If I must die, you must live to tell my story
Refaat Alareer (1979-2023)

In tijden van verwoesting en uitwissing wordt de rol van de getuigen extra belangrijk. We worden afhankelijk van getuigenissen van kunstenaars over het leven in Gaza, zoals het was, zoals het is en zoals het misschien wel nooit meer wordt. Door die getuigenissen te leren kennen, ze te waarderen, erover te praten en ze te delen, houden we de herinneringen levend.

Kunstwerk van Malik Qraiqea: “Gazans on the March”

Deze maanden horen we van een ongekende massaslachting en etnische zuivering van de bevolking in Gaza. Dit buitensporige geweld is niet alleen gericht op burgers en hun leefomgeving maar ook op alles en iedereen die de cultuur en het erfgoed van het Palestijnse volk behoeden en vorm geven. In de afgelopen maanden zijn musea, archieven, culturele centra, bibliotheken, boekhandels en historisch erfgoed verwoest en onbruikbaar gemaakt. Een levendige cultuur met een lange historie en een eigen identiteit dreigt te worden uitgewist. In een rapport van het Palestijnse Ministerie van Cultuur van begin december wordt gesproken over de beschadiging en verwoesting van 21 culturele centra, 9 bibliotheken en uitgeverijen en 20 historische sites waaronder de Byzantijnse kerk van Sint Porphyrius uit de 4e eeuw, de Grote Omari moskee in Gaza-Stad, met een minaret uit de 7e eeuw, en de haven van Anthedon die vermeld staat op de werelderfgoedlijst. Veel gearchiveerde documenten en objecten zijn voorgoed verloren gegaan.

Bovendien zijn veel kunstenaars vermoord zoals schrijvers, dichters, kalligrafen, fotografen, schilders, theatermakers, musici, zangers en dansers. Of zij zijn door ontberingen en gebrek aan hulpmiddelen niet meer in staat om te werken.

Getuigen van Gaza

Bij grootschalige verwoesting en uitwissing is de rol van getuigen extra belangrijk. We worden afhankelijk van getuigenissen van kunstenaars over het leven in Gaza, zoals het was, zoals het is en zoals het misschien nooit meer wordt. We hebben getuigen nodig die een beeld schetsen van het dagelijks leven op straten, pleinen en markten. Die vertellen hoe het landschap er uitzag, welke bomen er stonden, waar de stad was en waar het platteland. Die een inkijkje geven in de gemoedstoestand van mensen, in hun dromen en vragen, hun plannen en teleurstellingen. Die vertellen over maaltijden, feesten, muziek, zang en dans en die uitleggen hoe Palestijnen zich verhouden tot religie, familie, politiek en cultuur. Die verhalen vertellen waardoor we het leven in Gaza van binnenuit begrijpen en kunnen meeleven met de grote en kleine gebeurtenissen, de dilemma’s, conflicten en tegenstellingen en de worsteling van elke Gazaan om te leven in onmenselijke omstandigheden.

Een getuige die niet onvermeld mag blijven is Refaat Alareer (1979-2023). Alareer werd op 6 december vermoord door een Israelisch bombardement. Hij stierf samen met verschillende van zijn familieleden waaronder vier kinderen. Aangezien Alareer zijn verhalen, gedichten en artikelen in het Engels schreef en publiceerde op social media, werd zijn werk wereldwijd veel gelezen. Heel bekend werd zijn column uit 2021: My child asks, ‘Can Israel destroy our building when the power is out?’
Ook sprak hij in 2015 op een TEDx over het belang van storytelling.

Behalve schrijver en dichter, was hij ook geëngageerd docent Engelse literatuur en creative writing aan de Islamitische Universiteit van Gaza. Daar besprak hij met zijn studenten het werk van Shakespeare, moderne poëzie en literatuur. Tegelijk stimuleerde hij hen om over hun eigen levens te schrijven in het Engels. Dit leidde tot de bundel Gaza Writes Back. Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine (2014). In deze bundel getuigen jonge schrijvers van eigen ervaringen of van gebeurtenissen die ze om zich heen hebben gezien. Hun verhalen zijn schrijnend, onthullend en getuigen vaak van een bittere humor. De bundel is nog als e-book verkrijgbaar.

*Twee verhalen zijn beschikbaar in Nederlandse vertaling op VerhalenPost: verhalenpost.org

Dit gedicht plaatste hij in november 2023 op X, een hartverscheurend testament:

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up
above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale

Eén van de jonge schrijvers uit de bundel Gaza writes back, Yousef Aljamal (zijn verhaal Omar X is te vinden op VerhalenPost) schreef een ontroerend eerbetoon aan Refaat Alareer, vol persoonlijke herinneringen aan de man die hem inspireerde en coachte op weg naar zijn schrijverschap.

A Student’s Tribute to Refaat Alareer, Gaza’s Beloved Storyteller
18 December, 2023

It is hard to write about Refaat Alareer, the person who instilled in me and so many other young people in Gaza a love of the written word. Now that I find myself writing this farewell article for him, I am lost for words. Oddly, I don’t feel he’s gone. It’s hard to believe that he’s just a memory now, hard to accept that he’ll never again show up in his classroom, share his wit and the humor for which he was famous. Among those of us who came to know him over the years, Refaat is immortal — he’s an idea, and ideas don’t die. Refaat is a word and a story, Refaat is a pen and a pun. Refaat is our poet, storyteller and mentor.

Born in 1979, the son of Al Shujaiya neighborhood in Gaza city — he loved to introduce himself in this way — Refaat has been an inspiration to a whole generation of Palestinians who came of age under siege in Gaza, youth he guided and supported to become storytellers.

Refaat was so energetic and giving with his time that now and then it seemed he could be present in two separate places at the same time. He was universal in his teaching, introducing us to Malcolm X, John Donne, Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe alongside the works of Palestinian authors such as Edward Said, Susan Abulhawa, Ibrahim Nasrallah and Mourid Bargouthi, among others.

Refaat told us that it was his grandmother, Kamla, who planted in him the love of storytelling. His grandfather would bribe him with gifts to stay with him, but Refaat always chose the stories of his grandmother.

In a TEDx talk he gave in 2015, Refaat quoted a native Canadian asking colonizers, “if this is your land, where is your story?” The story he knew about Palestine and Gaza was Refaat’s way of proving his connection to the land of his ancestors.

Early in his life, Refaat was shot and injured three times. He survived and emerged stronger. “I have never been caught in my life. I was shot three times with rubber-coated metal bullets and was beaten only when the soldiers stormed our home,” he wrote.

Refaat’s uncle, Tayseer Alareer, was killed by Israeli forces while he was working on his land in 2001 to the east of Al Shujaiya and his brother Hamada was also killed by Israel in 2014. Around the same time, Refaat’s family house was also destroyed. When Israelis destroy a home, the occupants return after a while to collect valuables like jewelry or family heirlooms and photos; Refaat dug into the heap of concrete and steel looking for writings of his students.

Refaat had a great love for literature, such that one of our classmates once joked that he keeps a copy of Hamlet under his pillow when he sleeps. Refaat laughed when he heard the joke. His humility and easy-going manner meant many of his students became his close friends. He could be tough with grades, but we still loved him as we knew that the impact of hard-earned grades would last longer.

Refaat’s connection with his students was not limited to the classroom. He would often invite us to have classes in the open air or near the beach, which is now under the occupation of Israeli forces. He would invite us for coffee and always checked on us and on our families.

Refaat edited an anthology in 2014 in which he gathered some of the best writing he could find. Inspired by The Empire Writes Back, Refaat chose Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories From Young Writers in Gaza as its title. He wanted it to be Gaza’s voice to the world. Soon after the end of the 2008-9 Israeli war on Gaza, he asked his students, including me, to write short stories as part of our school assignment, and he chose some of these stories and published them.

Through this book, Refaat wanted to debunk claims about Palestinians in Gaza through literature, because he believed that literature is universal and timeless and could be read at any time in the future as if it were written now. Gaza Writes Back was translated into Malay, Turkish, Italian, and Bengali.

Refaat believed that stories have a huge power of transcending ideas and people. He used to tell us that the Zionist movement didn’t colonize Palestine in one go — Zionists worked for decades to build a narrative justifying the occupation of Palestine. Zionism first created an imaginary homeland in the minds of its followers through mythology and stories.

Refaat argued that for Palestinians to keep their memory and cause alive, they have to carry on telling their side of the story. If we stop telling stories, we’ll betray our ancestors, he would remind us constantly.

In 2014, I traveled with Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi, another contributor to his anthology, to the United States to talk about Gaza and Palestine’s storytelling culture. Refaat always left a huge impact on people he met. We toured seven states together, speaking at churches, unions, community centers and schools, and Refaat used his knowledge and sense of humor to convey Gaza’s story effectively.

Refaat’s wife and kids were at another location when he was killed. He would always speak about his children and what they meant to him.

Refaat had a sense of dark humor and language was his game. He was quick to make jokes or puns, entertaining those around him. He had multiple skills and was active on social media tweeting about Gaza in English. Once, he assigned his students the task to create a Twitter/X account and tweet in English to plant in them the seed of storytelling. His use of social media is how many people around the world came to know Refaat.

I happened to be on the same flight as Refaat in 2013. We both were heading for postgraduate studies in Malaysia, Refaat for his PhD and I for my Masters. He asked me if I had a place to stay to which I answered no. He invited me to stay with him until I found lodging. He was so kind to me, but his dark humor was always there. After I left, I had dinner at another friend’s place, and I posted that I could finally say that I had dinner. He called me “ungrateful,” and demanded that I buy a watermelon — a fruit we Palestinians love — and visit him to show remorse, and so I did.

Refaat was a threat to the Israeli narrative and that’s why Israeli intelligence called him and told him that they would get him and that they knew he was taking shelter at a school. Refaat chose to leave the school and headed to his sister’s house where he was killed by an Israeli airstrike at 6:00 pm on December 6.

In his introduction to Gaza Writes Back, Refaat quoted Chinua Achebe, writing, “storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control. They frighten usurpers of the right to freedom of the human spirit.” “There is a Palestine inside all of us, a Palestine that needs to be rescued where all people regardless of color, race and religion could co-exist…Palestine is a martyr away, a missile away, a tear away or a whimper away, Palestine is a story away,” he wrote. Refaat’s stories always brought us closer to our homeland and we remember Refaat carrying a book in his hand and rushing to yet another appointment, always multitasking. As Refaat wanted us to do in a poem titled “If I must die,” he wrote in 2011, but pinned to his timeline in November 2023, we will turn your story into a tale.

De romans en theaterstukken van Ahmed Masoud zijn allemaal gesitueerd in Gaza. Ook al woont hij er zelf niet meer, hij komt er nog vaak en ziet de Gazastrook als zijn biotoop. ‘Zoals Ruiz Zafon alleen maar schreef over Barcelona, schrijf ik alleen over Gaza’, zei hij onlangs in een online interview. De smalle straatjes in de vluchtelingenkampen, de kleine huizen bevolkt met grote families, de cafeetjes met terrassen aan zee, de ruïnes en ingestorte panden, de scholen en universiteiten, ze vormen allemaal het decor van zijn boeken en bepalen de couleur locale van zijn verhalen. ‘Maar op dit moment schrijf ik niet’, zei hij in datzelfde interview, ‘Want wat nu in mijn regio gebeurt en de berichten die ik dagelijks ontvang, zijn zo aangrijpend dat ik aan niets anders kan denken.’

Tijdens het festival Arabische Literatuur in Den Haag begin december werd zijn toneelstuk The Shroud Maker opgevoerd als leesvoorstelling ondersteund met live muziek. Hoofdpersoon van dit stuk is Hajja Souad, een 84 jarige Palestijnse vrouw die haar brood verdient met het maken van lijkwaden. Ze woont in het Jabaliya vluchtelingenkamp, dat nu grotendeels is ontvolkt, belegerd en gebombardeerd door Israelische troepen. Ook in het verleden was het vaak doelwit van aanvallen. Oorlog en verwoesting zijn constanten in het leven van deze leverancier van lijkwaden maar ze is een overlever mede dankzij haar sarcasme en zwarte humor. ‘Only in Gaza’ zegt ze herhaaldelijk als ze vertelt over de omstandigheden waarin ze moet werken. En ze neemt geen blad voor de mond als ze vertelt over het tekort aan geld en grondstoffen, de tunnel-economie, de vrouwen die steeds vaker een hoofddoek dragen en het grote aantal kinderen dat in Gaza geboren wordt.

Haja Souad heeft echter ook een andere, gevoelige kant en een veelbewogen levensverhaal. Dat begint in Jeruzalem, waar ze tijdens het Brits Mandaat in huis werd genomen door de vrouw van de Engelse gouverneur, en loopt via vluchtelingenkampen, eerst in de Westbank en later in Gaza. Tijdens haar vlucht uit Jeruzalem vindt ze een kind dat is achtergelaten en adopteert dat. Zo wordt ze gelijktijdig wees, vluchteling, maagd en moeder. Haar zoon en later haar kleinzoon brengen haar geluk maar ook groot verdriet en weerspiegelen hoe in Gaza trauma’s overgaan van generatie op generatie.

Fragment uit The Shroud Maker:

… Four years ago, I could hardly keep up with the demand. I ended up selling yards and yards of cheap crap in customers too grief-stricken to know the difference. ‘Oh yes, finest organic Palestinian muslin, handwoven in Gaza by virgins from the purest East Indies cotton (fairly traded, of course) that‘ll be a thousand shekels. So sorry for your loss.’

It’s what I do. I make money when people die. But now and again, I make a signature shroud just for me. Like this one I am making now, inspiration descends, you hit a run of lucky stitches and you end up with a really pukka, grade A, twenty-four-carat burial garment and you think, Hamdullah, it’s all been worthwhile: the Nakba, the Occupation, the Siege – everything. Just for this: a shroud to make you proud.

Tonight may be the night to finally wear it. I can almost hear the Israeli tanks moving across the border. I better be ready for their royal arrival. They’re coming to destroy some smugglers’ tunnels which they apparently forgot to bomb four years ago. And they’ve chosen to do it today. Om my birthday! Eighty-four years young today! How kind of them to provide some genuine fireworks to mark the occasion – F16 rockets no less!

A burial shroud is like your wedding dress and christening robe rolled into one. .. A shroud is an once-in-a-lifetime investment, you only wear it once, so you’d better make sure it fits comfortably. Your last opportunity to make a good impression – last pose for posterity, so don’t scrimp on the fabric. You can’t take it with you, so why not go out looking like a million dollars?

Listen habibi, we are all going to die. Allah has provided two guarantees for this – the Angel of Death and the Israelis and before you ask this is not pure cotton, hence the lower price tag. In fact it is not cotton at all, it’s polyester.

How are we supposed to get cotton in Gaza? Since the fucking Egyptians destroyed the tunnels, there’s barely a scrap to be had. But I have my ways. I buy it from old Abu Shihada, down in the old market in Gaza City, another indefatigable octogenarian like me, and he gets it through Refaat, the mechanic on Salah Eddin Street. Cotton from a mechanic, eh? Only in Gaza.

Hello, you’ve reached Hajja Souad, Shroud Manufacturers & Suppliers. Due to unprecedented demands on our services all of our lines are currently busy, but your call is important to us. If you’d like to place an advance order press 1, for prices and special offers press 2, and if you’re the Israeli army press any button – I don’t give a shit and you can stick it up your arse.

In zijn romans Vanished. The mysterious disappearance of Mustafa Ouda (2015) en Come what may (2022) is Masoud echt een chroniqueur van gewone mensen met uitzonderlijke levens. ‘Vanished’ is opgezet als een thriller, ‘Come what may’ als een detective. De schrijver maakt de spanningen en conflicten tussen buren, familieleden en vrienden invoelbaar. Zij wonen dicht op elkaar en hebben voortdurend te maken met geweld en intimidatie. Maar ook schildert hij de loyaliteit en solidariteit tussen mensen en de veerkracht om in bizarre omstandigheden overeind te blijven.

Fragment uit Vanished:

“Yes, of course I will look after you,” my masked companion said. “You will have to wear that scarf if you want to leave. However, you cannot go anywhere near your home, masked or not. Do you understand?” He continued to give me instructions as Um Marwan disappeared. There was only one windowless room in the house where we could turn a light on, the rest had to stay dark. Food could only be cooked during the day, so that the light from the cooker wouldn’t show in the dark. Tea or coffee could be made in the daylight and saved in two large flasks. There was no heating and fire was not allowed; we should have to make do with the plentiful of blankets they had. There was a small portable Sony radio player that had to be kept low. The maximum volume allowed was marked clearly with a small piece of blue tape. I sat there listening to all instructions, trying to take them all in. Finally, he asked if I had any questions.  “Where are we?” “I will show you in the morning. No doubt you will recognise where you are,” he said as he took his pistol apart and began to clean it with a cloth. “Do you know how to use this?” “No, we don’t study weapon handling at school.”

He laughed loudly at this, which made me nervous. He had a distinctive laugh and a high-pitched voice that made him sound like one of these evil jinns from the One Thousand and One Nights.

“Well, consider this school from now on. You will not be able to go to classes anymore. In fact, you will not be able to go anywhere the Israelis might look for you.”

Atef Abu Saif is minister van Cultuur en opsteller van het rapport over de culturele schade in Gaza (dat hierboven al vermeld werd). Daarnaast is hij schrijver. Tijdens de oorlog van 2014 hield hij een dagboek bij dat later werd gepubliceerd: The Drone Eats with Me. Dat doet hij ook nu. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/06/gaza-diary-war-truce-palestinian-authority

Hoewel de huidige oorlog veel verschrikkelijker is dan toen, geeft zijn dagboek van 2014 een indringend beeld hoe mensen in onmenselijke omstandigheden op de been blijven, wat hen helpt en hoe ze ook elkaar helpen. Zo schrijft Abu Saif over vaste routines die hem steun geven, over de gesprekken met zijn vrienden en over de zorg voor zijn kinderen.

Hier een gedeelte uit het Oorlogsdagboek:

In een oorlog wen je jezelf aan nieuwe routines en maak je nieuwe tradities. Een routine die anders misschien saai zou zijn maakt in deze omstandigheden het leven draaglijk. Ook al ben je omgeven door geweld en gevaar, een eenvoudig ritueel kan helpen om te ontkomen aan de kwelling van alleen maar zitten en wachten tot het onvoorspelbare gebeurt. Het geeft je houvast. Als je in een voortdurende staat van onzekerheid bent wordt angst deel van elk aspect van je leven: het tikken van de klok, de onverwachte klop op de deur, het rode balkje onderaan je tv scherm: ‘Laatste Nieuws’, het geluid van je mobiele telefoon, het bezoek van een buurman, het signaal van je telefoon dat je een nieuw bericht ontvangen hebt. Midden in die draaikolk van nieuws die je zenuwachtig en in de war maakt, moet je je eigen ordening aanbrengen. Je moet zorgen dat je erboven blijft staan, voorbereid bent op wat komt. Je wordt als een schildwacht die voortdurend alert is en berekend op het onverwachte. Het is een merkwaardige paradox. Je komt erachter dat je niets anders kunt bewaken dan jezelf, je staart in je eigen gedachten en merkt dat je eigen geest een microkosmos is van de huiveringwekkende, kolkende buitenwereld. Je geeft jezelf de opdracht om die microkosmos te kalmeren en op orde te brengen want op de chaos van buiten heb je geen invloed. In plaats van ten onder te gaan in het labyrint van het onverwachte, leg je jezelf herhaling op en zorg je ervoor dat elke dag zoveel mogelijk lijkt op de vorige. Voor mij zijn de avonden het beste moment om die orde te scheppen. Als de zon is ondergegaan in de zee en ik het vasten heb gebroken, loop ik naar het hart van het Jabaliyya Kamp en bezoek het huis van mijn vriend Wafi waar ik in de woonkamer elke dag dezelfde drie vrienden ontmoet: Faraj, Abu Aseel en Wafi, gezeten in dezelfde stoelen als de avond ervoor. Faraj en Wafi ken ik al van jongs af aan. We zijn opgegroeid in dezelfde straat en gingen samen naar school. Abu Aseel is de eigenaar van een van de internetwinkels waar ik vaak te vinden ben. Wafi’s huis is klein en smal, te smal om als doel te dienen voor een drone bestuurder. Vakkundig maakt Wafi de waterpijp klaar voor gebruik en serveert even later glaasjes sap. We bespreken dezelfde onderwerpen en verhalen als de avond ervoor. Iedereen deelt zijn angsten en zorgen. En net als de avond daarvoor veranderen die angsten, meningen en theorieën uiteindelijk in grappen en komische verhalen. Na een uur verplaatsen we ons naar het huis van Faraj even verderop, om naar zijn grote televisiescherm te kijken. We drinken koffie en bespreken wat we hebben gehoord. Als er geen elektriciteit is, verbindt Faraj de stroomdraad met een kabel van het internet café en kijken we alsnog. Dat zijn mijn rituelen. Ik moet eraan vasthouden.

*Meer fragmenten uit dit Oorlogsdagboek op VerhalenPost: www.verhalenpost.org

Atef Abu Saif is ook de samensteller van The Book of Gaza. A City in Short Fiction, een verhalenbundel uit 2014 die inzoomt op menselijke ervaringen in benarde omstandigheden. We maken kennis met personages die verlangen naar meer bewegingsruimte en toekomstmogelijkheden en die moeten omgaan met teleurstelling en verdriet. In deze bundel ook veel aandacht voor het lot van vrouwen, bijvoorbeeld als ze verliefd worden of een gezin stichten.

Een van de verhalen uit The Book of Gaza werd de basis voor een andere bundel (vertaald in het Nederlands): De Zeemantel en andere verhalen, van de jonge schrijfster Nayrouz Qarmout. Ook zij is een belangrijke getuige van Gaza omdat zij van binnenuit vertelt hoe het leven van jonge vrouwen en kinderen eruit ziet. Zij heeft oog voor hun dromen en verlangens en hun botsing met de harde, soms conservatieve en patriarchale samenleving in Gaza.

Fragment uit het verhaal De Zeemantel:

Haar vader kon niet zwemmen. Hij was wat aan het pootjebaden, vertrouwde op zijn lengte om niet kopje onder te gaan. Hij beende moeizaam door het water maar keerde al snel terug naar het strand. Daar zat hij zo diep in gedachten verzonken over het water te staren dat iedereen wist dat hij was weggedreven naar een zee die ver verwijderd was van de zee die voor hen lag. Haar moeder was druk bezig met het inrichten van de tent en hield ondertussen de salade die ze net uit haar tas had gehaald nauwlettend in de gaten, bang dat die oneetbaar zou worden door de zanderige bries. Ze zette alles klaar voor hun feestelijke lunch en dekte de tafel net zoals thuis. Pas toen ze ging zitten besefte ze hoe moe ze was. Haar dochter zat wat stilletjes achteraf haar familie te observeren.

En daar had je oma, in haar geborduurde jurk die wapperde in de wind. Ze grinnikte onafgebroken, een oude sigaret bungelde in haar mond. Al rokend en puffend zong ze weemoedige volksliedjes van vroeger. Af en toe wierp ze een zijdelingse blik op haar chagrijnige kleindochter. ‘Ga lekker zwemmen, schat. Als ik kon, zou ik met je meegaan.’ ‘In mijn eentje?’ ‘Je hebt toch benen?’ ‘Ja.’ ‘Je moet nu gaan, voordat het te fris wordt.’ ‘Oké, ik ga al.’ Haar zussen waren giechelend en met veelbetekenende knipogen hun verschillende kennissen aan het bespreken. ‘God vergeef ons al die kletspraatjes, we hebben gewoon een beetje lol!’ riepen ze spontaan uit na elke roddelronde. Glimlachend om de woorden van haar zussen en haar grootmoeder stond ze stilletjes op en liep naar de zee. Ze kwam langs haar broers, die vis grilden op de barbecue, en ving flarden van hun luide discussie op, die heen en weer sprong tussen politiek, herinneringen aan de oorlog en de Intifada, en spottende opmerkingen over hun huidige situatie. Damp en as van de waterpijp dansten samen met hun gelach in de lucht. Niemand merkte haar op toen ze door de rook liep. Het was alsof de zee haar had betoverd, waardoor ze onzichtbaar was voor haar omgeving en gedragen werd als een bruid op haar trouwdag.

Heba Hayek is een andere vrouwelijke getuige van Gaza. Haar bundel Sambac beneath unlikely skies kwam uit in 2021 en bevat korte schetsen: jeugdherinneringen en ervaringen van het leven in ballingschap. Hayek schrijft met veel liefde, gevoel en aandacht voor details. Ze combineert haar verhalen met een speellijst met nummers uit de westerse en oosterse muziekcultuur. Bij elk verhaal staat een bijpassend lied.

Fragment uit het verhaal Ask me anything (Song: BiGSaM Feat. DaMoJaNad ‘Ya Gamar’)

We were never trained for emergencies at school. We just knew what to do. We would sit on the floor under our tables each time we heard recurrent loud explosions – ignore the first two, exchange a few nervous looks, and then, in one swift move, we’d all be in our places by the third. That consistency was comforting. The fact that we had survived the first two was a good enough sign that it’d be worth shielding ourselves from the rest. In an attempt at reassurance, our teacher would remind the class: ‘The one you hear isn’t the one that kills you.’ On particularly bad days, she’d allow us to choose our bench partners. ‘We should always sit at the table in the middle of the classroom,’ Lubna observed. ‘This way, we’ll all be safe if the bombs fall on either side of the classroom.’ ‘What if they come through the ceiling?’ ‘They don’t. I don’t think that’s possible.’ Lubna said things very convincingly, but sometimes she was really bullshitting me. Even then, her intentions were always to make me feel better.’Yeah, I don’t think their weapons are strong enough to go through the ceiling…’ I commented, in what was half a statement half a question. ‘Totally’, Lubna replied.

Most days. We would spend around ten minutes under the tables until local radios confirmed what was going on. It was always a disappointment if classes resumed, but only because we never let ourselves consider the other outcome. Being sent home, while providing the immediate pleasure of missing school, was never a good sign. Those ten minutes were ours. They felt sacred – as if bombs couldn’t reach or interrupt us, as if the whole world, including the European soldier controlling the warplanes from an office, had stopped and were counting the seconds with us. We tried creating routines that would help us adapt. Most girls cross-clapped or told riddles. Some would space out in the dusty light that burst through the windows – light that possessed all of the world, and all of its possibilities.

De Gazaan Mosab Abu Toha heeft zich jarenlang ingezet om zijn liefde voor literatuur en cultuur om te zetten in tastbare projecten. Als student Engelse literatuur merkte hij dat bibliotheken en boekhandels schaars waren in Gaza en bovendien regelmatig werden verwoest of gesloten. Daarom besloot hij zelf een openbare bibliotheek op te zetten. Hij schreef allerlei universiteiten, docenten (onder andere Noam Chomsky) en ngo’s aan met de vraag boeken op te sturen en met behulp van al die donaties kon hij in 2017 The Edward Said Public Library openen. Later volgden meer vestigingen ook met collecties voor kinderen. Het valt te vrezen dat van deze bibliotheken niets over is. Abu Toha zelf werd onlangs gearresteerd toen hij met zijn gezin en vele andere wanhopige Palestijnen de grenspost bij Rafah probeerde te passeren. Inmiddels is hij weer vrij en in ballingschap in Cairo. Abu Toha schrijft prachtige poëzie die is gepubliceerd op online platforms en gebundeld onder de titel Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza (2022, City Lights).

Twee gedichten van Mosab Abu Toha:

Untitled
A father wakes up at night, sees
the random colors on the walls
drawn by his four year old son.
But he’s dead after an airstrike.
The colors are about 4 feet high.
Next year, they would be 5 or 6.
But the painter is dead and the
museum has no new
paintings to show.

What Is Home? – eerder gepubliceerd op www.LitHub.com:

What is home:
It is the shade of trees on my way to school before they were uprooted.
It is my grandparents’ black-and-white wedding photo before the walls crumbled.
It is my uncle’s prayer rug, where dozens of ants slept on wintry nights, before it was looted and put in a museum.
It is the oven my mother used to bake bread and roast chicken before a bomb reduced our house to ashes.
It is the café where I watched football matches and played –
My child stops me: Can a four-letter word hold all of these?

Nederlandse vertaling – door Evelien Klijweg

Wat is thuis?
Het is de schaduw van de bomen op mijn weg naar school voordat ze ontworteld werden.
Het is de zwart-witte trouwfoto van mijn grootouders voordat de muren afbrokkelden.
Het is het gebedskleed van mijn oom, waarop tijdens winterse nachten tientallen mieren sliepen, voordat het geplunderd werd en in een museum terecht kwam.
Het is de oven die mijn moeder gebruikte om brood te bakken en kip te braden voordat een bom ons huis tot as reduceerde.
Het is het café waar ik naar voetbal wedstrijden keek en speelde
Mijn kind onderbreekt me: kan een woord met vijf letters dit allemaal omvatten?

Drie gedichten uit: Things You May Find Hidden in my Ear. Poems from Gaza. Mosab Abu Toha (City Light Books, 2022)

Things you may find hidden in my ear
I

When you open my ear, touch it gently.
My mother’s voice lingers somewhere inside.
Her voice is the echo that helps me recover equilibrium
When I feel dizzy during my attentiveness.

You may encounter songs in Arabic
Poems in English I recite to myself,
Or a song I chant to the chirping birds in our backyard.

When you stitch the cut, don’t forget to put all these back in my ear.
Put them back in order, as you would do with the books on your shelf.

II
The drone’s buzzing sound,
The roar of an F-16,
The screams of bombs falling on houses,
On fields, and on bodies,
Of rockets flying away-
Rid my tiny ear canal of them all.

Spray the perfume of your smiles on the incision.
Inject the song of life into my veins to wake me up.
Gently beat the drum so my mind may dance,
With yours,
My doctor, day and night.

Everyday meals during wars

In previous wars, our neighbours would share meals with us, in our basement.
My brother would start a fire in the old brazier,
and I would prepare tea and put the kettle on the burning coals.

There were truces every couple of days. My father could go out
and check on the hens and ducks in their coops. My mother
would climb the ladder to the roof to put water in bowls
for the sparrows and pigeons.

Men would be taken to jails and concentration camps. They could
see those who were fighting and killing them and their families.

Nowadays, we don’t see those who take everything beautiful away from us.
We don’t even see our shadows during the day.
The F-16s swallow the light from the sun, casting the shadows
Of their fat bellies on us, dead or alive.

Bombs punch the houses, knock them down, smash the fridges and the dishes.
A house turns into a stew of concrete-and-blood.

We no longer share meals with the neighbours.

Hossam Madhoun is medeoprichter van Gaza’s Theatre for Everybody, dat – zoals de naam al zegt – producties wil maken die aantrekkelijk zijn voor een breed publiek. Vanwege de erbarmelijke omstandigheden in Gaza lukt dat nu niet meer. Daarom werkt Madhoun nu samen met Jamal Al Rozzi aan dramatherapie voor getraumatiseerde kinderen.

Hossam Madhoun in actie met dramatherapie voor kinderen

Ook hij schrijft een dagboek over zijn ervaringen en gevoelens. Hier twee fragmenten.

Disabled Words

What can words do when you feel they are unable to describe, explain, to express a feeling or an event?


It is almost 10 days now without writing anything. There are many things I want to talk about but words are disabled, words will not reflect what I see, what I feel, what I want to tell about.

Yesterday I was at the clinic waiting for my colleagues, the counsellors, to hand over to them their duties and distribute them to the shelter/schools to provide some psychological support for the children. One of them was not there. I asked about him. Someone told me that something happened: Two people they host were killed in a bombing. The person we were talking about, I know his uncle. His uncle is my friend and I know that he took refuge at their home. I panicked. I finished with my colleagues and went there fast to see my friend and find out what has happened. I arrived. My friend and my colleague were there sitting outside the house. Their faces were talking. Their faces said everything. Their faces told me that something terrible had happened.

My friend told me what happened. His daughter’s husband and his grandson were killed. They were taking refuge at the same home but yesterday his daughter’s husband went to see his mother in another home with his extended family. He took his oldest son, Waseem, a six-year-old boy.

The home, a building of four floors hosting 37 people was bombed. They died. They all died; men, women, boys, girls are dead, all of them.

While he was speaking, his daughter, the one I have known since she was seven years old was not far away. She was hanging the clothes of her dead child on the laundry line, as if nothing had happened. She washed the clothes of her dead son and she put them out to dry in the sun so when he came back he could put them on.

I looked at her and I looked for the words that would explain what she feels, what she thinks. I did not find the words. What words can describe this? Damn it, where are the words? Why don’t words help? Words are weak. Words are disabled. Words are crippled. No words can explain what she feels or thinks. She lost her husband and her six-year-old son. The son was found and buried, and the husband was still under the rubble with another 14 out of the 37.

I hate words. It makes me feel helpless, makes me feel stupid even to think of talking with words about this.

And while we talk they mention Mahmoud, Mahmoud, my friend. He is the uncle of the husband. He took refuge at the big family home with his wife and children, his brother and wife and children and their parents. They were all there. They all died.

No! Please, no! Not Mahmoud! No, he can’t be dead. I can’t accept this. Mahmoud did not die. Mahmoud is alive. Please tell me he is not dead. Please.

I ran into him in Nuseirat market three days ago. We hugged, we talked, we laughed. You can’t meet Mahmoud and not laugh. He looks so good, so smart, well dressed, always with shaved face and shaved head, and a big smile never leaves his face for a single minute. His beautiful smile fills the air with joy and happiness. He is the one who makes everybody feel good and relaxed. Mahmoud’s smile opens all the windows for hope and comfort. His heart is so big, bigger than the world itself. He can take all the world in his heart. He is the one who is always available to help, to support, to solve problems, to be beside people, people that he knows or people that he never met before, he is just available for anyone, as if God created him for others. He can’t die. Oh God, Mahmoud, my friend. Why? Why? Why?

After writing this about Mahmoud I feel so bad, very bad. All these words are nothing. It tells nothing about my friend. It makes him small and he is much more. Words are cursed. Words are weak. Words are helpless. No words can tell what I feel now. Words won’t say what I want to say about Mahmoud.

November 24, 2023

Untold Story from Olympus

While sitting bored on his throne at the top of Olympus, Zeus ran his fingers through his long beard, looking down at Earth. There were lights in many places on Earth; there was darkness in many places as well. But he noticed a spot of light shining more than any other place. It was not artificial light; it was not sunlight, nor moon or starlight. He looked closer. It is coming from there, from a tiny place on the Mediterranean, a place called Gaza. He wonders, what is shining there? There should be darkness in that place so what is shining?

Lucifer was not far and he heard the wonderings of Zeus. He said in his deep, low voice — these are the children and women of Gaza. They always shine. How does the God of Gods not know that?!

Zeus, frustrated that he did not know, said: “I want some of them here. Whoever can bring some of them now will be rewarded.”

Lucifer said: “Only the Army of the Dead can bring you these children and women.”

Zeus was shaken, “No! Not this army! They are brutal. They are gruesome, fierce, horrifying, inexorable, merciless, hideous.”

Lucifer: “This is the only army that can make your wish come true.”

Other Gods: “Please, no, not this army. Not the Army of the Dead. Take any other army. Send the Amazons, they are good and strong. Send the Trojan army or send any one of us and we will bring them to you. Send Mars, Neptune or Hera. Send Hercules or Axel but not this army.”

Zeus, as usual, acts as he always acts. He acts selfishly. His will is an order, his dreams must come true, and his wish must be met. Zeus with his loud voice, holding high his lightning rod to spread fear among the other Gods, said: “Silence. No comment. No one speak. Let it be. Send the Army of the Dead. Get me some children and some women from that Gaza. My desire is a demand and my demands are orders. Send the Army of the Dead now.”

All the Gods looked angrily at Lucifer. They wanted to kill him. But he is protected by the God of Gods. Lucifer said: “Lord, you know that the Army of the Dead has demands too.”

Zeus: “What demands?”

Lucifer: “No one should ask or question the means they will use to get you the children and women and no one can ask them to stop until they stop. Do you swear to do this?”

Zeus: “This is an Oath of Zeus, the God of all Gods.”

The Army of the Dead was waiting with anxiety and joy, waiting for Lucifer to give them the good news. He was not late, he arrived with the happy news. Lucifer said in his deep voice: “Go, my friends, put the Palestinian to the sword. You are free, with no questioning, don’t stop until you quench your thirst with their blood.”

The Army of the Dead did not wait until he finished his speech. They launched their heavy hammers, their swords and spheres, their daggers and knives into the bodies of the Palestinian children and women. Palestinian men were there, helpless, unable to do anything but to weep in pain and sorrow. Just like Prometheus in his chains. Hundreds and hundreds of children and women ascended to the Throne Hall of Zeus. Group after group.

Zeus looks at them. They are not shining anymore, they have lost their beauty, they are not as he saw them from the top of Olympus. They are arriving in pieces, some are beheaded, some are without arms or legs, some are cut in half. Zeus starts to get frustrated, this is not what he wanted.

The Gods said with one voice: “Yes, this is what you wanted.”

Zeus: “I asked for some, for a few children and women. Some means three to four, ten but not tens, not hundreds, not thousands.” All the Gods: “You get what you ask for.”

Zeus: “Why do they slaughter their men? Why do they destroy their homes? Why do they cut their trees down? Why do they burn their fields? Why do they kill their cattle? Why do they deprive them of food and water? Why?” All the Gods: “You get what you ask for.”

He called for Lucifer but Lucifer had disappeared. Lucifer hid among the Army of the Dead. Zeus became angry. He shouted “Enough.” But his loud voice was covered by the screams of the Palestinians and the roars of the Army of the Dead. Children and women continued ascending with no light, with no shine, ascending dead. The Throne Hall started to be filled with their bodies. The huge hall, which could contain all the Gods, half-Gods, their wives and children and even their servants, became full — completely full up to the ceiling with piles of bodies. Thousands of Palestinian children, thousands of Palestinian women and thousands of Palestinian men.

Zeus on his throne was astonished, speechless, unable to break his oath. And while all the Gods were watching him sadly, helplessly, they saw something they had never seen before. They saw Zeus with tears in his eyes. Tears of regret. Tears of sorrow, tears of weakness. The God of all Gods is crying for the Gaza bloodshed and yet the Army of the Dead continues putting the sword into the soft flesh of Palestinian children and women.

Drie dagboekfragment van Hossam Madhoum: Messages from Gaza Now

Mother Courage (Not Bertolt Brecht)

By the wall of the school, the shelter, many sellers lay out their small amount of merchandise on a small, old, wooden table, or a cardboard box, or even on a plastic sheet on the ground. Small quantities of cans of meat, cans of tuna, cans of beans, cigarettes, sugar, rice. Some have quantities worth $200 and others, all their merchandise is worth no more than $30. Trying to make enough profit to feed themselves for a day or two.

Among them a lady, a middle-aged woman with a veil completely covering most of her hair, is busy cooking bread in an oven made of mud. A line of people standing to buy a piece of bread or two or whatever. Calling to her seven or eight-year-old son from time to time to feed the fire under the oven with some bits of wood — a normal scene in Gaza, mainly around the shelter-schools.

I took my place in the line to buy some bread, when a journalist approached the lady asking her for an interview. Without looking at him she said, “You can see that I’m busy.” The journalist was patient and polite. He asked if he could film her as part of the market and life in the shelters. She shrugged with a sense of not caring if he did or didn’t. The reporter made a gesture to the cameraman to start filming.

The journalist: “Have you been doing this for a long time?”

The woman: “Cooking bread? One month.”

Journalist: “You built the mud oven?”

The woman: “No, I bought it from someone who built it but could not work on it. He was too old for this work.”

Journalist: “Are you from here? I mean Nuseirat Camp?”

The woman (while working, putting a piece of dough in the oven, turning it over from time to time using a wooden stick): “No. Not from here.” (To a customer) “I haven’t change for a hundred shekels. Find some change and come back.”

Journalist: “Where did you come from?”

The woman: “From many places since the 12th of October.”

Journalist: “Like where?”

The woman: “From Beit Hanoun. When they started bombing, my eldest son and father-in-law were killed. The bombing was targeting a neighbors’ home. They were all killed.” She stopped talking and continued her work. The journalist did not rush her. She raised her head again, looked at the journalist for a second, then turned back to the oven and continued talking.

“We moved to my family home in Shati Camp, ‘Beach Camp,’ I was at the market with this little son, when we heard a huge explosion from an air strike. I went home with some vegetables. They bombed a nearby home and my parents and my husband were killed. They were all under the rubble. I recognized my husband from his feet that appeared out of the rubble. He was missing a toe; he lost it in a work accident in Israel two years ago. He used to work in construction. When the accident happened, his boss did not do anything for him, he sent him home and never allowed him to work again. Of course, no compensation. In Israel they don’t register Palestinian workers as a legal workforce, so no one can claim any compensation. They just use us as cheap labor, that’s all. My poor husband did not rest until he died.” (To her little son) “Enough wood, we’re almost finished. (To a customer) “This will cost you four shekels.” She looked at the journalist. He was still there holding the mic towards her, the cameraman focused on her.

The woman: “So, we moved to Zahra City, to my sister who is married and lives there. They followed us with the bombing. My daughter and my mother in-law were killed. We came here; myself and this little boy, my sister’s son and my injured sister. We are at this school.” She pointed at the school behind her. Journalist: “How do you manage? Does UNRWA distribute food at the school?”
The woman: “Yes. They come every few days, give each family some cans of food, some biscuits, some soap, food barely enough for one day. Anyway, we are still alive.”

Journalist: “What about water? Hygiene? Toilet?”

The woman: “This is another story. I wake up at four in the morning to join the queue for the toilet. At this time there will be a line of seven to 15 people. If I’m late, I’ll find a line of 50 or 60. I take my injured sister, her daughter, and my little son. We do our business there and go back to sleep again. They distribute mineral water bottles. I don’t use them. I sell them to get some money. Here we are surviving.”

Journalist: “What do other women do?”

The woman: “Other women? Yes, there was a pregnant woman, we helped her to give birth inside the classroom. She was lucky, her delivery went smoothly, she did not need a hospital. We care for each other in our classroom. Not like in other classes, all day you hear screaming, shouting, cursing, disputes. We are lucky. They look after my sister and her two-year-old daughter when I’m out.”

Journalist: “How do you get the wood for your oven?”

The woman: “It was easy in the beginning. I collected bits of wood from the streets, from the nearby olive orchards. Then I started to buy it from wood sellers. It was 1.2 shekels/kilo to begin with and then the price rose, like all prices, now it is three shekels/kilo. Everyone is using fire now as there is no cooking gas or fuel. Scarcity in everything.” The woman started to clear up, put out the fire, collect the bits of wood which were not burnt yet, and covered the oven with a piece of material. She carried her son and went towards the school. The cameraman followed her with his camera lens until she disappeared inside the school.

Fear, Loneliness

Since the start of this brutal massacre and killing of the Gazan people, I was always afraid. The kind of fear that you think you control by caring for your family, by keeping busy, securing their needs, by following up on the work of my colleagues, the counsellors and social workers at the shelters, by writing my diaries and sharing them with friends around the world. The kind of fear that you keep in and ignore, although all reasons for fear and panic are there — the random bombing, shelling, shooting, destruction, the number of people killed and injured reaching more than 27,000 killed and more than 54,000 injured. Yet I keep it deep inside.

Since yesterday my feelings are different. My fear is different. Since the Israeli army ordered people in Bureij Camp and part of Nuseirat Camp, where I am displaced, to leave, I don’t feel the same. I could have been killed before, at any minute, by any of these bombardments, yet now I feel it coming towards me and my family. There are only three of my friends from Gaza City displaced to Bureij and Nuseirat. The three of them are in the areas ordered to evacuate and leave. Yesterday I tried to reach them by mobile. Did not work. I walked to one of them. He was not there. It was too late to walk to the others — one in Bureij and the other in Nuseirat near Bureij, the Salahaldeen Road separating them. Bureij, east of Salahaldeen, borders Israel, and Nuseirat is west of it. Today I went to Al Awda Hospital. The first message was from my friend and colleague, Mohammed:

Dear Hossam,
I am preparing to leave with my family for Rafah. I am now busy searching for materials to build a tent there in Rafah. I don’t know when we will communicate or meet again. I hope soon.
Stay safe until then, Mohammed.

I don’t know why after reading this message, the feeling of fear came up to the surface and overrode my ability to tolerate it. I could not stay. I thought about going to Bureij to check on my friend Eyad. Bombing and heavy targeting started last night. I rejected the idea, I felt like a coward.
Then I thought about Maher. He is in Nuseirat. I will go. I walked two kilometres, arrived to find there are no cars in front of his home. It’s a building of three floors. Up until yesterday it was hosting more than 80 people. Maher’s brother, the homeowner, was there, taking things from the house and loading them into a mini-bus. Mattresses, blankets, bread, flour, suitcases, bags …

“What’s up?” I said. “We’re leaving.”

“Where’s Maher?” “He left yesterday with his family, they all left, myself and my wife are the last.”

“Where to?” “Rafah. We’ve a brother living there, Maher and his family went there. Myself and my wife will go to my daughter’s home in Zawayda.” There was nothing to be said. The man was busy and rushing to load his stuff. I said: “Goodbye, be safe.”

Walking back to Al Awda Hospital, holding my mobile the whole way and trying to call Eyad. I tried more than 50 times and all the calls failed. Suddenly I stopped. I feel something is wrong. I feel dizzy, unable to walk properly. The fear invades me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I don’t feel well. I continue walking. Arrived at the hospital, went to the office. I started to collect my stuff; the laptop, the mobile charger, the small battery that I use to light some LED lights. I finished and got ready to leave. Then I sat down again. I don’t want to go home with these feelings, in this condition. I must control myself. Arriving home, talking to Abeer about what we shall do.

She has a sister in Rafah, a widow with five girls living not far from Alnajjar Hospital, living in a very small house of two rooms with a small living room. Shall we go there? Shall we send some of us so if something happens here we can move more easily and lighter? We are around 22 people. Maybe her mother and sister and her sister’s family can go tomorrow and then we can figure out what to do next.

We do not decide yet. We are still discussing the options when her brother, his wife and three children arrive with their luggage. They were in Nuseirat, not far from the area ordered to evacuate. So he is seeking refuge at his father’s home. Fair enough.

What next? We finished our talk without deciding anything. No safe place in Gaza Strip. People moving from place to place seeking non-existent safety. I am one of them. There is a storm outside, the wind is screaming, heavy rain and the cold is reaching my bones while the bombing is continuing and this time not far at all. I am afraid. I feel so lonely.

The Third Displacement, to Rafah

Finally, I must decide — my wife Abeer’s brother and his family, Abeer’s female cousins and their daughter arrived at my parents-in-law’s home. A full house of women and children, some of us must move to Rafah, the next destination after Gaza City and Nuseirat. They are all one family. I am the outsider. I decided to take my mother and leave. Abeer decided to stay with her parents and sisters. Now we have to separate. I don’t know how long for. I don’t know if we are going to meet again.

Finding a taxi to Rafah was not easy, I had to walk from Sawarha to Salahadeen Road where taxis are found, five kilometres walking, in fact almost running. It was 14:40, dark falls in less than three hours. I must be in Rafah before dark. Dark is another fear, another uncertainty.

Found a taxi, asking for lots of money. No choice, I agreed. $100, almost 20 times the normal price. We drove back to Sawarha, I loaded our stuff, two mattresses, two blankets, two bags of clothes. A half full cylinder of cooking gas enough for two weeks. I did not know even then where to go in Rafah. I called a friend there asking him to find me a place. I know that I am giving him an impossible task. More than one million people displaced to Rafah, a city of less than 100,000 people now hosting ten times the original population.

From Nuseirat taking the sea road, anxious, not comfortable, the Israeli Navy on the horizon, we heard many stories of shelling and killing of people on the sea road. Arriving at Khan Younis, west of Khan Younis, Mawasi area, the area which is mostly uninhabited, agricultural land. We used to drive and spend our weekends there running away from the crowds and noise of the city, Gaza City. It is unbelievable how it has become, thousands and thousands of people on the main road, which became similar to a flea market, selling some food items, second-hand clothes and other stuff. On both sides of the main road, hundreds of tents made from cheap plastic sheets.

Arrived in Rafah, same image, same situation doubled. Crowds everywhere, tents everywhere, small sellers everywhere. People moving all ways, back and forth, huge chaos. Dirt, garbage everywhere, destruction everywhere, bombed houses everywhere. Gray and black are the dominant colors, as if the colors of life have been taken away from Gaza. Trees in the street are all cut, people cut them to use for fire. No green color anymore, even the sky in this season hides its blue color and shows its gray, gloomy color. Some of my friends who arrived in Rafah earlier are in tents in the streets, tents that don’t prevent the cold or rain, but this was their only option, their only possibility. What will I do with my 83-year-old bedridden mother?

Calling my friend all the way and the connection is not going through. More than 60 times trying until finally it works. He asked me to come to his family house in Rafah. I know already they have no place, no room for any more people. I know they are hosting more than 100 people there.

Arrived at his place and he received me with a big smile. “Are you lucky or are you lucky?”

“Why? What?” “I asked a friend who has good connections to look for an apartment for rent. He is a wealthy businessman but he could not find any place for rent. “So, what is the news then?” “He asked me again, ‘Who wants the place?’ and I told him it’s for my friend and his bedridden mother. He decided to host you and your mother in his home.”

“Really?! I don’t want to bother people.” “Don’t worry, let’s go.”

He took a ride with us, guiding the driver to his friend’s address. Arrived at a fancy building of three floors, with a side yard with a decorated, wooden roof. The man was there, waiting for us with a big smile, very friendly and welcoming. He asked his sons to unload my stuff. They did not let me carry anything. The ground floor had a big living room and one bedroom with a toilet beside it. The man said: “I hope this is ok for you.” I was speechless. Could not express my feelings of appreciation but kept saying: “Thank you, thank you.”

I put my mother to bed. They brought food and offered for me to take a shower. A shower? Wow. A hot shower. The first time in three months, since then, I have been washing my body using a plastic can with cold water. My mother was so tired from the journey. She slept.

After the shower I went to the side yard. There were some men around the fire, brewing a pot of tea. We sat, chatted until 8pm. Then we all went to bed. They did not stop asking me if I needed anything, they did not stop saying, “Your mother is our mother, you should not worry about her.” I slept. My mother slept.

Dagboekfragment van Hossam Madhoum: Messages from Gaza Now

22 January, 2024
Don’t believe the hype about the IDF lowering the intensity of the war when you have reliable eye-witness reports from inside Gaza’s war zone.

Day and Night
I wake at 6:30 am every day. My host is amazing. At 6 he is in the side yard of the house lighting the fire, preparing breakfast and hot tea. I am not allowed to leave without breakfast. He asks about my mother, repeatedly asking if she or I need anything.

Leaving at 8 a.m. for the office of my organization, Ma’an Development Agency, in Rafah. Full house, people from everywhere, from many associations that have no offices, trying to follow up on the interventions they are making for people.

Rafah, which used to have 170,000 inhabitants, is now hosting more than a million, at least half of them on the streets, building tents from plastic sheets that do not prevent cold or rain. But this is what is available. The market in the town center is over busy. It feels like a million people are gathered in this town center.

I’ve realized that there is plenty of work that we do besides providing psychosocial support; we distribute food; we build kitchens and distribute hot meals; we distribute hygiene and dignity kits to displaced people; we distribute water tanks to shelters and random collectives of displaced people; we distribute clothes for children; and we are trying to bring in better tents for people, we employ staff to clean the schools and mainly the toilets on a daily basis. All of this, as well as what the UNRWA do, as well as what all the humanitarian organizations offer, meets almost zero of people’s real needs. With the stoppage of normal life, no one has any kind of income in Gaza; all that 2.2 million people look for is shelter and food. But above all, people are in need of safety and dignity. It is not here anymore. I got involved in all of this as a member of Ma’an emergency team. I have no chance to think about anything. It’s like a beehive. But I can’t stay at the office more than five hours; I must go back to my mother who gets panicked if she doesn’t find me around her at 2 p.m.

Back home, my mother must blame me for being late whether I am early or late. I provide her with what she needs, then try to rest.

Rest!!! I hate it. While trying to rest, thinking starts. What has happened to my brother and sister’s families? Are they alive? Did they survive? Maybe some died, and some survived. My wife Abeer and her family — no contact for the last three days. I will go to Nuseriat tomorrow to check on them. I wanted to go earlier but could not. When will this nightmare end? Does it have an end? What kind of end? What will life look like when it ends, with completely destroyed cities and towns? Who is going to be the ruling authority? A new Israeli military occupation? The corrupt authority of Ramallah? Hamas again?

As much as I try to get busy with the family hosting me in order to avoid thinking, night is coming. Dark thoughts invading my head, falling asleep I don’t know how, and waking up in the morning so tired as if I did not sleep or rest at all.

Horror and Relief
It is six days without any news about my brother and sister’s families, since my nephew told me that the building behind their house was bombed and collapsed on their home. No news about whether they were inside or had left before. I did not stop trying to reach them but communication between the south and north is cut.

Today more horrific news: in the morning, calling my daughter in Lebanon, which is much easier than calling my wife in the middle area, she told me that her mother, my wife, Abeer, is in a panic. She saw a video of an injured person taken to Al Aqsa Hospital who died before reaching the operating room and she believes it is her brother. She shared the video with me. There was no way to tell who this person was; his face was mostly covered; his body is similar to my wife’s brother, but wait!!

My wife’s brother is in Gaza City, even if he is injured, he won’t be brought to Al Aqsa Hospital in the middle area. The road between Gaza City and the middle area has been completely cut for more than a month and a half. Calling Abeer, can’t reach her. She told Salma that she is going to Al Aqsa Hospital to check. I called my nephew, the son of my other brother who took refuge in that hospital with his family. After several attempts I finally reached him. I asked him to go to the morgue to check if Abeer’s brother is among the martyrs there. He calls back after an hour. He says that the 30 bodies that arrived yesterday and this morning are without names and he does not know my wife’s brother so he could not help. Yet he continues talking. He says that finally he got news from Gaza City; my brother and sister with their families are safe. They left home a day before the invasion of their area and before the bombing of the building behind their home. “How do you know?” I ask my nephew.

A neighbor had a SIM from Cellcom, an Israeli telecommunications company. He called my nephew and told him my brother went to a shelter-school far from the area and that my sister went to another shelter-school in the north. I keep calling Abeer with no success. Contacted my daughter Salma. Finally Abeer had called her and told her that the body she believed to be her brother is not her brother, yet she had no news from her brother for more than a month.

Some relief after a time of heaviness and horror. Keeping hope.

Agony
Today I went to Sawarha to see my wife Abeer and bring her some food and hygiene items, which became very difficult to secure in Sawarha. I left home at 8:30 a.m.

In Rafah, the crowds are unbelievable. Moving, walking one hundred meters takes at least ten minutes. A city of 200,000 inhabitants with very weak infrastructure, received one million people. (I will write later about Rafah at another time).

Looking for a taxi to Sawarha. The normal cost of one is $1.5. The first taxi asked for $150. I left him for another one, arguing the price, finally there was no one cheaper than $65 with the condition that he would take other passengers on the way. I have no choice. We start moving. Thirty minutes to get out of the city toward Khan Younis but not really reaching Khan Younis as there is the Israeli invasion there. Before reaching Khan Younis City, the driver rook roads that I never knew about, until we reached the coast road. Tents everywhere, people everywhere, street sellers of food items received from humanitarian aid are everywhere, making the road busy and crowded. The car on many occasions moved at the speed of a man walking. We reached Deir Al Balah, then Zawaida, then Sawarha. A distance of less than three km took more than 1 hour and 20 minutes. A long line of cars, trucks, donkey carts, all types of vehicles are full of people, mattresses, stuff, cooking gas cylinders, jerrycans for water, bread flour, vehicles full to bursting, stuff tied with ropes, all are moving to the south, evacuated from Nuseirat.

The image is like Judgment Day. People look very tired, very desperate, very unclean. Men are unshaven, young children crying everywhere, very afraid. You could feel the fear. You could touch the fear. They are going to Rafah, not knowing what they are going to do there. Everybody knows that Rafah is completely full; not only the houses, buildings or the public institutions but the streets, the parks, the side roads are completely full with tents and people. They are escaping from the bombing and the military invasion. They are running for their lives but have no idea where and what could happen to them.

Some volunteers were trying to help facilitate the traffic but it was an almost impossible mission. Some cars stopped due to engine problems; no side roads to push them into out of the line of traffic. The road also passes by shelter-schools on the sea road, which makes it more difficult; hundreds of street sellers in front of the schools, thousands of people move in and out, blocking the road. I am worried about being late. I must be back at 1 p.m. otherwise my mother will worry. From Rafah to Sawarha normally takes 20 minutes even with a normal traffic jam. Arrived at 11.30. Sawarha was quiet. It is 2.5 km from the center of Nuseirat, but the invasion continues. The Israeli army started the invasion in a small part of Nuseirat two weeks ago. Now they’ve almost invaded the whole camp, leaving behind them huge destruction and hundreds of people killed. Bombing, shelling, heavy shooting. I agreed with the taxi driver to take me to Sawarha and bring me back to Rafah, so I met Abeer for less than ten minutes. Checked on her and the family. Everyone is still alive but no one is ok. Buddy, my dog, was so happy to see me. I was so happy to see him too. He kept jumping on me and running around. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay with my wife and my dog. I want to go back home. I want to settle down, to lay down on my bed or sit on my balcony with my wife, my daughter and my dog as we used to every evening, having some coffee. I need some rest and tranquility. Nothing more.

I discussed with Abeer the plan of their arrival to Rafah. Her parents completely refuse to leave until they see all the people in the area leaving. Abeer is unable to leave them alone. I don’t know what to do. What a complex situation. Trying to convince them is not helping. I understand that they are tired of moving and being displaced. They are too old for more agony. It is their only way to show that they are giving up. Time is running out. It will take me at least another two hours back to Rafah, to my mother. I deposited the stuff at the front door and left with the agreement of Abeer to communicate further on the mobile. The journey back to Rafah was the same, the same crowd, the same sad people, the same traffic of displaced people in cars and vehicles full of their basic needs, full of hundreds of street sellers of food aid items, full of agony.

Back to Sawarha Again
On Thursday I went to Sawarha with some supplies for my wife and her family — some food and hygiene items. On Friday Abeer called, very anxious and panicked. The bombing, shelling and air strikes did not stop in Nuseirat near Sawarha. People started to evacuate from there. There was random bombing near the house; they did not sleep. The news is that the sea road is safe from north to south but no one is allowed to move from south to north or the middle area.

They can’t leave alone. Our car is there but with no fuel. I spent all day looking for six liters of benzine, just enough to drive from Sawarha to Rafah in the south. Knowing the risk I am going to take by going north, I did not think for a single minute not to go. They can’t manage, they are ten — three children, four women, an old man and a young man, paralyzed with fear— I know that he won’t be able to help. Could not secure the fuel until 9 p.m., never mind the price, (normal price is $2 per liter, I paid $34/liter for six liters). A friend of Abu Khaled, his business partner, a man I had never met before these days, offered to take me in his mini-jeep to help bring the family and whatever belongings we can bring such as mattresses, blankets, food, cooking gas and a gas cylinder and the gas itself, some kitchen items. If we don’t bring these things we will not find any at all in Rafah.

I can never thank him enough. He knew the risk. He could lose his car in a bombing, yet he did not hesitate. He even said that it was full of diesel so I shouldn’t worry about it. Driving very early Saturday morning at 6 a.m., the main road between Rafah and Khan Younis is completely empty. Avoiding Khan Younis city as there is the military invasion there, we turn west two km before Khan Younis towards the sea road. Since I was here the day before yesterday, new homes and buildings were destroyed. Parts of the roads were almost blocked by fallen rubble. But we managed.

Along the sea road, some movement — all kinds of cars, vehicles, trucks, jeeps, full of belongings and people all going south. Some people are in the streets. Driving and expecting the worst, but no choice. We continue. By Deir Al Balah, the city in the middle area, huge crowds of people are blocking the road, moving everywhere, looking for something called safety and shelter. Many can’t find it.

Normally it is only 22 km from Rafah to Sawarha and takes 30 minutes to drive but today is different. I arrived at 8.25 a.m. They were asleep after a long night of bombing, shelling and heavy shooting that shook the house all night. They fell asleep out of tiredness and fear. The good thing was they had prepared everything. All the stuff they need to take was packed and ready to be loaded on the cars. I put the benzene in our car, packed the stuff, distributed the people in the two cars and started the trip to Rafah. Rafah, where there is no place at all any more.

Rafah, the last city in the south of Gaza with borders with Egypt, inhabited by 200,000 with poor infrastructure, similar to all Gaza Strip cities and camps. Now hosting one million two hundred thousand people. Don’t ask how. For sure not in the houses — they are completely full. Wherever you look, in every empty space, at every roadside: tents, all kinds of tents, tents (good ones) received from humanitarian aid organizations, tents made from plastic and nylon sheets, tents made from pieces of fabric. More than one million people in tents — without toilets. People, mainly women, knock on doors asking to use the toilet; men are in lines at the mosques waiting to use the toilets. Without any facilities, in front of some tents, people make small fires to heat or cook. Hundreds of families on the streets did not receive a tent. They don’t have money to buy wood and plastic sheets to make their own — these cheap materials became more expensive than gold for poor people.

Here in Rafah I must bring my wife and her family. I think I was an angel in another life — I don’t know. I don’t really believe that. But I was planning a meeting with my staff who are providing psycho-social support in shelter-schools for children. I was planning to meet them on Saturday to hear from them and to provide them with some support, to check if there is anything I can do to facilitate their work. So I called one of them to ask him to postpone the meeting for another day. I’m busy bringing my wife. This wonderful colleague from Rafah started to call people, looking for a place for them to stay. I was driving back, near Deir Al Balah, when he called me to say that he’d found a store, 6 meter by 2.5 meter-square, including a toilet. It is in the center of Rafah, in the middle of the main market. What luck! It is a 15-minute walk from where I am staying at Abu Khaled’s home, adjacent to Al Awda Hospital in Rafah. We arrived around 2 p.m. In front of the store, a bombed house, rubble in the street. The owner had brought some workers to clean up. The door of the store was damaged. He brought a blacksmith to fix it. The family waited in the cars for an hour until the place was almost ready. Some works still need to be done inside, never mind, Abeer’s brother will do it. They were exhausted. I brought them some food and left. I could not stay any longer. I should go and check on my mother. Two hours later, I passed by to see how they are. For sure no one is happy. They are all so tired. Even our dog Buddy was quiet, sitting in the corner, and did not come to me when I arrived as he would usually. The place is hell. Not good, not comfortable, no light, some candles, yet a million times better than a tent on the street. No complaints. I left them around 5 p.m. It gets dark. I could not stay. I must be beside my mother now. Next day… another story …

Dichter en schrijver Fatena Al-Ghorra is geboren en getogen in Gaza, waar ze ook werkte als journalist. Sinds 2009 woont ze in België, waar ze werkt als journalist, vertaler en dichter. Ze publiceerde meerdere bundels, waarvan Gods bedrog. Diverse scenario’s en Neem dit lichaam in Nederlandse vertaling verschenen in 2014 resp. 2019. Ze ging begin oktober na 15 jaar op bezoek bij haar familie in Gaza. Met ruim twee miljoen anderen raakte ze verzeild in een eindeloze stroom bombardementen, gebrek aan voedsel, water, medische zorg en elke vorm van veiligheid.

Hieronder een gedicht uit de bundel Neem dit lichaam.

EEN AANHOUDENDE HERFST

Neem dit lichaam
voorzichtig
bedek het
dekens zijn niet nodig
twee handen voldoen
zodat alles kan beginnen
je zult veel gaten en holtes vinden
maak je geen zorgen en laat je niet storen
kleine kooltjes vielen erop
niemand raapte ze op
misschien lijkt het wat koud en kil
maar dat zijn de gevolgen van een aanhoudende herfst.

Wees niet bang
als er plotseling rode rivieren tussen je vingers verschijnen
de geur van lavendel
tevoorschijn komt vanonder de guillotine
door het humeur van het universum
de messen hebben hun deel opgeëist.

De rivieren zullen opdrogen
na een tijd
ik herinner me dat ik ben vergeten mijn lichaam gereed te maken voor je
ik zou op je kunnen rekenen
dat zou me bevallen.

Trek de aderen open met je handen
zoals je een rietstengel opentrekt
om een fluit te maken
open deze aderen
trek je schoenen uit
kom naar beneden
neem een diepe duik
raap alle witte stenen op
ik ben vergeten een nieuwe gebedskrans voor je te kopen.

Dring naar binnen
tot je mijn hart bereikt
misschien tref je het anders aan dan wij geleerd hebben
rood en de vorm van een hart aangenomen
je zult dikke lagen stof aantreffen
en overblijfselen van voortgaande oorlogen
dat zal meer inzet van je vragen
om die lagen te verwijderen
je weet dat je het binnenste hebt bereikt
als je de heldere kleur van vlees ziet
niet rood, zoals ze ons hebben geleerd
maar roze
ik ben vergeten een roos in de zak van je colbert te steken.

Tareq S. Hajjaj is correspondent van Mondoweiss Gaza en lid van de Palestijnse Schrijversbond. Hij studeerde Engelse literatuur aan de Al-Azhar Universiteit in Gaza. Hij begon zijn carrière in de journalistiek in 2015 als nieuwsschrijver en vertaler voor de plaatselijke krant Donia al-Watan.

Hieronder zijn Brief aan mijn zoon op zijn eerste verjaardag in Gaza (verschenen op 29 december 2023 op de site van mondoweiss.net) waarin hij vertelt hoe hij er alles aan deed om Qais het verjaardagsfeest te geven dat hij verdiende, zelfs na het bloedbad op de dag dat hij 1 jaar werd. De brief bevat twee links naar andere verslagen die Tareq Hajjaj publiceerde op Mondoweiss.

No matter what, my child, we were going to celebrate your first birthday.

Ever since you were born, Qais, I have felt a strong sense of purpose in life to push myself as a father. I have long prepared for this stage in my life, eager to provide you with a good upbringing that I can later look back on with pride. Ever since you were born, your mother would make you little birthdays to mark every new month that you’ve brightened our lives. I would join in on these little parties, but privately, I have been waiting for your first birthday to plan for something big.
I was going to invite the entire extended family, especially your aunts and uncles and cousins. We would gather in our spacious home overlooking our planted garden from every direction, except for the street, which boasted a beautiful palm tree heavy with dates, across the street from the same neighbors I’ve known since I was born in al-Shuja’iyya, in the eastern part of Gaza City.

The last time we laid eyes on our home was through a phone screen. We looked at photos of what remained of the house after we evacuated it a month earlier — before the ground invasion. The entire house, and many other houses near it, had been reduced to rubble.

We left our beautiful home and stayed at your grandfather’s in the Zeitoun neighborhood, also in Gaza City. We didn’t take many things with us; we didn’t know our time away would be so long. Even now, we don’t know when we’ll be able to return, or whether we’ll be able to return at all. We know that even if we are allowed, there’s nothing to go back to. When the house was destroyed, so were our hopes of having your first birthday in that little world we had made for you.

But don’t worry little one. We will have a new house one day, wide and spacious and surrounded by trees and a vegetable garden. Right now, all we have to do is wait and join our hopes with yours for all the good things that can happen to us — to see the end of the war, to live a normal life where your access to food isn’t conditional upon your suffering, and to be able to see and hear what a child on their first birthday are supposed to see and hear.

In the middle of a narrow alleyway in the Yibna refugee camp in Rafah — the latest stop in our story of displacement — one of our neighbors works the entire day making bread for displaced people. Those of us in the camp don’t have access to ovens, so we bring her flour to make us bread, and she only takes a modest, almost symbolic price for her labour. Right beside her, there is a large crater that stands as a testament to the destruction already wrought on the neighborhood. All around us, the houses that are still left standing have been deserted and the charred remains of abandoned cars line the side of the nearby road. The windows of all the houses around us have been shattered, the doors to the homes ripped from their hinges. People in the street farther down the road try to buy and sell everything and anything.

Qais, you saw all of this. These are things I wish you would never have had to see, especially not in your first year of life.
In our house in Gaza City, birds would be in the window beside your crib. There was a wall where we hung all your pictures, and I left a special spot in the center where I wanted to hang a picture of your first birthday party. I wanted to be able to stroll the streets of Gaza City and visit the best toy stores to buy you the best, most expensive, most beneficial toys — maybe something that can teach you a new skill, different from the behaviors you’ve picked up as a displaced refugee, mimicking how the grown-ups around you stoked a fire as you grabbed a piece of plastic and started blowing on it.
But you’ll never be able to have the memories I wanted for you. Those have been buried beneath the rubble, too. We are now in Rafah, in a house not our own, unable to find a cake, or sweets, or anything else you would normally find at a birthday party.

But don’t worry little one. I’m going to throw you a party even in the middle of the war, and I’ll look everywhere for ingredients to make you a cake. Finding eggs will be the hardest. Even though the doctors recommended that boys your age should have one egg a day, you haven’t eaten a single egg for two and a half months. But I’m still going to try, and if I fail, don’t worry. I’ll make it up to you in the years to come if we survive.

I was able to find you a few balloons and a few biscuits that are handed out to people as humanitarian aid. Some sell them to be able to buy other things, but I can’t find much else to buy in the Rafah market. I can’t call our relatives to join us either. Telecommunications have been cut off in Gaza, and they can’t reach us in any event, as several Israeli checkpoints and tanks stand between us. Some of them are now living in shelters. Others are living in tents in makeshift refugee camps, and others are staying in hospital courtyards after your uncle and his family were trapped under the rubble for five hours before being rescued after an Israeli airstrike. You won’t be able to play with your young cousins, who all love you very much, because you’re the youngest member of our family, and they always want to play with you.

Instead of finding little sparklers to light your cake with, the only thing I can do is sit beside you near the window and watch as the bombs drop in the distance on people’s homes, lighting up the sky every now and then.
My little one, it’s hard to think of celebrating in times like these when we keep hearing of the thousands of children who are dying of hunger or dying in airstrikes, burnt and charred and blown into pieces. But it’s not your fault that all this is happening.

On the morning of your birthday, I went to the market again, hoping I would find a single can of baby formula, which I figured would be the best birthday present I could give you in lieu of a cake or a piece of chocolate, or inviting our family over. So let’s celebrate today what we do have, my love, and my birthday wish for you will be the end of the war and our safe return to our home.
I know that if we returned to Gaza City now, we would be suffering more than we already are. I’m telling you now that when the world sees Gaza and discovers what happened, they’ll know that it’s no longer a place fit for a dignified human life. The fog of war is still hiding what happened, but when it clears on the very first day after the war, the reality of Gaza will slap humanity in the face, and it will leave its burning mark on humanity’s conscience forever.

Today, I carried you in a backpack, your face in front of my own so that you could sit nestled comfortably against my chest and look at the world around you. Devastated and barren as it was, you still had a right to go outside for a short while. In our house in Gaza, I would take you on strolls through the entire family building every day, stopping at each floor so that you could visit your cousins. Eventually, we would make it to the rooftop in time for sunset.
On our stroll today in Rafah, I was intent on finding you a birthday candle because your mother promised she’d be able to make a cake from flour, cocoa powder, and sugar. We reached one of the most famous roundabouts in the city, known as Awda Circle, but about 100 meters after passing the circle, two missiles hit a car behind us. Smoke billowed everywhere as people started running toward the wreckage to check for survivors, and dust filled the air as I covered your face with a jacket. I started asking whether there was another way back to the Yibna refugee camp, but people said the only other routes were very long and circuitous, winding through the refugee camp’s narrow and endless alleyways. So I had to wait a while for the smoke to clear and then hurry back the way we came, resolving not to take you out again for the duration of our stay.

On our way back, we stepped over severed limbs. A young man was holding an empty flour bag and filling it with body parts he collected. People around him started pointing out other human remains that had been strewn across the road, as everyone was intent on giving the person to whom this flesh belonged something approximating a dignified burial.
One old man gestured to me, saying, “Cover the young boy’s face, don’t let him see this.” But on your birthday, we walked over rivers of blood and disfigured human corpses. We passed over all of this because we wanted to find a candle with the number 1, which we were finally able to find at a stationary store in Rafah because there is no longer any demand for schoolbooks, notebooks, balloons, or birthday caps. And your mother was able to bake that cake with the ingredients that we had, and she even topped it with canned cream instead of icing. We were able to buy some sweets from a young boy in the street, made by his mother at home, and a few pieces of Za’atar manaqeesh made by a local bakery that used a wood-fired oven.

The abandoned house we’re staying in is three stories high, and four large families are staying under its roof. The children in the families keep stopping by to ask after you because you’re the smallest one here, and they want to play with you. We invited them all for your birthday so we could sing for a new year, and so they could also find some comfort in these brief moments of joy. They were all ecstatic, wearing their birthday caps, playing and laughing with you until they were breathless. And when the party was over, they didn’t want to leave, and they didn’t want you to be taken by your mother for nursing and bedtime. They clearly hadn’t experienced this kind of joy in a long time.
It’s hard to imagine they could ever again, after all the death they have witnessed and that they themselves have experienced and narrowly escaped every day.
But on one day, among all those other days, we tried, despite everything, to find a few hours of happiness worthy of your birthday, Qais.

Op 16 mei 2024 publiceerde Mondoweiss het onderstaande verslag van Tareq Hajjaj waarin hij beschrijft hoe zijn moeder stierf door gebrek aan medische zorg.

Amira Hajjaj, 72, (midden), in haar huis met familieleden in al-Shuja’iyya in 2022. (Foto: Tareq Hajjaj)

How the war killed my mother

The old woman sits on her bed next to the window. Although she cannot see it, the warm sun of her homeland drenches her in light. She places her head in her hands, thinking out loud about how she spent her entire life trying to escape Israel’s bombs. In the background, the same window that brings in the light also lets in the constant buzzing of the warplanes and drones, punctuated by shelling and bombing. Though she cannot see them, she hears every boom, and feels the ground every time it shakes.

That old woman by the window was my mother.

For the past five years, I was her primary caretaker, as she suffered from blindness and a host of other medical conditions, including heart disease and a broken hip. I spent almost every night for the past five years lying awake at night, worried that she might need me.

She always used to say “forgive me,” out of guilt, but I always responded by telling her that she was my treasure, that she was the reason for every blessed and good thing in my life.

My family and I have been displaced five times so far during the ongoing war against Palestinian existence in Gaza. We are a family of eight siblings, and I am the youngest. Everyone is married, and some of my nieces and nephews are even older than me.

We all used to live in the same building in our home in al-Shuja’iyya, Gaza City. There were 23 of us in that building, and 22 more living in the surrounding neighborhood. The war separated all of us in October. By November, the entire building had been destroyed. Throughout everything, my elderly mother stayed with me, close in my arms, as she had done my entire life.

Our fourth displacement was to Rafah, where we stayed alongside 1.7 million other Palestinians. My mother, myself, my 1-year-old son Qais, and my wife Timaa arrived at an abandoned house in Rafah with my father-in-law’s family of four. The rest of my extended family, my siblings, nieces, and nephews — everyone who used to see my mother every day for our entire lives — were scattered across Gaza.
In February, two months after we arrived in Rafah, my mother fell ill. By a stroke of luck and tenacity, I was able to get her seen by a doctor amid the bombings and the ground invasion and the overwhelmed hospitals. The doctor prescribed her medications that were nowhere to be found in all of Rafah. As I carted her between hospitals and medical centers, none of which were equipped to take her in as a patient, her situation continued to deteriorate. They gave me some available medications, but nothing was working. Eventually, she stopped sleeping at night. Then she was no longer able to walk by herself.

I called my brother Osama for help. He came from Khan Younis immediately.

We took her to the European Hospital, just on the border of Khan Younis and Rafah. It was the closest hospital and the only major functioning hospital in the south. When the doctors examined her, they ordered her to be admitted.

In a situation unique to Gaza, and unimaginable to other people, it was because of her worsened health condition and her admittance to the European Hospital that she was finally able to reunite with my nieces and nephews — her grandchildren — who she hadn’t seen in months due to the fact that we were in Rafah while they had been sheltering on the hospital grounds.

When she arrived at the hospital, my family saw her for the first time since the war broke out. They ran to her and hugged her.

Despite the circumstances, it was a joyous moment. At the time, she did not know that my eldest brother had been injured after the home they were in was bombed, trapping him and his family under the rubble for an entire night before they were rescued. She didn’t know that her brother, my uncle, had been killed, or that our family home had been destroyed. These are the things I had to keep from her for fear of what the news might do to her. For months, I believed that all of her fears, all the terrifying moments she had lived through, the displacement, the constant terror of the bombs — all of that would be too much for her tired heart.

And that day in the European Hospital, I think I was right. When someone told her about my brother’s injury, her sadness was inconsolable.

By the end of that day in the hospital, I had to make an impossible choice — either stay at the hospital and leave my wife and son behind in Rafah, or rejoin them and abandon my mother in Khan Younis. I tried to strike a balance and left my mother with my brother Osama. Every morning for the next several weeks, I left my family in Rafah in the mornings, and before the evening, I left my other family at the hospital in Khan Younis and went back to my family in Rafah.

For one month I lived through that agony, every time saying goodbye to my son like it was the last time. And every night, I lived that same agony when I said goodbye to my mother. Would I survive the night and see her again tomorrow?

As the days went on, the hospital was not a hospital anymore. It was flooded with displaced families who had taken over all the unoccupied patient rooms and beds. Even the corridors were full of people, sleeping on blankets and whatever they could find. It was not a healthy environment for anyone, let alone patients. The floors were dirty, and kids who had spent months in hospital corridors with nothing to play with now made toys out of medical waste and ran barefoot in the hospital and its grounds. All the while, my mother couldn’t see any of these things, but she could hear the commotion, the sound of the bombs raining down in the distance, and the din of the crowds and the cries and screams of the injured around her.

A group of doctors were able to give her minimal medications, and I began to feel that it was a mistake to move her to the hospital. But then again, I feared that I would regret it even more if she died at home, helpless and with no medical care. She needs the care, I told myself. This is the only option we have. Three weeks in, her kidneys started to fail. Doctors said they would try their best to avoid reaching the point of needing dialysis, “because there is no chance she will be able to handle kidney dialysis,” one doctor told me. Her body was too weak to endure the process. It was the same reason a doctor gave us many years ago when we sought treatment to try and save her eyesight.

The first couple of days after they put her on medications for her kidneys, she did not get any better, but she didn’t get worse either. I started to come to the realization that she could not stay here anymore. I considered her psychological health first and the toll it was taking on her physical health. I told her dozens of times that we should go back to Rafah, to the house where our family was, but she said no.

“As long as they treat me, I will stay. I may get better and will be able to walk again, I’m very sick and tired,” she said when I insisted that we return to Rafah. “I will not forgive you if you take me out without finishing my treatment.” And so she stayed there.

And I kept going back and forth between the European Hospital and my family in Rafah. I didn’t consider the fact that the army was shelling Salah al-Din road and slowly encroaching upon Khan Younis. She was my mother. I couldn’t leave her, even for a single day. She is the only person who loves me more than herself. In Islam, we believe that our mothers are our keys to heaven, and that paradise lies at their feet. I know this to be true. My mother was the key to my prayers being answered, the gate between myself and God. She was and always will be the reason I have had good fortune in my life. And even though she is my mother, sometimes I feel like she is my little daughter. I knew that she was getting older and sicker, and so I wanted to give her the best moments I could, even in this horrible war.

So I did not miss any opportunity to see her, not a single day — except for one. It was a dreadful day when I had to stand in lines for hours to access an ATM in Rafah, where there were only three ATMs and practically no cash for 1.7 million people. That was the one time I didn’t see my mother — not just during the month she spent at the hospital, not just during the war, but during my entire life in Gaza. I missed her that day.

The day after, she went into a coma.

Alongside her kidney problems, she suffered from a stroke, the second in just a few years. She needed to be intubated and given special nutrition that had to be administered through a feeding tube which the hospital did not have. The doctor wrote the prescription for the supplement — Ensure Plus — and asked me to go out and find it. I hoped that my search through Rafah’s pharmacies would not leave me empty-handed. I was disappointed. When it became hopeless, I went back to the doctor in frustration and asked him how a hospital so large could not secure nutrition for its patients and how he expected me to find it. The doctor understood my anger. He knew what I was losing, and he knew that it didn’t have to be this way.

Day by day, with no proper food or treatment, her body stopped responding to medications. Doctors started saying that there was nothing they could do. She spent 10 days in a coma, breathing, opening her eyes, sometimes not responding to anything. But even though she was not responsive, her body was shaking every second with the sound of every bomb, every scream of every person in the hospital. Once again, the fear that put her here was still taking its toll. I started to say goodbye to her for 10 days. Every day I took every moment to keep her in my arms. I wanted to feel her warm face next to mine before it got cold. I was storing her smile in my mind and the feeling of her gray hair between my fingertips. I felt every day of my entire life pass before me, as I held her hands all day and lay next to her in her hospital bed.

I know that death is coming for all of us. We do not know how and when, but sometimes we can see the signs. I witnessed the death of my father two years ago. I thought after that that I would get to spend more time with my mom, but every day in that hospital, I grew more devastated with time. When I started to give up hope that she would live, I started to at least hope that I could bury her next to my father in the cemetery in Gaza. But I knew this was even more unlikely than her making a full recovery.

My mother, my beautiful, sweet beloved mother, the one who makes me believe that good deeds will always come back to me in different and more generous forms — I wished she would never die. But these days in Gaza wishes rarely come true.

At 2 a.m. on March 4, my nephew called me from Khan Younis. I was sleeping in Rafah.

“My condolences,” he said. I asked, “for whom?” He told me that she had passed away. I couldn’t believe it. How could she die without me holding her hand?

“How?” I demanded of my nephew. I was trying to tell him that I was there all day. I kept asking him, “You’re not serious, right?”

Then my brother Osama called me. He confirmed her death and tried hard to make me believe that she was in a better place.

Oh, Mom, I tried my best. I tried so hard to get you out of Gaza, to get you to any hospital in Egypt, but I couldn’t. I tried to get you the medication and the supplements you needed, but I wasn’t able to. Oh Mom, even dying in a decent grave is impossible. Cemeteries are full and now people bury their loved ones in temporary cemeteries near the hospital. Some people bury their loved ones in the medians between the highway, or on the side of the road. Will that be us? Will I have to put you inside a plastic bag and bury you under the ground on the roadside, in a makeshift grave built of stones and covered in cement?

My thoughts tortured me the rest of the night.

Everybody around me was sleeping. It’s three in the morning, and I can’t move from Rafah to Khan Younis. It’s not safe. I will find no one to drive me, and it is too far and dangerous.

As the sun slowly started to creep in through the window, the reality of losing my mother began to settle in. I slowly lay down on my mattress, covering my head with my blanket, and I couldn’t hold my tears any longer. Every moment in my life with my mom began to fill my mind.

I recall how hard my mother worked her entire life to have her big family and give us a good life. I recall every moment as a child when I would lie down next to her head on her pillow and she hugged every part of my body. I recall that year when I tried my best to teach her how to write her name. She never got the chance to receive an education, but she taught me how to be a human. She taught me how to have mercy in my heart and how to forgive. And she taught me how to be a good son.

The last week of her life, when she wasn’t responding to anything around her, I was talking to her as usual, and I told her, “If you are listening, please just move your finger.” And she did.

So I told her everything I wanted her to know. I told her that I prayed that she would survive, even if it meant I would spend my entire life serving her and taking care of her. I told her how I was lucky to be her son and how much I loved her. I told her that I registered her name on a list to go to Egypt and that we were waiting our turn.

Today, I sit in Egypt with my wife and son. I thought my mom would be with us. I never imagined she would choose a different destination.

Rest in peace, my beloved. I am so sorry I couldn’t save you.

Hiba Kamal Abu Nada was een Palestijnse schrijver en dichter. Hiba werd geboren in Mekka, Saoedi Arabie in een familie van Palestijnse vluchtelingen. Later studeerde ze biochemie en voedingskunde aan de Islamitische Universiteit in Gaza-Stad.

Naast haar werk als diëtist was ze actief in een cultureel kindercentrum en schreef ze poëzie en proza. Haar boek Oxygen is not for the Dead behaalde de tweede plaats in de Sharjah Awards for Arab creativity in 2017. Ze werd op 20 oktober vermoord door een Israelisch bombardement, samen met haar zoon.

Een paar dagen voor haar dood publiceerde ze het volgende gedicht op X:

Gaza’s night is dark apart from the glow of rockets,
quiet apart from the sound of the bombs,
terrifying apart from the comfort of prayer,
black apart from the light of the martyrs.
Goodnight, Gaza.

Twee andere gedichten van haar:

Each of us in Gaza is either witness to or martyr for liberation. Each is waiting to see which of the two they’ll become up there with God. We have already started building a new city in Heaven.
Doctors without patients. No one bleeds. Teachers in uncrowded classrooms. No yelling at students. New families without pain or sorrow. Journalists writing up and taking photos of eternal love. They’re all from Gaza.
In Heaven, the new Gaza is free of siege. It is taking shape now.
(Vertaling Fady Joudah)

I Grant You Refuge
1.
I grant you refuge
in invocation and prayer.
I bless the neighborhood and the minaret
to guard them
from the rocket
from the moment
it is a general’s command
until it becomes
a raid.
I grant you and the little ones refuge,
the little ones who
change the rocket’s course
before it lands
with their smiles.
2.
I grant you and the little ones refuge,
the little ones now asleep like chicks in a nest.
They don’t walk in their sleep toward dreams.
They know death lurks outside the house.
Their mothers’ tears are now doves
following them, trailing behind
every coffin.
3.
I grant the father refuge,
the little ones’ father who holds the house upright
when it tilts after the bombs.
He implores the moment of death:
“Have mercy. Spare me a little while.
For their sake, I’ve learned to love my life.
Grant them a death
as beautiful as they are.”
4.
I grant you refuge
from hurt and death,
refuge in the glory of our siege,
here in the belly of the whale.
Our streets exalt God with every bomb.
They pray for the mosques and the houses.
And every time the bombing begins in the North,
our supplications rise in the South.
5.
I grant you refuge
from hurt and suffering.
With words of sacred scripture
I shield the oranges from the sting of phosphorous
and the shades of cloud from the smog.
I grant you refuge in knowing
that the dust will clear,
and they who fell in love and died together
will one day laugh.
(Vertaling Huda Fakhreddine)

Klik hier om de Arabische versie van het gedicht te horen, voorgedragen door Randa Awad.
Klik voor een indrukwekkende video met teksten van Hiba, vertaald in het Frans.
En hier vind je nog meer gedichten van haar.

Ibrahim Al Sultan

Ibrahim Al Sultan is een Palestijnse kunstenaar uit Gaza. Hij studeert biomedische wetenschappen en bezocht net voor de oorlog in Gaza uitbrak een congres in Nablus op de Westbank. Nu kan hij niet meer terug naar huis. Wanhopig probeert hij contact te onderhouden met zijn ouders, broers en zussen. Hun familiehuis in het Jabalia kamp is verwoest en de familie is op drift. Voor Ibrahim is het elke dag weer afwachten of hij contact kan hebben met zijn familie en wat de berichten zijn. Om zijn spanning af te reageren schrijft hij gedichten.
Zie https://www.outlookindia.com/international/the-earth-was-a-homeland-poems-for-palestine-weekender_story-341192

Hieronder enkele van zijn gedichten in de reeks Poems from Gaza:

I will die now
I will die now to see God
I will carry my soul with me
I will be free
From the cage of this body
That encircles my heart
Here I will be free
And I will not be broken
I will release the birds of this heart
Birds of peace
In a sky that has not known peace
And has not left a dream for mankind
I will release them all at last
Birds of my freedom
And the remnants of my smile
And I will accept my loneliness
And my death
As a sacrifice for you, O God
Will this ruin stop?
Will the torment be erased in our place?
I will be a sacrifice for peace for humanity
For that homeland and child
For every mother and father
I will be a sacrifice for a life, not for salvation
I will die
For a cup of coffee from the earth
Next to my father and in front of my mother’s eyes
Will you accept, O God?
I will die
And whatever remains of me, take it and burn it and scatter it
For the remaining birds of peace
For the rest of the dreams
And I will go to you, O God, will you answer?
I will go to you in the world of dreams
With my heart and the birds of peace
To light the candle of peace and security
Here in my heart is a noise of roses and flowers
And in my hand a pen that writes a poem of peace
Will this ruin stop now, O God?!

In the Void
I sit alone,
Occupying a space of me and it,
Trying to understand what is going on in this existence,
I seek the goal and purpose,
The answers are not as easy as they seem.
In the void,
I strive to achieve myself!
I search for the truth,
Truth is relative!
I feel that nothingness surrounds me on all sides,
Life in the noise of dreams frightens and terrifies me.
In the void, there is a lot of pain,
And endless questions,
Existence and nothingness are part of life,
Pain and suffering are part of existence.
In the void, I feel nostalgic,
I search for something to keep me going,
I try to create something from nothingness,
In the void, I make my dream,
To rebel against reality to make it a reality,
I search for beauty to touch it,
I try to spread love in existence!
Is life worth living and experiencing?
In the void, I search for salvation,
I know that existence and nothingness are intertwined,
I look to the past and dream of the future,
And I see nothing but a stubborn illusion,
I know that it is impossible to live without hope.
But hope is the biggest lie that a person can believe.

All things are mirages
Nothing is yours
You are a visitor, always dreaming and still waiting
What are you waiting for?
Nothing is yours
All that has been said has been said
You are marginal and less than a number
Do not wait for salvation
Run to it
And cast off your chains
You are in the holy valley!
So it is said, do not believe the prophecies
All that has been said has been said
You are a visitor, always waiting for mirages.

Meer poezie van Hiba Abu Nada

Heba Zaqout (1984 – 2023)

Heba Zaqout was beeldend kunstenaar en docent. Ze werd in 1984 geboren in het Al Bureij vluchtelingenkamp in Gaza. Zij volgde een kunstopleiding aan de Al-Aqsa universiteit in Gaza en werkte in het onderwijs. Daarnaast was ze actief in het Dar Al Kalima kunstencentrum in Gaza-Stad. In 2021 had ze een solo-expositie in Tulkarem met de titel My Children in Quarantaine met werk naar aanleiding van de corona epidemie.
Haar schilderijen zijn levendig, speels en met oog voor detail. Ze getuigen van de liefde voor Palestijnse vrouwen en kinderen, hun dagelijks leven, hun huizen, kerken, moskeeën en gebouwen. Ook maakte Zaqout veel schilderijen van Al Quds (Jeruzalem), de heilige stad die ze zelf nooit kon bezoeken. In haar werk geeft ze het Palestijnse erfgoed en de Palestijnse identiteit weer en drukt gevoelens van vrijheid en schoonheid uit.

In een video van 28 september zegt ze: ‘We weten allemaal dat er politieke spanningen zijn in Gaza die het leven hier niet gemakkelijk maken. Als ik aan het schilderen ben, probeer ik te reflecteren op deze negatieve gevoelens en me ervan te bevrijden. Door mijn kunst breng ik een boodschap over aan de hele wereld over de Palestijnse zaak en de Palestijnse identiteit.’
Heba werd op 13 oktober vermoord door een Israelisch bombardement samen met twee van haar vier kinderen. Ze laat een echtgenoot en twee kinderen achter.
Een overzicht van haar schilderijen is te zien op outsidein.org.uk/news/a-tribute-to-heba-zaqout/

Publishers for Palestine (opgericht in oktober 2023) is een wereldwijd solidariteitscollectief van uitgevers die staan voor rechtvaardigheid, vrijheid van meningsuiting en de kracht van het geschreven woord in solidariteit met het Palestijnse volk.
Klik hier voor de bloemlezing die ze recent hebben uitgebracht.

Zonder te pretenderen volledig te zijn, zijn er behalve deze literaire getuigen natuurlijk nog meer kunstenaars die getuigen van het leven in Gaza.

Zo maakte Joe Sacco een indrukwekkende strip: Footnotes on Gaza (NL vertaling: Gaza 1956).

Filmmakers zoals Mohamed Jabaly (regisseur van o.a. Ambulance) en de broers Tarzan en Arab Nasser (regisseurs van Degradé en Gaza Mon Amour) legden de magie van het dagelijks leven in Gaza vast. Ook de film The Idol van Hany Abu Assad speelt in Gaza en geeft een goed beeld hoe het is om daar op te groeien. Heel veel fotografen hebben indrukwekkende beelden gemaakt en beschikbaar gesteld.

Visualizing Palestine brengt bijna dagelijks inzichtelijke visuals uit: visualizingpalestine.org/#visuals

Er zijn beeldende kunst projecten zoals het bijzonder originele Metro Project van Mohamed Abusal: abusalmohamed.com, en het digitale Sahab Museum in the Cloud: sahabmuseum.community

Er is dans, van dabke tot streetdance; en er is muziek, van klassiek tot modern. Mohammed Assaf, opgegroeid in het Khan Younis vluchtelingenkamp, won in 2013 de Arab Idol zangcompetitie, nadat hij op onwaarschijnlijke en spectaculaire wijze een ticket voor de audities had verkregen. Dit verhaal is door de Palestijns-Nederlandse regisseur Hany Abu-Assad verfilmd in The Idol. Het winnende lied, A’li al kuffiyya, is hier te zien en horen: youtu.be/YDnAsplDdX8

En er zijn krachtige, levendige beelden van Parkour teams in Gaza: www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMOYRHorngc

Bekijk de video over gehandicapte wielrenners in Gaza op www.gazasunbirds.org/

Mai al-Nakib schreef een prachtige column over de kracht van de Palestijnse pen.

Susan Abulhawa schreef een verslag van haar verblijf in Gaza in februari 2024: “Het is de hel.”

Er zijn gelukkig veel getuigenissen, indringend en van grote schoonheid. Daarom is het des te treuriger dat deze culturele productie nu wordt afgesneden en onmogelijk gemaakt. We zijn afhankelijk van deze getuigen en wij, als lezers en kijkers, kunnen dit werk levend houden. Door er kennis van te nemen, het te bewonderen, erover te praten, het te delen en ons erdoor te laten inspireren.