Selena Gomez’s “Kill Em With Kindness” played on an acoustic guitar blares out of an open window from a high-rise in Gaza City, the sound reaching the street nine floors below. Passers-by look up stunned, not because the tune is a pop song, but because of the female voice singing along to the strumming that clearly came from a person and not the radio.
The mystery singer is Yara Wisam, 17, who has been scolded by her parents on dozens of occasions, told to close her window–or at least sing in a softer voice when she is practicing renditions of Gomez or Britney Spears. They remind her the neighbors will talk; they tell her playing music is “shameful.”
Yet Yara does not obey, “How could that,” meaning music, “be a shame?”
Her bedroom is an explosion of various shades of pink. She lives in a middle-class building a quarter-mile from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ derelict Gaza residence in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood. Since the government split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the villa has been turned into an army base, which means it is a target for Israeli fire during times of warfare.
Cascading her fingers over the guitar strings, she said the sounds of her instruments are relaxing.
“It’s smoother than a rocket falling next to our house at 3 a.m., and we wake up, like terrified,” she said.
Yara added that she believes her living conditions are the problem, not her music. She has relatives who have graduated from universities abroad. They told her about psychological differences between Palestinians who live under occupation and must endure the impact of a government in shambles. There are more rights for women in other parts of the Arab world, where women do not live under occupation, she said.
“Except Syria and Yemen,” she paused, noting two countries destabilized and devastated by war, “girls everywhere else are doing everything freely. They can play guitar on a street corner or even travel to Jerusalem–at the very least. I won’t even speak of traveling to Japan, I will only say Jerusalem.”
Like many in her generation coming of age under Israel’s siege of Gaza, Yara longs to visit Jerusalem, which she regards as her closest opportunity to play her music in public without a nearby relative chiding her. In 2007 Israel severely limited travel in and out of the coastal Mediterranean Strip after Hamas assumed power in Gaza and splintered off from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in a brief and bloody feud. Yara was in grade school at the time.
Exiting Gaza today is a cumbersome process and many Palestinians do not meet the limited categories that would allow them to see Jerusalem.
According to regulations outlined by Israel, Palestinians can leave Gaza for training for medical professionals, conducting business, obtaining a degree, and attending the wedding or funeral of a first-degree relative. But these permits are rare. By far the most common type of travel is allowed in extreme medical cases, wherein a Palestinian needs surgery or treatment for a terminal illness, and has been accepted as a patient in an Israeli hospital.
With this in mind, Yara does not see the point of applying for any type of exit document from the Israeli authorities. And so, she dreams of leaving Gaza but does not know how this can happen. And after living through three wars in Gaza since 2009, she wonders if hopelessness will get the best of her.
“I believe that a fourth war will happen with Israel and when people talk about it, it makes me lose confidence in everyone around, and I fear I will live dreamlessly,” Yara said. As of now, she said she hopes to find a way to move to Minnesota where she has relatives.
“They live freely without nightmares of a fourth, a fifth or a 90th war. My cousins can go jogging day or night, in whatever outfit they like,” she said.
Roua Zein el-Din, Yara’s close friend and classmate at a United Nations school who lives two miles away said the two can only meet in their bedrooms to freely play music, but it doesn’t happen as often as they would like. With an electricity crisis in Gaza leaving most homes with around four hours of power a day, Roua has to walk between apartments to the high-rise, and then walk up several flights if the elevator is out of service.
“If I plan to visit Yara on the ninth floor of an 11-story building, I end up canceling the idea if I have to climb 180 steps to get there,” Roua said. And it’s not just the physical exertion to get to the apartment, the heat in the stairwell is extreme. “Unless I catch the elevator while the power is running, I sweat off my Maybelline contouring makeup and my Escada Turquoise perfume spoils.”
Roua’s favorite musicians are pop sensations, Selena Gomez, Zayn Malik, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran.
“Once we play guitar music by these singers, we imagine a European or American atmosphere. In this room, we can shout loudly if Yara’s parents are out. We play so hard that we nearly break the guitar strings might and our throats grow raspy.
“We can practice like mad when we are inside and away from our patriarchal society, which is concerned with the outfit of girls, not their minds,” Roua said.
Unlike Yara, Roua has been able to travel to Jerusalem. She went twice in 2015 with her father, an owner of a cosmetics store, because he is a merchant and was able to secure a business exit permit. As Roua was under 16 at the time, she was allowed to go with him.
Back now back in Gaza for nearly three years, Roua said the siege over Gaza has a way of controlling her mind.
“We do not think that the other girls in Ramallah, Jerusalem, or in the whole world and what they are talking about, something silly like that,” said Roua. “There is no doubt that they have other interests that we do not know about because our minds are occupied.”
“We are sure they talk about fashion, the latest hairstyles, and the possibility to attend a Manchester United and Liverpool match. But here, even riding a bicycle is a dream. If we do we will be chased by the eyes of men,” she said.
As Roua finished her thought, Yara starts to speak, still playing her guitar.
“We do not feel normal. I think all of the teens [in Gaza] are mentally ill and because we all are infected we can’t figure out what normal feels like anymore,” Yara said.
After the 2014 war in Gaza that lasted 51 days where 2,220 Palestinians were killed, 508 of them women, and 66 Israeli soldiers, four civilians including one Thai national were killed, Gaza’s children suffered immense psychological pressure.
The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme found 51 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The stress manifests itself in several ways. In a 2015 survey by Save the Children, 75 percent of the children in the study said they wet their beds regularly. “ In one area, al-Shoka, nearly half the children interviewed wet the bed every night,” Save the Children reported
Another teenager and friend of Yara, Farah Ayyad, 18, said she is depressed all of the time. Farah lived in Cairo between 2006 and 2013. Her family fled during internal conflict among Palestinian factions. Now back in Gaza, she has had trouble adjusting and making new friends.
I met Farah in her grandfather’s house western Gaza when she dropped in for lunch. She says that her movement during the week does not exceed going between the two houses.
“Today I have no friends, except for on Facebook, of whom I met in Cairo. They feel sorry that I am not able to go back to Cairo and play football with them at our club there,” she said.
“My Egyptian friends used to send me video of them playing in the club,” Farah added.
Like other teens, Farah dreams of traveling outside of Gaza, but the Rafah crossing with Egypt through which she left 11 years ago, is sparingly open.
The Israeli human rights organization Gisha that monitors Palestinian movement from Gaza found, “During the first quarter of 2017, the crossing was open for 11 non-consecutive days in total.”
Even with a recent announcement from Egypt to allow for more Palestinians travelers, her dreams of traveling to the Maldives, Dubai, and Greece have vanished.
“In Gaza, everything is negative. Even if you imagine something beautiful, the buzz of the drones overhead will make you worried” she added. “If I stand on the beach at night with my family, we can see the lights from the Israeli city of Ashkelon, of course, they live as they like.”
The malaise among girls in Gaza extends to young women.
Mirna al-Khairi, 20, who lives in her grandfather’s house surrounded by lemon and guava trees, has also dreams, but the inability to achieve them has made her an introvert, she tells me.
Mirna, who studies IT in the Islamic University of Gaza, said she would rather study acting at Birzeit University in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “But the lack of a specialized institute in Gaza and the impossibility to move to Ramallah, as well as the society’s refusal to accept a local actress on TV restricts even my mind,” Mirna said.
“I think freedom for girls [in Gaza] can come outside this big prison…outside these 360 square kilometers [139 square miles],” Mirna said.