Today is the 9th of September 1999. It’s my birthday. This day should be a time to celebrate, but for me it is a time to look back. People usually take this day off to be with their families, but I always make sure I am on call at the hospital on this night – mainly to avoid looking into my parents’ eyes as they picture him standing next to me on this day. My colleagues are throwing me a small party here in the ward and they are all surrounding me, cheering and laughing. But where am I? I am sinking in my memories and replaying that old tape inside my head once more.
I was nine when my family immigrated to Dublin, leaving our country, Palestine; leaving our beautiful house in Jenin, my hometown for which I was named; leaving all our tragic memories behind. Nine. How hateful that number is. Is it not weird how a number can play a tragic role in someone’s life? It acted as a mark of misery, simply reminded me of the day that I wish had never existed.
It was the 9th of September 1979 when I saw Yesin, my twin brother, killed in front of my eyes. Yesin and Jenin: we were the most popular twins in the whole town. We had planned our life together. We both agreed on studying medicine so we could go to the same university, graduate the same day, and work in the same hospital. We even planned to get married on the same day and walk down the aisle together.
We dreamed of living in a peaceful town, where there would be no sounds of bombing or shooting, where the air would be clean and fresh: no smoke, no flames, no black clouds; a place where houses would stand still: no ruins, no broken glass or smashed walls. A town where we could play and ride our bikes along the streams, not one where the only streams we could see were those of blood.
Blood…. how scary can it be? I am a doctor now and blood is part of my daily routine, but back then I found it so scary and disgusting. Whenever I recall that moment, when Yesin was shot, my whole body shivers, my knees shake and my voice gets lost. I had him in my arms; both my hands were pressing against his chest as hard as I could, yet those small shaking hands of mine were too weak to stop the bleeding. His pure, innocent blood was running through my fingers and a big red spot was spreading vastly across his white school shirt. My shocked and horrified mother, whom fate had whispered into her ears that afternoon that it would be wise to collect the kids from school that day as it did not look safe, was running up and down the street in despair, looking for help and trying to find a car to take us to the hospital. But that was impossible as there was still shooting. The whole place was covered in gas; people were running petrified, yelling, trying to get their kids out of school while I sat on the ground hiding behind a broken wall, holding Yesin’s hand, looking into his eyes and across the street hoping to see mum with the car. But I did not.
All I saw was more people getting shot and more wounded kids rushing all over seeking help. If only I knew that would be the last time I would see him, I would never have taken my eyes from his face. Minutes felt like hours. He squeezed my hands. His eyes were fixed on mine. He was trying to say something but I was too confused to listen. All I was concentrating on was keeping him still. If I knew those were to be his last words I would have listened. When my mum came, she was too late. My only brother had just died in my arms, holding my hands. He looked like an angel with that smile on his face. He had always been a cheerful boy. He always made me laugh. But now he had gone, and so had the laughter from my world.
Nevertheless, every morning when I woke up, I could see him getting dressed, could feel his movements around the breakfast table. His shadow was still there in every corner; his face, his smile, the sparkle in his eye were all present wherever I went. With him next to me, I had felt safe and content, proud and lucky. After his death, my soul was ripped; my heart was snatched out of my chest. I felt safe no more, happy no more. I was broken, lost and empty. A big black cloud was covering me from head to toe and I could see nothing anymore.
Days passed, maybe weeks, even months. I had lost all sense of time. All I could make sense of were the endless conversations between mum and dad about leaving. Mum tried her best to convince dad to call his best friend, Uncle Sami, who had been living in Dublin for years, to ask him to arrange for us to go. After a few phone calls and lots of paperwork, we were ready to travel. Uncle Sami had arranged for my father to come and work as a full time cardiologist in the same hospital that he worked in.
It was evening time. We were supposed to leave in the morning. My father was still in the hospital, as he believed it was his duty to keep helping to the last minute. How could he not, when more than half of the people in town were admitted to a hospital where few surgeons were available?
My mother had everything ready and started to walk around the house looking out the window every second to check if dad had arrived yet. I was sitting on the sofa looking around the room in disbelief that this would be my last day in the house. Then I started talking to Yesin. I saw him standing in front of me surrounded by a big circle of light.
“I miss you so much, brother,” I said.
He looked at me, smiled.
“I miss you too, sis. But don’t be sad, as I will always be with you wherever you go.”
“But we are leaving. We are going far away.” My eyes were tearful.
He got closer and held my hands.
“No matter how far you go, I will still follow you. Don’t you know I have wings now? I can fly all over the world.” He turned around to show me his wings and started to do funny moves, and I started to laugh. He managed to make me laugh even when he was dead!
A slam of the door brought me back. My father was there at last, but he looked different. Something was wrong. I would never forget that look on his face. It was a mixture of anger, despair, sadness, denial, and rebellion. He threw his exhausted body on the couch and exhaled as if he had been holding his breath forever. He was pale and looked like he had not slept for days. Mum sat next to him.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked.
Dad looked at her. “No. I am not. Nobody is. And I am not leaving.”
“What do you mean, we are not leaving? We must leave in the morning. Don’t you dare turn your back on us now. That is not fair,” she replied in shock.
“Turn my back on you?” he exclaimed. “And what about all these people? My people? Will it be okay if I turn my back on them? Would that be fair? People are dying in front of me every minute, and if everyone who lost a son, a father or a brother decided to leave, then there would be no Palestinians left in this country. I am not going to leave the land of my father and forefathers.”
My mother interrupted. “Be realistic. Look around you. Think of me. Think of your only daughter.”
He burst out into her face, “I am being realistic. That is why I have to stay and help those in need. I cannot run away and leave them to their fate. I am a doctor.”
“You are talking as if you are the only doctor in the whole country. Trust me. They will manage without you,” she shouted.
He paused for a minute. “Do you know that we have started to run out of the basic drugs? Hundreds of wounded are rushed in every day. There are not enough beds or enough equipment at this stage. Patients are lying on the floor and nurses have started to use bed sheets as bandages. Today I had to stitch the cracked face of a four-year-old girl, without even a local anaesthetic. Can you imagine the agony and horror this little kid went through or the pain her mum experienced just trying to hold her still while picturing that scar across her beautiful face?”
”I assure you that I know exactly how this mother felt. Yet I am telling you that she should feel lucky and grateful,” mum said. She continued with a shivering sound. “I held my son in that car; his body was covered in blood, his eyes were closed, yet I was convincing myself that he was not dead, that once we got to the hospital, you would bring him back to me alive. I would rather Yesin had hundreds of scars all over his body and yet be here with me now. We were unable to save Yesin, but we can save Jenin.”
My father’s tears were all over his face and so were my mum’s. He held her tight.
“Please, sweetheart,” she said. “She is all we have now. Think of her future, her education. Most of the schools are destroyed, and the ones that are intact just open for a week and close for months. Think of it this way. We will go, and when Jenin finishes school, we will come back, and hopefully things will be settled then. This war cannot go on forever. It should end soon.”
But it did not. That war still continues, and it’s getting worse. Each time I switch on the television, I see more killing and destroying, and every day that passes, I keep thinking of nothing but tomorrow. The lights are off now and my friends are singing “Happy Birthday.”
“Hey, Jenin! Make sure you make a wish before you blow out these twenty-nine candles,” one of them yelled.
“Yes,” I said.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “I wish that one day I will be able to feel the breeze of my home town across my face, to touch its sand and to put some flowers on Yesin’s grave.’’
My beeper is ringing. I run with an endless list of unanswered questions crashing inside my head. Will I ever see my home town again? Is our lovely house in Jenin still there, or has it been destroyed? Are there any flowers on Yesin’s grave? Does he feel lonely?
And the one question that tortures me most and never lets go is… WHY?