This essay was written before a ceasefire was announced on the 20th of May, 2021.
One of my sons is sleeping in my lap, the other leaning his head on my shoulder unable to sleep. I stop every now and then to ask my husband: “Could this be our last day in this world?” My husband, Abdalrahim, nonchalantly replies: “Maybe.” We share a look and then sink back into the screens of our mobiles.
Every time the wall shakes, my two kids pat it. They imitate the way I pat them on the head when they are afraid. Every time I see a photograph of another dead child on my phone, it isn't enough for to look across at my two sons to reassure myself they’re still here, they’re still OK. I need to touch them. I need to run my fingers across their faces, make sure their eyes are uninjured, their noses are still in place. I need to grasp their hands and count their fingers: one, two, three… to make sure nothing is missing. Seeing isn’t enough. It‘s irrational, I know.
My kids – Faisal, four, and Jawad, two – spent their Eid Al-Fitr hiding in the house. They didn’t wear their new outfits like kids do when celebrating Eid. They didn’t go out to play with their friends. Instead they cried hysterically, and shook with fear, and rocked backwards and forwards in their chairs. How do I explain to two kids that if they went out to play with their toys in the street, Israeli warplanes might target them?
This is my fourth major war as a Gazan, and the first for me as a mom. At the start of this attack, I googled “How to deal with children during conflicts?”. Most websites provide a lot of information about how to distract them with games or stories. In practice, I tried to follow the tips but to no avail. Instead I decide to lie. It’s fireworks, I say, like so many other parents across the city. They are celebrating Eid Al-Fitr by launching fireworks. As simple as that!
But if it’s fireworks, why cannot they go out to watch? If it’s fireworks, why is their mother trembling in fear?
Faisal looks at me and shakes his head. I can read his thoughts clearly.
Last night, Gaza was being bombed from land, air and sea. Everyone in the city passed one of the most terrifying nights of their lives. Abdalrahim held Jawad. I held Faisal, letting him rest his head on my left shoulder. I didn’t want him to look me in the eye. I didn’t want him to see me weep.
As the explosions grew closer, I hugged Faisal tighter and patted him on the head. He squirmed and fidgeted, a sign that I had to let go of his head. He raised his head, looked me in the eye and said: “That’s not fireworks, Mama! You’re a liar!”
For a moment there, I couldn’t tell which is more traumatising: the deafening explosions that rocked the building, or the Faisal’s softly spoken words. I sobbed. And as I cried, he must have felt he had done something wrong because he reached up to wipe my tears away. Then Faisal put his tiny arm around my neck and pulled my head gently down. He whispered, “ No, Baba is the liar.”
(Even as I am writing this, I can hear Faisal wakening up to the sound of the latest explosions.)
Gazan families have two methods in surviving such nights. They have no war shelters. So they either pick the room they think is the safest – the furthest from the windows, or the least likely to be crushed or hit, and they all sleep together in that one room. Or they sleep individually in different rooms, to increase the chances that at least one member would survive the strike. I picked the first choice, thinking if we die, we die together, and no one of us will have to live with the grief and absence of the other. As my kids fell sleep beside me, I reached for my phone to tweet about it.
I woke up the next morning to find out that Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman, read my tweet in her speech on House floor. I watched the video and burst into tears just as she burst into tears. For a second, I found myself distanced from reality, and imagined what it would feel like to bring my kids up without all this. “Palestinians are humans. Palestinians do indeed exist,” I repeated after Rashida. My heart was pounding. I had never believed in the power of simple words. Now I do! I believe they can be as powerful as weapons.
I was granted a one-in-a-million chance to be heard. But there are two million of us in Gaza, and hundreds of thousands of mothers in situations just like mine, or worse and they aren't being heard.
That’s why I am writing these words. Because I want my family to live in a house where its walls do not shake in fear. Because I want my family to live in a house where its residents are able to watch fireworks. because I want my family to live in a house where it is not normal to reply to “Are you still alive?” messages in the morning. Because I want my family to live in peace!
Remember our words – whether we live or die. Remember them.
Correction issued on 1/6/21: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the ceasefire. It was since been corrected to read 20th of May, 2021.