Adnan, one of our cyclists from 2011, shares with us a unique insight into Gaza in the past and present, capturing his childhood years as he grew up under occupation.
Read the published article on Electronic Intifada.
This was my third visit to Gaza, after having visited many interrupted times throughout the past 23 years. I left Gaza at the age of 16 heading to Seattle, Washington, 2 years into the first intifada of 1987. Being a Gazan has always been a challenge, a challenge for its residents, natives, refugees and for its lovers too. Gaza has its magical spell, once you are there for an extended period of time, you can get emotionally absorbed by its coastal easygoing attitude and its softness on strangers, making it very easy to call it home, just like my dad did. And I happen to be a victim of the same spell.
My family originates from Dura, a village on the suburbs of Hebron (Al Khalil) in the southern part of the West Bank. My father was a wanted rebel (dead or alive) by the Jordanian government, which was in control of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967 before it became occupied by Israel. Prior to the Israeli occupation, my father escaped on foot to Lebanon, then took a boat to Gaza while it was under Egyptian control during the Abdul Nasser era. When asked where I am from originally, I find it difficult not to say that I am Gazan, despite my entire family’s history, land inheritance and historical affiliation to Dura. It gives me emotional comfort to say I am from there.
I come from a big family, 14 sisters and 5 brothers. I am proud to say that in my family we have 5 lawyers, as well as doctors, engineers and political scientists. My father served as a judge during the Abdul Nasser days and was forced into retirement after Israel’s invasion in 1967, after which he worked as a lawyer for almost 30 years. Both mom and dad passed away a while back and only one brother and two sisters still live in Gaza.
My nieces and nephews in Gaza are the main reason for my persistent visits; most of them are now teenagers and my visit to them is probably the most significant inspiration in a place that has minimum access to the world and where most of the residents have never had the chance to go beyond its borders their entire life.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than spending time with my nephews and nieces. Being with them takes me back to my childhood and I can relate so much to the agony they are living in. I make a big effort to visit them in order to keep the connection and remind them that they have not been left behind or forgotten. During my visits, I spend most of my time talking to them, sharing ideas, and I try to convey what life is like outside, hoping to keep their interest in the future. It has not been an easy task as I try to fill in the gaps in areas where their parents (my siblings) can no longer get to or that have gone beyond their skills; handling teenagers in such tough conditions. In recent days my visits to Gaza have become more of a duty than leisure, especially after I realized how much the little mentoring I do helps them, and I might go as far as to say how it has saved some of my younger relatives. I often communicate to those kids that my childhood experience is what impacted my success, what is still a major source to my pride, what has significantly shaped my character, and what turned me into a better human being able to be more sympathetic and expand my sense of humanity in everything I do.
My growing up in the same place and facing the same challenges they face gives me instant credibility with them. This has confirmed to me that we Palestinians and non Palestinians must focus on having open channels with those on the inside, breaking out of this psychological sanction, emphasizing that the help people there need is not purely material. The mental sanction of Gaza started years before the recent blockade forced by Israel and Egypt. It started from the early days after Abdul Nasser’s era, where the ideological and cultural impact was at its peak. At the time of Abdul Nasser’s control of Gaza, just like in many Arab capitals, pan Arabism was heavily promoted and Arab nations were greatly inspired by this movement. Gaza under Egyptian control was granted a unique economical status by becoming a free economic zone where merchants could trade freely without being subjected to Egypt’s tax regulations. This contributed substantially to the local economy, making it a very prosperous period in Gaza’s history.
My Early Gaza
Growing up in Palestine has always given me a positive differentiation, and having spent my early childhood education in a Protestant boarding school in Hebron has also given me a distinct perspective towards issues that I have only recently grown to appreciate. As with most people my age who were teenagers during the Israeli occupation, we lived in a society that was not polluted by social class, or the idea of private schools serving the elite. As I grow older and try to find answers related to key qualities in my character, I can only find them by going back to my childhood. Only then do I realize the impact that the social and political environment had on shaping my character and creating my inner value system.
Schools were overloaded, with little next to no facilities. I never attended a class that had less than 45 students. The make-up of the Palestinian schooling system at that time was the major contributing factor to the intellect of the Palestinian mainstream. Classes had the most interesting mix of Palestinian society and I believe this mix is unique and no longer exists not only in the world but also nowadays in Palestine. Students from different social classes and backgrounds, all in one class next to each other, given the same information, and reflecting upon each other, no one alienated and everyone sharing a common experience. In my class we had students from the refugee camps, local aristocratic families, Bedouins, and what we now refer to as Palestinian of African descent. Regardless of how different our backgrounds were, our exposure, fear of not being able to get home safely, pain of humiliation under the occupation, humour resulting out of tough moments, passion for justice and the question of Palestine were all the same. During that period, it was not socially acceptable for the rich to show off their wealth, a sign going against solidarity with the community. The closest comparison to this environment, which some of you might be surprised to hear, is the Israeli Kibbutz, where people gather from all around the world , all from different backgrounds, putting aside their differences, all working for one objective. Kibbutzs served as a social incubator to Jews that came from all over the world as a collective community, gathering regardless of their socioeconomic background to work together and build Israel.
We grew up in a society where we never used fancy titles when addressing government officials or social servants, reflecting one’s humiliation to the superior other in order to get what you were entitled to in the first place. I remember I never heard the word ya Basha (my Lord), or even ya Seedy (Sir) until I left Gaza for the first time, and those words remain unfriendly to my ears to this moment, however they are integral and subconsciously used in most Arab countries. Sadly enough, this became the case in Palestine after the arrival of the Palestinian Authority as a result of the Oslo Agreement with the PLO.
Prior to leaving to Seattle at the age of 16, traveling outside Palestine for someone my age was an unreachable dream, just like it was for family members or friends a dream to come to Palestine. We lived in a closed cell away from all neighboring countries and cultures, and the only form of entertainment we has was the TV channels 1 and 2, and Egypt channel 1. Internet or any form of communication with outside world had not yet been invented. The only form of communication we had was through family members who managed to keep their residency (right of return to Palestine) and could only visit once a year. If more than 3 years passed without them entering the country, they would lose their right of return to Palestine. This was a common practice by Israel in order to keep a tight political leach on Palestinians abroad, and to make it very difficult for them to return as a policy aimed to vacuum the Palestinian population out of Palestine.
With all the hardship, my memory never failed me on how high the spirit was growing up in Palestine, and how powerful social solidarity among the Palestinians once was. Refugee camps were the incubators of Palestinian intellect, producing scientists, artist, poets, doctors, and pride. People like Ramzy Baroud, the Palestinian-American journalist and author, and Abdel Bari Atwan, the chief editor of the daily newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, were born and raised in Gaza’s refugee camps. A personal friend of mine, Mohammed Hassan, whom I got to know while living in Seattle, also grew up in a refugee camp. Mohammed’s family’s experience gives a powerful message on how a woman raised her 5 children to become doctors, engineers and professors as she worked night and day on a sewing machine in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. This was the era where Palestinians were rated the most educated people in the Arab world.
At the age of 14, most kids my age hardly missed a news broadcast, and almost everyone knew how important education was. My age group already had a plan of what they wanted to study, and where. Yes we were sanctioned by the Israeli occupation, but the term sanction was not used back then. It was occupation instead. One of Israel’s accomplishments since the Oslo agreement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oslo_I_Accord) is that it has managed to replace the term“occupation” with “sanctions”. This has changed the world’s perception of the Palestinian cause as nothing has changed on the ground, but instead of being an occupier now Israel is a sanctioning party justified by the right to defend itself.
When I was a teenager, one of my hobbies was martial arts, (which we would rarely practice since it was considered illegal by Israelis, but without an actual defined law). If the Israeli soldiers happened to find out, the location would get busted and many times we had to flee for our lives. The only hobby that gave us some satisfaction and served as a window to the world was pen palling, as most of my generation back then used it as a way to communicate with the outside world. I believe it also gave us a sense of existence every time we received a letter from someone on the outside. I was easily amused with how stamps, envelopes, and the idea of someone caring to write back so easily confirmed my existence. With all the limitations of access to the world, whether it was through communication, freedom of expression, traveling, nothing stopped my generation from reaching out to anything that was beautiful. We all read about world freedom fighters, heroes, people that stood for justice regardless of time and distance. Yes we were occupied and some would argue that it was more of a prison, but in everyone’s mind, we were liberated, and felt more liberated than our occupier. When asked where are you from, answering it was a moment of pleasure. Because the answer indicated people that stood for justice, intellect and survival. Sadly enough, this too ended with the Oslo agreement.
Gaza after Oslo
My first visit to Gaza after Oslo was 1993. This was the first time I heard the word Basha (my lord) uttered by a local Palestinian to a PLO official while seeking approval on some documents. It was also the first time I heard the word Seedy (Sir) addressed by a local Palestinian trying to apply for a job with the authority. I was not at ease hearing this but I still did not understand that this was the beginning of a change in our society. Gaza at that time experienced a boom in the construction of fancy villas for PLO members, introducing a new social structure never witnessed before. Demand for privileges and special permission to entire Israel and the West Bank started to be used as privileges granted to the elites. The renaming of Palestinian schools was an act that still leaves me mystified. I spent my 10th and 11th graduation at Palestine High School. This school brought to the world many scholars, and many have had an emotional affiliation to it for the past 50 years of the occupation. It has now been renamed to Khalil El Wazir high school. As simple as this incident may sound, emotionally it had a huge impact on me. I feel sadness every time I walk by it; it’s a feeling of intrusion, as if part of my past is being erased. This act was a major alarm on the new direction our society was heading towards. A direction that took us towards a state of structured chaos and disorientation about the future, making us all assume our struggle had ended and that it was time to divide the cake.
This alarm also triggered a dangerous and false state of mind, making Palestinians and world nations assume that we had become independent. This was confirmed with the creation of local Ministries, subsequent elections, and by converting PLO representative offices worldwide to embassies, leading the world to think that we had become a sovereign nation. It made it difficult to explain to both Arab and non-Arab nations that our struggles had changed. We became a sanctioned nation that was once occupied, and our elected politicians required a permit to travel outside the borders of occupied Palestine and even to be able to move from one city to another.
Fragments of society
During my last visit to Gaza, the deterioration of Palestinian society was evident to me. The world does not realize that the siege on Gaza is aimed at the minds of Palestinians, that it is not just about food or freedom of movement nor supply of goods. It is aimed at children’s mental health, society’s spirit, social movements, and education. The current scenarios, imposed by the ongoing Israeli blockade on Gaza that started in 2007, are not different from when the Israeli occupation started. The only difference now is that, having withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, Israel no longer carries liability on the occupied people.
I find it very difficult to accept the current submission to what is being presented to us, transforming an entire society from a nation of leading intellects to a nation of defeat, consumed by one’s self interests. Transforming it from a no class society, with the aim of defeating injustice and preserving self-dignity at all costs, to a nation of “what’s in it for me”. The transformation has had a tremendous influence on the values and future of Palestinians. Often when I visit Palestine I am asked where I am originally from, and recently this question has stirred difficult emotions in me, as I have never been asked this by a Palestinian from Gaza. And when asked more recently, the question usually comes from a Palestinian from the West Bank, and reinforces the social stigma that has grown towards Gazans of late. Among Palestinians, people in Gaza are viewed as people who are different, with different means, a lower class, not realizing that Gaza and its natives have sheltered a large percentage of Palestinian refugees (Gaza’s current population is around 73% refugees – ref. http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=64). The number of people who sought refuge in Gaza were 7 times its actual population during the Nakbah (the 1948 exodus of Palestinians who were forced to leave or fled as a result of the creation of the Israeli state). It is the most devastated place you can think of, and yet Gazans now feel they are having to justify themselves and this new era of a class-based society. There is major work to be done on bridging the cultural gap between the Palestinians in Gaza and those of the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that has stemmed out of their physical separation since 1948. A connection between the territories is essential for many Palestinians living in refugee camps in the surrounding countries, as most of families have lost ties with each other due to traveling restrictions imposed on them for over 60 years. This confirms that even Palestinians abroad are sanctioned by cultural exchange, communication and their ability to build effective community support. The devastation that Palestinians have been and continue to be subjected to is not limited to the land, or tough life conditions, or the threat of losing Jerusalem, or the Al Aqsa mosque, or ancient churches, not to demean their importance. The devastation truly exists in the cultural dismantling of Palestinian society as a whole, as it is subjected to relentless and continuous efforts to break down the common identity and turn Palestinians from a society of scholars into a labor force, by sanctions, destruction of historical monuments, fragmentation of society through physical separation and the imposition of travel restrictions, and taking away people’s basic human rights.
“What plans do you have for the future?”
Having dark moments is something I have learned to live with, caused by constant exposure to the abuse Palestinians are subjected to. It has been 23 years that I have been living away from home, and during this time I have lived in many different countries, the USA, UK, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and now Lebanon. One important evaluation that has come out of this long journey of being a world citizen is that I no longer look at the question of Palestine as a Palestinian. It has become a human cause that I have to empathize with regardless of my background.
As a global citizen, I look back and realize it was only 50 years back that an African American had to give his seat to a white man in America, and only a few years before that where people of color in America weren’t allowed to drink from the same water taps as white people. When you think of those facts from the perspective of the present time, it feels that these human rights violations were hundreds of years back, because of the speed of social change that happened in America and around the world. And it all happened in less than sixty years, progressing greatly with the election of an African American president. It was a little over 20 years ago that Nelson Mandela managed to transform South Africa into a democracy from what once was one of the world’s leading apartheid regimes. All these significant transformations of civil rights globally, and yet Palestinians are still living in conditions of segregation, alienation, fragmentation of society and harsh physical restrictions since 1948, and nothing has changed besides us being a good audience to the global transformation around us.
During my last visit to Gaza, just a few weeks back, I spent a significant amount of time with teenagers; this is an age group that I believe is critical to society and is a benchmark on what the future holds. I invited my nephews’ friends in an effort to broaden my circle of impact. Sadly enough, most if not all the teenagers I met with were depressed, with no sense of direction, and spent little time thinking about the future. I tried to challenge them by asking about their future hopes, and if they have put together any plans in order to back up those hopes. I had a hard time communicating the question, as it is something they are not used to talking about. One of the kids looked at me and said, “it’s the first time we have been asked such a question”. This made me look back into the past, as it was the first thing we waited for anyone to ask us “What plans do you have for the future”, hoping this question would help in expanding our hope and imagination of what lies ahead. Looking into their eyes, I felt numbness, disorientation and lack of ambition. Ironically, those kids go to the same high school I went to, and I met with them in our house and sat with them where I sat when I was their age, but the spirit was totally different. Our ambitions were totally different from theirs, since back in my early days not for a moment did my friends or I consider working for the police, or for a local NGO. We always wanted to serve as ambassadors to this nation through our education and intellect, and we knew we had to be different in order to make this a reality. In an effort to divert my disappointment, I changed the subject by asking “who is your hero?” that didn’t sink, in I re phrased the question, as in “who do you look up to?”, that didn’t sink in either. Then I diverted my question by asking, “do you know who Nelson Mandela is” ! It didn’t sink in either and at that moment I realized the catastrophe that this generation is being subjected to, and how such an important age group in this unique tough environment are being neglected by the politics and politicians who do not realise that they are the most essential asset we have; the mental make up of the future Palestinian generation.
Sanctions of the mind
An immediate intervention is needed, and a broader understanding of the level of the problem, as our survival can only be garnered by resetting our values. Our leadership must realize that the real sanctions applied on the Palestinians are targeting their minds, their intellect, their future generation. The moral responsibility of the leadership should be to lift those mental sanctions, and arm people with tools that allow them to compete in this world. These sanctions have been imposed since the beginning of the occupation and we will continue to be targeted. Serious action and measures must be taken and this can only start by the self-realization of both the individual and the leadership.
When I was in Gaza last month, I had plans to create a few jobs for people by utilizing local talent, thinking that the internet could be a way to communicate. I came to realize that the internet connection available is sparse and very expensive to locals. This added to my rage on the overall scenario and how little measures are not taken even in our new virtual world. Nothing justifies why an Israeli can access high speed broadband while Palestinians a few kilometres away have to pay far more for a slower service. It is a crime being done by the Palestinian private sector on the Palestinians themselves and this was the result of the privatization we were sold. This is just a small example of many but it is an important one. Internet gives access to the outside world and guided access can create jobs and bring exposure to Palestinians, taking them away from the mental alienation they are being subjected to.
Now I see that the sanctioning scenario is aimed at the minds and on our ability to survive as a nation with a cause. Our cause was at one point the reason for our existence, and everything else was secondary, and all this has been transformed into internal struggles and political fights over stature. I have realized that our political leadership became too consumed with the struggle over power and arming people instead of allocating resources to enable them to compete with an edge. What was once an incubator of intellect is now the incubator of poverty, drugs and total mental deterioration.
Yes, our people became trapped, physically and mentally, and were sold on a reality that doesn’t exist; the reality of the Oslo agreements which ultimately caused more human losses, abuse of the human rights of Palestinians, the separation of Gaza from the West Bank, and the consequent siege on Gaza.
The sanctions on Palestinians at large remain the same since the beginning of the occupation, but the spirit has changed from what was once a reason to exist to now struggling to find any reason to exist. Our social immune system has disintegrated, because for once in our lives, we believed we were a step away from freedom, and we let down our guard and lost the tools that once helped our society to thrive.
The rebuilding of Palestinian culture can only happen by first acknowledging the realities that surround us, accepting and correcting the fatal political mistakes made by our leadership through massive community awareness and efforts aimed at bringing hope through education, and less emphasis on the self interest of the individual, taking us back to our real values that once put us on the map of influence.
I want to end my observation by commenting on a speech I personally watched on TV made by Yitzhak Rabin to the Israeli Knesset while trying to get its members’ acceptance on the Oslo agreement. Referring to the Palestinians, he said “their mothers love them as our mothers do, they walk on two legs as we do”. He said that Palestinians were Israel’s neighbors and a reality that could not be changed, and that investing in the improvement of their livelihood was a must, convinced that this was the only guarantee to a safer home for us both. As simple as the statement may sound, and coming from a man who fought in every Israeli war, served as Commander in Chief of Israel’s army, and under whose command many violations of Palestinians human rights occurred, it was at the moment that I had a spark of hope leading me to believe that he had come to terms with his conscience and the well being of the nation he was leading.
Adnan Abu Sharar