What it means to travel as a Gazan


This essay is the second in a series on travel after incarceration. Look forward to the next one later this summer.

I dream of seeing Gaza by plane.

Instead, I see Gaza through drone footage. It shows a place in the rubble – my many memories and dreams and close friends buried with it. But no matter where I am in the world, I always think of home. I’ve traveled to dozens of countries now, but nothing beats the golden shores of Gaza.

I grew up in the Al-Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. It was not until 2002, at the age of twelve, that I left Palestine for the first time on a two-month trip to Jordan with my aunt and sister, Zainab. Our Palestinian commercial flight was one of the few in service after Israel first bombed Gaza’s only airport in 2001: With no airport in its homeland, Palestinian Airlines resumed operations at El Arish International Airport until 2005 in Egypt, which was used by Palestinians in their homeland. Gaza to travel outside the Gaza Strip.

The vast expanse of the Sinai Desert was a reminder of a world far greater than the confinement I had known

At the time, and at the time of writing this, there were no planes flying out of my hometown, which meant that the excitement of boarding a flight was almost too much for someone doing it for the first time, and I insisted to sit by the window. Pressed against the window I stared at the Mediterranean Sea glittering with its beautiful waves below; Gaza was just visible on the horizon, its borders suddenly less clear. And then the vast expanse of the Sinai Desert – a reminder of a world far bigger than the confinement I had known.

For a moment I felt like the birds that flew over me every day without restrictions.

Stepping off the plane Amman meant we discovered there were no checkpoints like the ones we had to cross on the way out. Gaza’s access to the world has always been limited, including for patients in need of good health care, and my aunt had taken Zainab and me to Jordan for treatment. But we would also spend time with relatives we rarely saw, both from Jordan and… the West Bank. We suddenly felt connected to the rest of our family, even if just for a moment.

During the two months we spent there, I continued to be amazed by the tall buildings. The infrastructure was so much better developed than in Gaza. It meant I could learn to scooter and cycle for the first time, zigzagging along paved roads and past flashes of green space. It was so different from home, but I didn’t fully understand that I had been living in a concrete jungle until years later – when I left Gaza for the first time as an adult to study in Malaysia.

Into the tropical landscape Kuala Lumpur was beyond the imagination of someone who grew up in a refugee camp. The sounds of the birds reminded me of their dwindling numbers in Gaza; the thick stands of tropical trees of Gaza’s concrete walls, built where trees once stood. I discovered that I enjoy visiting and hiking waterfalls. Gaza is flat and seeing the big mountains breathed life into me. The experience was like something I call “green shock.” As the Gaza Strip’s population has increased from 80,000 after 1948 to 2.3 million in 2023, according to the United NationsGreen areas and orchards have disappeared and been replaced by more buildings and more walls. The contrast was impossible to ignore.


After prison I went to Miami to experience freedom again

Locked up in an institution in the Everglades, I lived in the shadow of Miami for years. Finally I was allowed to visit.

But even though my new life seemed so far from home, I also found friends who helped me get closer to it: Refaat Alareer, the writer and poet, and my mentor; his flatmate Mohammed Hassouna, an IT expert; and Raed Qaddoura, a classmate studying for his doctorate. Home is a scary idea when the streets you walked through as a child are no longer recognizable – the landmarks are no longer – and so we started building our own Palestine. We met for dinner to share plates of maqluba and talk about our home. Through those stories (Refaat was very good at telling stories) it started to become so rich in history, culture and landscapes, just like the places I had read about in novels. And over the next two years we started making new stories of our own, the four of us traveling all over Malaysia, hopping between places like Malacca and Labuan for vacation and study. Walking around as freely as we did made us feel that one day we as Palestinians could exist as a nation without restrictions – and do normal things that other people do, like travel.

After we went our separate ways – some of us back to Gaza – we met occasionally. But mostly we kept our memories of Malaysia alive through a Facebook group with other Palestinians we had met during that time. That is no longer possible: Mohammed and Raed were both killed by Israeli airstrikes after the outbreak of the current war, and Raed’s wife had given birth by caesarean section without anesthesia just two weeks earlier. Refaat, not only our storyteller, but also the storyteller of Gaza, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in December. His poem “If I Must Die” has been shared around the world to honor his legacy.

Home is a scary idea when the streets you walked through as a child are no longer recognizable – the landmarks are no longer – and so we started building our own Palestine.

I am now based in Istanbul, a city that bridges two continents. But the more I travel, the guiltier I feel. For Palestinians, especially Gazans, crossing borders has always served as a reminder of life under siege, death, missed opportunities and the guilt of leaving family and friends behind. When I board a plane, I think of the generations who never left Gaza – like the students who lost their scholarships while waiting for the border crossings to open. I think of Ahmad al-Haaj, a ninety-year-old Palestinian refugee from Gaza who did his master’s studies in the 1970s and sent and received his educational materials through the British Council in Jerusalem. Ahmad, who was driven from his home twice in his life, died in January this year in northern Gaza. And I think of the patients who lost their lives due to the lack of travel permits, including my sister Zainab. When the Rafah Crossing closed in 2007, she was unable to go out for additional treatment.

But it is also through travel that our diaspora survives and brings together Palestinians who may have never met in Gaza because of the restrictions we have to live under. The relationships Refaat and I built with others in Malaysia were (and better yet, are) a way to connect Gaza to the outside world. Many of us live in forced exile, and although much of my family remains in Gaza and I have lost countless relatives, I was able to get my mother and my 18-year-old brother Omar out.

A few months ago, Omar flew the plane for the first time. In the midst of the fear and sorrow, he saw the world from above.

Originally published on Condé Nast Traveler

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