Hospitable Land
by Hanson R. Hosein

TEL AVIV, Nov. 3 —  They invited me to eat with them while breakfast was still hot: a boiled egg, porridge, chopped salad and yogurt. Their families shared their water and biscuits with me, all wonderfully accommodating despite the linguistic divide. We conversed cheerfully and kept each others’ spirits buoyant. Was I in some remote Middle Eastern village renown for its charm despite the nasty conflict going on nearby? I was not — I was a patient in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital.
        One of the unfortunate side-effects of living here in Israel is the fear that an act of violence or war is clearly entrenched in realm of possibilities.

        IT’S NOT exactly where I thought I would spend the last few days of my three-year Middle East posting. And yet, being here allows me to reflect while giving me yet another glimpse into a region that I have learned to cherish as a journalist — and as a guest — of the people of this country.
       From the moment that I moved in to my Tel Aviv apartment, I was made painfully aware of the piercing sirens of the ambulances that took advantage of the wide, clear avenue outside my building to get to where they had to go. I was annoyed when the noise echoed off the apartment blocks during the virtually traffic-free Jewish day of rest. I grew concerned when I heard more than two ambulances speed by, often prompting me to call the NBC bureau to make sure nothing terrible had just happened.
       One of the unfortunate side-effects of living here in Israel is the fear that an act of violence or war is clearly entrenched in realm of possibilities.
       But when my girlfriend, Heather, called for the ambulance two nights ago at 2:00 a.m., it arrived within five minutes, ambling up quietly to the curb, lights flashing. A young paramedic with an earring wasn’t taking any chances with me. I was feeling faint and had lost some sensation in the left part of my body. He administered oxygen to me as we drove quickly, and I had to note, without the use of a siren, to the hospital.    
       The emergency ward was fortunately empty and quiet. I silently wondered what it would have been like if a terror attack had just occurred (extremists had been threatening exactly that for weeks), or if I had been stricken with my mysterious affliction in a Palestinian town like Ramallah where the hospitals are barely coping with the number of casualties from the violent clashes from the last month. And then I remembered that many people had told me that Ichilov Hospital was the place to go for an emergency — that’s where they had taken the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he had been shot, almost exactly five years ago.
       We had just finished filing a story for Nightly News, so I didn’t feel guilty about asking my friend, NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher, to join me to help us negotiate whatever intricacies the Israeli public health system might throw our way. There were surprisingly few. There were a couple of discrete questions about whether I had health insurance and a work permit — it made me wonder what kind of health care the thousands of illegal foreign workers in Israel were entitled to — and then they said I should stay overnight. A neurologist with a strong Russian accent examined me and had Martin translate his observations from Hebrew into English. I have to admit to being oddly comforted by the abundance of doctors of Russian origin who treated me during my stay in hospital.  
       Thousands of highly-educated Russians had emigrated to Israel when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, and this country’s developing economy had greatly benefited from their expertise, especially in the fields of medicine and high-tech.
       And then, there was once again the question of my Islamic-sounding last name. As I lay in my bed in the neurological ward, every new shift of nurses would come in and be briefed by the head nurse of the preceding shift about the patients and their conditions. When they would get to mine, they read my name as “Hussein” from the Hebraicization of my last name. I wouldn’t say that it provoked any tension, but they did look at my dark, unshaven face quizzically, as if they wondered whether I would speak Hebrew or Arabic. I sensed almost relief when I spoke to them in my North American-accented English.
       The hospital neatly symbolized the dichotomy of being both a developed and non-developed country. The room facilities were rudimentary, three patients to a room, divided between women and men. In the hallway, there were two bathrooms complete with a rickety toilet, sink, and shower (with hardly any hot water). They were to be shared by 12 patients.     
       Small ants crawled atop the sparse furniture and my friendly Argentinean roommate stomped on a large cockroach. Right after that incident, a nurse popped her head into our room and asked me to rearrange the books on my table to make it look more “esthetic” from outside.
       Later in the day, everyone had become fully acquainted with me. I was addressed in English from the outset of every conversation, most of the doctors were friendly and thorough. They put me through a battery of tests that were efficiently administered — I had heard horror stories about waiting times for things like MRI and CT scans in other countries that had public health systems.
       This being Israel, I was allowed to keep my mobile telephone me, and it rang off the hook with best wishes from friends and family around the world. My friend, Amikam, arranged for the premiere heart specialist in the country to give me a call and assure me that there was nothing seriously wrong with me. Heather made friends with the visitors in the room next door, who didn’t speak a word of English but still comforted her, made her tea, and gave her a clove of garlic for good health. She reciprocated the next day by bringing everyone homemade chocolate chip cookies which put me in good stead with this infusion of North American culinary delight.  
       And then the bureau called me with word of the terror bombing on Thursday in Jerusalem that killed two people. I told my fellow patients. It seems as if this miserable conflict would never end. That sparked a grim conversation in Hebrew among themselves. The next morning while I was waiting for my CT scan, the nearby TV was showing a morning news program with a woman singing in Hebrew about “our children” over pictures of the aftermath of the bombing. And as if to remind that life goes on, even here, two orderlies walked by, talking about last night’s big basketball game between local favorite Tel Aviv Macabee and a Belgian team.
       The doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with me, and will continue to conduct tests over the next few days. But the consensus is that the stress and fatigue that we have all suffered from since the end of September may be the culprit. Life during my three years here in the Middle East was never easy, but without a doubt, every day brought with it new and interesting people, sometimes accompanied by excitement and adventure, and often, by more tension.