Sometimes when I feel hopeless about pursuing my dream of traveling or having a proper job, I ask myself: “Do I regret living in Gaza?”
Many Gazans, if not all, ask themselves this question. We are so desperate for employment and a dignified life and Gaza, the largest jail on earth, keeps us from the outside world. It’s hard not to feel like Gaza is hell. But unlike most Gazans, I was not born here; my family chose to return when I was 17.
Ninety-six percent of Palestinians are literate, but unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world. About 42 percent of the 2 million Gazans don’t have jobs—and the number of out-of-work youth is an estimated 60 percent. Many students who obtain scholarships to study abroad are not able to leave because the Israeli government refuses to give them a permit to leave, while Egypt keeps its crossing closed. Two friends recently lost their scholarships because of this. I recently won a short story competition organized by the Cultural Association in Matera, Italy, in collaboration with the Palestinian Embassy, and am supposed to travel to Italy in September. But it is unclear whether Israeli authorities will approve the trip. How I would hate to lose the chance to visit the homeland of pizza and pasta!
But at the same time, there are things about Gaza that should be appreciated—as only a “newcomer” might realize. As someone who has lived both in and out of Gaza, I feel qualified to tell you about them.
A different childhood
I lived in the UAE until I was 17 because my father found a job there. I felt alone there. Our relatives were all in Gaza, and our neighborhood was in a border area, with few Arabs. It was full of Indian families, and I couldn’t communicate with their children because I wasn’t yet fluent in English. Those who did speak Arabic were older; while they were friends of my family, I couldn’t play with them because of the age difference. My sister is also seven years older, so the two of us had the same problem. I had imaginary friends and even mastered speaking to mirrors.
However, if you want to live a memorable, social childhood, live in Gaza. Every morning I wake to the voices of kids crowding the street in front of my house. They turn the street into a field for football or a track for bike racing. During Eid [one of the major Muslim holidays], men in each neighborhood give young people and women money as a gift, called Eideyya. Kids 10 years and under knock on neighbors’ and relatives’ doors and get money! It’s kind of like Halloween, but without costumes. I enjoy watching the children carrying small bags as they go door to door. I never got to experience that and I regret it.
Although children in Gaza experience these warm, playful rituals, they also are incredibly responsible and independent. They are allowed to leave their houses without their parents at a young age and even go to school by themselves. When I was growing up in the UAE, I rode a bus to school and I never went places without my parents. It is Gaza that has taught me how to be independent. When I first arrived and understood I’d need to take taxis by myself, I was nervous and asked for a personal chauffeur! Of course, that didn’t happen – and now I ride in taxis so much all the drivers in my area know me.
The color black
At some point in our lives, we fear darkness. When I was a child, I could never sleep without a glimpse of light. When the lights turned off, I would feel as if I was turning into a statue. I’d scream, run to my mother or start crying. That is, until three years ago, when Israel attacked Gaza 10 months after I moved here.
Israel’s violence sparks many fears in Gazans. Yet it also has spurred us to overcome some of them. In the 2014 war, Gaza suffered a massive electricity shortage, with the lights rarely coming on. We basically lived in candlelight, moonlight or complete darkness. It was during this period I realized it was time for me to embrace my fear of darkness. Now, when my sister pranks me by turning off the lights, I’m like, “Seriously?!”
Today, Gazans are still in darkness. The electricity cuts are worse than they’ve ever been. Power only comes on for four hours a day at most. But even with this, and with Israel’s blockade, three wars – and maybe more to come – and unemployment, we desire to live. As the Palestinian-Canadian poet Rafeef Ziadah said, “We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life!” Regardless of the continuous crises we live through, we know how to find a bit of light in the darkest of tunnels.
Yet Gazans themselves often do not appreciate their home. Alhough this is understandable, Gaza deserves to be loved. It may not be the perfect place to live, but its imperfections are what make it perfect – at least to me.
I even wish I’d come home to Gaza earlier than I did.