News to write home about

Middle East
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Egypt Asks Israel to Keep Turkey Away From Gaza,” the headline in Haaretz announced. When I first read it my wife and I were still in Hawaii. I broke out laughing. It sounded like a parody straight out of The Onion. I labored to put the headline in perspective for people who had no inkling about Gaza’s tragedy. Or about Egypt’s, Turkey’s or Israel’s fixes for that matter, each tragic in its own asinine way. 

Every morning, as we walked to the Ala Moana Beach Park from our modest hotel at the edge of Waikiki for an hour’s swim and on our way back, we passed by half a dozen homeless nests, collections of rags, cardboard and plastic in which humans huddled on the sidewalk of the Ala Wai Promenade. Misshapen tarpaulin and plastic sheets strung from the side rails of the bridge to a parked shopping cart or a beat-up bicycle provided a semblance of protection from the rain and sun. The carts were full of more nest-building materials and of bags of edible or wearable goods salvaged from waste bins. 

Many of the homeless were young, a surprise to me. One husky Chinese-Hawaiian old man would hold a hand sprinkler and carefully water the flowerbed he had planted along the sidewalk. He was safe enough for me to establish eye contact with him. And one emaciated elderly haole (a derogatory Hawaiian term for white person) in particular attracted my attention. But I didn’t dare look him straight in the eye. Many years ago, in Delhi, I perfected the skill of avoiding the hungry children’s gaze. I could sleep better that way. They were there but weren’t individually registered in my conscience. This ‘present absentee’ old man usually sat in his rags by the telephone pole on our side of the stoplight just before the entrance to the Ala Moana Shopping Center, once boasting to be the biggest such complex in the whole world. Almost always he held a lit cigar in his hand. In the faintest of voices he asked for change while motioning with his other hand to his mouth. An old woman with well-combed shoulder-length blond hair sat on a wheelchair or lay on the ground next to him and listened to classic music on a radio-tape gadget held close to her thin chest. More than all the other homeless on the sidewalk, these two disturbed my peace of mind.

But another seemingly unrelated matter bothered me in Hawaii: ISIS. It is the favorite theme of a good Indian friend of mine there, a brother from college days. He seems to deny me my right of understanding Islam as I know it. He assumes that ISIS is all that Islam is or ever was. The only thing I detest more than accepting such analysis is to defend ISIS. And India did suffer centuries of colonization by Moslems. Now it occurs to me that my daily double encounter with the homeless crowd at the edge of Waikiki can serve the purpose of illustrating my friend’s misconception: What if I were to report to those who know nothing about Hawaii that homelessness is the cardinal feature of Hawaii and the only thing in it worth writing home about? Both Islam and the Hawaiian Islands have more beauty and serenity than needs defending, especially by someone like me who has resisted full emersion in their magic and richness. But, believe me, the homeless phenomenon is the one thing that struck me most on this trip and violated my lasting impression of my second home’s godly beauty.

Twice we witnessed the police clearing the illicit encampments, packing everything haphazardly in cartons and make-believe luggage pieces to be carted away for storage. Those were labeled with location, date and destination in duplicates with copy sheets hung on the rails for the owners to locate their abandoned property should they so desire or dare. Both times I saw none of the regular occupants that I had come to recognize. Neither the Chinese-Hawaiian nor the hungry old white fellow and his girlfriend were to be seen on either of the two occasions. They must have their own early warning system and didn’t care for whatever alternative shelter the Honolulu Police and Social Welfare Department offered them.

I wanted to incorporate some of this in my simile of the comic Gaza news item I had read. It pre-occupied me especially since I was scheduled to speak at a book event later that day. And there was the local couple, our friends and hosts who always try to comprehend the Middle East regional issues. I knew they would ask me about the strange headline. I needed a local simile to illustrate how ridiculous it was. Right away I could see that the destitute white couple was Gaza. The figurative owner of the shopping center has to be Israel, the worst baddy of them all in every Palestinian nightmare. And I will stand for Turkey: I am a dictatorial Moslem and can afford to help but keep my distance and am satisfied with expressing my sympathy especially in my benevolent dreams. We need only an Egypt to complete the silly allegory. We need to incorporate the beach in this charade, of course. So let us say the lifeguard is Egypt. He is physically powerful but choses to serve his mightier neighbor for payment through a third party. Don’t ask me who will stand for the USA; this is getting out of hand in complexity and we haven’t even gotten to ISIS. So now that we have this much of our insane shadow-play comedy in place, let us stop right here: The lifeguard asks the owner of the shopping center to stop me from helping the homeless old couple. It almost makes sense; it certainly makes more sense than the original headline: “Egypt Asks Israel to Keep Turkey Away From Gaza.” Ha ha ha!

I nearly drowned. I finished formulating my analogy while swimming on my back. As I broke out in uncontrollable laughter I swallowed enough seawater to nearly drown. The lifeguard whistled and I lifted my hand and signaled ‘OK’ to him. No need to interfere. Let each stew in his own juice. Or, as we say in Palestine, let each pull out his thorns from his feet with his own hands.

About Hatim Kanaaneh

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian doctor who has worked for over 35 years to bring medical care to Palestinians in Galilee, against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. His collection of short stories entitled Chief Complaint was released by Just World Books in the spring of 2015.

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4 Responses

  1. Philip Weiss
    January 21, 2016, 2:15 pm

    Dont drown Dr. Kanaaneh! We need your humor for this struggle. So does Turkey, and Egypt, and ISIS

  2. johneill
    January 22, 2016, 12:40 am

    this is a great piece of writing, analytic and personal, funny and sobering. i look forward to reading more like it.

  3. gamal
    January 22, 2016, 7:37 am

    “We need only an Egypt to complete the silly allegory”

    what can you say,

    ‘Two Words for Egypt

    The Madam’s dog (kalb al sit)’

    Negm (from: Peace for Earth)

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