Gaza City – Aiming to rectify the mainstream perception of Gaza as merely a place of death and war, the storytelling project We Are Not Numbers was launched two years ago under the umbrella of the nonprofit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.
Today, around 60 volunteer contributors have found a voice through the website, which features a diverse array of personal stories about life for Palestinians in Gaza.
“Our writers write poetry, short stories, fiction and personal stories to provide the authentic voices and stories of Gaza’s people to the world,” team leader Ahmed al-Naouq told Al Jazeera.
Doaa Mohaisen said she decided to join the project in an effort to challenge established stereotypes about Gaza. In Contracts with God, she describes how she found her faith at a time when God appeared to have abandoned Gaza during Israel’s 2008 bombardment.
“Most of the Palestine-related news stories are about how many were slain, badly injured or turned homeless, but these numbers are impersonal and do not hail Palestinians’ steadfastness,” Mohaisen told Al Jazeera, noting that the project also offers young writers in Gaza a chance to connect with more experienced, published authors who act as mentors.
“Each day I feel how lucky I am for being a part of this team,” she said. “It has turned me into a better person, someone who can serve her people and their just cause.”
Siege on love and death
The following is an excerpt from a piece by Rana Shubair
The first ominous call came in the morning around 10:30. My husband called to tell me his aging and frail aunt had been taken to the hospital. She had fallen two years ago and broken a hip. Her family was told she had other health issues that meant surgery was too risky. Since then, her health had deteriorated and on that Sunday, February 19, it worsened.
The good thing about my Gaza community is that people stand with and support each other in all types of occasions, whether happy or sad. Maybe that’s what I cherish about my Gaza and its people most. For Gazans, family bonds and friendships help sustain and nurture us. So, if you have a problem, you can be sure to find a shoulder to lean on. In this case, the situation was urgent, so I quickly finished some household chores, got dressed and headed to the hospital.
Aunt Fayza lay there numb and helpless, unable to move. I touched her head, prayed for Allah to have mercy on her and left. There was nothing more I or anyone else could do.
The second call came around 5pm, with the news of her death. In Islamic tradition, when people pass away, they are prepared for burial by bathing and wrapping them in a white cloth. Family and friends gather to bid them a last farewell. We were weeping non-stop when suddenly two of her daughters who lived in the UAE called to demand that they be able to see their mother via video. They had been unable to come to their mother’s side due to the closed borders.
To me, this was the moment that exposed the ugliness and torment of the 10-year-old siege of Gaza. One of the daughters asked that someone put the phone over her deceased mother’s ear so she could speak some last words to her. I couldn’t hear what the daughter was saying. Incomprehensible words were lost among the sobs from anguished hearts. At that moment, the enormity of the blockade loomed large in my mind. Amid the tears and wailing, I screamed in my head: Damn the siege! God help us! God save us from this madness! I thought about the many others who are denied return to their homeland and who are not allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones.
Why jello doesn’t taste good anymore
The following is an excerpt from a piece by Ahmed Alnaouq
In Gaza, graves are typically lined with stones. Boards are then laid over the top, which are covered with more stones. My four friends covered the grave, preventing any source of light or fresh air from reaching me. It was after midnight, one of those hot July nights, and I felt no fear whatsoever. I was thrilled to be calmly experiencing something that many would think terrifying. I remained in the covered grave for about 10 minutes. During this time, my friends pretended to leave in an attempt [to] frighten me. They were disappointed; I was not frightened. When they discovered I was not going to plead with them to let me out, they opened the tomb and congratulated me, “You win.”
They shared this story with our other friends for months, sometimes praising me, other times calling me an idiot. But in a strange way, the shared story brought us closer together, if that was possible.
Two years after the graveyard incident, in 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a brutal assault on Gaza that left more than 2,500 people killed, 13,000 injured and more than half a million displaced. Ayman, Belal and I spent all of our time together. Our favourite food was jello with fruit and cream. My family knew that whenever my friends and I were together, we could be found around a bowl of jello. Even in the most critical times during the war, with drones hovering overhead, missiles firing and explosions everywhere, we enjoyed our jello.
Two days after our last bowl of jello, I got the shocking news. My four friends had been targeted by an F16 missile. Ayman, Ahmed and Abdullah were killed instantly, their bodies mutilated. But Belal simply disappeared. I couldn’t stop thinking of Belal and his mysterious destiny. We all knew he had been with the others, but the ambulance crew didn’t find him. The first day passed without any news about him. The second day passed, and the third and the fourth and the eighth and Belal still was not found. Every night during this too-long week, I dreamt of Belal. Sometimes I dreamt he was alive, sometimes that he was dead and sometimes that he was wounded.
Eight days later, Belal’s remains were found – buried two metres under the dirt. During a truce between the Palestinian resistance and the Israelis, a group of neighbours and ambulance crews dug deep into the ground and found his decomposed body in the ruins of the house where they had all been together. That day I shed no tears; I was too numb.
Three years ago, going to the graveyard had been our routine. I haven’t visited there since my four best friends were killed. Three years ago … I had the best friends and enjoyed my best days. Now, those friends are gone. And I will never enjoy jello again.
Contracts with God
The following is an excerpt from a piece by Doaa Mohaisen
Faith came when God abandoned me. It took me five years to realise it.
In December of 2008, Israel began bombing us, and God was nowhere to be found. Neither my salats nor my contracts were helpful. I was on my way home after having taken a final exam when the earth suddenly turned into hell. The neighbourhood where I live, Shijaiya, is close to the Israeli border. From our roof, I can see clusters of Israeli homes on land that once was my people’s before they were forced out. You can also see vast empty lands, abandoned by their Palestinian owners who could not hold out against persistent sniper killings. There’s even a sniper’s bullet still stuck in my parents’ window, shot towards my mom that month when she tried to look out during one of the attacks. Thankfully, the gunman missed.
My parents were afraid too, mostly for our safety. Twelve days into the unrelenting explosions, we were all depleted and emotionally shattered by fear.
Every bomb sounded like it would be the one to take our lives away. Every flash of light and thunderbolt seemed so close that I hid under the blankets and put three pillows over my head. But the sounds easily penetrated all those covers, going straight to my heart. I asked God to take me too if anything happened to my family. I remembered the Hadeeth [quote of the Prophet Muhammad] in which three men were stuck in a cave and each one started talking about his good deeds so that God would help him. I gave it a shot and started counting the good things I did in my life. I realised I had done bad things too, and asked God to forgive me for the times I bullied a classmate, went to a friend’s house without telling my mother, took two shekels instead of one to school, called my maths teacher names, caught an injured bird and put it in a tube, peeked into my sister’s diary, kicked a boy who called me short, told Mom it was my brother who ate the Eid cookies, suspected a friend, and the times I put Mom’s make-up on my face when she was out. I prayed God would forgive my sins and be with me in my hour of need. But I never knew if I was able to communicate with Him the way I used to when I was younger. I almost lost my faith.
My parents were afraid too, mostly for our safety. Twelve days into the unrelenting explosions, we were all depleted and emotionally shattered by fear. My parents told my eldest brother to take me to Grandpa’s house, located in the middle of Gaza and assumed to be a little safer. There were no cars so we had to walk, praying to be ignored by the Israeli drones above us. We had no idea what might happen, yet we walked and walked because we had faith. When we arrived at Grandpa’s house, I almost fainted. It was heaven. My uncle got me a glass of water, which I drank in silence. I slept that night, finally.