I have gotten into the habit of letting my students guess the meaning of any new word from its context. On the board I wrote these three sentences: “Appreciate the beauty of nature. Appreciate your mother and be grateful to her. Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had.” Then, I asked them to guess the meaning of the word “appreciate”. As they guessed right, I asked them whether they are appreciative of what they have before it is irretrievably gone. Given that my mother means the world to me, I, assuming the role of my grandmother probably, prolonged the talk on this topic, offering some pieces of advice on how we should take good care of our mothers and seek her blessing. “Appreciate the irreplaceable,” I began my lecture on appreciation, but stopped abruptly upon hearing the uncontrollable sobs of a girl, cupping her face in her hands trying to muffle the tears. I panicked. “Habibti, what’s wrong?” I knelt down next to her, begging.
I tried to wipe away the tears from her cheek, but they were soon replaced with new ones. She was inconsolable. “Please talk to me,” I begged again. My heart clenched out of fear, for it was almost my first time I happened to be the only grown-up around where I had to be wise enough to handle all alone whatever went wrong. It was such a staggering burden for so young a teacher. “I… lo…s..lo..lost my mom,” she was still sobbing. “Oh my God!” I gasped. Intuitively, I had sensed it, but I feared it. Sometimes I hate when my hunches fail to fail me. Speechless, I patted her shoulder but to no avail. I wished I had not been destined to be a teacher. I regretted my way of teaching. I hated the contexts on which I placed the word ‘appreciate’. Why couldn’t I just shut up after they guessed the meaning of appreciation? Why did I have to go on? I cursed the topic I prolonged and the role of my grandmother I assumed. I thought I was too young to bear such a responsibility, such a mission, a teaching mission. I took her in my small, helpless arms, this time assuming the role of a mother, the mother she lost, most likely. I cried, sharing her the sobs, while beckoning to the other students to have a break or better to leave. I needed a break. A leave.
Till now, I hadn’t dared to ask what happened to her mother. I knew some shattered pieces unfolded by one of her classmates. Selfishly, I didn’t want to hear any further details. Thank you! I have lived enough details. Details that have bestowed me with age beyond that of mine. Details that made me sound more like my versatile grandmother who seems to have much knowledge about anything and everything in life. Details that made my mind bulge with bitter-sweet memories. There, lying in my bed, totally drained, I couldn’t stop thinking of my bereaved student whose image seemed unavoidable as though imprinted in my memory, forever.
Since the bloody war Israel waged against us, I came to realize that I would lose everything and everyone anytime all at once without notice. The war taught me that everything is temporary and nothing I would ever have I could count on, neither parents nor siblings nor friends and of course not home nor even life. Since that, I tried harder to accept such a poignant fact with much patience and rectitude. Still, I am not yet ready. I failed, and I am still failing, even in faking. Since the day I witnessed how others experienced real deaths and losses, I fear experiencing it myself one day. I resist me growing attached to a thing or a person, fearing to experience its loss, not because I lack this sense of appreciation about which I talked earlier with my students, yet because I have this sense of insecurity and uncertainty that the occupation implanted in me by making life so vulnerable to death.
The kind of life I have had made me the person I am today. Such a life makes me see things with exaggerated nostalgia. A life that freaks me out when it whispers to me that the family I am with today while enjoying a Friday meal together, might not be there tomorrow. Why is that when I enjoyed a walk with a friend, a laugh with a brother, a dance with a sister, or the like, I see these moments as mere memories, having the feeling of missing those people while I am actually still with them? Why do I seem to have always craved a sealed promised that I will have my family and my friends for life and never ever to lose them? Why can’t I accept the universally acknowledged fact that nothing lasts forever. Impossible to hold on to a moment forever? Hasn’t the Israeli occupation taught me this, a zillion times, so practically? Or hasn’t the occupation been a qualified teacher yet? Appreciate or don’t. It wouldn’t make any difference, had someone been destined to have such a life under such a merciless occupation that masters causing suffering to people by making them experience losses, consistently.
Yesterday, I went with a group of internationals to visit the Sammouni family. They wanted to hear the countess-times-told story directly from the mother. Sadly, I happened to be the interpreter of the story. –Of grief. Of agony. Of injustice. With tears streaking her face, the mother stopped narrating. I stopped translating. Spontaneously, I gave her a tight hug, thinking, with much naivety, that by hugging her, I could soothe her aching heart (I don’t know what role I assumed that moment, a husband?). As I turned my face to tell my friend Komal, whose eyes were already swollen with tears, that what we heard was enough, I found everyone apparently agonized by her agony, speechlessly mesmerized. This mother lost her husband and her child. Both were murdered in front of her eyes. All what she hoped for at that very moment was to have a final look at her husband’s gun-shot corpse which was totally drowned in his blood. The solider didn’t let her, despite her weeps. She recalled, still feeling the same pain she felt then which tore her heart apart till the rest of her death-drenched life. “May God damn him, curse him, burn him, torture him, let him rot in Hell,” I would say, though. Three years have elapsed, and yet she can’t survive the horrible memories of losing the irreplaceable. Her husband. Her son.
“Fidaa, please ask her how we could help her”, asked one. I wanted to tell him that there was nothing he could offer, had he not been able to bring her husband and son back, had he not been able to erase that painful part off of her memory, had he not been able to make her forget how her husband and son were shot to death in front of her. However, he wanted me to ask her and so I did. “How you could help!” she heaved, “Khalas faGadna el ghali (we lost our beloved)”. I inhaled her pain and exhaled a deep sigh. Between me and myself, I vowed to never come back to that place again, believing that I had been weighed down with enough pain and sorrow. Later, however, I reproached myself for being too susceptible to bear hearing a story of pain, let alone living it with its details. Yet, I felt compelled to never get tired of telling the story. The story of injustice. Of losing a beloved. The irreplaceable.
Edited out by Ms. Suzan Abulhawa, the author of the amazing book “Mornings in Jenin”.