It’s been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world — little efforts made consistently can result in big changes.
Butterflies go through several stages of development before finally spreading their wings to fly. This is useful to remember, especially in Gaza, which has been under lockdown since 2007. The cultural and social atmosphere in the Strip, especially within the universities, has become depressing and needs to be revived. Gaza is a struggling creature, desperate for life but clinically and mentally struggling. The persistent issues make it hard for people to celebrate their culture and focus on the joy of music and art.
Inspired by the growth of the butterfly, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) began coordinating a project that was implemented by the A.M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF). Called Life at University, its aim was to help students of Al Aqsa University engage with their culture and improve their social skills by working together on student-led projects.
I applied to participate as soon as the opportunity was published on the university’s website. Although I’d been rejected from other projects before, I didn’t let that fear of rejection stand in my way. This project came into my life at a difficult moment — Gazans were struggling under both Israeli occupation and coronavirus.
We started with a walk around the campus. My university is one of the most beautiful places in Gaza — full of green trees, flowers, nature and beautiful buildings. This helped remind us that there is beauty to be had, although if we’re too wrapped up in our own burdens, we might miss it. Students and project coordinators got to know each other as we discussed Palestinian authors and breathed in the fresh air. This kind of peaceful experience had never been part of my life in Gaza. After a few hours together, we prepared lunch and ate while a musician played traditional Palestinian music. He sang one of my favorite songs and, as I sat in the grass, I thought about how I didn’t want to forget this feeling.
I also learned about a book called The Blue Light by a Hussain Barghouthi, which the Palestinian author wrote when he was separated from his people and living in Seattle. I loved how boldly he expressed his confusions, wonders and questions about the world. I deeply related to his compassion for others and the search for meaning he embarked on.
We ended the afternoon by discussing how project goals align with the aim of teaching students how to be independent and self-aware.
After that afternoon, my perception of art and music changed. I now believe both are vital for survival, just the same as food or water. Music and art are essential parts of staying sane in Gaza. They’re more like therapy than luxuries.
A month later, after visiting other important cultural places in Gaza, I felt extremely grateful for the way this program opened doors for students like me to experience new things.
Over the course of the month, I made many new friends and got the opportunity to coordinate, with Gallery 28 magazine, a project for cultural events called Open Stage. I dealt with people from different backgrounds and grew to respect their differing perspectives. I also got to see so many wonderful performances, including a play about the effects of social media on young people, a poetic event for local Palestinian author Nasser Rabah, a storytelling event at Al Qarara Cultural Museum and a dabke performance.
Despite our inner conflicts and divisions, every time dabke is performed, our hearts unite; Palestinians get a deeply joyous feeling. It is like a magical line that connects us all. It’s our very traditional dance in which a group of people do particular moves together at the same time, listening to Palestinian songs such as My Blood is Palestinian or Raise the Kufiyah High. Right after the event was done, I approached the band’s leader and told him how impressed I was by their performance. Humbly, he thanked me and said they were aimed at cultivating their work to become a very locally well-known band. Hearing that, I felt happy that art is paving its way back to Gaza.
I started documenting my experience, even taking photos of myself as I participated in the program. I had suffered from low self-esteem for years, always hiding my face in photos. I find it hard to believe that I’m beautiful. But now, I no longer need others people’s approval to feel good about myself. I feel content and complete, and I try to apologize to past versions of myself for the harm I caused.
At the end of this 6-month-long course, we threw a small celebration and were given certificates of participation. I know this experience might seem very ordinary to readers but to Gazans, this is really something refreshing. Since 2007, Gaza has been a place where it’s hard to have fun and enjoy (except at weddings). Gazans aren’t backwards but we do face a lot of challenges — our home is known for being the widest open-air prison in the world. Gazans are creatures with no wings or whistles, living in the most beautiful cage.
In a lifeless place, it was suitable to call this project “Life at University.” As someone who finds it hard to function the way I want, I am thankful this experience taught me to change my perceptions of things so that I could move forward with hope and teach others to do the same.