Love, Death, and a Day’s Work

Majd Al Waheidi, a first-year MAAS student, was born in Gaza to a Bedouin family from Beersheva. Before joining MAAS, Majd worked in Gaza as a reporter for the New York Times. She shares some reflections on her life as a journalist. 

By Majd Al Wahaidi

One morning toward the end of my four years of working as a journalist in Gaza, I was getting ready to go to a birthday party when an email landed in my inbox. “Are you going to the executions?,” read the subject line. There would be no birthday party for me that day. Instead, I would soon be on my way to the public execution of three men.

Even for someone accustomed to reporting on a place so scarred by conflict and hardship, witnessing a public execution was a jarring experience. I felt that it was important, though, to document this “final moment” of a story I had closely followed. Seated in a plastic chair, I watched for three hours as the men accused by Hamas of collaborating with Israel were killed—two hung and one shot by firing squad. I heard and documented their final words.

Three women, one in a chair and the other two on a bed, sit and talk while one woman takes notes.
Al Wahaidi conducts interviews with women who lost their homes in the 2014 war in Gaza.

This is the kind of scene that many associate with Gaza. And while it’s true that violence and death are an everyday reality in Gaza, for me, it is also a place of love and of life. So was my next assignment—to cover a series of weddings that had resulted from Gaza’s first online dating website.

“We are the halal version of American dating apps,” the founder of the site “Wesal” told me, referring to the fact that Wesal—which means “reunion” in Arabic—doesn’t include pictures of its users and is more about facilitating marriages than dates. The way I told the story of these weddings for the New York Times was a world away from those featured in the regular “Fashion & Style” section: As one groom said about his new bride, “She will make me happy. She will make me forget about my pain.”

While the executions and violence are the dark side of Gaza, the wedding halls filled with dancing and joyful ululation, and bursts of wedding “snow” streaming through the air, are the beacons of light—both literally and figuratively. Powered by generators, they are among the few places lit at night during the almost constant blackouts.

One of the biggest challenges for journalists in Gaza is finding power, whether to charge their laptops or read interview notes. On many nights, I ended up writing under a moonlit sky. Humanitarian organizations call it an “electricity crisis,” but this masks the fact that the blackouts are a political issue and that for people in Gaza, the lack of electricity can mean the difference between life and death. After the war of 2014, I covered the story of a family whose home had been reduced to a charred shell, missing its doors and windows. With winter upon them, no power, and nowhere else to go, they were hit by an even worse tragedy: their four-month-old baby froze to death.

Woman wearing bulletproof vest and helmet that say "Press" poses for a photo with four children amongst rubble.
Al Wahaidi is visited by neighborhood children while reporting from a building destroyed by an Israeli rocket during the 2014 war.

From death and suffering to joy and new beginnings, this was life to me, as a journalist in Gaza—trying to dig out human truths from the contradictions and complexities that surround and sometimes overwhelm you. You do so while knocking on doors to ask families how their sons ended up in jail after crossing the fence into Israel, or while interviewing an artist who locked herself in her room for 100 days to protest the war and strict traditions. You do it while arguing with conservative men who hate the very idea of a female reporter or while trying to explain to activists why, as a journalist, you can’t take their side, even if you are sympathetic to their cause.

In addition to these internal struggles, interrogation and detention by security officials, and severe restrictions on movement are part of daily life for journalists in Gaza. Even protective gear is difficult to access. I know a female photographer who painted a saucepan to make it look like a helmet; another time she turned a plastic bag into a press vest so that she could cover demonstrations.

Last fall, I left Gaza for Georgetown, swapping a place of crisis and insecurity for this safe and quiet pocket of academia, where the power is always on. I have ceased to be a reporter, at least for now. But as a daughter of Gaza, the memories and the struggles between life and death, joy and sorrow, stay with me. I hope I can convey to the world not only the complexities and paradoxes of these stories, but also the incredible dignity, strength, and resilience I found in the people there.

 

This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.