Canaan or ‘The Promised Land’ seemed to be a mirage to the Palestinian patient advocate. He had arrived as a starry-eyed child in the USA shortly after 9/11 in search of peace, freedom, and prosperity. As a young adult, his life as a student/waiter living in a poor area best known for inspiring Dog Day Afternoon, left him with mixed feelings. Today the Chase Manhattan Bank branch, site of the robbery depicted in the 1975 movie, was gone, along with the hopes and dreams of many under-employed first-generation immigrants like himself. Despite the surroundings, his faith propelled the young Christian man into applying his scientific knowledge to the benefit of his neighbors and family. The Samaritan had already provided much-needed information to his neighbor, Shireen, and the African-American woman (with questions about cholesterol) who lived a few blocks away from his home.
These charitable activities provided a welcome relief from being caught between the opposite opinions of his relatives and friends in the multi-ethnic, intergenerational neighborhood he called home. Conversations with one uncle would sometimes veer from ordinary day-to-day life to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The patient advocate was constantly reminded by his uncle that the creation of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of the Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba (catastrophe). The “sleepy Arab backwater of the Ottoman empire” had been transformed into a Jewish state at the expense of the life of the uncle’s wife, his favorite aunt. Moreover, the uncle had to flee Palestine and watch the struggles and dashed hopes of his former countrymen on several televisions across the globe as he searched for a new home. The patient advocate would quietly devour sour lentil and eggplant stew ( rumaniyya) and try to integrate his uncle’s tales with his own experiences.
Shadia Mansour, the British-born Palestinian singer also known as the “First Lady of Arabic hip hop”, echoed the patient advocate’s feelings towards Palestine with her song, Assalamu Aleikum(Peace be upon you). 5 Broken Cameras – the Emmy-award-winning 2011 documentary film co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi – might as well have been a Hollywood version of his conversations via Skype with relatives affected by the Israeli-West Bank barrier. In addition, he agreed with the opinions expressed by the Palestinian-American journalist, Ali Abunimah, in his book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. However, he understood the fear that the Zionist vision of a unified sense of Jewish peoplehood, heritage, and destiny might become lost in a one-state solution for his former homeland. According to Zarah, the need for Herzl’s antidote to anti-Semitism – a Jewish homeland – was compounded by the Holocaust. The patient advocate wanted to identify with the struggles of his people and also wished to co-exist peacefully with his American neighbors. Would voices urging peace ever be heard above the din of competing narratives of two displaced populations occupying the same land?
The patient advocate was not a Palestinian Gandhi. He decided to focus on renewing the bonds of trust with Zarah, who had recently been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. He emailed her an article elaborating on new therapies to treat the aggressive tumor. He was happy when she thanked him immediately and invited him to join her family for dinner. Members of her breast cancer support group would also be present, including a couple who had just returned from Israel. They brought news about the formation of the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a grassroots organization made up of more than 600 bereaved Palestinians and Israelis, all of whom had lost an immediate family member to the conflict. Zarah also mentioned that the couple wanted to discuss a new documentary, On the Side of the Road, with him. The film by Israeli journalist, Lia Tarachansky, combined the history of 1948 (as related by Israelis involved in the fighting) with Tarachansky’s personal story. He was curious to hear more details and accepted the invitation. It was the season of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation – at least in one neighborhood.