Authors: Mischa Hiller
This eBook edition published 2011
First print edition published 2010 by Telegram
Copyright Â© Mischa Hiller, 2010 and 2011
26 Westbourne Grove
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher
I sat in the front passenger seat of the yellow 1966 Mercedes, clinging to the leather strap. Samir was driving too fast through the potholed streets of Sabra refugee camp, like he was still driving
bigwigs around. I clung to the strap with both hands, slithering across the worn leather seat as we went round a corner, my stomach punishing me for the amount I'd drunk the night before. I looked out of the window to fight the nausea, trying to concentrate on the passing scenery. I was never sure when the transition from city to camp happened, whether there was some recognised boundary. I suppose the buildings became smaller, less well built, their breeze-block walls unplastered. There was no tarmac on the road and there was a lot more corrugated iron. This wasn't a refugee camp in the sense of tents and blankets issued to displaced people, it was more a sprawling shanty town built up over the years on the outskirts of the city. Many of the people in the camp were born there, attended a
-run school there, worked and got married there. Off the main road the buildings became single storey and the streets grew narrower until they were just a network of alleys with small one- and two-room houses. Children jumped out of the path of the Mercedes as it came to a sliding stop in front of the Red Crescent Hospital, easily the tallest building around. I waited for the dust and my stomach to settle as Samir checked himself in the rear-view mirror, smoothing his moustache with his fingers then running them through his thick hair. He was clean shaven and well turned out. He gave me an appraising look.
âIvan, my friend, you'll never lose your virginity looking like a gypsy,' he said.
I shrugged inside my denim jacket and pulled at a frayed rip on my jeans. âI knew it was a mistake to confide in you,' I said.
He smiled. âAlcohol loosens the tongues of men and, thank God, the morals of women.' He lit a Marlboro as I stepped out of the car. âI'll see you later, yes?' he asked, revving the engine unnecessarily.
âI'll stop by the cafÃ©,' I said.
No sooner had I closed the door than Samir let out the clutch and fishtailed down the dirt road. I smiled to see him being cursed by the head-scarfed women left in his dusty wake. They glared at me, complicit through association, and I quickly entered the hospital building. Crossing the lobby, I passed a refugee family that looked like they were camped there, complete with foam mattresses and a small paraffin stove. Refugees within a refugee camp. I ran up the stairs to the orthopaedic ward but I had to pause for breath on the second floor, my lungs sore, thinking I ought to be in better shape at eighteen, that I should cut out the cigarettes. It was 8.30 in the morning and I was just in time to see the child-sized figure of Dr Asha Patel enter the ward. I followed her in, still panting from my climb.
âAh, Ivan,' she smiled, âjust in time for rounds.'
Eli, the Norwegian physiotherapist who was accompanying Asha, winked at me: she'd been there the previous night, although she herself had been restrained in her drinking. I winked back. Perhaps I hadn't made such a fool of myself after all. She looked fresh and professional in her white scrubs and braided hair. I was conscious of my own war-torn jeans and grubby trainers. At least I'd managed to find a clean T-shirt that morning. Eli wasn't pretty, not in the way that Samir would think, but there was something about her, the way she held herself, the frankness of her gaze. Several times I'd caught sight of her across a room, laughing or smiling, and I knew she was beautiful. In the few days I'd known her, I'd never seen her wear make-up, although she was partial to wearing ribbons in her hair.
âAre you two ready?' Asha asked, raising her black eyebrows at me in mock seriousness. She smiled again and my eyes were drawn to her perfectly formed white teeth; it happened every time she smiled, which she did a lot.
We stopped by the bed of an unconscious man who had a bloody bandage covering the stump where his right leg used to be. His family were standing around him, towering over Asha expectantly.
Asha prodded at his bandage. âTell them I had to remove his leg â¦'
I waited, hoping to be able to interpret something more than the obvious.
âTell them his leg was too damaged by the shrapnel to be saved, but that with the right prosthetic and treatment from Eli he'll be walking in several weeks.'
She waited as I struggled for the Arabic for âprosthetic'. I settled for âfalse leg' instead, although God knows I'd had to say it often enough that summer for it to be in my top ten most used words.
Asha continued, âBecause the amputation was beneath the knee he will have complete flexibility in the leg, so he was lucky in that respect.'
She smiled at the family as I translated. I asked if they had questions. The man's wife started to cry and a male relative thanked Asha, calling her âDoctora'. She was renowned in the camp, her tireless efforts to patch people up rewarded with enormous respect by men who wouldn't have let their own sisters become doctors but would no doubt have begged to be operated on by this small Indian woman if they'd been unfortunate enough to need it.
âThis boy is a sad case,' Asha said in her perfect, easy-on-the-ear English, stopping at the bed of a dark-haired kid of about twelve or thirteen, about the same age my brother Karam would have been if he was still alive. He had the same dark look about him, the same eyes, eyebrows that almost met in the middle and thick hair. He was having his dressing changed by a nurse and his black eyes flashed in anger or pain. âHis foot was badly damaged although Dr Angstrom and I managed to save it,' said Asha. A woman, maybe the boy's mother, sat by his bed, stroking his dark hair. I felt queasy as the nurse irrigated the wound with saline, running gauze through a hole in one side of his foot and out of the other. The boy moaned. Asha held his bony hand and asked the nurse how much pethidine he was on.
âMore than he should be,' the nurse replied, another foreign volunteer, Scandinavian of some sort, I didn't know and it wasn't the time to inquire, although Samir would have had the name of her hotel by now, would have arranged to meet her later and take her on a tour of recent bomb sites. Asha was talking to me.
âTell his aunt that he will need three weeks in hospital and then physiotherapy, to make sure he walks properly again.'
I translated, the Arabic for âphysiotherapy' eluding me as the sight of the wound and last night's vodka conspired to make me inarticulate. Luckily, the boy's aunt kicked in as I floundered, effusively thanking Doctora Asha.
âShe said thank you,' was the best I could do; my stomach had become detached from the rest of my insides and my hands felt clammy.
âMaybe Ivan needs to lie down,' Eli said.
I ignored the jibe and was relieved to see the nurse start to dress the terrible wound. I tried to focus on the fact that the boy was now addressing me.
âHave you ever seen a wound like this?' he said, pointing at his foot. He tried to shift himself up the bed using arms that didn't look strong enough to support even his light weight.
âYou're very brave,' I said. âHow did it happen?'
âWe went to play football and I kicked a tin off the pitch. At least I thought it was a tin. My uncle, God rest his soul, said it was a cluster bomb.'
The boy's aunt was making her feelings about the use of cluster bombs very clear, using some strong language unusual for Palestinian women of her age. It occurred to me, not for the first time that summer, that war was liberating in many unexpected ways.
âDid you watch the World Cup?' I asked the boy, even though it was two months ago.
âYeah, Paolo Rossi was the best, don't you think?'
âHe sure was,' I said, vaguely recalling that Italy had won. âMy name is Ivan. I'll see you again soon.'
âWhat sort of name is Ifan?' he asked; excusable since there is no letter âv' in the Arabic alphabet.
âIt's Russian,' I told him.
He looked at me with more interest. âAre you Russian?'
âNo.' I didn't elaborate on my Danish and Palestinian roots.
âI'm Youssef,' the boy said. He extended his hand to me in a formal gesture that was touching. His skin was paper dry and his grip weak. It was like shaking the hand of a dusty skeleton in a school laboratory.
We moved on, past the maimed and the critically ill, only occasionally stopping at someone newly operated on; most people on the ward were leftovers from the violence of the summer siege of Beirut, too ill to be discharged. Most had already been told (some by me) that they wouldn't be playing football or the piano again.
We stopped by the bed of an elderly man who had been in various hospitals since June. He was nicknamed Donkey Man by the staff because he'd broken his leg falling off a donkey, although he swore blind that he was wounded fighting in the south of Lebanon. Due to his age and wartime diet his leg was taking months to heal. The hospital was keen to discharge him but he had nowhere to go. His family had stopped visiting after the first week; no one knew why. Perhaps they'd suffered enough of his fanciful stories, although it was more likely they'd gone back south and hadn't been able to return. I suspected Donkey Man enjoyed the bed baths given by the nurses too much, and leaving would deprive him of this one pleasure.
âHow are we feeling today?' Asha asked, knocking on his yellowing cast for clues.
âWhen will I be washed by the blonde nurse?' Donkey Man replied, not waiting for the translation.
âHe's feeling fine, never felt better,' I said. I was keen to get some breakfast since my nausea had passed.
âTell him the cast is coming off in a couple of days,' said Asha.
Asha and I went to the makeshift kitchen in the basement, leaving Eli to coax a young girl into using a newly fitted artificial leg. People were queuing up for hard-boiled eggs, sweet tea and hot flat bread. We found a seat on a box of medical supplies donated by Christian Aid and I cracked my egg on my bony knee.
âYou don't look well,' Asha said. âAre you eating properly?' This was rich coming from her. Dark rings under her eyes offset the paleness of her brown skin. Her black hair had lost the lustre it had when she'd first arrived in the city. I knew that she hadn't left the hospital in three days; the summer for her had been a constant run of traumatic amputations, relief coming only in the form of the odd dislocation or broken bone.
âI'm fine, Mother,' I said, examining the purple yolk of my extra-hard egg. I was reluctant to tell her that I'd spent an alcohol-fuelled evening with some of the other foreign volunteers and friends in my parents' apartment, my parents having left in the
exodus three days before. I suspected she would disapprove of such goings-on under the circumstances. Or perhaps she would understand that it was how some of her colleagues coped and would be sympathetic, although she herself never drank and avoided the expatriate crowd. She referred to them as tourists.
I first met Asha in a makeshift hospital in an office block in the Hamra district, a relatively well-heeled part of west Beirut, less prone to attracting incoming ordnance, which was why the hospital was housed there. It was July, the siege was settling nicely into a routine that people could understand: the water had been cut off, the electricity had died, the city had been pounded with big bombs, peppered with small, a ceasefire was announced and then it started all over again. Medical volunteers began to arrive from all over the world, although the Scandinavians were heavily represented. I'd been persuaded by Asha, whom I'd met through friends of my parents, to interpret for the volunteer medics crazy enough to come to this hellhole. I'd gone to meet her at the hospital but before I even had time to get my bearings a group of armed men had stormed the emergency room carrying a badly burnt comrade, bits of smoking clothes and skin falling from him. Waving their
around and shouting, they'd demanded immediate treatment. Everyone had frozen but Asha had stepped forward, her small frame blocking the men's way.
âTell them', she said, keeping her eye squarely on the men as I cowered behind her, âthat no one comes into my emergency room with weapons.'