Marryam Haleem writing from Beit Hanoun, occupied Gaza Strip, Live from Palestine, 16 November 2009
"The day I graduated from university was the best day of my life," says Ahmed from Beit Hanoun. (Marryam Haleem)
"That was the happiest day of my life," Ahmad explained, "I was freed that day."
"Come on," I laughed as we walked down the dusty Gaza street, the Mediterranean sun beating down hard on our faces. "It couldn't have been that bad. I mean, we all dislike school to some degree, but it has its nice things too."
His grave eyes looked wholly unconvinced. "The day I graduated from university was the best day of my life," he firmly repeated. And then he added, more to himself than to me, "I wish I could erase all my memories of my time in school."
Ahmad's first day of school was in 1991 during the first Palestinian intifada. Then six years old and living in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, Ahmad was a good student who enjoyed school. He worked hard and was always the first in his year. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 and the Palestinian Authority was created, one could say that life in Gaza was approaching a degree of normalcy. And upon finishing middle school in 2000, as a reward for his scholastic achievement, Ahmad received the gift of a lifetime. He, along with 19 other students from Gaza, was selected by the Ministry of Education to join a Seeds of Peace summer camp in the US.
He had a wonderful time in America. What an adventure for the 14-year-old boy! He improved his English. He made new friends. He experienced a new and different world in the beautiful state of Maine -- one that was open, free and full of opportunity. He returned to Gaza after this month-long excursion full of hope.
But the second intifada irrupted only two months after he returned home from the US, at the start of his first year of high school. Israel's brutal attempt to crush the intifada was felt throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza. "There was no space," Ahmad explained, describing how the Israeli offensive affected every aspect of personal life for the Palestinian individual. Student life was only one such casualty.
It became dangerous to go to school. It became impossible to have a normal education. In his three years of high school, Ahmad's school was shelled by Israeli tanks six times, twice while students were inside.
"Each day we would have demonstrations against the attacks in Gaza and the West Bank because we had so many martyrs ... No school. Just demonstrations ... You had to go and demonstrate against the horrible attacks against these children and kids everywhere."
Still, despite all the madness, the students clung as much as they could to their vocation. They would loyally go to school, as much as circumstance allowed. But even this effort was frequently quashed. Too often the students would trek to school only to find it closed. They would ask the reasons for the closures. The answers became the soul-grating refrain of their lives.
Because Israeli tanks are getting close to the school and there is no school today.
Because people in our city have been martyred and there are demonstrations so there will be no school today.
Because the tanks have closed off Beit Hanoun and the teachers cannot come from outside. So we'll have no school today.
It was in this environment that Ahmad and his classmates (the ones who were not killed) came to their third and final year of high school in 2003. It is during this final year that students take their tawjihi exam which determines their entire future studies and career.
"Tawjihi," Ahmad aptly described, "is like a stage between life."
Tawjihi year began normal enough -- for a Palestinian in Gaza, that is. Normal attacks. Normal shootings. Normal curfews. But the last two months before the exams began the Israeli army laid siege on Beit Hanoun. No one could enter. No one could leave. Everyday there were attacks and explosions. Everyday there were injuries and martyrs.
"We didn't study, actually," said Ahmad, "Nothing. You cannot study [when] people are dying," he explained.
Yet their exams were approaching. The first day of examination was 9 June 2003 -- and the Israeli army was still in Beit Hanoun.
"What do we do?" said Ahmad. "We need to take our exams. So we decided to go to school even though the Israeli tanks were at the doors outside the school."
So they went. Despite the fact that they hadn't prepared at all due to the siege and the killings. Examinations went on for a month. Every day the students went. And every day the Israeli tanks were at the doors of the school.
It was the worst month, Ahmad said. All your time in high school you wait to prepare and do well on these final examinations, only, in the last moments, to be prevented from studying because your city is under attack.
The soldiers left after 67 days of siege. And then their exam results came in.
"I passed," said Ahmad, "my average was 83.5. So very good."
Yet, at the same time, he added, "You don't know what is going on. You just go and study for a life you've been dreaming about. But then you find you can't have it because of obstacles put up by enemies. And these are horrible obstacles. They're not just any kind of obstacles that anyone could pass.
"It's war everywhere. And people are dying everywhere. And you just don't know. Maybe it's your turn. I mean, we believe in God, and we know everyone is going to die. But when it goes on so continuously, every day there is attacks, you just keep worrying about it. So the feeling was, what should I be doing? Should I go fight and resist? Should I go study as a way to resist, as a better way of resistance? Should I just stay afraid, doing nothing, with my family?"
"I started to believe that maybe the power from my education in the future will be greater than the power of a stone against a tank. I asked myself a million times, if I should do the same [and take up throwing stones at the Israeli tanks like some of the Palestinian youth]. Even if it was a little thing.
"Some people say it's stupid, a stone against a tank. But it's their will and determination [that counts]. It comes from deep inside. That you are not afraid from anything, whatever it may be. You just want to fight, resist, for your rights. Even if it takes your life, takes everything; I believe that it's my right and I have to do it."
That is one way to resist. But Ahmad decided to resist through his education.
"I had to take care of my family. Reach what my parents wanted of me. They wanted us to be educated, get a good life, good jobs, have a good place in the community. They wanted us to help them and help people. So that was the final, or not the final, but a decision that I made.
"You are feeling many things, but you have to go on, to keep going. The only way is to just keep fighting, through your education, and your dreams, and your beliefs. That was the feeling.
"But I never felt like I have to give up. I didn't find a way that told me, you just need to give up now. And every time a bad thing happened, or a disaster happened, it gave me more power to continue.
"Because this life became normal for us -- an abnormal life for other people became the normal for us. So we had to figure out another way of life for us. It's our reality. We had to face reality, however it was. So it helped us to figure out that life, in spite of all this.
"And all the challenges that we are facing, and all the power that is fighting and destroying everything here in Gaza, we still need to keep going. It's not going to stop us. Because if we stop, it wont help us. [The Israelis] will keep going. Whether or not we stop, they will try to get what they want. So why give them more opportunities to get what they want? We need also to continue."
He paused at the end of this grand soliloquy. "How difficult it was," he said softly.
But the difficulty continued as he moved on to get his bachelor of arts in information technology at a university in Gaza.
"I faced troubles when I was in high school because of the intifada but they increased at university," Ahmad explained. "Beit Hanoun is the most violent area in Gaza Strip because it is very close to the [Israeli] border so there were usually attacks. Every day we had events. People killed. People injured. Homes destroyed. Lands demolished. My father's farm was bulldozed four or five times. Most of my relatives' homes were targeted.
"Most of the semesters I couldn't attend many lectures because of the usual attacks on my city. There were weekly attacks, sometimes daily attacks so I could not leave home; it was not safe to leave. And I'd also have to stay home when there were other attacks around the city, or around the university."
Many times he wasn't even able to attend final exams.
"I'd just keep studying throughout the semester and when it was exam time, attacks would happen in Beit Hanoun and friends and relatives were killed, [so I'd miss the exams]. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I graduated in 2009, one year late because of these attacks. Attacks which have never stopped. Even now. Especially in my city."
Ahmad was finally set to graduate in December 2008, but once again larger events intervened.
"The end of December turned out to be the beginning of a war, not the beginning of final exams. It was a big, I don't know how to describe it," he said. "It was like, 'here is a gift for graduation: You won't graduate. Just keep waiting for death.'"
His month of exams was exchanged for a month of terror.
"It was 23 days," he said, "but you can say 23 weeks. Twenty-three months. Twenty-three years. Twenty-three centuries. It never ends. You keep waiting, moment by moment. And you know nothing. You can only feel the darkness. There is no light, for any kind of hope, or safety, or human rights, or whatever. Just 23 days full of darkness. Full of horror. Full of victims. Massacres. Everything bad. I cannot find words to describe it."
But those days did pass. And he found enough strength to pick himself up out of the rubble and finish the mission he began. He graduated, at last, this past spring. But not without sacrifice and loss that no one should ever have to endure.
"These five years in university, I said and will keep saying forever," Ahmad concluded, "these five years were the most horrible years of my life. Even though they're supposed to be the best years, the nice years. The time to go out and discover life. But it wasn't discovering life. It was discovering disasters, actually, here in Gaza."
Marryam Haleem is a senior at the University of Wisconsin studying philosophy and comparative literature and spent this summer in Gaza doing research for her senior thesis.