When my parents taught me what they thought would become a foundational lesson, it never crossed their minds I would turn into a pretty good bargainer at the age of eight.
"God is always with you" was my parent's mantra, which they said would help me through whatever challenges I faced, as they weren't usually around. I learned at a young age to send my wishes and prayers to God and it wasn’t long before I started to bargain and make small contracts with him. I would crouch somewhere, close my eyes, hold my breath, place my hands over my mouth to ensure no one can hear or interfere, and then whisper a request into my palm straight to God's ears.
I made my first contract with God when I was eight. I had awoken with a hoarse voice on the day of a school trip, and I was devastated that I couldn’t sing and chant with my classmates. I imagined myself sitting alone while my friends had fun. Instinctively, I found a corner on the bus, crouched where no one could see me, and promised God that I wouldn’t miss salat (prayer) or tell a lie for at least two days if he would just make my voice work. That seemed like a fair trade to me. For extra incentive, I promised God that I also would be nice to my sister.
It worked! In no time, I was part of my rowdy class on the trip. Although I tried, I didn't fully keep my end of the bargain. That didn't prevent me from making more deals with God, though. To make up for my previous shortcoming, I would just make more elaborate promises.
When Mom and Dad had a row, I made a new bargain for my parents’ speedy reconciliation in return for one full week of daily salats, no lying and no fighting with my sister. I did the same when I had exams. The more contracts I made and the more my pleas were fulfilled, the more I believed God was undoubtedly with me. I thought that was what deepened my faith. But I was wrong.
Faith came when God abandoned me. It took me five years to realize it.
In December of 2008, Israel began bombing us, and God was nowhere to be found. Neither my salats nor my contracts were helpful. I was on my way home after having taken a final exam when the earth suddenly turned into hell. The neighborhood where I live, Shijaiya, is close to the Israeli border. From our roof, I can see clusters of Israeli homes on land that once was my people’s before they were forced out. You can also see vast empty lands, abandoned by their Palestinian owners who could not hold out against persistent sniper killings. There's even a sniper's bullet still stuck in my parents’ window, shot toward my mom that month when she tried to look out during one of the attacks. Thankfully, the gunman missed.
Every bomb sounded like it would be the one to take our lives away. Every flash of light and thunderbolt seemed so close that I hid under the blankets and put three pillows over my head. But the sounds easily penetrated all those covers, going straight to my heart. I asked God to take me too if anything happened to my family. I remembered the Hadeeth [quote of the Prophet Muhammad] in which three men were stuck in a cave and each one started talking about his good deeds so that God would help him. I gave it a shot and started counting the good things I did in my life. I realized I had done bad things too, and asked God to forgive me for the times I bullied a classmate, went to a friend's house without telling my mother, took two shekels instead of one to school, called my math teacher names, caught an injured bird and put it in a tube, peeked into my sister's diary, kicked a boy who called me short, told Mom it was my brother who ate the Eid cookies, suspected a friend, and the times I put Mom's make-up on my face when she was out. I prayed God would forgive my sins and be with me in my hour of need. But I never knew if I was able to communicate with Him the way I used to when I was younger. I almost lost my faith.
My parents were afraid too, mostly for our safety. Twelve days into the unrelenting explosions, we were all depleted and emotionally shattered by fear. My parents told my eldest brother to take me to grandpa's house, located in the middle of Gaza and assumed to be a little safer. There were no cars so we had to walk, praying to be ignored by the Israeli drones above us. We had no idea what might happen, yet we walked and walked because we had faith. When we arrived at grandpa's house, I almost fainted. It was heaven. My uncle got me a glass of water, which I drank in silence. I slept that night, finally.
That first major bombing campaign in my life changed me, enlightened me. I suppose it was a loss of innocence to realize that praying for eternity cannot change reality; no bargain with God could bring back my two cousins during that assault. Nor could it bring back my cousin Hamza, who was killed in another, later Israeli bombing campaign in the summer of 2014. That attack lasted for 51 days. Fifty-one days of death, terror, insomnia, counting the dead, explosions, bombs, flashlights. It started during Ramadan [a month of fasting by Muslims to commemorate the revelation of the Quran by the prophet Muhammad]. Death became a daily reality while we were fasting. Ramadan ended, Eid El-Fitr [the festival marking the end of Ramadan] came and went, and death was still present everywhere.
We couldn’t reach Hamza’s house due to the fire caused by the bombing, so we weren’t there to comfort my aunt Zinat, his mother. Hamza's death was confirmed after two days and Dad had to wait for a ceasefire to go to his sister and soothe her. He didn't utter a word when he came back. Allah Yerhamu [may God have mercy on him] was all he could say for days after he had finally pulled himself together. I believe when martyrs go to heaven, they keep an eye on us. Hamza is somewhere there, praying for us the way we pray for him.
Before I got to know death personally, I grieved for Sirius, a character from my favorite series, Harry Potter. But all I had to do was go back a couple of pages and find him there, alive. When a wall or an entire house falls in Harry Potter, the characters can simply cast the levitation charm (wingarduim leviosa) or the freezing charm (Immobulus) and flee! After the successive Israeli attacks began in 2014, I started reading Harry Potter obsessively over and over, all seven books, even when I had exams. After Sirius' death, Harry tries to find a way to get him back, but it all was in vain. Somehow, even in fiction, your loved ones don't come back.
Hamza was my auntie's eldest son, the light of her eyes now extinguished. I would stare at the whiteness of the ceiling, hearing the whizzing of gunfire and missiles beyond the walls of my room, and imagine my aunt's tiny body turning into a skeleton from grief. It's nearly a fact that the first son is the closest to his mother. I prayed Hamza's death was some sort of a rumor and he might be able to find his way back somehow and say, “surprise!” Then we would yell and tell him how bad his joke was. But my requests, my pleas, my bargains for Hamza, though desperate and honest, were futile, just like the other wishes I made when other family and friends were killed in previous Israeli assaults.
My aunt's house, which was about eight meters away from ours, was leveled to the ground the same day we evacuated Shijaiya. There's nothing left of it now except for a few boulders and rocks. They couldn't save anything out from the rubble. Nothing. It took my aunt's husband eight years to build a home for his family. But one rocket from one bomb ruthlessly destroyed, in seconds, years of hard work and memories of their lives together. That meant they had nothing belonging to Hamza to cherish. No worn shirt still smelling of him. No letters, comb, diary or keychain. Nothing.
When we were forced to flee Shijaiya that summer of 2014, I selfishly prayed our house would be spared. Before leaving, I wished I had a magical bag like the one Hermione made when she, Harry and Ron ran from the death eaters' attack during Bill and Fleur's wedding. She was able to put all their stuff in a tiny bag. I wanted that bag more than anything in the world at that moment, so I could keep safe all the favorite things that defined my life. We were lucky to find our home later mostly intact. Israel destroyed more than 20,000 houses that summer.
In one way or another, God tests one's faith when He imposes hard circumstances. In the same way, I was tested to see whether I would still believe in Him or turn my back when there was too much to handle. Those critical moments proved who I am. I discovered He never abandoned me, but it was me who surrendered to despair every now and then. I'm not ashamed of the fact that when I prayed for the first time, it was out of fear that if I didn’t, I would be punished somehow. Even my sister teased me that day. But the more I prayed, the more it became a heavenly relationship. I don't deny my moments of anger and protest; I had my share of these. Nevertheless, I feel for that very reason I became closer to God. I think this is the kind of faith that gives my aunt a reason to wake up every morning and face a world without Hamza.
It terrifies me how talking about my auntie's razed house has become matter of fact. People turned into numbers, and the landscape of neighborhoods, life, people, homes, buildings and markets turned into rubble that we quantified with statistics. Would my last 18 years shrink to a mere number one day? The idea makes me shiver from head to toe. For a while, I tried to remember how my auntie's house looked. How many windows were there? Which door led to the kitchen? Were there any stickers on Iman's closet? Was it Reham who slept beside the window? What was the walls’ color? It feels like a betrayal to forget, but I forgot. I pass near the rubble every day now, and it’s just wreckage without memory. I selfishly thank God that our home was spared.
When my aunt finally came to visit us, she tried hard to avoid talking about anything related to the bombing that killed her son, but we all knew it was inevitable. I sat opposite to her, observing. Her voice was normal at the beginning, but when she mentioned Hamza, it started to shake. The façade she was wearing, holding back her tears, started to melt and reveal my vulnerable auntie. Tears pooled in her eyes.
I never reconciled with the idea of death. Many talk about accepting death as a part of life. But I can’t accept that. Hamza should have lived, married, had babies and named his first son after his father. He was older than me, so I never got to know him well. In that room, with my auntie, I wished I had spent more time with him. Sometimes, loss feels absurd. How can someone be here one moment and gone the next, never coming back? I’m not sure I’ll ever accept that. So I will continue to try to make contracts with God.