Eman Mohammed with her daughters, Lateen and Talia
As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It is my instinct to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping humanity will get the lesson.
But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself.
I grew up in Gaza. When I was in school, I spent my days walking to and from class, avoiding the streets that were normally targeted by airstrikes. On my summer holiday, I stayed indoors for fear of meeting the same fate as the families who dared to visit the beach and were killed by missiles while they enjoyed their barbecue.
Deborah Meghnagi Bailey and her family
Here’s a scene from my life last week: It’s 9:30 pm. I’m lying on my bed, fully dressed, talking to my husband, who is ready for bed. We weren’t supposed to be here, tonight. We were supposed to be in the Galilee, in a beautiful cabin with its own private pool and Jacuzzi, with a massage chair in the bedroom and a hammock rocking gently in the garden outside. We escape there once a year, without the kids. It’s an oasis of calm and relaxation and peacefulness.
We’ve been looking forward to our getaway for a year. We were supposed to leave this morning. But last night, rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv. We live in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, and we haven’t been attacked yet, but there’s always the first time, so how can we leave our boys? What if it happens while we’re away? My mother-in-law is babysitting, and competent as she is, she’s never lived here through sirens, and how can one person get two kids to a shelter downstairs within 90 seconds, if they’re asleep when the siren goes off? We live in an older apartment, so we don’t have a secure room. The building’s shelter is not far, just eight steps down and across the hallway, but still.
Earlier this month Hamas appointed its first female spokeswoman. The new voice of the organization is Isra Al-Modallal, a 23-year-old British-educated former journalist and divorced mother with a toddler (pictured below). She will be in charge of all communications with the international media and will focus on humanitarian issues and not suicide bombings or policy.
“I will make the issues more human, and even if [Palestinian] officials do not understand this language, I know Western people will,” she told a reporter.
Al-Modallal is already breaking with tradition, referring to Israel as “Israel” instead of the “Zionist entity’ and does not identify as a member of Hamas but rather “a Palestinian activist who loves her country.” Though she does agree with Hamas that Palestinians should control the land they see as historically theirs, which, of course, include Israel.
So why did conservative Hamas, considered a terrorist organization in the US, EU and Israel and not traditionally a fan of women’s freedoms, decide to mix up their international image with a make-up wearing, English-speaking, male hand-shaking lady?
With the advent of the conflict in Gaza, known by the hashtags #gazaunderattack or #pillarofdefense, it’s a surreal moment to be a citizen of this earth.
For perhaps the first time on this scale, a war is being waged both in real life and on Twitter simultaneously.
As rockets and bombs fall, as children lie wounded or dead, and as people rush into bomb shelters, the IDF Spokesman account and the military wing of Hamas have been duking it out on the interwebs, even garnering the IDF a suspension from Twitter for issuing “threats of violence.”
Buzzfeed writes that the IDF is winning the Twitter war, but in my mind, the callousness of these tweets and actions on both sides precludes any winners.
The opportunity to interview the second-highest-ranking official in Hamas came suddenly, unexpectedly and at the very worst possible time: just before Passover. The Forward staff was shorthanded. Worse, at home, we were shifting into full Passover house-cleaning mode. I tried hard to argue for doing this any other week. But Stanley L. Cohen, the attorney for Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzook and the midwife for this meeting with him in Cairo, relayed back that it was that week — or there would be no interview.
Ultimately, I concluded this was one of those stories that defined my sense of mission as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew who cares about Israel. So I approached my spouse, Dianne, who is a Conservative rabbi, full of apology. She stopped me in mid-sentence.
“When have you ever helped out anyway?” she asked. “Go.”
She laid down one obvious stipulation: Whatever you do, don’t miss the Seder.
So I got to Cairo late on Monday night; conducted my interviews with Abu Marzook on Tuesday and Wednesday; got back to the Cairo Marriott (a very nice place!) early Wednesday evening and left for Cairo’s international airport at midnight that same night in order to be home Thursday afternoon — the day before the first night Seder.
Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I’d end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, “But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now.”
“Actually,” I said, “kind of, you guys are.” And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.
As it turned out, he was fascinated with my wife; downright astounded, in fact, to learn she is a rabbi.