Celebrating the Palestinian identity (2015)

The fourth Palestine Book Awards, an event ‘to honour and endorse the best books written in English on the subject of Palestine’, took place last night (19th November) in Paddington. The annual awards are organised by Middle East Monitor,  a media research institute based in London.  This year’s recipients were Jean-Pierre Filiu (for Gaza: A History), Lena Jayyusi  (for Jerusalem Interrupted) and Elias Sanbar (The Palestinians). Guests were welcomed by Awards Trustee Victoria Brittain, with the keynote speech delivered by Karen AbuZayd of the office of the High Commission for Human Rights at the United Nations. In her opening remarks Victoria Brittain paid tribute to the ‘smaller publishers’ in the UK such as Interlink, who were prepared to highlight topics often ignored in the Western media. Karen AbuZayd held out the night’s event as an example of continuing Palestinian resilience and creativity in the face of an illegal occupation and a relentless infringement of human rights. She spoke movingly on the miseries facing refugees, pointedly referring to Israel not once by name, but as ‘the occupying power’,  asking, ‘how long will it be when Palestinians can exercise full sovereignty in their territory?’. She noted that ‘today’s stones and knives are not weapons of choice considering the lethal force of their opponents’, but nevertheless,  ‘we had to strive to keep hope alive’.

Among distinguished guests attending the ceremony were humanitarian workers, historians, writers and academics –  to name a few: Interpal Chair Ibrahim Hewitt; Iraqi novelist and political activist Haifa Zangana;  Dr Swee Chai Ang, founder of Medical Aid for Palestine and author of the landmark  From Beirut to Jerusalem, Eye-witness to Sabra-Shatila Massacre; biographer and travel writer Peter Clark and the renowned Oxford historian, Professor Avi Shlaim.

Among the short-listed  entries was Dr.Hatim Kanaaneh’s Chief Complaint – A country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee . Dr. Hatim was born in the  village of Arrabeh  in 1937, and after qualifying in the US in the 1960s, returned to serve as the ‘sub-district physician’ for Western Galilee in the Israeli Ministry of Health, while doubling up as a GP in his home village. He later founded the NGO Galilee Society for Health Research and Services.  In the preface of Chief Complaint he explains,

Throughout my  career, I have used writing and audio taping as a form of psychotherapy to deal with my schizophrenic existence as a Palestinian and a citizen of Israel. It certainly is not conducive of a balanced psyche to be a member of a minority whose mere presence is officially decried as a cancer and ‘existential threat’ to the state, and the source of regret for not having been ethnically cleansed by the state’s establishment. Imagine how much worse it was functioning as a cog in the wheel of that state. Now in retirement and drawing on a half century of recorded memoirs, I have set myself the task of telling the story of my village to the world, in the hope of breaking the imposed silence and isolation of the Palestinian community in Israel  … it consists of a series of sketches rendered as short stories that weave a rich portrait of life, in disease and health, in a typical Palestinian rural community … each story carries a heading that was the ‘chief complaint’ of its protagonist, the principal reason for him or her to seek medical attention in my clinic, the primary connecting thread between my patient and me as a healer. These then follow the simple ordering of the body’s working systems and their functional roles starting with the head and ending with the feet, with general complaints falling at the start or end of the list.  This is the classic tool of the medical profession known as ‘review of systems’.

The accounts are frank, sometimes risqué but always insightful of the human condition – a must-read for the medics in British medical schools today with a social and political conscience.

Jamil Sherif, 20th November 2015