Thursday, April 27, 2006

My eyes

Like all the kids in our second-grade class, I had my eyes tested. It was a series of tests, but I think the decisive one was run on a machine that had you see a sort of highway with signs marking the illusionary distance. The highway turned slightly to the right and I remember that somewhere along the curve I couldn't discern the numbers on the signs. Shortly afterwards, a note arrived from school, advising my parents to take me to an ophthalmologist. Another thing I remember is that my mother had no idea who to consult. It was 1970, we were in Honduras and knew only the pediatrician we went to at the private clinic downtown. Anyway, my mother asked around and we ended up waiting for our turn at the private clinic of the best ophthalmologist in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

As we waited, my mother reminded me of what she had said at home: “Don't tell him we're from Israel. If he asks, I will answer.” The ophthalmologist's name was Dr. Nasrallah. I remember his first name too: Odeh. Dr. Odeh Nasrallah. A “turk” as they're called in Latin America, meaning a descendant of Ottoman subjects who emigrated to the New World. Jews, Christians and Muslims from Ottoman lands emigrated in large numbers to Central and South America, especially in the early 20th century. Dr. Nasrallah's family was surely Palestinian or Lebanese.

So, in we went, Israeli Jews consulting the best doctor in his field of specialty. He turned out to be an olive-skinned man, a bit chubby, with glasses. I know my mother ended up telling him our identity, although not at the beginning of the rather long session. He prescribed me what turned out to be my first pair of glasses and I remember him telling me the details of my new status. He was very clear and considerate with me, a child-patient who was quite surprised when told he'd need glasses from now on. Dr. Nasrallah explained that on the one hand, if I don't get glasses I would end up ruining my vision, but that since we had caught the problem just on time, with some exercises and discipline, I might get rid of the glasses in a few years' time. Everything ended very well, and I had my glasses till we returned to Israel, two years later.

Once back home, my mother was quick to take me to the very well-known ophthalmologist she knew, an Argentinian Jew, a highly regarded authority in the field. I have a clear recollection of the feelings regarding having my eyes checked again, in Israel. I especially remember the relief expressed both tacitly and directly when she told my father that all was well: Dr. Nasrallah had given me the best treatment, and was even praised by “our” doctor, who confirmed I would be able to get rid of the glasses if I followed a strict course of exercises and physical therapy for the muscles of my left eye. So I did, and three years later, I could put the glasses away for many years to come. In short: the Arab had treated me well.

Years passed. Every now and then I'd remember Dr. Nasrallah. At first, for his treatment, when I spent long hours doing exercises with a specialist. Then, after I stopped using glasses, his name would pop during my yearly checkups at “our” Argentinian ophthalmologist. As time passed and I became immersed in Israeli reality, Dr. Odeh Nasrallah's legacy was mainly his name. “Odeh”, his first name, was also the name of the owners of a wonderful Arab restaurant in the old city of St. John of Acre (Akko in Hebrew, Akka in Arabic). We'd go there sometimes, and I couldn't help remembering the good doctor. Later on, of course, we were all exposed to another Nasrallah: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, the extremist Shiite party and terrorist organization, whose name means “The Party of Allah”. Hizballah was one of the launching platforms of Ayatollah Homeini, who before becoming the leader or Iran, spent years in exile in Lebanon. In Amir Tahiri's excellent book about Homeini, the author tells who crowds of ecstatic supporters would chant in Farsi “Hizb faqat, Hizballah! Rahabar faqat, Ruh-Allah” - “Only one party, the Party of God, Only one leader, Ruh-Allah” (Ruhallah was Homeini's first name, “the spirit of Allah”). Moreover, as Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran, after the revolution, and as Lebanon became a mess, I was studying Arabic at school. Nasr, I learned, means “victory”. So... Nasrallah really means “Allah's victory”. This became a daily term in the 1990s, when the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah became the leader of Hizballah in Lebanon.

Watching Hassan Nasrallah on television, three things have always struck me. First, his language, which I really love to listen to. Islamic fundamentalists use a very specific kind of Arabic, rich, clear and forced to comply to the classical forms. Nasrallah enjoys the media and loves being on television. The second thing that strikes me about him is his young age. Hassan Nasrallah, one of the Middle East's more urgent problems is only three years my senior. Third, I am always interested in his calm, semi-amused faced, a bit like a child enjoying his latest mischief. His light skin, his combed beard and his immaculate attire, the robes and turban of a Shiite religious leader are all part of his public persona. But more than anything, I can't keep my eyes off his glasses.

Now, knowing that time flows at different paces in different parts of the world, I googled “Odeh Nasrallah”, in hope of finding “my Nasrallah” more than 35 years after our first meeting. Well, I did, in a way. In Honduras there is a Dr. Odeh Nasrallah, a well-known ophthalmologist. His full name is Ju├ín Odeh Nasrallah and he works at the “Odeh-Nasrallah” clinic in Tegucigalpa. I found in a new item in “El Heraldo”, a leading newspaper in Honduras. It turns out that in 2003, Dr. Nasrallah headed a team of ophthalmologists that were offering free cataract operations for poor people in their country. The newspaper published a photograph of the good doctor. Young and slightly chubby, busy behind one of his machines, checking a patient. He must be a second-generation Nasrallah, most probably a son of the “original” Dr. Odeh. The photo shows him: light-skinned, dark haired, a short beard and no glasses. “You have to give in order to receive”, he told the newspaper, so far from the Middle East.


ingerid said...

So it seems that Hassan Nasrallah actually is a witted and good guy, who was caught up in a hostile middle eastern situation, who led him to pick the the bad guy's part... it's true that we are all just human beings and we all share the same basic needs.
I wish we could end up being in good terms with our neighbours here in Israel - but Israel isn't Honduras either. Both sides need to give up the bad parts and I guess we all need going through some basic actor's training!

Anonymous said...

What a charming article,moving around on al levels!

Anonymous said...

I enjoy ALL your articles.
You have a deep understing and feeling to people, whoever they are.

Hope you will write more often.