Tell the truth… (about sectarianism)

(This short story was initially published in the Haifa Arabic weekly Al-Madina on September 14, 2018. You can find the original Arabic text in Haifa Al-Hura.)

May 22, 2017 was a special day. We attended another session of the detention court for poet Dareen Tatour. The Court again rejected the request for the abolition of the house arrest imposed on Dareen, which lasted more than two and a half years until she was sentenced to imprisonment for 5 months and was returned to prison. On this special day, however, the court allowed Dareen to leave her family home in Reineh, the location of her house arrest, for several hours each day, provided she was accompanied by “qualified guards” from her family. On this occasion, to make use of the new crack in the wall for breathing freedom, Dareen and her companions did not return home after the hearing. But, for the first time since her arrest more than a year and a half before, she started wandering the streets of her beloved city, Nazareth, and we were wandering with her.

In this short passage, written more than a year later, I do not want to write another chapter in the famous story of the trial of the poet Tatour. But I want to touch on a passing conversation that took place during our tour of the streets of Nazareth. It touched an exposed nerve and its complex meaning is still echoing within my head even today.

We walked through the alleyways of the old market towards the Church of the Annunciation when we met, by coincidence, a group of foreigners, accompanied by a local activist. We learned that they are active in minority rights movements in the United States, especially Black Lives Matter. They came to Palestine as an act of solidarity on an educational tour, and our friend guided them on their trip to Nazareth.

We were pleased with this opportunity to get acquainted, and we requested the guide to tell the respectable foreigners about Dareen’s case as well. He began to explain, but was not familiar with the details. With his permission I explained all the issue of the trial from Dareen’s arrest until the last court hearing on the same day. My explanation was brief but it was ample, and I felt that the guests were delighted to have the opportunity to meet in person one of the conflict stories.

But, when I stopped talking, it seemed that our guide friend was not satisfied. He told me, “Tell them the truth.”

I thought I had explained the details of the case accurately and honestly and did not understand what truth he wanted me to tell, so I did not respond.

However, it seemed that this truth that I couldn’t grasp was clear to other members of our small group, except for the foreigners. Some of them, Arabs, Jews and foreigners, urged me: “Yes, tell them the truth!”

I was confused. I was, as they say in Arabic, like “a deaf in a wedding”. I didn’t understand. “I have told the truth as I know it,” I said. “If I made any mistake, please correct me.”

“No, you were not mistaken. But tell them you are a Jew!”Dancing Monkey

At this point I lost my nerve. Some of my beloved friends felt that the foreigners, who were of different races and ethnicities, and who heard my balanced and objective words, could miss the main “attraction” – that the person who spoke this was someone of Jewish origin… Seeing such a scene should be regarded like seeing a dancing monkey in a street show.

“OK, OK, I will tell the truth,” I laughed.

“You have to know that we live in a society steeped in sectarianism,” I explained to the guests. “Zionism has taken control of all our thinking and we have stopped dealing with people as human beings. We are dealing with them first and foremost according to their sectarian affiliation. But even our concept of sectarian affiliation is wrong, distorted by Zionist misconceptions. Judaism, as I know it, is a religion. And any religion is based on faith and a set of convictions. As of me, as a person, I do not believe in this religion and have nothing to do with it. But Zionism wants to convince us that religion is transmitted by heredity through our genes… and that the son of a Jewish mother is definitely Jewish. I regret to tell you that, but my friends have requested me to introduce myself to you as a Jew.”

Thus I spoke the truth, as I found it in my heart, to the respected guests, to my beloved friends and to you, my dear readers.

 

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A spark of AI

My doctor decided that I have to do another heart test.

I went with his reference to the Heart Institute, hoping to schedule the test.

I approached the clerk at the reception and told her that I have a reference from my doctor.

“We don’t schedule tests”, she told me. “You should phone the call center.”

I found a free chair nearby, sat there and phoned the call center. After going through several stages with the bot, I had a woman on the line. I told her what test was required.

“No”, she said. “I can’t schedule this test for you. You can only schedule it directly in the institute.”

“Well”, I told her, “In the institute they said that I must call you.”

I crossed the corridor and approached the clerk at the reception.

“The call center says that only you can schedule the test”, I told her. She tried to deny that, so I let her talk with the woman on the phone.

“Well”, she told me, “why didn’t you tell me what kind of test you need? It is true that this test can only be scheduled directly”.

She scheduled the test for next Wednesday.

All this was daily practice of all human bureaucracy, not something worth writing about. But there was a twist in the plot that sounded to me like the harbinger of a new period.

We are all excited about how machines are acquiring artificial intelligence that allows them to emulate human reasoning and behavior.

Well, as I called the call center, the first response from the bot was to say that “we are sorry for the inconvenience but the system is very busy right now and response time is unusually long. Please try to schedule through the site.”Heart and AI brain

As I ignored this “try with another” initial response and filled my details anyway, the response was immediate, with no delay at all.

I really appreciated how the bot was adopting the intelligent methods of our human brothers and sisters, making me feel at home.

(Haifa, July 2018)