THE beautiful young family are out for their evening meal in Malaga.
Khalid, Lilia and three year old Bonita are enjoying pizza in the court yard of the restaurant. Our backdrop is the majestic Cathedral of Santa Iglesia de la Encarnacion. It has stood here in its sandstone magnificence since medieval times.
The yellow light of the arc lamps falls upon the façade and picks out the detail. It is a cold and starlight night. It is southern Spain in November.
In the restaurant, portable gas fires, the ones that have the flames burning on artificial logs inside glass cubes, light and warm the space and we speak.
There are apologies for Bonita’s pram being in the way and my assurances that all is well are given and accepted with outstretched hands and warm and genuine smiles. I feel that I have known these people all my life.
“What country are you from?”
“Palestine, a city called Nablus,” Khalid tells me.
“I know of it.”
And there’s enthusiasm in my response for, in another time, when I worked in the Dublin newsroom of RTE, Nablus, and in particular, the Mayor of Nablus, were always in the news. They were days of growing complication but we were all still holding out hopes for peace in the Middle East, a peace that would not come. The Palestinian/ Israeli war was well established in a seedbed of ancient animosity. Peace would remain elusive.
“You have been through much,” I venture, “and are still doing so.”
The pair, Khalid and Lilia, look down on their precious child, Bonita.
There is an unspoken resignation but also great thankfulness.
“Bonita is our miracle child,” the father tells me.
“When she was being born we had to close the hospital doors, for tear gas from the Israeli army was seeping through. Bonita came to us healthy and well, but different. You see she has only three chambers in her little heart. That will all be sorted out in time. She is our miracle child and we are grateful to God. Bonita is with us today and will be fine, Inch Allah.”
By now Bonita has scaled the back of her chair and is gathering leaves from the garden.
“She is collecting leaves to feed the horses,” Khalid smiles at his little one.
But, of course, there are few horses in the modern war-torn Nablus. There are, most often, the iron horses of tanks, guns, missile strikes; but somewhere in the midst of her home in a troubled land, little Bonita has learned that there are real horses and they must have the leaves gathered to feed them. This child has learned much and has, perhaps, seen too much.
But importantly she has learned kindness and comes to our table to offer us leaves to take home.
I look to Khalid and speak of the Eastern mystic poet Khalil Gibran.
Khalid too knows of his work.
“Your family and your care for Bonita remind me of Gibran on children. Do you remember his words?”
“Your children are not your children.They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.You are the bows from which your childrenas living arrows are sent forth.The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.Let your bending in archer's hand be for gladness;For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow the that is stable.”
So be it. What was right in Kahlil’s day retains its universal truth for us today and as I receive my gift of leaves for my horses from Bonita I get to wondering what will she do on the arrow path of her life? Prime Minister or prisoner, a prince or a pauper? I sense that Bonita with her energy, her curls of brown hair and, I think, an intense purpose shining from dark and beautiful eyes, has a reason for being here; the start was too difficult for it to be otherwise.
It is time to go and we do so on our separate ways.
And there on the night-time Cathedral steps, beneath the night-time Malaga winter-sky, on her knees and whispering to her God, is the old lady.
This I think is the Jesus guest who was absent from my table. The old lady is my mother looking back at me from the other side, from away beyond the stars….She is Jesus, Mother Mary, Marie’s mammy Moira, my mammy Moyra, and, in there too in the eyes that look to me for help, the faces of all my Mary Street matriarchal neighbours, now long dead and gone. Kindly faces, care-worn faces, images that remind me.
Embraces and help are engaged upon. It means much to the old lady, and even more to me.