(I wrote this last year, in August 2009, after the completion of UNRWA's "Summer Games" Camp in Gaza)
“Through the Eyes of 5000 Children”
For the first time in almost two years, I was fortunate enough to spend this summer in Gaza with my family. I was even more fortunate to enjoy anything but a relaxing summer, thanks to Al Mathaf (the Museum) and UNRWA’s “Summer Games” camp for children. Five thousand children from different UNRWA schools were sent on a trip to Al Mathaf, and I was responsible for giving them guided tours of the place and making sure that they had a good time.
Al Mathaf: Al Mathaf, Arabic for “the Museum,” is a “recreational, cultural house” in Gaza where the only Museum is built in a compound that includes a restaurant, café and a number of halls next to the Mediterranean Sea. The Museum itself includes ancient artifacts and antiquities dating as early as the Early Bronze age (3500 BC), the Middle Bronze Age, the New Bronze Age, followed by the Iron, Hellenistic, Persian and Greek ages. The Roman and the Byzantine eras follow, ending the display with the Islamic Era. The displayed artifacts, numbered 350, were all found in Gaza, and prove to the viewer the deepness of our roots in this land. Aside from the beauty and history of the pieces, our connection to the land is the fact that Al Mathaf strives to put into context.
When my father and his partner built Al Mathaf, their vision went beyond a “recreational, cultural house.” Their vision included planting hope and optimism in the hearts of the 1.5 million imprisoned people of Gaza and Palestine, and to show them that “On this land is what deserves life” (Mahmoud Darwish).
Summer Games: UNRWA launched it’s “Summer Games” camp for children aged from 6-15 years on the 21st of June, 2009. The camps were organized at UNRWA schools located around the Gaza Strip, offering students a variety of activities such as dabka (Palestinian folklore dancing), swimming, art crafts, etc…From the participating schools, the students from the poorest backgrounds were chosen for a trip to Al Mathaf.
When I was first offered this opportunity, I was looking forward to getting a good grasp of issues related to the future generation through interacting with the children. Were these children comparable with children their age from other Arab or non-Arab countries? Had they been given the chance, would they able to prosper and develop their many talents and skills?
The findings would come within the following two months. Each day, two UNRWA schools would send about 50-60 students to Al Mathaf, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The group of 50-60 would be divided in two; one group would visit Al Mathaf, while the other would visit the playground (each for thirty minutes) and then they would switch, before having lunch at the restaurant.
The kids at Al Mathaf (the Museum itself)
As soon as the kids set foot in Al Mathaf, their eyes would be wide open with astonishment. The high ceiling and the high Roman capitals, the dim lights shed on the ancient anchors, the oil lamps seen through the display windows, and the smell of the sea and ancient history, all give a feeling of “holiness” to the place.
The tour would be started by welcoming the kids to Al Mathaf, and providing them with a brief introduction about it: how the different pieces that came from different time periods prove our connection to the land, why history should be studied and appreciated, and how all these things prove that our country is a beautiful place, despite the war, the siege and the occupation. A point that was highly emphasized was that all the displayed pieces come from Gaza and are ancient; nothing was replicated, and nothing was brought from outside Gaza/Palestine. The kids would then be ready to tour the place and go through the different eras, one by one.
Halfway through the tour would be time to explain the ancient pottery jars. Before beginning to explain them, however, one kid would raise his/her hand and ask what/who broke the jars that are shattered on the floor. I would answer by saying that they were broken during the last war, and that the whole place was as badly affected as any other place in Gaza. The broken jars were left on the floor as proof of that. None of the kids would have a reply, but in the questionnaire that we gave them after the tour, many displayed dismay at what they saw. The pottery jars were used for trade and were manufactured in a number of countries lying on the Mediterranean coastline and elsewhere. Upon pointing out to the Persian jars, I would ask the kids about current events in Persia/Iran (elections). Some said occupation; others said nuclear bombs, while one explained that the jars were used for making nuclear bombs. One of the jars, which was particularly pointed from the bottom, made the children think of F-16 rockets. Ironically, it was the Gaza jar.
The jars serve as evidence that Gaza/Palestine at one point in time were not under siege or occupation, and were free to establish strong connections with the outside world. This led the kids to imagine what things were like back then, but it was difficult to convince them that the jars were actually found in Gaza, let alone the fact that Gazan jars were found in countries lying on the Mediterranean coastline.
Following the jars were the marble stones, including two stones that have the Cross carved on them, because they were used for decorating churches in Gaza. When the children were asked what these crosses symbolized, many said “Christians” or “Christianity” or “Church.” One unique child said “the Red Cross,” which shows that the only interactions that this Muslim child had with non-Muslims were with Red Cross aid givers. Following that section, various pieces from different Islamic periods were explained to the children. Religious tolerance and other lessons of mutual respect and understanding were discussed with the kids.
What’s interesting is that even though we always stressed at the beginning of the tours that the pieces were original and from Gaza, we always had a child or two asking us randomly during the tour where the pieces were brought from, whether they were made/replicated recently, or whether we really got the pieces from Gaza. This was disappointing because it showed that the children did not believe that all these beautiful artifacts come from the very place that they live in.
Many children often felt irritated during the tour. One of the supervisors explained to us that many of the children could not stand air conditioning because phosphorous bombs directly affected their senses of smell during the last war.
The tour would be ended with a map of the Levant. The map, and the story that’s told with it, were all based on Mrs. Madeeha Al Batta’s diary. Al Batta was 11 years old in 1936 when she traveled with her parents all the way from Khan Younis in South East Gaza, to Beirut-Lebanon and Damascus-Syria, passing through countless cities and villages (many which were equated with the ground 12 years later). When they traveled, they used various means of transportation, including cars and the railway that connected all countries of the Levant together (worth noting is the fact that the wood used in Al Mathaf was the wood used in the railway before the Israelis destroyed it).
A major introduction to UNRWA’s school curriculum was the “Human Rights” program. After telling the children Al Batta’s story, they would be asked to compare the human rights that Al Batta had in 1936 when she was their age, way before the Human Rights Charter was drafted, to the rights that they/we have now, if any. The children would always list the rights that she had (translated from Arabic): Art. (3)“Right to life, liberty, and security of person, ” Art. (13): “(1) Right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”, Art. (19) “Right to freedom of opinion” (referring to Al Batta’s diary), Art. (24) “Right to rest and leisure,” Art. (26) “Right to education,” Art. (27) “Right to freely participate in the cultural life of a community,” and other rights such as the right to play, smell clean air, health care, and a child once exclaimed, “My right to Jerusalem!”
Throughout the summer, I noticed that affiliations that the students were always proud to announce included political and social ones, such as the Hamas/Fatah division and the refugee/citizen division. The children, no matter how young, always proudly announced their political loyalties. The kids also strongly reacted towards anything or anyone that looked different or new to them. They were surprised to see my brother and I, for example, because in their eyes we looked “different” (the way we dressed, the hair, the accent). They were also surprised to see waiters in action, for example. The whole place was like a movie scene to the children; it was something that they had only seen on TV.
At the Restaurant
As previously stated, the children that were sent to Al Mathaf came from the poorest backgrounds. For some kids, Al Mathaf visit was their first time stepping foot in Gaza City, or outside their refugee camps. The kids would be anxiously waiting for their meal after a long hour of tours and game. The restaurant would have prepared a meal for each child- a hamburger or a chicken sandwich served with fries and salad, juice, and followed with a piece of cake. Observations made in the restaurant were as important as those made in Al Mathaf itself.
One of the youngest children that visited Al Mathaf was particularly quiet during the tour. When I visited him at the dining table, he looked very excited, and asked me what the meal was. I asked him what his favourite food was, he had no answer, but explained that his mother usually makes lentil or rice dishes that he likes. He suddenly seemed to remember that hamburgers were his favourite meal, even though he had never had one before. His excitement was immeasurable when he learned that the restaurant was offering hamburgers that day.
Other children looked puzzled when they saw the food. They would ask if this really is the food that they see on TV, the “foreign food,” and whether the food was imported from Egypt. Some would instantly feel sick at the sight/smell/taste of the food because it tasted and looked new to them. Others, out of politeness and shyness would pretend to be sick, or say that they ate before coming, so that they could skip the meal and have it packed for their families. Some kids would bluntly say that they want to share the meal with the family, and ask for wrapping.
These observations reflect a sad reality in today’s Gaza. These young children bear a heavy responsibility of feeding their families, even if it doesn’t mean finding a job at the local grocery store. Eating and enjoying the whole meal would make them feel guilty at this “privilege” that they are enjoying, while the rest of the family, at least 10 other members, would be waiting for the lentils to be cooked and shared.
One child, Awwad, was named after the guy who invented the Oud. Awwad loved history, and explained to me how he goes to the local Saturday Market in Rafah to buy old history books and maps from an old merchant. This summer, when Awwad visited Al Mathaf, he was so enthusiastic and so well informed I asked him to tour his classmates, which he did without me asking and instead of joining the others in the playground.
Mahdi loved Al Mathaf. He had a question for everthing. You could see the fascination in Mahdi’s eyes, who was an artist, and aspired to become a fashion designer and study in Lebanon. Mahdi, 11, explained to me how Palestine’s girls and boys are very smart, and how, if given the chance and if the borders open, they could be the masters of anything they choose to do or study.
Anas was an eight year old child who visited Al Mathaf. Anas had the answers, and had the creativity. Anas loved Al Mathaf so much that he asked me to give him the exact address of the place. When asked why, Anas explained that his father had promised him a gift for being the top student in his class. Anas said that he wants his father to take him and the family to Al Mathaf as his present, giving Anas the chance to explain the artifacts and the history behind them to the family.
Mahmoud was one of the few disabled children who visited Al Mathaf. Although Mahmoud could not hear or speak, he was blessed with two beautiful eyes that saw things in a very special way. Mahmoud was an artist, one whose work was already being displayed in different art galleries. Mahmoud was asked to paint a corner that he liked in Al Mathaf, which he gladly did.
One girl told us about her experience with the war. A boy expressed his loyalty to the PFLP. A group of boys passionately danced dabka, while twin girls were entertaining the group with jokes.
Gaza’s children are special, but in their own ways. They have the talents, the imagination, the creativity and the sense of humor- but they also have the war narratives, the martyred relative, and the limits. In Gaza, we are complaining from a siege that limits our movement, affects the economy and harms our cause. Yet, the deeper victims of the siege, the children, are suffering way more than we are. These children are suffering from a mental siege that disallows them from seeing the life that lies beyond the refugee camp.
For how long will these children be able to share the smile, the laugh, and the dreams? My biggest fear is that under the current situation, it wont be too long before these kids are led to a completely different path.
Published in: Chronichles, Fall 2009, the American University in Cairo.