A letter to my son on his first birthday in Gaza

Originally published: Mondoweiss on December 29, 2023 by Tareq S. Hajjaj (more by Mondoweiss)  | (Posted Dec 30, 2023)

No matter what, my child, we were going to celebrate your first birthday.

Ever since you were born, Qais, I have felt a strong sense of purpose in life to push myself as a father. I have long prepared for this stage in my life, eager to provide you with a good upbringing that I can later look back on with pride. Ever since you were born, your mother would make you little birthdays to mark every new month that you’ve brightened our lives. I would join in on these little parties, but privately, I have been waiting for your first birthday to plan for something big.

I was going to invite the entire extended family, especially your aunts and uncles and cousins. We would gather in our spacious home overlooking our planted garden from every direction, except for the street, which boasted a beautiful palm tree heavy with dates, across the street from the same neighbors I’ve known since I was born in al-Shuja’iyya, in the eastern part of Gaza City.

The last time we laid eyes on our home was through a phone screen. We looked at photos of what remained of the house after we evacuated it a month earlier–before the ground invasion. The entire house, and many other houses near it, had been reduced to rubble.

We left our beautiful home and stayed at your grandfather’s in the Zeiytoun neighborhood, also in Gaza City. We didn’t take many things with us; we didn’t know our time away would be so long. Even now, we don’t know when we’ll be able to return, or whether we’ll be able to return at all. We know that even if we are allowed, there’s nothing to go back to. When the house was destroyed, so were our hopes of having your first birthday in that little world we had made for you.

But don’t worry little one. We will have a new house one day, wide and spacious and surrounded by trees and a vegetable garden. Right now, all we have to do is wait and join our hopes with yours for all the good things that can happen to us–to see the end of the war, to live a normal life where your access to food isn’t conditional upon your suffering, and to be able to see and hear what a child on their first birthday are supposed to see and hear.

In the middle of a narrow alleyway in the Yibna refugee camp in Rafah–the latest stop in our story of displacement–one of our neighbors works the entire day making bread for displaced people. Those of us in the camp don’t have access to ovens, so we bring her flour to make us bread, and she only takes a modest, almost symbolic price for her labor. Right beside her, there is a large crater that stands as a testament to the destruction already wrought on the neighborhood. All around us, the houses that are still left standing have been deserted and the charred remains of abandoned cars line the side of the nearby road. The windows of all the houses around us have been shattered, the doors to the homes ripped from their hinges. People in the street farther down the road try to buy and sell everything and anything.

Qais, you saw all of this. These are things I wish you would never have had to see, especially not in your first year of life.

In our house in Gaza City, birds would be in the window beside your crib. There was a wall where we hung all your pictures, and I left a special spot in the center where I wanted to hang a picture of your first birthday party. I wanted to be able to stroll the streets of Gaza City and visit the best toy stores to buy you the best, most expensive, most beneficial toys–maybe something that can teach you a new skill, different from the behaviors you’ve picked up as a displaced refugee, mimicking how the grown-ups around you stoked a fire as you grabbed a piece of plastic and started blowing on it.

But you’ll never be able to have the memories I wanted for you. Those have been buried beneath the rubble, too. We are now in Rafah, in a house not our own, unable to find a cake, or sweets, or anything else you would normally find at a birthday party.

But don’t worry little one. I’m going to throw you a party even in the middle of the war, and I’ll look everywhere for ingredients to make you a cake. Finding eggs will be the hardest. Even though the doctors recommended that boys your age should have one egg a day, you haven’t eaten a single egg for two and a half months. But I’m still going to try, and if I fail, don’t worry. I’ll make it up to you in the years to come if we survive.

I was able to find you a few balloons and a few biscuits that are handed out to people as humanitarian aid. Some sell them to be able to buy other things, but I can’t find much else to buy in the Rafah market.

I can’t call our relatives to join us either. Telecommunications have been cut off in Gaza, and they can’t reach us in any event, as several Israeli checkpoints and tanks stand between us. Some of them are now living in shelters. Others are living in tents in makeshift refugee camps, and others are staying in hospital courtyards after your uncle and his family were trapped under the rubble for five hours before being rescued after an Israeli airstrike. You won’t be able to play with your young cousins, who all love you very much, because you’re the youngest member of our family, and they always want to play with you.

Instead of finding little sparklers to light your cake with, the only thing I can do is sit beside you near the window and watch as the bombs drop in the distance on people’s homes, lighting up the sky every now and then.

My little one, it’s hard to think of celebrating in times like these when we keep hearing of the thousands of children who are dying of hunger or dying in airstrikes, burnt and charred and blown into pieces. But it’s not your fault that all this is happening.

On the morning of your birthday, I went to the market again, hoping I would find a single can of baby formula, which I figured would be the best birthday present I could give you in lieu of a cake or a piece of chocolate, or inviting our family over. So let’s celebrate today what we do have, my love, and my birthday wish for you will be the end of the war and our safe return to our home.

I know that if we returned to Gaza City now, we would be suffering more than we already are. I’m telling you now that when the world sees Gaza and discovers what happened, they’ll know that it’s no longer a place fit for a dignified human life. The fog of war is still hiding what happened, but when it clears on the very first day after the war, the reality of Gaza will slap humanity in the face, and it will leave its burning mark on humanity’s conscience forever.

Today, I carried you in a backpack, your face in front of my own so that you could sit nestled comfortably against my chest and look at the world around you. Devastated and barren as it was, you still had a right to go outside for a short while. In our house in Gaza, I would take you on strolls through the entire family building every day, stopping at each floor so that you could visit your cousins. Eventually, we would make it to the rooftop in time for sunset.

On our stroll today in Rafah, I was intent on finding you a birthday candle because your mother promised she’d be able to make a cake from flour, cocoa powder, and sugar. We reached one of the most famous roundabouts in the city, known as Awda Cricle, but about 100 meters after passing the circle, two missiles hit a car behind us. Smoke billowed everywhere as people started running toward the wreckage to check for survivors, and dust filled the air as I covered your face with a jacket. I started asking whether there was another way back to the Yibna refugee camp, but people said the only other routes were very long and circuitous, winding through the refugee camp’s narrow and endless alleyways. So I had to wait a while for the smoke to clear and then hurry back the way we came, resolving not to take you out again for the duration of our stay.

On our way back, we stepped over severed limbs. A young man was holding an empty flour bag and filling it with body parts he collected. People around him started pointing out other human remains that had been strewn across the road, as everyone was intent on giving the person to whom this flesh belonged something approximating a dignified burial.

One old man gestured to me, saying, “Cover the young boy’s face, don’t let him see this.” But on your birthday, we walked over rivers of blood and disfigured human corpses. We passed over all of this because we wanted to find a candle with the number 1, which we were finally able to find at a stationary store in Rafah because there is no longer any demand for schoolbooks, notebooks, balloons, or birthday caps. And your mother was able to bake that cake with the ingredients that we had, and she even topped it with canned cream instead of icing. We were able to buy some sweets from a young boy in the street, made by his mother at home, and a few pieces of Za’atar manaqeesh made by a local bakery that used a wood-fired oven.

The abandoned house we’re staying in is three stories high, and four large families are staying under its roof. The children in the families keep stopping by to ask after you because you’re the smallest one here, and they want to play with you. We invited them all for your birthday so we could sing for a new year, and so they could also find some comfort in these brief moments of joy. They were all ecstatic, wearing their birthday caps, playing and laughing with you until they were breathless. And when the party was over, they didn’t want to leave, and they didn’t want you to be taken by your mother for nursing and bedtime. They clearly hadn’t experienced this kind of joy in a long time.

It’s hard to imagine they could ever again, after all the death they have witnessed and that they themselves have experienced and narrowly escaped every day.

But on one day, among all those other days, we tried, despite everything, to find a few hours of happiness worthy of your birthday, Qais.

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union. He studied English Literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. He started his career in journalism in 2015 working as a news writer and translator for the local newspaper, Donia al-Watan. He has reported for Elbadi, Middle East Eye, and Al Monitor.

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