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

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

Finding joy in the time of COVID-19

Areej Kassab | 25-05-2020

The We Are Not Numbers iftar

Ramadan is almost over and many Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast) under strict precautions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Gaza, we have not yet experienced “community spread”—and yet we fear it greatly. The result is a mishmash of practices—crowded markets (it’s hard for even the government to deny residents the tradition of buying new clothes for this special holiday, when we have so few sources of happiness) alongside social distancing with masks in mosques. My family? We are cautious. I have only gone out twice, one for a little relief at the beach and once to join my We Are Not Numbers friends for an iftar.

Social distancing in a Gaza mosque

This “novel” coronavirus is a catastrophe around the world, but the strip of Gaza is always in a state of crisis. There is no “normal” here. We experience mass deaths in sporadic Israeli assaults (it’s only a question of when the next one will occur, not “if”) and the unemployment rate everyone finds shocking in other countries is routinely even higher here—52% overall and about 70% among youth.

Even before COVID-19, unemployment and poverty were a leading cause of suicide. Now, we see COVID-19 and poverty as “friends,” debating over who will kill Gaza first. But we Gazans are strong and have faith that “we shall overcome.”

Fesikh

Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday that marks the end of the month-long, dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. We prepare by we spending a whole day making our famous desserts kaak (a sweet type of biscuit) and ma'amoul (a cookie filled dates or figs and nuts, such as pistachios or walnuts). We also buy coffee and other desserts from the market. And then there are fesikh and renga. Renga is a salty, smoked fish and fesikh is a type of mullet that is left to dry in the sun, then buried in lots and lots of salt underground. We eat this dish on the first day of Eid al-Fitr; it is traditionally believed that think it re-establishes a “balance” in our diet after fasting. I prefer renga; it’s soooo yummy!)

I baked kaak for my family. Suddenly a Facebook notification popped up on my phone from We Are Not Numbers with a great idea that made my day. Issam and Asmaa (the managers of the team) invited everyone to an iftar with 50 new members just accepted into the group. This would be our first time to meet each other due to the lockdown. We had only met the new writers via online Zoom sessions.

We were instructed to bring homemade dishes to share. I decided to go, because I really needed to smell the air of freedom out of the house and bring some of my kaak. On 28th day of Ramadan, we had the brunch by the sea. It was a really hot day and I wore my sun visor. Taking my younger sisters Sara and Yara, we set out. I wanted to meet all of the new members, but I searched for one particular “newbie”: Nour Abu Qauod. I had seen her pictures on Instagram and something about her made me want to meet.

Me and Nour

We met, I introduced myself and we talked about our lives in Gaza and our original villages; both of us are refugees and hope to return to our land as soon as possible. Nour is from Yibna, a Palestinian village about 15 kilometers southwest of Ramallah. Yibna was seized by Israeli forces on June 4, 1948, and depopulated during the military assault and expulsion. I'm from Jules, an Arab village in the Galilee region, now controlled by Israel. It is 16 kilometers east of the ancient city of Acre. I felt like I had known her for a long time!

Nour will graduate this year from pharmacy college. She said her sister convinced her to apply to We Are Not Numbers. She likes writing about Palestine and the conditions in Gaza. The new WANNers will take writing courses to improve their skills. She is so excited to write her first piece, and I can’t wait to read it.

All of us We Are Not Numbers members sat at a large table and introduced ourselves to each other. Me, Nour, Riwaa and Shahed made up a great group of four girls. "How about a walk on the beach, since I am bored?" I asked. "It's a great idea; why not?" replied Nour with excitement. Riwaa and Shahid loved the idea also and we walked on the golden sand of the beach. We saw a boat and took pictures in front of it. It was unforgettable.

Then we returned to the team, Asmaa asked us to form a circle so we could get to know each other more. She assigned each of us a number; mine was 4. When it was my turn, I introduced myself and told the new “WANNers” about my selection of as writer of the month last year. I wanted to say something funny, so I told them I like hedgehogs and snails. I find them cute. (Did you know there are Instagram accounts dedicated to hedgehogs?)

All of the members spoke about themselves and the most fun moment was when Jehad Shehada, the winner of our GazaVision contest last year, sang al-Madeeh. This is a special song that honors our prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). Jehad's voice touched my soul.

After that one of the other “old” members raised his hand to stop the noise and told us about a game. "Can you count from 1 to 10, guys?" he asked. We laughed; surely, he was joking. But it wasn’t easy as we thought. Yes, it was counting to 10, but with “conditions”: For example, every time someone talked over someone else, we had to start at 1 again. We reached 7 easily, but we never got to 10! Then the game changed. We arranged ourselves in pairs, and Nour was my partner. The game is to look at your partner for 15 seconds and then turn your eyes away. Then your partner asks a question about her eye color, for example, and you must reply in 15 seconds. I only answered correctly once, and that was about Nour's shoe color. Nour was surprised: "How did you know that?” "It was the first thing I focused on—your shoes," I answered with a big smile.

Finally, we took pictures with the whole group before returning home. Now, Nour and I chat daily on Instagram and Snapchat. Finding similar souls, minds and hearts isn’t easy for me. Thank you, We Are Not Numbers!

Posted: May 24, 2020

Mentor: Kiran Butt


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