Profile: Talat Nawas, practicing medicine everywhere but home

‘Palestinian Profiles in America’ is a project committed to exploring and documenting the personal histories of Palestinian Americans from all walks of life. In order to best examine the Palestinian condition in the United States, it is absolutely necessary to share the stories of refugees, blue-collar workers, newlyweds, and anyone in between. To suggest a story or individual to be profiled, please use the contact form here.

Guest contribution by Mariam Nawas

Talat Nawas, age 8 and farthest to the left, poses for a picture with his parents and his two sisters, Baheya and Zaher, in a studio in Al-Bireh in 1958.

Talat Nawas is the youngest of eight born to refugee parents in Al-Am’ari camp near Al-Bireh. Lacking basic facilities, the makeshift camp of tents inadequately sheltered families from Lydd, Ramla and Jaffa displaced during the Nakba in the late 1940s. Struggling to endure, Talat’s large family relocated to a one-room home in Al-Sharafa, a nearby town.

The rent, though cheap, burdened his parents and eventually forced the family back to Al-Am’ari. By now the tents had been replaced with concrete shelters and the family upgraded to a crude two-room house.

Far from being welcomed back into the fold, Talat and his siblings physically fought to regain status in the camp. Talat accrued scars from neighborhood brawls and bore them proudly alongside the ragged cartilage on his ear, courtesy of a nibbling rat during his early years in Al-Am’ari.

As his siblings grew up, they gradually scattered abroad to work, study, or marry, searching for a livelihood that was virtually unattainable in their native Palestine. Dispossessed and dispersed, they embodied the Palestinian plight.

When Israeli warplanes shaded the blazing sun in the summer of 1967, only Talat and his youngest sister Baheya remained with their parents in the West Bank. Ground forces captured Ramallah near Al-Bireh and closed the road connecting the adjacent cities to Jerusalem. The family fled to Jericho, where they spent a sleepless night tormented by the screeching of hailing mortar shells. As Israel advanced closer, Baheya and her mother managed to secure a ride to Jordan while Talat and his father set out on the 30-mile journey by foot in the scorching heat.  The family arrived safely in Amman two days later, and at age 16, Talat became a refugee twice displaced.

After completing high school in Al-Zarqa, he shuttled from city to city seeking to enroll in university. The flood of refugees into Jordan saturated the limited seats. His father would not allow him to relent, insisting that unlike land, wealth, and even human life, education was the only thing the enemy couldn’t take away. Talat spent four fruitless months in Egypt with his brother Rifat, a medical student, finally returning to Jordan to the rumor Spain was accepting immigrant students.

The rumors were incentive enough; he quickly recruited two friends to accompany him to Europe. The night before their departure, one student backed out. “Have you ever met an Arab graduate of Spain?” he asked skeptically. Intending to be the first, the remaining pair took a taxi from Al-Zarqa to Damascus and then another to the Port of Beirut. They boarded a ship to Barcelona the following day.

As the captain pointed the nose of the Turkish vessel into the sea, Talat discovered dozens of Palestinian students onboard, their nervous hopes swelling and toppling with the tide. Many were without rooms and slept on the deck. Breakfast each morning was a relative delicacy: sliced bread with butter, jam, and plain black tea. At every meal, the basket of bread vanished between their famished hands. “More ekmek, more ekmek!” they implored the servers.

The ship docked in Naples, Italy; Marseille, France; and finally Barcelona, Spain, delivering the young pilgrims to their respective destinies. Talat, now with four others, traveled by train to Madrid, where they arrived in the dead of night. Talat approached an elderly man at the station and tucked his hands beneath his tilted head, motioning sleep. The stranger led them to a hostel with cramped rooms and mattresses thin as sheets.

Talat, here a medical student, visits the costal city of A Coruña, Spain, 60 miles north of Santiago in 1975.

Talat sits with college friends in A Coruña, Spain overlooking the Atlantic.

The group journeyed northwest to Santiago de Compostela, the final destination of the age-old El Camino de Santiago, unintentionally settling in the sacred site thousands of pilgrims have sought. There, Talat finally enrolled in medical school and leased a tiny apartment with three roommates, eking out a livelihood on the small sum Rifat, now an intern, sent him each month. He would head to the movies after classes to immerse himself in Spanish. Ten pesetas bought him a daylong pass. He would watch the same picture in succession and echo back the actor’s lines until they acquired meaning, mouthing a solemn procession of carefully enunciated words.

He graduated seven years later heavily indebted to the country that welcomed him and educated him for free. He returned to Jordan to intern in Al-Zarqa Government Hospital where he met his wife, Rawhieh, a fellow intern and Palestinian who had studied abroad in Alexandria.

The couple remained in Al-Zarqa after their training, working for the Jordanian government as general practitioners. The pay was scarcely enough to rent a home. A major American construction and engineering company was developing an industrial city in Saudi Arabia and reeled in the physicians with a generous contract that afforded them the chance to pay off loans and start a family.

They moved to Jubail Industrial City in 1978, the city where they would establish their careers, welcome four children, and for the first time in their lives achieve financial prosperity. Photographs from the time depict a quintessential young family shuttling between baseball games, swim practices and many vacations abroad.

Talat with his eldest son, Bashar, at the New Orleans Zoo during a family vacation in 1983. The family would later return to New Orleans under much different circumstances.

Talat poses with his sons Husam, Bashar, and Mohammed during a family vacation in London in 1988.

Despite their valuable contributions to the city’s expansion, the family lacked the country’s embrace. Their son ranked highest in his class but the achievement award was passed down to the next ranking Saudi. Rawhieh, a practicing OB/GYN, was never permitted to be lead surgeon on a case. Talat became a director managing medical services in the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu; as a foreigner highly positioned in a Saudi organization, he quickly became a target. He was arraigned on false charges and subjected to grueling interrogations. The family’s passports were seized for two years.  When the charges were finally dropped, the couple felt pressured to relocate.

The family of six arrived in Amman in October of 1991. Rawhieh immediately got to work establishing an obstetric clinic near one of Jordan’s largest refugee camps, hoping to provide its women affordable care. The couple also constructed an apartment building with their savings, intending to get by on tenants’ rent until their practices took off

Rawhieh noticed her eldest son Bashar, now 13, seemed lethargic through the transition. She examined him as she did her own patients and palpated an enlarged liver and spleen. He was diagnosed later that week with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At that time, the diagnosis carried a 50/50 prognosis even in the hands of the best oncologists, and the family would soon learn his case was especially high risk. Four months after the move to Jordan, Talat set off to America with his son to seek treatment.

They spent their first eight weeks in the United States in a Ronald McDonald House. Once it became clear Bashar would require long-term care, Rawhieh and the other children joined them in New Orleans. New to the country, the family lacked health insurance and quickly burned through their savings. Rawhieh gave up her career to take her son to rounds of chemotherapy and countless doctors’ appointments while Talat studied arduously under the combined pressures of a seriously ill child and financial insecurity. As a foreign medical graduate, he would have to take the U.S. Medical Licensing Exams and repeat a residency. He passed his boards after months of preparation and was accepted into an Internal Medicine residency at St. Luke’s Hospital in a suburb of St. Louis.

Eighteen years later, this is the longest stretch Talat has spent in one city. He is now the head of the hospitalist group he established at St. Luke’s. He logs onto his office computer this morning and checks the daily census. Of the 202 hospitalized patients, 80 are on his service.

St. Luke’s draws patients from a wealthy, white population familiar with the Middle East mostly by way of popular media. More concerned with their physician’s credentials than his heritage, Talat’s patients usually shrug off his tanned skin and foreign accent. A patient wanting to thank him sincerely for the care he provided once addressed him as “Dr. Hamas.”

Dr. Nawas sits in the physicians’ workstation reviewing records with his residents. He wears a neatly pressed white coat and a stethoscope slung around his neck. His eyes quickly scan the lengthy document on the screen.

“Why can’t they give a concise history?” he asks no one. “This drains people. This is what you call a passive aggressive H&P.”

He moves onto another patient’s ER report. He disagrees with the physician’s assessment and capitalizes on the teachable moment. “A pulmonary embolus doesn’t raise troponins this high. We need to see the EKG,” he advises his residents. “When an elderly patient presents with shortness of breath and elevated troponins, think about ACS. A CT angiogram was a bad idea because he needs a cardiac cath, and now his kidneys have been loaded with contrast.”

Talat didn’t return to his native Palestine until 2008. His closest encounters instead became visits to the Dead Sea during his trips to Jordan, where he’d glimpse Palestine’s lights across the water, or clear nights in Amman when he could gaze at it through binoculars. Over the course of his children’s lives, the rich traditions, sacred landmarks and ubiquitous olive trees had been reduced to bloody scenes on television, a tiny image through binoculars, a faded landscape across a sea.

He wanted his now adult children to explore their roots in person instead of subsisting on secondhand memories of a rumored nation. After forty years in exile with American passports in hand, Talat crossed the King Hussein Bridge with his wife and their eldest son and daughter-in-law into the West Bank.

Talat, Bashar and his wife Julie, and Rawhieh stand with Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background during Talat’s first trip back to Palestine in forty years.

Talat in Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 2008.

Talat and Rawhieh painted a powerful picture of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah to their children back home. Though Jerusalem was scarred by the occupation, Talat knew his away around the Old City as if he had just left it. The family roamed the streets and ate ice cream and knafeh in the tiny shops he used to frequent as a kid; they visited the ancient churches, prayed in Al-Aqsa, and stood at the spot where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ascended to the heavens; they were harassed at the border and stopped at five checkpoints in a single day; they stayed in an Israeli hotel where the management was Jewish and the cheap laborers Arab; they visited the site where Jesus (peace be upon him) was born and where Abraham (peace be upon him) settled. It was both beautiful and wounding, being tourists in the land that was once theirs.

He repeated the trip in 2010 and 2011, eventually taking each of his children to their native Palestine.

“Back in al-Am’ari, I didn’t feel at home,” he tells me. “Jordan and Saudi Arabia weren’t home either. I spent some of the best years of my life in Spain, but I knew it wasn’t my home. I’ve been in America for twenty years, and may spend the rest of my life here. This is as close as it’s gotten, but I’ve never, ever felt like I had a home.

“But I adapted and adjusted and remained positive, and contributed to any country I went.”

Dr. Nawas peeks into a room on the OB floor. Bashar and his wife have just welcomed a baby boy. Laith Bashar Talat Nawas has green eyes and auburn hair, features that blend his American and Palestinian parentage. His name, undeniably Arab, preserves his Palestinian lineage. Talat cradles his first grandson in his arms and smiles, peering into the eyes of the future.

 Mariam Nawas

This post has since been updated. When first published, Mariam Nawas was a medical student. Today, she is an Internal Medicine resident in San Francisco.

To suggest an individual or story to include in this project, please use the contact form here. All photographs are used with permission from the subject(s).

There are 8 comments

  1. naila malik

    it breaks your heart to see and hear the suffering of palestinian people and admire there bravery and persistance and will power,still fighting with big nation like america and Israel but one thing i can never understand about Israelies people(not all there are some nice people also) can’t they see the suffering,poverty,injustice,grabbing there land,taking there houses and making them refugees and on top bombing there villages having a one sided war and then blaming Palestinians for everything,how can they sleep at night where are there concionse and humanity they are the people who have gone throuhh the suffering of 2nd world war and they are the one who is doing the same to Palestinian what Hitler did to them,WHAT IS THE FAULT OF PALESTINIAN PEOPLE,beeing a Palestinian is a crime but do remember which goes around it comes around.

  2. cristinarcs

    Almost 100% I can tell that the picture where you see the Cathedral in the back has not been taken in A Coruña, in north Spain, but Cadiz, in Andalusia, my hometown!
    I wish you good luck, my friend from Palestine

  3. Anonymous Friend

    A moving story,lovingly told. Amazing tale of struggle,perseverance and grit. In the end,it is Allah who makes it happen. Thanks to Him
    that this brave family’s efforts were rewarded so amply by HIM. They are all really blessed. May He keep them safe and protect them against all evils and tribulations. Aameen!

  4. khan pakistani

    Weldon doctor.Our prayers are with you Palestinian brothers and sisters.Whole Pakistani nation (except the coward rulers) is standing on your back.

  5. Eeman AlNatour Natour

    A true inspiration to all who face hardships in life. Enjoyed every word. Thank you Mariam for this and thank you Uncle Talat for showing the world what true courage is and for carrying on so gracefully. God bless you. ❤❤❤

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