Overcoming walls

Israel’s wall, before completion, in the Jerusalem suburb of al-Ram, 2004. (Matthew Cassel)


I have just emerged from a week-long frustrating experience. It was exhilarating to spend the week in the company of our good guests, friends to whom we owe much. Yet now I am left with a certain bitter aftertaste of disappointment. I am battling an inner feeling of guilt and shame at having failed to communicate to them adequately “the whole truth” about “my” country.

For a week Didi and I hosted Michael and Limei, the ambitious young Chinese couple who had spoiled us in China a year ago. Their intelligent two children accompanied them and we wanted to show them all the significant highlights of the “Holy Land.” In the last few years Limei has joined a Chinese Christian sect and we wanted to hit the main Christian sites for her benefit: Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This in addition to introducing them to my extended family, to Arrabeh, my village, and to the Galilee, especially since Limei has read my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, and is considering translating it to Mandarin.

And I had to set time aside for teaching the kids manqala, the two-player board game based entirely on arithmetic that Arab traders took with them everywhere they went. Village old men pass the time by dealing fistfuls of pebbles around the 14-hole board, their silent concentration amplifying the mysterious tick-tick-tick playing out of their precisely calculated strategies. After the two warm-up rounds, 10-year-old Marc beat me in enough consecutive sets that I quit.

The cultural distance between Arab Galilee and traditional China is vast. Yet rural farming communities the world over share many comparable basic experiences and attributes. Michael and I come from similar poor rural roots and share similar backgrounds and common attitudes. Even Limei, who comes from a better-off background, shares the respect the poor of the world show for items of sustenance, bread and water, and will not allow a crumb to be left on her children’s plates or a drop of water to be wasted. And we also share much in how we relate to our extended families and in the respect we show our elders; that is why the guests had brought with them a whole load of Chinese candies, rice wine, silk fans, silk scarves, good-luck amulets and moon cakes, nearly enough for our entire 3,000-strong Kanaaneh clan.

And we seem to share the high appreciation for each other’s features: everyone we visited admired little Mark and Laura’s looks while Limei and Michael were struck by how beautiful all Palestinian children were. And both sides of the mutual admiration society wondered how people in the opposite group can tell one child from the other, for they all seemed so handsomely similar. Also our guests appreciated local foods and home-made Arabic dishes while, in Galilee, Chinese cooking is considered the height of culinary delights. And, believe it or not, in Bethlehem we found a store that accepted Chinese currency, the RMB: the owner travels regularly to China where he has a factory employing 60 workers apparently producing imitation Hebron hand-painted ceramic cups and plates, part of which he sold back to our Chinese guests.

Politically, in terms of relevant local issues, the couple is nearly as uninformed as their two children. They are totally innocent of the basic prejudicial historical narrative imparted to Westerners with their mothers’ milk except perhaps for a minimum of the Christian mythology, mainly about the life of Jesus, which Limei picked up through her new Christian socialization. On a couple of occasions she would state what she had absorbed through that connection as if it were her and my absolute truth: “But they told me God promised it to the Jews!” Still this was said as a neutral statement of fact, lacking the aggressive emotional investment that the committed born-again Christians have.

Having decided to avoid addressing Limei’s conversion issue, I let the little odd comments slip by unanswered. Still, to get a well-educated adult, raised and acculturated in the Chinese worldview, to appreciate the intricacies of current Middle East political realities in the space of six days is an impossible task, let alone trying to explain to a totally uninvolved novice the geopolitics of Israel/Palestine and their historical roots and current ramifications. To wit, how can a Palestinian make intelligible to a Chinese couple visiting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories the different dramatic issues that have significantly impacted his life? Take for example the European roots of the colonial Zionist project and its post-Holocaust empowerment by the offenders’ guilt feelings, the Palestinian’s mishmash ethnic make-up despite their just claim to “Arabness,” the sapping of our energies and resources by centuries of colonization by the Ottomans then by the British and now by the Zionists, our internal divisiveness, the first intifada, the second intifada and the Oslo fiasco, the role and history of the Hashemites’ collusion, the Arab world’s ineptitude and abandonment, the shifting Israeli ethos from imagined ancient virtuous Jewish values to Zionist despotism and daily crimes against humanity, the Israeli right’s open calls for our ethnic cleansing and the Israeli left’s collusion, the list is enough to make your head spin. The mere task of sifting trivia from relevant facts is daunting when it comes to informing the uninitiated about Israel-Palestine.

In despair I shifted to blank “statements of fact” with little explanation. To illustrate, as we drove to Bethlehem we came up against the security (read: apartheid) wall. I had not visited Bethlehem for the past 10 years or so. Heading there from Jerusalem I drove the way I used to in the old days, intending to go through the main entrance to the city by Rachel’s Tomb. I started to explain to my guests the significance of the city as the birthplace of Jesus. I delved into specifics of my own conviction that there must have been a true historical virtuous and revolutionary figure named Jesus when I suddenly realized that I was driving full speed into the wall and stopped forcefully just in time. The jolt added to everyone’s surprise and disdain of the massive concrete structure. As we navigated a few kilometers around it using a dirt escape route, I simply stated that this is the wall of the open-air prison behind which the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank are kept. The children took to asking every time we stopped if we were in or out of the prison while their parents inquired about specifics of the conditions in it: numbers, employment, access to food, law and order, etc. I answered as best as I could, reassuring them that the conditions they are witnessing are much better than in Gaza’s open-air prison.

China has the mother of all walls and I could have revisited the discourse we had there regarding the futility and tenuous nature of all physical separation walls. I could have pointed out other recently constructed concrete and barbwire walls segregating Arab from Jew residing in the same city within Israel itself. I could have demonstrated for my visitors examples of the ethno-national logic in those attempts by “the Jewish and democratic state” to concretize the concept of “separate” in its “separate and equal” decrees for its two types of citizens. I could have delved into the imponderables of the psychological walls rendering Arabs invisible to Jews and visa versa in “the only democracy in the Middle East.” I could have described to my visitors the constricted telescopic tunnel vision of enmity that Zionism has imposed on its followers in viewing the other in the Middle East.

But I didn’t.

And I could have quoted from my talk to a less innocent crowd in Honolulu few months ago:

The apartheid separation wall continues to be built with your tax money. It infringes on the rights of so many Palestinian villagers in the occupied territories and robs them of their land and livelihood. Yet, as all separation walls throughout history, this wall will also come down. What we all need to work on collectively is the mental separation wall of fear and hate that permits some of us to put themselves above others. It is the exclusivist mental separation wall that allows the Zionist majority of Israel’s citizens and their dominant political parties, even now, to self-righteously demand my “transfer,” my expulsion out of my home, witness the platform of such Zionist leaders as Avigdor Lieberman, the ex-deputy prime minister, and the statements of Tzipi Livni, Israel’s current foreign minister.

It is this exclusivist and elitist mental separation wall that permits the issuing of public theological dispensations allowing, nay, even demanding, the slaughter of Palestinians, their women and children and even their cattle and the destruction of their crops and orchards, all based on the old tribal conflict with a group known in biblical times as the Amalikites, now revived in some sick minds as the Palestinians.

But I didn’t.

I could have given them a little insight into our confused psyche. I could have explained to them the little incident I had in Jerusalem while climbing up the Via Dolorosa. My guests stopped at a ceramics shop. Limei had a long list of souvenirs she needed to take back for family, friends and colleagues and Michael enjoyed the challenge of bargaining for each item. I was tired and slumped in the owner’s chair on the steps by the door of the store. As the owner came out he brought me a cup of cold water and offered coffee. He inquired where I hailed from and, learning that I am from Galilee, he went into an excited monologue: “The Galilee of Jesus our Lord. That is great! Upper Galilee, I hope, close to the border with Lebanon. Beautiful countryside and you can look across and see the Lebanese Resistance Army, the only worthy men in the Middle East. You can wave to them, can’t you? And they wave back to you. And you may look in the direction of The Man himself. Perhaps you have seen him in person. Let me hug you. Let me kiss your hand that may have waved to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah!”

But I didn’t. I didn’t even mention the incident at all. Jerusalem, east vs. west, old vs. new, Arab quarters vs. Jewish, occupied vs. freed, and settlers vs. natives, was confusing enough for me to make sense of. The enigma of the holiness of the city to the three monotheistic faiths was challenging enough to explain to my impartial guests without the added complication of a Via Dolorosa Christian merchant in love with a Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia leader. For me this wasn’t new; I know it happened before in the days of Saladin when local Christians sided with him against the foreign Crusaders. But I didn’t dare venture into such shifty and land-mined grounds. Suffice it that out of the three holy sites to which I had promised to take my guests I could access only two; the alleyway to the Dome of the Rock was blocked by soldiers. I tried my luck at making small talk with one of them in Arabic. He frowned and shook his head in disgust; he must have had a long day and here was someone mistaking him for an Arab, an accusation enough to enrage American candidates for the presidency, let alone an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent.

Images of the ongoing conflict were hard to hide from our guests, of course. The day after they arrived was Eid al-Fitr, the festive occasion celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and hence the fulfillment by all good Muslims of one of the tenants of their faith. As some three dozen members of my family gathered for the midday picnic-style meal with roasted meat and a variety of homemade salads, the children overwhelmed the scene by their sheer number and their boisterous behavior. We sat in the second-story spacious courtyard overlooking one of the village old squares where kids gather for play. Dozens of them were there, all with realistic looking toy guns shooting tiny plastic pellets at each other. Marc, our 10-year-old guest, joined the excitement. The children in our courtyard fought a battle with the larger army below. It looked like a real front with all kinds of automatic weapons and some shoulder rocket launchers. As food was served the adults had a hard time getting the kids to settle down. A tenuous and temporary “hudna” or ceasefire was imposed. Limei, forcing her two children to sit down to eat, commented on the usual role of the international community in war: “China seems to supply the guns as well as troops in this battle.” Of course, all the toys were made in China.

For the rest of their stay with us, our guests repeatedly came up against the real thing. The children and adults alike would stare in astonishment at the abundant soldiers of both sexes, with and without skullcaps, seemingly leisurely parading around wherever we went, with fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons. We encountered them among the mix of athletic young men, scantily-clad bikinied young women and their flabby-bodied decadent elders at the hot springs at al-Himmeh (Himmat Ghader in Hebrew, the old shared border point of Syria, Jordan and Palestine at the southern end of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, the whole area having been declared unilaterally by Israel as its own, an integral part of the Land of Israel). And they were there, arrogantly inquisitive about our identities and the purpose of our visit, as we exited through the wall of Bethlehem’s open prison. In Israel soldiers are everywhere you go, not only at such sensitive points where Israel’s aggressive occupation necessitates its jumpy security alertness but also at the most normal of Israeli settings: at shopping malls and walking streets in the city and at scenic look-outs in the countryside.

Now, how could I have explained such phenomena to uninvolved Chinese tourists? Indeed, Palestinians do need to explain it all to the 1.3 billion Chinese and to the over one billion Indians, the near-half of humanity destined to own the future, if they are ever to counter the propaganda supremacy of Israel in the West.

Hatim Kanaaneh, M.D. is the author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. He completed his medical and public health degrees at Harvard in 1969. He then returned to Galilee where, in 1973, he became the Public Health Doctor of the sub-district of Acre. He is the founder of two non-governmental organizations, the Galilee Society (The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services) and ITTIJAH (The Union of Arab Community-based Organizations). This article was published first by The Palestine Chronicle and is republished with the author’s permission.