“To have a friend, you must be a friend”

The following excerpt is a part of Najwa Zahhar’s autobiography. Her book was published in Arabic in 2004, and was translated under the title of Gardenia, which means Garden in local Arabic. She talks about the meaning of friendship and life as lamenting the loss of her friend. -Editor’s note

“To have a friend you must be a friend”
Swami Vivekananda


We were three. Sala, Mira and Najwa. Joy amongst us was multiplied by three, and sorrow was divided by three. We were, and still, three.

We have lived in a complete and continuous scenery. We have left the play of  the outer life out of our lives. It was one life formed in three shapes. Inside each of us there was a branch of sweet basil waiting for someone to move it. The sweet basil has moved and the fragrance was overwhelming. We approached our thirties together, that was a critical age for those who experienced it, and those who are still on the way. We lived the craze of the thirties together, while the twenties still had some of its tenderness. In that age one needs someone to tell him that he is still in a society were roles and responsibilities are predetermined.

Each event to any of us used to pass through a series of births , the event, the story and the discussion. If you ask Mira a question she wouldn’t answer before she asks me “ What has Salam told you about that…?”

Doors were opened and colors mixed. We dusted off layers of the past without any secrecy. We lived the big worries as well as the small ones. Palestine was always amongst us. Salam, who was divided between two countries, or rather two passions, Amman ( The capital of Jordan) and Nablus (a Palestinian city in the West Bank of the River Jordan) whenever the time of her visit to Nablus arrives, we all start to sail in the lake of her longing to the family . Her joy, worry and fear of the hassle that the travelers across the Bridge linking between the East Bank and the West Bank of Jordan River may face.

The Queen in “Alice in the Wonderland” said: “ If we want to love the people around us, we should allow them to be loved”. If the Queen would have the opportunity to enter into Salam’s wonderland she might have added another meaning and another dimension to her say.

Salam playing with fayrouz, and surrounded with the friends Najwa, Fitna, Salam and Mira.

Classroom Lessons on Salam (The word “Salam” in Arabic means “peace.”)

They have taught us in school, maybe to dry up our springs of questions, that the truth has one face only, which is what we will read in our school books. Mammals are distinguished by being the only animals which play with their babies, they rub the noses of the little ones, behavior which is unknown to other reptiles as active “Limbic System”. As for human beings, it is a different matter, the “Limbic System” still lives inside our skulls in a restless truce.

Should the Queen have entered Salam’s garden, she would have noticed how the tortoise has got the chance to love and be loved, in irrespective the Limbic part of its brains.

A bird signs by the window …
“Look Salam how beautiful its colors are..”
“Easy”, she said “Take it easy until it feels safe”..
Wheat grain on the window waiting for the bird..
“Would it come?”, I wondered..
“I shall wait for it,” she replied..
(time passes)

Phones rings, the bird returned for a short visit..
(time passes)

The bird is now flying in the space of the room in beautiful maneuvers..
The bird stands on the hands that attracts, and gets attracted by, the love of nature, filling the house with its joyous songs.
We thought that life has relaxed its joints, we didn’t know that we were different when the soul trip has started with her and in her..

Evenings come, time for a cup of coffee..
Salam: coffee, milk and sugar
Mira: Black coffee
Najwa: coffee and milk
Battah (Salam’s male dog) : coffee, milk and sugar
Hala (Salam’s female dog) : coffee, milk and extra sugar

Salam lived her life accompanied with pets like dogs, birds, turtles and cats. All these animals lived in peace and love in her small apartment.

The Sun

It was said that whoever wants to see the sun should put his eyes on the edge of the glass where the light is hitting the glazed side.

You were the sun, and other surroundings were just reflections.
Life suits you well Salam.
Joy suits you well Salam.
Immortal laughter suits you well Salam.
Passion for life was the dictionary form which you have picked your days.
She was, and still, a bridge for those who are around her, passers cross that bridge from one bank into another.
In the depth of the night she would search for the sound of a motherless newborn kitten until she finds it, then patiently and loving starts feeding it.
She gave herself entirely…

I was taking a cold shower on a hot summer day, humming a song that has no beginning nor an end, just answering the invitation of harmony between the cold fresh water and the song.

Telephone rang, “what are you doing?”
“Taking a shower sweetie, don’t you hear the water?”
“Yes I hear it. Come with Mira when you finish, its urgent.”
“Urgent?” I said, “What is it? What is the urgent matter that we don’t know about?”
“ Don’t ask too much, just come.”
In a trial to waive that inner feeling that matter is serious, I asked; ”Would you do my hair for me?” “Yes,” she answered.

Oh Mira, she must be sick..
Yes she was sick.
“I have breast cancer, I felt it several months ago, but I had to go then to Nablus to check on the family. Besides there are lots of things I have to finish up so that everything will be in a state of equilibrium.”

Chaos, a state of chaos settled on the scenery. It seems that all what has passed of our lives is engraved in our memory, waiting for a stimulant to float again.

Morning comes with bright teacups, they were very thin glass teacups. The pleasure of touching the extremely thin glass equals the pleasure of sipping its contents. That bright tea has contained the elements of beauty ; the form and the merits. Then life, which was unfairly called “modern,” produced different unbreakable teacups. Yes, it doesn’t break unless if fell on a certain angel. As kids we used, in the absence of our parents, to throw these unbreakable teacups on the floor, one time after another, until it hits that specific angle     and explode in tiny little pieces, whose sound used to give us a sense of victory.
The scenery fell on a specific angle, talk accumulates, what is the worth of talking? Vibrations accumulate all over the place, everybody was shattered within the time and space, weakness overwhelms when a person realizes that from now on, he will be just a reaction to events.

The bright tea was spilled over the carpet of the bright and joyous days and the light bulbs are fed up with their bright light .

I wrote on my memories, on behalf of the hearts of Mira, Fairouz, Fitna, Fadwa, Maha, Wafa, Muna, Wael, Saber . Thoughts and feelings will color every line, our words will chime like bells, sorry if y the sound exceeds the permitted level, my friend does not like exaggeration .

We all know, my friend, that life is not an easy place to live in, I know your longing for Nablus and to your sick mother who doesn’t have the strength to cross the Bridge. I know our great disappointments with our sad reality of a home country; we wanted it to be more beautiful, but ended up to be an endlessly bleeding one. We never expected that you will allow the disease to penetrate your beautiful cells. Beautiful sunsets which  you adored were an alarm that your sun will set first.

After her illness during a visit to the Dead Sea, playing with horses.


You can produce a red light from the blue light. The blue light, with the faster wave, can set the course for the red one, and not vice versa.

She was the blue light that sets the program of our friendship. The blue light that attracts more friends. We are not three anymore, or an equilateral triangle, we become circles revolving around Salam who was in the center. We tried to make her sickness just a passerby who lost his way and not an enemy attacking her cells. But the scenery start to vanish, death approaches despite the fact that she has never spoken about it .

In the spring, with her newly grown hair, she blends well with anemones covering the horizon as red ropes linking heaven to earth. The more lab tests indicating that the sickness is spreading within her body. The more beautiful she looks, and the more times she left the  searching for hear the spring wild flower in Jordan ; black irises .

Birds of faith in dark skies. Faith is something, and holding strong to it is something else. That was her true mission in life, she gave herself entirely for life.

Few days later with our laughter escalating in the hospital corridors. Echoing her jokes and comments on herself, and on every one of us. We laughed and cried at the same time until she was peacefully liberated from the burden of the body .

Go, dear friend, to your beautiful world. Go friend, life suits you appropriately as much as death. Reverence and dignity, which accompanied you in your trip, suits you well. I hear you well, and I am writing what you have  told me at the hospital; “Write, Najwa, about my pain; write about the captive Palestinian people, and how the blockade around the West Bank has prevented my family from saying goodbye to me . Write about my longing to Nablus, Jerusalem, Haifa, Akre, Jaffa, Marj-Ibn-Amer, Hebron, Noor-Shams .Hold the sieve of my life and shake it well so that joy shall remain on top and the sorrows shall fall away. Write that life deserve to be lived; do not bother about my sickness, this is my destiny. Write about those who take the easy way and surrender before the fight begins. I have fought like a tree that doesn’t look for its fruits, but produces them. Tell those who knew me, and those who do not, these are the fruits of Salam, enjoy it.

Weakness is the biggest sin, be strong. When faith diminishes, it will take happiness away with it. I haven’ lost my faith at any day, this is my happiness in health and sickness. Tell our friends to hold the sunset every day and send me greetings along with it.

Only a thin string between fascination and breakdown, it is simply the Gardenia flower which held its own will to celebrate life.

An old friend brought me a Gardenia flower; I was pleased twice, once for seeing him, the second for the flower. I held it in my hand, then put it aside in fear of what might happened to it. I miss its smell but don’t dare to smell it, like a small child who fears to finish up all her sweets. I told myself, “ I will call Salam, or rather it may be better to go and see her “ . My mind starts to visualize how I will enter her apartment and hide the flower behind y back, then ask her to guess what I have brought her .

The  watchman told me, “ Maybe your sister is sleeping .” I thought  to myself, “ yes, she might either be sleeping or suffering.” The flower has finally found a home, a small cupful of water. The gardenia will spend its night with Salam6, in peace.​

We returned to the place, to the time, like a river that has lost its banks. We returned to ask the place and the time for some banks that will hold us together once again, to rearrange the chaos that has stuck our lives. Some hands were touching the clothes in search for warmth that might still be there. Our coffee cups were still there; we went around the bed with its embroidered cover and looked at the sunset picture as if we see it for the first time. Suddenly I saw a  burst of life, the Gardenia flower is still there. I held it as I held my first son, it was a dawn of feelings and emotions resembling creation. I whispered to the Gardenia as I whispered to my first son on his birth “ I love you, I love you, I love life…. ​

I felt reverence and solemnity for the light that brightens this flower as much as I felt the reverence and solemnity for the light that covers Salam’s face. I felt a sudden relief filling me, as if the high strung strings of myself have been released.

Today, and every day, the Gardenia flower sits in the middle of my table, or rather in the middle of my days. Though it I hear the song that we once used to sing, “Life is beautiful together …”

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