The Continuing Song by Nada Shawa


The survival by Nada

Your flight to freedom made us… humans, envious of this ability. Your song was replicated and admired for its beauty. Your expanding wings were copied in histories of dance. Your whole existence made us write about you. We, humans want you to survive…. because you embody beauty and peace…… things, which we humans are destroying with our own egos. But wait…… I really wonder what you make of us….. I fear the feeling is far from mutual. 

April 2019, sitting in peace with only the sound of the birds, happily chirping…. quite a delight. The Goldfinches have spread the tweets of a regular flow of seeds from my birdfeeder, which constantly needs to be topped up. It is a quiet morning, but I really must do something useful. A pair of my trousers need to be mended. Echoes of my mother’s voice come and go like the birdsong outside. Like the waves of longing to see her one more time.

She would say, “Nada, now I did teach you how to sew, and you even have a complete sewing box, which I have filled for you…. what is your excuse?!” Of course I would never dare respond with the lame excuse that it is just too fiddly! My mother’s loss from this earth leaves a void that my nanny, my sisters and I try to fill with her ethics and principals, which had an unshakeable strength.

Rawya died on the 3rd July 2017 at home in Gaza, but not in the house she had dreamt of living the rest of her life. That house had gone, destroyed by devastating Israeli missiles three years previously. During her year and a half brutal illness, I saw my mother once for the last time. The account of this is in my previous post ‘Fairuz in the Morning.’ Desperately, I had attempted to return to see her with all the powers available as her condition deteriorated. She died and I was thousands of miles away. The Israeli Authorities sadly lacked the compassion necessary to issue me with a permit allowing me to travel into Gaza. This is a reality I have tried to construct and convey in some kind of familiar concept to those who cannot imagine; a whole state (Israel) backed by the US and tragically the UK Government is cruelly oppressing millions of Palestinians. Not only within the occupied territories but anyone who has originated from there, regardless of any adopted nationality.

My mother was laid to rest thousands of miles away. That day, one of my dear friends Barbara came to visit. I offered her afternoon tea exactly the way my mother would have loved, presentation and everything! Barbara knew my mother very well, and so we sipped our tea in her honour. The following day I went to the seaside. Geographically, I had grown up with vast oceans between me and my family. I think this is why I am drawn to the nearest coastline, which always makes me feel connected to them. A connection of water Sir David Attenborough would have plenty to say about. However, the grey colour of the North Sea was not the Azul colour of the Mediterranean. But the love of the sea my mother and I shared when she was alive connects me with her wherever she may be now. So, I stared out and remembered her.

A few days later, the Israeli Authorities granted me the permit I had been waiting for to enter Gaza. A clear message, ‘We could not find it in our humanity to allow you to see your dying mother or be at her funeral, but here you are.’ The thought of this tough journey was so painful, but it had been what I had been so desperate for, and now I am going to Gaza, a Gaza without Rawya in it.

Packing a case in haste is something Palestinians had always had to master. The unpredictability of being granted an Israeli Authority permit means if you are lucky enough to receive it, you are expected to travel within the permit specifications…… immediately, no matter how many planes you must travel on. So, I was suddenly on my way to the airport and leaving Scotland for Gaza. In ideal circumstances, anyone who plans a journey would have time to choose the airline they wish to travel with. However, due to the restricted nature of the time limited permit I had been granted, my connecting flight to Tel Aviv was through Germany with the Israeli airline EL AL. An airline I would never freely choose. During all the time I began my life in Scotland, EL AL has never had me as a passenger. An Israeli airline established at the same time as its state, in 1948; an airline whose whole philosophy was to bring the persecuted to live on Palestinian land and in turn persecute the indigenous inhabitants, ignoring Mr Balfour’s wishes! Taking by force lands which had belonged to my forefathers, including my own family.

My journey was made for humane and compassionate reasons. Simply to be with my family and share the grief we all felt. However, the journey I was about to embark on was the metaphorical equivalent of climbing the highest mountain. Being from Gaza and daring to break back into one of the toughest military fortified territories in the world was what lay ahead of me. From simply being an ordinary citizen, living my life, knowing my rights are respected. Now, I knew this would dissolve like a fading dream, waking up to the reality that I would be a person under suspicion and even an enemy for simply being Palestinian.

My family had protected me from this feeling, and gave me the opportunity to live a life free from all of this. In fact, childhood memories never had such entrenched distrust between the two people as the case is today, even under the Israeli military occupation…… allow me to clarify, when Gaza was officially ‘under military occupation,’ now, Gaza remains occupied but under the label of ‘military siege.’ No matter what Israeli media savvy spokespeople would like you to hear. Each time I return, the drift seems wider, the atrocities committed against Palestinians are more traumatic, shocking me over and over like a cold icey storm.

As soon as I landed in Germany, I was assisted towards the EL AL wing of the airport. This area was so huge it seemed to cover most of the airport! There, I was greeted by the security team, which over the next few hours would take turns to ask me the same questions over and over, to see if my answers would add to the same story…. my story… the reason I was making the journey. Same questions, different people, again and again. With my own, what I would consider large reserves of patience being tested. But the grief I felt made me only focus on the moment I knew would come, when I would take my sisters and nanny in my arms and share our sorrow together. During the whole time with the security team, there was not any acknowledgement from them of the loss of my mother, or why it was important for me to return to Gaza. I was simply a suspicious enemy. Expected….. but still disturbing.

My wheelchair and I emerged fairly unscathed, surviving the security operation at the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza. The moment arrived when I was finally entering Gaza. The emotions I had suppressed flowed out at that moment. Seeing a city whose heart and soul had been layed dormant for so long, waiting for the kiss of life to wake it up and revive it once again. Entering Gaza and knowing I would not find my mother filled me with such deep sadness, at that moment I could not imagine any of the beautiful things this world has to offer. No sunshine, no stars, no moon, no flowers, no sea, no mountains….. not even birdsong. The loss was not only personal to me but it was also for a city that lost a woman who had the strength to stand with it through the toughest of times.

Later that evening, and as I was united with my sisters and nanny. We sat on the balcony beside the scented jasmine, which my mother had rescued from the rubble of our family house. As night fell, we looked up at the sky, and the universe out there was shimmering with starlight once again.

The rest of my time in Gaza was precious. Spending time as a family in calm grief had given us all a sense that we are the ones who are now left and we must cherish life. There was a great mixture of laughter and tears as we exchanged our memories of mother. My time was coming to an end, and the practicalities of travelling out of Gaza had to be planned for.

Travelling out of Gaza with my sister Salma was a great relief. Her company was really appreciated as we faced crossing the dreaded Erez Checkpoint Crossing, and then onto the Dead Sea, over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. We shared many experiences of travelling together from our past, and we still laugh about those experiences…… yes… laugh! As much as the ridiculously tough Israeli security upon us was, we have always found a humorous vent. One of those times, a very long time ago we crossed the Gaza border. Not having my wheelchair at the time, Salma had to push a faulty trolley with our cases and me sitting on top, right across the border! It would be fair to say that back then it was not a laughing matter, especially for Salma!! But we do laugh hysterically about it now! We survived this ludicrous scenario, with the Israeli military watching from their watch towers. In those days, the Erez checkpoint was a smaller operation. It was when they had begun banning vehicles from crossing back and forth, not even making allowances for disabled travellers. On this trip, we were both travelling with heavy hearts as we faced the challenging Israeli security. Specifically the process of being separated from both my wheelchair and my sister for the security process. As predicted, they took longer with me…….. such a dangerous person you see! Salma was waiting and her patience was wearing thinner than mine! She came to find me, and I heard her from across the hall…… “how long will you be with Nada?!!” I called out to her “it is okay!” The more impatient we become, the longer it will take. The trousers I was wearing at the time had extra decorative buttons, which seemed to cause mayhem and anxiety within the whole Israeli security apparatus!! I should have a serious word with whoever designed these trousers! The continuing song of the birds interrupts my thoughts….. so, I better get on with mending my trousers. But I notice the Goldfinches had returned with a little pretty friend.

The celebration of Rawya

Last year, on the 3rd July 2018, I had a gathering and held a ceremony to celebrate my mother’s life. There was a great need to mark her passing with those who are around me, but especially because I was unable to be there at the time. The ceremony was led by Catherine, who is a dance teacher, a friend, and holds ceremonies very beautifully. We worked and planned and finnally worked out the best way to capture the life of this woman. There were many elements to the celebration. Poetry, photographs, song, prayer, dance, a rose, a film……. and a cinema outing!

My mother loved Arabic poetry…. so, I chose this poem by the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, whose poetry my mother absolutely loved.

Every time you travelled by Nizar Qabbani

Your perfume asked me about you. Like a child asking about the return of its mother. Imagine, even perfume knows banishment and exile.

I then read a poem I had written for the occasion….

Rouhii – My Soul
By Nada

They did not allow me to mourn your body, however, your spirit is in my heart……. I did dance, and I did sing. I danced flowing and wheeling in space that held music you love…. my voice reached circles where you and I had sat once or twice to listen to Mozart and other magical notes.  May the music continue to fill your big heart wherever you may be.

When I had called you mama, whether near or far, you always answered ‘Rouhii’ my soul… You bounded your soul to all you had loved…. and distances were irrelevant.

Thank you for giving birth to me and setting me free to fly…. I now know how to fly to be free, and will do my very best to spread love and the belief in the human spirit that you held on to so heroically

We then listened to a song I had chosen, which was a very special song to my mother. Spente Le Stelle by Emma Shapplin. This modern operatic piece supported my mother in her recovery after open heart surgery.

The following film was produced in Gaza after my mother’s death. During the ceremony I showed this film, and the English transcript was read out. I have now home edited it, and added English subtitles. Please forgive the quality of the amateur production of the subtitles.

It was extremely important for me to show this film during the ceremony last year and within this post now, to mark the 2nd anniversary of her death. Being my mother was only part of her life. She will always be remembered for being one of the most extraordinary figures in Palestine’s history….. a history that is at risk of being wiped away. Palestinian characters such us these do not find their way onto the screens of our media, they do their work unnoticed, only for the love of their society, which appreciates them.

The music featured in the film is by the great Marcel Khalife, a song titled I Pass By Your Name. The lyrics are from the work ‘The Seven Days of LoveThe Andalusian Song by Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s most famous poet.

The song…….

The words…….

The Seven Days of Love by Mahmoud Darwish

Andalusian Song

I pass by your name when I am alone,
like a Syrian passing through Andalusia

Here, the lemon tree set fire to the salt of my blood.
Here, a wind came rushing across the back of a mare.

I pass by your name.  No army, no country can
lay siege to me now.  As if I were the last of the guards,
or a poet strolling down the street of his own obsessions.

The song was played during the planting of a white rose during the ceremony. My friend Angela helped me to plant it…… my mother loved nature and especially flowers. Having the rose in a place where I can easily visit to remember her by is precious to me, as she is buried in Gaza…. not a place I can easily travel to.

The Rose…..

It was then time to dance! My mother loved dancing when there were happy occasions, and I remember those occasions very well when we all danced.

This nineties hit by the Iraqi musician Kazim El Sahir titled ‘Do You Have Any Doubt?’ This was quite famous for getting any celebration started. The words are by Nizar Qabbani. We danced…… and of course I did my wheelchair dancing! Dancing with my friends……. a perfect end to the celebration of the life of this special woman.

After the ceremony, a group of us went to the cinema to watch the film The Sound of Music, which was being shown that evening. This film had been around our family ever since I remember. At a young age, my sisters and I sang happily and excitedly to it….. sometimes giving our parents headaches in the process! But this film has a deeper message which resonates within us all beyond the cheerful tunes. The loss of a country, the love of a country…… something that we felt and still feel towards Palestine. One song that was very special to our parents and us is Edelweiss.

The Future

When we loose loved ones or we even loose a country, it is hard to think that there is a future, because we are never the same again. We look at the world with heavy broken hearts. We can only try to rediscover the beauty of the world. Encouraging this beauty to re-enter our hearts again. The dance continues, the song continues, and the building of strong bonds of beautiful friendships continues. Rawya’s decendents carry her spirit. Her grandchildren who are living under siege in Gaza make the best of life. Even at their current young age, they have her spirit of love and caring. My little nieces in Gaza beam out to me like sunshine when we are connected by video call.

Currently, they have a little pet, which they love looking after……. Samira the tortoise! They are already learning about animal rights, as well as human rights!

The continuing song of the birds reminds me that life is conitinuing……. through the next generation. No one knows what our future holds, especially with our fragile planet. But our empathy, love and kindness is what we must hold on to for our survival.


One thought on “The Continuing Song by Nada Shawa

  1. My dear Nada, I am so sorry for your loss but moved by the way in which you commemorate your mother’s life. A white Rose flower is apt and beautiful in the most unique way, just like her life. Thanks for your article and the links to the music, it was much appreciated.

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