CAIRO, EGYPT, 25 MAY 2003 — Last time I saw Mus’ab, he was holding a tire in a tub of dirty water checking it for leaks. The auto repair shop is on the Burqin Road between the two main entrances to Jenin Refugee Camp. Mus’ab left high school at age sixteen to provide for the family, because Israel has imprisoned his father without cause in so-called administrative detention since their invasion of the Camp in April 2002.
Mus’ab had been inviting me repeatedly to visit his family in Burqin village, to which they had relocated after their house was destroyed, like hundreds of homes in the Hawashin and Damaj areas of the Camp. I had rescheduled a couple of times, and this time told him I was going away for a bit, but would be back. He insisted I must come for dinner as soon as I returned. I promised.
Mus’ab was one of the first people I met on my first trip to Jenin Camp in June 2002. He had stopped by the home of friends a little way up the hill, where I was enjoying a starry evening on the upper-story verandah. A few days later I saw him outside/inside a home at the lower edge of the destroyed area. He was in what should be the inner front room of the house, but with the wall shaved off, the entire room was exposed to the outside. The steps were missing also, so I climbed up the broken concrete foundation to enter the home. His mother greeted me so warmly, and introduced me to his aunt and cousins, including one stocky young boy who could be my own cousin with his red hair and freckles. I sat on a chair facing the rubble of the bulldozed homes, that cataclysmic panorama that the eye grasps long before the intellect does, while the poor heart straggles behind, never quite catching up to how something like this could happen, never fully believing the evidence of the eyes and the mind.
His mother brought me coffee and joined me, intermittently answering calls on her mobile phone as the lawyer communicated his futile attempts to talk with her husband in prison. Mus’ab’s little sister, about four years old, audibly expressed her desire to go with him as he jumped off the inside floor to the outside ground. His mother asked him to take her along on his errand. I was so touched by what happened next, though not surprised. With a typical Arab man’s tenderness toward children, he turned around and lifted her from the floor to the security of his embrace, kissed her, and she went proudly off, shoulder to shoulder with her big brother.
I was surprised when his mother told me he was only fifteen. He seemed older, but she said the boys grow up fast here, and she wished he would be more of a child in listening to her. It seemed a fairly typical complaint from the mother of a teenager. She joked about the view from the open wall. This gave me courage to ask if she would take a photo of me with the rubble in the background. It was a documentary shot, but I did not want to pour salt on the wound by focusing on the destruction. However, it’s not something you can hide easily, and people don’t seem sensitive about it. This was the only photo of me in the Camp, and it was among the many pictures that did not come out in the development process. Im Mus’ab/Mus’ab’s mother pointed out the direction where their house had been. When the Israeli Army was bulldozing homes, the family took refuge with relatives in the relative safety of this house across the street. The marathon bulldozing operation crushed the box of toys Mus’ab’s little sister cherished, including her favorite plaything — her toy bulldozer.
On another day I was so grateful that Im Mus’ab appeared just as I was walking by the house. I only had a little further to go to reach the home where I was staying, but a walk to town under a very hot sun had affected me. It was a great relief to enter the shade of the open front room, and even moreso to enter the inner room where the overhead fan transported me to another atmosphere. As I rested, and they brought me cool water followed by hot coffee from freshly roasted beans, Im Mus’ab told me about her trip to town. She wanted her little girl to choose some new toys to replace those lost in the toy box in their destroyed house, so she took her to a shop and showed her all the dolls and fuzzy animals and cute child-appealing things. Finally, the little girl chose a tank and some other military toys. The mother was deflated to see this, and finally compromised with some colorful little serving trays. I didn’t understand how those could count as toys, but then saw they can be used for playing house and serving guests. Like other mothers I have spoken with, she felt that the worst effect of the Army’s invasion was not the material destruction, but the feeling of vulnerability that leaves children seeking protection and strength in every direction, even in their games. The trays were very appealing, bright oranges and pinks reminiscent of sixties styles in a kind of abstract garden.
Im Mus’ab showed me how they had been sequestered in the back room of the house, while the Army stationed themselves in the house next door. Occasionally, one brave family member would wend his way to a front window to report on what was taking place, but the danger of being shot near a window was very high. This gave answers to my questions as to why people stayed in dangerous areas during the invasion. What else could they do? When you hear shooting, shelling, and walls falling all around you, you don’t know where they are precisely, but you do know that you will be a target of the munitions if you go outside. It was difficult to imagine that right here where we were having coffee and conversation, the family had been trapped inside, captive to the constant sounds of bombardment, in the darkness with neither electricity nor natural light from the windows. How can you bear something like that? When the circumstances are pressed down on you, you bear them because that is what you can do. Afterwards, your little girl chooses GI-Yousef over Winnie-the-Pooh.
When I came back to Jenin Camp three months later, Mus’ab was elated to see me. The family were spending more time in their relocated home in Burqin.
I admit that I experience some trepidation when I read reports of the day’s harvest of killings and injuries, especially from a distance. I had been away from the Internet for a few days, so was catching up with a report from the prior Tuesday, 29 April 2003. News of the Army invasion of Jenin Camp. And a name I know. What happened? Shot dead? Mus’ab Jaber. That’s my Mus’ab! And another youngster injured. Maybe I read it wrong; it’s hard to tell with the skewed margins of the forward. Maybe it’s a different Mus’ab. Maybe he was the one injured. I follow the lines carefully with my finger on the screen. “Mus’ab Jaber was shot dead.” Do you ever become accustomed to this, as if it is normal? Why should you? It is not normal. It is excessive, but it never makes it normal. I don’t have the forbearance of many of my Arab friends. When I cried out, my Internet folk brought me a glass of water. That wouldn’t change the news, but I appreciated the care.
I went for a walk in the early morning sunshine, across the Nile with comforting ripples carried by a light wind. Every green leaf on the banks brought comfort. I stopped to take in the view of a beautiful bankside garden with bright pink and purple flowers. As I was standing quietly alone, a voice behind me said, “You cannot stop here. This is a military area.” How appropriate for the occasion! Where have I heard that before! The Israeli Army charges into any and every neighborhood, road, field, and orchard, and claims it is a military area, trying to expel those who seek or who bring comfort. At least this soldier was benign, not threatening to shoot.
I continued walking and crossed back on the next bridge south, enjoying the view of more Nile-side flora as the sun climbed higher. I sat on a bench for a moment, and a gardener from a private club’s garden greeted me. When I arose to go on, his fellow gardener invited me to the garden. It was just the reverse of the episode on the other bank, where I had been driven away from the lush beauty. A forbidden garden view gave way to a permitted one. The universe compensates.
Still, I could not believe the news. It seems odd, with the number of martyrs Jenin has witnessed since I came back in September, but Mus’ab is the first person I knew well. And so young. Like so many. So unfair. So common.
I could not bring myself to socialize, though I had made plans to visit some new friends. When they called to check on me, I apologized for my absence, and then told the news of Mus’ab. The response was instant: “Oh, Tahani, don’t be sad! He’s not dead. He’s alive with God!” Heba didn’t have a trace of hesitation or grief, but she insisted that I come and spend time with them so I would feel better. Once again, I heard what I have become gradually less surprised to hear, as she and her sister told me that to be a shahid/martyr is the best way to leave the world, and that they hope for such an end.
I have now learned that Mus’ab was armed when the Israeli Army shot him dead. The Army was also armed. In fact, it was an individual in the Army who shot him. One person. One armed person. Person to person. Armed young man to armed younger man. But only one is named in reports, and that one is Mus’ab. His murderer is anonymous. Reports also imply that the deceased deserved his bullet because he was armed, in front of his house. Not his own house, of course, since the Army destroyed it along with hundreds of others, but his relatives’ house. Those whose homes were destroyed are still awaiting restitution. They could not defend their homes.
I am reminded of my direct ancestor, Ethan Allen of Vermont. Some friends tell me he is still a hero since Revolutionary War days. Others tell me that the man’s character pales in comparison to the legend. Legends are like that. Some views of the history behind the legend show that the American colonies had developed a more participatory form of government, and wanted freedom from the British Crown’s rule and its rules. When the British were attempting to enforce their rule, my ancestor, Ethan Allen, opposed them, and he was armed in doing this. But that is not all; he also mobilized the Green Mountain Boys to be ready to fight the British soldiers, to be ready at any moment to take up arms at home or in the field, to defend their farms and their families. When the British were enforcing their dominion over the population, my ancestor was active in armed opposition, and we call him a hero.
Suppose he had a young volunteer Green Mountain Boy named Mus’ab, and he got word of the dominator’s invasion of one of the independence seekers’ towns. Do you suppose that this freedom leader would advise Mus’ab thus? “Don’t defend us. Let them come in and do what they have proven themselves expert at doing. Let them murder a few more defenders, grandmothers, schoolchildren, handicapped people, and doctors. Why should you care? Why should you try to protect these community members from deadly sharpshooters and shellers? Relax! Have a glass of coffee from freshly ground beans! Enjoy the view of the carnage. Enjoy the sounds of bullets from the safety of an innermost room they may invade at any moment. Think of it as your own home cinema with sensurround. Most importantly, don’t get involved. Let your neighbors be hunted and killed. Let your little sister be targeted. Don’t get involved.”
The last time I saw Mus’ab, I had been walking in the road when a man called out to me. I thought maybe I knew him, so I waited for him to catch up to me, and asked if he were working, as his tall rubber boots indicated some kind of local labor. The question started him out on a very long answer about his lack of work, and a large family to support, and the way the Israeli Army is attacking people at all age levels, and making normal things like employment impossible in this society. He pronounced these things very volubly with a great deal of hand-waving, and people in the road looked at me rather pityingly, that I should be accompanied by this madman. His manner was disconcerting, but all of his words were correct. Everything he said was accurate. I thought of deCerteau’s wild man who says what everyone knows is true, but remains silent about, leaving it to the man removed from society in some way, to give voice to. Nonetheless, he was becoming a little attached to my footsteps. When I stopped to say hello to Mus’ab working on the leaky tire, he managed to deter the man from following me further. Very gently. I was reminded of his style with his little sister.
That morning I had awoken at the home of friends at the top of the hill of Jenin Camp. Before the household awoke, as I looked out across the Camp yielding to the fertile plain, I saw a full rainbow arching from the farmers’ fields in the north across to the village of Burqin. The rainbow faded out and then back in with its full splendor of stripes. Burqin is said to be the village where Christ Jesus performed his first marvel of turning the water into wedding wine, and where he later healed the ten lepers, of whom only the stranger amongst them, the Samaritan, turned and thanked him. Today the rainbow was bringing its prism to Mus’ab’s village.
I hope to fulfill my promise to Mus’ab, to visit his home in Burqin and dine at his mother’s table. I have not yet seen his memorial poster. I see him as I saw him that day. Last time I saw Mus’ab, he was earnestly fixing the tire, kindly steering the wild man away, looking up at me and smiling.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic issues and is conducting research in occupied Palestine. She is currently visiting Cairo.