Saeed Teebi is the author of the short story collection Her First Palestinian.
I’ve developed a routine during the last week. I wake up after a night of horrid sleep, bleary-eyed and barely ambulatory. I find the sofa. I turn on the TV to one of the satellite channels that I only ever resort to in times of crisis in the Middle East. I lower the volume to a barely audible level. I know what I’m about to see needs to be stifled, for my own sake.
Through the TV, I’ve noticed some differences between the lives of our children here in Canada and those of the children in Gaza since Israel was attacked on Oct. 7. For example, if our children here see an ice cream truck, they instantly begin lobbying, leaving parents to strategize on how to avoid the inevitable meltdown if we say no. In Gaza, this is not an issue. The morgues and hospitals are so overflowing that ice cream trucks are now used to store the bodies of some of the more than 2,800 people killed since Israel began its bombing campaign.
Here in Canada, we label the clothes and personal items that our kids take to school, in case they lose them. In Gaza, there is no school these days, but children have taken to labelling their own bodies – writing their names on their little hands. That way, if they are killed in a bombing, at least they can be identified.
As of this writing, Israeli air strikes on Gaza have killed more than 1,000 Palestinian kids, including many babies, toddlers, and elementary schoolers. The number is so surreal that it tests the imagination.
The humanitarian crisis is acute. Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian Territories, issued a statement warning that Israel might attempt “mass ethnic cleansing.” Ethnic cleansing. Such words are so repugnant that we – as a society that understands the horrors of the Holocaust, of Bosnia-Herzegovina, of Rwanda – had promised that we would not allow them to be a reality again on our watch.
I pray that we don’t. But in Canada, it feels forbidden to even talk about it, or tell Palestinian stories at all. Among all the news reports about Hamas’s attacks on Israel, or about Israel’s grief for its fallen, there has hardly been a glance at the other side. Instead, it seems Palestinians here may only be treated in two ways: dehumanized and silenced.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has famously called Palestinians “human animals,” as a way to justify his order to cut off electricity, water, and food supplies to Gaza. A more clear illustration of dehumanization could hardly be invented. Talk of giving Israel carte blanche to do whatever it wants to Gaza has since then become so commonplace among our politicians and commentators as to be almost cliché.
Some elements of our society have taken the hint. There have already been increased reports of Palestinians and Muslims being targeted for hate crimes. In Illinois, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was stabbed 26 times to death by his family’s landlord for being Muslim and as a response to the continuing war.
When Palestinians try to speak out about any of this, that’s when the silencing comes in. This column you’re reading is the exception to a fairly clear rule: Palestinians may not tell their stories. News about Palestinians is rarely reported from Gaza, and is often filtered through Israel’s spokespeople. The history of settler colonialism is omitted, language is twisted to obfuscate, and blame is always reassigned. Demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza, routinely attended by thousands, are erroneously framed as support for terrorism. Social media outlets frequently ban Palestinian reporting or marginalize the sharing of Palestinian content.
Those who do speak out are afraid of the costs of doing so. Over the years, there have been stories of Palestinians or their supporters being fired or suspended from their jobs, or losing swaths of friends, simply for expressions of humanitarianism. Whether to share a social media post is, for a Palestinian, an existential question.
To be Palestinian is to constantly have basic facts of your existence disfigured or denied.
There is a word in Arabic, qahr, that came to mind in the last week. It doesn’t have a direct counterpart in English, but if I were to attempt a translation, I’d say it describes the feeling of being overwhelmed by injustice. It’s a desolate, frustrated, unsolvable feeling.
Every morning, as I turn on my TV, I feel nothing but qahr.