A quote that I use quite often is, “Just when I knew the answers to all of life’s questions, they changed the questions”. The reason is, now and then, the quote comes true for me—especially when I am feeling a little smug and contented with life—shaking me out of a self-induced “all iz well” feeling. One such change in life’s questions happened about two years back, on a cold windy day in January. It disturbed me then, and it disturbs me even today, and will probably disturb me for a long time to come.
I was studying in London at that time. Winter break was nearly over and I was waiting for the second semester classes to resume. I was also looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially Erab, who had gone home to occupied Palestine for the winter break. While she was there, Israel had launched an offensive against Gaza, and though Erab was not a resident of Gaza, I was still concerned about her safety and that of her family and friends. Though I had kept in touch with her through emails and text messages, I wanted to see her and reassure myself that she was fine.
Erab returned safely to London and I met her the day classes resumed. As I hugged her with relief and asked after her family and the situation in Palestine, she started crying. She told me that she had received a text message from a colleague in Gaza that morning about the bombing of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Hospital leading to several casualties. We couldn’t talk any further as the teacher walked in, and we scrambled to take our seats.
After a round of “hiya” and “how was the vacation”, our class of 32 students from 18 different countries settled down to some serious teaching–learning. Or at least tried to. Erab had retreated to a corner of the room and was crying softly. Though this obvious distress did not go unnoticed, neither the teacher nor the other students intervened. The class continued and after a while Erab composed herself. Even after the class got over, no one went up to Erab and asked her what was the matter or how she was. A week passed, then another, and before we knew it our class settled back into the punishing routine of lectures and assignments, normal for a postgraduate programme. Erab never showed her distress in class again, though the situation in Gaza continued to be grim.