Iman Inshasi | 27-10-2018
A normal flight from the UAE to Cairo, Egypt, takes about five hours. But when measured by the impact on my life, the distance seemed a lot further.
Despite my long obsession with observing clouds and photographing them as they caress the sun, I hated them as I stared out of the airplane’s window. Why didn’t they release a shower of rain, snow or even gigantic hail, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing? Flight attendants came and went like bees, but I felt like I was chained to my seat—like a hostage waiting for salvation. The last time I checked, though, Tom Hanks wasn’t on board. I used to think of flight as the path to freedom and independence, but not anymore.
My swollen eyes couldn’t bear the sight of the calm sky and I soon closed all of the window blinds. Tears ran down my cheeks like a river. A blanket covered my body and when a hospital-like breakfast tray was laid on the fold-down table in front of me, I felt like an invalid. I was only 15, yet I felt like my life was coming to an end.
“Who leaves the UAE to go to Gaza?”
I won’t deny hating Gaza even before I arrived, and I vividly recall praying to God for some kind of miracle that would mean we had to return to Abu Dhabi. But once I saw my dad carrying our bags when we landed in Cairo, a bad word that starts with an F leapt to my tongue. I knew there was no going back.
I naively asked Mum, “So what now?” She replied with what was left of her energy, “We take a taxi, then another taxi, then another taxi.” (Israel doesn’t permit Gaza to have its own airport, so we must enter through Egypt.) And that’s what we did—crammed in like sardines. I snapped at Mum, “Did you bring the entire house from UAE to here? We can’t even move in this car.”
During the almost eight-hour ride, I existed in what I remember as a “half” phase: half asleep, half hungry, half crying. It was so oppressively hot I felt like dry toast. I finally did fall asleep though, without even realizing it. Then Mum was shaking me like a sack of potatoes, saying “we’re home.”
A stranger snatched my handbag. We stared at each other for 15 endless seconds, the longest eye contact I’ve ever made with someone I don’t know. “Welcome home,” the robber finally said, looking at me from head to toe. I grimaced at his greeting; this was not my home.
The “robber” was actually my cousin and he, along with some other men, welcomed us to the house where I’d have to live. When I entered the living room, I felt like I had walked in on the meeting of a support group. Chairs were organized in a C shape, with seven young men sitting in them. (I soon learned that family gatherings are a must in this culture; I had never realized my family was this big!)
I faked a smile and sat for four hours, answering what seemed to me to be highly intrusive questions. I finally decided to call it a day when one of my cousins said for the umpteenth time, “You’re not going back, you know.”
My life-changing flight and the endless taxi ride meant I needed a life-changing shower. Burdened with exhaustion and grief, I grabbed a towel and my favorite pajamas and escaped into a dull, gray bathroom. The floor was bare concrete, without a mirror, bathtub or towel rods. I didn’t sign up for this! I turned on the shower spigot and waited for the water to cleanse away my mood of foreboding. Instead, I tasted grit in my mouth.
“Yes, the water in Gaza isn’t clean,” my uncle shouted in response to my yell of, “THERE’S SAND IN THE WATER!”
It took me five minutes to return to acceptance, one for each phase of grief: denial (what do you mean, there’s sand in the water?!), anger (if a clean person took a shower in this water, she’d come out needing a bath!), bargaining (how about if we give it three days and if the water hasn’t cleared up, we move back to the UAE?), depression (I can’t even take a decent shower; is that too much to ask?) and—finally—resignation (this is life now, Iman, so deal with it).
I headed to another gray room with a small bed. I was so exhausted I could’ve slept for the next decade, but I didn’t. I spotted a spider web stretched over the corner of my room. I had an unwanted roommate.
Despite having entomophobia (I just googled the term so don’t feel stupid), I didn’t flinch, scream or run in circles like I usually do. “I bet you don’t like it here either,” I thought (while squatting to get a closer look). I had never felt more pathetic, feeling a common bond with a spider because we both were helpless. But helpless creatures get crushed, and I vowed to not allow anything to crush me.
I woke up. One day down, eternity to go?
The first thing I noticed was that I was sloshing in my own sweat. “Who turned off the freaking fan?” I groused. I quickly discovered the power was out. (I would later learn that a shortage of fuel meant we had no electricity for up to 18 hours a day.) As my eyes began to inspect my environment, I was baffled by the strange kids staring at me.
“Shit,” I thought in alarm. “Did I sleepwalk into someone else’s house?”
“You look funny,” one of the kids said, pointing at my puffy eyes.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” I snapped. If I felt anything that morning—or, rather, afternoon, because I had slept for about 16 hours—it was complete confusion.
I am always late. Arab genes run in my blood like Bolt. I strongly believe I’m “too grand for the clock to govern me.” (Yup, that’s a Peaky Blinders quote.) But even I know it gets out of hand sometimes.
For instance, I was one month behind as a high school sophomore in Gaza, but I couldn’t have cared less. But I couldn’t escape school. Still, I refused to spend money on a new uniform and borrowed my cousin’s instead. On my first day, I donned the uniform, fighting back my tears. My parents took me to my new school in a taxi (very few people in Gaza can afford their own cars) and I hoped the tires would blow so we could all go home. But, no, we arrived.
The school was small in comparison with the one I attended in the UAE. It was so old the blue paint had faded into—you guessed it—gray. Considering my unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the principal thought it would be a good idea to assign me to my cousin’s class. She was a great help, I have to agree. At that point, she had to act as sort of a babysitter: She sat next to me in class, helped me with homework and even made sure I got home in a taxi.
“We’re here,” she said as we were dropped off close to my house. I headed east with a newfound sense of confidence, proud to have memorized the way home. But my cousin headed west and I’d nearly knocked on a complete stranger’s door when she rectified the situation by yanking me by the elbow like I was a 5-year-old.
Like any student who’s endured a long day at school, I went straight to the kitchen. I was startled by what I found. Mum was lighting candles in the kitchen.
Me: “Are we having a party? Conjuring spirits? Some special occasion I missed?”
Mum: “No, the power is out, that’s all.”
In Abu Dhabi, I had never imagined that people in the 21stcentury would use candles for any purpose other than topping a cake or having a romantic dinner. But I soon came to realize that people in Gaza weren’t living in the same century as the rest of the world. The truth is, time in occupied war zones freezes. In Gaza, candles are needed to light up a house—and also can burn it down within minutes.
It was hard for my 15-year-old self to process the swift and drastic changes in my lifestyle. If I had to choose one sight in Gaza that was the most obviously different, it would be the streets. People of all ages rode donkeys, children sold peppermints and grown men stood all day at intersections trying to peddle cigarettes. Jobs and decent salaries are scarce, and this is the result.
The streets also are where my dislike of Gaza developed into something greater—respect. People here are eager to learn and figure out how to thrive with very little. This proved to me that life was not over. It had just taken a different direction.
I stopped being 15 the minute I set foot in Gaza. Doctor Strange would be stunned at my transition from a mere teenager to a not-so-naive young woman.
At first, whenever I heard the call to prayer, I would grab my prayer rug and beseech God to take me back to the UAE. But in those early days, I was unable to hear God’s answers.
I knew deep down there must be a reason I had come to Gaza. I still don’t know the reason, but I eventually trusted God, even as three successive Israeli assaults made me lose my faith in humans. I know for a fact that had He not placed me in this territory and tested me as I have been, I wouldn’t have become the person I am today. I am thankful.
Posted: October 27, 2018
Mentor: Deborah Root