With family, wife in Gaza, KT journalist hopes for the best even as he prepares for the worst

The first person account of Khaleej Times staffer Kareem Abudawaba, who grew up in Palestine

By Kareem Abudawaba

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Photo: Rahul Gajjar/KT
Photo: Rahul Gajjar/KT

Published: Wed 22 Nov 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 22 Nov 2023, 12:58 PM

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to the God)”. This is my standard response to anyone inquiring about my family’s well-being these days. The family that resides in Gaza. The Gaza that stands ravaged today after Israel declared a war against Hamas in the wake of October 7 attacks. My answer makes others believe that my family must be alright. In truth, I am not sure. Because if they weren’t killed during one of the many bombings, they may have died of starvation. No food, no water, no electricity. When I think of them, I think of what living in this very moment in history would be like for my three brothers and parents.

Till a few weeks ago, I was leading a ‘normal’ life. One that many in Gaza would only dream of — working in a reputed news publication in Dubai and living with my wife of three years in one of the safest cities in the world. We were vacationing in Egypt when my wife expressed a desire to see her family in Gaza. “It could be dangerous,” I told her. But looking at the pain in her eyes every time she spoke of her family, I relented. Who knew that within a week of her arrival, a war would break out in Gaza? Not being able to speak to her means I am hoping for the best but also preparing myself for the worst.

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Photo: Rahul Gajjar/KT
Photo: Rahul Gajjar/KT

War, in the age of social media, has a different meaning. Today, because of Instagram reels and videos, many are getting to know what exactly is happening in Gaza, but when I was growing up in Khan Yunis in the 1990s, conflict was a lived reality. As a child, instead of playing football, I would have two toys. One would be named Israel, and the other would be called Palestine, and a clash between the two would become a sport.

Children often have butterflies in their stomachs at the thought of going to school. Every day I went to school, I loved it. But I didn’t know if I could return the next day. In Gaza, there is no tomorrow, only today. I was in high school in 2014 when, for 55 days straight, we witnessed relentless bombings. My family and I would sleep for 2-3 hours and wake up the next morning thanking Allah for keeping us alive. I couldn’t have continued with my education under such circumstances. Hence, I dropped out.

Survival, in Gaza, often calls for celebration. Upon realising that we had survived these bombings, my family and I would treat ourselves to a chicken meal — one piece of chicken divided among six members of our family.

As a child, I was also fascinated with the cameras journalists from all over the world would bring to shoot us. I absolutely loved what the camera could do. My only dream at that point was to be able to touch it. Buying it was out of question because it was so expensive.

I remember requesting a friend to introduce me to his cousin who was a journalist and a proud owner of a camera. The day I met him, I asked him if I could hold his camera to which he happily agreed. That was the best day of my life. Later, I requested an aunt, who lived in Saudi Arabia, to buy me a camera. When she did, I got all my friends to come and see it. Touch it, explore its infinite possibilities. Since there was no one to teach me how to operate it, I began to watch YouTube tutorials and train myself in handling a camera.

There weren’t many people documenting what was happening at Khan Yunis, so I decided to take charge. I would take my camera and hit the road, capturing what it was like to walk on the road to get basic supplies as one feared being bombed to death. Looking at my work, a local television called me and asked me to join them. Can you imagine how elated I might have been?

By this time, I had begun to dream. I wanted a future, one in which I could have a career and family, and to board a plane at least once in my lifetime. The moment I decided to do the latter, I registered myself to be able to travel and after two months of waiting, went to Cairo, and then to the country of my dreams — the UAE. Eventually, I got employment opportunities here. Ticking the boxes of a conventional life came at the cost of not being able to meet my family. Every time I thought of visiting them, I thought of the rigorous security barriers and checks that make a visit to my homeland a Herculean task. Today, it's been six years since I saw them together.

When I was in Gaza, I often wondered how the world outside perceived us. Did they care enough? Did they know about our traditions and culture, all of which are now being decimated as the war intensifies? My parents have neither supported Hamas nor Fatah. They have only ever wanted to bring up well-educated children who could make something of themselves. This has been the Gazan dream - to look at the future in which we all will lead 'normal' lives. Did they ever spare a thought for that dream?

By the way, we are amazing, like you. We have dreams, like you. We want love, like you. We want to live, just like you!

— As told to Anamika Chatterjee

kareem@khaleejtimes.com

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