Although The Jerusalem Post’s reporter is seated right next to him, Abbass Abbass cannot tell his skin color, eye color or hair color. Suffering from birth from a debilitating disease of the retina he recognizes people only from their voices.
The condition is steadily getting worse. “It is like tunnel vision and all the time the tunnel becomes narrower. My angle of vision disappeared. At night I can’t see at all. I have to walk with someone. Even during the day time I can see less than half a meter ahead so I have to walk with someone.
Yet Abbass, 41, the director of the Nazareth-based al-Manarah Association for Arab Persons with Disabilities in Israel is decidedly one of the more upbeat persons in Israel and for that matter, the entire Middle East. He gushes with enthusiasm, especially when talking about al-Manarah’s flagship project, the world’s only online library of audio books in the Arabic language.
“We are hoping to translate David Grossman’s When a Horse Goes into a Bar
into Arabic and add it to the collection,” he says. This is no idle boast since last year al-Manarah translated Amos Oz’s short story collection Between Friends into Arabic and recorded it.
Now, visually impaired people throughout the Arab world can listen to it and the other 4,500 titles of the library, 95% of which are in Arabic, either through the Internet – www.Arabcast.org – or on their cellphones with an app that al-Manarah created, Arabcast.
With its slogan Close Your Eyes and Read
, the library has over 50,000 unique users who access it on a daily or weekly basis. The service is free but to gain access one must furnish al-Manarah (Arabic for lighthouse) with proof of being “print disabled.”
Topics range from children’s books, to health education to novels and the readers come from Israel, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and the US among other places. MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) read a children’s story in Hebrew for the library and Oz read from his latest work Judas.
Al-Manarah has a studio on site and some of the readers have home studios. “Our dream is to have readers from all over the Arab world,” Abbass says. He also says he dreams of President Reuven Rivlin recording a children’s story.
A picture of Helen Keller graces the al-Manarah offices and Abbass likes to quote from her that “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” His journey to establishing al-Manarah in 2005 was laced with painful experiences from his visual impairment but also achievements from being smart and motivated.
“The attitude of Arab society is that people with disabilities are marginalized, the attitude is so negative generally that they don’t receive the basic opportunity to be included in education in the best way and social life.”
His father, a lawyer, and his mother were always supportive and he was able to excel in his studies. But he still sighs as he recalls what he went through after completing high school and going for an eye exam in Nazareth in order to be eligible for a blindness certificate.
“The ophthalmologist told me my eyesight was very low and asked me what my plans are for the future. I said I got the highest grades in my class and I want to go to the Hebrew University law school. He said ‘you can’t see half a meter. People like you have to stay in a warm corner of the house and listen to the radio.’ My mother was crying outside the clinic and I said ‘Mom, I promise that one day you’ll be so proud of your son.’”
“This is the story of millions of people especially in Arab countries being judged without the opportunity to express themselves,” he says.
It was another bitter experience, after he had earned a masters in law from the Hebrew University in 2004, that helped push him to found al-Manarah. He applied for a job as a human rights researcher at an NGO and initially received an enthusiastic response. But when he showed up for the interview and the recruiter saw he was visually impaired, he was told that “the schedule is so tough and can’t suit a person like you.”
Abbass explained that this was a turning point. ”I said to myself ‘If I am not for myself who will be for me?’ I thought no one is taking action so I have to. I decided to go back to my hometown and establish al-Manarah.”
In Abbass’s view Arab citizens of Israel with disabilities are “doubly discriminated against.”
“Our own community is paternalistic and we are part of an Arab minority that is discriminated against. The main discrimination is in resources.” While Haifa, Jerusalem and Ra’anana have centers for independent living for people with disabilities, Nazareth does not, he notes.
He says accessibility is poor in Arab towns and villages not only because they have smaller budgets than Jewish towns but also because the municipalities themselves do not prioritize this. He adds that the government must create more opportunities in the labor market for Arabs with disabilities and cites statistics indicating that only 10% of Israeli Arabs with disabilities are employed, compared to 52% for Israeli Jews.
As part of its outreach, al-Manarah facilitates workshops in schools so that pupils will have a positive attitude to people with disabilities. “The message of the workshops, which are facilitated by people with disabilities, is that yes, there are differences between persons with disabilities and others but what they have in common is more than what they don’t have in common. Both want to develop, to learn, to be included in the labor market, to have families. The message is of accepting the other, including the other.”
Al-Manarah’s funding comes from US-based philanthropic foundations, Arab and Jewish businesses and the Ministries of Culture and Social Services and the National Insurance Institute. Amos Oz said al-Manarah “does work that is sacred. They spread literature and culture to people with disabilities.” Of Abbass, he says: “I consider him a friend and esteem him. He’s an idealist, very dedicated, a lover of peace and a lover of culture.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev recently reduced al-Manarah’s funding, but Likud MK Anat Berko is trying to reverse that decision. “I decided to help them,” she said.
“They have a genuine desire to help people with disabilities and this is worthy of support. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Hebrew or Arabic or any other language. Abbass Abbass impresses me as coming from a good place. He shows a lot of goodwill to help people with disabilities coming from the difficulties he himself experienced and was able to bridge,” Berko explained.