‘It’s time to go’: How a Palestinian maths class became a victim of war

As the Israel-Hamas war broke out, a conflict-scarred preteen comforts an adult teacher, ‘I don’t have feelings.’

Palestinians elementary school students wearing protective face masks, gesture in their classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class at United Nations-run school in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020.(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinians in their classroom in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, September 6, 2020 [Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

Beit Sahour, occupied West Bank — At 7:30am last Saturday, students said goodbye to their parents and greeted their friends in the school yard. The sky over the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem, was eerily clear.

They talked about their upcoming exams, the latest gossip, and made plans to hang out after school. Each grade formed a neat line facing the school’s entrance where the principal made morning announcements over a microphone. Before running for the first period, students and teachers placed their hands over their hearts for the school anthem that crackled through the speaker.

Class began promptly at 7:50am, following a schedule that would soon be disrupted. At 8:20am, the first of several loud sounds confirmed the news coming through teachers’ phones of missiles leaving Gaza. At 8:30am, the bell rang. The second period began as usual.

As students raised their hands to answer maths problems and read from their English textbooks, teachers shared messages they were receiving from family members that had yet to reach news outlets. There was urgency, but not panic. This was not a new headline in Palestine.

At 8:45am, the school administration sent an official notice instructing parents to pick up their children, “to preserve their safety”.

The news spread through word of mouth. Students put their pencils down, packed their bags, and flooded into the hallways. It was reminiscent of a fire drill, but less organised — and with much higher stakes.

In the faculty lounge, a teacher pointed outside as smoke rose up from the nearby horizon. As more details of the attack came through, a new level of alarm spread among those still inside the school.

“It’s time to go,” another teacher affirmed.

“Asra! Asra!” A male voice bellowed outside. “Faster! Faster!”

Seventh grader Lina asked me if I knew why we were being sent home. “It’s your first time, isn’t it?”

She explained that war was a common school-year occurrence, and disturbance.

“How are you feeling?” I redirected the conversation, uncomfortable with a 12-year-old consoling me.

“I don’t have feelings.” She laughed. “I don’t care if I die.”

The news reached maths teacher Sirine in the middle of a ninth-grade exam. Her first thought was that her worst fear was coming true — that her children would live through war, too.

Sirine attended the same school as a child, succeeded by her children — fourth grader Ihab, nine, and sixth grader Maya, 11.

Sirine’s high school years coincided with the second Intifada (2000-05). She finished Tawjihi in 2002, the final year of high school in Palestine spent preparing for a series of standardised exams that determine university placement. Her exam period was defined by the Israeli siege on the Nativity Church, when about 200 Palestinians took refuge from the advancing army between April 2 and May 10, 2002.

Sirine, the student, too was in the middle of her maths exam that year when Israeli forces declared a curfew. “Mamnooa al-tajawol,” Sirine repeated the words with which the soldiers interrupted her exam. “No one is allowed to move.”

“The teachers told us to continue no matter what is happening outside,” she recalled. When they finished the exam, a government vehicle with special permission to move during curfew drove the students home. That year, many students were forced to postpone their Tawjihi exams because of the siege.

Without the Intifada, Sirine would have gone to Birzeit University and studied architecture. But her parents wanted her to stay close to home, so she studied mathematics at Bethlehem University instead. The war changed the course of her life, an experience her children are living for the first time.

Her son Ihab was excited when he heard the news of Saturday’s events, hoping this meant a free Palestine.

Sirine chuckled. “Not yet, Mama.”

Ihab admitted that he and his sister, Maya, were afraid when they heard the loud noises outside.

“I was happy to have a day off from school,” Maya said, “but I felt sad because there were many loud alarms and bombs.”

Ihab and Maya have been sent home from school before, during strikes or after the news of a Palestinian killing, often called shaheed, a martyr. But this was the first time they were sent home for war.

They spent the afternoon talking to their friends on the phone, sending videos and news updates in group chats. Sirine mentioned that these videos were often graphic and violent, but Maya reassured her mom that they didn’t frighten her. “A’adi,” she said, loosely translating to, “it’s something we have gotten used to.”

Maya expressed concerns about the effect of the war on her education. When she misses school, she cannot study, she complained. “We can defend our country with our knowledge,” Maya added, “by being educated.”

Sirine agreed with her daughter. Through her work as a teacher, Sirine hopes to create a generation that can build a stronger Palestine.

“This is my method of defence.”

With no signs of de-escalation, the school plans to transition to online learning for the first time since the pandemic. Sirine is concerned that, once again, students will miss key concepts and necessary communication skills.

“I want my children, my students to live a normal life.”

“The people are really afraid,” Sirine said. “We can’t leave Bethlehem — Al-Jisr [the Allenby Bridge] is closed. The airport is closed. Everything is closed.”

And for an economy dependent on tourism, she added, this war will mean that thousands of families will struggle to meet their needs. “People are not prepared for this.”

“I am living through what I lived at three years old,” Sirine said of her upbringing during the first Intifada. When she couldn’t say the words better herself, she turned to Palestinian poet and writer Mahmoud Darwish: “Palestine,” she said, “Peace to a land created for peace, yet has never seen a day of peace in its life.”

Source: Al Jazeera