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Published: Tue Dec 19 2023
Fadia Haddad Jowdat, Where Oh Where . . . (detail), 2023, acrylic, paper, and debris ©2023 Fadia Haddad Jowdat
Online 2023 Home Violence War
Dispatches from Palestine

In its fifty years AGNI has worked to “bring our readers into the living moment, not as tourists, but as engaged participants.” We believe that all who bear witness to the ongoing violence in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, including Palestinians under siege and in diaspora as well as Israelis and diaspora Jews intent on peace, need space to speak. AGNI’s Dispatches from Palestine offers a home for such reflections. “Our poets, storytellers, essayists, translators, and artists . . . not only reflect our age, they respond.”

The authors below:

  
Haya Abu Nasser, an NGO fundraising officer and writer from Gaza, Palestine
December 2, 2023, writing from Khan Younis in Gaza
Echoes of Survival: Navigating Tragedy, Hope, and Death’s Dance in Gaza

By the shoreline, the wild winds gently tousled my hair, a tender acknowledgement of nature’s gifts. Clad in a resilient coat, I fixed on the horizon, where the sky and waves danced together endlessly.

The ceasefire beguiled us into trusting the promises of peace and civilian safety. Then the brief truce shattered, hope crumbled, and the sea lost its lustre. No invigorating mist, no whimsical sparrows.

Picture the scene: on pristine white paper, an address revealing how I cheated death twice! Death was once a philosophical quandary, an exquisite debate over coffee in a cosy café. That illusion disintegrated one night as I slept safely in my room, unaware of the impending upheaval. Leaflets from the Israeli military, warning us to evacuate our northern abodes, reached us ten days before the ground operation in the Gaza Strip commenced. Rockets barraged our street, echoes of fire and shouts filled the air. In shock, we left our house, locked the doors, and stole a final glance at our cherished garden and the laughter-filled fountain.

With unsteady legs and hazy eyes, we sought refuge in Al-Nusirate, at my uncle’s house. Israeli bombings claimed over thirty lives. Streets were painted red with blood, a grim spectacle of scattered bodies and demolished homes. Our uncle’s residence stood partially destroyed, rendering us homeless once again. So we embarked for Khan Younis, further south, seeking sanctuary amid the chaos.

The UNRWA Training Center, once a haven for 30,000 souls, now draped us in desolation. Thin tents shielded us from the elements, yet with the scarcity of food and water, and the pollution, sick children with pale faces suffered from malnutrition, cold, and food poisoning. Here, in this stark reality, I learned that death, an unwavering companion, was a relentless force.

Nights unfolded like chapters of despair, the sky ablaze with missile trails, smoke rising repetitively. The distant sea transformed into a mere shadow of our former dreams—a place where joy and contentment once danced. In the tent, amidst jesting, I bemoaned, “I miss the sea!” A chorus of mockery and despair followed, yet my younger brother, in solemn reflection, whispered, “I miss my room,” plunging us into a silence laden with unspoken grief. The humiliation was unprecedented—scrounging for plastic to shield against rain, fighting for meagre rations of wheat. Our displaced existence forged new routines within the UNRWA warehouse.

After forty-eight days of relentless assault, displacement, and tearful farewells, whispers of a truce circulated, and a flicker of hope ignited News updates. Each name on the death list left us breathless, and we searched for familiar faces. I mourned two friends, their sacrifices shrouded in unknown valour. Amid radio discussions of truce negotiations, I grappled with the incomprehensible reality of my friend’s death. Even now, mentioning him feels like reaching for a phone that will never ring.

I was unable to lay lilacs on my friend’s grave. The memories of our friendship slipped away as our land turned blue, leaving us like sparrows without a nest, yearning for a breeze to alleviate the pain. In this besieged place, hope became my anchor, a steadfast belief in imminent rescue.

The night they announced the truce, after ten days of oscillating emotions in Khan Younis, the world deemed us—the innocent, ensnared in the weight of their decisions—deserving of a brief respite from death. During the truce, I revisited the remnants of my friend’s displaced existence, sharing tales of lost homes, lands, and futures. Each embrace felt like a farewell, moments spent by the sea lamenting our uncertain survival.

I spent many hours by the Sealet, its waves caressing my hands and legs. I witnessed the military naval force harassing fishermen. Despite warnings, they persisted, back and forth, a testament to our collective resilience. “We are surviving!” I declared, envisioning this as the foundation for rebuilding our city.

On the seventh night, as the truce expired, our last hope dissipated. Trapped in internal conflict, we debated whether to follow orders and move to Rafah, fearing a recurrence of past traumas. Tanks surrounded the city, only a mere ten-minute walk away from us, and each missile sound amplified the dread that our turn was imminent. In the hall between Gaza and the sky, we contemplated the short journey, unsure if we’d witness the morning. The smell of gunpowder signaled impending danger. As I pen these words, with tanks closing in and fear enveloping us, we are trapped. We await our fate in this fragile shelter, where death is not a distant companion but an imminent presence.

  
Ali Alalem, PhD student from Gaza at the University of Alabama
December 8, 2023, writing from Alabama
Split Between Two Worlds: Living the War from a Distance

It never occurred to me there would come a day when my mother would have to use a donkey-drawn cart to go on a perilous shopping trip with the ultimate goal of securing a few tuna and beans cans to feed an entire family. Nor have I ever fantasized that my sister, who occupies a senior position at an international organization, would have to build a cooking fire and smell like burned wood for months just to bake a few loaves of bread to slice into quarters and feed eighteen souls trapped in one room. As in ancient times, men hunt for resources outside home, some of them, including my eldest brother and brother-in-law, waiting in a line, sometimes for twelve hours, to get a sack of flour distributed by the United Nations, while the younger lads embark on a strenuous journey to search for water to fill a few bottles. They often come back empty-handed, except for accounts of horrific spectacles of dead bodies or sudden bombings they have encountered on their way.

I heard about these survival skills my family have developed when I chanced to have a blurry video call with them for a few minutes in early December. To see their faces again was a blessing, and to know that they were still breathing brought me relief. But the misery, panic, and impotence in their faces shattered my heart. It was as if they had grown hundreds of years older just in two months. It is not just their displacement from Gaza City to the South that has hurt them but the humiliation and overwhelming feeling of worthlessness that has accompanied it. My soul crumbled when I sensed their surrender to death, especially when my brother said, “We bid farewell to each other before we sleep, expecting not to wake up the next day, and we sleep huddled together so that we could die all together with no one having to grieve another.”

Like them, I am living death, but a different sort of death that I experience solitarily and silently, with no one to huddle with nor bid farewell to. It is that sort of death that I constantly evade by miraculously reconnecting my mind to my body and escaping that fleeting moment of disconnection with place. Having survived five wars in Gaza before moving to the United States, I still have not recovered from the trauma, nor have I forgotten the buzzing of drones, the roar of warplanes, the cacophony of explosions, the wailing of ambulance sirens, and the screams and cries that follow. I am living the current horrors in my mind as if I were there, which causes me at certain moments to subconsciously disconnect with place. The aggression on Gaza coincided the peak of the football season in Alabama, where I reside, and it is customary to hear the roar of four fighter jets that soar above the stadium to signal the start of Alabama game, the start of fun, but for me, it is reminiscent of terror and death. That roar spirals me into a paralyzing bout of latent panic that tasers my perception, and, for a second, I anticipate hearing the subsequent deafening blast and feeling the tremble of the ground. Roars of any kind, sirens and buzzing of any sort, bangs of any magnitude, be they fireworks or the accidental falls of objects, toss me across space and time into Gaza. It is often a few seconds until my eyes perceive the foreign details of my surrounding and convince my mind to return to reality.

It is a reality fraught with guilt that penetrates my soul with each sip of water I drink, knowing that the same is not available for so many people; with each meal that fills my stomach while many have not tasted real food for months; with the warm shower I take while an entire population must line up for hours just to use rest rooms in displacement camps, rest rooms that have become incubators for communicable diseases. It is a reality that makes me dread scrolling through social media due to the fear of coming across posts and photos mourning the slaughter of individuals dear to me—family members, former students, neighbors, relatives, and friends, many of whom I have already lost. It is a reality that splits me into two halves, one that hides a world of sorrow and resentment but must remain composed in front of students who might not even be acquainted with where or what Palestine is, and another that is deeply rooted in Gaza and wishes to fly there in no time to live grievously or die with those with whom my spirit is attached.

It might sound insane to hope for a similar destiny, but living the genocide up close is less painful than being tormented by dissociative feelings that detach me from my surroundings and body with each sound that evokes war memories and past traumas. Living the struggle with them would reconcile the guilt-induced clutter in my head that renders routine comforts as an act of betrayal. It would spare me from putting on a façade and having to act normally while my people are being exterminated and starved to death. It might put an end to my anticipation of mourning posts of my beloved ones, knowing that an equal fate is awaiting me. I prefer to die in a huddle, embraced by hugs rather than to perish from grief in a foreign land.

  
Najlaa Attallah, an architect living in Reykjavíc, Iceland
December 13, 2023
Where should we go, then?
Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Leber

Every time I speak with my father, mother, or either of my brothers, I naively ask: “Don’t you want to leave?”

Each replies in their own specific way, but all with a slight note of reproach in their voice: “Where should we go, then?”

And sometimes, with a tenderness only I would notice: “Where should we go, then, sister?”

And other times, especially from my little brother (who in reality isn’t so little anymore): “Tell us, where should we go?”

I surround them with suggestions, but they shut down every one with the reality I know all too well. All of Gaza is just a single small neighborhood, and no matter where you go only one thing surrounds you: a thing called death.

Yet I keep on asking the question. Maybe I’m just trying to console myself, or to save face. Here I am, writing, blessed in a way millions aren’t, enjoying what my brothers and the closest people in the world to me—my mother and father—can’t.

Right away, anybody who knows that my roots go back to Gaza must think that fortune has smiled on me, letting me leave there safely. They must think that I’ve been showered with blessings, the kind sought by two million others besieged from every which way by a thing called death. 

Here I am, then: living in a country without an army, nor the slightest sign of a military. It’s a country that’s often considered one of the safest in the world. I live here, where my children enjoy luxuries I could never have dreamed of: water pure and sweet, electricity that never goes out, a house always warm. On top of all that, an available supply of food. This country—much as I might have complained about the harshness of the cold, or the shortcomings of its cuisine—now seems like a blessing, a wonder that two million will never experience.

The reality is that I, a princess in the land of snow and ice, am drowning in a sea of crushing guilt, with no way of escaping. The guilt follows me every second of every day. Food has lost its taste, as has life in general.The flavor drains away with every blow that strikes the land of my home city—and everybody atop that land, from children and women to men and the elderly, and above all the mother and father who brought me into this world.

I ask them again at the first brief truce, “Aren’t you thinking about evacuating to the south?”

Didn’t I say I was trying to save face? Yet I must be deluding myself, since I know better than anybody that a “safe place” is an illusion in Gaza. It doesn’t take long before the reply crashes against my fortifications: “Where should we go, then?”

This question, in our colloquial dialect, reflects more clearly than any other word or phrase the feeling nestled inside of us. The words can barely hold back humiliation, our oppression and pain.

This pain lives in the deepest depths of the heart, and it doesn’t lessen with crying or screaming. This pain makes you feel powerless, a powerlessness that seems to kill you yet leaves you standing, a physical being on this ugly earth. You go on living in spite of yourself, as everyone you know dies one after the other. . .  

I fall silent for a while. I follow the news headlines and notifications, feeling guilt and shame with every beep or buzz. I can’t help but be selfish while scrolling. I don’t want one of my loved ones to be the next news story. Nor do I want anybody who I know full well has a life, a story, to wind up as a number—I don’t want that for anybody. I don’t know most of them, but I consider everyone in Gaza a loved one.

The more I scroll through the breaking news, the more my heart pounds as it sinks deeper into the earth. Worse than the pounding and the terror is not knowing how to bear all of this pain. How do they continue living, with death passing their door and not knocking, not yet?

It’s as if by asking them this question—if they will stay or evacuate—I am trying to heal the powerlessness that paralyzes me. How can I live my comfortable life when two million don’t have a single square meter where they can be safe?

   siege and in diaspora as well as Israelis and diaspora Jews intent on peace, need space to speak. AGNI’s Dispatches from Palestine offers a home for such reflections. “Our poets, storytellers, essayists, translators, and artists . . . not only reflect our age, they respond.”

The authors below:

  
Haya Abu Nasser, an NGO fundraising officer and writer from Gaza, Palestine
December 2, 2023, writing from Khan Younis in Gaza
Echoes of Survival: Navigating Tragedy, Hope, and Death’s Dance in Gaza

By the shoreline, the wild winds gently tousled my hair, a tender acknowledgement of nature’s gifts. Clad in a resilient coat, I fixed on the horizon, where the sky and waves danced together endlessly.

The ceasefire beguiled us into trusting the promises of peace and civilian safety. Then the brief truce shattered, hope crumbled, and the sea lost its lustre. No invigorating mist, no whimsical sparrows.

Picture the scene: on pristine white paper, an address revealing how I cheated death twice! Death was once a philosophical quandary, an exquisite debate over coffee in a cosy café. That illusion disintegrated one night as I slept safely in my room, unaware of the impending upheaval. Leaflets from the Israeli military, warning us to evacuate our northern abodes, reached us ten days before the ground operation in the Gaza Strip commenced. Rockets barraged our street, echoes of fire and shouts filled the air. In shock, we left our house, locked the doors, and stole a final glance at our cherished garden and the laughter-filled fountain.

With unsteady legs and hazy eyes, we sought refuge in Al-Nusirate, at my uncle’s house. Israeli bombings claimed over thirty lives. Streets were painted red with blood, a grim spectacle of scattered bodies and demolished homes. Our uncle’s residence stood partially destroyed, rendering us homeless once again. So we embarked for Khan Younis, further south, seeking sanctuary amid the chaos.

The UNRWA Training Center, once a haven for 30,000 souls, now draped us in desolation. Thin tents shielded us from the elements, yet with the scarcity of food and water, and the pollution, sick children with pale faces suffered from malnutrition, cold, and food poisoning. Here, in this stark reality, I learned that death, an unwavering companion, was a relentless force.

Nights unfolded like chapters of despair, the sky ablaze with missile trails, smoke rising repetitively. The distant sea transformed into a mere shadow of our former dreams—a place where joy and contentment once danced. In the tent, amidst jesting, I bemoaned, “I miss the sea!” A chorus of mockery and despair followed, yet my younger brother, in solemn reflection, whispered, “I miss my room,” plunging us into a silence laden with unspoken grief. The humiliation was unprecedented—scrounging for plastic to shield against rain, fighting for meagre rations of wheat. Our displaced existence forged new routines within the UNRWA warehouse.

After forty-eight days of relentless assault, displacement, and tearful farewells, whispers of a truce circulated, and a flicker of hope ignited News updates. Each name on the death list left us breathless, and we searched for familiar faces. I mourned two friends, their sacrifices shrouded in unknown valour. Amid radio discussions of truce negotiations, I grappled with the incomprehensible reality of my friend’s death. Even now, mentioning him feels like reaching for a phone that will never ring.

I was unable to lay lilacs on my friend’s grave. The memories of our friendship slipped away as our land turned blue, leaving us like sparrows without a nest, yearning for a breeze to alleviate the pain. In this besieged place, hope became my anchor, a steadfast belief in imminent rescue.

The night they announced the truce, after ten days of oscillating emotions in Khan Younis, the world deemed us—the innocent, ensnared in the weight of their decisions—deserving of a brief respite from death. During the truce, I revisited the remnants of my friend’s displaced existence, sharing tales of lost homes, lands, and futures. Each embrace felt like a farewell, moments spent by the sea lamenting our uncertain survival.

I spent many hours by the Sealet, its waves caressing my hands and legs. I witnessed the military naval force harassing fishermen. Despite warnings, they persisted, back and forth, a testament to our collective resilience. “We are surviving!” I declared, envisioning this as the foundation for rebuilding our city.

On the seventh night, as the truce expired, our last hope dissipated. Trapped in internal conflict, we debated whether to follow orders and move to Rafah, fearing a recurrence of past traumas. Tanks surrounded the city, only a mere ten-minute walk away from us, and each missile sound amplified the dread that our turn was imminent. In the hall between Gaza and the sky, we contemplated the short journey, unsure if we’d witness the morning. The smell of gunpowder signaled impending danger. As I pen these words, with tanks closing in and fear enveloping us, we are trapped. We await our fate in this fragile shelter, where death is not a distant companion but an imminent presence.

  
Ali Alalem, PhD student from Gaza at the University of Alabama
December 8, 2023, writing from Alabama
Split Between Two Worlds: Living the War from a Distance

It never occurred to me there would come a day when my mother would have to use a donkey-drawn cart to go on a perilous shopping trip with the ultimate goal of securing a few tuna and beans cans to feed an entire family. Nor have I ever fantasized that my sister, who occupies a senior position at an international organization, would have to build a cooking fire and smell like burned wood for months just to bake a few loaves of bread to slice into quarters and feed eighteen souls trapped in one room. As in ancient times, men hunt for resources outside home, some of them, including my eldest brother and brother-in-law, waiting in a line, sometimes for twelve hours, to get a sack of flour distributed by the United Nations, while the younger lads embark on a strenuous journey to search for water to fill a few bottles. They often come back empty-handed, except for accounts of horrific spectacles of dead bodies or sudden bombings they have encountered on their way.

I heard about these survival skills my family have developed when I chanced to have a blurry video call with them for a few minutes in early December. To see their faces again was a blessing, and to know that they were still breathing brought me relief. But the misery, panic, and impotence in their faces shattered my heart. It was as if they had grown hundreds of years older just in two months. It is not just their displacement from Gaza City to the South that has hurt them but the humiliation and overwhelming feeling of worthlessness that has accompanied it. My soul crumbled when I sensed their surrender to death, especially when my brother said, “We bid farewell to each other before we sleep, expecting not to wake up the next day, and we sleep huddled together so that we could die all together with no one having to grieve another.”

Like them, I am living death, but a different sort of death that I experience solitarily and silently, with no one to huddle with nor bid farewell to. It is that sort of death that I constantly evade by miraculously reconnecting my mind to my body and escaping that fleeting moment of disconnection with place. Having survived five wars in Gaza before moving to the United States, I still have not recovered from the trauma, nor have I forgotten the buzzing of drones, the roar of warplanes, the cacophony of explosions, the wailing of ambulance sirens, and the screams and cries that follow. I am living the current horrors in my mind as if I were there, which causes me at certain moments to subconsciously disconnect with place. The aggression on Gaza coincided the peak of the football season in Alabama, where I reside, and it is customary to hear the roar of four fighter jets that soar above the stadium to signal the start of Alabama game, the start of fun, but for me, it is reminiscent of terror and death. That roar spirals me into a paralyzing bout of latent panic that tasers my perception, and, for a second, I anticipate hearing the subsequent deafening blast and feeling the tremble of the ground. Roars of any kind, sirens and buzzing of any sort, bangs of any magnitude, be they fireworks or the accidental falls of objects, toss me across space and time into Gaza. It is often a few seconds until my eyes perceive the foreign details of my surrounding and convince my mind to return to reality.

It is a reality fraught with guilt that penetrates my soul with each sip of water I drink, knowing that the same is not available for so many people; with each meal that fills my stomach while many have not tasted real food for months; with the warm shower I take while an entire population must line up for hours just to use rest rooms in displacement camps, rest rooms that have become incubators for communicable diseases. It is a reality that makes me dread scrolling through social media due to the fear of coming across posts and photos mourning the slaughter of individuals dear to me—family members, former students, neighbors, relatives, and friends, many of whom I have already lost. It is a reality that splits me into two halves, one that hides a world of sorrow and resentment but must remain composed in front of students who might not even be acquainted with where or what Palestine is, and another that is deeply rooted in Gaza and wishes to fly there in no time to live grievously or die with those with whom my spirit is attached.

It might sound insane to hope for a similar destiny, but living the genocide up close is less painful than being tormented by dissociative feelings that detach me from my surroundings and body with each sound that evokes war memories and past traumas. Living the struggle with them would reconcile the guilt-induced clutter in my head that renders routine comforts as an act of betrayal. It would spare me from putting on a façade and having to act normally while my people are being exterminated and starved to death. It might put an end to my anticipation of mourning posts of my beloved ones, knowing that an equal fate is awaiting me. I prefer to die in a huddle, embraced by hugs rather than to perish from grief in a foreign land.

  
Najlaa Attallah, an architect living in Reykjavíc, Iceland
December 13, 2023
Where should we go, then?
Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Leber

Every time I speak with my father, mother, or either of my brothers, I naively ask: “Don’t you want to leave?”

Each replies in their own specific way, but all with a slight note of reproach in their voice: “Where should we go, then?”

And sometimes, with a tenderness only I would notice: “Where should we go, then, sister?”

And other times, especially from my little brother (who in reality isn’t so little anymore): “Tell us, where should we go?”

I surround them with suggestions, but they shut down every one with the reality I know all too well. All of Gaza is just a single small neighborhood, and no matter where you go only one thing surrounds you: a thing called death.

Yet I keep on asking the question. Maybe I’m just trying to console myself, or to save face. Here I am, writing, blessed in a way millions aren’t, enjoying what my brothers and the closest people in the world to me—my mother and father—can’t.

Right away, anybody who knows that my roots go back to Gaza must think that fortune has smiled on me, letting me leave there safely. They must think that I’ve been showered with blessings, the kind sought by two million others besieged from every which way by a thing called death. 

Here I am, then: living in a country without an army, nor the slightest sign of a military. It’s a country that’s often considered one of the safest in the world. I live here, where my children enjoy luxuries I could never have dreamed of: water pure and sweet, electricity that never goes out, a house always warm. On top of all that, an available supply of food. This country—much as I might have complained about the harshness of the cold, or the shortcomings of its cuisine—now seems like a blessing, a wonder that two million will never experience.

The reality is that I, a princess in the land of snow and ice, am drowning in a sea of crushing guilt, with no way of escaping. The guilt follows me every second of every day. Food has lost its taste, as has life in general.The flavor drains away with every blow that strikes the land of my home city—and everybody atop that land, from children and women to men and the elderly, and above all the mother and father who brought me into this world.

I ask them again at the first brief truce, “Aren’t you thinking about evacuating to the south?”

Didn’t I say I was trying to save face? Yet I must be deluding myself, since I know better than anybody that a “safe place” is an illusion in Gaza. It doesn’t take long before the reply crashes against my fortifications: “Where should we go, then?”

This question, in our colloquial dialect, reflects more clearly than any other word or phrase the feeling nestled inside of us. The words can barely hold back humiliation, our oppression and pain.

This pain lives in the deepest depths of the heart, and it doesn’t lessen with crying or screaming. This pain makes you feel powerless, a powerlessness that seems to kill you yet leaves you standing, a physical being on this ugly earth. You go on living in spite of yourself, as everyone you know dies one after the other. . .  

I fall silent for a while. I follow the news headlines and notifications, feeling guilt and shame with every beep or buzz. I can’t help but be selfish while scrolling. I don’t want one of my loved ones to be the next news story. Nor do I want anybody who I know full well has a life, a story, to wind up as a number—I don’t want that for anybody. I don’t know most of them, but I consider everyone in Gaza a loved one.

The more I scroll through the breaking news, the more my heart pounds as it sinks deeper into the earth. Worse than the pounding and the terror is not knowing how to bear all of this pain. How do they continue living, with death passing their door and not knocking, not yet?

It’s as if by asking them this question—if they will stay or evacuate—I am trying to heal the powerlessness that paralyzes me. How can I live my comfortable life when two million don’t have a single square meter where they can be safe?

  
Mohammad Abuajwa, English teacher and fiction writer
January 3, 2024, writing from Deir Al-Balah in Gaza
30 Minutes

In Gaza, a lot can happen in 30 minutes. You can go to the beach and back, you can go buy ice cream and eat it. You can visit your relatives living ten minutes away by car. You can run an important errand. You can restock your fridge. You can even cheat death itself.

On the day I learned this, there were no birds chirping. Only the constant, strident buzzing of a drone overhead. It was enough to pierce walls made of stone and ceilings made of iron and it hadn’t stopped for the last ninety days and nights. I hear it before I close my eyes, in my dreams, and when I wake in the cold morning.

That day, I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. I went to see my family. They are taking refuge at my uncle’s home in Deir Al-Balah, which is a 10-minute walk from my place, my sister’s. On the way, the streets are almost always bustling with people. Merchants haggling, refugees setting up tents or sitting on the side of the road, old men shouting at donkeys pulling carts and causing unnecessary traffic. People are packed so densely that you can barely find ground to stand on, and if you do,  it will be filled with cold sludge, two inches deep. The people on the streets come from everywhere, Deir Al-Balah, Gaza City, Jabalia, Beit Lahia, Burij, Musaddar, and Nusirat, so you are bound to find a familiar face or two on every errand you run.

After making my way through the crowd, I finally reached my uncle’s home. It is a thing of beauty, a bright example of what a suburban house in Gaza looks like. A one-story abode in the middle of a spacious piece of land where chickens and children run freely, and since these trying times began, a place that also brings people together. Currently the humble home housed around thirty people. All of them were busy with a task: someone lit the fire and maintained it, others were preparing the food, some were washing their clothes, and others had just left to run some errands in the main city square of Deir Al-Balah, an Arabic name that translates to “The Palm Monastery.”

My parents were fine. They were relaxing in the sun, and I joined them quickly after I arrived. It was relaxing and sleep-inducing. Yet, I didn’t stay for long, for I had an appointment with a friend of mine, Iyad, which I had postponed for far too long.

Having checked on my parents, I made my way back to my sister’s place. I texted my friend that I would be coming. He didn’t reply. So I asked my sister to point me in the direction of a street that would save me from the long trip on a longer road. She said I should take Abu Uraif. I had to say the name a few times in order to memorize it, but then I did.

I walked through the alley-like street, made of cobblestone and wet with rain. I turned right then left through a zig-zag to find a longer path ahead of me, and I could see clearly that it led to where I needed to go.

I exited Abu Uraif, and then quickly found Iyad’s place. Well, it wasn’t really his place. He had left Gaza City with his family just like me and stayed with our mutual friend, Karam, who was kind enough to take them in.

I knocked on the door, and a moment later I was hugging Iyad. Karam was out on an errand. I sat down with Iyad and we waited for Karam to arrive. Five minutes passed. Then a rocket shook the earth.

I was startled. The smoke cloud came from the direction of my sister’s home. We thought it was a warning shot, that a rocket would soon come and uproot the entire building from its foundations. My heart sank. The strong wind carried the smoke towards us and it reeked of gunpowder, cement, and blood, a smell that I have grown too familiar with over the past ninety days.

Iyad and I sat down, calming ourselves after the dark thoughts came and went. Then Karam arrived. He told us that Abu Uraif had been bombed. I tilted my head, not understanding exactly where the bomb had fallen. On an extension of the street? Or did it fall close to it? I didn’t know.

Darkness was rapidly approaching, so I had to take my leave, promising Iyad and Karam that I would come earlier next time. Iyad told me not to take Abu Uraif on my way home. I frowned, then nodded.

I took the long path, away from Abu Uraif and away from the bombing. I walked down the middle of the street. There were no cars and someone on the side of the road said that ten people had been killed. I heard him but when I reached the street’s opening, I found myself drawn to it. I had to see what had happened on the street from whence I came.

I walked by a fire truck, and realized that the reports must be true. I kept walking and then I found it: a two-story home I hadn’t noticed when I walked through the street the first time. The pillars were fine, but the walls were shattered. People had gathered around and others were inside trying to look for survivors. Two journalists were taking eyewitness reports from those who saw the whole thing unfold.

Darkness was thickening. I could see only the front of the house, and I tried to glance at the back but to no avail. A man jumped off his bicycle, and ran right into the house after tossing his ride aside. I figured that this was his house, and that he had been out running an errand of some sort. I looked down, and I understood where the smell of blood came from. The bodies had been taken, but their blood remained on the ground, mixing with dirt and rain water.

Shocked, I made my way back to my sister’s. I looked down at my watch. The time between when my sister had told me about Abu Uraif street and the moment of the bombing was thirty minutes, give or take. My whole destiny was determined when my sister told me about Abu Uraif.

The realization touched me with a cold hand, reminding me to tread more carefully next time, to pay attention to my surroundings, the sounds and movements and everything else. It was as if Death was whispering in my ear, “Today, you cheated me by thirty minutes.” 

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Mosab Abu Toha & Friends
January 6, 2024
A Reading for the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza

Over twenty writers—including AGNI contributors Kaveh Akbar, Peter Balakian, Nick FlynnFanny Howe, Ha Jin, Eileen Myles, and Lloyd Schwartz—participated in a fundraiser reading for the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza, organized by Brookline Booksmith, AGNI’s founding editor, Askold Melnyczuk, and AGNI’s senior editor, Shuchi Saraswat. Over 2500 people attended the virtual event. As of January 28th, the bookstore has collected nearly $30,000 in donations.

Readings in order of presentation:

  • Askold Melnyczuk read “The Season of Phantasmal Peace” by Derek Walcott
  • Kaveh Akbar read“Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower” by Taha Muhammad Ali
  • Rabih Alameddine read"Travel Tickets" by Samih al-Qasim
  • Carolyn Forché read “Palestine” and “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish
  • Ammiel Alcalay readunpublished recent translations of poems by Nasser Rabah
  • Hala Alyan read an unnamed and unpublished poem, her own work
  • Peter Balakian read “Fig,” his own work
  • Fatima Bhutto read “I Grant You Refuge” by Hiba Abu Nada
  • Leila Farsakh read extracts from “State of Siege” by Mahmoud Darwish, trans. Fady Joudah
  • Nick Flynn read his distilled version of “Vala, Dream Two” by William Blake
  • John Freeman read “The Three Cypress Trees” by Mourid Barghouti
  • Ru Freeman read “30 Against War” from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin; “The Quiet World” by Jeffrey McDaniel; “To Do List,” her own work
  • Damian Gorman read “Stop” and “A Soldier Enters a Silenced Home,” his own work
  • Fanny Howe read from A Wall of Two by Ilona Karmel, trans. Fanny Howe
  • Ha Jin read “Broken Boat,” by Du Fu (also known as Tu Fu), trans. Ha Jin
  • Canisia Lubrin read “A Poem” by Es’kia Mphahlele
  • Eileen Myles read an excerpt from unpublished poem “THEM (Palestinian),” their own work
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen read “Also the House” by Ghassan Zaqtan
  • Lloyd Schwartz read “Fish” by Viktor Neborak and “The Gardener’s Song” or “I’ll Be a Gardener” by Attila Jozsef, both trans. Lloyd Schwartz
  • Bruce Smith read “Shrapnel Looking for Laughter” by Mosab Abu Toha
  • Shuchi Saraswat read an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
  • Mosab Abu Toha read “What is Home?”, “Younger Than War,” an unpublished poem composed 1/6/2023, and “أحداث معلقة”, all his own work.

  
Mohammad Abuajwa, English teacher and fiction writer
January 12, 2024, writing from Deir Al-Balah in Gaza
Third Time

My family survived three different bombings in three different areas in the Gaza Strip, and none of them was hurt. Thank God. Here’s how it went.

The first escape happened ten days into the ravaging war. I was sitting with my father and our neighbor at our front door in the early morning. We sat in the shade of a wall, away from the warm touch of fresh sun. The cold chill was aggressive. I had brought coffee for my father and our neighbor as they talked about the escalating situation in Gaza. I listened to them, squatting next to my father’s chair, finding joy in their sweet company and humor.

Then a deafening explosion shook the drowsy earth, shook our souls. We huddled against the wall, covering one another with our hands until the explosion echoed to a halt. We thought the bombing was in a nearby block, but that wasn’t the case. The explosion was too powerful. In fact, more powerful than anything we heard and felt before. It was in the house just steps from our own.

Smoke began to spread. We peeked around the corner. Rubble on the ground, men and women screaming. I gathered myself and bolted indoors to find my mother and siblings. They were terrified, but fine. The doors were snapped free from their hinges, the windows were shattered, and chaos shouted violently.

Quickly afterward, we gathered everything we could think of at the time, food, clothes, phones and chargers, which still wasn’t enough as we found out later. That was the day we left for Deir Al-Balah.

Fast forward to nine days later, amidst comfort, warmth, and closeness to other family members in the home of sister Merna, where the second bombing shook our very bones.

Dawn had not even broken. I was half asleep on the couch, wrapped in a thin blanket. People shuffling close to me in the dark were performing Al-Fajr prayer. Then the ground shook, the wood frames of the doors were ripped in half, the windows shattered, and hot smoke burst into the house. Our women and children screamed, and I kicked the covers, shouting the name of God without even thinking. I grabbed my backpack and rushed to the room where Noha, one of my sisters, slept with her husband and children. They were safe, but they were horrified. Everyone was screaming for Merna, the one who took us in after we left our home. My father turned on his flashlight in the smoke and walked to Merna’s room. Part of him had hope, the other part wanted to dig a hole.

The hopeful part was triumphant. Merna emerged out of the slowly dissipating smoke, carrying her year-old child in her arms. My father breathed easy as he got her children out into the open garden, followed by the rest of the house’s occupants.

When the light of dawn broke the cold and unfeeling night, we saw the damage. Just as before, the house next to us had been bombed. Three stories of rock and cement were leveled to the soil beneath the foundations. Merna’s home sustained damage, but at that time, it seemed like nothing. We huddled on the grass, several meters from the bomb site. Someone, and maybe it was me, with my awfully placed sense of humor, said: “Third time’s the charm.”

Time passed, sixty days to be exact. I had to separate from my family because they wanted to stay with my uncle. Thankfully, he was only a ten-minute walk away.

One day, while I was sitting in front of the TV, watching depressing news as I did every day, a headline made me frown. A home in the vicinity of Shuhada Al-Aqsa Hospital had been bombed. My heart jumped a beat. Was it my uncle’s home, near that same hospital?

I shrugged this thought away. How likely was it that I would find out through a headline that my family, my mother, father, and little brother, had been bombed? No, I couldn’t imagine it, but still I sat uneasy for a little. Then my younger sister came in with a phone to her head. The house next to my family had been bombed, again.

I rushed there with my other brother, Arkan. When we saw smoke rising from the direction of my uncle’s house, we started running even faster.

When I burst through the front door, everyone was sitting on their chairs in a circle. “Salam!” I said, and my parents returned my gaze. My little brother, Rayan, who was running after the chickens, dashed to me for a hug. I smiled faintly.

“I guess this means that you are through with bombings,” I said to my parents. “This is the third time, and you’re still alive!”

My mother laughed, my father didn’t reply, and everyone else continued talking. 

Not long after, my brother and I left; we did not want to break my sister’s curfew. We walked the darkening but busy streets. Then I had a grim notion that I wanted to believe in so badly. If the third time isn’t always the charm, then my family should be safe. But will the same be true for me when my third time comes?

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Rahaf R. Abuzarifa, writer
January 9, 2024, writing from Cairo, Egypt
In the Shadow of That Night

Having stepped beyond Gaza’s borders, I’m compelled to narrate the haunting tale of a night that unfolded months ago, on the 9th of October, when the war unleashed its relentless fury upon us, marking the day we saw death sixty-four times. Abassan—a once calm, rural haven—was marred by chaos. Amid the shattered glass windows, our collapsed kitchen roof, and the second floor strewn with debris, I sought solace in a hobby of mine—vlogging—to document the challenges we faced. We laughed into the lens, and I asked my family members for their last messages in case we succumbed that night. Survival was uncertain, and laughter merely masked our fear. I wondered if that night was the pinnacle of horror or merely a precursor of more terrifying nights to come.

That night, the relentless “fire belt” bombing spanned six agonizing hours, signaling a plan for complete annihilation. I reflexively covered my little brother’s ears in response to each new airstrike. The sky glowed crimson, the air reeked of gunpowder, and our once-peaceful haven was now enveloped in smoke, which shrouded everything, an ominous specter of devastation that left us disoriented and clueless.

At 4 a.m., it seemed as though the onslaught had ceased. Despite the lull, the fear of losing someone lingered, preventing us from shutting our eyes. My stomach churned, and my heart felt displaced, as if my insides had shifted. I hesitated to even go to the bathroom, paralyzed by a lack of courage.

Suddenly, my mom sprinted to the bathroom sink, succumbing to fear-induced nausea. I went to check on her and was met with an unexpected sight through the bathroom window: a sky of orange hues. A sense of impending doom washed over us. I shouted for everyone to take cover, and in an instant, the entire house quivered from its foundation to its peak; a gust of wind followed, and a resounding blast. Words fall short in conveying the magnitude of that moment.

Sixteen consecutive airstrikes echoed, each one intensifying our confrontation with death. A lingering sense that this might be our final gathering hung in the air. We dialed everyone we knew. Seven more airstrikes followed and an abrupt disconnection of the line extinguished any hope of communication.

I had been filming the night, and I kept the camera rolling, documenting every moment in case the worst happened. My earnest desire was to unveil the inhumane reality we endured, a reality no human should be subjected to. Throughout the night, darkness enveloped us, amplifying our apprehensions—we avoided light for fear of attracting the drones that were buzzing all night, a chilling addition to our already profound fear of losing sight of each other in the obscurity.

At 5:30 a.m., the strikes began again without respite. My cousin called and informed us that as soon as the sun rose, people in the vicinity would evacuate. Despite our reluctance to step into a world rained upon by death, the urgency to move prevailed—we couldn’t stay put, otherwise death would find us.

As we took turns praying Fajr, the idea of venturing out weighed on our minds, especially with the damaged state of our house and the exodus of people all around. While we waited for the sun to rise, we huddled together, covering our ears to shield ourselves from the bombs, sharing stories of my little brother’s bravery during the night, discussing which kinds of simple meals might bring comfort to the frightened children in our midst.

Out of the blue, my cousin called, shouting that the Red Cross would arrive in just fifteen minutes. “Get out and run,” he urged, though outside, bombings continued unabated. Stunned, I asked “How on Earth are we supposed to move?” Dad grappled with the weight of responsibility, gathered his resolve, and encouraged us. “Let’s believe everything will be all right. Everyone, grab your bags, and let’s go now.”

My uncles lived in the same neighborhood but hadn’t yet emerged. As we discussed whether to retrieve them, a nearby explosion thwarted our conversation. In haste, I ushered my younger brother and sister to seek shelter, crouching in the open with our hands behind our necks. I prayed and pleaded for everyone’s safety. Eventually we reached the main street where many people—kids, men, women, and the elderly—were in the process of evacuating.

We called everyone we knew, but we lost service before we were able to reach anyone. It was now six a.m. Picture walking in the early morning after a night without sleep, in a terrifying environment, lugging a heavy backpack and a mini suitcase. They had been packed in case of emergency, and contained a change of clothes, daily necessities, and a book to read—a choice that now seemed impractical. The wheels of our luggage were jammed with shrapnel and the streets were dotted with fires everywhere. It was disheartening to realize this was once my hometown. We walked on aimlessly, unsure of our destination or the whereabouts of anyone we knew.

Mom finally had reception and called a relative with a car, and asked him to meet us at the intersection point of Bani-Suhaila. I wanted to give up, my legs exhausted from two hours of continuous walking. That’s when a child ran past, their leg in a cast. Seeing them propelled me to continue. We passed a bakery selling bread, and we bought some, uncertain if we’d find any later. Finally, we hopped into my relative’s car. I don’t know how it accommodated all seven of us and our luggage, but it did. We decided to head to my grandpa’s friend in Khanyounis, and called them so we wouldn’t arrive unannounced. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach them by phone, but when we arrived, they offered us a warm and welcoming refuge in their house.

We shared their two-room space—my family of seven and their family of six. Deprived of internet, electricity, and water, what kept me going was the realization that our situation, though challenging, was comparatively better than those enduring life in schools and on the streets. Later we received news of the bombing at Rafah border, where aid was intended for Gaza. Uncertainty clouded our thoughts, leaving us clueless about what lay ahead.

I never envisioned that this ordeal would extend to today, but here we are, survivors determined to endure. Our faith in life and the world has been shattered, but in the midst of broken faith, we find strength to rebuild, to forge ahead with the belief that there is a brighter tomorrow waiting beyond the shadows of betrayal.

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