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In Gaza, Palestinians know why the caged bird sings

Though she never made it there, Maya Angelou’s spirit resounds in my native Gaza. For she and I have known different shades of the same tyranny: that quiet brutality wrought by generations upon the next.

By Ghada Ageel

It’s predictable by now. Within hours of their passing, our most famous artists—whose works outlast them precisely because they eschewed the formulaic—are memorialized in too-easy platitudes that are “shared” and “liked” but seldom felt.

As a Palestinian woman, I felt Maya Angelou’s passing. I felt it deeply.

For she and I have known different shades of the same tyranny—that quiet brutality wrought by generations upon the next, by fathers upon their sons, and by cultures upon their daughters. We were weaned from innocence by the taste of escape.

A group of men pass by Gaza seaport on their wagon. (Basel Yazouri/Activestills.org

A group of men pass by Gaza seaport on their wagon. (Basel Yazouri/Activestills.org)

We might have learned no more than that. In the Arab world, especially, we women run to live, to breathe, to dodge the barrel bombs of our audacious existence.

But through her majestic poetry, both lived and lent, Maya taught us the virtues of standing still—and tall.

In Arabic, her name means “princess.”

Though she never made it there, Maya’s spirit—as it does everywhere—resounds in my native Gaza. For along its shores, we too have learned just how the caged bird sings.

In photos: Life between the Gazan waves 

Maya’s caged bird sings of “things unknown but longed for still.” She sings so that children may hear harmonies above the shrill of sorties or the bass clef of 50-caliber shells, terrorizing our refugee camp by the sea.

As a child, I used to long for the poetry of both my mother and grandmother’s voices. During the cacophony of violent Israeli military incursions, when the sound of gunfire and roaring military jeeps would shake our refugee camp and send my siblings wailing, my mother would soothe us with a chorus of gentle colloquialisms from her own mother. These she strung together like a village cantata, instrumental to our own sense of safety—even if she herself lacked it.

I know Maya would have understood. Our grandmother was our very own princess, a symbol of strength, poise, and hope. I know now that her performances to my eight siblings and me were, like the poet’s, carried by her own set of memories—of her family village named Beit Daras, “depopulated” by the Israelis. She taught us: never forget.

Palestinian children walking by demolished buildings of the Civil department of the Interior Ministry heavily bombed during last November's Israeli assault against the Gaza Strip, February 10, 2013.

Palestinian children walking by demolished buildings of the Civil department of the Interior Ministry heavily bombed during last November’s Israeli assault against the Gaza Strip, February 10, 2013.

“Never forget where you come from.” Each time I take pen to paper, her voice reminds me. All these years later, as I mourn Maya and re-read her words, I remember my own models of Maya Angelou. I remember my mother and grandmother alike enduring F-16 bombings and a suffocating air, sea, and land blockade. I remember them waiting—pleading—for a chance to leave, to sing outside our cage, and in the liberated village of our family.

But mostly, I remember that my mother and grandmother are not alone. Their home—now reduced to a strip of land 25 miles long and seven miles at its girth—remains a prison to nearly two million souls. For so long as they are deprived of freedom, I am determined to be a voice for those too long rendered voiceless, right-less, and destitute.

“For the caged bird sings of freedom.”

Like Maya, I will carry the tune in my mother’s tongue and with her mighty voice. I will remind the world that Maya, too, spoke of the struggle—the struggle for a free Palestine:

Ghada Ageel is a visiting professor at the University of Alberta (Edmonton) and a member of Faculty for Palestine, Alberta. Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

Related:
PHOTOS: Life and death in Gaza’s border zone
The power of speaking Hebrew in Gaza

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