People hate awkward silences — the moment a conversation stalls and a gap fills the space uncomfortably. So naturally they do whatever they can to avoid them. However, this isn’t the case in Gaza. We enjoy silence — because it means a break from death and destruction. At least until it is rudely broken by the sound of missiles again, which make our houses sway and our hearts dance with fear.
It is the first day of the Eid al-Fitr celebration, in May 2022, and I’m in my family home which I share with my parents, brothers and sister. It’s early evening, and the sky is a dusty pink color from the setting sun.
The evening’s stillness is broken by some heavy bombing. The noise of explosions shatters the silence and pierces my ears, while flashes of light burn my eyes. I’m in shock. A missile draws light on the walls, accompanied by a soundtrack of furious thunder. There is a delay as the noise of the explosion catches up with the light of impact. I jump with fright and grit my teeth as it makes impact.
That evening we were all in our bedrooms, but as the bombardment grew fiercer and more frequent, we came together for comfort in a communal room in the middle of the house. This provided a false sense of safety. Of course, we knew that we were not safe, but we’d rather die together than alone.
I was eating some chocolate to help calm my anxiety, a childhood habit that has stayed with me. My mother got up to make some coffee to distract from the situation. But I told her that I would go instead because I wanted her to stay safe in the room with the others. The bombardment in my neighborhood was intense and we knew a rocket could hit our home. I walked to the kitchen and hoped that, if it was our turn to be hit by a bomb, it would happen after I’d made coffee. As luck would have it, no bombs hit the house so I was able to fill the coffee pot and bring it back safely to the others.
We did our best to distract ourselves from the terrifying situation by continuing with our Eid celebrations — playing music, eating chocolates, and drinking coffee. That night, nobody slept until the sun was in the sky.
In the morning, my father received a phone call. “Good morning,” he said. I thought it was a strange thing to say because it was not a good morning. Had he said it out of habit or perhaps because he was grateful that none of us had been killed that night?
“One moment and I’ll be right there,” he added, and without a moment’s hesitation leapt up and ran out of the house. I wanted to ask him what had happened, but he was too fast and was gone. The rest of my family remained in their bedrooms trying to get some rest.
My father was a brave man and he always looked out for us. I knew that when he went out into danger he would always come back, no matter who was around the corner or what was flying overhead. He had previously been arrested and detained for defending his land with stones against the tanks and guns of our enemy. He grew up as a farmer on land that had been in our family for several generations, right back to my great-grandfather nearly a century ago, in 1925.
After a few hours, he came back. I was relieved to see him walking into the house again. But something wasn’t right. His body was hunched and he was walking like an old man. I could see dry tears in his sorry eyes.
“Our trees in the fields have been turned to ash.” His words were heavy and they fell from his mouth. An awkward silence gripped the house before he added, “I planted those trees, I nurtured them and watered them with my own hands. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. I saw those leaves and branches grow.” He took a heavy breath and continued in a lower tone while trying to hold back his tears. “These trees were older than you, Yousef.”
I went to my room to escape from the shocking reality that our family’s farmland, which had been passed down for generations, had been destroyed. I opened my laptop and put on my headphones and defiantly played the loudest video game I could find. This helped block out the sound of my father’s cries and the rocket fire.
Most Gazans have their own way of seeking sanctuary and shelter in their mind. My escape was to play video games. I knew that youngsters in countries across the world were playing the same game as me — but for fun, not to escape death. And I lingered with that thought for a while.
A few nights passed and the war was eventually paused. A ceasefire had been agreed upon and rockets no longer fell from the sky. But the destruction had left something dead within the hearts of my family — a significant part of our history had been destroyed. I knew that many other Gazans had suffered for more greatly, as they always do. The missiles killed many civilians, orphaning children and shattering families. Some people were buried under their own homes, while others were killed in the streets. Some were maimed and lost body parts, while many of us who were left behind had lost a piece of our soul.
I didn’t want to go and see the damaged farmland. I really wasn’t curious to see my memories burned into ashes. The last time I was there I had sat beneath olive trees with my friends eating za’atar, bread, and olive oil. We drank tea, roasted corn, and picked fruit. I can still taste those flavors and smell the air.
But now, three rocket holes plagued these memories. They had left dark grey sand and the scorched remains of trunks and branches from trees that used to bear the fruit of olives, oranges, clementines, loquat, guavas, lemons and pomegranates. I put my hands on my heart to catch it from falling, and I felt the three holes there in my heart.
This latest attack on Gaza had successfully destroyed an important piece of our past. Our family’s history. Our heritage. “But who are we without a past or history,” I asked myself.
I tried to reassure my father by saying the land would recover and we could work with the support of the United Nations to replant the trees that we lost.
“Even if somebody helps us repair the damage and plants new trees, who will give me those years back that I spent nurturing them and supporting them to grow?” he snapped back at me. “Who will pay for the 20 years we have lost?”
An awkward silence fell between us as we both pondered the symbolic nature of our loss.