All my instincts are against intruding into the home of seven children who no longer have the father they had this time yesterday. But here it is a strong tradition and sign of respect. And we are showing this family that people “outside” do care what has happened – that one Australian, one Canadian, one Greek, one Englishwoman, and one American are mourning their loss.
When we arrive to the house on the edge of Jabalia camp, the men are gathering outside, and the women inside the neighbouring house, where we join them. A young woman reads the Koran, with the lovely woodwind-like timbre I have heard from other Palestinian girls reciting in public.
Salah Oakal was 46, his wife must be in her late 30s. She wears an expression of stunned patience, sitting quietly in the middle of the row of women, accepting condolences from everyone as they arrive to sit with her. Another relative, an elderly woman wearing the traditional black dress with intricate purple embroidery and a snowy white headcovering, tells E and me the story; I can’t understand more than a few words, but I don’t think she cares, she just needs to tell it.
We go to the family’s house across the street. These folks didn’t have much to start with. Crumbling concrete walls, only a couple of rooms, bedding, that’s pretty much it. All their crockery is now smashed on the floor of the kitchen, and some of the wall is missing. The wall of the childrens’ room is entirely gone, replaced for now by a blanket. Three of them were inside at the time. And the “ground to ground” missile didn’t even actually hit the house; it’s in a big hole just outside. Salah went out to water the trees, everyone explains, just to water the little trees right outside the house. He was only out for a moment. He was going to come back in to help prepare the dinner.
And after the impact, they couldn’t find him. They looked for an hour in the dark. They couldn’t find him because there was no electricity. They couldn’t find him because the impact had lifted him up and thrown him down. And, as they discovered when the ambulance arrived with headlights, they couldn’t find him because he was now in three pieces.
“Did you hear any firing in this area?” E asks. “From Palestinians. Because you know that’s what Israel will say.” Everyone shakes their heads blankly.Next door, we visit E’s friends. Bits of their house are missing too, pieces out of the childrens’ room once again; the children apparently protected by the right thing falling on them rather than the wrong thing. Alhumdulallah, thanks be to God, says everyone.
As I said, I am not sure exactly why the headcovering goes with visiting a martyr’s house. Maybe it’s because the family left behind with little to comfort them need to feel that God is closer by than usual, and it’s only fair enough we should be dressed a bit respectfully while he’s around.