I will never forget her haunting eyes. That’s what I told myself as they carried the slim brown figure from the surgery toward the morgue. The morgue wasn’t much more then a garage for the dead; a simple three-sided makeshift building, built in haste before the sun’s heat intensified its raging dance upon the friendless desert. The surgery we labored in was little better. Our surgery was the village school, or at least the remnants of a school. It consisted of a large single room; the fact it had electricity and trickling water immediately made it the most suitable site. The school building was simply whitewashed cinder blocks, one stacked upon another, with a smoldering gray colored canvas draped across the top, posing as a roof with a few scrubby trees nearby providing shade.
Shortly after arriving, I met Jumah and Jamal. For 100 fils, or about 25 cents, these two nimble, long-legged boys would defy gravity and, like hairless monkeys, shimmy up the side of the school building to fold back the canvas for air flow and a bit more light. Both boys had devilish smiles and knew quite a bit of English. I knew that my 100 fils each day would be a bargain that would serve me well later on.
Before noon, the heat outside was unbearable as the sun rose into a cloudless sky, only to settle upon us like a woolen cloak draped about our heads, suffocating us breath by breath. Every day before the call to noon prayer, all work stopped and wouldn’t begin again until just after the sun had set behind the building, when it had faded enough to give reprieve to all desert life for another day.
As part of Oklahoma’s Medical Humanitarian Christian Coalition, I and my long time friend, Dr. Mobeen Moussa, along with two other physicians, decided to advance our dreams to form three small medical teams and enter into “clinic treaties” with Jordan. Dr. Mo, as he became known after retirement, had far-reaching political ties to Jordan and had worked for years to set the groundwork for the clinics. Finally three sites were chosen, all along the Jordanian/Syrian border, where political strife had been emerging for months. At each site, we set up free clinics, or surgeries as Mo preferred to refer to them, for the surrounding villagers and the refugees as they began to empty out of Syria. Mo and his contacts already had chosen Terasu as my site. Terasu was a small village along the western edge of Jordan, about 45 kilometers from the Ramtha Border Crossing, south of Daraa where rebels were now fighting in Syria. Already hundreds of civilian refugees were clawing their way out of Syria to escape the mayhem and turmoil.
Terasu was the smallest and most primitive of the three surgery sites. It was an established Bedouin camp, (as if that were possible) and the furthest from Syria's military base emcampments. Of the four core physicians, I had the least trauma experience. Two of my associates were esteemed practicing thoracic surgeons with medical military backgrounds and Mo was retired after more then 30 years of Emergency Department experience in a Trauma II facility. As a young man unsure of my medical career, my father had chosen surgery for me. In 1970, I had a chance to correct that and follow my own path to become a family physician in rural Oklahoma. It was slowly chipping away at my marriage, but I enjoyed the families and have never looked back.
We didn’t expect the current rebel attacks in Syria but thought that Terasu would get the least serious trauma patients and could primarily serve as a wellness clinic for the local tribes. My initial agreement with the Coalition was to set up shop in the selected site, establish trust with the village leaders and determine the need for additional supplies based on the perceived incoming patients. After 90 days, the Coalition would send additional trained staff and rotate in another physician.
I bonded immediately with the village clan leader, Rashid Aziz Al Saud, or should I say we bonded immediately to each other, as I do believe behind his dark, harsh eyes he was satisfied to have medical help offered to his tribe. He was not so favorable when I explained that it came at the cost of helping warring Bedouin tribes nearby and refugees as they crossed into Jordan, however he let the issue drop rather quickly. I actually think he favored the fact that all Bedouins would get treatment. I was requested to call him Aziz, I asked him to call me Ike.
Aziz was not an endearing type of man, but he was calm and thoughtful. He refused the assistance of a translator. I admired that; however, it made for a hardship as I constantly strained to understand him. He might have been 10 years my senior but it was difficult to gauge the age of a man that has spent his entire life living meagerly in such a hostile desert environment. Aziz had a commanding presence; as he towered above his fellow villagers, but he was always gentle with the children. I thought it spoke well of a man, how he honored children. I especially approved of how he treated the young children that would come around him. Often they would follow close behind him or move in closer and tug on his long Arab gown, sometimes clinging to his legs. He would gently shoo them away, never admonishing them but instead speak softly to them until they would scatter to the wind and playfully run off. He was certainly a patient man, more so then myself; I knew immediately there was a lot to learn from him.
I found out sometime later that many of the village children were his own. Aziz was quite a virile specimen, as he confided to me he had eleven wives and forty-three children. It seemed almost everyone in his village was a relative by blood or marriage. I considered my one faltering marriage; yes, I knew I could learn more about patience from Aziz.
Striking a bargain for the school was my first lesson in patience. The school had probably not seen a child for years, but found itself more useful to the village as storage. In the dark corners along the far wall of the building were dozens of bulky burlap bags, each marked as 100 lbs. of rice, flax or Foul beans, which had possibly found their final destination to Terasu by way of “Feed the Children” or UNICEF. In the opposite corners from the grain, glowing eyes huddled together, keenly watched the treasure which was being carefully guarded by old village men, sometimes slow village men, and then… rats too would feast. I hesitated to use this room for my surgery, but Aziz insisted it was “god deal.” In his limited English and thick accent I think he meant it was a good deal, but I liked the way he said “God.” I knew he’d given sober thought to the $200.00 American dollars he bargained for, as did I, as it was more then what I had budgeted to pay. He stayed firm. To sweeten the pot, he declared he would have it cleaned and get “medicine.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but relented and felt sure he would spend the money on his village; so the “god deal” was struck.
As good as his word, the following day, a dozen young men appeared and began moving everything out of the school building. The grain was loaded in hinged wheelbarrow-like contraptions, something confiscated from abandoned Potash mines, I surmised. Rats and cockroaches poured out of the dark corners, cracks and crevices. Then he assembled a working line of village women to tediously haul water from the nearby River Yarmouk, (fed from Lake Tiberius, which lay to the north) in small decaying buckets, to his village to clean the storage building; soon to be Terasu Surgery. The winding Yarmouk was the center for all village activity for kilometers around. From Terasu, the river was about eight kilometers away; wandering paths originating in all directions from the surrounding villages, collapsed on the banks of the Yarmouk. The water was filthy. At any one time you might see women washing their heavy linen kalasaris, or their meager earthen pottery, when just a bit farther down children would be playing in the water as they bathed, and yet still further down carcasses from a cook pot would be cast into the river, while only around the bend near a small tree honoring the bank, a peasant might be relieving himself.
But, step by step; bucket by bucket, water was poured into large, old, decaying black iron kettles stationed at fire pits at the far end of the trail, west of the village. The fire pits were vestigial holes in the ground with disintegrating iron grates piled across the top, from when “fever” ravaged the village a decade ago, Aziz explained in broken English. The water boiled; as fiery embers were poked with long spear-like utensils by old women who crouched down low, draped head to toe in heavy black linen, with only their leathery, knurled, hands and beady eyes peering out. Everyday, during those first two weeks, darkly-clad women and dirty, bleary-eyed children shouldered the weight of the water from the river to the fire pits. The boiled water was then wearisomely poured into more of the huge Potash tubs, which were propelled forward toward the school by teems of young children.
There at the school, already working was a cluster of younger women. These too had their faces and arms so carefully covered that I expected my first patients would be treated for heat exhaustion, but it was never to occur. These women were using thickly leafed branches they had collected to scrub the outside dust and caked sand from the building. For hours they beat the branches against the building, chanting and dancing around the building in quite a festive manner, while snapping their long, ragged scarves against the concrete. They stopped when only fresh dust lingered from the occasional lorry making its way through the village. Inside the school house were Jumah and Jamal, with other young boys, scrubbing the floors and walls with the hot water using small animal hides, and ringing them out dry into a second tub, so that every drop of water was saved. These tubs would then be used for irrigating small crops or watering livestock kept outside the Aziz's humble home. I knew that I had indeed made a “god deal” with Aziz and when they finished I was thoroughly satisfied. But, still, I wondered what medicine Aziz had referred to when committing to the bargain, but, was confident it would appear.
_________________To be continued____