Malak Hijazi | 24-07-2019
When I stepped into that narrow alley by my old primary school, it suddenly felt as if there were a chill in the air, a cold breeze almost tapping my shoulders. I cannot enter that alley without involuntarily placing my hands over my ears; I don't want to hear the sound of giggling that somehow still wafts in the air. At times I run to try to find the happy girl who was the source of the laughter, but then it disappears. Or I listen for the steely, firm voice of a teacher, admonishing us to be quiet, that everything will be fine if we just obey.
Except it wasn’t. I don't want to remember what I lost in that alley: my childhood, at the age of 9.
Memories that haunt
I can barely remember where I put my phone these days, but that day in December 2008 is lodged in my brain like a tree with roots burrowed deep into the ground. That tall, thin girl with hair down to her waist and high-pitched giggle, who loved to jump rope and sing, was my friend Aseel. I am so sorry, Aseel, that I no longer remember your face!
Aseel has become a haunting question I cannot answer. My childhood was filled with questions without answers.
"Baba, are we going to die?"
"Only God knows," my father would answer.
He was correct, of course, but it chilled my heart and filled me with uneasy confusion. I didn't want to die.
"Baba, what's the meaning of 'internationally prohibited weapons'? The radio many says the Israeli army used them to bomb my school."
"Weapons nobody is allowed to use."
"But they used them!" I responded. He said nothing more.
After our neighbors’ house was bombed with most of them inside, I tried to avoid walking by to their destroyed home. I didn't want to imagine hearing their voices, screaming or even laughing. The fact that they had been living their days just like us—before they suddenly weren’t—was so frightening to me. The kids went to school, just like us, but now their uniforms could be glimpsed wedged in the rubble. They studied math and science, just like us, but I could see their books torn apart, scattered everywhere. They ate, made trouble, cried and watched TV, just like us! Maybe one day we would be murdered too, just like them.
I learned on TV that this was the fate of Aseel as well: An Israeli shell landed directly in the courtyard outside the Al-Deeb family's house, where most of their immediate relatives were gathered. Nine members of the family were killed instantly, 11 in total, including four women and four girls. This was what the reporter said; he didn’t even list their names. He didn’t say that they died before being able to eat lunch; they had been waiting for Aseel`s brother to arrive home so they could share the meal together. He didn’t say that this boy suddenly found himself with no family.
In those days, my pillow was always wet with tears of fear and hopelessness as I tried to sleep. I was haunted by a severe anxiety that sometimes made it difficult to breathe.
I grew up hating Gaza. It extinguished my dreams, my sense of security, my optimism. I repeatedly asked myself, “why was I born in this place, when there are so many other places in the world?” And why are we not free to choose someplace else to live, like so many other people in the world?
There have been two more wars on Gaza since that time. But the years and the new memories haven’t softened the impact of those early days. Clasping my hands over my ears so I won’t “hear” my memories doesn’t work. Even the tiniest details are still clear to me. Even when I exit that alley, the cold mist lingers in my heart.
But I have realized we can create something good and useful from tragedy. After joining the We Are Not Numbers team, I almost feel like I was “born again.” I confess I grumbled at first when I was expected to meet people in person to interview and write about them. I was not a very social person and had few friends, so I thought it would be a difficult thing to do. But then I discovered that listening to people talk about their sadness, difficulties, hopes and dreams, then sharing them with others through my writing, makes me feel better. The people I meet and interview are delighted when they read my articles and their gratitude brings joy to my heart. I started believing that every one of us is a story waiting for its narrator.
I want to be the narrator for those who don’t have one. Who doesn’t love stories?! We all are drawn to stories: of love, hope, survival, resistance—and sometimes pain. We Are Not Numbers is giving me the chance to tell my story and others’. It allows me to discover that I still have passion and how to stay alive in a city that has seen so much death.
A new ‘me’
I will never forget the past and if I had the ability to change it, I would definitely do so. I have always been scared of the future. I was terrified of the unknown because I didn’t want it to be like my past. But now, I choose to live in the “now” and focus on the things I can control, what I have. I choose to think of each day and how I can get through it contentedly, how I can make today slightly better than yesterday, how I can try to bring joy to people around me, and how to make today count. It is the only possible way I can prepare myself meaningfully for tomorrow.
It is a new life and a new start!
Posted: July 23, 2019
Mentor: Zeina Azzam