Izzeldin Abuelaish, I shall not hate (Review)

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.

Dr. Abuelaish & Rabbi David

Dr. Abuelaish & Rabbi David, Oct 2009 (Photo credit: achituv, using CC-BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Izzeldin Abuelaish
I will not hate: A Gaza doctor’s journey on the road to peace and human dignity
London: Bloomsbury, 2010
ISBN: 9781408814147

* 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.

22 thoughts on “Izzeldin Abuelaish, I shall not hate (Review)

  1. This sounds like a wonderful, deeply moving, heart wrenching read. I will be adding it to my ‘wish list’ immediately (the actual list that I send my family to when they don’t know what to get me, not my mental ‘one day I might …’ list). If only there was such an immunisation …

  2. Amazing story and difficult to understand how our daily struggles can be so paltry next to this ongoing and almighty conflict. I am sure the choice of light is a choice that brings on a higher strength.

    • Yep, Catherine, that’s exactly what I thought … it gives one a rather large dose of reality doesn’t it. I like your point about gaining strength from making such a choice.

  3. I’ve seen a few Palestinian and also Israeli films on the same theme. They remind us that the endless conflict that we see on TV is not the whole story.

  4. It wasn’t until you were talking to me about this on the phone last night that I remembered reading an article about this man, which described (or perhaps included an excerpt from his book about) the scene in his daughters’ bedroom. I think I must have purposely pushed it out of my mind. What an incredible man, and yet at the same time it feels a little sad that it’s not the other way round – by which I mean that I wish the anomaly was the people who give into hate and revenge and destruction of others, not those who can see that such a path leads only to greater self-misery and anger.

    For the record, I know you would choose not to hate too.

  5. Thank you for this review, Sue! From personal experience I know about choosing the way of the light. I wish I had time to read everything that looks so good. Maybe the All-nonfiction group or something. It’s on my wish-list.

    • Ah, Bekah, I know you do … and you done good!

      And when I saw your name pop up I thought you were going to say the All-nonfiction group had done it. It would be a good one for them I think. I still think positively of the few books I read with that group and wish I could fit more in again.

  6. What an amazing and brave man! It appears the book was published in the US in 2011 but I’ve not heard of it. No surprise really, the US is so pro-Israel no matter what that the voices of Palestinians, even ones such as Abuelaish’s, often go unheard here. It is a real shame because it only contributes to keeping things unsettled and difficult to move toward any kind of real peace.

    • It’s a worry isn’t it Stefanie. He documents a post 9/11 Dialogue on Healing panel he was asked to attend in the U S. Mostly Jewish and he was the only Palestinian. There was some resistance to his coming and then to hearing him but he apparently got them listening in the end. That was something specifically on Healing and still many were closed to start with!

  7. I ve not read this but have rewad a number of books from both sides of conflict my favourite non fiction has to raja shehadeh his books very good ,all the best stu

  8. Thank you for the review. I have not yet read the book, but attended his session at last year’s Ubud Writers Festival, by far the most moving of the festival. At the time I wrote: “I came to Dr Abuelaish’s session expecting a gentle man. I was wrong. He is full of anger, anger at what happened to his daughters, outrage at what is happening to Gaza, “the largest prison in the world”, where men, women and children are deprived of everything, living with the world’s unsafest water and the highest rate of disability. (The inadequate health service could not treat the thousands of Gazans seriously wounded in the war, so there were many amputations.) He is full of passion for peace, for Israelis and Palestinians to come together. He is a powerful, forceful speaker who shakes up his audience, challenging us to do more than just talk. At the end of the session everyone in the large audience stood to applaud him.”

  9. Oh thanks Bryce for sharing this. There was so much I wanted to say about this book. One was his lessons at the end. Here are two:

    * Anger is not the same as hate.
    * Anger can be productive. Feel the anger, acknowledge it, but let it be accompanied by change. Let it propel you toward necessary action for the betterment of yourself and others.

    I must admit I would have expected a gentle man but given these lessons, what you saw makes sense. I think he also makes the point in the book that being patient or tolerant (such as at those interminable border crossings) is not the same as being weak.

  10. Wow… Abuelaish sounds amazing. I wish more Israelis and Palestinians would think about trying to speak to one another instead of hating each other. Mind you, there are two organizations I know of that try to do just that, and I’m proud that I helped raise funds for both of them at my last job.

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