The Lost Voice

For Sara who died mute, I speak. For my people here in Palestine, I project my thoughts. For those who use violence to gain recognition, I urge use of life and words to bring understanding to neglected realities. To Betsy Mayfield, my friend who assists me to write my own story in her language, I gift my work. I can do this because I choose to cooperate, confident enough in myself to know that I have as much to give my helper as she has to give to me. No one is in this world alone; we all have each other; and I can speak, because I’ve come to understand how close we all really are.

At 62, Sara faced death. Brought into Al-Makased Hospital, she was dying of a severe lung disease. Our physicians gave her medications and physiotherapy. Nothing worked. Finally, she was connected to a ventilator. I was there when the T-shaped plastic tube was inserted to connect her trachea to an oxygen machine. It pleased me to see color return to Sara’s face and watch her lips turn from blue to pink. I thought she would relax and, who knows, maybe even get a reprieve, allowing her more precious life.

Revived, Sara surprised all of us with her considerable physical strength. As suddenly as color returned to her face, energy spurred her on. She reached up and grabbed one of the attending doctors by his coat, pulling him so forcefully that he found himself eyeball to eyeball with his patient. Sara had something to say. No matter how eagerly she tried, however, she could not speak. The T- piece in her throat, her last link to life, had separated the out going air from her vocal cords. She could not share her thoughts, cry out about her pain or chuckle, should she improbably have something to laugh about.

Wanting to help, I suggested getting something for Sara to write on, but the physician to whom Sara had entrusted her last attempt to speak, gave me a condescending look and said quietly, “Dr. Jabr, Sara is an illiterate villager from Turmusayya. Let’s move on.”

All day, Sara’s desperation troubled me. When I finished my duties, I slipped in to check on her. As I bent over to look into Sara’s face, she reached up and strongly gripped my arm, again, trying to communicate. I put my ear to her mouth. No sound. I tried to speak through my hands and she, in turn, waved her hands and shook my arm. All futile.

One of the nurses in the unit saw my frustration. She told me that she’d tried to contact someone in Sara’s family who might be able to tell us how to “speak” with her. A nephew promised to try and visit his aunt, but it was clear that he could not help us understand Sara.

The next morning, Sara died of cardiac arrest. I knew she was at peace, free from suffering, but I could not get her effort to communicate out of my mind. I began to think of Sara as a metaphor for all the millions of human beings who have no voice: minorities, battered women, husbands, wives, children who cannot make other family members understand, oppressed people who live in fearful silence under monarchs or dictators, people embarrassed to speak out.

Most relevant to my reality and background is the Palestinian plight. This is what I want people everywhere to understand. Like people, everywhere, however, I find it hard to articulate what I want to say. Furthermore, knowing how the stresses of my life cut me off much of the rest of the world’s sorrows, I can imagine that hearing about our situation is just too much for most of the people around the world. Like the team of doctors who did what they could for Sara, but, then, walked away, people can only absorb so much before they click off and think only of the duties and stresses before them. Still,I want to speak effectively. I feel an urgency to express myself so that the light of my country does not go out with the world unaware of who we Palestinians are.

I’ve taken the path of cooperation. Knowing that English is not my mother language and that it is difficult for people outside my native land to understand my Arabic writing, I was lucky to have guidance and assistance from an old English teacher, Betsy Mayfield. Betsy and I enjoy applying universality to real life accounts in an effort to show similarities among people. we write together so that people as far away as Asia and America can find out how Palestinians react to and measure up under pressure from the occupation that surrounds them. Betsy and I balance each other, allowing our individual talent to connect so that our two voices tell one story.

Considering that I am Muslim, Betsy of Christian heritage; I am in my 20s and Betsy in her 60s; I, remain a native of occupied Jerusalem and Betsy is alive and well in the safety and freedom of America, it’s unique that we can reach consensus and publish pieces we both agree upon. Ours is a tiny example of how people can relate to each other, can get beyond the attitude of “you said this and that’s offensive, and I won’t speak to you any more.”

Betsy and I don’t always agree and, unfortunately, we’re both capable of “verbal violence” and arguments, but we talk, we learn from our differences and grow wiser.

Palestinians have often failed to articulate the Palestinian perspective effectively. We came out of the 1948 and 1967 Catastrophes lacking in Western public relations skills. Many of us were like illiterate Sara, desperate to speak, but unable to be heard. I assure you, however, Palestinians were certainly “a people” and we did and do exist. Unlike those who came to our Middle Eastern land from Europe, with an open invitation from the Western World to colonize and modernize our place and time, our people were unaccustomed to the use of propaganda, to big-gun violence, to money flowing like “manna from heaven” to make a “desert green.” Our voices were as muted as Sara’s and, when we tried to speak, the world, pretty much, walked away to attend to other “patients” facing tough situations closer to home. There is no shame in this. It’s just the way it was.

Once Betsy and I were together and Betsy got out one of her favorite videos, Schindler’s List. Watching that film, neither she nor I could keep tears from our eyes. We felt another people’s unimaginable pain. That film showed us both the power of story to reach virtually any person anywhere. Now, few good Palestinian feature films are available in America, the latest of which, The Tale of Three Jewels, portrays life in a Gazan Palestinian refugee camp. This gentle, dramatic story contains the realism Western people expect in a film. Because it doesn’t make all Palestinians look unrealistically worldly or perfect, however, few Palestinians reject it as “bad press.” To me, however, this film is an example of the kind of speaking out we Palestinians need to do. “The Tale of the Three Jewels” is not like the grossly distorted, but famous propaganda film, Exodus. But it is a modest film that tells a noble truth about Palestine and Palestine’s people. It has universal appeal because it is so real and believable. It fits into a new genre of International nonfiction. Like my writing with Betsy, it speaks strongly through the voice of the once silenced.

We Palestinians have done a good job at bridging the great educational gap between ourselves and our occupiers. Many of us have joined the modern world, so to speak. Were our trees not so uprooted, our homes not so demolished, our lives not so threatened, what remains of our Palestine could be green from the edges of the Sinai to the Lebanese border.

We still have a long way to go. We have to learn to cooperate with whoever opens a hand of friendship to us, even with those who support us from outside our borders. I can testify that it works for Betsy and me and, you know what, our work makes us both happy and fulfilled and that what matters most.

(Samah Jabr is a Palestinian physician and a writer living in East Jerusalem. This article was written for Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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