Adapted from "Shrapnel: A Memoir" by David E.H. Gershon
June 27, 2010 4:00 AM
By David E.H. Gershon
In the summer of 2002, Palestinian terrorists struck a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The blast threw shrapnel into my wife, Jamie, severely injuring her. As she recovered, the aftershocks continued.
The psychological journey led me, years later, to East Jerusalem -- and the childhood home of the Hamas terrorist who set everything in motion.
When the phone rang in our Jerusalem apartment, I was eating spaghetti with sun-dried tomato pesto, red-tinged olive oil dripping down the strands of pasta, my lips greasy. Smacking.
I put down the fork and answered. "Hello?"
"David? This is Esther. Your wife, Jamie, is here with me. There was an explosion at the university, but I just want you to know she's fine. OK? She's fine." (Click.)
I was still chewing, twirling the fork, knew I didn't know an Esther, and didn't know what she was talking about. After a few seconds, puzzled, I thought, That was nice of her; thought, There must have been some kind of electrical explosion; thought, Keep eating. Although I'd lived in Israel for two years, had been anticipating this, fearing it, I was oblivious. An electrical explosion. As if people routinely called strangers to alert them of transformers on the fritz or wires sparking overhead. But as I continued to eat lunch, the beginning of unease, the sense that something was off, crouched silently.
I turned on the television.
"A powerful bomb hidden in a bag and left on a table by Palestinian militants tore apart a bustling cafeteria during lunch at Hebrew University. ... Through a bedlam of screams and crashing glass, students fled in horror ... some trailing blood onto the concrete courtyard."
-- The New York Times Aug. 1, 2002
Nothing. Channel 2 was showing its daily Spanish soap-opera with Hebrew subtitles. I ate.
Then, 10 minutes later, the news broke in. A man saying the word: piguah -- terrorist attack. Then a map. A star in the center. The words, Frank Sinatra Cafeteria, the words, Hebrew University. Ceasing to chew, I thought, Not an electrical explosion; thought, She's fine. She's fine. Thought, Why didn't Jamie call herself?
Then the phone rang again.
"David. This is Esther. Jamie's OK. But she's lightly hurt. They're taking her to the university hospital. She wants you to meet her there." (Click.)
Lightly hurt. She was still fine, I thought, probably just some cuts and bruises. A scrape here or there. Skinned knee. I didn't rush, called our program's dean to let him know what had happened while gathering some clothes, saying into the phone, Lightly.
His voice was quiet, knowing, after living in Israel for decades, that the word lightly when conjoined with injured did not mean she's fine. Finally, he asked, "David, what does that mean, lightly? What did they say?"
"I don't know," I said, the tears suddenly rising, sticking in the throat, the panic, the fight, the flight. I was lost. In over my head. Clueless, I began packing, frantic, then sprinted down a flight of stairs, ran to the street, flagged down a cab.
The driver rolled down a window and smiled through a cigarette.
"Sorry. Impossible. Place is blocked off. No way."
I opened the door, got in anyway. Slammed it shut. "Look. My wife was injured in the attack. She's at the hospital. I don't care how you do it. But you get me there. Now. Understand?"
Mohammed Odeh lived in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood with his wife, 5-year-old son and infant daughter.
The morning of the bombing, Odeh caught a ride to Hebrew University from Wa'al Kassam -- the leader of a Hamas terror cell composed solely of Jerusalemites.
As they drove toward campus, Odeh rubbed cologne into his arms and hands, attempting to mask any hint of the explosive material he'd handled the day before, fearing the residue might remain on his skin, residue Hebrew University's security guards searched for with specialized wands, residue the wands would fail to find.
After arriving, he easily passed through security using a university employee identification card still in his possession from his work as a contract painter at the school just months prior. Once inside, he retrieved an explosives-filled backpack hidden along a university fence, wired a cell phone to the bomb, and walked directly to the cafeteria's main entrance.
After scanning the area and seeing that there was no security presence, Odeh entered and found a vacant table centrally located. The place was packed, students everywhere scarfing down food before heading to their afternoon classes. It was easy for him to blend in. Moving cautiously past students, he set the backpack on a table.
Then, he was gone, vanishing into Kassam's waiting sedan. Once seated, Odeh reached for the cell phone and waited to be clear of campus. Then he hit "send."
The taxi stopped just outside Hebrew University, a few blocks from the hospital. The driver said, "Get out here." Told me to find the emergency room, to push my way in, to push people aside, that it would be the only way.
And so, after prying through a crowd pressed up against the emergency room's double doors, I yelled my name to a nurse who poked her head out, looking for those worthy of gaining entry. She nodded, grabbed my hand and led me to someone sitting on a stretcher flanked by two nurses working with wires and blankets, the person in front of me shaking, someone I didn't know who was looking at me, trying to smile.
And then, suddenly understanding before comprehending -- the brain silently pointing out that vision could no longer be trusted -- the first thought surfaced: I don't recognize her.
And then: That's Jamie.
Her face was charred, bloated, the hair scorched, standing on end like an animated character electrocuted by a live wire, the jolt playful, humorous.
A nurse looked at me, smiled, said, "Tihiyeh yaffah" -- she'll be beautiful again.
"She's beautiful right now," I said sharply, the words coming out while processing what was happening, scanning her burned body, the room, trying to understand where I was, what was going on, who this person shaking and bleeding before me might be, what all the lines running from her body carrying indecipherable fluids were doing, where they were going, thinking, She is not beautiful, thinking, This is not lightly injured, thinking, What is this?
Jamie looked at me. I don't remember if she spoke. If she did, I wasn't listening, could only hear the din of hospital machines pulsing and pumping and vibrating. But there were certain words I caught: metal and organs and emergency surgery.
A doctor appeared as they rolled her to pre-op and said to Jamie, "We have to open you up," said, "We have to see where the shrapnel is," said, "We may have to keep an organ out of the body for months to let it heal," said, "It's normal."
I nodded, not really hearing anything. Sure. Of course. Normal.
While standing alongside Jamie in pre-op among those dying and about to be saved, social workers pulled me aside and slid into my hands some pamphlets on trauma, on grief, on the inevitable obstacles waiting to be faced.
Months after the bombing, after the physical wounds had healed, we returned to the United States and attempted to begin our lives anew as a new life grew within Jamie.
But for me, beginning wasn't easy as I suffered through unsuccessful therapy sessions and failed attempts at compartmentalizing everything. With our first child on the way, I was having trouble breathing. Trouble concentrating. Trouble sleeping.
One afternoon, my therapist looked up from her plush leather chair and said, "You should research the bombing," theorizing that healing might be contained in the details -- in forcing me to understand through the journalist's pen that, yes, it had happened. That someone had tried to kill her. That the bombing wasn't just some natural consequence of living in the Middle East.
And so, scouring archived articles online, groping aimlessly, I came upon an Associated Press article and the words that would change everything:
"Upon his capture by Israeli police, Odeh told investigators he was sorry."
Reading these words, I thought, Impossible. Hamas militants did not apologize, particularly those who were successful in their bloody endeavors. Terrorists were not supposed to be remorseful.
And suddenly, I knew one thing: I would go back to Israel, find the Odeh family and learn if his words were true.
Several Palestinian officials and peace activists -- whom I sought out for help in online forums -- located the Odeh family for me in East Jerusalem and delivered a letter explaining who I was, what I wanted: understanding, not revenge.
Upon reading the letter, Mohammad's mother invited me to their home. I had been summoned.
Which is why, after flying to Israel, I called Robi Damelin, the only person in Israel I knew who had done something similar to the journey upon which I was about to embark, a woman who had visited in prison the Palestinian gunman responsible for the death of her son.
Soon, my Palestinian translator would pluck me from West Jerusalem and take me to the Odeh family somewhere on the Eastern side, the other side, the side I had never seen, and I was desperately in need of some guidance, some advice on how to navigate such treacherous territory.
So I dialed Robi's number.
"Robi? Hi, this is David Gershon. We've traded e-mails --"
"Hello David, yes, I remember. How are you?"
"I'm good. Is this an OK time?"
"Sure, it's fine. So you are in the country?"
"Yep, I'm here."
"So have you made any progress in your journey?"
"Amazingly, yes. I'm about to meet the family."
"Already? OK. So tell me, David, when do you plan on visiting this family?"
"Who is going with you? If you don't mind me asking."
"A Palestinian translator and a well-known businessman in Silwan."
"A businessman? Why a businessman? Is there nobody else going as well?"
"Not that I'm aware."
"So why the businessman, David?"
"I've been told he is going with us because, apparently, the family trusts him. If he's there, then they'll feel comfortable letting me into their home. You know. In case I'm after them for revenge or something. They are afraid I might be coming with a gun."
"Why these people, David? This translator and business man. Do you know them well?"
"You don't know them? You've at least met them, right?"
"Well, not exactly."
"Wait, what? This isn't a game. If you think this is a game, it's not. Are either of these people trained mediators?
"I don't think so."
"How are you even connected with these people?"
"They went with a peace activist who already visited the Odeh family on my behalf, someone from the Compassionate Listening Project who delivered a letter I wrote to the family."
"This is crap. Excuse my language, but this is total crap. Compassionate listening is not mediation. You don't know these people, they're not trained mediators. You think this is a good idea?"
"It was until now. I hadn't really considered it. Everything was fine with their visit last time on my behalf, so I just figured --"
"David, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to think about it seriously: would it be the end of the world if you didn't meet with the Odeh family on this trip?"
My heart stopped, the words excuse me? on my tongue. "I don't know. I haven't thought about this. I'm being picked up soon --"
"Because David, and I'm just being honest here, I don't think you should go. It's a huge mistake. You think you can just walk into their home and talk? You don't have a clue what can happen. Will you be visiting just the family? Or will the whole village be showing up to confront you?"
A mixture of confusion and anger gripped my body as she continued.
"My advice to you is not to go. You might think you can do this on your own, but you're wrong. You can't. You can't just walk in and think it's just a conversation. It's not. And you're putting yourself in danger if you think you can do this on your own. Promise me you'll think seriously about not going."
I shook my head.
I couldn't promise, saying thank you and I'll think about all this, then hanging up the phone.
Shaking my head, suddenly terrified of the impending meeting, I walked to the kitchen where I was staying, opened a drawer, grabbed a red Swiss Army knife and put it in my pocket.
Just in case, I thought.
July 31, 2002: The attack killed nine people and wounded more than 70.