Surviving in the “Palestinian Wing”

A Palestinian man from Gaza injured by an Israeli air strike is treated for his wounds at the Maahad Nasser Hospital in Cairo, 30 December 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Seeing Hedaya slowly regain her smile and her strength is so comforting. At every visit, her beautiful facial features appear more visible and distinct. Um Nayef, her elder sister who accompanied her from Gaza to Cairo, in turn embraces me warmly when I come in and with the Palestinian dialect says ishtanalik, we miss you. I grin and hug her back. We sit down, share a few jokes about Hedaya’s health and exchange hellos with whoever is in the room. There are always visitors at Maahad Nasser Hospital coming to wish the injured well, ask about their families and provide assistance.

Almost a week ago when I first visited Hedaya, or Um Muhammad as she prefers to be called, her screams were so loud, I could hear them from the other end of the “Palestinian Wing” — as they now call that part of the hospital. Having just gone out of the operation room, Um Muhammad’s tears were incessant, her face looked pale, almost green and she was in such pain that she kept calling the nurses over and over and they in turn kept turning her down, repeating that this kind of pain was inevitable following an operation. Next to Hedaya’s bed, Um Nayef, whom I’ve come to know later as a strong and cheerful woman, stood visibly shaken and unable to hold her tears.

Um Muhammad almost lost her leg to the debris of a missile which hit her house on the second day of the war. She was now lying on the bed with an external leg brace covering her entire right leg. For anyone who does not know what that is, it is an ugly metal device made of vertical support bars piercing the leg from both sides in order to stabilize the fractured bone. Um Muhammad will have to spend at least three months wearing the brace, the doctors said. Her children, to their good fate, only suffered minor injuries. Only Um Muhammad had to be taken to the hospital in Gaza at once. But her operation was complicated and the hospitals in Gaza were not prepared for such cases. Um Muhammad was among the very lucky few who were able to cross the Rafah border in an ambulance during one of the few times that Egypt allowed patients from Gaza to leave. She was at first taken to the al-Arish hospital in the Sinai and then later moved to various hospitals in Cairo.

But something more than the pain leaves Um Muhammad anguished most of the time. She is in Cairo. But her children remain under fire as the war on Gaza continues. When her eldest son Muhammad calls to check on her, she says, “I am good. But don’t ask about me. We are safe here. It is you I worry about.” The two sisters had come to Cairo in a hurry on the ambulance with almost no belongings. But whenever a visitor would ask what they needed, like most of the injured here, the sisters always reply “we need calling cards to call home.”

The many times when I visited Um Muhammad, I’ve found her holding her phone, ceaselessly dialing and redialing, trying to reach home. The mobile network in Gaza is often down because of the continuous electricity cuts caused by the Israeli attacks. It is precisely these moments that torment Um Muhammad the most. When she is unable to reach her children, Um Muhammad grows visibly anxious, her mind goes a bit astray and she ceases to take part in our conversation. Um Nayef in turn, not knowing what to do and equally worried about her own children, roams around the other hospital rooms to ask if other Palestinians from her area were able to reach their families. But even Um Nayef’s confirmation that no one is able to reach home because the network is down does not comfort her sister. Only when Muhammad calls back, does Um Muhammad quiet down.

Her daughter, Sabrine, the youngest of seven children, in turn wants to comfort her injured and distant mother. To do so, she decides to tell her a new joke every time she calls. There are no words to describe Um Muhammad’s expression during these conversations. When she puts down the phone, Um Muhammad still wants to talk about her children. Somehow it draws them closer to her.

“I was fixing breakfast for two of my children when the missile hit us,” Um Muhammad says. “Sabrine woke me up, she was hungry and wanted to eat. Two minutes later, a missile hit my house. The roof fell. The children suffered minor injuries on their faces and arms. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to leave. But my eldest son, Muhammad, forced me to go to the hospital.” Um Muhammad and Um Nayef both lost their husbands under the occupation a few years ago. “We are both wives of martyrs,” Um Nayef told me when I first visited them. Um Muhammad’s husband was a taxi driver. He was attacked while working driving his car around Gaza — Um Muhammad tells me this with a little irony. “We went to live at the very west end of Gaza, by the sea, to be away from the Israelis and yet my husband got shot while on the job in Gaza City.”

Meanwhile, both sisters receive many visitors who often come in groups for quick visits. Some stay silent, totally shocked at the situation; many give all sorts of donations; some pray with them; others ask about the injury and how they were attacked. But the only thing Um Muhammad and Um Nayef want to talk about is their families and children. The sisters never seem to want to talk about the violence, the war, the pain and the injuries. The only thing that turns our conversations lively and helps them survive everyday injustice in Gaza are family aspirations and family stories.

Gehad, Um Muhammad’s 22-year-old son, also wants to get married like his older brother Muhammad who just got married a month before the attacks began. Gehad has been in love with his cousin for four years but never disclosed this love story to his mother. Only a few days before the war broke out, Gehad finally asked Um Muhammad’s blessing to marry the cousin. She accepted. Now Gehad wants his mom to come back so he can marry his fiancee. He wants his mom also to bring her a gift too on her way back from Cairo. “I thought of getting a nice training suit to offer to his fiancee, but I am not sure. I don’t know what I will bring him. Well I’ll think of it again before I leave,” Um Muhammad tells me.

“You know, Muhammad is the one I worry about the most,” she stops and reflects for a moment then continues. “He took charge of his brothers and sisters ever since I left. He is only 24. In addition, there is his new wife too, but she understands. She refuses to leave them. I like her very much; she is very kind to me and looks after my children even when she’s only 15.” Muhammad is one of the many young people in Gaza prematurely made into adults by the ongoing occupation. He has been supporting the family financially ever since his father was killed five years ago. Working as a barber, he helped the family to make ends meet. Muhammad and his mother have a bond that single mothers under the occupation have with their eldest sons who become their companions and source of support.

Um Nayef has become seemingly warn out by the situation. I can sense that she is slowly loosing her strength. It is quite distressing how caretakers looking after the injured are often overlooked in these situations. Um Nayef has been caring for her sister for almost three weeks now on her own. She too misses her children. I can sense that she is becoming restless and can’t wait to be back home. Only Um Nayef wouldn’t show these feelings as to not make her sister feel guilty for bringing her to Cario.

But every so often Um Nayef would tell us another funny story about her children that gets us laughing out loud and forgetting the war, if only for a few minutes.

Um Nayef’s eldest son, Nayef, was married only two days before the war. Like Um Muhammad’s son, he too is forced to look after his six brothers and sisters, who have now been sharing a room with him and his wife. Because of the lack of privacy, the newlyweds have faced a problem in addition to everything else: they have been unable to sleep together. Families whose houses were demolished, parents injured or killed have been joined with one another under the same roof. There is no space in Gaza for the couples like Nayef and his wife to be alone. Um Nayef recounts with a theatrical tone her son’s mother-in-law’s relentless efforts to secure a place for a few hours during the day for her daughter to sleep with her husband. We laugh, almost in tears.

Every time, I visit or call Um Muhammad and Um Nayef now, I too now just want to ask about their children. I too hope they will still be alive and reunited by the end of the war.

Dina Makram-Ebeid is a doctoral student of anthropology at the London School of Economics researching neo-liberalism and the re- structuring of public industries in Helwan, Egypt and has been active in development organizations in Egypt. She is also a member of the LSE Student Union Palestine Society. Dina can be reached at d.makram-ebeid AT lse DOT ac DOT uk.