Gaza – Loss, resilience, and rootedness

Gaza beach (Mohammed Dahman - APA Images)

Mohammed Rafik Mhawesh

Mondoweiss  /  December 10, 2021

While the international media celebrates the “calm” in Gaza, my family and I are still unable to sleep.

Being Palestinian is not enough of a reason to have our dreams killed, rights denied, and our presence erased. It is not enough of a reason to keep us separated from the lands we were dispossessed from and the homes whose keys we still hold onto.

I sat upright. My face was pale and my chest was so tight I couldn’t breathe while staring at my palms. I was still in the position of clutching onto my family.

Months have passed since Israel’s latest 11-day assault on Gaza ended, but I still struggle to find comfort in sleep. Words to describe the horrors of the experience fail me – the fourth major onslaught in just over a decade that has left us with fresh trauma – and a reminder that our children deserve so much better. 

It takes five seconds of reality — and racing heartbeats — before I realized that a bombing has not been set for our house. I put up a good fight to the horrific scene from my mind, but I lose. Twenty-two years of life in Gaza has taught me how to win battles in life, but sometimes I can’t. Losses of surrounding, of love, of laughter, of family, of tranquility and freedom. 

I unlock the balcony and tried to ease my wearied lungs with icy air. Memories etched deep down have surfaced in the dream, and I ache to recall them. It hurts my heart to remember the scenes of people out on the streets, knowing that if their home isn’t safe, and nowhere else is either. And while the international media celebrates the “calm” in Gaza, my family and I remain unable to sleep. 

I think of all the lives that had hopes and dreams beyond the reality of their deaths, and I live for them. I too think of how we overcome the effort of our oppressor to turn us into a lifeless population, as each massacre reinforces our unity and plants in us the same belief that sustained our elders, who experienced the first and second and third of the seemingly endless and ongoing dispossessions. But the truth is, it is so taxing to maintain this kind of perseverance across an entire population. So easy to kill a population, so hard to maintain one. 

It makes me wonder at all those who took the chance to carve a new future for us, only to be killed. I am in awe of their spirit and also the spirit of their children who were stripped of childhood, orphaned, left with no health sector or educational opportunities, isolated, guided only by hopeful dreams and the yearning to be laughing and bickering at the sea just for the sake of laughing and bickering.

On one hand, I don’t want to recall the traumatizing images of death witnessed through eleven days; on the other hand though the need to set them forth in vivid detail is dire, a conscious recollection of the miasma of war. As the bombs fell mercilessly, my partner Asmaa and I would pray quietly, grasping our baby’s ultrasound, still dreaming of the joys ahead of us as fresh horrors kept unfolding. For Asmaa, this war was different from past assaults. She jumped at the sound of each bomb, ever cognizant of the new life growing in her womb.

Along with her, my 63-year-old father, 59-year-old mother, and 19-year-old sister crowded into the corner of a room as the Israeli bombs fell. We clutched each other’s arms. Our essentials were packed so that we could rush outside if, at any moment, we had to flee. 

In the evenings, I would write to my friends abroad, describing how the bombs were coming closer to my home by the minute. They tried to provide solace, telling us we would survive, but never truly knowing whether we would die minutes later. In an attempt to distract us one of our diaspora friends joked, “If you don’t name your baby Mariam, I will take it personally.”

With each missile, decades of memories, family gatherings, loves and hopes are torn asunder – buried under layers of cement, along with the people whose lives are gone, forever. My neighbors remained gripped by tragedy and terror. 

The only “mercy” Israel affords us in its bombings is the dreaded warning calls to evacuate – a quick message telling us to rush outside our houses. Afterward, terrified bodies scurry to leave what is meant to be the safest place: home. Our homes in Gaza represent the collective breath of generations of refugees. They were given life with every argument and celebration, with every pause our grandfathers took while constructing during their life-long careers due to illness or the scarcity of money. Just like our lives, our homes are humble and compromised: a two-floor, 100-square-meter apartment, with no extravagances. 

When all of us were cornered in the house back then, I would have heart-wrenching flashbacks to my family gatherings, school and college graduations, marriages, and babies’ births, all in a few seconds. I thought of all the years it took my grandfather to earn enough money to build the house, piece by piece.

We dare tell the days to keep on coming, despite the hardship, the tragic losses, the continued reminders that we are besieged with war as a perpetual reality. Seven of my beloved family members, one following the other, were killed by different harsh circumstances, all due to the inhumane occupation. Some were not permitted to exit Gaza and get the medications needed after an unceasing struggle with a disease; some in diaspora and unable to reunite with us even after their deaths because of the blockade; and some overburdened by heartbreak and nostalgia following a lifetime of resilience. All while clutching their homes’ keys and dreaming of their lands in occupied Palestine.

The costs compound, and so does our resilience. Within the short span of seven years, I miraculously survived three destructive, nightmarish wars. More than survive, I managed to find love and marry, to carve out my own new family. But these years have also burdened me with the loss of many beloveds and close friends. I have found myself constantly trying to reconcile all the different ways heartbreak can manifest.

Our green land of olive and palm trees is our identity to which we attach our souls. The olives and olive oil are our identity and livelihood—the wood of the olive trees is our shelter and warmth and the trees themselves are our affiliation with Palestine the home.

Experiencing pains and loss further instills our rootedness. We wake up every morning, faced with a worse version of the same challenges, and we once again start seeking solutions. The very hope in our romanticism is, we shed hope on the darkness of life and reject the option of despair, hopelessness, and paralysis. Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah said passionately, “we wake up every morning to teach the world life, sir.” This is true, even though the odds of waking up is a generally shrinking probability. 

 “Our son is naughty. I can feel him dance in me,” Asmaa innocently would complain to me through the night, trying to find comfort amid the terror. “When bombs drop close, he wakes up and starts his fun. The louder they are, the harder he kicks. He thinks the sounds outside are music, and his parents are partying.” Our son had been growing now for eight months, and because his reality is Gaza, he was already one-war-old. 

One month after the attack ended, my son was born. He took his first breaths under siege—like his father: amid the rumbling of warplanes and the horrid smell of gunfire, my mother gave birth to me. More than two decades later, I struggle to manage the conflicting demands of life, study, work, family, love, marriage, and parenthood, while mountains of sorrow and heartbreak surround me.

My baby and the scores of Palestinian children born under siege every day are human beings who deserve to have water and electricity for more than six hours a day. And when sick, will their Palestinian identity prevent them from exiting Gaza to access healthcare and medication?

They should have the right to secure a job, to travel – to leap into the future with more optimism and less psychological devastation. Unlike me, they should have freedom of movement in their fragmented homeland, and be able to visit Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Lod, Haifa, and Hebron. I have not seen these towns but I know I belong to them. I and millions of those scattered in Gaza and the world will continue to hold onto that belonging and press toward the moment when freedom is not just feelings and words, but a lived reality.  

Until then, we birth children under the hopeful shadows of moonlight and the rumbling of war.

Asmaa knows I am awake and asks, “what’s wrong, honey, you have not slept two hours yet?”

“I am fi… I am fine,” I try to calm my frightened, awakened mind and go back to wrestling sleep. 

Mohammed Rafik Mhawesh is a Palestinian journalist and writer based in Gaza