Israa Mohammed Jamal | 31-01-2020
I was at home one evening when I received the message: the news that I was, for the first time, a published journalist.
I am always at home, actually. These days my husband does not permit me to leave the house except for family duties, thinking I should focus my time on our five children and household. I know from talking to Mimi and Pam, my two links to the outside world, that Westerners don’t understand why this is permissible. Why don’t you just tell him ‘no’ and do what you want? they ask indignantly. But my town of Rafah is very conservative and this type of attitude about the role of women is not uncommon. That’s another way the Israeli blockade affects life here: very little outside influence is allowed in, making change difficult. And since my children are young, and since I have no income of my own, my ability to exert my own will is very limited. But that’s a long story, for another essay.
The point is, my world is small and suffocating these days. I’m still a little shy about calling myself a writer, because my English is still developing, and I really just started trying to write articles and essays a few months ago. “Writer” seems like such a lofty title—one for which I must prove myself to achieve! But ever since Pam introduced me to We Are Not Numbers, she has told me it’s not the perfection of my words that matter but the story I see in life around me.
When I was no longer able to leave home for We Are Not Numbers meetings or my job as a teacher, I thought my efforts to improve my skills and become more independent had come to an end. I was so depressed I could barely drag myself from task to task. But Pam insisted I must not let someone else’s restrictions stop me. I could write from home, interviewing people by phone and Facebook messenger. I could maybe even earn a little money myself, so I wasn’t quite so dependent on my husband, by trying my hand at journalism.
Drawing inspiration from my own situation, Pam suggested I write about trends in women’s employment and the struggles we face in Gaza. I am an introvert and also don’t usually follow the news, but she helped me see that closing myself off was like me contributing to my own imprisonment. So I decided to challenge myself.
I found one example through my sister-in-law and her friends, who had just started Giftbox, a way for people outside of Gaza to send gifts to those inside, circumventing the blockade. And I soon found another example, a woman who started her own restaurant just for other women (a venture supported by her husband—I so wish for the same!).
But telling their stories was not easy. Iman wanted me to visit her coffee shop and see it for herself. She was so annoyed at first when I said I could not. I felt mortified. I didn’t want to have to explain my problems, and I almost dropped the story. Still, I called Iman back and she understood. She agreed to answer my questions by phone.
With Pam always there pushing and encouraging, I finished my article and we went back and forth with edits and requests for more information. Finally, Pam sent me the last version. What a sense of accomplishment! But it was nothing like that day at home when Pam was traveling in Lebanon and stopped at a coffee shop with wifi to send me a link: It had been published by The New Arab! And there was the byline: my name, followed by Pam’s—a successful, native-English-speaking journalist. When her message arrived, I was lying on the bed with a backache, but I suddenly wanted to dance about, all pain forgotten.
It was like achieving a high score after a difficult exam! Pam had been sure she could find a “home” for our article, but I was afraid of being disappointed. to the article.
But that was not all: The New Arab is paying $200 for this article, which I will receive shortly. My husband doesn’t allow me to go out of the home to work or even attend educational sessions, but I had managed to earn my own money anyway! For me, the feeling of joy and victory is indescribable. Finally, it is my turn for the sun to shine.
Now, I want to help educate everyone about We Are Not Numbers. I asked Pam to these questions, and here are her answers.
What benefit do you receive from We Are Not Numbers?
I learn as much from members of We Are Not Numbers as they do from me. I have been unable to return to the Palestinian territories ever since Israel deported and banned me in 2016. But through WANN, I can still hold the place and the people close to my heart. With each voice we raise up, each international media outlet or NGO that visits our office, and each writer for whom the project helps secure a scholarship, fellowship or other opportunity to travel abroad, I know I am doing my very small part to atone for the serious wrong my government commits by enabling the Israeli occupation.
And Israa, what you were able to do, to persevere despite such big obstacles at home—that is why I stick with this. We Are Not Numbers opened a door for you, and that is what I want for all youths in Gaza.
What are the biggest challenges faced by WANN?
Our most pressing challenge, frankly, is raising the money needed to keep the project going—salaries for the management team, rent, production of our videos, workshops and other programs for our writers, etc. We rely totally on crowdfunding. We could do so much with more funds—enroll more aspiring writers, offer more skills-building workshops, create more sharing platforms. Every donation we get is so very needed.
What are your aspirations for the future of WANN?
Oh, we have so many. I’d like to find vehicles, such as an annual poll of young people in Gaza, to engage and raise the voice of more diverse youths. I am very cognizant of the fact that WANN writers represent sort of an “elite” corps—those who are fluent in English and can afford to go to university. To be the “voice of youths” in Gaza, we must be sure to tap into and reflect the full range of realities and experiences.
I also hope we follow the success of the German book of We Are Not Numbers stories with volumes in other languages—most notably, English. And I’d really like to find a way to use those stories as a bridge to youth in other oppressed locations that suffer from different yet similar challenges, with whom we could make common cause—like Kashmir and Western Sahara.
What about your personal dreams?
Oh, no question: I want to return to Gaza again. Being banned from my ‘second home’ was the greatest tragedy of my life.
I think If Pam could return, she would have a greater impact than weapons.
Posted: January 31, 2020
Mentor: Pam Bailey