A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Smiling Sandals
by Jayme Howard (Oct 2011)


I will never forget her haunting eyes. That’s what I told myself as they carried her slim, brown figure from the surgery toward the morgue. The morgue wasn’t much more then a garage for the dead; a simple three-sided makeshift building, built in haste before the sun’s heat intensified its raging dance upon the friendless desert. The surgery we labored in was little better. Our surgery was the village school, or at least the remnants of a school. It consisted of a large single room, the fact it had electricity and trickling water immediately made it the most suitable site. The school building was simply whitewashed cinder blocks, one stacked upon another, with a smoldering gray colored canvas draped across the top, posing as a roof with a few scrubby trees nearby for shade.

Shortly after arriving, I met Jumah and Jamal. For 100 fils, or about 25 cents, these two nimble, long-legged boys would defy gravity, and like hairless monkeys shimmy up the side of the school building to fold back the canvas for air flow and a bit more light. Both boys had devilish smiles and spoke English reasonably well, so I was certain that my 100 fils each day was a bargain that would serve me well.

Before noon, the heat outside was unbearable as the sun rose into a cloudless sky, only to settle upon us like a woolen cloak draped about our heads, suffocating us breath by breath. Every day before the call to Noon Prayer, all work stopped and wouldn’t begin again until after the sun had set behind the building, when it had faded enough to give reprieve to all desert life for another day.

As part of Oklahoma’s Medical Humanitarian Christian Coalition, I and my long time friend, Dr. Mobeen Moussa, along with two other physicians, decided to advance our dreams to form three small medical teams and enter into “clinic treaties” with Jordan. Dr. Mo, as he became known after retirement, had far-reaching political ties to Jordan and had worked for years to set the groundwork for the clinics. Finally three sites were chosen, all along the Jordanian/Syrian border, where political strife had been emerging for months. At each site, we set up free clinics, or surgeries as Mo preferred to refer to them, for the surrounding villagers and the refugees as they would begin to empty out of Syria. Mo and his contacts had already chosen Terasu as my site. Terasu was a small village along the western edge of Jordan, about 45 kilometers from the Ramtha Border Crossing, southwest of Daraa where rebels were now fighting in Syria.

Terasu was the smallest and most primitive of the three surgery sites. It was an established Bedouin camp, (as if that were possible) and the furthest from Syria’s military base encampments. We didn’t expect the current rebel attacks in Syria but thought that Terasu would get the least serious trauma patients and could primarily serve as a wellness clinic, which is where I was most comfortable. As a young man unsure of my medical career, my father had chosen surgery for me. In 1970, I had a chance to correct that and follow my own path to become a family physician in rural Oklahoma. It was slowly chipping away at my marriage, but I enjoyed the families and have never looked back.

My initial agreement with the Coalition was to set up shop in the selected site, establish trust with the village leaders and determine the need for additional supplies. After 90 days, the Coalition would rotate in another physician.

I bonded immediately with the local tribal leader, Rashid Aziz Al Saud, or should I say we bonded immediately to each other, as I do believe behind his dark, harsh eyes he was satisfied to have medical help offered to his tribe. He was not so favorable when I explained that it came at the cost of helping warring Bedouin tribes nearby and refugees as they crossed into Jordan; however he let the issue drop rather quickly. I actually think he favored the fact that all Bedouins would get treatment. I was requested to call him Aziz, I asked him to call me Ike.

Aziz was not an endearing type of man, but he was calm and thoughtful. He refused the assistance of a translator. I admired that; however, it made for a hardship as I constantly strained to understand him. He might have been 10 years my senior but it was difficult to gauge the age of a man that has spent his entire life living meagerly in such a hostile desert environment. Aziz had a commanding presence. He towered above his fellow villagers, but was always gentle with the children. I thought it spoke well of a man, how he honored children. Often the younger children would follow close behind him or tug on his long Arab gown, sometimes clinging to his legs. He would gently shoo them away, never admonishing them but instead speak softly to them until they would scatter to the wind and playfully run off. He was certainly a patient man. I knew there was a lot to learn from him.

I found out sometime later that many of the village children were his own. Aziz was quite a virile specimen, as he confided to me he had eleven wives and forty-three children. It seemed almost everyone in his village was a relative by blood or marriage. I considered my one faltering marriage. Yes, I knew I could learn more about patience from Aziz.

Striking a bargain for the school was my first lesson in patience. The school had probably not seen a child for years, but found itself more useful to the village as storage. In the dark corners along the far wall of the building were dozens of bulky burlap bags, each marked as 100 lbs. of rice, flax or dried fava beans, which had possibly found their final destination to Terasu by way of “Feed the Children” or UNICEF. In the opposite corners from the grain, glowing eyes huddled together, keenly watched the treasure being carefully guarded by old village men, sometimes slow village men, and then… rats too would feast. I hesitated to use this room for my surgery, but Aziz insisted it was “god deal.” In his limited English and thick accent I think he meant it was a good deal, but I liked the way he said “God.” I knew he’d given sober thought to the $200.00 American dollars he bargained for, as did I, as it was more then what I had budgeted to pay. He stayed firm. To sweeten the pot, he declared he would have it cleaned. I relented and felt sure he would spend the money on his village, so the “god deal” was struck.

As good as his word, the following day, a dozen young men appeared and began moving everything out of the school building. The grain was loaded in hinged wheelbarrow-like contraptions, confiscated from abandoned Potash mines, I surmised. Rats and cockroaches poured out of the dark corners, cracks and crevices. Then he assembled a working line of village women to tediously haul water from the nearby River Yarmouk, (fed from Lake Tiberias, which lay to the north) in small decaying buckets, to his village to clean the storage building, soon to be Terasu Surgery. The winding Yarmouk was the center for all village activity for kilometers around. From Terasu, the river was about eight kilometers away; wandering paths originating in all directions from the surrounding villages, collapsed on the banks of the Yarmouk. The water was filthy. At any one time you might see women washing their heavy linen kalasaris, or their meager earthen pottery, when just a bit farther down children would be playing in the water as they bathed, and yet still further down carcasses from a cook pot would be cast into the river, while only around the bend near a small tree honoring the bank, a peasant might be relieving himself.

But, step by step; bucket by bucket, water was poured into large, old, decaying black iron kettles stationed at fire pits at the far end of the trail, west of the village. The fire pits were vestigial holes in the ground with disintegrating iron grates piled across the top, from when “fever” ravaged the village a decade ago, Aziz explained in broken English. The water boiled as fiery embers were poked with long spear-like utensils by old women who crouched down low, draped head to toe in heavy black linen, with only their leathery, knurled, hands and beady eyes peering out. Everyday, during those first two weeks, darkly-clad women and dirty, bleary eyed children shouldered the weight of the water from the river to the fire pits. The boiled water was then wearisomely poured into more of the mining tubs, which were propelled forward toward the school by teems of young children.

Already working at the school was a cluster of younger women. They too had their faces and arms so carefully covered that I expected to be treating my first patients for heat exhaustion, but it was never to occur. These women were using thickly leafed branches they had collected to scrub the outside dust and caked sand from the building. For hours they beat the branches against the building, chanting and dancing around the building in quite a festive manner, while snapping their long, ragged scarves against the concrete. They stopped when only fresh dust lingered from the occasional lorry making its way through the village.

Inside the school house were Jumah and Jamal, with other young boys, scrubbing the floors and walls with the hot water using small animal hides, and ringing them out dry into a second tub, so that every drop of water was saved. The water would then be used for irrigating small crops or watering livestock kept outside of Aziz’s humble home. I knew that I had indeed made a “god deal” with Aziz when they finished and I was thoroughly satisfied.

Henry Majali was the local station manager for RCA’s Middle East and North African territory. His office was located at the 5th circle in Amman, Jordan’s capitol. The 5th Circle is a primary intersection within Amman, straddling a hilltop, offering a hawk’s eye view of the entire city. The RCA office was the first floor of Henry’s apartment, the walk-up was his living quarters. The walk-up was sparsely furnished, but along the entire back of his apartment was a massive ornate covered veranda, with cool marble flooring insulating visitors against the heat of the desert and demands of the day. From this vantage point you could see the sharp contrast of the city, as daily prayer resonated over the congestion of traffic and honking horns.

Henry was a balding, robust man with warm, brown eyes that peered over thick glasses perched on his regal, Arab nose. Like Mo, he was Lebanese, but most of Henry’s family now lived in London, where he’d been educated. Henry was smart, industrious, and unsuspectingly, quite a ladies man. But at the top of my list, he was my go-to man between humble Terasu and the outside world. Each Saturday I would hitch a ride with one of Aziz’s men into Amman to collect my mail and fax a progress report to the Coalition. Henry and I would then spend the weekend drinking cold Amstel’s on his veranda and nosh on seasonal fruit from Jordan’s beloved agricultural valley, just west of Amman.

Henry was an important distraction for me and I looked forward to seeing him each week. On this trip, he had finally heard from Mo. His news was disappointing though; the supplies wouldn’t arrive for at least another fortnight. I also had finally heard from my wife. Her mail was devastating. The envelope was formally addressed to Dr. Vernon Ikle; it seemed my signature was required on divorce proceedings. As I read the attorney’s letter, I felt the blood pulsating in my ears and I pushed the world out. Then in her own hand, she had written, “I married a surgeon, not a rural doctor and certainly not a missionary!” I couldn’t believe what I just read; could I have misjudged Lindsey that much? Henry poured me a whisky. We emptied several bottles throughout the long weekend.

During the following week, I felt as if I were drowning in the desert, living in crowded village togetherness, with only emptiness inside me. It was almost unbearable. Jumah and Jamal roused me to get back to work. I wore a death mask, but pushed on.

Establishing confidence with the Bedouin villagers was the cornerstone of the surgery’s success which had begun with Aziz and would now hopefully continue as a legacy with the villagers. Every day I came and busied myself in the surgery. It was healing for my soul. I also continued to make myself available to Aziz. In the heat of the day after Noon Prayers, we sat together drinking bold, aromatic tea in a large open men’s tent where platters overflowed with olives, fresh flat bread, stone-ground hummus for dipping, and sometimes sweet sticky dates. It was during my many hours with Aziz that I learned the true nature of the “Bedouin,” their incredible honesty and abundant hospitality. At first, I suppose I saw myself as superior. As time passed I came to understand that Aziz, apathetic to my own indifference, accepted my inferiority straightforwardly. I smile to myself thinking this, but as neither Bedouin nor Muslim, to Aziz, I was inferior; but he accepted me at face value and the choices in my life.

In the cool of the early mornings, I would sit outside the surgery watching bare-footed, ruddy-eyed children playing as they chased chickens or chattered wildly about a basket of kittens. It was painfully obvious that many of the children suffered from Trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection but easily controlled with antibiotics. If only my antibiotics would arrive, I could make a difference, I quietly reminded myself.

Young mothers were layered with scarves about their head and shoulders. I noticed how their shoulder scarves were used for a multitude of purposes. In one glance, I would see a mother swipe her scarf at surrounding flies, then observe the same scarf looped about some poor donkey’s neck as he was being tugged from a pathway, only to have the mother then turn and wipe her child’s matted eyes with the same dutiful scarf, passing along contamination from every imaginable source.

Each day without supplies, I felt unfulfilled, but no day was entirely unfulfilling with Jamal and Jumah at my side. Together, we sat up “shop” without supplies. Jamal and Jumah were trustworthy and earnest. Life’s hardships had marked them both, but for a little baksheesh Jamal would happily stretch his mind and soul. For what amounted on my books to be no more than dime, each day they translated for the small number of daring mothers that timidly ventured to the threshold of my surgery door with their young children. I recognized my limitations in explaining the parasite, Schistosomiasis, but the boys could help in educating the mothers about general hygiene. I assumed the source of the parasite came from snails, attached to plant life, living on the river bottom. Villagers had a habit of bathing in the River Yarmouk. Somehow I needed to establish a new preferred bathing site. This concern badgered me, as I pictured healthy youngsters wading in barefoot with their feet sinking into the river bottom descending on tops of snails, only to return with parasites clinging to the soles of their feet.

 I felt helpless as young mothers recoiled when I suggested they stop bathing in the river. I spoke to Aziz about it, but was confronted with outward aggression and unusual formality. “No change!” he stated flatly, as his hands made a slicing gesture across the thick air. It seemed that bathing at the river was a time honored ritual not to be altered. “River is fruit of desert!” he boomed as he slammed his hand on the wobbly exam table. His voice was loud and exacting, his jaw flinched as he gritted his teeth and his eyes became razors. I didn’t broach the subject again, but the picture of barefoot children wading in the river never left my mind.

The next morning after prayers, Jamal wasn’t at the surgery. Never knowing the boys to be separated, I inquired, “Jumah, where’s Jamal this morning?”

“Gone to catch Baseema. Baseema with sky eyes. Baseema is gift from Mohammed. Baseema very sick,” Jumah grimaced, then quickly left to shimmy up the side of the schoolhouse alone.

The following morning Jamal was waiting at the surgery before I arrived. Baseema was a beautiful light-skinned girl about three years old, with a crop of coarse, tangled, black hair falling across startling blue eyes, ice blue eyes. “Sky eyes are gift from Prophet. Baseema in English is smile.” Jumah reported to me with pride. “Baseema youngest daughter of brother, his home at river. “She sick please.” Jamal lifted her up to the exam table. “Ike, Baseema tummy sick.” For the first time Jamal’s devilish smile was absent.

Es salaem Baseema. Ismee Ike. Enta mareed habiba?” I introduced myself to little Baseema, asking how she felt, then offered her a stem of fragrant lavender from a cup on my writing table. She lifted her head slightly, her vacant eyes slowly fluttered between life and sleep, a sleep she would never wake from. For a moment, I was horrified. On closer inspection, I saw that clumps of her hair were missing, her abdomen was distended and her breathing was shallow. Many of the children had swollen abdomens, but not to this extent. As I gently pinched and pulled, she was silent, never a whimper. She was like the desert, only existing. To look at her beautiful, penetrating blue eyes, you would have never wanted to think it, but as a physician, I knew it; she was dying.

Jamal broke the silence, “I have thought Ike. Baseema need sandals for river…”

“Yes, Jamal…” I shook my head in agreement, still thinking about Baseema. “Yes, everyone should protect their soles...”

He frowned, frustrated that I hadn’t allowed him to finish. I stopped, he continued, “You catch Baseema sandals and she better? This you do? Yes, Ike?”

After a moment more of silence, I answered, “Yes, Jamal, I will get Baseema sandals.” My mind was turning, then raced. By God that was it. That was the start I needed to initiate change, even small change. The young ones would wear sandals when wading into the river, to help protect the soles of their feet from stepping on snails. I could provide sandals for the children to wear to the river. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? From God’s mind to Jamal’s lips to my hands. This I could do!

 My mind spun into another world for just a split second, but Baseema was still cupped in the hands of death. Her breathing slowed. “Jamal, Baseema needs to go to the big hospital in Amman. She is very sick. Do you understand?” I stopped, the words hung motionless in the air.

“No. You Ike. You catch sandals for Baseema.” Jamal looked earnestly at me, a look of hope, the hope a child has in a parent, the hope a parent has in God.

I had seen this look before with patients and their families. It was the reason I left my surgical practice six years ago. “Jamal, only Allah can help Baseema,” I said with deep resignation.

“Help Baseema Ike. Minfudluk Ike, please help Baseema.” Now his earnest face dissolved into nothingness, then he spoke with resolve, unable to look at me, “Iwa. Allah is merciful. If Baseema dies, it is Allah’s judgment.” Mournfully looking up, wanting confirmation, he asked, “Yes, Ike?

“Yes Jamal.”

“O.K., Ike,” he slowly exhaled.

I carried Baseema to a pallet on the floor; her beautiful blue eyes willed me to turn away. I turned to God. Before his answer came, she was gone.

I will never forget her haunting eyes.

The next day I knew God’s answer and hitched a ride into Amman to see Henry.

It was a long, bumpy ride along the Kings Highway, a lonely, desolate route where miles of desert met only with an endless horizon. It was a comforting loneliness. I knew I belonged to it.

I contacted a college buddy, Tom Ferris. Tom was a fundraiser in Houston. He would help me with “Smiling Sandals,” in honor of Baseema and get sandals for every child at the river; a small start, but a start.

As Bedouin tradition demands; I accepted myself, my life, my place in the village, and… as I learned from Aziz, I accepted Lindsey at face value and the choices in her life.

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