Editor’s note: Shani Paluch-Shimon is an Australian-Israeli oncologist working in Tel Aviv. During the Gaza war this past summer, she regularly emailed dispatches she called “war posts” to friends and family around the world. I was a recipient of some of these emails, as we’re acquainted through family friends. The following post was penned in late August, but only emailed last week. It is republished here with the author’s permission.
I wrote this piece towards the end of the war in August and placed it aside. After the tragic events of last week unfolded and the news here was filled with sensationalistic headlines of a new intifada possibly erupting, I remembered the piece. As with my “war-posts,” this piece of writing can be shared. My intention is by no means political—my intention is to share my experience of living in a complicated reality.
Spring 2004. I was a second year oncology resident. An impatient yet familiar knock sounded on my office door. My good friend and colleague burst in before I had time to even acknowledge the knock. She was nearly breathless, eyes gleaming with tears, excitement in her voice: “You won’t believe what just happened! A young beautiful Palestinian woman entered my office. She spoke perfect English. She has advanced breast cancer and is clearly in terrible pain. She entered my office alone and I asked her, ‘Who has come with you—are you here alone?’ And you won’t believe what she answered me! ‘I am not here alone, I am here with my God.'”
And so I was introduced to Fatma Bargouth—a 26-year-old Muslim Palestinian from Gaza, who touched the souls of all whom she met. When I first met Fatma her breast cancer was already incurable. She would travel as needed and whenever possible (and it was not always possible) from Gaza, through the Erez checkpoint, to our oncology department at Sheba Medical Centre. Oncology patients are often treated by several doctors, but in Fatma’s case it was different—each physician that encountered her was not willing to relinquish their role in her care and so it came to be that she was treated by a team.
During one particular hospitalization we sat and talked, sometimes for hours. I was 28, she was 26, and we spoke about the things that women in their late twenties talk about—life, love and our many dreams for the future. At different hours of the day Fatma would pray. She prayed through song—with a voice which stopped everyone in their tracks. When she prayed there was complete silence on the ward—everyone stopped to listen. One morning, an ultra-Orthodox patient in the neighboring room turned to me and said, “Her prayers are so very beautiful, so incredibly moving.” I looked at her, my mouth wide open—I knew that what she said was true and yet I had not realized how powerful Fatma’s ability to build bridges and touch the souls of people from all walks of life was. In our conversations about life and through listening to her prayers I learned more about belief, faith and spirituality than I had been taught by any rabbi in the religious seminary I had attended when I was 18.
In mid-2004, Fatma was scheduled to receive further treatment in our department. We eagerly awaited her return from Gaza. It was a time of unrest, of horrific terrorist attacks on checkpoints and within Israel, on civilian targets. Reports started arriving of a young woman, a cancer patient, stuck at the Erez checkpoint—unable to enter Israel because of an across-board tightening of the checkpoints, because of the volatile security situation. She was refusing to return to Gaza because her pain medications were running out and she desperately needed to reach us—in keeping with the medical philosophy across many Middle-Eastern countries, the local Gazan medical teams gave oncology patients limited access to opioid pain medication. Many individuals and organizations were involved in trying to ensure her safe passage, but to no avail.
One morning, two of our doctors decided to drive out to the Erez checkpoint to help. One doctor—a stereotypical single, left-wing, “Tel-Avivit.” The other—a religious woman, married with children, often referred to by the patients as “the settler doctor” (though in fact she was not a settler, only appearing so in her head-covering and dress code). Two women, who neither inside nor outside the walls of the hospital would have ever sat together for a coffee. Yet here they were on a united mission. So was Fatma’s magic—she built bridges between people, between cultures, between religions.
Fatma died from advanced breast cancer late in 2004.
Upon marking my first decade in Israel, I shared the story of my move to Israel and the impact that it had on me with my colleagues. I retold the story of Fatma Bargouth—for me, she represented everything that was both beautiful and ugly about my country. All those in the room who had been involved in her care cried. One colleague turned and asked me “It has been so many years—how did you remember her?” to which I responded, “How could anyone forget her?”
Fatma—it is ten years since we met, ten years since we parted. Did you know that I would still think of you? Did you realize that you taught me one of my most significant lessons on spirituality and humanity? Did you dare to dream that you would leave such a long-lasting imprint on people’s souls?
In these difficult days, as I lie at night anxious and worried, between sleep and wake-fullness, I wonder and hope if maybe you could visit us in a dream. I invite you, I beg of you, to visit in a dream—to whisper your secret to us. Maybe if we knew your secret, your craft of building bridges, we could overcome the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between our people and better days would come.
Shani Paluch-Shimon is an oncologist working in Tel Aviv.