This made me cry…

This story made me cry. Which is unusual.

Not because of the horror, sadness or loss. That’s not unusual. I think it’s the slow steady build-up to the sudden terror, and the teller’s clear immanent decency.

He’s a doctor called Izzeldin Abuelaish, an infertility expert who treated patients in Israel and Gaza of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The story takes place in January 2009, when he and his eight children were still coming to terms with his wife’s recent death from leukaemia.

Three daughters sitting next to their names: Mayar, Aya & Besson Abuelaish. Apologies, I don't have a picture of their cousin Noor.

Because he could speak Hebrew and worked in Israel, Dr Abuelaish had many contacts in the Israeli medical system and media – indeed, with the Israeli military restricting journalists’ movements, he was sometimes called up to give interviews for Israeli radio and TV. These connections were to be the difference between life and death.

Here’s the start of his family’s story – an excerpt from his book I Shall Not Hate. It’s set during an Israeli assault on Gaza, where his family lived.

January 15 2009 was a day like all the others during the siege.

The apartment was beginning to feel crowded; we were 10. My daughter Dalal was at her aunt’s house, but my other children (Bessan, Shatha, Mayar, Aya, Raffah, Mohammed and Abdullah) were with me, as were my brother Shehab and his daughter Noor. Late that afternoon I lost my temper and told the kids to tidy their rooms. The chaos outside was getting to me. They did as I asked and afterwards said they were going to bed.

It was only 6pm. I knew they were only trying to escape my distressed mood. I felt terrible that I’d upset them, and knew I couldn’t let them go to bed unhappy. So I went to the kitchen and prepared a meal of shakshuka, made with eggs and tomatoes, which was about all I had left in the pantry, and called them to come to me from where they were, supposedly sleeping on their mattresses on the dining-room floor. (The dining-room had become a sanctuary for the family since we needed to avoid the outside rooms – the kitchen, the bedrooms and a living-room that had wall-to-wall windows and a dangerous exposure to the explosions from the Israeli shelling.)

They asked why I had been so harsh, and I said I was sorry, that it was a mistake on my part to take out the turmoil I was feeling on them.

The following day, as the family remains trapped in their home, the children ask about the Israeli leadership, whom their father has met personally. 

After lunch, we sat together talking about the incursion; the children had dozens of questions. Mohammed asked me why there couldn’t be a ceasefire today, right now. He wanted to know more about this man Barak, who people said had the power to end the hostilities. My other children, all of us sitting in the circle we’d formed on the dining-room floor, asked me about Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel, and what sort of man he is.

I had met Ehud Barak, the Israeli Minister of Defence, at his home in Jerusalem, and when I introduced myself as a Palestinian doctor from the Gaza Strip, Barak asked me to sit beside him; he wanted to know how I became a doctor and how I managed my life coming from Gaza to work in Israel. We sat talking for more than an hour.

I wanted the children to see him as a person rather than as a monster. So I went to my desk to find the photo that had been taken of him with me at that meeting, and another of me with Olmert, taken when he was the mayor of Jerusalem. I showed these photos to the children and told them that both men had talked to me about coexistence.

But how would I explain that the men smiling beside me in the photos were responsible for the death and destruction outside our windows?

Izzeldin Abuelaish and his son Abduulah, a few days after this story

Later they chat about job offers their father has received, one from Haifa, another from Toronto. They finally decide to move to Canada. The children drift out of the living to read, do homework, etc.

It occurred to me as I watched the girls from the dining-room that, despite the shelling and the loss of their mother, there was a level of happiness in this house, and a sense of togetherness.

Raffah was in the kitchen, rummaging around for a piece of bread to make a sandwich, and Bessan was helping her. Mohammed was at the front door, which led to the staircase of the apartment building, stirring the charcoal to keep the embers going and trying to direct a bit of heat into our cold, damp house. I had finished my preparation for the interview and was playing with Abdullah, carrying him on my shoulders, touring the house, stopping to talk first to Raffah and Bessan in the kitchen, then to Mohammed at the door, and finally entering the girls’ bedroom. I was trying to distract Abdullah; at the age of six, he found the situation almost incomprehensible.

We had left the girls’ room and were in the middle of the dining-room when it happened. There was a monstrous explosion…

This is where the story gets gory. I won’t reproduce it here. The full excerpt is available at this link.
Three of his daughters, Bessan, Mayar and Aya, and his niece Noor, are killed when the apartment is twice shelled. Two survive thanks in part to the action of Israeli TV presenter Shlomi Eldar, who takes a call from Dr Abuelaish while he is on live television, and helps organise safe passage. Here’s a clip from the live television broadcast:

Click on the pic to go to Amazon sales page

You should read the full excerpt. Or even the book I Shall Not Hate, published by Bloomsbury.

“I have the right to feel angry,” says Dr Abuelaish. “But I ask, ‘Is this the right way?’ So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate.”
Dr Abuelaish now lives with his remaining family in Canada where he is an associate professor at the Dall Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He’s carried on plugging the idea that Palestinians and Israelis are able to and should try to co-exist – just as he felt before his daughters were killed. Though his message hasn’t always been well received – there’s a bit about that in this more recent interview that brings his and his daughter’s lives up to date.
In their memory he has set up a charitable foundation Daughters for Life, promoting heath and education among girls and women in the Middle East.
(Meanwhile – more on masked Basel festival madness shortly – some of it a little alarming.)


Filed under life, politics, What I'm Reading

12 responses to “This made me cry…

  1. I’m currently taking a module on Israel and Palestine (I’m in my first year of a History degree) and the tutor has recommended that we read this if we get a chance – and I think you’ve convinced me! Very informative, concise post 🙂

  2. I have been saddened for many years over the situation in that region. I don’t know if I could get over the hate. Perhaps I would not hate the common people of the other side because they are not responsible just as the regular people on my side could be considered not responsible. I know people from India and Pakistan and they don’t hate each other at all but both governments stir the hate for political ends. My teacher friend Tony is a Christian missionary in Morocco and teaches history to high schoolers. One 19 year old girl that works in the office brought a Bible home and her father beat her and broke both arms with a large iron frying pan. I a father can do that to his own child how can families over there make the hate evaporate? He is a man to be emulated.

  3. Barbara Rodgers

    It’s so sad, so tragic, it’s hard to know what to say or do. Why some people retain their humanity and refuse to hate in the face of any evil is a mystery to me. Following their example, though, is the only hope we have for creating a better world…

  4. Sorry I haven’t had time to see the video interviews but I certainly get the gist. There is no resolution to this idiocy, it’s been going on too long now, far to long. I admire his decision not to hate. I understand it as my mother was killed by someone years ago and I’ve resented the person who did it but am not capable of hating him, the judicial system has taken care of that. A tragic story to be sure and one that I suspect is being repeated over on Gaza and in other places where this kind of division exists. Frankly, I just don’t get it. Perhaps I never will.

    • blackwatertown

      That’s very very tough.
      I sometimes wonder how my life and the lives of my siblings would have turned out had certain sharp events in our childhood gone differently. But thankfully the nefarious plans of others failed in our case.

  5. Not at all sure I could be like that but I do know if you can, do! Resentment and bitterness will eat away at you and it is this that will ultimately destroy from the inside out. I know this in my head but if I were in the position…don’t know…hope I never have to find out.

  6. This is a story of survival that brings in the end, joy that anyone can remain of his frame of mind after what he has lived trough. It is truly remarkable and good to know there are people like him in the world today.

  7. So glad you found this! His story made the rounds in our region soon thereafter, it is as heart-wrenching now as then. I am so proud of him that he wrote a book to detail his choices for good.

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