Almost Armchair Travel

by ANNIE C. HIGGINS

I took a tour of the Palestinian territories over a six hour time span, quite swift considering the state of roads and roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza. I did it the easy way, almost like armchair travel, but from one hospital bed to another at the Jordan Hospital in Amman, where many Palestinians are brought for treatment that they cannot get in Palestine.

Upon my arrival I heard news from Jenin, which I had left the day before: the Israeli Army dropped bombs on a house, killing ‘Alaa Sabbagh and ‘Imad Nasharte, both active in the resistance, and leaving a newborn infant fatherless. As I was told, an unmanned surveillance plane had been hovering above to target the house, and then the house was attacked from the air.

But I was visiting people who were more fortunate, people whose existence itself remains a form of resistance.

My first stop was with ‘Imad Jabbarin whose legs were badly injured when an unexploded landmine left behind by Israeli invaders exploded in the street outside his house. This took place in June 2002 when the destroyed area of the Jenin Refugee Camp was being cleared. I recalled the emphatic declaration of a foreign member of a team examining the remaining materiel in the Camp: “We found absolutely no evidence of the use of landmines!” ‘Imad is making great improvement. By November he was able to take a sitting position in bed, and had used a wheelchair once.

A young boy about eight years old from Nablus sped in and out of the room in a wheelchair, calling a brief hello. I was to see him frequently, but just as a flash. His childhood was slightly revised, but still constituted of action and play.

A mother from Nablus invited me to visit her son in an isolated room. We donned masks and gloves before entering. Her son, Nidal Sharif, was resting quietly but his Palestinian instinct of hospitality was instantly activated, and he greeted me, offered me a chair, and a part of the orange he was eating. He had been shot in several places, but most dangerous was the bullet that entered at the bridge of his nose. He was conscious and alert, which was an excellent sign, but he needed special attention.

Back in a regular room which has about seven beds, I met Nidal Jirmi from Nablus whom I found to be the uncle of a young woman I had met in Balata Refugee Camp in June. She was the one whose little girl had dancingly approached the soldier and his gun as he kept us in a room while his comrades searched the house. The soldier had smiled, but Shirin called the little girl back. Later the guard very thoughtfully had another soldier bring a wastebasket for one-week-old Mujahid’s diaper. Mujahid, of course, means “one who struggles” as those in the resistance do. The soldier who shot Shirin’s uncle had not been in the same thoughtful mode as our guard.

Jenin Refugee Camp was also represented by Rami Wasfi Ibrahim whose mother had been allowed to accompany him to Jordan since he is a minor. Most of these journeys are made under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, but many patients wait months languishing in hospitals without treatment, until the permission comes through.

The city of Jenin’s representative was Jamal Rabi’ al-Qutt, a delightful boy who would be in high school had he not left school to support the family by taking a wheeled cart around the streets to find customers with his bright charm. His injury at the hand of the Army had cost him his hand. He would jokingly hold up his handless forearm and pretend it was a microphone. He had more verve and joi-de-vivre than I have seen from some people who haven’t suffered so much as a scratch.

Another young man, older than Jamal, had also been wounded in the arm. His entire forearm was gone, and he had written his feelings about the Army’s skill on the cast where his elbow should be: “You are all dogs, and my life is torture/kullukum kilaab wa-hayaati ‘adhaab.” Yet he too had high spirits, and could joke and engage in fun conversation with everyone in the ward. He happily took up the job of distributing the extra pastries that I had brought. When I was offering treats, I made sure to offer an apple, rather than an orange that needed peeling, to those with only one hand.

The shiny-haired boy from Nablus continued to zip in and out in his race car wheelchair.

My heart was stolen by a youth from Tulkarem whose head was in a device that seemed to orbit at eye-level with a steel band. Its purpose was to get his vertebrae back into the correct position. Oh, such patience in that face, but also a clear longing to be free of metal, and lying down, and this imposed abnormality. Ahmad Muhammad ‘Awde had been shot by a tank’s sniper while returning from high school. The bullet entered the back of his neck and exited from the front. He was not throwing stones. He is a top student who loves school, and had attended with the other students in spite of the Army’s illegally imposed curfew. Now in the Jordan Hospital, he wanted more than anything to eat normally, instead of being fed by a tube. His mother motioned me to keep my bag of fruit out of sight. But he had dreamt of eating his favorite foods, and that was some relief. He had spent seven days in Kfar Sabi’ Hospital in Israel before being transferred to Jordan.

‘Attaf Thabit from Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus had taken shrapnel in both legs, with one still in need of treatment. He was to go to Iraq within the week. Nobody else seemed to find this an unusual destination, and they spoke of specialists there.

I tried to calm a local hero, schoolboy Jihad Abu Layl of Jenin Refugee Camp who had lost an arm. I reminded him of his friends back home, and how they had deputized me to say hello. He was not to be consoled, and the doctor in Intensive Care reminded him there were other patients who needed attention, as well as some quiet on the floor.

Hamid Rashid Qufayshe from Khalil/Hebron joined Mahmoud Abu Shamali of Gaza, both recovering from the effects of Israeli snipers’ excellent aim. Mahmoud Abu Sahlul of Khan Younis in Gaza, temporarily blinded, was hoping to regain his sight. In the bed next to him was a boy from the village of Sile near Jenin who had lost an eye, but was moving about energetically with his new perspective.

Many patients were accompanied by family members, mostly parents because the majority of the wounded are so young. It is like a military hospital, except that none of them are soldiers. I am reminded that Palestine does not have a formal Army to defend against this unrelenting, formidable foe. In traditional Arabic poetry, war is a mill, grinding away lives. In contemporary metaphor, Palestine has been called a fire whose fuel is its youths. There is no formal Army to protect them.

ANNIE C. HIGGINS specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.

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