Photo credit Alex Crétey Systermans.
By Joanna Chen
“Can I give blood too?” my son asks as I stand in the doorway, car keys in one hand, my bag and a bottle of water in the other. “No,” I say. “You can’t. You’re too young.” He is fifteen years old and has a genetic disease. He will probably never be able to donate blood.
My partner, Raz, and I drive to East Jerusalem and up to the Mount of Olives. It’s a beautiful journey, beginning with the biblical landscape of David and Goliath. The Ella Valley, where we live, has barely changed for years, a gentle range of hills dotted with olive and almond trees that blossom wildly in season. The area also carries a delicate historical subtext: it was the site of a number of Arab villages that existed before the 1948 war. One of the villages we pass still contains a mosque, peeking out above the red roofed houses of Kurdish Jews who fled Northern Iraq in the early 1950s.
On the radio, we learn that the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is barely holding. We join the traffic snaking into highway number 1, the major artery of Israel that leads to Jerusalem, and slowly climb up to the eastern side of the ancient city.
Around Wadi al Joz, the GPS falters and we are unsure of the way, although I have visited this area many times as a foreign journalist. I stop, roll down the window and ask a passer-by the way to the al Makasaad Islamic Charitable Hospital. He shakes his head. No English. “Mustashfa al Makasaad?” I ask in Arabic.
“You speak Hebrew?” the man answers my question with another question.
We nod after a pause, unsure of his reaction at this difficult time. He leans into the car window, puts his hand on the handle of the door and says in broken Hebrew: “I’ll take you there, yes?” He smiles. I pause again. The scenario of the two of us being kidnapped en route, the stupidity of it, crosses my mind. Raz and I exchange the briefest of glances and tell the man to hop in. Sitting in the back, he directs us up the steep hill to the Mount of Olives, leaving just before we reach the hospital.
I park the car and we get out, crossing the road. Raz says something to me in Hebrew. “No Hebrew,” I mutter under my breath. “Not today.” We walk towards the entrance, continue into the grounds of the hospital. People sitting on benches outside, families with children, look up as we pass. I ask brightly, perhaps too brightly, where the blood bank is and we are directed there by a big man with a cell phone in his hand. We descend the stairs and walk along the corridor until we get to the blood bank. There’s a bustle in the air. Three people are giving blood, and a nurse scurries around near them.
I explain we want to donate blood. I was told earlier that morning in a phone conversation that several hundred units of blood had been delivered to Gaza through the Erez crossing. It took almost a week to get permission from the District Coordination Office. Now, they are collecting more. Asaad Dewek, director of the blood bank, checks our credentials and gives us a form to fill out stating our ages and our identities. He shows us to two easy chairs on the other side of the room. He asks me to cover my legs and throws a blue plastic sheet in my direction without looking at me. I’m wearing a long skirt but it does not cover my guilty ankles and my feet, in flip-flops.
Time passes and we wait while Asaad brings two swabs, two thick plastic bags, two plastic gloves and two thick needles. No one approaches or attempts to start a conversation with us.
I am first. “Make a fist,” he tells me, bending down to examine my veins. I clench. “They are good,” I tell him. “My veins are good.” In goes the needle and my blood begins to flow into the syringe and from the syringe into the bag. I lean back into the chair. Asaad hovers over me. “I want you to know,” he says, “how difficult it is for us. Do you know how many women and children have died?” I nod. He moves over to my partner.
“The less seriously wounded were brought here. Go see for yourself,” Asaad says to Raz, “how badly injured they are.” He reaches out for Raz’s hand resting on the arm of the easy chair. For a moment, they are two men of roughly the same age, holding hands across a chasm. “I would never harm your wife or your children,” he tells Raz, looking him straight in the eyes. “I would fight you, but not your family.” Raz says nothing because there is nothing to say. I want to tell this troubled, seething, good man that my partner refused army service in the occupied territories, that he is not like that, he is not a part of this war. But I know we are both a part of it, I know we belong to the other side. Even if I offer him my hand that he held just minutes ago, even if I offer him my entire arm, in his eyes I will always belong to the other side. There is nothing I can do.
I was expecting reassurance, perhaps, that human bridges can still be crossed, that walls built from cement and hatred can be melted down, that the metaphoric roads Mahmoud Darwish described back in the 1980s can be walked together. “I will slog over this endless road to its end,” Darwish wrote. “I will cut thirty openings for meaning/ so that you may end one trail only so as to begin another.” As I re-read these words, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, it hits me that there is no together left; there is no forgiveness. The subtext of my very practical act was to demonstrate concern for the other side. If I thought I could do something, even something very small, to mend the rupture between Palestinians and Israelis, it now hits me that I will not. I might salve my conscience a little, might be able to say I extended an olive branch along with the bag of blood. The blood was taken; the olive branch was not.
I am afraid my blood will cease winding its way into the plastic bag. This does not happen, of course. The blood continues to flow through the plastic tube into the bag and the bag begins to swell.
I think of my son. Through the years, I have done my utmost to make his life better. At birth, he was a nine pound baby with perfect finger nails and a shock of brown hair. Four hours later, when I went to the baby room to nurse him, I could not find him. He was in an oxygen tent, blue around the mouth and struggling to breathe.
Leaning over him, I told myself we would know what to do. We were good parents and had already raised two healthy daughters. But we did not know what to do, and neither did the medical team in the neonatal ICU. Every time he was disconnected from the tubes and the beeping monitors, every time I held him, I felt his floppy body slipping through my fingers. I remember taking him down in the hospital elevator, all hooked up, for a test. Everyone in the elevator went quiet, staring at this delicate creature clinging to life. “Haram,” I remember a woman saying in Arabic, shaking her head: such a pity. But this was our son, and we fought for him. It was a war against whatever was attacking him, and it was also a war against the stern doctors who claimed he might never eat independently, that he might not walk. The future was precarious, uncertain. We took him home three weeks later and we fought every step of the way: for him to swallow my pumped milk, which we placed in drops in his mouth like a baby bird, stroking his throat until the milk went down; for him to stay awake enough to move his limbs with our help; to focus his eyes on us, his distraught parents.
As time progressed, so did my son. With a tenacity that still characterizes him today in everything he does, he learned to lift his head, to roll over, to take his first steps, to climb up stairs. At age six, a biopsy revealed Nemaline Rod Myopathy, a rare genetic condition that prevents muscles from building up. Now the enemy had a face. Now we knew what we were up against.
Raising my son gave me an intrinsic awareness of how precious life is. Perhaps this is the reason I choose to give blood. My partner was asked to donate blood the day I gave birth: blood for blood. In the past years, we have both given blood to Israeli hospitals and we will do so again. Today, my act is one of repair.
I went to see the nuns of Bet Jamal last week at the Catholic convent close to my home. I know them well; I have been visiting here for years. As a child growing up in northern England with little awareness of my Jewish roots, I went to an Anglican school for girls where Christian prayer was an integral part of daily school life. I can still recite the Lord’s Prayer, which I would say every morning, along with three hundred other students, on our knees on the polished wooden floor of Leeds Girls’ High School. My love for the orderliness and simplicity of this religion is still with me today and it is this love that brought me to the gate of the convent.
When I got there, Bet Jamal was locked and bolted. A sign stuck to the back gate read: We are sorry. The church is not open to visitors today. I stood there in the sun, feeling very alone. I wanted to go in.
Suddenly there was a beep of the electronic gate and the two doors opened slowly, creaking on their hinges. A nun in a white habit walked out to me. “Do you want to see the ceramics?” she asked. They have a small store selling hand-painted ceramics and local honey. “No,” I said. She gave me a hard stare. “Do you want to pray?” she continued. A pause while I considered this. “Yes,” I said. “I think I do.” She nodded, told me to wait and disappeared back into the church grounds. I was left standing there under the shade of the bougainvillea, faintly sweating in the heat. I stood against the stone wall and rummaged in my bag for the bottle of water. A few minutes later, another nun in a white habit and a floury apron walked towards me. We kissed on both cheeks and then we embraced. She smelt of freshly baked bread. I already felt comforted.
She told me the church has been closed almost every day since the conflict began. “We don’t want any trouble,” she said sadly. There have been many troubles for these women in the not so distant past from Jewish extremists who resent the presence of the nuns. A firebomb was thrown into the grounds, threats were made. It is better, these days, to be safe than sorry. Last month, a Hamas missile landed less than half a mile from the convent. When this happened, the nuns told me later, the impact was so powerful that the ground shuddered beneath their feet.
We talked for a few minutes. The booming of missiles from the direction of Gaza and the southern border of Israel echoed around us. I told her that sometimes I wish I were a million miles from here. More than thirty years after being sent to live in Israel, I miss the pink and purple heather of the Yorkshire moors where we used to walk on Sundays; I miss the ruddy-cheeked people who were my neighbors. I asked the nun what she thought I should do. “You should be here,” she said without hesitation. “Right here, where you are now.”
So here I am. I must face facts. Our deed completed, we shake hands with Asaad. The hand Asaad extends is not a firm one. It is a handshake of resignation. Leaving the blood bank, I notice the nurse, beginning to wash a large puddle of blood off the floor. We step over it gingerly, exit the hospital, and walk slowly back to the car. It is already noon and the summer heat fills the air with heaviness. I recall a passage from Zechariah 14:4:
And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which [is] before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, [and there shall be] a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.
Summer is almost over and for many who were not in the firing line the horror has faded. Perhaps the symbolism of my act has faded, too. But the olive branch and its succinct message must continue to resonate for Israelis and Palestinians. Yet another round of peace talks has begun in Cairo, although I doubt that real peace will exist in my lifetime. One thing I am sure of: we must continue fighting our own battles and slogging over our own endless roads. Psalm 34, one of my favorite verses, posits the idea that a person who truly desires life should pursue peace. More than anything I desire this, not only for my son but for future generations.
It is true that I can no longer travel to Gaza as I used to when I was a journalist. But my blood can and I like to think of it, packed into a refrigerator, sloshing around in its plastic bag, crossing over the border into Gaza.