ArtsATL > Books > Review and Q&A: “I love you” as political statement in Palestinian doctor’s memoir

Review and Q&A: “I love you” as political statement in Palestinian doctor’s memoir

“I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey”

By Izzeldin Abuelaish. Walker & Company, 237 pages.

Author appearance: Izzeldin Abuelaish will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 17, at First Baptist Church of Decatur, 308 Clairmont Avenue. Free admission. Doors open at 6. For more details: 404-373-1653 or www.georgiacenterforthebook.org.

Much has been written about the tragedy that gave rise to Izzeldin Abuelaish’s memoir, “I Shall Not Hate.” In January 2009, three of Dr. Abuelaish’s daughters, aged 14 to 21, were killed when an Israeli tank fired on his home in the Gaza Strip. It happened while the family was already in a state of mourning over the death of Dr. Abuelaish’s wife from leukemia a few months earlier.

When the doctor called for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, not revenge, in response to his loss, he was regarded with awe and disbelief in a deeply embattled region marked by its hatreds. The symbolic tragedy of the doctor’s situation, his Gandhian insistence on making peace with Israelis when his ideals were most severely tested, overlays his private grief. In ways that are evident throughout his book, the doctor saw himself as a hopeful symbol. The first Palestinian doctor on staff at an Israeli hospital, he was a link between enemies.

Before his world was exploded by an Israeli shell, Dr. Abuelaish, an obstetrician and infertility specialist, was one of the few Palestinians living in the prison that is the Gaza Strip who was privileged to cross in and out. Every week from Sunday to Thursday he was allowed furlough in Israel — to continue the jail metaphor — to attend to his duties at Sheba Medical Center, a top-caliber hospital and research center whose likes are unknown in Gaza. His greatest humiliations were suffered during those twice-weekly border crossings when he might be made to wait for hours without explanation, spoken to rudely by guards or have his baggage picked over despite his VIP status.

Gaza as prison is Dr. Abuelaish’s powerful metaphor for evoking the feel of life in the Palestinian territory. “I Shall Not Hate” is his graphic account of constantly shifting between two worlds, of freedom and powerlessness.

The Gaza Strip is a wisp of land 25 miles long and nine miles across at its widest point, crowded with one and a half million people. When Israel sealed its borders in response to the election of Hamas as Gaza’s ruling party in 2006, supplies were curtailed and extreme deprivation set in. While most residents depended on goods brought in through smugglers’ tunnels from Egypt, the doctor would come home from Israel laden with groceries and luxuries like brake oil and Coca-Cola for his children.

He also used his status to take critically ill Palestinians to Israel for medical care. After the Israeli blockade began, in fact, he describes the vast emptiness of the billion-dollar Israeli border terminal building at Erez, where he and a few medical evacuees rattled around in a space that was meant to process up to 25,000 Palestinians a day crossing over to their jobs in Israel in more peaceful times.

The doctor became known in Gaza as something of a medical savior and in the region as a peace advocate. Israeli television regularly sought him out as a political commentator, and in Gaza he ran, unsuccessfully, as an independent candidate for the legislative council. When the shell struck his daughters’ bedroom, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, he immediately telephoned his friend in Israeli TV, and his pleas for help were broadcast live to the Israeli public.

His memoir, though it springs from this single tragedy, is a portrait of everything in the doctor’s past that led to this pivotal event, which has driven him to an ever more fervent campaign for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He proudly describes how he studied, struggled and worked his way out of poverty in the Jabalia refugee camp to win a scholarship to medical college in Cairo. A string of other scholarships and honors followed, and eventually his admission to Harvard for a master’s degree in public health. In telling his exceptional story, Dr. Abuelaish seems to want to illuminate its shadow: the despair of the majority of Gazans, whose lives are eroded by conflict.

He paints this tortured psychological picture of his fellow Palestinians: “Almost everyone here has psychiatric problems of one type or another; everyone needs rehabilitation. But no help is available to ease the tension. This parasuicidal behavior — the launching of rockets and the suicide bombings — invites counterattacks by the Israelis and then revenge from the Gazans, which leads to an even more disproportionate response from the Israelis. And the vicious cycle continues.”

Since the tragedy, he has moved to Canada with his remaining five children. He describes speaking at a Toronto synagogue, where he is asked what he has taught his children about Jews. His daughter Raffah answers the question, saying he taught her to say “I love you” in Hebrew during the war that ultimately killed his three older daughters. It was the first time I have read those words as a kind of political statement, a strategy of survival. At the start of the book, the doctor writes, “Gaza is a human time bomb in the process of imploding,” and it is worth keeping in mind that this observation and “I love you” are two sides of the same coin.

I recently spoke to Abuelaish by phone, while he was visiting Chicago. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

ArtsATL: Was it healing for you to write this book?

Izzeldin Abuelaish: It was healing and it’s a responsibility. It’s a determination not to accept what is happening in this world. Tragedies are not always [only] bad. There is a light, a small light, in spite of the darkness.

ArtsATL: You have decided to establish a foundation in honor of your daughters, called Daughters for Life, dedicated to changing the status of Palestinian women.

Abuelaish: It’s for all women in the Middle East. We are connected, I want to show. Humanity brings us together. All of us belong to one tribe, which is the human family. This foundation will care for the health and education of girls in the Middle East. We need teachers who are enlightened. We want to help teachers make a difference.

Every change starts through education. Education can give you a plan — where are you going? What are you planning to do? What is needed is women’s role in shaping our future and making decisions. Our aim is to give scholarships, awards and grants to train female teachers inside their countries and outside. We want to provide girls from the Middle East with a new curriculum and new agenda to produce leaders. We’ve got scholarships from Canadian universities. We’ll be bringing 20 female teachers in September to pursue a bachelor’s in education. The woman is the key in our lives. We have denied the role of women in this community.

ArtsATL: For years you had the freedom to cross the border from Gaza into Israel and get to know Israelis as colleagues and individuals. In your book you write that once Israelis and Palestinians come to know each other as human beings, the animosity will disappear. But how can most Palestinians, who have no exposure to Israelis or freedom to leave Gaza, change their minds about Israelis?

Abuelaish: I used to be free physically, but spiritually and mentally I was linked to the people [in Gaza] who were suffering. I shared with them what they used to suffer. For Palestinians in Gaza, there is unemployment combined with poverty and a blind future. What do you expect from them? When you deprive people of vital needs, they will never think rationally. When someone is doing something wrong, we have to ask him, “Why are you doing this?” Not to sit in judgment of others when you don’t know what is happening with them.

Israelis are also living isolated from Palestinians. At our time of suffering, they don’t know what is happening with us. This separation will create misunderstanding — the other side will see what it suffers, but not what we do. We need to know each other, communicate with each other.

ArtsATL: Has the situation in Gaza improved or deteriorated since you wrote the book?

Abuelaish: The situation is getting worse and worse. Every day people are expecting war [with Israel]. They [the Israeli government] need to share the land, not hide under their fears. They are hiding in the sand like ostriches. They need to come out and confront their fears. Our safety is linked together.

ArtsATL: What should be the first action toward peace?

Abuelaish: Israel needs to recognize that there is no peace that is just and good for one. It must be just and good for all. Peace can’t be achieved by occupying another’s land. Settlements are illegal. So the first action should be to show they are not believing in settlements anymore. As a doctor, if I see that with amputation of one organ I can save the body, I do that. So, freeze settlements. Palestinian people understand that it is worth it to live in peace — give them their freedom. Their freedom is your safety.

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