first published in Mondoweiss https://mondoweiss.net/2023/10/writing-while-expecting-to-die/
written with Cathy Baker
GAZA-GAZA-BASED PARTICIPANTS IN THE 18TH WANN COHORT, INDUCTED INTO TRAINING IN SEPTEMBER 2023. THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN BY YOUSEF DAWAS WHO WAS KILLED BY AN ISRAELI MISSILE STRIKE ON HIS FAMILY’S HOME IN THE TOWN OF BEIT LAHIA ON OCTOBER 14, 2023.
“We are slowly dying and the world is watching.”
“We are dying…. I wish I could have the luxury of imagining positive things. They even took that away from me.”
“Can you kindly publish the attached stories if I die?!”
These are the kinds of statements mentors in the We Are Not Numbers (WANN) project are now receiving from young people in Gaza via email, voice message, and texting over various channels such as Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram. The mentors, who are professional writers in the U.S. and Europe, have built relationships with the Gazans through the process of refining essays for publication on the website and other media outlets.
WANN is a Gaza-based project of the nonprofit Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor that aims to counteract the lack of Palestinian perspective or context in the news. Since its founding in 2015, WANN has provided some 350 young writers with several months of journalistic training and paired them with experienced English-speaking writers to develop personal essays and news reports.
More than 1,000 stories have been published on the WANN website, which is supplemented by an active social media presence. Many WANN alumni have continued on as freelance writers or to careers in journalism.
WANNers, as they are called, are mainly from Gaza, but others in the current cohort are located in the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon, Malaysia, the United States, and Turkey. Typically, writers join WANN when they are in their early twenties: many are still at university, while others are venturing into jobs in education, translation, computer programming, science, health care, and other professions. Many are parents.
WANNers have created essays on a variety of topics, such as university entrance exams, the seashore, olive trees, and inspiring teachers. Our writers comment on the World Cup, profile local artists and engineers, describe the wonders of Gaza’s ancient buildings, and analyze the relevance of Shakespeare to their lives. WANNers outside Gaza contribute essays on their experiences living in diaspora.
But mostly, they write about the effects of Palestine under occupation and of Gaza under siege and repeated military bombardments.
And at this moment, war is their only topic.
They are frantically trying to maintain communication with friends and family. To our knowledge, at least 20 writers from the current and former cohorts of WANN have been communicating with their mentors throughout the October bombings.
Mentor Michelle Lerner has worked with seven writers and, even before the current situation, was communicating with some of them on a near-daily basis.
“I would help them with their essays and also applications for scholarships, submissions to literary journals, and other practical matters,” she writes in an essay published Oct. 17 at The Hill. “I’d read their poems and short stories, look at photos of their friends and family, and converse with them at length about their lives and mine. They’d ask my advice about personal matters, and when my health was compromised, they reached out continuously with their concern.”
Sarah Jacobus is a mentor who is currently communicating with eight WANNers. She shared with us some messages she has received from one of them:
Oct. 7: [8:47 pm] Your message is really appreciated. Truth be told, the situation here is unsettling, and no one is immune to being bombarded at any time, as the upcoming days will be harder. The sounds we hear are something like “end of the world” film! And the scenes we see on social media are so heart-rending. We thoroughly don’t wish it on anyone! But after it all, we are alive and safe so far, Alhamdulillah! [9:09 pm] As long as I’m alive, I’ll be here to tell you about what we’re going through.
Oct. 10: [8:11 pm] I’m not gonna lie to you, but I’m not really fine. For eight hours straight, I work from home translating the news since the beginning of the onslaught. Naturally, this compels me to keep an eye on every single aspect of what’s going on. And that makes me feel like I’m dead inside. No one is immune from bombing here, and there is nowhere to seek refuge. The most brutal conflict we have seen is this one! [8:19 pm] Just an hour ago, I was insanely busy doing my job, and it happened that we were informed that my sister along with her son were recovered alive beneath the rubble of her house as they bombed a building adjacent to her house. They have now sent an “evacuation order” to my other sister’s tower! What Gaza is undergoing is a vast genocide that is beyond words to explain. Anyways, Alhamdulillah for everything, good and bad.
Oct. 11: Pray for us….
Mentor Kate Casa shared a message she received this morning:
Oct. 17: Thank you Kate for your support. Thank God me and my family are fine until now. Unfortunately what’s happening in Gaza is total madness, its been 11 days without any electricity, water, enough food, and internet. Keep us in your prayers ?
In addition to the back-and-forth messaging with mentors, a few WANNers are managing to compose whole essays while under bombardment. Eman Ashraf Alhaj Ali, an English literature and translation student at the Islamic University of Gaza (now destroyed), worked with her mentor to get an essay published within 48 hours of the first strikes.
“If there’s one thing I want people to know about living under Israeli occupation,” she wrote in her October 9 essay entitled Gaza’s Unyielding Reality: Sparrows, Sirens, and Survival, “it’s how quickly birdsongs can be replaced by the screech of missiles. Most mornings in Gaza, my family wakes to the melodic symphony of Spanish sparrows gracing our kitchen window. My mother tenderly rouses my younger siblings and our days commence with Al-Fajr prayers—bathing in the blessings of Allah….
“But the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, reminded us that our routines, however sacred, are never safe.”
Abdallah al-Jazzar composed A Plea for Solidarity with Gaza on his phone while crammed into a house in which at least 40 people were sheltering.
“To be alive right now is nothing short of a miracle, and the opportunity to speak directly to you is both a privilege and an uncertainty,” he wrote. “I may be gone by the time these words reach you, but I assure you, it’s never too late. Gazans have spoken from the grave in the hopes that someone, somewhere, finally listens. Will it be this time? The next time? Any time?”
“I am five wars old,” the young WANNers of Gaza used to joke with each other. “I have a bachelor’s degree in war [a war for each year of study], and now I’m working on my master’s.”
Mere children when Hamas was elected into power back in 2005, our WANNers are now six wars old.
By all accounts, Israel’s current bombing of Gaza is several orders of magnitude the worst aggression and has the characteristics of an impending genocide. Our young writers are trapped inside Gaza with its dwindling food, water, and fuel supplies; its destroyed power, sanitation, and healthcare infrastructures; and its ongoing subjugation to constant bombardment. As their statements in this article attest, several have told their mentors that they expect to die.
In fact, one already has. Yousef Maher Dawas, a promising journalist, photographer, and guitar player, was killed on October 14 alongside family members.
Yet they continue to write. “We are not numbers,” these young people from Gaza proclaim.