I am always Gaza

Imprisoned in Gaza; Imprisoned outside of Gaza.

I've always wondered about the taste of freedom—the freedom that we never experience living in Gaza. I always wondered what other worlds existed beyond the prison I live in. 

And after 23 years of being imprisoned, I was, for the first time, able to feel the sun on my face and savor the simplest joys of life that I've been deprived of.

Having my freedom restored made me realize all the rights that are inherent to every human being living on this earth—except us. I felt a great urge to continue staying there. Many Gazans leave and never come back. What if I do the same thing?

In December 2022, I went to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, which is a visit to the Holy Kaaba in Mecca to perform rituals and pray to Allah. My lifelong dream of traveling outside the cage that I live in was finally fulfilled. I never thought it would happen. Nowadays, people can easily travel to the moon, but we cannot live our life beyond invisible bars. 

I learned that Gaza would follow me everywhere I went.

We cannot even see or visit Jerusalem nor the rest of Palestine. Indeed, my first time meeting Palestinians from other Palestinian cities was while in Mecca. Never being able to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem or any other Palestinian place outside of Gaza has always felt like a boulder in my throat. Therefore, such an unforgettable experience will be forever etched in my memory. 

"What a wonderful world it would be outside Gaza! No Israeli occupation, no siege, no walls, no wars, and no drones. Any world that exists outside the cell I live in would feel like home," I thought. The scenes, smells, sounds, and countenances were all unfamiliar, but unique. Being untrapped and able to breathe in fresh air made me realize how unfair it is to be born in an open-air prison. Seeing the extraordinary world I had always envisioned in my imagination was an awe-inspiring experience.   

Taking flight

I also learned that Gaza would follow me everywhere I went. My first time on a plane was a life-changing experience where I was hit with a rush of contradicting emotions. I experienced happiness, joy, and heartache. All at once. The sound of the plane filled me with terror. Memories washed over me, stirring up emotions I thought I had left behind. I was shocked. Immobilized. Terrified. 

The noise triggered memories of the wars I've witnessed in the 23 years I've lived in Gaza. It was painful to see that everyone on the plane was enjoying their flight except me. Don't I have a heart that feels like theirs? An eye that contemplates beauty? A dream that I aspire to achieve? My mind raced with questions and uncertainties.

"Were these civilian planes made by the same manufacturer who made the F-16s and F-35s that bomb us?" I thought. "Is this the view they see while bombing us?!" It was heartbreaking to witness that, while many people find beauty, peace, and tranquility during their flight, planes serve as reminders of bloodshed, loss, and destruction for Gazans.

Perhaps, as a Gazan, I have already cried more than I should have. 

As a girl who has spent her entire life in Gaza, planes have meant nothing but war, fear, blood, and death. It's beyond the realm of many Gazans' imaginations to understand planes as something other than a means to kill and cause bloodshed, and instead, see them as a means to travel and have fun. How fancy! I almost choked. But, I did not shed tears as I wanted so badly to enjoy my first breath of fresh air. And perhaps, as a Gazan, I have already cried more than I should have. 

Ever since I was a child, I've always been fascinated by the beauty of the sky and its colors. I've always found my inner peace whenever I look at it—but that same peaceful sky filled me with the terror of every Israeli aggression on Gaza. The fear of being suddenly bombed by an Israeli warplane consumed me whenever I looked up at the sky. So instead of relieving our stress, the sky has become a way of bringing stress into our lives.

Stranger Things

Despite all the stories my ears are tired of hearing about how difficult it is to travel from this cursed city to the outside world, the journey was much worse. Still, I daresay that after experiencing it all, I am ready to do it a hundred thousand times over.

During all the time I spent outside the Gaza Strip, no hour passed without feeling the adrenaline pumping through my veins. "How does it feel to experience it for the first time?" An Egyptian woman in her 60s asked. "Like a prisoner released from their cage, finally free to roam," I replied, then regretted giving a poetic rather than factual answer. 

Like the rest of Palestine, Gaza has been under Israeli occupation and siege since 1967, when Israel imposed restrictions on every aspect of Palestinians' lives, including travel and movement. In 2006, Israel tightened its land, air, and naval siege on Palestinians in Gaza. Traveling for leisure, business, education, or even medical treatment has long become a struggle. 

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As a girl who spent nearly a quarter of a century dreaming of catching a glimpse of the outside world, being one of its guests for less than two weeks was a luxury. 

There are 747 miles between Gaza and Saudi Arabia. However, it is not the number of miles that matters but the number of hours spent traveling those miles. The journey, which was supposed to take 17 hours from Gaza through Egypt to Saudi Arabia, took 72 hours. It would have taken less than two hours if Israel had not bombarded the hell out of Gaza's airport. 

While in Mecca, a young Malaysian woman, who complained about the "terrible" nine-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Saudi Arabia, asked how long it took me to fly from Gaza to Mecca. "We have no airport. Israel bombed it. It took me more than 70 hours."

Embarrassed, she comforted me, "Poor you! I do feel sorry for you. I hope you find your freedom really soon." 

My friend Alaa and I were walking at 1:30 p.m. when two Lebanese women in their 40s asked about the way to the Kaaba. One of them said, "This is our first time. It all happened in two days. What about you?" I zoned out for a moment, then answered with a calming smile, "Despite registering to travel in September, our papers were not ready until December, yet it usually takes much longer."

I almost shed a tear when a Saudi woman said, "At least you are lucky to be able to go to Jerusalem and pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque." What a cruel joke. "I never set foot in Jerusalem and never saw it except through social media. It is every Gazan's dream," I responded, with a shattering heart. 

Freedom of movement. Travel. Seeking medication. Pursuing education. Making a spiritual journey. All, while being everyday occurrences to most people, are unfamiliar things to Gazans. 

'Where are you from?'

As Gazans, we have always experienced the feeling of being segregated from the rest of the world, and above all, from the rest of Palestine due to the Israeli occupation. It feels as if we are living on a desert island where no one knows a damn thing about our existence or suffering. This is what I thought before my first travel, especially after all those peace deals with Israel, the so-called Abraham ِِAccords.

On the contrary, the situations I went through during my travel made me realize that those thoughts of being abandoned by the whole world were all illusions, possibly designed to make us feel more alone. All the people I met, with their different nationalities, backgrounds, colors, and dreams, showed me, as a Palestinian, nothing but love, respect, solidarity, and fraternity. 

A Malaysian woman hugged me, an Egyptian woman kissed me on the cheek, a Saudi woman gave me a prayer bead, and a Moroccan woman held my hand and patted my head affectionately. Those were some of the reactions I received when I answered their question, "Where are you from?" 

Traveling from Gaza to Mecca to fulfill her lifelong dream of performing Umrah, one woman learned the realities of life outside occupation.

"We learn from you. Every single day, you teach us how to live, how to be strong, and how to be resilient," said an Egyptian woman who has been residing in Saudi Arabia for almost 10 years. She never stopped telling me how much she admires Gazans for our courage and persistence. She added, "You are defending the dignity of all Arabs, not only yours." 

At that moment, no Deal of the Century, no Abraham Accords, no siege or isolation could take away the support and solidarity Arabs and non-Arabs have for Palestine and Palestinians. 

The journey was beyond magnificent to the mind and spirit until it was time, again, to endure the sleepless 72-hour travel from Mecca through Egypt to Gaza. We were dying to snooze, even if for just a minute. 

Upon inhaling the similar scent of my hometown, a feeling of relief rushed in on me. I found myself tearing up all of a sudden. All the tears I held back in the plane were streaming down my face uncontrollably. I am finally home. I am back in Gaza.

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"I swear that I am ready to migrate once, twice, and twenty times. Ask me why? That's mainly because I am never able to ensure a good living for my family and myself." 

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Maram AbedAlBari is a 24-year-old Gaza-based freelancer who presently works as an English Instructor at Mercy Corps.