I’ve taken advantage of my university writing assignments this year to compile a collection of short essays about life in Israel. Below is an observational essay that I wrote for a course this fall. Titled “Blood Draw at Break Fast,” it details an evening at Soroka Hospital in May 2017.
It is the third day of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday, when my friend Mimi and I near a security checkpoint at Soroka Hospital. The hospital, deep in Israel’s southern Negev desert, treats more than one million Israelis, Palestinians, and Bedouins who call the desert home. It also treats foreigners who live in Israel, like me. While living abroad here, I have begun taking Accutane, an aggressive acne medication that requires routine blood work to monitor my liver. This is why I am headed to the hospital on an evening in late May, accompanied by Mimi, who knows that mundane bothers like blood draws often result in notable cultural experiences. Unwilling to let the “chavaya,” the experience, slip by, she has tagged along, walking beside me as we approach the hospital grounds.
The towering iron fence surrounding the grounds is dotted with armed security checkpoints. Mimi and I head to the closest one, hand our bags to a guard with a machine gun slung across his chest, and nonchalantly toss our IDs on the table. After ten months of living in Israel, we have become accustomed to clearing checkpoints like this one. I follow Mimi through the metal detector, chatting in English. The guard barely glances at our IDs to check that our faces match our pictures. With a toothy grin, he chuckles, “Americanim, ken?” Americans, yes? We smile and nod as he waves us through with his left hand, raising his right hand to stop and search two women behind us wearing hijabs.
We exit the checkpoint and enter the hospital grounds just as the wind picks up, ripping across the desert, coating our nostrils in thick dust. I scrunch my nose, abruptly clear my sinuses, and survey the landscape. Monstrous hospital buildings contrast the sandy sky. They rise from the desert, silver and illuminated, as if from the next millennium. Outside of a set of sliding doors, a Jewish-Israeli surgeon in stained scrubs yells into a phone in Hebrew, flicking her cigarette on the ground. A Bedouin family lingers next to her, conferring with a slender, bald Palestinian man. The women behind us at the security checkpoint walk by, headed toward the grass lawn outside the pediatric ward. They are carrying plastic containers overflowing with food for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast each day of Ramadan after sunset. As they pass us, I smell the dense aroma of slow-cooked lamb and savory spices and find myself briefly overwhelmed by the cultural diversity that surrounds me.
The hospital is the medical hub for the Negev, serving all of Israel’s segments of society. Away from the hospital, these groups of people are odds with each other over land, rights, and freedom. Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in a 100-year-long conflict over their right to exist on this tiny strip of land, Bedouins struggle against Israeli land ordinances to maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle, Arab-Israelis are frequently treated as second-class citizens in a Jewish-Israeli dominated society, and less-publicized class struggle within each group is constant. But at the hospital, everyone converges. Exterior problems are suspended in a third dimension, creating a common space where people share a rare, almost unrecognizable humanity.
Mimi and I experience this unusual sense of community as we enter the hospital’s main building. The noise of bureaucracy is intense, but there is care embedded in the chaos. A smattering of immigrant-Israelis from Ethiopia, South America, and the Middle East linger in the hallways, awaiting their appointments, while nurses lead patients to their rooms. Using our elementary Hebrew, we try to interpret the signs towards the blood lab. Unsuccessful, we end up in circles until we find a woman who speaks English and knows where we need to go. She walks us down to the basement and up to the counter of an open window, cutting in front of the long line. Her hands forcefully jab the air as she speaks, explaining our situation in Hebrew to the man at the counter. We quietly stand beside her, feeling foreign and helpless.
A few minutes later I am pulled over to a nurses’ station. Mimi sits across the room from me as a large, feisty Russian-Israeli woman prepares a needle and curses under her breath. I can tell the woman thinks we are “estupid Americanim,” stupid Americans. I cringe and look at Mimi’s widened eyes as the nurse repeatedly pokes me with the needle, trying to find one of my stubborn veins. On the third try, she lets it linger under my skin. She searches for a vein, waving the inserted needle horizontally. I squirm and nearly faint just as she is successful and cries out a resounding, “Oui, poe!” Oh, here! I close my eyes and wait for blood to pool in the vial. When finished, the nurse slaps a band-aid on my arm, labels the vial, and gives me follow-up instructions in a broken mix of Hebrew, Russian, and English. I nod, half understanding, half pretending to understand. She shoos Mimi and I away, and we retrace our steps out of the hospital building’s basement.
As we near the building’s exit, we watch an ambulance outside unload a man wrapped in bandages. While doctors confer over his body in Hebrew, a nurse near the head of the stretcher speaks to him in Arabic. I try to get a better look at him, and I wonder if he is one of the Palestinians wounded by Israeli soldiers that I saw on the news earlier today. Momentarily, I well with admiration at the thought of doctors and nurses putting aside politics and classism to treat all types of people. I tell myself that the coexistence I see here is proof that these groups could find peace on this tiny sliver of land. But my hope is fleeting. Ten short months of living in Israel has taught me that compromise between anyone living on this land is exceedingly rare. Instinctively, or perhaps habitually, the burden of reality reenters my mind, and my optimism fades. I sigh softly as we pass through the sliding doors and leave the building.
Outside the building, the sun has set and the wind has settled. Iftar has begun. Muslim families sit on the grass in wide circles. Plastic containers overflowing with rice, vegetables, and meat lie in the center of the circles next to boxes of plump dates. Children, attached to IVs, have been rolled out of the hospital in wheelchairs. Feral cats dart between the circles of people, trying to sneak a bite food. Off to the side, next to rolled-up prayer rugs, people play music and smoke hookah. Irrespective of the sickness and struggle that may have brought these people here tonight, happiness prevails on the dimly lit grass.
Before exiting the hospital grounds, Mimi and I watch as a Muslim family offers tea to a Jewish-Israeli nurse walking by. The nurse sits down and joins the family. A man in the circle reaches for a covered container, removing the lid to reveal kanafe, a traditional Arab dessert made from sinuous pastry noodles soaked in syrup and layered with cheese. He serves the nurse a piece of kanafe on a floppy plastic plate. We are too far away to smell the sugary syrup cut the air, but the moment still feels sweet. For a minute, I let optimism and naivety override pessimism and reality. Mimi and I smile at each other. I know we are thinking the same thing. All things feel possible at the hospital at break fast.