The night I finally got to see my grandmother Halima after seven long years was spent with her filling us all in on her astute political analysis and the results gained from Israel’s eight-day offensive on the strip.
“Hamas captured two of the Israeli pilots,” sitto said confidently. “They dragged them from the pile of wreckage from the plane that was downed and now they are keeping them underground like they did with Shalit.”
My uncles laughed and encouraged her to go on. She must have realized that they weren’t taking her seriously because she glowered before changing the subject to how she felt every time an Israeli air strike would hit a target close by.
The next morning, Wednesday, I woke up with the two twins, three year old Basma and Noor, sitting on either side of my head. They smiled when I opened my eyes.
“Lima, are you awake?”
“Linah, are you awake?”
“I am now. Let’s go say good morning to the lambs.”
We went outside and stood in front of the pen. I raised my hand. The twins did the same.
“Good morning ghanamati!”
The twins repeated after me.
“Good morning chickens and two roosters!”
Memories, checkpoints and detours
I went back inside and found my mother standing next to the bookshelf.
“Look what I found,” she told me excitedly. “This is the first book your dad gave to me before we got engaged. Back then I didn’t know he loved me. Look at the inscription inside the cover — he wrote ‘with all my love’ but covered it with white correction fluid. Instead he wrote, ‘with all my fidelity.’”
“Love is haram [forbidden],” I said seriously, but Mama was drawn back to an era way before I existed and kept on smiling. I marveled at time and memory.
That day I went with my dad to Gaza City, taking the road along the beach.
“This road was completely inaccessible when the settlers were here,” he informed me. There was one way to get to Gaza City from Khan Younis and the southern areas, and that was through the notorious Abu Holi checkpoint, which was located close to Netzarim settlement that bisected the Gaza Strip. I remembered the checkpoint. We waited for hours and hours on end back in the summer of 2004, bumper to bumper. One time it was closed for two weeks and one of my uncles missed the birth of his daughter, stranded in Gaza City where his work was, unable to return home.
I fixed my eyes on the colors of the sea and the sandy beach. We were forced to take a detour once we arrived at the Wadi Gaza Bridge, which was split in half after it got targeted by a malicious Israeli air strike in November.
We kept driving north, and stopped by at Abu Husary’s store to pick up some fish for dinner. We passed the port and the hotels alongside it. We passed by al-Khuzander gas station, where three members of al-Asali family, a father and his teenage daughter and son, were killed.
Later I met up with a local journalist and at my request, went to al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza.
We visited one of the few children left in the hospital from the eight-day Israeli offensive, Mohammad Abu Zour. The Abu Zour family house was targeted by an air strike and the family members had to be rescued from beneath the rubble. Three were killed, including Mohammad’s sister-in-law, another young woman, and his three-year-old cousin.
I spent no more than 30 minutes with Mohammad, who refused to speak the entire time. He was obviously traumatized, and was unresponsive to almost everything. He was in the ICU for a few days —the journalist showed me pictures of him she took — and he looked like he was teetering between life and death, his face bloody and swollen, and so many bandages covering his body and head.
Now he only had one big bandage swathed around his head. The doctors told me that there was still shrapnel inside his head they couldn’t remove without risking his life. I tried to imagine sitting at home one moment and the next, finding yourself buried alive in rubble. All of his siblings suffered injuries but none were life-threatening. His brother’s wife, mother to a baby, was thrown from the house and found on the street, dead.
“Mohammad, can you tell me what happened? Do you remember what happened?”
I hated asking those questions. I hated myself for a bit for being so persistent and such an uncaring monster, determined only to get answers.
“Mohammad, look at me.”
He wouldn’t. His tiny skinny body was entirely clenched. He put his arm over his eyes and mewled, shrinking back in the hospital bed.
“Please open your eyes Mohammad, I want to know what color they are.”
They opened. Huge greenish eyes framed by thick eyelashes stared at the ceiling unblinkingly.
A camera crew entered the room. “We’re here to interview the kid,” they announced loudly.
“He’s not speaking,” I said. They left after a few moments.
Mohammad’s uncle and aunts were sitting around his bed, filling us in on the details.
“We have to make him walk,” said the uncle. He lifted Mohammad up, who again was totally unresponsive. He had tensed his muscles so he was easy to pick up and move around. The uncle forced him to stand upright, and began walking him outside the door.
“No, don’t lean on me, Hamoud,” he said. “Stand up straight. You can walk by yourself, come on you’re not a baby.”
“Can I walk him?” I asked. I grabbed Mohammad’s hands, limp and lifeless in mine. I tugged gently so we can start walking again, and he half collapsed on me, mewling again.
“We’re only going to the end of the corridor, Mohammad,” I said. “Just to the end and back. Can you squeeze my hand? I don’t know if you’re with me or not.”
A heartbeat later, he squeezed my hand. We walked. I talked nonsense to him, about myself, how I feared doctors, what a brave boy he is, which football team he supports. He didn’t reply. We went back to his room and his muscles tensed up again, making his uncle carry him to the hospital bed.
Illegal weapons suspected
I went and briefly interviewed one of the doctors about the injuries they witnessed.
“We’re pretty sure illegal weapons were used against civilians,” he said, “but we can’t say anymore on this subject because tests need to be run in order to confirm our suspicions and these tests cannot be run in Gaza due to inadequate materials and lack of proper settings.”
I walked out of the hospital in the late afternoon, taking in gulps of air. If I were so affected by one boy, a boy who physically is almost fully recovered, how would I survive as a journalist in a conflict zone? I mocked myself. Do journalists only think of themselves all the time?
I can’t forget about Mohammad. I hope the next time I’ll be in Gaza I’ll visit him at his rebuilt house and see a normal, boisterous, mischievous little boy, the scars of his memory at being the target of an Israeli air strike not quite healed, but not so prominent as they are now.