No Exit

14 July, 2021

“Smile, You Are in Gaza, the largest prison in the world,” (pho­to cour­tesy Elana Golden).

Allam Zedan

I live in Gaza, if you can call this liv­ing. I’m 31 years old. I grew up in the Jabalya refugee camp and in between four major wars, mas­sacres real­ly, I’ve man­aged to obtain a BA in the Ara­bic lan­guage along with a grad­u­ate diplo­ma in pro­fes­sion­al trans­la­tion (Arabic/English), and a one-year diplo­ma in Hebrew lan­guage. I’ve accom­plished all this with the ten­u­ous hope that there is a future for me, for us.  Each and every day, I live with the lies that encour­age peo­ple to have hope — hope is that invis­i­ble friend or ene­my who lives behind our smiles, our warmth with one anoth­er, which is gen­uine. And yet life is often unman­age­able. When you live through a war and walk through the rub­ble, you mar­vel at the mir­a­cle of sur­vival, but you have no idea what’s next, as if you can’t imag­ine a future. Try­ing to remem­ber things from my past is not easy, either, unless it involves pain. Pain seems to love us in Gaza. It actu­al­ly tries its best to get to us amongst the glim­mers of hap­pi­ness that might infil­trate our lives with a smile of a child, a flower pok­ing itself up from the rub­ble, or a look from our mothers. 

—    •   —

“In less than a minute, you have to pack the most valu­able things you have and run.” This is the mes­sage Israel deliv­ered to so many fam­i­lies in Gaza dur­ing their 2014 sum­mer assault on us, whether direct­ly through loud­speak­ers or through mis­sile “taps” on the roof. We received the same mes­sage in May this year. Hur­ry, run for it!

Last time when our turn came, I chose to take my crip­pled, 80-year-old father and a bag I had pre­vi­ous­ly pre­pared for such a day. It is where I keep my school cer­tifi­cates, the ones I had­n’t yet had a chance to use to secure the job I was work­ing so hard to obtain. For the first time in my life, I real­ly want­ed to live, dream, achieve, have some mem­o­ries and be a part of the future of oth­ers. I thought about the love of my life, the meet­ing that had not yet come, the eyes I had­n’t looked into, the places we had­n’t vis­it­ed and the expe­ri­ences we had yet to share. 

I opened the door. An old woman was cling­ing to life, run­ning with her grand­daugh­ters. With tears in her eyes, she gave me that look as if she was say­ing good­bye, remind­ing me of the fact that we have no refuge in Gaza. 

I closed the door. It was clear that nowhere was safe, and if I had to die, I would rather be at home. I went back into my house, smiled at my father, kissed my moth­er’s hand and returned to my room. Iron­i­cal­ly, the lights were on. The elec­tric­i­ty seemed to have come back on after five days of darkness. 

It was the sec­ond month of the last sum­mer war on Gaza, and we could hear the sounds of bom­bard­ments, and the screams of my lit­tle nephew, in the arms of his moth­er, won­der­ing if he would live anoth­er day.

Have you ever seen stars falling from the sky? That’s the way it appeared that day, as if they were com­ing direct­ly at me, my fam­i­ly, my friends and my peo­ple. That was when I decid­ed to run. The star-like lights were shells used to illu­mi­nate the area, allow­ing the Israelis to bet­ter tar­get their prey, falling ran­dom­ly on the hous­es in my res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood. We did­n’t have any­thing to defend our­selves, to silence our cry­ing chil­dren or to extin­guish the bombs hit­ting our homes. 

For 11 mem­bers of the Bal­atah fam­i­ly, it was the last night of their lives. They were hid­ing in the two-sto­ry home of their cousins, cook­ing a meal for their chil­dren, when they all got burned alive. It was nei­ther a gas leak nor the care­less­ness of a woman. We heard the hate­ful, whin­ing voice of the shells again and again. Those who helped the med­ical teams car­ry the bod­ies out came to us cry­ing and cov­ered in blood. The Israeli media described the inci­dent as a mistake. 

I sup­pose you could say I’m one of the lucky ones. I sur­vived the last war and met my beloved, Rania El-Dali, a 24-year-old young lady from Gaza City. Both my wife and I have dreams. I’ve become an expe­ri­enced trans­la­tor, known for my vol­un­tary role as the Ara­bic Lan­guage Coor­di­na­tor at TED, where I am respon­si­ble for review­ing and approv­ing Eng­lish into Ara­bic trans­la­tions to be pub­lished on the offi­cial TED chan­nels. Rania holds a grad­u­ate diplo­ma in pro­fes­sion­al trans­la­tion (Arabic/English) and a BA in Eng­lish literature. 

We’ve both now ful­filled the require­ments of anoth­er spe­cial­ized bach­e­lor’s degree in pain and suf­fer­ing, hav­ing suc­ceed­ed to live through four wars in our short lives, yet we are afraid of the moment of grad­u­a­tion; being killed in a new Israeli aggres­sion upon inno­cent civil­ians in Gaza Strip.

In May, anoth­er entire fam­i­ly was killed in a blink of an eye when an Israeli bomb struck their home. The fam­i­ly did noth­ing wrong. They thought they were safe. Only one child, a tod­dler, sur­vived. Can you imag­ine what his life will be with­out his fam­i­ly? I can’t. 

I also can’t help but won­der how long this cycle of vio­lence will con­tin­ue to reap inno­cent peo­ple’s lives. 

— • —

I still wake up with no elec­tric­i­ty at home. I do miss it for more than twelve hours a day. I don’t watch TV, because I don’t want to see the lies of the politi­cians and images of the world col­laps­ing around me. But I do open the inter­net to find some­thing to laugh at, or sim­ply get the chance to for­get about that meal both my moth­er and my wife final­ly agreed to pre­pare as quick­ly as they can before it’s turned off again. Every­one is wait­ing for the cur­rent mis­tress of our lives…Miss Elec­tric­i­ty. As I wait for din­ner, I begin to rem­i­nisce again about the wars that have changed our lives. 

No one brought my broth­er Moham­mad’s leg back, which he lost dur­ing the first mas­sacre against our peo­ple, Oper­a­tion Cast Lead, in 2008. He used to be a tai­lor when he was young but became a fire fight­er after he mar­ried. Mar­riages are the worst thing that can hap­pen to a man’s pock­et, even more so in Gaza, where unem­ploy­ment is one of the very few things that flour­ish here. But he loved his job. He ded­i­cat­ed him­self to sav­ing lives. And when an appeal came from the besieged res­i­dents of Gaza City’s Al-Maqqousi Tow­er that fate­ful night of Jan­u­ary 14, 2009, he had to make a choice whether to save lives or sit behind his desk and wait for news of the peo­ple killed. He chose to go. While try­ing to res­cue sur­vivors in the tow­er, the Israeli war­ships shot at Moham­mad and two of his friends, severe­ly injur­ing all of them. There were bod­ies piled into cor­ners and on the floors. There was blood. Red was every­where. He was one of the lucky ones, los­ing a leg but keep­ing his life. 

Of course, he could no longer work as a fire fight­er; there was no pos­si­bil­i­ty of receiv­ing an arti­fi­cial limb. How do you find a job in the con­cen­tra­tion camp called Gaza with one leg and a wife who loves you but cries all the time?

My peo­ple, whose hous­es were demol­ished in the 2014 war, did­n’t get the “first aid” the world promised. They lived in “car­a­vans,” more like prison cells, and UNRWA schools, wait­ing for a bene­fac­tor to have some mer­cy upon them. They had to live with the sound of thun­der and the rain strik­ing their met­al roofs in the mid­dle of the night. The silence of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty always warned them that there was no such thing as leav­ing these con­di­tions; that they had to adapt them­selves and get ready to be killed in any upcom­ing Israeli assault on every­thing they hold dear. They can’t run from their fate. They still vis­it their used-to-be-homes to… I don’t know.

Each day, I see peo­ple with wish­es they know may not come true. But they can’t stop them­selves from dream­ing. I also have dreams.

Moham­mad, my broth­er, lost his leg, but he did­n’t lose his tal­ent as a tai­lor. He was a grant­ed a chance to enroll in a six-month course in sofa design and seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty. He was deter­mined to elim­i­nate the word “dis­abled” from his life. Using his exper­tise in tai­lor­ing, he began to cre­ate his own sofas at his small house, and every­one liked his work. He worked with a big fur­ni­ture com­pa­ny in Gaza for some time, and he has real­ized his dream of set­ting up a work­shop of his own. Despite his injury and the ordeal, he sur­vived. Moham­mad is still human. 

And yes, he has one head, one leg and two arms, and he can make a life. 

I begin to smile as I remem­ber this sto­ry of the “sumud” of my broth­er, then look out the win­dow. Bear­ing wit­ness to the hor­rors of war means I almost must bear wit­ness to the small victories. 

Gaza is beau­ti­ful today. I nev­er thought it would be like this again, but it is. In my thir­ty-first year, Gaza is still alive. 

Not long ago, I was in my home when I heard the sound of gun­shots. I ran into the street, and there they were. The peo­ple of Gaza were cel­e­brat­ing a new vic­to­ry. They sur­vived anoth­er war. At that moment, I want­ed to tell the whole world that we are from Gaza, and we are not num­bers. The bright eyes of those young men hold­ing flags of Pales­tine gave me a feel­ing that I thought I had lost for­ev­er. This then, is my story. 

The fourth war on Gaza killed more than 250: broth­ers of my peo­ple, sis­ters of my peo­ple, as well as friends, neigh­bors and fam­i­ly; yet Gaza still stands with a smile. These peo­ple and their resistance…how they cre­ate life from amidst their pain some­times fright­ens me. 

Abo Ahmed, my neigh­bor, is still telling jokes. He even plays foot­ball with the kids in the street. He is about 30 years old­er than they are, yet he knows how to make them love him.

I love these peo­ple. I love my neigh­bor­hood, and if I am ever able to leave it will only be to secure a safe future for our family.

In Gaza, we are sub­ject to all kinds of oppres­sion. Israel has pre­vent­ed us from med­ical treat­ment, elec­tric­i­ty, access to pure water, the right to trav­el and the right to sleep. I don’t want for my chil­dren but qui­et nights like oth­er chil­dren of the world. “If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of chil­dren in Gaza,” António Guter­res, Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations has said. I could­n’t pre­vent the sound of war­planes and the buzz of drones hov­er­ing in the air from keep­ing my preg­nant wife awake for more than three days in a row, but I want for our child to sleep to the sound of music instead.

I want a nor­mal life for my fam­i­ly. I remem­ber how my wife was trem­bling every time she heard the sound of bom­bard­ments com­ing clos­er and clos­er. Rania was afraid for her life and the life of our unborn child. I felt pow­er­less. I promised her that both she and our child will be safe with me. The truth is that I do not guar­an­tee our safe­ty. I can­not pro­tect anyone.

We love birds. But our canaries and cock­atiels left their own nests. We are still look­ing at their eggs that nev­er hatched, and the traces of the babies that could­n’t sur­vive. Our friend’s cat Daisy was in labor when the May 2021 war start­ed. More than 40 hours passed, and she could­n’t give birth to her chil­dren. She was about to die. And you must’ve seen the viral pic­ture of that dog which was hid­ing under the table along with a Gazan kid. We want a place not only safe for us, but also for our pets.

Unem­ploy­ment is a major prob­lem in Gaza Strip. When Rania and I think about our pro­fes­sion­al career as trans­la­tors, we become afraid of what the future por­tends if we stay any longer. When­ev­er I, for exam­ple, get a free­lance job, there comes a time when the elec­tric­i­ty goes off. At the time of this writ­ing, elec­tric­i­ty is vis­it­ing us only for few hours a day. How can I fin­ish a job when all I have are mere four or six hours? I am not a machine. I am a human being. And I deserve the right to com­plete my work with­out inter­rup­tion. I should have the option of accept­ing a full-time job offer that I can actu­al­ly accom­plish with­out being threat­ened by inter­mit­tent elec­tric­i­ty and inter­net con­nec­tions. The same applies to Rania who wants to work and suc­ceed in her pro­fes­sion­al life. She feels dis­ap­point­ed and some­times angry that she can’t han­dle work requests and man­age house­hold chores at the same time. It goes with­out say­ing that the avail­abil­i­ty of per­ma­nent jobs depends on sta­bil­i­ty in the coun­try. If you have a sta­ble and safe coun­try, you will have com­pa­nies offer­ing jobs and hir­ing employ­ees. You can imag­ine the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza Strip where there is over 90% risk threat­en­ing new projects. If you have the mon­ey, you can’t risk estab­lish­ing a busi­ness that you fear may get destroyed in the next air strike. Also, can you imag­ine that finan­cial ser­vices like Pay­Pal do not work in Pales­tine? Sim­ply put, they don’t rec­og­nize Pales­tine. I face lots of dif­fi­cul­ty try­ing to work and get paid. Can you imag­ine how it feels when you look and don’t find the name of your coun­try on the list of coun­tries pub­lished by employers?

In Gaza, hos­pi­tals are marked as mil­i­tary bases, and have been destroyed — and the Israeli army claims Hamas’s pro­jec­tiles are launched from the roofs of civil­ian house­holds. Do you believe res­i­den­tial areas are still safe? Such claims make no place in Gaza safe. And what if my fam­i­ly need­ed med­ical care?

When I accom­pa­nied Rania to vis­it the UNRWA health cen­ter of Jabalya for pre­na­tal check­ups, they told us that they no longer pro­vide their ser­vices to preg­nant women, as part of the UNRWA prepa­ra­tions to respond to the out­break of COVID-19. Today, the sit­u­a­tion has wors­ened on many lev­els. As Fares Akram and Aya Batr­away explained to AP News in May, “The Gaza Strip’s already fee­ble health sys­tem is being brought to its knees by the fourth war in just over a decade. Hos­pi­tals have been over­whelmed with waves of dead and wound­ed from Israel’s bom­bard­ment. Many vital med­i­cines are rapid­ly run­ning out in the tiny, block­ad­ed coastal ter­ri­to­ry, as is fuel to keep elec­tric­i­ty going”. And as Jamie Ducharme wrote in Time, “In recent days, Israeli airstrikes have destroyed Hala Al Shwa Pri­ma­ry Health­care Cen­tre, which pro­vid­ed COVID-19 test­ing and vac­ci­na­tions to Gaza res­i­dents; dam­aged the road lead­ing to al-Shi­fa Hos­pi­tal in Gaza City; and tem­porar­i­ly forced Gaza­’s only lab­o­ra­to­ry for pro­cess­ing COVID-19 tests to close. Dr. Ayman Abu Elouf, who ran COVID-19 response at al-Shi­fa, was also killed in a bomb­ing. All COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tions have been halt­ed in Gaza, accord­ing to the UN.”

Hav­ing two gov­ern­ments is not a bless­ing. The inter­nal divi­sion and con­flict between the largest Pales­tin­ian par­ties, Fateh and Hamas, has adverse­ly affect­ed all life aspects, wors­ened by loss of hope for a break­through for the cri­sis in the fore­see­able future. 

The poor think that edu­ca­tion is the key to jobs, and jobs are the way to mon­ey. They save mon­ey so that their chil­dren can have a decent edu­ca­tion. My youngest broth­er, Islam, com­plet­ed two degrees in social work. After grad­u­a­tion, he spent sev­er­al months vol­un­teer­ing as a social work­er at dif­fer­ent local insti­tu­tions, yet he real­ized that job oppor­tu­ni­ties in this spe­cif­ic area are for rel­a­tives only (you’ve got to have wasta). 

Islam is nei­ther the son of a Hamas leader nor the cousin of an influ­en­tial Fateh fig­ure, so he did­n’t deserve “a piece of the cake” when­ev­er a project was fund­ed and an oppor­tu­ni­ty was intro­duced. I told him that he has to give up the idea of work­ing after vol­un­teer­ing, but he always said that he loved social work and this is the kind of work that he wants to spend his life doing. Islam want­ed to try one insti­tu­tion after anoth­er, and vol­un­teer on project after project. He loves work­ing around chil­dren with autism and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. I know how pre­cious this kind of work is. It is the smile of our chil­dren and elder­ly that gives our life a mean­ing. I told Islam that I once vol­un­teered in a reput­ed research cen­ter, in the field that I am most pas­sion­ate about, but I end­ed up enter­ing the cen­ter one day only to find a beau­ti­ful girl sit­ting in an ele­gant swiv­el chair next to the win­dow. On her new desk, there was a bou­quet of red flow­ers. She was the new trans­la­tor of the cen­ter. The job was nev­er adver­tised. And the flow­ers, I heard, were from her beloved uncle, a mem­ber of the Board. When he heard this sto­ry, Islam then thought that this will not be the case for him and he believed he has hope. For four years, he tried. 

Islam now works as a free­lance graph­ic design­er and illus­tra­tor. Draw­ing used to be his pas­sion as a child.

In Gaza City, many look to the sea for respite from the sum­mer heat, but peo­ple have been most­ly stay­ing on the sand to avoid con­tact with the murky, pol­lut­ed water as raw sewage has been pour­ing into the sea. After spend­ing almost two weeks large­ly con­fined to their homes dur­ing the lat­est war, fam­i­lies flocked to Gaza beach­es. It is our only refugee in a place where enter­tain­ment facil­i­ties are nowhere to be found. Pow­er out­ages hand­i­cap the abil­i­ty of the local sewage treat­ment plants in Gaza Strip to func­tion as usu­al, prompt­ing munic­i­pal­i­ties to start get­ting rid of the sewage into the sea despite the pol­lu­tion and nat­ur­al dan­gers it causes.

We con­tin­ue for­ward, with­out know­ing if we are on the road to our future, or whether we shall find an exit from our cir­cum­stances, but we can always hope for one more day.

blockadeGazaRafahrefugeessiege

A professional translator in Arabic, English and Hebrew, Allam Zedan is a Palestinian who grew up in Gaza, having survived several extended assaults by the Israeli armed forces.