New Internationalist

Is 53 seconds long enough to gather my soul?

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Rana Mourtaja, 17, writes about staying alive in the Gaza Strip.

justalittleundertheweather.blogspot.co.uk
‘I struggled to condense my essential belongings into a single bag.’ justalittleundertheweather.blogspot.co.uk

A note to the reader: I write, not because writing is a duty on those occasions when the muse strikes, but simply to keep track of myself in this never-ending war. I don’t proof-read and edit what I write, I just write.

Like any witness to Gaza’s many wars, I signed my name in the list of attendees when this war began, and here I am, waiting for it to end, so I can sign my name once more as having witnessed it. Or, alternatively, so that my name can be signed for me, on the list of those who fell into eternal sleep.

‘Fifty-three seconds or less’ – or, if you have the luck of a four-leaf clover, you might think ‘or more’ in your head.

Here is my definition of what I’ve called a ‘warning missile’: it is a password ushering me through a gateway into the daily hell of Gaza.

What could I possibly do in 53 seconds, dear God? Well, I’ve learned to develop the habits of self-reliance in all things. At the beginning of the war, I packed up a few of my favourite clothes, plus a few books that I initially struggled to pick out (finally selecting only those that contained signatures and personalized dedications, plus a few other ‘must-reads’). I didn’t forget to pack my certificates of excellence from school; minor awards for minor accomplishments; and the keffiyeh I was given by my friend in Jerusalem on my sole visit to that city. Nor did I forget the souvenir my friend Rima gave me a few days before her departure; notes I exchanged with my classmates; and a few letters from other friends. After quite a tussle my bag managed to accommodate these, plus some greeting cards, photo albums and other presents.

Escape drill

I am being driven mad. As embarrassing as it is to admit it, that’s what’s happening. I decide to go through an ‘escape drill’ in my head, in case I’m blessed with a ‘warning missile’ in the middle of the night – so that I’m prepared. I set a stopwatch on my phone, and by doing so, I kick-start a stream of conflicting, harrowing thoughts in my head: do I scream first, to wake up my little brother who shares my room? (A brother who, since birth, can only sleep with the light on, while I can only sleep in the dark – not that it matters since neither of us can sleep when the missiles and shells are falling all around). Do I carry my brother or my bag? Will I even remember my bag? Or will I just stand dazed in front of my mother, who’ll no doubt be yelling and yelling at me to hurry up, and accusing me, as usual, of worsening the disaster with my slothfulness? I almost go insane adding up these different escape scenarios… until my mother breaks my reverie and tells me we’re going to stay at my aunt’s house, because her neighbourhood is safer.

Many thanks to those who warn me against death with death

I struggled to condense my essential belongings into a single bag, and now I’ve completely failed to come up with a coherent plan for escaping the building, should a ‘warning missile’ fall nearby. I try not to think about the fact that I might not be able to gather up my soul from all the places it’s scattered in this spacious universe, should I be struck by a missile in the midst of fleeing, or if the pilot decides not to pause for his usual 53 seconds between the ‘warning missile’ and my one.

Note: I would like to express my gratitude to those who warn us against death with other, deadly missiles. Many thanks to those who warn me against weapons by using other weapons; to those who warn me against death with death.

I listen to music instead

An undertaker on the radio won’t stop ranting about the rising number of martyrs, each one adding insult to injury. I wonder what would happen if I listened to music instead of accompanying him in this endless counting of martyrs, airstrikes, aircrafts, prayers of the elderly, screams of infants. Would turning him off make me a traitor?

A few more days of war – I mean, of this war – and I will turn 17; I will have lived through three conflicts, each one with a different course of events. I refrain from listening to the news any more, and listen to music instead. I hope the devil knows that, in this, I do not betray those who booked their tickets to God, or those awaiting their turn in the long line. I only betray the war.

I fear I won’t be able to go back to my former life, after the war ends. My writing won’t. My mind can make no connection between Gaza and beauty – save for the sea, whose fragrance will have to suffice for the writing of any future poetry. But now, even the sea reeks with the smell of blood, the blood of those who played football on the beach when the devil summoned them with his missile, fired from his machine as it roamed around an angel-forsaken sky. Of all places in the world, it seems God has decided to shed his wrath on Gaza, specifically.

Forgive me, but how do I go back to my life, loaded with the guilt of still being alive, of still breathing? Note that I, while asking the question, seem to have relegated the possibility of me dying in the next few days of this.

I apologize for still being alive. But I don’t apologize for trying to awaken the conscience of the world, with this text. I apologize to the mother, who sent her son out on his birthday to buy ingredients for his favourite dish, only to have him returned to her a martyr, with nothing left to do but ululate at his funeral, and then cry the rest of her childless nights away. I apologize to the children whose parents promised them safety instead of Eid money this year, and for whom Eid passed by soulless and unnoticed. I apologize to the children whose father left them to make a ‘journey to God’ – as their mother put it – and for whom the promise of safety still stands only on the horizon. I apologize to the man who, after years of hard work, was finally able to buy a house for his family, using his life savings, only to see it flattened by the war, leaving him with nothing but unpaid loans and interest. Finally, I apologize to Gaza for being alive. Gaza, my love, I am tired. I still don’t know how I feel about you, and what’s more, I never will, for the truth doesn’t exist. Any road claiming to lead to it is just a road to perdition.

A home isn’t just four walls

Are we destined to be nothing but figures? And to remain just figures after the war ends, as well?

A hundred martyrs, a thousand martyrs, tens of thousands of martyrs. A hundred injured, a thousand injured, tens of thousands injured… Once the war is over, once the counting has stopped, please calculate the number of casualties: subtract it from Gaza’s population, and make a record of the remainder. Put them down as ‘war survivors, psychiatric patients’.

Will we remain just figures, added or subtracted, after the war ends? Will journalists, bloggers, social-media users ever understand that those who died weren’t merely numbers and names, but were stories that were being told and that continue to be told? The same goes for those who lost their limbs, and those critically injured who wait to join the numbers of deaths in the next few days or months. Will people ever understand that a demolished home isn’t just four walls? When will I stop hearing ‘Heaven sent, and heaven stole’, or ‘Better to lose money than lives’? Those homes carried the sweat of fathers and the sacrifices of mothers, the laughter of children and the rebellion of teenagers, the sleepless nights of adults and the dementia of the elderly, the family dinners on Fridays and the whispers of prayers on Sundays.

Behind every name is a story

To help you understand what I mean, let me tell you a short story:

Our neighbour, Abu Ashraf, had a truck. One day during the war, someone borrowed his truck for a day to move his furniture from his home, located in an area under bombardment. The man offered to return the truck in the evening. But Abu Ashraf said no, bring it back in the morning, fearing that one of those bright objects hovering in the sky might target the truck as a member of the ‘resistance’. That night, the bombs fell thicker than ever in our area. But as my grandma said in the morning: ‘A thousand thanks, dear God, that the sun rises and we see another dawn.’ Abu Ashraf decided to leave first thing but the truck hadn’t yet been returned, so he had to find a taxi to relocate the whole family, and the driver agreed to make two trips to their destination.

I’m still alive because death is the easiest way out of war, and life is the hardest way of all

Abu Ashraf, his wife Um Ashraf, and their unmarried sons and daughter all hopped in the first taxi. Meanwhile his married sons – Ashraf, with his wife and their two children, and Ahmad, his pregnant wife (expecting in two months’ time), and their daughter all waited in the yard for the second trip. The returning taxi, however, never reached them, not because the taxi driver refused to go back, but because a reconnaissance aircraft sent the waiting family to meet their God.

I didn’t cry because divine providence failed to intervene and save the children, or because I perversely wished that Abu Ashraf and Um Ashraf had died as well, with their sons, so they could be united in eternity instead of dying every day from now on, separately. I cried because the broadcaster simply announced on the radio: ‘six members of Al-Khalili family martyred in an airstrike that targeted them in Al-Tuffah District in Eastern Gaza’.

Were their lives so cheap, dear God, that their great journeys through this world could be reduced to such a sentence? Would that it were a true sentence, dear God! There were seven. That unborn child was also a person, with a crib and baby clothes waiting for his or her arrival. Answer one question for me, dear God: do you think Um Ashraf will keep the crib and baby clothes of her unborn grandchild?

To a close friend to whom I promised to stay alive:

I promised you I would stay alive in spite of them – and you know who ‘they’ are. You responded by saying that you wanted me to live for my own sake; not for someone else’s, or in spite of someone else. You said you would miss a part of your soul if I died. I’m sorry that I’m keeping my promise in the worst way possible, but I cannot handle a slow death any more.

My friend, I only want them to leave us alone, and let us continue the journey of our lives peacefully.

I’m still alive, my friend, and keeping my promise. Do you know why? I will only answer you because I know you can keep a secret: I’m still alive because death is the easiest way out of war, and life is the hardest way of all.

Life is precisely the hardest way of all.

Rana Mourtaja lives in Gaza.

Translated by Ibtihal Mahmood.

This article is part of our mini-series on Palestine.

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