Shahd Safi | 14-05-2021
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century—the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.
— Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Gaza may well be just an image of destruction and explosion that appears before your eyes while you’re sitting on the sofa, peaceably flipping through the channels. But what if Gaza is more than that? What if our story parallels the plotlines of Les Misérables? Victor Hugo’s novel centers on the life of the peasant Jean Valjean — imprisoned for five years for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family and then incarcerated another fourteen years after various escape attempts – and his comrades who rise up to resist their oppression. That’s not so far from the story lived by us Gazans.
I was born in Deir El Balah, Gaza, Palestine. Like any other baby, I had innocent features and a childish smile, and I must’ve been amazed by the beauty of the world I’d inherited and curious to explore it. I have always believed everyone should have the opportunity to grow up to be enthusiastic, energetic and powerful, to be able to blossom and shine with strength.
But the people of Gaza, including me, have been let down since childhood, and our enthusiasm, energy and power have been stolen by wars that come alive in front of us. I myself have experienced three wars, which were all massively horrible, within the first decade and a half of my life. These wars cause not only physical damage, but also multiple other problems to compound our tragic circumstances.
Israel has colonized and occupied Palestine through the Zionist movement since 1948, after the Nakba, the catastrophe. Nakba is the day on which Palestinians were dispossessed and forced out of their homeland. As a result, some Palestinians from the north sought refuge in the West Bank and some Palestinians from the south headed toward Gaza. Since then, generation after generation of Palestinians have been plagued by all kinds of terrible conditions, such as Israel’s occupation of water resources, the construction of apartheid walls, various wars, and deep poverty.
The economic situation in Gaza has been declining since 2007, ever since, as a punishment for the Hamas National Movement, Israel instituted a blockade and imposed a siege on Gaza, not giving a damn about those who didn’t agree with Hamas, or the children who comprise almost half the population. This has led to massive poverty among the people living in the Strip.
To clarify my point, just look at the state of education in Gaza: University students like me find it almost impossible to pay all the fees without falling into huge amounts of debt. For instance, one day as I was riding the bus, I noticed my bus mate was upset and disappointed, and when I asked her why, she explained that she had just had a fight with her mother because she couldn’t afford to buy books and pay for transportation.
College unaffordability especially affects families that have at least two students at universities. As a result, many young people give up on education. This hits me especially hard, because I’m aware of how much our society needs education to improve and change the social and cultural conventions.
The fire that burns souls has colonized in the hearts of Palestinians. Our country actually ranks among the three most depressed places in the Arab world: according to Arab Barometer, which does quantitative research on the Middle East. Thirty-seven percent of Palestinians contend with depression. I believe that for many of us, depression emerges from the trauma of war.
Unsurprisingly, I also have experienced depression in many stages of my life. Much to my shock, I recently learned that one of my closest friends is suffering from schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder that shares many symptoms with depression. I’m sure there are many more people out there like my friend, people who are reluctant to be open about the hell they’re going through for many reasons, including fear of social judgement and the possibility that people won’t understand their feelings of helplessness.
Hopelessness is the point where death starts to occupy and control one’s thoughts; it is the bridge between depression and death. Since 2015, the number of suicides in Gaza has been rising at a frightening rate – as a sensible response to unlivable conditions. Despite the fact that suicide is a major taboo in our society and an unforgivable sin in Islam, it has become the only way out for many Gazans.
In my view, Israel is not the only main reason of our suffering. It actually goes beyond that to Palestinian Arab leaders.
Palestinians, especially Gazans, are tired of the Fateh-Hamas conflict and of these two political parties. As of now, they haven’t come to an agreement despite all the attempted reconciliation deals. It’s common to feel that neither party has managed to serve the people well, and neither is able to lead. Personally, I believe that this conflict is a main reason for the unlivable conditions in Palestine, and specifically in Gaza.
Our shared humanity
Les Misérables and the Gazan story may well have different plots and perspectives, but they both share themes of pain and grief. For instance, I’m sure that every single Gazan has experienced a young child running up to their side, begging for money to buy cheap biscuits or tissues. This causes feelings of embarrassment and hopelessness, to realize that you can’t even help these little miserable children in the street. In addition, both Les misérables of nineteenth-century Paris and Les misérables of today’s Gaza experience social prejudices, arbitrary detentions, and failed revolts.
Yet we also have in common positive experiences: stories of love, success, hope, and most importantly, the will and deep desire to overcome our oppressive circumstances.
Reading has always been my escape, and while it was hard for me to run from the pain I live in to pain I can only imagine, I don’t regret reading this novel. It gives me a large amount of hope, especially through the character of Jean Valjean. He was able to change from a bad person to a very kind-hearted angel, and I hope that happens to politicians and people in charge in Gaza and everywhere else.
I have written a poem:
To revolt, is to believe
in the music angry spirits
play, to let your heart listen to their
pain, and most importantly to take action whenever
If you became one of the miserables, would you give up the fight
or take the responsibility to change and revolt?
Les Misérables, the Sequel
A postscript: I wrote this essay before Israel began its new assault on Palestine. But the current situation only reinforces my point that, like Jean Valjean, we climb the barricades in resistance. Actually, the story of Les Misérables is even more relevant to what’s happening now, which reveals the racism in the mentality and mindset of the Israeli occupation.
As the situation here in Gaza becomes more and more terrifying, we get asked a lot if we’re safe, and that’s when we hit a wall mentally. It feels messy and foggy in our brains, to try to wrap our heads around the fact that we cannot be safe at all. Sadly enough, all you can really ask is if we’re still alive.
Let me take this chance to appreciate the solidarity we receive from those of you who truly believe in humanity and to assure you that your support on social media is totally meaningful and powerful. From my desk in my room here in Gaza, where I am so freaking afraid from the noises of war and the airstrikes — I’m reaching out to ask you to also please, please boycott Israel and help end our misery.
Posted: May 13, 2021
Mentor: Eva Dunsky