How Uncle Ibrahim protected the village lands

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Next Tuesday in New York City, Hatim Kanaaneh will launch the publication of his short-story collection, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, in an event at the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. The book offers a picture of life in a resilient Palestinian-Israeli community in the Galilee, and it has been welcomed by literary leaders like Susan Abulhawa and Ghada Karmi. You can read the endorsements it has received here. You can see a video that Dr. Kanaaneh and his wife Didi made in the village of Arrabeh.

If you live in or near New York, Just World Books hopes you can come to the official launch, Feb. 24th, at 6 pm, in Columbia University’s Knox Hall, Room 208.

Hatim Kanaaneh
Hatim Kanaaneh

Just World has allowed us to publish an excerpt from the story “Chills” in Chief Complaint. Advance copies can be purchased via this page. Any requests to republish or reuse this text in any form should be addressed to

One night in the winter of 2010, a question nagged at my mind. I abandoned my bed and paid a visit to a group of old friends from the village who were sitting in my cousin Salim’s diwan playing backgammon and other traditional games. The contestants abandoned their games in deference to my unexpected arrival. Salim came over with his coffee decanter and a clean coffee cup—not the standard communal one shared sequentially by all the usual visitors. He then shoved the wooden windowpanes open despite the nippy night air; he wasn’t interested in another lecture on the dangers of thick cigarette smoke in a closed space. His brother Toufiq, the still-active communist, got up from the floor and joined me on the empty row of rattan chairs against the wall. I hedged my bet and talked casually about the framed pictures on the opposite wall. When I got to a grainy old photo of their father, my uncle Ibrahim, holding a gun on horseback, I posed my question.

“Wasn’t it dangerous for ‘Ammi Ibrahim to openly brag like that about joining the revolt or the anti-Zionist forces, in clear opposition to the will of the ruling British Mandate system?”

Salim joined us on a chair while the others adjusted their yoga-like posture to view the new focus of debate for the night.

“In those days, the village was not full of paid informants as it is today,” he said. “There were no cracks in the wall of peasant solidarity.” There was a touch of saddened pride in his loud voice, raised in the manner of all hard-of-hearing elders.

Toufiq guffawed loudly and winked in the direction of a couple of retired schoolteachers.
“The Americans are the doctor’s in-laws,” a teacher responded to the intended insult. “He will not buy into a commie’s propaganda.”

“The doctor knows that I don’t welcome informers in my diwan,” Salim said, putting an end to the brief skirmish. “In those days, everybody knew what my father and others like him in the village were up to, but no one ratted on them. In fact, when anyone had news of the British forces approaching Arrabeh, the information would be communicated to the town crier, and he would shout out a warning from atop the mosque, using code words comprehensible only to the locals: ‘Oh farmers of the village: the coyotes are on the loose. Anyone who owns a shara‘a should hide it.’ Things have changed since then, as we all know.” The reference was to the braided raw-leather rope that farmers used to tie the plow to the yoke, an implement that coyotes would chew up if left in the field.

“Israel’s early Arabists took care of that,” Toufiq said, intent on explaining the historical context for my benefit. “They came up with a well-thought-out plan to convert us from independent, land-rooted, subsistence farmers into the servile ‘wood cutters and water carriers’ they envisioned us to be in perpetuity.”

“The biblical quote was a favorite of liberal Zionists in high places, not least Shmuel Toledano, who served as advisor to the prime minister on Arab affairs,” the insulted teacher said, attempting to score in the ongoing nationalist discourse. “This process of pacification and remolding was entrusted to the military administration, the draconian system originally promulgated by the administration of the British Mandate to counter the Zionist terrorists in pre-Israel Palestine, later to become Israel’s commanders and prime ministers.”

Toufiq went on as if he didn’t hear the teacher’s intervention. “The achievement of the desired result of spineless, docile, Zionist-loving Arabs involved two major strategies pursued by the merciless system against our community: the theft of our land and the control of our minds. Our land was stolen through the invention of some three dozen laws custom-made for the purpose and implemented relentlessly over time to reduce our share of the land to 2 percent of the total, when we make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.”

“Mind control was a nastier and more personal trick,” the teacher pitched in.

“You heard it from the horse’s mouth,” Toufiq said, smiling victoriously. “It involved restricting our access to knowledge, through a separate educational system especially designed by Ashkenazi Arabists to feed our children information based entirely on Zionist ideology. And it required the fragmenting of our community along lines of allegiance to different faiths, different clans, and different political parties into minuscule and ineffective factions.”

“To that was added the thorough infiltration of our daily lives by Shin Bet informants who kept records not only of our daily actions but also of our thoughts,” the teacher said in agreement.

“Non-repentant stooges don’t speak openly of their past like this,” Salim said, closing the rift that had developed. “They don’t enter my honorable diwan in the first place.”

‘Ammi Ibrahim resisted all such governmental plans fiercely, and he had to suffer for it. The man cut an imposing figure of peasant pride and independent-mindedness that well suited his newly acquired distinction as the patron of the rebellious communist young circle, his son having introduced the pesky band of pan-nationalists to the village. It was a classic case of “guilt” by association; he had little inkling of the socialist theory and less of the historical background to the revolutions it inspired. But his children did, and he supported them. When the military governor and his local collaborators tried to turn him against his activist children with open threats of physical violence to him and equally open promises of reward for his cooperation, ‘Ammi Ibrahim resisted. Even the thinly-veiled allusions to his land ownership and its fickle dependence on the whim of the system did not change his mind. Sticking to his twin maxims—“never say die” and “tikhrab bira’yi wala t‘imar bira’i ghayri” (let it fail my way and not succeed by the designs of others)—he bore his cross proudly for nearly two decades. Still, while other village offenders, including two of his own children, trudged the distance on foot, he would ride his thoroughbred horse daily to the nearest police station, some fifteen kilometers away, to report in person as decreed by the military governor. He had a distinctive bushy mustache that he would puff out and stroke with a swipe of his thick peasant hand the moment he was aware of others watching him, a near constant occupation for his hand, around which worry beads were wrapped as it grasped the curve of his bamboo cane. Ruqayya, his schizophrenic neighbor who wore burlap-sack garments, and who was one of the figures who populated my childhood nightmares, would entertain us children with expressions of longing for the man; she planned to become his second wife and explained her enchantment with him based on her admiration of his big mustache and wide leather belt.

On occasion, the police officers would take offense at ‘Ammi Ibrahim’s uppity ways. After all, he (like other thought offenders) was ordered by the military governor to make the daily trip to the police headquarters as a punishment, not for him to show off. They would cut his horse loose and drive it away, but his horse would come back for its master. Upon his daily return from the compulsory trek and just as he would enter his private yard and start dismounting from his high horse, his loving wife would let out a loud ululation that would pierce the village silence, the same way she used to welcome him in the days of the 1936 revolt as he returned from skirmishes with the British and later with the Haganah forces. Except that back then, he would have donned his green battle breeches held at the waist by his munitions belt, and he would have his gun proudly slung on his shoulder.

‘Ammi Ibrahim was only half-brother to my father: he was the only surviving child of the second wife of my legendary grandfather. He supposedly married this second wife to help out with the farming chores and take an active part in working in his lands. That way, his favored first wife would be available to fulfill his every whim and to act the gracious hostess to his many visitors. So, not only was ‘Ammi Ibrahim imbued from birth with his father’s great strength and high status, but he also literally ingested the red earth of our fertile valley, the Battouf, with his mother’s milk. In his adult life, he became the arbitrator in land disputes between the area’s peasantry, the fellahin of Arrabeh, Sakhnin, Kufr Manda, Saffuriyya, and ‘Aylabun, and the three small, ancient villages of al-Bu‘eina, al-‘Azeir, and Rummaneh. Though residents of all these farming communities shared in the Battouf, no one knew its every detail more intimately than my uncle. Farmers throughout the area would call on him to settle land disputes and determine the exact borders between their plots.

As he grew in body, mind, bonding, and bondage to the land, he assumed yet another relevant function, that of communal guard constantly on the lookout for Bedouin helping themselves to village crops as their flocks of goats, sheep, and cows grazed on village lands. Twenty-five years of such official assignment as mkhadder brought him into close contact with the various Bedouin tribes (the Mawasi, the Hjirat, the Sawaid, and Dar Fawwaz) in a tenuous and conflict-fraught “friendship.” He insisted on having the Bedouin pay compensations, often with goats or cattle, for any damage their flocks may have caused. At the same time, he had the ability to grant them entry into specific fields after the crops had been reaped. This turned him into an accomplished assessor of land and crops. It afforded him close contact with the heads of the mentioned tribes, hence his love for thoroughbred horses, the specialty in those days of the Bedouins.

In the spring of 1949, ‘Ammi Ibrahim turned overnight into a local hero of the Battouf area for reasons that had nothing to do with his acquired communist leanings or with his standing up to the military rule and enduring in his old age whatever that cruel system could dish out. It was his familiarity with the Battouf that bestowed on him a near divine mantle of knowledge and justice. That winter, Kibbutz Solilim brought in a number of tank-like weaponized tractors, plowed the western part of the valley as a single unit, and planted it with wheat. Everyone feared that that was the end: they were losing their ancestral land and livelihood. While people in all the villages wept in bewilderment and despair, ‘Ammi Ibrahim accompanied his nephew, the village mukhtar, on a trip to Nazareth to consult with Mr. Wonderman, an old Jewish acquaintance of yesteryears who was now entrusted with the job of Nazareth’s Chief of Police; the famous Mascubiyya, the Muscovite compound, was now his headquarters. He remembered the two guests well: they had once retrieved a number of cattle for him from the Bedouin marauders who had stolen them from his kibbutz not far from Tiberias.

He ordered a cup of traditional Arabic coffee for each of them. It was brought in by the cleaning woman at his office, no other than the daughter of an old friend of theirs from ‘Aylabun and the sister of two of the 14 young men killed in ‘Aylabun’s massacre less than a year before. Knowing that he was familiar with local Palestinian traditions, they expressed their wish for him to hear them first, for if he denied them the help and advice that they sought from him, they would not honor him with partaking of his coffee. He listened patiently to their tale of woe. He took a long time sitting across from his old Arab friends with his face cupped mysteriously and sympathetically, they thought, in his hands as he leaned over his desk. Then he said only one sentence, an old Arabic phrase that he thought was fitting for the situation: “Kul maf‘ulin jayiz.” All actions were permitted. They sipped their coffee, thanked him, and left.

Back in Arrabeh, they gathered all the elders of the various families and informed them of their decision to pick up the gauntlet flung to them by Mr. Wonderman. Each farmer was to go down and plow over the wheat that had already sprouted on his land and to sow a different crop—anything but wheat. The message was conveyed to all the other villages around. That was when ‘Ammi Ibrahim faced the most challenging task of his long life: he had to divide that part of the Battouf all over again. The intruders had removed all the simple stone markers by which farmers delineated their plots. He had first to decide where Arrabeh’s land ended and Sakhnin’s started. Then he had to decide where the Kanaanehs’ fields were located relative to the Yasins’. Then, within each clan’s area, he needed to separate specific plots of individual farmers. And so on ad infinitum. He had a lot of help, and much interference as well, from all of his fellow farmers. Each knew the approximate location of his plot and who his immediate neighbors were. That was helpful in arranging the plots relative to each other in my uncle’s mind. Inevitably, some villagers were disgruntled by what struck them as an arbitrary decision. But they all respected the man and, despite his single-minded obstinacy, no one ever suspected his motives or integrity. (The most difficult counterclaim to disprove was one put forth by a simple farmer who had ridden his donkey down to his land in the dark, and the donkey stopped at a plot assigned to a neighbor. Farmers had always relied on their donkeys to identify their land in the dark of night when one plot looked exactly like the other.)

Then came an incident that raised the ire of the entire village against my uncle. A sizable piece of land in the Battouf Valley, some 100 dunums, was about to be appropriated by the government’s Absentee Lands Authority. The piece that had been bequeathed to the local mosque waqf was about the same size that would have been at the disposal of a well-off farmer in these parts. A general consensus was reached to record this religious endowment in the name of a trustworthy private owner, perhaps the mosque’s muezzin or ‘Ammi Ibrahim himself. ‘Ammi Ibrahim was called to testify. He used a well-reasoned argument to resist the pressure from fellow village elders to agree to the invented scheme: “The government considers all waqf lands as absentee property. In fact, it is God’s and God never left Palestine; He is not another Palestinian refugee. God is almighty and He knows how to punish the thieves that steal His property. Our land speaks Arabic, as we locals say. No fibbing of any lowly human, including that of the muezzin or me, is needed. I will not swear in court on the holy Qur’an and tell a lie. Who are all of you to put on airs as the defenders of God’s own waqf, while at the same time you tell lies? Who are you to assign yourself a role above that of God’s? I will tell the truth and let Him defend His own property.” And he did exactly that, but God apparently absconded: the land went to the voracious Custodian of Absentee Property, who eventually turned it over to the Israel Land Authority to become the property of the Jewish race in perpetuity…

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Dr. Kanaaneh~ shukran. I read. I read a lot. As a child, I used to take a flashlight to bed so that I could read late into the night without getting in trouble. Even so, it’s rare to happen upon a jewel like this. Dr. Kanaaneh’s prose is intellectually stimulating and revelatory. It is always a rich tapestry of much beauty. This small sip leaves me thirsting for more! As is always the case with… Read more »

A wonderful retelling. It should make for interesting reading.

I loved “A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel” and am looking forward to reading “Chief Complaint,” too.

Many thanks for printing this excerpt.

I went searching for more, and found this @ EI: “The long struggle of the Palestinians in Israel Concomitant with Israel’s founding in 1948, its armed forces systematically expelled Palestine’s native population and razed some 500 of their communities to the ground in the largest and most successfully denied ethnic cleansing campaign in modern times. A mere six and a half decades later, who knows about Damoun, for example? Who remembers it except for its… Read more »

every word and every sentence is precious. it is such a pleasure to read this and everything you write Hatim. we’re so lucky to have this jewel from Chief Complaint here. and a big thanks to Helena and Just World Books.

plus, i love the video!