When Gazan youth apply to become a member of We Are Not Numbers, they are asked to write a “my day” essay—a story about one, recent, 24-hour period in their lives. This was my essay:
Morning is my favorite time of day. After saying the Fajr prayer (the first of the day) and reading a bit of the holy Quran, I treasure being alone with myself, standing at my window waiting for sunrise. I’ve always dreamed of having a room with a view of the full glory of the sun. But the place where I live is so crowded, the sun must compete with everything else. The concrete buildings huddle together, their original, uniform blocks made messy with years of families adding odd rectangles here and there to try to accommodate their growing numbers. On the ground floors, many residents have opened their own little stores to try to eke out a living—some sell falafel, others produce, and still others miscellaneous items like tissue and candy.
None of it is organized; it’s sort of a hodgepodge. So, the only way I can see the sunshine is by staring through the iron grillwork at the sky above the buildings. The light of dawn gradually seeps into the sky with a shine that is at first hesitant and then increasingly bold. The beige buildings now are transformed, as if bathed in a rosy glow. I watch for an hour or even more. What eventually wakes me from my trance is the clamor of the street hawkers, men and children selling various goods to earn a living: bread, detergent, sardines caught that same morning and vegetables.
I join the rest of my family for a breakfast of falafel, eggs, fried tomatoes and cheese. When I leave home for university, I see some of the teenagers who were my students during my training semester at my old high school. I am studying to be an English teacher and such “fieldwork” is required, but I loved it. We are delighted to be reunited, shaking hands, hugging and offering kisses. Mixed in among them was one of my former teachers, who taught me when I was 13, and a few other teachers who later became my colleagues. We are like family now.
My good day continues when the driver of the bus I need to catch sees me walking from a far distance and waits for me to arrive without rushing or losing my breath. On board is a professor from college who stares at me a bit, uncertain at first if I was who he thought. But when I smile, he says, “good morning, Farah!” My smile gives me away. Such small details may seem trivial, but ever since I saw the sunrise, each of these moments seem leaden with promise.
On the bus: swirling stories
On the bus, I listen to the stories swirling around me. Everyone seems to be talking about the 9-year-old girl who was hit by a car and killed just after leaving school. The driver is only 18 years old, operating his car as a taxi to earn a living for himself and his family. Rumor is that something was wrong with the car and he could not fix it because of the expense. Another problem was the lack of traffic lights where I live, which means pedestrians don’t pay much attention and often race madly to make it across the road. The moment the girl began to cross the road, the driver suddenly lost control and could not stop. The girls’ skull was crushed like a tomato, while her classmates watched. The young man raced from his car, crying like a kid. There were two victims that day; he will never be the same.
My first class at university, English grammar, is interesting, but today we are disrupted. A student walks in 40 minutes after it starts, and that is against the rules. So, the first thing she utters is, " Listen! It's not my fault! I just now registered for the class. Everyone else could do it before because they had money, but I didn't."
We laugh at first, then realize this is a painful reality for many Gazans. Just the previous day, I had a similar experience: My sight is so bad I can only see clearly for about a meter in the distance. I have two pairs of glasses now, but both of them are broken. When I asked for a new pair, my mom replied, "Wait for the beginning of the month!" That’s when employees receive their salaries, and toward the end of the month, we run out of funds. This may have been the problem for this student too—and actually, for most Gazans.
Musing about our roles in life
After class, Iman, a fellow student, and I sat together for a bit and talked.
"Farah! What are you planning to do after finishing your university education?" asked Iman.
This is one of the toughest questions I receive these days. "I have a lot I want to do, Iman. I want to study for my master’s degree abroad, travel to different countries and, well, live freely. But I don't know if my dreams are possible. We live in Gaza, where everything is hard. And for girls, the traditions and norms limit our options even more,” I reminded her.
Many young people like me complete their university education and can’t find jobs. So, we think about continuing our education, but it’s expensive even if we stay in Gaza. We long to travel abroad instead, but we require full scholarships, which are hard to get. And then there is the challenge of traveling out, which requires visas and permits.
So many arrangements are needed for dreams to come true! We have a hard time traveling because of the Israeli blockade. But females in conservative Gazan society also live with an internal sort of “siege.” Some females are pressured by their families to marry right after high school. But even if they wait until they finish university—the typical age to marry—they are expected to start creating their own families almost immediately. Frequently, that means they rarely leave their home; raising children, keeping house and sometimes tending to the needs of their mothers-in-law now are their priorities. Once they marry, few girls manage to have the time or freedom to get to know themselves better, work and just explore life.
My family doesn't pressure me to marry. But, in fact, “society” pressures my parents to persuade me to marry. I am not that kind of person. I want to see the world. I want to teach myself how to be responsible, independent and courageous.
On the way home
Iman and I left our comfortable sitting place and went to a local library to find a novel we will study this semester: “All That's Left to You,” by Ghassan Kanafani, about the Palestinian struggle to live peacefully in our homeland. The library to which we walked is called Handala, named for the 10-year-old Palestinian boy in a cartoon created by Naji Al-Ali in 1973. Al-Ali said the face of the boy, who is shown with his back facing the viewer, will not be seen until the refugees are allowed to return. We have a fascinating conversation with the library’s owner, who we call Uncle Adel. We feel like immediate friends and he refuses to let us leave the library without a souvenir. He gives us each some cards with photos and drawings of Palestinian cities that people used to exchange among each other. We promise to visit the library again and head home
The trip from my university in Gaza City to my home in Rafah takes at least an hour. The driver listens to a song on the radio with extreme pleasure and the heads of the passengers bob in fatigue after a long day at work. Out the windows I can see the red cheeks of children waiting to grab the best opportunity to cross the crowded road, along with poor people forced by their poverty to beg. There is a story behind every one of these people; I wish I could learn and share them.
I reach home, take a nap, then play a game with my nephew, who calls me "Haha." He is only 19 months old. Before we start playing, he explains the rules with the utmost earnestness—except all I can understand is "Haha."
My family follows Islamic customs, and most of us fast on Mondays and Thursdays as a kind of commitment to our faith. Today is Monday, so we gather all of our family members for a special meal to break the fast, spending the remainder of the evening chatting since the electricity is off. I go to bed before the others, because I plan to awaken in the middle of the night or early morning to study when the electricity comes on. That’s life in Gaza.
What I realized after writing this essay is that every day is a special one with unique moments; no matter how small, they are beautiful in their own way. Unforgettable and delightful memories grow from small seeds.