He was standing by the lilies when I rounded the bend approaching the class. He had stepped out of class momentarily as he often did when he gave the class a brief assignment. You could see the young heads of the college students through the lit window bent over the exercise he had given them. The cigarette glowed in his left hand, his head bent and his thoughts far away. He did not hear me approach.
”Professor…” I hesitated to disturb his reverie; he looked up and through me as if I was a stranger. In his eyes was a storm, with crashing waves of pain, anguish, fear and panic. Slowly his eyes focused on me. “Doctora” he said recovering some of his demeanor.
“You are smoking,” I said in a teasing manner. We had previously discussed the subject of smoking. I had given him all the medical reasons of why he should not smoke and like a good academic and a non-acquiescing patient he had stood gracefully and nodded his head at my medical diatribe.
This evening there was something different about him. It was as if he had seen a wild beast lurking in the shadows of the parking lot. The invisible beast was hunting him and yet he had to appear as if all was well.
He nodded, and quietly stubbed out his cigarette and went into class. I followed and sat down in the back.
It was then that it happened, the roof fell in, the windows exploded and the tsunami came and buffeted us wave after wave………unending and relentless in its detail, its graphic pain rooting us in shock.
He had started the lesson quite innocuously when one of the students asked him something. It was then that he lost it.
Suddenly his voice became harsh and He said “what do you remember about being a seven year old in school?” Have you ever seen the limbs of your classmate sitting next to you flying around and landing in your lap? Have you ever seen fire burning the friend sitting in front of you? ……. He stopped abruptly. The class was stunned in silence. “What was he talking about” I thought.
He struggled to regain composure and after a few minutes I realized that he must share whatever the demons were that were clawing him or he would implode.
“What happened Professor,” I dared to ask. I knew that if he did not share whatever it was, it would take him under like a wave from the tsunami, and he may never surface again.
He looked at me but looked through me far into the distance his eyes haunted with the scene that he could not shake off. The scene that only stilled with the cigarette in his hand. Only the long inhalation of the hot searing breath laden with nicotine spread warmth in his heart and body that seemed to be dead to touch and emotion.
He stood there and words poured out like lava from a volcano, and what had seared his aorta with the viciousness of a flame was now going through us, ripping us cell by cell as he related the scene that he just could not forget. It haunted his nights and days ………..unless he smoked, and then too. His faith prohibited him from alcohol, which was the only other thing that he thought he could drown himself in seeking oblivion.
The cigarette dulled his senses; his heart went to sleep and his body filled with the nicotine-induced warmth, gave a fake semblance of life to his walking corpse.
The story he told is untellable but I will try to recount the barebones……….
He lived over the hill in the next village from his school. Every morning he climbed the hill and came down the gentle slope. The dirt road was lined with fifty-year-old olive trees, which thrived in the orchard that spread on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see. Their boughs laden with olives had that curious fragrance that he as a seven year old associated with going to school. The school sat in a dip in the ground surrounded by olive orchards and hills. He would see the white building of the school glinting in the sun and the soccer field from the top of the hill long before he reached them.
Today was no different. He was still seven years old and still walked down with his cousin and classmate from the same village. His cousin was a close friend and almost a brother to him. Curiously his cousin was treated with great affection in his family like the mysteriously absent brother that was some times mentioned in a hushed manner but whom he had never seen.
Geography class was third period and he loved it. In his mind with every strata of rock he was transported to another world. A world when that stratum was at the surface and imagined what walked on it.
His classroom had large windows and his desk faced the road he came down every morning.
The teacher was explaining the types of rocks when he noticed something strange; three men were running down the dirt road towards the school. As they came closer he recognized that one of them was his uncle and one was his friends father. It was the middle of the day, why were they coming here?….………
It was then that everything happened, He heard the earsplitting roar and the explosion and suddenly a bloodied arm ripped from its socket landed on his desk, the hand holding the pen rested in his lap pooling it with blood and flesh. Flames went up engulfing the teacher. Debris flew into the air and pieces of flesh fell on him, while he sat like stone with the arm in his lap.
He heard someone screaming……….on and on and on and then saw the white shirt of his uncle blotched with someone’s blood. His uncle was pulling him out of his desk and he realized that it was he who was screaming…the arm that lay across his desk and half in his lap was that of his cousin and friend. The fingers holding the pen he had so much coveted.
His uncle was dragging him out of the desk, picking him up in his arms and running with him towards the olive trees. There was another explosion and the whole school went up in flames………he heard a sound in the sky and saw the receding tail of an Israeli gunship. His uncle was still running with him into the olive trees deeper and deeper into the orchard……….and then his world went black and has remained black since then.
He stopped his story and looked at me regretfully………….”I cannot remember my cousins name the one with the arm………” and left the classroom.
Much later when I went outside he was smoking. He looked at me and said “Doctora, you haven’t come here to tell me not to smoke have you?” I remained silent. I wanted to say, “ I am so sorry,” I wanted to say, “that was fifty years ago”… I wanted to say, “don’t think of it”, but I could not bring myself to utter the words.
His haunted eyes told me that each Palestinian has an imprint of pain. An engraving of an invisible number from the Israeli version of Auschwitz concentration camp seared into them, and nothing on earth can erase an invisible burn.
In all my years in the practice of medicine, never have I felt more helpless in erasing a horrifically destructive childhood memory of an adult.
It was then that I decided that no war is beneficial, and there is no excuse for injustice. Neither the winner nor the loser benefit from the fruits of war and oppression. I realized that to save our men from being broken we as women, mothers, sisters, daughters and wives from all backgrounds and nations must unite to oppose all war and injustice at all cost!
** All characters have been amalgamated to bring this TRUE story to you. There is no one real character but a composite of those who have related their stories.