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Jewish Journal

Our Jamal

by Helen Schary Motro

October 12, 2000 | 8:00 pm

I stared with the rest of the horrified world at the photo of the anonymous Palestinian father holding his anonymous Palestinian son - father wounded, son dead. Only after reading the description in the newspaper did I realize he was not anonymous to me. The boy's father was Jamal. Our Jamal who had helped build my Israeli house at the height of the Intifada and worked in my home; afterwards, he helped maintain it. I knew Jamal by his first name. Last week, reading his story, I learned his whole identity: Jamal al-Durrah.

I had just had my baby when I met Jamal; his wife was pregnant with their first child. I tried to give him my old maternity clothes, but Jamal turned his back, too proud to accept them. The terrified boy the whole world saw last week, screaming in the crook of his father's arm and dead a moment later, was the child Jamal's wife had been carrying.

In 1988, Jamal was an angry young man. Tall, thin and glowering, he spoke in monosyllables and refused the coffee I took out to the workers. He would go silently to the periphery of the unfinished patio and brew his own over a tiny portable gas heater.

One day, Jamal carved his name in English into the wet cement of the wall he was building in my garden: "Jamal '88," in a loping schoolboy's hand. I complained to the contractor, his Israeli boss. If anyone had a right to graffiti, I said, it was me. The next morning there were fresh swirls in the cement. Jamal's signature was gone.

Ten years later, I hired the same contractor to repaint my house. The Jamal who walked up the garden stairs was a changed man. He was 35 but looked 50. He limped, and his hair was flecked with gray. For a decade, Jamal had been rising from his bed at 3:30 a.m. to take the 4 a.m. bus to the border crossing, then board a second bus an hour later out of Gaza to begin work at 6 a.m. This back-breaking cycle of physical labor was a journey he prayed to make; without it there would be no work at all.

Jamal smiled, and I did too. There was something of friends in our greeting, but even as I say that word, I know it is not true. Beyond the economic inequality, we could never look at each other without nationalities in mind. His Arabness hung in the air, as did my Jewishness. I wondered what could I, transplanted to this soil from another place, represent for Jamal.

Now Jamal drank my coffee, and he laughed, "I hope this is real coffee - not Jewish Nescafé." After the paint job was finished, Jamal had time before the bus took him to occupied Gaza. He helped rehang my diplomas on the fresh white wall. With difficulty, Jamal made out the Gothic letters and read out loud, "New York University." With a hundred tiny nails he repaired the old wood frame of the reproduction of Renoir's "A Girl With a Watering Can" hanging in my daughter's room.

Jamal told me he now had six children. This time he accepted the bags of used clothing and discarded toys I left for him to take.

Jamal's children wore my children's sweaters and played with their Legos.

My daughter is 12, like Jamal's boy was. Jamal's boy loved to swim in the sea; my daughter is on a swim team. My daughter walks to school beside cypress trees, amidst bougainvillea. Her pet dog waits impatiently for her to come home. Jamal's son had pet birds. But had his son lived to be a grandfather, they would have never met.

Jamal lies with multiple gunshot wounds in a Jordanian hospital, his son killed by an errant Israeli bullet. Yet everybody in Israel heard him live on Israeli radio: "I am a man of peace. We two peoples must live together. There is no other possibility, no other possibility..." Jamal spoke to me by telephone from his hospital bed. I asked him what he wishes for his remaining children. "My children? To grow as all the children in the world." His voice broke. "That they will be surrounded by all good things and nothing bad." The Renoir he fixed is still hanging in the next room. I sit in my garden looking at Jamal's wall, recalling the defiant young man's graffiti. It is an old wall now. We are all caught in the crossfire. Jamal's life has become a tragedy. And I try to understand: What is the meaning of his tragedy to my life?

Helen Schary Motro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.

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