Asmaa Rafiq Kuheil | 08-11-2020
Gaza is where I was born and the place where I will die. It is the place where my family lives and where I feel safe.
I can imagine you thinking incredulously: Do “Gaza” and “safe” go together? Yes, because no matter where one travels, no matter how beautiful other places may be, Gaza has something unique. If you see Palestinian life as filled only with despair, this essay is written to correct the record.
Gaza is a land of contradictions and extremes: life and death, love and hate, honesty and hypocrisy, defeat and resistance. Gaza is a land where “rights” that are taken for granted elsewhere are only dreams. It is a land its people sometimes wish they were not in, but at the same time, they miss it if they leave.
Of course, writing only about what’s to love about Gaza would be a lie. Living here is a never-ending struggle, streaked with tragedy:
Dreams of travel
When I was a child, my father spoke often about the beauty of Palestine, a land Muslims consider holy. He told me he once prayed in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque. He described it as an inimitable experience of beauty and piety. When I asked my father to tell me more about the mosque, he replied by quoting a hadith (saying of the prophet, peace be upon him): "Do not set out on a journey except for the three mosques: al-Masjid aI-Haram, the mosque of Allah's Apostle and the mosque of al-Aqsa.” If you’re not Muslim, let me interpret for you: These are the most majestic mosques on earth! Praying just once at al-Aqsa is the same as praying 500 times someplace else.
I begged my father to let me pray there too. He replied, “Oh, my little daughter, I wish we all could!”
“Why can’t we? Why? Why?” I implored, my eyes filling with tears.
When I went to bed that night, I stared at the ceiling, reflecting on this question. Praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque is still one of my dreams. Being denied the right to pray there is perhaps the worst consequence of our dispossession for Palestinians. Why does the rest of the world allow such prejudice and oppression? All the “whys” with no answers literally feel like they are hanging around my neck and stabbing me in the heart.
All Gazans have a desperate desire to visit the rest of the world. Who doesn’t want to travel? To see beyond their own back yard? However, leaving Gaza is a near-impossible challenge for most of us. Even if we can obtain a visa to visit another country, we probably can’t get a permit to leave. And if we do, we are treated horribly. A friend tried to travel abroad to complete her higher education. At the crossing into Egypt, she was forced to sleep on the ground for two days. After all that, she was turned back. If a stellar student like her can’t make it, I thought, I will only be able to leave Gaza when pigs fly!
Getting to Gaza from Egypt is no easier. To see Gaza, you must first experience its pain. There are checkpoints every few miles on the roads, manned by pitiless, greedy police officers. They can take whatever they admire from your suitcase, and they do. While you wait, innumerable hours are spent under the sun, the heat making your head hum. Measured by distance, it should only require five hours to travel from Cairo to the Rafah crossing into Gaza, but it usually takes days. You aren’t told why you are waiting or why you must sleep on the ground; meanwhile, flies buzz all around, rubbish is everywhere, and there is a cacophony of the sick, old, poor and young.
When you finally arrive inside, the first impression can be confusing. I spoke to one of my students, Fathia, a beautiful Palestinian woman who lives in Saudi Arabia, about visiting. She confided that the first time she entered Gaza, she was critical of our culture. Why do Gazan people write on the walls of their houses? Why are so many of them unpainted? Why are the streets so narrow? Why are there so many vendors in the streets instead of in stores? Later, she came to understand that writing on the walls memorializes remarkable moments in a family’s history. Because so many families are poor, they can’t afford to paint. And since unemployment is so high, people try to make money any way they can. But she also came to see that happiness is not dependent on pristine houses or wide streets.
I clearly remember the day when I was 12 years old, sitting at my desk at school when the teacher announced a surprise exam. All exams made me anxious and I obviously had not studied for this one. Then, relief came in a jarring, unwanted form: an explosion, followed by ambulance sirens. The head teacher announced we must leave school “NOW!” Terrified, my tough teacher fled the classroom even before we did.
Still holding my exam paper, I raced home, ecstatic to have been saved from the exam. When I arrived, my older sister, Samira, described what she had just seen and heard. Her voice trembled and she could only utter half sentences. A police cadet graduation ceremony had been bombed, killing scores of newly graduated officers, even traffic police and musicians in the police orchestra. I watched a video on TV of the attack she described. I will never be able to forget the images of bodies stacked on top of the other, with the news station playing “Gathering All Wounds” in the background. This song still makes me cry whenever I hear it.
In Gaza, both life and death are realities that co-exist in the same moment. Have you ever witnessed people bravely waiting for death, willing to accept their fate? Have you ever seen people watching destruction all around them with genuine gratitude that they are still ok? Have you ever comforted neighbors who know that losing their children and houses is the cost of insisting on the freedom of their people?
However, we are only humans, not angels. We are as much terrified as brave. When bombs fall, families gather in front of their televisions, mobile phones or radios, listening to how many people have been murdered so far. Mothers murmur the supplications that all Palestinian women say, asking their Lord to protect their children: “Oh, Allah! Save all our Palestinian youth and let this war have a happy ending for a remarkable Palestinian victory.” Meanwhile, during each attack, children slip out of the house to go to the market. Their parents fear they may come back in a coffin, but their own homes are not any safer. And they still have to eat.
Our forgotten young men
International agencies and media say a lot about the plight of women and children, but my heart also bleeds for our young men. Most Gazan males between 25 and 35 years old are not able to marry because they don’t have jobs and thus cannot afford the associated costs (which, in our society, must be borne by the men). Instead, they continue to live at home, well into their older years, dependent on their elders when they long to contribute to their parents and start their own families.
The other side of Gaza
I now have reinforced your dreadful views of Gaza, I know. But despite the sadness I have just documented, we passionately love this land and so would you, if you were allowed to visit.
I work as a project assistant at UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. We recently held a party to say goodbye to one of our foreign colleagues, a French humanitarian worker named Claire Cbl. It was her final day in Gaza and she burst out crying. I was curious, so I asked Claire later why she loved it here so much. She wrote back to me with this explanation:
“Living in Gaza has been a very intense and rich experience for different reasons. Workwise, my job was meaningful, since UNRWA provides basic, needed services to nearly 70% of the Gazan people. I also worked with an amazing Gazan team who were very supportive and helpful. Culturally, I visited rich historical sites: al-Omari Mosque, Saint Hilarion Monastery (one of the biggest Christian monasteries built between the 4th and 7th centuries), al-Basha Palace, the British Cemetery, Christian and orthodox churches, the old city, strawberry fields, the zoo, the old hammam (bath house), and lovely restaurants by the sea. All of these places reminded me that Gaza is not only a land of conflict and war but also a place of history, culture and leisure, which deserves tourism.
“Many of the walls are painted with artistic murals, giving Gaza City a very special look. I spent a lot of time learning Arabic and practicing with my colleagues and friends. When I talk to Arab people in Arabic, they always notice that I have the Palestinian accent, about which I am very proud! Socially, I discovered Gazans’ warm hospitality and generosity by being invited to family homes for lunches, Eid festivities and weddings. This gave me the opportunity to experience the people's way of everyday living. During Ramadan 2018, when I was fasting, I spent one iftar at my Arabic teacher’s house, which was an unforgettable experience. During that time, I learned how to prepare fresh karkade (hibiscus iced tea), which I drank every night after that. Politically, I grew to understand the Palestinian struggle and resistance much more deeply. I realized that Gaza played a crucial role during the intifadas. I feel like every street corner still remembers that time. I now also better understand the internal conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, and of course the disastrous consequences of the Israeli blockade. When you get to know friends or colleagues whose future is affected because they cannot travel to study or get medical treatment, you realize on a human level the harsh impact of the occupation.”
For all the reasons Claire gave, Gaza is extraordinary. She hopes to come back one day and bring her family and friends to show them how beautiful this place is. She sees that Gaza is a unique place full of potential. It is populated by welcoming people willing to live in peace, prosperity and security.
In Gaza, you will find…
Top-achieving students unable to complete their studies due to the unaffordable university fees.
Engineers, doctors and teachers working as taxi drivers, due to the scarcity of job opportunities.
The ever-present sound of drones above, watching you always and ready for war. The sound is like a cloud of bees, causing headaches and hindering sleep, almost like a story your Mum reads to try to lull you to sleep.
People who look like they are in their 70s when they are only in their 40s or 50s.
“Electricity schedules” that we memorize like our own phone numbers and that dictate how we go about our daily lives. As much as our desire to travel, we wish simply for a full 24 hours without electricity cuts. Yet, if we suddenly have a day like that, we ask why, suspiciously.
Mothers ululating when they learn of their children’s death just as they would at a wedding. In the Arab world, ululation is performed to honor someone (it also is heard at traditional Palestinian weddings).
Young men without a leg or legs, now a common sight on the streets.
But in Gaza, you will also experience these blessings:
If you are hungry or thirsty, if you get lost, if you fall in the street, if an irritating person is rude to you, you will immediately find people by your side defending you. They will defend you as if you are their own son or daughter, even though they have never met you before. There is a “safety net of caring.”
As you walk down our streets, you’ll smell the aroma of your neighbors’ lunch or breakfast. Nothing is more delicious than our ful (a stew of fava beans), falafel and hummus. It’s a meal all Gazans share daily. And our kanafa? To die for!
When hospitals issue a call for blood donations, you’ll see young men lining up in long queues, fighting over who gets to go first.
You can join all generations of family members as they sit and talk for hours on end; the power shortages mean we are not the “digital zombies” described in the West.
Gaza is a bosom cradling everyone who enters! Even though the Israeli blockade has exacted a high cost, it has also strengthened us, making us more mature, more knowledgeable and more passionate about resisting injustice. What others are learning about “Black Lives Matter,” we learned long ago.
Gaza is like the great Mother Earth who deeply loves her children—as well as all those who seek her embrace. Gaza is loved not just by its people, but also by those who visit, like Fathia and Claire.
Paradox and contradiction have found shelter here in Gaza. Even though our freedom has been stolen by the Israeli occupation, Gaza is worth dying—and writing—for.
Posted: November 8, 2020
Mentor: Jeff Abood