Born in Arrabeh, north of Nazareth in the Galilee, Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is his village’s first Western-trained physician. His profession gives him intimate access to his neighbour’s lives. Kananneh chronicles their stories in his book Chief complaint, naming each chapter after the “chief complaint” of its protagonist, the principal reason that the patient sought medical attention at Kanaaneh’s clinic.
While the chapters have titles such as Hair Loss, Chest Pain and Nausea, they divulge much more than the medical ailments of a village. Through the fictional stories of characters treated by Dr. Kanaaneh (although fictional they are concocted out of multiple, real patients of his), the author invites us to share in their memories, struggles and hopes, and, with them, paints a rich portrait of village life and its social customs. Truths about the Palestine- Israel conflict are peppered throughout these tales and we learn much about less touched upon aspects of its history.
Identity is a central theme of Chief Complaint. Kanaaneh is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, which he defines as a “schizophrenic existence”. While 85% of the Palestinian residents of what is now known as Israel fled their homes in the 1948 Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians with the founding of the State of Israel), some stayed behind. Like Kanaaneh, they must now negotiate the complexities of being a Palestinian living in a state that refuses to acknowledge their struggle, both past and present.
The author uses this collection of vignettes to, in his words, “bring our (the Palestinian citizens of Israel) existence to light, to sing out our pleasure and pain, to echo our sense of alienation and dispossession, to face up to the dilemma of this schizophrenic identity...”
Through this compilation of memories, he has set himself the task of “breaking the imposed silence and isolation of the Palestinian community of Israel”. The villagers have faced many adversaries and bare the scars of endurance-from the challenge of resistance and the pain of collaboration- the patients whose sons are forced to work on construction sites building Israeli homes on stolen land, to their poverty and pride - like one of Dr. Kanaaneh’s patients that pays for treatment with her chickens' eggs instead of accepting charity.
The short stories in Chief Complaint are imbued with a poignance and nostalgia, delivering important historical context through easy to read, individual tales. In it’s totality, the book, as Kanaaneh says in his preface, conveys the community’s fundamental chief complaint: it conflicted relationship with the State of Israel.