Looking Over Gaza This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

August 22, 2012
“I look at the sky, I look at the people.”

– Arien Ahmed, Palestinian would-be suicide bomber, upon deciding not to detonate her explosives (Newsweek June 2002)

I gaze out the window at my tiny view of the world. People are walking down the road that skirts the sea. The sun, deep red in the evening sky, is slowly lowering itself over the horizon of lapping waves. I look at the sky. I look at the people. In my mind I can still see, with vivid detail, all the people at the coffee shop this morning and I wonder what would have happened to them, had all gone as planned. The pregnant woman, quietly sipping the cappuccino; the group of students talking and joking; the stressed clerk with the oversized uniform; the little girl holding the juice.

Amid the faces flashing in front of me when I close my eyes, I see hers the clearest – as if an exact image of her is etched deep inside my mind. Her olive skin and flowing chestnut hair. Her hazel eyes, afire with life as she tilted her face back, peels of laughter resonating from her youthful, ebullient grin that only faltered momentarily when her juice bottle crashed to the ground. Where would she be right now had my mission been successful? And what about the many others who had been waiting in line for coffee that morning?

Dead. All of them, dead. The bustling scene I had walked in on this morning would have ceased to exist had one more second gone by. The windows would have been shattered, the tables overturned and the unused coffee cups stacked beside the counter would have all been frozen in time like the pottery in the picture of the ruins of Pompeii I had seen in a tattered history book. I remember looking at that picture as the missile came through the roof of the school. As the white dust rained down over our heads, I remember closing the book and huddling under my desk, fearing I would soon be living the picture on the page. But that day, I had gone to al-Aqsa instead.

A pit was forming in my stomach. I realized that I would have made the people in the coffee shop live the picture on that page had I acted in accordance with my prescribed fate. What if the girl who dropped her juice bottle were my little sister? What if one of the young men standing in line was my husband-to-be? Or worse yet, what if the lady sipping the cappuccino was me, five years from now, pregnant with my first child and unaware that an attack had been planned against me?

Crazy scenarios popped into my head like swiftly falling raindrops on a tin roof. Situations, some incredibly far-fetched, some realistic, about the lives of the people I would have killed, invaded my thoughts faster than I could stop them. I had been tormented with fear ever since a bomb had fallen on my neighbor’s home the first year I’d lived in Jabaliya, so what kind of fears would the young clerk have felt if a bomb had gone off at her workplace?

The easy part about being a martyr is that I never would have had to handle thoughts like these, I realize, reminding myself that I, too, would be as nonexistent now as the people at the Starbucks. Guerrillas and snipers must be hardened, able to kill and then suppress all remorse for their actions until such feelings become extinct, and they can go on and kill again. Yet, martyrs need not suppress their remorse over the lives of those they have taken. Yes, I resolved, to be a guerrilla or a sniper took a certain type of person, but anyone could be a martyr. A martyr could have been me.

Depending, of course, on the martyr’s mission being successful. If her mission fails, and she gets the chance to reflect on what she’s done, all is rapidly negated. I never should have been apprehended this morning, I told myself. It was a fluke that the soldiers were patrolling the Community Square. I sighed, feeling that the mere hiccup in the system that allowed the soldiers’ presence was hardly the real reason I had not completed my mission.

Knowing I could not continue this frail half-truth, I finally allowed myself to admit the real reason I had been caught: I never should have paused to look at the people, especially after being told countless times that a martyr must never stop and look. Yes, due to my own mistake, due to my looking, my destiny suddenly wasn’t my destiny anymore. Because I had looked, suddenly my destiny, and that of the others at the Starbucks that morning, was altered. My moment had not come this morning, as I had assumed, but instead was now undetermined.

Leaning against the sandy plaster wall of my cell and gazing out at the sunset, I find myself questioning more than I ever have. I wonder what will become of me. The IDF does not treat would-be martyrs kindly, I am sure. Because I am young and a woman, I am hoping that the tribunal will be less harsh, but my hopes may be in vain.

Back in Jabaliya, I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what they do to Palestinians in interrogation rooms, and I know it is wishful thinking to hope that they will not do the same, or worse, to me. And for my family – I shudder to think what the soldiers will do to my family. My family knew nothing of my decision to join al-Aqsa. I told no one. I believed that I was destined to be a martyr, yet now, as I stand here in my cell, I know that I had lied.

I should get used to this cell; I’ll be spending a lot of time in cells. I wonder if I’ll ever be allowed to return to Jabaliya. Probably not. Yet if I do, I think hopefully, if I ever return to my people, I won’t go back to al-Aqsa. Martyrdom is not my destiny. Even if the soldiers invade again, even if life is miserable and my family again has no money. I won’t take another chance at martyrdom. I will not try it again and succeed the next time, for even if I weren’t alive to feel the remorse for my actions – oh, I shudder to think of the consequences anyway.

Sometimes our decisions can seem like what is best – our destinies seem set in stone – yet these same decisions may seem foolish, if not ghastly, in retrospect. The little girl with the juice, the young men laughing in line, the clerk who typed my name, Najat Rashaad, into the database, and the slim guard who exposed my false destiny with the words “By the order of the Israeli Defense Forces of the Territories, you are under arrest” – I too could live like them. Like the child who dropped her juice, I too could learn to laugh off the bad times, recover from life’s messes and go on another day.

I look out my cell window, knowing that the small view of the road and the dunes and the water meeting the horizon is the only view of the world I’ll have for several days, at least. It is all that I need to see to remind myself that yes, the world is turning, and yes, life is ever-renewing, and each sunset is both the beginning and the end of good and bad days.

I look to my future, and though it may seem bleak, I know I have one. And as the sun sets over Gaza this evening, my destiny is as open and broad as the sea in the distance. I’m looking toward tomorrow, a tomorrow that this morning I never expected to see. 1

Najat Rashaad – Najat is an Arabic name meaning salvation; Rashaad comes from the Arabic verb rashada, meaning to go the right way.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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