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Love in the time of Gaza: The story of Mohamed Al-Deif and his late wife Widad Asfoura

September 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Commander-in-chief of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Mohammed Deif

“You drove Israel crazy by allowing them to see your actions, but not your face. Their attempts to assassinate you have failed, and the entire nation wishes to see your shadow, my hero, even from afar, but only I know the colour of your eyes, the etchings of your face, how tall you are, how much sugar you take in your tea, and what your toothbrush looks like.”

This letter was written through the eyes of Widad Asfoura to her husband Mohamed Al-Deif, a Qassam Brigades commander. Widad and their infant son Ali were killed in an Israeli attack aimed at assassinating her husband during the latest war on Gaza. The words are in fact written by Hadeel Attallah as told by Widad’s mother, Um Ibrahim, and her sister Eman Asfoura. It was published first in Arabic in the newspaper Felesteen.

To my soul mate and the apple of my eye, to the “man of the nation” whose left ring-finger is home to my ring. To “Deif”, I treasured every time we met, and with you I lived a life of joy after years of tears.

It is the first time in history that a love story is told on the day one of its characters dies, and fortunately for me, I am the woman who has passed away in order for her man to live on and continue to lead his army and build his military arsenal. How could I not after living with him like a queen for years, although our way of life was different and we were constantly on the move.

Today, my name and yours, Mohamed Diab Al-Deif, can be publically announced, side by side, for the world to hear and they can lay out the red carpet for us. The true stars do not belong in the sky, but in the tunnels, where the “hidden” stars reside, but there comes a time when they find the light and the people of the world finally see the beauty of their sparkle.

I know that you are in a hurry because of the time constraints and the uncertainty of these dark hours, but your calm, quiet and reserved woman longs for the “greatest enemy of our greatest enemy” to listen to the chatter of his Widad. Aren’t I your anonymous “soldier”, just like all of your Qassam soldiers?

Come sit next to me for a while, for the last time, in your military uniform. You are more handsome in your uniform than you think; more handsome than if you were to wear a white shirt and red tie like the politicians and influential figures do. Let the musk of “the sweat of battle” exude from you, a fragrance branded by “Deif”. Let the scent of French fragrances and jasmine flowers pale in comparison.

My mother asked for his hand in marriage

I was very innocent and cautious when I was a child and my sister Eman, who is a year older, “my soul’s shadow” and the closest of my four sisters to me, used to always tease me. Even after we’d grown up, she still reminds me of the times we would go to school together and cross the street. Whenever I’d see a car approaching from afar, I would insist on waiting until it would pass to cross the street, and Eman would scold me and say, “Take your time Widad! I’m leaving you because the school bell is going to ring soon.”

I have always admired my brother Ibrahim’s “religious” way of life. I was greatly influenced by him and always obeyed him, as if he was my father. I remember when he was in his final year of high school; I would wake him up at dawn so he could study. My mother, who had such a shining face it rivalled the sun’s brightness, would always say, “I would only marry my daughter to a Qassam Brigades soldier”. She gave me a badge of distinction when she assured me, as a young girl, that I was different from all of my siblings in that I was the keenest on memorising the Holy Quran, most tolerant, and most willing to make concessions even when I was right.

I love you even more, mother, when you tell the story of my marriage to Mohamed Al-Deif because your narrative is often accompanied by a proud laugh that is not merely “hollow pride”. Six years ago, we were sitting with a group of women, chatting away, and someone mentioned that this man’s wife had not been blessed with a child at the time, even though she had several operations, but to no avail, and despite this, he firmly refused to marry another. However, those close to him insisted that he needed to have a son to carry his name. At that moment, my mother spontaneously said: “If he would ask for my daughters’ hands in marriage, I would agree. It would be an honour for us.” Her statement was passed on to him, and the next day, he immediately sent to ask for my hand.

I relish your comment, mother, “I am the one who asked for his in marriage for my daughter, not him”, and even better than that is her point of view, which she expresses using a popular saying that referred to the fact that marrying a real man, regardless of the challenges, is better than marrying a man with no manners.

The worry and struggle before the decision

There are two Qassami men in my soul, and between the two, my heart became a map for a usurped country. This heart is not easily understood by women who have the luxury of leading a normal life. This heart is not broken by parting, even if it is ridden with sadness and fatigue. This heart’s first artery is named “Belal Qaseea’a”, and how hard it is for a “young woman”, only 16 years of age, to understand and come to terms with the fact that her first love will no longer be with her after spending three joyous years with him.

Belal’s kindness was a waterfall that immersed the depths of my heart. A few days before his death, he took me to the market and bought me and my children, Bakr and Banan, a new wardrobe. On that day, he told me I was pregnant, even though the pregnancy test was negative, and it was true, my daughter Banan was conceived.

After he passed away, I was a wreck for three years; I cried so much that my family was worried about me. When I stood terrified over his body, I refused to say the prayer, “O Allah, reward me for my affliction and give me something better than it in exchange”. Instead, my response was that of Umm Salama (a widowed companion of the Prophet (PBUH), who thought she couldn’t marry any better, but later married the Prophet (PBUH)), and I said, “Is there better than Belal?”. However, under the pressure, I said it to myself, and Mohamed Al-Deif was my great destiny after I had refused the idea of marriage before him. At that point, my mother said: “Widad will be like those who have found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

You wanted a widow with orphans, and my only request, Abu Khalid, was that my children remain with me; hence we met at the same point. I don’t deny that I struggled and was greatly conflicted before agreeing to marry you. I was afraid that my marriage to you would be a betrayal of Belal and I was worried that the same tragedy would repeat itself and that my new children would also be fatherless and orphaned. I was even more afraid that I would be martyred and they would all be motherless, but then I had a dream about Belal that gave me the clear answer.

It was like a dream, and my God, what a wonderful dream it was that came true in hours! In 2008, I remember telling Eman after getting married: “I heard a lot about him, but I would have never imagined that it would be different when I lived with him. If I had only a few days to live with him, it would be enough for a lifetime.” The occupation said that “Al-Deif got married in a hurry because he is ‘half a man’. He is not a part of terrorism, terrorism is part of him”, and I answered with a cold smile, “Perish in your rage”.

My gift is to have you in front of me

You drove Israel crazy by allowing them to see your actions, but not your face. Their attempts to assassinate you have failed, and the entire nation wishes to see your shadow, my hero, even from afar, but only I know the colour of your eyes, the etchings of your face, how tall you are, how much sugar you take in your tea, and what your toothbrush looks like. I am the one who knows the secrets of your habits, as if God created me to be the right “fit” for a legend like you. Everyone knows that I am as far from curiosity as can be and I am overly reserved about my private affairs.

Our “love nest” did not have one particular address; our addresses are surrounded by security barriers. No one knew I was the wife of the most wanted man, except for those extremely close to me. When the news was leaked, my relatives scolded my parents, “You did not sign her marriage certificate, you signed her death certificate”, and I always had the response “similar names” ready for anyone who looked too closely at my children’s official documents.

In a story like ours, the heroes were never permitted to have a leisurely walk, a family visit, or even a calm phone call. Even the sea itself doesn’t believe it has never seen us, not even once, take a bare-footed walk on its sandy beaches like everyone else; you were always the best at erasing the traces of our steps.

All I could think about was doing my best to make you happy, and I sensed your comfort in your clothes and food, especially when I made the traditional food you loved. The words of your mother always rang in my ears, “I see goodness in her, my son.”

I still remember the expression on your face in a situation that had a great impact on me during the early days of our marriage; you gave me a lesson in certainty and conviction. You told me: “Widad, my days with you may be numbered or Allah may destine me to live for many decades. For example, Khalid ibn Al-Walid [a famous Muslim military commander and companion of the Prophet (PBUH)] fought the enemy, but died in bed. However, my greatest hope is to die a martyr.”

From the first day together, my life changed. I was like a nightingale, singing about life without feeling the difference in age between us. I felt like I was flying when you would, in your special way, send me a message to meet you in a place of your choosing. The surprise would be to find you there; you were the best gift and you would never turn down my requests. If I did something you didn’t like, you would bring my attention to it in the most loving way.

I would envelope you with my voice and say: “I cannot imagine you dying a martyr before me. I cannot bear the tragic pain again.” Mohamed, I said this to you in all honesty and warmth, “I would sacrifice my soul for you, my leader.”

A decent man in every way

I have always asked myself about the level of nobility and generosity you possess that allows you to overcome the feelings of possessiveness and perhaps even jealousy, as you have always given me a chance to talk about my previous life with Belal. You even called me “Um Bakr” to honour that phase in my life, and you would always ask about Belal’s family. I always smile when I remember my mother-in-law, Um Belal, advising me not to bring up the past in front of you, Abu Khaled, for fear that you may be jealous, but I replied, “What are you talking about, Auntie? He is the one who initiates the conversation about this, and he makes sure he honours my children with Abu Bakr.”

Sometimes, I would be surprised that the same man who shifted the balance of power in the battle with the Israelis also had the ability to make romantic gestures. I remember once when you surprised me with buying lots of clothes for me and our children Omar, Ali, Halima and Sara. On that day, I thought about giving some of the clothes away as charity, but I said, “I can’t because it is a gift that reminds me of you.” I was always stunned as I watched the commander of an army that excelled on land, sea, and in the air, enjoy playing with his children, especially his “favourite”, the youngest of the lot, Ali, and I am even more astonished at how much you worry about them, even asking me to close the windows, lest the wind harm them.

We have never had the chance to frame a picture taken by a photographer. There are only a few pictures being circulated and used by Israel who are still trying to imagine what you look like. My distance from modern means of communication has never upset me; neither mobile phones, Facebook, nor any other means have made it past your “security obsession”. You were never one for appearances or showiness; humility, patience, secrecy and strength were “Deif’s four virtues” which I also learned from you.

When we socialised at women’s gatherings, I was always so quiet that my sister Eman used to tease me by saying, “Oh Widad, if you swore to them that you were Al-Deif’s wife, they would never believe you.”

They meet for the first time

Everyone is wondering about the “final chapter” of the story. As the beat of the war drums were sounded, we faced difficult times, and all I am free to say is that Abu Khaled worried a lot about the people. One of the most painful stories that impacted Mohamed was the story broadcast on television of the lady who was left blinded after her home was targeted, and whose sons were martyred without her knowledge.

During the first ceasefire I received a message that my youngest daughter Bayan was crying while she was staying with her siblings Bakr and Banan at their grandparents’ house. When they asked her why she was crying, she said: “The planes are dropping bombs and I am afraid that mum will die like dad did.” I rushed over to her, and I was wearing a new green jilbab (a long and loose-fitting coat), perhaps I was “dressing up” for martyrdom. And, as always, Eman teasingly said, “laid-back as always, Um Bakr”.

I missed my children so much by the time of the last ceasefire, and I had told them that, God willing, I would visit them “tomorrow”, based on the information that was being circulated about the ceasefire. I kept my promise, and I came, “hoisted on the people’s shoulders”, after the occupation suddenly breached the ceasefire in a greedy attempt to assassinate their number one target. It was ironic that the first to pay their condolences were Belal and Mohamed’s families; it was the first time the two families ever met.

Wipe the trigger of your rifle with your tears

Eman, I know that it was difficult for you to hear that the Al-Dalou family’s home was targeted in Gaza and you saw Omar looking around for someone he knew, but you did not dare to call anyone to confirm out of fear of the security consequences, and therefore, had to wait for the media to report the news. Eman, I know it is difficult for you to watch Halima gather sweets fruit, and balloons to make a “heaven” out of it; a heaven like the one her mother went to. It was even harder for you to try to tell Bakr and his siblings that I was no longer with them, but they already knew from your tears. I know it was hard for a child, like Banan, to have to stand over my body and say: “Oh Allah grant my mother and father Jannatul firdous [the highest level of heaven].”

Moments before the warplanes fired their missiles, I was very happy. I was drinking coffee and talking about my children and their hassles. Omar ran far away to Halima, but Ali, Sara and I had a date with destiny.

I can see your sincere tears, Mohamed Al-Deif, silently falling down your cheeks while you reflect on our past and our intimate moments together that no one but God knows the details of. Cry, Mohamed Al-Deif, and do not hold in your tears; wipe the trigger of your rifle with them. The tears over massacres do not weaken men; they make them more determined and light their flame. Feel sad, but I beg you, do not stay sad for long, and do not blame the month of August during which their missiles hit the apple of your eye, Widad, and the fruit of your loins, Ali and Sara; you alone know that I love the month of August because it is the month that honourable men like you were born to lead men who were true to their promise to God.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.