Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fighting for Gaza's Heart

Today "Gaza" is a buzzword. It was last year, too. And the year before that, and before that, and back farther than is comfortable to contemplate. Gaza is in the news, on the lips of those who know her and those who don't. Gaza is facts and figures and pictures of bloody children on television and calls of jihad and terrorism on CNN (or perhaps FOX News would be more appropriate). Some of you may know where Gaza is, some may have no idea, and a few of you may know her story.

But how many of you know her heart?

Gaza is more than an occupied territory. Gaza is more than a war zone. Gaza is more, even, than a political nightmare and the breeding ground of terrorists. What, then, is she?

Gaza, a tiny place about twice the size of Washington, DC, is home to more than 1.5 million people. Gaza has - or, in many cases, had - schools, offices, stores, museums, fields. Gaza is a home; one which has persistently persevered. How often have you stopped to think about that? Have you contemplated, instead of the political reality, the day-to-day reality?

Many Gazans cannot get the food they need. The schools cannot get the educational materials. There are shortages of even the most basic necessities - can you even fathom buying toilet paper on the black market? And yet Gazans survive.
Yasmeen: See the TV still in their living room?
I bet they were watching TV and wondering,
when will we be next?

But, what about the "terrorists?" you might ask. A friend of my mother's told me once that Gazans had voted for Hamas, a "terrorist" organization, and in so doing had asked for Israel's January war. I could feel my heart breaking as I tried to explain to this woman, the seasoned wife of a military man, that Hamas' electoral win could not justify Israel's war.

My words fell on deaf ears. It is moments like that which sometimes cause me to wonder why I bother at all... but then I would see another dead or bloody Palestinian child flash across CNN or Al-Jazeera and remember why.

But I am a foreigner who has never set foot on Palestinian soil. What do I know?

My friend Yasmeen is from Gaza. She left home to study at the American University of Cairo. Studying abroad is difficult and risky for Palestinian students, but they have few other options to continue their education. Getting a visa can prove to be an impossible task, and those students who are lucky enough to get one face the possibility of not being allowed to return home - ever.

After nearly two years of being away, Yasmeen was able to return home to Gaza for summer break this year, after Israel's war. After returning to Egypt, she posted albums of photos on her facebook account. One album contained photos of a mass of rubble - what was once the American International School of Gaza. Yasmeen's high school. Her comments under some of the pictures clearly reflect the pain, the sense of injustice and helplessness which so many Gazans feel: under a photo of charred school buses - "The terrorist's buses." Under a photo of a bottle of Crayola powder paint - "the terrorist's gunpowder;" a playground - "the terrorist's training ground;" a textbook - "terrorism for dummies guide."

In another album there are pictures taken all around Gaza - buildings, schools, homes, businesses. Most destroyed beyond repair. Here are stairs leading to air, there a picture of the Wall. And then, suddenly, green grass? Poppies? Is that... wheat, and daisies, and children playing on a beach? Yasmeen's comment: "This is in Gaza too. Don't be shocked."

Even in a place of so much death and pain, there is still beauty. There are still bright daisies and green grass and fields of wheat and poppies and beautiful sunsets over the Mediterranean. There are weddings and birthdays and new babies. Gaza is still full of life.

What does the future hold for that life? Yasmeen offers a chilling observation: "While the world continues to build up, Gaza will build her future underground."

Maybe, if the world remembers Gaza's humanity, her heart, that won't happen. Maybe, instead, Gaza's children will be able to grow in the sunshine.

I've been wanting to write a post about Gaza for a long time now. Sometime after Israel's War on Gaza in January of this year I realized I needed to write about Gaza. But I wanted to say something which has so often been left unsaid. I wanted to capture the thoughts and feelings running around inside myself and combine them with the pain I've seen and heard, the experiences and first-hand knowledge of my friends, the facts themselves. It's taken me nearly a year of thinking and contemplating and wanting to write... and perhaps sometimes that's what it takes.

Special thanks to Yasmeen for her pictures, her insight, and her courage. Allah ma3ik.

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