An estimated 2,300 Palestinians in Gaza were killed during the summer assault by Israel. Each one was a mother, father, brother, sister, friend or spouse to someone left behind, and their deep feeling of grieving and loss is still palpable – almost like the phantom pain after the amputation of an arm or leg. Yet the stories behind these numbers have not been told.
In a Gaza war diary to be published by the UK’s Comma Press at the end of February, Atef Abu Saif writes:
Imagine what it is like to be converted into a number. That you are not a unique, living, breathing, laughing, loving individual. You are merely a digit in a much larger number, one that just keeps on growing. Your entire life is reduced to a number. When a human being is made into a number, his or her story disappears…Nobody asks to hear the stories behind these numbers. Nobody uncovers the beauty of the lives they led – the beauty that vanishes with every attack, disappearing behind a thick, opaque wall of numbers.
A new project called We Are Not Numbers is about to launch that is designed to attract attention for those stories – both their beauty and their tragedy. I was inspired to create this platform for helping developing writers in Gaza share their stories by a young man named Ahmed Alnaouq. He lives in Deir al-Balah, in the center of Gaza – a town where I spent many happy days with one of my “adopted families.”
Although I first met the 20-year-old English literature major two years ago, I had lost touch with him until just after the summer war. Our Facebook chat went this way: “How are you?” I asked, rather inanely. “I am fine, doing well. How about you?” Ahmed responded. I could tell something was wrong, so I shot back, “Don’t just say ‘fine.’ Tell me something real.” The barriers down, he told me the truth: “I extremely miss my brother. I go to his grave all the time, and when I am alone, I burst out crying.”
Ahmed’s older brother, Ayman, was killed during the assault that Israel called “Operation Protective Edge” (perhaps better labeled “Operation Genocidal Edge”). The two were inseparable, and Ayman had been the primary breadwinner for the family due to his father’s heart ailment. Given Ahmed’s passion for writing and burning desire to master the English language (thus his major – a popular one in Gaza), I encouraged him to write about his brother, to celebrate him, rather than try to hide his grief from me. He was hesitant at first, given my “Western” identity. It turns out that Ayman was a resistance fighter with the Al-Qassam Brigades – so quickly assumed to be “terrorists” even by many pro-Palestinian activists. Yet the few little tidbits of information Ahmed shared made me want to get to know him better. Ayman clearly had played a very positive role in Ahmed’s life, and there was a reason why fighting the Israeli occupation with whatever weapons were at hand seemed to be the only option to the young man. It was, I believed, a critical story to tell – and share.
Over the next two months, I worked with Ahmed on his essay, pointing out patterns of English-language problems such as run-on sentences, and tagging spots that could benefit from an anecdote to make the story “come alive.” Here is a portion of his completed essay:
I still remember the day during the Second Intifada when Ayman came home horrified after being exposed directly to death. He said that while he was playing with his friends, a tank stopped in the middle of the road, killing five kids and injuring around 11. But it was Ayman’s fate to hide behind a wall, so he was saved. The only crime committed by Ayman and his friends was that they crossed the road! They never meant to hurt the soldiers; they just wanted to play like other kids. But they forgot that they are Palestinians guilty of breathing and moving. Events like this happened frequently, not only with Ayman, but with thousands of Palestinian kids as well.
A few years later, in 2008, Israel launched a devastating and hideous war on Gaza. Ayman was in high school and we lived under very harsh conditions. He saw his friends suffer and grieve. More than 340 kids, and the same number of women, were killed. Ayman was an eyewitness to it all. He couldn’t do anything; how could he when he was only 17 years old? He was unable to concentrate enough to study, yet he continued to get very good scores.
When the war ended, the Israeli army tightened its blockade of Gaza. We could not get gas, water, oil, electricity or anything. Conditions were especially harsh for our family; we suffered a lot because my father was a taxi driver and he could not find oil to fuel his car. This blockade took us backward hundreds of years: we even needed firewood to cook.
In 2012, Israel again invaded our land for eight terrible days. When this war was over, Ayman was not the same. Now, he joined Hamas’ armed-resistance force, the Al Qassam Brigades. He vowed that he would protect his people; he swore he would defend his homeland and to never allow massacres to occur again.
On July 19, 2014, on his way to face the intruders, an F16 fired a missile of thousands of kilograms on him, causing his pure soul fly to its creator. Ayman was murdered. Lots of dreams were killed in our hearts.
When I close my eyes, I see his face. How can I forget him? He was the dearest and the most faithful friend and brother. When he died it was the hardest day of my life. He had been the only one by my side, and he never left me when I was in trouble. He died and left my mother cracked in pieces. He died and left my father weeping all night long.
When we were done, Ahmed commented that his English-language skills and grasp of storytelling techniques had improved more with my one-on-one coaching than from a year of classes. But with a future that looked dim – with no opportunity to apply what he was learning – Ahmed was increasingly thinking of following in Ayman’s footsteps and joining the armed resistance. At least then, he reasoned, he would be doing something to stand up for his people. My liberal, Western knee-jerk response was to say, “No, don’t do it. Your family already has lost one child. There are other ways to resist.” But then I realized that I had nothing to suggest as an alternative. The conditions in Gaza these days are the worst they have been since I began traveling there in 2009; reconstruction after the war is going nowhere fast, and the ability to travel in and out of the Strip is more restricted, not less. The collective depression is tangible.
There are many Ahmeds in Gaza, who are aching with loss, struggling to eke out a living and feeling neglected by the world. Fifty percent of the population are between the ages of 15 and 25 – about 70 percent of whom are unemployed. Their stories deserve to be brought to the attention of the Western world whose foreign policy has caused so much of their distress. At the same time, we need to give these youth a way to turn their writing into a mission with a purpose. Thus was born We Are Not Numbers.
With the assistance of Euro-Mid Observer of Human Rights, which has provided office space and seed money, the project is recruiting young, developing English writers. We Are Not Numbers will showcase these budding storytellers, who normally don’t get much exposure, alongside already accomplished writers in Gaza like Atef Abu Saif. To provide the coaching the young writers need to reach their full potential, each participant will be assigned a mentor who is both a native English writer (so rare in Gaza these days) and published author. At the same time, the youth will build relationships with influential advocates around the world. (And because we hate saying “no” to writers who show signs of talent but whose grasp of English is insufficient, we have recruited several ESL teachers to coach them in a “language club.”)
Ahmed Alnaouq has become a project assistant for We Are Not Numbers, and his story will be one of the first to be published on our website when it launches. His profile picture on his Facebook page now is his own, not his brother’s, and he hasn’t talked of joining the resistance for a while. The other day he told me he feels the happiest he has been in a long time. He no longer feels like just a number.