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How the songbirds of Rafah help Palestinians cope with the terror of war | Israel War on Gaza News

  • February 17, 2024

Rafah, Gaza Strip – In downtown Rafah, near Al-Awda Mosque, a small bird flutters in a cage hanging on the outer wall of a school which is currently being used as a shelter for people who have been displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Its soothing song catches the attention of Hassan Abu Jazar who has come here in search of birds to buy, prompting him to stop. He approaches the seller and requests a closer look, then gently turns the cage left and right.

Abu Jazar has spent weeks searching for this particular bird, known locally as a “canar” – from the word, canary – birds named after the Canary Islands off the west coast of North Africa.

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In Rafah, where the majority of Gaza’s population is now crammed, a market for songbirds is thriving. [Mohamed Soleimane/Al Jazeera]

Intrigued onlookers who are here to buy their own birds start to get impatient during his lengthy examination – checking the bird’s singing pitch, hearing about the times of day it is most active and asking detailed questions about its overall demeanour. They want him to get on with his purchase, so they can have a chance to look at the birds, too.

But Abu Jazar needs to be thorough – he wants to find a canary which will be chirpy, not quiet, and which sings at the right pitch before he commits to a purchase. And these birds do not come cheap – this one is priced at 150 shekels (just over $41).

The 23-year-old can’t suppress his smile. He has found the bird he wants.

Once sought after for their vibrant colours and soothing melodies, these birds now serve a very important purpose. They help Palestinians endure the thunderous sounds of explosions during the relentless Israeli shelling. Their song can also partially drown out – or at least provide a little distraction from – the humming sounds of hovering missile-bearing drones.

A shield against terror

Prolonged exposure to the horrors of war has taken a great toll on the mental health of the people of Gaza, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

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Despite the cost, many parents have purchased birds to help distract their children from the horrors of war, and to drown out the sounds of bombs and drones [Mohamed Soleimane/Al Jazeera]

Abu Jazar, who has been struggling with anxiety since the start of the war, has found great solace in the singing of the canaries he keeps in cages in his bedroom.

“The songs of the canaries can shield any space against the terror that comes with the violent sound of shelling,” he tells Al Jazeera. “They give me a sense of comfort that helps me endure the fear.”

His five birds, including the latest acquisition, are not loud enough to drown out the sound of explosions, but their gentle tones help calm him.

Abu Jazar, who lives in Tal as-Sultan in Rafah, is one of thousands grappling with the terror that Israeli shelling triggers.

The collapse of Gaza’s healthcare system has left no room for the provision of any sort of mental health treatment. The remaining doctors in the enclave – who are most likely to have an idea about how to treat mental health problems – are struggling under a flood of physical injuries which they must prioritise as they labour around the clock in the remaining, partially functioning hospitals.

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More than one million children in the Gaza Strip are in dire need of mental health support, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Many in Gaza say they are comforted by the sound of birdsong [Mohamed Soleimane/Al Jazeera]

Drowning blasts with birdsong

Even before the war, Palestinians have long collected songbirds – canaries, goldfinches, lovebirds and sparrows – for their comforting melodies. Now, they’re becoming go-to mental health allies.

“The sounds of explosions from Israeli shelling are terrifying and there are no alternatives to calm the fear of children except the sounds of canaries,” says Raed al-Qudra, who has been displaced by the war from the centre of Khan Younis to an area south of the city.

Al-Qudra’s four daughters and two sons are among the more than one million children in the Gaza Strip who the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) estimates are in dire need of mental health and psychosocial support.

“My daughters love birds because their colours make them feel safer, calmer and more alive. We consider their presence in the house as part of the few means of entertainment remaining since the war,” he says.

Al-Qudra, who has been keeping birds for the past 10 years, first introduced his family to the power of birdsong two years ago, during Israel’s 2022 bombardment of the city. It helped calm them, he says.

Recently, he has been hoping to buy some more. Despite the harsh conditions of displacement, he has visited the Rafah markets repeatedly in search of birds. A few days ago, he managed to acquire three birds from a seller who agreed to sell them at a lower price than usual because of the harsh economic situation in Gaza.

Even though the cost of the birds’ feed is an additional burden, he says: “The children’s mental health is paramount.”

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Bird-seller Dedar (left) agrees on a sale with Raed al-Qudrah, whose six children find solace in the chirps of songs. ‘The children’s mental health is paramount,’ he says [Mohamed Soleimane/Al Jazeera]

Booming birds’ market

Four months after the October 7 attacks on southern Israel by Hamas, Israel’s military campaign has reduced most of the Gaza Strip to rubble. Aerial bombardments and ground invitations have resulted in the deaths of nearly 29,000 Palestinians, the majority of them children and women. Thousands more are feared buried in the ruins and are presumed dead.

Rafah, the focus of Israel’s latest military operation, has become Gaza’s most densely populated area, according to the UN. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled the onslaught in the northern and central regions of the enclave are now packed into the southernmost city. Amid the sprawling sea of refugee tents that now line its streets, an unlikely market for songbirds is thriving.

While some sellers have set up stalls, others wander up and down carrying birds in cages.

Bird seller Kamal Dedar moves between potential customers, offering detailed accounts of the various species, colours and prices available. Dedar hails from the Zeitoun neighbourhood in Gaza City and now lives with his family of 10 in a shed in Rafah.

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Not everyone can afford to buy birds, but many come here anyway to enjoy the colours and peaceful chirps [Mohamed Soleimane/Al Jazeera]

Some customers approach the cages displayed on the street or hanging on the nearby walls of the shelter, to inspect the birds up close. Dedar lists the local names of their species. His stock includes canaries, lovebirds, breeds of passer birds (sparrows) and more.

Some potential buyers are dissuaded by the prices. Dedar also notes that birdfeed has surged in price from seven shekels ($1.90) to about 80 shekels (just over $22) per kilo.

Regardless of this steep rise in the cost of keeping a songbird, their popularity appears not to have waned.

“Customers are looking for breeds with soothing voices during this difficult time,” says Dedar. “Many of them purchase multiple birds to ensure a variety of melodies throughout the day, as some birds sing better during the day while others prefer the night”

This piece has been published in collaboration with Egab.

 

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