Thursday, June 25, 2009

The streets of Beer Sheva

The Streets of Beer ShevaOrhan Pamuk writes in his memoirs about Istanbul, "Only one of the city's idiosyncracies has refused to melt away under the western gaze: the packs of dogs that still roam the streets. After he abolished the Janissaries for not complying with western military discipline, Mahmut II turned his attention to the city's dogs. In this ambition, he, however, failed. After the constitutional Monarchs, there was another "reform" drive. This time aided by the Gipsies, but the dogs they removed one by one to Sivriada managed to find their way truiamphantly back home. The French, who thought that dog packs were exotic, found the cramming of all the dogs into Siriada even more so; Sartre would joke aboutt this years later in his novel The Age Of Reason.."

Since I arrived to Beer Sheva three years ago, I have in vain searched for its past. Being a Palestinian from Jerusalem, I have come to breathe the same air filled history of my own city, an air that maintains my airways constantly open, and my mind alive, oxygenated. A dry air, void of the tracks of its past, hurts my lungs.

As a medical student in Beer Sheva, my way of meeting the past happens pervasively when interviewing my patients in geriatrics. In doing so, instead of meeting a city whose ruins and heritage I have been in seach of, I met Eastern European, North African and Asian history; some survived the holocaust, others had to leave Tunisia and further than both were those who escaped Moldova, and Tajakistan. On the other hand, I found few Bedouin patients in the geriatric ward, whether it be because they dont live long enough to be admited, or whether it be that they insist on getting discharged, the reason, epidimiologically speaking, remains unknown.

"The city is growing and in ten years, there will be a lot of history," a young student told me. Perhaps, I thought, keeping in my mind my beloved rich stories of Jerusalem of thousands of year. And yet, after having gone in search for a heritage whose existence I am not sure about, I come to appreciate Orhan Pamuk's words: anywhere that you go in Beer Sheva, dogs are ever present. Though I dont speak the language of dogs, a part of me wonders, where they have come from, if they always had been in Beer Sheva, and whether they can tell me the story of the ruins of the Turkish mosque and the Bristish cemetary in the Old City.

I have heard other new western comers identify Beer Sheva as the city of lights, the city where new restaurants are open and where new buildings in Ramot and in Vave are being built. As a traveller through this city, I call it the city whose story and heritage is entrusted to its stray dogs.

Jifna by me

"Jifna," I thought to myself before saying out loud the name of this village located in the West Bank. We had been driving for an hour now from Afula, headed back to Beer Sheva. "We" were eight students doing a family rotation in the rural parts of northern Israel, which included Bedouin towns, the town of Afula, Kibutzes, a community clinic around Tiberias, and other community clinics around the Jezreel valley. My classmates were playing a game, whereby they thought of cities' and countries' names that started with J and ended with A. Names such as Java, Jaffa, Jakrata and Jamaica were already mentioned as the silence fell in the van. I searched my memory for more names, looking at the face of the driver in the bus mirror. His name was Abed, he was Bedouin from the town of Hura, in the south of Israel, near Beer Sheva.

Though I grew up in the city of Jerusalem, I spent parts of my childhood in Jifna because my cousins would come every summer from the States. Their father was from Jifna, and like many inhabitants of the village, he had inherited land from his family. His mother, Fatmeh, a woman in her 60s, was taking care of the land, of the harvests of olives, figs, lemons and almonds yearly as her son was away. Her husband passed away many years ago, leaving her with five young children to raise. Her son, my uncle, was a family doctor, practicing in the States.

Fatmeh always wore a traditional Palestinian dress, long and covered with embroidery. Her head was always covered with a white scarf. Around 5:30 in the morning, as I would be tossing and turning in bed next to my cousin on the second flour of the building where they lived, Fatmeh's voice and the rooster's became associated in my mind with having to get up, for a new day was here, and not a minute could be wasted. When evening came, there would be no more electricity, and it would be time to sit at the balcony, prepare dinner near the light, and chat.

Fatmeh held a respectable place in her community, having worked hard to raise her five children by herself. As I would accompany her and my cousins to run errands, to call people to fix things round the house and to help with the harvest, I saw the respect with which people of the village welcomed her. With her son the only doctor in town, many people would stop by, bringing in their prescriptions and their complaints to see him. She approved of the visits, seeing them as the duty of her son to the inhabitants.

The story had it that Fatmeh took my cousin, Fahed, when he was 8 years old to the fields she owned. She showed him the borders of the land. And according to oral tradition and a woman who was illiterate and hence could not entrust what is dear to her to paper and pen, only my cousin knew what his family owned. I had always wished that I had a grandmother from a village, whose power, influence, character and land ownership were recognized.Across one street from Jifna, on top of a hill, lied a Palestinian refugee camp called El-Jalzoon. Sometimes, some children from Jifna and I would go and play in the street between the refugee camp and the village with the children from the camp. The houses in the camp were cramped, and vehicles carefully and very skillfully passed through to reach Jifna.Walking down another street at the entrance of jifna and Fatmeh's house lead to Tabash restaurant, the church, the grocery store, the cemetery and the school. The owners of the restaurant were Fatmmeh's cousins, the priest baptized my uncle and his children, the sellers always wrote down what I owned them under Fatmeh's name, the cemetery was covered with grass and not well kept, and my cousins went to school during the summer when they would come to visit.

Twenty years later, with Fatmeh's children all highly educated and living abroad, my mother told me that Fatmeh had been found dead in her house at the age of 80, possibly due to a heart attack. Her neighbors missed her after not seeing her for a few days. Her son, the doctor, was not able to travel in time for the burial, and it was I who attended, and could say that I, unfortunately, had a family member buried in the cemetery in Jifna.

Whenever I go to the cemetery to visit her grave, I am reminded of the walk she took my cousin, Fahed, on, and showed him the limits of the lands she owned, and then I realize that I, too, have my own land, whose borders and limits I know. With the birth of my cousins in Jifna, our childhood years spent there, and with the death of Fatmeh, I found my own Jifna in people's families and life events, marking the limits of my land that I don’t trust to papers."Jifna," I said out loud in the bus. "It is the name of a village in the West Bank," I explained. The silence in the van was gone. My classmates chose to move to another letter of a city beginning with K and ending with A. I didn’t search for a name of a village or a city in my memory anymore, but rather for faces of a native American old woman I had sat with in her Navajo village, of a Bedouin woman called Um Salem, of a Russian grandmother called Anna, and of an Ethiopian grandmother, hoping that I would, then, remember the name of their villages, and join my classmates in the game of names again.

Coloring 101 by me

Yellow French fries
next to a brown steak.
A white dish
Flowers drawn in blue
A room with white walls
Crayons thrown around
Dinner time. Parents return.
She is asleep
Crayons-are gone
And, The white walls-
no more.

From Najran by me

As I stand at my grandpa's grave located in the catholic cemetery on top of a hill, I can see different parts of Bethelhem. The majority of names in the cemetery is Giacaman, my grandfather's last name. His family is one of the prominent families in Bethelehem; in fact, if I were to walk into anyone in the street, s/he would probably be a Giacaman. People live next to each other in a city and they also lay dead next to each other in its graveyard. This is the city where my family has lived for hundreds of years, where I know I have always belonged, so that moving to the cemetery is just another location, one of the many taken up by the same family.

Next to my grandpa's grave is another one with the engraving of Carmel Nassrallah Giacaman, who died thirteen years ago from breat cancer. I was nine at the time and only remembered vaguely her dying in her last few days. Is my baby sister going to remember anything of what we saw today of the funeral? She tells me not to worry, that I am going to see my grandfather in a few years, and that in fact, I am probably the first one who would see him out of the four siblings! Older than her by 14 years, surely I am bound to see my grandfather before anyone else.

The winds are roaming the valleys and hills, invigorating my tears. They don't seem to leave anything or anyone in their place, but they rather move them. I could not believe that my grandfather laid in the ground. What is a body? We, the medical students, work with it in our dissection labs, it is not alive. My grandfather is somewhere else, with that wind that has blown for two thousands years in this city where his family has always been after coming from Najran in Yemen. He is somewhere around those hills and this city of Bethelhem whose spirit and history he spent his life getting to know and finally joined it for eternity.

What is life and death anyway but points of beginning and ends, how often are points so important? Isn't it the process through which we go, through which we come to be or come to be undone, through which we come to know and to learn that stand time? I can almost hear my grandfather tell me in his Bethlehmite accent in Arabic, "Ma fee waket, mashghool." I smile because he is right: there is never a time to stop, never a time not to do something meaningful. I promised him that I would translate his books and he still had another volume prepared, to come out about Nazareth. He is right: our lives are too short, what are they? 80, 90 years? Ma fee waket.His words blow in the winds, and they need to be so that my grandfather's spirit is not in that grave, neither is anything that we do in life and that is worthwhile stagnant.

It is all blowing, blowing in the wind.

Anatomy class feedback by me

Dear Prof. Ben Shalom,

I have wondered to myself as I read your name on our schedule where you last name came from: it means son of peace. Did your Palestinian Jewish family bring peace to the people around it during the Ottoman or British rule? Were they farmers that shared their produce with their neighboring Arab villages? And, why is there “son of” in your last name- was someone the son of a father? Were you a family with many cousins? My last name is Abu Ata, which means "father of giving". My last name comes from Arabic but the root is similar to that in Hebrew: latet.

I have wondered if an abu (father) gave (ata) a ben (son), as two family members share things, and so it came to be that I am Abu Ata (father of giving) and you are Ben Shalom (son of peace). I have wondered about the dead sea scrolls, the ones you and your ancestors have come back to be able to read. I have looked at them in the Israeli museum and have wondered how many times they were read on shabat in the synagogue, rolled out and put back in place by different readers and devout prayers- till the fearful day of destruction and uprooting of a people who were home. Now, having lost all sense of familiarity of home, even the temple of their God that called them out of Egypt, to pass (and hence Passover, pesach) to another country was no more.

I have always pictured Jerusalem torn, with each rock dispersed. Amidst the chaos, someone snatched the dead sea scrolls, ran to the desert, holding on so dearly to the only thing left of his place- those dead sea scrolls. Did that person walk around in the desert of the Dead Sea and stumble upon a cave and decided to hide the scrolls there away from all the fear and destruction he felt and witnessed? While rolling out the scrolls on the ground one last time, did he wonder, “Who will keep those possessions of my own people? Who will know of us? Will we read those scrolls again? We worked so hard to be in this land. He promised us this place. It is our home now, where else can we go? Where has my family gone? Were they killed? Who will keep those scrolls till we come back again?”

I picture that displaced refugee of more than two thousand years ago, in agony, not wanting to leave the precious scrolls but rather die with them- much like others behind him in Jerusalem had chosen to stay and die, rather than leave.

Did he stay near the scrolls till he died, hoping that someone will find them, know what they are, what their value was, preserve them and return them to their original owners and with them retell the story?

I have imagined that as this person walked out of the cave, because he heard noise, he saw shepherds with his sheep. They were nomads that he had never met because he lived in the city all of his life. The two shepherds spoke a language similar to his. Somehow the two nomads understood that the scrolls, he had hid in the cave, were important to that foreigner. So, they promised they would keep them and watch over them.

And that they did, until the 1960s, when a Bedouin boy revealed them again to archeologists. And, the scrolls went back to Jerusalem. That refugee’s pleas of more than two thousand years ago were answered, with the help of Bedouins.

To study the anatomy of the human body is illuminating because one realizes that each muscle, nerve, artery and vein are together needed to perform a task. When one member of this group is missing, the person feels the difference. What I learn to appreciate in studying anatomy is that every part, however small or insignificant it might seem, is needed in the body.

And yet also being a Palestinian whose family’s roots go back to the early Christian Arabs that lived in this land, I also realize how important it is to have all the people, however different they are, in one place,one land. The case is no different than what I study for my anatomy test- nerves, muscles, arteries, veins and bones exist in one body together. The median nerve innervates the abductor pollicis brevis, and thus moving it. And, a Ben Shalom might have well helped an Abu Ata sometime before walls were put up and funny colored papers given to one group of people, and not the other.I am glad that I, too, can read the Dea Sea scrolls.

I am also glad that my people were as intermingled and meshed in the history of this land as yours. Who knows how each people was needed throughout history, so that a function in the body of this land could take place. I think that two weeks are not enough to study limb anatomy.

We need more time to learn how all the different parts fit and work together, without over-riding one another, and thus we have abductor pollicis brevis, next to flexor pollicis brevis, next to opponens pollicis, an Abu next to a Ben, to abduct, flex and oppose the thumb, thus giving a signal of some sort.

Sincerely, Nisreen Abu Ata

Curtain #3

Tired. I looked up to the window, hoping that the sun's rays would dissipate the water in my eyes, and below it I saw number 4. "Next, students, come to curtain number 4," the instructor said.

Dr. Moshe continued explaining how to read a fetal heart monitor, when to induce labour, when a latent phase labour was, what to do with a woman with constitional hypertension, and finally a woman coming with polyhdrominos and gestational diabetes. I moved with him and the other students removing one curtain, seeing another woman in labour, in pain, and then closing the curtain, and looking at another new monitor, with a different expereince of pains of labour. Each woman was placed next to another one with only curtains separating them, and the voices and motions of contractions painfully uniting women and newborn.

I stood in the back of the crowd of students, with my weight shifting from one leg to the other, and my head from the doctor to the window outside. The students shared the right answers to the questions. I usually paid attention and cared to share the right answers.

Not today- I desired the rare commodity of privacy in labour and delivery room.

Before joining the teaching round, I had helped a 19 year old Bedouin woman during her first delivery. I had hoped that the midwife would allow me to deliver the infant, and introduced myself. The answer to my request was no because this was the woman's first delivery. I introduced myself to the woman who did not speak Hebrew, and became her translator for the next two hours of her, her infant's and my life. As the contractions came, she climbed up her bed, closed her legs and screamed closing her eyes. Fighting, not surrendering.

"She does not know what is happening," said the midwife, callously, indifferelty. As labour progressed, and the same body language of the woman continued, the frusterated midwife said, "She thinks she is the only one delivering! We need to get done with this." And I wanted to tell the midwife, "You know, you see many deliveries and to you it is routine. But to this woman, this is her first delivery. Nobody explained anything to her about how it happens."

The woman looked more so like a young girl, having gotten married less than a year ago. After asking her if anyone came with her, she said her mother-in-law but she did not want her to come. Translating and yet also coaching a woman through her birth, while still shielding her from the screams of the midwife for her lack of cooperation was what perhaps brought tears to my eyes this morning as I joined the teaching round. "Breathe in deeply and then push," I told her, against her own and the midwife's scream. My voice was the only calming, gentle and still factor, against the sea of motion her body embraced going up the bed, against the sea of motion she created closing her legs, against the sea of motion my arms, and my classmates' created to keep her legs open.

The little girl finally came out around 945am. Indifferent, uninvolved, disconnected, oblvious, ambivilant, such were the two hands that I helped the woman place on her child. "She might fall, hold on to her tight," I said, without leaving her side, knowing that there were no hands that held the infant strongly. For how could one child, now called a mother, hold and take care of another child, now called a daughter?

The placenta was not completely removed according to the midwife who called the doctor to do a bimanual exam to remove the rest of it. The woman's body motion continued to escape like a tide that had just broken on the shore and now was retrieving. "Die (stop it in Hebrew)," screamed the doctor with frusteration. If he could not remove all of the parts of the placenta, she was going to be taken to operation, he explained to her. The higher his voice got, the deeper his hand went into her vagina and the more her body retrieved back up the bed, the more she closed her legs and screamed. My voice repeated calmly and gently to breathe deeply, to come back down, to open her legs to complete the retrieval of the placenta.

"Raw, unable to embrace her expereince of birth, her first born was a Bedouin woman behind curtain #3. Her name is Mariam," I thought, having closed the curtain and having joined the students in curtain #4.