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.

 

Fairuz in the Morning by Nada Shawa

Ramadan eight o’clock in the morning, silence. Complete silence in Gaza would be miraculous, despite being in the Holy Land. It was only a few hours earlier I had woken up to the sound of shelling. It was five or six clear booms, which unfortunately is a regular and quite a familiar sound in Gaza, but not to visitors like me. This particular incident was one of endless attacks by Israeli warships attacking Palestinian fishing boats in the sea, which is visible from my window. The Israeli warships are permanently stationed along the coast of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli drones constantly buzz menacingly in the sky with F16 Israeli jets echoing with their disturbing screeches. Gaza is under constant threat of a full scale Israeli military offensive. Palestinians who survived the brutal and distructive Israeli bombardments of 2008/2009 and 2014 which killed over 3,600 often recount terrible memories of where they were when the bombardment happened.

I listened to many moving tales from people who had hidden in cupboards, cowered in any place thought to protect them, or simply have a quiet word with God in desperation.  My family survived, but our family home was completely destroyed after the two major bombardments. The shelling of Palestinian fishing boats by Israeli ships is a very regular occurrence. In fact, it is so regular it is simply shrugged and dusted off as if it is a mere annoying fly. Life here is so undisturbed by these miniscule booms compared to the ear piercing tons of bombs dropped on Gaza during the two recent Israeli attacks. When I saw those around me and outside so undisturbed by this incident I returned to sleep, until I heard “Come on, come on, get your fish!!” The same fishermen who had been shelled a few hours earlier were now selling and making a living from their catch. Astonishing.

Two weeks before that I had obtained very special permission by the Israeli authorities to travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories flying into Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had learned that my mother was seriously ill with Pneumonia and was transferred as an emergency from Gaza to an Israeli hospital in Tel Aviv. Six months prior to this my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and cancer in the lungs. Now, she was very ill and I needed to be with her. Once my permission was issued I immediately booked my flight and packed my suitcase, and so I began my journey from Britain to Tel Aviv.

The plane from London made a smooth landing in Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning. Relieved and anxious at what lay ahead I prepared and gathered my belongings ready to be assisted to the terminal. My wheelchair was brought to the door of the plane as requested and it was all very easy. As if it was like any other trip I had made to other countries. The male assistant was a very helpful Israeli man. He resembled a slimmer version of Henry Kissinger…. so for the purposes of this article I will call him Henry. Henry was silent but offered good assistance. So far, so good, I then presented myself like any other passenger at passport control where the man inspecting my passport remained quiet longer than necessary. He just stared at my papers and after a while, without any eye contact with me the actual passport holder, he suddenly got up and stepped out of his cubical and headed straight to the security office, ignoring my shaky vocal enquiries which turned into protests attempting to assert my legitimacy. At that moment, 3 o’clock in the morning, at Israel’s national airport my presence must have resembled an alien trying to gain access to NASA headquarters! Actually, Ben Gurion airport may have been more welcoming to an alien rather a Palestinian!

Hardly any Palestinians form the occupied Palestinian territories have been allowed to travel to or from Ben Gurion Airport since 2002. So my presence certainly caused alarm. However, I was certain my name was in the system permitted to enter due to the special circumstances of reaching my ill mother and having a physical disability. But until they check and deliberate and recheck….. and check again…. and go through my whole history and background, I was detained in the border control holding area. For a companion I was there with someone that seemed far more dangerous than I, I could guess because he had hand cuffs on! Henry could not offer me any assistance at this stage, but was kind enough to remain nearby.

Eventually after two hours a female border control officer came to speak with me. I finally was allowed to speak and explain what I had attempted to earlier. I was there to see my seriously ill mother. So, she then gave me back all my papers and was free to leave to reclaim my suitcase with assistance from Henry. As we moved through the airport, with a puzzled tone Henry asked, ‘your name… is Shawa?’ ‘Yes’ I answered. His ‘no nonsense’ demeanor suddenly turned into an interested one, he responded, ‘I knew of a great man once with the same name… he was from Gaza also, he was such a great political figure.’ Utterly surprised,  I replied ‘Yes, he was my grandfather!’ His face lit up and so he continued ‘your grandfather stood for justice and peace… what a great man.’  I did not expect that conversation at 6 o’clock in the morning in Tel Aviv airport! I couldn’t help but wonder what my grandfather would have made of the situation I found myself in. Henry took me to my waiting taxi and we parted with a mutual sense of respect and appreciation.

As the taxi drew nearer to the hospital entrance, I saw my sister waiting. She immediately leaped into action and knew what to do to unfold my wheelchair. This and seeing her gave me a great sense of comfort after the uneasy past few hours. She took charge and we headed first to drop off my suitcase at the hospital hotel reception, where I had a room booked. She then asked “right are you ready to see mum?”  Quite a question… although I had been desperate for this moment I was filled with nerves, “perhaps I should freshen up after such a long journey?” I asked. Knowing my mother well, she always has such high standards and takes huge pride in appearance. After my journey, my appearance left a lot to be desired!  My sister insisted that I was presentable enough and my mother was very eager to see me. On route, down endlessly long corridors, my sister helped push my wheelchair.

She attempted to give me a clear picture of my mother’s condition, as honest as she was able, with additional warnings that the woman I was about to see will appear quite differently than when I last saw her. It occurred to me that the last time I saw my mother was on a family holiday, where her and I had a beautiful lunch together one day in the Plaka district of Athens. Nothing was really enough to prepare me for this. This was one of the toughest moments of my life. My mother’s condition was stable until she caught Pneumonia, and was admitted to a Gaza hospital. There, her condition deteriorated in the most dramatic way due to the lack of medical expertise in the occupied Palestinian territories. She had been in the Tel Aviv hospital for two weeks after the emergency doctors had saved her life on arrival from Gaza. There she was stabilised and her condition was managed. However, when I arrived, it was a shock that was unbearable.

For the next few days the hospital and its hotel became my home. Resembling a small city it is practically a self-contained place. From the high level of medical science, a supermarket, a hotel and even the unhealthy contradiction of fast food outlets! Everything was there, and it was an easy place to get lost in but my wheelchair eventually found its way from my room to my mother’s ward. I became familiar with the ward staff that offered great care to my mother, and sadly became aware of the racism which also exists, even in this self-contained place of ‘healing’. My next shock came in the shape of a ‘trusted’ medical doctor who was the head of the ward my mother was admitted in. The phrase ‘trust me, I am a doctor’ had a whole different meaning. According to this doctor, my mother was ready to be discharged.

At that point my mother could not breathe on her own, and had a feeding tube attached among other issues. She could not move at all independently and was even unaware of what was happening. The other ward staff did confide in us about their disagreement with their boss and even divulged he is widely known for his racism, but he had the final decision. My sister and brother in law did everything in their power to persuade him to allow my mother to remain until at least she could eat independently. However their pleas were met with a cold steel wall that could not be penetrated. “Not my problem” he told them. His heartless attitude devastated all of us. We, as people coming from the Gaza strip had completely stripped away and surpassed all the realities of our identities, of the ‘occupier and the occupied and for a while were human beings, doctors, nurses, patients, and relatives. It was so heartbreaking that a vulnerable patient had to face this racism. As if dealing with the complexities of her illness was not enough. However, thanks for small mercies, she was unaware of what was happening at the time.  So, as reality reared its ugly head, so my sister and brother in law set about organising our difficult and complicated journey from Tel Aviv to Gaza.

Israeli emergency medics did save my mother’s life, but now it was time for Gaza to help her recover. Once again, my mother was about to put her life in the hands of others to ensure her care and recovery. Facing such a daunting and terrifying responsibility of moving a patient with such high and complex medical needs as my mother’s and crossing a difficult border was a terrifying prospect. My sister and brother in law took the lead part in ensuring everything was set up for my mother’s care at home. We left the Tel Aviv hospital mid-morning after we obtained a supply of medication for my mother to take with her to Gaza. After an hour’s drive, the Israeli ambulance carrying my mother and my sister drew into the Erez checkpoint on the Israeli / Gaza border. My brother in law and I followed in a taxi. My heart filled with dark shadows as I saw once more the huge concrete wall Israel has built in order to imprison the Palestinian people living within the Gaza Strip.

wall2

My brother in law and I made our way into the building to sit in the waiting area at the checkpoint. In the distance I saw the Israeli ambulance carrying my mother and my sister as they were waiting to cross. On the other side of the border in Gaza was a Palestinian ambulance waiting to take charge of their patient.

Israeli checkpoints are not the easiest of places especially for Palestinians facing illness or a disability. Eventually after two hours the Israeli authorities allowed my mother to enter Gaza but not before she was transferred from an Israeli ambulance to a Palestinian ambulance. We, on the other hand took a bit longer to be allowed through into Gaza. During our four hour wait, my brother in law was suddenly taken by intelligence officers for interrogation. As he left with them he managed to assure me that all should be fine and to cross without him if nececarry, also to inform the family what is happening. Two hours later he was returned safely, apart from mutterings ‘they have messed up my mobile phone!’ Adding with his broad reassuring smile, ‘well, it could have been worse!’

Eventually we entered Gaza and arriving at my mother’s home was extremely emotional, for so many reasons. The following weeks were critical in my mother’s care and recovery. Her room was transformed into a medical ward. Fully equipped with a hospital bed, oxygen supply, feeding tube equipment, medicines and creams, and a nursing team. My other sisters also returned to Gaza during this time and managed to take time away from their work and families to care for her. During the next few weeks my mother began to return to life again as Gaza began to revive her. She was sleeping less and digesting food without the aid of the feeding tube. She depended less and less on the supply of oxygen as she began to breathe naturally. She also began working with a physio therapist and started to bare weight throughout her body. My mother’s determination shone through brightly at this point as I witnessed her work day after day to regain her strength.

During that time we all fitted comfortably into a daily routine of helping my mother recover and also helped with the household chores. After several weeks I found that I had more medical knowledge than ever before. We followed a strict daily schedule of medication schedules, bloods and other tests to be taken. Times when nurses shifts began and end, and when the doctors where attending. This, with the added complication of when Gaza’s sporadic and unpredictable electricity supply was available. This determined when the lifts could be used in the building to access my mother’s apartment. Gaza has had a crisis with shortage of electricity for several years.  Gaza cannot generate its own electricity. The only electricity plant in Gaza was first bombed by Israeli forces in 2006. It was rebuilt, but its capacity was reduced considerarbly. Since then it was extensively damaged during the recent major bombardments by Israeli forces. Today it only produces 25% to 50% electicity due to the shortage of fuel which Gaza relies on Israel to supply. Also something else that complicates this particular issue, which is the internal disagreements within the Palestinian Authority, which does not help matters.

The electricity  supply is extremely limited, especially for the number of residents in Gaza. So the government in Gaza have imposed a tight rationing programme allowing the residents of Gaza to have electricity for four to eight hours per day, depending on the fuel supply.  This has created a boost in businesses selling generators, but generators are useless without enough fuel. So, many neighborhoods sharing residential blocks participate in shared ventures to use communal generators to fill in the gaps when there are power shortages. To my sisters and I who are there visiting this was completely baffling. We constantly seemed to ask “What time is the main electricity supply on again?” or “Can I switch the boiler on for hot water?” Every time we thought we got the hang of the electricity schedule it would all change and we would be asking the same questions all over again!

We often played music to help my mother in her recovery. My sisters and I took turns in choosing music that she would like. So during those weeks, we selected musical journeys from east to west that had painted portraits of our lives. In my mother’s early recovery period, she loved a more modern selection. One favourite was a recent Middle Eastern pop hit called Agaza by Jad Shwery and Bosy.

This lively Arab pop song cheered my mother enormously. Its message is ‘Have a holiday, let go of your worries today, and think about them tomorrow!’ I will never forget the moment she reacted for the first time after coming out of hospital. Half opening her eyes, half sleeping, when she heard this song she visibly came to life, she was even moving her hands to the rhythm! It was at this moment I truly believed she was going to be fine. We also listened to my mother’s favourites of the American singers like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosbie, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.

Listening to Fairuz on the other hand was a bit more sensitive. Fairuz’s voice and music touches most people connected to the Middle East in quite a powerful way, especially people who are Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian. People of my mother’s generation grew up with her songs of love, freedom and national identity.

fairuz
Fairuz

For my generation, Fairuz’s voice has always been there, her voice was the first sound I can ever remember hearing. Her music over generations is loaded with our personal memories and what she means to us individually. Transcending race and religion, her music is filled with dreams of freedom and independence, and with the sad reality of today’s Middle East, freedom and independence is just a dream. We cannot always easily listen to Fairuz, she is far from easy listening. My sisters often chose Fairuz for my mother to listen to in the mornings but I often sensed that even though my mother loves Fairuz, she was not quite ready to allow her in again. For a while, we safely played music including Mozart or Chopin while Fairuz was in the waiting area.

The sound of music seemed to be everywhere, even in the form of Beethoven, no less! The tinkling tune of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ floated up to my room from Gaza’s busy streets, when for a few days I had been confined to my bed with a nasty virus. In my fever and confusion, hearing Beethoven from Gaza’s streets seemed to add to the many quirky and bizarre things that happen in Gaza.

I often wondered what Beethoven would have made of his music so widely heard on Gaza’s streets?  I was told later that the music came from a mobile vendor selling gas cylinders! My mother’s apartment at that point seemed to resemble a hospital with my mother in one room and me in another. My sisters and nanny’s nursing skills were well tested, running from one room to the other caring for us both. Even my mother’s actual nurse had to help with my illness! As a result of the virus I was extremely dehydrated and had to get an intravenous drip attached. The doctors and nurses who attended to my mother have high levels of medical expertise, but sadly do not always have the opportunity to use their skills in normal ‘nine to five’ jobs. Gaza’s general practitioners deal with many variety of cases in many different circumstances. All doctors and nurses practicing in Gaza have gained a high level of experience in emergency medicine due to the war and the severity of wounded cases. They are able to care for their patients and improvise with the resources available in Gaza. They had to save lives during the bombardment of Gaza and had to use which ever means were available to them.

The doctor treating me had to use his improvisational skills. As he attached me to the intravenous drip, in the haze of my illness I heard the mention of a coat hanger. What has coat hangers got to do with anything?! I wondered.  I thought, this illness must be affecting me more than I thought. Giving me a reassuring smile the doctor said “oh, we as doctors here in Gaza are so used to improvising” and added with a sad tone “coat hangers are very useful when you do not have the availability of stands for intravenous drips” This was impressive even with my bad fever.

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A couple of days later another doctor came and needed to move the position of the drip. As he began rummaging through his bag he said, “we always have to be prepared for any eventuality in Gaza, so I will lend you my trusted mobile drip stand!” Out came this long rod, like Mary Poppins and her magic bag! I thought this illness must be quite severe if I am imagining magical bags. When I later recovered, this magical drip stand was in reality a piece of wire, nothing more!

The weeks following, my mother’s health improved more each day that passed. She began to walk further and enjoy company more. We would watch old black and white Egyptian films, with Omar Sheriff in the early days of Egyptian cinema.

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We would also watch Leila Mourad musicals, and this is a clip from one of our favourites!

My mother was beginning to become herself again and proof of this came when she began to notice what her daughters were wearing! As a former owner of a fashion boutique, my mother’s sense of fashion and style has always been of the highest. During my visit she noticed I had the same t-shirts or blouses on over and over again. Her curiosity led her to ask politely but in her wonderful direct way, “you are wearing that nice t-shirt again” followed by “what other things have you brought with you?” I then would explain, “Dear mother, as I had to travel here in an emergency, packing my suitcase in a hurry left no time to focus on fashion!” Sorry mum! At that point I felt relief that she was recovering well and I could return to Britain knowing that her current condition was stable, and that she is being cared for.

The date I was due to travel was fast approaching. A few weeks previously, my family had made an application to the Israeli authorities on my behalf for a permit to exit Gaza in order to catch my return flight to the UK from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must make an application to the Israeli authorities for permits if they wish to travel in or out of any town or village. This is the equivalent of requesting permission to leave Glasgow or Manchester. Palestinians wishing to travel in or out of any town in the occupied territories are hardly granted these permits. This is due to the collective punishment Israel imposes on Palestinians. Only in very special circumstances can Palestinians travel out of their towns and villages which are surrounded by Israel’s high concrete wall imprisoning them.

In my case, it was extremely special permission to travel in and out of Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv where Palestinians have been denied use of for a very long time.  Entering, I was issued with a permit only for reasons surrounding my circumstances, my mother being critically ill and having a disability. Travelling through Ben Gurion Airport is an easier option rather than crossing the Dead Sea from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge. This route was to save me a grueling and exhausting journey over the bridge which may take up to twelve hours to undertake. This I appreciated enormously, now it was time to leave Gaza the way I entered. This filled me with great anxiety, not only that I was leaving my family but experience told me it was nevertheless going to be a tough journey.

This collective control and punishment of the Palestinians is hugely unjust and is recognised by international human rights organisations around the world as contravening human rights law. As a Palestinian from the occupied territories, whether you are a lawyer, doctor, student, or a musician it is an agonising wait obtaining a permit. Any ambition Palestinians may have to live ‘normally’ can easily be scuppered by the Israeli authorities. Plans such as attending international universities, or playing at world music festivals or attending international medical conferences can be seriously affected. If you are a Palestinian who may have an invitation to attend such events, thanks to the Israeli authorities there is no guarantee you would be allowed to attend. This can be so cruel and a devastating reminder how powerless the Palestinians really are. It is undeniable that Israel remains a powerful occupier over the Palestinian population and it always is so incredibly confusing how this policy will ever serve a peaceful solution.

I was returning to my life in Britain, a place where I have made my second home after completing my education when it was not feasible for me to return to Gaza due to the dangerous situation. My permit application had been progressing weeks in advance of my flight date. Part of Israel’s current policy of collective punishment is when dealing with applications for permits to Palestinians, it is done in a slow, drawn out way. Those waiting for a decision may actually never ever know if they have been successful or not but Palestinians prepare all the same hoping for a last minute chance to travel. The Israeli authorities don’t always take into consideration reasons why Palestinians wish to travel. Attending medical appointments, university exams, or simply Palestinians wishing to join the rest of the human race and get on with their lives, this is irrelevent to the Israeli authorities. My date for travelling arrived and I still heard nothing regarding my exit permit. I had to prepare mentally and physically for my journey without even being certain I would leave. So, like anyone travelling and leaving their family, especially a mother who is ill, I had many conversations of farewell, gathered my belongings and packed my suitcase.

That morning, I was due to leave at ten o’clock in the morning in order to have plenty of time to catch my flight at five o’clock that afternoon. This is also to give me plenty of time for the border crossing and the lengthy checking in period Ben Gurion airport requests of all its passengers, never mind those coming from Gaza. My suitcase all packed, I then had my breakfast with my mother. I saw the sadness in her eyes, but I had grown used to goodbyes but now I was attempting to be the composed adult rather than the tearful child leaving her family. Without any news of my permit, time was now passing at an alarming rate. All kinds of thoughts were passing through my head especially now there was a strong possibility I may miss my flight. This is exactly what did happen, and I had no choice but to accept this. At that point, my family had been desperately attempting to make enquiries about my permit application and I was trying to find out how I would be able to rescue my flight ticket. It emerged that I was not yet ‘security cleared’ by the Israeli authorities. So, I was a security risk for no other reason than being from Gaza. This was quite disturbing especially with the fact the closest thing to breaking the law I have ever committed in my life was being issued with car parking fines.

Now, I had to deal with my flight arrangements, but I had to have some kind of confirmation when I may be ‘security cleared’ to travel. Communication was received that I would be ‘security cleared’ a week after that day. My flights were then rebooked accordingly. This time I desperately hoped it would be more certain. Now it was time to unpack and spend the extra precious time with my family that was gifted to me. But time had passed quickly, and the day of my travel had arrived again. I had to go through the same turmoil again. This time it was even more emotional to say goodbye because there was a sad certainty to it. My car journey to the border crossing took me through Gaza’s streets and reminded me of the numerous times I had to make that same sad journey. My mother’s office manager travelled to the border with me to make sure all arrangements were finalised to cross the border. While waiting, my eyes were drawn to the bright sunlight where I suddenly noticed a lizard perched on top of one of the stone boulders by the barbed wired walkway leading to the checkpoint complex. The lizard with an air of superiority seemed to say ‘huh…. I can cross any border I like, no problem! You have quite a time ahead of you!’ The wise lizard was absolutely right. My mother’s office manager assured me the border staff were aware I was crossing and would assist me to enter and cross over the border with my wheelchair and suitcase. He then wished me a good journey before I began to cross.

Erez is the northern border crossing from Gaza into Israel and spans over an area of 375,000 square ft. Unlike the ‘civilised’ appearance of the decor for travelers on their way into Gaza, the way out seems to reflect the miserable state Gaza is in as you travel out. My eyes could only see concrete, barbed wires, and metal gates, alongside the most sophisticated security systems in the world, courtesy of G4S security, which had cost over thirty million US dollars to develop.

welcome-to-erez

The air of a prison camp seemed to restrict my breath, having not been allowed to travel this way for a very long time, especially remembering this checkpoint as a little girl when it was considerably a much smaller operation. Proceeding through Erez is not the quickest undertaking. The first stage is to reach the actual checkpoint by going through a long walkway resembling a cattle tunnel and because of the distance I had to use one of the ‘tuk-tuk’ vehicles offering their services.

erez-gate

All my belongings, including my wheelchair went on ahead with the help of one of the baggage handlers. I then quickly had to figure out how to get myself onto the tuk-tuk with my elbow crutches. So managing to perch on this interesting vehicle with one leg hanging out the driver began the journey chugging along as I did everything possible to hold on to my crutches and to dear life! Looking through the gaps the harsh reality of our situation was horribly reconfirmed. I was leaving my family behind Israel’s huge concrete impenetrable wall which I could see as it slowly disappeared behind me. At that point a beautiful summer breeze swept towards me which I welcomed very much.

The tuk-tuk dropped me off and I was reunited with my belongings and so I settled back into my wheelchair to face the next stage of this tough procedure. But what was to happen next I would never have even imagined. As I went through the metal gate into what resembles a large concrete hanger, I was helped to reach the security area. The outer level was a conveyer belt for passengers to place all their belongings to be taken for close security and these items would not be seen until the last stage at the exit. Manning the conveyer belt was a luggage handler with a communication ear piece in his ear. The man stuck a number on my arm and then brought a plastic chair saying ‘sit on this, we need to take your wheelchair, crutches and the rest of your belongings.’

Everything that gave me physical independence and security was then taken away from me. Co-operating with him my aim was to get out of there as quickly as possible. Sitting inadequately on this plastic chair with a number 70 stuck on my arm without any of my belongings seemed to dehumanise me in such a dramatic way that it was a shock to my system. It dawned on me how tragic it is that humans feel the need to dehumanise each other, if they are desperate enough to have power. The baggage handler then informed me ‘they want you to enter the next security section without your wheelchair or crutches or you will not leave Gaza.’ ‘They’ being the checkpoint authorities who give him orders through his ear piece and are watching through security cameras. I did my very best not to allow this shock to overwhelm me. I assertively said ‘but I have been security cleared to travel today and I have a flight to catch!’ With a serious tone he said ‘it is their orders’ and then he added ‘if I walk with you holding both your hands would you be able to go through?’ For me this way of walking has never been successful, having only depended on my crutches or wheelchair throughout my life, but I had no choice but to accept his offer.

The next dread came when they also insisted I stand unaided in the full body scanner for a security check. Again, contemplating this I asked the man ‘how long must I stand for?’ About ten seconds he responded, which may not seem much but for me quite difficult unaided. So, without any choice I was determined to get this over and done with. The man took my hands and I stood up awkwardly as I nearly lost my balance, taking a breath, I nodded to him for us to proceed. There was a distance of 10ft to walk to reach the security full body scanner.

scanner

So, we started this awkward dance, as we walked a few steps I was already exhorting an exhausting amount of effort to compensate the imbalance which put a painful strain on my arms. The man suddenly stopped as he heard orders from his ear piece, saying ‘they are ordering you to leave and return to Gaza because they have decided this is not going to work.’ He then added ‘if you were travelling with another female, then you could enter an alternative way and get security searched in one of the side rooms. I learned that it was a female officer giving him orders from her comfortable viewing gallery. I ask myself, could she not give me a security check? My sister had attempted to obtain a permit to cross the border with me, but was refused. Upon hearing the man’s orders, a sudden raging fury came over me as I then had to repeat, ‘but I am security cleared for today and I have a flight to catch, come on lets continue!!’

After this enormous effort I had undertaken so far I was unwilling to give up at that point. So, physically I had to then fight for my right to leave Gaza and return to Britain. Still holding on to the man, I urged him to continue pushing him forward. Watching my humiliation through the cameras, the female officer in the viewing gallery had decided, so the man then relayed to me her order, ‘she is ordering you back to Gaza and will get the security forces here if necessary, so you better do as she says.’ Angry and on the verge of tears it was hopeless to fight any longer. My belongings were returned to me, and feeling the relief of sitting back into my wheelchair I now had to figure out how I can continue my journey back to Britain. At this point I was being shouted at to leave, but I pleaded with them to allow me to make a phone call before they took me back into Gaza.

Having access to my mobile phone again I phoned my mother’s office manager, because he may be able to help. ‘Don’t let them move you anywhere’ he said, ‘just wait there, we will sort something’ he added. By that point I felt panic because time was passing and I was so scared I will miss my flight, again. A short time later my mobile rang telling me that a friend of the family has security clearance and is on her way to help me. She arrived and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for what she was doing for me. Again, all my belongings went onto the conveyer belt and suddenly another wheelchair appeared for me to use which belonged to the checkpoint. Where was this wheelchair earlier?! I wondered. We were then taken through many doors and eventually were lead into a miserable room. This uncomfortable room had an Israeli woman security officer giving us instructions from behind a glass window. She looked as if she was fifteen years of age. I then had to go through a thorough security search. The Israeli officer from behind the glass when it came to my shoes was highly perplexed! Obviously she had not seen or heard of shoes that were specially adapted for people with disabilities to help them walk easier. She actually came out from behind the glass, endangering her life, to closely inspect my built up shoes!

She eventually decided to let me go and I made my way through to exit this nightmare and get into my taxi which had been patiently waiting to take me to Tel Aviv airport which takes an hour from Gaza. But before leaving that miserable room I felt I needed to give the Israeli security girl behind the glass a courteous farewell glance of defiance and at the same time pity for the job she has landed herself with! As I arrived at Tel Aviv airport, my anxiety levels were dangerously high. Again coming from Gaza my presence caused alarm, so I was taken to security. It was not the easiest thing to answer all the questions put to me calmly, but I somehow tried my best. I eventually was allowed to check in my suitcase with the airline which I thankfully was still within the checking in period.

Now I had checked in, there was finally a glimmer that I was finally returning to Britain, and from that point I could not care less anymore what they did to me. Nevertheless I was then taken to a security room for interrogation, where two female officers were dealing with my case. Do they have that much time on their hands? It turns out that yes they did because the process was long and frustrating. They were very thorough and did not leave anything to chance, with no consideration of disability or not. My question is, if over thirty million US dollars was spent for Gaza’s border crossing, and probably another staggering figure would have been spent for security at the airport, could they not obtain sophisticated screening equipment to be used on people with disabilities that would avoid a humiliating process? Why is it that when I travel around the world having security checks it is done thoroughly but not in an intrusive way?

As I headed to my gate to catch my plane, I saw a peace lily plant. The irony of it, a symbol of peace. Does Israel wish peace? Is this the image it wishes to portray to the world?  Why does it not give this impression to the Palestinians? Beginning with better treatment of Palestinians trying to travel? That would be a start. After the experience I have had, making peace was cynically far from my mind at that point. I was only desperate to get on the plane and reach a place where I know my rights are valued. The plane took off and after a while a flight attendant came to ask if I was comfortable. Suddenly my eyes began to well up with tears, however, maintaining my smile I answered, ‘thank you, very comfortable.’  She will never know just what I had to go through to be sitting on that flight……. empathy which she had shown touched me very much, especially that any level of empathy was non-existent in the eyes of those I had encountered only hours before.

Reaching for my MP3 player I searched for music to listen to. I scrolled down my music selection and found a collection of Fairuz’s music. At this point I really was not strong enough to cope with Fairuz, however a song which always lifts my spirits up is one of Fairuz’s love songs called ‘Bint el Chalabiya.’ The meaning of this song talks of a girl from Chalabiya, an old city in Andalusia, Spain, a place where there was once religious harmony, but the word also describes someone who is refined, has quality and beauty.

Translation:

The pretty girl with almond eyes

I love you from my heart, oh, my heart,

you fill my eyes

Near the bridge my love awaits.

Disturbing your thoughts, my child,

was never my intention. You appear and gesture,

but the heart is wounded.

With thoughts of our shared days,

memories come and go.

Under the pomegranate tree,

my love spoke to me.

He sang to me songs,

he filled my eyes, as he wooed me

This song always makes me feel as if I want to dance. For me dance has been something in my life for a  very long time, attending regular dance classes. When the Israeli authorities took my wheelchair away from me, to me their statement was, ‘you don’t deserve dignity or freedom.’ Well, that same wheelchair allows me to move freely and dance, expressing  my humanity and freedom, a belief I will always dearly hold on to.

Photo by Joy Pitman
Photo by Joy Pitman

The Woman who Communicates with the Little Girl by Nada Shawa

The woman wakes to bright sunshine and full of great thoughts about the day ahead.

Remembering times past, of the same sun creating similar sunshine days.

‘Hello little girl, what did you do today?’ ‘I went on a journey with the moon’ said the girl. ‘It was always following us’ said the girl.  The woman replied ‘I used to love doing that too at your age, and especially how the moon lit up the night.’

The little girl said ‘always remember that the moon will always be there for you. Don’t forget me, always think of me when you see the moon.