Al-Watan was more than a building

Israeli airstrikes destroyed al-Watan Tower in Gaza City on 8 October. Al-Watan was home to many businesses, including a hair salon and dentist.

Naaman Omar APA images

On 8 October, at 6:30 in the morning, I was awakened by the sounds and tremors of four heavy bombs. I was sleeping at my brother’s apartment in Gaza City’s al-Nasr neighborhood, and we could tell the bombs were near.

With partially opened eyes, I grabbed my phone and called a fellow journalist to find out the target.

When I was told that al-Watan Tower – where I had my new clothing store, which I had dreamed of for years – had been targeted, I was shocked and at a loss for words. It was a building where I had many wonderful memories.

I hurried to turn on my phone to access social media and view any images.

The 14-story al-Watan Tower had collapsed like a biscuit. It was just a pile of debris. I was still in disbelief after viewing the photos. There was nothing left.

A community

Al-Watan Tower housed a hundred offices for all types of enterprises, including the office where I worked from 2019 to 2021 as a freelance journalist.

That office was on the 14th floor, and I had 24 hours of internet and electricity, which my parent’s home lacked due to the Israeli siege of Gaza.

I always started my day with a smile from Omar, a 10-year-old boy with green eyes and golden hair. I used to buy nuts from his basta – makeshift stall – in front of the building’s entrance. Omar would refuse to return home until he saw me leave work and had wished me a good evening. Now I’m not sure if he’s dead or alive.

On the 12th floor was one of my favorite cafes, where I used to take breaks from work. I’d sit at a table near a northwest-facing window and drink a cup of coffee or tea with a dessert. I’d look down at the street below or out farther, at the countryside beyond.

Sometimes, in the morning before work, or at sunset as I prepared to go home, I could smell fresh, cool breezes of air. I listened to Abdul Halim al-Hafez, Fairouz and Umm Kulthum.

At the end of each week, for over two years, I would go to the Smile dental clinic on the fourth floor and visit my orthodontist Abdel Fattah Muhanna for a cleaning. I have braces. I was supposed to get them removed two weeks ago. But after the building’s destruction, there is no clinic left.

Also gone is the Rahaf Salon, where I’d go once a month for a haircut or a facial. But that’s also gone now.

As is my clothing store.

Lost business

After nine months of saving, I managed to secure $3,000 to start an online clothing business. I opened up the physical shop in September 2022. I paid $1,000 a year for a single-room office in the al-Watan building.

I made the office look like a real store, like one you would see in a mall or on the street. I shipped in $2,000 of extra clothing. In the last three months, I began to earn $500 every month.

I was relieved that my business was thriving and that I had a stable income after six years of freelance work. Since graduating with a degree in English literature in 2017, I have worked as a freelance journalist and content writer, considering myself lucky amid Gaza’s high unemployment.

After a year of running the shop at al-Watan, I hoped to rent a new store at Gaza’s al-Rehab Mall for $3,000 a year.

In the new store, I planned to add a small section for beauty products, and I was already planning the decor.

But with al-Watan’s destruction, my business has vanished, along with all my inventory and clothing. The furnishings. The cash.

My future plans and aspirations have been crushed.

Turkey will have to wait

After the success of my business, I had planned to eventually move to Turkey, a safe haven away from Israel’s constant aggressions on Gaza, until I could move to Belgium to marry my boyfriend, who is also from Gaza.

My sister has lived in Turkey for almost two years, but this year, only student and work residencies are available, and I already had a job and a business.

I decided I would pursue a master’s in journalism in Turkey.

My student visa arrived on 15 August, but I decided to postpone my trip until I could have my braces removed.

Now, of course, Rafah is closed and I can go nowhere.

I had also hoped to rely on my business and freelance work to cover the expense of living in Turkey.

Now, there is no longer a business.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel to Turkey. I fear that I’ll die before I can travel, explore the world and fulfill my other aspirations.

I had planned to visit Egypt for at least two weeks and see my friends living there. Then, I was to go to Saudi Arabia with another friend, Reem, to perform umrah – the all-year pilgrimage.

In Turkey, I was planning to meet my boyfriend for the first time in person.

Will I be able to rebuild my business? Will I even survive this war?

Sometimes I lose all hope.

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.