It is a clean, blue-tiled clinic. It’s the cleanest thing that Shukri has seen from as far back as he can remember. It is also bone-chill. The air circulates in slow, shuffling gouts.
Shukri doesn’t like the colour. Too many things in his fourteen years of life have been a shade of blue. Outside the windows, to the west, you can see the clarity of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a soft, rolling teal. But he prefers to look to the east where the city is sere and grey.
The patients on the benches are lined up according to age and disorder. The oldest is a university student. He is twenty-one according to Dr Mustafa Ali’s records. The student twitches as though a fine electric current is making his nerves go crackle and pop. His eyes are focussed on the middle distance into which he keeps looking with intensity. Next to him is Abdulla who is always in the darkness even when the sun streams down on summer days. There are others too with various manifestations of what the psychiatric social workers have termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The youngest of the patients is six. She is Hanna. Shukri says he’s here because of her. She’s a different Hanna from the one his mother used to feed in their once-home in Khan Younis. Then she was round, and white as goat’s milk cheese. Now she is a chip of cockle shell like the ones you found on the beaches not far from Khan Younis: shells, with their insides scooped out of them, that Shukri and Samia liked to play with.
Hanna doesn’t twitch or cry. In fact she sings to herself, sweet and low. She was brought here because in her waking hours she sings almost without ceasing. And the only songs she knows are lullabies. Every night she puts herself to sleep.
I am Shukri
When we were eight and nine years of age respectively, Samia and I played games together. Our favourite was ‘Malaikah and Jaan’, ‘Angels and Spirits’.
We always heard the low buzz of the engines before we saw the drones burrowing into the clouds above us. Then their missiles rode the air in a blaze of blue and gold. We were hurried into the basement by our mother and grandma and hidden among sacks of flour and potatoes.
“Are those malaikah?” Samia asked me one day, “Those things that burn so brightly?
Samia always asked tricky questions.
“No, they are jann, spirits”, I replied, “from another land. They do as they please. They have free will, as jaddu says.”
“If they are spirits, my brother, why do they dazzle so? Only angels do that because God made them out of light. Spirits were made out of smokeless fire. And you can’t see them because they are hidden. I remember jaddu telling me so on the day that grandma was taken to the maqbara…. ”
Samia could never get herself to say that our teta, grandma, had died. Maybe because grandma herself had told us that in every heart there is a garden in which the people we love and have gone before us, reside. The garden has lanterns hanging from trees, and houris, women of ethereal grace and eternal freshness, who play music and sing. And our loved ones sit on benches and talk, laugh, eat and drink. They are happy and so we mustn’t cry.
Soon after, teta got ill. Whatever it was – nobody told us children. At first she still helped ummi in the kitchen and smelt wonderfully of lime juice and groundnut paste. Nobody could make pita bread and cook fish the way our teta and ummi did.
Jaddu and teta were ummi’s mother and father. We had never seen our baba’s parents.
One day teta said she would lie down in her room. She never got up, but she spoke to Samia and me and said we were to be good children to our ummi and baba and that she would be close to us in the Garden of Houris in our hearts. She could only sip a little water, then a little less, and then no water at all. She shriveled like the dates laid out to dry on our terrace, her eyes fixed on the whitewashed ceiling of our house, her lips moving silently in prayer. Ummi sent us out of the room. Her jaw trembled slightly and eyes filled with tears that made them glisten like a mirage. She had our family Quran in her hand.
Two hours later jaddu came to me. Samia and I had curled into our quilts but we were tooth-chatteringly cold. He said very quietly, “Come Shukri. Your teta has gone to the Garden of Houris.”
Samia wasn’t allowed to come to the maqbara, the burial grounds. We – my baba, jaddu, uncles and me – took teta wrapped in a plain brown chaddar and buried her in an unmarked grave. Then we returned with her in our hearts.
One evening, Samia and I crouched by the front door of our house watching the skyline of Khan Younis above the high wall that surrounded the yard. The night whistled and sang and it seemed to us that the sun hadn’t really set because the buildings on the distant edges of the city were picked out in plum red and pumpkin orange against a thick, curling blackness.
“Why do you always lie to me, Shukri? And why do you treat me like a baby?” Samia asked from the shadows.
“What d’you mean lie?”
“Since when were rockets and mortar bombs called ‘spirits’?”
“I didn’t…want you to be frightened, Samia. So I made it a game. And why do you ask so many questions?”
But she said nothing. She just turned and went into the house where Ummi was feeding our youngest sibling – an infant called Hanna.
There had been many wars before this one. Many even before we were born. But this war came slowly – at first. It arrived at the borders; then it entered the rest of our land. It entered Khan Younis and slipped under the doors and was in our houses, our liwan and our bedrooms.
There was no room in our house which wasn’t full of the war.
The War in Our Liwan
The war made us grow up quickly. Samia under her veil was eighteen rather than her present nine years of age. She went with Ummi to draw water from a well and helped her to cook and look after baby Hanna. Our schools were indefinitely closed. We watched mortar bombs burst red in the belly of the night. People must have been watching all over the world, but for us, the sky above Khan Younis was our television screen.
The programme never ended.
Baba and jaddu tried to keep the news of the missing children from us. But I knew about them – first a few, then some, then many. Then I lost count. I knew where they had gone, of course. I saw Khemal’s name in the papers and a photo of his uncle’s apartment building after it was hit. Khemal was my senior in school. One of his cousins, Jalal, said that they were sitting on the balcony and trying to sing when it happened. He said that they had all moved to their uncle’s building because it was safer than their own homes. But nothing, I suppose, is really safe from a missile fired by a drone. Jalal said that he didn’t think that Khemal even knew what was about to happen because he had his earphones on and his back turned and he was trying to dance when everything turned into rubble. Jalal died, not long after, of something called a shrapnel wound.
Maybe it’s best not to know.
Some people told us that the other side too lost children when our missiles answered theirs. That day, our jaddu laid his hand on my shoulder and said in a voice which seemed too heavy for him to carry, “Children punish the whole world for the sin of war – by dying. But the world doesn’t know it.”
Then the war slid into our water supply and into our stomachs. Hanna smelt more of pee pee than of milk. One day when the last of the groundnuts had been eaten and the limes squeezed dry, ummi decided to forage for food in a local market. Samia accompanied her, her hips trying to swing importantly.
It must have been half an hour later when something blue and white streaked across the sky. All the houses on Dasseri street shook like loose teeth and some grew cracks like the faces of old men. Somebody’s voice, my own I realized, came out thick and hoarse from my throat, “Ummi —eeeee—-Umeeeee! Saaamia!”
I was still hollering when baba and jaddu found me with Hanna in my arms, scampering around, frantic as a mongrel in a meat shop, searching among odds and ends of bodies in Wahid market.
Jaddu spoke very little after that day. He only shook his head and said, “No one should become a number, a war statistic. No one.”
After a second drone strike in the neighbourhood, baba said that our house could no longer be lived in. So we moved to a safer place – a UN refugee camp. As we were setting out Hanna cried and said she wanted her doll. So I ran back, but I couldn’t find it in all that mess of stone and plaster. It wasn’t at all like the house I once knew. But I found our chest of drawers left just as it was on the day ummi went with Samia to Wahid market. In it were her clothes. I pulled out an embroidered bodice for Hanna to cuddle while she slept. It still smelt of ummi.
That’s when Hanna began to sing lullabies.
I’m not going to tell them any of this when they review us every week at the medical camp. I don’t want to go to the blue clinic. I only accompany Hanna there. I don’t need doctors. And I hate blue.
They might call me ‘disturbed’ which I think is another word for ‘sick-in-your-head’, though I’ve heard them using a long and difficult term for it. I know they are kind and good, and that they want to do their best for us. But I don’t want to become like Hanna – a doctor’s patient, for the rest of my life.
And I have my own way of coming out of life alive.
So I won’t tell them what I do. Every night, when everyone else is asleep in our dormitory, I look at the grey-lined ceiling of the children’s transit home. If I look at it long enough I can see ummi’s face and Samia’s forming on the plaster. They take shape slowly. When it’s all done, I see the whole of them. As clearly as I can see Ali, the boy who sleeps next to me.
I speak to them. I do it very softly so that no one will hear me, especially the Matron on her rounds of the dormitories.
The first time calling them up was hard. Now it doesn’t take a minute: “Ummi, I’m here, Shukri, lying on the bed closest to the wall. I’ve had to change my place because Avis, well…he went away. It’s a bit dark in this corner. But I’ve taken off my blanket so that you can see me properly. Can you?”
“Shukri, my boy. You don’t need good eyes to see the people you love. You can feel them. And they can feel you.”
“I love you, Ummi. I can feel you.”
“Shukri, my jewel.”
“Ummi, where’s Samia?”
“She’s here, right beside me. Can’t you see her?”
“Oh yes, of course! Samia!”
“Shukri! My dear brother! Hanna? Is she with you? We haven’t seen her in a while….Is she…?”
“My baby, my Hanna! Where’s my Hanna gone?” Ummi cried and the plaster on the ceiling grew a moist patch.
“Don’t cry ummi. Don’t worry, Samia. Hanna’s quite well. She’s with the other girls. They have separate living quarters from us boys, you know. This is not our home. Just a transit centre. We’re here for a little while before we return to Khan Younis….”
“And your baba and jaddu? I hope they are eating well and that jaddu doesn’t smoke too much?”
‘They are all well. You are not to worry, my mother. Nor you, my little sister.”
“Oh,Shukri! How I miss the games we used to play, brother. Remember the time you made a rope swing for us which was suspended from the branch of that olive tree near the abandoned settlement? How we played, hanging upside down so that the whole world looked very different, with our feet pointing to the sky and the earth beneath our heads. And Yussef, remember, how you called him a donkey because he almost broke our swing? You said it wouldn’t matter if he fell on his head because there was nothing inside?”
“He’s doing well, Samia.”
“Does your baba have employment?” That’s ummi speaking now.
“Yes, ummi. He got a job in Khan Younis. But on weekends he visits us.”
Sometimes I’m almost glad when matron comes in and I have to say goodbye to them. A quick blowing of kisses and it’s done. Then I don’t have to answer all their questions. Like the one about Yussef. I have never told them that he was with other boys on the beach when a missile exploded. There was a huge wound in Yussef’s head and everything was splattered all around. There was quite a lot inside, actually, as an eyewitness told us.
Anyway they’ll meet him sometime in the place where they are now. It makes me almost…jealous.
I haven’t told ummi and Samia either that baba now works on the job of tunnel smuggling. You can make quite a lot out of it. Till the authorities find out. Then you get shot….
Of late I have begun laying down a ‘Garden of the Houris’ here in my heart. I’m going to invite ummi and Samia to come and live in it – forever. Then we can talk to each other wherever we are and for as long as we like. All I will have to do is whisper to my heart, then listen.
Ummi and Samia. They have a perpetual freshness to them now and are pure and lovely.
But, sometimes, I can see their bones.
My name is Gaza
My name comes from the Hebrew ‘Azzah’ meaning ‘strong city’. Once I was the manuscript on which a part of Biblical history was written. Now I have mere memories to shore against my fragments.
One day they too will be lost and only a mound of ruins and the wails of my last women and children will show that I once existed.