Tears pooled in her eyes as she began to talk. Maysa, one of my closest friends at college, happens to live a few meters away from the Prime Minister’s Office in the Gaza Strip (5-10 meters away). The building was flattened on the fourth day of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. Gathered around her in one of the university’s rooms, two of my classmates and I listened to Maysa as she, albeit quite reluctantly, narrated what happened on Saturday, the 17th of November. She said it was dawn, around 5 O’clock in the morning. Maysa’s father and two younger brothers were praying in the mosque across the road from their house. Maysa and her mother were alone at home. She had just finished her wudu/ablution when an Israeli F16 targeted the ministers’ building, knocking her against the floor. Lying next to her was her mother, who also fell on the ground once the place got bombed. “Then we heard the second airstrike. My mother and I were still on the ground. The third airstrike… the fourth… I had no doubt we were going to die. We both closed our eyes. We started to cry. We hugged each other so tight. Then came the fifth airstrike. It was the last one. They made sure the Prime Minister’s Office was leveled to the ground. Pieces of glass and bricks were still falling on my back, scratching my shirt and slightly cutting into my skin. They didn’t hurt, though. I was numb. Mum tried to cover me. She hugged me again. She hugged me so tight.”
As she went on, I was trying to concentrate on Maysa’s story and take notes as much as I could. Tears started running down her cheeks. The three of us felt like crying. Gaza is so small all people here share the same pain, although probably in different degrees. Maysa was courageous enough to speak of the unspeakable. She was courageous enough to speak of fear, of horror and death. Throughout history, the typical Zionist occupier has viewed Palestinians as some sort of sub-humans averse to life and yearning to death. Colonizers have tried their best to make the colonized look bizarre, to portray the steadfastness as fearlessness and indifference to imminent danger. They have twisted the concept of martyrdom, depicting it as something we aspire to for no specific reason, not as resistance against their killing machine, not as something we have to live with when they brutally cause.
I was jotting down her words again. As Maysa sipped some water and sighed, my other friend asked her whether they considered leaving their house earlier, since this Prime Minister’s building adjacent to theirs was obviously one of Israel’s targets. As painful as it is, Maysa’s answer was not shocking at all, “Where do they expect us to go? The only place we could go to is my grandparents’ in Rafah, but it wasn’t any safer. They bombed it on the very same day. In my neighborhood, 2 people were injured. In Rafah, 4 people were killed on the same day. 4 people.” Of course, there was no Hamas headquarter in Rafah. Israel still bombed several places there, including civilian areas and a man on a motorcycle.
It has been over than three weeks now since the ceasefire was announced in Egypt. Maysa still flinches when doors bang aloud, thinking they’re some Israeli bombs falling over her head. She still sleeps in the living room because the furniture in her room is entirely gone. A wall in her parents’ room has been damaged, leaving the room partially exposed to the street. Maysa’s father had this house built only 2 years ago. He has not yet finished paying off the money building the house had cost, which makes the damage caused by Israel only more dreadful.
Maysa is just one story. And despite the terror she lived for a couple of minutes and continues to live until now, she deems herself relatively ‘privileged’. She is still alive, unlike the 172 people (mostly civilians) Israel killed in 8 days; her house still has a foundation, unlike tens of other houses which were reduced to rubble. I have seen the Israeli terror. I have seen it in the faces of the elderly mourning the loss of their grandchildren. I have seen it in the smiles of Palestinian kids as they went back to their schools passing by damaged roads, even more determined to learn. I have seen it in the tears of men, sitting on what is left of their houses and concealing their fear of the unknown. I have seen it in the curses of the wounded and the maimed. I have seen it in my traumatized friend, in her tearful eyes and trembling hands.
Resuming life after such frequent attacks is never an easy task. Coming back to school right after the offensive was sheer torture, at least for me. The pale faces. The stories friends tell. The faint smiles and the exhausted beings. It is through the resiliently renewed attempts to live, nonetheless, that I realize how strong my people are. It is through Maysa’s coming back to school, talking literature and simultaneously dreaming of a free Palestine that I believe in our just cause more fiercely than ever. Minutes after she told us about her experience, my friend Maysa was eager to discuss Percy Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, a poem we’re studying this semester. As she began reciting the poem to me, she couldn’t but refer to the light rain nowadays in Gaza, hoping it will wash away the pain Israel continues to inflict on us and praying that it will help those who have lost beloved ones to survive, resist, and rise all over again.
Looking at the angry man who snatched his flag, watching the crowds afar then eyeing the man once again, trying to get his flag back but getting suddenly attacked by another angry man who happened to be an officer with a gun, knowing he has lost the flag this time, having had enough with the stupid soldier who got oddly enraged neither by a knife nor by a gun but merely by a piece of fabric, remembering he promised he would get back home as soon as he could, considering the consequences of attempting to flee the place, thinking of the distance he would have to run before he could get home, looking at his bare hands for a moment and at the soldier’s gun for another, cameras all shooting him, fears assailing his little heart, thoughts rapidly fighting in his mind, old pains making their way back to his memory, the kid turning into a man history will recall, forgetting about the cameras and the consequences and the distance and the soldier’s gun, getting more and more furious by the deranged officer whose teeth, out of rage rather than delight, were starting to gleam by then, the soldier fiercely biting his hat, the boy standing in front of the people who were chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ minutes before this whole fuss took place, becoming sure he has made a point by holding his flag amongst those who wanted him dead, clinging to life again and again, the boy in pink ran
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
I shall be gentle
A twinge of pain
A mist of thoughts
And you shall go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Think of the dead
Their tales, their leaving
Your hopes for the meeting
Think of the “gone”
With yearning, go!
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Fired to kill,
I am to sprint
Through that forehead,
I am to go, I am to melt
Abandon the heat
Abate that relish
I, then, am to perish
And let you go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Fear me not
Heave one sigh
Tis we with fear:
Him on the trigger
But you should go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Bring back a memory
Smile at the mourners
Smell that aroma
And peacefully go
Also on Mondoweiss
The Story of the Land
I looked at his teary eyes, and, beholding something akin to happiness, I smiled. The man I have always known to be my father was back. He did not look like that unfamiliar bloke whom I could not really recognize during the last three years. He was no longer that absent-minded, silent figure gazing at walls all the time and uninterestingly nodding whenever addressed by anyone at home. He was there. He was present. He was actually listening as I went on bragging about a high grade of mine. A phone call and a piece of paper signed by some Turkish-sponsored institution brought me back my father. It didn’t matter what brought him back. He was back; that was all that mattered. I looked at his eyes again, this time more carefully lest my first glance should be false. I saw that absolute happiness in my father’s eyes. A big smile made it to my face. Again.
As we now commemorate the Land Day, we honor the people who stood up for their land back in 1976 when Israel announced thousands of Palestinian dunums to be confiscated. During marches held to protest against that declaration, six people were killed. The 30th of March brings back a memory of our Land, my father’s Land. A couple of weeks ago we got a phone call informing us that my father’s name has been selected for a reconstruction program funded by Turkey. The program aims at helping Gazan farmers whose lands were damaged during the Israeli offensive in 2008-2009 to replant their trees. It provides farmers with all types of facilitating materials like fences, tree seeds, and irrigation systems. My father declined to apply for those organizations that gave financial compensations to farmers. How can he take money in return for land? Unlike any other aid program, this program gives no money to farmers. It instead helps them stand on their own.
My father was not born a farmer, nor was he naturally brought up to plant trees. He studied economics and political science in Egypt and spent most of his youth working as a journalist, mainly a columnist writing about economic and political issues in Kuwaiti newspapers. When he was back to Gaza, though, he had to take care of the piece of land my grandfather left for him years before. It was not any difficult for him. He was born to a family of farmers after all. Gradually the Land became more of a passion than a profession. It was one of the few things he cared about. It was the daily thing that kept him busy. It was heaven on earth.
During those 23 days of the Israeli attack on Gaza, we were constantly receiving news of Lands being run over by Israeli bulldozers. We were told thousands of trees were gone. We were told my uncles’ trees were gone. We were told our trees were gone. We were told the whole district of eastern farmland called Sharga was gone. But these were false rumors, or so my father wanted to believe. We all had hope that our land was still intact, totally untouched. We were clinging to the assumption that only other people’s trees could get uprooted, but certainly not our beautiful, unmatched olives. Certainly not the trees that were, to my father, the only thing he boasted of to prove he was no less of a Gazan than those who repeatedly reproached him for, as they put it, “recklessly leaving the land of black oil” where they assumed he swam in oil pools everyday, and for “coming to live here” with a small “h”. My father looked at it quite differently, for Here, he always believed, is the land of the Holy Zait—the golden oil. The golden Palestinian oil.
Gaza’s sky was blue again. Things were over—the news said things were over. My father pulled it together and went there. He went to check upon the Land. He put his faith in his intuition about his olives being an exception and he went there. He put his faith in that little white spot in the heart of the bulldozer’s guy who, my father supposed, could not have resisted the beauty of our Land and who listened to his innate, good being that told him not to run over this land. He had faith in the goodness of Man and he went there. He put his faith in God and he went there. My brother, who accompanied him, told us later that all they saw as they walked was ruined lands void but of the bulldozed, dead trees which seemed to suffice for the families need of firewood for years to come. My brother said Dad started crying as he saw people crying. They went on. They saw more trees laying down, feeble and defeated. They went on. There was the heaven. The scene of our land was not shocking. Simply put, out trees were no exception. Our trees were gone. A miscellany of affliction and denial took over the place. My father’s faith, I could tell, was smashed into little pieces. The world seemed like an ugly place.
One of our trees, that later became the interesting subject matter the whole neighborhood spoke of, was still standing there. Just one week before the 27/12/2008, my father told my brother how slanted this tree was and how quickly they needed to get rid of it. They were planning to cut it, and yet, ironically, it was the only tree the Israeli army left (out of boredom or out of mercy I cannot tell). But it was still there. And later whenever my cousins wanted to make Dad feel less terrible about it, they made fun of the whole thing. “How the hell did the soldiers know you were planning to cut it anyway and hence decided not to cut it themselves?” my cousins would remark. Everyone would start laughing. My father, though hysterically, would also join in laughing at the rhetorical, not-so-funny question.
When my father and brother were home that day, my brother started telling us about what he saw. He told us that the trees were uprooted—”El-Shajar tjarraf ,” he kept repeating. My father was in his room, crying. During the weeks that followed my father’s visit to the Land, he had a daily schedule: in the morning, he prayed and read Quran. At night, he cried.
Speaking about the Land and the houses and generally the financial losses during or right after the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2008 would have simply sounded very selfish and indifferent to others. When you have people dying, you do not speak of your beautiful house that was leveled to the ground. When you have people losing their legs and arms thus getting labeled as handicapped for the rest of their lives, you do not speak of your fancy car that once looked like a vase adorning the aisles of your modest neighborhood and that is now a bunch of gray wrecks letting go of a vulnerable piece each time someone barely passes by. When you have a mother who buried her kid before she could say good-bye, you do not speak of your land and your trees that were mercilessly uprooted. Those people speak. They cry. They mourn. You listen. And for the memory of your insignificant, little misery, you grieve in silence.
This morning as I was writing this, I went to father so I would get accurate information about the trees that were uprooted, their numbers and their age.
“Why are you asking? Are you applying for one of those charity institutions that offer some bucks and a flour bag instead of helping people plant their trees again? Are you? We do not need those! The guy I met from the reconstruction program called last week, and they already sent laborers and farmers to start their job. Do you still want to apply for charity?”
“No Baba! I am just writing something for my blog.”
“Blog? Ok, whatever that is!”
“So, how many trees were there? 180 I guess?”
“189 olive trees. 160 lemon trees. 14 guava trees…” he bellowed, angry that I missed the exact number.
Embarrassed, I lowered my head and wondered why I was doing this to myself. My thoughts were interrupted when he went on, “Next time you decide to do whatever it is that you want to do right now, get your numbers straight!”
I made no reply.
“You hear me? They were 189 olive trees. Not 180. Not 181. Not 182. 189 olive trees.”
He left the room a few minutes afterwards. Guilt was all I could feel then.
That an Israeli soldier could bulldoze 189 olive trees on the land he claims is part of the “God-given Land” is something I will never comprehend. Did he not consider the possibility that God might get angry? Did he not realize that it was a tree he was running over? If a Palestinian bulldozer were ever invented (Haha, I know) and I were given the chance to be in an orchard in Haifa for instance, I would never uproot a tree an Israeli planted. No Palestinian would. To Palestinians, the tree is sacred, and so is the land clasping it. And as I talk about Gaza, I remember that Gaza is but a little part of Palestine. I remember that Palestine is bigger than Gaza.Palestine is the West Bank; Palestine is Ramallah; Palestine is Nablus; Palestine is Jenin; Palestine is Tulkarm; Palestine is Bethlehem;Palestine, most importantly, is Jaffa and Haifa and Akka and all those cities that Israel wants us to forget about.
Today I came to realize that it was not the phone call that brought my father back, nor was it the paper signed by the aid institution. It was the memory of the Land being revived again that brought him back. It was the memory of olive trees giving that sense of security each time he sat under them enjoying their shades and dodging the burning sun rays. It was the memory of the golden oil, the best and purest oil being poured into jerry-cans and handed to family and friends as “precious gifts”. It was the memory of long years of cherishing the Land; years of giving and belonging.
Between my father and his Land is an unbreakable bond. Between Palestinians and their Land is an unbreakable bond. By uprooting plants and cutting trees continually, Israelis trying to break that bond and impose its own rules of despair on Palestinians. By replanting their trees over and over again, Palestinians are rejecting Israel’s rules. “My land, my rules,” says Dad.
I am a terrorist. At least that is what they call me. I grew up hearing that word being repeated so often I thought terrorists were the good guys for a second. Apparently they are not. Of the many sad times as a Palestinian I went through, the 2008-2009 offensive that Israel launched on the Gaza Strip was the worst and probably the most painful. I was “lucky” enough to survive and have the chance to speak for those who lost their lives– although I am quite sure their death can speak well for them.
It was December the 27th, 2008 when the Israeli warplanes started dropping bombs on every place in Gaza, killing anything or anybody getting—or not getting in their way.
The war left lots of people dead. More than 1400 Palestinians were killed, 5600 injured. There were people dying everyday.
Then there was Anwar…
Just when we began to hear the news of Israel’s intentions to end the offensive, Anwar Shehada was killed. Anwar was a 13 year old neighbor of mine who lived a few meters away from where I live. It was the last day of the massacre when Anwar told her younger sister she was going up to get the laundry from the roof. Her sister asked her not to go; Anwar told her sister not to worry because the war was almost ‘over’. Before her parents could see her going up to the roof, Anwar was already gone. She probably thought that Israel would not kill a beautiful 13 year old girl. Israel proved her wrong. The explosion that killed Anwar was the loudest one I ever heard. I thought it was our house being shelled. The floor was literally shaking. We waited for death. In seconds, we saw the smoke coming out of the neighbor’s house. They said Anwar’s blood was all over the roof. Her head was found in the street.
And then, there was Haneen…
Haneen was actually killed before Anwar, but we knew about her death one week after the end of the war. Haneen was my 5 year old friend who I first met in a mosque to which we both used to go. All I remember about her is the way she liked to tease me. She used to make that sound of ‘meow’ because she knew I hated cats. The ‘meow’ sound was actually the way she said ‘hi’ every time we saw each other. During the offensive, Haneen’s family decided to go stay with their relatives in Tal Elhawa, assuming that the area would be less dangerous. Haneen left her house, only to be killed in the house that was thought to be safe.
I cannot imagine the pain Haneen felt when the bomb penetrated her little heart tearing it apart. I do not know what it feels like to lose a child, and I have no idea how tremendous the suffering of Anwar and Haneen’s parents is. I cannot imagine the shock Haneen felt when she saw the ceiling of the bedroom falling down and getting closer to her face. I cannot imagine how a soldier looked right from his plane at that little girl and decided to end her life. I cannot imagine the kind of hatred that soldier had towards Palestinians that made him believe murdering a child is okay. I cannot imagine the denial that soldier lived in that made him think what he did was ‘self-defense’. I cannot imagine how this very same soldier can now eat, drink, sleep, and simply go on with his life. Most of all, I cannot understand how stupid Israel has to be to think that I will not fight back and seek justice for my little friends.
I kept thinking of Haneen for a year after she got killed, but now I do not think too much of her. It is just when I see her mother in the street that I remember how cute Haneen was. In fact, I have become selfish enough to avoid saying hi to Haneen’s mom whenever we meet. Every time I see her, I would hide my face hoping she will not see me. When Haneen was alive, her mother and I used to chat about how smart Haneen was and how bright her future would be. Now I just have nothing to say to her. I cannot make things better. I cannot look her mother in the eye and ask ‘how are things?’ because every time she replies with, ‘things are good’, I am sure that they are not.
I am living in a world whose concepts are no longer clear to me. A world where the criminal walks free and the victim is called a terrorist. A world where killing a 5 year old kid is permissible. A world that has left me baffled about what is right and what is wrong. I have always thought that we could figure out who the terrorist is simply by looking at who dies on whose side. I was wrong. Israel has the ability to kill Palestinians at night and call them terrorists the next morning.
Now on a second thought, I think I am a terrorist. I mean I want the Israelis out of the refugees’ lands, and I call the Israeli army a group of cold-hearted murderers all the time. This obviously makes me a terrorist. Haneen did not know what a cold-hearted murderer is. Haneen was a little kid whose life was snuffed out because an Israeli soldier felt like killing somebody, and she just happened to be that somebody. Haneen was an unfortunate human being who was born Palestinian and accordingly guilty. She did nothing wrong to Israel. She was a 5 year old girl who was split into little pieces while in bed. Haneen was too young to die. But who cares about Haneen’s death anyway? She was a terrorist, too.
It was my birthday yesterday. As an inhabitant of the Gaza Strip, I find it naive not to take the power cuts schedule into consideration when planning for birthdays. It goes like this in here: the day when the power goes off form 6:00 am till 2:00 pm, followed by the day when it goes off from 2:00 pm till 11:00 pm, and the third day when I am privileged to enjoy electricity all day long. Then it goes all over again. On my birthday this year, the electricity was to go off on a night shift, and so I decided to celebrate (not really celebrate; we just buy some cake) the 20 years I survived one day earlier. Not a big deal, is it?
On the day when I was to have my small party, it went dark. Just like that. No warning. No schedule. No nothing. It just turned off. Not that it was a first, no, the schedule is actually messed up most of the time, but this time it hurt the most as I thought I planned ahead. In Gaza, however, there seems to be no planning ahead. We were later informed that the electricity company is running out of fuel. Helpless, I sat down cursing the dark. Then came that sense of defeat to which I vulnerably succumbed. ”How am I going to someday celebrate the independence of Palestine when I can’t celebrate my damn birthday?” I thought to myself.
On my birthday last year, a neighbor of mine died after sustaining a serious injury that he had during the last offensive on the Gaza Strip. I couldn’t have had a birthday party when my neighbor’s kids were crying, “Wen baba?/Where is dad?”
Yesterday, which was my REAL birthday, I lazed around, in the scheduled dark, fidgeting and thinking of my friends’ birthday wishes on Facebook that I hadn’t replied to as my cell’s battery died out, the long-as-ever 20 years I lived, the two birthdays Israel spoiled, and the four kids that my neighbor left behind. At some point, I felt my misery is Israel’s pleasure, my delight its dismay.
And as I began to get my strength back, I held my pen and made up my mind to record what goes on, for I shouldn’t forget. I don’t want to forget.
Published on Mondoweiss
It starts with a smile. A faint one apparently. But that doesn’t matter. I know as long as I’m smiling, nobody can wake me up. I shall keep the smile on my face. And I shall go on dreaming.
I am having a dream…
I can hear my wife whisper something to the kids, but I’m pretending to be asleep. I am trying to stay focused on the dream: the trees, Jerusalem, my friend.
Sadly, it happens that each time a sweet dream forces itself into my distressing thoughts, a fly would keep buzzing till I furiously start swinging my hand trying to keep it away. I would end up hitting my face, and the fly actually wins! I open my eyes and wonder if that was the end; I so much regret waking up to the extent that I would pathetically try to close my eyes again and make the dream last a bit longer. I fail, miserably.
Last night I had a dream…
This time was different though. Trees were all I could see. Jerusalem looked so close. And my friend was alive. I felt like going on as long as possible. I knew by waking up I would be uprooting my own trees, abandoning my Jerusalem, and killing my buddy. This time, I kept my eyes close. This time, I fought for my dream.
When I was 17 years old, I dropped out of school. My father was a farmer but wanted me to go to college and become a doctor. However, I loved to take care of our land. Of the lemon trees. I told him study was not my thing, but he insisted that I go back to school. I did. I became a teacher, and my father died, leaving me with a piece of land full of lemon trees.
The trees were there in my dream, standing so beautifully.
When I was 11, the family decided to go on a trip to Jerusalem, the city of dreams. It was not that expensive to go there at the time, nor was it too difficult to travel. It happened quite easily. It ended so fast.
Last night Jerusalem seemed to be a few meters away, a lot nearer that it was when we went on that visit.
When I was 8, I met Mu’aath, who later became my best friend. We threw stones together, and, because I was kind of a coward, I used to run away and leave him behind each time an Israeli tank got too close. He never left his spot. Mu’aath seemed like a true hero—at least to me.
He was always throwing stones. Even in the dream!
Last night I had a beautiful dream… trees, Jerusalem, my friend.
Now it’s 5:55 a.m. In a few minutes, the alarm will start ringing, my wife will start nagging me to get up, and a hideous fly might come over to take part in the wake-up drama. My eyes are tightly closed. I guess I’m going to take the day off. Well the UNRWA, for which I work, might deduct some bucks, but that is fine. Now I need to concentrate. Trees are all I can see. Jerusalem looks so close. My friend is alive.
Last night I had a dream, and it was when my wife shook my body I realized that the lemons were gone long ago, that Jerusalem is 79 kms (and a checkpoint and a fence and a soldier) away from me, and that Mu’aath was shot to death. I could no longer fake the smile, for the dream was truly over.
Last night I had a dream…
It ends with a smile. A fake one, indeed. But that doesn’t matter. I know as long as I’m smiling, nobody can wake me up. I shall keep that smile. And I shall go on dreaming…
Of the lemon trees. Of Jerusalem. Of Mu’aath.
July 17th, 2011.