For the first time in the five years since she died, I recently dreamed about my mother. I met her in heaven. She was walking next to my father and describing heaven: “It’s all about love here. Everyone loves everyone else.”
When we think about heaven and love, the last place that comes to mind is Israel and the Palestinian territories – a land filled with hatred and violence. But I recently met some people from that war-torn land who reminded me of what can be. And it was a Palestinian educator who reminded me so much of my mother that I had my dream the night after I met her.
They are traveling this country as a part of the “Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum for Peace,” which represents about 200 Israeli and 200 Palestinian families who have lost loved ones and are committed to the peace process. They are devoted to promoting tolerance, reconciliation and peace.
Amiram Goldin is a 49-year-old engineer who lives with his wife, Tilda, and two sons in the Galilee section of Israel, several miles from the West Bank. He is a project manager for a joint Arab-Israeli industrial park and has devoted his life to improving relations between Jews and Arabs.
In August, Goldin’s third son, Omri, was killed by a suicide bomber.
Goldin’s eyes are dark and hollow, and his voice is quiet as he says, “That is how our life became different – in a way, it was destroyed that day. He was our youngest son.” He sits on the sofa with his elbows on his knees and shoulders rounded, displaying all the symptoms of acute grief. Unfortunately, there are many like Goldin. But what makes him unusual is the woman next to him, whom he describes as his “friend.”
She is Dr. Rihab Essawi, 55, an educator, professor and general director of the Ministry of Social Affairs with the Palestinian National Authority. She also teaches at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. In the violence of the current intifadah, or uprising, and the first intifadah more than a decade ago, she has lost her brother, mother and nephew. Her husband is a chemistry professor who lives and works in Ramallah. They have a 5-year-old son.
I asked Essawi whom she was representing. “I represent the Palestinian grieving families,” she said, “but most of all, I represent myself.” This well-dressed and animated woman paused for a moment, smiled and said, “I would say that I also represent the Palestinian Authority.
“Two days before we came over here, Israeli warplanes killed 17 people in Gaza. In the wake of the bloodshed, nine Israelis and nine Palestinians from our organization went to Ramallah hospital to donate blood. We did this in order to demonstrate that all blood is the same.”
I wondered how her neighbors felt about her traveling with Jews on a tour that is underwritten by a Jewish organization. “First, I must do what I feel is right,” she quickly said. “I cannot worry about what my neighbors might think. Otherwise, I would not live my life – I would live theirs. I look at people as human beings. I look at Amiram and Tilda not as Jews, but as humans who suffer. It is their suffering that makes me feel close to them.”
On Aug. 4, Amiram said good-bye to his son Omri as both left for work. Omri, a soldier in the Israeli army, and his girlfriend took the public bus together almost every day. They usually sat holding hands and talking during the 15-minute ride, on a bus that typically was crowded with both Arabs and Jews. On that morning, a suicide bomber dressed as a tourist climbed on and blew up the bus. Omri was among those killed, and his girlfriend was badly injured.
“Omri was a talented musician whose rock group was devoted to bringing awareness to the injustice of war,” his father said. “The last song he wrote was titled ‘The Day the Country Was Razed,’ and his friends shouted the song at his funeral.”
Rahib suffered a similar tragedy during the first intifadah nearly 15 years ago. She was watching television with her mother when she heard noise outside.
“When I looked, I saw the border patrol was chasing some children. Before I got back, I smelled gas and heard my mother scream. I ran down and found my mother very blue, flailing her arms indicating that she needed air, because the tear-gas canister had been fired into the house. I rushed her to the hospital, but by the time I arrived, she was gone. From the time she died until today, I am broken from the inside.”
Her grief grew after she gave birth to her son five years ago, and the family was soon divided by the violence. (Her husband lives and works on the West Bank, unable to visit Rahib and the child, who live on the outskirts of Jerusalem.)
I wondered about the lack of outrage. After all, most people who experience the murder of a loved one are furious. I ask Rahib whom she blames for her suffering.
Her voice escalates as she says: “First, I would blame the leaders. But more, I would blame the people who are helping us to destroy ourselves. Because if it were left to us, Israelis and Palestinians, we would not be in the trouble we are in now. If the money and weapons were not pouring into the terrorists, we would not be where we are now. What I want the people in America to understand is that we can live together. I know we can live together, and I want the politicians to leave us alone. We can handle ourselves.”
When they first arrived for the interview, I watched as my three guests engaged in small talk on the other side of the room. Tilda and Amiram Goldin had the sunken eyes of people in acute grief. But when I looked at Rihab, I had a different reaction.
Although Rihab looked quite sad, her speech was animated, and she had a sparkle in her eye. As I listened to her speak, I thought, “My God – that’s my mother.”
This woman had the same face, same body type, and even the same personality as my late mother. Just as I was thinking that, I heard her say, “After all, we’re all cousins over there anyway.” With that, she turned and saw I was staring at her. I said in almost a dazed state, “You are my mother!” I went on to explain all of the similarities. When she heard that, she put my head on her chest and held me. This was a touch I haven’t felt in more than five years, since my mother passed away. For the rest of the evening, she nagged me about not eating enough, working too hard, just like my mother would have!
Before she left, she gave me a picture of her son. His was almost identical to my childhood face, my picture. That night, I had the dream I shared with my new friends in an e-mail:
Dear Tilda, Amir and Rahib,
I would like to share with you a dream I had the night we met. For the first time since she died, I dreamed about my mother. I met her in heaven. She was walking next to my father and describing heaven: “It’s all about love here. Everyone loves everyone else.”
Throughout the dream, she continued repeating those words. This was odd coming from a woman who, in life, tended to be pessimistic, even cynical. I was aware that my chest felt warm and expanded as though my whole body was filled with love. And there was less gravity there so you could hop onto a rooftop if you wished. When I looked around, I realized that we were walking in the neighborhood of my childhood home. I was very happy.
Thank you, Rihab, for the gift of my mother.
I don’t know much about the afterlife or even if there is one. But I do know about prayer. And my prayer for you is that all of your loved ones are surrounded with love, walking lightly and finding their way home.
Bless you all.