Issue No.
166, February 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Photo by Sharif Sarhan.
Part of the Gaza Book Club group, coordinated by Diwan Ghazza and the Palestine Writing Workshop.

Impressions of Gaza
By Yasmeen El Khoudary
Media has done an excellent job at building a terrible image of Gaza. I can probably safely argue that the vast majority of the world has the same image of Gaza in mind: death-stricken, doomed to misery, conservatively religious, in addition to your favourite image from the last war on Gaza. Consequently, people whose knowledge of Gaza is based on what the media feeds them are often shocked when they meet a “normal” or “ordinary” person from Gaza.

The questions that people from Gaza get asked are not very different from questions asked of Palestinians in general. But we get them more often, and they are usually offensive (albeit not on purpose). Here, I recall two personal experiences.

Back in 2008, I was still a student at the American University in Cairo (AUC) when an American friend of mine introduced me to his other American friend. His friend asked me, “Where are you from?” to which I answered that I’m a Palestinian from Gaza. His response? “Oh, I’m sorry!”

In May 2011, I was being introduced to a Tunisian person who asked me which university I attended. “How were you able to afford AUC?” I told him that my parents paid, and that I had a partial academic merit scholarship. His response? “Ahh, that’s the benefit of being from Gaza.”

Post both incidents, I was so angry, so dumbstruck that I couldn’t even reply. I felt a burning hatred in my heart for media-fed ignorance and for baseless stereotypes that the world now regards us with. If you’re educated, well-spoken, well-represented, and social, you surely can’t be from Gaza! Unless perhaps you were born and raised outside.

It’s a really frustrating discussion, and I hate going into it. I hate justifying or proving that I was born, raised, and mostly educated in Gaza. At the same time, I can’t simply blame the media. It is, after all, my responsibility as a proud citizen of Gaza to revoke baseless stereotypes by being the best person I can be.

Besides media bias, there’s also the fact that Gaza is geographically hard to access, making it difficult for people to visit it and see for themselves, and also for people to leave and change the world’s twisted perspective of Gaza. Worse still, this geographic impasse leads to a social and political division between Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, 1948, and the diaspora.

It is sadly ironic that had I not been lucky enough to study in Egypt, I would have probably never met anyone from the West Bank, Jerusalem, 1948, or the diaspora. Being a citizen of Gaza limits, if not entirely rules out, any possibility of visiting the rest of Palestine, including the West Bank and Jerusalem, and vice versa. Until 2006, I had very few Palestinian friends from outside Gaza, and, quite honestly, had no idea how similar or different we were.

Back to my first day at AUC: I remember that my four friends from high school in Gaza and myself were separated into different first-year orientation groups. I was alone in the group, until two guys approached me and asked, “Are you from Jerusalem?” judging from the Palestine headband I was wearing. Right then, I met my first friends from Ramallah, and together we listened to our favourite patriotic songs on our iPods instead of following the boring orientation speeches.

Looking back at those three orientation days within the context of this issue’s theme, I would say that the orientation on a personal level was more about learning about my fellow Palestinian friends than about AUC. During breaks, we found my other friends from Gaza and saw that they had met Palestinians from Nablus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Lebanon.

Until that orientation, I never really thought about how different or similar Palestinians from outside Gaza were. I probably had no reason to think that they were any different, and I was right. We share almost everything in common, and our differences are natural. We memorised the same Intifada songs, danced the same dabkat, wore the same scarves, laughed at the same jokes, and collectively missed the same foods.

As our friendships developed, however, and we started to get to know and get used to each other, we noticed that some of our friends from the West Bank, particularly Ramallah, already had a preconceived idea about Gaza, and it wasn’t all that positive. I don’t want to discuss it in detail because I still don’t understand it myself, but what I can say is that although unjustified, stereotypes are easy to form when people are so strictly separated. Eventually, we learned how to turn our differences into jokes.

Why am I even writing this article? Why am I assuming that people in the West Bank have a certain impression about Gaza and its people? I feel like this article is contributing to the problem. But denying the problem is also wrong. We have already agreed that there is a problem with the way the world regards Gaza, but would talking about impressions of Gaza from the West Bank shed light on something that might just disappear with the darkness?

Until we learn how to reconcile our differences and to dissolve the stereotypes that we have formed about each other on things as dull as dialects and the acts of a few, can we ever hope to build a “healthy” society, let alone a country? I blame much of this nonsense on our “governments,” both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Their selfishness and hypocrisy is continuously resulting in a political division that’s inevitably feeding into social and economic divisions between Gaza and the West Bank. Worse still, they are in no way, shape, or form helping us reconnect with the rest of our people in 1948 and outside Palestine.

I’d like to conclude this article by saying that the measurement of our Palestinian identity does not rely on the city we come from or the place we live. I have come to know a Palestinian who lives in Chile who is more dedicated to the cause than a Palestinian who lives in the heart of Jerusalem. Living in the West Bank or Gaza, bearing the ID or the passport does not add anything to our identity or our dedication to the cause. Some people believe that just by living in the West Bank and Gaza and enduring the suffering caused by the Israeli occupation, they’re benefiting the cause. Truth is, the only thing that differentiates one Palestinian from the other is their dedication, commitment, and ability to represent the rest of Palestine as truthfully as possible.

Yasmeen El Khoudary is a 21-year-old blogger and youth activist based in Gaza City, Palestine. She is a contributor to CNN, Aljazeera English, and Electronic Intifada, and is a cofounder of Diwan Ghazza. Blog: yelkhoudary.blogspot.com, Twitter: @yelkhoudary
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