“I really want to tell the world about the other side of Gaza they never hear about,” a participant in a new project by young Palestinian writers in the Gaza Strip tells MintPress.
GAZA — As protests and gatherings around the world commemorate Israel’s most recent military operation against the Gaza Strip, which killed 2,251 Palestinians, 551 of them children, last summer, a new writing project by young writers in the besieged enclave aims to illustrate not only the human costs of repeated Israeli offensives, but also the daily realities of life in the Strip.
Gaza “is a place where talents grow, where creativity is embraced,” Ahmed Elqattawi, a 20-year-old English literature student and participant in “We Are Not Numbers,” told MintPress News.
The program, he says, “indicates the fact that each one of us has a story to tell.”
‘Making the right “match”’
Launched in February by the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, which has an office in Gaza City, the program connects local writers, most between the ages of 17 and 29, to mentors with substantial writing experience.
“The best part is the chance to have an international mentor,” Do’aa Mohaisen, a 19-year-old English literature student, who calls herself “a hasty chaotic brat,” told MintPress. “My mentor is Susan Abulhawa, who’s actually one of my favorite writers!”
Abdulhawa, a Palestinian-American novelist and the author of “Mornings in Jenin” and “The Blue Between Sky and Water,” joins other literary writers like Nancy Kricorian, as well as journalists such as Ramzy Baroud and activists like Ann Wright, as mentors.
Nearly all live abroad, although one – Palestine Right to Return Coalition, Middle East Genetics Association, Holy Land Conservation Foundation and Academics for Justice co-founder Mazin Qumsiyeh – resides in the West Bank, where he teaches at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities.
“Making the right ‘match’ is hard,” Pam Bailey, an American freelance journalist and “We Are Not Numbers” international director, told MintPress. “I try to match personalities and writing genres.”
A diverse range of experiences
These links offer the program’s participants one of its biggest benefits, Pam Bailey said. “Most of the youth who are members of Not Numbers do not have international connections, and certainly not with experienced, published authors.”
“We help them get visibility for their stories, and also get them published,” she added. “By themselves, these developing writers have a hard time getting that.”
Once edited, the finished stories join a growing list on the project’s website. They encompass a diverse range of experiences, from the ravages and losses of war to the seeming trivialities of everyday life.
“I have written three stories so far,” Do’aa Mohaisen said. “The first one, which is my own story, entitled ‘Contracts with God,’ explores the loss of innocence a child, who used to make bargains with God, faced when the first war on Gaza broke out. She suddenly discovered her prayers can’t change the harsh realities of life. The second piece is an interview I made with Muhammed Qriqi’, a 13-year-old artist whose extraordinary talent has forced big artists to acknowledge him. The third one is about my favorite dish, macaroni béchamel!”
‘The purpose is changing the stereotypes’
A number of writers aim to broaden foreign perspectives of the Gaza Strip, from a site of perpetual conflict to a place with life, hope and aspirations.
“The purpose is changing the stereotypes of people believing that Gaza is a place of death and war,” Ahmed Elqattawi said. “Yet it is a place away from that.”
His contributions to the project have addressed both internal Palestinian politics and the talents found in the Gaza Strip, he said.
“One of them is about how a simple skit can shape hope for the future. It conveys the anguish of political division in Palestinian society. It delivers a message that we all must unite, because divided, we will be doomed. I am currently working on another one. Its theme is about the talent of a Gazan guy who, despite being unable to travel to showcase his talent, persists in being the best musician he can within the Strip.”
A third story recounted the deaths of two of his cousins in an Israeli airstrike last summer.
‘Gaza is not all about war, violence, suffering and politics gone wrong’
Other writers reach an inevitable mix of these themes. “I’ve chose both of them, the Israeli attack and everyday life,” Shrouq el-Aila, a 20-year-old English student and freelance translator, told MintPress.
“In my story I tried to explain for others, especially the Westerners, that Gaza is not all about war, violence, suffering and politics gone wrong,” she said.
Her article profiles 20-year-old Ghada Shoman and her 16-year-old brother Mohammed, a local musical duo who perform patriotic Palestinian music together.
“Now my voice and my brother’s guitar are our ‘weapons,’” Ghada says in the account. “During the last offensive on Gaza (in the summer of 2014), the resistance was inspired by national songs of bravery and a vision of future freedom. And now, so are we.”
Meanwhile Mohammed “insists his fingers will not play any music except Palestinian national songs, because the resistance has inspired him and his sister to sing only for their homeland.”
‘Gazans are just like any other people’
“I aimed to shed light on the talents that are blowing in the wind and buried under the rubble,” Shrouq el-Aila said. “Personally, I really want to tell the world about the other side of Gaza they never hear about.”
Do’aa Mohaisen also hopes to stress the commonalities of Gaza life with the rest of the world.
“I want to write more about the happy side of Gaza,” Mohaisen said. “Gazans are just like any other people: they laugh to tears for nothing, cook yummy chicken, make silly jokes, never get tired of eating falafel, like gossiping about everything new, get sad when they fail exams, and rant all the time about the hot weather, but they’re willing to tell you a very good story whenever you let them an ear.”
These realities should not obscure the unique challenges facing the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Elqattawi said.
“I think living in Gaza is unbearable due to the Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza. But at the same time it is worth revealing what kind of people live here. They invent, teach, dance, sing, write, study and love.”
‘I am not a number’
The program has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, Do’aa Mohaisen said.
“I have been learning so much since the beginning of the project. We were offered tips about academic and creative writing. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with famous, brilliant writers, too.”
Shrouq El-Aila went further, calling it “the best experience that I ever obtained in my life.”
“I don’t want this project to be over,” she said. “You can’t imagine the benefits and information we get at every meeting. I see how my writing skills are improved breathtakingly.”
The flood of narratives from the project “indicates the fact that each one of us has a story to tell,” Ahmed Elqattawi said. “The Palestinian victims, particularly Gazan, are portrayed in the news as merely numbers, not humans.”
“I cherish my life as much as an individual living overseas does,” he added. “I am a human being from Gaza, and I am not a number.”
Watch Palestine Will Be Free Featuring the Shoman Siblings: