The shrinking life of Gaza

Many people in Gaza work in small stores

Economic hardship can expose the true “essence” of a person. It saddens me to see some people in Gaza ignore their principles and values due to economic destitution. They resort to illegitimate methods of obtaining money, like theft. However, that’s not true for my close friend Mohammed.

Although he also is my uncle, I consider Mohammed a close friend more than a relative. We’ve known each other since my childhood and we’re inseparable. Many would consider him fortunate for having any job, but he earns just $5 for a nine-hour day as a cashier in a supermarket. He is 26 yet can’t afford to marry his fiancé.  

I never set my mobile to silent mode when I go to sleep, in case of an emergency. One night, as I closed my eyes and pulled the cover over my head, with blurry thoughts beginning to fade into dreams, my phone rang. It was Mohammed, speaking in a despondent tone. He asked if he could come over, despite the fears of COVID-19. I didn’t hesitate, telling him to please come. When I opened the door, he burst out with his feelings: “I’d rather die than keep running on empty like this.”

Mohammed usually is stoic; he prefers not to show his inadequacies to anybody. I remember vividly when I was 12 years old and Mohammed gave me and every one of my siblings $150 as aidea (a gift for children) on Eid al-Fitr (one of Islam’s holiest days). Yet here he was, tears streaming down his cheeks. After a moment of silence, I hugged him to communicate that I am there for him no matter what. I hoped my hug would resuscitate him, even if momentarily.

Life in Gaza is shrinking and getting worse day by day.

Scenes from the time of COVID-19

When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, the people of Gaza feared the worst was coming. Although the virus has so far failed to penetrate past our border (travelers are immediately quarantined), it has wreaked its damage in many ways, mostly economic. Businesses were forced to close initially and what little trade we are allowed by the Israeli government has ground to a near halt. Consider these statistics: More than 80% of our people rely on international aid to get by, 69% live below the poverty line and an equal percentage of youths like Mohammed are unemployed. According to the U.N., about 80% suffer depression.

Neighbors usually spend the evenings debating current affairs. But one recent night was different; I was depressed enough to leave the neighborhood to find someplace different to hang out. I ran into my friend Ismael, a taxi driver. He too was depressed, startled at the drastic impact of COVID-19 on the local economy and thus, his business. His daily income has decreased 30%.

Me and Mohammed Ata

Then I visited another friend, a loan officer for one of the international NGOs. (He prefers not to be named.) He told me that most of Gaza’s businesses are facing difficult times. One of the biggest problems is their inability to repay their debts. This is how it works in Gaza: The manager of a store that sells, say, women’s dresses, takes a bunch of them from a trader who normally allows him or her to pay for them after they are sold. However, with the economy tanking, those traders are now asking for payment upfront. While this has meant more small-business owners seeking loans, the NGO has cut back on its lending, knowing few of them would be able to repay what they borrow.

Impact on love and relationships

On May 26, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh pledged that life would gradually return to “normal” as the COVID-19 was brought under control (the latter hasn’t happened, however; the number of cases in the West Bank surged during the last half of July). But life has never been normal here, and COVID-19 has just worsened an already bad situation.

On another day, I was hanging out with my cousin Mohammed Ata and asked him to increase the volume of the radio; Illisa was singing and she is one of my favorites. Instead, he switched off the radio. Assuming he hadn’t heard me, I got up to do it myself. He halted me and said, "Abdallah, please just listen for a moment. I'm thinking about proposing to my sweetheart.” I answered, "Wait! What are you saying? COVID-19 will ruin it!” But he didn’t care; I had never seen him so stubborn.

I didn't realize the wedding would be the most amazing one ever.

A week later, I got a call inviting me to his small bachelor’s party on the street. All the wedding halls were closed by the government due to the pandemic. Only close friends were invited. I arrived to see my friends dancing and singing Palestinian songs. It was my first time ever to dance and I felt silly. But I imagined that it was my wedding and I kept dancing. Seeing all my friends dancing too thrilled me.

I wondered if I will ever be loved the way my friend's new wife loved him? She went against all concerns to marry him and he did the same. I hope so.

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