Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Switched at birth in Gaza? (UPDATE: Radio Netherlands responds)

A reader emailed me about a CBC radio program (originally from Radio Netherlands, link here) he heard recently about Ahmed Masoud, a British writer and playwright who was born in Gaza.

During the program, Masoud told this story that he had written for The Guardian last year:

I had a very happy childhood in a very large family, with five sisters and six brothers. I'm right in the middle, which is a good place to be. But we lived in one of the worst places on Earth – the Gaza Strip in Palestine – and when I was six, in 1987, the first intifada started.

...Despite everything going on outside I had a happy childhood. But all this changed when I was 17.

One day I came home from school and turned on the TV. There was a programme about Palestinian refugees and how their families were fragmented because of the troubles, and it talked about how children and babies were mixed up in hospitals.

I looked at my mother and she was electrified – her mouth was open, her eyes were staring and she looked like a ghost. I knew there was something she wasn't telling me. My dad, too, was staring at the screen. I could see that behind his glasses there was a tear coming down. I hadn't seen my dad cry before, and to see his tears falling down his cheek was terrifying to me.

Then he wiped his eyes and held my hand, and my mum's hand, and he started telling the story about what happened when I was born.

At the time, the hospital was being raided and I was evacuated to a special care unit before my mum had even seen me. My dad heard news that the hospital was being bombed and went straight there. When he arrived he was told the room and cot number where he could find me. He ran as fast as he could, but when he got there, he found not one but two babies in the cot. He didn't know which one was his – the one on the left or the one on the right. There was no time to make a decision. He had to take one. He wondered whether the number they had given him was a mistake, but when he looked around all the other cots were crammed with babies too. And he had to make that decision. So he picked me up. Even now, if you ask him, he can't answer why he picked me and not the other baby.

He went back to my mum and she wrapped me up, and they ran with me through the streets back home. He didn't say anything to her until they got home. My mum just put me to her breast and began to feed me. That bond, that love, that motherly feeling was there. The more she looked at me and fed me, the more she was sure I was her son.

Wow...what a story! It is custom made for reader (and listener) sympathy. You can almost feel the heat from the explosions and smell the gunpowder, as you picture Masoud's father desperately trying to save his baby's life from the heartless Israeli air raid at the maternity ward, and the parents' desperate race through the streets of Gaza - with the still recovering mother forced to flee on foot, no doubt barefooted, dodging the falling bombs and debris while tenderly protecting her newborn baby.

Only one problem: Israel didn't bomb any hospitals in Gaza when Masoud was born. It didn't have air raids until the second intifada.

This story happened six years before the first intifada, when tens of thousands of Gazans were peacefully commuting to and working in Israel. Hamas didn't exist. Thousands of Israelis lived in Gaza. More from Israel would go there weekly to buy goods cheaper than they were within the Green Line. Arabs with the proper means would travel to Israel to be treated in hospitals there. 

Masoud's birthday is August 27, and I cannot find any possible actions by Israel in Gaza in 1981 or 1982 around that date. Israel was fighting in Lebanon, not Gaza, and the very few protests there were met with riot control methods, not airplanes. (In 1981, there was one highly unusual mass protest in Gaza where one protester was killed, and that was in December. Most of the protests at the time were from the PLO in the West Bank.)

This story is fiction.

Now, it is entirely possible that Masoud's father is the one who made up the story, perhaps because poor procedures in the Gaza hospital caused a possible mix-up. After all, he admits that there were two children in the same bassinet. 

Or possibly Masoud himself, who has received awards for his autobiographical fiction and who co-wrote a dramatic and seemingly highly exaggerated BBC radio play about how he escaped Gaza during Cast Lead, just made it up. 

What is not at all surprising is that the media would swallow such a story without the least modicum of fact-checking. 

(h/t Tom)

UPDATE: In the Radio Netherlands website, this was brought to the attention of the people who produced the radio show. Here is their response:
Ahmed Masoud’s story was part of an entire show on adoptees and their sense of family. His particular story centres on his suspicion that he was switched at birth and was raised in the “wrong” family. He then goes on to recount how after an initial period of alienation from his parents and siblings, he came to realize that it doesn’t matter whether he’s genetically related to them or not. They are his “real” family, in the end. It is expressly not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I've found no reason to think his story is a fabrication.

As for the criticism that there were no air raids at the time of his birth, we contacted Mr. Masoud and here is an excerpt from his reply to me: “I have made my position clear to these allegations before: I never made a claim that the hospital was bombed. I mention clearly that my father heard [sic] on the news. The story is about the parent/son relationship and not the Israeli/Palestinian conflict where facts can be muddled up depending on which side of the fence you are. I hope this answers your questions.”

I'm not sure it does. We based our interview on an article in The Guardian newspaper Saturday 19 March 2011. Mr. Masoud describes how as a teenager he’d come home from school. His parents were crying as they watched a TV program about children who were mixed up at birth in the hospital. Mr. Masoud describes his father at that moment: “Then he wiped his eyes and held my hand, and my mum's hand, and he started telling the story about what happened when I was born. At the time, the hospital was being raided and I was evacuated to a special care unit before my mum had even seen me. My dad heard news that the hospital was being bombed and went straight there…”

The passage is ambiguous. On the one hand, it implies that the raid is a matter of fact. On the other, it mentions that the raid was his father’s perception, one based on his hearing a news report. So was the raid real or not? Here is part of Mr. Masoud’s response: “As you can read from the article, I never make the allegation of the hospital being bombed which seems to be the focus of the complaints. Raided doesn't mean bombed.”

I’ve tried to verify independently if there were any Israeli raids of any sort on hospitals in Gaza in the early 1980s. This much we know: Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and had a military presence there. The Lebanon war was on. In 1981, Israel bombed Iran. Israeli fighter jets flew low over Gaza. Things were extremely tense, so it’s understandable why Mr. Masoud’s father could believe that a hospital had been raided. But to my mind, Mr. Masoud’s use of the term “raid” is misleading: it’s treated more like a background fact rather than a perception or misperception. We’ve therefore altered the language describing his story on our website.
Here is where Radio Netherlands falls short. Now that we know that Israel hadn't dropped any bombs on Gaza in 1981, or indeed at any time since 1967, the idea that the father immediately believed that a hospital (!) was being bombed is fantastic enough. But to go beyond that and say that he ran to the hospital, presumably saw that the rumor was completely unfounded, and still chose a nearly random baby to take in his rush is beyond belief. Moreover, that he would then take his still recovering wife to flee, on foot, away from a completely safe hospital goes way beyond plausibility, no matter how sympathetic you want to be with the father.

CAMERA found a similar story about a fictional Israeli raid -this one a tank attack in 1948 - that was reported in the media in 1998 as background to a different story. In that story as well, the main point of the story wasn't the fictional raid, it was a different topic entirely, where Israeli disregard of the lives of civilians is taken to be understood, retroactively, in the context of the modern revisionist narrative.

And we've seen this happen a lot - for example, Mahmoud Abbas offhandedly describing his family's eviction from Safed, when in fact they never saw an Jewish soldier. It is a subtle rewrite of history that is meant to cast Palestinian Arabs as eternal victims of Jewish aggression rather than as people who were actively involved in the events at the time. And when innocent sounding details like these are placed as background facts in writings on different themes, they are generally believed by the reader subconsciously, far more effectively than if it was a straight narrative of events where the reader is on guard for explicit bias.

This is why this is a big deal, and why the lies of a playwright who is practiced in creating drama need to be called out.

(h/t The Dude)