Under Siege, Young Gazans Take Up The Reins

Fahrinisa Oswald

Photo credit: Lian Maqousi

Leaning into the camera on her laptop, Mais Saqqa, a 24-year-old female fixer who has a a bachelors degree in English, brims with excitement as she chatters on about her riding lesson earlier that day. Ms. Saqqa speaks with impeccable clarity, despite never having been outside of Gaza, let alone to an English speaking country.

Nearly 40 percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents live in poverty, yet even the wealthy feel as though they live in an open-air prison. Gazan youth have been most affected by the ever-decreasing lack of opportunities, resources and personal freedoms.

For young Gazans — especially women who face even more restrictions than their male counterparts — horse riding is one of the only outlets that provide them with some respite from their otherwise very stagnant and restricted lives.

“I feel handicapped. I feel like I’m stuck in a box or a very huge prison and I can’t get out.” said Ms. Saqqa. “It’s hopeless here in Gaza. I can’t imagine a life without riding.” After a moment’s pause she added, “when I’m on the horse I feel like I’m not in Gaza. I feel like I’m disconnected with the world around me. I could be anywhere.”

The youngest of four children, she is the only family member unable to secure a visa out of Gaza. Both Ms. Saqqa’s sisters hold American passports and live in America, and her older brother also left Gaza once he married. But, for several years in a row now, the Israeli government has consistently denied Ms. Saqqa a visa. Her case is not unusual.

Unable to leave Gaza, activities like horse riding are a rare source of pleasure for young Gazans like Ms. Saqqa, and a small escape from the struggles and suffocation faced on a daily basis. Years ago, there were many more athletic opportunities for girls — swimming, gymnastics, dancing — but as conditions worsen in the occupied territories, these opportunities have become more and more scarce, and horse riding remains one of the only outlets for these young women.

Naima Louzon, 20, an English major at Gaza University, began riding a few months ago at the suggestion of her friends who have been riding for many years. Like Ms. Louzon, most of her friends — and Gazan women in general — go to university and are highly educated, but with few opportunities for work, there are many hours in the day where they do nothing.

Because of the frequent and long-lasting power cuts in the area, even surfing the internet and chatting online is often impossible, so young girls tend to gather in their homes or at restaurants where they spend hours gossiping about boys, horses, and politics over shisha and strong Palestinian coffee.

Photo credit: Mais Saqqa

With few other options for practicing a sport, Ms. Louzon joined her friends and now rides with them everyday after school for hours. Like the other young riders, it gives her a sense of freedom and purpose. “You can’t move easily, especially us girls, and riding gives us something to do,” said Ms. Louzon via Skype while getting ready to go out for dinner and a shisha with several of her girlfriends from university. “Before there were not so many female riders, but now there are many. There are still some girls who don’t ride because of their families, but that is changing now too.”

With only three riding clubs in all of Gaza, the riding community is very small and tightly knit. Speaking via Whatsapp, Nabil Maqousi, owner of one of the three riding clubs in Gaza, and his 13-year-old daughter, Lian Maqousi, talked about the significance of riding in the lives of young Gazans.

Many of the young riders in Gaza have experienced two or three wars in their lifetimes already, and display symptoms of trauma and stress. With each new war, the symptoms worsen. Riding has become a therapy of sorts for Gazan kids, girls and boys alike, and is an integral part of their coping mechanism.

Ms. Maqousi, only 13-years-old, has already won numerous metals and awards from the internal competitions that the three clubs hold every year. When Ms. Maqousi was only five years old, her father, worried about the psychological state of his children, took her and her brother riding for the first time. They have been riding ever since.

Like her older brother, riding is her life and she cannot imagine not being able to do it. Unlike her brother, however, there are still limitations that she has to overcome. “For me, I really wish I had the freedom to ride horses wherever and whenever I want, but I still can’t go, for example, to the beach,” explained Ms. Maqousi. “I really wish I could have that freedom because, you know, here people don’t always allow you to do what you want as a girl, so it’s still difficult for me sometimes.”

Despite this, both father and daughter admit that because of her, many other girls in Gaza had the courage to start riding. “I can tell you,” said Mr. Maqousi, “Lian is the girl who motivates many girls to ride.”

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