JERUSALEM — When the coronavirus swept through the West Bank in July, 73-year-old Rasmiye Al Suwaiti was admitted to the hospital. Despite being in isolation, she had a daily visitor.
Her son, Jihad Al Suwaiti, 32, scaled the hospital building each day to sit outside her window and check that she was wearing her oxygen mask — an act that unwittingly catapulted him into the global spotlight after a picture of him sitting outside his mother’s window that his brother posted on Facebook went viral.
Before long, Jihad’s story had traveled the world, and a video even emerged of an imam in Sudan during prayers referencing him as an example of how all Muslims should treat their mothers.
His dedication didn’t stop there: When his mother died on July 17, Jihad and his siblings stole her body after hospital staff said they couldn’t release it to the family.
Brothers, nephews and friends came in seven different cars in a plan devised to distract and confuse the ambulance drivers who chased the brothers as they stole their mother’s body, he said.
The ambulance drivers lost track of which car was carrying the body and the brothers successfully took their mother back to Beit Awwa, he said.
Tarek al Barbarawi, director of Alia hospital in Hebron where Rasmiye was being treated, confirmed to NBC News that her body was stolen because her children did not want her body to be wrapped in plastic.
Muslim tradition holds that the dead should be buried as soon as possible, with the body wrapped in a white shroud. But earlier this year, new decrees for handling the coronavirus dead were given for Muslim burials, according to Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories.
“This is a rule of necessity and necessities allow for prohibitions, therefore the deceased is not washed, nor shrouded and is buried in a plastic body-bag,” Hussein told Reuters.
“She said, ‘If I die because of this disease, don’t bury me in a plastic bag!’” recalled Jihad, the youngest of her nine children.
“I held her with my own hands, dug her grave and buried her the way she asked me to,” he said.
So far Jihad has faced no sanction for breaking the law and putting others at risk.
Born in 1947 in the hilly Palestinian town of Beit Awwa in the occupied West Bank, Rasmiye Al Suwaiti is one of the 387 people to have died in the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the pandemic, from a total of 44,684 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Those who knew her described her as a simple woman who never learned to read or write but had an unparalleled zeal for life and a heart overflowing with love.
“She had the entire world’s kindness in her heart,” Jihad said.
A family story tells of how Rasmiye’s husband, Hisham, caught sight of her and asked the village chief for her hand in marriage. Her parents refused at first because she was just 14 years old and her cousin had also asked for her hand. But Hisham persisted, and eventually Rasmiye’s parents gave in.
The pair were married on a fall day in 1962 in Rasmiye’s house in Beit Awwa. She wore a white dress and rode a camel from her family home to her husband’s, changing seven times into seven different-colored dresses, according to regional tradition.
A happy life
Hisham died in 2005 at 63, but the couple were happily married for more than half a century and raised nine children. Hisham taught them to read and write, and the couple watched as their children got married and started families of their own.
“I have never seen a relationship like the one my parents had,” said Riham Al Suwaiti, 49, who also now has nine children of her own. “My mother meant everything to my father. He loved her so much. The entire town knows how special their relationship was.”
Riham recalled how her father would return from pilgrimages to Mecca with bags brimming with presents for his wife and how he would sporadically buy her gold bangles, necklaces and rings to demonstrate his love.
“He used to give her everything she wanted and wished for,” she said.
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The pair were inseparable, working alongside each other growing olive trees and tending sheep, according to their children. Hisham would look after the flock, and from the milk, Rasmiye would make yogurt, labneh and cheese that they would sell, along with the olives and oil, at markets in Beit Awwa.
Once home, they would share the household chores, and their father would help the children study because Rasmiye could not read or write, Riham said.
By their children’s accounts, their life was happy even as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict waxed and waned around them.
The family bond
Following her husband’s death, Rasmiye spent the rest of her life in mourning, Riham said. Her children rallied around her, spoiling her as their father had.
“I used to visit her every day with my wife and kids,” Jihad said. “We did everything we could for her not to feel his absence.”
But still, overcome with grief, she struggled to leave the house and even missed her grandson’s wedding, Riham said.
Rasmiye’s children do not know how or when she contracted the coronavirus.
Some who visited her in her house in Beit Awwa later tested positive for the virus, Jihad said, but it’s unclear when it passed silently from one to another.
This spring, the West Bank locked down hard and fast in a bid to quash the coronavirus outbreak. By the end of May, the Palestinian Authority’s strict measures appeared to have paid off, with around 450 confirmed cases and just three deaths in the kidney-shaped territory, according to the authority’s figures. But cases are now rising.
When Rasmiye contracted the coronavirus, it was not the first time she had been seriously sick.
In 2015, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and Jihad would drive her on the winding road to Bethlehem to get treatment. Even when she asked, he would not tell her she had cancer but instead said she was getting treatment for her feet.
As her health deteriorated with the coronavirus, Jihad would watch her from her window ledge to make sure she was taking in oxygen.
Asked about the now-famous picture of him scaling the hospital wall to see his mother in her final days, Jihad said the moment the doctors left the room, he would climb through the window and sit by her bed protected only by a mask and gloves.
“If I left her for one second, she would take off her oxygen mask,” he said.
In her last moments, as death began to take her, she muttered.
“‘I want to sleep at Jihad’s house. I want to sleep,’” he recalled.
“She died in my arms,” he said. “She used to be my entire life. She used to be my everything: my happiness, my friend, my homeland.”
Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem. Saphora Smith reported from London.