Image by Sliman Mansour, Sacred Land , 2011, charcoal and oil on linen.
Courtesy Meem Gallery

By most counts, Fadi Shihab enjoyed a comfortable life in Knoxville, Tennessee. A Palestinian by heritage, Shihab emigrated to the US from Kuwait with his parents when he was twelve, and by his early thirties, owned a house, held a good job at IBM, and together with his wife, Houda, was raising three children. But in 2012, Shihab decided to move his family from the security of Knoxville to Gaza City, which was, at the time, in the thick of heightening tensions between Israel and Hamas.

Shihab’s parents were originally from Gaza City, but in the early 1960s they moved to Syria, where his father pursued work as a teacher. As a result, they were not in Gaza during the Six-Day War of 1967—when Israel began its military occupation—and because they were not registered as living in the region at the time of Israel’s initial census, they were, like many, unable to return and claim rights to residency. The Shihabs were left stateless, without permission to even visit their extended families, and during the decades-long exile that followed they moved between Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, and the US. But ties of family and culture remained strong, and Shihab’s parents went back to Gaza once they were able to pass the US citizenship exams and secure the passports they needed to return home.

The following account is based on a series of conversations we had with Shihab in 2013. For the sake of preserving his privacy and security, we have chosen to alter his name and select details about his life. On most occasions, we met at the property he had inherited from his father in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City—a house with a two-acre garden filled with olive and lemon trees. Shihab is tall, and speaks English with a truly interesting accent—Arabic inflections mixed with a Tennessee drawl. As we sat in the shade of his garden, he explained why he left a lucrative job and comfortable home to move his family to a city where electricity is scant, and the threat of war always present.

—Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke for Guernica

My parents are from Gaza. My dad was born in 1941, and both his family and my mother’s family have been here forever. After the war in 1948, refugees from all over Palestine came to Gaza, and it was administered by Egypt. Even in the early sixties it was hard to find work in Gaza, so after my parents were married, they moved to Egypt and then to Syria. My dad was a math teacher.

During the war in 1967, Israel occupied Palestine. Not long after the occupation began, Israel took a census in the West Bank and Gaza, and any Palestinians who weren’t living in Palestine at the time weren’t allowed back in. Without the ID cards Israel issued after the war, my parents were no longer considered by Israel to be legal occupants of Gaza. So they were stateless, and they moved from country to country on visas—from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. During this time, they started having kids. I’m the youngest. My oldest brother was born in 1965, and then they had four girls, a boy, and then I was born in Kuwait City in December 1979.

A couple of years after I was born, my oldest brother, Alim, got a student visa to study in the US. Meanwhile, my father taught in schools in Kuwait City, and I grew up playing with my siblings, making a lot of friends, and going to school.

Then in 1990, when I was ten years old, Saddam Hussein decided to take over Kuwait. The next year, the US came in and kicked him out. I remember the war as being kind of an exciting time, as scary as it was. We were living in an apartment building with four floors, four apartments per floor. I’d go to the roof with my friend across the hall, and we’d watch the lights of missiles in the distance. We thought it was so cool, and we thought the US soldiers looked cool—they even wore sunglasses! They were especially cool compared to the Iraqi soldiers, who were dressed in torn-up rags for uniforms. From the roof we’d watch the fighting on the border in the distance, and we called the US Al-hakim, “the ruler.” We had a lot of respect for the US during the war. The whole neighborhood would sleep together in shelters every night, which, as kids, we thought of as a lot of fun.

Of course, it was a scary time. My dad had to find food for us, and some days he’d have to drive out of the city to do that. One day he went out looking for food, and he didn’t come home. We were terrified and thought he’d been captured or killed. But he came home after three weeks, and it turns out he’d been stopped by the Iraqi army, and they’d forced him to transport the corpse of an Iraqi soldier back to the soldier’s family. The story of how he got back to Kuwait City is too long to tell.

For our family, life in Kuwait became hard after the war. Yasser Arafat supported Saddam, and so Kuwaitis sort of thought of Palestinians as traitors. In fact, a lot of Palestinians living in Kuwait fled to Iraq after the war. We tried to stay, but my dad couldn’t get our visas renewed because there was so much hostility. He’d had no trouble for fifteen years in Kuwait, but now we had to find somewhere else to live. And that’s when we emigrated to the US.

* * *

I first came to the States on July 11, 1992. I was twelve, and I came with my parents, one older brother, and my sister who is a year older than me. Three of my sisters had already married or were studying, and one lived in Iraq, one in Sudan, and one in Libya. We moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. My brother Alim, who had gone to school in Kansas, had since moved to Knoxville for grad school. We moved in with Alim when we first arrived, and then we found a place of our own. My dad used his life savings, about $50,000, to buy a house straight-up in cash. He didn’t believe in getting a mortgage, since he wasn’t sure he’d get a job. But he found a gig at Wendy’s flipping burgers. It was a little embarrassing for me, since I was used to him being this respected math teacher, but he’d say, “As long as I’m working, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” My second-oldest brother, Tawfiq, who was nineteen, he got a job at Wendy’s too and eventually became my dad’s boss. That was a little strange.

But my father wasn’t committed to staying in the US, and he didn’t pick up the language very well.

I don’t remember much from the first months in the States, other than that they were really bad. Just the language barrier—I spoke no English. And people were different than what I was used to. Even their jokes were different. In the fall I started going to middle school. The administration made me stay back a year—they placed me in the seventh grade, just because of the language barrier. It was difficult in school at first. One middle school teacher, his name was Mr. Jones, I remember him telling me, “You’re very good in math.” And I didn’t even know enough English to really know what he was saying to me, if he was complimenting me or what. But math is like a universal language, right? It was the only subject I was good at.

I’d say it took maybe three to six months before my siblings and I started grasping the basics of the language. The good thing in the US is that they had these English-as-a-second-language classes, so over time we just kind of picked it up, and English just started to flow. After six months, we were making new friends. My teachers saw me progressing so well within the first year that they moved me to eighth grade, where I belonged based on my age.

My sister Adiba and I, we were much better than my other brothers and sisters at speaking English. Adiba’s just a year older than me, and the two of us don’t even have much of an accent when we speak English. My older brother Tawfiq, he was nineteen when we moved. So for him, his Arabic tongue is still heavy, since he didn’t go to high school in the States. I’d say definitely, the younger you are, the easier it is.

After that first six months, I began to feel like I fit in pretty well, and I made some friends. I had an Iranian friend, Hamdi, who had the same story as me. He came to the US when he was about ten or eleven years old. He speaks Persian, and I can’t speak that, so we’d only communicate in English. Then there were a couple of Russian guys and a couple of Romanian guys. We just kind of clicked, because all of us were immigrants. We didn’t dress the right way to fit in—we all dressed like we were just off the boat. We spoke broken English, so in a way we all understood each other best. I also got to meet the Americans around my neighborhood. I think the Americans I made friends with saw me as kind of weird—they hadn’t known anybody with a background like mine. Knoxville isn’t like Chicago, or New York, or San Francisco—some cities in the US have had Arabs since the 1800s, 1900s. The Arab community hasn’t been there long. But I got to know some of the kids who were from Knoxville, and I watched some of my friends running around with the American kids, doing good things or bad things. But I just kind of moved with the groove. My friends and I went to Riverwood High School—that’s also in Knoxville—and then I was done with that and I went to the University of Tennessee.

What they really wanted more than anything was to go back to Gaza, to see the family they’d been away from for thirty years.

At the same time, my parents were working on getting US citizenship. What they really wanted more than anything was to go back to Gaza, to see the family they’d been away from for thirty years. My dad passed the citizenship exam first, and once he got a US passport, he was finally able to get back into Gaza. So in 1997 he moved back there. He built a house on some property he inherited from his father—a couple of acres with some olive, lemon, and fig trees—and he got it ready for my mom to move there too. It was weird to us kids, and we wanted him to stay. But it was his life’s dream to go back to his home, to sit under the olive trees in the breeze. Or sit around a fire at night with his brothers and drink coffee. That’s what he always talked about. He always said he didn’t want to die outside Gaza. My mom failed the citizenship test a few times, so she stayed back in the US for a couple more years. We’d see my dad only when he came back to the States to visit us for three or four months every year.

* * *

At the University of Tennessee I studied business information systems. I was interested in computers, because during my junior and my senior year in high school, I was working at Comcast, an Internet provider. So I was already into solving Internet problems and whatnot. My two older brothers studied computer science and computer languages, and they told me, “Try to do something different than us.” I took some computer language courses, but also I got into IT hardware.

During this time I was still hanging out with my friend Hamdi. Hamdi and I, when we hung out, sometimes we’d hang out with some of our American friends, sometimes we’d hang out just with each other. Sometimes we’d do the same things Americans did and go to bars and stuff like that. And then at the end of the day, sometimes we just liked to talk to each other, listen to some Arabic music or Persian music.

Sometimes we’d be with our friends from other countries, like Alex, the guy from Romania who we went to high school with. We always asked each other, “Do you guys feel like Americans, do you feel American?” Hamdi would say, “Well, basically we’re Americans, but we have an advantage because we come from a different culture, so we can enjoy that culture and we can enjoy this culture.” So it’s hard to explain, but being both Palestinian and American felt like an advantage. Politically, I’m American, but in terms of culture, heritage, I’m Palestinian.

When I finished school I was about twenty-one. I graduated on May 12, 2001. My friends and I wanted to celebrate, so we were like, “Where do we want to go? Somewhere special!” We drove to a casino in Paducah, Kentucky. It’s like four hours away from Knoxville. We had a blast. So that May, June, and July we’d go back to Paducah almost every two weeks. Growing up, I always had a red line in my head that I wouldn’t cross. Like, I’m gonna do some things that are bad—I’m gonna drink, I’m gonna go to casinos and gamble, do this and that, but there are some things I’m not gonna do, like drugs. I don’t know why I was like that, how I developed those boundaries, but I figured it had to be because I was raised partly in Kuwait and not in the US for my whole childhood.

* * *

In July of 2001, I started working for a temp company, and then I got hired at IBM in November. While I started working at IBM, I was also working toward citizenship. I was twenty-three when I became a US citizen. Of course, I had to take the citizenship tests and everything, but it wasn’t that bad. The questions were like, “How many states are there?” I think they wanted me to name the thirteen colonies and the governor of my state and the two senators from our state, that sort of thing.

Then I got my passport, and that was really nice. In 2004 I left America, I took a leave of absence from work. By this time, all my siblings and I had grown up and left the house, and my mother had US citizenship too, so she was ready to move back to Gaza and be with my dad. I was considering it too, actually. I was interested to find out what Gaza was all about. I’d heard so many stories growing up.

As an American, you know that you tell the American embassy that you’re going to Gaza or Saudi Arabia or wherever, and you just go.

I traveled with my parents, and we first went to visit one of my older sisters who was living in Saudi Arabia at the time. Then we went to Kuwait, to see my old neighborhood. I still had a special feeling in my heart for it. I saw the guys I used to know there, and the situation was so bad. People had graduated from college, but they had nothing to do—like, no jobs. I was just like, Man, I’m glad I went to America. And I had other advantages from being a US citizen. Maybe most Americans don’t think about using a US passport to travel, but for me it was like a way to go to wherever I wanted. ’Cause as an American, you know that you tell the American embassy that you’re going to Gaza or Saudi Arabia or wherever, and you just go. If I’d been a Kuwaiti citizen, I would have had a lot of trouble getting across some borders. So it was nice, just the freedom of traveling with a US passport.

Then I was in Gaza for about six weeks. I got to see my dad’s family, got to know them a little and stay in his house. I met some of his friends, too. My dad had a friend who was a teacher with him in Kuwait. After Kuwait, the friend moved to Yemen for a few years and then moved to Gaza. My dad ran into this friend one day while we were visiting Gaza, and the friend invited us to his house.

So we got to his house, and I met his daughter, Houda. I’d actually known her from Kuwait, but I didn’t remember much—she was a few years younger than me. After we left their house, my dad was like, “You saw Houda, what do you think?” I just said, “I’m not sure.” At that time, the idea of getting married was in my head. I was twenty-three, I had my own house in the States, I was somewhat stable financially, I had paid off my student loans and all that. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to find a girl from Gaza, someone who thinks differently about life, someone who listens to different music, has different values—just everything could be different and it could be a bad fit. I really thought of myself as Palestinian, but maybe a little more American than Palestinian.

Then a week passed and I said, “Okay, let’s give them a call.” The reason I kind of tilted toward seeing her again was that she already had three brothers in the US, and she’d already lived in Kuwait, so she wasn’t completely unaware of the world outside Gaza. Plus I thought that her experience with Arab life could be a good thing for kids we might have—she could really teach them some of our Arabic culture when I might not be able to, just because I had lived so much in a Western country.

My dad told his friend that I was interested in meeting his daughter, and so we went back to visit a week later. At Houda’s house, the two of us went into kind of like a private room, but with the door open, of course. We chatted. It was weird, because I never really—she was nothing like the American girls I knew. All my life, I’ve talked to boys and girls, no problem. But it was weird being in a room with a girl like Houda. I didn’t know what to talk about. She asked me some questions, I asked her some questions. Just small talk. I think we both left smiling.

Then soon after our talk, I asked her brother to come with us on a date to the sea. Her brother was there as a chaperone. Even though our conversation was limited because her brother was there, we felt a connection. We ended up going to the beach together every day, and even went swimming together, which made her mom go crazy. That was scandalous to her mom—she thought that was so inappropriate. Houda and I were really starting to feel comfortable together, though.

During that time that we were courting, one of the things I was trying to understand was her sensibility, and I was looking for something genuine. I wanted to know if she was one of those girls who maybe just wanted to leave Gaza. Some girls might just be thinking, Hey, this guy’s a US citizen! I was looking for a sweetness inside, like a smile that’s too sweet to be fake. And I saw that, I saw something genuine in her. And she was pretty smart, too. She was getting a computer science degree, so we had that in common.

So before I left Gaza, I proposed. She said yes, and her parents agreed. She was still in college, and they wanted her to finish that first. We had the engagement party in Gaza before I left. It was on the beach, and we had all of our families there and we ate and danced. And then a year and three months later, in September 2005, she came to the US and we were married in Knoxville.

* * *

For my wife, I think it was really easier for her to adjust to life in the US than it is for many people, because she had somebody from there to help her out. She didn’t have to deal with feeling like an outsider, a weirdo, as much as I did when I came as a kid. And she loved the US right away. She fell in love with the way people were just friendly to her. Even strangers would smile and say, “Good morning!” She said it was so different from Gaza, where everyone was unhappy and people you’d run into on the street were just rude. America seemed like a happy island to her—a bubble where people weren’t affected by any bad things happening in the world. Plus we had a nice house in Knoxville, and I got my job back at IBM so we had a good income and didn’t have too many worries.

We traveled some after we were married, and then we had our first child, our son Azhar, in January 2007. Later that same year, she got pregnant again, and it was going to be a boy. I called my dad, and told him I was going to name my second son after him. But before my second son Iyad was born, in January 2008, my father passed away.

I wasn’t even able to go to the funeral—I flew to Israel, but the Erez crossing was closed at the time because of the war with Hamas, and I couldn’t get in. I was glad I got to tell him about my son, at least. Then we had one more child, my daughter Nada, in 2009.

Houda got a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee—a teaching certificate. And we were so busy, way too busy for me to go back and visit my mother right away after my father’s death. I really wanted to, though, especially to help settle his estate. But still, we were becoming more and more involved in the Palestinian community in Knoxville, even though it was small. You just end up meeting these other families, and there were about twenty-eight families in the city that would get together sometimes. We’d talk about what was happening in Gaza and the West Bank, share food, talk. I started to become a better Muslim, too. I stopped drinking after I got married, and I read the Koran. And I started to want my kids to have a closer connection to the Arabic world. I wanted to pass along Arabic language and culture to them. And frankly, I was worried about them growing up in the States and getting pulled into some of the stuff I saw as a teenager—drugs and gangs, that sort of thing. I thought having a closer connection to Arabic culture could help keep them away from that stuff. I think my time in Kuwait helped me develop some boundaries, even though I drank and did other things as a kid.

In Islam, there’s a saying that you don’t enter heaven unless you’re under your mom’s feet.

Finally, in 2010, I flew to Gaza to stay for a week and a half. I was shocked to see how my mom was living—she was so alone. She had a couple of cousins, but nobody to really look after her, and she was seventy-two. I was like, Man, it isn’t right for her to live by herself like this for so many years. But she didn’t want to come back to the US. She said, “I will have nothing to do there. I want to die here, just like him.” And she wanted me to stay. She wanted her family around her. It really bothered me. In Islam, there’s a saying that you don’t enter heaven unless you’re under your mom’s feet. It’s a weird saying, but it basically means that your mom really has to be pleased with you when she dies for you to get into heaven.

And so I went back home, and I told my wife, “Listen, you know I’ve been at IBM almost ten years, and I don’t want to let it go. Nobody does this, but I really feel like the right decision is to return to Gaza for a while. I have to do it for my mom. I can’t live with myself if my mom dies and I’m not there.” And Houda said, “You have two older brothers, let them help her out.” My oldest brother, he was in Houston, he had kids who were about to go into college. He couldn’t just leave his job. And my other brother, in Florida, he was a citizen, but his wife wasn’t, and he was applying for her citizenship—he couldn’t just throw all that away. And Houda was like, “Okay, fine, fine. I’m not sure this is the right decision, but I understand.” I said, “It’s probably not the right decision! I don’t know if I’m gonna find a job there. I don’t know how people think there, what their attitude will be.” There’s another saying in Arabic—you have to leave your destiny up to God sometimes, and just whatever happens, happens. And however bad it was going to get in Gaza, I couldn’t imagine being fifty, sixty years old one day and thinking, I wish I had gone to Gaza and helped out my mom.

I also thought, This is good for my kids. My kids are gonna learn Arabic, they’re gonna be able to read the Koran. Because if I stayed in the States another twenty years, yeah, I’m gonna be well off, my house paid off, everything fine, but it’s not worth anything to me if my kids can’t speak to me in Arabic, you know? So after considering my kids, I thought, Screw it. I wanna do this for two, three years—what’s the worst that can happen?

* * *

We came here in April 2012. My sons Azhar and Iyad were five and six, and my daughter Nada was three. It was a big adjustment for our family. But in some ways it was a bigger change for Houda than for me. You have to understand, she came from a family of Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Her family lived in Ashkelon before 1948, so they didn’t really consider Gaza home. For my wife, she felt like she’d finally found a home in the States, and she wasn’t crazy about being back in Gaza. But we settled into the house that my dad had bought and my mom was still living in, which was in the Zeitoun neighborhood in the south of Gaza City. My mom lived on the first floor, then there was a family renting on the second, and we moved in on the third floor, and there’s another family on the fourth floor.

We moved to Gaza at a really interesting time. It was calm when we arrived, but it still felt like a dangerous place. The second month after I came here, my cousin had an injury, and he had to go to Egypt for an operation. He came back dead because they botched the operation. But there aren’t any good hospitals in Gaza at all, so he had to make the trip. There’s one hospital in Gaza City called Shifa, which means “get well” in Arabic. But its nickname is Maut—“death.” It’s terrible. You know a hospital’s bad when there are feral cats running around inside, and that’s what Shifa looks like.

Then in November of that year, Ahmed al-Jabari, the guy in charge of the Qassam rockets, got assassinated. I started hearing things like, “Hamas is gonna really have to retaliate for this.” Everyone knew something was gonna happen. So after that we saw eight days of bombing. At first it was kind of further away, but then they started hitting areas in the Zeitoun neighborhood where I live, and east of my neighborhood, where there are a lot of militia bases and spots where militias launch rockets.

You don’t see the militias, but they’re around you. Even right around where we live, they come and set up rockets and shoot from here. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were missiles buried under these olive trees on our land. Seriously. The militias look for any open spaces they can shoot rockets from.

It was a scary time, and I remember my daughter Nada running back and forth in the apartment when she heard bombs. She couldn’t understand what was going on. I’d look at her and I’d think, Man, I really hope this doesn’t affect her psychologically as she grows up. Because you hear so many horror stories about kids losing their hearing, and you hear stories about how kids get their legs cut off, or kids that become mentally ill.

On the seventh day or eighth day, the F-16s mowed down a building about a quarter-mile from here. They shot it up with machine gun fire, and my building and every other building in the neighborhood shook with the impact. An Israeli missile put a giant crater in the ground not far from our home, and that really scared us too. So during the seven or eight days, there were moments where I would be thinking, Man, did I make the right decision here? And I would be with my mom downstairs, and she would be scared too. And then we started hearing the news about how if you’re a US citizen and you want to leave, give a call to a certain number. I didn’t. I thought, I’m gonna hang on, I’m gonna hang around.

Little kids have the mentality that they’re grown men.

I would be so scared during those strikes. I remember once or twice after a bombing, an hour or two after it calmed down, I would go outside and I would see my cousins at the corner, just chilling, you know. I was like, “Hey, what are you guys doing out here?” And one of my cousins would be like, “Hey, this is nothing, man—just don’t walk too far east right now and you’ll be okay.” So to them it wasn’t a big deal, but I sensed that’s just the attitude—Hey, I’m not scared—but at heart you cannot not be scared when you hear these bombs and the building you live in starts shaking. This was like Hollywood action—it was just crazy.

But a lot of Gazans just act like it’s a normal part of life. There’s a lot of pressure on men here to be strong. Like the kids in the street, when you’re driving a car, you might honk the horn to get them to move out of the street, and they’re like, “No, you move!” Little kids have the mentality that they’re grown men, and that can’t be healthy.

* * *

I admit my decision to move my family to Gaza is kind of strange. I mean, anybody here who’s well educated, when I tell them my story, they’re like, “Man, what are you doing here? Really. What are you doing here?”

I’ve had trouble finding work. I figured if I had some type of 9-to-5 job, no matter how much it paid, at least I’d feel like I’m being productive. But I still haven’t found one. I’m not gonna lie, coming to this situation after so many years of having a solid job, it brings on depression sometimes. Sometimes the stress is so much that I’ll smoke a pack of cigarettes in a night.

I’m responsible for Houda and the children. Anything happens to them, it’s my fault. It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve got gray hair. My brothers see my pictures and they’re like, “What happened to you?!” I say, “Man, a year in Gaza is like five years in the US!” I had some gray hair when I arrived in Gaza, but in the last year it just started going completely gray. It’s a tough life here.

But I think the kids are comfortable. That’s why I think that I really did the best thing for them by bringing them here young. I don’t even remember when I was four or five years old, maybe I remember seven and eight. So that’s why I figured if I bring them here now, it’s gonna be easier. Harder on me, but easier for them. If I bring them here when they’re eight or nine, they’re gonna want breakfast cereal, they’re gonna want everything US-style.

I also think that coming here has made me feel closer to my Palestinian identity. Just ’cause when I sit with my cousins, they tell me these stories about my grandfather, about my dad while he was here. They also tell me stories about Hamas, about Fatah, what happened with them. All the crazy things that have happened in the city.

I wasn’t with my dad when he died. But when I’m fixing these olive trees and the garden, I feel I’m near him. I’ll just feel his presence, and I’ll sit down under the trees in the cool air. The breeze comes in from the sea, and it’s real nice. I can kind of sense what he wanted to get back to by returning here.

* * *

Things are still so hard here. Recently, the electricity schedule changed, so we’d have about six hours of power, twelve hours without in a cycle. It was like that for about a month and a half. Propane gas got really scarce. We use it for cooking, heating, but people were buying it up to run their cars, because gasoline shipments from Egypt got cut off. So it was a rough couple of months, but what are you gonna do? Then there was all the rain and the flood—we were fine because we’re on high ground, but so many people we know who live more in the middle of the city were completely flooded, with raw sewage in their houses. Life in Gaza, it’s full of surprises.

And Houda, she doesn’t have anyone keeping her here. Her father is in the States now. He’s actually ill and being treated in Cleveland. He had a stroke, and he’s seventy-five. My wife wants desperately to go back and visit her father, but we can’t get her out of Gaza at the moment. The border crossing situation is horrible. We contacted the US embassy to get them to help us go through the Erez crossing, but they wouldn’t do it. Their attitude was that they’d warned US citizens not to travel to Gaza, and so getting stuck here is our fault.

It’s rare for people to get out through Erez, but the Rafah crossing into Egypt is shut down now, too. It’s been opened and closed off and on, but it’s been closed the last few months. To go through, you have to apply first. To apply, you have to go to an office that’s basically like the DMV, but you have to get there at four in the morning and wait in a line that’s got hundreds of people. Then, after five hours in line, you register to cross on a specific day. But when that day comes and you go to the Rafah crossing, they might just say, “Sorry, border’s closed today. Try again later!” And then you have to start the whole application process over again.

There are hundreds of people waiting for the crossing to open again. Some people have died waiting at the crossing.

When you go to the Rafah crossing, it’s amazing. There are hundreds of people waiting for the crossing to open again. Many of them are sick, and they need to get out for medical treatment. Some people have died waiting at the crossing. And then I worry about my wife’s safety, even when we do get her across. Egypt isn’t very stable right now, and that four- or five-hour trip from Rafah to Cairo is dangerous. We’ve heard of hijackings, kidnappings of people on that road.

But my wife really wants to leave for good. Her brother left the capital a few months ago, so she doesn’t really have any family in Gaza. I always tell her, “I feel for you. Just be patient. Just a couple of more years, let the kids get some Arabic in them.” But I don’t know, sometimes it gets just really frustrating for her. One day, she told me, “You see your cousins every day, you laugh with them. You have a social life, but me, I’m just here, at the house with nothing.” I said, “I know it’s a sacrifice, but look at the benefits. Your kids knowing Arabic, reading and writing—God will give you rewards for that.” I mean, I don’t consider myself a conservative Muslim, but I’m a Muslim, you know, and I believe in the Koran. I believe in the message of Muhammad. And she told me, “Yeah, but even the kids, they’re not learning the best habits here in Gaza.” I thought about that, and I remembered something that had happened a few days before. I said, “You know, a little while ago I was telling Azhar that it was the anniversary of the day my dad died. And he was like, ‘Oh, God forgives all the dead people.’ He said it in Arabic, and it made me cry.” I would never imagine him saying that in the US, in English. I told her, “Let’s spend a little more time here, then we can call it quits. At least they will have a base of culture to build on.”

I don’t know what the future holds, really, or where we’ll move. I’ve been to Austin, and I like the way the city is small but big at the same time. So we might move to Austin. We’d be about three and a half hours away from Houston, from my older brother, so I’d be closer to him. On the other hand, I might go to Dubai to see if I can find a job there. Because I think for the kids it’d be better in Dubai than in the States—they’d be speaking Arabic. And I’d still be close to my mom.

* * *

Throughout the spring of 2014, Shihab and his family looked for a way to leave Gaza, but to little avail: borders were frequently closed to Israel and Egypt, and US authorities refused to help. On July 8, Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge,” its bombing campaign and ground assault on Gaza. Shortly thereafter, on July 10, the US consulate in Jerusalem issued an emergency message stating that it would help US citizens leave Gaza. Shihab quickly responded, and a consular representative told him to be ready to depart immediately.

However, Houda was late in her third trimester of pregnancy, and in the early dark of July 11 she went into labor. Just after two in the morning, Shihab helped his wife into the family car and made his way to Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City.

Shihab relayed the events that followed via email. “My car lights [were] the only lights in the streets,” due to power being out across Gaza City. “It was like telling the Israelis, please shoot me. [We heard] bombs going off to [our] left and right. But I’m scared to speed up so it doesn’t look like I’m running away.” Houda gave birth that morning, but supplies were running short at the private Al-Quds Hospital, so Shihab was forced to drive through the darkness to Shifa Hospital to get her glucose. The couple was able to return home safely with their newborn daughter later the same day. “[That] night was the most scared I’d ever been.”

In the early morning hours of July 13, the US consulate called Shihab to let him know that some Gazan residents with foreign passports would be allowed through the Erez crossing that day, and that he should bring his family to a rendezvous point in Gaza City. His family would be escorted across the Erez crossing into Israel and on into Jordan. Shihab brought his wife and children to the designated point, but decided that he would stay on in Gaza City—at least until the military invasion was over. He wanted to ensure his mother’s safety, and obtain a birth certificate for his newborn daughter and school records for his boys once the government offices reopened. His wife and children made it to Amman, Jordan, where they waited for two weeks until the newborn was cleared for a flight to the US.

Shihab stayed on in his mother’s apartment. “There are so many sad stories here,” he writes. “I feel like a hypocrite for wanting to leave, but I have to be with my family. Thank God my family left. Remember our [garden]? It looks like a desert now because of all the bombs that hit it. People are dying. Some families [are] leaving their elderly behind to get to safety. There is no water. The situation is getting very dire. People here feel like nobody cares about them. God help us here in Gaza.”

Excerpted with permission from Voice of Witness from Palestine Speaks: Voices from the West Bank and Gaza, edited by Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek. Forthcoming from Voice of Witness & McSweeney’s Books on November 11, 2014.

Voice of Witness is a nonprofit organization that uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the US and around the world. Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness publishes a book series that depicts human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness Education Program brings these stories, and the issues they reflect, into high schools and impacted communities through oral history-based curricula and holistic educator support.


Aditi Sriram

Aditi Sriram’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Narratively, and, best of all, Guernica. Visit her website to read more of her work.

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2 Comments on “Once Returned

  1. Un relato real donde se resaltan los valores
    Traficionales de la familia, la identidad, el amor a su tierra, al Çorán…El sentido de pertenencia de los Palestinos es tan grande valor que los empodera, es fuerte en los Palestinos y esto hace que defiendan y luchen con padiòn a su pattia, a su familia y a su Religión. Muy vivo , entretenido e relato…..y quisiera saber qué pasó de nuestro protagonista. EXCELENTE! GRACIAS.

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