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GENERATION GAZA: THE YOUNG HAVE PRIDE DESPITE PRIVATIONS - BY JANINE DI GIOVANNI, vanityfair

 

 

Gaza’s latest conflagration, back in May, was ruthless, deadly—and, somehow, inevitable. After Israeli police tried to expel longtime Arab residents from East Jerusalem, Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself. Jewish settlers marched in response. When violence spread to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam, Israeli security forces clamped down, using rubber bullets and stun grenades on worshippers. There was a global chorus of indignation.

Soon, Hamas and the group Palestine Islamic Jihad sent cascades of rockets onto Israeli settlements, the first major escalation since 2014. Israel, concerned for the security of its citizens (13 of whom would be killed), answered with a sustained bombing campaign, pounding Gaza brutally for 11 days. The result: 261 people dead, according to the U.N., 130 of them civilians, of whom 67 were children. On one day, May 16, on one street—Al-Wahda—44 people were killed.

 

 

Both sides were taken to task. Hamas, some said, had needlessly escalated the conflict by resorting to rockets. The Israelis, others argued, started it and then did the inexcusable with an excessive and relentless use of force in their assault on the citizens of Gaza. Under the scrutiny of social media, Israel seemed to have crossed a dangerous new threshold, prompting condemnation far and wide, from Western capitals to the halls of Congress.

Whatever the case, the nightmarish carousel of retaliation came, as it always had, with a chilling and predictable frequency. Indeed, local schoolchildren can track the armed confrontations like clockwork, as if reciting their math tables: 1987, 2000 (the first and second uprisings, referred to as the intifadas), 2008 (the first Gazan war), followed by three subsequent Israeli military engagements in Gaza.

Those schoolchildren? They were part of the very same bright-eyed generation that many viewed as the Palestinians’ best hope. But hopes here are often dashed. As the months went on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be supplanted in the news cycle by other wars and flare-ups. And the young people remained in place. In fact, nowhere in the Middle East were Arab youths more continually confined and concentrated than in the Gaza Strip, the seven-mile-wide, 25-mile-long stretch of Mediterranean land adjacent to Israel that is home to some 2 million Palestinians, two thirds of them under the age of 25. This confinement is part of a crippling siege imposed by Israel and neighboring Egypt, resulting in untold privations and a restriction of movement that amounts to perpetual detention.

Gaza’s 20- and 30-somethings, it so happens, tend to be highly educated, multilingual—and jobless. Sixty-four percent of the youth labor force is unemployed, largely due to the occupation. Nonetheless, year after year, they have proved indefatigable. I came to Gaza this past summer to find out how—and why. I met with young entrepreneurs and farmers, artists and actors, environmental activists and computer coders, athletes and academics. With many women, I talked about their being powerful change agents in a male society. And everyone I encountered spoke not only about their sense of claustrophobia and fear, but also about their pride in what they’ve sought to accomplish in the tiny tinderbox they call home.

Ihave been reporting from Gaza for more than 30 years. I arrived in 1989, during the first intifada, which began in a Gaza refugee camp and spiraled into a six-year rebellion against the Israeli occupation, lasting until the historic 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The first intifada was nicknamed the Revolution of Stones because young street protesters used slingshots against gun-toting Israeli soldiers. In those days, I sat on the floor with children at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program with a visionary doctor called Eyad el-Surraj and asked them to draw pictures of their lives. Without prompting, they made sketches of stick figure people taking their fathers away in the night. Or planes dropping bombs. Even though these children rarely cried, I will never forget that many had the thousand-yard stare that I would later see in young soldiers in conflicts I covered—sometimes for Vanity Fair—in Afghanistan and the Balkans, Rwanda and Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

The tragedy, it turned out, was that these deeply traumatized children—or the teenage stone throwers I met years ago—would become the same grown-ups who now comfort their own children during bombing raids. At times I have found myself interviewing the sons or daughters of people I encountered two generations back. This is a forbidding cycle of transgenerational trauma.

 

There is also an agonizing sense of wistfulness, of a people conscious of a world outside that they can never see or experience. Many Gazans have never even been to Erez, the crossing point between Israel and Gaza’s northern point, which has grown into an airport-style terminal. As for Hamas—the militant organization that governs Gaza (and which the U.S. and Europe have designated as promoting terrorism)—most people are frustrated with the leadership, yet the population’s options are limited. Speaking out against Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (P.A.)—the entrenched, largely corrupt party that oversees much of the West Bank—is dangerous, and trying to forge new young Palestinian leaders can be perilous. Last June, Nizar Banat, a Palestinian activist who frequently criticized the P.A. and was cited as a future change agent, died in “unnatural” circumstances while in P.A. custody, according to a local justice minister. His family has accused the P.A. of assassinating him.

In short, the people of Gaza, young and old, are at a fourfold disadvantage. The P.A. frequently exercises collective punishment on all Gazans because they are effectively under the rule of Hamas, which is waging an ongoing battle with the P.A. Hamas has not effectively governed or been able to provide basic public services for years. Israel imposes its own harsh restrictions on those who live in the territories. And Gaza’s closest Arab neighbor, Egypt, often treats it with disdain. This all leads to a debilitating collective impotence. “There is a sense of constant helplessness,” says Yasser Abu Jumei, a Gazan psychiatrist. “They have disappointment for many reasons, but mainly it’s about the human rights violations that are happening. Why is humanity watching and doing nothing? It makes [Palestinians] feel more pain.”

The late Ron Schlichler, a diplomat and former U.S. consul general to Jerusalem, once said, “You Israelis can do all sorts of things to the Palestinians, but you won’t buy them and you won’t break them.”

Not a chance. Not the members of Gaza’s Generations Y, Z, and Alpha.

One morning I met Rozan Waseem Al-Khazendar, 36, in her pink-and-green atelier on the fifth floor of a modern building in Gaza City, high enough to block out the noise from the street below. A designer and brand influencer, she is married with two children and leads a team of more than 20 hipsters. They sat in front of MacBooks with cups of half-drunk coffee by their sides, working on websites and logos. Many of the men sported Brooklyn-esque facial hair; a few of the women had nose studs. It could have been Bushwick, Austin, or Seattle.

“It’s a safe space,” Al-Khazendar said, leading the way past a large goldfish tank, artificial grass walls, and a fully stocked kitchen for her staff. Kids are welcome. Her son, Zain, 12, sat in a corner, absorbed in a computer game. There was an area for freelancers, a kind of Palestinian WeWork that the company provides for free, along with laptops and seed money. Part of Al-Khazendar’s mission is philanthropic: She trains apprentices until they are ready to join her team.

She sipped fresh mango juice and had on skinny jeans, moccasins, and a blouse emblazoned with rhinestones. Open, effusive, and sunny, she wore a yellow-and-gold butterfly necklace as a symbol of freedom, she explained: her personal logo. She had clearly overcome the two major strikes against her: being a woman and a Gazan.

Despite having graduated with a degree in computer science and, later, studying coding in Egypt, she wound up getting secretarial work, fetching coffee. “All my life I was told, ‘You’re just a girl, you can’t do it,’ ” she recalled. “There I was, a trained scientist, running errands for men.” She managed to land a U.N. job, where she met her husband and settled in to raise a family. But she felt thwarted. “Everything was pink and nice. I was watching TV and gossiping with my mother. It was a low point.”

Al-Khazendar studied YouTube videos and shifted her focus from computer coding to design. Slowly, she built a business printing patterns on fabric, mugs, and T-shirts imprinted with go-girl slogans like YOU ARE THE POWER. She met with strong opposition from her family and friends, who said her husband would leave her to find another wife. She shrugged them off, found a bigger workspace, recruited brighter young people, and kept working. “Gazans are people who fight, and I am a striver,” she declared. “We keep going.”

 

Striving is a good way to describe young Gazans. Many I know speak perfect, nuanced English and usually another European language or two, which they have picked up online. They are curious, vibrant, hardworking—but also slammed by the fact that they cannot export their products, get money in and out of Gaza, or procure basic materials. Venmo doesn’t work, nor do bank transfers—or even Amazon. Obstacles are everywhere. “Try buying a new Apple charger for your MacBook Air in Gaza,” Al-Khazendar said. “Impossible!”

Many young Gazans get postgraduate invitations from elite European or Ivy League universities but can’t secure exit visas to make their visa appointments at American embassies. If they stay, the job market is unimaginably competitive; one young dentist lamented the fact that after his graduation ceremony from Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University, “There were seven graduates for one opening.”

One afternoon, I drove out to Khuza’a, a remote farming region in the middle of the Strip, near Khan Younis. Passing cactus trees and unpaved roads, I pulled up to a simple concrete house. On the front porch sat two of the three Green Girls, an all-female agricultural project. Aseel al-Najjar and Ghaidaa Qudaih (the third partner, Nadine Ruck, was not around) are university grads who couldn’t find work in their fields—accounting and computer science, respectively. So, in 2020, they attempted to grow their future out of the very soil, drawing on their families to teach them vital skills. “Nearly 80 percent of university graduates are unemployed in Gaza, even before the pandemic,” al-Najjar told me. “But we still dreamt of having our own income.”

Ruck’s father, a farmer, taught them how to grow vegetables, and they began to deliver them by bicycle. They rented three dunams of land (less than an acre) and planted peas, lettuce, and radishes. They plan on expanding to the frozen-food market. But their list of grievances is long. Israeli border closures limit travel for their professional development or for obtaining crucial materials, like fertilizer. They feel unsafe being so close to Israel proper; Qudaih pointed to a nearby border fence and a looming watchtower. And they claimed that herbicide spraying from Israel had damaged their crops. Walking through their greenhouses, they spoke of their lack of support and the weight of feeling isolated. But they insisted they aren’t giving up.

Sara Roy, an associate at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the child of two Holocaust survivors, has worked in Gaza for four decades. In books and articles, she has dived deep into this sense of isolation while examining Gaza’s financial fissures. She identified a syndrome of “de-development” in Gaza, a process that rids an economy of much of its productive capacity and deprives its workers of the building blocks needed to build a strong economic base. “In the Gaza Strip,” Roy told me, “there is an economy, if one can still call it that, that is unviable, unable to function rationally and normally.” And the long-term consequence, she stressed, is the untapped potential. “Imagine if Gazans put all the energy and creativity they now expend on survival—finding menial employment, feeding their children, securing clean water—into productive activities.”

“Gaza is a closed place,” added Dalia Shurrab, a 30-year-old with an undergraduate degree in physics who runs Mompreneur, a mentoring program for women. She had been overseeing 66 all-female projects, including one that develops car batteries. But shortly after the May bombings, she left Gaza for Jordan. Now she monitors the start-up ventures remotely. “I want to raise my kids in a healthy environment.”

In 2018, Shurrab got a taste of the outside world during a fellowship in Silicon Valley, where she worked with Google. “It was my first time out of Gaza. The first time I took a train! The first time I took a bus!” The experience left her hungry for greater knowledge, which, in her view, is sorely limited in Gaza. “You can’t get out if you want an educational exchange—to learn new tech, for instance, to update your skills. If you stay inside, the government [Hamas] is controlling the education, and they are too lazy to update the curriculum.”

But Asmaa Abu Mezied, a 33-year-old economics and gender adviser working in Gaza, said the situation can’t be blamed entirely on Hamas. “Usually, when we speak about our suffering,” she maintained, “Hamas is used as a boogeyman to internalize the economic collapse rather than holding the occupation accountable. But the occupation is the cause—the main contributor to the economic deterioration of the Gaza Strip.” Abu Mezied is also anxious about young Gazans like Shurrab emigrating. She made the case that the brain drain is systematic on Israel’s part—an attempt to get rid of the best minds. She asked grimly, “How about flying us all to Mars? It would have the same result.”

 

Education is the cornerstone for progress here, and the Palestinian concept of sumud—steadfastness—is paramount. Gazans have a deep commitment to learning and one of the strongest senses of family that I have ever witnessed. Together, these attributes are formidable. In the local refugee camps, for example, where there is scant privacy—and little electricity by which to study—parents make huge efforts to help their children earn top grades so they can get into the best universities.

Brian K. Barber, a social psychologist and international security fellow at the think tank New America, has studied in Gaza for years. He told me that Gazans’ academic achievement is extraordinary “not necessarily despite their circumstances, but because of them. Achievement is in part defensive: So, you tell us we’re nothing, worthless? We’ll show you.”

Having long charted Palestinian youths as they have grown through adulthood, Barber believes that identity, learning, and morality are all of a piece in the social mindset here. “A good person,” he explained, is often defined as someone who achieves as much education as possible, cares for and extends his or her family, and “finds personalized ways of supporting the cause. Education brings esteem from the culture and is the only perceived avenue to secure a positive future.”

One day I stopped in at SunBox, in Gaza City, which provides affordable off-grid solar panels to families. A brilliant civil engineer, Majd Mashharawi, 28, founded the company in 2017 because she got fed up with having to study throughout college by candlelight, a result of the persistent power outages. Mashharawi’s goal was to help the local population become less dependent on Israel for electricity, but she wanted power to be accessible to everyone, not just wealthy Gazans, so she offered a pay-as-you-go option for those who couldn’t afford the start-up kit. Her other tech firm, GreenCake, manufactures eco-friendly construction materials to help rebuild Gazan homes and other structures after repeated bombings.

When I arrived at the tiny office on Halabi Street, Mashharawi was not there: She had recently emigrated with her family to Saudi Arabia. Her brother Kamal and the chief engineer, Mohammed Almazainy—both educated in the U.S.—were closing up after a day’s work. In impeccable English, Kamal told me, “The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs here is the political situation. We can wake up one day to news that there’s another war. Everything gets closed down, and it may last for months, as it did in 2014.” The other issue is the damaged economy. “You can’t rely on or make plans to grow because of the illogical policies imposed by Hamas, Israel, or Egypt. Most entrepreneurs fail within the first five years because of that. There is no winning.”

“My colleagues and I are dancing on the brink,” said Abu Mezied with a tone of resignation. She spoke over the din of a distribution truck, dispensing drinking water in the aftermath of the bombings, which had damaged pipes and facilities. (In the 100-degree heat, the truck’s sound system was incongruously blasting “Jingle Bells.”) “That’s how we young people perceive Gaza. We are always one step away from falling, yet we are not living. A constant falling state.”

That sense of one step forward, two steps back is ever present. Abdullah Abu Halima, 33, is a farmer in Beit Lahia, on the northern tip of Gaza, whose life was altered forever last May. Armed with a degree in information systems from Al-Azhar University, he had a dream: to grow more diverse crops in Gaza, regardless of the impediments such as limited water and the dwindling availability of usable farmland. Studying alternative farming methods, including successful Israeli ones, Abu Halima borrowed $120,000 in 2020 to buy 48 solar panels and install 8,200 meters of hydroponic pipes. It was a big project and a big risk. But he reckoned that by using an innovative, solar-powered irrigation system, he could maximize water usage, plant several different crops, and make seasonal, organic vegetables available all year. Over time, Abu Halima explained, he would be able to harvest six crops instead of three, using less farmland. “On an area of 3,700 square meters,” he said, “I could grow lettuce, broccoli, beans, parsley, green onions, and other vegetables.”

The bombing began on May 10. On May 19, Abu Halima rose early and decided he was going to “sneak onto my own farm and check the plants.” He found the farm leveled, the solar panels shattered. Many of the pipes he had imported for irrigation, he recalled, looked “like blackened bones.” Over the course of a week, his vision of several years of research and hard work had been obliterated. “Everything. The greenhouses. The cooling room. They left nothing to work on.” (One senior U.N. official based in Gaza told me: “Every time we build a school or fix a water supply station, it gets bombed again. You begin to feel everything is pointless.”)

Abu Halima’s farm cannot be easily restored. “I owe about $20,000 to people,” he calculated. “There’s no electricity. No NGOs helping me. No regular income.” He and his brother, to support their families, went to work on a local farm doing handyman chores. If he could get his own fields back, he said, he’d hire more workers, expand the operation, and export these products to the rest of the world. But now all he is left with are row upon skeletal row of broken pipes—and a dashed pipe dream.

Iplaced a call to Yousef Aljamal, 32, a Palestinian academic now in exile in Turkey. One night 10 years ago, he stayed up past midnight reading an alarming United Nations report. The study contended that the year 2020 would be zero hour in the Gaza Strip, a time when the place would become completely unlivable. The slow-motion “de-development” that Roy had described was especially evident in dwindling health care, employment, power, and fresh water. (Only about 5 percent of the water supply is potable.) With unemployment climbing, fragile infrastructure, and electricity only available two to four hours a day at the time (now 13 hours, on average), Gaza was swiftly deteriorating.

Aljamal’s story is not unique. He grew up in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp, near the Mediterranean coast, with a close family: five brothers, seven sisters. His memories of childhood often pivot around conflict and deprivation (street fighting, Israeli military incursions, power blackouts, and water shortages) as well as senseless tragedies. His eldest brother, Omar, was 17 when he was killed in 2004 by an Israeli sniper. His eldest sister, Zeinab, a teacher, was 26 when Israeli authorities denied her an exit permit for a simple medical procedure. She died shortly after.

 

Aljamal decided academia would be his salvation. He passed rigorous exams to get into a university, taught himself languages, and worked as a translator for the U.N. and various publishing houses. The day after he read the U.N. report, he began to prepare a workshop for 100 people to discuss the implications. “I was hoping this would be a wake-up call to the international community,” he said. “I thought some people would care.” But only one person came to his seminar.

“The sad reality,” he insisted, “is people get used to the life in Gaza. They never saw the outside beyond the Strip. They get used to living in crowded places with no human rights. They get used to living under siege. They don’t accept it—but they live with it.” In his way, he was echoing the fatalistic adage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The House of the Dead: “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.”

Aljamal emigrated in 2016. “I had this absolute feeling there was no light at the end of the tunnel, economically, politically,” he noted. “I saw things escalating in a bad way, day by day.” Today he is finishing his Ph.D. in political science in Istanbul, one of 25,000 Palestinians, mainly Gazans, who have made their way to Turkey. While he enjoys freedom of movement—something he never had before—he fluctuates between his personal quest for a better life and a nagging sense of “survivor’s guilt.”

Like other expat Palestinian intellectuals before him—Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi among them—he has a profound longing for his family and homeland. It is a legacy that began with the 1948 nakbah, or catastrophe, when Palestinians were expelled from their land following the Israeli War of Independence, up through the present-day Israeli occupation. Aljamal remarked with a heavy heart, “You leave Gaza, but Gaza doesn’t leave you.”

The difference with this generation is the internet: It has helped open up a new, previously inaccessible world. Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG)—as in “the sky’s the limit”—came into being in 2011, as a Mercy Corps program founded in partnership with Google. The loose group of compatriots run coding camps out of a small warren of offices in downtown Gaza. The Sky Geeks workspaces are named after cities its members may never get a chance to visit—Berlin, Barcelona, New York, Paris. Their goal is to propel the Gaza Strip’s digital economy and train future tech leaders. They are seriously impressive. More than half the Geeks are female; most freelancers who have trained here have gotten jobs online. Collectively, the alumni from their freelance academy have earned nearly $5 million.

I paid my first visit to GSG in 2019. On this trip, the pandemic has reduced the workforce to a skeleton staff. I had an early morning meeting with Asmaa El Khaldi, a 25-year-old video storyteller, who was already at her desk, chic in a bright pink shirt, pearl jewelry, and a pale pink silk hijab. Comfortable with a video camera since she was a teenager, she comes from the educated classes of Gaza: Her father has a law Ph.D.; her mother is a scientist who runs a lab. She’s one of six children, all of whom speak Arabic and English. “I started my first year at the UNRWA school,” she told me, referring to the U.N.-run nonprofit that assists and advocates for Palestinian refugees. “I knew it was a gateway to the world.”

Along with her twin sister, Saja, an architect, she launched a YouTube channel, and during the May bombings, she was sought out by international journalists to provide on-the-ground reports. “We tell stories of resilience,” she said. “But we are trying to own our voice, own the narrative.” She doesn’t want Palestinians to be seen as victims—or as terrorists, a frequent depiction in the foreign media. Her videos, instead, are about Palestinian culture, heritage, history. (A writer’s collective in Gaza, We Are Not Numbers, was founded for precisely the same reason: to share tales of Palestinians as individuals, falling in love, navigating family dynamics, experiencing life as young people, not as people to be pitied.)

At times during my visit, I heard Gazans express their concerns about Israelis in general—as well as the media—for branding Palestinians en masse as terrorists. And while many Israelis are deeply disturbed by the plight of Palestinians in the Strip, there are others who regard Gaza, first and foremost, as a security threat. Certain factions of the Israeli public “don’t see Palestinians as human,” explained Sara Roy. “They see them as a nuisance. I think most Israelis wish they would just disappear, so they can pursue their own agenda.” Through this lens, Gaza is deemed a humanitarian problem that needs to be managed, Roy stressed, not solved.

“Gaza is a bone in our throats,” one senior government official admitted to me from his office in Jerusalem. He was friendly, polite, and articulate but firm: “We can’t swallow it and we can’t spit it out. It’s there—and it’s choking us.”

 

Dani Rahamim, 67, lives in Nahal Oz, an Israeli kibbutz situated 800 yards from the Gaza Strip, not far from the fields being cultivated by the Green Girls. His was among the first such Jewish enclaves, established in 1951. Rahamim served in the Israeli Army and settled in Nahal Oz in 1975 to raise his three children. He recounted pleasant memories of going into Gaza every day (there was a direct bus line between Beersheba and Gaza City), often meeting with Palestinian friends, five of whom would later attend his wedding, in 1983. The uprisings, however, put an end to that. “After the first intifada we stopped going to Gaza,” he said. Once the 1993 peace accord was signed, he went back with a group of Israelis. “A short, wonderful trip. But that peace didn’t last very long. In 2001, the first [Hamas] rocket hit the kibbutz…and since then we’ve been in circles.”

In May, Rahamim and his family spent the 11-day war in an underground shelter. Gazans, on the other side of the fence, have no official shelters and nowhere to hide. Most of his other kibbutzniks fled to the north, according to Rahamim, but he and his family were determined to stay. When I asked him why, he had a long explanation that despite longing for peace—he was a member of the Israeli organization Peace Now—he felt compelled to assert his right, as a Zionist, to what he considered his homeland. “I hope one day they understand that we will never leave our place,” he said. “When they realize this, they will agree to come and make peace, or a cease-fire.” Nonetheless, he is worried for Israel’s future prospects as a democracy. “Israel is being called an apartheid state. When people tell me this, I say that Israel is a sick democracy. You can’t say that you are a democracy when so many millions of people have no human rights…. We must finish the occupation.”

On summer and autumn evenings, when the heat subsides, many Gazans head to the seashore. The beaches in Gaza are glorious, and I have often thought, ruefully, of the tourist opportunities that could take root here. Families flock to the beach, set up tents, stoke their barbecues, make tea, greet old friends. Some stay overnight so the children can go to swimming lessons at five or six in the morning. I often wake up early in Gaza to see this surreal but cheering scene: parents making breakfast while scores of kids dot the shoreline, learning to swim. The fishing boats head out to sea as the sun glints on the surf.

Thursday nights mark the start of the weekend, and in Gaza towns they are often joyous. One Thursday I went to see Osprey V, a rock band started by five friends and relatives who practice and perform in a studio above an electrical store owned by one of the member’s fathers.

I had come to this studio on past trips, and it has never ceased to amaze me because it seems to be one of the few spots in Gaza where the purely whimsical is allowed to flourish. In a nondescript building on a broken-down Gaza street, Raji El-Jaru, 29, has created a musical fantasy of pianos, Dean and Martin guitars, speakers, ouds, synthesizers, keyboards. It’s like an oasis where wannabe rock stars can come, pick up an instrument, and pretend to be a Palestinian Jimmy Page. “Every time I’m depressed, I come here and I immediately feel better,” one unemployed young Gazan told me, sitting happily in front of a drum kit.

El-Jaru, who started listening to Metallica as a child, put together Osprey V in 2019, and the makeup of the band is a microcosm of Gaza: Two members are lawyers, one a sound engineer, one a sales manager, another a humanitarian worker. The night I popped in, they played acoustic sets and heavy metal, their own compositions plus tributes to Linkin Park and Pink Floyd. They sang in New York–accented English. Yet they are sealed in their geographic bubble, yearning for comradery, for support, for the chance to play gigs anywhere other than Gaza. Their inspiration comes from everyday life but also from their inner angst. Their lyrics are wrenching, exploring the desire to move from hate and oppression to freedom:

“In 2014, during the last war,” El-Jaru remembered, “I saw a father shielding his son against bullets. Rock music is the real way to illustrate the destruction of Gaza.” There are love songs, emo songs of alienation, but also songs about “beloveds” being killed. “It’s a global message,” he said.

In other studios, I met with young artists in other disciplines who were experiencing a similar plight. At the Shababek art center, sculptors who were teenagers during the first intifada use the materials from the war—broken concrete, splintered wood. They all share the same desire: to travel to meet other artists, to exhibit their work, to have a live audience.

One afternoon, I sat in on rehearsals with a talented young theater troupe, Theatre Day Productions, as they practiced for a TEDx performance. The budding actors described dealing with the lack of electricity and supplies. Ahmed al-Aydi, 26, who has been acting with the group since the 2014 war, observed: “In Gaza, everything around us changes, we have no control. But when we act, with theater, we can change things because we control it.”

Late at night on my last day, I went to see my friend, Mosab Abu Toha, a poet who just finished a year as a distinguished guest at Harvard and has been trying unsuccessfully to get a visa so he can accept a job as an M.F.A. teaching assistant at Syracuse. Like most of the people I spoke with, he grew up in a refugee camp. His first love? Books. In books, he said, he found an escape from the violence and sadness outside his house. Seven years ago, after an intense bombing raid that shook Gaza to its core, he decided to found the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza, named after his hero, the writer and public intellectual. The Said libraries hold more than 2,000 books in two locations, places for children and adults to read, become computer literate, and get music lessons.

One Thursday night, Abu Toha and I sat in an ice cream parlor in downtown Gaza City, a shop packed with families eating the proprietors’ famous lemon ice. The scene in front of us felt almost Dickensian: donkeys pulling carts of melons and peaches; cigarette vendors haggling with groups of men; teenage girls in hijabs, laughing and walking jauntily, unescorted. The city was alive and vibrant, with little hint of the occupation.

 

I departed the next morning, crossing through Erez after daybreak, feeling the usual tug whenever I leave Gaza: relief to be safe; saddened by the powerlessness of so many who remain. I recalled the words of Yousef Aljamal, the student in Turkey, who had relayed his own mixed emotions upon leaving: “I grew up in a refugee camp—but I loved my camp! It made me what I am.” He expressed confidence, even from his perch 725 miles away, about his peers in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinian diaspora: “I do believe in the power of young Palestinians to bring about change. They are taking matters into their own hands.”

 

 

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