Wednesday, July 18, 2012

2012.07.18 A Gift That Gave

 I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish, was a spontaneous gift from a stranger on an airplane flight from Tel Aviv to London. We struck up a conversation across the aisle when lunch or breakfast or whatever meal it was (on airplanes they blend together like time zones) arrived.
I asked her about the book she was reading so intently. She showed it to me and said she’d give it to me when she finished it. I was reading Jesus Freak (Sara Miles) and she was reading I Shall Not Hate. How do such connections happen!! Nimisha is Hindu, a clinical psychologist living in London who  travels to Gaza five times a year for two weeks to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder among Palestinians.  “I hear horror stories. That’s why I watch dumb movies on airplanes,” she said. “Well, after I finish this book.”
“This book is for everyone,” she said when she, in a short time, passed it across to me.
I thanked her and began to read. The first thing I noticed was that the author was a Palestinian who had grown up in a refugee camp in Gaza and that there was a praise-filled Foreword by a Jewish  Israeli physician, Dr. Marek Glezerman, chairman of the Hospital for Women and deputy director of Rabin Medical Center, Israel.  Glezerman expressed surprise that Abuelaish, though chronically humiliated by Israeli military border procedures (harrasments really) while traveling for his work, was not “the very angry man I expected to greet.”
On our pilgrimage we visited a refugee camp in Efrata North, south of Jerusalem, established  in 1949. We heard a young Arab Muslim, 24,  speak of his life there and his dream of returning home to West Jerusalem. He wasn’t angry either but spoke with a kind of derailed depression freckled with hope and good humor. He had 30 hours to go in the university in the camp where, tellingly,  he studied psychology and social work. “I’m afraid to graduate,” he told us. “What then?  My friend applied for a job in Nablus with 11,000 applicants!”  I asked him about his faith in Allah. His answer was simple: “When I choose the good way and pray first.” 
As a feisty Christian feminist westerner I felt humbled. How come neither this man nor Abuelaish haven’t given up on God?  I thought that until I remembered that I hadn’t either, although my trials have been minor.

Abuelaish is an ObGyn doctor who specializes in infertility medicine. He has a heart for families, mothers and newborns, loss.  He was born in a refugee camp in Gaza where life was harsh. But his mother was a “lioness” mother who never let up on him about study, study study. He obeyed and eventually received a scholarship award and went to study medicine. Life in Gaza remained restrictive, and travel back and forth to work required him to cultivate teeth-gritting patience.

Through unimaginable suffering and tragic loss Abuelaish persisted. I Shall Not Hate is his memoir. It’s his testament to his religious faith and to the friendships of many Israeli colleagues who helped him and value his work and person. I’m reminded of the New Testament  story of the friends who removed roof tiles to lower their paralyzed buddy on his stretcher down through a roof  so he could bypass crowds to get to Jesus for healing. And Jesus told him faith had made him well—his own and that of his friends.  
Chapter One, titled “Sand and Sky” begins: “It was as close to heaven and as far from hell as I could get that day, an isolated stretch of beach just two and a half miles from the misery of Gaza City, where waves roll up on the shore as if to wash away yesterday and leave a fresh start for tomorrow. We probably looked like any other family at the beach—...”  I was hooked.

Abuelaish had brought his two sons and six daughters plus cousins, aunts and uncles to the beach to find peace in the midst of grief at the premature death of his wife Nadia  from leukemia just two weeks after diagnosis.  Little did Abuelaish know that in a short time his home would be the target, mistaken but never apologized for, of a fatal shelling during the 23-day siege of Gaza (Dec., 2009 into 2010) in which more family members would die. The sustained attack was designed to intimidate Hamas, retaliation for their suicide bombings.  But instead it murdered innocent people. Under a photo of himself in a graveyard Abuelaish wrote: “No caption can express a father’s loss.”
Feelings of agony, rage, terror, love, patience, and hope course side by side through this book but never overwhelm the story, nor the author’s peace and friendship platform.  The prose is clear and direct—accessible. No facts, no matter how painful, are sentimentalized, minimalized,  or sensationalized. This is the work of an ordered mind that manages to stay sane in the midst of insanity. He never blames Israelis for their government’s actions.

Medicine is his practice, healing physical illness and souls as it creates a level playing field of need and compassionate care.  Strong Muslim faith is his stronghold. “For the three weeks during the war, we lost our belief in humanity, so God and each other were all we had left.”    AND.......  friends on the other side.  “The tank pointing its guns at my house ...  looked like the angel of death.  I called Shlomi Eldar.” Eldar, his friend on the putative other side, managed to engineer a military inquiry into the matter and also set up  an interview on Israeli radio. The story went viral and that crisis was averted—until the next one.

At one point Abuelaish ran for public office in Gaza as an independent, thinking it might be a way to work for change.  His campaign platform stressed the same issues (poverty, health, education) as the Hamas platform. But Abuelaish’s campaign included raising the status of women. Abuelaish lost.
 In 2009 he won the Niarchos Prize for Survivorship. How ironic there is such a prize. It is given by the Survivor Corps an organization that works to break cycles of victimization and violence. Nomika Zion, an Israeli woman, shared the prize with Abuelaish. She and other neighboring Israelis, act and lobby in solidarity with Gazans.
Zion (I love the irony of the name!) accepted the award and spoke against the glorification of war. “I am frightened that we are losing the human ability to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified and to show empathy. It’s our obligation to make our leaders talk, to compel them to tell us, for a change, a different story.” Abuelaish in his acceptance speech  encouraged action and to think forward together. “The dignity of Palestinians equals the dignity of Israelis . . .” Does that sound familiar?
Having finally to make the hard decision to leave Gaza,  Abuelaish got a job and moved his family to Toronto where his children could experience safety and hope for a future.  But he plans to return to his native land and continue his healing mission to encourage an internal shift from hate to respect, on both sides at grassroots levels. He isn’t the first to have such a dream.

The very first activity his younger children performed at their new home in Toronto was to take down a section of the fence between their house and the neighbors so the kids could run back and forth.  “How prophetic that I witnessed what I had been dreaming about for years for our two neighbors, Israel and Palestine,” Abuelaish wrote. 
DAUGHTERS FOR LIFE  is the foundation Abuelaish has started. It is dedicated to change the status and role of women through the provision of scholarships for high school and university education.  Ultimately he hopes his foundation will create a credible voice for female values throughout the Middle East.  I just made a small gift online.