Sunday, October 30, 2005

"We Are Not Simply Martyrs!"

Mohammed spoke with Gaza's youngest imam last week. The interview was published in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian) on 28 October.

"May I speak with Mr. Amjad please?"

I was telephoning to arrange an interview and discovered Gaza's most popular celebrity answers his own phone. "Mr. Amjad?" I repeated.

" Sheikh Amjad, please," he corrected me.

Amjad Abu Sido can properly be called an honorary Sheikh at the age of thirteen, a rare, but not unheard-of achievement in the Islamic world. In a culture where reciting the Holy Quran is not just a devotional act but an art form, many children start learning the sacred texts by heart at an early age. A few with unusual diligence and a gift for oratory memorize all 114 suras (chapters) by their early teens and are often called "Sheikh."

Impressive as that may be, young Sheikh Amjad has far exceeded that achievement and stunned a congregation of hundreds in a Gaza City mosque last week when he preached the principal sermon at Friday midday prayers. The slender boy, barely five feet tall, appeared in an imam's long white tunic and turban in the pulpit normally reserved for the most senior preachers and mesmerized an overflow crowd. Letting a thirteen-year-old have the central place at Friday prayers during the holy month of Ramadan is an extraordinary honor, but perhaps an inevitable result of Abu Sido's yearlong rise to fame.

It all began when Sheikh Amjad, a pupil in a private religious school, read a short essay he had written in front of his class. His teachers were so impressed with his mastery of classical Arabic and his delivery, that they arranged for him to give a short talk at the local mosque. Other invitations quickly followed, and soon there were many from all over Gaza who traveled to hear him wherever he preached. Last week, if it seemed incongruous when the revered imam, Sheikh Abu Fathi Lafi 67, called for praying Azzan at Al Julani mosque in Gaza City, then yielded the pulpit to a boy who still speaks with a child's voice, there was no lack of maturity in the young Sheikh's words. In impeccably crafted Arabic, he urged the worshippers to seek justice and solidarity within Palestinian society, while warning them against hypocrisy.

Afterward, Raed Said, one of the worshippers, said, "I found his thoughts and his presentation very moving. We should all be proud to have such a splendid young imam. Frankly, I think he's much better than some very experienced and famous preachers!" Nidal Issa, an official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Gaza said his ministry decided to allow Sheikh Amjad to preach on Fridays because "he is a sound boy, an excellent speaker, and a strong personality." Abu Sido has a full calendar of speaking engagements in Gaza for months ahead.

Abu Sido himself, however, wears his fame lightly. "It makes me happy when people come to the mosque to hear me, or any preacher." And he is quick to explain that his role model is the late Sheikh Abdel Hamid Keshek, a famous Egyptian imam, whose sermons and lectures, preserved on tape, he has studied exhaustively. "I'm deeply inspired by him, a knight of the pen and the platform. It's no secret that I'm always trying to imitate his mannerisms," he says. "I admire his courage in carrying the truth, his patience, his deep kindness. And his delivery is so strong, people are moved even by hearing him on tape, years after his death." Sheikh Amjad, however, back up impressive stage presence with his own scholarship. He has obviously thought deeply on Islamic issues, and has memorized most of the Holy Noble Quran, plus the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. "But any talents I may have," he says, "are gifts from God."

Sheikh Amjad comes from a poor family in the western part of Gaza City, the son of a taxi driver. His parents divorced years ago and his father has remarried. "My father can help us only a very little," he explains. "He has his own financial difficulties." Lately, the Ministry of Religious Affairs have been giving him a stipend of US$110 every few months, which the Sheikh shares with his mother to cover their household expenses.

It is a surprisingly humble setting for someone who is fast becoming a magnet for international media attention. The European press, even the Israeli newspapers, have written about him, although he considers the latter a mixed blessing. "The Jerusalem Post said I'm a Hamas member—I am not," he said sternly. "Another Israeli paper called me a member of Islamic Jihad—I am not. I am independent of politics and factions, and I intend to stay that way." .

While the Sheikh never preaches about politics, the Occupation and all its ramifications touch his life as much as any Palestinian's. One of his dreams, the Sheikh admits, is for the Ministry of Religious Affairs to get him a permit to travel to Jerusalem and preach at Islam's third holiest site, the Al Aqsa Mosque. And, he said, he hopes for the release of Palestinian political prisoners and the end of the Occupation. Someday, he added, he hopes to finish his theological studies in South Arabia.

More immediately, he says, it would be wonderful if he could afford an internet connection—a dream completely at odds with his family's very slender income. But surely, a thirteen-year-old, even a thirteen-year-old Sheikh, can be allowed an impractical dream. "After all," he laughs, "I'm still a child!"

Ironically, Sheikh Amjad may have a better chance of fulfilling a more serious ambition: He would like to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "I want to tell him," he says, "that among our young people are many potential sheikhs, young geniuses. All of them should have encouragement and the opportunity to develop their talents. The children of Palestine are not simply martyrs!"

read entire article. . .

Sunday, October 23, 2005

More Onions than Honey

This article by Mohammed appeared in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian)21 Oct 2005

"One day honey, one day onion," so goes a famous udanese proverb. A succinct summary of the uncertainties of life, it means that there can be days
filed with the honey of health, joy, and peace, but a day later, the raw-onion bitterness of adversity can afflict anyone. For most people in the Occupied Gaza
Strip, the "onions" of poverty and danger have become everyday fare that the recent unilateral Israeli disengagement has done little to improve.

In a life marked by obstacles circumvented and tragic losses overcome, 39-year-old Ayman Ghannam and his
family lost their youngest child, 8-month-old Mojahed,
just two weeks ago. In a roundabout way, the baby's
death was yet another grim legacy of decades of
Occupation. Like thousands of family men in Gaza,
Ghannam lost his livelihood—a once-thriving cell-phone
business—in the wholesale destruction of Gaza's
economy that accompanied the Intifada. Ghannam, his
wife Halima, and their children joined the 60% of
Palestinian families who live below the poverty line,
sliding painfully from difficulty to deprivation to
outright destitution. Last year, however, Ghannam was
able to borrow US$3700 and rented a small snack-shop
plus living quarters inside the compound of an UNRWA
elementary school for girls. Working together,
Ghannam and his wife could support their family. The
single room attached to the shop was crowded for a
family of seven, but a vast improvement over
homelessness.

True, everything was a bit rundown, but during the
last five years of crisis, UNRWA has been increasingly
underfunded, even as the need for their relief work
has grown exponentially. Ghannam's big worry was the
heavy, ill-fitting window that covered the sales
counter. Some mornings, it was so badly stuck that it
took his wife ten minutes to maneuver it up and open
for business. And they worked all day with a wary eye
on the ill-hung window—what if it slammed down on one
of the little girls waiting to be served? Several
times, Ghannam brought his concerns to UNRWA
headquarters: couldn't this safety hazard be
remedied? Sometimes he got no response; other times
he got vague assurances that "it would be looked
into."

"I want to smash something inside myself"

The bureaucracy moved too slowly to prevent tragedy.
Two weeks ago, Ghannam was at the market while Halima
got their four older children off to school, then took
8-month-old Mojahed with her into the shop and started
her daily struggle with the window. She let the baby
crawl on the floor –well out of the way, she
thought—but when the heavy window crashed to the
ground, little Mojahed was right under it. The edge
inflicted a massive head injury, crushing his skull
and causing severe bleeding.

In the market, Ghannam heard his wife's screams, but
only one word was clear—"The baby!" He raced back to
their shop, but the ambulance had already left.
Ghannam followed to the hospital, where he learned his
son was dead. Halima Ghannam explains what happened
that terrible morning, first with numb shock. But
soon, she has to take off her glasses to wipe away
tears. 'The pain," she weeps, "sometimes I want to
smash something inside myself. I cannot face myself—I
feel guilty of my son's blood."

Ghannam tries in vain to comfort his wife. "We
learned from people at the school this window has been
a problem for years," he explained. "Now, even when
our child has been killed, it still hasn't been
fixed—will they wait for another child to get killed
or maimed?"

"Happy in spite of everything"

Mojahed's needless death is the most bitter blow
Ghannam has suffered in his 39 years, but far from his
first brush with adversity. Orphaned in his early
teens, he got a permit to commute daily to Israel to
work as an agricultural laborer. He had always hoped
to go to university, but, he says with a wry chuckle,
"when my parents died, money for tuition was as far
out of my reach as the moon." Still, he worked,
saved, eventually married and had a family. A happy
life in many ways, he insists. Despite his injuries
when he was shot by the Israeli Army in 1989 during
his normal commute. The bullets that hit his right
hand and leg were plastic, but the damage was
permanent and plagues him to this day.

The injury ended his work as a day-laborer, but "I
insisted on moving forward in life," he says. He
contacted an Israeli telecommunications firm and
arranged with them to open the first mobile-phone
retail outlet in the Gaza Strip. Eventually,
"Talkman" was drawing customers from all over Gaza to
its Salah-ah-Deen Street shop in Rafah, and was soon a
Gaza Strip institution. Ghannam and his wife
prospered, and celebrated the birth of their first
child, Aya'a, in 1995, and the three more that soon
followed.

Affluence, however, is no protection against an
occupying army, as Ghannam discovered when his
younger brother, a university student, was arrested by
the Israelis early in 2000. The young man's "crime"
was carrying a camera, and Ghannam spent tens of
thousands of shekels on his lengthy, but finally
successful, legal defense. Soon after his brother's
release, the al Aqsa Intifada erupted, and
Salah-ah-Deen Street was suddenly named the "death
street." Hundreds of businesses, small facories, and
shops in the area were shelled daily, and even the
most loyal customers weren't about to risk their lives
to visit Ayman Ghannam's shop. Indeed, before long,
it was too dangerous for Ghannam himself to open his
store. Bit by painful bit, he sank into what he
calls the "mud of debts," and one of Gaza's most
famous businessmen was scrambling to find food for his
wife and children. He never dodged his creditors, but
all he could tell them was "I have no money." His
landlord went unpaid for six months before evicting
them, but eventually the Ghannam's were homeless. "If
I were alone," said Ghannam, "I could have handled
sleeping in the street. But I had to give my wife and
children something better."

Denied for security reasons. . .

And he did find that "something better," he thought,
in the UNRWA snack-shop—the chance to start over that
instead, took his youngest child's life. Although he
has moments when he is overwhelmed by grief, he and
Halima have four other children who deserve a decent
future. "They're the only blessings in my life,"
Ayman says, and their father seems determined to make
sure they have the education that he was denied. All
are doing well in school, and Aya'a, 10, and her
younger brother Osama are at the top of their
respective classes. While Ghannam is still trying to
get UNRWA to make the snack-shop safe, just last
Tuesday he tried to travel into Israel to file his
application for a permit to seek work in Israel. He
was denied entry by the Israeli Army "for security
reasons." Even if this resourceful man eventually
finds new employment, he and his family, and hundreds
of thousands just like them, will still be imprisoned
behind Gaza's red line of poverty, and living every
day with the losses inflicted by the Occupation.

read entire article. . .