Excerpted from In The Hot Zone
ISRAEL AND GAZA: Burned, Blind and Reborn
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL AND GAZA (OCCUPIED TERRITORY) | FEBRUARY 1, 2006
At her apartment in a hip and artsy Tel Aviv neighborhood, Kinneret Boosany tells me the story.
aaaaShe was working a Saturday shift at “My Coffee Shop,” in Tel Aviv. Because it was the Sabbath—and fairly late, about 9:30 P.M.—the restaurant wasn’t very crowded.
aaaaShe says she was tired and a little hungover after celebrating Passover the night before, smoking and drinking with friends. Then a young guy came into the place and asked for a cup of coffee. When she turned around to get it, he detonated explosives taped around his body. When Kinneret regained consciousness, it was July, four months later.
In their Gaza home just a block away from the gently lapping waves of the Mediterranean, the Al Hissi family offers me a cookie and some tea. My fixer, Sami, a Palestinian journalist, had written about their daughter Amani last year—so as they get reacquainted, I take out my notebook and jot down some questions, without breaking eye contact.
aaaaThey tell me the story as a family—everyone knowing their parts.
aaaaIt was 1987, during the first intifada, and Palestinian boys were spray-painting anti-Israeli slogans on the walls near their home. When the boys were confronted by Israel Defense Forces, they scrambled over the wall and hid inside the Al Hissis’ house.
aaaaWhen seven-year-old Amani Al Hissi opened the gate and looked into the alley to see if the coast was clear, there was, her father, Kamil, says, the distinctive thump of a tear-gas grenade being fired. It struck Amani just over her left eyebrow.
aaaa“It was very, very painful,” says Amani, now twenty-seven, “but then I passed out.” Kamil says he scooped up the body of his little girl and rushed her to the local hospital.
The coffee shop attack killed one woman. Kinneret survived, but just barely. She had burns on 70 percent of her body; her dominant left arm was damaged the most. She lost the sight in her right eye and half the capacity of her lungs.
aaaaDespite the severity of her injuries, Kinneret tells me that there was never a time when she wished she had been killed instead.
aaaa“Never,” she says. “For the whole time I was in a coma I was struggling to live. It’s kind of like you’re fighting your own demons.”
aaaaIn fact, she tells me, she believed that the threshold between death and life was a holy place for her—because that was where she feels she discovered a critical truth about her existence.
aaaa“The first time you wake up you say, ‘Thank God I’m alive and I’m alive at cost but I don’t care what’s going on with my body.’ That’s all that matters. But the farther you get from the danger of death—you get more confused because the pressure of the material world begins to aff ect you again,” she says, sitting on a couch and petting her dog.
aaaa“You’ve been in a place much more holy because you only survived to live. You don’t care if you have no legs, no eyes, no skin, you don’t care—as long as I’m alive, that’s what matters. But when you start coming back to reality, which unfortunately is worship the money, worship the body, it becomes more confusing. You start asking yourself questions: How will I manage the house, how will I find a partner?”
Amani’s father, Kamil, tells me that after he took Amani to the local hospital, the doctors in Gaza told him her internal injuries were too severe, that she needed to be taken to a special eye clinic in Jerusalem.
aaaaKamil becomes angry in the telling, as he says it took a whole day before he could convince the Israelis to let him pass through a roadblock to Jerusalem. He tells me they tried to leverage a father’s desperation against him, trying to turn him into an informant in exchange for letting him go. He says he refused, and when he finally was able to reach the clinic in Jerusalem, it was too late.
aaaaAmani had already lost the sight in her left eye because of retina damage and hemorrhaging. The news got worse. The doctors said that eventually, because of the trauma, Amani could lose the sight in her other eye as well.
aaaaAmani picks up the story. She says it took four years, but as the doctors predicted, by the age of eleven, she was completely blind.
aaaa“It was so difficult, I was miserable,” she says, at her parents’ home, where she lives, just a few hundred yards from the Mediterranean shore. “But there was also something positive. It created the soul of challenge in me—my blindness helped me to focus on other things, politics, culture and literature. I only lost my sight for Palestine, not my life or my soul—like others.”
aaaaShe says she used that drive to pursue a broad range of interests. She learned to read and write in Braille and studied Arabic literature. She plays the accordion and hosts several different programs on the Voice of Youth Radio station, including one that deals with creative writing.
aaaa“I’ve adapted to my blindness,” Amani says, “but nothing can replace sight. The other things I’ve gained from this are only compensation, not replacement.”
For Kinneret, recovery from the bombing meant years of surgery and rehabilitation. She has needed skin grafts, repairs and cosmetic work—requiring no less than fourteen operations so far.
aaaaA photograph of her before the bombing shows a smooth-skinned beauty with an uncertain smile and searching eyes. Her smile today seems more confident, possessed. She jokes about her neighborhood, a kind of Soho bohemian spot where, she says, “I’m not the only weirdo.”
aaaaKinneret’s face shows the scars of her surgeries. There is discoloration from the patching and grafting. But it isn’t hard for me to see the beauty that was there before. She wears long sleeves to cover and protect her arms and a glove on her left hand. I imagine that the burns have made her flesh as sensitive as rice paper.
aaaaThough she suffered through intense pain, she says the physical challenges were not as much an issue as the psychological ones. She found a way to channel some of that anger by videotaping herself in her apartment.
aaaa“There is more peace, more calm. There’s less need to look around for stuff elsewhere. Now if I feel a lack of something, I know I need to go into me, it’s all inside. A lot of problems that I used to have then, I don’t have them anymore. You know that you can get through anything.”
BIGGER THAN THE SEA
Amani says the loss of her sight has given her the gift of imagination. In fact, when she speaks it sounds like poetry. She tells me that when she sits on the beach near her home, she can see everything in her mind.
aaaa“With every wave that hits the shore,” she says, “my imagination becomes bigger and bigger. I see all the waves, all the sea, all the horizon, all the sunset my imagination is as limitless as the sea.”
aaaaBut while her mind may have no limits, her body does. When she wants to teach her younger brother, Kamal, how to write his name, it takes her many attempts to feel where the notebook cover ends and where the actual paper begins.
aaaaWhile I sit with her, she laughs easily and oft en, making funny remarks. When I ask her to tell me about the day she was shot with the tear-gas canister, she quips sarcastically, “Don’t remind me of that day, I love it so much.”
aaaaBut while she talks, she nervously and incessantly plays with bracelets or her hands, an underlying restlessness of one who must now see with her fingers.
She has difficulty talking about her loss in personal terms but instead frames it, like so many people in the occupied territories do, in the larger context of a Palestinian struggle.
aaaa“It’s impossible to put my anger aside,” she says, referring to the shooting. “We are the innocents here; all this could be avoided by ending the occupation. If we get them [Israelis] out of Gaza, there will be no more victims.”
Kinneret says she doesn’t harbor any anger toward the suicide bomber, who, she learned, was her same age, twenty-three, at the time of the incident. She does, however, think about the bomber’s mother every once in a while. She was told the mother did a television interview after the bombing, saying how proud she was of her son. “I don’t believe she really felt that way. I think she definitely misses him,” Kinneret says, “regardless of what she said during the interview.”
aaaaShe says her own mother was the key to her recovery.
aaaa“My mother essentially gave up her life for me,” she says, “quitting her job and putting all her efforts into my recovery. I say she gave me life twice.”
aaaaShe tells me that despite the hardships, she is happier with the person she is today than she was before the bombing.
aaaa“This is my lesson that God sent me,” she says. “It has nothing to do with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Kinneret got burned, Kinneret died, I was reborn—now Kinneret lives.”
GIVE ME MY CHILDHOOD
On a bench in the courtyard of her house, Amani feels through a sheaf of papers for a poem she has written. When she finds it, her fingers move across the raised dots on the page.
aaaa“Give me my childhood,” she reads, “don’t leave me alone, don’t shoot me in the head, I have a lot of sadness, I am a child in the age of flowers, they stepped on my head, I’m a child in the age of flowers, they have no mercy on me or my childhood, please brothers don’t leave me alone.”
aaaaAround her neck Amani wears a gold heart with the letter R. It is, she tells me, the initial of her fiancé’s first name. He is an intelligence officer with the Palestinian Authority. She tells me he sought her out at the radio station after hearing one of her programs. They will marry in the coming year.
aaaaAmani is confident she will have a full life, maybe fuller than most. She may be physically blind, but not within her mind’s eye. She has an imagination, it seems, big enough to encompass both the past and present, anger and hope.
aaaa“There’s a saying we have in Arabic,” she tells me as I am preparing to leave her. “Some people have eyes but their hearts are blind.”