In Gaza, we are born believing that happiness is beyond the borders. We study, work, get married, have children and die without ever feeling that we have experienced true happiness.
I tried to seek it. I formed a music ensemble. I worked as a journalist, despite being a student in a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. I graduated from university with excellent grades.
But there was always something missing: freedom.
In 2014, I had an opportunity to attend a language course in France, but I couldn’t travel because of Israel’s assault on Gaza that year. Instead of visiting France, I faced imminent death for 51 days.
That long, exhausting experience compelled me to question my future and my choices.
I applied for a scholarship to complete my master’s degree in France. I was the only Palestinian in Gaza chosen for the scholarship the year I applied. I won a place in a master’s program in communications at Paris 8 University.
Cost of freedom
For a Palestinian in Gaza, to choose freedom means to lose many other things.
First, I had to leave my home.
“When someone leaves Gaza,” my mother says, “it always feels like the last time we’ll see them.”
Other students are able to go home during school breaks. But I cannot, for fear of being trapped in Gaza again.
To be free and happy, I had to begin from scratch.
I spent my last months in Gaza obsessing over the possibility of not being able to travel because of the siege. I wanted to spend that time savoring my mother’s cooking and walking around my hometown.
But, not knowing if I would be able to leave in time for the beginning of my program in France, all I could do was wait. I spent my days and nights worrying, instead of making proper goodbyes.
My course was set to start in September, so in August I tried to make my way out of Gaza, easier said than done.
I tried to go to Egypt through Rafah crossing, the sole point of entry and exit for most of Gaza’s two million residents, but Cairo’s prolonged closure of the gates meant there was no guarantee I could travel. I was number 17,000 on the list of people registered and waiting to cross – there were that many others waiting in line ahead of me.
I considered paying smugglers a small fortune in advance to ensure my exit from Gaza – a journey that would entail crossing from Gaza to Egypt, sleeping on the ground for one night and crossing the Sinai the next day. A very dangerous trip, given the instability and violence in the region.
But after I said my goodbyes and was on my way to Rafah, I received the phone call that changed my life.
A French consulate employee told me: “Mousa, don’t go through Rafah. We got Israeli and Jordanian permits so you can leave from Erez.”
I was skeptical at first, but accepted when told I would be solely responsible for myself should I choose to cross through Rafah.
Erez checkpoint is the only point of passage for travelers between Gaza and Israel, and it’s almost impossible to attain a permit to leave through it.
In late August, Israeli authorities imposed new restrictions on Palestinians leaving Gaza via Erez. I wasn’t allowed to take any electronic devices other than my mobile phone. I also had to pack everything I owned into two handbags because hard shell cases are prohibited at Erez.
My biggest fear was not being able to take my musical instrument, the oud, with me. But I decided to try.
On 7 September, I headed to Erez with two heavy duffle bags and my fragile oud in its soft case, unfit for a three-day journey to Paris.
After long hours of stalling and intensive scanning of my oud, I was allowed to enter Erez. I was made to sign a document agreeing I would not go back to Gaza for one year. I was not told by the Israeli agents why.
Mousa, Moses, Moshe
Being named after the prophet of Judaism is common among Muslims, as we believe in Judaism and Christianity as part of our religion.
At first, I thought it was a coincidence that every officer at Erez smiled after reading my name. But that did not spare me the two-hour wait. Even Moshe from Gaza needs a permit to enter Israel, the Jewish state.
“How do you feel?” the driver, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, asked me as we left Erez, the worst question a prisoner can be asked when leaving the only place they’d ever known.
I expected to spend a while in the car before feeling like I was in a different place. But I was shocked: a new world was just beyond Erez. What a world! Two million people imprisoned just behind those gates!
I did not answer the driver’s question. I was completely speechless.
I kept asking myself: is this Palestine? Or is it Israel? My father fought for this land. Is it ours? My father’s phone call interrupted my thoughts.
“Did you see the land?” he asked.
“What land? Everything in front of me is endless flat landscape.”
“Al-Masmiyya is just after the plain. Don’t miss it.”
“Even you wouldn’t be able to recognize it after all those years! I will try to find it.”
“Enjoy Palestine, son.”
Al-Masmiyya is the village my grandparents were expelled from in 1948. Although I couldn’t find it, just the idea of looking for it made me feel like I was in Palestine. Nothing but Palestine.
In the day I spent in Amman, Jordan, and during my flights from Amman to Rome, and from Rome to Paris, I asked myself if I would ever get used to freedom.
It’s a confusing feeling. I am free, but my family and loved ones are still trapped in Gaza, many of them waiting for a chance to escape to a cold and distant place, just for the chance to feel free.
It does not feel like home here. There is no mother, cute nephews, or even the sea. But the feeling of freedom is worth every tear that follows video calls with my family in our cozy home.
Mine wasn’t a hero’s journey. I am just an ambitious young man who worked hard to realize his dream. The hardships we face in Gaza don’t make us superhumans. We are normal people with legitimate dreams and resilient hope.
Mousa Tawfiq is a journalist from Gaza.