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

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

My day of reckoning

Zahra Shaikhah | 14-07-2018

With my We Are Not Numbers team (Haneen and I are the second and third from the far left)

On what has become known as Burning-Tire Friday (April 4), I had planned to run on the beach to reduce my stress. I never thought fate had something else in mind for me that day—to tempt and run from Israeli bullets during Gaza’s Great Return March.

I always study for my English literature classes on Friday mornings, but that day, I couldn’t. How could I study French philosopher Jacques Derrida when my brain was spinning and couldn’t concentrate?

A group of We Are Not Numbers writers invited me to go along with them to the protest to shoot a video about the march. I didn't hesitate to say yes. Yet, a feeling of "bad things could happen” nagged at me. The protest had kicked off the week before, and 16 of our young men had been shot and killed by Israeli snipers on one day! More than 1,400 others were wounded or fainted from teargas. I have to be honest; if my fellow team members hadn’t encouraged me, I wouldn't have gone! Would I come back as a dead body or, worse, a disabled 21-year-old girl?

Holding my literature book

My dad is different from many other fathers in Gaza, who keep their daughters at home to protect them. He raised me to be independent, saying I must be the one who “saves” myself. He never tells me "no" when I ask him if I can go somewhere or do something; he gives me advice and we discuss it when he thinks I am wrong or has concerns, but he trusts and respects me.

So, he allowed me to go when I said I wanted to visit the march.

We went to one of the five protest encampments—Al-Shujaiya, on the eastern border of Gaza; its translation is literally "bravery." It was almost noon and the people of Gaza were getting ready for the al-Juma'a prayer, which is performed every Friday. I texted my brother's wife, who lives in our same building, to bring my 7-month-old niece Hanan, which means “kindness.” Thinking I might not come back, I wanted to say good-bye to the person I love the most.

I hugged Hanan and kissed her right cheek, whispering "I love you." She was so soft and calm, and her warmth in my arms softened my heart so I could mentally forgive everyone who had hurt me in case I indeed never came back or returned no longer whole. Earlier in the morning, my sister Amal (which means hope) called to warn me. Our late mother visited in her dream, telling her not to lose her younger sister.

"You have dreams to achieve. You are an excellent student who is about to graduate and complete your MA in literature. I cannot afford to lose you! Firas [her son] and I need you! Those Israelis don't care if you are near the fence or not; they just shoot!" Amal beseeched me.

But my desire to be with my friends and show solidarity with my people were strong, and I donned comfortable shoes so I could run at any moment. To calm my nerves, I played a Palestinian song that taunts Israeli soldiers, warning of the traps we will set for them if they enter Gaza. Standing in front of the mirror, I put on my headscarf, looked myself in the eye and said, "I have nothing to lose" (even though I did). I took my bag, into which I had stuffed my literature book that discussed Jacques Derrida and left.

At the march, we walked among the crowd holding the signs we had made for a video we planned to shoot for We Are Not Numbers, expressing solidarity with the protest. As they tried to read our posters, I heard some of the people say, "They are foreigners." I suppressed a laugh and we kept moving forward, getting ever closer to the tires set afire to obscure the vision of the Israeli snipers. Trolleys from which ice cream, chips and sandwiches were sold were at the back of the march, next to the tents with families. It was like a festival! People laughed, talked and took photos. The fear was on the other side, among the Israeli soldiers, not ours.

We looked for a good spot to start filming. As we settled in a place among the protesters, I watched in fascination the brave boys, men and a few women at the front lines. Then suddenly, those men were running away from the Israeli “security fence.” I didn’t realize at first that death itself was chasing them, in the form of bullets and tear gas grenades. Dreamlike, I heard a low voice telling me and Haneen, my best friend, "Run, girls." Convinced it was the angel of death about to visit us too, I ran. My subconscious blocked the memory of what happened next. I remember nothing clearly, not even how I felt. All I recall very well was reaching a safe place, where I lost my balance and tripped. When I got up, my lungs felt like they were about to explode with nervous laughter. Finally, my eyes looked forward instead of down.

I was about to scream or laugh, I’m not sure which, when my eyes settled on Haneen and I saw she was sobbing with a frozen, horrified look. I rushed to hold her.

"We are fine, Haneen, we are fine,” I consoled her. "We are not dead, we haven't died."

Two men came to check on us; one was bald, wearing a blue shirt and I would guess was almost 40 years old and the other was tall with black hair in his late 30s. "You were the best girls who ran," said the first one, joking. I laughed too, a little. The other man brought a bottle of water for Haneen to drink. After her panic attack eased and Haneen regained her sense of balance, I broke into hysterical laughter.

Together with my friends, I witnessed the sunset while other protesters, undaunted, returned to the fence, not caring about the snipers. Once at home, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Was it a good or bad decision to go to the march? The moment I put my head on my pillow and closed my eyes, I remembered seeing the yellow-green land moving fast beneath my running feet. My head felt heavy and thick recalling the trauma, and I fell asleep.

Ever since that day, I have felt an energy running in my blood and a blossoming of life warming my heart. Every morning, I remind myself that I lived! There is hope! No hardship can break me down. Not anymore. 

Posted: July 14, 2018

Mentor: Mary Simkins


Get updates to your inbox. Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter.