8 October 2019, Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt. I was meandering my way down a dusty, nameless Dahab street on a sunny desert day, on my way to visit a toothless, old Bedouin lady. She speaks to me in an old dialect through her scarf and I barely understand a word, but I am intrigued by her wizened face, the tribal tattoo between her eyebrows and those intensely alert desert eyes. She was once a nomad in the desert and was born in the sands in a goat hair tent. She doesn’t know her age, and nor is it important. It was an oddball friendship, but somehow it worked. On that day, on my way to her house, I bumped into Um Eid, a local Bedouin woman I had known her for around 10 years, but seldom saw. She had a young son, who I always admired as a good and respectful kid. As it turned out, this chance meeting was the beginning of a fateful life-changing journey for Abdullah.
As is protocol, I asked her how she was, and if she had any news. Um Eid told me her 13 year old son, Abdullah, had fallen off the back of a dinghy a couple of days before and cut his legs in 3 places on the propeller of the motor, suffering 2 gashes on each side of his groin and one deep one behind his knee. He was rushed to hospital an hour away in Sharm el Sheikh, and was arriving home that night, after 3 days in the hospital. Concerned, I went to see him that evening. It was a clear starry night, and I found Abdullah in the sandy yard of his cousins house, his family sitting around the fireplace, and a teapot brewing in the embers. Sitting on a chair, head to one side, he was clearly in pain, unable to talk, and trying to be brave. I didn’t want to bother him, so didn’t stay too long. I returned the following day to see him. This time he was seated in a chair in the middle of a room. The walls of the room were lined with black-clad Bedouin women – following their tradition, they had come to offer their support. Abdullah was still in pain – his right leg was hot and he couldn’t feel anything from the knee down. Obviously the wound had not been cleaned and treated properly in the hospital and it was infected. He was taken back to the hospital.
Three days later, I heard they had amputated his leg from above the knee. I was mortified.
I’ll never forget that day. I was so angry and upset at the lack of proper hospital care. The fact they had not cleaned the wound properly in the first place and had probably not put him on the right medication to prevent an infection. It was an amputation that should never have happened. I was bedside myself and didn’t know what to do, and I knew Abdullah would just be sent home with no aftercare, and with his simple Bedouin life, his parents wouldn’t know what to do either. That night I couldn’t sleep out of sheer frustration. I didn’t know what to do with these emotions or where to get help…so in desperation I wrote a post on Facebook asking for advice on what to do for Abdullah when he returned without his leg. And so a miracle began….
The response was overwhelming and unexpected. People – friends, friends of friends – from all over the globe offered support and advice. People wanted to help – they asked what they could do, or what Abdullah needed. Abdullah didn’t even live in a house at that time. He and his parents slept on the ground in a lean-to around a fireplace in a large sandy yard. Getting up off the floor would be difficult for him – so I asked on fb if anyone local had a bed…donations came in – a secondhand single bed, a brand new mattress, new sheets, and even a new set of crutches. Anyone visiting from overseas brought gifts for him – colouring books, a gaming device, a phone, clothes, a blender to make him smoothies, vitamins for his recovery and a whoopee cushion just to make him laugh. The interest in Abdullah’s story was incredible.
Pain was a big issue for him that first month. He didn’t have the right medication prescribed and I consulted with doctors and a local Italian physio, Anna, and was able to get him better creams and painkillers to help. He was constantly rubbing his amputated leg. His cousins and aunts would sit next to him and massage his leg. I would massage his leg. It just seemed to help relieve the ever-present tingling and pain, probably of nerves that had been severed. He wasn’t eating, so I bought him any food he requested, just so he wouldn’t waste away. He liked chocolate cereals and bananas.
People who were too far away to do anything locally also wanted to help – donations of money flooded in for Abdullah’s rehab, his new leg…anything necessary to help his recovery – even though I never once asked anyone for money. Local people also arranged to meet up with me and donated money to his cause – often they wanted to be anonymous, which is the Muslim way – you give with your heart, not because you need acknowledgement. With the money we were able to cover a lot of expenses – including building his family a very small and modest house for next-to-nothing, with a European toilet and shower to make Abdullah’s new life easier. We even got wifi put on so that he could game with his friends, as playing soccer on the street was now out of the question.
As the weeks went by, I was heartened to see his friends pushing him around in his wheelchair and keeping him included when he couldn’t play football anymore. Somebody donated some new crutches – it took him a while to move from his wheelchair to crutches, but it was heartening to see his progress.
With all the help I had been given in the form of presents, donations and money, Abdullah’s family felt eternally grateful to me – even though I was just the “organizer”. I was constantly invited for lunch or tea with his aunts, uncles and cousins, who all lived in neighboring houses. He had such a lovely family, with cute little cousins and funny aunts, it was a lot of fun for me to be around them. One day, in November, when I had friends visiting from Switzerland, Abullah’s dad, Hemid, invited us all out to the seaside for the day, where we drank tea and they cooked us a lovely lunch of fish and rice over the fire. Their Bedouin hospitality knew no bounds.
We had some parallel bars made for him, which he would later use when he got a new leg. Often when I visited and was sitting with Abdullah, drinking tea around the fire, he would pick up his stump and, looking at me, he would kiss it. I took this to mean that he was grateful for all the things he had gained having lost his leg, like it was some kind of blessing in disguise.
Five months after his accident I flew back home to New Zealand on holiday. The pandemic broke out and my 6 week stay turned into months….and eventually more than a year. During that time, Abdullah and his family have kept in touch with me. They call me when it is the middle of the night in Dahab, around 11am in New Zealand. We chat and he tells me how things are going with his leg. In November 2020 they called and asked for some money as somebody had arranged a prosthesis for Abdullah in Cairo, and they needed to pay for transport and accommodation. I sent them some money from their “donation pool”, and they later called me and showed me Abdullah with some family members in the lounge of their rented flat, and Abdullah pacing around with a fantastic, modern prosthesis! I was over the moon. That was another small miracle out of the way.
Now it is February 2021. Another kind foreign women has been in Dahab helping to organize physio therapy for Abdullah so that he can learn to walk properly on his prosthesis without it causing him spinal problems etc. He called me the other night and his mother held the phone while he showed me how he could walk around just with one crutch.
Looking back, it was a small miracle how everything played out for Abdullah, due to one chance meeting on the street with his mother. Things could have been very different. I am not sure when I will get back to Egypt and Abdullah due to the chaos of the pandemic and travel right now, but I will be going back. Abdullah calls me nearly every day so we can see each other.
I stay in touch with many of my sweet Bedouin friends back there – the people who have reinforced in me the importance of kindness, hospitality, generosity, community – and the simple life.
Note: Bedouins believe in fate and the hand of God. Anything that happens to them is God’s will. Abdullah was more accepting of his situation than a Westerner may have been due to his faith. He pretty much just got on with life as best he could and with the support of his family.