Khalil Nakhleh – Review of Hatim Kanaaneh’s “A Doctor in Galilee: the life and struggle of a Palestinian in Israel”

13 November, 2008

galilee.jpgAllow me first to contextualize my comments, briefly. Hatim and Didi are our personal friends, with whom we socialize, whenever we have the chance, and share our passion for gardening and preservation of nature. I came to know Hatim in the context of mustering funds for the work of the Galilee Society in which, as the book shows, he was fully immersed, professionally, passionately and politically. I was in Geneva then; he was between Arrabyeh and Rameh. Later, Lois and I got to know Hatim and Didi as friends.

This is a rich ethnographic and experiential narrative of local village culture, Hatim’s own village, culture and society. It is documented with immense passion, sensitivity, worry and a high level of personal doubt and torment. This is a narrative of what anthropologists dub as “little culture”, distinguished that is from “big culture”, or systems of beliefs, values, political economic structures, etc. Hatim does well in focusing on the “little culture”, and alludes to the rest.

At the political level, Hatim’s memoirs are an indictment of the racist system in Israel, by allusion. However, as the narrator progressed towards the conclusion of the narrative, and under the cumulative weight of racist and overtly discriminatory practices by the Jewish Zionist system towards the Palestinian Arab minority, his “allusions” became more pointed, clearer and less ambiguous, which led him to conclude (on p. 255): “I find myself needing to shake myself violently to snap out of the hypnotic trance I have been lulled into by all the sweet talk of coexistence—our coexistence as the lesser partner in the ‘Jewish first’, meaning ‘Jewish only’ democratic state”.

Since I accepted to comment on Hatim’s book, based only on the initial reading of small parts of it, and since I finished reading the whole book, I debated with myself on how to proceed. At first, I could not resist the temptation to expand, and attempt to put flesh on, the political allusions that abound in the book, at the risk of diverting the listeners from the richness and complexity of the “little culture” of which Hatim’s book is an invaluable record. However, following my wife’s insistence, I consented to divert my focus, without abandoning it.
Hatim’s memoirs urged me to frame the overall context by posing two interrelated questions to which Hatim alluded in the book: (1) what does it mean to be a Palestinian Arab in Israel? And (2) What does it mean to be a part of an indigenous minority that is a remaining fragment of the Palestinian people, living in a country—Israel—that is directly responsible for this historical evil?

By focusing on the “little culture”, Hatim addressed various, intermingled elements that could constitute the answer to these questions, for example:

* By putting together the various comments he makes about land, you start feeling and smelling the land, not as an abstract concept, but as a living thing, interacting with its people and they with it. You start feeling it as the anchor of subsistence and steadfastness, and as the keeper of its peoples’ history. It is symbolized by the olive trees, or, more accurately, by the “ancient olive tree” that graced the entrance to Hatim’s and Didi’s yard, which became the headpiece for their friends and relatives to come and visit, and which had to be protected from the evil eye of “jealous admirers” (p. 258).

* Reading one episode after another, you get a “real time” feeling what a traditional Arab extended village family, planted in its land for generations and solidified through history, is, how it works, and how it is lived and living. In one of the entries Hatim records: “Today I visited my old cousin, Abu-Faisal, who is the nominal head of the Kanaaneh clan though he has little actual influence these days. Every morning he still prepares a new pot of black Arabic coffee and sits in the clan’s traditional guesthouse or diwan, al-Zawieh, handed down since my grandfather established it. He shares his coffee with his daily circle of visitors, his elderly friends, and with the occasional passer-by …”(p 3-2).

* Village ethos, with all its stereotypes and blemishes, jumps at you from Hatim’s memoirs: “The residents of Sakhnin, Arrabeh’s larger neighbor, are known for taking much pride in their village. … In the Galilee, frictions between Sakhnin and Arrabeh are legend. Sakhninis look down on us for lacking both valor and the traditional Arab generosity when receiving guests. In return, we find them haughty and contentious. Their men strut around, noses in the air and head dresses … tilted to the side, walking in the middle of the road with an obvious chip-on-shoulder demeanor” (p. 88-9).

* At the personal level, Hatim’s narrative is very open. He takes you deep inside of him in his recurrent doubts, fears and worry … his constant vacillations between being back in his village and being in Hawii drawn by the spell of its beauty and the warmth of Didi’s family, and running away from the discrimination that the Jewish racist system practices against non-Jews.

Some concluding remarks

Upon finishing reading Hatim’s memoirs, I felt more compelled to draw these memoirs to their logical conclusion, by answering the two questions posed at the onset of these comments, namely, what does it mean to be a Palestinian Arab in Israel? And, what does it mean to be a part of an indigenous minority that is a remaining fragment of the Palestinian people, living in a country—Israel—that is directly responsible for the historical evil that transformed us into a minority?

In his introduction to Fouzi El-Asmar’s book “To be an Arab in Israel” (1975), Uri Davis wrote: “To be an Arab in Israel is to confront a political reality which excludes a priori … equal participation of non-Jews, first and foremost, the native population of the land: the Palestinian Arabs. To the extent that the state is Jewish it must deny equality of economic, political and national rights from its native non-Jewish population. It is not incidental that to be an Arab in Israel is to be thrown into the shadow either as a refugee or as an internally colonized, materially and culturally disinherited ‘Arab minority’” (p.5). This applies, of course, across the national board, to all of us, whether one is a “doctor” or not.

The only future for us, as an indigenous national minority, where we can exercise our inherited basic human rights, and where we can achieve true justice and equality, is to regain our status as a part of our national majority, in historical Palestine, after the dismemberment and dissolution of the Zionist racist system. Our future, as a national minority in our land, and as part of the Arab nation, is organically connected to the future of the Arab nation, and to the entire Palestinian people—the communities in the West Bank and Gaza, the refugees, and all those dispersed throughout the world; and it has to be realized in a democratic society in historical Palestine, where we would be ready to co-exist with non-Zionist Jews. Deconstruction of the racist Zionist-Ashkenazi system is a precondition for such a just solution. The existing Israeli system is, by definition, racist, exclusivist, and inherently and structurally incapable of providing justice and genuine equality to our people.

Khalil Nakhleh is an independent writer and researcher. He may be reached at

(Author’s note: This comment was first presented at the Friends International Cultural Center in Ramallah at the launch of Hatim’s book, and then it was posted on Hatim’s blog)

“Hatim Kanaaneh’s book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. London: Pluto Press, 2008

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