Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Arafat’s Funeral.” It was the fall olive harvest season in 2004 and Yasser Arafat had just died. I was on holiday in Jayyous picking olives, happy for a brief escape from my journalistic duties, when a dear friend found me and told me some bad news.
I was harvesting with Qais’s family the next day when Ali found me.
“Ya Bam,” he said with a grave, apologetic look. “I would not ask you for this, but I think there is no other way.”
This didn’t sound good at all. “What’s up?”
He sighed. “There is a farmer’s son from here in Jayyous named Omar. A few days ago, when Arafat died, some of the shebab [youth] were burning tires at the south gate of the Wall as a demonstration. Omar’s father was on the land, and Omar went to the gate to wait for him. When the soldiers came, the shebab started throwing stones at them. I don’t know if Omar was throwing stones or just waiting. Anyway, the soldiers came through the gate with their guns, and Omar ran away with the others. A soldier shot him twice in the back.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “My God.”
“Yes, and then they took him away to a hospital in Israel. We called and found the hospital he is in. It is in Kfar Saba. He is OK, he is alive, but he has had many surgeries. When we call the hospital, they are very rude and won’t tell us anything more. His parents are going crazy. They want to visit him, but the hospital says they cannot get a permit to visit him unless they come to the hospital and take a paper that tells about his condition. So you see…”
“Yeah, there’s only one catch,” I said disgustedly. “Well, look, I can go to the hospital and get the paper.”
He sighed again. “Really, Bamila, I know this is a holiday for you, and we wouldn’t ask…”
I called Dan [an Israeli friend who lived in Kfar Saba] to see if he could pick me up in Jayyous and take me to Kfar Saba. I’d forgotten he had recently sold his car. He apologized and said he didn’t have time to borrow one, either.
So I got up early the next morning and made my way through Ramallah down to the Qalandia checkpoint, crossed on foot, took a minibus to East Jerusalem, caught a cab to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and caught another bus back up north to Kfar Saba. It was a journey of more than a hundred miles and six hours to get to a place less than five miles from Jayyous. It would have taken ten minutes if Dan had been able to pick me up on the settler road.
Finding the hospital in Kfar Saba took a bit of hunting, but once I found it, the task didn’t seem so daunting anymore. All I had to do was ask for a paper, say hello to the injured young man, and be on my way back to Jayyous in no time. It might even be one of those bridging-the-divide moments with the Israeli doctors, because what human being could fail to sympathize with a young man who’d been shot in the back, or a young American woman trying to help him? It was easy to be rude over the phone. In person, I was confident they would see us as human beings and treat us as such.
I found a receptionist and said, “I have a friend from the West Bank who’s been injured and is being treated here. I need to get a paper that explains about his condition so his parents can come and visit.”
She looked uncomfortable, as if she feared I might be mildly crazy or criminal. “You’ll have to talk to someone in administration,” she said. “I don’t handle these things.” She directed me to a small back office, where I found a dark-haired man in his forties and asked if he spoke English.
“Of course!” he said, widening his eyes as if the likes of me asking if he spoke English were the most preposterous indignity he’d suffered that day. I told him what I was here for.
He waved his hand dismissively and looked away. “We don’t give papers about West Bank people here. We’re not allowed. It’s like a secret that he’s here.”
I checked his voice for irony or humor and found none. “I’m sorry, what do you mean you don’t give papers about people being here? That’s why they sent me. I just need a paper that says he is here to give to the DCO [District Coordination Office] so we can get a permit for his parents to visit.”
He shook his head. “We don’t give out information like that. You have to call Dalia in Beit El. She’s in charge of these things, not me.”
Beit El was a settlement north of Ramallah. Palestinians had to go there sometimes to take care of administrative matters related to the occupation. I said, “If we could have done this from Beit El, I’m sure it would have been done already. But they sent me here physically to get a paper. All I need is a paper that says—”
He smiled mock-patiently, as if I were simple or slow, and interrupted me. “Listen very carefully. You aren’t the first person who has come here looking for information about these people, and you won’t be the last. We don’t give out papers. That’s it. Don’t ask anymore.”
I had a distinct feeling he was lying through his teeth. But what could I do?
“Can I visit him?” I asked weakly.
“What do I care?”
I left his office with my face flushed and my fists clenched. The way he said “these people” had sent hot chills down my spine. If I had eaten anything that day, I feel fairly confident I would have thrown it up.
At least I could visit Omar, so maybe the day wasn’t a total wash. I walked up to his floor, and the nurses pointed me down to the basement, where he was having a CT scan. I asked the receptionist at CT if she knew where I could find the boy I was looking for.
She looked at me blankly. “Maybe that’s him?” she said, pointing behind me.
I looked back. There was a good-looking blue-eyed young man with pale skin and curly brown hair in a gurney in the middle of the waiting room. He had an IV drip in his arm and seemed alert but tired. His eyes looked naturally sharp but dulled now, resigned to a casual bit of violence that would drastically affect the rest of his life — something simultaneously offhand and unthinkable. “Omar?” I asked.
He nodded, his expression alternating between wariness and polite confusion.
Suddenly I felt shy. He wasn’t expecting anyone, least of all a foreign girl he didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told him I was a friend of Ali’s in Jayyous. He nodded.
“Keef halek?” I asked. [How are you?]
He gave the traditional pleasantly noncommittal answer: “Hamdulillah.” [Thanks to God.]
My eyes widened. “W’Allah?” [Really?] How could he even say it?
He looked down at himself. “Zai shufik.” (As you see.)
I reported on this kind of thing daily at my job. This was actually mild compared to the things that made the news. Omar had survived, had no brain damage, was not in critical condition, and had not lost several limbs and/or family members. He was just in a hospital having surgeries and CT scans done far away from his family, not knowing how bad his prognosis was. This was nothing.
And yet it was overwhelming. So where did that leave all the other things I reported on, all the bloody and senseless things I didn’t have to see for myself?
I swallowed hard and asked who else he knew in Jayyous. He named some names. I asked how old he was, and he said twenty. I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t know the Arabic for words like ‘prognosis’ or ‘paralysis.’ He made the Middle Eastern hand gesture, palm up and fingers pinched together, that meant, “Wait a moment.” He indicated that the doctor would be out soon and could translate for us.
When the doctor emerged, I introduced myself and asked if he spoke Arabic. He said yes.
“Would you mind translating a few things Omar might want me to tell his family?” I asked. “And can you explain to me about Omar’s condition?”
He looked at his watch. “I need to eat soon,” he said.
I smiled. “Yeah, me too.” It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was trying to highlight our shared humanity and gently suggest that this injured, helpless, isolated boy’s terrible predicament was slightly more important than lunch. He didn’t smile back.
“Wait fifteen minutes,” he said and wheeled Omar into the CT scan room. Fifteen minutes later, two orderlies wheeled him back out. The doctor had escaped out another door.
My ears burning from the latest rebuff, I followed Omar and the orderlies up to his room, where I found a pretty young nurse named Sofya from Netanya. I asked her about his condition.
She said brightly, “Well, his kidney is damaged and his spine is broken, and he can move one leg a little, but the other not at all.”
I steeled myself. “Will he ever walk again?”
She shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Mmm, I don’t think so, probably not.”
The room turned grey and looked sharper and further away as tears stung my eyes. For nothing he was in this state, no reason at all. Not just injured but paralyzed, handicapped, probably for life. And nobody cared. It was like a bad parody of man’s inhumanity to man.
I tried to keep my voice steady as I told the nurse what I was here for. She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. I asked if I could use the phone to call Ali in Jayyous. She allowed it.
When I heard Ali’s baritone voice, clear and reasonable and familiar and friendly in this sea of obtuse hostility, thick hot tears fell. I explained everything to him and gave the phone to Sofya so he could tell her exactly what we needed.
Ali was one of the most kind, diplomatic, and cool-headed people I had ever met, and I could tell he was getting further with Sofya than I had. She said she would try her best, but she didn’t sound very hopeful. She tried to call Dalia in Beit El, but there was no answer.
Sofya shrugged. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?”
It wasn’t clear how anything would be different tomorrow, and my desire to get back to Jayyous as soon as possible, among friends and olives and kindness, was so visceral it was painful. So I went on the trail of the paper again. After another hour of hunting and asking and negotiating, Sofya finally conceded that the paper could be issued here after all.
“But the doctor who does these things is busy today,” Sofya said apologetically. “Maybe she can do it tomorrow.”
“She can’t possibly do it today?”
“No, I’m sorry, she is receiving many children today, and she is the only one who can receive them. She is very busy.”
“How long does it take to make the paper?”
“I don’t know, about fifteen minutes.”
“She can’t spare fifteen minutes? It would help a lot of people so much.”
I’d learned an important lesson in Russia: If something important is at stake and hostile bureaucracy is standing in your way, you have to make it harder for them to ignore you than to fulfill your simple request. Otherwise they’ll blow you off every time.
“Look, can I just talk to her real quick?”
Sofya narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Come with me.”
I followed her into a darkened office. The doctor was a tasteful-looking Russian blonde woman who sneered slightly when she saw me. She was alone in the room and looked rather bored. She wasn’t receiving any children. I tried to explain what I needed, but before I could finish my sentence she was tearing a piece of paper off a pad and writing a few words in Hebrew about his condition. She affixed an official label and stamped it and handed it to me.
“Thank you so much. Is this is all I need?”
I breathed a sigh of deep relief. A kind orderly helped me fax the paper to Dalia in Beit El, then Sofya gave me the phone to call Dalia and see if she got the fax. Dalia finally answered. She grudgingly admitted that she got the fax and everything was in order.
“So that’s it?” I asked. “Is that what you need to give his parents a permit?”
She paused, then said challengingly, “We don’t know how long he will be there.”
I couldn’t believe it. She was acting like this was some kind of game and she was still trying to win. “His spine is broken,” I said evenly. “He is not going anywhere.”
Another pause, then testily, “I can give you three days. OK?”
“Perfect. Thank you very much.”
Back in Omar’s room, Sofya gave me the phone again and allowed me to dial Omar’s parents in Jayyous. Omar was so weak he could barely handle the phone, but he talked to his family for the first time and told them about his condition.
I’d been on the other end of the phone several times, in the family’s home when they were talking to a relative in an Israeli jail or in some faraway hospital. People always tried to act as cheerful as possible so as not to upset each other. The mother didn’t want her son to think about how she’d been sick with crying. The son didn’t want his mother to know he’d been lonely, injured, ill, humiliated, terrified, starving.
After Omar hung up, he touched my arm and pulled his shirt up. The surgery scar was immense, from his heart down past his waistband. He put his shirt down and pointed to a spot on one of his swollen legs, and I touched it. He shook his head, and tears welled slightly in his otherwise impassive young face. He couldn’t feel it.
It was time for me to go soon. Dan had agreed to pick me up and take me back to Jayyous in a borrowed van. I shook Omar’s hand and held it for a while as I met his pale blue eyes with mine. There was nothing to say. We were fundamentally no different from each other, yet he knew as well as I did that I would never have to come to terms with a misfortune anywhere near as incomprehensible as his. Something horrific might happen to me, but I probably wouldn’t be shot for no reason, and I certainly wouldn’t then be transferred to a foreign country and held captive by people whose indifference was somehow worse, more degrading, than cruelty.
I left the hospital in a daze. After walking a few steps in the fresh air, I ducked behind a column and sank to the ground and wept.
When Dan arrived, I mostly stayed quiet and felt terrible that I couldn’t bring myself to act happy to see him, or to express how grateful I was that he was taking me back to Jayyous. All I wanted, desperately, was to get back to the olive groves and to my friends in Jayyous who understood how I felt without words.
Dan and I had kept in touch over the phone, but I hadn’t seen him since he sold his car. Getting from Ramallah to Kfar Saba on public transportation was such an ordeal, and we were both so busy with work and life. Whenever I did see or talk to him, something horrible had usually just happened and I was depressed about it. I hated for him to always see me like this. Even though Dan was sitting right next to me, I missed him.
As we entered the West Bank on a settler road, I caught sight of the thirty-foot concrete Wall that encircled Qalqilia. Forty thousand people in a cage at the dawn of the twenty-first century. “Look at that!” I exploded stupidly, rising out of my seat and banging my head on the roof of the van.
“I know,” Dan said numbly. “I can’t believe it. It’s like some movie about South Africa or something. And it’s happening right here.”
My Boss Decides to Run for President
Dr. Barghouthi called an emergency meeting a few days after the Eid holidays were over. I was annoyed because I already had my evening planned. I was going to Beit Sini (China House) on Main Street to get some Kung Pao chicken, then I was going to go home and curl up around some hot cocoa and watch a mindless Angelina Jolie action movie on MBC2 in my pajamas. For two restful, thoughtless, soft, warm hours, I could forget about everything else.
Except now I had to sit through this meeting that probably had nothing to do with me. I desperately hoped it wouldn’t go on too long.
We gathered around the big wooden table in the conference room. As soon as we were seated and quiet, Dr. Barghouthi dropped the bombshell:
“So, I have decided to run for President against Mahmoud Abbas.”
That perked me up, but I still didn’t see what it had to do with me. I was sure he could run for President even if I was at home eating Chinese take-out.
As I surreptitiously glanced at the clock on my cell phone (it was already after six, and the movie started at seven), I heard him say he’d need someone to volunteer to be his foreign press coordinator. Whoever that unlucky person was would have to stay in the office tonight and compile, organize, and prioritize the contact information for all the foreign correspondents in Israel/Palestine. He or she would then represent Dr. Barghouthi to all the world’s press for the next two months, traveling, taking calls, helping organize press conferences, and writing press releases in addition to all the responsibilities of their usual job.
He said, “The election will be in early January, so we have less than two months to consult with our constituencies, prepare offices, organize supporters, design and distribute campaign materials, and many other things. Time is of the essence.”
Suddenly I had a sinking feeling. No one was looking at me, but everyone knew the other foreigners in the office would be jetting off to England or Spain or Australia for the Christmas holidays. I would be the only native English speaker left.
Slowly, through my hazy, unhappy sense of duty, something else began to filter through my thick head: My boss was running for President. And I was being offered a front-row seat. Was I simple?
I took a deep breath and braced myself. “I can do it.”
For more information about my book, Fast Times in Palestine, see my website.