Noor Abdo | 24-01-2021
Born during the first Intifada, Momen was only a week old when the Israeli occupation targeted his father, leaving him an orphan in occupied Palestine. Nothing from the moment of his birth came easy. Fighting emotional and physical pain through his entire life, Momen has carved his own unique path.
Photographer in the making
Momen Faiz developed his passion for photography in his teenage years, when he was living in Al Shejayeh, a border area along the eastern part of Gaza. This was a strategic location for taking pictures of the uprisings and oppression that was happening there. He started experimenting with cameras lent to him because he did not have his own. This gave him the chance to develop a social circle of photographers and journalists. He took their guidance on where to take photographs from, and he became an expert in finding to the right angle from which to capture scenes.
Momen tried to buy his own equipment, but it was too expensive. He started working as a “stringer,” a freelance photographer for international agencies, the first being Domtex.
Momen was always close to the areas where aggression usually happened, because his home was just near the border.
As a teenager, Momen had great dreams and visions to take off and leave Gaza, the largest open-air prison to ever exist, and be able to share his talent with the world. All he knew of the outside world was from the TV and radio. He wanted to travel the world. But the blockade had other plans.
“I can’t go now”
On a cold September morning, Momen was fasting on the Day of Arafah, the day before Eid- Al-Adha, while on a mission to report and capture the struggles of Palestinian traders. These are people who are left with no choice but to create underground tunnels to carry on a normal trading life due to the restrictions applied by the Israeli occupation on the border areas. Photographing them was just another challenge for Momen as he walked around to find the perfect angle from which to take pictures.
But in a matter of milliseconds, Momen was struck to the ground by a missile from an Israeli reconnaissance plane that targeted him directly and intentionally. The 21-year-old blacked out and he felt his soul leaving his body. Yet as his life flashed before his eyes, he heard a voice that begged him to go on and stand on his two feet again. At that moment, all that Momen was telling himself was, “I can’t go now…. I still haven’t done anything yet for Palestine.”
The start of a new life
Momen injury occurred in November 2008, during another Israeli attack on Gaza in its “Operation Warm Winter.” In this Israeli aggression, internationally banned weapons like phosphoric bombs were used on unarmed civilians, leaving behind massive destruction and a huge death toll.
Everything outside his window was collapsing, but Momen was under anaesthesia and could not feel a thing. He was not able to recognize where he was or what had happened to him. When he regained consciousness, he was informed that he was in Al-Shifa Hospital. Everything started to get clearer, but he still couldn’t feel a thing. As he reached out to feel the wounds on his legs, Momen was not able to find any—they were gone!
The doctors had to perform an above-knee amputation on both of his legs, as their state kept on deteriorating due to the lack of medical equipment in the hospital. Gangrene took over both of his legs, leaving him with none. Momen would now be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The possibility of getting prosthetics for him was quite minimal because of the ongoing blockade and the worsening economic state of the strip. He spent 25 days in Al-Shifa hospital before being transferred to Saudi Arabia for treatment.
My camera, my best friend
The first thing Momen checked for when he was out of the ICU was his best friend, his camera. It was the last string of hope he had. He held it close to his chest as he whispered to her, “Don’t give up on me now.”
Momen explained about his camera: “She confessed to me that she was frustrated taking pictures of war crimes against unarmed civilians, women and children, knowing that she was not able to change the reality of what was happening...She could only take pictures and silently help me share them with the world and as that, become nothing more than a witness.”
A ray of hope
After receiving eight months of treatment in Saudi Arabia, fate had a life-changing plan for Momen. He received a lot of media attention because his journey was a heroic one—he had survived a brutal attack, been left as a double amputee, and was now determined to get his life back, smiling through it all!
In the midst of what was happening, one reporter stood out. A Palestinian refugee who had spent her entire life in Saudi Arabia was very eager to cover Momen’s story. Dima’s passion, confidence and courage had Momen head over heels. She did not hesitate when Momen proposed, knowing very well that it would be difficult for her to leave her family behind and start a new life in Gaza.
As love comforted his heart, Momen now had a reason to keep going. Dima motivated him not to give up; she was his light at the end of the tunnel that motivated him and insisted that he would come back stronger.
Through his wheelchair and camera, Momen gave another meaning to persistence. He refused to stay in bed and got up every day to rise up and stand in the face of life. Momen chose to live.
He navigated various urban terrain to take photographs and was not afraid to climb onto cars, buildings, bulldozers and anything that stood in his way to reach a better angle. His wheelchair and camera became integral parts of his body.
Momen’s first international exhibition was set in Italy 2016, which of course, he was not able to attend because he was not permitted a travel visa. He participated through Skype and gave a speech raising awareness about the Palestinian struggle.
Momen’s camera was proud of him. They still had a long way to go together, but this was an important first step into international exhibitions. After that exhibition, he was recognised internationally and was able to publish more of his work documenting the daily struggle of Palestinians across various platforms.
On wheels, around the world
After getting his visa application rejected multiple times and dealing with border closures, Momen was finally able to leave Gaza to attend his first exhibition in Malaysia. The journey to the Cairo International Airport was hectic, and when he arrived, it was not easy to navigate the airport in a wheelchair. He had to wait for eight days inside the airport until his visa was accepted.
Momen’s family stayed in Istanbul while he attended his exhibition in Malaysia in 2018.
After getting back to Istanbul from Malaysia, he was looking for a new chance in life and decided to stay there.
In 2019, he unfortunately lost his job and his salary was cut off. It had been a special salary given to those who were injured during the war and were unable to work. This loss put him, his wife and four children all in jeopardy.
Why was this happening to them? Every difficulty Momen faced was no fault of his own. Each struggle that burdened him happened because he was a Palestinian who wanted to live freely.
Momen and his family were left with no choice but to keep looking for a place that would accept them. They applied for a visa to visit Saudi Arabia and perform the pilgrimage of Umrah at the beginning of 2020. Little did they know that Covid-19 would strike the world, leaving them stranded there. They were trying to find a way to return to anywhere that accepted them as their visa was about to end. Nothing but closed doors kept coming up because it was extremely hard to get visas at this time.
In Gaza, capturing the truth
Today, after a difficult seven months, Momen and his little family are finally in the Gaza strip with their loved ones.
To Momen, photography is not just a hobby, it is his escape, a tool that gave him wings to soar high away from the blockade on Gaza. Momen’s camera was dedicated to her duty, which was to transparent documentation of the occupation of Palestine. And though she sometimes may get tired, she never gives up. Neither does Momen.
Together, they are a perfect duo that never leaves the other’s side, and together they convey a message of determination, resilience and patriotism. They will never stop fighting for Palestine’s voice to be heard.
Momen continues to capture the truth with his lens—despite daily struggles—on his wheels and with a smile on his face capable of inspiring anyone who sees him.
Posted: January 24, 2021
Mentor: Katherine Schneider