the healing muse

Volume 6, 2006

A Melian Dialogue

Karen Malpede

 “You know as well as we do, that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the fact that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
Thucydides, The Melian Dialogues

“Come, please, come in.  Sit, please, here.  Let me pour some tea.” 

Her sitting room was in the center of the house, cool and dark.   

We sipped our tea from small gold embossed glasses.  The thick tea was heavily sugared, with peppermint leaves floating loose.

My glance fell upon on a carved picture frame hanging in the center of the empty wall directly across from where she sat but whose contents I was unable to distinguish in the darkened room.  “Please,” she said, “It is my eldest son.  A lovely, glad-hearted boy.” 

We stared together at the spot and slowly the features of a face began to come clear as if the photograph were developing itself under our gaze.  A handsome boy of nine or ten materialized.  He had his mother’s lively, thick black curls, and her wide, dark, inquiring eyes only his had a mischievous glint.  He looked proud of his appearing trick.  He had her same full lips which, in his case, were squeezed shut.  He was stifling a laugh just long enough for the tedium of picture taking to end, and sensing this both his mother and I began to smile.  He was neatly dressed in school clothes, a white, open-necked shirt, dark v-neck sweater.   

“He is Ali,” my hostess said proudly, as if the boy had just come running in from play and stood shifting uneasily in the center of the room.  I was leaning forward, half straining to hear his high, clear voice as he politely greeted me when his mother said, “he died of leukemia last year.”  With a movement so practiced she did not need to watch what she was doing, she reached across the low brass table to refill my glass with tea.  The simple sound of liquid being poured came as comfort to us both.  I returned my eyes to Ali’s face on the wall which seemed to grow brighter and more animated as we looked.  

“If the hospital was able to have the proper medications to treat his disease, he, God willing, would have lived.  That is what the doctors and the nurses said.  In America, they told me, children with the same sickness are normally cured.  But the hospital in Basra does not have the proper medicines.”

She folded her hands on her lap, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on the photo of her son which now shone from its place on the wall as if lit from within.  In her town of Basra, I’d been told that afternoon by the doctors at the local hospital, there has been a 12-fold increase in cancer mortality since the Persian Gulf War of 1991.  Hospital studies indicate that, over time, 40 to 48 per cent of the population will develop cancer.  The doctors strongly suspect depleted uranium from bombs used by the Americans and British right across the southern battlefields in the 1991 war to be the cause, but because the UN sanctions have not allowed equipment to be imported that could be used for proper testing, the reasons for the cancers cannot be completely determined.  

“This is not something I would wish on any mother anywhere,” my hostess said, sitting back, folding her legs under her on the couch, arranging her dress, “to be with your child while he chokes on his own blood.  Forgive me, I do not often say such things, but I can see you have come a long way because you want to know.  For the sake of my husband and the other children, I try never to speak of what happened.”

We sat for a long while without speaking.  The glow that lit up Ali’s face had imperceptibly begun to dim and the child’s features were fading.  His mother was no longer looking at him, but at the leafy patterns on the rugs that covered the sandstone floor.

“He was a good, brave, sturdy boy, but he became frightened at the end because of the blood coming out of his mouth and his nose, and because he could not eat and because it hurt to take each breath.  The hospital had no morphine to give to him.  He could not have a blood transfusion.  The hospital had no blood to give.”

Earlier that day, when I toured the Basra hospital’s pediatric cancer ward in the company of Dr. Ginan Ghalib Hassan, I saw many children in the final stages of leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, with sores on their faces, emaciated and unable to eat.  I was told the hospital lacked even morphine to ease their pain, and that it had insufficient doses of chemo therapy drugs available for treatment. 

“We get drugs for two or three weeks, and then they stop when the shipments stop,” Dr. Hassan explained.  “Unless you continue a course, the treatment is useless.  We can’t even give blood transfusions, because there are not enough blood bags.  Normally a patient with Hodgkin’s can expect to live and the cure can be 95 percent.  But if the drugs are not available, complications set in, and death follows.  I will take you later to speak with the mother of Ali Raffa Asswadi.  The boy had a beautiful nature.” 

“These days, I think to myself,” Ali’s mother began again in that voice that had a sad recurring lilt like a song a woman might sing while sitting on a grave, “I should have been able to make myself brave enough to help him.  My husband had to work and often was not at the hospital.  I might have held him in my arms; he was very weak by then, and rolled over on top of him.  I might have smothered him like this, in the folds of my dress.”  She opened up her arms toward me, then closed them slowly tight across her breasts and closed her eyes. 

“I have never said this before to anyone.  I often wish I had had the courage to kill my own son.”  She rocked herself back and forth on the couch.

“We never before had a cancer in our family,” Ali’s mother continued shortly.   “Now, I worry that the other children will also get sick some day.  They play the same places Ali played.  They go to Ali’s school.  They drink the same water from the well.  My husband tells me I must not think this way.  I will go crazy.  And if I wake up shaking in the middle of the night, it only makes him more upset.  He is a man and has to keep his fears inside.  So I do not discuss with him what it is I think.  

“I am speaking to you like this because you have come so far to talk with me. You are also a mother.  I am sharing with you things in my heart that I do not share with any one, not even my husband.  Perhaps he feels this way, too, and would forgive me if he knew, but we do not speak together about such things.  We would still like to spare each other something.”  She stopped and passed me a blue plate with a small mound of dates.  “Please, now, eat something sweet.”

We bit into the flesh of the fat dates and chewed.  We removed the pits with our fingers, and they thudded dully onto the enamel plate.  It was mid-February, 2003.  No one knew when the war would start.   

“Let the bombs fall right here.”  Ali’s mother pointed to the center of an indigo rug patterned with green twisted vines.  “Let my family leave this life together.  When I pray, I pray for this to happen.  May our deaths be quick and painless.  May I die with all my children.”  

She stopped for a moment, and crossed her hands on top of her heart.  “When this war starts, I will gather my children with me in this room.  I hope my husband will not fight.  I hope that we will all be together here and that no bombs will hit the house.  I hope that when the American soldiers come they will not attempt to take my children from me.  I promise you, I will not give any more of my children up.  If a child of mine is hurt by one of the bombs, badly hurt and bleeding and we have no medicines or bandages and I cannot take him to the hospital, then I promise you I myself will kill him.” 

She slapped her breast three times, then sighed.  “You see what has happened to me?  I talk only about killing children. But, you must leave me now, or you will be here when the bombing starts.  You must go home to your country.  Tell your people that I am ready to kill my children.”  She rocked back and forth, looking hard at Ali’s photo on the wall, but the boy’s face failed to light up.  “It is late, and you must go.  Here, please,” she took a napkin and wrapped up some dates.  “Take something sweet.  Iraqi dates are the finest in the world.” 

Standing at her doorway, Ali’s mother took me by the shoulders and spoke directly into my face: “Of course, I, too, would hope to get revenge.  Of course, I would like those responsible for Ali’s death to suffer, and to watch their own children suffer even more than Ali did.  This is only human.”  She dropped her hands and turned out toward the night..  “But let us now look for a moment at the sky.  When I can bear things no longer, this is where I come.”

We walked a short distance from the house.  The night was absolutely clear and as there were no electric lights anywhere there was no part of the sky that did not look alive, sparkling with stars.  We stood together looking up and a sort of vertigo took hold of us.  We felt we had come free of earth.  We roared through patterns of light.  We whirled in the company of stars.  Ali’s mother gripped my hands. 

“And I must tell you that if any of my children live through the coming war and if they are allowed by a merciful fate to grow up and to be healthy, if any one of them is able to marry and to have healthy children of their own who are also able to thrive, then I would not wish that the children of my children should cause your children’s children so much pain.  Go, now.”  She waved me away.  “There is nothing more to say.”

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*Information about the cancer rate in Iraq, the death of Ali Raffa Asswadi and the quotation from Dr. Ginan Ghalib Hassen are taken from John Pilger’s essay “Inside Iraq-The Tragedy of a People Betrayed” (source the internet) printed as an excerpt from his new book, The New Rulers of the World, Verso Press, March, 2003.

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