By Hatim Kanaaneh
Alberto Manguel wrote: “Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth.” Writing is even more dramatic a rebirth. After an elephantine pregnancy of an indeterminate length my collection of short stories was born on February 24, 2015. As is common in the fiction species the conflicted naming process was negotiated in advance. My publisher and I debated the original title that I proposed. I had chosen “Chief Complaint” for my collection of clinical vignettes in conscious parallelism to the chemist Primo Levi’s title, “The Periodic Table.” I wasn’t quite convinced by Just World Book’s reservations about this title as outdated from an American readership’s perspective. We left the decision till later and proceeded to fix other loose ends. By the time we had to opt for a final name for our baby, Chief Complaint had grown familiar though it still needed some explaining. A few phrases were considered as subtitles. I walked into the closest Starbucks Café and polled a dozen customers. They came down in favor of “A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee.”
A series of obstetricians, midwives, nurses and aids expertly handled the birth. With their creative intervention they made sure that the newborn was correctly proportioned and has few blemishes. They even slapped a beautiful nineteen-century painting of the village of Nazareth as a showy skin.
Edward Said is about as prominent an intellectual persona to call on as a godfather as one can dream of. Had he been alive I would have given that a try. After all, his plea to let Palestinians narrate their truth was my original prompt to publish my writing, first in the form of an autobiography (A Doctor in Galilee, the Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel, Pluto Press, 2008) and now in fiction form. Absent the option of formal sponsorship I chose the next best thing, associating with the Palestinian giant’s academic image. My daughter who studied and teaches at Columbia University, Edward Said’s academic home, arranged with her colleagues to have the official launch ceremony of Chief Complaint at the university’s Center for Palestine Studies. Mrs. Mariam Said graced the occasion with her presence and Dr. Moustafa Bayoumi, an Edward Said scholar emceed the event masterfully.
Practical considerations made us reserve other likely events in the Big Apple till later. Instead we moved to the American capital, home turf of JWB. The academic home of another Palestinian luminary, Georgetown University, proud base of the late Hisham Sharaby, held the first of a series of events there. A third eminent Palestinian, Prof. Salim Tamari, hosted and directed my opening presentation in DC. The presence there of his wife, the celebrated author, Suad Amery, added further glamor and fecundity to the event. This was followed by another prized venue, the Palestine Center, home of the well-regarded activist project, the Jerusalem Fund. Particularly this choice brought together a number of former contacts from my heydays of fundraising and project promotion some three decades earlier for the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, my civil society development tool on behalf of my community. The positive vibes generated there kept me floating on a cloud for the next stretch and emboldened me to blabber political jargon to the likes of Amy Goodman on Democracy Now and Ms. Perez of the Real News Network. Israeli elections, Netanyahu’s bumbling though ultimately successful electioneering and the novelty of the ‘Arab’ Joint List with its bright new star, Aymen Odeh, afforded me ample opportunity to speak as a local expert from the area. I willingly did so to several journalists who, of course, introduced me as the author of Chief Complaint.
As if to balance this frivolity, I accepted an invitation from friends who offered to host a book event at their home. Acting in the best of Palestinian traditions Mohammad Nimr and Ilham Nasir invited a houseful of friends not only to hear me tell them things they mostly knew but also to a buffet of home-cooked delicacies. It turned out that my wife had taught the lady of the house at high school. And our hosts were another interfaith couple who are comfortable with their differences. All through our visit to DC a niece and her husband put us at their home and drove us about. The two are practicing Moslems in the newly fashionable style of hijab for the teacher wife and a stylish beard for the engineer husband. Their son, another inspired Mohammad, temporarily exiled from his room for our benefit, worked on completing his memorization of the holy Koran and recited it artfully every free break he had. My niece asked if I could talk about Chief Complaint at her M&M (It is not the candy nor a repetition of the prophet’s name but Moslem and Moslema) Learning Center. I asked my wife to join me and we spoke to the high-school-age group more about our life together than about my new book. I never saw a better behaved or a more worthy audience of my uplifting message of persistence and mutual support and understanding for each to succeed in his or her life. Later, my niece brought me a stack of handwritten messages of thanks and admiration. The gig didn’t sell any books but earned us such accolades as “inspiring” and “a cute couple.” Judging by the group’s promise we are in for a future wave of physician fiction writers in the DC Moslem community.
The San Francisco Bay area representative of JWB, a hardened veteran of liberal causes, extended her outreach all the way to Arizona and Washington State. Every new exposure brought with it its particular justification as a special case: Two departments of Middle Eastern Studies had their own captive student audience, one even asking me to speak in Arabic; the San Francisco Arab American Cultural Center secured the accompaniment of a Palestinian poet and an oud-playing musician in the youthful spirit of the venue and its patrons; the grand rounds at the Santa Rosa County Hospital put me to the test of choosing a story with the right clinical focus for the medical personnel among the standing-room only attendees; and the revolutionary zest of the Jewish Voice for Peace at Berkeley was palpable as was the commitment of so many church members at the Berkeley Methodist Church.
“The last is dearest” goes a Palestinian adage. The closing event in this book tour was held at Orca Bookstore in Olympia. This afforded my wife and me the once-in-a-lifetime chance of visiting The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, of seeing the great mural that pays tribute to Rachel’s work and the memorial at her alma matter, the Evergreen State College, and of associating with some great Palestinian compatriots.
If I have to draw one single lesson that I can offer as advice to any author facing the daunting prospect of an extensive book promotion tour, it would be this: Be sure to field out as many nephews and nieces in the area as you can. In addition to Haifa in DC, there were Tarik in Santa Rosa and Jamil in San Francisco who offered warm homes, Arabic cuisine, speedy hybrid transport and a guaranteed minimum of enthusiastic audience. All those painful injections back in Arrabeh didn’t blunt their love and dedication. For them and for all interested others here is a bonbon from the Palestine Institute/Jerusalem Fund:
- Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician who has struggled for over four decades to improve the health of his Palestinian community in Galilee against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the founder of the NGO The Galilee Society and the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee and of a forthcoming fictional trilogy. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.