May 16, 2024

Student Escapes from Gaza

[The two stories in this blog by and about two Palestinian Fulbright Scholars are taken from my book, Letters from Palestine.  Both stories refer to the three-week long war in Gaza that broke out toward the end of 2008.  As horrific as that war was, can you imagine how infinitely worse it is now for people, including would-be university students, who are currently living and dying in Gaza, in a war that has aroused such protests throughout the world? And it’s not just potential university students whose dreams of higher education have been thwarted by this war.  According to PBS, 625,000 Gazan children have also been deprived of their education.  Of course, the thousands of children who have already perished in this war have lost more than their hope for an education – they have lost everything.]

Palestinians are sometimes called the “Jews of the Arabs” because they prize education so much. Families will sacrifice everything in order that their children can receive a good education, and students themselves will endure every hardship imposed by the Israeli occupation in their effort to secure it. Israel, however, continues to place every possible obstacle in the way of Palestinian students, and the situation in Gaza is particularly onerous owing not only to the lack of school supplies and other essentials, but because of the restriction of movement imposed by the Israeli blockade.

The students, too, are prisoners along with everyone else. Of college students seeking to continue their education abroad, only some manage to escape; a great many of such Gazan students are in the end forced to forego their dreams. According to Gisha, an Israeli organization concerned with monitoring the movement restrictions on Palestinians, as of October 21, 2009, there were still 838 students waiting to leave Gaza to study abroad, with the school year already having begun, and many more who had already given up trying.

In their report on this situation, Gisha states:

Overseas travel is no simple matter for Palestinian students because passage through Israel is extremely limited in accordance with a long list of criteria determined by Israel, which include the possession of a “recognized” academic scholarship and enrollment to study in a country which has a diplomatic presence in Israel. In addition, since June 2008 Israel has made the exit of students from Gaza to study abroad conditional on a physical diplomatic escort. The students also have difficulty leaving through Egypt via Rafah crossing due to the fact that it is closed most of the time. The rare openings of Rafah Crossing permit travel for only about 12 percent of people wishing to pass.

One aspect of the current slaughter of Palestinians who have the wretched and unspeakable misfortune of trying to survive the war there, which has not received much commentary pertains to this very point.  Israel is not only obliterating Gaza, it is also shattering the dreams of young people who would otherwise yearn to pursue their education.  A generation of Gazan youth will have to forego any such ambitions and just hope to survive. And for what? And where? The death of dreams, the loss of all hope, is another kind of murder for the living.

In this blog, I will present the dramatic stories of two students, whom I came to know well, who did manage, through luck, their own perseverance, and outside help, to escape. Their stories will both illustrate the lengths to which they had to go in order to travel abroad for their studies and will, I hope, help to bring attention to all those still waiting, against even much greater odds now, to be able to follow in the footsteps of the students you will be meeting next.

My Life as an Eternal Stranger

My name is Hadeel Abukwaik, and I’m from a city called al-Lod in Palestine. I was born in Gaza on August 16, 1984, where I spent my first weeks of life only to move shortly afterward to the United Arab Emirates. I grew up in the UAE with two younger sisters, Yasmin and Shahd, and two younger brothers, Mahmoud and Mohammed. After high school graduation, I left my family and went back to Gaza to study computer systems engineering at Al-Azhar University. As an ambitious person and after spending six difficult years there I won a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue my studies in the U.S. I’m now earning my master’s degree in software engineering at California State University–Sacramento. I like walking, swimming, and both reading and writing. My dream is to have a homeland rather than only hearing about it!

Not long ago, I received an email from a student named Lashauna at a college in Sacramento, California, who had read one of my articles about Gaza, asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for a project dealing with Palestinian justice. Lashauna was not Palestinian herself, but her best friend, Hadeel AbuKwaik, a graduate student at the same university, was not only a Palestinian but a Fulbright Scholar, and, as it developed, she also knew Zohair Abu-Shaban, another Fulbright Scholar whose story you’ll be reading next.

Small world.

As usual, a rapid series of email exchanges ensued, and, as usual, a very warm and friendly relationship developed between Lashauna and me. Naturally, I was curious about Hadeel, too, who at the time was visiting friends on the East Coast. But shortly after Hadeel returned, they both arranged to drive down to visit Anna and me. Hadeel had never before been to San Francisco, and was keen to see it, and since Anna knows the city well and has often taken friends and tourists there, she offered to do the honors for Hadeel and Lashauna.

The day they picked to come down turned out to be warm and sunny, and we had a ball taking them around San Francisco to see all the sights. Indeed, they had the full tourist experience, complete with stops on the Golden Gate Bridge (the photo of Hadeel that appears in this blog was taken there) and a ride on a cable car (we jumped on and off again before we had to pay!).

Serendipitously, in walking through Union Square, we came across a big crowd protesting and noticed immediately that Palestinian flags were waving aloft. It was a demonstration against the attack in Gaza, and of course, many Palestinians were present, so Hadeel felt right at home! Ziad  [another local Palestinian friend of mine] was there, too, so we were able to introduce Hadeel to him and other Palestinians. And as we were leaving, I happened to notice Ahmed Alkhateeb [another Palestinian I had already exchanged e-mails with but had never met] on the street corner, holding up a sign. I recognized him from his photo (and from having seen him interviewed on TV a number of times). I went up to him and said, “Ahmed!” He looked at me blankly, until I identified myself. Then we had a big laugh, and I was able to introduce him to Hadeel (to whom he has been very helpful in various ways since).

The world was getting smaller.

Hadeel later wrote me that she absolutely fell in love with the city, and if she were to remain in America, would love to live there. It certainly would be wonderful to have her as a neighbor across the Bay. In any case, once I had the opportunity to get to know Hadeel, at least a little, that day, I asked her if she’d be willing to write something for our book, and she kindly complied. So here is Hadeel’s story.

All homelands are similar in that their children live there. Only Palestine is unlike any other. Palestine lives in its children.

I don’t know where to start with the story of my twenty-four-year-old life. Do I start with my growing up in the United Arab Emirates, where I was classified as a “foreigner,” or with the last six years I spent in Gaza, where I was classified as a “refugee”? Or should I start in the present, when I am in the USA as an “international student”? Have you ever thought of being without a homeland of your own?

Let me tell you about my family, which I miss and which is made up of my father, mother, and five children, I being the eldest. My good father, Kamal, is a fifty-two-year-old chemical engineer who was born in Gaza and grew up there as a refugee, coming originally from the town of Lod, which he only knew through the stories of his father. My warm mother, Hedaya, is a forty-three-year-old housewife born in Gaza and belonging to it. I was born in Gaza on August 16, 1984. Shortly afterward, my parents decided to move to the Emirates where my sisters and brothers were born: Yasmin, Shahd, Mahmoud and Mohammad.

They moved in search of what locked-up Palestine could not provide its children, hopeful for a better life. But it seems fatigue is the Palestinian’s fate wherever he goes. The label “foreigner” stuck to us everywhere, with its impact on salary, treatment, respect, and even in school. My father works day and night and only gets half of what native-born Emirates citizens get. The laws of the ministries of health, education, water, and electricity charge him double rates compared to locals. Even buying a house was forbidden because he is a foreigner!

As for school, at the beginning of every academic year, there was a committee counting the number of foreign students, and pain tore through my heart as I lifted my hand to announce that I am an unwanted intruder. Add to that the excellence competitions in which I was not allowed to participate because I am not one of them or the prizes I was not qualified for. Every time the “homeland” was the title of the subject I was asked to write in my various school classes, the words “I never saw it and may never do so” would reverberate in my head, accompanied by a sigh “until when?”

The summer of 2002 brought me the news of my high school graduation with distinction, followed by the search for a university that would embrace my dreams and that would be affordable for my refugee father. What I never imagined was for me to end up in Al-Azhar University in Gaza where I spent six years. Was that the encounter with what they call “the homeland”?

My mother accompanied me to the town where her mother and my four aunts live. How painful and beautiful at the same time was the meeting with them after years of separation. She stayed with me in Gaza for twenty days until I enrolled to study computer systems engineering. Upon her departure, she made me promise to realize my dreams and return with success.

I started my adventures in Gaza City, roaming its simple quarters and looking into the eyes of its inhabitants, as if I were looking at them for the homeland that had long been denied to me. I would accompany my university friends who would call me “refugee” jokingly (as I am from Lod, not Gaza) and others called me “expatriate” (for growing up in the Emirates).

One year passed by, and my younger sister Yasmin came to join me at the same university and to share memories. Not long afterward, Israeli infringements on the right to life started to be felt. We saw the Palestinian suffering saga: shelling here and assassination there; child funerals and the screams of their mothers; suspension of studies and staying home for fear of Israeli bombardments; water and electricity cut off for days; a dearth of bread and flour and other food products; fuel shortages and no transportation; the sound of tank shells on the borders of Gaza, my almost daily symphony before sleeping; and lastly, the closure of the crossings with no travel to and from Gaza. Was this the homeland I had dreamt of?

Only the voice of my father and mother through the telephone would offer me in my moments of weakness and tiredness a shot of calm and hope for a better tomorrow. I ignored the situation of slow death in Gaza and concentrated on my goal of excelling in my studies. I graduated with honors from the faculty of engineering and the idea of traveling abroad for further studies overwhelmed my thoughts. I heard of the Fulbright Scholarship in the U.S. and decided to do my best to get one. Although the situation in Gaza had reached its worst stage, and electricity would be available for only four hours a day, I was getting ready for the required tests mainly by the low light of the candles. But with the grace of God, I obtained the grades I needed and succeeded in the interviews to be shortlisted for a scholarship.

Suddenly, however, there was an explosion at the Rafah crossing, which prevented Gaza inhabitants from traveling, and those stuck started escaping, including my sister Yasmin, who wanted me to accompany her. I was torn between joining our parents and running away from death which inhabits Gaza and the determination to achieve my dream and continue my ambitious path. I decided to stay and face danger while awaiting news of the wished for scholarship.

Months later, I got the message that I had been waiting for, and they asked me to come to a meeting at the offices of AMIDEAST (America–Mideast Educational and Training Services), which was the go-between connecting us and the custodians of the scholarship. There I met my six colleagues: Abdul-Rahman, Osama, Duaa, Fidaa, Hadeel (my namesake), and Zohair. We could have flown with joy and our eyes sparkled with hope when the man in charge started by saying “Mabroook” (congratulations). But immediately after that we started to worry when he continued that the real challenge would be to reach the American Consulate in Jerusalem where we would have to submit to interviews for the visa. Since Palestinians can’t travel to Jerusalem without authorization from Israel, there would be no escaping another wait for permission to be granted. Couldn’t we even enjoy our good news for one day without more worry?

A few more months went by with our waiting and praying not to have our dreams stolen from us. In May 2008, we received an email from the American Consulate in Jerusalem that the consulate would not be able to continue with the procedures for the scholarship. The consulate would not give any reasons for the sudden withdrawal of the seven scholarships, but they “strongly urged” us to apply next year, and they assured us that we will have “priority.” I remained staring at the message and reread it again, hoping the words would change and the nightmare would go away.

Is that how our dreams and life are crushed, merely because we are Palestinian?

Amid my tears, which I was not strong enough to hold back, I got a call from an activist in a human rights society dealing with freedom of movement, and she informed me that she had heard about what had happened with me and my six colleagues and asked me to talk to the American press.

I do not hide that I was afraid and hesitant at first. What if my talk would be the last nail in the coffin of my ability to travel again? What if I would be put on a blacklist somewhere? But the tyranny that I felt at canceling the scholarship had a stronger voice, and I agreed to talk to the media. And my point was what did Israel prefer, an educated neighbor or an angry one?

The withdrawal of these scholarships caused an international stir and attracted attention, at least momentarily, to the plight of the seven students in the Gaza Strip. It drew the intervention of the then American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who said she was “surprised” by this decision and that the stance should be reversed. In June, new email messages were sent to us telling us that the American State Department decided to reinstate the seven scholarships and affirmed that it was “working closely” with Israeli officials to secure permits for us to leave Gaza for the U.S. For the first time since the earlier message, I smiled with hearty satisfaction and thanked God that our efforts were not in vain.

Finally, the good news came in July that we would be allowed into Jerusalem on the morrow. I was walking and feeling the breeze around me, dancing to the tune of my happy heart, while heading to the meeting place agreed upon.

Upon arrival, I immediately noticed that Osama and Fidaa were missing, and Zohair told me that they got calls at night telling them that they were refused on “security grounds”! When we arrived at the Erez checkpoint and entered the Israeli side, two officers asked Zohair to go with them for investigation. Hours went by waiting, then Zohair emerged with a look on his face I will never forget and said “I am not allowed to travel!” They called for the rest us to move, leaving Zohair behind. The cruelty to my three young colleagues and their ambitions stuck in my throat. I knew enough about them to be angry when they were described as a security threat.

Ten days later, I received the visa, and the AMIDEAST official told me I was the only one of the seven who would travel the next day and that my colleagues would have their travel arrangements finalized later (only two traveled after me). My tension reached a very high level at the thought of the day I had dreamt of for so long. I bade farewell to my grandmother and aunts and friends, and I said farewell to the corners of Gaza and its streets and beach, and I promised them all to return in order to write a story of a future more beautiful than that of the past.

We were met by the American bus at the Erez crossing, and they told us that we were forbidden to stop anywhere inside what they call Israel but what I insist on calling Palestine. I wondered if my wish to study had made me into a terrorist to be deported to Jordan under American supervision. We passed by the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, but we could not stop for a prayer before we departed and before it crumbles because of all the Israeli digging under it.

Finally, we arrived at the Jordanian borders, and I looked back at Palestine with a sigh, telling myself that I would miss it in spite of everything and in spite of all the agony that I had lived through under the siege.

A new chapter of my life started in the United States of America. The state of Arkansas was my first stop as I spent three weeks there with students from all over the world who were, like me, Fulbright Scholars. The first thing I saw were the names of Zohair and Osama on doors of rooms reserved for them at the student accommodation, as if to remind me of the oppression still there which I had left behind.

One of the things that attracted my attention was that there were Americans who didn’t know anything about Palestine or Gaza, who acted as if they were hearing about them for the first time. Another thing that left me speechless was the “map of the world” when a friend asked me to show him the Palestine that I was talking about and where I come from. It was painful not to find it on the map but to see the name of our occupier in its place, as if it treads on the dignity of all Palestinians. If Palestine did not exist, who am I? Which planet did I descend from to earth?

Everything in the U.S. seemed to me luxurious and very comfortable, and I could not escape the comparison with the deteriorating situation in Gaza. I could not believe that everything we needed was available without interruption: water, electricity, even “security.” I often felt guilty and selfish for enjoying the things that I know my loved ones in Gaza need and wish for. I was sad to see the oppression of man by man there. Is it their fault that they were born Palestinian? Did they choose their fate to be punished for it so cruelly?

In August 2008, I moved to California to start my master’s program in software engineering at the California State University. How happy I was that I was now on my way to realize my dreams and proud of being part of this undoubtedly solid and special educational program. The first semester was over and then came the worst vacation in history, the war on Gaza.

I was sleeping at my uncle’s house in New Jersey, where I was spending my vacation, when I was woken up at six in the morning by the loud sound of the TV repeating nervously “Gaza…Gaza.” The word rang in my head to end my sleep. I got up panicky to watch the Israeli occupation army air force aggressively bombing Gaza, in what they called “Operation Cast Lead.” War and destruction and blood were everywhere. I felt dizzy as if the earth was moving beneath me.

I rushed to my cell phone to find out about my loved ones, but I found that the war had affected even the telephone lines and that they had no electricity by which to get my emails—nothing to tell you if they were still alive or if they had been reached by the Israeli war machine.

After many repeated attempts, I managed to talk to an aunt in Gaza who told me in a voice full of fright that they were seeing death coming undoubtedly this time and that this was not like previous times. How I wished I could be with them because living their fear is easier than watching it and seeing it.

The days of the war went on, and I was stuck to news broadcasts, and my heart and tongue never ceased to pray for the safety of my family and all the people of Gaza and the end to this massacre. How I hated numbers as they were counting the martyrs and the wounded. The story is not of numbers but of bleeding hearts for the departed ones and seeing them die: mothers weeping for their children; wives crying for their husbands that they wished to grow old with; a child finding himself the only survivor of a whole family and not understanding why his mother left him alone in the cold and had not returned. How will children feel, unlike other children with rosy dreams, but with dreams the color of blood? Did they eliminate what they call “terrorism”? Is the defense of Israel in my bleeding grandmother? Is demolishing her house a security necessity? What madness inhabits the world? When will the world wake up from this coma of oppression to which it surrenders?

The new term started with very low morale after the psychological stress I had lived through during the war. But the stories of my friends who survived this tragedy, that they will not give up their dreams and ambitions despite the savagery of what they went through, was an incentive for me to do all I could to succeed.

Yes, I decided that my success will be my gift to my wounded homeland, which I would like to be proud of its daughter. I would like it to be proud of its daughter who still loves it and hopes that it will come back to her and hug her, like other homelands. The remaining question is “until when?”
—A Daughter of Palestine

My Flight from Gaza

Zohair Abu-Shaban, twenty-five, is a prize-winning Palestinian student. He was born in Kuwait and returned to Gaza with his family in 1992 after the first Gulf War. He studied at the Islamic University of Gaza and finished his BS degree in electrical engineering in January 2007 at the top of his class. After that, he worked as a teaching assistant in the same department for two years. He wanted to get his post-graduate education abroad in the same field to fulfill his dream of becoming a professor at a university. He won a Fulbright Scholarship and then lost it. Luckily, he earned another scholarship to study in the U.K.

I first became aware of Zohair Abu-Shaban, a university student in Gaza, after reading about him in the Hartford Courant in August 2008. The article told the story of how he had been prevented from pursuing his graduate education in America as a result of his U.S. visa being revoked—a story that he will narrate in full in the account that follows this introduction. What particularly interested me about Zohair, a Fulbright Scholar, was that the university he had been slated to attend was where I had taught for nearly thirty-five years, the University of Connecticut, in Storrs.

After reading about the plight of other Fulbright Scholars from Gaza who had, like Zohair, first been accepted and then denied entry to the U.S.—articles about them had made the national press at the time—I had already been moved to anger about what seemed to be an obvious and arbitrary, politically motivated blockage, probably instigated by Israel, to prevent Palestinian students from acquiring the kind of graduate education abroad that was simply unavailable in Gaza. But here was a student that had been barred, seemingly so unfairly, from attending my very own university. That rankled, so I determined to see if I could help him.

Through a Palestinian intermediary, I was able in short order to establish email contact with Zohair in early September. He responded appreciatively and provided a great deal of information about himself and his situation and gave me a number of specific suggestions for how I might be able to help him. Over the next two months, until it was time for me to travel with Anna to Palestine, I did everything I could think of to do so. I wrote to several of the engineering professors at the university who were familiar with his case as well as various university officials; they were, to my great disappointment and surprise, collectively very unhelpful. Some of them never even replied to my letters, which stung.

I wrote (or called) people at the State Department; I talked to diplomats at the U.N.; I communicated with a prominent journalist who had written extensively on the subject of these Fulbright Scholars for a leading American newspaper; I spoke with administrators of the Fulbright program who were, of course, familiar with Zohair’s case; I was in touch with Gisha, an Israeli-based organization devoted to helping Palestinian students; I wrote to people at the Carter Center who likewise knew about Zohair and had offered to help; and I make contact with various other people and organizations that I thought might be able to effectively intervene. Some of these people were indeed very sympathetic, but in the end, none of my efforts proved to be availing. I had failed to achieve anything significant for Zohair after two months of trying, and now I was about to leave for Palestine and would not be able to do anything further until after my return in December.

The only thing I had been able to “accomplish” was to have developed a very warm personal relationship with Zohair as a result of our frequent communications. Indeed, I felt that we had become very close, despite never having been able to meet, because of all of the communications I had received in which Zohair had shared his feelings of despondency over his continuing to be mired in Gaza. But I think it meant something to him to know that, however unsuccessful I had been in trying to effect his release from Gaza, at least he had an ally in me who was determined to continue to help him.

That was the state of things when I left for Palestine. What happened after that, Zohair will tell you in his own words.

As a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, I could not have been more proud to learn in June 2008, that I had earned a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States. 

As a child, I would wonder how televisions, computers, and other electronic devices actually worked. I took this fascination to the Islamic University of Gaza, the only Gazan university offering a degree in electrical engineering. There, I developed an ECG monitoring system that enables patients’ hearts to be monitored at home through a personal computer and an Internet link. I won the university prize for distinguished projects for my innovation. I long dreamed of the other advances I might make after an education at the University of Connecticut, where I was scheduled to study last fall for a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Now, my dream has been stolen from me. I am devastated; my parents heartbroken. Though Israel withdrew its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it still controls our borders and determines who and what enters or exits. Since a 2006 election that brought a Hamas majority to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Israel has steadily diminished access into and out of Gaza. More than 250 Palestinians died in the past year because they could not leave to obtain medical care they desperately needed. Food, fuel, and medicine are scarce. Hundreds of students like me, with scholarships to study abroad, are being arbitrarily denied the right to leave Gaza to fulfill our educational aspirations.

A few months ago, when I went to the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel, I was told by the Israeli official that I could not leave unless I provided information about my neighbors, colleagues, and relatives. I refused. My conscience and my people’s right to freedom and equal rights mean more to me than even the finest education.

U.S. officials came to my aid. They held special visa interviews along the Israeli-Gaza border for me and two other Fulbright scholars in a similar position. The U.S. granted my visa. Once again, I could imagine taking my seat in a lecture hall in America. I packed my bags, bought souvenirs for my future friends in America, and bade farewell to my family.

Then came a phone call that changed everything. My American visa had been revoked based on “secret evidence” provided by Israel. I cannot see the evidence and so have no opportunity to contest it. 

I was not at all prepared to give up my ambitions. I worked very hard and earned another full scholarship to the U.K. to study in one of the best universities in the world, Imperial College London. I got the British visa last September, but my travel plans still needed a miracle to occur so that Rafah borders would open.

The good news came on September 21 when the Rafah border opened, so I grabbed my luggage, brimming with hope that I would finally be able to take my seat beside other international students in one of the Imperial College halls. I approached Rafah and stayed there for about twenty-four hours in no-man’s-land. I spent a whole day and night there waiting for my bus to come. It never did. Only three buses were allowed, and I was in the twelfth. There I recognized the fact that I am different from my international colleagues at Imperial who have already started their study last October while I was still stranded in the hell that is the Gaza Strip.

A month after studies started at Imperial, the borders opened again. But I was informed that I could not engage in studies if I missed the two-week arrival limit set by the university. However, I was in contact with the student union, which convinced my university to extend the limit for me since I was living on “another planet” and had an odd case. When I heard that, I became indescribably happy and did not think twice. Again, I approached the Rafah crossing, only to spend another day and night there before I was sent back home with more than four hundred students for no reason. Imperial deferred my study to the next year, and I submitted to the de facto situation.

What troubles me most, however, is not my own personal plight, but the effect this experience has had on my talented younger brother. After watching what I had endured as an innocent and politically unaffiliated student, he has concluded that he will no longer pursue the educational dream outside of Gaza he once held. His horizons are closing. 

As an older brother, from a family that places deep value on education, as all Palestinian people do, it pains me to see his own ambitions falter because of the injustice I was facing.

I wonder what hopelessness all children in Gaza suffer when they learn that Gaza’s best students are confined by Israel to the cramped Gaza Strip? How are they to succeed when their parents discover local stores are empty of pencils, pens, and notebooks because of the harsh blockade of our small parcel of land?

Hope shone again last December when a British academic delegation visited Gaza on the Dignity, one of the boats which were being sent to Gaza by a U.S.-based movement called Free Gaza Movement to break the siege. They came to Gaza to visit the academic institutions and get to know the situation of the academic system under siege. They were aware of the Gazan students’ difficulties of not being able to fulfill their eagerness to get education abroad, and they intended to get out as many students as possible on their return from Gaza to Cyprus.

As a student with a very well-known story who had lost his Fulbright and was about to lose a second Scholarship in U.K., I was selected to travel on Dignity with another ten students to different destinations. After a fourteen-hour, very tough voyage, the boat landed on Larnaca Seaport, Cyprus. I could not believe that at last I was away from the prison of Gaza, that I was now set free and would travel to my university with no problems. How amazing that moment was, a moment that made me forget all the pain and fatigue I had endured on deck to reach this point. I even forgot all the difficulties and disappointments I had faced in the past months. In that moment, all I was thinking of was that I was free.

I spent three days in Cyprus before I flew to London. There, a professor from the delegation and a student from the student union were waiting for me at Heathrow Airport. They welcomed me and helped me in finding a place to stay. They were more than kind and friendly and really made me feel at home.

But as usual, the Israeli occupation state stole my happiness. Ten days after arriving in London, I woke up to watch the news, only to find that a very inhumane and indiscriminate war had been launched on the Gaza Strip. I tried to contact my family but I hardly could. I tried again and again until I succeeded. They were all fine, and the aggression was away from my neighborhood. I was relieved to know that and was hoping and praying that the war would end soon. But it was escalating rapidly, and the heartbreaking images of the victims were broadcast on TV. At that time, I wished I were in Gaza again with my family and not living in this peaceful calm city while my people in Gaza were being massacred in cold blood. I could hardly live during those days and nights. Anyway, the first thing that made my heart bleed was to see the news of my university hit by U.S.-made F-16s. It was bombarded by tons and tons of explosives. The tears escaped my eyes after I saw my dearest laboratories where I spent six years learning and then teaching. It was a massive event for which I will never forgive Israel.

Days passed, and the situation and my ability to contact the family in Gaza became more difficult until I received a text from them asking me to call them for urgent news. My heart stopped beating, and I was afraid to make that call. I was wondering what kind of urgent news is this. I collected my courage and phoned them; again, I could hardly succeed in getting through. Five of my close cousins were massacred while they were staying at home. Eight other members of my family were injured, some critically hurt and transferred to Egypt to get treatment. My home was also hit in the war, but thank God my family escaped it beforehand and were already living with my married sister when the bombs destroyed it.

The war ended, but the siege is still imposed, and nothing will improve until the Palestinian people are treated as human beings with the right of self-determination, freedom of education, freedom of movement, and every other right most people in the world enjoy. There are still hundreds of Palestinian students in Gaza hoping for a miracle to happen so that they can pursue scholarships that may offer them a once-in-a-lifetime escape from ignorance and poverty. We are determined not to be rendered a dependent people lacking advanced education. 

And yet the silence of the world suggests that Israel will succeed in keeping us within the limiting confines of Gaza. Perhaps the students of the world will think of me and my fellow Palestinian students as the academic semester begins because the students of Gaza long to be with them.

May 9, 2024

Letters From Palestine

Those of you who have been reading my blogs over the past several years will know that I am very passionate about the cause of justice for the Palestinian people. And, naturally, I have been as heartened by the wave of campus protests for their rights as I have been anguished by the continuation of the war in Gaza.

In 2008, my then girlfriend Anna and I traveled to Israel and the West Bank during which time we met and were befriended by many Palestinians. Among them was a professional man named Ghassan Abdullah, and after I got home, he and I co-edited a book about the contemporary lives of Palestinians.  We called the book Letters from Palestine, and it was published in 2010.

While Anna and I were there, we were not allowed into Gaza (but were able to get to one of its crossings, so we had got close).  However, in the course of compiling stories for our book, I heard from and became friends with a number of young Gazans. Gaza had long been under siege, but after we left, in December of 2010, another war against Gaza broke out, killing and maiming many Palestinians, mostly women and children. 

That war was limited in duration. As I recall, it was concluded within a month, unlike the present war in Gaza, which is now in its seventh month, and so far has killed something like 35,000 Palestinians.  Enough has already been written about that war and the campus protests that have spread like wildfire both here and abroad.

But what about the Palestinians themselves?
I would like to share some of their stories here.  I will begin with a young Gazan woman named Hanan to whom I became quite close during the time we corresponded, which mostly took place before Anna and I had left for Palestine.
Below you will find her letters to me.  My own comments interspersed with her letters are in italics.  Before introducing Hanan to you, I will offer the poem that began our book, which was written by a 14-year-old Palestinian boy.

Me, Myself and Palestine

My home is Ramallah, Palestine.
I am the camel that slowly walks on the dry, hot desert sand,
With stored determination in my hump.
I am the ball of falafel,
Rough on the outside, 
Soft within.
We are the olive and fruit trees, 
Flourishing throughout the beauteous landscape.

I come from the Holy Land,
The place Jesus was born.
I am one of the many strong-willed, 
Educated, civilized people.

We were the ones who were
Deprived of our alphabet and numbers
Which are seen everywhere today.
Deprived of our land
Which spread over a vast area.
This area has now become a little sliver of land
That stretches from the Gaza Strip to Ramallah.

To understand me you have to know,
I’m not a terrorist.
I don’t have bombs.
None of those stereotypes are true.
My people, who have fought for their country,
Are left to sit amongst the dirt and rocks,
The only things left in the ruins of their homes.
I come from what used to be a beautiful and respected country,
But, sadly, it has become almost forgotten.
My soul has felt the pain of all my ancestors,
Knowing that their treasured land will never be the same.
We used to be calm and gentle people,
But have turned furious and outraged 
For what has become of our land.
Palestine isn’t just my home,
Palestine is me.

—Dominic Buoni, age 14

Letters from Hanan

In the course of my correspondence with a professor named Haidar Eid, I asked him if he had any Palestinian friends who might be interested to correspond with me. He suggested I write to one of his devoted students, Hanan Hammad, which I soon did. She responded warmly, and over time a deep and mutually caring relationship developed between us, which exists to this day.

My name is Hanan Hamouda Hamad. I am a twenty-two-year-old Palestinian girl. I live with my father and brothers in a small refugee camp in the middle of the Gaza Strip called Nuseirat. I have just finished school as I was studying at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza City, majoring in English language methodology. If God wishes, I will be working as an English language teacher because spending time with children and students is one of my favorite things ever. However, for myself, the best thing in the world is literature. I love reading, and my ultimate dream in life is to be a feminist and revolutionary writer. My favorite writer is the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani, and my best poet is the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. My life is a very simple one but I love it.

I first heard from Hanan after Gaza was under siege, during which time Israel was already restricting the flow of vital goods into Gaza and keeping people from leaving, thus rendering the population virtual prisoners who were also being deprived, almost to the point of starvation sometimes, of the essentials of life. And after that, of course, they were bombed during the Israeli invasion beginning on December 27, 2008. By the time it was over, nearly seven thousand Gazans had either been killed or wounded, and Gaza itself had been largely reduced to smoke, burning phosphorous, and rubble.

A passage from the Book of Lamentations pretty well sums up what Gazans felt when emerging from the hell they had all lived through during more than three weeks:

"How does the city sit solitary, that was full 
of people! How is she become as a widow! ...
She weeps sore into the night, and her tears are on her cheeks:
among all who loved her she has none to comfort her."

In these excerpts from some of Hanan’s letters to me, she describes what life was like for her and her family during these times of terrible hardship, which then turned into the horror of living, not just under the stifling occupation, but under the incessant bombing and shelling of Gaza during the war—as the city where Hanan lived became widowed and bereft of any comfort.

I begin with her very first note to me, written on June 1, 2008:

Dear Professor Ring,

I’m really honored to correspond with you in an attempt to help in giving an honest view about the situation here in Gaza.

I do not know what Professor Haidar may have told you about me, but there is not much to say. I’m a student in the English department of Al-Aqsa University, hopefully [I] am gonna graduate next term. I live in a refugee camp in the middle of the Gaza Strip, am interested in literature, and I do care about Palestine. I would like to inform you that I might not be available much because of electricity issues, but I will try my best.

After I responded and told her a little bit about myself, when she replied about a week later, I was already being addressed as “Ken.”

Dear Ken,

Hope you are fine, am really glad to receive your email, and I would like to thank you in the name of Palestinians all over the world. We really appreciate your concern and your support to our cause. Palestinians have been suffering for a long time, and the situation here in Gaza is getting worst and worst; however, people like you and your girlfriend, who believe in and support us, are the ones who give us hope and faith. Hope for the future and faith in our cause. Please thank your girlfriend for me and my people. 

Thank you again for everything. One more thing, Salaam is an Arabic word that means peace, and the word I love for greeting people. Hope its OK ...

My best wishes to you and your girlfriend,

Hanan’s next letter—her first real letter, as opposed to a note—was written in mid-June, not long after Hamas and Israel agreed to a six-month cease-fire. But even then, there was talk of invasion, which Hanan was praying would not happen. However, in this letter, she gives her first really personal account of how she was experiencing the siege and also of the nature of her opposition to it. It seems that this opening up of our correspondence occurred because, among other things, I had just indicated, with some anxiety about her reaction, that I was Jewish.

Dear Ken,

Hope you are fine, am really glad to hear back from you, and I apologize for being late in replying, electricity was the worst the previous days. Anyway, I have finished my exams, so I will be free to write to you.

Actually, knowing that you are Jewish makes me respect and even admire you more and more. People like you are people of thought and principles, so peace, shalom, salaam. It doesn’t really matter as long as we accept and respect each other.

Indeed, news reports have talked about an invasion of Gaza. Pray with me it won’t take place ever because, in case it does, the consequences will be disastrous; however, this invasion may not take place, especially [now] that Hamas and Israel have reached a cease-fire deal, sponsored by Egypt, starting Thursday at 6:00 a.m.

This kind of deal is supposed to create an opportunity to break the siege, which is the most important step to be achieved, especially in regard to the humanitarian situation. Here in Gaza, it’s the worst ever. Actually, when I got your last email in which you believe that “one day surely the siege will be lifted,” when reading these words, I was thinking that you are an optimistic man. Let me tell you why. I reached a point in which I go to bed each single night thinking, “Come on, Hanan, tomorrow is another day. It is not going to be worst; it can’t be worst.” I fall sleep dreaming of tomorrow, and wake up the next day to find out that, yes indeed, it is another day, yes indeed, its not worst: it is the “worstest.”

Well, linguists should consider adding this word to the English dictionary. You think I am exaggerating? Believe me, I am not. You will see for yourself when you visit us here in Gaza, and, of course, you are welcome any time.

Here in Palestine we are not fighting the Jewish or the Israeli occupation. What we really fight is racism in the shape of Zionism. I repeat these words all the time: “We are resisting Zionist racism and racist Zionism, the two sides of the same coin.” I’m sure that the book you mentioned [Joel Kovel’s] Overcoming Zionism sheds light upon this specific point, and of course, the only solution for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the one democratic state solution which is the only one that guarantees peace, justice, equality, and the most important, freedom for both peoples. We will continue resisting, and I am sure that these principles will eventually win, but the question remains: How? Is it going to be by war or by thought?

Anyway, one more thing, thank you very much, we really appreciate your concern about us.

My best wishes to you.

After a few more brief exchanges, Hanan’s next real letter reached me at the end of June. During that time, I was working to try to bring attention to the disgraceful treatment of a Gazan journalist Mohammed Omer, who had been savagely beaten by members of the Israeli Shin Bet upon his return from England. (His personal account was presented earlier in this book.) This prompted a long response from Hanan about how the media covers Palestinians, after which she went on to answer some questions I had asked her concerning her present situation and daily life.

My dear Ken,

I am really glad to hear back from you so soon. I know the story of Mohammed Omer, the brave journalist, and have followed it in the news. What he was exposed to is truly brutal. We deeply appreciate your concern and your honest intentions and deeds towards his and our cause.

To tell you the truth, one of our most controversial problems has a big thing to do with media, the very biased and pro-Israeli media in which we are portrayed as the victimizers and they are the victims, which is totally not true. This kind of propaganda twists the facts, and, unfortunately, our media is not as strong as theirs. And even when we try to give the real facts, we are faced [with] such brutal treatment, the same which Mohammed was faced with. But I thank God because there are still some people who believe in our just cause.

My dear Ken, I do not mind at all your asking, and please feel free to ask whatever you want, and I will be more than glad to answer all of your questions. Concerning the one you addressed (whether I work), actually I don’t, although I have tried hard to get a temporary job for summer, but I couldn’t. Here in Gaza, there aren’t many opportunities for work, and I’m sure you know about the increasing number of unemployed young men and women, especially under the siege. My two older brothers are both unemployed. The first, Bahaa, who graduated four years ago from Iraq as a fuel and energy engineer, the second, Adel, graduated two years ago in Algeria, specializing in psychology.

Let me tell you something funny. When Bahaa hears me wishing for him to get a good job, he says, “My dear young sister, don’t bother yourself. I am a fuel and energy engineer, and since there is no fuel in Gaza, they obviously don’t need me!” He laughs about it, but I am the one who knows how hard it is for him.

What I am telling you is that I don’t work because of the circumstances in Gaza. Now that I don’t go to school for the summer holidays, I spend most of my time at home, taking care of our small house, cleaning, cooking, looking after my old father. I also occupy myself with reading novels and short stories as I am very interested in reading literary works. I also follow the news and try to educate myself about local and international realities because this kind of informing myself will help me to become a writer. I like music, and I listen to songs a lot. But when [the] electricity goes off, life stops and I don’t do anything important but playing with my nephews and nieces.

My best wishes to you and Anna.

The beginning of July brought another letter from Hanan, which continued her account of the trials and dangers of widespread unemployment in the Gaza Strip but went on to describe the kind of additional restrictions imposed on women. And here, she also enlarges on her own literary ambitions. In many of our letters to follow, we discussed literary topics and authors, but I will have to omit most of those exchanges here because of space limitations.

Dear Ken,

Yes, it does drive us crazy, I mean being unemployed. It is accurate that unemployment here is near 80 percent, and it increases each single day, which I’m afraid is going to lead our youth to desperation. However, I’m pretty sure that one day all these miseries will come to an end as soon as we reach the one democratic state solution, which guarantees equal rights for both peoples. One of these rights is to have cinemas and theaters. Yes, there is no single cinema or theater in [the] whole Gaza Strip. I honestly don’t know the reasons for that. However, what is more important than the reason is the effect. It is dangerously unbearable to live in a place in which there is no kind of entertainment. Do you know that Palestinian society has the highest level of emotional stress and pressure among its people? Of course you understand that there is a connection here.

In your letter, you asked if I am going to travel abroad as my brothers did. Actually, I’m not so sure about the answer. I mean that, yes, it is one of [my] dreams to go out and breathe some free air and also go for my dreams, but in our society, there are many stupid restrictions on the things related to women. For example, a woman is not allowed to travel alone or without her husband’s or father’s approval, and that is exactly the reason for which I want to be writer, a feminist writer, to talk about women and their rights. I also want to be a revolutionary writer, to talk about revolution and resistance against all injustice. There is a Palestinian writer, my favorite, named Ghassan Kanafani, who was killed by the Israeli Mossad through bombing his car in 1972. This is the kind of writer I aspire to be, so wish me luck, huge luck, for it.

I think this is enough for one letter. [The] electricity is going to be cut off in a few minutes according to the schedule.

Dear Ken, thank you so much for writing to me. I’m gaining a huge knowledge from you, and also thanks for giving time to read my messages. I really appreciate it. Take care of yourself and of Anna.


During the month of July, Hanan’s letters grew even warmer (“Dearest Ken”) along with the heat, and while our literary discussions continued, they were often punctuated by complaints about the increasing problems with electricity and the lack of any progress on the easing of the siege. The following are some typical excerpts, concluding with one written at the very end of July:

I’m really sorry for being late in replying to your emails, but electricity was the worstest lately, and they came up with a new terrible timetable in which it is cut off continuously for nine hours. It is like hell, especially because it is very hot, and of course there’s no air conditioning.

Anyway, we got used to it.

You asked if the situation has become better after the cease-fire took place. Well, the answer is a big no. Everything seems to be the same or the worstest. I believe you read about the experience which Professor Haidar was forced to undergo at the Rafah crossing so you can imagine how awful things are. The same applies to my father. He needs to travel to Egypt for medical treatment, but he is not able to because of the siege which is not broken yet. You can see the harsh reality under which we are living.

I’m sure you follow the news closely and know that circumstances here are the same, nothing gets better. The siege is getting tighter more and more, and we are really tired, so tired that we [are] badly looking forward to getting rid of everything.

Let me tell you something [that] may help you to know how life is in Gaza: I used to go to the beach with my family each summer after school finished. This year, we didn’t. You want to know why? Because the sea, which is our only way out, is dangerously polluted. Some of our relatives ignored the warnings and went out there to swim. They ended up in the doctors’ clinic suffering with a serious skin disease, and of course you know how the sea got polluted in the first place. Oh dearest, I don’t want to break your heart anymore with these words.

By August, things were, if anything, even worse—or, as Hanan would say, “the worstest.” Deaths and illness and despondency had all taken their toll on her, and on Gazans generally, as the effects of the siege, during the still persisting heat of summer, continued without any sign of improvement. But despite this, toward the end of her letter, Hanan speaks of the resilience of the Palestinian people, a theme that appears more than once in her correspondence with me.

Dear Ken,

Oh, I really missed your words. Thank God I finally got to receive some. I’m really sorry I didn’t send you anything before this, but they were the most awful two weeks ever. First, my aunt died. She was too young, only sixty years old. I really miss her so much. Then the greatest Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, died. He is my favorite. His poems are the best. I was so sad for losing him. And finally my poor father, he is very sick. He has been in the hospital for eight days, Yesterday doctors performed the first surgery on him, and today they will be performing the second surgery. I’m really worried about him.

So, am I OK? Well, I’m not sure.

I’m not headed back to school yet. It opens in September, so I believe there is still some time for me to rearrange myself. It is just unbearable, and I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about the situation here in Gaza. It is the worstest, nothing gets better. People are getting furious. Some became disappointed, and most are feeling lost. I do feel lost. I’m talking about the poor people’s lives; they cannot take it anymore, It’s too much for them. However, they have that amazing power to heal themselves, and they keep going no matter what; they just won’t take “No” for an answer, and that’s exactly what keeps my faith.

Oh dear, I don’t want to break your heart with my terrible news, but I am looking forward to get[ting] another message from you. I will steal some time to write to you as I’m doing right now because I care about writing to you. Please take care and keep in touch.

My best wishes and best regards,

It was during this time that the first two of the Free Gaza boats were getting ready to make their perilous voyage from Cyprus to Gaza to try to break the siege for the first time. Most of us in my community, and certainly most Gazans, were following these developments closely, with more anxiety than confidence about the outcome. And so was Hanan.

Dear Ken,

Concerning the sailing in August, even though I’m counting so much on it, I’m also concerned about the people who will do it and try to break the siege. The Zionist Israeli forces may attack them, hurt them, and even arrest some of them. Even though this ship will bring us some essential necessities, it might get hurt, and we will never accept something like that. But I’m not so sure what we can do to protect them.

This sailing carries not only food and medicine, but also hope and freedom. I can’t wait to see it coming, breaking the horrible siege, bringing with it the free air which we need the most. As I told you before, life here in Gaza is unbearable. And the cease-fire deal is only some “ink on paper.” Nothing gets better, the crisis is growing wider and wider. At the same time the siege is getting tighter and tighter, and we are stuck in the middle. By “we,” I mean the poor people whose biggest dream is to live a decent life enjoying their rights, equal to any other human beings. Is that too much to ask? Or are we just not humans? 

In the media, they used to call Gaza Strip a big prison or mega prison. I personally call it a mega cage. The difference is obvious. At least in a prison one can still have some of his rights; in Gaza, we are driven to give up our rights, dignity, and, most important of all, our humanity. However, I have learned that no one, whoever he is, has the right to take away any of my rights, especially the right to a decent life for me and my children. I’m a woman, and my ultimate hope in life is to be a mother someday, a good mother. But the question is, how can I be a good mother when bringing my children into a world that rejects them, and steals their right to life? How can I bring them into a world in which they have no right to play, to get proper medical care, proper education? Sometimes our children even lose their right of birth—I’m sure you know about the uncountable number of women who had to deliver their babies at the checkpoints, and many of these babies passed away before the permission to go to the hospital arrived.

What I am saying is the world is standing still, motionless in front of the crimes against our people, and we all have to stand up and say no in the face of injustice.

Sorry to bother you with this too long letter: however, I felt like writing, and I think this is what letters from Palestine is all about. 

But finally, in early September, Hanan had something to mitigate her anger and despair. She even had something to cheer about.

I’m sure you watched the arrival of the two boats. It was amazing—people down here were flying happily. Most of them were on the beach, jumping into the water to welcome the supporters. It was amazing. I called Professor Haidar one day later, and he told me that he was there, and he found the reaction of the Gazans unbelievably great, as if they were locked in a prison for ages and finally got out of it. Wish you were here. It was a remarkable day in our lives.

Over the next two months, my correspondence with Hanan consisted mainly of short exchanges, partly because I was sick for a time during this period while Hanan was very busy with her school work and preoccupied with her father’s health. Also, beginning in October, I became very preoccupied with preparations for the trip that Anna and I would be taking the following month to Palestine and Israel. It was to be our first visit to the Middle East, and we would be away for virtually all of November. Of course, Hanan wrote to wish us well, but with that, our communications necessarily ceased until after my return in early December.

A few days after getting back home to California, I wrote Hanan to let her know that Anna and I had had a marvelous time during our journey to the West Bank, where of course we had a chance to meet many Palestinians and even to stay with some Palestinian families. She quickly responded with one of her warmest letters to date, and one of the hardest for me to read.

Dearest friend Ken,

Oh  I’m so gratefully glad to receive your email and know that you’re back home safe and well. I have just read your words and feel very happy that you have spent good time in the West Bank. I’m fine, and my father and family are fine too, so don’t worry about us.

I really missed your letters during these days, and God knows how much I wished you were permitted to visit the Gaza Strip and finally meet you. You have become one of my best friends ever, but I do realize that it was impossible.

After describing some of the recent hardships she and her family had been experiencing because of chronic electricity outages, she poured out her heart to me about what life in Gaza was like for people living there as 2008 drew to a close.

My dear, I don’t want to break your heart with the awful news of the late Gaza, peace be upon that place of earth. I’m sure you follow the news wherever available, yet media cannot and will never be able to honestly describe the truth of our reality. People here have reached a point at which they feel as if they are isolated from the rest of the world (which they are). I have personally heard some saying, “This is not a life; we are dead. We have been for a long time but lying to ourselves, saying that we are alive, but we are just some moving dead people.” 

Believe me, it is worse than that, but there are still many people who truly believe that the salvation is very close. I’m not sure which one of them I am??

What do you think?

I believe I have already broken your heart, but never mind, my friend. I’m very glad that we are back in touch again. It might be the best thing of this siege that it gave me the chance to communicate with such a devoted friend as yourself.

In the weeks that followed, our communications were mostly about a story that Hanan had been attempting to write for the book, one that, as she said, made her cry bitterly to recall it. And it was during this time, as the end of December drew near, that finally the threat of an imminent Israeli attack turned into a dreaded actuality. On December 27, the first wave of bombing hit Gaza, killing more than two hundred people and wounding many more. These days were some of the worst of my life, as I could only hope and pray that my friends there were not among the casualties. I wrote to Hanan, desperate for a response, and, finally, a few days later, on the last day of 2008, in the midst of the relentless Israeli assault, I received this note from her.

Dear friend Ken,

Thank you so much for your concern and your noble feelings, I really appreciate them. You can say that I’m fine but my people are not. You can never even imagine the destruction and the horror we’re living in. Circumstances are the worstest. We haven’t had electricity for two days, and we just got some. It’s actually four o’clock after midnight now, and it is an awful night. F-16 planes are joining our children with their dreams or what have become nightmares. Sorry, I have no words to describe the situation here.

Dear Ken, again thank you so much for your concerning feeling. There is one thing I want you to know in case something happens and I didn’t make it or haven’t the chance to say so. I would like you to know that you are one of my best friends ever and that it was a great pleasure for me to know you and to communicate with you. I’ve really learned a lot from you and your forgiveness personality was a source of inspiration and admiration.

Take care of yourself, dear friend, and excuse me for this short message but it might be the last,

Your little friend, 
Hanan Hamuoda

After that note, there was nothing more I heard from Hanan.

About a week later, I received a letter from a good friend of mine in Canada who knew I must be very concerned for my friends in Gaza. In my reply, I wrote about Hanan:

First, here are some excerpts from Hanan’s last note to me, a week ago—obviously, I have had no word from her since. Of course, there is often no electricity, no water, no cell phone service; it is winter there, but people have to leave their windows open lest they shatter if there are explosions nearby. Families huddle together just to keep as warm as they can. Under such conditions, how can I expect Hanan to write? And how can I know what her silence means? Anyway, here are her last—but I hope not her final–words to me [and then I quoted from portions of the letter I have just reprinted above].

After writing my Canadian correspondent about another Gazan friend whom I already knew had narrowly avoided being killed when a bomb struck near his house but about whose fate I was still uncertain, I continued:

These are just two of my friends. There are about 1.5 million Gazans, all of whom have friends and family, mostly there, some elsewhere, and they all have similar stories to tell. You can see why Gaza is so much on my mind. And there is no end in sight. At least fifty-five more civilians died today, and more than six hundred have perished now. At least eight hundred children have either been killed or wounded, and, of course, the hospitals, completely undersupplied and understaffed for years because of the Israeli siege, can’t cope. One Norwegian doctor, Mads Gilbert, who has been working there now for eight days, with almost no sleep and little to eat himself, broke down in tears last night because of the children he can’t help and can only see die. And then he has to tell their parents—when they are alive to tell.

Weeks passed, and there was still no word from Hanan.

Then, finally, just after the twenty-two-day invasion came to an end, my prayers were answered.

Dear Ken,

I really missed you. Thank you so much for taking time to write and check on me and my family. We are all fine, physically, I mean. However, I am feeling a huge pain in my heart for those children who were killed with no concern for their right of life during the war. I needed a friend to talk to about all the horrible things that were happening, but I found none, and my words also didn’t help me. I really need you to know what I and the whole Palestinian people went through during the war. Dear Ken, you are a dear friend of mine, and I need your support to survive all this. Thank you again for everything, and thank you for your friendship, 

Regards from my dear hurt Gaza,

Hanan has promised to write me more, and more at length, about her experiences during the war and its aftermath. But at the moment of this writing (February 10, 2009), she is back at her university, taking her exams, and everything must wait until after she has finished them. But at least I know she is still alive, that her family survived the terrible ordeal through which they suffered during the Israeli attacks, and that she will continue to write to me.

I am happy to have been able to share these letters from my beloved friend Hanan with you so that you can know her, too, and understand better what it has been like for Gazans like her to live, suffer, and sometimes die during the siege and then the bombardment of Gaza. But at a more personal level, her letters will also make you aware of what she has come to mean to me. Hanan is the spirit of Palestine.

March 17, 2024

“To Every Thing There is a Season”

To Every Thing There is a Season
A Time to Blog, and a Time to Not
(with apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes)

I spent much of the last week plodding through an intermittently entertaining book by one of my favorite authors, Geoff Dyer, though in the end, I agree with many Amazon reviewers that it was not one of his best.  But it was the title that lured me to read it, The Last Days of Roger Federer. (Dyer has a penchant for clever titles. The first book of his I read years ago, he entitled Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which was followed by Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do it.)  

As some of you may remember, I have been an ardent Fedhead for many years, and Dyer who loves to play and watch tennis has long admired the elegance of Roger Federer, probably the most beloved tennis player, and maybe the best, of all time. But Roger was eventually forced to retire several years ago because of recurrent knee injuries. And he soon will be followed to the sidelines by several of the great tennis players of this era – Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka -- leaving only the obnoxious Djokovic as the lone survivor of that quartet of tennis legends. Now it’s time for a new generation of tennis stars to shine.  To every thing there is a season.   

This week I’ve also been watching a bit of the current big tournament, which is taking place in Southern California.  I happened to catch just a little of the match of one of the legends of women’s tennis, Venus Williams, who is 43 years old, which is ancient by tennis standards. Offhand, I can’t think of any professional tennis player still on the circuit as old as she. But in recent years, it has been sad for me to watch her since she usually loses in the first round to unheralded youngsters, twenty years or more her junior. Venus can still hit the ball hard and occasionally can win a set, but her performance in this tournament was typical. She won the first set and then lost the next ten games and the match. To a quick exit once again.

It was painful for me to watch her. She moves so slowly now and takes forever to serve. She may still love to play, even if she knows she will lose, but many of her fans, like me, can only wonder when she will finally realize it’s time to put her racquet away. 

Dyer’s book does talk about Roger and other tennis players, but actually most of his book, which is really about endings, is devoted to other writers, artists, jazz musicians, etc., and how their working lives have ended. Sometimes, as with two of his heroes, Beethoven and the great English painter, J. M.V. Turner, they end at the zenith of their creative life. But mostly they don’t.  Mostly they are like Venus and sometimes, like her, don’t know when to hang ‘em up. It’s really a sad book, reading about the final days of these creative spirits. And even Dyer himself, though only in his early sixties, can see his own end coming, though he still thinks it’s “in the distance.” 

Reflecting on this book, and also thinking about the passing from the scene of most of the tennis players I have loved to watch in recent years, I began to think I should follow my own advice and not get to the point where I become an embarrassment to myself or my friends and few remaining fans.

So I’ve decided to give up the blogging life.

But I have another oddball reason for making this decision now. If I’ve counted correctly, this is the 100th blog I’ve written over the past four years. And I just have “a thing” about such round numbers. Whenever a novel ends on exactly page 400, I am thrilled. Even when reading books, I often try to stop on pages that are multiples of one hundred. It’s daffy, I know, but that’s just the way I am. So if this is my 100th blog, I think, given my numeral obsessions, it is a perfect time to stop.

But, of course, I have other reasons. For one, in the past few months, I’ve noticed that I keep making typos when I write. I’ve never been a good typist, but the kind of errors that have been cropping up in my texts are sometimes bizarre, as if my fingers have a contrary mind of their own. If it wasn’t for spellcheck, my blogs would be riddled with frequent and often weird miscues. As I’ve said, this is something recent and a bit disturbing.

For another, I know I can’t write as well as I used to. When I look at some of the books I wrote years ago, or even some of my earlier blogs, I can only mourn a certain loss in my verbal fluency. And sometimes I can’t seem to find the word or phrase I want to use and am forced to resort to my Thesaurus. And I know I’m not the only old duffer to whom this happens. It also occurs to great writers I admire, as I learned from Dyer’s book:

Hard to believe, but even [John] Updike, in his mid-seventies, confessed: “With ominous frequency, I can’t think of the right word. I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness.” Dyer goes on to comment:

“It’s just that the sentences lack many of the qualities that made the prose of twenty or forty years earlier such a joy to read.”

But even reading books is more difficult for me these days. One the reasons I had a hard time with Dyer’s book, aside from its small font, is that I have to wear a patch over my right eye to be able to read books now. And although I can still read with good comprehension, more and more, especially after lunch, I find that I grow drowsy and am reading the same lines over and over.  Plus, I read very slowly now. It seems to take me forever to get through a book now (unless it’s a novel, but sometimes, even then).

And there’s the life, or the half-life, of my body. I usually like to joke about all my infirmities and will continue to do that, but, really, I am not having a lot of fun dealing with my physical struggles and having to take so much time with body maintenance issues. Not only can I no longer see well, I can’t hear well either. But even worse are my increasingly weak and unstable legs. The other day, when I went out to put my garbage bin away, I slipped and fell hard to the ground. I couldn’t get up for several minutes until I managed to turn the bin on its side and hoist myself up. I was banged up and bleeding, but fortunately I didn’t break anything. I was lucky. This time. But what about next time?

I used to be able to ride my stationary bike, but when that was no longer possible, I could at least walk up and down my street. But no more. Now all I can do is pad around my house like a zombie, reminding myself, “don’t fall, Ken!” Needless to say, I can no longer travel and haven’t been able to do so for years. Now the best I can do is to wander out to my patio, once the weather warms up, to sit among my azaleas and watch the clouds drift by. If this keeps up, I will end my days as I started them 88 years ago – by crawling.

Enough. You get the picture. And please don’t think I’m trying to evoke your sympathies. I know I’m lucky still to be able to enjoy life as much as I can, and I remain grateful not only for what I can still do, but for the life I’ve been privileged to have. It’s been a good life and I have been blessed in so many ways. To feel otherwise would only be churlish and run the risk of my turning into a cantankerous old fart. No, despite everything, I am still happy.  

But entre nous, after having written so much recently about NDERs and their desire to return “home,” I have to admit that I often feel that I am just “passing the time,’ trying to keep myself entertained, while waiting for the good Lord to allow me, at long and longing last, to return home. Still “waiting to die” after all these years!

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to end this blog by giving you the impression that I am only preoccupied with my own difficulties nowadays. I still grieve for the Palestinians suffering so many terrors and privations in Gaza, for the Israelis who died from the brutal savagery of Hamas and for the captives – those who are still alive – who are not yet free, and for the Ukrainians who seem sure to lose the war after losing so many lives already. It is a dark and dangerous time we are living in.

And of course I follow the domestic and political news, too, again with a feeling of foreboding about what it portends for our country. Those of you who have read my blogs will know where my sympathies and antipathies lie. I will just say that’s one more reason that I hope I will not live to see the results of the next election.

But, as usual, I have another peculiar reason for that, and again it has to do with my obsession with numbers.  I’ve always been fascinated by prime numbers, and some of them I have found so distasteful that I simply can’t bear them. For example, for me 79 is very bad prime. So when I was 78, I couldn’t stand the thought of turning 79, so I decided not to. I just declared I would remain 78 until I could go straight to 80. So you can imagine how I feel about the dreaded prospect of becoming 89. No way, José! If I should have the misfortune of surviving another year, it’s 90 or bust.

Finally, a word to all of you who have been reading these blogs of mine for the last several years.

Thank you. Thank you so much. Even though many people have read them, I especially want to thank those of you who have taken the time and trouble to write to me. Sometimes with just a line or two, but often with long and thoughtful commentaries, mostly appreciative ones, but sometimes with comments from readers who have taken issue with me or tried to set me straight on various matters. I have been grateful for all of them and for all of you. You have enriched and enlivened my life so much during these years, and I shall miss you. I hope you will miss me, too, but we’ve had our pleasures with each other, haven’t we, during this season of my blogging life. To every thing there is a season, and with spring training for baseball coming up soon, I guess that will have to be the kind of season I will now look forward to. Take me out to the ball game – even if’s it only on TV.