She Would Not Look at Me

Only three days following the fall of the twin towers the Israeli author and journalist David Grossman wrote a thoughtful piece that was reprinted in The Age. The first and always casualty of terror – he wrote – is trust. You do not trust your fellow citizen, you feel you cannot afford to. Your neighbour of yesterday might be your enemy of today. Community is the casualty.

In the happy isle in which I live and move and work, terror and war and conflict are seldom seen. Insulated as we have been we could afford still to trust – long after other communities had been rent apart into fractions and fractious factions. So it is that when I go to work at the hospital for sick children, one half of my children come from homes where the first language is not English. There is a bridge of trust between us, where we meet and work harmoniously. Fifty percent of the non-anglophone families are Muslim. The parent looks at me, sees an oldish man in a skullcap. That adult thinks whatever she thinks but receives and returns my asalaam aleikum courteously.
Sometimes cautiously, often gladsome, the adult moves towards me across our bridge of trust and we meet. Minutes later, the old man in the yarmulka is no longer an infidel, a foe: he is just a person who understands the child’s illness and who cares about that child and can help. My guest sees in the Jew a fellow human.

Now the children of Abraham are locked in cousin conflict again. My first Islamic parent identifies himself as Ibrahim. He smiles at his cousin’s greeting and returns it.
Later a tall dignified woman, taciturn, her head veiled, her face exposed, meets the doctor who will treat her child, with evident displeasure. She has no smile. Her daughter’s earache, which has been distressing, is easily diagnosed and will be readily relieved. I know I can help her and within minutes I have. The child is five years old. She does not speak,a mutism that can be explained by shyness, by a lack of English, by illness, or by family custom. But her mother, face tight throughout, spares few words and no smiles for the doctor. After I have explained the nature of the illness, its treatment and its happier future course, there is no thaw. I express the hope and the belief that the child will be soon well, insh’allah.
No smile.
There is a war.
The bridge is broken.

8 thoughts on “She Would Not Look at Me

  1. I believe I am a “friend” of dear Doc.Howard! he certainly is a friend of mine! yet we’re different with our religious beliefs. As we live in the same country there is a sameness and ease to communicate, yet I look at many, perhaps ALL males in particular in Middle East, and some Slavic countries, and I do NOT believe we could agree, or even communicate ? It is the inter-relationship between humans that is the problem! Another to blame is the tower of “babble” or was that babel?


  2. War is a terrible thing, not to be entered into lightly.
    Unfortunately, however, there are bad people intent on ruling in non-democratic and authoritarian, cruel and harsh ways that need to be stopped.
    Stopping such people is the price we must pay for our freedom and way of life.
    Simplistic, I know but indisputable. . .


  3. At the time of 9/11 I was testing individual ‘healthy controls’ (of many nationalities) in an experimental study, carried out in a sound-proof room and preceded by a mood induction. Although it was immediately clear that the study had to be ditched, I continued testing because something else was going on. Over the next week or so, after being tested, people challenged me on the politician’s decisions, raved at me, sobbed about their children being sent to war, remembered every trauma in their lives etc. They were terrified of what various leaders might do, did not know who to trust and who to fear and were anxious to identify a safe community to join. Bridges are very fragile.


  4. A touching insight into how such actions spread to the far corners and impact on our interactions and relationships. For the first time a man of Jewish faith has married into our largely anglo celtic family and I see the variety of posts on Facebook from the various members reflecting the diversity of views re the war in Gaza. And now wonder how I will or if I will respond to my neices’ partisan posts. Previously she has posted about their baby or expensive shoes.


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