to house the better-off secular Russian immigrants, shine enticingly in the light of the setting sun. To the uninitiated it seems only logical that Abu-Maher, a well-off construction subcontractor, can quench his longing for his ancient home village by acquiring a residence in neighboring Givat Avni. It sits on the eastern edge of the undulating limestone hill that gave the ancient Canaanites who first chose to settle it the idea for its name and which was continuously inhabited for some four millennia before Israel erased it, forested its expanse and borrowed its name for the religious kibbutz across the valley in a silly ‘confuse the enemy’ game. Those first Canaanites must have viewed the smooth double rise of the hillock from Nemrin further north, another razed Palestinian village. To their primitive but fertile imagination, the double hillock, perhaps with Mount Tabor of transfiguration fame in the distance serving as its raised head, must have looked like a “Lioness” sitting in repose and glancing west eyeing the sunset in the Mediterranean across the plane of another of their majestic settlements, Saffuriyya. Does our Lioness now see the quarry, the massive wound Israel has dug in the back of another contemporary of hers to the right, the Turaan Mountain range? Or does it see or smell the stink hole Israel leaves smoldering in the environs of Saffuriyya and Nazareth to spew foul chemicals into the Galilean fresh sea breeze? Is our Lioness’s tail singed by the fumes of the other industrial zone in the direction of Hittin? I long for the moment when I would climb that Nemrin hilltop and let my own ‘Kanaanite’ imagination roam the horizons at will. That must have been the spot from which Saladin viewed the terrain when he allegedly complimented his Lubya hosts with the remark: “A lioness indeed.” Alas I am forever forbidden from such a pleasure. The Nemrin hill is a closed military zone and it is too late for me to enlist in “the most moral army in the world.” And Abu-Maher’s theoretical ambition of residing in Givat Avni is never to be. Israel’s supreme court has put an end to such dreams with its infamous “admission committees” ruling. No committee of fresh Russian immigrants will accept a sordid Arab’s claim to their God-given land. Which gives me the urge to go back to that cemetery and ask some of its first residents if the good Lord had consulted with them before he promised their land, the land of the Canaanites, to the invading Israelites. But it was only 67 years ago that the people of Lubya got along famously with the Jews of Tiberius. It is not an ancient faith-based conflict by any stretch of the imagination. And I don’t want to ever enter that spooky space with its bone absorbing natural chemicals again.

We are encouraged by our native guide to ignore the multiple warning signs along our path. We drive carefully over a series of mud pits between two stretches of barbwire fences, one encircling the exclusive settlement and the other barring us from entering its nature reserve on the opposite side. After all, the Galilee is Israel’s “natural set of lungs” And cultured immigrants chose to reside in it mainly for its bucolic clean environment. We stop at another scenic spot that proves Abu-Maher right again, the view worth the risky drive and the risk of entanglement in the barbed wire. The ground cover of the flat esplanade is rich with mouthwatering edible greens and with the first blooms of spring, a patch of chamomile with few audacious red poppies highlighting its bright yellow and creamy white palette. The inviting spring display belies the sudden drop of a rocky cliff on three sides into Lubya’s extensive Al-Hima plane. The sun is already hugging the western horizon. The clear spring weather permits its rays to light up the terrain in all directions. It sharpens the hilly boundary of Lubya’s former farming land into a ring-like rim. All of Palestine knew and subsisted on Lubya’s wheat, vegetables and fruits, we are reminded. But Abu-Maher doesn’t have an adequate explanation for the sexy-sounding local name of the cascading hills on whose peak we stand. Why and who came up with the playful name of Mount Dahidlini –Roll Me Over, I wonder?

The horn of Hittin to the north imposes a whiff of historic ambiance and gravity. No, Abu-Maher insists, it was not in Hittin’s valley on the other side of the eons-old dormant volcanic crater, better known as the Horn of Hittin, that Saladin vanquished the crusaders. It was, Abu-Maher is sure, in ‘Sahel Damyeh’ way over in the southern end of the vast valley in front of us, which was once all Lubya’s own, that Saladin, with his Lubyan fighters, forced the Crusader invaders to thirst to death. It is the gushing Damyeh spring that the European colonialists of the time attempted in vain to access. And it was the copious amount of blood spilled in that battle that gave the spot its telling name, “Bleeding Plane.”

Can we stop talking of death and dying, please? How about talking BDS for a change?