Gaza, You and Me

14 July, 2021

“My ID” — Pales­tin­ian pass­port, paper and ink on can­vas, 255 X 26cm, 2019 by Gazan artist Mohammed Musal­lam (cour­tesy of the artist).


Two Pales­tini­ans write togeth­er about the recent events in Gaza, to inter­ro­gate their mem­o­ries of the events as well as how they affect their under­stand­ing of their Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ties. “Gaza, You and Me” revolves around a Pales­tin­ian from the Gaza Strip stuck in the con­flict, and a Pales­tine from the West Bank who is cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the USA try­ing to escape even think­ing about it. Both Pales­tini­ans in this essay are real­ly the same, if it weren’t for the age and loca­tion dif­fer­ences — you might say NG is the future Abdal­lah and Abdal­lah is the past NG. 

NG Mahfouz & Abdallah Salha

Hold­ing my head tight­ly, I sit on a couch try­ing to take in the moment — in denial. It is nine in the evening, and the elec­tric­i­ty is gone for the day. The com­fort of my bed and desk are only a room away from where I am sit­ting. I have vol­un­tar­i­ly giv­en them up to my younger cousins, think­ing I could afford them a tem­po­rary “com­fort­able” reset­tle­ment. My lap­top is in front of me now as its bat­tery is run­ning out — we are star­ing into each oth­er, think­ing we owe the world shar­ing this moment. Words, like every­thing in Gaza, start to slip away, los­ing form and substance.

Rock­ets and war­planes are whistling in the skies, fill­ing an oth­er­wise emp­ty dark expanse, dis­plac­ing even the mighty stars. War nev­er felt okay to me; it has nev­er giv­en me any com­fort. Rather, war always com­pounds loss and bereave­ment, impos­ing itself on my think­ing and judge­ment. For all my life, I have lived through its end­less vicious cycles, and every time, I have found myself in awe after los­ing parts of myself that I did not know exist. Sit­ting alone on the couch this evening, I sur­prise myself — again — when I enter­tain the moral­i­ty of war and vio­lence around me. Moral dilem­mas keep creep­ing into my head, and I grant them more of my time than I can afford. 

“Walk close to house walls,” my mom shouts at me as I leave to the clos­est gro­cery store, assum­ing the walls will keep me shel­tered from post-explo­sion shrap­nel. In this moment, I am remind­ed by Ghas­san Kanafani’s admis­sion of walk­ing under the rain as a child, get­ting his head wet by the water descend­ing from the drain­pipes while walk­ing next to house walls in a Yaf­fa neigh­bor­hood. I say this to my moth­er. She prompt­ly rolls her eyes: She hears this joke from me often, and she is tired of it. “I do not want to lose you,” she says somber­ly. Every­thing feels real — on my skin and all over my body, I feel the poten­tial­i­ty of ful­fill­ing my human­i­ty and its pos­si­ble extin­guish­ment. It is quite late now, and I assess the safe­ty of going to the store. I want to buy jib­neh bay­da, salty white cheese, so that we have sand­wich­es lat­er tonight or ear­ly tomor­row morning.

—   • —

I wake up in pain and sweat, too ear­ly. My stom­ach is in con­vul­sion, spas­mod­i­cal­ly tear­ing into itself. My ears are emp­ty infer­nos, echoes of each oth­er. My eyes are salt deserts, refus­ing to open. In dark­ness, I sink into my bed of sor­rows, try­ing to escape myself. Every­thing around me feels okay, but I am not. Every­thing around me feels real, but I am not.

I turn on the noisy win­dow air con­di­tion­er both to cool my body and dis­tract my mind. I hope its noise can­cels the sounds of bom­bard­ment com­ing from Gaza more than five thou­sand miles away. In the mate­r­i­al com­fort of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, I often find myself at ease shut­ting out what does not com­fort me. But almost a year after the George Floyd protests, I find myself hav­ing a hard­er time ignor­ing Gaza. I hear the bom­bard­ment, and I think of the incom­ing ground inva­sion, but it is too ear­ly in the morn­ing, and I want to have my dilut­ed Amer­i­can coffee.

I walk down the stairs slow­ly, my eyes bare­ly open. I grind cof­fee beans, pour fil­tered water into the cof­fee machine, fill the gold-plat­ed cone with the ground beans, and set the mag­ic in motion. Soon, the cof­fee aro­ma per­me­ates through the dense humid air, open­ing my eyes to the dim­ly lit house. I hear the birds wak­ing up, vehi­cles trav­el­ing in the dis­tance, even a favorite freight train. I pre­pare one large cup of cof­fee for myself.

It is hot, and it is very bit­ter. I always select bold on the machine, and evi­dent­ly nev­er choose the right coffee–water ratio. My cof­fee is not dilut­ed enough; it is not Amer­i­can enough. The noisy bom­bard­ment of Gaza fills my head again.

—   • —

As I walk out­side, I con­tin­ue to feel the heav­i­ness of the war on my skin — every­thing feels more real now, includ­ing, espe­cial­ly, death. No mat­ter, I hur­ry to the store. “The per­son­al is polit­i­cal,” I often read. We always have to keep a facade of joy and resilience — of nor­mal­cy — and to preach to the world about peace, as if it starts with­in us, by us

palestinian authority passport travel document.png

On my way back from the store, I feel trau­ma engulf­ing me. I hur­ry again, I almost run, and I tell myself, “You don’t have time to process any trau­ma now.” Pro­cess­ing trau­ma and deal­ing with it are post-sur­vival activ­i­ties, and I am yet to sur­vive. Such is the denial of trau­ma while it is hap­pen­ing. Run­ning Orders come late, I say loud­ly to myself, “and you may want to ignore them, but that does­n’t do you any good.” A Run­ning Order feels super­fi­cial­ly eth­i­cal — it seem­ing­ly spares some civil­ians by order­ing them to run out of their homes mere­ly min­utes before a dev­as­tat­ing bomb­ing. Some­times though, it does not get to them in time; oth­er times, nobody both­ers deliv­er­ing it. All the time, it is nei­ther fair nor moral to deprive any­one of their home, their liveli­hood, and all the mem­o­ries of a life­time. I won­der: If I do not have time to process my trau­ma, how do I have time to debate the moral­i­ty of war? 

I arrive back home; my moth­er breathes a sigh of relief. I leave the jib­neh bay­da on a table, and I imme­di­ate­ly pack my papers and a change of clothes. I look at my Pales­tin­ian “pass­port”, a trav­el doc­u­ment that brings with it innu­mer­able chal­lenges at every fron­tier, and I feel the bit­ter injus­tice that I still can­not get a Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca visa stamp to attend col­lege — the for­ev­er block­ade, the dis­rup­tive pan­dem­ic, and now this war. My moth­er kind­ly pre­pares my cheese sand­wich and brings it to me. I take a big bite, and then I pause. I am eat­ing this sand­wich so that I can stay up all night: to wit­ness the sym­pho­ny of destruc­tion at mid­night. I have sec­ond thoughts: Maybe I should sleep tonight. I remem­ber: To be awok­en by the noise and shak­ing of bombs is worse. Wak­ing up to fear clutch­ing your gut and hold­ing you from the neck is not fun. I quick­ly fin­ish eat­ing my sand­wich. I lie on the couch, star­ing at the ceil­ing that may not be there tomor­row morn­ing. Still, I can­not stop think­ing about oth­er Pales­tini­ans who are affect­ed worse now, and Pales­tini­ans who left their hous­es dur­ing the Nak­ba to sur­vive. In 1948, our Nak­ba start­ed and has nev­er ended. 

—   • — 

I try to run away from the noise crowd­ing my head. I open the door to catch fresh air.

Imme­di­ate­ly, the nox­ious hydro­gen sul­fide pol­lut­ing this post-indus­tri­al Amer­i­can city in a mete­o­ro­log­i­cal inver­sion shoves me inside again. I turn around, I go back to my bit­ter cof­fee on the table. The sounds from Gaza jump out of my head, fill­ing the musty kitchen, danc­ing vio­lent­ly with the cof­fee aroma. 

I attempt again. This time, I turn to Otis Red­ding’s “Cig­a­rettes and Cof­fee” from The Soul Album released in 1966. Yes, it is ear­ly in the morn­ing, but I am not talk­ing to my muse over cig­a­rettes and cof­fee. Indeed, I do not smoke at all. I turn the music off when he soul­ful­ly sings that he wants “anoth­er drink of cof­fee” — with “no cream and sug­ar” because he has his “dar­ling.” With the noise fill­ing my head and the space sur­round­ing it, I con­tin­ue to man­i­cal­ly browse my smart­phone for an escape. Wher­ev­er I look, I find imagery of the vio­lence in Pales­tine. I car­ry my huge cup of cof­fee and take it to the liv­ing room nearby.

I find myself a short reprieve in the liv­ing room. I sit on the com­fort­able couch, with the hot cup of cof­fee in my hand. In this moment, I decide to drink my bit­ter cof­fee. The hot flu­id flows down my throat, itch­ing its bit­ter­ness all inside me and final­ly deliv­er­ing a nau­se­at­ing bomb to my stom­ach. My sharp stom­achache inten­si­fies. I extend my tired body over the couch, and I con­tin­ue drink­ing my cof­fee. I feel the dense air around me, now invad­ed by the pun­gent hydro­gen sul­fide which smells like rot­ten eggs. With the noise all around me, I see the Gaza Strip in front me, a walled rec­tan­gle by the sea — with show­ers of white phos­pho­rous rain­ing fire. In a bird’s-eye view, I see a walled Gar­den of Eden sur­round­ed by giant dinosaurs on three sides and Noah’s Del­uge on the fourth. While the impris­oned human mass­es rush away from the phos­pho­rous fire­works, I am unmoved in my liv­ing room, slow­ly drink­ing my cof­fee. White phos­pho­rus burns midair, caus­ing both severe burns upon skin con­tact and eye and res­pi­ra­to­ry irri­ta­tion, not to men­tion its acrid odor. With images of phos­pho­rus burn­ing skin in front me, I start to fall asleep again.

—   • —

Some­thing does not smell quite right. I stand up to shut the win­dow in the liv­ing room. Maybe it is tear gas com­ing with the east wind. I lie down again on my couch, and auto­mat­i­cal­ly shrink myself like a fetus, hold­ing my smart­phone. Its bat­tery is almost gone. I hear my stom­ach churn­ing — is it fear, antic­i­pa­tion, or just digestion? 

I see an Amer­i­can friend of mine on social media, announc­ing tak­ing time off because of the Gaza events. I wish I could do the same. This is a well-mean­ing friend who is sym­pa­thet­ic with and sup­port­ive of the Pales­tin­ian cause. Yet, I feel lost, aban­doned, and sunken in fear — alone. Some friends con­tact­ed me when this new round of vio­lence start­ed, and for them, that was enough: I would be fine. Oth­ers have not both­ered at all. Pales­tine does not fit their aes­thet­ic. They sup­port each and every plight for lib­er­ty, jus­tice, and dig­ni­ty, but Pales­tine is too com­plex, too con­tro­ver­sial, too two-sided for them. 

In slow motion, I pull my blan­ket to cov­er my body. I con­tin­ue to cov­er my head. I find refuge hid­ing in its warmth. It shel­ters me from the bombs and los­ing a friend on social media, or at least, that is my mag­i­cal think­ing. I take my lap­top and my smart­phone under the blan­ket with me, grasp­ing for every bit of warmth for us. I want to keep some charge in their bat­ter­ies for tomor­row if I still make it. I fall asleep ask­ing my blan­ket, “Will you keep hold­ing me tomor­row if I am wrapped in rub­ble like the jib­neh bay­da in my cheese sandwich?”

—            • —

Out of breath and con­fused, I wake up from my night­mare. I search for my smart­phone, but I can­not find it. I call for it, “Where are you?” Its robot­ic voice comes from under the bed, “Here!” It is three in the morn­ing, and the world has not end­ed — there are no noti­fi­ca­tions on my lock screen. Abnor­mal­ly for May, the weath­er is chilly out­side: a serene spring morn­ing with no foul smell of indus­tri­al odors. I take a deep breath, push­ing my head back into the soft pillow.

I have a habit of for­get­ting my dreams and night­mares very short­ly after I wake up. I start won­der­ing if I can learn any­thing from my night­mare, if it has any sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages. I sleep­i­ly lose my train of thought, and slow­ly turn left to my phone. I feel relieved that the per­son in my night­mare is not real­ly me. In a place where my own nation­al iden­ti­ty is con­tin­u­al­ly chal­lenged and erased, I feel relieved that I am still me — Pales­tin­ian in pain and in hap­pi­ness, not try­ing to ignore the pain and suf­fer­ing of my fel­low Pales­tini­ans in Gaza. But at the same time, I also wor­ry that is the apa­thet­ic per­son I will become as I con­tin­ue liv­ing in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, car­ing less and less even about my own peo­ple half the world away. 

More impor­tant­ly, I feel relieved as I nav­i­gate to Abdal­lah’s pro­file on my phone, “Last seen today at 2:30.” I have only met Abdal­lah a few months pri­or, through our high school move­men­t’s alum­ni net­work. I feel relieved he like­ly is still alive. I start typ­ing a mes­sage to him, to say that I will be avail­able should he like to talk. I stop myself, think­ing he already knows that. Deep­er, I feel ashamed that I can­not be there for him, that I can­not do more to help him and oth­er Pales­tini­ans. In Abdal­lah, I see a ver­sion of my younger self: full of vital­i­ty and eager­ness to change the world. I wor­ry for his youth­ful ener­gy and hope as he embarks on his jour­ney. For now though, I feel good about his safe­ty and how our friend­ship takes me clos­er to my Pales­tin­ian roots.

 

ng-mahfouz and abdalla salha.jpg

NG Mah­fouz, a Pales­tin­ian from the West Bank, holds a doc­tor­ate in engi­neer­ing and has been liv­ing in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca for more than ten years, cur­rent­ly work­ing as a research sci­en­tist at an aca­d­e­m­ic institution.

Abdal­lah Sal­ha, a Pales­tin­ian from the Gaza Strip, looks for­ward to start­ing col­lege in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca this fall after fin­ish­ing high school in Nor­way and spend­ing two gap years first in Sene­gal and then in Gaza.