People don’t usually visit graveyards frequently. When you do visit, you find people scattered around, everyone there for a different reason—a mom still mourning for her son; an orphan lying beside her parents' graves with a single flower and a tear in her eye; a widow holding her son's hand and sitting near her martyred husband's grave, updating him on her mother-in-law's injustice; an old man watering the plants on his wife's resting place. For those who are deeply religious, funerals and cemeteries are opportunities to preach and deliver heartfelt advice.
Their reasons for being there may be different, but one thing is common—all of them visit during daylight hours. That is, except for my four best friends–Ahmed, Ayman (my older brother), Belal and Abdullah— and I never went there during the day. We would go only after midnight.
A moonless night, with stray dogs barking in the streets and a light rain falling in the early winter, was our favorite time for a cemetery visit. Does that sound creepy? We were just distressed about losing our friend, Mahmoud, who was killed in 2008 by Israeli soldiers. We used to find serenity by sitting around his tomb. Although he was dead, we felt Mahmoud's spirit looming over us. We would find some rocks to use as seats, sit close to each other and share our secrets.
What I loved most about these visits is that they were completely spontaneous; we would just decide on the spot and walk. When we arrived, we never spoke out loud. It was enough to gather around the grave and recite a prayer for Mahmoud.
Time passed and our habit persisted. Mahmoud’s tomb wasn't our only destination; we would also visit other relatives' and friends' tombs. One night, the five of us gathered around an open grave that had been prepared for a burial the next morning.
Ahmed turned to me and said, “You don’t dare get down there, do you?” “Why not? I surely can do it,” I replied instantly. “I bet you won't…” Ahmed challenged me. “Well, I will show you,” I assured him. They stripped me of any source of light, took away my mobile phone and said, “Go ahead.” Impulsively, I climbed down into the open grave and lay down.
In Gaza, graves are typically lined with stones. Boards then are then laid over the top, which are covered with more stones. My four friends covered the grave, preventing any source of light or fresh air from reaching me. It was after midnight, one of those hot July nights, and I felt no fear whatsoever. I was thrilled to be calmly experiencing something that many would think terrifying. I remained in the covered grave for about 10 minutes. During this time, my friends pretended to leave
in an attempt the frighten me. They were disappointed; I was not frightened. When they discovered I was not going to plead with them to let me out, they opened the tomb and congratulated me, “You win.”
They shared this story with our other friends for months, sometimes praising me, other times calling me an idiot. But in a strange way, the shared story brought us closer together, if that was possible
Two years after the graveyard incident, in 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a brutal assault on Gaza that left more than 2,500 people killed, 13,000 injured and more than half a million displaced. Ayman, Belal and I spent all of our time together. Our favorite food was jello with fruit and cream. My family knew that whenever my friends and I were together, we could be found around a bowl of jello. Even in the most critical times during the war, with drones hovering overhead, missiles firing and explosions everywhere, we enjoyed our jello.
Two days after our last bowl of jello, I got the shocking news. My four friends had been targeted by an F16 missile. Ayman, Ahmed and Abdullah were killed instantly, their bodies mutilated. But Belal simply disappeared. I couldn’t stop thinking of Belal and his mysterious destiny. We all knew Belal had been with the others, but the ambulance crew didn't find him. The first day passed without any news about him. The second day passed, and the third and the fourth and the eighth and Belal still was not found. Every night during this too-long week, I dreamt of Belal. Sometimes I dreamt he was alive, sometimes that he was dead and sometimes that he was wounded.
Eight days later, Belal's remains were found—buried two meters under the dirt. During a truce between the Palestinian resistance and the Israelis, a group of neighbors and ambulance crews dug deep into the ground and found his decomposed body in the ruins of the house where they had all been together. That day I shed no tears; I was too numb.
Three years ago, going to the graveyard had been our routine. I haven’t visited there since my four best friends were killed. Three years ago… I had the best friends and enjoyed my best days. Now, those friends are gone. And I will never enjoy jello again.