Cycling for Gaza, where the future is frozen

9 November 2012

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The next generation is Palestine’s greatest asset.

(APA images)

The feeling of helplessness is a dominating factor when I think about Palestine. A feeling that is escalated when I think about Gaza and the siege imposed on its people. I feel upset, mad, victimized, sympathetic, alienated and disoriented, not knowing what to do and where to start.

It was a total coincidence when I found out about an initiative called Cycling4Gaza (cycling4gaza.com), which raises awareness about the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip and raises funds for nonprofit groups through an annual cycling challenge. I was determined to be a part of it. I felt like this was a way to do something positive, to be part of an initiative that is trying to remind the world that there is an ongoing blockade on Gaza, and that is trying to have an impact on people’s lives by supporting work in education and healthcare.

I was lucky enough to make it on the Jordan cycling challenge last December. This powerful experience and the quality of people I met on the cycle gave me inspiration and renewed my hope, and for the first time my disorientation started to fade away as I began to realize what a great way this was to let my negative energy channel into something very positive.

I am forever grateful to this event and to the people who made it happen, because it gave me a chance to do something that allowed me to repay what I owed to Gaza, my hometown.

I left Gaza at the age of 16 heading to Seattle, Washington, two years into the first intifada of 1987. My family originates from Dura, a village on the suburbs of Hebron (al-Khalil) in the southern part of the West Bank. I come from a big family, 14 sisters and five brothers. My father was a rebel, wanted 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.

Before the Israeli occupation, he escaped on foot to Lebanon, then took a boat to Gaza while it was under Egyptian control during the Abdul Nasser era. My father served as a judge during the Nasser days and was forced into retirement after Israel’s invasion in 1967, after which he worked as a lawyer for almost 30 years.

My last trip to Gaza was in August this year. My nieces and nephews there 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.

The fact I grew up in the same place and faced the same challenges they face gives me instant credibility with them. This has confirmed to me that Palestinians and non-Palestinians must focus on having open channels with those on the inside to help them break out of this psychological sanction. The sanctioning of Gaza started years before the recent blockade forced by Israel and Egypt. It started from the early days after Abdul Nasser’s era.

Not polluted by class

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 others my age who were teenagers during the Israeli occupation, we lived in a society that was not polluted by social class.

Schools were overloaded, with little to no facilities. I never attended a class that had less than 45 students.

The makeup of the Palestinian schooling system at that time was the major contributing factor to the Palestinian intellect. Schools had the most interesting mix of Palestinian society. 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 Palestinians of African descent.

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Social solidarity was strong during the author’s childhood. (Photo courtesy Adnan Abu Sharrar)

Regardless of how different our backgrounds were, our exposure, fear of not being able to get home safely, pain of humiliation under the occupation, humor resulting out of tough moments, passion for justice and the question of Palestine were all the same.

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 had hardly any access to the outside world. 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 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. This was the era when Palestinians were the most educated people in the Arab world.

When I was a teenager, the only hobby that served as a window to the world was pen-palling. It gave us a sense of existence every time we received a letter from someone on the outside. With all the limitations of access to the world, nothing stopped my generation from reaching out to anything that was beautiful.

We 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 ended with the Oslo accords.

Oslo’s alarm bells

My first visit to Gaza after the Oslo accords were signed was in 1993. Gaza at that time experienced a boom in the construction of fancy villas for Palestine Liberation Organization elite, introducing a new social structure. Demands for special treatment and permission to enter Israel and the West Bank started to be used as privileges granted to the elite. These privileges sounded the alarm about the new direction our society was heading in.

This alarm triggered a dangerous and false state of mind, making Palestinians and nations of the world assume that we had become independent. This was confirmed by the creation of local ministries, subsequent elections and by converting PLO representative offices worldwide to embassies. It became difficult, then, 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.

During my last visit to Gaza, the deterioration of Palestinian society was painfully evident to me. The world does not realize that the siege on Gaza is not just about food or freedom of movement or 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 its settlers from Gaza in 2005, Israel no longer carries liability on the occupied people.

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 al-Aqsa mosque, or ancient churches. 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.

Catastrophe

I have been living away from home after 23 years now. 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 world 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. It was a little over 20 years ago that Nelson Mandela helped manage to transform South Africa into a democracy from what once was one of the world’s leading apartheid regimes. All these global transformations of civil rights, 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 transformations around us.

During my last visit to Gaza in August, I invited my nephews’ friends in an effort to broaden my circle of impact. Sadly enough, most if not all the teenagers I met 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. One of the kids looked at me and said, “it’s the first time we have been asked such a question.”

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. In an effort to divert my disappointment, I changed the subject by asking “who is your hero?” That didn’t sink in, so I rephrased the question to “who do you look up to?” When that didn’t sink in either, I tried a different approach by asking, “do you know who Nelson Mandela is?”

That 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 politicians who do not realize that they are the most essential asset we have: the mental make-up of the future Palestinian generation.

Rebuilding our culture

An immediate intervention is needed, and a broader understanding of the level of the problem, as our survival can only be assured 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.

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.

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, abuses 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 the first time 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.

Adnan Abu Sharar was born and raised in Gaza. At the age of 16 he moved to Seattle, where he graduated from high school and university, and went on to work in the telecom industry. Adnan is now settled in Beirut, where he runs his own business in software distribution.