We set about living in Ashkelon in 1970. After a year or two there I began to feel that this was not the place in which I hoped to stay and bring up our children. Jeff began to work as a trainee paediatrician at Ashkelon hospital. The head of paediatrics at this small (then) hospital, Dr Peter Vardy, was originally from the UK, and had trained at Great Ormond Street. Jeff fitted in well with the small group of junior doctors, who came from Poland, Argentina and Israel, not to mention a number of friendly nurses and other auxiliaries. Fortunately we were both fluent in Hebrew – I had been taught to read Hebrew aged three and a half before I knew my ABC, and Jeff turned out to have a flair for languages, and effortlessly became a Hebrew speaker.
We left Ashkelon in May 1977, for a variety of reasons. It was customary for Israeli trained specialists such as Jeff now was, to go abroad for a few years in order to develop their specialisms. By the time we left we were parents of three little boys, aged 3, 4 and 5. Jeff was ready to proceed in a career in hospital paediatrics and I had behind me a degree in Philosophy and Economics, and two years experience as an untrained and unqualified social worker. I had worked in the Social Welfare Department in the centre of Ashkelon, housed in an old Arab house, in what had previously been the Arab village of Majdal. Now Ashkelon town centre, it was known as Migdal.
My parents and sisters had all moved to Israel and were living happily, my parents and one sister in Jerusalem, and my older sister in a Moshav a few kilometres from the Gaza border.
During our seven years in Ashkelon Jeff occasionally went with a team to do mother and baby clinics in Gaza. Gaza at that time was only a few years after the Six Day War, and Israel was setting up settlements there. Men from Gaza crossed regularly to Israel for all kinds of employment – mainly menial. A rocking chair made in Gaza enabled me to relax as the mother of three children born very close to each other. The road (then) out of Ashkelon led to a main road which led to Gaza. On the corner there would be clusters of cane furniture – and one day we stopped and bought a rocking chair there.
There was a park in Ashkelon which was full of antiquities, and I used to take my toddlers there, watch them climbing on and off a statue of the goddess Isis holding her son Horus, or the Roman sarcophagus that was ideally positioned as a thing children could jump on or off. Half a mile down the coast in Barnea the children loved to play in the ruins of a Byzantine church – stones just the right size so two, three or four year olds could hop on, hop off.
One day I walked past a small square in which a `miklat` an air-raid shelter was being built, and noticed that the workers building it were Arab workers from Gaza.
I am not a mystic, and do not believe in the supernatural, but there was one day, in our fifth or sixth year in Ashkelon, where in the space of a few hours, I experienced the ability to read, if not thoughts, then a word that someone was going to say. It happened twice in the same afternoon, and has not happened since.
We were frequently strapped for cash. Three toddlers, and my contribution to the family budget not much. I heard there was a Transcendental Meditation Class available in Ashkelon. At this time the population of the town was only about 40,000. A neighbour who could afford it popped in one afternoon and I asked her, enviously, what T M was like. Oh, she said mysteriously, nothing much happens. They give you a mantra, and you repeat it. What is your mantra? I asked greedily, wanting to know. I needed to know. `Sorry,` she replied in a superior way,` but I am not allowed to tell you.`
`Never mind,` I found myself saying to her, as I envisaged a little formation of letters, floating as it were, in some clouds. Just imagining. `Never mind. I know what your mantra is. Shall I tell you the letters?`
`Yes,` she said, humouring me, and I remember her incredulity as I reported the letters, and the word they made. Somehow, I knew what it was.
That same day I went to `work` to a part-time job – teaching English to student nurses at the hospital. As I recall half the student nurses were Israeli Jews and half were Israeli Arabs – perhaps Muslim, perhaps Christian. I didn`t have a clue how to teach. I thought a game might help their vocabulary. I explained the game `My Aunt went to Paris.` There was a student called Ahmed, and it was his turn. `My aunt went to Paris,` he began,`and bought me…`he listed the things so far mentioned. Then there was a pause, as he tried to decide what to add to the list. I looked at the notebook on my desk, and said to myself, `How odd, he`s going to say elephant.`
`My aunt,` Ahmed went on, `bought me an elephant.` How had I known? No idea.
Today my head is buzzing with recollections and connections with Ashkelon as I watch developments in the horrendous situation between Israel and Gaza, and Jeff and I field questions from our grandchildren. What are we supposed to say, they ask us, when school-friends turn on us and say `Israel is destroying the Palestinian people. It is a crime against humanity.` Where to start, to help them maybe discuss the whole picture, the whole story?
And as for stories, I can`t help wondering about my forthcoming collection of short stories – title not yet decided – in which two of them, the first two are actually set in Ashkelon. `The Lizard,` and `Tell It Not.` And the last story, called `Talia` based on many of my impressions and memories of those seven years. Oh, and the story `The Emissary,` which will be published this winter in Stand Magazine.
Hoping for peace to return to Ashkelon.