February 16, 2006.
Knoxville News Sentinel, Tennessee.
It was 1987, during the first Palestinian intifada. Palestinian boys were spray-painting anti-Israeli slogans on the walls near the home of the Al Hissi family in the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza.
When the boys were confronted by Israeli Defense Forces, they scrambled over the wall and hid with the Al Hissis. They gave the boys different clothing so they could try to get back to their homes without being recognized by the soldiers.
Someone said that the alley should be checked to make sure it was clear before the boys went back outside. Before anyone could stop her, 7-year-old Amani Al Hissi pushed open the gate and walked out into the alleyway.
There was, the family says, the distinctive thump of a tear-gas grenade being fired. It struck Amani just over her left eyebrow.
"It was very, very painful," the now-27-year-old Amani says, "but then I passed out."
Her father, Kamil, gathered up his little girl and rushed her to the hospital.
"The doctors told me they couldn't do anything for her, that she needed to be taken to a special eye clinic in Jerusalem," he says.
Kamil says it took an entire day before he could convince the Israelis to let him pass through a roadblock to Jerusalem. When he finally reached the clinic, the news was not good.
Amani had already lost the sight in her left eye because of retinal damage and hemorrhaging. The news got worse. The doctors said that eventually, because of the trauma, Amani could lose the sight in her other eye as well.
It took four years, but as the doctors predicted, by the age of 11, Amani was completely blind.
"It was so difficult, I was miserable," she says at her parents' home, where she lives just a few hundred yards from the Mediterranean shore. "But there was also something positive. It created the soul of challenge in me. My blindness helped me to focus on other things: politics, culture, literature. Amani, with eyes or not, is still alive. I only lost my sight for Palestine, not my life or my soul."
Amani used that drive to pursue her broad range of interests. She learned to read and write in Braille and studied Arabic literature. She also plays the accordion and hosts several different programs on the Voice of Youth Radio station, including one that deals with creative writing.
"I've adapted to my blindness," Amani says, "but nothing can replace sight. The other things I've gained from this are only compensation, not replacement."
Amani says what she has gained through the loss of her sight is imagination. In fact, even when she speaks, sometimes it almost seems more like poetry than just sentences.
She says she sits on the beach sometimes and she can see everything in her mind.
"With every wave that hits the shore," she says, "my imagination becomes bigger and bigger. I see all the waves, all the sea, the horizon, all the sunset. My imagination is as limitless as the sea."
She laughs easily and often, making funny sarcastic remarks.
When I ask her to tell me about the day she was shot she quips, "Don't remind me of that day, I love it so much."
But while she talks, she nervously and incessantly plays with bracelets or her hands - an underlying restlessness of one who must now see with her fingers.
She has difficulty talking about her loss in personal terms. Rather, she frames thoughts - like so many in the occupied territories do - in the larger context of a Palestinian struggle.
"It's impossible to put my anger aside," she says, referring to the shooting. "We are the innocents here. All this could be avoided by ending the occupation. If we get rid of them (the Israelis), there will be no more victims."
On a bench in the courtyard of her house she feels through a sheaf of papers for a poem she has written. When she finds it, her fingers move across the raised dots on the page.
"'Give me my childhood,' " she reads, "'don't leave me alone, don't shoot me in the head, I have a lot of sadness, I am a child in the age of flowers, they stepped on my head, I'm a child in the age of flowers, they have no mercy on me or my childhood, please brothers don't leave me alone.' "
Around her neck Amani wears a gold heart with the letter "R": the initial of her fiance's first name. He is an intelligence officer with the Palestinian Authority.
He sought her out at the radio station where she works, after listening to one of her programs. They will marry in the coming year.
Amani is confident she will have a full life, maybe fuller than most. Yes, it will be without sight, but it will also be filled with imagination - an imagination, as she says, "as limitless as the sea." It's big enough, it seems, to encompass both the past and present, both anger and hope.
"There's a saying we have in Arabic: Some people have eyes but their hearts are blind," she says.
(Find more reporting from "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" at http://hotzone.yahoo.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)
Source URL: http://www.knoxnews.com/kns/world/article/0,1406,KNS_351_4469012,00.html.
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