Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photos: wizard_bisan1/Instgram, byplestia/Instagram, motaz_azaiza/Instagram
Bisan Owda, or wizard_bisan1, as her 2 million followers know her, was a filmmaker before the assault on Gaza began. In a video from October 12, she offers footage of her prewar office. It looks like a typical millennial media workspace: camcorders, whiteboards, couches, a fluffy cat napping across a desk. She has discovered the office was bombed. “I know it’s not a suitable time to talk about places and homes because people are losing their lives,” she says in the video, her eyes welling. ‘‘People are being killed.” Even within Gaza, there’s a hierarchy of suffering.
Owda, 25, describes herself as a hakawatieh in her bio. A storyteller. Now, she is suddenly a journalist. In Gaza, the line between civilian and journalist seems irrelevant as neither is safe. In each of her videos, her long dark hair is pulled back, a mess of curls atop her head or behind her in a pouf of a ponytail. She wears braces, an assortment of loose-fitting T-shirts, and denim button-downs. Her live reports vary in tone. In a recent video, she calmly explains what Gaza even is, geographically speaking. That same day, she fights back tears as she describes the lack of food and water. “We are dying because of hunger,” she says, shivering. Some of her videos are in Arabic, but most are in English. That way, from Gaza she can reach the previously unreachable — that is, the West. Every morning, I check my feed in the hopes of finding something from Bisan. My stomach tightens with each scroll until she appears. “I’m still alive,” she usually begins.
Alongside Owda on Instagram are 22-year-old Plestia Alaqad and 24-year-old Motaz Azaiza, both journalists livestreaming the war. In a video from October 9, Alaqad shows us the view from her neighbor’s balcony. “There is no view,” she says, panning across hazy silhouettes of buildings through the dust. Her shoulder-length hair often blows in the wind created by explosions that you can hear in the background. In Azaiza’s videos, he acknowledges the shame of filming his fellow Gazans during their most devastating moments. In a particularly haunting video, a little boy sits shaking in what appears to be a hospital, though no doctors are present. The camera pans to a boy next to him with a bandaged head and burn marks up and down his arms. The scene plays over and over in my mind.
These videos have thousands of views. These journalists have followers, many of whom I know, and it’s heartening to see familiar handles in the list. “Just know that you are not alone,” a friend wrote to me in mid-October. As a Palestinian American, that’s how I’ve felt for much of my life. Alone in witnessing, in trying desperately to communicate what’s really going on. My parents emigrated from Nablus in the late ’70s, first to California and then to D.C. I spent my childhood summers visiting Jordan and the West Bank. In the West, I’ve been surrounded by decades of talking points that obscure history and humanity. Decades of labels and terminology like “terrorist” and “the right to defend itself” and “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Decades of unwavering support for our obliteration.
“You are not alone.” I hope that’s how Owda, Alaqad, and Azaiza feel, less alone with each like. A Jewish friend in Brooklyn recently mentioned something Motaz had shared, referring to him on a first-name basis. People in New York, where I now live, feel as if they know them. Bisan, Plestia, Motaz are names and faces placed in a category of people who, until now, have been represented only as numbers or else wrapped in keffiyehs, their faces barely visible. That Plestia and Bisan don’t wear hijabs is worth noting. Almost all of the mainstream-media images of women from Gaza include headscarves. The fact that these women look like us, look like me, a Muslim Palestinian, makes them easier to identify with. We come to hold the same expectations for them as we do for ourselves, express the same outrage at the injustice facing them as we would if faced with the same.
Western audiences watch their coverage in the form of “news.” We in the diaspora are somewhere in the middle. To us, news is too distant a term. We bear witness while bearing witness to the witnessing of others. We notice who’s saying and doing what, who has remained silent. In fits of frustration, I have unfollowed friends who have continued to post as though no war were happening. We notice who’s sharing, who’s protesting, whose names are on the letters demanding a cease-fire, which petition. I’ve applied an irrational logic. I’ve assessed their pro-Palestinian-ness by how early into the assault they reached out (interestingly, almost all of the early round were Jewish friends). By now, I figure, everyone should be rallying against this, no matter which side of the issue they’re on. I have witnessed childhood friends, friends made before identity and politics entered our consciousness, finally acknowledge Palestinian suffering. “Thank you for sharing this,” they say. I have witnessed friends who thought the issue was complicated realize it isn’t.
Since the assault began, I’ve spent my days yelling, crying, sharing, fundraising, and continuing on as normal. Bouts of activism interspersed with the daily life of a working mother in Brooklyn. I’ve taught my writing classes as usual without once mentioning Palestine. I’ve walked by the doxing vans and tried to shake off my disgust before entering the classroom. I’ve read at fundraisers and found my voice shaking, eyes burning, even though I’d chosen to read something with levity. Pain in writing can be hilarious, the author Geoff Dyer once told me. As a Palestinian, I’ve held on to that. I’ve gone to action-oriented meetings to organize. I’ve also gone to a dog Halloween-costume contest with my wife and our 1-year-old daughter. I’ve taken her to Tunes for Tykes. That I can grieve and protest, attend vigils and fundraisers, and still plan a birthday party for my daughter is a duality that is impossible to sit with. “Everything normal right now is obscene,” I heard Israeli journalist Amira Hass say early on in the war, and it’s true. Even sitting down to articulate this moment feels obscene.
As Palestinians in the diaspora, many of us have tried to use our position of straddling two worlds to communicate across cultural lines. That’s what brought me to writing in the first place — first to journalism, then to essays and fiction, where I could subversively get people to identify with characters who shared the same woes but happened to be Palestinian. Now, finally, those inside have a platform. They are the real-life characters. This time, the words aren’t mine to speak.
“Reporting and posting about what’s happening in Gaza, Palestine feels pointless,” Plestia writes on day 37, having regained access to her account after two days without it. “It feels like I’m posting movie scenes for people to watch, and whenever they get bored they watch something else.” It’s a good point, one that instills shame. At what stage do we become voyeurs? Are people just watching and not witnessing? To watch is to consume; to witness is to acknowledge, to bestow some degree of legitimacy. But what does it do to see it? Is empathy ever enough? “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Susan Sontag wrote. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Earlier, I went to share a post and stopped myself. I thought of Motaz’s apology, his shame at filming Gazans in their worst moments. Will a picture of a girl who has lost 60 family members and the use of her legs inspire only empathy? Will it change anything, or will the bombing just continue, the number of orphans and murdered doctors keep rising?
My uncle’s Gazan wife once told me that during Gaza’s many wars, people would often go to the beach after a bombing to celebrate the fact that they were still alive. Joy is its own form of resistance. It allows people to sustain. I find myself looking for any signs of normalcy among Bisan, Plestia, and Motaz’s images. A makeshift birthday party atop the rubble. Laughter in the long lines of exodus. Sometimes, all I can find is a sunny blue sky. Gaza has long been called an open-air prison, a description I bristle at despite its fully land- and sea-locked status. Its people are not criminals, and to call it a prison is to suggest they deserve what they get. They lead big lives in spite of confinement. Before the war, each of them had a life that, while difficult and dehumanizing, contained joy. In a video from October 4, days before the war began, Bisan is by the beach, upbeat bistro music playing in the background. There is footage of her riding a Jeep through the desert, of Motaz dancing at a graduation, of Plestia sitting beside an electric fireplace in Gaza City, smiling.