Reaching for the Stars

When I was a kid, I often asked my parents about the lights that seemed to “wander” in the night sky. “Who switches them on?” I asked my father. He’d look at me blankly, as if he had not heard me; if I asked again, he would light a cigarette and preoccupy himself with the smoke circles. My mother then would say, “Come on, Abood! I have told you a thousand times! GOD SWITCHES THEM ON AT NIGHT.” I did not understand how God did that, so her answer never quite satisfied me. Nonetheless, I enjoyed telling others that "GOD SWITCHES THE STARS ON AT NIGHT.”

My friend, Bahaa El-Habeel, however, decided to figure the answer out himself by making telescopes and studying pictures of the moon, stars and constellations. He developed a deep passion for science, a remarkable thing in Gaza, where science is not a priority unless you’re studying medicine. (While science is taught in schools, only the most basic of lab equipment is available. More “creative” subjects like astronomy are neglected altogether.)

Bahaa recalls, “The first time I gazed at those little things illuminating the sky, I felt literally close to them. I remember asking my parents, ‘What are they? Why don't they fall down?’ But their answers were pure nonsense to me. They would say merely that those are the stars, and they can't fall because they dwell there. Every answer I got from my parents prompted me to ask more sophisticated questions, until they could not answer any more. I then figured something out. If the stars can't come down to me, maybe I could go up to them. Since that time, I have engaged in my quest. I wanted to know the components of the stars and planets, if they move and the orbits they follow if they do, the forces that stop them from falling and everything else about them.”

One of Bahaa's early telescopes

After conducting research for many months on the internet and through dozens of texts, Bahaa was most inspired by the book “Optix,” which included diagrams for making telescopes. At the age of 13, he made his first telescope, using materials such as water pipes and scrap metal. His simple telescope enabled him to see the moon closer-up.

However, he still wasn’t satisfied. Bahaa couldn't see the stars, moon and other planets with the kind of resolution that would mimic holding them in his hands. He made another telescope, with clearer resolution, one year later.

"This one was a reflecting telescope [which uses one or more curved mirrors with larger diameters than other kinds], like Galilleo’s,” Bahaa explained. “I could see the moon far better. Now, I wanted to collaborate with others, which is the true spirit of science. But since I am a Palestinian living in Gaza, we are not allowed to travel or even receive visitors.”

Instead, Bahaa offered to share his telescopes with local educational institutions, for use by students interested in observing the night sky.

“I hoped my scopes would attract students to come and see the moon and stars, but I was not taken seriously. I was not invited to schools or science fairs in Gaza. People did not share my passion. I started to isolate myself. I allowed my grades at school to suffer and began to hate myself.”

Despite the stigma that prevents many Palestinians from seeking mental health help, Bahaa finally visited a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed with severe depression.

“I thought death would be better than not being able to pursue a meaningful future. If I continued working on my own, I would lack the research labs, facilities, materials and equipment essential to my work; it’s almost impossible to obtain specialized equipment because of the Israeli blockade,” he tried to explain.

However, with the help of his psychiatrist, Bahaa recovered his passion and got back on track. That’s when a professor and manager of the Al-Aqsa TV channel’s research center noticed Bahaa’s work and offered him an unpaid internship.  

“[Through that opportunity], I have learned so much. I bought books and became absorbed with reading. I discovered stars and planets I didn’t know about before,” Bahaa said.

While working at the research center, Bahaa heard about a contest for scientific inventions; the winner would be awarded a fully funded scholarship to study in the United States. For his entry, Bahaa built a specialized telescope that could detect radio emissions from natural, celestial objects or artificial satellites. It won; however, he says, the design—and thus, the credit—was assigned to someone else with better connections.

Bahaa sank into another depression; his mother recalls that he stopped eating and talking, sleeping most of the time instead.

And again, he bounced back…although it took longer this time. Still at the Al-Aqsa center, Bahaa built an eight-inch telescope through which he could see the stars of the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Messier 30 clusters. He also wrote a book about the need to save the earth from over-production of carbon dioxide and create solar-power collection systems as sources of renewable energy—all while he was still in high school. 

Today, Bahaa is in his Tawjihi year of school—the final year before university that determines so much of a young Palestinian’s future. For now, he has had to put astronomy aside as he studies.

"I have to stop doing the stuff I'm in love with, so I can earn a high grade average in a major I'm not really interested in. Dynamical astronomy is not a field of study available in Gaza,” he said sadly.

Bahaa is not giving up on his passion, however. Despite the limitations imposed by the Israeli blockade, the lack of resources in Gaza and the cultural barriers, he continues his research.  Some day, he knows, he will make it to the United States and study his chosen field with the experts. It’s just a matter of time, perseverance—and a little bit of luck. His time will come.

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Mentor: Pam Bailey

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