Dima was very anxious. She spent the entire day walking, talking, listening to others talk, thinking and wondering about the next day. And the night was no better, for sleep, much-needed sleep, escaped her and her mind wouldn’t stop thinking. The next day she was to visit her brother who had been locked up in Israeli dungeons since some 10 years now. It was no usual prison visit, for she was the only one in her family allowed by the Israeli occupation military to visit her brother. The rest of the family was forbidden from seeing him, security reasons they said, but actually it was a punishment: a further punishment for her brother for exercising his legitimate right to resist the occupation of his homeland and a collective punishment for the whole family for nourishing their child with the love of Palestine, freedom and justice. Dima was the only one allowed to visit Khalid and she was the link between him and the outside world, she was the link between him and his family, his loved ones. And the next day’s visit was to be a heavy one, a most heavy visit ; Dima will be 16 years old next month and thus this visit would be her last. She will be forbidden from seeing her brother like the rest of the family. No more will she see his powerful eyes tell her stories of Palestine, resistance and a people’s fight for justice, no more will she see his dark hair growing grey with every visit, no more will she see his beautiful smile that shines so rare. And despite trying to remain hopeful, she knew that there are many, many Palestinian political prisoners held captive in Israeli jail, all waiting for the day when they are free, all hopeful, all praying, all dreaming of the green meadows of Palestine, of the olive trees, of the homes from which they were kidnapped, of the mothers who hugged them in protection as they were beaten by soldiers, of the fathers who clung to them as they were dragged away, of the siblings and of the children who cry in pain for the loved ones far away behind bars, who smile in pride at the thought of the loved ones imprisoned for resisting oppression, who stand steadfast and refuse to be intimidated, refuse to be robbed of their legitimate rights and of their freedom and that of their loved ones. They all dream of Palestine, of walking everywhere in Palestine as free as the eagles, as free as the Mediterranean breeze. And when a prisoner exchange-deal is being negotiated, dreams become colourful again, laughter become loud and sincere, hearts begin to blossom again and eyes shine with images of Palestine for there is hope, there is hope…. until the list of names of the lucky ones to be released is published. And Dima, with her family, like most Palestinian families, have hoped and prayed with every deal to negotiated, have waited, waited and prayed. And every time the list is published, and the beloved name is nowhere to be found, the hearts die a little bit, and a little bit and a little bit. And mothers wish they could break the iron bars of the dungeons and make a bridge of their flesh over which their children cross to freedom, and fathers pray their lives be taken in exchange for the freedom of their children and children cry over the parent they aren’t allowed to kiss, they aren’t allowed to hug, they aren’t allowed to know.
The night was going to be long and Dima looked through the window into the darkness outside. She longed for the daylight because she wanted so much to see Khalid and she feared the daylight for the day will pass like a mirage, will disappear in a blink of the eye, will come to an end before it even began. The 40 minutes visit will end like a nightmare; abrupt, painful, scary, and unreal, and Dima won’t have enough time to say what she’d wanted to say, what she’d been preparing to say since her return from the last visit to Khalid. No, 40 minutes are not enough to say what you want to say to a brother you might never see again. 40 minutes are not even enough for a good brotherly hug which will be denied them because of the glass separating them. 40 minutes are not enough to fill one’s eyes with the image of the brother one might never see again. No, 40 minutes are not enough, are not even enough for an ordinary visit! 40 minutes are never enough for a visit that will be the last…..
Yes, it was going to be a long night and Dima and her family knew it. They had all gathered in the sitting room, even her two married siblings who lived at the other end of the refugee camp were present. Everyone had a message for Khalid, everyone wanted to remind Dima of what to tell Khalid, everyone wished they were Dima, just for a mere 40 minutes. And Dima sat listening to them all. She knew she had been very lucky the last years; at least she was allowed to visit Khalid. She felt her mother’s pain over Khalid’s absence and her father’s longing for his eldest son every day, every minute, every second. She knew her parents would readily give up their lives in exchange for a few minutes with Khalid. Dima was lucky and she knew it, but her luck had come to an end. And as she thought of the next day and of that visit and the cursed 40 minutes, she tried to think positively; “At least I get the 40 minutes. At least I get to see him.” And she looked guiltily at her mother’s face, painted with pain and suffering, hope and patience, and she looked at her father’s face wrinkled with the years spent away from the beloved home from which they were expelled, and she looked at her older siblings, all having the name Khalid on their lips, all having Khalid carved in their heart. “I wish I could take you all with me, in my little pocked” she wanted to tell them, but knew that even that silly thought was too painful for those who were denied their loved one.
“Yamma, wake up or you’ll miss the bus”. Dima opened her eyes to her mother’s voice in the darkness “Is it already morning?” She dreaded the thought of the day beginning because it meant it will end. It was very early in the morning, maybe 4 am. She washed her face with cold water and hurriedly dressed. In the sitting room, she found her parents and her older brothers and sisters sitting and drinking hot tea. They had stayed up late and she couldn’t remember when she had fallen asleep or how she ended in her bed. All she remembers was that they were all talking about Khalid. It was raining heavily outside, but the thought of seeing her brother warmed her heart, although just for a second, before she remembered that it was the last visit, and she felt cold like she never felt cold before. Her mother had prepared a simple breakfast and as Dima sat eating bread with Zaatar and olive oil, her father, mother and siblings were all talking at the same time, repeating what they had all said the night before, repeating what Dima should say, what she should tell Khalid from each and every one of them. She wished she could just close her ears and her mind to that jungle of words coming from around her and mingling with the words storming in her brain. She too wanted to tell Khalid so much, they all wanted to tell him so much, but she only had 40 minutes.
“Yaba, main thing is that you tell Khalid that the lawyer is working on his case, even if we have to go to the higher court, we will do everything we can to lift the visit ban. We will never leave him alone, tell him that.” Her father said.
“Tell him we are waiting for him, yamma … tell him I place wild flowers in his room every morning … tell him I water the olive trees he planted … tell him I keep his books and papers in order and don’t let the children play with his things … tell him I kiss his pillow every morning and every evening … tell him I bought him new T-Shirts and new jeans. They won’t allow us to send any clothes with the lawyer, so I will keep them here for him, in his wardrobe, till the day he comes home … tell him to keep warm, it’s very cold, tell him to keep warm yamma.” her mother said with a shaky voice, trying to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks.
“Tell him I won’t marry until he is free, tell him I am saving my money and when he is free we will have a double wedding” her brother Jamal said. Jamal had sworn not to get married until his brother is free. His parents have been since then trying to dissuade him because, even if their hearts tell them otherwise, they all know that Khalid will be held captive for a long time.
Dima has been hearing these very same sentences every single visit. Every visit she would tell Kahlid that the lawyer is working on lifting the ban. Every visit she would tell Khalid that his mother waters his olive trees. Every visit she would tell Khalid that her other brother Jamal refuses to get married and has saved money for the time when Khalid is free so they can both celebrate a double wedding. Every visit she would tell him that Amal is the top of her class, that Nasir graduated from university and is now an engineer, that Loubna finally got a job at the hospital, that Ahmad has recovered from his injury and the Israeli bullet was removed from his leg. Every visit she would tell him all that and more. She would tell him so much, but not how much they all miss him, not how sad the house is without him, not how many times she hears her mother praying to God to let her see her son again before she dies, not how many times she goes to bed crying because he is still a captive, not how many times her father quickly wipes away a tear when the name Khalid is mentioned, not how a family is never a family while one of its members is locked up behind Zionist bars, not how a family is as a whole held captive when one of its member is held captive. She would tell him much and she would keep much to herself. And every visit he would ask her: what about you, Dima? And she would want to hug him and tell him how much she loved him. She would want to tell him about the refugee camp, his friends and comrades. She would want to tell him about those martyred and those injured. She would want to tell him about those who forgot the cause of Khalid and all other political prisoners. She would want to tell him about those who use the prisoners’ cause for their own interests. She would want to tell him about those who remember the prisoners when it suits them and ignore their cause when it’s of no use to them. She would want to tell him about her fears, her pain, her anger. But instead she would tell him that all was alright, that she was alright, that she missed him and that everyone missed him. She would tell him about her school, her friends. She would tell him about the books she was reading, about the things she wanted to do when she was older. She would tell him much and would tell him little.
As she was about to leave, everyone hugged Dima, they hugged her so hard, as if they were hugging Khalid. They kissed her and they shed tears, but their kisses and tears were for Khalid. She looked at them and knew that on that day, more than any other day, every single member of her family wished he/she were her. She knew that on that day, every member of her family wanted to be her, only for that single day, for that single visit, for that final visit.
Dima’s parents walked with her to the main road in front of the refugee camp. The Red Cross bus was to take her and others to the visit. It was raining heavily and Dima was cold, very cold. She didn’t know if what was wetting her face was the rain or her tears. She wanted so much to go and see Khalid but at the same time wanted so much that this day never comes, never begins, never ends. As a child, Dima always dreamt of growing up, becoming an adult, wearing adult clothes, carrying a suitcase and going to work. She dreamt of growing up and becoming independent. She dreamt of the day when she is a young girl, a woman, and not the baby of the family anymore, not a child anymore. But today, Dima wished she never grew up, she wished thunder would strike her and she would remain a child, never to become 16 years old. She wished she could remain 16 forever so she can continue to visit her brother. But alas, by the next visit she will be 16 and won’t be allowed to visit her brother anymore. And after today what hope do they have? Her father has been talking about the lawyer and lifting the ban for years now, she doesn’t think that is possible, an occupier who jails children and murders mothers and demolishes homes and uproots trees and steals land will have no mercy for youth lost in dark dungeons and will have no mercy for parents whose hearts cry over their captive children. No, and she knows her father also thinks it is impossible. She often felt mad at her father, talking to her about the lawyer and the ban, making her promise to tell Khalid about the lawyer time after time, seeing Khalid’s disappointment every time she tells him nothing happened with the lawyer. And with time, even Khalid lost hope. Now when she tells him about the lawyer, his eyes don’t sparkle anymore, they don’t light with hope anymore, they just remain dark and empty. But we are not allowed to lose hope, we are never allowed to lose hope, for at the moment it is all we have.
The bus came and as others from the refugee camp were getting in, Dima’s mother looked at her and said: “Remember yamma, to your brother you are the father and the mother and the siblings. Listen to your brother, let him talk about himself, don’t rush him. They wait for these visits and count the seconds, let him talk yamma…. and if he asks about our conditions tell him everything is alright, we are alright, and we miss him and await his return. Tell him not to lose hope, never to lose hope, for it is what keeps us strong. Tell him, God willing, he shall be free soon, tell him he is always in our hearts and on our minds, tell him not to lose hope, never to lose hope.” The Red Cross bus was fully packed: elderly people, women, children. They all had someone to visit and all looked happy as if it was the Eid. There were few left empty places and the children had to share seats; three or four would share a seat, depending on their sizes. Someone pushed Dima to sit along with two other girls, her age or younger. And as the bus moved, Dima looked at the scenes through the window. She always loved this trip, to see the beauty of Palestine; the green meadows, the fruits groves, the olive trees decorating the hilltops. She always tried to ignore the many Zionist colonies on the way, spread like cancer, and would mentally block them from her scenes, and saw a Palestine free of occupation and colonists. But today, it was raining, it was still dark and there was nothing to see. It was a long trip, made longer this time. Her heart was very heavy and she felt like crying, but no, Khalid mustn’t see her crying. She must remain brave for his sake. She must smile and try to comfort him and give him hope that the lawyer might succeed and lift the ban, she must try and give him hope that there will be more prisoner exchange-deals and that he might soon be free, and she must tell him that everyone is waiting, patient, for the moment when he is free and he too must never lose hope, remain patient, remain steadfast.
“Who are you visiting?” one of the girls asks.
“I am visiting my father …. He’s been in jail since 12 years …. They took him when I was still a baby. My brother is also in jail but we aren’t allowed to visit him. He is in solitary confinement.” The girl goes on.
“I’m visiting my mother … ” the younger one says happily. “It’s my turn to visit her…. last time my other sister visited her and the time before my brother visited her and today it’s my turn! I got her a photo of me and my siblings!”
“My brother has been in jail since 10 years and I’m the only one allowed to visit him ….” Dima wanted to add that it was the last visit but stopped herself. “These two girls might not be allowed to visit their loved ones when they are 16.” She thought “Don’t ruin their happiness, the day will come soon enough when it will be hard to stop the pain and the tears.”
The bus was stopped at a number of military checkpoints and after thorough inspection was allowed to continue the “trip”. Finally, the bus reached its destination and Dima watched the by-now familiar scene; grandmothers get kicked by fully-armed soldiers, grandfathers on sticks being harassed and pushed around, mothers and children being shouted at and insulted. Every visit, seeing the way fully-armed Israeli occupation soldiers treated unarmed parents, children, elderly who only wanted to visit their beloved ones, seeing this treatment made her feel helpless, made her feel angry, made her furious at the injustice of the world. But she never allowed any of this to frighten her or ruin her happiness at the aspect of seeing her brother. The “visitors” were inspected over and over, asked questions, shouted at and pushed, and one after another, they went through the narrow way surrounded by barbed wire from both sides and Dima watched the fully-armed soldiers standing on the outer side of the barbed wire ready to shoot and kill for the least “wrong” movement. The soldiers in the observation towers were also ready to kill, it didn’t matter if these were elderly and mothers and children, their guns were directed towards them and ready to fire.
Standing in a corner in the waiting room, Dima watched as one group of visitors left and another was called into the visiting room. And as she waited, she repeated in her mind what she would tell her brother, loud voices were heard from within the visiting room, the door opened abruptly and soldiers came out and were pushing the visitors outside. “Yalla, the visit is over!! No more visits today!! Yalla, kullo yrrawikh 3al bet, everyone leave! No visits for today!”