What Does It Mean to be a Woman, a Mother and a Grandmother in Gaza?

Photograph Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy – CC BY 2.0

Don’t think that I’m addressing this to both genders out of concern for gender equality or to ensure gender-sensitive language. No. I want each of you, man or woman – those that God placed outside of Gaza, whether you’re Palestinian or not – to try to seriously imagine yourselves in Gaza now, even for just a few moments. Think of it as a form of solidarity with the people of Gaza, those you went out to protest for.

What I am writing is neither unique nor special, and I am not writing it to gain sympathy or sensationalize. There are hundreds of thousands of grandmothers and mothers in Gaza that are living through unimaginable suffering. But for countless reasons they cannot document that suffering. Maybe they have been martyred, injured or displaced into the streets or among their relatives or into UNRWA schools after their homes have been destroyed. They may not have been able to keep any papers on which they documented their fears amid the falling bombs, as they kept watch over their sleeping children, made wet by the horror and the nightmares.

Imagine you are a 55-year-old woman, a mother to four young men. Three of them are exiled, living at the end of the world. They monitor your social media accounts and those of your friends and neighbors. They monitor the local and international news. They call you constantly despite the vast time difference between you. They insist on both voice and video calls, so they can observe your gestures and try to figure out if your words are hiding anything. They are living your horror, fear, anxiety, which are multiplied exponentially under the weight of their helplessness on the one hand and their fear of losing you on the other. They don’t want you to join all the others they’ve been losing nonstop, those lost without any warning, without a chance for last goodbyes.

Can you imagine the conflict that a mother experiences when she has to suppress her terror by any means necessary? Her fourth son has been gone since the beginning of Gaza’s final hours. He’s been in his office, three to four kilometers away, fulfilling his duty as a journalist covering the events all day and all night. He’s broadcasting the news so that Japanese people can see them across the world. He’s also keeping track of you from his office, through a camera installed on a window of a tall building nearby. He’s tracking you moment by moment, calling every time he gets a chance to make sure you and his father and his pregnant wife – now in her ninth month – and his 3-year- old son are OK. He’s counting your breaths too; he draws his strength from your strength so that he can keep doing his work. His work that keeps him far from his family and in danger – the danger that is facing all journalists, their offices, and their cameras; the ones that transmit the ugliness of what Israel and its supporters are doing.

‘Why don’t we have airplanes?’

To be a mother is one thing. To be the grandmother of 15 grandchildren is yet another. A grandmother to a child who has yet to turn three, that God has blessed with an incredible talent for speaking, for questioning, for analyzing, for imagining and acting and singing and dancing and jumping and performing. He throws a bunch of questions at you, all at once, and you have to keep being his rock. You try to catch some of the questions and answer them, but he keeps throwing more out before you can get an answer out.

Then the shelling is thrown at both of you, deafening you and freezing the hearts of everyone in your neighborhood. The little one jumps up in the blink of an eye and lands in your lap, covering his ears with his tiny hands to avoid the frightful sounds accompanying the tremors. You squeeze him, wishing you could hide him away inside of you.

And as soon as the sound of the shelling fades away, he returns to questioning you. “Why? How? Where? Do we love them? Do we call them habibi too? Will we die? Will they die? Are we stronger than them? Can they destroy us? Do we hit them? Do we run away from them? Will they come here? Why are they attacking us? Why can’t we attack them? Why don’t we have airplanes like they do? Does Egypt love us? Did Hamzah recover? Is Eid here yet? Where did Ramadan go? When will Baba come back?”

And you have to look him in the eye as he speaks. You have to appear serious and interested, or else he’ll take the phone out of your hand or the headphones out of your ears and demand you answer. “Answer me!” “Talk to me!” “Tetah, do you hear me?” Then more shelling, another round, closer this time. The little one’s heart gets louder, like an enormous engine in a tiny car. You hear it roaring. Again, he covers his ears with his tiny hands, he begins laughing hysterically – like a professional actor trying to disguise his fear. At that point, you have no choice but to bury your own fear in the face of his attempts at bravery and fearlessness.

You are watching the stream of heart-stopping videos coming in, and as he catches your tears preparing to fall, his face will change immediately. It will be overcome with sadness, sympathy and tenderness. He will hold your hand with great kindness and ask you, “Are you crying, tetah?” Then, your tears will finally fall like a river.

And imagine you are the grandmother of a child who is still a nine-month foetus in her mother’s womb. Her mother, who is fearful and anxious. You ask God, under your breath, that she doesn’t decide to come into this world in this moment and under these circumstances. You even vocalize this hope as a joke to the pregnant mother whenever she complains about pain and holds her stomach.

“Hold on,” you tell her, “this is no time to give birth.”

At the same time, your brain is considering all the possibilities of the birthing process. If these are genuinely birthing pains – under this shelling, in this horror, in the absence of her husband and his preoccupation with his journalism, in the destruction of the streets and the overcrowding of hospitals – where will we go? How will we get there? Will her doctor be able to fulfill his promise and oversee her labor? She’s been preparing for this for over two months, with him and with the anesthesiologist. Will her mother be able to come help out, as mothers usually do for their daughters during childbirth? Will her labor come at night, in this darkness ablaze with shelling? Will our Little Philosopher wake up while his mother goes out to give birth? How will we convince him to stay with his grandfather and wait for his mother to bring his sister home? Will birthing go safely? What if there is bombing near the hospital? What if…

Then another round of explosions wakes you from wrestling with your thoughts and what ifs about your granddaughter’s birth. You go back to wrestling the usual thoughts that overtake you whenever the shelling intensifies: What exactly will I take with me if we have to flee the house, just like so many other families have had to do throughout Gaza? Where will we hide if we decide to stay and the shelling continues? We can’t hide in the “bunker” or the “basement,” as my daughter-in-law calls it. It’s an underground room beneath our house. I don’t want to die buried under my house; no one will be able to find my body. I would rather die on the surface of the earth, especially since this underground room only has one entrance.

If we leave our house, where will we go? How far can we get with my daughter-in-law nine months pregnant, only able to walk at the pace of a tortoise. Who will carry the Little Philosopher? Who will carry the suitcase full of documents? The suitcase prepped to take to the hospital when she goes into labor? Actually, who will carry us? All of us? Will my son be able to reach us and carry us in the right moment? Scenario after scenario for getting out, for fleeing, for childbirth, for safety – all of them are doomed to fail given the situation surrounding you.

Then you remember that, since you are a woman, you have to wear appropriate clothing to leave the house. Will you have enough time? Will you wear shoes or slippers? You look down to see if your slippers are still on your feet or if they’ve disappeared. You are sitting cross-legged on the couch, leaning your back against the wall, immersed in imagining your evacuation scenarios in case they become necessary.

Then your mind wanders from the shoe issue to the idea of dying beneath the rubble, before you have a chance to worry about your escape, your clothes or your shoes. You start composing a message – word by word. You do that whenever you think about dying for any reason, whether it’s because of the coronavirus or something else. Now it’s worse, with death hovering all around you, surrounding you, pressing down on your chest.

You address this message to your son who lives with you in Gaza – actually, it’s more of a will than a message. You want to tell him things, to give him instructions, especially for how to deal with your exiled children. Every time you start to write the letter, though, you suppress that desire out of mercy for your children and fear of their worries for you.

Then you suppress all these personal thoughts. You go on to think about mundane things that have become normal, even repetitive and boring given the previous assaults on Gaza. Like, how will we hear of a shelling warning from nearby neighbors? Again, you start thinking about evacuation, the right clothes for leaving, the important documents, the Little Philosopher, the Pregnant Tortoise, the husband who refuses the notion of evacuation all together.

You settle on the idea that if dying is inevitable, dying in your house is better than dying in the street or in other people’s houses. This idea calms you and you succumb to the constant tremor, like a mild earthquake or an intense dizziness. You try to escape it by sleeping, but you don’t succeed. You console yourself and those around you by thinking through the goals and strategies behind everything happening to you, to all of us in Gaza. But your mind can’t comprehend them. Instead, you calm yourself by praying for patience, perseverance, strength and help – for yourself and for everyone, especially those whose homes have been destroyed, those who have been displaced into the streets along with their children, those who have lost their loved ones under the rubble, those who have witnessed their homes and memories falling before their eyes, those whose homes are now overcrowded with people without food, those who have sick and elderly and disabled people needing constant care. And you entrust yourself, and your family and your people and your home, to He who never breaks a Trust.

This article is adapted from a post on Andaleeb Adwan’s Facebook page.

Andaleeb Adwan is the founder and director of the Community Media Centre NGO in Gaza City and a longtime feminist and community activist.