Palestinian Reading List #3: “Is 53 seconds long enough to gather my soul?”
I met the young and wonderful Rana Mourtaja during my trip to Gaza last year. She writes short stories mostly, but composed this essay during the 2014’s summer war on Gaza. During the war, Israeli military planes dropped small and often non-explosive devices onto rooftops to warn residents that the building was about to be targeted. The “53 seconds” in the title refers to the time a family in Rana’s neighbourhood was given to gather their essentials and evacuate between a ‘knock on the roof’ and the airstrike that followed.
(According to most reports, the delay between the roof-knocking and the attacks was usually measured in minutes not seconds. Many times, though, no warnings at all preceded an IDF attack.)
The piece first appeared in New Internationalist Magazine and was translated by Ibtihal Mahmood. Here is an excerpt:
…What could I possibly do in 53 seconds, dear God? Well, I’ve learned to develop the habits of self-reliance in all things. At the beginning of the war, I packed up a few of my favourite clothes, plus a few books that I initially struggled to pick out (finally selecting only those that contained signatures and personalized dedications, plus a few other ‘must-reads’). I didn’t forget to pack my certificates of excellence from school; minor awards for minor accomplishments; and the keffiyeh I was given by my friend in Jerusalem on my sole visit to that city. Nor did I forget the souvenir my friend Rima gave me a few days before her departure; notes I exchanged with my classmates; and a few letters from other friends. After quite a tussle my bag managed to accommodate these, plus some greeting cards, photo albums and other presents.
I am being driven mad. As embarrassing as it is to admit it, that’s what’s happening. I decide to go through an ‘escape drill’ in my head, in case I’m blessed with a ‘warning missile’ in the middle of the night – so that I’m prepared. I set a stopwatch on my phone, and by doing so, I kick-start a stream of conflicting, harrowing thoughts in my head: do I scream first, to wake up my little brother who shares my room? (A brother who, since birth, can only sleep with the light on, while I can only sleep in the dark – not that it matters since neither of us can sleep when the missiles and shells are falling all around). Do I carry my brother or my bag? Will I even remember my bag? Or will I just stand dazed in front of my mother, who’ll no doubt be yelling and yelling at me to hurry up, and accusing me, as usual, of worsening the disaster with my slothfulness? I almost go insane adding up these different escape scenarios… until my mother breaks my reverie and tells me we’re going to stay at my aunt’s house, because her neighbourhood is safer.
I struggled to condense my essential belongings into a single bag, and now I’ve completely failed to come up with a coherent plan for escaping the building, should a ‘warning missile’ fall nearby. I try not to think about the fact that I might not be able to gather up my soul from all the places it’s scattered in this spacious universe, should I be struck by a missile in the midst of fleeing, or if the pilot decides not to pause for his usual 53 seconds between the ‘warning missile’ and my one.
Note: I would like to express my gratitude to those who warn us against death with other, deadly missiles. Many thanks to those who warn me against weapons by using other weapons; to those who warn me against death with death.
An undertaker on the radio won’t stop ranting about the rising number of martyrs, each one adding insult to injury. I wonder what would happen if I listened to music instead of accompanying him in this endless counting of martyrs, airstrikes, aircrafts, prayers of the elderly, screams of infants. Would turning him off make me a traitor?
A few more days of war – I mean, of this war – and I will turn 17; I will have lived through three conflicts, each one with a different course of events. I refrain from listening to the news any more, and listen to music instead. I hope the devil knows that, in this, I do not betray those who booked their tickets to God, or those awaiting their turn in the long line. I only betray the war.
I fear I won’t be able to go back to my former life, after the war ends. My writing won’t. My mind can make no connection between Gaza and beauty – save for the sea, whose fragrance will have to suffice for the writing of any future poetry. But now, even the sea reeks with the smell of blood, the blood of those who played football on the beach when the devil summoned them with his missile, fired from his machine as it roamed around an angel-forsaken sky. Of all places in the world, it seems God has decided to shed his wrath on Gaza, specifically.
Forgive me, but how do I go back to my life, loaded with the guilt of still being alive, of still breathing? Note that I, while asking the question, seem to have relegated the possibility of me dying in the next few days of this.
I apologize for still being alive. But I don’t apologize for trying to awaken the conscience of the world, with this text. I apologize to the mother, who sent her son out on his birthday to buy ingredients for his favourite dish, only to have him returned to her a martyr, with nothing left to do but ululate at his funeral, and then cry the rest of her childless nights away. I apologize to the children whose parents promised them safety instead of Eid money this year, and for whom Eid passed by soulless and unnoticed. I apologize to the children whose father left them to make a ‘journey to God’ – as their mother put it – and for whom the promise of safety still stands only on the horizon. I apologize to the man who, after years of hard work, was finally able to buy a house for his family, using his life savings, only to see it flattened by the war, leaving him with nothing but unpaid loans and interest. Finally, I apologize to Gaza for being alive. Gaza, my love, I am tired. I still don’t know how I feel about you, and what’s more, I never will, for the truth doesn’t exist.