The article first appeared on Arabic Literature in English.
Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem welcomed the small crowd that came to the launch of Chief Complaint on October 8, 2015 and acknowledged that the event was almost canceled.
The current escalation of violence in Jerusalem and around Palestine makes it hard to know what to do. We respect those who have lost their lives or are injured, and we want to dissuade others from going out into unsafe circumstances, but we also feel there is a kind of resistance we express when we press forward with regular life. In this case, we decided to press forward and were pleased to have 20 or so others who also pressed forward to join us for the event.
What follows is an edited version of my introductory remarks:
“I’m not sure why Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh honored me with the invitation to introduce him and his recent book, Chief Complaint. I can say that I fell in love with the idea of the book from the table of contents: ‘Chapter One, High Fever’; ‘Chapter Two, Chills’; ‘Chapter Three’ (my personal favorite), ‘Hair Loss’; and so on.
“As far as the text, you will find a combination of fact and fiction that builds off the idea of a chief complaint — what a patient states as the reason for a visit to the doctor seems, in this book, never to be the real reason. Dr. Hatim, who spent his career as a physician in his home village of Arrabeh in the Galilee, consolidated the voices, appearances, dreams, and flaws of patients he treated over decades, added in political and cultural detail, imagined some amusing twists, and wrote it all down in what are, as he admits, more like vignettes than plotted stories.
“What I enjoyed was that, like in real life, I learned as much from how these vignettes were told as I did from their content. My own adopted village is Kufr Manda, also in the Galilee, quite close in both distance and spirit to Dr. Hatim’s village of Arrabeh.
“In Kufr Manda you’ll find my 78-year old father-in-law, who is so spry that we once couldn’t find him in his greenhouse. We discovered, instead, that he was scaling the metal bars that hold up the plastic roofing. He has a long room that is the family’s greeting area, so that during the day there are always people coming in and out to visit or get or share information or perhaps to feast on one of my mother-in-law’s meals. Not long ago, I was reading on the couch next to him when my sister-in-law’s husband came in and told the Haj that his grandmother had won her court case and would finally get her share of inherited land, denied her by her brothers. As his grandmother was no longer alive, he needed to figure out how the property would be divided among the living heirs.
“My father-in-law jumped up onto a chair and reached to the top of a bookshelf on which he kept daily things, like his comb and razor, and pulled down what looked like a small plastic wastebasket with rolls of paper sticking out. The old man and my brother-in-law rolled out the old blueprints and began discussing which plot had belonged to so-and-so, but was later divided among so-and-so and so-and so. It was very detailed.
“Later that night, I asked my husband why his father seemed to be in possession of the official blueprints showing land ownership in the village. It was a strange idea for me, a US citizen who generally assumes that official things should be in government institutions under the care of paid officials.
“‘Because people trust him,’ my husband explained, and the conversation was over.
“I tell this story as an example of the kinds of stories that Dr. Hatim relays in Chief Complaint. They are everyday stories of Palestinians who live in villages in the Galilee. They are the kinds of stories that are unremarkable to the people who live them but very rich to those of us who don’t.
“Dr. Hatim tells the stories in Chief Complaint with both an insider and outsider perspective. He not only brings you into a place where you could not otherwise go, but he also explains what you’re seeing and hearing. The explanations may be long or short, and even if you read them twice, you might not grasp all of it. But the prose is strong and beautiful even if you don’t understand all his references.
“When I told my father-in-law in Kufr Manda that I was reading a book by a doctor from Arrabeh, he said, ‘Humpf.’ I thought he hadn’t understood my poor Arabic so I told him again and asked if by chance he knew Dr. Hatim from Arrabeh and he replied with a straight face: ‘Twenty-five doctors graduated from Arrabeh this year alone. The percentage of doctors in Arrabeh is higher than anywhere else in the world.’
“‘Really?’ I asked.
“‘What do you think I’m doing? Eating seeds?’ which is his way of saying that although he only studied until fourth grade, he is no idiot and Dr. Hatim, book or not, is just another guy. I’ve often thought that someone should write down my father-in-law’s stories so they aren’t lost, and Dr. Hatim — despite not knowing my father-in-law — has done just that. By capturing the humanity and the humor, the wisdom and the parochialism, he has saved a vision of this generation of Palestinian village elders.
“If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that, when you finish reading this book about a village doctor and the characters he comes to know and love, you can be sure that you’ve only seen a part of what there is to know. This book begs for another to be written – not by a doctor but by a doctora. Dr. Hatim’s stories are rich and true and important, but so are those told among women. I look forward to reading that book, whoever may write it.
A video interview with Dr. Hatim about his book, Chief Complaint.