Mahmoud went to bed when he was four. It was two years since he had been out of bed. When I crouched by his bed with my arms folded on the mattress, he didn’t return my smile, just blinked his yellow eyes and turned down his mouth. His enlarged belly balanced on his bony legs, his arms hung uselessly: a child sponsorship poster boy. Mahmoud had been flown from Oman to a hospital in London where specialists would transplant a portion of his father’s liver into his own failing organ. It was my first week as a physiotherapist in a hospital filled with Muslim patients, just months before September 11. But for me this was just another job, rehabilitating a boy to walk again.
When I helped Mahmoud to stand his younger brother Abdulla seemed amused at this novelty. He marched purposefully to his side to yabber furiously in toddler pre-speak. Despite the four year age gap they were identical height. Mahmoud’s emaciated thighs quivered under the weight of his distended abdomen. He looked apologetically at me as his knees collapsed 10 seconds later.
I saw him daily for the five days leading up to his op. I didn’t speak Arabic, he didn’t speak English. His father translated a little for us, but Mahmoud wouldn’t meet my eyes or be coerced into getting out of bed. He looked down at his immobile legs splayed on the bed, shook his head morosely and clicked his tongue to indicate, no, he just couldn’t.
On the day of his surgery I passed his mother coming out of the intensive care unit. Abdulla held her hand and chatted up at her, dodging the billows of black fabric from her gilabaya. She kept her eyes down as I passed, but I saw the black rings around them, the extra shadows that weren’t there days ago.
Inside Intensive care Mahmoud came around from the anaesthetic. He opened his yellow eyes, scanned the bleeping machines, the lines to his body and the unfamiliar faces. I recognised only one word as he screamed in terror. “Mama?”. It seemed so feeble just to hold his hand and blink back empathetic tears but I didn’t know the words to tell him, I just saw your mama, she’s on her way.
As Mahmoud’s health improved, so did my Arabic. He grew stronger and more trusting. His father translated every physiotherapy session, at first from his wheelchair, with drip stand by his side, his face the same shade of white as his hospital gown. He would lean back to rest with eyes closed while Mahmoud on his wobbly legs was turned the other way, but knew when to snap to attention to seem as if he’d been watching the whole time. The rehab expanded into language lessons between the three of us. We taught each other to count to ten, to name colours and animals. We pointed out each others knees and noses and hands and toes. Gave each other directions to stand up or move a bit in our new tongues. Mahmoud marked his successes with gigantic self satisfied grins and marked mine with fits of giggles. Then his father would laugh too, but only momentarily as they would both remember their incisions too late, clutch the operation sites and hold tight until the giggles and the pain subsided,
The sunny London May turned into a muggy June while Mahmoud recovered. His father’s liver inside him started to work. His belly flattened, his eyes whitened, some muscles started growing under the skin on those stick legs. He quickly picked up English.
“BMW!” he’d yell as he shot matchbox cars down the hospital corridor, sending Abdulla in his jelly sandals thwacking down the lino after them. Then he’d use his hands to push himself upright, slap his palms together and nod importantly while Abdulla thwacked back again, bearing cars in outstretched arms, ready for round two.
Soon Mahmoud could do nearly everything Abdulla could and didn’t need me anymore. The last time I saw him he hurted towards me in a straight legged run with arms flailing in big circles either side, yelling my name. Abdulla scampered behind, lugging a soccer ball. I praised my miniature friend in my new found Arabic – he could run, very good.
He clicked his tongue and shook his head to indicate no. He lined up the soccer ball, high as his knees. The ball was only airborne long enough to make a thud on the carpet – a small kick for any other 6 year old but Mahmoud, this was victory. He threw his skinny arms into the air; index fingers pointed skywards and laughed. Then he looked me in the eye, nodded and declared “David Beckham.”
This is my first attempt at being brave enough to share my writing. I wrote this quite a few years ago when i was incensed by the dehumanisation of people belonging to certain religions that seemed to justify our government dropping bombs on and/or locking up their children.
if it seems a bit dry, its because I had planned to send it to a newspaper or something at the time but never found the right sort of opportunity.
this is not the style of my fortcoming book, but the themes are fairly similar, ie resilience and fragility