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

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

False reflections: life in Gaza

Riham El Naji | 04-08-2015

Illustration by Riham El Najy

The mother stood in front of an old mirror, holding her 2-year-old daughter, smiling at her and saying, "Oh, my sweetheart, my little Rana, I hope you enjoy a life as beautiful as your face."

She kissed her child gently as the little girl tried to touch her reflection in the mirror and laughed.. However, her smile would not last long. Soon, her mother would be gone.

Two years later, the Second Intifada began and Israeli military forces destroyed their house. The mother tried to save one of the Palestinian resistance fighters who had escaped, then attempted to hide nearby. He had killed an Israeli soldier who was brutally torturing a Palestinian child, just because the boy had thrown a small stone toward a military jeep. Unfortunately, a military helicopter followed the fighter to Rana's family home and launched two missiles, killing both her mother and the resistance fighter. Left behind were her young daughter and three older sons..

One year of melancholy passed. Rana was a young child, and she needed someone to care for her and her brothers Osama, Kamal and Ali. It was difficult for the father to raise four children without a wife. Thus, he decided to remarry so that his children would have a mother who would brighten their lives. During the first six years, the new wife’s behavior was exemplary. She treated her husband’s sons and daughter generously. She called Rana sweet names as if she were her real mother, and the other children were happy as well. However, the wife noticed that Rana had a strange habit. She constantly looked at her reflection in the mirror and talked to herself…

The family lived happily during those six years, although the father barely earned enough for basic necessities. He was a trader and Israel maintained a strangling blockade on Gaza. His business was failing, since goods and imports were not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip.

Rana was 12 now, and she still loved mirrors; they helped her imagine what could happen in the future. One day, she stood in front of the mirror, her hazel eyes shining with hope, her dark, brown, wavy hair framing her face, and said, "My dear mirror, I know you always tell me the truth, so what might happen to us in the future?" Rana took a deep breath and began to trace her hopes on the mirror as she whispered to her reflection in the mirror: "My days will be wonderful and happy with my father, brothers and stepmother. She is like my mother and I really love her. And I will grow to respect and love her more and more." She felt very hopeful.

A few days later, her stepmother shouted at her to do the laundry. When Rana said she couldn’t because she was studying for an exam, her stepmother became mad and smacked her. She forced her to do the laundry anway, and Rana was unable to finish preparing for her test. Rana was shocked by such a transformation in her stepmother's behavior. She escaped to her room alone and stared at her reflection in the mirror. "Maybe my stepmother is mad because dad is absent for a couple of weeks. I have to excuse her. She will be fine tomorrow," said Rana wistfully.

Rana still thought it was only a matter of time before her father would return and her stepmother would change. A day later, Rana came home from school, feeling very happy. She was an excellent student and had just been offered the opportunity to participate in an educational program for gifted students. However, she  needed her parents' permission to allow her to participate. Unfortunately, her stepmother was the only parent available to give permission. Rana asked her stepmother to sign, with  a happy look on her face . Her stepmother did not respond. Instead, she took the paper and tore it into pieces, destroying Rana's dream.

Then Rana began to notice that her stepmother was pregnant and suspected that's why she was behaving badly. Maybe she didn't want to love anyone except for her baby? Maybe she was jealous of her husband's children? Or was she afraid they might harm her baby after it was born? Rana, as usual, ran to her room and asked her mirror what would happen. She closed her eyes as she held the mirror frame and said, “I think everything will be fine and my stepmother will change and turn out to be better. And what I will love the most is a new baby sister or brother. But I really want her to be a girl not a boy. I want a sister.”

Two days later, however, her stepmother tripped and fell down the stairs. Sadly, she aborted the baby. Now, she would never be able to give birth and she could only walked when using a cane.

Even though Rana's mirror usually failed her, she once again gazed into it and tried to imagine a beautiful outcome. "My father will come back within two days, and I'm looking forward to seeing him and hearing him calling me Ranosh," Rana whispered desperately. A month later, however, they received a phone call from the Israeli army informing them he had been imprisoned because he was suspected of killing an Israeli settler. Rana sighed as she was helping her stepmother walk and said with sadness,  "Does this mean I won't see him anymore? Will he return soon?" "Yes, sure, my dearest sister. Don't cry; have faith in God. Dad will come back soon," replied Osama, while lowering his head and looking at the ground.

Her older brother Osama, 20, had to leave college and work at a bakery so that he could support the family. Kamal, who was two years younger than Osama, had gotten high grades in his high school and wanted to study medicine. However, he couldn't study what he really wanted in Gaza because it was expensive and his family was not able to pay university fees. Therefore, he applied for a scholarship to study medicine in Algeria. Luckily, he was accepted from more than a hundred students who applied. He had to wait for more than two months to get official permission to travel abroad. After facing a lot of obstacles, he finally was able to travel in October 2008. Rana was sad that her brother Kamal has gone, yet she was happy he would achieve his dream. She also was very hopeful that she,her father, Osama, Kamal, Ali, her stepmother (despite her cruelty) would be together one day.

But nothing could stop her from persisting in the strange habit of looking at herself in mirrors. Was it a curse? Was it a mental disorder? Or could it be a lack of self-esteem? Nobody knew why she was deeply in love with mirrors. Every day, she looked at her reflection in the mirror as she tried to escape from her unfair reality. "I really miss Dad and want to see him again,” she whispered one day into the mirror as she played with an old doll her father had given her. “In this month, I remember that he used to bring me dolls. I know I'm too old for these things, but I really need my dad. I really need my father's kind heart. I do believe we will all be better when Dad comes back. I do believe that I will be able to see my brother Kamal when the blockade on Gaza is abolished and he will often come to see us. I just have to be patient because our beautiful Gaza will be free sooner or later,"

Her brother Ali, who was two years older than her, had been watching her and laughing, "You're crazy, little thing. You talk to yourself like eccentric people." Rana replied, "You'd better stop laughing at me or I'm going to tell my stepmother that you were using her makeup stuff and trying them on your face. I saw you." Ali silenced his words for a while since he felt embarrassed. Then he said, "I think we'd better study now. Tomorrow is our first final exam."

Ali went to his room to study for the exam, but Rana could not leave her mirror. She continued to whisper to herself, saying, "When we finish the exams, Ali and I will have fun during the winter vacation. We will enjoy it and have a wonderful time."

The next day, Rana went to school and took her exam, which was easy. She went home, feeling delighted. She was looking forward to seeing her brother Ali and asking him about his exam. On her way home, she heard sounds of explosions. She thought they might be the air strikes the Israeli army usually launched to terrify the people in Gaza. She never expected what would happen.

When she arrived home, she found her stepmother and brother Osama crying. She saw the corpse of her brother Ali. His body was covered by a white blanket, but his face was exposed. The Israeli air force claimed it had targeted a factory used to store Palestinian weaponry next to his school. However, the factory was not destroyed. Instead, missiles directly struck Ali and his friends Omar and Muhammad who were on their way home, feeling happy after finishing their first exam.

Rana was unable to believe she had lost her dearest brother. She couldn't even take a look at him before burial, for she couldn’t stand saying the last goodbye. She went to her room, weeping silently.

Suddenly, she stopped. She took a deep breath and stood in front of her soulmate, the mirror. She screamed loudly, "Now, I have realized that you, mirror, are a curse. My whole life is an ugly curse. I am also a curse. I should have expected the worst. I shouldn't have thought of beauty nor should I have had hope. As long as I'm a Palestinian living in Gaza exile, I don't have the right to dream and I shall never dream. Imagination is prohibited here exactly like freedom."

And that mirror that had helped Rana get through so many hopeless days? Smashed in an instant, leaving her without any escape—even imaginary.

Author’s note: The story of Rana is based on the true story of a girl I know. Her brother died in a brutal attack on Gaza. And the story of the resistance fighter (helped by Rana’s mother) also is a real story, told to me by my own mom. However, I have added some features to Rana's personality because they reflect my own personality. My character is similar to hers, as I'm in love with mirrors and usually anticipate a bright future as well as a beautiful life. I escape, like Rana does, to imagination, away from this miserable life. I create beauty and happiness in my dreams because I lack them. Living in a prison, I mean Gaza, is the reason for my need for escape. I'm not complaining, but simply I want to live like any other person in this world. Everyone living in Gaza needs and deserves that.

Each person living here has stories, dreams and hopes.
And They Are Not Numbers. 

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Mentor: Alice Rothchild
Posted Aug. 4, 2015

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