My escape

Just one more chapter. I persuade my mind to stay awake and force my burning eyelids open. I reach for the drops on the nightstand to relieve my irritated eyes. Someone else would think that I was torturing myself by staying up ‘til 3 a.m., glued to a book. But whenever I can get a print book, I tuck myself under the covers, turn on the reading lamp and delve into the pages.

My Kindle reader is my faithful companion night and day, but whenever I can get a print book, delivered to me from the outside, I buy it. Due to the inconsistency of regular mail to Gaza, ordering books is a luxury that is usually only a dream.  That’s why I turned to digital books, which are more convenient under these circumstances.  

I grew up in a community in which reading was popular among all ages. I spent a substantive amount of time at in the fabulous library at Huntington East High School in West Virginia, where I lived for four years during my dad’s Ph.D. studies.  My friends asked, “What book are you reading?” Or “How was that book?” In the apartment building where we lived, I spent hours reading while doing the laundry.

When I returned to the Gaza Strip I read until the sun gradually dimmed its light on the roof of my grandparents’ house in Khan Younis. Reading was and continues to be my escape, my education and my solace. 

Reading under blockade

At the beginning of the blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip in 2006, with the rest of the world standing idly by, my relationship with books became even more intimate. With closed borders restricting the movement of 2 million people, and a scarcity of places to go for entertainment or leisure, suffocation overcame me as I walked down the streets of Gaza. I could feel the tall buildings in my crowded neighborhood caving in, making me feel imprisoned, even caged.

In the beginning, the electricity cuts we now accept as routine were at their worst, so it was common for people to buy power generators as a supplementary source of energy. What I must emphasize about those nasty generators is that they roar and fume like erupting volcanoes. Whenever I decided to go for a walk, I’d be welcomed by a frenzy of rumbling power generators making me regret I went out at all. 

But one day, in spite of all that, I decided to go downtown where a few bookshops were located. I was looking for something to relieve my agitated mind and repressed soul. To me, that could only be achieved by feeding my mind and releasing my imagination through books. I had discovered I could live vicariously with the characters of a novel and travel with them to the places they visited. I could pretend I am the heroine of a story or the one who brings about freedom and justice…the possibilities were endless. That day, I realized that reading is my only escape from the madness of life under siege. 

Even though books are just words on paper, I am mesmerized when reading descriptions of cities and countries in the outside world. Intricate details give me a window from my prison cell to the big world that exists outside Gaza, and I have come to realize how little I know about so many places. Over time, even my five-year stay in the U.S. as a teenager had come to seem like a dream, as if it had never happened. Being locked up in a place gives me an eerie feeling of abandonment and loneliness. I struggle to even imagine the world behind the closed borders.   

Staying alive

Reading is an escape during time of conflict and stress.

The sporadic Israeli aggressions launched on Gaza since 2008 made it harder to keep the fire inside me burning. Many times, I felt that my soul was disintegrating and my mind gradually numbing. But I was a mother and had a responsibility to keep the light in my children’s eyes from dying out. I wanted them to live their childhoods fully. I wanted them to remain innocently unaware of the horror surrounding them.

So, I took them to the store to buy story books and we also went to public libraries. I smile when I remember how I would suddenly hear my son giggling while reading his bedtime story. He enjoyed every minute when reading comic books. During each successive war, I never lost my faith in the power of reading. I knew books couldn’t save me from Israeli rockets or bombs, but at least they provided the temporary relief I needed. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I saw many people on my social media platforms discuss books and reading. If I were to name a benefit of staying at home, it would definitely be reading more books! Even without COVID-19, there is a scarcity of variety when it comes to fun activities in Gaza, so I still hold on to reading as I navigate my life in this unpredictable place.

My favorite book

As an avid reader and radical bookworm, my list of favorite books grows by the day. Yet I still feel I should have a first-love book. In fiction, a book that piqued my interest and excited my mind was “Sherlock Holmes.” Although it dates to the 19th century, it remains a suspenseful mystery that takes me back in time. Among nonfiction books, I learned a lot by reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” It gave me insight into America in the 1950s-1965, when he was assassinated. He listened to his internal calling and allowed himself to be transformed by reading while in prison.

In particular, however, Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca was a transformative moment, overwhelming him with a “spirit of true brotherhood.” He described the total equality he observed during Hajj: “I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all color.”

When the incessant buzzing of Israeli drones makes my mind weary, or when the long summer days in Gaza drag heavily on, I take solace in the stack of books on my nightstand and in my Kindle and try to keep the rays of hope alive in my heart. 

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