The Eye of the Needle

By By Hanna Saadah
“College Hall, AUB, 1894” by Franklin T. Moore (From “A History of Photography in Lebanon 1840–1944” By Michel Fani.

1970:

“Why are you blushing?”  I asked, as her blue eyes gazed obliviously into the tepid afternoon.

“I’m just worried,” she sighed, and said no more.

“Are you worried about the king or the paupers,” I teased.

“What king and paupers?  What on earth are you talking about?”

“King Hussein, of course, and the Palestinian resistance fighters, whom he has just evicted...”

“I’m not concerned about the fate of the P.L.O. right now; all I’m concerned about is my own little fate.”

“Is that why you’re blushing like a sunset?”

“Please, John, drive on and pay attention to the road.  I may be setting but I’m not blushing.”

I had just returned from Jordan, part of a medical team that was dispatched by the American University of Beirut to assess casualties in the Palestinian refugee camps around Amman.  Earlier that week, at the A.U.B. Emergency Department, we had received loads of injured Palestinians who brought with them stories more horrific than their wounds.  Because of that, our parents endured great worries while we were gone and welcomed us as unsung heroes when we all came back, unharmed.

My parents organized a reception for me at their home in Tripoli and invited our friends and relatives who came, toasted, and departed, leaving behind Aunt Katreen, who needed to consult my mother regarding an urgent matter.  I had volunteered to drive her back to Amioun, our mountain hometown, after the consultation and from there head back to Beirut to resume my medical duties on the busy wards of the American University Medical Center.  The drive from Tripoli to Amioun took half an hour, during which some seeds were sawn in a little patch of time and watered with bitter tears.

“We’re almost halfway to Amioun and you’re still blushing,” I insisted.  “Why don’t you tell me what’s blushing you?”

Unwiped tears began to drip down from Aunt Katreen’s cheeks as she attempted to ignore my question.  I handed her my handkerchief and waited.  The setting sun made her look more morose and she grew more taciturn the longer I drove.  In the distance, Amioun stretched like a sleeping cat atop the ridge that towered over the olive plain.  ‘We’re almost there,’ I thought, ‘and still, she hasn’t said a word.’

“Could you at least tell me why you’re crying?” I pleaded.

“Because your mother slapped me smack on the face,” she abruptly screamed, no longer able to compose herself.

“My mother smacked you?  What on earth did you do to deserve that?”

Aunt Katreen went silent again, darkness dropped its veil upon the valley, I turned my headlights on, and drove quietly toward the rocky ridge that held Amioun upon its crown.

“Why did my mother slap you?” I begged.  “She seldom slapped us when we were growing up, even when we deserved it.”

“What hurts me most is that she shamed me first and then she slapped me,” came her sniffling reply.

“Shamed you?  How did she shame you?  What did she say that hurt your feelings so much?

“First she said that only arrogant atheists reject God’s gifts and then she slapped me when I continued to beg her for an abortion.”

“Abortion?  You’re pregnant?”

“Yes, and I am also forty years old and the mother of four little children.”

“Weren’t you using some form of birth control?”

“As a nurse I should have known better,” she sighed, shaking her head and wiping off her tears with the handkerchief I had given her earlier.  “It was too tiny a hole and I wasn’t thinking.  But it was obviously big enough to admit your uncle’s trouts.”

I pulled the car to the side, turned off the engine, and stared at her with livid consternation.

“What hole are you talking about?”

“The hole in my diaphragm, the diaphragm I had used for several years without incident.”

I wanted to say ‘why didn’t you think to change your ancient diaphragm’ but I decided not to add fuel to her already fuming fire.

“When I was your mother’s nurse, I was the one who used to do the sperm counts on the microscope.  I should have known better but passion must have enthralled my intellect.  I’m doubly ashamed, one – to have gotten pregnant and two – to have asked for an abortion.”

1971:

Before I left to the U.S. for my medical residency I went to Amioun to bid my grandmother, my aunts, and my uncles farewell.  My last stop was at Aunt Katreen’s, who met me with the baby on her breast.

“I’m too old for this,” she groaned, forcing a pale smile.

Her four little children rushed in, hugged me, and we began exchanging idle talk.

“Are you a real doctor now?” asked the youngest.

“How long will you be gone?” asked the oldest.

“Leave him alone and go play,” ordered Aunt Katreen. 

They hovered around, of course, as Aunt Katreen and I talked.

“She’s a healthy girl,” I reassured.

“Thank God for that but will she be smart?  They say that lateborns grow up to be problems.”

“My mother had me at forty and I’m not a problem.”

“Did you like her name?  The kids wanted to name her Katreen but I stood my grounds.  One Katreen in the house is enough, I said, and so we named her Kate.”

1973:

I returned from the U.S. for a visit after the Syrian-Egyptian-Israeli war had ended.  Beirut and Tripoli were still in turmoil and so I stayed in Amioun with my Aunt Katreen and got to hold Kate on my lap.  She had exploring eyes, a scouting personality, and an indomitable sense of independence.

“What do you think?” asked Aunt Katreen, having watched me interact with Kate for a while.

“I think she is precious.”

“But is she smart?”

“I see genius behind her eyes,” I replied with authority.

“I’ll be content if she’s just normal.  Amira, our next door neighbor, had a Down’s syndrome at forty.”

“Has Kate seen her father yet?”

“He came from Kuwait for a visit last year and is coming back in July to spend a whole month with us.”

“Have you thought about getting a new diaphragm?” I bantered.

“I had my tubes tied,” she murmured with pursed lips, “and when your uncle returned from Kuwait last year and saw how exhausted I was with our five little ones, he made the mistake of asking me if he could do anything else for me before going back to his work.”

She smirked when she said that and then waited while my curiosity burned.

“Is that how you got your new washer and dryer?” I snickered.

“No, my dear young doctor, that’s how your uncle got his vasectomy.”

1977:

I finished my residency and fellowship and was getting ready to return home when my father called.

“I hear you sold your car, your furniture, and bought your return tickets.”

“Yes, Dad.  I should be home by the end of July.”

“Stay where you are for now.  We have a raging civil war that’s going to take a long time to resolve.  At present, Lebanon is not a place to start a career or raise a family.”

1981:

Amioun was invaded by opposing civil war factions and its evicted inhabitants all became refugees.  Our extended family congregated at our large home in Tripoli and Aunt Katreen became the house manager for the duration of the exodus, which lasted nine months.  When the invading armies left Amioun, the inhabitants returned to find their homes demolished and all their belongings stolen.  No one had money to rebuild.  In time, however, small shacks and dugouts were fashioned around or underneath the demolished homes and Amioun began to show some feeble signs of life.  Very slowly, schools opened their doors, businesses returned, and rescue money from the Lebanese emigrants started to pour into the region.

When I visited Aunt Katreen that year, she, my uncle, and their five children were living in three storage rooms underneath their demolished home.  Our eyes met when Kate pranced by with a bunch of books under her arm.

“Is she good in school?” I teased.

“She’s bored with her classes and studies on her own.”

“Is she passing?” I teased again.

“She has all As and asks the teachers questions that they cannot answer.”

1987:

I returned for my father’s funeral, two years after the invading Israeli Army had withdrawn from Lebanon. 

“Will you go with us?” asked Aunt Katreen after the conclusion of our customary condolences.

“Go where?”

“Kate’s graduation.  She’s the valedictorian.”

“Your mean she is that smart?” I grinned.

“Why don’t you come and see for yourself.”

The graduation was held at the American Evangelical School in Tripoli.  I remember most of Kate’s speech:

“We should not take credit for our beauty or our intelligence because they were given not earned.  We should not take credit for our achievements for they are the products of the bows that, as Gibran says, shot us as living arrows up into the skies of life.  We should not take credit for our characters for they are parts, like Tennyson said, of everything we’ve met.  We should, instead of being concerned with our own credits, be concerned with those who are less endowed nor have credits that they can call their own and we should spend our life’s labors insuring that they, the less fortunate, would have us as guardians of their welfares.  And we should, for the rest of our lives, nurture an attitude of gratitude for all the gifts that we have received and should endeavor to honor these gifts by using them for the betterment of humanity.  And we should be ashamed to die, when our turns come, without having won, as the Antioch College motto enjoins, some victory for humanity.”

2000:

I returned to find Amioun totally rebuilt.  My aunt and uncle were back in their home, the storage rooms under the house were full of olives and olive oil, and the fecund garden was pregnant with vegetables and fruits.

“Where is Kate?” I asked as we sat on the large veranda, sipping Arabic coffee.

“She’s in Dubai.”

“Doing what?”

“She’s the Managing Director of an investment company that she joined,” announced Aunt Katreen with pride.

“Is she successful?” I winked.

“Who do you think rebuilt our house for us?”

“So, can we conclude then that she is both smart and successful?” I asked, rubbing it in.

“You never forget, do you?”

2002:

Kate came to visit us at our home in Amioun.  I asked if anyone had ever told her the story of how she came to be.

“I was an accident,” she asserted.

“What kind of accident?” I pried.

“My mother was forty with four kids and I was unplanned.”

        I gleamed and, very cautiously, told her the entire story to the minutest detail, omitting nothing.  She blushed and said, “So, it was your mother who saved my life.”

“No, it was your mother who saved your life,” I affirmed.  “She could have gone to another gynecologist and gotten an abortion but she didn’t.”

She smiled with eyes, brimming with deep love for her mother and said, “By the way, I’m going to be on Dubai Television next week.”

“Why?”

“They are interviewing me because I am considered a good role model for Arab women and a vital economic force in their society.”

“How wonderful.  I wish I could watch it.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I’ll be in back in the US by then.”

2005:

Kate is on television again, and all of Amioun is watching Al Jazeera.  Aunt Katreen invited me to come watch with her and my uncle.  The interviewer asked economical questions, then social questions, then educational questions, all of which were answered most eloquently by Kate, who had just started her own investment company in order to empower youth and women in the region.  Then the interviewer startled us all with, “You are one of the wealthiest women in the Arab world and you are also a Christian.  Prophet Muhammad, salla llahu alaihe wasallam,* admonishes us to give a percent of our earnings to the poor.  Jesus, on the other hand, says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich individual to enter the kingdom of heaven.  How do you reconcile your wealth with your faith?”

Kate flushed, and with a wink that only her mother and I could understand, replied, “I entered heaven through the eye of a needle long before I became rich.”AJ

 

* God prayed upon him and blessed.

This short story appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 17, no. 65.

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