“Palestine’s existence depends on respect and on our children” - Dr Rauf Azar (Director of the Beit Sahour medical centre)
Sat 25th May 2013
Dr Rauf Azar is the director of the Beit Sahour medical centre in Palestine, a post he has held since 2005. The centre is supported by the Health Work Committees, an NGO whose main aim is to provide health services to inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories. Special emphasis is placed on meeting the healthcare needs of marginalised groups such as the poor, women, children and the disabled. “This centre was founded as a clinic” says Dr Azar, “then it expanded and became a day care surgery centre. We are on our way to establishing a small hospital for general and reconstructive surgery”.
If Dr Azar’s aim is fulfilled, the Beit Sahour medical centre will become the first hospital within the Occupied Territories to offer reconstructive surgery. There are plans for collaboration between the centre and the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive surgery in Bari, Italy.
I ask Dr Azar a direct question: “What is Palestine?”
The physician remains silent for a few moments. He then casts an eye over the Lego bricks scattered disorderly in front of him before uttering “Palestine is nothing here”. He does not attempt to touch a single brick.
I attempt to encourage Dr Azar to fashion a model representative of his native Palestine using the colourful Lego pieces in front of him. He appears uncomfortable and attempts to describe in words what Palestine means to him rather than communicating through the bricks. I ask him a second time to build a model and describe it.
After a short while, Dr Azar builds his first model.
The first model is comprised of one brick: a simple black base.
After completing the task he comments: “This is the area recognised to be Palestine or which should be Palestine” I look at the solitary black piece of Lego and ask “So, is Palestine is single black block?”
It is a question he does not expect. “Well”, he replies, “you can take any other colour, black is simply symbolic.”
“But what does this thing mean for me?” then then asks himself while fingering a few Lego pieces in both hands.
Dr Azar then places two thin yellow bricks next to each other. I challenge him by separating the two bricks and state “This is not a stable Palestine”.
He seems puzzled remaining silent and motionless as I insist that if his latest model were “Palestine then it’s only comprised of two unattached Lego pieces lying side by side that can easily be separated”.
Sobbing he answers “no” and engages in a moment of personal reflection before commenting “Maybe, maybe”. The doctor then starts to construct another model.
He finishes and simply declares “This is Palestine for me. It is nothing and it is something at the same time. Perhaps earlier I had placed two unattached Lego pieces side by side to show that historical Palestine does not exist anymore.We now have two occupied territories with Israel in the middle”.
Palestine: the Model
I point to the model in front of him and ask which part of his creation represents the occupied territories.
“I don’t know where are they” he answers.
“That’s not important and as you can see here, I placed another piece on both on them” he says as he indicates that the yellow bricks are now being held together. “…And I have placed a bridge between both parts.
Yet he points out the continued instability of the model he has just put together.
“Why is it not stable?” I ask.
“Because they belong to each other, and even if there are no natural barriers, they are still separated…”
“So what do the yellow and black bricks represent then?”
He looks at the model and paused before replying “Both of them might be the occupied territories, both of them might be Israel. It depends on the perspective from which you are looking. I think that fighting or talking about what belongs to me, as a Palestinian, or what belongs to an Israeli is not going to bring about any change. Maybe my Palestine is this one, or this one,” he says pointing to each brick in turn.
“I did not position them with any plan in mind because for me Palestine is the place where I live, the country where I was born, where I can feel free and where I love to live: that is Palestine. The real Palestine is the place where I know I have my human rights, all my rights, where my children also have their own rights – the right to play, the right to talk, to learn, even to exist…”
“This place might be Palestine or might be Israel. The important thing is that whoever lives there has to know his borders and at the same time accept his neighbour’s borders. For example, if Palestine for me is Bethlehem, it may not be my free Palestine as long as Bethlehem is closed by the wall and is cut off from its natural neighborhood”
I keep Dr Azar talking. “What are these two parts here”? I ask pointing at the yellow and black blocks.
“They are human rights and contacts”
“Contacts?” I ask
“Historical Palestine. When we are together and respect the rights of the others”
“Where are the others?” I ask.
“The others are the others. They are not represented in this model. This bridge would be an effective one but it needs to be built by both sides to be strong.”
“And how do you build this bridge?”
“With an agreement between peoples. If we have two pieces of land we need to have a very close relationship so that both can coexist. This is the agreement and it won’t be very difficult to achieve. If I know that one part needs a little bit more from my part, I can give them this part or they can give me a part of their own [land]. It’s not difficult but it can’t be effective without an agreement. Without this agreement it’s just parts. When we have the agreement, it can be build and rebuilt and nobody will be angry because I know the other is not a stranger. He may not be identical to me and may have a different religion and be from a different culture but he knows his borders. I can accept him and he can accept me. So it may be like this: they can exist in friendship and stability with each other”. Dr Azar moves the Lego blocks around while speaking.
“How do you think these two parts of Palestine can agree on something and make a stable and strong model? Who should work on this?” I ask.
All together” he says firmly.
“Maybe we have to begin with the young people and give them the possibility to discover each other so that we can set the foundations for two things: acceptance of others and the reciprocal discovery of our own borders so that everyone can accept and respect each other’s borders. History is full of examples. Real change has been effected through cooperation and exchange programs between youth of different countries. Maybe this is a way. It’s important that people learn about each other”.
“I challenge you once more” I say whilst disassembling the model “What is Israel?”
Silence. Then I ask “What is your perception, or if you prefer, who is a Israeli for you?”
“Who is an Israeli for me?!” He stops for a second before continuing ”You know, when somebody is Jewish and can live anywhere in the world but feels that Israel is his Israel. I have nothing against them. They should build Israel as they want but they should also know their borders. I can go anywhere in Bavaria.” (Dr Azar lived and studied in Germany for many years) “It is my Bavaria. I can buy land and build my house there but I cannot go to Germany and say that this land is mine”.
”So you don’t accept the challenge to build me Israel or an Israeli?”
”I don’t believe in stones” he replies.
“I believe only in living stones: the people who live in this country who are much more important than natural stones. I am the director of this clinic and I like it but there will come a time when I think I can’t give more to this clinic and I will leave and someone new will come to take my place. The identity of the clinic will be different but that does not mean that what I did was bad and that the changes [made by a new director] will be worse or better. What is more important is that when I say that this part of Jerusalem is Palestine, I risk losing my life every day, on each side, just to get to this place. But when people are able to accept others they won’t fight and will find an arrangement for their mutual existence. The other thing: here you see different [Lego bricks]. Each of them has its own border. They are mixed but at the same time, when we make a structure out of them not everybody will be happy because someone wants to have more influence than another”.
“So is the right solution to make everyone moderately happy?”
”Almost happy, or to say it better, we have to accept the good with the bad”.
”So there is no solution to make everyone happy?”
”Not in any life. Are you always happy?” Dr Azar replies.
This interview was recorded on Dec 31st 2011 in Bethlehem by Patrizia Bertini. Palestinians recently celebrated the 65thanniversary of their Nakba. Many errors have been committed by both sides and yet it seems no side has learned the lessons required for long term peace to flourish.