Gaza’s bell jar

the rubble of demolished buildings in what remains of Gaza CIty

Gaza City has been devastated by the Israeli military, 15 April.

Khaled Daoud APA images

I always found it hard to understand why my family left our small village in 1948 and sought refuge in Gaza.

No more. In the past six months, relatives, though not my immediate family, have been forced to relocate from house to house several times to escape Israel’s genocidal violence.

It was like a new Nakba.

Our circumstances seemed to replay the black-and-white images on the website of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), except we carried mobile phones and laptops.

Gaza and our village are very close, but we are unable to go there, Israel won’t allow it.

I was raised as a refugee. I went to an UNRWA school.

I lived in a refugee camp. Even this hasn’t stopped me now experiencing firsthand the reality of displacement.

My grandfather, who fled to Egypt in 1967 without his children, never returned. The reality is that Palestinians seldom come back home once they leave.

Indeed, after the Nakba of 1947-49, Israel made sure to preclude refugees returning by writing a law confiscating their properties and lands. This is why my father adamantly refused to move to the southern Gaza Strip during the current genocidal war, despite the Israeli army bombarding us with thousands of recorded messages instructing us to relocate.

Many of our neighbors did migrate southward. During this war, I developed a habit of working out who had left their homes from those who stayed, based on their laundry lines.

The Abu Mahmoud family, for instance, left their clothes hanging out, yet they had relocated.

I still don’t know if staying was the correct decision because the Israeli army has punished us for not complying with orders with starvation and continued destruction.

Seeing my friends’ Instagram stories, where they express their longing for the Gaza City they left to move south, breaks my heart. The city they reminisce about is not the city I see from my window – it’s utterly devastated, a shadow of its former self.

The entire city has been wiped out, its material history erased, and the hope of ever recovering has vanished.

Angry and hungry

Rubble is everywhere, with bombed and burned houses and schools full of displaced people who have no homes. Garbage litters the streets, alongside hungry cats and decomposing bodies.

The market is nearly empty, with little to be bought or sold. Security is absent, and theft and arguments over water and food take place every day and can turn into armed confrontations.

People are angry and hungry, frustrated by their loss and the deprivation even of their basic necessities.

Sometimes, I take long minutes to remember what the place was like before the disaster. Other times I get lost on my way back home.

Sometimes, I feel the place has become a blank slate, offering opportunities to shape a new future. But other times, I feel deeply saddened by the loss of the life that once was.

I gaze out the non-glass window – just a frame covered with nylon wrap. It’s a window in our partially destroyed house.

I observe our neighborhood, with cars plastered and piled up like rusty metal. Nearby lies a house, the owners of which burned to death inside when a shell struck their home.

Then it was demolished over their bodies, and later tanks swept it away, burying their bodies under the rubble.

I stare at the debris once more – scattered clothes, papers, utensils, all shattered dreams, big and small. It’s been over a month since the people in the nearby house were burned.

As a child, I used to wonder how people dared to live next to a cemetery. But now, surrounded by destruction, it seems all too familiar.

Sometimes, I question why I insist on staying here, despite the uncertainty and scarcity. But Gaza City is my home.

Why should we be forced to leave against our will? How can it be acceptable to let people starve or make life impossible until they feel they have no choice but to flee?

Days pass monotonously. I find myself losing my sanity, sometimes wishing for a random shell to end my life, like so many others. But today, I’ve decided to surrender to life’s cruelty, still clinging to existence but barely so.

I close my eyes, and the world fades away. When I open them, everything springs back to life.

I refuse to delay writing until after the war, as I see no end in sight. Writing about my life is my way of affirming its reality.

A life in the day

And so, here is how my day unfolded:

I woke up at 5:43 am.

I listened to the news on the radio because there was no internet.

I brewed a cup of tea without sugar. A kilo of sugar now costs $12.50, and we need to use it sparingly.

The tea wasn’t enjoyable, but I couldn’t disobey my dad’s semi-divine instructions.

I read some of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.

I caught the end of the news of the hour.

I ate some bread with a drizzle of olive oil and zaatar.

I listened to the news on Israel Radio in Arabic and switched it off before it concluded because it was nauseating. I find it okay to hear the same news in English, but processing the Israeli perspective in my mother tongue is challenging for my brain.

I sat by the window, listening to our neighbor Um Rami’s accounts of various flour bag massacres. Once, she said, the Israeli army compelled trucks to run over wounded men.

Another time, 40 people, awaiting aid convoys, were coerced to trek south, abandoning northern Gaza, possibly forever.

She forbids her son Rami from going to fetch aid, fearing he will be killed as was her husband Abu Rami and nephew Ahmad during this genocide.

In a recent flour bag massacre, a man arrived in the neighborhood bearing the dead body of a boy, igniting cries of anguish. It was our neighbor Ahmad, a 17-year-old with curly blond hair and brown skin, a distinctive appearance.

Separated for six months from his family, who followed the Israeli army’s directive to relocate south, Ahmad insisted on staying with relatives here. While fetching a bag of flour, he perished alongside 100 others awaiting aid.

Ahmad went unburied by family members, and his mother missed his final moments.

I felt completely calm and empty, like the center of a tornado.

The bell jar

As I returned to my book, I felt the weight of the bell jar that had trapped me since 7 October. I sensed myself dissolving into the shadows, becoming an obscure reflection of someone I couldn’t recognize, as if I were the inverse of a person I had never encountered before.

Inspired by Plath, who cataloged what she couldn’t do, I began listing my own limitations during this brief period:

I can’t sleep because of the sound of missiles and Israeli warplanes, especially the spy drones that prevent me from taking my customary noon nap.

The noise never stops, and when the weather is cloudy, they come closer to the window, making me feel like I should open it and scream, “There’s nothing interesting, you fools! You’re wasting effort and fuel on nothing. What’s important in this street?”

Children search in the rubble of bombed houses for copper to sell, hoping to buy candy that’s now priced multiples higher. They don’t go to school to get pocket money, and there’s no indication they’ll return to education soon.

A woman screams at her son from the window, scolding him. “Come back! I’d sooner eat sand than have them take you away from me!”

He plans to go to al-Rashid street, hoping to secure a sack of flour, despite the risk of encountering the Israeli army, and its soldiers’ predilection for killing the hungry.

In the school that shelters displaced people, there are daily fights over water. And if, unusually, water is available, there are fights over food and laundry space.

Nothing is important here; a girl who does nothing but read books tries to sleep to pass the time. Look elsewhere.

I considered writing that I’ve lost hope in life, but I believe I’ve lost meaning in life too. The idea of suicide is rejected for a coward like me.

War presents tempting opportunities for death, yet I don’t desire the slow demise it offers. I seek a quick end, like a needle prick.

I don’t wish for the roof to collapse on me with a missile from an F-35 warplane, as it did with my cousins, or to be consumed by a fiery shell like those that claimed our neighbors’ lives in the adjacent house. Nor do I desire a random bullet from a quadcopter to maim me like my mom’s friend’s son or to render me braindead without actually dying, like our neighbor.

The available modes of death seem equally unappealing. Can I pass away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones on a clean white bed, uttering some final words before everything fades?

Such a peaceful end appears impossible as well.

The problem with bread

Never before have I yearned for bread as I do now – bread made from white flour, not barley or corn. The process of crafting bread with barley and corn is laborious.

I hear my mother grumble as she blends water with animal feed flour, her words likely tinged with curses and frustration as she struggles to knead the dough, lamenting its reluctance to stretch and its tendency to stick to the rolling pin.

Then my father intervenes, inquiring about our flour reserves and whether they will last until next week. He issues directives, urging us to economize once more, limiting each of us to one piece of bread per day.

I can’t help but burst into laughter, commenting that its awful taste would discourage us from consuming more anyway.

He retorts: “Do you realize how much animal feed costs now? It’s five times its original price.”

My mother, who enjoys shopping, dislikes discussing savings. Before my father can finish his discourse on exorbitant market prices, my mother, weary from kneading, declares that the mixture bears no resemblance to real flour and is better off discarded.

My father coldly replies, “We’re all aware of that, but fetch me real flour now.”

There is none, so we resign ourselves to consuming the bread without complaint. There’s no point in lamenting.

There are no alternatives.

I haven’t met my friends in a while, and we haven’t had long conversations or enjoyable gossip sessions. The network is almost cut off, and most of us have no internet.

I’m lucky to have one hour of internet per day. Every time I talk to my friend, she tells me she’ll die soon from depression if she doesn’t die from the war.

How can I help her when I feel exactly the same?

I told my friend that the Israeli army asked us through recorded voice messages to evacuate the neighborhood of al-Zaytoun and head south to al-Mawasi on the beach. It’s suspicious: I don’t live in al-Zaytoun and the road is not safe at all to al-Mawasi.

She replied that it feels like they’re asking all of us to head to al-Mawasi so they can drown us in the sea and be rid of us.

Bell jar revisited

I haven’t tasted chicken in five months. I attempted to transition to vegetarianism a year ago after watching a documentary about the health hazards of red meat and poultry, but it lasted only three days.

In Gaza, where vegetarianism is rare and options for vegetarian food are limited, the endeavor seemed nearly impossible.

Now, abstaining from chicken isn’t much of a challenge. A few days of war were sufficient to decimate all chicken stocks.

The taste feels like a distant memory now. I even asked my sister, who lives in Turkey, about the flavor of shawarma, a dish I used to enjoy weekly.

She said Syrian shawarma doesn’t compare to Gaza’s version, perhaps to make me feel as though nothing is missing in another world.

I contemplate Israel’s objectives, perplexed by the indiscriminate bombing.

A chicken farm? A bustling bakery with long queues?

Sheep wandering about minding their own business? A vital power generator?

Solar panels on a rooftop?

In the quiet solitude of my partially destroyed home, surrounded by the remnants of a life now shattered by war, I find myself reflecting on Sylvia Plath’s poignant imagery of the bell jar, where the world seems blank and motionless, like a bad dream.

As I gaze out at the desolation beyond my window, I can’t help but feel the weight of despair.

But amid the devastation, there is a flicker of resilience that refuses to be extinguished. It is the same resilience that has sustained my family through generations of displacement and hardship, the same resilience that keeps us rooted to this land, despite the constant threats to our existence.

Malak Hijazi is a comparative literature graduate.