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
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:
High Fever 19
Hair Loss 43
Hearing Loss 67
Painful Swallowing 81
Neck Swelling 97
Chest Pain 123
Abdominal Pain 179
Swollen Abdomen 191
Absence of Urine 203
Back Pain 217
About the Author 255
That explained the system I was struggling to convey to the audience. Why didn’t I think of it before?