Mohammed glared down at me as the ambulance crossed Rafah.
“Stop it!” he ordered. “Stop doing that with your jaw.”
“I can't,” I tried to say, although it came out an inarticulate whine. My jaw locked itself into a shaking spasm, making my teeth chatter and my cheeks burn. I suspected this was related to Crohn's Disease, an intestinal condition I had been dealing with since the age of nine. I had been unmedicated since my supply ran out sometime in March. Preoccupied by more urgent issues, I had ignored the rumblings in my abdomen, but now I regretted my nonchalance. As the ambulance crossed Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, my body registered every bump on the road and I despaired, thinking, I am going to die today, and my death will not even help the Palestinian struggle.
Mohammed's face appeared above me. He started sticking his fingers in my mouth, attempting to pry open my clenched jaw. Weren't EMTs supposed to ride in the back with the patients? If I didn't die, I would have some words for my colleague when I could speak again. I gave him a dirty look but he was busy fiddling with my mouth. I tried to tell him off but only angry muffled grunts came out. Finally I bit his finger hard, which got the message across fine. He jumped back.
“Are you crazy?” he yelled. “You bit me like a rabid animal!” He sat on the other side of the car the rest of the way, pouting. I closed my eyes and counted my breaths until we got there.
At the European Gaza Hospital they hooked me to a saline drip and I began to feel better. I called my dad, who is a practicing physician, which I always do about every minor health problem. His voice took on the calm doctor-in-control tone, which I am convinced he could make a successful career from if he ever decided to quit his job and narrate self-help tapes instead.
“Sounds like a state of shock,” he said. “Could be an intestinal infection. You need a CAT scan to be sure.” His diagnosis had a psychosomatic effect; knowing what was making me feel terrible made me feel great.
Two doctors arrived to take me under their care. “Listen,” I said, “I have an intestinal infection related to Crohn's Disease and I need a CAT scan to confirm.”
“Oh do you?” asked the younger doctor, amused.
“Do you always order your doctors around like that?” said the older one.
“Of course she does,” said the younger one, “she is American.”
“You look fine,” said the older one. “But since you're here with the solidarity group we'll admit you.
They put me in a room with five other women where I ended up staying for a week with what turned out to be not an infection but a Crohn’s flare-up. After whining until they admitted me, I complained about how long they kept me, a contradiction Dr. Zohair, the younger fancier doctor who took on my case, pointed out often with a flat smile. “You are getting the special American treatment. Enjoy it.”
The six beds in my room were divided by hospital curtains that never closed. An apparently unlimited supply of wooden chairs accommodated the flow of visitors. I never saw so many visitors in a hospital, and I'd never seen a hospital with no visiting hours – people came whenever they wanted and stayed as long as they liked. There was no pretense of politeness, no may-I-please, no knocking at the door – in Gaza you were simply welcome and you never told anyone to leave. If I closed my curtains, several people would appear out of nowhere to peek in and ask what I was doing. The concept of privacy didn't apply, especially not to foreigners with strange clothes, strange accents and laptop computers.
All day patients and visitors chatted – with each other, the nurses, the cleaning lady, other patients, other visitors, anyone who happened to drop by. The stream of conversation never let up – it was amazing how much people had to catch up about. They spoke mostly of family, this son or that wife; about who had been shot, who was sick, who had children near the border.
On the first day a nurse, watching the news on TV, spouted off, "There is not one Palestinian who doesn't support suicide bombings." But when she learned I was Jewish she still adopted me as a daughter, and when one of the other nurses said something about “the Jews,” she jumped to correct him in front of me, “This one's Jewish, don't talk that way.”
As it got around that I was in the hospital, I got visits from friends and strangers alike. Mohammed snuck me in the box of cornflakes and milk I was craving and chided me for getting sick. “You should be more strong!” He refused to sit down, gesticulating at the foot of my bed. “We have work to do and here you are vacationing.”
“Some vacation. Only vacation I need is from you.”
“You are aneeda, obstinate (obstinate was a word I knew well because of how often he used it). You should learn from my sister Rasha how to be a lady.”
“So you can order me to make you tea all day?”
“Exactly, and so you can become graceful and smart instead of weak and hospitalized.”
“Earth to Mohammed, I have a chronic intestinal disease.”
“But what was that face you were making in the ambulance? What does your face have to do with your intestine? I thought you were going to die in front of me!”
“If your ugly face keeps standing there I might.”
“You are a bad woman.”
A group of spunky little girls who would crowd around me every time I went to Abu Jameel Street and fight over who got to hold my hands as I walked all hailed a cab together, pushed past astonished hospital staff, and joined the visiting crowds in my hospital room. Sara, the ringleader, a seven-year-old I wouldn't want to mess with on the playground, handed me a card they had all signed. Inside it was a collector's edition Palestinian Authority mailing stamp of Jesus' last supper.
The hospital staff, most of whom I had never met, also started dropping by. The public relations office invited me down several times a day, which I at first thought was a gesture of goodwill and later decided was a gesture of boredom. Between three and five men in their thirties, chain-smoking in the only part of the hospital it was allowed, poured me tea, of which I drank a polite amount, wondering which doctor had sanctioned a Gazan caffeine drip and second-hand smoke for inpatients. Mostly they wanted to talk politics.
In an ironic twist it was I who criticized Israel and the US while they spoke tentatively of peace, reconciliation, a return to normality, however temporary. They didn't fool themselves about the long term, but were excited to visit the beach for a few months without spending hours at Abu Holy checkpoint.
As part of their PR campaign, the PR men brought me to meet Abu Jihad, a doctor who had just returned from three years in Canada. He told me about the year after high school that he spent working in construction at Kiryat Arba, the most conservative settlement in the West Bank, fondly reminiscing about settlers who he considered friends. I was taken aback; even my right-wing Israeli friends were embarrassed by Kiryat Arba's extremism. The doctor chided me, "Good people are everywhere." and continued his lecture on pediatric surgery, explicating photographs of newborns with deformed genitalia in English and Arabic to a group of young male medical students – and me – and I was the only one who flinched. Where was the conservative society I had been living in for two months?
As soon as I was well enough, my friend Rami started smuggling me out for coffee at the nursing college where he was a student. The mood there was different from anything in Rafah. The men met my eye instead of looking away. Women wore flattering clothes, not exactly mixing with the boys but not shying away from them either. It was just an outdoor tent filled with flies and picnic benches and mud, but it smelled like freedom for these young people. When I mentioned it to Rami he laughed. “You've been stuck in conservative Rafah for too long! This is a university.”
On my last night in the hospital, an older lady with an unidentified stomach issue was chatting with the woman across the room who was seven months pregnant with her eighth child, sharing flatbread and cucumbers that her family brought. The windows were open and a breeze eased the stale air in the room. It had been an oppressively hot day, like baskets on our shoulders, even the wind was warm. But when the dark came, and the fans clicked on, and the women's gossip took on its nighttime lilt of slowly winding down, and outside, not too far off, a wedding hall lit up, I felt something inside me release, and found myself missing Rafah.
The nursing station was playing music softly, a woman singing sweetly without accompaniment, the same music that woke us at 6 AM in the best way you can be woken to IVs and pills. I was giving the nurses an impromptu computer lesson on my laptop. European Gaza Hospital might have been modern, but it was as technology starved as the rest of Gaza, with only a handful of computers on each floor, mostly in the private offices of those who could afford them. The girls and I stayed up past midnight, typing on Notepad and playing with Paint. They drew me a Palestinian flag and typed Freedom underneath and their names.
Dr. Zohair was on call that night, roaming through the hospital, and he dropped in to check on me. He stood at the window looking at the wedding hall. “You know,” he said, “I was married there less than a year ago, but it was not a joyous event. How can a wedding be joyous when people are dying all around you?” He told me the Ministry of Health had decided to pick up my hospital bill under the national health insurance policy as a gift for my presence in Palestine. I started to protest but he interrupted. “Go home and tell people what good care you received here in Gaza. You are our ambassador now.”
He turned from the window and left the room. I could faintly hear the wedding hall's music. The women had gone to sleep but from the hall came a soft murmur of nurses on night shift. A male nurse joined them, and from across the room I could tell from his posture, the way he sat on the desk, that he was flirting. And I felt grateful, lucky, to have arrived by accident in the last place I ever imagined I would feel at home.