It was the same smile. I wanted to hug him and tell him that I missed him. I missed his classes. I missed his words, the wisdom he taught us, the experience he gave us.
“Do you know me?” I asked.
He looked at me intently, scrutinizing the man standing in front of him. “You are that little kid who used to torture me, wanting to answer every question I asked,” he said and smiled again.
That smile took me years back. I remembered that he used to live here in Beit Hanoun. This was his home. Over there is the tree he inherited from his father, although its branches are now covered in gray, sticky dust. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to say. Mass destruction had killed life in this town.
There are no more birds here. I came here many times before, but this time is different. Everything is different. His passion was to help his students survive life, help make their dreams come true and work for his country to thrive. But my teacher has nothing left in this land, part of a former state that is recognized only in ancient history, where nothing like Israel existed.
He pinched my ear the way he did when I was a child in fifth grade and was paying no attention, reminding me that I used to sit in front of him with a packet of sunflower seeds, hiding them under my desk and eating some every once in a while.
“What has happened to you, Allam? How have you become the man now standing in front of me?”
“I enrolled in university, studied for a BA in Arabic language and received a technical diploma in translation; here I am, however.” My eyes couldn’t bear looking at him.
I know it makes you sad, my teacher. I know that I am a great disappointment. I tried my best to be who you hoped I could be. I studied hard. I succeeded. Yet I am from the besieged Gaza Strip. I really tried to get a job. I even tried to be a freelancer. Guess what? You can’t open a checking account unless you are a businessman or an employee of an international company. You can’t bank your money, because you’re a Palestinian, and because Israel said so. Your fate is to die or languish. I am the generation who has lived through three wars.
He told me that the first 60 years of a human’s life are difficult, but things will get easier afterwards. I laughed. He laughed too.
“What about your son, Laith? How is he doing?” I asked. “I knew him when we were in a boring class. He was the one who always turned it into a festival.”
My teacher wept.
Don’t say it, please. Don’t tell me he was killed. I have enough pain in my life. I lost many friends during the Israeli aggression against Gaza last summer. They were good people with open minds and great personalities. Don’t say it, teacher, please. Don’t.
With tears in his eyes, he smiled and said, “Oh, Allam. My son was such a good boy. I still remember his laughter. His jokes. His… everything. He used to fill our life with happiness. My son was killed with the first Israeli shell that struck our home. His blood was everywhere. He left us. My son didn’t have a choice.”
I didn’t know why my teacher smiled this time. I didn’t have any words to say to him. All I could think of was that I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked him about my friend, his son. I should’ve stayed silent. But I missed my friend. The sight of the rubble lying on the ground, the smell of death filling the air and the pulse of pain in his eyes should’ve silenced me. I should have known.
Then, he told me he had a surprise for me. “What is it, teacher?”
“I avenged my son’s murder.”
I started to think he had gone crazy after the death of his son. How the hell did he avenge his son’s murder? This didn’t make any sense to me, and I was afraid to ask, but I did.
“And how did you do that?”
“They stole my son from me, but my wife is pregnant with another child,” he replied. I smiled, knowing that this man is a survivor. It had been a long time since I attended his classes, yet he had a last lesson to teach me,
“Don’t give up, Allam. Be patient and stay to fight another day.”