“It matters what you call a thing.” –Solmaz Sharif
On September 30, 2000, a boy from Gaza named Mohammad Al-Durra was killed while sheltering against his father’s body. His father was not bulletproof. It is easy to imagine Mohammad before that day: a mess of dark hair shuffling off to school with his friends. The streets of Gaza are like thickets of bougainvillea, knotted branches brimming impossibly, relentlessly with bright young life. He was the first Muhammad to be killed in my children’s era. I watched the footage with my two-week-old daughter nestled in my arms.
Palestine’s poet, Darwish, wrote of the boy:
“Muhammad sees his death arriving,
but he remembers a fierce leopard he had seen on television
leopard who had besieged an infant gazelle
and when the leopard leaned in, he could smell the milk on the gazelle’s breath
so he did not devour him
The milk tamed a wild beast
Then I will be saved, the boy cries,
For my life is there, hidden in my mother’s wardrobe
I will be saved and I will testify.”
The wall at the Netzarim checkpoint where Muhammad succumbed to bullets was subsequently demolished by the Israeli military. For thirteen years, the Israeli government fought his death. We didn’t kill him, he died in the crossfire, they said. When that story fell apart, they said he didn’t actually die. The journalist who filmed the event lied. The news organization he worked for was in on the conspiracy. Charles Enderlin, the French-Israeli journalist who broke the story, asked: Who, then, did his father bury? And who did the medic treat and fail to save? And the people of the camp, whom did they grieve?
The father offered his son’s body in reply to the government claims. If one death is not enough, Exhume him, he said. Come to the camp and see for yourselves.
The US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices for the year 2000 states: “In Israel and the occupied territories, following the outbreak of violence in September, Israeli security forces sometimes used excessive force in contravention of their own rules of engagement.”
The US State Department Country Report authors say: “The expansion of democracy and human freedom that the world has experienced over the past 25 years has many causes. This expansion rests on the fundamental belief that there are rights and freedoms to which every human is entitled no matter where he or she resides. This idea is so powerful and so universal that it gains strength with every passing year.”
In 2014, Palestinians entered the 47th year of Israeli military occupation, funded in large part by US taxpayer dollars. Their homeland, the territories under military control on land and by sea and by air, is referred to in every subsequent country report as occupied. Never once is the occupation identified as an Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights.
Omens and dreams and their designated decipherers played an important part in naming children in pre-Islamic Arabia through practices refashioned in every era that persist today. A Prophet whispers to a grandmother, and another Muhammad is born. A father visits the local Imam to ask if misery will follow his son should he choose a different name for him than the one his pregnant wife saw in a dream. A mother who has maintained an end rhyme for four daughters’ names has a vision of the Virgin Mary and so the fifth girl brings new music into the home.
The most popular name for boys in the Arab world is Muhammad. The Dictionary of Meanings explains: it is an Arabic masculine name, a superlative form of al-hamd, giving thanks: one for whom others are grateful; one of high character; one who is praised; one who is favored. It is the name of the prophet of Islam. Variations of the name include: Ahmad, Mahmoud, Hamed, Hammad.
In July 2014, the first Mohammad of what will become the 50 Day War on Gaza is kidnapped, beaten, and burned to death in a forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It’s a revenge killing by Israeli settlers. Muhammad Abu Khdeir was sixteen years old.
The authors of the State Department country report write: “If newspapers are the first drafts of history, the country reports are surely the second drafts, carefully researched cross-sections of the good and bad that transpire around the world every year. They are documents backed by the full weight of the US people and Government.” In the summary of their report on Israel and the Occupied Territories in the year 2014, the State Department claims that “the most significant human rights violations were terrorist attacks targeting civilians, and politically or religiously motivated societal violence.” Human rights violations against Palestinians documented in the report include but are not limited to:
uprooting of olive trees,
restrictions on movement and travel for work, worship, and medical treatment,
harassment, violence, and abuse by Israeli soldiers,
arbitrary arrests and administrative detentions,
indefinite extensions of administrative detentions,
and extrajudicial assassinations.
Nowhere in the 119-page report is the word occupation used to describe the originating system for these violations.
Arab names are written in four parts: the given name, like Muhammad, the father’s name, the paternal grandfather’s name, then the surname. I take them in as they are intended, for both sound and meaning. The history of Gaza’s omens and dreams, the futures and plans of its parents and children, unfolds name after name in reports of those killed. In the first three days of the war, 13 Muhammads. The youngest, Muhammad Khalaf Awad Al Nawasra, whose name and father’s name together mean Muhammad Heir to his Family, was two years old.
Our poet writes: “You are forgotten, as if you never existed,” and the word for existed is takun. The Book of Meanings teaches us that the root of the words is, existence, being, the known universe, and the verb was, contains these three consonants – ك-و-ن. (ka-wa-na) Each one of the dead is one being, an existence, and the entire universe for those who mourn his loss, who speak of him now in the past tense.
Lists of the dead are compiled by the Palestinian Health Ministry, International relief organizations, even by the military mowing us down. Rows of us. Columns of us, growing by the day, by the hour: Name. Age. Location. Cause of Death. In 50 days, 2,125 of us will be killed, entire families will be decimated in school courtyards, in leveled apartment buildings, in narrow alleyways where ambulances are not allowed to collect the wounded. I read our names as they arrive on my computer screen, in two and three and four parts, to listen for the families and stories still breathing inside of them. The names recorded July 8th-15th include:
Muhammad Ali, 15 years old.
Muhammad The Patriarch, age unknown.
Muhammad Morning Has Broken, 15.
Muhammad Good Works, 20.
Muhammad Aglow, 26.
Muhammad Spring, 65.
Muhammad Smiling, 27.
Muhammad the Conqueror, 27.
Muhammad Safe and Sound, 79.
Muhammads, sons of Prophets, Idris and Jonah and and Ismail and Zacchariah. Muhammad Servant of God, 32.
Muhammad The Symbol, 11.
Muhammad Complete, 30.
Muhammad the Noble, Muhammad the Singer, Muhammad God’s Gift, Muhammad Companion.
Muhammad More of A Good Thing, age 6.
Muhammad The Chosen One, age 56.
Muhammad Contentment, Muhammad Compensation, Muhammad Servant of the Merciful, Muhammad Eternal. 22, 25, 20, 21.
This was the first week of the war.
Our poet wrote:
“Take me to our home, father,
so I can study and live out my years,
little by little, on the seashore beneath the palm trees.
Nothing could be farther from me, nothing could be farther.”
On July 17th, one of four boys playing on the beach was named Muhammad. He was with his cousins, Ahed, Zakaria, and Ismail, children of local fishermen whose home and playground was the Gaza shore where they were killed in broad daylight by an Israeli missile strike. Minutes before, an NBC News correspondent had been kicking a soccer ball with the boys near the hotel where he and his colleagues were staying.
A few days earlier, the 113th United States congress approved House Resolution 657: “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives Regarding the United States Support for the State Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organizations.” A wonder of bipartisanship, the resolution had 166 cosponsors. It reads something like this:
Whereas Hamas, Whereas Hamas, Whereas Hamas, Whereas Iran.
Americans are generally sad to learn of the death of the boys and the Muhammads before them, but they get quiet when Hamas comes up. It seems impossible to describe anything resembling the lived experiences of people in Gaza with the word unprovoked preceding every mention of rockets and the word occupation absent from every sentence about Israel. The clay of the Israeli self-defense narrative has already hardened, a narrative that argues for unavoidable deaths and includes the attendant lectures on civil discourse against the backdrop of settlers watching from lawn chairs and cheering as the bombs fall.
Our poet said of the first Muhammad of my children’s era:
“He is still being born with a name
that saddles him with the curse of a name
How many times will a boy be born of himself
A boy lacking a homeland,
lacking a longing for childhood?
Where will he dream, if
a dream comes to him,
when the earth is wound and temple?”
As July 2014 winds down, I read:
Muhammad Rain, 21.
Muhammad Flowering Gardens, 23.
Muhammad Joseph, 19.
Muhammad King Solomon, 34.
Muhammad Peaceful, 76.
Muhammad Successful, Muhammad Handsome.
Muhammad Struggle, 29 and his brother Ahmad 27 and his sister Liberation, 20 and His cousin Salvation, 54 and on that day, too, Jasmine, 24 and her neighbor Mariam, 35 and her cousin Palestine, 26 and the sisters We Are Waiting, 31 and Long-Lost Village Beesan, 22.
“As the reports have done since their first appearance, they represent the nation’s commitment to respect for universal human rights and its interest in promoting these rights in every country of the world.” By July 30th, 2014, over 1400 Palestinians have been killed. That same day, the United States government decides to replenish Israel’s munitions. Josh Earnest, White House Spokesperson, accurately describes this decision as “routine.”
The saying goes, if you have one daughter you are lucky, two you are blessed, but the father who has three daughters is guaranteed to enter Heaven. name is an adjective for heaven. He was killed on July 29th, along with his daughters Mariam, 23, Prayer, 22, Loyalty, 21, Joy, 19, and Ascension, 13, and his son, Life, 8.
By the end of the month the dead include Muhammad Who Rises Up, 13,
Muhammad Generous, 12, Muhammad Leader, 3, and his cousins Light, 35, and Good Favor, 19 and Good Favor’s brother, Ahmad, 36, and their cousin Conciliate, 27, and their uncle, Peaceful, 77, and their cousin, Sky, age 1.
Muhammad Servant of the Calm, age unknown.
Muhammad the Just, 18.
Muhammad Mahmoud, 12 and his sisters Nadine, 15 and Yara, 8.
Muhammad Light, 6.
Muhammad Good Company, 4 Months.
Muhammad Servant of God who will be Praised, age unknown, and his brother Mahmoud, age 10.
Muhammad Jesus, 50.
Muhammad Moses 43.
Muhammad Our Hope, 15.
Muhammad Our Joy, 2.
Muhammad Servant of the Protector, 22.
Muhammad Sunrise, 23.
Muhammad Victory, 25
Muhammad Beautiful, 12.
By the end of the 51-Day War on Gaza, 200 Palestinians named Muhammad were killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces.
Years later, the lists of names become a post-war map of Gaza. I study the lists to learn the features of the place. Sometimes a series of boys and men, one after the other, have fallen. Other days, men, women, boys, and girls, multiple generations eradicated. The columns of names become neighborhoods where families lived and died together. There is so much news footage of gaping structures, a fallen minaret, craters where apartment buildings used to stand. The lists of names make some small measure of human mourning possible. On one day, four children were killed in an airstrike that also took the lives of their father, aunts, and grandfather. And on the following day, more of their family: sisters, uncles, cousins. The lists anchor me to life. I read the grandfather’s name, followed by the father, and then the son who carried the name of his grandfather. I imagine the namesake’s birth, the happiness he ushered into the lives of the family, the pride of the father presenting the newborn, the gleam in the grandfather’s eye.
Near the end of the list, I read the name of Fadel Halawa, the first person to be killed at the end of the ceasefire of August 26th. According to the 2014 US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices: “Israeli soldiers stationed along the border shot and killed Halawa as he reportedly searched for songbirds that nest close to the boundary.”
—Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (from Porter House Review)