Obama the Bedouin

By Hatim Kanaaneh – Arrabeh, Galilee
Nowadays things change fast, so much so that some worry we may be at the verge of bringing about our own demise as a modern civilization. That doesn’t keep me awake nights. I suspect that I may well be comfortable living in a cave. Recently I was delighted to discover a direct link, culturally and emotionally if not even genetically speaking, to some ancient folks. When I read in Wikipedia that the carob seedpod was the hieroglyphic for sweetness, I could easily identify with that at the gut level and a tender sentiment toward the Pharaohs tugged at my heart.

Admiringly, I was reminded of the oft-repeated Palestinian saying used in chiding fellow Arabs and the rest of the world for not daring to stand up to Israel’s aggression against them: “They asked Pharaoh who made you such a despot? He gloated: I practiced despotism and no one stopped me!” In the local slang, what makes the phrase roll off the tongue easily is its catchy repetition of one word. The two verbs ‘to make a despot’ and ‘to practice despotism’ are both direct derivatives of the name ‘Pharaoh’.

So, you see, I have a connection to the ancient Egyptian monarchs. I even have a friend named Ramsis in Hawaii .

But this is tedious stream of consciousness stuff. What I wanted to talk about is change, not continuity. This morning I woke up to the peculiar realization that we have come a long way in terms of the accessibility of world news. As soon as I made my morning cup of coffee and turned my computer on, I could instantaneously access news about the whole world. That may sound like an empty cliché. Except that for a ‘has-been’ like me where we have been matters no less than where we are now. I remember the days when a dozen or more grown relatives would be gathered at the edge of the Kanaaneh neighborhood of the village, in front of al-Zawieh –the clan’s guesthouse and gathering point, one of them with a newspaper in hand, all waiting for us school kids to come home and read the news for them. Then in 1948 refugees from the city brought a radio to the village. (I better watch out: Someone is going to claim that I said that the driving out of the Palestinians from their cities had a salubrious effect on their country kin; It could even be claimed that I implied that villagers greeted departing refugees, and especially their pursuing Zionist forces, with flowers because of the civilizing impact the process of cleansing had on them. If you think that is too much of a stretch of the imagination, let me remind you that you have swallowed equally valid fibs, spun out in your media into historical fact, for decades. Remember the ‘land without people’? That is where I lived!) Later, in 1970, when I returned from my medical studies in the USA, I found that my entrepreneurial older brother had bought a TV set and was still charging fellow villagers for watching the news or the Arab version of a chick flick, mostly inane narratives manipulated to allow Fairuz, and several other temporary competitors, to sing. She is still at it today and I worship her heavenly voice especially when she sings for Jerusalem and Palestine.

Then came personal computers and the internet and I started wallowing in its endless recesses. This morning the internet offered more news of change, not all for the better though all in the best tradition of democracy: At the height of the presidential elections mania in the USA, while my eight-year-old granddaughter is stomping with her father in rural Pennsylvania for Barak Obama, I am openly maligned for being who I am and for having been targeted for elimination by Zionism and resisting it. Good old McCain interjects with an accusation of treason directed at his opponent for having once associated with Rashid Khalidi, a recognized academician and authority on the Middle East whose undoing in McCain’s eyes is his justifying of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. Imagine that! A Palestinian who dares not accept Israeli occupation! A terrorist by definition! No wonder Palin spins the accusation a wee bit further and has Obama ‘palling with terrorists’ though Rashid is only implied indirectly. It pays to bash Arabs and with a name like Hussain, Obama is obviously one of them. McCain tries to deflect the blow with sweet civility: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man!” a classic ‘uthrun aqbah min thanb – an excuse uglier than the sin itself.”

I know and respect Prof. Khalidi. He wrote a blurb for my book which is the kind of damning evidence the crazies marshal against him. His intellectual and academic clout is way above needing to be defended by the likes of me. You don’t land a position like the Edward Said endowed chair at Colombia accidentally. My daughter got her doctorate there and I am familiar with their opinionated rigor. Looking at things from that narrow perspective, I am tempted to accuse Rashid of colluding with the enemy.

But enough of the silly pander! Prof. Khalidi is secure enough in his convictions not to argue back with his detractors. He is dismissive of the humdrum revile and I accept and honor his decision. What I am dealing with here is my own dilemma: how am I to keep my focus and balance in the topsy-turvy world in which I find myself? Not only that I keep observing solid basic facts turned on their head but also that it is happening at a dizzying speed. It was only yesterday when liberation movements, the PLO included, were glorified as inspirational standard bearers of the struggle for human dignity and freedom. Then a certain CIA trainee splits off from the pack and hits his masters hard in the stomach and in the pocketbook. And his family’s friend and business partner gets angry and lashes out at all those with the same shade of color, style of dress, and form of worship. He, the world’s only remaining heavyweight, refuses to define his terms, or perhaps he doesn’t comprehend the terms formulated by his neoconservative Zionist and fundamentalist Christian operators. Then Sharon , the Israeli nationally and internationally acclaimed war criminal, Mr. Bush’s own ‘man of peace’, sees an opportunity and sneaks into the command tent with the declared goal of maligning the Palestinians. Overnight we all become terrorists. Even I, a chicken-hearted Americophile, get caught in the net as a potential terrorist and am interrogated for hours at airports.

Like shit, rapid change happens, sometimes in undesired directions. It was only yesterday when a famed actor played his bit part shouting at an opponent “Mr. President, tear that wall” and biblical Jericho -like the wall shook and came tumbling down. The whole world fell in line and a new ice age of unipolar magnetism ensued. Then a Hebrew-spaking Georgian leader and his Israeli trained top general decided to play hardball with their former oppressors. Russia hit back hard and overnight the world was jolted into its former bipolar self. Hooray for Georgia!

And it is not only time that has contracted down, time-lapse-photography-like. Space has also collapsed down on itself as well: I travel to the far corners of the earth, from Brazil to China, and am greeted and regaled as another welcome member of the species, albeit with money, to return home and face biblical-era tribal exclusionism. The looks on the faces of immigration officials at the airport as they peer into my passport and recognize my Arab name tell me that I am still considered a threat to the peace of the only country in which I ever had citizenship, simply for being racially different. ‘My’ country’s policy-makers, most of them born abroad, consider me a ticking time-bomb, an undesirable contaminant of their Zionist-inspired racially pure dream society, a Jewish state, pure and simple. Their inspired leaders have bickered for decades over what limit to set for my demographic proportions, anywhere from the zealot’s zero tolerance preference to Rabin’s liberal 20%, tops, which we are rapidly approaching. Professors theorize, civic leaders hold public debates, and the media goes into a tizzy over my un-abating natural increase rate.

“We should have stayed in China ,” I tell my half-Chinese wife.

The debate dominates the ether waves and all public discourse except when other existential threats, such as Iran secretly seeking nuclear parity with us, take hold of our attention. How can we stop ‘our Arabs’ from naturally expanding their numbers without taking the drastic measures expounded by extremist proponents of forced mass castration? Educate their girls; differentially promote family planning to their women; annul their family unification rights; encourage their youth to seek a better life abroad? We have done all of that and they are still outpacing us demographically. Better yet, work on your side of the equation; increase your own people to beat them in the numbers game; bring in the Jewish masses from Russia and Ethiopia, even if admixed with Christian impurities.

Obama the Bedouin

Change happens in the USA as well. The Obama mania is global. He caught all of us off guard and in a mood to celebrate; we all needed an excuse for a party, ‘siba limisiba’ as we say here in Hebrew. My daughter in New York had a party at her home with some sixty celebrants, mostly expats without the right to vote in the first place. But Malaika, my eight year-old granddaughter and her father had volunteered in the Obama election campaign and they deserved to celebrate the success of their efforts.

And celebrations are everywhere. This morning I received a call from Ibrahim, my Bedouin colleague, seeking an expert opinion on a minor public health issue he faced. He opened with a reproachful tone of voice:

“Why haven’t you come to congratulate me?”

“What is up? Another promotion or a new child?”

“Noooo! Haven’t you heard? The Americans have elected a Bedouin to the White House!”

He then proceeded to explain that the Hujirat tribe in the village of Beir el-Maksour has thrown a big party, feasting on rice and mutton, celebrating all night with songs and Dabkeh dance, and distributing sweets to well-wishers for the past two days. Obama’s great grandmother on his father’s side, they claim, was a daughter of the tribe. My informer reports that one of Obama’s acclaimed tribal granduncles was interviewed on the Israeli Arab language TV news. When asked why he didn’t divulge his kinship secret earlier, he replied in Hebrew: “I didn’t want to influence the outcome of the elections in a foreign country,” implying somehow that it would have worked to the disadvantage of McCain, Israel’s favorite.

I am not sure how much trust to put in this far-fetched story, and who in the tribe invented it. Manipulation and hidden scheming is a well-known Bedouin trait, if not a trait of Palestinians in general and perhaps of all Arabs. (Stretch that out another notch and it becomes a basic human trait, which is not far from the truth!) Some member of the Hujirat tribe stands to benefit from the rumor.

Early in the first decade of Israel’s existence, the movement of this semi-nomadic group with their extensive goat and cow herds in their traditional grazing lands in lower Galilee Mountains was curtailed and they were concentrated in the newly created village of Beir el-Maksour. Quickly their men were recruited into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF, years before Palestinians coined the alternative term IOF = Israeli Occupying Forces) serving mainly in the Border Police as trackers, a cushy job by Bedouin standards. One of their tribal leaders was catapulted by Ben Gurion’s labor party, (Mapai) into big time politics as an ‘elected’ parliament member. It worked to the benefit of all concerned: He and his likes collected fat salaries and were regaled with accolades and gifts by fellow members of the Palestinian minority seeking protection from the excesses of the Israeli military government and tax collectors; the Mapai party could count on their illiteracy and uninformed automatic support in close parliament votes even when dealing with extending the mandate of the military rule over the Arab minority or with expropriating their land; and Israel could brag in international circles about its liberal democracy and egalitarian treatment of its ‘Moslem, Druze and Christian’ (never Arab or Palestinian) minorities, witness their representation in the Knesset (parliament).

What I tried to understand from my colleague was who stands to benefit from this rumor? It has to be the twisted connivance of a sick mind for some imagined personal gain. Does one of their current chiefs aspire to become Obama’s advisor on Bedouin affairs, or perhaps even on tribal affairs including those of Native Americans? If I am not mistaken such a position exists at the prime minister’s office in Israel. And Israel sets the standard for the USA and trains its emissaries to the Middle East, especially armed ones. The place is full of Bedouins and the USA is not about to abandon Arabia’s resource-rich deserts. So why not create such a post for the US president?

I am reminded of the claim made by the sheikh in one of the Palestinian villages in the Triangle region of Israel back in the nineteen fifties when I was still in high school. It was rumored then that the great Italian actress, Sophia Loren, had been raised as an orphan in an Italian monastery. The sheikh claimed that he also grew up as an orphan though he was raised by relatives. His younger sister, Safyieh, was taken in as an orphan by a charitable order of nuns from Italy and he had never heard from her since. This was long before DNA testing was developed. But the clever man could prove his claim beyond doubt: “Let me meet her once and I can prove it to you. My sister Safyieh had a distinctive birthmark on the inner aspect of her right thigh.”

To us in high-school, sexually deprived teenagers bubbling with excess testosterone, the sheikh’s motives were obvious.

-Hatim Kanaaneh, M.D. is the author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Isreal. He completed his medical and public health degrees at Harvard in 1970. 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 the NGO, the Galilee Society (The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services). He has written extensively on human rights. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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