A tribute to foreigners who can help

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I am not an easy-going student. Admittedly, I hate instructions, and it irritates me to be told what to do. It was perfectly in character when I flinched and frowned when Dr. Annie Dudin asked me to button my white physician’s coat and dispense with my ring while assisting in her pediatric clinic in al-Khader. Oh well, she does not really know how strange my moods can be and how I hate to be given orders, I rationalized. At least, she didn’t tell me to remove my headscarf like the French nuns at the hospital up in Nazareth did last year, I thought as I grudgingly removed my ring and buttoned my coat.

As my first day in Dr. Dudin’s clinic progressed, I experienced and almost immediately appreciated her crisp and even managerial style. Here was a Western woman who had moved into our culture and became part of it. She showed no disdain for our differences, and carried on with purpose and great, unending care. I was glad that I had not made a fuss about my ring or buttoning my white coat. Dr. Annie Dudin was a person to respect.

On the way home that evening, I ran into a newly graduated doctor who had formerly studied under Dr. Dudin. As we rode home in a service van, he said, “So, you’re working for Dr. Dudin. She might sound dogmatic to you, but be good to her, Samah, and you’ll learn a great deal.”

I simply smiled, aware that I had already learned a lot from her. Working with babies and children, the importance of not having rings that might snag or scratch or seem cold on a tiny person’s skin was a lesson in and of itself. She taught me that lesson without any explanation other than experience.

“You know,” I said, “why does she come and live here with all this violence, impossibly unacceptable equipment and endlessly damaged children she cannot really heal?”

“Because she seems to care about humans more than she cares about French technology and economic success,” my friend answered. “And she wanted to come here and bring newness, experience and her spirit to us.”

Such integration of Western perspective coupled with an understanding of how to react and reach out to people in Palestine in spite of all the surrounding hardships makes a world of difference in how I personally view foreigners: Europeans and Americans. Not that I ever was xenophobic or had any problem with foreigners. On the contrary, I welcome the foreigners’ presence and like to interact with them, but I’m sometimes critical of the so-called “Palestinian” non-governmental organizations that are financed and headed by foreigners and, yet, called Palestinian NGOs. I remember having hot arguments about the leading role of foreigners in Palestine and the urgency of having our own grass-root movements.

But Dr. Dudin is a model for personal cultural interaction. She touches my heart so strongly that whenever I think of her, I feel ashamed that I’m trying so hard to attain a successful position outside Palestine. Here’s this blond, blue-eyed European doctor who risks prejudice from some of our people, not to mention the potential of being oppressed or shot at everytime she steps outside her clinic, swimming upstream with the rest of us.

For her, life may be even worse than it is for us. Day to day, she finds herself trying to run up the down escalator as she faces problems with one bureaucracy after another, not to mention the intractable medical cases and the limited resources that will break anyone’s heart.

The next day and the next, I worked alongside Dr. Dudin. I saw the respect given her by mothers who could not pay for her services and by those who could. I saw babies cuddle up and smile, happy to be in her arms. Always speaking perfect Arabic, manipulating the words so she could urge women to breastfeed their babies, that being the one issue she seemed to want to impress upon the mothers who came to her. She told them about nursing in a way they could understand and appreciate. More often than not, the mothers who talked to Dr. Dudin accepted her advice rather than rejected it as foreign and odd. She spoke the rural and the urban accents equally well.

Hearing Dr. Dudin speak, I felt inadequate in my own use of the language of my heritage. I’ve heard it said that a person only really knows a language when he or she can use it to tell a joke. Dr. Dudin went further than that. She used her perfect Arabic to calm, to play with the kids who came to her clinic, to teach, to deny any sense of superiority that we Arabs may expect from Westerners, to show each student and each patient that they were all equally valued in her eyes.

One woman in al-Khader neighbourhood who did not know Dr. Dudin personally but had heard about her, told me haughtily, “I’ll bet this doctor can’t roll a good grape leaf.”

“Well,” I said, “neither can I. And, you know what? I’ll bet she can,” I mused.

I know that Dr. Dudin is different. Unlike most Westerners, she did not fear coming here nor was she ready to be critical or skeptical of our people. She has an adventurer’s independence and she loved a man from a different culture enough to marry him. Still, Dr. Dudin and her Palestinian husband could have chosen to remain safely and successfully in France. Instead, they chose to move to a suburb of Bethlehem and to stay there for as many years as I’ve been going to school. I think to myself, at least she’s not like the American woman who went to Iran and, unable to cope with Iranian culture, fled and later wrote the famous book, Not Without My Daughter.

No, Dr. Annie Dudin is fair. She would never write a book that tells only about the negatives in Islamic/Middle Eastern culture. Even if she did suffer from cultural ambiguity, she would have come ready to see the positive aspects of strict, but loving family commitments.

As the rotation continued, I felt secure enough in my relationship with Dr. Dudin to show her a draft of a story I wanted to share with the world. It was an angry story. Dr. Dudin pleaded with me to have restraint, common sense. “Ah, Samah,” she said, “You have to know when to speak up and when to hold your peace and wait.”

Unlike my friends and family, she didn’t tell me not to write; she simply told me to measure what I say and to exercise patience. She said something to the effect of, “You’ll have time enough to explain to the world what’s happening here. Think of your future and how much you have to offer. Don’t give away everything at once, but hold on to it in your heart of hearts and keep your own counsel until the day comes when you can speak and be heard.”

Like everyone of us, Dr. Dudin goes through checkpoints and, now, the newly established Iron Gate in al-Khader. She lives the daily life of seeing bloodshed. She feels the sadness and pain of a physician who took an oath to preserve life, but experiences more than anyone’s share of seeing life end. She knows oppression. She knows not to sulk and dwell on that oppression, but to do what she can to fight it. She fights in ways that will allow her not to lose.

You see, Dr. Annie Dudin will not buy Israeli-made products. She speaks up in protest against international companies that are supportive of Israeli oppression. She also facilitates the presence of doctors from the French organization Physicians Without Borders. She leaves her pediatric clinic to serve in the emergency room, trying to save the lives of those injured in our endless clashes. She invests all her being in our people and in our community. Like many of us, she may dream of leaving for the easier climes of the West. No doubt, she longs for a place where people understand modern medicine in ways that do not require her to argue about it. I remember seeing Dr. Dudin talking to a squeamish city woman who didn’t want to breastfeed. The woman said, “Breastfeeding is not clean and is painful. I am not a cow, I cannot do it!”

Dr. Dudin calmly said, “I know that bottle-feeding is the popular solution. But consider the nutritional value, the psychological advantages and the convenience. What if there is a closure and you cannot get to the store? If you have not used the milk God gave you, your milk will not come in an emergency and your baby will go hungry. You wouldn’t want that.”

The woman was unaware of the advantages that sharing her milk with her baby can have. She didn’t understand that breastfeeding helps a baby develop a stronger immune system and a stronger constitution, not to mention how easy it becomes with experience and the wonderful emotional tie it helps create between mother and child. As Dr. Dudin talks and talks, the woman begins to smile and nod her head in the affirmative. What has Dr. Dudin said beyond her first words about the reality of closure? No doubt, she has used her perfect Arabic and her uncommon understanding once more to gain the confidence of a doubtful woman and to make a child’s life better.

I may not see Dr. Dudin again for a long, long time, but moments like this will be in my memory always. Remembering her bedside manner and her kindness to me that has given me a more relaxed attitude toward “people in authority” and those from the West who come to work and live in Palestine.

Dr. Annie Dudin has given me a huge and important giftéthe gift of sensibility and awareness of the kind of person and doctor I want to be. Dr. Annie Dudin showed me how I want to be; she didn’t tell me what to be or give me more instructions. I allowed myself to be open to her good example, and from that I learned on my own.

(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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