x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

My life: Tanya Habjouqa

Politics invades the maternity ward, but it's still a time of celebration.

A thin sheet separated my upper body from the Israeli surgeons bringing my beautiful daughter into this world. Politics had to be compartmentalised to trust these doctors with the most important moment of my life.

Drowsy from anaesthesia, I was not prepared for the jolt when I first saw my daughter. I cried as she was nuzzled against my cheek before being whisked away to the nursery. My husband kissed my head and I was wheeled to recovery, aching to see her again.

As a Jordanian-American married to an Arab lawyer working for Palestinian rights, it was no small leap of faith for me to deliver in an Israeli hospital. Hadassah Ein Kerem lies in south-west Jerusalem in what was once considered the most scenic of Palestinian villages, and which still features its beautiful stone homes nestled in a lush green forest among convents, churches and an old mosque.

The hospital is in a giant military-like complex, where for the next five days my post-Caesarean recovery reverberated between the struggles of a first-time mother and inherent political realities.

I was pleased that the nurse responsible for my well-being for the next 12 hours was Palestinian. Checking my pulse, she would stroke my hair and whisper in Arabic. At daylight, she helped me to shower and brought my daughter to me. Holding Naya in the morning light was sacred and something I shall never forget. As she gazed at me with a preternatural awareness, I was filled with warmth and love that I, a cynical photojournalist, had not thought possible.

However, the tensions of Jerusalem soon surfaced. After my husband arrived, an Israeli cleaner shrieked at me and my roommate. We needed to vacate immediately. "If not for your Caesarean sections, you would have been sleeping in the hallway like the others," she said.

As we were rushed into other rooms, I was surprised to see sobbing women in the hallways. The vast majority appeared to be Jewish. An innate cynicism kicked in as I muttered: "Ah, yes, Israeli money much better spent on settlements than in their hospitals." There went my assumption that I would be treated less well as an Arab.

At first I disdained my new roommate, an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman. Shrieking erupted as children, women and men in black suits swarmed the room. They threatened my newborn's sleep. I cursed under my breath. My jokes during pregnancy that I was carrying "a demographic threat" no longer amused me - a feeling that intensified when Palestinian nurses shared their humiliation when some new Israeli mothers yelled at them not to touch their babies.

Conversely, the Palestinian cleaners displayed the "power of the mop". After closing hours in the cafeteria, two Orthodox New Yorkers and their screaming toddlers made us sigh in resignation as we wearily eyed our daughter. An elderly Palestinian cleaner chided: "It is closing time!" As they left, she smiled and said: "I thought you could use some quiet."

Perhaps the most surprising moment came later during an impromptu bonding with my roommate. Softly crying and traumatised by the hostile curtness of the Israeli Russian Jewish nurses refusing to assist in my breast-feeding difficulties, I was convinced I was starving my infant. A New York accent filled the darkness. "Honey, are you OK?" my roommate asked. Seconds later, we were giggling together in mutual dislike of the sadistic nurses.

I know my daughter is a Palestinian born in a complicated, racist state. I will try to impart empathy, humanity and understanding to her. I am grateful to the surgeons and nurses, Israeli and Palestinian, who safely delivered her. It is, at end of day, a celebration of life.


Tanya Habjouqa is a half-Jordanian, half-American writer and photographer based in East Jerusalem.