Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

COVID diary: A pandemic birthday

Amna Shabana | 14-09-2020

My friends from last year's birthday

Since the beginning of July, I had been counting down the days, waiting anxiously for the 29th of August, my birthday. One night, I sat alone, recalling the happy memories from my last birthday. My treasured friends gathered around me and sang the Happy Birthday in both English and Arabic. I think it’s the happiest song I've ever heard. I remember the heavenly voice of Rozan, the warm hugs of Batoul, the candles, the gifts and the kind wishes.

This time, though, I planned to celebrate my birthday all by myself. I wanted solitude. One birthday comes after another without taking time to talk seriously to myself about life goals and evaluate where I am headed. Have I even started on a path to somewhere? I made three gifts for myself: One is a painting of a sunflower. It’s my favorite flower, because to me the name itself is romantic. I once read a line of prose that says, “We are all sunflowers inside.” Gaza has sunflowers, but I haven’t actually seen one here, since they are mostly in the north. Someday, I want to travel there to see them. The second is a journal in which I scrapbooked a poem written the year I was born. I have to confess that it is sort of a melancholy poem and I don’t even totally understand it. But I stumbled upon it in a collection of poetry given to me by my sister when I began studying English in university, and because we were “born” the same year I related to it. The third self-gift is a T-shirt on which I painted my name the month of my birth. The one thing I held off on deciding was the special place I would go to open my presents—perhaps the seashore, almost every Gazan’s favorite place to relax.

My three gifts

It was the first time in my life when I actually waited in anticipation for my birthday. Almost all of my other birthdays arrived when I was busy. Facebook or friends reminded me of the day. But this time, I counted the days down one by one. I was discouraged by the foul speech I saw on social media, cursing the year for the harsh realities brought by the coronavirus around the world and the month for being too long and hot. But me: I waited for that very last day with a little dance in my heart.

And then came the 24th of August, in the evening, I was stunned by the news that COVID-19 had finally spread inside the Gaza Strip, with four people who were not travelers from the outside testing positive for the virus. My first thought wasn’t of 2 million people all crowded together, unable to physically distance; the scarcity of medical devices, like ventilators; or our already over-worked, under-paid medical staff. I thought of my birthday. It seems I will celebrate at home, I whispered. Call me unfeeling, but I didn’t feel afraid or terribly worried, despite the real danger I know exists. After the first disappointment of knowing my special place would be limited to my home, I decided the lockdown is an opportunity to step away from the mess of everyday meetings, interviews and appointments.

It was finally time to execute a project I had imagined a long time ago, but never had time for: Since I love flowers, I decided to explore online and find quotes from literature about the blossoms associated with the food we eat; so far, I’ve done sunflowers (we like the seeds) and the blossoms that grow on orange, olive and lemon trees. I record the quotations in a Google doc so I can share them with friends and paint a picture of the flowers. I imagine that I can taste the words and smell the paintings.

The number of COVID-19 infections have grown to more than 1,000 now and my passion for flowers has grown along with them. We haven’t gone out for more than three weeks, except for my youngest brother, who goes to a nearby market to buy necessary items, and my dad who purchases vegetables from roaming vendors. Mama washes the vegetables with vinegar and water to make sure they are disinfected. Then the whole family eats together around the table, which is bliss; normally, we all rush to work or school, returning home at different hours and barely see each other it seems. Lockdown has been our chance to reunite. Throughout the day, we sip drinks together: Early in the morning, I make milk by mixing the powder with boiled water and a bit of sugar. After lunch, my brother makes coffee and at dinner we drink tea.

Lina and Usamah

I even enjoy the quarrels with my little brother and sisters, since they are now bored. To keep them distracted, my dad tells us the story of one of the friends of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, before we sleep. And Mom has decided that Misk and Emad, my youngest sister and brother, should learn how to recite the Quran.

When the 28th August finally arrived, the sound of bombing awakened me at 7 a.m. Even during COVID-19, Israel won’t let us alone. Fortunately, the bombing only targeted an empty field. I went back to thinking about my birthday.

In the evening, my sister talked to me on a video call and her children, Lina and Usamah, sang Happy Birthday and made popcorn for an online party. Later, I was sleepy (thanks to the morning bombing) and went to my bedroom early. I painted to relax, combining two pictures I found on Pinterest, a cupcake and a budding flower. Moments later, Google notified me that, "tomorrow is your birthday; enjoy your special day." It offered me many options to celebrate, including "sing birthday song." I chose this and a recorded voice sang, "happy birthday from Google." As if on cue, I received a group call from my friends, who sang me their own, better version. Now I could sleep with a smile on my face.

When dawn broke, I eagerly prayed al-Fajr, the Muslim prayer we say before sunrise. I sat in front of the window. The nearby mosque was closed, but I could hear the prayers of our neighbors. It made me feel peaceful that people still said their prayers even when the mosques were closed. For my birthday wish, I said, "Make me closer to you this year. Amen." Thinking it was time to open my gift to myself, I put on some of my most beautiful clothes and brushed my hair. Finally, I opened the gift! How good it feels to be the one who brings the pleasure to myself!

It was the 10th day of the month called Muharram, the advent of the Islamic new year. Muslims fast to mark the anniversary of the day when Allah saved the prophet Moses from the pharaoh. I feel special to have my birthday fall on a holy day.

My siblings pretended to have forgotten my birthday. But in reality, they were making special cakes for a party. After we broke our fast in the evening, we waited for my elder brother and his family to join us. Meanwhile, the news came in that the number of coronavirus infections had grown even greater while we fasted. There were 102 just in our own neighborhood, Tal el-Hawa. I started to feel a little afraid.

Thinking my birthday was over, I washed the dishes. When I picked up my phone again, I saw missed calls from my friends. My very creative friends didn’t let the lockdown stop them; they made a video of while they sang, shared memories and showed me the gifts they had bought. Yes, it was a “virtual” birthday present, but it was even more special than usual. I can save it on my phone to cherish forever. This birthday was the happiest one ever, even with the coronavirus.

Posted: September 13, 2020

Mentor: Pam Bailey

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