From Vietnam to Palestine: Reconciling the Present and the Past

By Hatim Kanaaneh MD, MPH.

It is getting a bit disorienting on this trip to Vietnam, I admit. In the hotel at Hoi An I look at the sign above our table: ‘Abu-Hurair,’ it says. Who is this Abu-Hurair? Could I be in Jerusalem or Nablus and not in a foreign country? But in Palestine they would have written the sign in Arabic. Or perhaps in Hebrew! And there were no tsunamis in Palestine, not ocean tsunamis anyway. The man is acknowledged in death for his heroic actions in the 2004 tsunami in which he apparently sacrificed his life to rescue others. Too bad, none of the hotel staff know any more details about the late Arabic name holder.

Yes, Vietnam is confusing. It is the living proof that the impossible is doable. Vietnam did the impossible. And the reverse is an equally valid truism as well: The impossible is claiming Vietnam; Victory over one imperial capitalistic power after the other is crowned with rampant capitalism at the lower rung of development. Most impossible of all is that in the midst of all of that I am lolling in the recreated French decadence at Hanoi’s legendary Sofitel Metropole Hotel.

Reconciling the present with the past is increasingly demanding with age. What should be easier to do is to plough ahead with whatever you damn will as long as you can afford it. For the powerful and their erased victims, that becomes history. Unless, like the Vietnamese, you resist and win.

On my morning check of the day’s home front headlines in Haaretz one screams at me with the usual injustice such logic means: The Israel Land Authority plans to turn Lifta into a fancy neighborhood of private residences for Jews rich enough to afford it. Obviously, to the ILA planners, this is just another step in its standard process of creating facts on the ground. The Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, … and the Arabs came, erased or reconfigured what they found in their own image and we now will do the same.

That is history and each practices the art of reshaping it to his taste to the degree his power allows him to feel entitled to do. Who is to say how much or how little change each new era had inflicted on the historical remains it inherited? It is Israel’s turn to shape history to reflect what its rulers want: Let Lifta, or whatever name the Zionist rapists will call the new rendition of the ‘abandoned’ Palestinian village, reflect the modernity and plushness of the cream of Israeli society. Once they are done with their ‘renovations,’ whatever is left becomes the new reality.

This obviously is at the heart of the process to erase the likes of Lifta, 531 towns and villages by Israel’s own count, from space and memory (See Noga Kadman: Erased from Space and Consciousness, Indiana University Press, 2015.) It is what the Zionists had planned for all of ‘greater Israel’ and what they have practiced since the day they wrought the Nakba on my people. The occasion is most opportune for them to do whatever they wish. They have the power, the money and the chutzpa.

This all flashed in my mind as I saw the news item on the Internet. But the irreconcilability of past and present is a theme that seems always to accompany me as I accompany my children’s families on their American style touristic ventures.

This time it is Vietnam: We are at the Intercontinental in Saigon, another venue that offers you the world provided you can pay for it. And some American is the ultimate beneficiary of the ‘dry cleaning’ scheme.

After breakfast my wife and I step out into the real world of the Vietnamese: A couple of blocks and we have to push our way through a mass of mostly young disheveled peasantry that crowds the sidewalk across the scooter-filled street from a well-fenced compound. Twice we inquire from individuals about the explanation for this but neither speaks English. My entire Vietnamese vocabulary is limited to a single name, Ho Chi Minh.

I smile inanely as I look at the street name, Le Duan. That too rings familiar from the 1960s when we marched in anti-war protests led by ‘Saigon Jane.’ And the name of General Giap resurfaces in my memory. So there! I can connect to this place. But what is all this milling crowd doing here and what is this compound they all are eyeing across the street? A man on crutches approaches, his miniscule and malformed lower extremity sticking at a sharp angle to the side. We ask him about the gathered crowd. He doesn’t understand, offering us lottery tickets instead. We had seen a few of this type of congenital malformation, what we doctors call phocomelia, on the streets of Saigon. It is the aftereffect of dowsing the jungle with Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants. It makes Didi uncomfortable: “I feel responsible,” she says.

We return to our hotel to wait for the day’s tour guide and transportation. When he arrives we ask about the large gathering of uneasy locals we saw milling on the sidewalk.

“Ah, that is the American consulate. They wait for their visas,” he says.
As we pass there again on our way to the dock to take a boat up the river, he explains that the compound is relatively new. The old one was destroyed in the last days of the war.

“And that structure at the corner is a memorial to our victory,” he adds.

It is striking, almost disappointing, to sense so little local enmity to Americans. There is no air of seeking vengeance, of holding a grudge. Every one who knows enough English to interact with us foreigners is so damn polite it feels insulting. Yet there is little sense of subservience in the way all the tour guides, the waiters, the sellers manning the stalls in the downtown marketplace, the street food venders and all the entrepreneurs trying to make a living by offering us their wares and services. Poverty seems to be the standard average state of affairs. Yet in this proud nation poverty does not dehumanize its subjects or rob them of dignity like it does in India or Egypt for example.

There are no beggars in the Vietnam we saw. Everyone is busy eking out a living, whether by boiling vegetables on the sidewalk with herbs and a strip of pork gut or of chicken skin for flavoring, or by ferrying fruits, vegetables or fish in their rowboats. Or take the more picturesque bamboo stick on the shoulder with a hanging basket at each end: The weight of the transported produce from their farms forces those men and women with their petite figures to adapt to a dancelike up-and-down agile gait.

The ubiquitous balancing act and dance show is especially uplifting when viewed at a crossroad from a safe distance as the performers merge gracefully with the anthill like swarm of scooter and bicycle riders and emerge unscathed at the other side of the road, totally unaware of the magic they had just performed.

It is that seeming graceful total acceptance of their daily struggle that impels me to marvel at the ingenuity and steadfastness of the common Vietnamese citizen.

Something in the acceptance and unawareness of the simple farmer or fisherman and woman of the miracle they have wrought fills me with pride and happiness. And the way they scurry and scatter at the sight of the police inspectors brings back images of all those Palestinian village women with their hand-woven baskets full of farm produce on their heads melting away into the side alleys of the market place in East Jerusalem.

I know I admired and savored the simple elegance of the one-color tunics worn by Vietnamese women. But now, in trying to see them with my mind’s eye after the fact, they insist on appearing with colorful and intricate Palestinian designs hand-embroidered on their more bosomy chests. They still parade across my mind’s stage with their gracefully balanced bamboo sticks and hanging baskets. But they show up in Palestinian outfits. And one of them, fully Vietnamese, is hugging a damaged olive tree as she faces the blade of a Caterpillar.

I am unable to reconcile the Past of Vietnam with the present I am experiencing. On the boat trip back from our tour of a preserved site of Viet Cong underground tunnel systems I attempted to communicate with our local guide at a deeper level than the usual touristic façade of packaged sound bites.

I asked him if anyone in his family was considered a local hero in the two-decade-long war with the Americans. He let out a depreciative yellow laugh: His family was on the side of the pro-American forces and his father spent three and a half years in a communist reeducation labor camp. “Foreigners don’t quite comprehend it but the North and the South are two separate political entities with different histories and cultures,” he added. Then, how come he was so proud of Vietnam as a whole? Well, even in the South the true sentiment of the common folk was with their Northern brothers and sisters struggling for liberation.

When you addressed the conflict as one between the Communists and the Americans, that was when you could separate North and South. It sounded confusing, which irked me. Spontaneously, I launched into an explanation regarding what goes on in my country of origin, Palestine.

“There,” I explained, “what people get confused about is a clear case of settler colonialism whose perpetrators, the Zionists and their supporters in the West, want you to believe is a historical conflict with religious roots between two equal sides. In fact its settler nature makes it more vicious to the native Palestinians than the French ever were to you. The French wanted you to serve them, not to disappear from your own land.”

“Who said the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was all that straight forward,” he said in a patronizing tone.

I felt sick to my stomach. It could have been the boat ride.

“A conflict implies two equal sides with equally valid claims,” I was now shouting. “I just finished telling you our case is not a conflict but an aggression by foreign settler colonialists. Can’t you get that straight?”

I was relieved to disembark and rushed to the waiting bus. No tip for this Zionist sympathizer, I decided. Thin skin, you may think. But if a Palestinian can’t get automatic sympathy and full understanding from a Vietnamese, what hope do we have?

At tea hour I didn’t have much better luck. Because of my upset stomach I arrived early. A gracious waitress kept suggesting different tropical fruits. In appreciation I informed her that I was a fruit addict.

“At home in Palestine I have freshly-picked seasonal fruits from my garden for breakfast every single day of the year,” I said.

And I listed a few varieties. The young woman smiled and bowed repeatedly in appreciation.

“Nice country!” she kept repeating.

I left her a good tip. On my way out I nodded at her and she bowed deeply with a big smile.

“I never met someone from Pakistan before,” she told me with a seductive sparkle in her eyes.

The one who walked away with my prize was the souvenir seller at the seaside in Hoi An. That day at noon the rain stopped and we walked out along the edge of the stormy sea in search of a local seafood spot. The whole beachfront seemed desolate. ‘till a restaurant owner spotted us and offered to set up a table under the trees a safe distance from the waves. She turned out to be the sole restaurant staff: cook, waitress and busboy. After taking our orders and bringing us our cold beers and peanuts she disappeared in her kitchen. At another table I saw a tray of handcrafted trinkets. I went over to admire and fumble the curious items. Out of nowhere a middle-aged woman materialized and rushed me with a hug.

“Welcome my dear friend,” she said in good English.

May be because I didn’t expect it, that hug felt sincere and very personal. As “my friend” started showing me her souvenirs and demonstrating what one can do with them, I dwelled on that hug; it meant the world to me.

There was no doubt in my mind that she recognized my settler-colonialist brutalized Palestinian roots. I was afraid of ruining the automatic camaraderie between us with too many words. She asked for an obviously high price and I decided not to haggle with my freshly acquired partner in the struggle against colonialism and its depravity. I gave her the full amount she asked for not in payment for the trinkets but more in recognition and appreciation of her spirit of obvious solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians.

The warmth of her welcoming hug and the sincerity of her full support of my cause was overwhelming. We were fellow working class members and it was only right to share our resources. Walking back to our seaside resort I refrained from talking to anyone for fear of disturbing my inner composure or ruining my sense of oneness with the whole of humanity represented in that single souvenir seller.

In Hanoi we visited the old French jail, nicknamed ‘the Hanoi Hilton,’ a short taxi ride from the luxury of our renovated French hotel. Within minutes we shifted from enjoying the type of super-luxurious accommodations the French had built for themselves on the backs of their local servants to touring the prime torture facility they had constructed for those among such servants who dared attempt to shake off the yoke of slavery.

Mentally and emotionally reconciling the two opposite ends of what the French colonialists had actually practiced was one challenge. Another was to process the current love-hate relationship of the Vietnamese and the Americans: The French had constructed those vicious isolation and agony chambers to imprison and torment rebels in their colonial domain of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.) Later, during the twenty-year long war with America, the Communist forces used the very same facility to extend the same ‘hospitality’ to American prisoners, including some destined in years to come to rise to iconic political prominence such as the Republican presidential candidate John McCain. And here we were, Americans, with the stray Palestinian, being guided, beguiled and mentally bribed to focus on what those damned French had contrived in the way of torture implements and of cruel and inhumane treatment of fellow humans for nothing but their different race and their heroic insistence on gaining freedom.

Somehow, on the way both sides lost track of what ‘we,’ Americans and Vietnamese, had done to each other more recently. We are charged for seeing what the cruel French did to the heroic local resistance fighters, especially to women among them. We hem-and-haw at those group iron shackles in the bare cages and the grotesque ladder-like monstrous ‘necklaces’ for those condemned to death. We decry the cruelty of the absent third party and exchange our tips for the locals’ helpful information as to where to go and what to see next. It is all possible thanks to the camouflage of normality that the mighty dollar and the global marketplace manage to spread across borders. It is almost enough to make you sympathize with the North Koreans were it not for that boy’s haircut.

Beyond the specifics of what we saw and its emotional impact, at a deeper level, the logic of the act of ‘us, Americans,’ touring the old prison, now a museum, is in itself inspirational. Leaving economics aside, the full appreciation of the context and the meaning of the Vietnamese staff gleefully hosting and guiding us takes one to my opening assertion of the inevitability of the impossible. All along, the question keeps surfacing from my subconscious:

Regardless of how we get there, how soon will we, Palestinians, or perhaps Palestinians and Israelis, be able to give guided tours to American and European tourists, our avowed foes of the past, in the museumized Israeli torture chambers, whether in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem or in Megiddo, the Gilboa’a, Ketziot, Shikma, Nafha, … and the list is long? Or perhaps sell them on visiting the Gaza tunnels and Israel’s cattle-cages at border crossings.

Arabic literary tradition permits me to end with the celebratory note of ‘wakhitamuha misk—the end is scented with musk,’ a romantic and flowery rendition of the epitaph ‘all is well that ends well.’ My wife’s childhood friend in Hawaii, who had taught English in South Vietnam in the 1960s and has since become a fan of all things Vietnamese, put us in touch with her friend, Dang Nhat Minh. He is a writer and movie director of our age, perhaps the lead movie director in Vietnam, credited with rekindling the rapprochement process with the USA through his award-winning movies.

We met for dinner on our last evening in Hanoi. Unfortunately, our nonexistent French and his modicum of French-y English limited the extent of our discourse. I itched to tell him about the struggle and success of ‘my friend’ in Galilee, Mohammad Bakri, and his trials and tribulations as the Palestinian movie director of Jenin Jenin.

Perhaps it is not too late to invite Minh to come over sometime to Arrabeh on a private visit. Not only Mohammad but a whole slew of rising Palestinian movie directors we know or could easily contact can benefit from a lesson on how to tell one’s full truth without gaining the wrath of the powerful, how to reconcile your present with ‘their’ past. Or does that require educating all of Israel in peace-mindedness? Well, when Minh comes on his private visit to Arrabeh, ‘they’ all are invited.

As we stepped out of the restaurant we walked into an open ballroom dance marathon in the neighborhood’s public park. That seemed to sum it all up including the honor of meeting Minh and the love-hate relationship of colonizer and colonized, past and present. Rhoda, our daughter, and Seth, her husband, joined the locals in a Tango swirl before we said our goodbyes.

– Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician who has struggled for over four decades to improve the health of his Palestinian community in Galilee against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the founder of the NGO The Galilee Society and the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee and of a forthcoming fictional trilogy. Hi latest collection of short stories, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee was published by Just World Books, 2015. He contributed this article to

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