Fragments of Gaza: My journey of memory and loss

All that is left from my favourite places in Gaza are my memories, and the photographs in which I tried to capture them.

I took this photo using Mahmoud Abu Salama's Canon Camera at my favourite cafe, Ristretto, before the war. The cafe was bombed when Israel invaded Gaza City [Shahd Safi]

Nine months before October 7, I began learning photography under the guidance of my friend Mahmoud Abu Salama. Mahmoud owns a Canon camera, something I’ve always wanted. Whenever he didn’t need it, he would let me use it, which felt like receiving a precious gift.

I loved capturing moments, but being a perfectionist, I hesitated to use a camera until I felt skilled enough. I started watching online videos on how to take great photos and learned that symmetry enhances beauty. Whenever I saw something symmetrical, I felt an irresistible urge to photograph it.

Mahmoud couldn’t always lend me his Canon, and I didn’t have the money to buy my own, so, I decided to get a Lumix as a temporary solution until I could afford a more expensive camera. With my new Lumix, I discovered that spiral patterns attract people’s attention. Just a month into my photography journey, I received an Erasmus scholarship to study for one semester in Spain as a cultural exchange student from the English literature department at my university, Al-Aqsa.

I traveled to Jaen on January 27, 2023. There, I learned that incorporating a human element makes photos more compelling and that the best photos tell a story.

In Spain, I lost my Lumix, which made me feel frustrated. I think I left it somewhere, and when I went back to search for it, it had been stolen. The camera had a lot of memories that connected me with Gaza. However, I realised that while cameras can preserve some moments, we still carry the most important memories within us. For me, those are the memories from my beloved home, Gaza.

In August 2023, I returned home. By then, I had built a strong network of contacts. Many recognised my work with NGOs, which made job opportunities more accessible despite my not-so-high grades, affected by the challenges of the pandemic and my parents’ unexpected separation.

I had become financially stable, having secured freelance work that allowed me to pay for my education and support my family. My mother, burdened by debt, was relieved when I could help. Our relationship had improved slightly, and I felt proud of my achievements.

Everything seemed to be falling into place, and I was ready to buy my Canon camera and a guitar, finally able to indulge in my passions.

I wanted to relive my meaningful past, capturing every sentiment my photography had missed – from my passion for school and proving my intelligence, to my ambitions and intellectual pursuits.

I yearned to grow wiser, kinder and more thoughtful. I wanted to process the sadness and anger caused by the systematically created poverty we, in Gaza, confront; the injustices we have been witnessing ever since Palestine was occupied; and the world’s great betrayal of our human rights and its denial of our existence. All that has been accumulating over the years, from childhood through my early 20s, and I want to realise my dreams of travelling freely without facing obstacles.

On October 7, I was supposed to start my final year of university. I was eager to commit fully to my studies, but instead, I woke up to the sounds of bombardment. The internet was intermittent, but I received messages from my school announcing a pause in classes due to the attack on Gaza. My life turned upside down, shifting from excitement and ambition to sadness, worry and fear.

I went from being a passionate student to someone documenting the injustices and human rights violations against my people. I was shocked by the world’s double standards and the media’s misrepresentation of Palestinians. Despite limited internet access, I wrote articles and pitched them to news outlets whenever possible.

Life in Gaza before the war was already difficult. We struggled with unsafe water, limited electricity and restricted travel. After October 7, these struggles intensified. Water became scarce, electricity was entirely cut off, and travel required large sums of money that secured no guarantees for exit. We lived in constant fear, under bombardment, with no safe place to turn to.

Most of the places I knew and loved were totally destroyed, including my home. Had I known this would be Gaza’s fate, I would have taken more photos, capturing every moment. I would have said goodbye to every beautiful spot I experienced in Gaza.

The schools where I graduated and was awarded for being at the top of my class, the places where I forged the strongest friendships and laughed the most, and the places where I felt most at home – all gone. My heart aches with the memories of what once was and the stark reality of what remains.

I wasn’t able to capture the boredom that would overcome us when the TV would go silent after a blackout; the closeness we enjoyed when we chatted no longer distracted by the internet; the joy children felt when the lights flickered back on after a blackout; the relief mothers experienced, as clean laundry fluttered in the breeze; the delight one would get from a sweet nap after a long day at the university.

I wasn’t able to preserve the moments of anger at our governments for the division they have maintained since 2007, the consequences that followed, and the unclear vision of our future. I could neither capture the contempt for those who marred our beautiful land, killed, dismissed, tortured, handcuffed, blindfolded or detained my people, nor the dark nights studying by candlelight that burned my forehead hair, which took time to heal. The fervent pride we felt when we named the Palestinian villages and cities we lost in 1948, the deep-rooted connection we have to a land stretching back to ancient times, and the tears that welled up when we remembered our ancestors’ defeats – all these memories live within us.

These are all things my camera could not capture but my heart could.

I am fortunate to have escaped Gaza. On March 3, I left after a successful fundraising campaign, thanks to the support of kind people and connections made through my work teaching Arabic and freelancing.

My mother and some siblings are safe in Cairo, but my father stayed in Gaza with my other siblings. This left my heart broken apart – a piece of it is in Gaza with my father, other siblings, and friends; another is in Cairo; and yet another is with my sister in Algeria, where she is a university student on a scholarship in international law. There is also one piece of my heart that died when I left Gaza.

My mother, siblings and I now face hardship in Egypt and the pain of uncertainty: What will happen if a ceasefire is announced? Will we return to Gaza, or will we be forced to stay in Egypt? Both options are equally frightening to us.

My heart is so overwhelmed that no therapy can help me heal. I will only be able to start healing when my camera can capture civilian planes in our sky, not Israeli warplanes. I will heal when I can safely travel the world and proudly say I am Palestinian, when I can pass through Palestinian airports, when my identity is never questioned, and when I am no longer called a refugee. Only then will I rest assured that my people will not witness injustices again and that the world has apologised, and stepped up for us. That is when our suffering in Palestine will end.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.