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Despair breeds hope
21 min read

Well–known images from the spectacle of the Palestinian concern

Ihab al-Gherbawi is a writer and a cultural activist from Gaza, who studied English Literature at Al-Aqsa University, and has penned articles on various cultural websites. His latest works center on the awe-inspiring paintings featured in the exhibition of Palestinian Concern.

Between May 11th, 2021 and November 10th 2021, a series of significant events occurred that showcased the most impactful and poignant works of art from the Palestinian Exposition in Gaza. These works of art represent the harsh realities faced by over 40% of the male population in Gaza between the ages of 18 and 40. Throughout this article, the harsh realities faced by over 40% of Gaza's population, specifically young men between the ages of 18 and 40, are accurately depicted, and leave us with no story untold

Credits Text: Ihab al-Gherbawi Translation: Wael Sawah Illustration: Majdal Nateel May 26 2023

Painting I: The Visa

In May 2021, amidst the violent and recurrent conflict in the Gaza Strip, I was unsure if I would make it out alive. Obtaining a visa to leave the area was far more complicated than the paperwork required for a visit to Istanbul, where my parents live. Survival was my top priority, not just for me, but also for my wife and my seven-month-old daughter. I knew that the possibility of obtaining a visa for a deceased individual only applied in certain circumstances, and would not be an option for us.

My house is on a street corner, exposed to the east and north. However, my house is protected by a neighboring building to the south. It acts as a shield against any potential danger from artillery shells, which have a margin of error of up to 200 meters. To ensure the utmost safety, I have carefully considered the urban planning of my house and concluded that it is safest to remain indoors in a sheltered location with two walls– one from the neighboring house and another from within the residence, to mitigate any harm in the unlikely event of an attack. The safest place to be within the home is the heart of the house.

My wife placed a simple mattress in a small corridor in the middle of the house, while I attempted to create a barrier between our living space and the outside world by counting the walls that separated us from the street. Sadly, there were only two, but I felt content with the measures taken. But with the new wave of bombings targeting the area, I knew we needed a better hiding spot. My house was about 20 meters off the street. If targeted directly by heavy missiles, this would create a crater at least ten meters in diameter. Maybe the other 10 meters could protect the house from falling. But it certainly wouldn't be enough to prevent some of the interior walls, windows, and other insulators we hide behind.

As the night of May 18th, 2021 approached, I scrolled through various social media platforms. What I came across was nothing short of ironic. Israeli jets were taking off from their airstrip in Hebron, causing great concern amongst our people in Hebron. The fighter squadron was en route to Gaza. As a result, warnings flooded Facebook, hoping to alert those in the affected area. It was a sobering reminder that in times of war, every action can mean the difference between life and death.

The jet fighters that evening had already executed a series of 'fire belts', which entailed shelling various points in the street infrastructure. In Khan Yunis, in the middle of the Strip, aircraft had already bombed several streets. Two nights prior, the fighters had conducted a fire belt on al- Wehda Street, claiming the lives of over 40 Palestinians. Although the rockets did not hit their homes directly, they felt the impact of the shelling. It was around midnight, which added to my apprehension. I gazed out from the balcony again, estimating the distance and time for the jet fighters to reach the north from the south of the Strip. I realized I had only three minutes to survive.

I quickly gathered some important things for myself, my wife, and our daughter. My wife reminded me to bring identification cards and laptops. But I told her not to worry because if we lose them, I can always issue new ones. And if we don't need them, it's not a big deal. My wife asked where we were going, and I told her it was just next door.

When we finally made it to our neighbors' house, they were wondering why we left our place. I told them how scared I was and they just laughed it off, but they were very welcoming.

We spent the night feeling safe. But it was not only because we were surrounded by houses in all directions, including my own, except for the north side. It was because we were surrounded by a large number of people. Chatting the night away, we were too busy to feel afraid. Except for when a new explosion occurred. A stark reminder of the agony.

I thought that if they bombed the street, my house would likely collapse. But that wouldn't have made a significant impact at the time since it wouldn't have fallen on us.

As the night passed with no bombings on the street, I braced myself for the taunts of my neighbors who had hosted me. At 6 a.m., I left for my home on the third floor. Just as I was about to unlock the door, I heard screams filling the neighborhood. I shouted from my balcony, asking what was happening. Someone told me that the street was going to be bombed.

My street in northern Gaza was the first to receive a warning call about the upcoming bombing. I quickly removed the windows and gas tube in my kitchen overlooking the street and returned my belongings to my neighbors' house. I felt a sense of victory over my neighbors who had mocked me earlier, as if to say, "I told you so." Despite the circumstances, I couldn't resist showing off my analytical ability.

The street was warned of a missile attack, and we anxiously awaited its arrival. It was postponed to nighttime because of new communications from the Israeli side. This gave me enough time to leave the area and gather my important documents and belongings. I hailed a car to take me to the Sheikh Radwan area where my sister lives, ensuring that I was the only passenger for safety reasons. We stayed at her house for two nights. They bombed the street on the first night.

ِAfter this whole episode ended, I could finally reconsider the visa application. I could not make a lump sum payment for it without prior financial planning. To apply for the visa, I needed to renew my passport, as well as obtain passports for my wife and daughter, which would cost around $200. The visa fees for three individuals amount to approximately $500, resulting in a total cost of $700. My monthly salary is $1,000.

I had to wait until the end of the month before starting the proceedings. I progressed through an office in the Gaza Strip, which had to send my documents to Ramallah for certification. The Erez crossing was closed, so I had to wait for it to open. But the office I dealt with was thankfully efficient and transferred my documents to Ramallah through Egypt and Jordan. Normally, it takes seven to ten days to issue or renew a passport in Gaza, but mine took three weeks to be issued. I thanked the office for their help. If it weren’t for the transfer through Egypt and Jordan, the process would have taken even longer.

We are currently waiting for approval from the Turkish Embassy for our applications. It typically takes between three to four weeks. This means that in the worst-case scenario, I would have received my passport back with a Turkey visa by July 20, 2021. But nothing yet. Because of the recent onslaught, many residents of the Gaza Strip have expressed a desire to leave, with Turkey being the only available destination.

The Turkish Embassy received about 15,000 requests immediately after the 2021 aggression. So, the waiting period has been extended. Finally, on August 16th, 2021, I received my passport, allowing me to imagine a world where I don't have to worry about my baby being covered in blood and rubble.

Painting II: The Crossing
I was lucky that the required "coordination" fee was only $400 when I traveled in September, and I saw this decrease as a positive sign that my trip would be successful. Paying a $400-bribe is much more preferable than paying $900. Despite the difficulties and obstacles, there is nothing quite like the feeling of being alive and surviving.

Before I could reach my parents' house in Istanbul, I first had to reach Cairo Airport as there are no airports or ports in the Gaza Strip. Gazans are often said to have a short memory, but in reality, they have a high ability to adapt to misfortunes. Once a Gazan begins the practical steps to leave the Strip, they are confronted with a nightmare that haunts them day and night, sometimes worse than the war itself.

Typically, one would begin by booking an airline ticket, but in our case, we must first ensure that we can enter Egyptian territory. This is a guaranteed option if one can afford the required "coordination" fee, which Gazans must pay to Egypt for permission to enter, separate from the visa fee. This fee can be as much as $3,000 per person but typically ranges from $500 to $900.

If I am denied entry, I would have to pay for an expensive last-minute airline ticket. Even if I book on a specific date, my name may not be included in the travel permit statement, resulting in the loss of the prepaid ticket value. Therefore, the best option is to book after confirming the ability to cross the border. This can only be done by traveling through the Gaza barriers, entering Egypt, presenting my passport, and waiting until 6 pm for the state's decision.

And that’s what I did on September 1st, 2021. Egypt finally allowed me to go to Cairo Airport. But I was accompanied by Egyptian intelligence officials for the entire 400 km-journey to ensure I did not exit the bus. This is because the bus is also used to deport males between 18 and 40 years old from the Gaza Strip to Cairo Airport. The buses are heavily guarded. During the journey, we were delayed at one barrier for over 3 hours; I found myself pleading:

In a solemn tone, the soldier imparted knowledge of a once-owned land to the exiled individual and asked him to practice the virtue of patience.

What is the age for deportation?

Shall we count the hindrances that have been laid in my path?

Within the depths of our hearts lies the progeny of the three Shabbat stars, whose authority and sway is undeniable.

Take note of my mother's request to bring the cardamom to a fervent boil.

For the mere presence of firearms in my possession during my journey invites contemplation.

How many guns do we need to safeguard oneself against a child?

And the soldier says:

One must spend an extra night protected by the shield of their flesh and blood.

You will bow and be forgotten; your body will burn. Within me lies the secret to survival, devoid of any extravagance or companionship.

Thank me for the secret of humility, don't turn away or take pictures because I have a dedicated soldier with me.

Don't you complain about the distance, labyrinth, and flame.

Upon our arrival at Cairo Airport, we were warmly welcomed and placed in a room that was quite spacious and equipped with new seats resembling those found in airport lounges. The room also boasted a large bathroom, and a designated smoking area. The next day, while in the hallway, another officer approached me and two other young travelers. They requested that we purchase "LM" cigarettes for him. We each contributed $7 towards the $21 cost. The officer then escorted me to my first-class flight and even labeled my ticket as "VIP". Once at the free market, the officer declared I was free to do as I pleased. I had changed into fresh, youthful clothing, spritzed on a pleasant fragrance, and conversed solely in English. I was now both free and a VIP.

Painting III: Istanbul
As a Palestinian, I initially faced some discrimination on public transport in Turkey due to my Arabic speaking. However, once I disclosed my Palestinian identity, the treatment improved significantly. I quickly learned to be cautious about speaking Arabic in public and avoided unnecessary interactions with strangers. When I had to communicate, I often pretended to be deaf and used sign language. This approach elicited compassion and apologies from Turks who felt bad for not understanding sign language. It also turned the tables and made the speaker feel inadequate rather than judging me.

On my final day in Istanbul, I made the difficult decision to leave after a 70-day stay and return to Gaza. While standing on the bridge at the Metrobus-Metrobus-Avcilar station, a Turkish man approached me and asked for a cigarette. Initially, I tried to explain that I didn't speak Turkish, but when I told him I was from Palestine, specifically Gaza, he embraced me. It felt like Istanbul was bidding me a kind farewell on my last night there. I gave him two cigarettes, and he hugged me again before saying some words in Turkish and leaving.

Painting IV: The Return

As a 30-year-old, if you were to ask me for the most important advice I've ever received, I would tell you to avoid eating while returning to Gaza and remember to use the restroom. My experience at Cairo Airport on November 9, 2021, was distressing. I handed over my passport to an airport employee who informed me that I was being deported back to Gaza.

I waited for the officer in charge of me for half an hour before being taken to a room designated for travelers heading to Gaza. The officer collected my travel documents, phone, and had me remove my belt and shoes, including shoelaces. In the room, I found 15 people of different nationalities, including an erratic American, a Cuban, an elderly man from Iraq, two young people from Syria, three from Yemen, and the rest were Egyptians. It was apparent that the room was reserved for individuals who had committed offenses such as false paperwork, irregularities, or drugs.

The situation was distressing, but a young Egyptian man tried to comfort me: “Don't worry, Uncle Ragab will come in an hour. He is a respectable and kind officer,” the young man said. It was almost 9 pm, and I had to wait for six hours for the bus to move towards Gaza. I asked the young man when Uncle Ragab would arrive, and he replied: “In two more hours.”

It was a trying time for me, but it taught me to be prepared for the unexpected and always have a plan.

As I waited, I tried to distract myself by listening to people's stories, doing a quick calculation in my head: two hours with the officer, then Uncle Ragab would arrive, allowing me to take my cigarettes and light one. This was after more than ten hours of travel from Istanbul to Amman to Cairo.

Among the individuals in the room was a young man who was not a Gazan but knew Gaza well. It was clear from his accent that he was Syrian. Later, I found out that he had been in the room for over a month after being caught trying to leave Egypt on a fake visa to Holland. His extended stay meant that he had interacted with many Gazans returning home, and they had shared their knowledge of different places in Gaza with him. He had become quite familiar with it.

As I observed him, I thought to myself: he had been here for a month, while I would only be here for a few hours. It was a small comfort in a difficult situation.

The arrival of another young Syrian, about 20 years old, briefly disrupted the uneasy calm in the room. He settled in, but his demeanor changed dramatically when the duty officer called him out. After a few minutes, he returned, looking ashen and defeated. He took a prayer mat and prayed before climbing into bed, facing the wall. We could hear his sobs.

After an hour of crying, we finally talked to him and learned of his desperate situation. He had left Lebanon with an expired visa and was arrested at Cairo Airport. The duty officer's decision was to send him back to Syria, where he feared for his life. "As soon as I arrive at the airport in Syria, the army will take me and execute me, as they did to others, including some of my family members," he explained through his tears. We prayed for him that night, hoping for a miracle.

Despite feeling empathy and sorrow for his plight, I couldn't help but feel a sense of relief that my stay in the room was only temporary. I was in a better position than him, I reminded myself. I only had a few more hours to endure before returning to my home and loved ones.

Uncle Ragab finally arrived around midnight, and we were allowed to take our belongings. He even arranged for us to have something to eat. However, I regret not paying closer attention to his instructions: "Remember, your journey to Gaza is long. Don't eat, and don't forget to use the restroom."

I was very hungry. I hadn't eaten anything since yesterday. So I gave the handyman 50 pounds for a chicken sandwich. I ate it and enjoyed it. Then I quickly went to the bathroom to poop, but only urine came out. There was no stool or poop.

At 3am, we got on the bus. At 6am, we moved on. I imagined myself lying on my bed at home, speaking Arabic without anyone making me feel unwanted… But that didn’t last long. At exactly 10am, we were at the al-Fardan Ferryboat, which separates us from Gaza for about 7-9 hours. But I did not know what was waiting for me. My stomach had digested what I had eaten in the detention room, and now I had to defecate.

The bus is moving and there is no way to stop it. I asked the officer in charge on the bus when we could stop. “In Arish! In Arish!” he said.

I was alarmed and the fear of the whole world inhabited me. I informed him of my condition, at which point he said to me: “Was it necessary for you to fill your stomach with food! We can't stop anywhere.”

At any moment my body is going to involuntarily pass stool. And here I am, about six hours away from Arish. All I could think about was the aftermath of my involuntary defecation: how will the other deportees see me? How will they tolerate the smell of excrement for six hours? Because of the movement on the bus, the stomach contractions won’t stop. I'm going to poop any minute now.

I try to resist the feeling by thinking about something else – Gaza, the old neighborhood, the neighbors, the house, anything – but nothing works. I knew that focusing on the urge to poop would only be accompanied by excruciating pain. I writhed in my seat and tried to sleep.

I figured my stomach might be able to resist the feeling and allow me to fall into a normal sleep. That way I could put off pooping until the morning, when it was possible.

At some point, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up, I wondered how long I had been sleeping - an hour maybe? There were still five more hours until we reached Arish. All I could think about was whether I had farted in my sleep and if it was audible. I turned around to look at the other passengers' faces. Were they disgusted with me? Although my stomach seemed more settled, the urge to poop urgently returned.

I wanted to cry. At that moment, I was willing to barter anything I had for just one minute, even in the desert.

I went back to the officer to explain my situation. He answered angrily, "I told you that we would only stop in Arish. You bear the consequences of your actions!" His words seemed logical, considering that Uncle Ragab had given us instructions. But I tried to go to the bathroom. I swear to God I tried...

There were still four hours to go until we reached Arish, and the pain was not subsiding. I tried to get some sleep, but I was terrified that I would pass gas in my sleep.

After three hours and more than 200 km, we were stopped at a major checkpoint, where we had to wait for a while. It was an opportunity for me to find a bathroom. I went to the officer and told him I needed to go to the bathroom. He asked me, "Do you want to share the bathroom with the army? You're crazy!" His suspicion was understandable, considering the risks involved.

With two hours left until our arrival, my stomach had developed defense mechanisms against the discomfort. I don't know how, but the pain slowly dissipated. However, it was still there. I wasn't the only one feeling this way at that moment. Everyone was exhausted, including the officer himself. He stopped at a highway cafeteria to pick up an important paper. He disappeared for a while, and we assumed he went to the bathroom with the bus driver. It made sense for him to go alone; he wouldn't have been able to control 50 passengers clamoring for the bathroom. It would have taken at least an hour, assuming each person got even one minute in the bathroom.

At this point, I couldn't hold back my tears any longer. It was like the first time I cried in first grade when the teacher wouldn't let me go to the bathroom. The pain in my stomach was unbearable, and the thought of spending the night at the Rafah crossing was becoming more likely by the minute.

As we approached Arish at 6:30 pm, the officer delivered the crushing news that we wouldn't be allowed to disembark there and would have to continue to the crossing. This meant another hour and a half of agony for me. My stomach was in knots, and I was on the verge of breaking down.

But then, a miracle happened. The officer received a call, and after a brief conversation, he announced that the crossing had been kept open for us. We would make it across that night.

Relief washed over me like a wave, and the pain in my stomach subsided. We arrived at the crossing just in time, and I couldn't have been more grateful. The experience taught me a valuable lesson: always listen to Uncle Ragab's instructions, especially when it comes to using the restroom.

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