I should never have left Gaza

The Rafah crossing in southern Gaza is where the author’s grueling journey to Qatar began.

STR APA images

It was October 2019, and I was newly engaged.

I was in Gaza, and my fiance Ahmed was in Qatar. We had yet to meet in person, and the internet connection in Gaza was so bad I could hardly make out his face on our video calls.

It would be nearly four years until we would meet and get married.

First, there was COVID-19. Amid a surge in cases of the virus in Gaza in 2020, and a lack of vaccines and adequate medical supplies, I couldn’t travel to Qatar.

Then, in 2021, I was planning another trip to Qatar to meet him once I completed my final exams in English Education at the Islamic University of Gaza. My trip was a few weeks away when Israel attacked Gaza in May of that year.

We had to evacuate our home and find a “safer” place. Even amid the Israeli airstrikes, my mind was on my exams. I was certain Israel would bomb our home and destroy all my books.

My mother had refused to let me take all my books when we evacuated. She was convinced Israel would see them as weapons.

“What if they killed us just because you carry these books?” she said. “They kill every faint light of knowledge. To them, they are not books or words. To them, they are bombs.”

I hid my poor books under our sofa to shield them from the missiles. Luckily, they and I survived the ruthless aggression, and I eventually scored high marks on my exams.

But, again, my meeting Ahmed was postponed.

En route to Qatar

Finally, in July 2023, I made it to Qatar to meet Ahmed.

The journey there was hell.

I had to leave Gaza through the southern Rafah crossing. It took 12 hours, from 6 am to 6 pm, just to get through the crossing. I lost track of the number of checkpoints. The heat was brutal. It was a dehumanizing trip. I cried until I passed out in the back of a taxi in Egypt.

The only thing that kept me going was the thought of Ghassan Kanafani’s novel, Men in the Sun.

In it, three Palestinians travel across the desert in the back of a truck. They go through checkpoints and are humiliated. They don’t survive in the end. I now understood the novel in a deeply personal way.

I arrived in Qatar, full of anxiety and excitement. I asked myself: Will Ahmed look like the person I could barely see on my phone screen in Gaza? Will his voice be the same?

Besides Egypt, this was my first time outside of Gaza. The details of this foreign place were overwhelming: the buildings, the streets.

Ahmed greeted me with flowers. It was like a dream, but I found myself without words. I was silent.

He asked why, and I could barely get the words out: It was the shock of seeing him for the first time, of being in a new place, of the journey, of everything.

He understood the mixture of happiness and agony I was experiencing. He knew it would take time to get used to everything.

This was two weeks before our wedding.

My beloved friends in Gaza

We’d planned the wedding online, before my arrival.

The wedding hall, the decorations, every detail. I even chose my bed and home furnishings online. The only thing we chose together was Ahmed’s suit. At that moment, I was happy.

My friends and family in Gaza couldn’t attend the wedding, and I missed them dearly. Even uploading the pictures and videos of the wedding took forever for them.

Now, four months after my wedding, I find myself wishing I could return to Gaza. This might seem counterintuitive, given Israel’s genocidal war on my home.

But Gaza is all I think about. I watch television 24/7. Every day it is a new massacre.

My friends have been killed by Israeli attacks.

Hanin Abu Hayya, Haya Abu Warda, Fatima Abu Abaid, and my student Hala Abu Sada.

They were ambitious women with big dreams.

Hanin and I studied together at university. She wanted to be an English teacher. She graduated a week before she was killed.

Haya was a mother of two children. She told me, “When I become a mom, I’m going to teach my kids well so they can speak English like you.” Before she was killed, she told a mutual friend to light a candle over her grave. “I am afraid of being alone in darkness,” she said.

Haya’s daughter was also killed. Her son is now without a mother.

My student Hala was unforgettable. She stuck in my mind from the first time I met her. She loved to post videos on TikTok. She wanted to be a doctor.

The Israeli occupation killed them all.

No safe place remains

Israel bombed my university on 9 October. It is now a pile of rubble.

Some days, I spent more time at the university than at home. When I saw on TV that it had been bombed, I was in shock. I couldn’t imagine that place without life. I desperately wanted it back.

But it seems my mother was right. Israel wants us to be encircled with ignorance. They have killed knowledge. They have destroyed everything.

Every place where I once felt happy and safe is no longer there. No safe place remains.

My family is running out of water, gas and electricity. I feel guilty that I have these things and that I cannot give them an hour of electricity or a glass of clean water.

It’s been a week since I last spoke to them. Through another relative, I know that my family is “fine.” Fine just means that they haven’t been killed yet.

I am no longer in Gaza, but all I want is to be there so I can die with my family.

When I left Gaza in July, I told all my beloved friends and family: “Maybe we won’t see each other again. Take care of yourselves. I love you all.”

Rana al-Shorbaji is an English teacher and writer.