I used to blog every now and then about my life in Gaza before I moved to London. Since then I haven’t written down anything though my life here is absolutely nowhere near normal or commonplace. Moving to London in fact has been the most overwhelming experience for me given the fact that I have never been out of Gaza for the past seven years and now that I moved to live in such, I was told, a grand and outstanding city pursuing my studies on a subject that couldn’t be of any more relevance to me than Human Rights at one of the most world leading universities with such massive diversity of staff and students such as the London Schoolf of Economics.
The primary reason is definitely that I no longer have had the kind of plenty of free time I used to have back in the Gaza Strip due to the immense amount of school work that I have to do weekly.
However, just like how in Gaza, it used to be the case that the huge gaping void of time and space generated mainly due to ubiquitous power cuts dominating every aspect of my life and shutting me in that always instigated me to write, in London it is the absence of this void that kept me from writing. An incredible host of distractions: the joy of life absent power cuts; some tourist attraction always somewhere around the corner of the street; the luxury of always having a high speed internet connection no matter where I am, endless supply of books and magazines, to name but a few, are a few pleasures I am not used to having in Gaza.
Still, I have always had too many overflowing reflections that I wanted to share. The latest of which is the most unsettling to me. It is a thought I had since the term has ended and, ironically, it’s probably due to this very fact that I finally managed to find some free time to write about it.
Freedom of Movement
Basically, any conversation with classmates about the holidays eventually begs the question, “What are your plans for Christmas?” sometimes followed by a clichéd inquiry, “Are you going home?”
I would stammer, I would feel dumb having found out that I have no plans, feeling embarrassed only to recall a friend’s invitation to his birthday party in the north of England only to remember that the question was actually about a holiday plan and that celebrating a friend’s birthday barely counts as one. I would smile foolishly, and struggling to get words out of my mouth, I would respond, “you know what; I don’t think I have any plans, but I’d really love to go home, but I can’t.”
“I mean it’s going to be really hard for me to go back go Gaza and come back in time for the second term.”
“Because if I want to go home, I will have to fly to Cairo, take a six-hour drive to Rafah, cross into Gaza, and, when it’s time to come back, getting out of Gaza is going to be a really hard and long process due to the fact that only a very limited number of people are allowed to travel every day, so what people usually do is book a day to travel on a while earlier which basically means I might never be able to get out for the second term in time.”
At that point a tempting suggestion would usually turn up, “But what about going on a trip to somewhere in Europe?”
“yea,” sounding so skeptical, I would respond, “but I don’t think it will work.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I think it’s going to be really hard for me to travel to anywhere in Europe since I need to get a VISA. I can tell you, if you’re Palestinian, VISA applications are an undesirable experience plus you need to have a good convincing reason why you need to visit Europe. Had I not been a student, I would have never been here in the first place”
“Oh, I see.”
This time, having given a plausible response, I would wear a broad smile on my face, feeling relieved the conversation had finally come to an end.
Only then, I would start to think how distressing it is to be Palestinian. Why does it have to be that only me, and no one else, is not allowed to have plans for the holidays? That I can’t think of going home unless I might never be able to get out of Gaza again. That I can’t think of joining my friends’ journey to Bosnia and Serbia because I might not get a VISA. That I might miss the whole term if I “fly home” for the holidays; that I have to stay here for the whole year while everyone around me will be gone. “Only for the sole reason that I happened to be Palestinian.”
Violence against Israelis
As I sat in the library so hopelessly trying to finish a 60-page article in two hours, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation that was going on at the desk just behind me. A few whispered phrases flew out of the conversation and just made their way to land in my ears so deafeningly. I was shook so terribly at their infuriating offense and stark negligence. “Violence against Israelis” was the most recurring phrase throughout the whole conversation. I was trying to pull together the bits I could hear to make out what exactly was being deliberated. I was soon thinking I shouldn’t expect that much from a bunch of people using such a phrase like, “violence against Israelis” since, at best; it must be the same old story of “the occupation is wrong, but the Palestinians are also responsible for using violence”.
Responsible for what is quite easy to deduce since according to these people the Palestinians should learn to pursue the Gandhi-like, peaceful, non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation instead of targeting Israeli civilians by firing rockets into Israel.
In fact, as I thought about it later, I rebuked myself a big deal for I could have walked up to this bunch of idiots and, after introducing myself as a Palestinian, I could have bombarded them with a history lesson about the Palestinian nonviolent resistance which they don’t bother to talk about and then ask them how they feel about denying a people’s history as they continue to blame the victims and in their awfully patronising manner keep preaching the Palestinians about nonviolent resistance while these nonviolent, peaceful protesters continue to be murdered every single day by the Israeli war killing machine.
The two-state solution isn’t dead
The Palestine Society at the LSE once had a cultural stall on the university campus where we celebrated the Palestinian culture in an amusing manner. Some had the kuffiyeh wrapped up into a turban around their heads; others put on the traditional Palestinian dress crafted into beautiful black and read patterns, while others ate hummus, oil and olives and smoked shisha.
Our stall caught the attention of numerous students who stopped by and asked us questions about the stall and what this all meant. However, toward the end of the event, one student stopped by and said that he had a question which he’d like to hear the answer to by anyone of us. I must admit I thought this sounded a bit awkward which made me feel uneasy about it.
As I introduced myself to him, he told me how sympathetic he feels with the Palestinians and that he believes there should be a solution whereby both peoples will finally be able to live together in peace. He then told me he just wants to know “what I think about what’s going on or what I believe would be the solution to this”. Feeling baffled, I looked him in the eye, in an attempt to make him elaborate a bit on his question. He replied, “I mean what do you think of the one-state solution and the two-state solution?”
I felt greatly relieved this turned out to be the question, for if there was anything I could talk about with regard to “solutions”, it was this specific issue. So as I told him my opinion which is basically that the two-state solution is dead, and it’s not about which solution is more doable but rather it’s about the facts on the ground where we already have one state. They are two peoples living (unequally) in one actual state; I told him one of these two peoples is oppressed, discriminated against, and done great injustice…bla bla bla
As I finished, the guy, who didn’t stop nodding during my speech, looked at me and said, “yea I think you’re right.”
My face started to break into a broad smile before he went on to say, “However I still think the two-state solution can work only if the Palestinians would agree to move to live in Jordan!”
One of the things that I started to pay attention to when I moved to London is my Arabic accent specially that I spend a lot of my time with my Arab friends who come from various Arab countries.
Once during a fairly huge Egyptian protest in solidarity with the Tahrir protesters and those who were killed at the hands of the Egyptian military council, I was amongst the crowds and surrounded by too many people, mostly Egyptians, who were chanting against SCAF.
All of a sudden, I found myself trying to listen carefully to the way the woman next to me was repeating the chants. It struck me with its cordial familiarity which made me so intrigued to trace it so closely. Each time the woman repeated the chants, I assured myself this woman is Palestinian, but I was still reluctant to tell my friends around me that, in this massive Egyptian protest, I was able to spot out a Palestinian lady just by the way she repeated the chants.
As I became more and more certain, I finally decided to reveal to my friends this novel discovery of mine, so I told them that this woman next to me, and who I had never met or talked to before and just happened to be walking alongside for a very short period of time in this Egyptian protest in London, “is actually Palestinian.”
“How do you know?”
“Her accent is Palestinian.”
“Her accent! Well, you can ask her.”
I felt anxious at the beginning but was soon able to summon my courage and approach the lady who turned her face in my direction. I smiled at her and said,
“Marhaba, keefek?” (hey, how are you?)
“I’m fine, how are you?” she replied.
“I’m good. I just wanted to ask you something.”
She nodded, “Sure,”
“You’re not Egyptian, are you?” I tried to avoid making an outright guess lest I might be hugely disappointed.
“No I’m not.” She replied. I was about to tell her that I think she’s Palestinian when she carried on, “Ana Falastinyeh min elquds!” (I’m Palestinian from Jerusalem!)
Not so long ago, having spent a nice evening with friends at a Lebanese restaurant, I stood by the road waiting for the bus to head home. One bus came by, and after a very short stop, it started to move away. Someone came rushing towards the bus trying to catch it before it has gone, and having reached it, he started to bang on the doors urging the driver to stop for him yet to no avail. The bus driver ignored him and just drove away.
He looked at the bus route map, mumbled something, then took his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and came closer toward me. He asked me for a lighter which I gave him. He lit his cigarette and offered me one which I didn’t take. After a few puffs, he addressed me with his Londoner accent,
“That bus driver saw me banging on the door but ignored me. That’s what w***ers are for.”
“Yea he absolutely saw you. He should have stopped.” I responded, not actually adding anything new to what he already said.
He then looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Whereabouts you’re from?”
“PALESTINE!” Nodding his head, he repeated after me; and, making a right guess, he went on, “Are you a student?”
“Yes, I’m doing a one-year masters.”
Another bus came by, but it wasn’t going in either of our directions. And after another short pause, he showered me with a five-minute enigmatic monologue about how “fucked up this country is” and mentioned something about its economy being so badly influenced by the Eurozone and how people are starting to lose their jobs and, in an angry rising tone, he concluded his speech trying to finish off his last sentence getting out of breath, “so you’d better finish your year in London and FUCK OFF!”
Breathing in the man’s cigarette-smoke-and-wine smell, I remained silent still waiting for the bus and starting to lose my patience. The man and I kept looking each other in the eye for a while before he resumed, “and by the way, I know a lot about FUCKING PALESTINE! But it is Middle East shit politics, and I’m not gonna get into it!”
Still feeling bewildered, I didn’t respond.
“But I tell you, it’s not a new issue; it’s a five thousand year issue. And no one is gonna solve it.”
At this moment, my bus stopped by. “That’s true,” I finally replied getting on the bas and smiling at the man as he thanked me again for the lighter.
Tell them you want to buy Adidas
My best friend in London is a British Kashmiri. He hates to introduce himself as British and hates it more to say that he is Pakistani. I was once chilling at his when he introduced me to his cousin who was incredibly hilarious. He was so excited to know that I am Palestinian from Gaza as well. He started to shower me with questions about life in Gaza, the people in Gaza, the occupation, war, the sea in Gaza and many other things.
The first question he ever asked me was, “Tell me Mohammed, is Gaza like…hmm” then he paused for a moment and said, “Gaza?”
Everyone burst out laughing at, what they thought, an absolutely naive question, or even a meaningless one. “Is Gaza like Gaza?”
However, what might have sounded naive for others sounded to be complete novelty to me. One of his proposals to help me go to Jerusalem elicited the same kind of reaction from others which he might have intended to do, but I was thinking it might actually work.
As I explained to him that I am not allowed to go to Jerusalem or any place in the West Bank, and that it would be easier for me to visit Kosovo than to go to Jerusalem, he was shocked and tried to come up with as many proposals as possible to overcome this shocking dilemma.
The most genuine of these proposals was to pay a visit to the Israeli Embassy in London and just walk up to the officers and, after introducing myself, I can ask them why they stole my land.
“Stupid.” His cousin sneered at him.
“Is it? Okay, just tell them you want to go to Jerusalem.”
“He is not allowed.”
“Ask them why?”
“Because obviously he’s from Gaza.”
“Okay, just tell them I want to go to the West Bank and give them a reason.”
“What if they ask him why?”
He lowered his head, and, after what seemed to be a moment’s contemplation, he looked at me and so calmly said,
“tell them you want to buy Adidas!”
“Hope, mate! Hope.”
The most excited young man I have met so far in London is, unsurprisingly, Egyptian. He described himself to me as a socialist, pan-Arabist, and Nasiry— a fan of Gamal Abdel-Naser”. Though he has lived all his life in England, he speaks Egyptian Arabic so fluently.
We met at a friends’ gathering at an Egyptian restaurant on Eid, yet we hadn’t yet been introduced to each other as we stood by the main street after the gathering. Having seen me in the gathering, he came over to me and, extending his hands, he introduced himself to me in English as Kareem.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mohammed.” I replied.
“Nice to meet you. Where are you from?”
“FALASTEEN? Inta min Falasteen?” (Translation: you’re from Palestine!) He hollered at me so excitedly. I nodded.
“Whereabouts in Palestine?” Still beaming at me, he inquired, shaking hands with me so passionately.
“GHAZZA!!” Wide-eyed, he cheered rather more loudly.
“Yes.” I replied, not so surprised at how gladly astonished he sounded to meet someone from Gaza. “Wait, so you mean you’ve just come from Gaza?”
“That’s correct.” I was trying to leave the impression of a cool, calm and collected person.
Once he assured himself of the fact that this guy standing before him is Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, he entirely lost control over his excitement and started cheering loudly in the street, and to my embarrassment, drawing every passerby’s attention while also, quite hard; he kept nudging me in the shoulder. He was just so incredulous.
Karim then showered me with an endless series of questions about Palestine. Yet what was most pleasantly striking about Karim and that which made me absolutely glad to answer his questions is that he never asked me the same usual kind of humdrum questions people would ask when they know that I am from Gaza, e.g. “what is Gaza like?” and which although I always found tenacious, I was never actually able to give a satisfying answer to.
The first thing Karim ever asked me about Palestine was my opinion of the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas. And once I started to articulate my view on that, and it became obvious for him that I’m doggedly opposed to the PA and that I’m so fed up with its corrupt officials and its sell-out political agenda, he never stopped grinning in the course of my answer which turned into a lengthy tongue-lashing speech while he kept hailing me every now and then as I labelled the PA as “traitors” and “buffoon politicians”, and which, since it appeared as if I wasn’t ever going to stop bawling out, culminated in him hugging me and shouting “you’re the man! We’re gonna be best friends forever! Yes you’re the man.”
Although I’m not much older than he is, talking to Karim makes me feel like the old “wise” who has grown enough to die and has lived through wars and violent conflicts and experienced life’s hard moments to come to realise the fact that the glimpse of hope we’ve always adhered to has faded away. However there is no wisdom in losing hope and Karim’s incredible optimism has always impressed me. “Hope, mate! Hope.” He would always say.