From Gaza with love

Feature M meets a brave young couple who fell in love under the most harrowing circumstances. They are committed to documenting the lives of their fellow Gazans and through their work, aim to show the human side of their war-torn region.

Moemen Faiz and Deema Aydieh are determined to pursue their careers in journalism and photography.
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Tanya Habjouqa meets a brave young couple who fell in love under the most harrowing circumstances. They are committed to documenting the lives of their fellow Gazans and through their work, aim to show the human side of their war-torn region. Deema Aydieh, a 20-year-old would-be reporter, was nervous as she entered the office of Ibtesam Sayma, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Women In Palestine for the first time. Edging into the room and swallowing hard, she asked if it would be possible for her to cover the arrival of a photojournalist from Gaza who was flying into Saudi Arabia to receive urgent medical treatment.

"She was young, but she pitched a good story," says Sayma. "We asked her to interview him, not marry him." A recent graduate in English literature from Sana'a University, Aydieh had always dreamt of becoming a journalist. With Gazan roots, she had grown up in a middle-class Palestinian family in Riyadh, with a businessman father and a mother who worked as a nurse before marriage. As the bombardment of Gaza intensified in December 2008, Aydieh was transfixed by the images on the news from the war and wanted to write about the violence happening in a place she felt she belonged to, despite never having been there.

The man she had been sent to interview did not even notice her as he pushed his wheelchair through the crowd of sympathisers waiting at King Fahd International Airport to greet the injured. But Aydieh reacted strongly to her first glimpse of Moemen Faiz. "He had such a youthful, sweet face, I could not tear my eyes away from it. I barely noticed that he had no legs," she says. Faiz paints an unlikely figure as a photojournalist emerging from a war-torn enclave. The 21-year-old taught himself photography in his teens and was learning the ropes as a freelancer in Gaza when he was injured.

Although preferring to capture children and the wonders of the natural world, he had chosen to earn a living chasing hard news. Ten days before the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began, he and a friend had started working on a feature about how the economic blockade was preventing people from buying clothes for Eid. With limited funds for camera equipment, he could not afford a zoom lens and was forced to go in close to the Karni crossing point to get the footage he was after. But when Israeli soldiers opened fire, he was hit in both legs. The wounds were so severe, each leg had to be amputated. But he was lucky; a colleague standing next to him was killed.

While in hospital, the war swiftly escalated, and, as Faiz took pictures from the window by his bed, a bomb blast sent him tumbling to the ground. One week into the bombardment, Faiz and others who had been wounded were sent on a seven-month treatment programme to Riyadh, paid for by the Saudi government. Befriending a 15-year-old who had also lost both of her legs, Faiz began to notice the journalist with the soft voice who kept visiting him and his young friend.

"I could not see her face, but it was clear to me she was an intelligent, educated, respectable and socially aware woman. I kept finding myself waiting for her next visit," he says. She may be petite with a delicate voice, but Aydieh is an extremely determined young woman. Avidly political and equally religious, she went to great lengths to achieve her dreams of becoming a journalist and exposing the plight of the Palestinian people.

"I told everyone that the idea for the interview came from the magazine, but it was all mine," she says, giggling. Aydieh enlisted her father and brother to chaperone her on her weekly visits to the hospital to interview Faiz. It was after one of these visits that her father, looking rather concerned, took her to one side. "He respected Moemen so much, and when he asked for my hand, my father didn't think that I would agree to the marriage," Aydieh explains. Much to his surprise, she immediately professed her love for Faiz and her excitement at a life with him. One month later, they were married and en route to Gaza, and Aydieh saw her Palestinian homeland for the first time.

Joy at being in her homeland, however, was short-lived. Aydieh was forced to quickly adjust to life under the blockade. Gaza is a difficult place for women, with human rights groups estimating that the slide into chronic poverty and a siege mentality is leading to a dramatic rise in domestic violence, among other things. The past few years have also seen the emergence of traditionalist movements creating a far more conservative atmosphere.

Compounded by a complete deterioration of the public and private sectors in Gaza, Palestinians are facing limited opportunities to pursue higher education and training, or to access equipment needed to develop the professional skills. Despite the difficulties, Aydieh continues to thrive in her marriage and is pursuing her journalistic ambitions. Their home is sparsely furnished, but the couple spend most of their time in their office editing photographs, films and posting images on Facebook. By pushing her husband's wheelchair, Aydieh ensures he can gain access to stories and Faiz is giving her photography lessons.

Aydieh now works as full-time correspondent with Women in Palestine and often cooperates with her husband, working as a writer and photographer. They remain dedicated to documenting the lives of their fellow Gazans and reaching out to the West to show a more humanistic portrayal of a region they feel has been misrepresented in the western press. Faiz and Aydieh attract attention wherever they go. It is not often you see a woman in niqab, a camera slung over her shoulder, pushing an intense man leaning precariously over his wheelchair to capture an image. Those who know their story see them as celebrities of Gaza and speak fondly of their story.

When asked about marrying a man in a wheelchair, Aydieh tells the story of an incident when she was interviewing a Hamas parliamentarian, Huda Naim, at a protest for war widows. Naim trailed off mid sentence at the sight of Faiz moving deftly in his wheelchair, his amputated legs tucked underneath a Palestinian keffiyah. One young protester asked Naim how Aydieh could have accepted a marriage proposal from a man in a wheelchair.

Naim took a pause from political rhetoric to reply: "We women of Gaza love freedom fighters. For us, this is romance and a great honour," she said. While we talk, Aydieh pushes her husband towards children playing in the street and a grin breaks across his face as he clicks his shutter. Faiz is no war correspondent or freedom fighter in the conventional sense, although life could easily have pushed him in that direction.

Were it not for the niqab, the wheelchair and the forlorn Gazan landscape, this couple could easily be mistaken for hippie idealist media hounds. However, they remain dedicated to documenting the hardships of life in Gaza, and have plans for a shared photographic exhibition showcasing the injustice facing children. "I feel so free when I write and tell stories. I act as my husband's legs, but he has shown me how to really use my eyes to understand and truly see a story," Aydieh says.

Now, the proud mother of a one-month-old daughter named Jana, Aydieh is positive about their future, despite the political gridlock. With a combined salary of Dh3,700 a month, the couple hopes to somehow raise the Dh477,000 needed for medical treatment in Germany for prosthetic legs. But with no end to the political stand-off in Gaza, dire unemployment, poverty, and a newborn infant, legs for Faiz seem out of reach.

In the interim, Aydieh will fill that role.