Tasneem Khader | 09-12-2020
On my last birthday, May 4, I complained to my American friend Kevin how unlucky I was that my birthday was also my first final exam at university. In fact, it’s become a sad routine; in Gaza, we always take our finals in May.
But he gave me a different way of looking it: "You couldn't be luckier!" he explained. Many people in the United States, he said, celebrate my birthday every year—although they think they are marking something else. May 4 is the day the series of Star Wars movies first launched, and its fans greet each other with an adaptation of the characters’ greeting, "May the force be with you." They say instead, "May the fourth be with you!" That made me feel special! And it’s changed the way I view my birthday.
6 a.m. (exam morning routine)
I got up early after only two hours of sleep, performed al-Fajr (the Muslim dawn prayer), then started studying again. I had stayed up all night studying for my exam and, as usual, became so sleepy while reviewing my notes. It is said that lack of sleep is not good for your health or your concentration, but I can’t quit the bad habit of cramming late into the night before an exam. I have another bad habit of not eating breakfast on exam days. My mom repeatedly tells me, "Tasneem, do not forget your breakfast. It helps you focus." But I get butterflies in my stomach before exams and lose my appetite.
After a couple of hours of studying, I dressed and left for the university at 8:30 a.m. I continued studying in the car.
9 a.m. (exam!)
My university is not far from my home, so it took me only 20 minutes to arrive. I put my notes away in my bag, took a deep breath and entered the exam hall. I waited in my seat for the exam to begin. The sound of the clock mingled with my heartbeat, until I became unaware of what I was hearing. Those 10 minutes of waiting felt like a month. At 9 a.m., the professor began handing out the English teaching exam. I could hardly breathe when the professor drew close to my seat. He gave me the exam paper and smiled at me. Without thinking, I smiled back, hiding all the stress inside me. (I am very good at hiding my feelings with a fake smile.) I started reading the questions and realized I would have trouble answering some. Nevertheless, I concentrated as hard as I could, guessing at some of them. I think it’s better not to leave any question unanswered, since there’s a chance I might guess correctly. After all, as the Arabic saying goes, "half a loaf is better than no bread."
While immersed in the exam, I heard a thunderous sound. It was not strange to me or my classmates. Ever since December of 2008, we’ve grown used to the sound of bombs. That year was our first experience of war, when Israel attacked the whole of Gaza, including my city, Rafah. Back then, I was only in the fifth grade and it was so frightening. Every time I heard the sound, I bent over and covered my head with my hands to protect myself from shrapnel, the way my uncle told us to do, trembling all the while. Since then, however, I’ve survived three more wars, so it’s almost become routine.
Still, I trembled a little at the sound of a bomb. I put my hands on my head unconsciously. The professor told us to relax and not worry. But now I was nervous and didn't think I could finish on time. I looked around and saw my classmates’ tense facial expressions. Despite the stress around me, I continued answering the questions.
Finally, the professor said, "Time is up. Pens down!" I handed in my exam, sure that I had screwed everything up.
11 a.m. (melody of war)
When I reached home, I scrolled through my Facebook news feed. All the posts were about airstrikes, with the hashtag #Gazaunderattack. Because of the bombing, the university canceled the remaining two exam sessions. I posted sarcastically on my timeline, “Have you ever seen a more special birthday than mine? The first day of my finals and, seemingly, there is a war. Happy birthday to me!" I received some happy birthday wishes and some sympathetic messages.
When my family gathered in the afternoon, everyone wished me a happy birthday after asking how I did on my exam. I wasn’t expecting any special activities that day, because we had celebrated my 21st birthday a week before, knowing my exams would interfere with a party on the actual day
However, my youngest sister Samia surprised me with two gifts. The first was a white mug with a picture of a ballet dancer wearing a gold-colored dress. As I unwrapped the other present, I wondered what was inside. To my surprise, it was a gift I had been wanting for a long time: a music box! And not just any music box. It was a small, vintage, piano-shaped box, white with blue flowers and gold leaves and branches. A tiny ballet dancer with a white tutu perches on the top; when the music box plays the melody of Beethoven’s Für Elise, glides around in a circle. The music and the movement was so mesmerizing, I almost forgot about everything around me.
With tears in my eyes, I hugged my sister. She truly made my day amid the attacks. Now, I play it when I am sad or stressed to help me calm down.
The next day was horrible. Twenty-seven persons were killed and 177 were injured. We were panicked and horrified. Who knew when our turn would be? In the evening, we heard news that shocked everyone in the city: Ali Abed Eljawad, an English teacher, was hit in the center where he taught. He was the teacher of hundreds of students in Rafah, including my brother Ahmed, who is a year younger than me. When Ahmed heard about his death, he was speechless. It was the first time I saw Ahmed that sad.
That night, I laid my head on my pillow, trying to escape the sorrowful news; it was too much to handle for one day. However, I couldn't sleep, thinking of Mr. Ali's wife and children. It must have been a tough night for them. How would they continue their life normally? The spirit of their house was gone! I prayed to God to help them through their adversity.
The aggression lasted for only two days, but it will stay in our memories forever. This is how we spend our life: Horror, panic, grief and tears, then we continue our normal life. Students return to school and employees go back to work as if nothing happened. Still, the losses engrave a wound in our hearts.
This is where I live. This is Gaza. On my birthday and every day, "May the force be with you!"
Posted: December 9, 2020
Mentor: Alison Glick