Sunday, 19 May 2024

Living in the UK, going home to Gaza is a nightmare – I missed my dad's funeral

Do you ever get anxious as you watch a WhatsApp message being sent and wait for it to have a double and then blue ticks?

For me, this apprehension is amplified whenever I am messaging my family after Israeli bombs fall on the besieged Gaza Strip – my former home.

Not only do I wait for the blue ticks, but I keep staring at the screen to make sure that my mother, brothers or sisters in the family group chat are all typing back. This is usually after numerous calls during the day to ensure that they are OK.

At night, I don’t want to fall asleep because I do not know what I will wake up to. 

It still takes me by surprise every time Gaza is bombarded – maybe because I now live in London. Such is the life of a Palestinian writer in the UK who keeps watching the news from afar, hoping not to read a familiar name in the list of casualties.

Growing up, I lived in Jabalia Camp, one of the most densely-populated refugee camps in the world – certainly the highest in Gaza. Most people were like me, whose families came from villages near the Gaza Strip and were expelled during the Nakba – Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ – in 1948 when Israel was established.

My grandfather came from a beautiful village called Deir Sneid, a painting of which is currently hung at the Nottingham Castle Museum. My dad showed us pictures of Deir Sneid – where he once lived too – and talked to us about the big Jerusalem stone house that my grandfather owned, along with so many farms.

I often wondered how my life would have turned out to be as a landlord of the farms that my ancestors owned.

I grew up learning English from a young age and listening to Western music where possible. Queen’s We will Rock You and I Want to Break Free had completely different meanings for me compared to the average teenager in London.

Every now and again, a reminder of our impossible life would come through in the form of Israel assassinating a resistance leader or invading Gaza, power cuts, or queuing at the UN refugee aid centre, waiting to pick up my family’s rations of flour, vegetable oil and powdered baby milk. 

I hated every second of that long, busy queue, where I had to present my refugee card and wait for a long time. I didn’t have any money to hire a donkey cart, so I had to carry the 60kg sack of flour all the way home.

Being raised in a refugee camp, all I wanted to do was to pursue my education and leave Gaza to get a PhD so I could return to teach at the university.

So, at the age of 18, I studied English literature at Al Azhar University in Gaza and was lost in a world of books that took me to a reality that I could only experience through the pages. I loved Charles Dickens and read all of his works when possible. 

When I received my offer from the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University) for my postgraduate education, I felt that a shaft of light had come into my life. I wanted to hang on to it as it was my only hope.

I packed my stuff, mostly books, terrified of what was to come. I knew there was no turning back because the situation in Gaza was getting worse everyday. I didn’t know when I would see my parents and siblings again.

The way to the Rafah border with Egypt – one of our only permitted routes of travel – was dotted with Israeli checkpoints, long queues in the middle of Gaza Strip, and smoke that made the sky very grey. It was the end of the world – or my world in Gaza. 

When I finally made it to London in 2002, the city looked so familiar. I was puzzled, it felt like I had been there before – little did I know that it was printed in my mind through Dickens’ description. 

No one warned me about the weather in London though. It rained the day after I arrived, so I missed the sun and the Gaza sea almost as much as I missed my family. 

The people weren’t like in American movies either. They thought I was mad every time I tried to strike up a conversation at a bus stop or on the Tube. It was a long time before I made friends. 

I worked as a front of house staff member at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, then Drury Lane Theatre while studying full-time. 

In order to raise money for my PhD, I established a Palestinian Dabke dance (a type of folk dance) group, where I organised DJ nights and performed with the group. There, I met amazing people – including my wife, Heather, who came to dance with the group. It took seven years after that to visit home again. 

After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, I was unable to go back because the Rafah border was sealed shut for a number of years. There are multiple crossing points between Gaza and Israel, but the movement of people is incredibly restricted and subject to complex permits.

As such, I have never visited the house that my father was born in – even though I now have a British passport, I still can’t visit because I am from Gaza. It’s an apartheid system where I am only allowed to travel according to my Palestinian ID card.

My mum had cancer in 2009 and the Rafah border was sealed completely. When I was able to enter, I got stuck in Gaza for six months while my wife was pregnant with our first child, Zino. I sat by my mum on her hospital bed receiving chemotherapy without any electricity during a hot summer. 

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That’s not the only time when visiting home felt impossible.

In 2016, I tried to cross to the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jordan with a group of international authors, using my British passport. All other writers – including Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee – entered Palestine and took part in the PalFest Literary Festival, except me.

I was turned back because I was from Gaza. When I mentioned that I was British and needed to speak to my embassy, the Israeli officer replied: ‘You are from Gaza, call God if you want’.

Since leaving, the Gaza prison-like conditions remain inside my heart – and feeling like I now live outside of this prison is equally painful.

My father passed away recently and I wasn’t able to just jump on a flight to get to the funeral. I missed his funeral and the traditional three-day wake we have to honour the dead. A piece of me was lost forever because I couldn’t be there and I will never be able to get it back.  

Israel destroyed the only airport in Gaza in 2001. This beautiful Mediterranean city is not allowed to have a sea port either. But I also can’t easily bring my mother to Britain for a visit as her visa gets rejected frequently on the false grounds that she doesn’t have the intention of returning to Gaza.

So, in a way, I have ended up stuck in the UK – writing my novels, Vanished and Come What May, doing theatre, like The Shroud Maker and Camouflage, and telling stories, like my short story in the book Palestine+100 about Gaza winning the rights to host the Olympics in 2048 – that people will hopefully be able to understand and will relate to.

I tell stories to my own kids and ask them to remember that we are a nation that was uprooted from our homes and that one day we – or they – will return.

On the 75th anniversary of the Nakba today, I look at my life and my journey and wonder where I would be if it hadn’t happened. Would I even be a writer or live in London? Would I have the two beautiful children I have? Would the suffering I endured have been consumed in something else?

I often think of the millions of Palestinian refugees, those without documents or status and I try to imagine that, like me, they are still hanging on to hope.

Living in the UK as a British citizen while coming from a place often associated with conflict is very painful.

I am happy that I have a safe home in London where my children can grow up in safety and live like any other kids around the world, wanting the latest Xbox game and watching Matilda. They get a life unlike how I grew up and without the same worries of my nephews and nieces in Gaza right now, not knowing when the electricity would come back again or where the next bomb will fall.

London has allowed me to be the writer I am, it’s a home that accepts me for who I am and cherishes my creativity. But Palestine is in my veins as the inspiration for everything I do.

For me, the Nakba is not an anniversary, it’s an everyday occurrence, being exiled in a different new home and it being so difficult to go back to the one I knew. 

There’s no doubt that, at the moment, the future for everyone in Palestine is looking bleak. There’s a far-right Israeli government, the expansion of illegal settlements, and plans to annex yet more West Bank territory.

However, the optimist in me thinks that, sooner or later, there will be a solution. What that looks like, no one knows yet, but Israeli apartheid will end and everyone’s human rights will be better respected.

Treating everyone equally must be the basis of any political settlement.

Until then, I’ll likely – and sadly – continue to be haunted by those two blue WhatsApp ticks.

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