It is Thursday, October 12th, and half sheets of paper are falling from the sky in Beit Lahia, the city in northern Gaza where my family’s house is. Each sheet is printed with an Israeli military emblem, along with a warning: stay away from Hamas military sites and militants, and leave your homes immediately.
When I go downstairs, I find my parents and siblings packing their bags. Local schools, many of them run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, are already crowded with displaced families. But my uncle has called my mother to say that we can stay with his wife’s family in Jabalia camp, the largest of Gaza’s refugee settlements and home to tens of thousands of people.
My wife, sister-in-law, mother, sisters, and children travel to the camp by car. My older brother, brother-in-law, and I ride our bicycles. On the road, we see dozens of families, walking with whatever they can carry. Israel will soon tell more than a million residents of northern Gaza to evacuate immediately, an order that the U.N. calls “impossible.”
That night, around 8:3src, a blast lights up the apartment where we have taken refuge. Dust fills every corner of the room. I hear screams as loud as the explosion. I go outside, but I can hardly walk because the lanes are filled with stone and rebar. My brother-in-law’s car, about fifty metres away, is on fire. Nearby, a house is burning. On the second floor, which no longer has any walls, I can see an injured woman hanging over the edge of the building, holding a motionless child.
The houses in Jabalia are so small that the street becomes your living room. You hear what your neighbors talk about, smell what they cook. Many lanes are less than a metre wide. After two days in the camp, on Saturday morning, my family has no bread to eat. Israel has cut Gaza’s access to electricity, food, water, fuel, and medicine. I look for bakeries, but hundreds of people are queuing outside each one. I remember that, two days before the escalation, we bought some pita. It is sitting in my fridge in Beit Lahia.
I decide to return home, but not to tell my wife or mother, because they would tell me not to go. The bike ride takes me ten minutes. The only people in the street are walking in the opposite direction, carrying clothes and blankets and food. It is frightening not to see any local children playing marbles or football. This is not my neighborhood, I think to myself.
On the main street leading to my house, I find the first of many shocking scenes. A shop where I used to take my children, to buy juice and biscuits, is in shambles. The freezer, which used to hold ice cream, is now filled with rubble. I smell explosives, and maybe flesh.
I ride faster. I turn left, toward my house.
I was born in Al-Shati refugee camp, which is one of the eight camps in the Gaza Strip. In 2srcsrcsrc, just as the second Palestinian uprising started, my father decided to move us to Beit Lahia. When we arrived at our new house, there were no windows and the floor had no tiles. The water pipes in the kitchen and bathroom were exposed.
In 2src1src, my father took out a loan to buy the land next door. With my mother, he planted fruit trees—guava, lemon, orange, peach, and mango—and vegetables. As a hobby, he started raising hens, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons in the garden.
After I got married in 2src15, I built my apartment on top of theirs. My wife and I could see the border with Israel out our bedroom window. My children could see our neighbor’s olive and lemon trees.
In 2src21, when I returned from a fellowship in the United States, my parents generously refreshed my apartment, buying new plates, glasses, rugs, and a desk. They had shelves installed for all the books I brought back. They also had the ceiling painted with a pattern that I love. In the center is a big brown-and-yellow star, and around it are little triangles, circles, and a rainbow. The shapes and colors seem to embrace and coexist with one another, like strangers who share the same floor of a building. The moment I saw it, I knew how much love my parents had for me.
I expect to be the only person on my street, but as I approach my building, I am surprised to find my neighbor Jaleel. He has a cigarette in one hand and a watering can in the other. As he waters his strawberry plants, he tells me that his wife and sister-in-law are inside, doing laundry, filling water bottles, and stuffing food into plastic bags. His family is sheltering in a school. It has no clean water and the toilets are dirty, but they have no other options.
I am relieved to find my building still standing. I walk up the stairs to my third-floor apartment, stopping first in the kitchen. The fridge and freezer doors are open, just as we left them. There has been so little electricity that everything perishable has started to rot. But the bread is holding up.
I go into my library, where I normally work on my poems, stories, and essays. I have spent hours here, reading writers like Kahlil Gibran, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Karr, and Mahmoud Darwish. Everything is coated in dust. Some of my books have fallen off the shelves. A window is broken. I take some candy out of my desk drawer, for the kids.
Finally, I go into the living room. As always, the windows are open. I wish I could close them, especially on freezing winter days. The shock wave that follows explosions, however, would shatter the glass—and who now has the money to repair windows in Gaza? The curtains, which blow madly toward me during bombings, flutter in the breeze.
I sit on the couch and stare up at the colorful shapes on my ceiling. They still shine with fresh paint. Three lamps dangle down at me—two that are connected to the electrical grid, and a third that runs on battery power, for when the electricity goes out. None of them are working now.
Afternoon comes with an unusual heat. Outside, instead of the usual sounds of motorbikes and ice-cream trucks, I hear the whirring of drones. There are no students coming home from school, no cars taking families to the beach, no birds chirping in our garden trees. I hear ambulances and fire trucks, news on the radio, and sporadic blasts, which sometimes become incessant. All mingle in a strange new soundtrack.
A fly seems to be stuck in my living room. There is not much point in shooing it, but I open the window all the way, pulling the curtains aside. Then, suddenly, an explosion shoves me back. It shakes the earth, the house, my heart. Books tumble from my shelves.
I grab my phone and take some pictures. Two bombs have landed about fifty metres from each other, perhaps two kilometres away from where I am standing. Have they hit a farm, a tree, a home, a family? It is not only the explosions that kill us but also the smashing of houses that used to protect us from the elements.
Birds soar into the sky; one falls before rising. Maybe a stone has landed on its back. Who will dress its wounds? We barely have doctors for people.
I return to the couch. Notifications on my phone share breaking news: “Two big explosions in Beit Lahia. More details soon.” I wonder what has happened to the fly. Perhaps it was a warning to both of us: don’t move.
One idea in particular haunts me, and I cannot push it away. Will I, too, become a statistic on the news? I imagine myself dying while hearing my own name on the radio.
I remember a day in 2src2src, when my wife and I experienced a snowstorm in Syracuse, New York. People came out of their houses, wondering aloud whether the electricity had failed. I think of how my wife and I smiled. I told her, “If they were to live in Gaza, they would spend most of their time outside their houses, wondering.”
I’m still looking at the ceiling. No flies anymore. I make some tea but forget to sip it. Now dust from the two explosions is settling on the couches, rug, and table. I close the windows a little, leaving some space for air.
I have forgotten to mention the dogs barking. I don’t usually hear them, but since the Israeli attacks have escalated, they have been making noise. At night, they seem to cry.
The ceiling appears to be staring at me. I shut my eyes. When I open them, the big star, the circles and triangles, and the rainbow have not moved. The way they cling to the ceiling reminds me of a baby on its mother’s breast. For a moment, I wish that I were a baby.
I hear another blast but don’t see any smoke. Panic runs through me. When you can’t see the explosion, you feel like you’re blind. I think of the refugee camp where I left my family, imagining my seven-year-old daughter, Yaffa. She never asks me, “Daddy, who’s bombing us?” Instead, she cries and tells me, “Daddy, it’s a bomb! I’m scared. I want to hide.”