Book Review: “A Doctor in Galilee”

In his new memoir, A Doctor in Galilee - The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel, Hatim Kanaaneh tells he that he “was born in 1937 in Arrabeh Village in the Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate …” On his eleventh birthday, “Israel was officially declared an independent state, marking the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe,” when approximately 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homeland by Zionist forces.

In 1960 his father sold some land so that Hatim could study medicine in the United States, to which he returned in 1970 with his Hawaiian wife to work in public health and where he spurned the first of many approaches from the Israeli secret service seeking to enlist him as a collaborator. In 1976, the year when Israeli troops shot dead six Palestinians protesting peacefully against the confiscation of their lands (commemorated every 30 March since as Land Day, a recurrent theme in this book), he moved to Hawaii, finding his “public work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Arab citizens.” Two years later he was back, ironically claiming he and his wife returned because they “were unhappy with the risks to which we were exposing our two children in America: schools where drugs and violence were on the rise …”

With “three other disgruntled local physicians” he established the Galilee Society, an important non-governmental organization “dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority within Israel.” In 1995 he was forced by intrigue — stemming both from Israelis and some of his Arab colleagues — to resign his job with the Society. Subsequently he served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF’s mission to the Palestinian Authority (“its basic approach is UNICEF first and then the children of whatever country you are dealing with second”), “before returning to my home village to establish a center for child rehabilitation.”

Down the years Dr. Kanaaneh kept a diary, which provided the material for this extraordinary memoir. The first entry is 1 November 1977, the last 30 April 2006. It is a story of constant frustration, as he clashes again and again with the flagrant discrimination of the Israeli state against its Arab minority. Anyone who still believes that Israel is a “liberal western-style democracy” is unlikely to retain such illusions after reading of the fascistic chicanery of Israeli officialdom recounted here in such minute and infuriating detail. Were Jimmy Carter to read the book, he would surely retract his contention that Apartheid exists only in the occupied territories, and not in “democratic” Israel. Kanaaneh has no hesitation in using the A-word, and approvingly quotes “a wise senior co-worker” who asserts that “Apartheid is unhealthy, full stop.” Nor does Kanaaneh hesitate to accuse the Zionist state of practicing a form of deliberate genocide by withholding essential medical and environmental services (inadequate to non-existent sewage provision is a recurrent theme) from 20 percent of its population.

In his foreword setting the historical and political context for the book, a useful and important document in itself, Jonathan Cook describes A Doctor in Galilee as “a key text for scholars, diplomats and journalists.” This it certainly is, but it is a very great deal more. It is, in fact, a work of literature of the highest quality. Hatim Kanaaneh writes in a rueful, bemused and amused style about a protagonist called “Hatim Kanaaneh” who occupies a literary space somewhere between the Palestinian author Emile Habibi’s protagonist Saeed the Pessoptimist and the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek’s Schweik:

June 30, 1990. I am currently at a … course in Geneva. Another participant, a young blonde Dutch woman, recently invited me to supper at her hotel. I declined, … immediately suspecting her motives. Then a few days later she suggested supper at one of Geneva’s … romantic cafes. This time I accepted. … her behavior fits perfectly a Mossad plot, in which I am entrapped and discredited after pictures are taken of me in a compromising position with her … Over a plate of cold seafood specialties and a glass of wine, she divulged to me her secret … She is apprehensive about her coming trip to [Gaza] and … would … like to have the reassurance of having a contact and a family where she can stay if need be … Equality of the sexes makes it natural for a Dutch woman to invite a man to dinner to ask for a favor. My chauvinism automatically inserts a sexual motive into the plot … I am much relieved, and a little disappointed, to learn the truth.
While savaging the typical Israeli prejudices about Arab “backwardness,” he is nonetheless acerbic in his accounts of the less enlightened aspects of his own community:
The other day I visited a Bedouin family … with my nephew Khalid to check on his prospective bride. Khalid … wants her for his wife. She wants him too … Khalid says her family supports the idea. His family certainly does not. The girl has two counts against her: she is dark and she is Bedouin. My sister-in-law has some very basic qualifications she requires from any daughter-in-law: she must be white and plump, and preferably tall with green or blue eyes. … such characteristics are rare among the village’s home-grown stock — except for one albino family, but they seem to have run out of daughters on the strength of their skin color alone.
Mockery and self-mockery, however, are intimately bound up with the insoluble dilemmas in which Kanaaneh consistently finds himself as a servant of a state that mistrusts, rejects, and seeks to destroy his people. His own role necessarily comes under the microscope, with results that border on self-flagellation:

“We are all involved in the same type of maneuvering to gain favor for our villages in any way we think appropriate. We all are aligning ourselves with the powers that be to secure a scrap from the banquet at which we all are undesired guests.”

Or again:

“My power derives from my ability to say ‘No’. … This basic inability to pursue positive options, to act proactively, puts me on a confrontational path with my bosses. It sets my ethics and my job description on a collision course.”

Kanaaneh perceptively describes a tendency, well-known to many post-colonial societies (not excluding my native Ireland), to internalize negative characterizations stemming from the enemy. The contempt for Arab workmanship implied in the Hebrew phrase avodat aravim (or more precisely in the tone in which it is uttered, the phrase itself simply meaning “Arab handiwork”) is dealt with “by adopting it as part of [Arab workers’] own language, incorporating it in the jokes they crack with their Jewish bosses and by giving it expression in concrete and stone. It is a sign … that … we are unwelcome, disenfranchised, and unworthy even in our own eyes.”

And yet, although the story that Hatim Kanaaneh has to tell is one of humiliation and frustration, and while he never engages in fruitlessly optimistic prognoses, A Doctor in Galilee is anything but a depressing book. This is down to the vivid and prepossessing personality of the author who leaps at us, warts and all (and bunions — there is a preposterously entertaining story about an Israeli airport security officer who is suspicious of the good doctor’s “bulging bunion”), from these pages. It is also down to the final chapter, a magnificent homage to an ancient olive tree that deserves to be anthologized. Perhaps after all there is optimism in the last sentences of the book, in which past is linked to future in the implicit assumption that Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) will triumph:

“This gnarled behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who …”

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer, author and activist.

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