Revenge is a concept that I just don’t get. No, let me put that another way. I understand the emotions that give rise to the desire for revenge – though I’ve never, admittedly, been tested myself, not like, say, Izzeldin Abuelaish. What I don’t understand is the belief that revenge is the answer, that it will make something (whatever that thing is) better. I’ve never seen it do so. In fact, what it seems to do is make things worse. And so, I admire Abuelaish’s stance in his book, I shall not hate, because if anyone has been tested, he has.
For those of you who don’t know his story, Abuelaish was born in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip in 1955. Through hard work and persistence, the encouragement of several teachers, and the support of his mother, he became a doctor, eventually specialising in gynaecology and obstetrics, and becoming an infertility expert. This, though, is not what the book is about. It’s about his ability to rise above horrific personal tragedy – the killing of three of his daughters by Israeli Defence Force (IDF) shells in January 2009 during a 23 day attack on Gaza* – and his decision:
I had two options to choose from: I could take the path of darkness or the path of light.
He chose the path of light, because, as he writes:
I believe in co-existence, not endless cycles of revenge and retribution. And possibly the hidden truth about Gaza can only sink in when it is conveyed by someone who does not hate.
Though making this choice – towards light – was clearly a conscious act, we readers aren’t surprised because we’ve seen him making this same choice throughout the book despite, as he says, being “tested by brutal circumstances the whole of my life, as have many people in Gaza”.
The book chronicles his life from birth to the tragedy – and then his response. He tells about his family’s leaving their farm (which was subsequently taken over by Ariel Sharon!) to join the refugees in Jabalia, and their lives in the camp. He describes the struggle to survive – under grinding poverty that’s rather reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s in Angela’s ashes. He understands how poverty and long-standing oppression lead to acts of violence. As a young boy, he saw education could provide a way out but writes of how without the encouragement of teachers he could well have given up in order to work to help support his parents and siblings. And, he describes his early experiences with Israelis, including working on an Israeli farm during a school vacation, and their joint recognition that they had more similarities than differences.
More alike than different. That’s one of the threads of his story. Another is his belief – and this, again, is a belief he has chosen – that good can come of bad. That’s how he has survived and will, presumably, always survive the setbacks that confront him. One of the lessons of the book is, I think, this one of choice – it is within us all to choose light over dark, hope over desperation. A cynical reader could see Abuelaish as naive except, and this is a big except, he has walked the talk. Not only did he experience the violent (I can’t begin to describe what he saw in his daughter’s bedroom minutes after the attack) deaths of his daughters but throughout his life he has faced immense obstacles to get where he’s got and to maintain his generous positive philosophy. Just reading his descriptions of getting in and out of Gaza – such as he did on a regular basis to work in an Israeli hospital – has made me decide that I will never again complain about being held up a few minutes at an airport for a random security check!
This is not literary fiction, but the story is so compelling it rises above the plain prose. If I had any criticism it would be that it gets a little repetitive at times – but then, I get the sense that life is pretty repetitive in Gaza! He tells his story chronologically, with the odd out-of-sequence digression to make a point. And, there is the rare use of medical imagery to convey an idea. He describes hate as a chronic disease and says:
I am a physician, and as a consequence I see things most clearly in medical terms. I am arguing that we need an immunisation program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred.
It might sound like most of the book is just about talk, but Abuelaish is about more than that. He recognises that action is needed. This action can be as simple as bringing people together so they can share their experiences, find commonalities and learn to trust again. Trust in the Middle East is, he says, “gasping for air”. But, the point I really like is his argument that empowering women, changing their status and role, is a critical part of the solution. Girls need to be properly educated and women’s values need to be better “represented through leadership at all levels of society”. The impediments to achieving this are both financial and cultural, and he has established a foundation titled Daughters for Life to work towards this aim. “Investing in women and girls”, he writes, “is a way out of poverty and conflict”.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going … and Abuelaish is one tough, in the best senses of the word, guy. This is a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
I will not hate: A Gaza doctor’s journey on the road to peace and human dignity
London: Bloomsbury, 2010
* This is not a spoiler. If you don’t come to the book already knowing the basic story, you will know it from the back page and from the foreword and opening chapters.