Friday, March 21, 2008

Refugees, Afghani and Otherwise

While I'm on the subject of children, and my experiences in the Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, I thought I might as well include this excerpt from a paper I wrote this February. The essay was for a class on the modern novel -- specifically, a response to Khaled Hossini's The Kite Runner (a book about Afghanistan that I would HIGHLY recommend). My paper's first several sections dealt with migraines and Tunisian friends, and were otherwise irrelevant to the present topic, so I've excluded them. The text in italics is from Hosseini's book.

Fragments of a Broken Life:
Intersections with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
The Talib, looking absurdly like a baseball pitcher on the mound, hurled the stone at the blindfolded man in the hole. It struck the side of his head. The woman screamed again. The crowd made a startled “OH!” sound. I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. The spectators’ “OH!” rhymed with each flinging of the stone, and that went on for a while. When they stopped, I asked Farid if it was over. He said no. I guessed the people’s throats had tired.

I’d never seen the children so happy. So engaged. For days they had sat at tables. Moved little. Smiled less. Now they were dancing. Twirling tiny fingers to the sound of an Arab drum. The darbooka.

I sat watching. Stunned by what I had seen. The remnants of the puppet show still stood behind them. The background bloody with tanks and dying Palestinian martyrs. Small pieces of crushed paper littered the floor. I could hear the man cheering. “Throw the rock! Throw the rock!”

It wasn’t violence. Not really. Asking children to throw paper at cloth puppets. No one had died. And they deserved a game. Had enjoyed it.
Why, then, did I feel so sick?

I felt a presence next to me and looked down. It was Sohrab. Hands dug deep in the pockets of his raincoat. He had followed me.

“Do you want to try?” I asked. He said nothing. But when I held the string out for him, his hand lifted from his pocket. Hesitated. Took the string. My heart quickened as I spun the spool to gather the loose string. We stood quietly side by side. Necks bent up.

It was just a little boy and a glue stick. Hardly what I expected my life’s climax to entail. I was there to make a difference. To change the world. Instead, I watched a child refuse to touch me. Talk to me. Smile. Day after day.

I always hoped they’d place me in a different room. Somewhere where I wouldn’t see his eyes. Dead. Flat. Empty. The eyes no three-year-old should ever look through.

But every day, I’d go to the Bourj-el-Barajneh camp, in Beirut, Lebanon, and have him waiting for me.

No. Not waiting. Sitting.

By the end of two weeks, I didn’t care anymore. Not about Palestine. Not about Israel. And certainly not about the living-dead that inhabited that preschool. There was no hope there. Not for them. And not for me, as long as I stayed with them.

So I decided to leave. To go home. To do the sensible thing, and preserve my sanity. To scour my memories until I saw no child’s eyes. Watching. Accusing.

My feet were skipping that last day. Counting the seconds in my head. To oblivion. To freedom. We were helping the children make a craft of some sort. Gluing something to something else. The boy was looking down at the table, dazed as usual. I barely noticed. Offered him a glue stick. Because I was supposed to. Preparing to do his craft myself.

I wasn’t even looking. My hand held out to him. Prepared for nothing.

I felt fingertips. Brushing my palm. Moving the unwieldy yellow block. Attempting to lift it.

I went back the next day. And the next.

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