Tahir wasn’t a stereotypical angry young Palestinian man. He was gentle and intellectual and very sensitive. He had travelled on a scholarship to Norway to do his masters degree in political science and now worked at PCHR as a political researcher and analyst. Having spent those years living in a Western country, staying in a dorm and having the anonymity and freedom to go out and do what he pleased, returning to Gaza and moving back into his shared bedroom in the family home had been tough on Tahir. He sought me out, the only foreigner in the office, as someone who would understand that part of him, the part that had developed a taste for privacy and solitude, of independence and freedom. I understood this and was happy to sit with him the office library listening to him talk about his life in Norway, about the people he knew and the places he went.
As we came to know each other better Tahir told me more about his family. His elder brother had been killed by a shot from an Israeli soldier during the first intifada. He was at high school when he was shot and Tahir, a young boy at the time, heard about his brother being shot before he got home. When he got home his father and other brothers were already gone, rushing to the border in a frantic effort to get his gravely wounded brother out of the Gaza Strip to one of the better hospitals in the West Bank. They were blocked because another brother had been involved in a resistance group in Gaza. This collective punishment of families for the activities or associations of one member wasn’t uncommon but when Tahir told me his story I began to understand just how cruel it could be. Unable to get him the emergency surgery that may have saved him, he died.
That night the Gaza Strip was placed under a curfew, but Muslim law
dictated that Tahir’s brother should be buried before the sunset so the
family broke curfew to bury him. Everything happened so fast that
Tahir’s mother wasn’t able to have any time to say goodbye to her son
before the men took him to prepare him to be buried. She wanted to go
to have a moment alone with her son. Because of the curfew, however,
she was stopped in the street by and Israeli soldier who would not let
her go to her son.
The Gaza Strip is filled with stories just
like that of Tahir’s brother. It’s hard to think of a family that
doesn’t have an experience of violence, loss and unbearably unnecessary
death in its recent history. But Tahir was so like me, young and
ambitious and keen to travel, that his story struck me particularly. I
felt as though I could never really understand what it was like to be
Gazan. I wondered whether I could ever get past the gulf that stood
between all my Gazan friends and me, this terrible burden they bore
with so much grace and good humour. I felt like a naïve and sheltered
child in the face of their suffering. After Tahir told me about his
brother I went home quiet and sobered, wondering again whether I was
out of my depth in this place, playing at a job that I wasn’t really
mature enough to handle.
It was Tahir himself who reassured me.
A few days later we were talking again and I confided to him my doubts
about my ability to ever really understand the loss and suffering that
he, and so many others in Gaza, had experienced. He leaned in towards
me, lowering his voice conspiratorially, and said that I shouldn’t
worry about that. He said he was going to tell me now about the most
painful experience of his life. I was confused. Maybe he hadn’t
understood my point. If I was already finding it hard to cross the
chasm in our experiences then how could telling me even more terrible
stories make this situation any better. But I couldn’t think of any way
to stop him that wouldn’t be horribly rude so I didn’t say anything.
told me about a girl who he fell in love with in Norway. He told me how
they had met and what they had done together and how his heart had
opened up in her company. He told me about his doubts and fears about
their relationship, because eventually he knew he would have to come
back to Gaza to work for his people. But he didn’t want to give her up,
this woman who had breathed warmth and laughter back into his grieving
Even though Tahir, like most of my colleagues, didn’t personally believe, he had still been raised within a relatively
conservative Muslim family and community and so his dating skills might
have been a little unsophisticated. In any case he had no warning when
this love of his broke things off. It was nearly time for him to return
to Palestine and I can imagine that she felt there was nowhere further
for their relationship to go, but it broke Tahir’s heart. It was, he
told me, even more painful than when his brother was killed.
course when his brother was killed Tahir was still a child, whereas
this first heartbreak came to him as an adult. But nonetheless I
understood what he was telling me. He knew that I had lived through
heartache at the end of my past loves. We had talked a little about
what it was like to live in a Western country where we had the freedom
to choose our partners but no guarantee that those relationships would
last. Tahir was telling me that loss and heartbreak are the same the
world over. He was telling me not to get myself too caught up in the
differences between the world as I had experienced it up until to the
moment I arrived in Gaza and the world I was now learning about. He was
telling me to stay focused on what we shared, what was common to us and
to all people everywhere.