‘I’m Nasser and I’m also called Abu Ali – which means I am the father of Ali. I’m thirty-eight years old and six years ago I also had Samah and Amina – and they were six years old when they were killed. They were six years old, at school, having one of their first English lessons. The missile missed its target and went through their classroom window. So many children died that day. [My wife] Maha and I went to the morgue at the Ghassan Kanafani hospital in Rafah. We couldn’t even be sure which were the bodies of our two girls. Only Allah knows if it was truly them, only Allah knows where our daughters are.’
Samah and Amina stare at us from a small framed photograph behind Nasser. He’s sitting in the small kitchen and I’m thousands of miles away, in Perth. He’s lit one cigarette after the other. The smoke drifts across his face as he looks at the camera. I also look at my camera. Although we’re trying, eye contact is impossible. We go back to looking at each other faces on the screen. It’s all we can do.
The first time we met was in 2006. He wasn’t even a father back then. A year later, a blockade was imposed on the Gaza strip and since Gazans have been locked down for almost fourteen years. The last time we saw each other was at the end of 2014. With the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the strip, I reached out to Abu Ali on Whatsapp.
Gazans are terrified. Their health system is in shambles, largely to the punitive restrictions imposed by Israel, occupying the small strip of land. The population density is one of the highest in the world. Most Gazans pray for their future because that’s all they can do.
Abu Ali and his family have witnessed wholesale horror during the Israeli bombing campaigns of 2009 and 2014. For more than thirteen years they haven’t been able to leave Gaza. Now, they are also under virus lockdown, only able to step out onto their balcony, what is left of it. This is Abu Ali’s account to me, to you.
‘We’re all imprisoned now – even those who oppress us – and by who? An invisible enemy more powerful – one who can’t be seen with the naked eye. Perhaps the realisations people are experiencing in quarantine might soften their hearts towards us. Perhaps they will understand what freedom of movement means, the ability to work and earn a living. Even just knowing that closeness with your family is not something to take for granted. Even here, in our Gaza prison, we take things for granted so I can only imagine what people outside must do.
I feel I’ve been on WhatsApp forever and suddenly it feels like my new life. I’ve begun to almost ignore it. It’s always on, well at least until the power cuts. Then we’re back to what is normal to us, like in the days when people walked in the dark and not in the light. The occupation hasn’t gone away and now we’ve got Corona on top of it.
We eat less of what was less, at the same time we want to eat more. Sending money doesn’t help, the currency here is food and Tramadol, and I’m not sure in which order. I’m not moving much, we’re home most of the time. I can’t sleep. Ali woke me up yesterday: ‘Baba, baba, el-Zanana’. A drone remained circling over the rooftops. In the end Maha got up and made us all warm Anis. And you know what’s strange? I think it’s the first time ever we’ve fallen asleep to the sound of a drone, all three of us. When we woke up, Ali was laughing. Both Maha and I still held empty cups in our hands. And when we saw his smile, we all laughed – and for a moment, we were somewhere else. I don’t know where, all I know is, it was beautiful place. There were no drones, no occupation, no Corona.
We look at the world right now and we know we will be, if not in the same, but in a lot worse situation. We are looking at our future now – of course – we’ve seen what has been happening in the world. We look at our past and then we’re not sure what to make of ourselves any longer. What is the value of a Palestinian life? Does anyone care? The world is fighting the virus, even Putin is helping the Americans. Why isn’t anyone helping us? Aren’t they allowed? Now we have the virus alongside every other problem we have had before – or will have after it. The list is never ending – but at least we are talking to each other now. Islamic Jihad have stopped posing for the cameras. I tell you, Good things are happening as well.
Ali laughs so hard I swear I can see smoke coming out of his bloodshot eyes.
Did I tell you Maha and Ali are exercising to Youtube videos?
We’re laughing! We’re laughing a lot. We’re laughing more than ever before. Even the man upstairs who never laughs about anything, is laughing. We’re in Gaza, come on, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Yesterday I met with Issam in the bread queue, smoking, laughing. Just like girlfriends and boyfriends, like those having affairs who are now also meeting in the bread queues. Ya Allah, many children will be made in this coming time. Many people will get divorced. Whether from adultery or children driving them crazy – only Allah knows!
We are told we are Gazans and that we’re all united, fighting this virus together but that depends – as it always does, on who you are. Hamas hid under the ground in 2014 while women and children were running for their life – and then they came out and declared victory. This time, what are they doing? This is where we all know their ride is not going to be the same as ours through this epidemic. It’s never been the same ride for all of us – and it will never be. We just pretend it is like that.
I wonder what it will take for the world to force the Israelis to lift the blockade? Do we have to die like dogs in the street? Aren’t we already? If Corona doesn’t make the world see what is happening to us – doesn’t make the world want to help us – what will? If even the Corona virus can’t help free the Palestinian people, then I give up. Then I will chant my love for my family, for my people. Then I will cry for our freedom as I run towards the Israelis, spread my arms wide and pray one of their bullets goes through my heart.’
Image: ‘Kids, Gaza’ by Marius Arnesen