“One Occupied Gazan Summer” is a three-part personal narrative by Mariam I. who explores her thoughts and retraces her steps during her most recent visit to the Gaza Strip. Read part one here and part two here.
Part three of three. One of the most painful moments of my summer was sharing a tearful farewell with my mother the morning she was set to leave Gaza through Egypt, one week before her flight to the United States. I woke up, got dressed for work, and went to the side of her bed to tell her two months was not long enough to be sad about not seeing each other and that before we’d miss each other, I’d be rejoining her in the United States.
Before I could say any of those things, my mother’s tears were streaming down her face. I knew that as hard as it was for her to leave Palestine, it was harder for her to leave me there, uncertain of my safety. I hugged her, told her I’d miss her, and asked her to have a safe trip before I ran out of the room as quickly as I could. She couldn’t see me cry; I had to be strong so she wouldn’t worry. Goodbyes are never easy.
I cried in the stairwell and as I walked down the unpaved road in front of the house. I was able to compose myself in time to not look crazy before I had to hail a taxi. That was a difficult day of work. I found myself constantly searching the news for information on the status of the Rafah Crossing. How many busses were let through, how may were sent back, how many people were trapped in the lobby waiting to cross into Egypt?
I was terrified; my mother’s flight was approaching and she needed to get through as soon as possible, but also, I didn’t want to have to deal with another painful goodbye. I went home from work that day in the same depressed state that I arrived in. I entered the house and went straight for the kitchen, but oddly, I imagined my mother’s laugh.
No, I heard her laugh. My mother had never even left the house. Nine busses were turned back the day before and the only busses that got through that day, were the ones from the day before. I was so excited to see her that I didn’t even think of the impact this would have on her travel plans. The next morning, I woke up, got dressed for work, and told my mother all of the things I’d planned to tell her the day before. We hugged for what felt like several minutes and I left. I was sad, but this time there were no tears; she needed to leave or she’d miss her flight.
I got home from work and my mom wasn’t there. Then, half an hour later, she came up the stairs. After she’d spent hours on a hot bus with no air conditioning, the Egyptians decided to only permit the busses from the previous day to cross the border and her bus was sent back. She was surely going to miss her flight. We enjoyed one more stress-filled day together. The next morning, I got ready for work, kissed her head, and left without waking her. If she left, then we’d already shared two depressing farewells, and if she didn’t, then I could give her a third proper farewell the next day. I called my mother from work and she was at the Rafah Crossing, on the Egyptian side and well on her way back to the United States. When I got home from work, I half-expected my mother to be home, but to my excitement, she wasn’t. The instability of the borders and distorted Palestinian freedom of movement led to three awkward and painful farewells between my mother and I before, finally, our separation was real and, by that time, we were bored of saying goodbye anyway.
Oddly, as you’ve likely noticed, I always find the small things most alarming and the biggest reminders of how intimate a part of our lives occupation is. For example, my uncle has a pet peeve: no one is ever allowed to sit or sleep or play or pass from under the television mounted in the corner of the orchard-facing living room. I naturally assumed he was afraid that someone would hit their head when they stood or would accidentally yank a cord out of the power socket as they moved.
Eventually, I asked him for his reasoning. My uncle explained that if there was shelling nearby, the television would be the first thing to fall and if the entire weight of the television combined with the force of the attack landed entirely on one person, they would be severely injured.
Other unforgettable summer moments involved my cousins sharing stories about the war and how, even three and a half years later, every detail and traumatic moment was burned into their memory. How they feared going to the bathroom in case a missile would strike one room in their home and the whole family would die together leaving them, the bathroom-user, as the sole survivor of the attack. How everyone could still describe with jaw-dropping precision the exact place they were when the first missile fell, what their mother was doing when they arrived at home, and how they all sat together anxious, scared, and suppressing sobs as they waited for each of the members of the family to come home, unable to reach them because cell phone lines were cut.
Sometimes they laughed as they shared these stories, and sometimes the remembered pain overwhelmed them so much they spoke quickly and interrupted each other to get the memory out as quickly as possible and move on. Most of their stories began with, “you would never imagine…” or “it was so utterly horrible that we…”
You would think that discussing your fears in hindsight would make them seem exaggerated or unnecessary, but hearing their stories made me marvel at how they could be so brave and composed when they had no faith they’d live another minute. One of my cousins was a senior in high school, the most important year in a Palestinian student’s educational career, and the war began during her exams. The examiners never rescheduled most of the exams, and the students a year older and a year younger all joke that those grading the exams of the class of 2009 had so much pity for them that they refused to fail a single one of them and inflated all of their grades out of remorse. My cousin is always quick to loudly defend herself against this accusation.
My cousins always had to be in a special kind of mood to intentionally recall the war; usually the power had to be out, so there were few other options for pastimes, there had to be a substantial enough number of them to fill in the gaps when one grew exhausted of the topic, and the household chores had to be completed so they can begin, knowing they can sit for an extended period without being disrupted. Though I did not live through the war, reliving it through their memories was traumatic enough for me and enough of a reminder of the violent policies of ethnic cleansing enforced by the occupation state.
I remember when my cousin’s in-laws were considering moving out of their Northern Gaza refugee camp, one of the locations they looked into was our Central Gaza camp. I was confused. If you’ve lived in a camp your entire life and your children have never lived outside of a camp, would you not desire to move into a city where the streets are wider and cleaner, houses are more likely to have proper roofs, and you have access to stores, pharmacies, and services not available in the camps?
My family agreed that this family was making a good decision. During the war, Gaza City, one of the most densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip, received the brunt of the attacks. But our Central Gaza camp was almost untouched. Yes, we had martyrs and destroyed homes, but our losses did not compare in any way to the losses endured by the families in Gaza City. My entire family reached a consensus that camp life was better than city life based on security at times of war. No one mentioned the quality of schools, access to libraries, proximity to city parks, or even the quality of the tap water, all the factors I have heard American families weigh in considering where they want to move. Even when occupation feels like such a normal part of our lives, the small ways it creeps into our consciousness remains utterly alarming.
As the moments I spent in Gaza become memories, the lessons I learned remain with me and my desire to live in a free Palestine grows along with my activism to change the situation on the ground.
Maryam I. is a third generation Palestinian refugee, born and raised in the United States. Follow her on twitter: @48Refugee.