I have always hated visiting the dentist. With time I became obsessed with dental health. Taking care of my teeth seemed the only way to keep me away from the dentist. As my obsession developed, I became more and more interested in other people's teeth. I could tell the moment I met someone how many teeth he or she had lost, how many were filled, how many were false. I knew.
My family, aware of my preoccupation with teeth, made fun of me. Naser, a friend from Birzeit University, teased me unmercifully. He'd grab chocolate bars and ice-cream cones from my hand. "Must not eat this," he'd say. On my 20th birthday, my present was a bag full of toothbrushes and all kinds of toothpaste.
I met Naser at a meeting for Palestinian university students. From the beginning, I thought he was special. He was thoughtful, persuasive and had a rather bold personality, but he impressed me most with his sense of humor, his ability to laugh at life and to make others laugh, too. Tragedy never conquered him. It wasn't long before we became good friends.
Naser was the youngest of his family from the Jalazoun Refugee Camp. His father had been killed in Ramallah while demonstrating with other parents of young people being detained without charge in Israeli jails. Naser's two older brothers were in Israeli prisons at the time.
A bullet fired in the air to end the demonstration was not meant for Naser's father, but it hit him all the same. Naser's father died and his brothers stayed in prison. At age 13, Naser was suddenly responsible for his mother and five sisters.
The Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987, was a tough time, especially for teenagers. Naser found himself caught between his duties at home and the fight against oppressors on the street. He had to choose.
Naser was never arrested for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers nor was he injured or beaten by Israeli police. This made him a coward in the eyes of his peers. He suffered the anger of the boys who did participate in the Intifada. "They called me 'school boy' or 'mamma's boy,'" Naser told me. "They thought I was spoiled. I was bothered, but I did not allow it to push me into doing irresponsible things that might have made me a hero in their eyes, but unreliable to my mother and sisters' needs."
"I focused on my studying and after-school work at a bakery in downtown Ramallah. At first, I cleaned up, then I learned to make sweets and cookies. Now, I have a bachelor's degree in math and a 'master's degree' in making sweets," explained Naser, who worked in the bakery until he graduated from college.
Typical of Naser's sense of humor, he added, "Samah, I would have made candy for you, but I wouldn't want to hurt your precious jewelry, your teeth."
After the peace process took flight and the Intifada began winding down, Naser's brothers remained in jail. They were not members of the political party that had secured the peace deals and, hence, their release seemed unlikely.
Naser explained to me that his brothers and family felt cheated and discouraged. His brothers thought of their friends harvesting the fields while they spent day after day between the dark walls of an Israeli prison. They resented it when they heard that people from the party who compromised and cut a deal for the release of only some of the prisoners were called brave and forgiving; they felt that those people had never suffered themselves. Naser quoted Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister, saying "Nobody has the right to forgive or forget but the victims themselves."
After the first Intifada was over, we continued to speak out to raise our people's awareness, educating them about their rights and their limitations, encouraging them to stop violations that would only hold us back rather than aid us. One night, we had held a meeting in a friend's house. Everybody arrived on time except for Naser. It was a rainy night and we were worried.
Finally, the door opened. In came the cold and rain and Naser. As he slipped off his kuffiyeh, I saw a raccoon eye peering back at me above a bleeding nose and cut lips. "What happened?" I asked, horrified.
Naser looked right into my eyes. He smiled. I saw his bleeding gums and crushed teeth. He smiled again and said very quietly, "If you care about your dental health, Samah, keep your mouth shut."
Palestine Report. This article was re-published with permission from the author. Samah Jabr is a seventh year medical student at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem.
The title of the article is what caught my attention. Then its humor and wittiness. Plus the name: SAMAH (my friend's name with pearly whites!) Followed by the issue at hand and the awareness: 'one man's story'. Ending with my amazement. MaashAllah.