By Rawan Yaghi
Let me tell you about my latest encounter with a stranger.
A couple of days ago, I was listening to music through the glorious invention of earphones. My ipod playlist, though, is not as glorious and there was a three second pause between the end of one song and the next in which I discovered that I was sitting in the middle of a group of Israeli kids.
A few minutes before that, I was on skype with my parents. My mom sat near the open door of our house apartment to feel some breeze in case it passed by. And my dad was lying down in his room in front of the open door of the balcony. I had a conversation with my dad about depression and how the situation in Gaza has slowly been ingrained in the brains of most of the population there, specially since most of the people there suffer from post-traumatic stress and other kinds of mental illnesses without awareness of the effects on their lives.
The music started again and I paused it for a few more seconds to make sure what I heard was indeed Hebrew. I was suddenly aware of my existence there, of the Arabic sticker that several of the kids prolonged their looks at, of my hair, of my skin colour, of my nose and lips, of the way I looked and was being looked at.
It wasn’t a shock to me. There are Israeli teenagers in the world. It is summer. The country is full of summer schools from all over the world, except those which can’t afford them. I sat there for a bit and observed them. Some of them were bored and obviously preferred to be somewhere else, a perfectly normal group of teenagers in a learning environment. Their leader started speaking to them in Hebrew and they all listened. She seemed to be giving them instructions of some sort. They were supposed to have an activity which involved watching a movie and writing a passage about it for the next day. A French group later joined to vote on which movie they were to watch. Between Shrek 2, Pitch Perfect, and World War Z, the choice fell on the last to my greatest discomfort and disappointment. However, it was interesting to see how the kids would respond to the appalling scene about Israel’s wall and how it temporarily saved Israel from the savage crawling zombies that want to suck their blood out.
I removed myself from the main space in which they were watching the movie to focus a little bit on what I was actually doing on my laptop. From my corner, I could see a few of the Israeli spectators and could hear the screams and screeches coming from the movie. The audience was spellbound and all were staring at the screen in shock. One girl had her head down and was trying to nap. This is all ok. Even hearing Brad Pitt saying that Israel was winning because they built a wall around themselves was ok. Because it’s Hollywood and shit politics is always expected from Hollywood. Watching Israeli teenagers, possibly thinking of their compulsory military service coming soon, see this, and see their heroic army try to save the country when the celebrations by the ‘Arabs’ and Israelis inside the wall draw the attention of the zombies and basically ruins the until then amazing plan to save humanity, was a little too much but it was still ok because I have learned to not be shocked by anything. I learned to always expect the worst and so slowly I lost touch with how angry or shocked I should be at things like this.
A little later, having gotten bored with my laptop screen and the work I was doing on it, I noticed that their leader was sitting a chair away from me. I decided to start a conversation.
“I’m sorry. I heard you speak earlier. Was it Hebrew?”
“Yes, we’re from Israel,” she said smiling.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Palestine,” I said, slowly, waiting for her reaction which surely came as expected.
“ooh.. um, where from Palestine?” She asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer this question or what to expect this time. But I answered.
“Oh waw, that’s special… waw. What are you doing in Oxford?”
“I’m a student here.” I said, still smiling.
We carried on the conversation in which I was told she had just finished her service in the army in which she trained and worked as an air traffic manager. She was going to finish her studies and apply for med school “which is difficult to get into in Israel”.
“And all over the world,” I said.
She also wanted to go traveling. She asked where my family lives, how many siblings I have, what they do, how they were doing. She was surprised we have universities in Gaza and so many of them as well. And she thought we numbered one million rather than two. She didn’t want to know more about my not being able to go home for four years and had no clue why Egypt would close the borders too. She then wanted to know about night life in Oxford.
Every now and then, I couldn’t suppress a sarcastic laugh or smile. Her ignorance amazed me.
This girl may not deserve my direct sentiments of disgust and anger. Maybe her ignorance is not her fault. Maybe. But since her comfortable life and her plans are made possible by the sheer misery of myself and everyone I know from and in Gaza at the moment, I could not walk away without feeling like I’ve just met a human that disregards other human beings as less worthy creatures, less worthy of the mere knowledge of their existence. Turning a complete blind eye to everything Israel does to ensure their slow psychological, social, and physical death. Not only pretending not to see it, but also participating, actively, in the military machine that makes it all possible and sustainable, to ensure a good life, a good future.
I listened to this young woman, so beautiful, and so full of life, speak about her future, and her worries and her travel plans knowing she lives an hour and a half away from where my friends who have the same dreams but none of the same certainty or the same worries. Knowing that the wall separating them does more than just physically chunking the land. The wall puts me and my friends on the unworthy side. The side that deserves to be punished, the side that is not allowed to pursue dreams or to even worry about those dreams because they will be too busy worrying about electricity, medicine, polluted water, food for the day even.
What made this encounter particularly hard to digest was also its timing. I have been reading tweets and facebook posts by friends in Gaza about the continuous power cuts that go on for 30 and more hours, the deaths that occurred after people who needed medical help abroad were denied permits to leave, about the possibility of landlines being cut as a result of the power shortage, the too polluted to swim in sea and subsequently water which will lead to the spread of diseases. I listened to this free human being knowing that most of the people I know back home are suffering severe mental health complications because of the amount of pressure that arises from everything that I’ve just mentioned. All of it only possible because of the collective punishment policy her government in the first place has carried on for ten years.
“Waw, this is very special,” she kept repeating. “I’ve never met anyone from Gaza.”
Yes, you never get to meet anyone from Gaza. You just get to bomb them.
– Rawan Yaghi is a Palestinian student of Italian and Linguistics at Jesus College, Oxford. She is a contributing-author of Gaza Writes Back. She is from Masmeyya- Palestine. (This article was first published in Mondoweiss, and is republished in the Palestine Chronicle with permission.)