We Are One People, One Land: An Open Letter About Gaza

Susan Youssef, director of the Gaza-shot documentary Forbidden to Wander and fiction feature Habibi, appeals for peace.

Dear Reader,

Ceasefire Now.

As I write this, Khan Younis – an area in Gaza where I have lived and loved – has been freshly bombed. I cannot reach my friends.

I have had a relationship with Gaza since 2002. I made my documentary Forbidden to Wander and wrote, developed and began making my feature Habibi there. (I completed filming Habibi in the West Bank.)

I am not Palestinian.

I am a Brooklyn-born woman of Lebanese and Syrian descent. I visited Palestine for the first time when I was 25 years old.

I started my journey into Gaza because I want safety for all: my friends in Palestine and Israel, my family in Lebanon and Syria … and us here in the U.S. We are all affected.

Some Palestinians in Gaza have a long heritage there, and others came as refugees after they were forcibly removed from their homes when Israel was established.

Maisa Abd Elhadi and Kais Nashif in Susan Youssef’s Habibi.

Gaza is often referred to as an open-air prison. To enter Gaza, an organization within Gaza must apply for your clearance from Israel. My last entry was made possible by a European cultural organization in Gaza.

Allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. Currently, Israel controls all borders and what is permitted is highly restricted. For weeks very scarce aid has been allowed in and entry zones have been bombed.

What is it like in Gaza?

Gaza Beach has the best sunset. The fresh guava and figs in any garden are beyond fragrant. People have a marvelous sense of humor. I drank I don’t know how many gallons of Arabic coffee. I am ashamed to admit just how many coffee cups I read in Gaza. People always believed they had a future and wanted to know all about it. The cadence of the speech is like music … a music that moves like a soft wind.

I found many people to have fabulous style and take meticulous care of whatever they had, even those living in poverty.

I felt safe.

Even though I was there while people were living through explosions, home demolition and loss of life, the population covered me like a blanket. Everyone protected me as their guest.

No one ever took money from me. They gave me their homes to stay in, their food to eat, their land to film on.

I was a 25-year-old woman, and continued my work in Gaza through age 36. Never did a man make me feel unsafe or compromised.

How did I begin my work in Gaza?

Word of mouth. Friends in Beirut, where I used to be a journalist and teacher, sent me to their friends in Jerusalem, who sent me to their friends in Gaza.

How was it to film there?

Not hard because the Palestinians I met all wanted to help me.

Susan Youssef (center) at screening of Habibi at the French Cultural Center in Gaza City.

What kind of people were there in Gaza?

Gaza has its artists, filmmakers, theater makers, athletes. I learned about ancient Sufi poetry in Gaza: from Majnun Layla to The Conference of the Birds. I watched plays by Theater Day Productions, much of which was performed by and for children. The French Cultural Center was a hub for people to study French and connect with international visitors.

Everything else was hard, and I mean everything else. Not being able to get permits long enough to do my work in Gaza. Not being able to enter Gaza for long periods.

At this time, so many places I spent time in while I filmed scenes for both Forbidden to Wander and Habibi have been struck in deadly blasts: the 1000-year-old Church of St. Proferious, Al Ahli Hospital and several homes of friends.

Restriction of movement has always existed during my relationship with Gaza. People have not been able to leave or enter Gaza without permits from Israel.

The death count is more than 6,500 since October 7. The estimated number is closer to 10,000, because of those trapped in the rubble. Some of my friends have died. I cannot reach so many others.

Getting footage recorded and out of the country was and is perilous.

I have been strip-searched and interrogated by Israeli officials. I have had to go to great lengths to find a safe means to travel in and out of Palestine, in order to bring my footage with me.

When I last left Gaza, a French diplomat to Gaza had to go to Border Patrol and demand my release.

Finally, as a filmmaker, I can finish a film and face people not believing what I captured, or the possibility that it might not screen at all. Or maybe you won’t get reps or money for your future work, despite how successful the film is. For example, Forbidden to Wander was protested by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis) when it screened at Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art. I was asked by the curator at the time not to talk to the press.

The thing is, at one time, Jews and non-Jews lived together in the Middle East. It was actually like that for centuries. This is a newer phenomenon: us against them, or vice versa.

An audience watching Habibi at the French Cultural Center in Gaza City.

We are one people, one land.

I ask you to work towards a ceasefire and access to water, food and medical aid – all things being denied.

I ask you to join me in asking for safety.

We are artists, you and me. We want to create, travel and be safe.

Please see my links below. If you want to ask me about Gaza, you can direct message me on Instagram, @susannyoussef

I have chosen U.S- based organizations whose good work I have experienced firsthand.

I link my arms and heart with everyone suffering. A special thank you to you for reading this. I pray for your safety, whoever and wherever you may be.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East: https://www.unrwausa.org/

American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem: https://afedj.org/institution/ahli-arab-hospital-gaza-city/

Doctors Without Borders: https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org

To watch my film set in Gaza, Habibi, on Netflix, go here.

Featured image is a still from Susan Youssef’s Gaza documentary Forbidden to Wander; all images courtesy Susan Youssef.

Susan Youssef is the director of two dramatic features and a short that now streams on Netflix. Her two features, a documentary, and shorts have been screened at film festivals, such as Venice, Toronto International, Cannes, and Sundance and have been programmed in museums, including The Museum of Modern Art (New York). The focus of Susan’s films has been human and civil rights. Human Rights Watch and Movies that Matter have toured her work. Her second feature Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf Academy Awards qualified and streamed in the Academy screening room. Susan has been commissioned by Tate Modern. 21st Century Fox hired her to make the short Amsterdam to Anatolia that now streams on Netflix. Susan is a Fulbright Fellow, Princess Grace Award Winner, Poynter Fellow (Yale University), and 21st Century Fox Director Fellow.