I used to be ashamed of how I lost my mind and had to be hospitalized in October 2012 — there was much to be embarrassed about, like my quasi-delusional writings on Facebook and Twitter, failing to help so many people who were hoping in me, and even scaring my own family to the point that many close relatives were too afraid to help me when I needed it the most. I’m not ashamed of those days anymore, though, even though I made many mistakes and still wish things would have turned out differently.
Now I understand better the weight under which I buckled: I was among a small fraction of a percent of Americans paying close, daily attention to the gruesome developments in Syria by making friends with activists there and paying attention to the video and picture evidence emerging of dozens of government massacres of tied-up civilians and even children, and hundreds of people dying each day in indiscriminate bombardment just for saying they wanted their basic human rights. And I was among an even smaller number of people trying to get my countrymen to care more, enough to step between the Syrian people and their dictator and put a stop to this carnage, to end this slaughter then and prevent the region from taking more turns for the worse.
It wasn’t the daily stream of videos and pictures of massacred civilians coming out of Syria alone that made me finally crack in October 2012, but it was this detailed, intimate knowledge of their suffering I had coupled with being surrounded by so many people who just didn’t seem to care, who looked at me like I was a ghost, who heard my desperate pleas for help and offered me scorn.
Ultimately, it was this unholy concoction of brutality and apathy that detached my mind from what unfortunately appeared to be reality, but last Saturday, 10 October 2015, I was reminded what was the last straw that made me break completely: the decapitation of Fatima Al-Meghlaj, a two-year-old Syrian baby from Idlib, and the pictures of her father holding her headless body, still clothed in her best dress.
* * *
After reading one of Pope Francis’ tweets that asked if we see the face of God when we look at a helpless human being, and in my best attempt to interpret Matthew 18:5, “Anyone who welcomes one little child like this in my name welcomes me,” whenever a baby looks at me, I’ve been smiling back and in my heart saying, “Hi Jesus!”
The first time I thought to do this was not long after reading that tweet; I was in a full elevator and a child with mother was in the opposite corner from me, and I wondered, is this how Pope Francis interprets Matthew 25:40, “And the King will answer, ‘In truth I tell you, in so far as you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.’”?
So I prayed, and looking at the small child facing the corner, I said in my heart, “Jesus, is that you?” and the child immediately turned from the corner, ignoring everyone else in the elevator, looked right at me and smiled a huge grin. I was so stunned that I almost forgot to smile back.
* * *
My fiancé and I were on a bus to go to downtown Istanbul last Saturday afternoon, and a mother holding her baby sat down a few rows behind us, to our right. I saw this because I heard the baby laugh and I turned and looked. Out of habit, when she looked at me, I smiled brightly back and in my heart said, “Hi Jesus!” And like I see so often now, she smiled right back at me a hundred times brighter than I ever can, and for some reason, her mom soon changed seats and took the pair of seats right in front of us.
I was studying a book for a church lesson we were heading to, but every so often I saw the little girl look at me from between the seats, so I would say, in my heart, “Well hello there, Jesus! It’s so great to see you!” and smile. Making faith unnecessary, she would immediately become overjoyed by this every time, and all I could do was praise God with a full heart and smile back at her until she would go back to playing with her mother’s hijab.
Soon I saw her looking at me again through the bus seats, but this time I saw a smile that I could never forget, and I realized her face was one I would always remember. I am certainly not in the habit of taking pictures of other people’s children, but just this once, I took out my phone and snapped a picture so I could be totally sure of this later…
She was exactly the image of Fatima Meghlaj, and she was smiling right at me the same way I’ll always remember Fatima smiling in the picture where she’s holding her slightly dirty, little white teddy bear.
Maybe she saw me suddenly holding back tears then, because she reached her little arm through the seats towards me, and I reached forward and held her small hand. I noticed a little bit of dirt under her finger nails and thought of Fatima’s second-hand teddy bear, and I wondered, whose little hand was I holding, Fatima’s, Jesus’, just some baby’s, or all of these?
So, I prayed, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for what we are doing in the world today. Please have mercy on us, give us your peace. Don’t let your generation know the war and hatred that my generation knows or what older generations knew. Let it all stop now. Forgive me for all of my mistakes that contributed to this. Please have mercy on us all, have mercy on all the people suffering in Syria. Have mercy and forgive us all if that will let us have your peace now. God bless you, child. I love you. I’m sorry for everything.”
She didn’t take her hand away, so I kept holding her little hand, letting her tiny fingers grip my index finger. I kept looking between her familiar face and her hand with sadness and awe, and I prayed for God to bless this child, to bless her parents and to bless all children forever, and to rest Fatima’s soul if this child wasn’t truly her resurrected. This child whose hand was in mine couldn’t have even been conceived before Fatima was killed three years earlier. I was really unsure what to believe about all of this.
When she let go of my hand, I smiled at her again and tried to explain to my fiancé what I was thinking. I opened my phone and showed her the picture of Fatima with her bear, then showed her the picture I took of this girl. “Are they not the same exact person? Now that I look back on it, it was Fatima’s death in 2012 that finally drove me over the edge and made me totally crazy.”
“How did she die? What happened that made you crazy?” she asked.
“Her head was cut off by shelling. There were pictures of her headless body lying on the floor in a dress she was wearing for a special occasion, maybe her birthday, I think. I just… I was her father. I saw the pictures of him holding her without her head, and I just became him. I just… I just… There’s no more explaining it than that. I became her dad. She became my daughter.”
My fiancé got visibly upset, and said, “Oh God…”
“But look, now she’s alive again. She’s right her smiling at me, holding my hand,” I said, smiling back at the little girl who seemed to be following our conversation.
My fiancé looked at me a little sideways, so I continued, “No, this is real. I’ve seen hundreds of signs from God, and this is as clear as it gets. I was just thinking about it this week: it’s been almost three years since I went crazy and had to be hospitalized. I was seeing all sorts of things back then. I thought I really just lost my mind after all of that, and I thought my life was really over. But I was reading Matthew this week, and I kept thinking how Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and he wasn’t resurrected until the third day; now I’m coming back to life after three years, like how Jesus was resurrected after three days. I can’t easily explain it; I need to write more about those days in detail. There was so much going on back then, on so many different levels. But everything I was seeing then is really happening now. I think this means it’s all going to be over soon.”
“It sounds a little…” she replied, shrugging her shoulders a bit.
“I don’t doubt this — this is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Remember a few Sundays ago when I told you it would be a special day, then everything was miracles all day?”
“Yeah, that’s true. I remember,” she said.
“That’s what it’s going to be like every day soon. Or it already is now, if we can do better seeing it. I don’t want gold streets and diamond houses — I like everything about this place except the hatred, the fear and greed. The food’s great, the people are beautiful — I just want us to stop killing each other and hating each other. And now she’s here, I’m looking at the face of Fatima Meghlaj, just like I wrote in 2012, before I lost my mind, ‘No goodbye is forever, because it’s either see you soon or see you later.’ It’s all happening now. Do you remember when Jesus said that we have to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven like a child to enter it?”
She smiled and said, “Yeah, I think so.”
“He said we have to change to become like little children to enter the Kingdom. Who do you think she’s seeing when she looks at us and starts smiling like that? Well, I’m looking at her and smiling because we’re in the Kingdom of Heaven riding a bus with Jesus, and Fatima Meghlaj lives forever!”