Najlaa Attallah’s “In Gaza We Are Not Okay” (translated from Arabic by Andrew Leber) was published in 2014.
August 1 marks the twenty-sixth day of the war on Gaza, and it is also my sister’s birthday. We all remember that day easily enough, but we would have rushed to mark it with any occasion rather than her birthday. On this Friday, we set off running in all directions: searching for water, struggling to find enough fuel to run the generator for an hour’s worth of time so that we could run the pump. At this time, in the daylight of August 1, we also managed to watch the television and determined that we were truly in for it, in this city, adrift in a sea that was draining the life out of us.
No electricity, no water, no communications, no life to think about. But is this important? Does it make any difference?
There are many questions that arise amid this cyclical war that used to occupy much of our thoughts. Now these questions seem all too logical. Six years ago, before I had lived through three wars, one after the other, (with only two years or less between each one) I wondered: Why do our exiled families cling to their camps? Why do they live all packed in, one next to the other? The adults insist on repeating over and over: “Tomorrow, we return.” Sixty-eight years have gone by, yet they still cling to the idea of “Tomorrow, we return.” And they cling all the more to the campgrounds, refusing to leave the shelters behind.
In every war, we act as they did, repeating their actions in new and different ways: we cry, we bid farewell, we lose. . . and we say, “Tomorrow, the war ends.” We build a bridge out of the actions we are cut off from, the activities we would rush back into if the war should end. And here twenty-eight days have gone by, and the war has not ended. Life lurches in a new direction. The adults among us repeat the phrase “Tomorrow, the war ends” as the children among us try to pass the time, only to tremble at the first frightening sound and throw themselves on the ground in fear.
The reality far more bitter than this, though, is simply not knowing. We sink deeper and deeper from what is happening into the realm of unconsciousness. With all of this analysis flying about in the news, I ask from the bottom of my heart, as a citizen living through war day by day, “Well, what’s the result?” Will I be able to walk in the streets after a few days, or will I remain under this unsafe roof, a captive of fear?
If there were no war today, perhaps my mother would have asked me to pick out a gift for my sister, and we would have planned a visit. Maybe my father would have insisted that we put together a fancy cake and decorate it with her age—twenty-eight years. We would head to her house to wish her a pleasant, safe life. Today, though, we are incapable of thinking about joy, or even about pastries. We are even less capable of offering safety to any one of us. We voice our wishes to God, instead, and perhaps they will come true. We think of our human needs and hope to get through the next few days. Yet we don’t know if we will live through tomorrow, or the day after!
On August 1, my sister managed to visit us during the first morning hour of the announced truce. Before we even had the time to wish her well, she described what she’d seen on the way in a single sentence: “They have destroyed everything.” I deeply want to see the sky above me, and I deeply want to see the full length of the road before me. Yet when I’ve ventured out during these days of war, worry has clouded my vision and dulled my perception. I came and went on the road without noting the time or feeling the air permeate the pores of my skin. I don’t deny that fear has perhaps taken up a large part of my diary entries, but not the fear of death. No, it is a fear of theft of having life stolen from me before I know when this war will end. Whether an identical war will break out in two years, or whether those intent on this repetition will think of new ways to kill people on the ground.
I want to know: What will happen to all those displaced? Will they remove the ruins of their homes and build themselves tents to house their wails and moans? As they did during wars past, will Gaza open up again? Will she blossom into the bride we’ve long dreamed her to be, and will life return to the way it was?
That is what the families here have always done. They brush off the memories of pain and sorrow, roll up their sleeves, steel their hearts, and go on. They run, struggle, sleep out under the stars, and claim that all that has happened to them are the last of the tragedies. In just two or three months, they’ll be back to holding weddings and singing at the founding of new families. They’ll look toward new projects to breathe life back into the streets, pour money into the pockets of new graduates. They always go back to their lives, and the war becomes something recorded on websites and in books. They memorialize the names of the martyred and those who fell wounded and all of the institutions that are no longer standing. They go back to conversations, debates, and discussion. And every chance they get, they say, “We just want to live!”
My tragedy is that I don’t just want to live. Nor do I want life to simply go back to the way it was. Nor do I want to go on waiting for a new war where we say at the beginning, “Tomorrow, the war ends,” and say at the end, “We just want to live.” I don’t want that war to begin in the first place. I don’t want to see those same words spread out over the front pages: “killed . . . wounded . . . missing . . . destroyed . . . demolished . . . ” I don’t even want people’s sympathy. I don’t want for us to become some item in a news bulletin broadcasting pictures of repulsive massacres. I want to bring forth a child who I can provide with hope before I give them life, who I can fill with love before the war buries them in a pit of fear.
I don’t want to lie and say that we’re all okay. I want to say, in all daringness, that in Gaza we are not okay. Just like any creation on the face of the earth might not be okay when death lies in wait for it on land, in the sea, up in the air . . . even in its sleep. We are not okay because we are being drained to our last breath, not by being cut off from the bare essentials of life, but by the sounds of death which mow down people and stones.
We, like all other humans, stop to think, grow tired, work for years to buy houses, rush about trying to make ends meet. If we fall sick, we head to the hospital. We get sad. If a loved one dies, we cry for them. We feel pain. We, like others, are not okay. When our houses shake, we cry out in fear of losing them, becoming homeless. We have reaped these stones from years of life, and we hope that they might shelter us in feeble old age. We are like any father, powerless when he sees his son rolling on the ground from fear, unable to do anything but gather the boy in his arms. We, like others, can’t stand to sleep out in the open. We can’t stand the hunger. We, as humans, have the same limbs and parts as any others. The only thing that distinguishes us from other creatures is that death walks among us . . .
In Gaza, the war still continues. It will end, perhaps, on any of the days to come. Perhaps it will go on for a month, or another year. But even after it ends, in Gaza we will not be okay.
Najlaa Attallah was born in 1987 and is a Palestinian writer based in Gaza. She obtained a BA in Architectural Engineering from the Islamic University in Gaza in 2010 and is currently writing a Masters thesis in Engineering Project Management at the same university. While still in secondary education, she won numerous prizes for her writing, including an award for Best Play from the Holest Culture Centre. She published her first novel, I Loved Her So, at the age of fifteen, and her second novel, A Cup of Coffee, was published by the Palestinian Ministry of Media. Her Young Adult novel The Photo was listed as one of the best 100 books in the Arab world in 2009. Her debut short story collection, Croke (2012) was the winner of the Najati Sidqi Competition in Ramallah, presented by the Palestinian Minister of Culture. In 2013 she participated in a short story festival in Morocco, representing Palestine. Her short story “The Whore of Gaza” features in English translation in The Book of Gaza, edited by Atef Abu Saif (Comma Press, 2014).