A Cypress Tree Has No Shadow: Chapters Three and Four

In Issue 68 by Kevin Gerard Neill

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Photo by Sara Calado 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 Three

Sybilla, the German

SYBILLA steered Justina by the arm out of the office and down a hallway of high, dulled walls that looked shadowy even in daytime despite the frail radiance of bulbs in widely spaced, brass chandeliers. There were few people around; mostly Palestinian staff with UN identity badges around their necks going from office to office. Others – Justina took them to be refugees – appeared to be drifting aimlessly.

Justina saw a wall clock inside an office: it was almost four. Her day had begun two-thousand miles away and hours earlier in England. Raed was right: she was not sure how long she could last but was determined to press on. She asked Sybilla, “Where are we off to?”

“Nowhere particularly. I thought we’d go to the courtyard for some fresh air while the faithful are at prayer, then to your room. Anything more you see you’d forget by tomorrow.”

They turned a corner and left the bland office corridor behind. Ahead stretched another hallway of faded greens and blues, the walls punctuated by doors, some open, most closed. Sybilla explained this was the beginning of the refugees’ quarters. Muted voices, crackling radio broadcasts, and daytime television programmes rose and fell as they passed each doorway.

Their circuit ended at an unmarked door that Sybilla pushed open, revealing a dank, narrow stairway. As she descended, Justina heard the amplified chanting of the Muslim Adhan, the Call to Prayer, recited by muezzins from Nabatieh’s mosques. Coming from several mosques and not timed the same, the echoing prayers exuded a rhythm that reminded Justina of drawn-out harmonious singing.

As the women passed through another nondescript door into the courtyard, the hundreds of people Justina had seen earlier seemed to have vanished. Only a few dozen remained, mostly females without hijabs.

Justina and Sybilla walked to the fountain and sat quietly. Justina finally gestured around the courtyard. “This emptied fast.”

“That’s normal. There’s a mosque two blocks away, but most people find it easier to go to their rooms to pray, except for Friday’s Salāt al-jum`ah. The community prayer. As for the rest of week, who wants to pass through checkpoints five times a day to worship God?”

“Are the Palestinians all Sunni?”

“Mostly, but some are Shiites. And Christians, certainly. That’s mainly who’s here now. Wafa’s Christian, you know. Greek Orthodox. Very devout.”

They fell silent. Soon, Justina’s eyelids grew heavy.

Sybilla sprang up. “Let’s find your room.”

They crossed the square, passing under an archway below Raed’s office. From there, they climbed the main stairway to the top floor and followed a deserted hallway that dead-ended before an inconspicuous doorway. Sybilla used a key to enter.

“This is our sanctuary,” said Sybilla. “You’ll have your own key tomorrow.”

Justina viewed a whitewashed passage interspersed with doors on either side. Sybilla led them to the last door, opened it, and stood back. Justina stared into a dark chamber.

“Your new home, Engländer.”

As Justina stepped inside, Sybilla reached in and flipped a switch. A shaded desk lamp flickered to life, revealing a narrow, furnished room – a monk’s cell. The room seemed crowded by a bed, desk, single upright chair, and an unfinished wooden armoire. The white walls bore no decorations, not even a light in the high ceiling. The sole relief came from an arched window midway along the length of the room and an identical one at the head of the bed; hers was a corner room. Her bags had been arranged in a corner, topped with towels and a bar of fragrant soap. Justina fell in love with the miniscule bedroom. This would be her space.

“Toilets and showers are around the corner,” Sybilla said. “The men share with refugees further away. The room by yours is empty and used for storage. Your nearest neighbor – me – is across the hall. We usually eat in the refectory downstairs, but I’ve kept food since lunch in case you were late. It’s not much. Should I get it?”

“You’re spoiling me right off the mark.”

“I want you to feel welcome,” Sybilla said and disappeared.

Justina crossed to the window above the headboard and peered at the view below of the barrack’s carpark. It was empty of vehicles except for a fleet of six white Toyota SUVs, each painted with the blue UNPRA logo. Beyond stood the clock tower, casting a long shadow in the late afternoon light.

At the base of the tower, Justina made out the mustachioed figure of the Lebanese Army officer she had encountered: Lieutenant Amhaz. He stood slouched against the wall, smoking, watching a group of refugee boys making a wide arc around him. As Justina looked, the officer seemed to make an act of turning his entire body like an Old West gunfighter as he kept the boys in view. This was a man to be wary of, she thought. But there was something comical about him, too; an extreme sense of self-importance she had seen in more than one junior army officer that usually exceeded ability. Between that and the size of his moustache, she decided to call him Groucho. She also resolved to avoid him as much as possible.

Sybilla returned with a tray laden with pita loaves, bowls of hummus, olives and sliced cucumbers, and a pot of tea. She placed the tray on the desk and poured them each a cup. Then she kicked off her clogs and settled on Justina’s bed.

“This is lovely,” said Justina. “Are you joining me?”

“Maybe later. You go ahead. I appreciate a good appetite and you may have walked from England for all I know.”

Justina sat down to eat. She tore off chunks of bread and used them to scoop up mounds of hummus. It was velvety, garlicky, and delicious. She did not realise how hungry she was and kept eating.

Sybilla cranked the window open. From her shirt pocket, she withdrew a pack of cigarettes and lighter. “Do you mind?”

“Go ahead.”

Sybilla lit her cigarette with careless movements and exhaled out the window. The tang of tobacco spread across the room. The smell conjured in Justina’s mind a vision of her father, a smoker of cigarettes and pipes his entire life. Sybilla tossed the pack on the bed between them, a white pack with zigzag blue stripes.

“They’re Lebanese Cedars,” said Sybilla. “Not so bad you choke, but not so good that you want one too often. Cedars are a very balanced desire, I think.”

“Sort of like a formula for having good sex.”

Sybilla raised her eyebrows. “Ja. Exactly like that.”

“Are there many more expat staff at Allenby?” Justina asked, reaching for more bread.

“Not anymore. We used to have almost two dozen. Then the UN cut money from our agency and people fled as soon as their contracts ended to work at better paid disasters. Ukraine, Turkey, Yemen – take your pick. Now we’re down to five, including you.”

“I can’t wait to hear about such chosen few.”

Sybilla tapped an ash out the window. “There’s a Dutch couple, Carolien and Gerd. You can’t miss them. She’s short, he’s tall. They advise on construction projects, all kinds of machines and auto mechanics. And then there’s Adrian.”

“Who’s he?”

Sybilla crushed out her barely smoked cigarette. “Adrian Caine. A countryman of yours. He’s been here longer than me. He works with Doctor Masri, so you’ll see a lot of him – probably more than you want. More than I certainly would want.” She put a hand to her mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Justina was charmed by the expression on Sybilla’s face; a look wavering between embarrassment at saying too much and love of gossip. She took her tea and sat across from Sybilla with a reassuring smile. “You make this Adrian sound rather curious. I’d love to hear more.”

Sybilla slipped out another Cedars but did not light it, just turned it over with her fingers like worry beads. “He’s the clinic pharmacist. We got along at first, but now I don’t believe I like him. I can’t explain exactly why.” She shrugged. “But those are my feelings. You may end up marrying him.”

“My God, you remind me of my dad, forever on about inappropriate men.”

Sybilla regarded her unlit cigarette before looking back up at Justina. “What about inappropriate women?”

Justina had to laugh. “I’ve never been that desperate, but you may be on to something.”

Sybilla’s gaze was so direct that Justina was struck again over how lovely and large her eyes were. She decided the German was more than attractive; she was gorgeous.

Sybilla lit her cigarette. “Are your parents alive, Justina?”

“Yes, both safely tucked away back in Sheffield. Dad’s a Church of England vicar and my mother works for a tiny book publisher.”

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“Two younger brothers. Michael’s a twenty-five-year-old musical prodigy on the bassoon. Can you imagine? The bassoon? The thing looks like a bloody great walking stick.”

“I prefer the cello. It’s more sensuous. And your other brother?”

“James – a horrible teenager only interested in football and girls. I’m not close to either of them. They couldn’t even be bothered to help clean out my flat or come to the airport with my parents to see me off. What about you?”

Sybilla helped herself to a piece of pita and began nibbling. “An only child.”

“Where’s home?”

“We’ll say Munich. That’s where my mother lives. My father – the Honourable Karl Schenck – has been dead for some time.” Sybilla paused. “I miss him.”

“Sorry.” Justina detected something off in Sybilla’s voice. She sidestepped her curiosity by asking, “Did you grow up there, in Munich?”

“It’s where I went to school, especially university, the Philipps-Universität Marburg. There’s a wonderful centre for middle eastern studies there.”

“Is that how you came to be at Allenby?”

“It had its role.” Sybilla rested against a pillow. “And what brought you to Lebanon?”

Justina was about to reply when the bulb in the desk lamp flickered, went out, came back to life, and finally died, engulfing the room in shadows. She looked at Sybilla in silence. After a minute, the bulb flared and shone steadily.

“This always happens at Allenby,” Sybilla explained. She got the conversation back on track. “You were telling me how you chose to come to Lebanon.”

“It started in Cyprus. I became interested in refugees when I was an army medic there. But when I got out of the army, I thought I wanted to be an art teacher, so I went back to school.” Justina shook her head. “Who picks that as a career? I mean, I could draw, but I really must have been crazy.”

Sybilla’s eyes widened a fraction. “This is interesting to me. And did you become a teacher?”

Justina nodded. “That’s where I was before here. Anyway – when I was still slaving at university – a friend talked me into attending a meeting of the Sheffield Refugee Solidarity Campaign and I got hooked on refugees again.”

“It seems to have taken you a long time to volunteer for the camps.”

“Not enough guts, probably. Staying in England to teach was my fault. I mean, I never really thought I qualified for a UN job. They’re forever asking for qualified doctors and whatnot. But I always kept my hand in the medical side; you know, being in the Reserves plus working a few hours a week as an NHS ambulance technician. I was never able to take my mind off refugees, either. Lots of my students were from immigrant families and I doted on them. I finally had to give the UN another shot.”

“But why Palestinians? Why aren’t you in Somalia, or Yemen?”

Justina took their glasses to the desk. For the first time, she noticed a sticker the size of a drink coaster glued to the wood. Printed along the edge of the sticker were the words “Holy Mecca” in English and Arabic and an arrow pointing, she guessed, toward the city of Mecca. The arrow, the Qibla, was for Muslims to know the direction to pray toward. She faced Sybilla. “I’ve never seen refugees fall out of a tree in any city without a goodly number of them being Palestinians. It was like that in Cyprus, too. There were Palestinian refugees there and they were some of the neediest people I saw. Add that to the fact that I’ve loved the Middle East since I was little, listening to all those bible stories from my dad. It just felt natural to come here.”

“That tells me a lot, but I still think you’re very courageous to be in Lebanon.”

“That’s hardly true.”

“Well, what is it, then? What drives someone from a nice life to a place that’s such a shitstorm of religion and politics?”

Justina laughed at the ceiling. “You really go after it, don’t you?” She tried to think of another way to explain herself. “Conscience makes me tick.”

“Conscience?”

“That’s it. Being a vicar’s daughter has given me a terrible conscience about needing to be involved in something bigger than myself – and then a year as a Peacekeeper in Cyprus just piled it on. If I’d stayed in England, my life would never have been what I wanted it to be.”

“That sounds harsh.”

“Maybe. But for the longest time, I’ve felt impossibly keen on…well, justice. I suppose that sounds airy-fairy, but it’s the one ideal I can’t shake off. Social justice.”

Sybilla glanced out at the gathering darkness. “My father would’ve liked the ideal of justice very much.” She wriggled into her shoes and scooped up her cigarettes. “It’s time to let you sleep.”

“Thanks for everything, Sybilla. The food, the talking, everything.”

“I hope the conversation wasn’t too heavy for you on your first day.”

Justina felt herself smile. “I enjoyed talking with you.”

Sybilla picked up the tray and waited for Justina to open the door. She was halfway into the corridor when she turned around. The elfin gleam had returned to her eyes. “You’ll do wonderful things here. I know it.”

A question occurred to Justina. “Sorry, I’m not usually this dense, but I forgot to ask. What do you do here?”

“Me? I teach English, of all things. I also give instruction in computers – with the few we have – and teach dance. You’re welcome at any of my classes. Our school is on Sultan Suleiman Street. Now go unpack, go to bed, whatever you want. I’ll come at six to take you to breakfast.”

Justina closed her door. She took the three steps needed to cross to her slender bed and settled onto the thin mattress. Within minutes, overwhelming weariness seeped into her. Before she succumbed, she remembered something and fetched the mobile from her bag. As the device powered on, she looked outside, saw the slender top of a minaret outlined in strings of bright green lights pointing into the darkening sky. Just then, the sounds of the evening prayer, the Azan Maghrib, swelled across Nabatieh. Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar…

Justina calculated the time difference between here and Sheffield. Reasonable, but she was too exhausted to talk. Instead, she texted her father a message:

Arrived safely. Made a friend already. Her name’s Sybilla.

J.

xx

Chapter Four

Fadwa, the Doctor

DARKNESS filled the room when Justina woke. She touched her way toward the lamp and turned it on, bathing everything in a homey glow. Her mobile showed it was just before five in the morning. She rummaged in her things until she found a short cotton robe and slipped it on, then gathered towel, soap, and her toiletry bag and tiptoed down the hall to the women’s bathrooms. She found the place empty and enveloped in murky shadows. Unable to find the light switch, she felt around, bumping into sinks, and seeing her ghostly reflection in a succession of mirrors. Rounding a corner, she came upon a row of partitioned showers where she rinsed off in the dark under warm water.

Back in her room, Justina dressed in a dark jumper and faded cargo trousers and began unpacking. Moving revived her. She had just finished putting away the last of her things and was tying on an old pair of army boots when she heard knocking. It was Sybilla.

“You’re still here. Good. Sometimes, new people creep back to Beirut and take the first plane out. Here’s your key.”

Justina slid the key into her pocket.

“You’ll need this, too.” Sybilla handed Justina a long, gauzy blue scarf. “Use it as a hijab when you need to. Wear it over your shoulders like a second skin. We’ll buy you more later.”

Justina saw Sybilla wearing a similar scarf, only white. Had she worn one yesterday? Justina could not recall. She also did not remember anyone in Vienna offering this advice. She slipped the scarf around her neck.

They retraced their steps from yesterday, except at the bottom of the stairs Sybilla conducted them toward another wing of the barracks that led to a paneled dining room with a dozen tables. All the tables were empty except one where a lone, coppery-haired woman was seated, drinking coffee. Sybilla steered Justina to the woman.

“Carolien, where’s Gerd?” asked Sybilla.

The woman smiled at them gaily. If possible, she seemed smaller than Sybilla. Carolien looked in her mid-thirties, but with a young, dimpled face. “He’s helping Jamal tune the boilers,” she said, and extended a hand. “You must be Justina. We’re overjoyed you’re here.”

Justina shook hands as she and Sybilla sat. “I hope I can live up to everyone’s enthusiasm.” She noticed Carolien also had a scarf around her neck. “Sybilla says you’re Dutch. I love Holland.”

“For a country half below sea level, it’s quite pretty. I prefer the desert.”

From the kitchen came the sound of banging pots and voices speaking Arabic. A plump woman wearing a loose-flowing abaya and a hijab appeared to set on their table a tray of pita, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and coffee. As they ate, Sybilla filled Carolien in on Justina’s background, sounding like a proud parent. In turn, Carolien described for Justina her own upbringing in Amsterdam where her father owned an electrical company, how she met her future husband Gerd when both were performing relief work in Bosnia, and their eventual migration to Lebanon and UNPRA. They had been in Allenby a year. The three women exchanged travel stories as the room filled with staff. Every so often, Sybilla took Justina around for introductions. Each time, Justina felt like the new student at school being shown around by one of the popular girls. The most striking person she met was Fahimah, Raed’s veiled assistant; a young woman with rouged cheeks and heavily made up eyes wearing a leather skirt over jeans.

Still to be seen was Adrian. Except for the European women, everyone else breakfasting was Palestinian. Justina – anxious to meet as many of the staff as possible – asked when the pharmacist might appear.

“Adrian doesn’t do breakfast,” said Carolien.

Sybilla stood. “Let’s go, Justina. We’ve one more errand and then Doctor Masri.”

“Have a good day,” said Carolien.

Justina and Sybilla trekked toward Raed’s office. Along the way, Justina saw the barracks hum to life as doors opened and refugees spilled into the corridors, greeting one another as mothers shepherded children dressed in plain blue UNPRA school uniforms toward the staircases. Everywhere, the mingling aromas of fresh coffee and hot cooking oil filled the air.

In the empty office, paperwork had been laid out with Justina’s name affixed atop every sheet. There were pages that directed the direct deposit of her wages, premium deductions for health and life insurance, and contractual details of UN employment – all in lawyerly detail. The forms looked to Justina like duplicates of ones she had already signed when hired, but she dutifully filled everything out. At the bottom of the pile of papers was a laminated UNPRA identification badge affixed to a cord. The badge featured a grainy photo taken of her in Vienna. She looped the cord over her head and let the badge dangle on her chest.

“You now belong to Allenby,” Sybilla said.

“That’s rather how it feels.”

“Now come meet our version of Mother Theresa.”

From the office, they followed seemingly endless corridors that led them by a succession of unmarked doors, poorly lit cul-de-sacs, and empty stairwells. In no time, Justina was thoroughly lost.

Halfway down another nondescript corridor stood a pair of swinging doors. Sybilla pushed through and led them into a medical wing painted in light cheerful greens and yellows. Even at this early hour, refugees of all ages were lined up in front of a desk to register with the lone hijabi receptionist. Others – already checked in or waiting for the line to thin – patiently occupied benches lining the walls. Everyone seemed to be speaking, and the entire reception area exuded a sort of quiet confusion. It had been a long time since Justina had been in a crowded surgery like this. It felt good.

Justina glimpsed a series of offices and a large examination room that branched off the corridor. Each was marked by nameplates in Arabic and English that stuck out at right angles above the doorways. Another room – identified by the sign Ward and larger than the rest – contained four hospital beds, all occupied: two by children, another holding an old lady, and the last filled by a pregnant woman. Every patient was surrounded by family members sitting on the beds or floor, anyplace there was room. The pungent smell of surgical spirit was everywhere.

Sybilla paused by a doorway beneath the sign Medical Officer. “Doctor Masri?”

“Good morning, Sybilla,” came a woman’s voice. “What is it today? Cough medicine for one of your students? A splinter? Don’t tell me someone’s broken their arm. Clumsy children drive me insane.”

Justina looked over Sybilla’s shoulder into a tiny office made smaller by a large desk heaped with medical records and papers. Seated behind the desk was a woman in her forties, slight, with dark eyes and raven hair streaked grey. Around her neck was a keffiyeh in place of a scarf. Her black jumper appeared old and ragged. At the sight of Justina, the woman’s eyebrows rose.

“Ah,” said Masri, “I see you’re delivering Miss Kent.”

Justina stepped in, extended her hand. “How are you, doctor?”

Masri leaned over the desk and grasped Justina’s hand, hard. “I’m busy, tired, and needed you three months ago.” Her grip relaxed, and she gave in to a slight smile. “But I’ll take you regardless. Justina – that’s a pretty name. Call me Fadwa when no patients are around. Sit.”

“I have to get to school” Sybilla said. “Justina, I’ll find you later.”

Justina squeezed past stacks of patient records piled on the floor and stepped over a box of medical supplies stenciled Property of UNPRA to get to the chair across from Masri. She sat and folded her hands in her lap the same demure way she had at boarding school when brought before the headmistress.

“I already know most of the things I need to about your background,” Masri began. “I had dinner last night with Raed and he filled in the blanks from what I read in your file. In fact, you were the best part of the conversation. We argued about everything else. We always argue. We even strike each other – but only lightly. We’ve never drawn blood. We’re like brand-new lovers; passionate but still polite. Did he tell you that? Probably not.”

Justina sat with her mouth open, not expecting such a machine-gun monologue. Her baffled expression was so complete that Masri laughed.

“Raed doesn’t especially like me,” the doctor said. “We’re on totally different wavelengths. We work excellently together, but he thinks I’m far too zealous – and he’s right. Allenby enrages me, and I’ll say that to anyone, from the Prime Minister of Lebanon or our ridiculous excuse for a Palestinian president to a dribbly nosed child in the street. I don’t have Raed’s cool head to deal courteously with any of them. I’m different with patients, of course, but the Palestinians need to be slapped awake, not have their political dicks held. If I weren’t a doctor, I’d probably be a soldier, a member of the fedayeen. But here I am. And medical care is a form of resistance, too.” She frowned. “Damn, I forgot to ask Sybilla for some cigarettes.”

Justina wondered how to get into the conversation. Fadwa Masri was like a speeding train. “I was a soldier myself.”

“Yes, I’m aware of your service in the illustrious British Army. Wouldn’t know it by the sight of you. You look more like an underfed ballerina.” The doctor placed a black bag on her desk and began to fill it with medical supplies from the stacks around her. Syringes, rolls of gauze, blood pressure cuff, all went into the bag. “We’ll get drugs from Adrian before we see patients. You’ve no problems treating anything, do you – no phobias about blood or bile, no issues with drug addicts or suicides?”

“I’ve been exposed to pretty much everything,” Justina said, hoping to inspire confidence. “Even gunshot wounds.”

“Good. That happens, too. What about births?”

Justina looked at her hands. “Not much.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll make you an expert. Babies are something we always have an excess of.” Masri made a face at her bag. “Damn. There’s supposed to be a portable surgical kit in there. Why can’t things stay where they belong?”

Justina watched Masri get up to gather more supplies. She wanted to move off the subject of babies. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Just watch what I’m doing. In two days, it’ll be your job to pack my bag in the morning. Wafa restocks it midday. Do you know our daily schedule?”

“I recall what I was taught in Vienna to expect.”

“They probably made that up from a report I sent them five years ago.” Masri seemed to have to force herself to stop and look at Justina. “Here’s the reality. We have surgery here six mornings a week. After lunch, we follow up with medical visits all over Allenby or wherever refugees live in Nabatieh. We go until afternoon prayers. Evenings and Fridays are left for emergencies. You and Wafa will rotate those shifts, with me always available by mobile. We’re allowed to admit to one hospital out of the three in town. There’s also a UN dentist we assist who travels around to all the camps in Lebanon like a gypsy. I haven’t seen him in two months. Questions?”

Justina was having trouble keeping up. “How many are on the actual medical staff, Doc…sorry, Fadwa?”

“We barely have enough. That makes you worth your weight in gold.”

Justina hesitated. “Raed’s asked me to teach an art class. It shouldn’t take up much time – maybe a few hours a week.”

Masri absorbed the news with a frown before sighing. “He’s the boss, so we’ll make it work somehow. But if someone dies because you’re showing children how to paint tulips, I’ll chop off Raed’s head.”

“I’ll make certain it doesn’t come to that.”

“Good, because the ambulatory treatment team is me, Wafa, and now you. We do all the travelling. Adrian – he’s English, too, if you haven’t heard – is our pharmacist. I also have two staff nurses and one technician, all Palestinian. They work in the surgery and our absurd excuse for a ward. I’m assuming you noticed it?”

“I saw four beds for three thousand people.”

“That’s why we make house calls to everyone we possibly can. You’ll be walking miles every day. I hope you brought sturdy shoes.”

“Two pairs of used army boots.”

“If you do your job right, you’ll wear them out for good.” Masri rested on the edge of her desk. “You’ll be doing everything I do, except diagnose complex cases, prescribe medicine, and cut people open. I’ll make an exception for a tracheotomy if someone can’t breathe. Have you ever performed one?”

“Once. I had to slice open my sergeant’s neck in the middle of the Welsh countryside. He’d choked on a piece of meat from his ration pack and was turning blue.”

“Did the patient survive?”

“Yes.”

“Well done. Your other job is to teach as much as you can to Wafa. She’s extremely bright, but she wants to be a doctor and needs more of the applied training you’ve had.”

 “I’ll do everything I can.”

“The truth is, Justina, I’m spread thin enough as it is with my own duties and don’t have time to wrap either of you in cotton wool. You and Wafa will be responsible for performing most afternoon rounds together. I’ll be there today because you’re new, but I can’t make it a habit.”

“How much training does Wafa have?”

“She grew up haunting this surgery, plus she’s taken every nursing course we offer, which isn’t much, so she needs more formal education. It’s something I’m working on with friends in Denmark that I went to medical school with.”

“Where did you study medicine?”

“Iraq. The University of Baghdad. This was back when the Arab world pretended to be interested in Palestinians. They paid our tuitions, gave us jobs, told us everything would work out if the Israelis would just let us return to our land. That’s all in the past now. The Arab world doesn’t care so much for us anymore. They say they do, but they don’t. And now all anybody wants to talk about are the Syrians.” Masri closed her bag with a click. “Come and I’ll introduce you to Adrian.” She gestured at the bag as she headed for the door. “Don’t let me forget that. And when you get your own medical bag, keep better track of what’s in it than I do. My surgery kit wouldn’t be the first thing that’s gone missing from the clinic.”

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.