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BADIA walks into Ramallah Hospital like she owns the place, unhurried, greeting everyone and taking in their greetings. Stories fly to meet her in a brew of caution, curiosity and fear. From Samira the receptionist (recently married, keen to please), she wants to know if the tranquillisers had their effect on her husband, who makes love to her like a bull.
To Said the errand boy, she promises a special treatment for his spine, which keeps him up at night. Now handsome young doctor Sami, whom the nurses like to stop and ask ridiculous questions about the weather and incurable diseases, is running towards her, reverently kissing her hand in the way of old movies. ”God keep you from harm,” she says with a laugh and asks about his mother, Sitt Fikriyya, who devoted her life to his becoming a doctor.
On Badia walks, swinging the orange carrier bag whose contents no one dares to ask about. The soft headscarf slips from her loose red bun as she totters down to the basement, fighting back a cheeky smile at the memory of the young doctor’s kiss and repeating to herself, ‘Keep you from harm.’ She opens the door of the autopsy room with her blue-beaded key and swaps her coat for a white gown. Her mobile rings. It’s Umm Salama, calling to say she has sent her a girl with psoriasis from Haifa.
She had spotted her with her mother at the Khalaf perfume shop, told her that Badia would be able to cure her with her magic water, and directed her to where Badia worked. Badia is annoyed with Umm Salama (she tells this story to everyone) and worries that her workplace at Ramallah Hospital will turn into a shrine or, God forbid, a clinic. She was wrong to have told her about the water, and how it cleared her own hands of the eczema that had plagued her since Osama’s death.
Not to mention the woman who once snuck into the autopsy room to steal some of the magic water that had spilled off a girl’s corpse, to use it for some spell or ritual, who, when Badia tried to remove her, had bent down to where the water pooled on the ground and tried to lick it up.
Samah, the nurse who makes the journey from Tammun every day, takes in the day’s death schedule. The first corpse is a woman from Al-Bireh, near eighty. The second is a woman in her fifties who has to be prepared for transportation to Nablus. The third is a young woman of twenty who has spent three days in the morgue. A long day awaits but Badia does not begin work before brewing a glass of tea with her special herbs and smoking a cigarette.
Badia does not like to wash younger women, the mothers least of all. She prefers the elderly, whose corpses everyone is in a hurry to get rid of and few will miss. Their daughters and the wives of their sons slip her a bit of money. It helps them shed their sense of helplessness in the face of the decline and inevitable death of an old mother, especially when the bedsores appear, pinking the bodies swollen from their long, motionless sleep and which, to the sons and daughters busy with their own lives, look like festering wounds. She would deal with the bodies of the two older women first, then work her way round to the young one.
Samah regards Badia with admiration and a little awe. She fascinates her friends with her strange stories. Her mother had warned her not to get too close to her in case it spoiled her chances of marriage. Did she want to stay single forever? The magic waters of the dead can do a lot. But in Badia’s presence, Samah forgets this talk and goes on telling her about the road clogged with checkpoints, a preamble to the question she wants to put to her.
A month before, Badia had noticed a change in Samah, sensed she had a secret she could not tell anyone, not even her, Badia, to whom everyone opens their heart. Samah, as has become her habit, asks to leave work for an hour midway through her shift, a request she has made for the past month, ever since her return from a long holiday she claimed to have spent in her family’s village home. If a person does not want to tell, Badia thinks, she will not ask.
Badia has finished with the first body: an easy task, everything prepared ahead of time and supervised by the wives of the dead woman’s two sons. They stand, the wives, outside the autopsy room as Badia pours water on the plump body, reciting prayers. Nothing crueller than a mother without daughters, she thinks. A mother without daughters has no one to mourn her. One of the women had tucked fifty dollars into her palm before she began, and this makes her work with all her heart.
She places a clean towel between the legs, then pulls the right side of the body towards her and cleans it, then the left. Then comes the full ablution, and the wrapping of the head, then the whole body, in clean white cloth. She does not make the same effort with the second woman, who will likely be given a fresh shroud in Nablus by the women of her family.
Badia takes a break to smoke a cigarette, its taste unlike the one she smoked this morning. It is a waiting cigarette, smoked in the hope that Samah will come back. But Samah takes her time, and Badia is out of excuses to keep her from starting on the third corpse. Young bodies fill her with dread, not that she has seen many in her time at the hospital. Most of her young clients are girls, killed in stories of love and suspicion. Only two died of natural causes. The rest of the day, she knows, will be shadowed with gloom.
The workers place the body on a large slab in the middle of the room, covered with a blue hospital sheet. Three days in a fridge are enough to harden the softest body on earth. Badia is suddenly aware of a line of light from the window parting the darkness. The dust hanging in the room’s air becomes visible. The voices of street vendors, mixed with the sounds of children on their lunch break at the nearby Qaddoura Camp girl school, filter down to the hospital basement.
Badia lifts the sheet off the girl’s face, revealing thick, wavy red hair which snakes down half her body. The breasts hanging limply to the sides stop Badia, who understands at once that a baby’s mouth has clamped itself around these teats: traces of redness and inflammation are still visible. The skin around the uterus and navel show that she had given birth not long before. Badia touches the skin and steps back. How could a body refrigerated for three days still be so warm and soft?
She rushes to the girl’s file and reads. Twenty-nine years old, nurse, traces of poison in the blood. They killed her: the thought leaps to Badia’s mind. They killed her. She clutches at her heart for a moment. She remembers it all as if it had just happened. Just seventeen when she met Osama, who trotted past their house in Al-Bireh on a white horse clad in black, she loved him straight away, and began to wait for him to leave the nearby mosque after evening prayer. The longer she waited for him to pass, the more she loved him, until the day she met him in a clothes shop in the Ramallah souq.
Only in that period did she come to understand the difference between Ramallah and Al-Bireh. The overlapping cities were divided by an imaginary line, existing nowhere but in the heads of their residents, but which became clear to her when Ramallah was chosen as their meeting place, far from the eyes of her mother’s large family in Al-Bireh.
This was in the days of the First Intifada. They got engaged, entered university together, stole moments in rented cars on the roads between the city centre and the university in Birzeit. Those rendezvous were even sweeter than those at the house of her friend, who had not yet become Umm Salama. But Osama was killed in a flash, leaving her with a gift in her stomach. Had her mother not noticed what was happening, she herself would have been killed long ago.
Badia does not like to remember how she got out of that disaster. Her mother was clever enough to save her from death, but the foetus died after birth — boy or girl, her mother wouldn’t say and she did not ask. She had felt delivered of a heavy burden when her mother told her it was dead and disappeared into the corridor of the private hospital in Jerusalem which she had snuck her into, with the help of a women’s association specialised in protecting girls of this type.
A terrible void took the place of the disaster. A void from chest to womb that has stayed with her ever since. She has filled it with laughter, with solving the problems of her colleagues, washing the dead, this occupation she walked into after her mother died and she could not find a woman in the hospital to wash and shroud her. She took on the task herself, unafraid. It gave her a serenity she had not had before, a tremendous sense of calm. All of which made her leap to accept a job offer washing the dead. Since that day she has contented herself with a simple life spent observing the sorrows and joys of others.
The girl spread out on the slab before her moves between her hands so pliantly it strikes fear into Badia’s heart. She pours water on her head and searches for marks of violence on her body, trying to reconstruct the girl’s story. She goes back to the file: raised in an orphanage, born in October 1990. Badia’s heart beats faster. She returns to the body and lifts the torso to wash the back. The girl’s upper body relaxes into Badia’s arms. Her head lies on Badia’s left shoulder as if she were sleeping. The girl is calm, as if resting in her mother’s embrace. Badia does not fight back the tears which begin to run down her cheek. With the girl’s head still on her shoulder, she weeps. How sorry she is for this girl no-one is waiting for. But she was a mother, that much was clear. Where is her child? Its father?
She rushes back to the file. Was she single? The child born out of wedlock? Was she poisoned to get rid of it? Back and forth between the body and the file, Badia approaches the head, cleans the nostrils, opens the mouth and passes her fingers between the lips as usual. When she turns the face to the right to clean the left ear, the eyelids fall open. The eyes are fixed on her. She knows this look. Very like the look she had given her mother on learning that her newborn was dead. A look of complete surrender, acceptance, release.
Samah enters the autopsy room. Badia comes back to her senses and tries to hold it together, but Samah is not paying attention. She is devastated, in tears. Badia leaves the body outstretched, covers it with a sheet again and turns to Samah, who is ready to tell her all. It was as Badia had suspected: Samah had given birth to a child out of wedlock. The man she loved had not promised to marry her, but she was convinced he would after the child was born. The baby was born in Ramallah, far from the eyes of her family – she told them she was there for a training workshop.
Now she goes to breastfeed the child, which she leaves with his father, on her work breaks. But the man tried to suffocate the child with a pillow to get rid of it. Samah is at a loss, caught between wanting to protect her child from its father, and the fear that her family would find out.
Badia takes Samah’s hand and tells her everything will be alright. But first she has to prepare this girl as well as she can.
Samah relaxes at once, watching Badia perform the finest ceremony she has seen: out of her bag she takes Indian incense, a copper bowl, white cloth, Nablus soap, jasmine cologne, a tape of Abdul Basit reciting the Quran. This she slips into an old machine and his voice begins to chant the Sura of Women as she goes on washing the girl, with precise instructions for Samah to move her this way and that. She pours water on her pubis, on her thighs, then takes the copper bowl and begins to collect the water dripping off her body. She lays the bowl on the table with great reverence.
Then she dries the body well and wraps it in layer after layer of bright white cloth. From a distance, she sprays cologne around the body, then comes to sit quietly beside her, holds her to her chest and cries for a long time to the amazement of Samah, who did not expect to see powerful Badia behaving as a mother who has lost her child.
Her task completed, Badia asks Samah to tell the officials that the body is ready to go. She sits at her table, lights a cigarette. Then Badia asks Samah for the man’s address, insisting that she would not approach him before he got in touch with her.
The following day, Badia slowly makes her way across Library Street, stopping to pick jasmine from the garden of the deserted house she passes on her daily walk to the hospital. At the Parliament Roundabout, she meets Umm Salama, who asks whether the girl with psoriasis had come to visit her. The answer is no: it seems the girl did not believe her when she told her that Badia would cure her with a bowl of magic water in which she washes the dead. Sorry as she is for the girl, Badia can do nothing for those who don’t believe. Umm Salama dips her head in agreement.
Samah is waiting anxiously at the door of the autopsy room and comes down on her with questions: what had she done? The father of her child had called the night before, begging her to marry him. Badia smiles, fishing from her bag the copper bowl. ‘My magic water cures all sorts of ills,’ she says. And she remembers the look on the young man’s face as she wielded the bowl of magic water and told him that this water would scar his body with a permanent rash if he did not marry Samah. At the sound of the name Badia, the corpse-washer from Ramallah Hospital about whom he had heard so much, he shook with terror and passed out.
Badia asks for the day’s schedule without giving Samah the chance for further questions. No dead today: the schedule is blank. Badia sighs, removes her coat, puts on her clean white gown, and drinks the special tea of herbs she brewed herself.
Badia’s Magic Water by Maya Abu Al-Hayat, translated by Yasmine Seale, has jus been published by Comma Press, £9.99. For more information and to benefit from a special online price of £9, visit commapress.co.uk/books/the-book-of-ramallah
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