Gaza’s Past Is Calling

Map of Gaza
Map of Deir-al Balah, 1947. Maps courtesy of Palestine Open Maps
Family stories taught me what the land was, and what it could be

By Sarah Aziza

ثلالث و مترين و نص. . .وبعدين تيجي أل غرفة مترين و نص و ثلاث. و ألأخير على جنب الشارع,  متر و نص و ثلاث…

My uncle’s voice reaches me across time and space in the form of fragmentary voice notes. His words are gruff but precise as he recalls the dimensions of the two-room shelter my grandmother constructed with the barest materials on a patch of ground in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, where she arrived as a refugee and a mother of four in 1955. This was seven years after Zionist soldiers ethnically cleansed the 626 inhabitants of her village, ‘Ibdis, along with 750,000 others across Palestine in the war we call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” 

In the years in between the erasure of ‘Ibdis and their arrival to Deir al-Balah, my grandparents, Musa and Horea, hovered a few miles from their stolen land, subsisting as sharecroppers and sheltering with not-yet-displaced Bedouins. While much of their kin scattered across Gaza, Jordan, and beyond, they strove to stay as near to their village as they could. This, despite their poverty and the “mopping up” missions of the Israeli army, which sought to expel the Palestinians who remained. They were not ready, not able to believe their exile would be final. Their loss was a reality wider than their imaginations could yet hold. 

They were not ready, not able to believe their exile would be final.

It was not until their fourth child was born — their only daughter, Bahiya — that the young parents admitted their meager wages and borrowed floors could not suffice. My grandfather followed many fellow Palestinian refugees to the Gulf, where he tried training his farmer’s hands in new trades. Over the years, he worked as a barber, a peddler, and a truck driver before his body abruptly gave out. Meanwhile, my grandmother and her children arrived in Gaza and registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The foreigners promised to add my family’s name to a list of those in need of homes. Their name was never called. After months of waiting, squeezed into the tents and shacks of their relatives, Horea gave up. She would find another way. 

A man walking towards a wall
MAQAM AL-KHADER IN DEIR-AL BALAH IN GAZA. THE YOUSEF QUTOB COLLECTION ON PALARCHIVE.ORG

On the left, the two rooms were each three meters wide, two and a half meters long, my uncle tells me. Two rooms, three meters by five in their entirety, and only one with a finished floor. No kitchen — they cooked in the small, sandy patch to the right — and no furniture. I’d give almost anything to stand inside those rooms, to touch their walls. I want to press my fingers against the rough cement and stone, to stand in awe of a young mother’s will to shelter children the world was determined to forget. I imagine myself into the four corners of the first room, bright sun framed by the open door, and wonder at the humiliation my grandmother worked like dough, coaxing nourishment from meagerness and loss.

When White Americans asked me about my family origins it hurt to watch them flinch.

In ‘Ibdis, Horea was the daughter of the village leader, raised to tend rich fields of bulgar and almond trees. What did her own fingers feel, the first time she lifted brick? I consider the debts she incurred and slowly repaid, gathering materials, asking for the aid of neighbors, the help of her brother’s son. I wonder which hands helped her carry the wood that would become the bedroom door. I imagine the tiles — how did she choose them? I see their imperfect lines, the self-taught craftsmanship — a mosaic of making do.  

For three years, writing my first book, I have spent countless hours in this alchemy, mingling my imagination with recovered scraps of history. Through hours of careful work, I have excavated not only these two rooms, but the tiny yard outside — six meters by three, my uncle says. He studied here, in the open air, on a table salvaged for a desk. One of the top students in Gaza, he worked toward a dream of medical school that would be foreclosed by the next war, in 1967. It was in this house that Horea’s daughter died of measles at age two. It was here, a few years later, that my father would be born. Between those two moments, my grandmother planted a banana tree. Its fruit never came. Still they watered it, and hoped.  

Blurred image of a family
Altered image of a family from Birzeit. Appearing in the photograph (from the right): Rima Nasser, Amal Aranki, and Suleiman Nasser. The Abla Aranki Collection on palarchive.org

Coming up in the 1990s and 2000s, the word “Gaza” was already synonymous with “Hamas” — a term which, I quickly learned, rendered an entire population monstrous. I am ashamed I often mumbled the name — Gaza — when white Americans asked about my family origins. It hurt to watch them flinch, to see in their cold stares the impossibility that Gaza could ever mean mothers, banana, joy. The world they erased — and erase — my father’s fingers, drawing in the sand. My grandmother’s pigeons, her particular way of brewing tea. The thousand, thousand feet that have run into the Mediterranean, each laughter a different splash. Gaza, for me, means teeming — a cruel over-concentration of bodies, yes, but at the same time, one of the world’s densest points of human love.

The loss of our intimate archive is not only a personal tragedy

It is all this and more that the dehumanization and preemptive hatred of Palestinians insists on flattening — rhetorically and with bombs. The loss of our intimate archives is not only a personal tragedy: It is this narrative, ontological theft that makes way for heinous killing, for the genocide that overwhelms as I write this note. I fear, I grieve, to imagine how much will be lost by the time these words are read. But already, my family has lost those two rooms, that stubborn banana tree, and Bahiya’s grave. Lost too, the small grave where Horea buried the trembling cat that rushed into her lap one day, and stayed for years. Gone, thousands of Gazans, including at least 26 of my relatives — may God rest their souls, and protect those who remain. Gone, lifetimes of unfinished love. Gone, because empire insists its domination must be total, and indigenous power erased. 

Gone, except in our inadequate, irreducible rebellions. Gone, except as we dream and fight for liberation. Gone, except as we insist on speaking their names. Gone, not gone, as we refuse to forget. 

Sarah Aziza is a Palestinian American writer and artist. She is currently working on her first book, a hybrid work of memoir, lyricism, and oral history exploring the intertwined legacies of diaspora, colonialism, and the American dream.