I was ten, when the Zionists Israeli soldiers killed my grandpa, and my once wealthy family lost all their fields of crops, olives and fruit trees and we were made into refugees. I was practically blind but through determination, perseverance and basic instinct of survival, won the scholarship and was the top highest scoring student in all of Palestine. I became the head Doctor to enter Dubai with a group of medical staff to treat the nation in 1965. This is my story.
I am a refugee. My name is Zuhair. I have brown straight hair and I wear it short. I have pale skin, freckles and green hazel eyes. I am the youngest son of my family. My mother had seventeen pregnancies, but only six besides me survived. I like playing with sporty boys my age, hearing stories of heroes from my grandfather, small animals and especially puppies. My grandpa was highly regarded in the community that forbid Israeli expansion into the town. He was so highly revered he would preach on unity against the one common enemy, Zionist nation, and God’s will on Sunday at the church in 1948.
I was born in Al-Lid, where my family had vast lands and we had many farmers working our land. My grandma used to care for the olive trees, she would say they were her children. They had names even. She would speak to them and water them, and pick the green olives gently, thank the Lord and the tree for their fruit. I personally liked the green olives more than the black olives. Father and grandpa like the black ones. I like picking the olives, to me it was a game, almost a race between my siblings and I, as to who would fill his basket first. We would even help make the olive oil by crushing it, the jams and chutney jarred in goods. I liked my grannies cooking and I enjoyed her company. Mother, was from Lebanon, and was mostly inside our house teaching, cooking, cleaning, stitching, embroidering and doing odd jobs. Dad would sell the fruit in the market where he would go out at dawn to supply the fruit bazaar market with fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs and back at dusk.
I was the youngest but was not yet old enough to go to market to work. I had school in the morning which was a big house with several rooms and one teacher that taught us math, Arabic, Islam and history. We had a full educational system, it was paramount to be well knowledged. I was promised to go to market at seven, but apparently, they were worried because there was a war happening in other towns close by. Granny use to say that if it was not the Ottoman Turks, it was the English or the French, but now there was a different invader.
The neighbours’ children had a different God to me, I know him as a prophet and they call him God, Jesus.
I didn’t ask, because he was Michael, and he was my friend. We were the same age, and we were allowed to play with each other being neighbours and family friends. He was the fastest runner in our gang. His mother would make us bread that tasted like cake, kaak, and she would tell us about the new Jews, Zionists. We had four Arab Jewish children in school out of twenty-eight, a third were Christian, but they were just as worried as we were about this new invasion. They were not many, but they would tell us curious children who our new enemies of our land were. Us children, had our own narration of what we would pick up from our elders. We would practice fencing with branches on the meadows after school for fun if the Zionists dared to attack us. Some of the Arab Jewish children were happy, while others were gloomy. They had heard stories that because they were not of European, Russian or American decent they would be classified as third-rate citizens, but not banished from the land or made to leave forcibly like us. Muslims and Christians were no longer welcome and were asked to leave. Those that refused were driven out by force. They believed there was no space except for the new Jews. We would laugh and say it was a mad idea to dislocate hundreds of thousands of people for strangers that were foreign to the land and did not even own it. Yet, with time the danger creeped closer and closer to us. We began witnessing an occasional long sad slow trail of families, dragging their feet and their bundles of whatever they could carry to their new homes of tents. I would sit by the window staring at them. It would give me Goosebumps watching them on the horizon. Their eyes were hollow, and their souls seemed in despair, with a lost expression. It was painful to watch. Granny use to give them bread for the trail and a bottle of oil.
Our town was a stubborn stronghold. Zionist soldiers were refused entry to our town, because we all knew what happens should they come in- we would be made to leave. On the dawn of Friday, as everyone gathered for the holy prayer, a group of women completely covered in Islamic capes and face covers appeared.
During the prayers, these women gathered around the mosque and church which were neighbouring buildings. The church and mosque were set on fire, and everyone that escaped was shot and killed, at the door steps. 217 men died, 87 women and 43 children in total died that day. A blood bath. The grounds were painted red. The bodies were scattered like dead flies lying in the sun, leaking blood. I witnessed everyone I knew burn, shot at or die in the ground that day, I was late to prayer. No men survived the massacre except four. Gratefully father was one of the survivors, but due to the bullet shot to his left shoulder trying to escape, he lost control and sensation in his arm later. His nerves were damaged. We were ordered to leave for Gaza beach for a few days, and insubordination was repaid with a bullet. Many older children were shot at the mosque, and the church had my friend Michael’s family, including himself and his baby sister burnt to the ground. All dead. It was too much to lose at once. I could not even express grief in tears, in missing him even. Where do you begin? Your feelings address you like a stranger. I understood why the refugees wore a frozen expression all the time. Confused? Lost? Homeless? Questions with no answers.
Grandma called grandpa, a martyr, and told me stories of how he was in a better place. One which had better fruits, vegetables, goats and horses with greener pastures. She told me the fruits in heaven were a thousand times better and that we should be happy for him. She even says he probably found himself a temporary beauty to be his wife until she clobbers his head. She prayed for him, but I was heartbroken and irreconcilable.
I was his walking companion, and his walking stick when he would forget it, as he would misplace it every day. No longer would I hear the heroic tales, or the scientists that invented flying-mobile wings, medicine and war tactics. It was the first time I had seen my father cry. Grown men should not cry. Their bodies heave, and they cannot breathe. I wanted him to stop, because I was worried for him. Crying usually elevates the pain in your chest, but I feared my father’s heart would arrest from the suffering that his heart was burning from. It was heart shattering to watch and he would weep so many tears his whole face and chest got wet. He would lose breath and gasp. Grandma was stronger and even scolded father telling him that she was now the wife of the martyr. The whole town dressed in black and came to the funeral. The Muslims, Christians and Arab Jews, all women and children.
During the funeral days I matured overnight. My Arab Jewish friends were leaving to Argentina, a country far far away on a big ship. They were only four from different families but said that they did not feel safe or welcome. They said these new Jews that witnessed and survived injustices they saw in Russia, Germany, Italy and Spain had become rabid. Millions of Jews were killed there, and they came to a peaceful co-existing ecosystem of religions in Palestine and did exactly every horrible thing done unto them to the locals. Zionists said that only Jews had souls, and go to heaven, and they had no hell. Apparently, Christians and Muslims along with cats, dogs, horses, fish and plants all turn to dust on Doomsday. The country was being run by sadistic extremists that knew no mercy or human sympathy to others.
One Arab Jewish family said they would stay because they were in no danger. They were also of Spanish Turkish decent and mentioned that this would put them in favour. I walked back from school after the arson and massacre, and there was a bulldozer and my grandmother crying over her olive trees that had been knocked over. She was angry and crying calling the soldiers murderers. Her last straw and nerve broke. She mentioned all the children and people killed. They had forcibly offered to buy the land and she refused. In they went anyway with trucks and bulldozers and my seventy- year-old pillar of humanity fought back like a lioness. I ran to protect her, but she began coughing and had trouble breathing. She could not walk the next day and passed away in her sleep the same night. I am happy she did not witness what happened of her luscious garden, or her beloved olive trees. Not one tree remained. Settlements and developments were to take over after erasing our existence.
They said if we did not leave, they would ram the house with us in it. In desperation we left with a bundle of our private belongings and moved to Gaza. We took whatever we could carry and saw the spread of settlements and developments as we were crossing south from atop the hills. Father said Gaza, towards the south was the strongest and biggest state, and the Zionists would not attack us there. We honestly believed we would come back in a few days after things settled. After all, we had legal claim over the land and the courts would hear of us. Gaza was a busy city, bustling with traders, shoppers and refugees. We were allowed to stay in the suburbs, in a deserted and barren land. Unfit for farming because of the slope and stony terrain. We lived in tents, and the sharp fangs of winter ice would bite and itch at us at night. Tents are not fit for living standards for humans or animals in the middle of winter. My bones felt like they would break, and we would huddle together in a pathetic attempt to keep warm. We were so poor we could not afford to buy food to eat. We searched for jobs and my impoverished look made it more difficult to find a day job. I was determined to study, but I was not allowed to go to school with the normal children being a refugee.
We were bullied, and simply unwanted pests that depressed the locals. We hung like ghosts and omens of what might befall them. Some regarded as weak and deserving of our fate. After all, who wants a refugee in their backyard? We hung in their consciousness and added to an already fierce competitive market.
Many refugees starved to near death states, fell sick and would die in the winter in their sleep. Some would try to sleep with the animals in the barns, as it provided better protection from the elements. Some trespassers stole the cattle and were shot. Sad stories were a commonality that forced me to think of the future. Of how not to become a victim, a permanent refugee. There were refugees that had come as refugees in 1948. Their children were born in tents, they had poor health and struggled to eat, live and clothe themselves. Gratefully, there was a charity organization called ANRO which gave us tinned food, blankets, vaccinations. Engulfed by gratitude whenever I ate, I would often remember how overfed we were and how many things we had taken for granted; and we were today denied. I was encouraged by my parents to study and I myself was convinced. I sought schools that accepted us refugees, and because I had skipped school I had to do the junior exam which meant grades six to nine, middle school in the Palestinian school system. I studied the four-year courses, tested them and miraculously graduated and passed with flying colours.
I would go to school in the morning, then help my father in his dairy shop he had acquired selling everything he had brought in order to find a stable income and a roof. We also use to sleep in the dairy shop at night. We would sell fresh milk, cheese, yogurt and laban. I respected that father
was trying to settle and start again. I wanted to be able to take them back to the hilltop where we once lived and buy an olive orchard for my mother to enjoy the greens and her grandchildren as my grandmother had.
I set my goals high and my work performance at school soared. The years passed us swiftly between school, hunting for birds, fish and working with father in his shop. I had not the pleasure to buy notebooks and pens, so I would write on the beach with twigs as my writing tools, and then would burn twigs and scribble on the rocks. In my last year of high school, we were delighted to hear of a scholarship program for the top scoring students of Palestine to go to the prestigious Ain Shams University at Cairo, Egypt.
Shortly after I developed a severe case of blepharitis conjunctivitis, pink eye, only this did not clear away in its usual six to ten days. It lasted for months, my eyelids were swollen tight shut after a month. I was reduced to attending classes like a blind man with a long stick to guide me. I then noticed the name-calling lessened as there is no fun bullying the blind. The crowd does not laugh at that scene. I could not afford antibiotics to treat my condition which felt like my eyes were inflamed, irritated and with a gritty foreign object feeling beneath the lid that caused me to rub it making it worse. If I dared rub, it would feel like broken glass instead of sand in my eyes. They were glued shut with the excess discharge, but when the whole class and teachers chipped in to buy me the medicine I wept tears of joy from my swollen shut eyes. Alas, my eye felt better and calmed a little, but the infection comes in two forms – viral and bacterial. It is hard to tell them apart as both have the same symptoms. The only difference is that the viral is treated with penicillin and the bacterial remains unaffected. My classmates would take turns reading to me the classes and on the day of the final examination. I brought a small bucket of seawater from the beach and wiped my eyes with a cloth and it would clear my eyes temporarily. It gave me time to read and answer the question but only momentarily.
The day when they will post the results of the examination came. I asked for the grades and no one seemed to answer. « I’m blind not deaf. Is my name on the board? », I would ask and all I
would hear was silence. They were apologetic and tried to console me. « We’re really sorry Zuhair. Your name isn’t on the list ». « Check the top students list », I insisted.
I scored the highest in the entire country, winning the scholarship being technically blind! Being granted a scholarship I was all set. I was going to be a medical doctor, and I borrowed money to buy good shoes and with only the clothes I had on me, and a basket of bread and two pounds. I walked from Gaza to Cairo. 215 miles. That was the beginning of my life there and then. I worked hard and studied harder, and I sent money back home and became a gynaecologist.
I was sent to Kuwait from Egypt. Then in 1965, when Kuwait sent the first batch of doctors to the Dubai, and I was chosen to be chief of the medical board. With the blessings of Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, I moved to Sharjah in 1967, and became the private doctor of its ruler. Eventually, I built and ran 2 major health clinics in Sharjah and Dubai. Even then I did not stop learning to further my knowledge. I was promoted and decided to further my studies by becoming master consultant. Same year, I was issued an Emirati passport as it seemed that Palestinians were denied their citizenship. I would visit my family annually and set up a charity to school children.
Did You Know?
* Did you know neonatal pink eye can be caused by sexually transmitted infections, like chlamydia, and be passed from mother to baby during birth?
* Pink eye in newborns can be very serious because it may cause long-term eye problems or lead to infection of organs other than the eye.
* Most hospitals are required by state law to put drops or ointment in a newborn’s eyes to prevent pink eye.