Ike-Humanitarian on Medical Mission
Jumah and Jamal-two helpful Arab boys
Haunting Eyes Part Two
Henry Majali was the local station manager for RCA’s Middle East and North African territory. His office was located at the 5th circle in Amman, Jordan’s capitol. The 5th Circle is a primary intersection within Amman, straddling a hilltop offering a hawk’s eye-view of the entire city. The RCA office was the first floor of Henry’s apartment; the walk-up was his living quarters. The walk-up was sparsely furnished, but along the entire back of his apartment was a massive ornate covered veranda, with cool marble flooring insulating visitors against the heat of the desert and busy of the city. From this vantage point you could see the sharp contrast of the city with ancient minarets bursting from old mosques below, while prayer resonated over the congestion of traffic and honking horns.
Henry was a robust man, balding, with small, warm, brown eyes that peered over his thick, ill fitting glasses as they slowly slid down his large regal Arab nose. Like Mo, he was Lebanese, but most of Henry’s family now lived in London, where he’d been educated. Henry was smart, industrious, and unsuspectingly, quite a ladies man. But at the top of my list, he was my go-to man between humble Terasu and the outside world. Each Saturday I would hitch a ride with one of Aziz’s men into Amman to collect my mail and fax a progress report to the Coalition. Henry and I would then spend the weekend drinking cold Amstel’s on his veranda and nosh on seasonal fruit from Jordan’s beloved agricultural valley, just west of Amman.
Henry was an important distraction for me and I looked forward to seeing him each week. On this trip, he had finally heard from Mo, his news was disappointing though; there were delays and the supplies wouldn’t arrive at least for another fortnight. I also had finally heard from my wife, her mail was devastating. The envelope was formally addressed to Dr. Maurice Ikle; it seemed my signature was required on divorce proceedings. As I read the attorney’s letter, I felt the blood pulsating in my ears and pushed the world out. Then in her own hand, she had written, “I married a surgeon, not a rural doctor and certainly not a missionary!” I couldn’t believe what I just read; could I have misjudged Lindsey that much? Henry poured me a whisky; we had several that lasted throughout the weekend.
During the following week I felt as if I was drowning in the desert, living in crowded village togetherness, with only emptiness inside me was almost unbearable. Jumah and Jamal roused me to get back to work; I wore a death mask, but pushed on.
Establishing confidence with the Bedouin villagers was the cornerstone of the surgery’s success; that had begun with Aziz and would now hopefully continue as a legacy with the villagers. Every day I came and busied myself in the surgery, it was healing for my soul. I also continued to make myself available to Aziz. In the heat of the day after Noon Prayers, we would sit together drinking bold, aromatic tea in a large open men’s tent where there always were always platters overflowing with olives, fresh unleavened bread, stone-ground hummus for dipping and sometimes chestnuts or sweet sticky dates. The pretext for our conversation was that he would teach me Arabic, but mostly he talked about his life and I mostly listened about his politics. It was during my many hours with Aziz that I learned the true nature of the Bedouin, their honesty and their abundant hospitality. At first, I suppose I saw myself as superior and worldly. As time passed I came to understand that Aziz, apathetic to my own indifference, accepted my inferiority straightforwardly. I smile thinking this, but as neither Bedouin nor Muslim, to Aziz, I was inferior; but unlike myself toward him, he accepted me at face value and the choices in my life.
Many of our afternoon talks poured long into moonlit starry nights, and our discussions often would turn to the heavens. We were frequently joined by a dozen or so of other family headsmen, who I believed quietly yearned to learn more about America and Americans, not because they thought us superior, but thought us curious. I noted that as my Arabic was slowly improving; Aziz’s English was readily progressing.
In the cool of the early mornings, not long after Morning Prayer, I would sit outside the surgery and watch rag-tag, bare-footed, ruddy-eyed children playing as they chased chickens or chattered wildly about a basket of kittens. It was painfully obvious that many of the children suffered from Trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection but easily controlled with antibiotics. If only my antibiotics would arrive, I could begin to make a difference, I quietly reminded myself.
Young mothers were layered with scarves about their head and shoulders. I noticed how the shoulder scarf was used for multitude of purposes. In one glance, I would see a mother swipe her scarf at surrounding flies, incessantly buzzing about one’s face, then observe the same scarf looped about some poor donkey’s neck as he was being tugged from blocking a pathway, only then to have the mother turn and wipe her child’s matted eyes, and then the next with the same dutiful scarf, passing along contamination from every imaginable source.
Each day without supplies seemed like a forgotten day, but no day was totally forgotten with Jamal and Jumah tagging behind. Together, we sat up “shop” without supplies. Jamal and Jumah were trustworthy and earnest, but interestingly to me, both boys were apprehensive when I spoke about medicine. Life’s hardships had marked them both, but for a little baksheesh Jamal would happily stretch his mind and soul. For what amounted on my books to be no more than dime each day they translated for the small number of daring mothers that timidly ventured to the threshold of my surgery door with their young children, many with diarrhea and some a worrisome listlessness. I recognized my limitations in explaining the parasite, Schistosomiasis, and the boys were hesitant to translate about antibiotics (that I didn’t currently have anyway), but they would help in educating the mothers about hygiene. I assumed the source of the parasite was from their habit of bathing in the River Yarmouk; somehow I needed to establish a new bathing site preference. This concern badgered me persistently, as I pictured healthy youngsters wading barefoot in the Yarmouk to bathe, only to return with parasites clinging to the soles of their feet.
I felt helpless as young mothers recoiled from my suggestion about not bathing in the river. I spoke to Aziz about it, but was confronted with outward aggression and unusual formality, “No change!” he stated flatly, as his hands made a slicing gesture across the thick air. It seemed that bathing at the River was a time honored ritual not to be altered. “River is fruit of desert!” he boomed as he slammed his hand on the wobbly exam table. His voice was loud and exacting; his jaw flinched as he gritted his teeth and his eyes became razors. I didn’t breech the subject again, but the picture of barefoot children wading in the river never left my mind.
The next morning after prayers Jamal wasn’t present at the surgery. Never knowing the boys to be separated, I inquired, “Jumah, where’s Jamal this morning?”
“Gone to catch Baseema. Baseema with sky eyes. Baseema is gift from Mohammed. Baseema sick, very sick. Jumah grimaced, then quickly left to shimmy up the side of the school house alone.
The following morning Jamal was waiting at the surgery before I arrived. Baseema was a beautiful light skinned girl about three years old, with a crop of coarse, tangled, black hair falling across startling blue eyes, ice blue eyes. “Sky eyes are gift from Prophet. Baseema means smile in English.” Jumah spoke with pride. “Baseema youngest daughter of my brother, his home at River. She sick please.” Jamal turned to lift her up to the exam table. “Tummy sick, Ike, she tummy sick, Ike.” For the first time Jamal’s devilish smile was absent.
“Es salaem Baseema. Ismee Ike. Enta mareed habiba?” I introduced myself to little Baseema, asking how she felt, then offered her a stem of fragrant lavender from a cup on my writing table. She lifted her head only slightly, her vacant eyes were red and slowly fluttered between life and sleep, a sleep she would never wake from. For a moment, I was horrified. On closer inspection, clumps of her hair were missing, her abdomen was distended and her breathing was shallow. Many of the children had swollen abdomens, but Baseemsa’s definitely had caused her pain for a long time. As I gently pinched and pulled; she was silent, never asking, never taking, never a word, never a whimper; like the desert, only existing. To look at her once beautiful, penetrating blue eyes, you would have never wanted to think it, but as a physician I knew it: she was dying.
Jamal broke the silence, “I have thought Ike. Baseema need sandals for River...”
“Yes, Jamal…” I shook my head in agreement; my mind slowly turned, still thinking about Baseema. “Yes, everyone should always wear sandals to the River and...”
He frowned and became indignant for a moment, obviously insulted that I hadn’t allowed him to finish. I stopped, then without hesitation he continued “You catch Baseema sandals for River and she better? This you do? Yes, Ike?”
I kept still. After a moment more of silence, I answered, “Yes, Jamal, I will get Baseema sandals.” My mind was still turning, then it raced. By God that was it, that was the start I needed to initiate change for the little ones. The young ones would wear sandals when wading into the River. I could provide sandals for the children to wear to the River. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? From God’s mind, to Jamal’s lips, to my hands. This I could do!
My mind had wildly spun into another world of thought for just a split second, but Baseema was still cupped in the hands of death. Her breathing slowed. Sandals would not be enough medicine for her. “Jamal, Baseema needs to travel to the big hospital in Amman. She is very sick. Do you understand?” I stopped; the words hung motionless in the air.
“No. You Ike. You Ike, catch sandals for Baseema.” Jamal looked earnestly at me, a look of promise and hope, the hope a child has in a parent, the hope a parent has in God.
I had seen this look before with patients and their families. It was one of the reasons I left my surgical practice six years ago. “Jamal, I can not help Baseema. She must go to Amman. Only Allah can cure her,” I said with deep resignation.
“Help Baseema Ike. Minfudluk Ike, please help Baseema.” Now his earnest face dissolved into nothingness as he spoke with resolve unable to look at me, “Iwa, Allah is merciful. If Baseema dies, it is Allah’s judgment.” Then mournfully looking up, wanting confirmation asked, “Yes, Ike?”
“Yes Jamal.” I carried Baseema to a pallet on the floor; her beautiful blue eyes willed me to turn away. I turned to God. Before his answer came, she was gone.
I will never forget her haunting eyes.
The next day I knew God’s answer and hitched a ride into Amman into see Henry.
It was a long, bumpy ride along the Kings highway, a lonely, deserted route where miles of desert and grit covered the horizon like a blanket. It was a comforting loneliness; I knew I belonged to it, I knew I belonged to the desert.
I contacted a college buddy, Tom Ferris. Tom was a fundraiser genius in Houston and knew about charities. He would help me with “Smiling Sandals” in honor of Baseema and get sandals for every child in the village and every child at the River Yarmouk. As Bedouin tradition demands; I accepted myself, my life, my place in the village, and… as I learned from Aziz, I accepted Lindsey at face vale and the choices in her life.