The Complexity of Driving Home

Our names carved on the lunar landscape-Revisiting Home

March 2016: 

My ultramodern taxi, equipped with wifi and all other modern amenities, stops and the driver calmly tells me that this is the closest to the border that he can take me. I need to walk the rest of the distance to the checkpoint. He says he’s really sorry about that… 

 I take some deep breaths and encouraging myself  I grab the handle of the suitcase and push, hoping the wheels hold up.   They do.

 “This will be over soon. I can do it, I can.” 

 I struggle with the heavy suitcases, heavy because I packed a lot having no idea how long I’ll need to stay in Gaza since my mother is seriously ill and it is unpredictable how long it will take for the permit to be issued. 

My Family’s house completed in 1991

 Every time I mention the issue of the permit to friends they wonder why I need a permit to go home. I explain that I also need one to leave Gaza … they look a little perplexed. I share their confusion and try to find explanations about why this happens…  How can I explain that it is the consequence of a failed peace process which led to despair and closing off of borders and separating Gaza from the West Bank and placing strict borders between them and Israel…. The peace process which started in 1993, entailed dividing the ‘Occupied Territories’ which include the West Bank and Gaza Strip to 3 parts, Area A which was to be controlled by Palestinians, Area B which had mixed control between Palestinians and Israelis. And Area C which is to be controlled by Israelis. Gaza was declared Area A, so there are no Israelis inside the Strip but Israelis control the land borders and have full control of the sea and the sky…

Thus there is a curfew on Gaza, and entering it needs to be before 19:00. If you arrive later, you would be under the mercy of the border manager if he or she will allow you in. The options are either to stay over the night at the checkpoint or go back where you came from. I was told that they usually do not allow people to wait at the Gate. The Gate by the way is all surrounded with barbed wires and the building is a modern building with cameras all over…So after dealing with legal complexities with the border guard we are able to enter Gaza.  

  While we wait, I remember in the late 1970s and early 1980s, travels from our home in Gaza to Jerusalem without anybody stopping us. At the time, Israeli forces controlled the whole area called the West Bank and Gaza Strip and there was no need for borders to separate the Gaza Strip or the West Bank from Israel.

Those days feel so distant like a 1940’s black and white movie or from another life I have had. Sometimes, I feel as though I am different people going through all these changes: when I travel in Europe, nobody almost stops me or even looks at my passport but when I cross the borders to this area (Palestine/Israel) my self-concept changes. I feel as if I am accused before being judged. I am guilty of some horrible act (which I am not sure what it is) and I need to prove my innocence all the time. I do feel like I am just an entity with no face, past or character and that I need to go through the motions of what I am asked to provide to show that I do not cross the line of obedience. 

My mother on bombed house 2014

On the way to my current home, we pass by what remained of our old house which was bombed in the recent war on Gaza.  By the way, that was the third time our house was bombed by Israeli forces. One of the reasons for its continuous targeting is its location. It is located near the Eastern border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. It is a farmland and in the past we had animals like horses, goats, cows and chicken living there. This house was the dream house of my parents since they returned to Gaza from Kuwait where my father was offered employment in the 1960s. Since returning to Gaza, things were quite tough on the work front and my father tried several projects among which was agriculture which he and my mother established on this farmland. So they were waiting for the opportunity to have some savings to start building the house. They eventually did start it in the 1980s but it took them 10 years to finish it (having four daughters and living in the Gaza Strip does not provide the best opportunities to build a new house).

The house was also a dream house because it was built on the land that my father inherited from his father. It was surrounded by some residential areas and orange orchards which is what Gaza was known for. It was close to the Eastern borders with Israel and the borders have usually farmland for security reasons. So standing at the second floor of our house our eyes only saw green farm land which was such a contrast to the Western side of the house, which overlooked Gaza, one of the most populated areas in the world

These memories had no relation with what I am witnessing throughout my ride, memories of my wedding, of celebrating my mother’s election for the parliament, my father’s mayor ship, his illness, all of these memories are only kept in our souls. They do not belong to any physical entity. What I saw, was rubble, where the iron blades of the house’s foundation as if they decided to change their direction and dive back into the ground. Small pieces of window glass, pieces of door-wood, a torn photo, a dead flower were all what I saw. In my mind carved is my mother’s photo sitting on the rubble and her eyes dazing off the horizon. What was she thinking? All is gone? Where to start now? Where are our memories? I wonder….   

But then I remember times when we had fun and more joyful memories float in my mind. I remember as a child playing under and climbing up the Sycamore tree, with its far reaching branches full of green year long (this tree survives with little water and was considered scared by the Ancient Egyptians).  That was before building the house, however there was another building which consisted of two rooms and they were what we called my grandfather’s office because he used it to keep track of the farm’s matters and expenses. The office had his desk and his copybooks. My father used this office when we came back from Kuwait. He would sit in that office and discuss farm matters with the farm keeper. The family of the farm keeper had been living there for decades. They even had their eldest boy called Aown, my father’s name, to show how close they were to us. They were from a village close to the town of Al Magdal or Askalan (now it is called Ashqelon because it was taken by Israel in 1948 and is now inside Israel). My grandfather offered them protection when they fled their town and they were grateful to him and his family ever after.

Through the same road, I also remember sitting in my mother’s car, the silver Renault with its greyish velvety seats… warmly squeezed in the back with my three sisters, my youngest sister was still very small so we could fit in…sometimes even sliding lower in the car to enjoy our retreat.  We (the four sisters) would be in the back seat with our nanny in the front who would also lean back and talk to us so as not to feel the rigid separation of the front and back seats of the car, a thing which I always wondered why designers could not find a more sociable design to facilitate mingling in the car … 

The windows were open and we could smell the orange orchards and the sea breeze…. I can almost hear us laughing and singing. …we would give ourselves to the song to forget all our surroundings … ‘On the lunar landscape I will write our names’ a verse which I cannot forget because it was one of my mother’s and our favorite songs. It was sung by a Syrian singer who became famous after moving to Egypt (where all the great composers lived back then), Faiyza Ahmad. Another verse which always reminds me of those rides and whenever I hear it I relive those moments is, ‘my beautiful homeland’, by the Egyptian-Italian-French singer Dalida…Only our mother knew our destination so we completely left it up to her to get us home… 

In current time, things have been completely altered, my mother is bedridden, our old house is gone, more complex checking procedures are set, and still,  my childhood memories are very alive and go with me ….where can I mark the border between, past vs present, life vs. death, joy vs. sadness, war vs. resistance, construction vs. deconstruction, inside vs. outside, safety vs. threat the list of comparisons goes on… my identity vs. others, my memories vs. current moment… a continuous process of negotiation and renegotiation of myself and borders around me, growing heavier, deeper, layer after layer like memories are thick with sadness, confusion and never knowing the outcome, never fully trusting enough to feel normal, always on edge …. Where will take this trip take me?

Salma A. Shawa

Nowhere To Go and Nothing We Can Do

We were looking from the balcony on the 15th floor at the Mediterranean spreading its waves on the wounded shore. Smiles coming at us through the windows from the high rise buildings near by. Children finally escaping their homes were checking to see if their neighbors are still alive… screaming in joy. Flocks of pigeons were flying across the sky wiping away the smoke and clearing the intense noise of the earlier bombing. Ceasefire was announced.

We stayed up most of the night — the bombing was too loud and we couldn’t sleep when our beds were shaking. So, we spent some of the next day catching up on sleep.  During the bombing, I was in a most helpless state, there is nothing we can do – but inside of there was a feeling of power. I wanted to say to those concerned that we are here and we will remain. If we are injured, killed, or displaced along the way, it is understood that it is part of the journey. It is our journey. No need to quit here, because it will not help anyone. I felt capable but I wasn’t doing much by outside standards.  I was taking care of the little baby growing inside of me. She was 7 months old. With every bombing, I used to hold her, hold my round belly with both arms. Because each time an airstrike hit nearby, she would feel a few moments of my entire body, the body that was carrying her, frozen in shock. Then, when I closed my eyes and breathed, I felt her move and I would tell her how brave she was. With a few breaths in and out, my body told her that it is going to be alright.

Being under bombing –not that you are being physically bombed or shelled yet, but it is happening nearby and it’s continuous — it puts you in a new state of mind that starts with thoughts of: am I brave enough not to shake when the strikes hits? Am I brave enough not to suddenly cry and be able to hide my fears? Am I wise enough to think that life and death are simply what we are… one can’t escape one or another. It is just the way we are.  It is how we are introduced to either one that differs. Then, at very practical level of questioning, one starts wondering, how can I make sure I sooth myself, keep physical stress to a minimum.  I am pregnant and it is a one I have longed for.  I want this baby.  How well can I sleep, keep my body calm, knowing I will wake up in a terrifying event. How can I be ready for the next one? Can my heart listen and believe that it must continue its regular pace of beating?

Most importantly, am I keeping my common sense about what is going on in the bigger context? That is; we are not the only ones in a conflict, rather there are millions who have suffered and are still suffering. Or, is it worth it? Who decides what is worth dying for? Even when you are in your most courageous moments, and your beliefs are so strong that fighting is the way to release you, once a human being gets into real pain, you stop and re-think this whole thing. Every life matters. And every life should be lived decently not just lived in survival. The question gets only harder when the threat comes closer. Last summer, we felt it more than ever.

All the people I know know people who were killed or injured, and certainly we all knew people who were displaced. So many displaced. It is so precious that one can be at home with no threat to suddenly evacuate or be directly attacked. Home is our stability, it is our base. It is where we are able to stay within our feelings and not be afraid to show them.

One day we had to leave after hearing rumors that our building will be destroyed. Preparing the emergency bag took an hour in real time, but took many more to collect the important things that have so many memories – which ones to leave which ones to take. This definitely took longer than the time of an airstrike.

Thankfully – we didn’t contribute further to the increase in the number of refugees – our borders were closed for travel so there was only internal displacement within this 370 km2 – geography that is twice the size of Washington, DC but with three times its population.  We were praised for resilience because we were not able to escape and take refuge elsewhere. We managed to survive and stay sane.

Tips for staying sane.

One:  Believe. Believe that this is where you belong even if your family brought you to this place a few years or decades before. It is very helpful to acknowledge that we are here because it is meant to be and whether you are here today and somewhere else tomorrow – both here and there have some kind of test. This is the one that is yours now.

Two: Stay connected. Just live who and what you are without trying to live other’s story, yours is good enough. You do not have to act as if you are another superhero you see on TV or even a brave woman who is standing still after watching her child being killed.

Three: Spend some time in silence, a precious commodity in a war. Listening to the silence is sometimes a lovely practice. Going deeper into silence and filling your mind and body with it may help give you a moment to come back to yourself and process the noise.

Four. Yoga with its deep breathing and stretching is good. But don’t be too ambitious. The best practice of yoga is different in the circumstances of war. Some times when I practiced a posture of total relaxation I could only cry or fall asleep.  This was all right. I was not able to face and endure the amount of fear and tension in my body and remain connected.  On the mat, you collect the pains you check in with everything heart beat all the parts that were challenged by fear and anxiety. You praise your commitment to the self. You bring the joy of good energy. All starting at one side of the mat continuing to tell a story of this exhausted body.

I had been doing yoga for four 4 years and  I was lucky to have been taught by someone who realized the difference between the colorful, fancy, fit and clean yoga magazine kind of practice and the practice in a war zone.  At her class, we would either bring the memory of the bombings of the night before, or this would be waiting for us and we would we experience it together. F16s flying at low altitudes, an airstrike here or there. As we have gotten used to this in our daily life, we would test it while practicing focus and inner connection. Observing reactions of our bodies giving them space to be present even in the most awkward and difficult moments.

Five: My infinitely patient husband and I play backgammon with tea or coffee and we even sit on the balcony when it is not entirely a good idea. Joy can come from unexpected activity.  Remember some games we played as children.

Six: With a positive and optimistic partner, I was able to embrace fear and live with it rather than acting brave.

Seven: Social media helped.   I made the best use of it. But here were days without internet.  Whenever there was internet and electricity, I used it to communicate on Social Media. Connect with new people who were and still are concerned about our situation and friends who would wait every day for a message on Facebook or twitter to make sure we were still okay. Sharing our daily stories was mutually beneficial.

Eight:  Being positive was my savior. Intense negative feelings are contagious. They transfer, grow and expand, especially fear/anxiety. If anxiety gets out of control it will likely affect others. Once faced with assurance and a sense of ‘safety’ – even imaginary safety – negative feelings diminish, or at least they don’t stay persistently.  They are not constant.  I learn to pay exquisite attention to what is going on inside of me.

This was a time when there was nowhere to go and nothing we could to do to change our circumstances.  Keeping fear in perspective is what we tried to master – being aware of what was going on inside us.  Letting things go – might be the best and only thing to do.  Let go. Just let go.

And then with a few breaths in and a few breaths out, my body tells my baby that she is going to be alright.

Najla Shawa is our guest writer and is an associate.  She is a wife and mother of two children and has lived in Gaza all her life with occasional visits to other countries. and is a humanitarian Aid Worker there.  She has a wise and unusual perspective.  She holds a degree in Public Policy from George Mason University.

Syrians arrival in Greece

andrea pic1

The radio crackled loudly in the room, jarring us from our sleep. It was not yet 6 am. I sat up in my sleeping bag, trying to discern something intelligible from the static. It was my third day volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos. One of my roommates translated the cackling for me. “They’ve seen a boat filled with about 70 people crossing from Turkey, but haven’t said where they will be brought ashore. We don’t need to get up yet,” she added. I lay back down, trying to reclaim the warmth of the sleeping bag. Lesvos was surprisingly cold in mid-March.

background ocean

An almost transcendent beauty staged the perilous journey made by thousands of asylum-seekers who risked their lives crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece, a journey of less than ten miles, as the crow flies. Pristine waters, in varying shades of bright blue and turquoise, surrounded the Greek island where I was volunteering with a grassroots Greek organization. The hillsides were green and covered with wildflowers. Bright orange lifejackets and clothes that had outlived their usefulness could be found in many an unassuming corner of the island: in olive groves, on hillsides, along shorelines and roads.


They served as reminders of the thousands of people who risked their lives to make the dangerous and expensive voyage to Greece. I always wondered how many of the lifejackets I saw lying around were “real”. The smugglers were infamous for giving people – many of whom could not swim – fake lifejackets.


The number of boats with refugees crossing from Turkey to the northern part of Lesvos had diminished greatly in recent weeks. We could see large NATO ships patrolling the waters from our lookout point. These ships used radar to identify where boats were trying to cross, and then Frontex – a European Union boarder patrol unit – sometimes in coordination with the Greek and Turkish coast guards, would divert the boats. Due to the heightened number of patrol boats in front of our stretch of the sea, asylum-seekers and migrants started taking different routes to avoid interception

Radio static filled the room again. Wherever this boat was coming from, it was miraculous they made it past the extensive surveillance and interception system in place. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, splashed water on my face, and pulled on several layers of clothes to try and keep the cold at bay.

favoriteWalking towards the sea, I ran into the volunteer on duty. She was a psychologist who worked with refugees in France. The grassroots solidarity movement in support of asylum-seekers and migrants in Greece was hearteningly international in nature. “The boat is coming here, and no one is answering their phones at the apartment,” she said. They hadn’t announced the final destination on the radio. I returned to the one bedroom apartment that housed six of us, announced the arrival of the boat, and then made my way to the small port. I could see two lifeguard boats accompanying the boat ashore. As they entered the port, lifeguards shouted instructions in Arabic to the man steering the boat who was clearly new to his role. A loud cheer erupted from the boat when it became clear to everyone onboard they had actually made it.


As people clambered out of the boat and onto the pebbly beach, volunteers from several different organizations greeted them. A medical team checked the new arrivals for health problems. One little girl hung limply in her father’s arms, barely responsive. She’d contracted meningitis about a year ago.

I ended up helping a pregnaturkeynt woman traveling with six young children, three of whom were the children of relatives who already crossed into Europe. Her youngest was a little boy with a cast on one arm. The cast was curved at a funny angle, and looked suspiciously like it wasn’t doing its job. He was crying. There were two little girls – twins. Three years old. One of them was inconsolable. She’d been crying since they landed. Now she screamed even louder in the arms of another volunteer who picked her up. I extended my arms to her twin sister who watched the proceedings with serious green eyes. “Come here my dear,” I said in Arabic. She didn’t protest being picked up. Her clothes were soaked with seawater from the voyage. Her little hands and feet were cold. It was time to get her into dry clothes. Together, we walked half a kilometer to the changing tents. All the while, my little charge stared up at me with solemn eyes. This little girl and her family were Yazidis from Sinbar in Iraq. The plight of the Yazidis first grabbed news headlines in August of 2014 when the so-called Islamic State began a genocidal rampage against them. I could only imagine what their family had been through. Chaos ensued for the next hour at the changing tents, as approximately 70 people tried to find clothes and shoes that fit them and their children. Eventually everyone was in dry clothes. It was when the boxes of fruit juice were passed around and drunk, that my little charge came to life and started exploring her surroundings. The young men were outside taking selfies sporting sunglasses and freshly slicked back hair, tweeting their arrival and updating their Facebook status. Kids were playing outside underneath the olive trees surrounding the tents. People were adjusting. It would still be several hours until UNHCR would arrive and take the new arrivals to Stage Two, where they would be processed. If eligible for asylum, it was likely they would live in limbo for many years. Undoubtedly it would be frustrating, but at least they were safe. They were the lucky ones: they’d arrived before the March 20th deadline, when the EU – Turkey deal came into effect.


Those arriving on or after March 20th, regardless of their individual situation, would not be given the option to apply for asylum in Greece, but automatically returned to Turkey. Forcibly repatriating asylum-seekers is in direct violation of International Human Rights Law, which established the right of people to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. As a result of the increased difficulty to reach Greece, asylum-seekers and migrants have turned to more dangerous routes, resulting in the death of hundreds recently, as boats have capsized and sunk off of the coast of Libya.

One other boat arrived during my time on Lesvos. The boat was filled predominantly with Afghans, one Syrian, and one Iranian. They arrived after the March 20th deadline. I will always wonder what happened to them.

Have you ever sat back and reflected upon your life? The fact that you were born into a certain family, religion, country, at a specific point in human history? I come from a country that is not torn apart by war, or controlled by an authoritarian regime that makes it difficult to thrive. We have our own challenges, certainly, but civil war is not one of them at the moment. So what is the appropriate response to others who are not as fortunate as we are? John Rawls was an American moral and political philosopher spent a lot of time thinking about what is just from a moral standpoint. He developed an idea he called “the veil of ignorance”, which he said was necessary to ensure our thinking was just – to navigate our own inherent biases and preferences. Consider the following scenario: what if at the flip of an existential coin, you had a 50-50 chance of waking up tomorrow morning with your family in either Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or the Gaza Strip? What rights and opportunities would you want given to you and your loved ones, if you had a very real possibility of finding your lives in mortal danger? The truth is that we’d all want the right to leave and seek asylum in a safer country; that we’d want the opportunity to try and build some semblance of a good and stable life for our families elsewhere. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d also admit that if the opportunity were not freely available to us and we had no other option, we’d seek it out.

A Small Tree In Gaza

In Gaza, in my catholic school, the little warmth I had on those cold mornings came only from the powerful loving words of An Arabic Christmas Song, a prayer for peace and normal lives. We used to sing at school during Christmas season. The nuns, always fascinating to me, handed out the song lyrics. This was such an exciting moment, the most favorite of all – receiving the  lyrics and then that magic moment when we were asked to sing. Many of the children thought this was just a boring exercise and didn’t mean much but some did it with big hearts, others had no interest in singing beyond getting through to the next break. I loved it.

najla2These were the few things I looked forward to every morning: the national anthem, Christian hymns and me, bringing flowers from our backyard to decorate the church.

A tape recorder is playing in the background of the classroom, so that we don’t get the tune wrong. And the headmaster is  singing on the microphone. We sing along. These words have a special place in my heart. I am 10 years old.

Laylat Al Milad  Yonmaha Al Boghd   (On Christmas Eve, hatred is erased)

Laylat Al Milad  Tozhir Al Ardu           (On Christmas Eve, earth blossoms)

Laylat Al Milat  Todfan Al Harb          (On Christmas Eve, war is buried)

Laylat Al Milad Yanbotu Al Hobu       (On Christmas Eve, love sprouts)

Twenty years after, I decided to check and see if modern technology held a surprise for me. It did. I found the song in a Lebanese collection of Christmas songs. I didn’t know until then that  it  existed  beyond our old school walls in downtown Gaza.

I don’t put a Christmas tree in my house and neither did my parents. But the loving joyful images and sounds of Christmas have always been present even though in Gaza they mean little to the mostly Muslims. But in my memory, there is always a small tree somewhere in the corner of the classroom.

Note:  Najla is a Muslim women and how, we wondered, did Najla end up in a Catholic school.

Najla: I  went to Catholic school because it was one of 2 or 3 private schools then. Now there are many and this private school was especially important for two reasons;  my parents wanted me to benefit from a good education and learn English. It was the best then and because the school’s students didn’t participate in the almost weekly demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, so it was a protected for me.  And what parent does not want her child safe in her school?

Waves Wash the Wounded Shore

photo: Hayat Al Husseini

From the fifteenth floor balcony, we were looking  at the Mediterranean spreading its waves on the wounded shore. There were smiles coming at us through the windows from the high rise buildings near by. Children screaming in joy, were finally free to check and see if their neighbors were still alive. Flocks of pigeons were flying across the sky wiping away the smoke and clearing the intense noise of the earlier bombing. Ceasefire was announced.

We stayed up most of the night — the bombing was too loud and we couldn’t sleep when our beds were shaking. So, we spent some of the next day catching up on sleep. During the bombing, I was in a most helpless state, there is nothing we can do – but inside of there was a feeling of power. I wanted to say to those concerned that we are here and we will remain. If we are injured, killed, or displaced along the way, it is understood that it is part of the journey. It is our journey. No need to quit here, because it will not help anyone.
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