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 o
wn 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 giv
es 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.

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.


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