Turning the Tide

“Our correspondent in Gaza has confirmed that the suicide bomber who killed five Palestinian martyrs was a twenty five year old Jew named Moshe Johanan. A massive car bomb exploded in the Hanifa district of southern Gaza at 10 a.m. local time this morning. While it is not yet clear if the attack was sponsored by Zionist. . . ”

Ayman stared at his television screen, unable to come to terms with the news. Though he heard each inflection of every word the anchor said, something was lost in translation. A light blue hijab framed the face of the Iranian anchor. She was there, he was here. Then he felt a something well up from his middle. The urge to weep built pressure behind his eyes. Dusk approached and through his large windows, Ayman could see the sun sinking into the Mediterranean.

The image came again on the television and all he could see was the face of his brother, Samir. Sudden as rifle fire in a morgue, he sprang out of the flimsy aluminum chair on which he sat and rushed to a sink where he bent over, seeking to retch out the difficult dimension of pain that had besieged him.And there again was the inconsolable woman with the baby blue shawl across her shoulder, vaguely familiar.

At night, Gaza’s streets become like those of other cities in the Middle East with numerous stalls open and men in loose cotton gownsor jeans and tee shirts sitting, drinking and talking; he knew what they would be talking about tonight. Night time is beautiful in Gaza because one cannot see the pockmark holes of Tavor and Kalashnikov roundson buildings, or the craters from the last war.

As Ayman walked the streets that night he could not forget, for he had seen the woman’s face and it was one he had seen too many times in his thirty-two years. And he had not forgotten any of those faces from which he had drawn strength over the last four years.He walked at night because he could not sleep, he could not sleep because he dreamed.

Moshe Johanan, he dared to say the words, who are you?  But there were no answers on streets that could only speak silence. And he thought of the word ensconced, pronounced it wrong many times until he could not bear it and stopped. He counted the streets, how one led to another, but he knew he was in the wrong city, the wrong country. America was the unseen shroud within which he walked. But when he reached out to it he was always on the street of Gaza.

The halo of reserve was still in place the next morning when he crossed the checkpoint and walked into southern Israel. His friends, Hamza and Abu, joined him. They sensed one of his moods but they could not place it. The three Arabs wore American jeans and tee shirts with dark sunglasses.They could have been anyone—Jew, Greek, Italian—if they had been in a different place. Ayman was deep in his thoughts of Samir, his brother, and of the work he had been doing for Hamas a week after Samir had died.

The trio did not seem out of place amidst other Palestinians walking everyday into Israel to work in the factories there. Samir would have been nineteen yesterday, Ayman thought. A kind, low, sun watched over them all.

News of Samir’s death had reached him in Chicago much in the same way the death of Moshe Johanan yesterday had, over the television. His personal grief at his brother’s death shared by millions of others for whom death in the Middle East called merely for impersonal sympathy. He had been saving money to bring Samir out of Gaza and into the United States. Samir, since the death of their father, was the only link he had to the harshness that was Palestine. Each day the years he drovetaxis all over the Greater Chicago area, he had fearedthat if he did not get his brother out in time, that harshness would seep into Samir’s eyes and it would then be impossible to save him. But that morning, in his last year at the State University, he saw that Samir had died in the house their father built after losing his ancestral home and olive plantation in the Sheba Farms during the 1973 war. He had seen the body of Samir from faraway America, bundled out of the rubble.

He had packed his bags, knowing that all the knowledge in America could not help him. He had joined Hamas and the communications technology he gave the organization kept more of its leaders alive than the will of God. Yet, yesterday, on Samir’s birthday, an Israeli, Moshe Johanan, had blown himself up, killing three Palestinian men, a woman, and her daughter. And today he was here walking into Israel.

It seemed as if time stopped, as if the very air familiar with so much wailing and despair and sadness had frozen, as if the limbs had suddenly atrophied and the eyes grown fixed and unseeing, when the three Arabs walked into the compound of Rabbi Joseph Johanan that morning, making their way to the inner porch where the family was gathered. The Israelis watched still as stone as the Arabs made their way towards them. Ayman was afraid, but like fear in Gaza, it was qualified, not the fear of the present but the fear of what it meant to the future. He saw the woman in her blue shawl sitting on a low stool and removed his glasses. He was within a few steps of her when the porch burst into a dozen voices. Two of the Israelis were already up from their stools, their eyes murderous. He was unarmed, as were Musa and Abu. A blow landed on Ayman’s head and he could not stop himself going down.

“Leave them alone,” the woman said, “they have come to visit with me.”

His arms had not left his sides and his friends, their hands shaking, helped him up. He brushed down his clothes and,without a single word said, sat down at the feet of Moshe’s mother. She was a woman in her fifties, she had salt peppered hair once very full and black. Her skin dull olive, makeup long given up, her brown eyes were those of a woman who had endured a lot. She wore simple clothes.

Moshe Johanan’s mother looked at the Arab who had made his seat at her feet. He was in his last youth, maybe thirty, had thin almost effeminate eyelashes. There was something about the way he carried himself.

“Leave us,” she said in English.

Almost as if Godhad spoken, the porch emptied. The last to leave was the old Rabbi, his cane tapping on the stone. The very air was heavy, yet words were not easy to say. Five minutes passed before the woman moved her palm and touched Ayman’s head lightly, breaking the silence.

”Who are you?Why have you risked your life coming here today?” she asked, turning his head so he could face her. His eyes were dry, the eyes of a man who wants to cry but cannot. Only now did Ayman understand why all the faces of the women who had haunted his sleep were so similar.

“But why did he do it?”

“Do you know that others have followed him?”

“You mean . . ?”

“Yes,” she said.

Two more Israeli boys had detonated themselves in the West Bank since that morning.

She sighed. She had lived a long life, her brother had been one of the first to die after the declaration of Israel, slaughtered in the fields. If only, if only,but blame was a passing thing. For how can one blame Arabs when Arabs blew themselves up in Israel and blame Arabs when Israelis blew themselves up in Palestine?

“He did it because of a girl. . ,” she said, “. . . that girl in the picture over there,” pointing to the girl in a college graduation gown. “She was Moshe’s fiancée and they were to be married next week. On Monday, she was returning from the market when one of your Qassam rockets landed inches from her car. She had no chance. He grieved for just two days and made his plans, and now, my Moshe too is gone,” she said, holding back the tears.

“My brother died. Five years ago yesterday,” Ayman said.

“What was his name?”

“Samir. It was a helicopter gunship that did it.”

“Do you have a picture?”

He gave her a picture of Samir when he was fourteen, taken from the wreckage of the house; Samir had been fourteen and had not known two-thirds of his life was over. The woman took the picture in her hands and traced the face of an Arab child on his birthday, his face beaming, as beautiful as Moshe had been only yesterday morning. She clasped the photo to her breast and a bitterness collected in her heart, making its way up to her eyes where the gates, this time, was unfettered.

“Oh God!”she groaned, “oh God, why do you give us such beautiful children and then let them die while we watch?”

Ayman was weeping too by now. Ayman at that moment knew why the women had all been alike and why they had all mocked him whenever he closed his eyes. He thought of Samir, Moshe, and all the many others and all their mothers and he was weary of his life.

Later that night, Ayman sat at a window of a cafe. They had returned to Gaza around five in the afternoon.

He remembered what Sheikh Yassin had said; that the one thing the Palestinians had which the Jews did not was eager young men willing to kill themselves for what they believed in. Now he knew better. Today, two Jews had detonated themselves. What would the Sheikh say now? He knew that the grief of all those women was what made their faces alike; all those Palestinian women and Moshe Johanan’s mother. Killing oneself was an act of desperation and despair was a human emotion, the same for Arab and Jew, Persian and African. Like grief and hurt. Like love and hope. The women of the Middle East have always known this; it was the men, like he, like Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat, who preferred not to know. Hamas, the Zionists; all were men. And what had they done to the dream of Palestine and the dream of Israel? They had killed Moshe Johanan and Samir Abdul Qadri and he, who had no quarrel with children or their mothers, had helped them.

Ayman bent his head and lifted the mugto his lips. The coffee had grown cold. And because he had not noticed the lanky young man who had walked in a minute before, he did not see the flash of light or feel the brief intensity of C4 heat that erased all time and experience and made him, Ayman Abdul Qadri, the first true martyr of both Israel and Palestine.