Nurse comes home to UAE village she helped raise
For about four decades, Amal Antonius fought long and hard to keep the people of Sha'am village healthy. She nursed the sick, delivered two generations of babies and endured harsh living conditions. And now she has returned to the village she helped raise, Anna Zacharias reports
Amal Antonius was known for two things: her cure for stingray stings and the scores of children she delivered over the course of 39 years in the Hajjar mountains.
Amal was the nurse of Sha'am, a village cradled between sea and mountains on the northernmost tip of the UAE.
She crossed wind-tossed seas on sail ships and hiked up mountains, forceps in hand, to deliver children. But most of the time, the Syrian nurse could be found in her canvas tent in the north-coast village of palm-frond houses, treating malaria, scorpion bites and giving prenatal advice to expectant mothers.
Amal, known affectionately as Doctora Amal, has recently returned to the village she called home from 1970 until 2009, when she returned to Syria after the death of two sisters.
Her property appears abandoned but there are remnants of an earlier life: the pigeon lofts and makeshift hammocks she made, the trees she planted that held her bees, and two dusty caravans where Amal lived and worked during her last years in the village.
At 83, Amal has lost none of the zest that earned her the childhood nickname "Chilli". She is a woman of small stature, with olive skin and thick dark hair streaked with grey and white.
"I was a very sad girl in my childhood, maybe because I was very straight," Amal says. "When I saw someone do something wrong, I was against him. I was quarrelling all the time with people - with my sisters, and also with my father and my mother. I speak frankly and I am not afraid of anyone."
It is this strength that allowed her to live in a tent for four years without water or electricity while delivering children and caring for the sick, injured and elderly.
When guests arrive at her caravan, she cracks fresh Syrian walnuts with two stones and offers mountain figs, a gift from the date-farmer widow who guided Amal in the mountains, decades ago.
She receives guests in the room where she delivered children. She sleeps on a bed once used by patients and new mothers and explains how she carried the women on her back from the delivery table to the bed.
Amal, who first came to Sha'am in 1970 to care for the wife of the mutawa, or religious scholar, has been visiting the families of children she delivered, now parents themselves.
She and the mutawa's wife met at the clinic where Amal worked in Ras Al Khaimah town. She started there in 1968 with the nurse Helen Fearnow, her colleague from a London midwifery hospital where Amal worked and studied after seven years' work in Saudi Arabia.
Amal and Helen visited the new mother in Sha'am after her delivery at the Ras Al Khaimah clinic.
Upon her return to Ras Al Khaimah, she went to the sheikh's house and asked permission from the Ruler at the time, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, to set up a clinic in Sha'am.
"I used to go to his house just like a friend's house. He was very happy because the people here were asking him for a clinic and he would say, 'we don't have oil, we cannot open a clinic'."
Amal's 75-year-old father joined her from Syria for her first year in Sha'am. They loaded their furniture into a Land Rover and set off down the beach that served as Sha'am's only road. The village was only accessible at low tide.
Amal and her father stayed with a teacher for 20 days. Amal got malaria.
"In Dubai everybody was saying our coming here was not a good plan," says Amal. "I said, 'it is a good plan, I have a plan to live there'. So I got a great tent."
She invested her savings from Saudi Arabia of 25,000 Qatari riyals (Dh112,700, adjusted for inflation) into medicine, equipment, furniture and the canvas tent that served as her home for the next four years before she built a permanent structure.
"We had four chairs, good chairs. We had three beds, three mattresses. We had sheets, we had two cupboards, we had a gas cooker, we had a sink on a cupboard. We had everything."
Sheikh Saqr gave Amal land and his wife, Sheikha Mahra, visited with the gift of a water filter. Brackish well water was delivered in tins on the back of a mule. There was no electricity for their first four years in Sha'am, but it was no different at the Ras Al Khaimah clinic.
Amal and her father paved the ground and made an open-air clinic with a few cupboards and a kerosene-powered fridge.
Then a man appeared to claim the land given by Sheikh Saqr, so she paid him the going rate of Dh800 for a 64-metre by 33-metre plot and the land was registered in her name.
Her determination never faltered. One stormy night when the winds screeched and threatened to blow their tent away, Amal told her father: "Look, God brought us here and he will not let us fly away with the tent. He will keep us safe.
"He will not let people laugh at us. The devil will be pleased if the tent will fly away and God will not allow the devil to be pleased'."
Her father was adored by the people of Sha'am, especially the women.
"He was happy in the mountains, he would look at the mountains and say, 'glory to God, glory to God'," says Amal. "He loved these mountains but he hated the goats. He would say: 'If there are devils in the mountains, they are the goats'."
It was a never-ending battle with goats that chewed tent cords, Christmas cards and anything in their reach. There were, of course, more serious concerns. Amal treated typhoid, eye infections, inflammation, rashes, wounds, abscesses, diarrhoea and malnutrition.
"All illnesses, all illnesses we treated. Simple things, but mostly malaria. Everyone had malaria. The patients came for me from the villages, people stung by scorpions, some stung by stingrays. God gave me wisdom to treat these stings effectively."
The former nurse will still not reveal her secret cure for stingray injuries.
Patients were charged a nominal fee for medicine. Malaria treatment cost six Qatari riyals. She worked alone. "I was the nurse, the doctor, and the maid."
Amal, a Syrian Christian, was accepted by women and men, fishermen and date farmers. Gender relations became more reserved after conservative male teachers arrived from other Arab countries. No women wore black abayas when she arrived in Sha'am, and she was initially free to give injections to men wherever they needed them. Later it became unacceptable for a man and woman to shake hands, a practice that still widely persists to this day.
Despite growing conservatism, the nurse maintained people's trust. Her first mountain visit was to a woman who had been in labour for three days.
At that time, women did not eat or drink before delivery, believing it was unhealthy for a woman to dirty herself as she pushed. Amal used her hands to ease the baby out, as the mother was very weak.
"He is still living, he's a big man now. Yesterday I visited him."
From that time on, Amal was never without her forceps.
Her mountain guide was a young widow named Fatima Dhoohori, who made the three-and-a-half-hour walk from her mountain home to the hamlets of the Salastrom plateau with a medicine box on her head. Amal carried food and sheets.
On another occasion, Amal sailed over stormy waters for an hour to Ghamda village, halfway between Bakha and Sha'am, for an emergency delivery. She arrived, seasick and gripping her forceps.
Amal's calling to work as a nurse came at age five, after an emergency visit to the American Mission Hospital in Tripoli for her kidneys.
At age 10, she operated on a goat mauled by a wolf. She shaved the goat's belly and stitched with an iodine-dipped needle.
"It lived. I think God put this in me from childhood. I got it from my mother. My mother is like that. She even did miracles."
Amal's tent remained until a new road was constructed over her land in 1983.
At that point, she turned her focus to midwifery but continued to visit the sick, elderly and poor who could not afford health care, until she moved back to Syria in 2009.
Amal believes this could be her last visit to the UAE. Her Syrian home in the mountains north of Latakia is secure and she is hesitant to pay for a UAE visitor's visa when she is not sure how often, or for how long, she will be able to stay in the country. Even so, her heart remains in Sha'am.
Published: August 18, 2013 04:00 AM