Friday essay: ‘what else should I lose to survive?’ The young writers living – and dying – in Gaza

Please note that all our dreams are vanished.
I lost my house.
I lost 33 of my family members.
And I’m about to lose Palestine.
What else should I lose to survive?

These are messages sent to me via Facebook Messenger from a 24-year-old Palestinian writer, Abdallah Aljazzar, who, along with more than 2 million other Gazans, is spending his days just trying to survive.

While Gaza is under attack from Israel, Abdallah spends most days trying to secure food for the rest of his family, 30 of whom are living together under the same roof in the southern city of Rafah.

A young man hugs his brothers and sisters.

Abdallah with his siblings during this war.
Abdallah Aljazzar, CC BY

Abdallah and I were paired together through We Are Not Numbers, an online platform that celebrates and sheds light on Palestinian stories by linking mentors around the world with a new generation of Palestinian writers from Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora.

We Are Not Numbers was founded in 2015 by the American journalist, Pam Bailey, who I met when we both travelled to Gaza in March 2009 with the US feminist grassroots peace organisation, CODEPINK.

Read more:
The Gaza Strip − why the history of the densely populated enclave is key to understanding the current conflict

Bailey enlisted the help of Dr Ramy Abdu, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, (who also provided office space), Refaat Alareer, professor of English literature at Gaza’s Islamic University, (who helped train the students), and Ahmed Alnaouq, a journalist and human rights worker, whose story about the death of his brother, Ayman, in the 2014 war inspired the project.

To resist the erasure of Palestinian lives, they believed, a more nuanced and personal view of everyday life was needed. It needed to be told by Palestinians in their own words.

After eight years, the project has published more than 1100 stories by 350 contributors with the assistance of 150 mentors. These stories traverse joy and humour, rage and sorrow, covering topics such as everyday life and love under Israeli occupation; loss, grief, and recovery from war; the return of Palestinian prisoners; individual aspirations to become journalists, doctors, astronomers, or musicians, and so much more.

Refaat Alareer.
We are Not Numbers

Even now, during the current conflict, writers in Gaza are continuing to tell their stories, despite their very real fear that they might die.

In early December, one of the project’s founders, Refaat Alareer, was killed in an Israeli attack. An acclaimed poet, he died in Gaza City, along with his brother and sister and four of her children.

‘If I must die’

Refaat had posted a poem on his X social media account, titled “If I must die” on November 2. Since his death, this poem has been shared thousands of times around the world. He wrote, in part:

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story

I recently watched a video of Refaat, a father of six children, speaking to a Ted X audience in Shujaiya, Gaza, about the power of storytelling, about the power of words. He said:

I spend most of my time with my children, telling them stories; about them when they were kids, about myself, my mother, my grandmother. And sometimes we make up stories. I invite them to tell the story and to re-tell the story. Sometimes on purpose I start a story while one of the kids is absent, so that I can watch them re-tell the stories to each other, and the results are always amazing.

Refaat, a professor of comparative literature, had published his own writing in places such The New York Times, and edited Gaza Writes Back (2014), an anthology of short stories by young Palestinian writers and co-edited Gaza Unsilenced (2015), a collection of essays, reportage, images, and poetry.

Heartbreakingly, four We are Not Numbers writers have been killed in Gaza during this conflict, so far. According to Israeli officials, around 1,200 Israeli and foreign nationals have been killed in Israel as a result of the Hamas-led attacks on October 7, and according to Palestinian health officials, 20,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces, and around 300 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank.

On November 24, just before the temporary ceasefire began, Mohammed Zaher Hamo, an aspiring journalist, was killed in an Israeli airstrike, along with his father and brothers. In an article published in July, Mohammed described writing the script for, and acting in, a play at the Islamic University in Gaza, and the joy of bringing his family to see his work. The performance was interrupted by an Israeli bombing nearby. He wrote:

In the blink of an eye, our lives had been turned upside down again […] fears and tears occupy the stage at this time — not art and laughter, as I had hoped.

Screenshot of a tribute to Mohammed Zaher Hamo on the project website.
We are Not Numbers.

Yousef Maher Dawas, a student of psychoanalysis, was killed on October 14. Yousef wrote a moving article earlier this year describing how the trees in his family’s orchard – “trees that used to bear the fruit of olives, oranges, clementines, loquat, guavas, lemons and pomegranates” – were destroyed by an Israeli bombing in 2022.

Mahmoud Alnaouq, another brother of the project’s co-founder Ahmed Alnaouq, was killed on October 20th. A talented writer, Mahmoud worked as an outreach officer at the think-tank Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. He had just been given a masters scholarship to study in Australia.

In a 2019 article published on We are Not Numbers, Mahmoud wrote about an aspiring Gazan singer, Hashem. Gaza, said Hashem,

is not just wars, death and ruin. In Gaza, there are singers, actors, painters and more who want to show you their talents and tell you their stories.

Huda Al-Sosi, a mother of two and part of the newest cohort of writers in the project, was dedicated to learning the art and craft of writing and studied it passionately. In a tribute to her published on the project website, Huda is described as having “boundless compassion and selflessness [that] left a lasting impact on everyone fortunate enough to cross her path.”

Palestinians salvage their belongings after an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Wednesday, Dec. 13.
Hatem Ali/AP

Read more:
10 books to help you understand Israel and Palestine, recommended by experts

White, silver or gold?

I am an artist who uses expanded documentary techniques – video, photography, sound and writing – to address social and environmental justice issues, such as climate change and the legacy of nuclear testing programs. I have always believed in the capacity of art to reach people in ways that other forms of information may not.

I travelled in and out of Gaza three times in 2009 and had always imagined going back. I had made long-lasting friendships with people there, most of whom have now left to pursue their dreams abroad.

I first got involved in We Are Not Numbers in 2021 and have worked with six different writers as a mentor. I help them shape their stories through spelling, grammar, and structure, but mostly I just support them to document and tell their stories in the ways they know best.

During this conflict, I have been in contact with three writers involved in the project: Abdallah Aljazzar, who grew up in Rafah and studied English language and literature at al-Azhar University. Habiba Masood, a medical student from Jabaliya, and Aya Alghazzawi, an English language teacher for the Palestinian Ministry of Education in Gaza.

Habiba Masood.
We are Not Numbers

Last week, Habiba – who is currently sheltering with 26 other people in a small house in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza – told me, “I feel helpless. I keep thinking about what I could be doing now if I was in my home, in my bed.”

Would it help, I asked her, to imagine a normal day of life if this wasn’t going on?

She responded in a voice message on WhatsApp:

So, it’s Wednesday and it’s a rainy day in my normal life. I would think about skipping my class, my 8am class, and staying in my bed. My mum would be making she’reya, which is like sweet noodles. It keeps us warm and it’s sweet. I would be lying in my bed with my cat, Taymoor, next to me.

Unable to stay in the impossible imagination, Habiba broke into the reality of the situation.

I don’t know what happened to him. We left him in Jabaliya. My fiancé went to our home, and he couldn’t find Taymoor, so I don’t actually know if he is dead or alive, if he’s eating or if he’s hungry. But you can’t feel sad about a cat, when all those humans are being killed.

Habiba described having arguments with her fiancé about what colour they should make their new kitchen: white, silver, or gold. “We won’t have to choose now about the rest of the decorations and the furniture of the house,” she said.

Then she went back to the story:

After eating she’reya in my bed, I would be so lazy, and my mum would scream at me to go and wash the dishes and help her in tidying up the rest of the house. That’s just a morning in a normal life in Gaza.

Habiba ended by saying:

There is nothing that we look forward to after the war. We just want to live. We don’t know how to live after the war.

“I am not a number’

My most recent conversations with Abdallah over the past couple of weeks have been about how he and his family are preparing to resettle – either back in their bombed neighbourhood in Rafah, or through forced exile in the Sinai desert, (many have claimed the Israeli Government is considering the latter move).

In a piece that Abdallah wrote for We are Not Numbers called “Packing for exile” he said

It has been 62 days trying to cope with the war situation. I feel betrayed every time I lose a relative of mine — and so far, 32 members of the Aljazarr family have been killed. I feel that the world does not care about us and that my turn is near.

A portrait of a young man.

Abdallah Aljazzar.
We Are Not Numbers

Aya, meanwhile, dreams of getting a master’s degree.“ I don’t want to die now,” she says. “I am not a number.”

Aya is sheltering in the south, as instructed by Israel.

In Frames of War, American scholar, Judith Butler, asks a central question “who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, what makes for a grievable life?”

How is what is happening now framing some lives as grievable and others as not?

A mother holds her dead baby.

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at the hospital in Rafah, Gaza, Tuesday, December 12.
Fatima Shbair/AP

A poem by one of the We Are Not Numbers writers Shahd Safi, called “October 6”, powerfully describes the loss of daily life, the joy of studying literature and the yearning to return to it. It was published on December 3, 2023.

I yearn for a past life,
before the world turned dark.

I ache for mornings
when I walked to class,
my book bag hanging
from my shoulder in Al Aqsa University.

I mourn the bus ride
from Rafah to Gaza,

where my university stood.
I fear it is rubble now.
On the bus, I listened to music,
felt the breeze on my cheeks as I stepped off,
ready to learn again.

I listen for the lectures,
the poetry classes,
the stories by Dr. Ghannam
about Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, all those
who molded the world with words.

I try to capture again
the spark in Dr. Junina’s eyes
as he unraveled the mysteries of syntax and grammar
among words that shape me.

Among voices along the street,
I hear Dr. Eid’s voice, resonating with the pain of Palestine, his words carrying generations of struggle and resistance.

I glimpse again his steady eyes
when he spoke of the Nakba and Naksa, and hope
for a free Palestine.

I grieve for the breaks between lectures,
when I wandered the Gaza beach.
Will I feel the sand
under my feet again?

I yearn for the car-ride home through the streets of Salah El Deen.

I still catch the spark
in my mother’s eyes
that welcomed me home
in Al Jawwazat, a warm hug at the door and lunch on the table.

I want the exhaustion
of long hours studying,
not this trudging down shattered streets and standing in line.

Can I fall now into a nap,
dive once more
into another world,
and dream, then awaken,
feeling intoxicated and comforted, ready for a new day of work?

Where is the fire in my soul
for the worlds within books, the wisdom and solace
and passion I found in them.

I long for dreams of graduating,
of reaching to take a diploma in my hands, not this piece of bread.

Standing on hills of rubble,
I mourn for the person I used to be.

Correction: This article has been amended to clarify the source of the estimates of the death toll from the October 7 Hamas attack.

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