Remembering Razi: Mariam’s trips to Palestine
Growing up, my parents always made sure my seven siblings and I annually traveled to Palestine, in hopes that we would never forget our heritage and roots.
I’d drink my grandmother’s shay (tea) outside, just as the sun began to rise over Ramallah, and spend days at Jaffa beach with cousins and lifelong friends.
Despite the checkpoints, mental replays of my aunt being forced out of the car and stripped down to her bare bones by occupation forces, witnessing my cousins no older than 13 being thrown into Israeli prisons, tortured, and detained, and suffering nightmares after seeing other children, holding bags of bread, shot to death against the apartheid wall, I made great memories in Palestine that will last a lifetime.
It all started in a refugee camp where my father grew up, Jelazon of the occupied West Bank. I was 8 years old. The children ran freely through the streets, missing limbs and families, but radiating so much life.
I spotted a boy playing alone- chasing cats around the corner. I looked closer, and he was giving them food—the food we had been trying to feed him. He was four years old with a physique no health professional in the world would deem acceptable. Malnourished, to say the least. Sadly, so were most children in the camp.
“He doesn’t talk to anyone,” said another child, who caught me in my gaze.
But stubbornly, I began a quest to befriend him.
“Marhaba, ismi Mariam. Aish ismak habibi?” (Hi, my name is Mariam. What is your name, love?)
He stared oddly at me behind dark eyes, and continued to feed stray kittens. No response. I left him food to eat. This is how it proceeded for days.
From following him a couple of paces behind, and feeding cats next to him, to skipping stones in streams together, and eventually watching the sky mesh into an orange-magenta, we were side-by-side frequently.
It was one of the hottest days of the summer during Ramadan when I had just about given up hope that he would ever speak to me.
I looked at him stunned with wide eyes and a dry mouth. Before I could process what happened, he smiled at me, and ran off.
Our friendship began.
From then on, everywhere I was, Razi was there. Attached to me like another limb. Cradling my hand wherever we went, and allowing me to carry him around like the little brother I dreamt of having. The other kids were shocked, because I finally convinced him to play games with us.
I would later learn that Razi lost his entire family. He was out playing on the streets when Israeli forces bombed his home. The last pieces of his mother and father scattered among rubble.
When bombing raids roared in the distance, Razi was there to cover my ears. When we played tag on the streets, Razi would warn me of sharp stones and bones to avoid stepping on. When I could no longer bear the sound of widows weeping over loved ones, Razi was there to wipe my tears, smile, and remind me that it will “all be okay.” He became my strength and resilience. In a dark world, I felt infinitely luminous with Razi there.
The daunting day came when I had to return to the United States. I wished everyone well, and cried endlessly for the children I had to say goodbye to.
I saved one last special goodbye for Razi. He laid on his mat when I tucked him in during the evening, told him a story like I always did, and laughed about the good times we shared.
“I love you, Mariam,” he said. I felt my heart sink beneath the earth.
I smiled. “I love you, Razi.”
“When are you coming back?,” he asked.
I told him two years.
Remembering everything I taught him, he continued, “Ok, one year is 365 days. So two years must be…” he began counting on his fingers “365 and another 365 days”
“730 days,” I said, sparing him the trouble.
“That’s a lot of days… but I’ll count each one until you come back. Promise you’ll come back?” he demanded.
My heart sunk deeper, choking back tears.
“I promise habibi. With all my heart.”
And so life went on—with Razi there of course. Every test I took, I could hear Razi’s voice cheering me on. When I felt like giving up, I envisioned Razi’s timeless smile and nothing seemed so impossible anymore.
I remember everything I was doing moments before my mom picked up a strange phone call one ominous day. I had just gotten back from school, tired, and ready to take a nap before tackling homework. Right before laying down, I realized I hadn’t heard from my mom. She is always warm and welcoming when I get home… my stomach was suddenly queasy.
I found her in her bed upstairs. Phone over ear, hand over mouth. She looked at me. Her eyes were red from crying for some time.
Razi was hit by an Israeli sniper on his way to school, my mother explained to me.
Little did that sniper know he would be shooting me straight in the heart, thousands of miles away. Little did that sniper know that, while young with fragile bones, Razi was far greater than that IDF soldier will ever be.
It was almost two years since I last saw him, when my world shattered. But I slowly began to pick up the pieces and mend them back together again. Because a little boy once taught me that it will “all be okay.” A little boy once taught me to always grow stronger in the face of adversity. For that little boy, I continue to visit my roots. I continue to keep my promise to him, for thousands of other Razis. I continue to believe in my wildest dreams.
And, just like Razi, Palestine will forever continue to occupy my heart.
Thank you, habibi Razi. May your precious soul rest in eternal peace.