Written by: Namaa Qudah

When I was 5 years old, I learnt that I was named after my grandmother Zahra, whom I have never met. I never understood why someone would name their daughter after a plant, but it grew on me with time and I have come to accept it.
I have lived in this camp for the past 11 years of my life, and it somehow created the geographies of life as I know it.
Trying to describe my surroundings to the outside world isn’t very easy, when the thousand layers that overlap to create my daily life lose their edges, having been stared at for too long. I don’t know how to talk about the big picture, or how to tell our story to the outside world. I just know how to put together the small parts, the bits and pieces that fit into my two hands.

This camp is 56 years older than me, and 2 years younger than my father. With my family of 6, our camp has a total population of 28,000. I find that number too big to understand. I tried counting all the people I know here. The total number I arrived at was 273 people. I even made a list of their names not to forget anyone.

I remember a very old picture my father showed me of the land on which our house now stands. It wasn’t always like this. When first constructed, the camp was set out to house 11,500 refugees who had escaped the war.
I sometimes close my eyes and imagine these 11,500 people moving around the streets and allies as flaring red dots, creating interesting red lines everywhere they went. I envy them sometimes; they got to be part of the life before.

One of the things that amused me about the camp was how the density of people dropped as you moved from the main streets into the residential neighborhoods. The noise levels would also dramatically drop, the faces would become less recognizable, and the streets would become a lot narrower.
As a kid, I was convinced that the streets would keep narrowing, up to the point where they would close up into a sharp edge, behind which, another world existed. I never found that edge, but I didn’t give up on that idea completely.
I particularly loved the doors in our neighborhood, each painted with a different color.
When I was 6, I first started using these colors to find my way back home. Two white doors, green, grey, two blues, and then brown, signaling my arrival at home.

I also remember the first time my father told me about how we were not allowed to leave the camp. I didn’t understand what that meant exactly, because there was no wall or gate that defined the edge across which we were not allowed to go. What if I had accidently stepped across? We were locked inside, with an invisible line separating us from everyone else. I always wondered what it was like outside.

Waking up every morning, taking the short trip to school, I counted the buildings on my way, 27 houses and 2 shops. For 11 years, that number has never changed, nor has anything in the camp, except for the people who are increasing, minute after another.
Before my mother gave birth to my younger sister, we were 5 members at the house:
My parents, my twin brothers, and I. With Jana, we became 6 people in a house of 2 rooms. It was all very exciting, I finally had a sister.
She sometimes asked me questions I couldn’t answer, especially when I read her bedtime stories. At 6 years old, she decided she wanted to become Rapunzel when she grew up. When I asked her about the reason she picked that princess in particular, she said that she also wanted to have long hair, and to have the chance to escape.  She was just worried she wouldn’t be able to return once she left, knowing she would eventually miss us all and would want to visit.

Jana

My brothers, Omar and Ali, were a different story. They would leave the house at dawn, head out to school, and not return until it was dark. I sometimes had my doubts about how often they actually attended school, but their good grades proved otherwise.
Two years younger than me, I sometimes envied their close relationship; I was even convinced they used telepathy to plot their grand schemes and adventures.

Omar
Ali

Noise traveled quickly around our neighborhood, with paper thin walls that hardly blocked out anything. I sometimes imagined the 2000 houses in our camp as one huge tent with no barriers, with people flowing and moving in all directions.
My cousin, Layla, who lived next door, had recently found a crack in the wall separating our living room from theirs.
Ever since, we have used it as a pigeon hole to exchange letters and drawings.
She absolutely loved animals and made fun of Jana when she drew princesses.
It would be fair to say that the only animals she has ever seen are pigeons and stray cats. The majority of what she knew came from documentaries she watched on their old television.

Layla

Every day after school, I’d rush back home, and set out to play with my friends accompanied by Jana and Layla.

The entire camp turned into an arcade we enjoyed exploring.
With the stretching blocks of houses, there was always the joy of discovering new territories and making new friends along the way, using the allies, streets, and sloping terrain as a stage for our adventures.
It’s easy to take things for what they are, to stop at the surface of every wall and not look beyond. It’s even easier to dread where the grand adventure has taken us, to take in the all grey and use it as a monotonous overlay to our lives.
But we chose not to, because otherwise, it would’ve all been a trip down a dark tunnel where we just moved forward, just to get to the end.

You might wonder how an 11 year old can know so much. Well, it’s true, I wouldn’t have done it on my own; I owe it all to my friend, Seven.
His name resembles my age when we first met. He showed up under my window one day and hadn’t left since. It took me some time to get used to having him around, especially because he was so shy and only came out when I was alone.
He is the one who taught me to use numbers whenever I was confused, or was thinking things through. It helped me better understand the size of things.
Some things around this camp were too chaotic, too vague, and had no shape.
It was all too much to take in at once.
That’s why, numbers just made everything easier to count, but more importantly easier to count down, which in return made the waiting a little less confusing.

The camp today has a total population of 28,000, they feel a lot more. Our neighborhood has a total of 14 houses, in which 17 families live. Our village back home rises 25 kilometers above sea level. It has a total area of 14520 donums; occupied 68 years ago which caused its population of 1728 people to be dispersed everywhere.
My grandparents were among them. In my head they are number 1001 and 1002.
I’ll turn 12 in 127 days, after having lived in this camp for 4380 days.
According to Seven, we will all return to our village in 5110 days.
I believe him.

Zahra

All images courtesy of artist and writer Namaa Qudah.