A Cypress Tree Has No Shadow

A Cypress Tree Has No Shadow: Chapter Two

In Issue 67 by Kevin Gerard Neill

A cypress tree has no shadow
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash
Synopsis

A former British soldier, Justina Kent, thirty-two, and a Church of England vicar’s daughter, leaves a teaching post in England to seek the sense of purpose she felt when she was a United Nations Peacekeeper in Cyprus. With effort, she’s found a medical position in a Palestinian refugee camp in modern-day Lebanon.

Justina forges deep friendships with several women harbouring their own dreams – or secrets. Sybilla Schenck, a German who teaches in the camp, is one. She’s concealing being Jewish, but as she and Justina become closer, she reveals her faith. In turn, Justina confides about her own alcohol addiction. Their relationship leads to an unexpected level of fondness and intimacy and the women become unexpected lovers – a danger of its own in a country with an Arab face. Then there are the Palestinians Justina befriends: Hanan Zawati, a dreamy teenage schoolgirl desperate to live away from the camp; Wafa Sa’adeh, a deeply religious nurse forever affected by the violent death of her brother; and Maryam Khalifa, a haughty prostitute who is newly pregnant. Justina also finds her empathy for the refugees challenged by Palestinians who don’t welcome her presence or want to exploit her. Chief among them is Ibrahim Nusseibeh, a belligerent young man obsessed with luring Justina into his black-market operations.

Through Justina’s friendship with Hanan, she becomes aware of a criminal ring in the camp engaged in the illegal trafficking of human organs taken from at least three young boys. Justina discovers one of them, Wasif Balawi, and manages to save his life.

Justina suspects Ibrahim’s involvement, but soon realises the ringleader is a fellow Brit, Adrian Caine, the camp pharmacist with a hazy past. Justina races to find the last two boys. Together with Sybilla, they locate an abandoned clinic only to find the body of one of them there.

The discovery of the dead boy throws the camp into a frenzy. To find evidence implicating Adrian, Justina and her friends return to the disused clinic. There, they confront Ibrahim and a gang of youths. In a heated exchange, Ibrahim shoots and kills Wafa in front of everyone.

Wafa’s death sends Justina into a tailspin of drinking, and she considers leaving the camp. She’s further shaken when Maryam chooses this time to press Justina into secretly performing an abortion on her. Justina reluctantly decides to do the procedure, and it brings it out of her lethargy.

Justina resolves to avenge Wafa’s death and try to end the organ-trafficking. She obtains a pistol from the many weapons cached in the camp, then hunts down and kills Ibrahim. Adrian – now exposed – flees to war-torn Syria. The third boy is never found, but the trafficking stops.

Justina is not charged with murder but struggles over having killed Ibrahim. Her friends, co-workers, and most of the refugees, however, are aware Justina was trying to avenge Wafa’s death and protect the camp. Justina reconciles herself with her actions and will remain at the camp with Sybilla and continue working with the people and at the job she realises she loves.

Chapter Two

Raed, the Director

Allenby had originally been designed by an Ottoman Empire army engineer to impress the future. At first glance, the barracks looked magnificent: a pile of chiseled stone comprising two tall upper stories stacked above a main floor, each of the wings spreading at least two city blocks to form a massive, four-sided citadel. Justina knew from old photographs seen in Vienna that the wings enclosed a vast courtyard, a setting for military parades or a bloody last stand. The side she faced held the main entrance, ornamented by a protruding portico flanked by marble pillars. Justina could only guess at the number of rooms but estimated this side alone had at least one hundred arched windows. The barrack’s roof was crowned with red tiles and mostly pitched, interspersed with gabled windows, but even standing below in the carpark she could see the roof had been dismantled in places and entire areas leveled off into terraces with sheds of cinder blocks or corrugated metal to add a fourth floor.

In addition to Allenby’s dulled grandeur, the barracks showed signs of past conflict. Justina saw bullet impact craters scarring long stretches of the exterior walls like holes in Swiss cheese. In other places, large chunks of stone had been blasted away, the walls left surrounded by metal scaffolding or simply unrepaired; sad sights that left an impression of a giant’s hand having ripped out swathes of rock from a fragile palace.

Justina went through the main doors, surprised to find the entrance unattended. She knew she was expected to report to the camp director, but she could not resist a look inside the courtyard. Dropping her bags in the entry, she passed through two empty reception areas decorated with gilded, baroque wall panels beneath lofty ceilings and emerged through open French doors into the courtyard.

In the cobblestone square, Justina glimpsed crowds of the people who lived here, the Palestinian refugees she had been hired to work with. Settling on a nearby stone bench, she tried to gauge how many people she saw. Five hundred? A thousand? Whatever the number, the space easily held the mixed lot of men and women, boys and girls, sitting in groups or strolling in the shade offered by dozens of arches and arcades lining the interior of the quadrangle. Older Palestinians wore traditional clothing, the men in jellabiyas – long loose robes – with many also wearing checkered keffiyehs – a squarish black or red and white scarf – while women had on the same long black abayas she had seen earlier, a hijab or shawl added over their heads and shoulders. Others – young adults, teens, and children – sported Western-style clothing, with hijabs covering the hair of numerous young women. Scores of people had mobile phones pressed to their ears or were texting, while the occasional person or group assembled around an open laptop. Other bunches of young people played in undefined plots of space; boys kicking soccer balls in clearings, girls engaged in volleyball in the far corners – only the youngest children mixing.

Except for the people and the makeshift playing grounds, the courtyard looked austere. A dry, cracked limestone fountain stood in the centre, missing most of the colourful tiles once decorating it. There were undernourished trees scattered around, their scaly trunks bent with age. Old iron lampposts, their globes missing or shattered, stood at regular intervals along the inner walls like tired sentries. Above them towered four stories of windows, most open. Within the rooms, faces of all ages peered down at the human display below.

A female voice broke through Justina’s reverie.

“Excuse me. Are you Justina Kent?”

Justina turned to see a Palestinian woman, twentyish, smiling down at her. Her head was uncovered, revealing long dark hair framing a round face with large eyes. She wore a flowered top and a long dark skirt extending to her sandals.

“Yes, I’m Justina.”

“I’m Wafa Sa’adeh. Welcome.”

Justina stood. “Thanks.” She gestured toward the crowds. “I couldn’t bear not having a look.”

“That’s a good sign. I like it, and we’re blessed to have you.” Wafa’s English was flawless. “I saw your things when I came downstairs. Raed’s been hopping around all day waiting for you.”

“Raed Sayej?”

“Yes, our fearless director. I’ll take you up.”

They returned to where Justina had left her bags. Wafa picked up the rucksack. Justina lifted her duffle and followed Wafa up a curving stairway to the second floor. She led Justina into a spacious office jumbled with polished furniture arranged on colourful Turkish rugs spread over a marble floor. On the white walls, a series of blown-up, framed photographs stared back at Justina: black-and-white images from Allenby’s courtyard taken over many decades. There were severe-looking Ottoman Turkish soldiers in high-collared tunics and fez hats, others showcasing bearded, expressionless French poilus, and still more of British Tommies grinning under pith helmets.

“Raed, I’ve brought you a woman from far away,” Wafa called toward the inner office.

“Is she from an island?”

“From an island across a continent.”

“Don’t let her get away.” Raed appeared from his office. He was tall, with wavy greying hair and a thin beard that looked less manicured and more like he had forgotten to shave for a week. The careless look extended to his faded jeans and wrinkled, buttoned-down shirt. He had tired, but kind eyes. “I’m Raed. On behalf of Allenby, welcome.”

Justina shook Raed’s hand. “I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be.”

“The perfect answer. Wafa, please take Justina’s things to her room. And then can you bring some tea? That bus ride from Beirut makes your throat as dry as sand, even on a lovely April day.”

Wafa took Justina’s duffle and left.

“Let’s go into my real office,” suggested Raed. “Out here is where I hear complaints from every person in camp and beg donors for money.”

Raed led the way. Dominating the room was an antique desk cluttered with stacks of papers, a row of books, telephone, and open laptop. There was a wooden chair opposite the desk. In a corner stood a sofa, low table, and an upholstered chair. Raed established himself on the sofa and gestured toward the chair. Justina sank into its cushions.

“Your file was emailed to me from Vienna,” began Raed. “It’s pretty much dry fact without the verbal embroidery they love. I suspect there wasn’t time since I know you were essentially plucked out of nowhere by Frederick Kommer and delivered here.”

Justina tried to relax under Raed’s steady, but friendly, gaze. “What can I tell you?”

“Everything, but we’ll make it mutually informative. For every question I ask, you get one of me. It can be about Allenby or personal. This way we get to – what’s the phrase – size each other up? You go first.”

She knew where to start. “How many refugees are in Nabatieh? I heard in Vienna it was two thousand.”

“More like three thousand. Five generations of Palestinians – plus six hundred Syrians in Nabatieh who fled their civil war and decided this was as far as they wanted to go. But eight miles away, there’s a refugee camp of fifteen thousand, and in the town after that another camp of twenty thousand Syrians. Someday, the Syrians in Lebanon will dwarf the Palestinians and there won’t be enough of anything for anyone.” Raed leaned forward. “Now it’s my turn. Tell me about your career in the army. We’ve never had a British soldier before.”

“It wasn’t much of a career,” Justina confessed. “I enlisted after Sixth Form in 2005. I was all of eighteen and stayed four years, plus two in the reserves. I got as high as Lance Corporal.”

“And what did you do? Something medical, wasn’t it?”

Justina believed Raed knew her background but wanted to hear her describe it herself. “I trained as a medic. After that I was assigned mostly to camps in the UK. I attended firing ranges or accompanied training missions to Scotland. I went to Norway once. It finally got a bit boring, to tell you the truth. Then I heard they were looking for volunteers for Cyprus and I put my name in. Being in the United Nations Peacekeeping Force there was one of the best times of my life.”

“How would you describe your position on Cyprus, Lance Corporal?”

Justina recited from memory. “My official duties were to facilitate contacts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, provide emergency medical services and deliver mail and Red Cross messages across the demilitarised Green Line that partitions the island.”

“Impressive. And you said you liked it?”

“Very much, and I loved Cyprus. I would have re-enlisted if I could’ve stayed there – I felt that useful – but the army doesn’t do things that way and I got out.”

“At least you got to wear a United Nations blue beret.”

“I still have it. I believe it’s my round now.”

“Please.”

“Where are you from?”

“East Jerusalem. My family owned a hotel there, up the road from Damascus Gate. It was originally a nineteenth century mansion, and my father had a vision. The Israelis had a vision, too, though, and the hotel was destroyed in 1967, the Six-Day War.”

Justina remained silent.

Raed chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lance Corporal, my bitterness dried up long ago. We moved to Beirut and over time I found myself here. You can even say the Sayej family is still managing a hotel, the largest one in Lebanon.”

Justina was taken by Raed’s attitude. “Is your family in Nabatieh?”

“Beirut, but I try to see them every weekend. And you, Justina? Did you leave a loving husband or doting boyfriend behind?”

Now Justina knew she was being led on. On every piece of UN paperwork querying her status, she had firmly marked ‘Single’. Raed’s expression was nothing beyond friendly, though, so she replied good-naturedly, “All I’ve left in England is a typical nuclear family.”

Wafa returned carrying a tray laden with a teapot and glasses and asked Raed where he wanted it.

“We’ll move to the desk, I think.”

Wafa laid out their tea as Justina and Raed relocated. The tea had a light, floral aroma. Darjeeling. Justina saw only two glasses.

“You’re not staying, Wafa?”

“This part of your reception belongs to Raed.”

“We’re playing ‘question, question’,” Raed said. “But since you’re here, Wafa, you can ask one, too – in return for another, of course.”

“Did Raed ask you where your home is in England, Justina? He thinks he’s an Anglophile.”

“I like rain,” Raed said.

“I’m from Sheffield, in Yorkshire,” said Justina. “What about you?”

“I’m a daughter of the camps,” Wafa replied, “but my family is from An-Nasira, in Galilee. You call it Nazareth.”

“And she’ll tell you all about it,” Raed said. “But now I need Wafa to take some reports to Doctor Masri to sign. Just let me find them.”

As Raed rummaged around, Justina looked at the books aligned on the desk. She saw a green-bound Quran, a black bible, a copy of The Essential Talmud, and an Arabic-English dictionary. On either side were leaded glass snow globes serving as bookends, their motionless porcelain flakes settled around tiny, faded Christmas trees and tilted castles.

Raed found the papers he wanted, handed them to Wafa. “After you deliver those, can you track down Sybilla to give Justina a tour of our imposing camp?”

“Yes, master.” Wafa winked at Justina and left, her skirt swishing around her feet.

“I like Wafa,” Justina said.

“Everyone adores her. Now let me find one more paper before I lose it and we’ll get back to interrogating one another.”

Justina turned her attention back to the snow globes. They appeared old and expensive.

“Those belong to my youngest son. He loves the snow.”

Justina saw Raed smiling at her. She felt self-conscious, like being caught looking at something private. “I didn’t mean to stare.”

“I don’t mind. Those globes remind me that I have another life.”

Justina’s discomfort lessened. “The books are interesting, too.”

“Those came from my wife. I need all of them to operate this place.”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Actually, I don’t run the camp. Internal groups and outsiders in Beirut and Vienna control Allenby. I just sign papers and keep the UN cars clean.”

“That’s not how you were described in Vienna. They said you were the best camp director in Lebanon.”

“Flattering, but nonsense. To make these camps work, you need to be more of a magician than a bureaucrat. Politically, each of the UN refugee camps – in Gaza, the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan – has been ruled by popular committees, mostly old men belonging to Fatah who wait for Yasser Arafat to rise from the dead. Then there’s the younger internal security committees in each camp that serve as the police force, but those groups are more complex. Some of them are aligned with Fatah, others are Hezbollah, and in Gaza it’s Hamas. There’s even some Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the camps. They all mix like oil and water. Tell me if you know this already.”

“They didn’t put things quite that way during my training.”

“Why would they? If Vienna were candid about our working environment, it would be like asking someone to walk along a cliff wearing a blindfold. And that’s just the human manoeuvrings within the camps. Everywhere you go, each country that suffers Palestinians has developed their own ways to cope – Lebanon especially. Take Allenby. All around us, the Lebanese have checkpoints and sentries, watching us like we’re a disease about to infect them. You saw the gallant Lebanese soldiers when you arrived?”

“The ones by the clock tower?”

“That’s merely some of them. Come with me.”

Raed stepped to the arched window behind him overlooking the courtyard. Justina joined him and saw hundreds of Palestinians still below. The window was open and the sound of so many voices lapped upward like an amplified murmur.

“Think of a map with us in the middle,” said Raed. “That checkpoint you went through is behind us on the left. There’s another checkpoint outside behind my right shoulder near some shops and our school, and a third one beyond the barracks in front of us. And those don’t include the army foot patrols outside, the helicopters that buzz us, and the soldiers not in uniform or the Internal Security Forces – the police – who hang out in the parking lot and follow us everywhere. And don’t forget the Palestinians who are paid informers.”

“Holy shit.”

“I couldn’t put it better. And so, what does all that mean? Simply, that the Palestinians in Lebanon are treated as a threat, so their army tries to contain us in the camps. This is a process of ghettoisation. Each entrance to Allenby is controlled. To enter or exit, your car is checked, your documents examined. There’s probably even a camera with a telephoto lens in the clock tower. In effect, Allenby’s just a large decaying prison.”

Such government-sponsored, explicit separation of refugees sounded far worse than anything Justina had witnessed on Cyprus. “So, all three thousand Palestinian refugees are stuffed in these barracks and kept under a microscope?”

“Nothing is that simple here. Once you learn your way around, you’ll see that outside Allenby, we’ve spilled over in every direction. But only those with enough money to pay the Lebanese rents are able to move so upwardly – if you want to call living in the neighbourhoods around us a social promotion.”

Justina took another look outside. “I’d like some more tea, please.”

They returned to the desk and Raed refilled their glasses. “Have I appalled you, Lance Corporal?”

“No,” Justina said, “but I’d suggest a rewrite of Vienna’s training programme.”

“I’ll make a note of it. More questions?”

Justina went through her mental list. “Exactly how large is Allenby?”

“There were originally more than four-hundred and thirty rooms here – half the size of your Buckingham Palace, but ours are much less opulent. They were designed for simple Ottoman soldiers and then somewhat upgraded for the more demanding French at the end of the First World War. Then came the British. They didn’t make any great improvements – just renamed it after one of their stuffier field marshals. No offence, Lance Corporal.”

“None taken.”

“Anyway, most of the families here now have two rooms to themselves; three if they’re lucky or – not so lucky – are large families. You’ll soon judge for yourself who’s come out ahead.”

Justina glanced around the office. “Are the rooms as big as this?”

“I wish. I even asked Vienna to turn this stupidly large space into living quarters for more refugees, but they wouldn’t have it. They said the decorum is needed for UN appearances.”

Justina made a disapproving face.

“That was my same response to Vienna – in triplicate.” Raed shrugged. “At least the refugees’ rooms look better than the barracks does on the outside.”

“I did see some bullet holes.”

“Several decade’s worth. Most of the damage is from the July War in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon – but Allenby and its people have suffered during every war since Israel’s establishment in forty-eight. We began filling the barracks a few months later. I said there are five generations here and it’s true. The single cemetery the Lebanese let us use is very crowded. You probably passed it on your way from the bus station.”

Justina remembered the cemetery beyond the clock tower. “So how do you do it, Raed? How do you make it all work?”

“I’m a pragmatist that does things one day at a time. For instance, we need more than five miles of new water pipes in Allenby to replace the lead and cast-iron ones we still have. We’ll be fortunate to change out a hundred feet this month. But that’s more than the fifty feet we replaced last month, so I’m happy.”

Justina set her glass down. “Tell me what you have in mind for me here.”

“You’ll be working with Doctor Masri because of your medical background, but we’re short-handed everywhere. Can you do anything else?”

Justina hesitated. “I’ve been teaching Lower Sixth art and art history at a school in Sheffield called High Storrs.”

Raed grinned. “You’re an artist? Vienna left out that part.”

“I’ve never been terribly good at the hands-on bits like actual painting or sculpting, so artist is a stretch. I’m better at lecturing the unknowing about Renaissance art or Roman statues.”

“But you could teach drawing or painting to young people? You know – just share some knowledge?”

“I guess I could muddle through the basics.”

“That’s all I ask. Young people here have so little opportunity for real creativity. If you have talent that you can make time to share, I’d consider it a personal favour.”

“When you put it like that, I can’t possibly say no.”

“I’ll speak with Doctor Masri and let her know that you won’t be in her iron grip every day.”

“I’ll have to brush up on my teaching skills to avoid a total shamble.”

“I’m certain your class will be very educational. You do have more of an artist’s eyes than those of a soldier, at that. It makes you more multifaceted than some of our other employees, but we have our stars.”

“I’m thrilled to meet them.”

“And now a word of caution. Most people here are grateful for the UN’s help, but some refugees will be suspicious of you. Why? Because you’re here by choice. Few Palestinians in Allenby have the luxury of choosing to live here and that means there are those who’ll never trust someone who leaves a world of plenty for a world of next to nothing. Lots of people here will always want to know why.”

“Is it so hard to accept that I just want to help? That my being a UN Peacekeeper simply wasn’t enough of a contribution to the world?”

“I’m convinced – but there will be nonbelievers. Be ready for them.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Another thought: this camp – any camp – can be unpredictable. Terrible things happen without much warning or no warning.”

“In the army that can mean a lorry bomb. Can you give me a local example of something terrible?”

“Sectarian fighting. Shootings. We also sadly have our share of child runaways – I learned only today that a boy went missing two nights ago. And, of course, we have prostitution. In your field, there have been drug wars. But the most serious thing we’ve ever had was human organ trafficking. It took time, but we stamped it out. That wasn’t so much a case of sudden danger as a prolonged reign of terror, but the bottom line is the same: don’t put yourself in danger. Your safety is important.”

“Vienna was blunter. They said that between my salary and training, I’m an expensive investment. Maybe because I’d been in the army, they thought I believed I was just a piece of meat and I’d want to throw myself on every hand grenade.”

“You’re not a piece of meat – but you’d still be pricey to replace. That means no crazy risk-taking.”

“Sir.”

Raed seemed satisfied. “On to practicalities. The only luxury you’ll have is your own room, but don’t get excited; it’s quite small. It was just easier to keep rooms like that intact for international staff rather than knock down the walls. Everything else for you is more communal. You’ll also have an excellent escort to explain how it all works. In fact, she’s here. Your timing is perfect, Sybilla.”

Justina turned to see a smiling woman leaning against the doorway as if she had been there this whole time. She appeared in her late twenties, five and a half feet tall, if that, with a curvy figure and blonde hair touching her shoulders. Justina was struck by the woman’s blue eyes, perfect high cheeks, narrow chin, and full, pink lips. Told by family and friends since she was a girl that she herself possessed ‘willowy beauty’, Justina distrusted such condescending terms and was benignly jealous of any woman whose attractiveness was obvious, effortless, natural. Here was one of them.

Sybilla stepped forward and placed her hand on Justina’s shoulder. “Welcome, Engländer. We’ve been waiting forever for you. Me especially. Doctor Masri has been making me be a nurse and gets mad when I get sick at seeing blood.”

Justina caught the accent: German. She touched Sybilla’s hand. Her skin was soft. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Sybilla will be your prefect, Justina,” said Raed. “She’s been here three years and if we ever leave Allenby, we’re taking her with us. She even speaks Arabic like a native.”

“Do you?” marveled Justina.

Sybilla’s laugh was throaty. “It depends who you ask. Some make fun of me because of my Egyptian accent. They say it sounds unsophisticated. What about you, Justina? Do you speak Arabic?”

“Nary a word.”

“Any other languages?”

Justina was embarrassed. “I did A-Level French, but that’s gone out the window. I know some Greek and Turkish curses, but that’s it.”

“Curses in Arabic sound much loftier. I’ll teach you.”

“I see you’re going to be inseparable,” said Raed. “Sybilla, please show Justina around before she collapses from her long day. And you, Justina, come to me anytime about anything.”

Justina stood, shook Raed’s hand again. “Thank you.”

About the Author

Kevin Gerard Neill

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Neill completed a 20-year career in public health in the United States. Before that, his life varied from a period spent in the military as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the Middle East to employment as a refugee relief worker in a camp for Bosnian Muslims in Croatia.
Neill's written work (Checkpoint 104, a flash fiction set in Israel) has been published online in the Bangalore Review. Previously published works of non-fiction have appeared in professional journals (Cultural Survival Quarterly, the Journal of International Women's Studies, and Ethnicity & Health) on subjects of women’s health (sexual assault during wartime), and health and human rights.