The Cactus Road: A Letter to a Palestinian Boy in the Diaspora


Dear Naser,

When I want to think a happy thought during these turbulent days in Jerusalem, I lie on my bed and think of you and your family and my summer in London. Since you saw me go off to work and study in the hospital under your father’s guidance, I thought you’d be interested in what I’m doing now and what you’re missing here in the land of your heritage, Palestine.

My life is an adventure, almost like some of the Harry Potter stories you and your brothers taught me to enjoy. I start my days by taking trips on what I’ve come to call “The Cactus Road.” The Cactus Road takes me from our house on the northern edge of Jerusalem to the al-Khader clinic in a suburb of Bethlehem. If we can travel on the real road, the distance is only about 25 miles. Even so, it almost always takes 2 hours to go and 2 hours to return because we have to go through four checkpoints before we reach our destination. Sometimes I see the checkpoints as mystical obstacles, knowing well that they are very real. Remember how I used to complain about the smelly, old underground transport? Well, I never appreciated the London underground like I do these days. How I wish we had a similar system to speed us along, sparing us daily encounters with Israeli occupation!

In spite of the difficulties of going through checkpoints and seeing soldiers with guns eyeing me and those also in the van, I get up every morning eager to get started. You know me! If presented with an impediment, I’m more determined than ever to show everyone that I can overcome it. I awake every day wondering whether or not I’ll go to work on the real road or the Cactus Road. If we’re under closure (which means that the Israelis have decreed that none of us can leave our narrow housing compounds no matter what), I know we’ll be going on the Cactus Road. We’ll have to sneak by soldiers four times in order to get to Bethlehem. Most mornings, just after I board the van, our driver turns off the main road and bump, bumps along non-roads to get to our destination. First, we drive up a hill on a dirt road lined with apartment buildings like the one I live in. Then, we dig our own path into the red soil and move along endless rows of cacti sending their sp! iny paddle-like leaves up and out along barbed-wire fences. The fences are there to protect the old stucco, flat-roofed houses we pass by. Not surprisingly, many of the owners do not want service vans passing by right next to their front doors.

Remember when you came to me holding prickly pears your mom had bought to remind me of home? Remember how you asked me, “How do we eat them?” I laughed because you looked so Arab, but spoke in a chipper British clip. I peeled two for you and you liked it. You asked for more. You were so surprised by their sweetness, almost like a perfume or like the rose water your mother uses in sweets. When I pass by cacti now, I wish I had told you more about them.

In the sandy dry land that you’ve never been to, cacti grow-hearty plants that arm themselves with spikes to protect themselves from animals who might bite into them and suck them dry. They need all the moisture they can get. Beside their sabre-like protectors, they send their roots deep into the soil where they can find water. Sometimes, their leaves have rough brown patches as symbols of an extended bask in the sun. As cacti age, their bold leaves become damaged with gashes and rusty-looking scabs made by debris that have blown across their surfaces. They seem to be all dried out, almost dead, not green and rich. But they are not dead. They live well in our desert climate in spite of the rough edges left by nature. Then, from time to time, the sweet fruit you and I shared in London appears, orange or red-the Palestinian’s favourite colour. With spines less severe than the protective ones on their leaves, the fruits allow themselves to be picked and ea! ten. I see these cacti as symbols of patience and solidarity. Their fruits are a reward for determination and survival. The cacti are, for me, like rural Palestinian women with deeply lined, wind-damaged skin. These women watch us pass by the barbed wire surrounding their little houses, sometimes holding a piece of embroidery cloth onto which they are cross-stitching the meaning and endurance of their lives. Day in and day out, they come to their doors, faces lined with hardship, hands caught in their art with red thread and a yet unfinished embroidery piece symbolizing their culture and their insistence on survival. I’m sure you would enjoy the ride from my house to Bethlehem, at least for a day or two. But it is not always enjoyable; it can be risky and dangerous, too. The other morning, the Israeli soldiers shot at a van of labourers, who were taking the Cactus Road, because they were travelling on an “illegal road;” one was killed, the rest were injured, but life went on! .

I remember how you fussed with your parents when they refused to buy you the computer war game you badly wanted. Your parents were right, that was a violent game and they were trying to protect you, and you were given a better game by the end of the day. How much Palestinian parents want to keep their kids away from terror, but war and violence are reality in Palestine, not just a computer game.

I was prompted to write today because a boy your age, just 14, from the al-Deheishe refugee camp, a suburb of Bethlehem, came to the clinic. He wasn’t the patient. Instead, he had his 5-year-old brother by the hand. “My mother couldn’t come; she has to stay with the babies at home,” the older boy explained. The tot had a runny nose and contagious sore spots on his face like most of the children in the camps. Both boys were dishevelled and cranky. The boy, like you, reminded me of a rag-a-muffin Harry Potter. He even wore round glasses. He was, no doubt, a prince, a wizard, at least in the eyes of his little brother. The Harry Potter look-alike was in a big hurry and he wanted to get his charge taken care of so that he would not miss a day of school. “We haven’t had school for days because of the clashes and today school is open. So, please, doctor, hurry. I just want some salve for his face. See?”

Looking into this handsome boy’s eyes, I thought, Naser would call me the ultimate “Muggle.” I simply do not believe in magic and wizardry. I don’t count on a kind witch or a good ghost to end the misery and suffering of the Palestinian boys and girls. No, this boy and his small brother are not in the Harry Potter world. They are in the real world of Palestine. All I have to give them today is a tube of “salve”-a word that without one letter would be “save.” But, you, Naser, have read about evil and redemption in Harry Potter and you have heard the word Palestine announcing itself on the news, the one word in an Arabic broadcast that you could understand. My hope lies in you, Naser, and in your parents and others as far away as London or America or any other spot on the globe. I’m sure you will not forget that you are in the Palestinian Diaspora. I pray that you and your family will continue joining others to systematically carry on programmes and activ! ities that will help the boys and girls here in Palestine-just like the one I joined last summer.

For many years, Israelis invited the youth of the Western world, Jews and non-Jews, to their “kibbutzim”-collective farms they built on land they took from us. There, they showed unsuspecting visitors, who see only the “kibbutzim,” what Israeli freedom, co-operation and unity did for the land and for those who believe that our land is their Zion. These visitors go home with stories about Israel as “the light in the dark night of the Middle East.” The visitors do not venture to the tightly packed, taut corners where we live in occupation, watching and waiting. To them, that would be the dark night the world so fears, the world few want to see or experience.

So, you, Naser, and your brothers and sisters in the Diaspora must be our ambassadors, our voice we send to the those who close their ears from hearing the Palestinian cry, and our true picture we send to those who deny us a human face. The Palestinian future counts on you and all our people who live abroad, as well as those living in Palestine. If we don’t help ourselves, then who is going to help us? Our salvation starts from within.

Naser, how much I wish you can come and experience the adventure of the Cactus Road with me. We need you to do that so you can help us tell our story, too. What are you going to be when you grow up, Naser, a wizard like Harry Potter, a photographer, a lecturer, a doctor? It doesn’t matter as long as you remember who you are and where you came from. Being Palestinian is a gift and an obligation. You’re now 14. I hope I’ll have a chance to take your hand and share this land of mine and yours with you. When you come, we’ll eat prickly pear and know that we are home, you and I together.

(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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