Teaser 258: Laila

When I gathered my few belongings and walked off the plane there was only one person to meet me, Baku. I hugged him when we reached and, having all in hand, we walked right out the airport to the vehicle waiting and drove the hours to Gossi without incident.

Within minutes of walking into the facility and depositing my belongings in the dormitory, I met the woman of mystery, wrapped in her robe, scarf over her head and across her face. When we first met I couldn't help thinking her eyes, which were all I could see of her, were anxious, excited. She had a bag with her and retrieved from it an envelope addressed to “Al-Barrak.”

We had spoken only the obligatory greetings. I did not even know her name, but I tore open the envelope and read it. “My brother, both you and I know, between us, only you can unite the tribes. We have spoken at length about the four schools and this regrettable situation, but the woman who brings you this came to me with little hope. She has her tribes to unite while each tribe's home is destroyed in the process. I could think of no other besides the one from my dream, for you, my brother, were the first and only one I could conceive to help her. The People of the Book need to be reminded they, too, are of the tribes, but only one can unite us. Ali El-Nushara knows this to be true. Listen to her and let you both come of one mind. Peace be upon you, my brother.” It was unsigned. It didn't need to be signed. I knew who wrote it.

I looked in the eyes of the woman standing a few feet before me and calmly asked, “What is your name, my child?”

In a soft and most exquisite voice, she replied, “Laila.”

I knew I was no Majnun and as far as she was concerned I would never be. My immediate thought, though, was, this is no coincidence. We stood in the cafeteria and I motioned for her to sit at one of the tables opposite me. When we both had seated and reached some level of comfort, I gazed into her black and strikingly expressive pupils. “Laila, tell me why you sought the counsel of the Phoenix, and why both you and he think I can help you.”

Born and raised in the battlespace which the Gaza Strip had become in seventy years, I was in for a heart-wrenching story. Laila was luckier than most, born of a father better off than most, who became another victim of this perpetual and undeclared war, and who, just as fortunately, was born to a mother who didn't squander the advantages her husband left her. Three older brothers, her sister next, and Laila was the youngest. Soon, two brothers were dead and her sister was crippled, virtually house-ridden, which was a severe restriction with the incessant war all around them. In one five-year period they lived in five separate residences, each one bombed or blown away to rubble, followed by the necessity to move. I listened to her tell me this tale of utter woe, I myself being “Thursday's child,” the child of woe in western culture, and simply hung my head. When she finished, and before she talked of her accomplishments, I held up my hand and she stopped. I had to think. This is what we strive to be? This is what we consider humane and right? I want to leave this place. I want it decimated. There is no cleansing to be accomplished here. Destroy it all!

“Your mother believed in you, Laila. Tell me why and what have you done to reward her belief.”

Between friends and family scattered all over, her mother opened the doors to higher education, first in Europe, briefly in the United States, and Laila completed her pre-med, followed by further studies, until all which remained was a residency requirement. Conditions in her homeland had deteriorated so badly by then she could not ignore them and had returned to do whatever she could. For a long time Laila provided the only immediate medical assistance for those in Gaza injured in any skirmish or unexpected demolition. Things were only getting worse. Heat and emotion, on both sides, were growing uncontrollably. There was no living in Gaza. There was mere subsistence or death. Death was most likely for all who resided in Gaza. It was increasingly becoming the end game, or just the end.

“What do you think I can do to change it, Laila?”

“I don't know, Al-Barrak, but the Phoenix believes in you. If he believes in you, so do I.”

All which Laila shared made me cry with no regard. I made no attempt to wipe my tears and my nostrils filled as one would expect. I fixed my focus on the sliver of eyes between the wrap of scarf above and below. “Let me consult the One for guidance. While I do so, please pray for your own guidance and recite the Fattiha.”

“Yes, Al-Barrak, I will do as you suggest.”

I knew before I stood from the table what guidance I would receive. Of what belief do you possess, O insignificant one? Of what faith do you hold?

We had agreed to meet in the cafeteria early the following morning. “What guidance did you receive, my child?”

“I should bring you with me to perform a miracle, peace be upon you, my blessed one.”

“Let us leave together, my child, and along the way we shall discuss this miracle.” I advised Laila I must inform my wives of this development. Though I could not see her mouth under the scarf, I could tell she was smiling. “They must know what I am planning. They are beloved to me, but I do this for our Beloved. If this should result in my leaving this world, so be it. It is the will of Allah, the will of the One.”

“You are, Al-Barrak, a Master, as I hoped. The Phoenix said you were not but I think he was mistaken.”

“My child, you are young in this world, so you do not know. Once you meet a Master, you will never mistake another. Know that I know of what I speak.”

Early the next morning Laila and I rolled out with the three trucks on their way to Gao and the market there. We were driven to a very small vehicle sales establishment. There aren't many in this part of the world, they're usually very small, they never have new vehicles, and the used ones they do have come into their possession for sale in almost any manner of which one may think: death, war, skirmish, government seizure, a family desperate for money, but a few samples. I liked a sport-type from an Asian manufacturer with four-wheel drive and deep rutted tires for better travel over sand or desert, and an hour later the purchase price sat in the dealer's bank account, while I drove out of Gao for our long journey to Egypt, Laila sitting comfortably in the passenger seat wrapped to her eyes.

When it would get late in the afternoon we planned for nightly accommodations, Laila doing most of the discovery in towns we reached and the negotiations with proprietors. We never shared a room. I always paid for two rooms, although one night we couldn't find two rooms, so I slept in the vehicle. We reached the outskirts of Cairo five days after we left Gossi, passing through each border crossing without any real difficulty. I paid one bribe. The guard was quite insistent.

Once we reached Cairo we searched for her friends. Finding them outside a small cafe, we all retreated to a residence shared by several families, and to one of the rooms. Out came the plans and discussion. With the friends' help I sold the vehicle since we had no further use for it. Now came the tricky maneuvers. We needed to get from Cairo inside the Gaza Strip without detection or alerting of the authorities, those being mostly Egyptian, but there were also Americans and Israelis scattered about, and most of them in your typical unofficial manner, undercover.

Three days later I sat on the floor of a ramshackle house in Gaza with five others besides Laila. Now came the discussion concerning my presence. “What can you possibly accomplish, Al-Barrak?”

In the latest outbreak between the two combatants, Israeli soldiers had smashed the border and driven inside Gaza five or six street blocks, essentially destroying the few remaining living quarters there might be, always declaring them safe houses or terrorist hide-outs. No one anywhere in the world questioned them except the few voices perpetually ignored. “We are going to march to the line the Israeli army has established in Gaza. You will all stay behind the buildings, out of sight, with no weapons of any kind. I will march into the street and sit amid the rubble and live in the street for at least three days. When I am demanded to explain what I'm doing, I will explain, 'I am sitting in my home, for this is my home. Since it is a spot of Earth and all of Earth is my home, I shall sit in my home, for I belong here or I belong nowhere. What I suggest to you, to all of you, both sides, is to go home. Go back to your separate homes and stop this madness. Go home!'”

No one thought it would have any effect except to almost assuredly result in a rifle bullet to my brain. “Then it is the will of Allah, for does not the will of Allah extend to all?” There was no real argument, as I expected. “Only one of you, while I stay on the street for all to see, will come to bring me sustenance.” I turned to Laila. “What courage do you possess, my child?”

“Ask and you shall receive, Al-Barrak.”

“Bring me a pitcher of water five times every day for prayer. Take a large white scarf in your other hand and hold it high as you step out from behind the buildings to come to me. Let me wash myself for prayer, drink as I need to, then walk back behind the buildings and out of sight. You, Laila, must be the only one on your side to be seen by their side. The only one!” Now I gazed around at the other five, all men. “Do you understand me?” There was some argument, mostly again about the effectiveness of my suggestion. “Let me assure you that you shall abide by my commands or I shall accomplish nothing. Only Laila will ever be seen by the Israelis and none of you will possess a weapon of any kind. Should I be successful in convincing the Israelis to go home, then I shall arise from the street and go home with all of you. Do you understand?”

“It would be a miracle should you convince Israelis to go home and leave Gaza!” Laila proclaimed.

“I assure you, my child, it is rare one should perform a miracle with any other's help. You, Laila, are imbued with that most rare. Your heart is pure and your love is great. This I know.” I turned to Laila's only surviving brother, the oldest, Ahmad, and rose from my cross-legged position on the floor. “Accompany me for a few minutes outside, Ahmad. All of you stay here until we return.” I waited for Ahmad to rise from his pillow on the floor to walk with me.

Ahmad had met us outside Gaza to escort us into Gaza, a feat of which I took great note. Once inside the Gaza Strip I also took note of the many who greeted Ahmad or to whom he gave greetings, and explanations from the many, both our group, and those we met, led me to form the unshakable opinion Ahmad was well-known all over Gaza and his reputation and opinion were of a high regard at the highest levels. His greatest hope was for peace in his homeland but not at the expense of bowing down in submission to appease the Israelis. He was most correct in stating, “This is not their home. They have no right to it.” Still, I considered his advice would, at the very least, be seriously deliberated by all who heard it.

Once outside and away from prying ears, I spoke to Ahmad. “The Israelis, Ahmad, use the most flimsy of violent action in Gaza as justification for their continuing aggression. A rifle shot, a bomb, a rocket launch, every one of these allows them to claim their violent responses, often far beyond the violent action which triggered their response, are necessary and no one of leadership standing raises any meaningful objection. I will walk out in front of the world to their own battle line and demand they go home, but they will not heed me should your side continue violent action. The Israelis will use it to dig in and stay, at best, and I will fail. Worst, they will execute me. My death in this manner is not what concerns me. What concerns me is it will accomplish nothing. It will be viewed as a failure and the violence from both sides will continue unabated. Thus, no one wins! People will listen to you, Ahmad, and I only ask them to restrain completely for three days. No shooting, no bombs, no rocket launches, nothing, for three days! Give this to me so I can reach the conscience of Israelis. You may think none have consciences, but many do. Give me the chance to reach them, or all I propose will be useless, and more will die. That I can guarantee you. More will die.”
“Your proposal, Al-Barrak, places my own sister in jeopardy. You have asked her to walk out in full view and with no safety at all in front of guns most certainly pointed at her. I'm sure you understand how little that idea pleases me.”

“By the first time she walks out, cameras will be recording. Should the Israelis assassinate both of us they cannot hide it from the world. They almost certainly will assassinate both of us while the violence continues as we stand together with no protection. Thus, Ahmad, our only protection is the cessation of violence from this side. Fail to stop the violence and you may be forced to retrieve two more lifeless bodies.”

Ahmad fidgeted a bit, taking small steps around and around in a circle before me. He stopped to stare at me severely. “I will do what I can. I assure you of this, Al-Barrak. Should I bring back my sister's lifeless body while you survive, it will take every effort from Allah to keep me from killing you myself.”

“Should that be the result of this, Ahmad, I would welcome your execution. I would have no reason to live.”

- Just Desserts, Segment Thirty-OneGo Home” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021

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