It was while rebuilding his photography studio a third time that Muhammad Hajjaj, 23, decided to see the repeated destruction of his dream project in a new light.
An English-language business administration graduate, Hajjaj always conceived of running a business of his own that did not rely on his certificate or a boss, a consequence of the high unemployment rate and low prospects in Gaza’s battered and captive economy.
Further, he also chose to work with his passion. Since childhood, Hajjaj was relentlessly positive, interested in fashion and design and in making others smile.
“I wanted to offer a service for people that helps them keep some beautiful memories,” Hajjaj told The Electronic Intifada.
A photography studio was the perfect fit, and a good enough idea – not least because, as Hajjaj said, “there are always weddings in Gaza” – that in 2021, he and a friend, Muhammad Nassar raised $30,000 with support from their families to turn it into reality.
They built the studio on the beachfront in Gaza City. They took great care to fill it with trees, plants and flowers, colorful walls and photo backdrops.
The design and decor, unusual in Gaza, as well as the location on the beach, made it unique. And in addition to photos, the studio also planned to offer a video service for weddings, graduation ceremonies, and birthday parties.
Hajjaj named the studio Hollywood Beach to impart a sense of glamor and style.
In total, the studio cost $120,000. Hajjaj and Nassar signed a contract with the company building the studio to pay the outstanding $90,000 in $5,000 monthly installments – a significant cost, but one that also showed the confidence the partners had that their idea would be successful.
But fate, and Israel, intervened.
Just two days before the studio was due to open, Israel launched its 11-day aggression on the Gaza Strip in May 2021. On the third day of the onslaught, an airstrike hit the studio.
When reports of the bombing came, people were shocked because no one expected the studio to be a target.
Built without a roof, it was clearly not much of a hiding place for anyone or anything, and it should have been obvious to any drones flying overhead what the site was used for.
Try and try again
At the time of the bombing, Hajjaj had been watching TV – he seeks out comedies during times of conflict to keep his mind off the news – when someone in the neighborhood of the studio informed him of the strike and sent him photos. He immediately got in a taxi, fetched his business partner and went to check the damage.
Their inspection proved pointless. The studio suffered another two strikes during that May’s assault, leaving only rubble and some half-standing walls.
Now, what had been a source of hope for Hajjaj and Nassar, had become a liability. When the ceasefire was finally announced and people rushed into the streets to celebrate, the two went straight to what was left of the studio to work out what to do.
Engineers advised them to demolish what was left of the studio and rebuild completely.
Already in debt, and with their only source of income in rubble, the partners decided to double down and build again. They had to hurry, both to start earning in order to pay off their now expanding debts, and to take advantage of the summertime, the traditional wedding season.
“The rebuilding cost of the studio was $55,000. No one compensated us for our losses,” said Hajjaj.
The two looked elsewhere.
They shared their story on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform. Donations came freely, reaching some $20,000.
But with difficulty in transferring large sums to Gaza, where GoFundMe also doesn’t operate directly, in the end, the two partners secured $7,000 from the effort, facilitated by a friend in Canada.
And for the next three months, they worked around the clock, Hajjaj told The Electronic Intifada. And it paid off.
“The studio returned more beautiful than it was before the bombing. People from Rafah to Beit Hanoun came to enjoy capturing their memories in the studio,” Hajjaj said.
Until the place was bombed again.
In July 2022, Israel once again bombed Gaza. This time, Hajjaj was in Egypt for a two week holiday.
“Without thinking, I broke the vases in my hotel room after waking to the news. I felt helpless. I was not in Gaza to go and clean up. And it is not easy to return quickly,” he said, referencing slow and bureaucratic Egyptian processes at the border.
The bright side
When Hajjaj did return to Gaza, he went straight to the studio to get to work repairing the damage.
“Luckily,” he told The Electronic Intifada, “the damage was not like the first time. The rebuilding cost us $12,000.”
Yet again, however, he and his partner received no compensation. Yet again, the debts piled up, and with them, the pressure on Hajjaj and Nassar.
Yet rebuild they did and their determination to reconstruct again, and their ability to be thankful for simply being alive to do so, was inspiring to others. Friends and clients soon came to see him and Nassar as examples of resistance.
Hajjaj said his goal for the studio was not only to have a good life for himself and his family but also “to make Gaza a better place with sustainable projects” like his.
An inveterate optimist, Hajjaj always encourages others to look at the bright side of life and to work hard to have a good life. When people advised him to change the location of his studio, he maintained that nowhere in Gaza is safe from Israeli airstrikes.
“We should build because Palestine is our home, and it will always be our land,” he said.
Still, even the hardiest optimists get tested. Last month, Israel struck Gaza again.
Airstrikes hit empty land, a wedding hall, and – for the third time – the Hollywood Beach studio.
“I was sleeping when a neighbor of the studio called to tell me that an Israeli soldier had called him to warn the people around the studio to evacuate because they would bomb the studio,” Hajjaj recounted.
“The neighbor said he told the soldier that the studio was a photography studio and its owners were ordinary civilians with huge debt. The soldier told him that he knew, but that would make no difference.”
Hajjaj had installed a security camera that he could monitor on his phone. As he looked at the footage, the screen suddenly turned red.
“I heard a loud boom, and I just started crying without even noticing, remembering everything I had been through to establish this studio. Eventually, my mother calmed me down and told me we would build again. I went to wash my face. Then I went straight to the studio.”
This time, all glass in the studio, including windows and decor, were shattered. One wall was destroyed, and the electricity lines were cut.
And the timing is worse than before. Fewer people have weddings in winter, and there are less occasions to celebrate.
With operation costs and yet more debt incurred to rebuild, Hajjaj now has to draw on all his reserves of energy and optimism to go again.
He and Nassar are ready to rebuild yet again.
People tell Hajjaj he is a hero for persevering. But he considers himself just a normal person trying to do normal things.
“I’m not a hero. I’m a young man who wants to have a stable job, live in peace, and build for my country.”
He and I went to Marna House, a cafe and restaurant in Gaza, recently. There was a prize draw in the cafe.
Hajjaj and I both tried our luck.
He won a baby rattle. I won nothing.
“You were not lucky,” he told me. “But if we hadn’t played neither of us would have won anything. Building the studio again is just like a lottery. I don’t know if it will be destroyed again.”
But, he added, there is one substantial difference: Israel’s occupation.
“None of us ever decided to play that lottery.”
Ahmed Dremly is a Gaza-based freelance journalist, writer and translator.