Doaa Mohaisen grew up in Gaza. When she moved to Qatar, she was confronted with ‘the fakeness and fragility of the hero narrative’.
‘What is your greatest flaw?’ Hala asks from the driving seat as we pass through Doha city centre, on the way to meet our fellow grad students.
‘How about we start with our classmates’?’ I respond, the lights of Doha’s glamorous nightlife casting patterns on the car’s dark interior. ‘Let’s see… Sarah can be blunt and is convinced she knows what everyone is thinking; Ghadeer insists on using long, pretentious words and can’t keep a single thought to herself; Aisha is hot-headed and never finishes a sentence with a full thought; Nahla is meek, rarely decisive, and is difficult to read most of the time. You,’ I say turning to Hala, ‘you are finicky and take too much pleasure in correcting people’s grammar and I… well, I am a perfectionist, an idealist and a drama queen.’
There was something quite liberating about playing this game. We embrace the faults in others because, being so profoundly flawed ourselves, they allow us to relate to them, to sympathize and connect. And what is true of other people in real life also applies to characters in fiction: be they heroes or anti-heroes, protagonists or villain, it is the flaws that make them approachable.
As we arrive at the restaurant, I begin to speculate: Would the world sympathize with the Palestinians more if they were characters in a story?
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with the following statement: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Every Palestinian family has its own story and clings to it defensively, knowing that even its suffering is unique and thus, in some ways, precious. And if a family member leaves home, they have no choice other than to carry their suffering with them. Indeed, you could leave Gaza, but Gaza will never leave you.
When I introduced myself to the class on my first day in graduate school, and explained that I was fresh from Gaza (not born and raised in Doha like most other Palestinian students), my classmates stopped playing with their phones, suddenly, and looked up at me, as if for the first time. Some students hung around after the class had finished to ask me about the situation in Gaza. One theatrically announced, ‘You are all heroes!’ The statement irritated me, reminding me of the sort of rhetoric you see in Arab newspapers. ‘We are not heroes,’ I snapped. ‘We are simply humans who have been presented with this obstacle in life and are expected to endure it. We haven’t endured it because we are heroes, but because there’s no alternative. We did not choose this struggle. Nobody chooses to live in the largest open-air prison, where there is no future, no drinking water, no electricity, where more than 60 percent of those aged between 15 and 29 are jobless, where you have to buy food every day because fridges are useless. Nobody chooses to live in a place where you can get sick and die because basic medication isn’t provided on time or provided at all. Would you give me your easy life and First World problems in exchange for being called ‘a hero’?’
I was a mad, angry Gazan on my first day of graduate school. I was mad because I couldn’t see myself ever sympathizing with a hero.
Attributing heroism to Gazans reinforces the representation of difference by portraying an image of the Palestinian as one born with special capabilities to bear the unbearable. As I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, I was, like other Palestinians, fed with the narrative claiming that the Palestinian cause is central to the Muslim Ummah (community), that Palestine was in the thoughts and prayers of Muslims around the world. As we were bombed, killed and forced to evacuate our homes, we were reminded that Palestine is what unites the Muslim world, that Palestinians are heroes who are defending the honour of our Ummah. But what I realized after traveling to a fellow Arab country for graduate school was the fakeness and fragility of the hero narrative; it was a tool used by sluggish Muslims to exempt themselves from blame.
After explaining the 12-year siege, from scratch, yet again, to some of the students gathered round me, one of them, Maha, asked, ‘But Doaa, what can we do?’ ‘At very least, equip yourself with some basic awareness of what is happening on the ground—that would be a first step.’ It was shocking to see how many of my fellow Muslims and Arabs were quite clueless about the situation in the Strip. On another occasion, I heard a classmate say, ‘I wish I could pray at Al-Aqsa mosque like you do.’ I could barely keep myself from snapping at her, but I reminded myself that I had to be patient.
It dawned on me that the people around me needed a serious antidote to the historical amnesia that had taken hold of them; it was similar to the realization that had dawned on the organisers of the Great Return March, back home: the world was forgetting fast.
Ahmed, a friend of mine had been one of the organizers of the Great Return March. At the beginning, I told him people should not go. Why risk their lives when they could live and be of help to their country? ‘What do they have to lose, Doaa?’ he asked me abruptly. ‘Nothing,’ he went on.
I thought my perspective on the March would not change, but as the photos of the first Friday and the second came in, I had a change of heart. I was once again a mad, angry Gazan, but this time I was also devastated. I tried to convey to my friends back in Gaza how sorry and depressed I was to see the photos coming from the border area, but they suspected I was just exaggerating. My depression was a joke to them. They couldn’t understand how getting out of bed every day could pose such a challenge to me. They didn’t appreciate that merely being with these people, with all their First World problems, as clueless as they were indifferent to what was happening, could be unbearable. But get out of bed I did, to put on a façade each day to help get me through it all—telling everyone I met, whether they wanted to hear it or not, about what was happening back home. When I arrived back at my apartment each night, I would take down the façade and weep. Alone. Just like the Gazans back home, realizing they too were alone, from the very moment they were first told they were ‘heroes’ and that Palestine was a cause that united all Arabs and Muslims.
I am a mad, angry Gazan whenever I meet Arabs or Muslims as free as birds but wanting to preach to me about my imprisonment. In reality, they couldn’t care less. So should we stop asking for help altogether? Should I just stay in my bed when Gaza hits the news again and never talk about the realities abroad? Should I just stay quiet, hold my tongue? The author Ghassan Kanafani offered an allegorical answer to this question back in 1962.
In Men in the Sun, three Palestinians, each with a story of his own, arrange to be smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in the hope of securing jobs at oil refineries. At each checkpoint, they hide in an empty water tank, enduring an intolerable temperature in the process. When they beg for an alternative to the unbearable heat of the tank, the driver, Abul-Khaizuran, convinces them of their ability to endure like the many others before them. But at the last checkpoint before Kuwait, he gets delayed by a border patrol, and when he returns, he finds all three men have died, apparently passively. ‘Why?’ he keeps asking himself. ‘Why didn’t they knock on the sides of the tank?’
Doaa Mohaisen is a 22-year-old Palestinian. She is a contributor to Novell Gaza and a writer for We Are Not Numbers. She studied English Language and Literature at IUG, is currently doing an MA at HBKU, Qatar, and works as a freelance translator.