When I left the Al Makassed Islamic Charity Hospital yesterday, I made the rounds like a lead physician might; I went from room to room saying goodbyes, Salamtak /ik (get well), exchanging Facebook accounts with some, and writing my phone number down for others. Many, I knew I would never see again, mostly because their conditions were so severe I wondered if they’d live through the week, others because their travels home would separate us by political barriers. They would return to Gaza, small West Bank villages, Nablus, and Hebron with little chance of being permitted into East Jerusalem again.
Last week, I found myself in the cardiac unit of one of the six East Jerusalem hospitals full of uncertainty and dazed at the sudden change of life events. I was diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse and was suffering a severe case of Mitral Valve Regurgitation, i.e my heart was bleeding. According to my Palestinian cardiologist, my heart condition is genetic and the severe “regurgitation” was not something that my heart could stand for long. Eventually, the work it took my heart to keep up a process that was flawed would lead to fatal complications.
The team admitted me for close monitoring and experimental pharmaceutical remedies.
After a visit from the CEO of Augusta Victoria Hosptial (a Lutheran World Federation project) and the Country Coordinator of the LWF-Jerusalem Program, I was assured that Al Makassed had the best cardiologists in Palestine on staff and professional cardiac nurses to care for me.
I was wheeled into the unit upstairs. I was the only woman without head covering, the only non-native Arabic speaker, and possibly the only patient under 50.
The rooms flanked in blue and green curtains formed a horseshoe around the nurses’ station. It was very communal, more so than my American senses were comfortable.
That day I joined the community, a community also suffering from broken hearts. Hearts that suffered many ailments not just medical, but hearts made to withstand lives of violence, injustice, racism, classism, and occupation. None claimed genetic causes, but rather environmental causes threatened their well being.
Each patient, coupled with a “companion” one who was permitted by the Israeli government to accompany a sick relative to East Jerusalem, lay in distress, some walked. Those who could, shuffled to my bedside inquiring first about my spoken Arabic ability, then intrigued by my roots, then my nationality, then my religion — curious about my identity.
“Men Wen, Inte?” They would ask. “From where are you?
For the first two days, it seemed I would answer, “Ana min Amerika.” They smiled, they asked questions about my country; was it beautiful? From which state (i.e where’s my village)? They told of relatives who emigrated to Virginia, California, Illinois, Washington, and Michigan.
I’m not sure if it was a courtesy to the American among them, but my room had one of the best views of the City of Jerusalem, with a full view of the complete Dome of the Rock; not just the dome seen in most pictures, but the entire structure standing brilliantly with its golden dome among the field of beige Jerusalem stone. This view drew patients to my window, snapping photos of the land of no return for many.
They figured out I loved tea – not necessarily the best for a heart condition, but there were little tea stations and coffee burners set up in each room, it seemed, and they shared.
One night at about 9:30 p.m. with my curtains pulled (which meant nothing. My friends came in nevertheless) a gap in my curtains revealed a stream of light silhouetting my neighbor with a teapot in hand, “Adrainne, Biddik Chai?” “Do you want tea?”
“No ma’am’, I must sleep.”
The companions of others noticed that I only had visitors during the day, but no one to stay the evenings with me, and took great care to make sure I was comfortable when I was alone, without my companion. Ben was my constant companion, of course, but folks from my church, including the Bishop, came and went. This is normal for a U.S. visit to the hospital. However, my neighbors’ companions at Al Makassed stayed by the bedside of their relatives day and night.
Then, as each came to talk to me, the “American visitor” I asked, “Min Wen, Inte/Inta?” I discovered that their companions could not leave. Where do you go when you are from Gaza, Hebron, Nablus, and other West Bank villages? Nowhere. With no money for a hotel, the hospital was “room and board” for accompanying relatives. Some remained for weeks sleeping in a plastic lawn chair.
They found the strength to welcomed me. We shared our pain, our sweets, our laughter. They taught me how to form community. We all held our collective breaths when the old woman from Gaza’s monitor flatlined. Nurse Musa revived her heart, and we all busied ourselves again with the gift of life — small talk, companions walking relatives to the showers, and making tea.
The language barrier between Arabic and English left many questions unclear, unanswered much like many of our diagnoses. The doctors trying to explain in layman’s terms, us patients not sure what that meant for our prospective longevity.
The young man from Hebron who mopped our floors no less than five times a day beginning at 6:30 a.m., as if offering it as a prayer, still wanted to know more about the place I called home.
He said, “Atlanta?” “Atlanta?” I told him “Istanne shway.” “Wait a minute.” I pulled up a skyline photo of Atlanta on my phone. He gasped at the beauty and the “ahsmah” “traffic” on the spaghetti highways.
I Googled an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asking him if he knew the father of the Civil Rights Movement? He said, “la” “no.”
YouTube has many of King’s speeches with Arabic subtitles. I found one for him.
In the speech titled, Keep Moving the Southern Baptist preacher told my Muslim friend to “have a blueprint for life with a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody.”
When he finished listening he used his fingers to sign tears flowing down his face, “helew” “beautiful” he said.
These people with whom I shared one of the most challenging times in life are somebodies. Bodies that break, bodies that long to be close, bodies that are curious, bodies that love, bodies that are weak, bodies that see beauty and joy, bodies that embrace with a kiss on each cheek, bodies that bleed, bodies that despite it all “keep moving” toward dignity and self worth.
These are the bodies that the U.S. Administration are using to force the hand of Palestinian officials into “peace” negotiations. There is nothing peaceful about leaving hearts to bleed without the inclusion of their community, without the knowing hands of specialists, and without the provisions of gentle caregivers.
*I will not reply about my medical episode in the comments. Please email, Facebook PM me, or call.