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.
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.
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?
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…