‘An empty seat on the desk’: Christmas with out Shireen Abu Akleh | Al Jazeera

Annually, as Christmas approached, Lina Abu Akleh would look ahead to spending time together with her aunt.

Lina and her siblings – an older brother and a youthful sister – would get along with their mother and father and their father’s youthful sister on the household residence in occupied East Jerusalem, the place they’d get pleasure from an enormous Christmas lunch.

However this 12 months, it’s a day 27-year-old Lina is dreading.

That’s as a result of on Could 11, Lina’s aunt, the 51-year-old veteran tv correspondent, Shireen Abu Akleh, was shot lifeless by Israeli forces. She and different journalists – all wearing protecting helmets and blue flak jackets marked “Press” – had been fired upon as they walked down a street within the occupied West Financial institution metropolis of Jenin.

Her killing despatched shockwaves all over the world. The Palestinian-American correspondent, who labored with Al Jazeera for 25 years, was identified to be a cautious, devoted journalist whose compassionate reporting centred on the voices and tales of Palestinians residing underneath Israeli occupation.

That morning in Could, Lina, who’s campaigning for justice for Abu Akleh, didn’t solely lose a beloved aunt however a “second mom” to her and her siblings. Abu Akleh was all the time there, “a spine to our household,” she says.

“It was simply my mother and father, my siblings and Shireen,” Lina provides.

“Not having her round, particularly throughout Christmas shall be very tough … There shall be an empty seat across the desk.”

The Abu Akleh family gathered for Christmas in 2019
Abu Akleh’s household gathered for Christmas in 2019 [Courtesy of the Abu Akleh family]

‘Loved Christmas’

It’s a Sunday night in early December, and Lina is sitting within the ground-floor café of a lodge within the Dutch metropolis of The Hague on the North Sea. The house is stuffed with the low chatter of diners and the tinkling of cutlery and glasses. A display behind Lina shows a crackling log fireplace and a big Christmas tree stands by the lodge entrance.

December was historically a “completely satisfied month” when Abu Akleh may take a break from her busy job to spend time with Lina and her siblings who had been usually finding out or working overseas through the 12 months.

“She actually loved Christmas,” says Lina. They might usually put up the household tree collectively and Abu Akleh cherished the Ramallah Christmas markets, whose native distributors she favored to assist.

Abu Akleh all the time considered items for everybody, even her small fluffy white canine Filfel, named so in Arabic as a result of like pepper he was “spicey” and all the time transferring. One Christmas, Abu Akleh wrapped a crocodile-shaped squeaky toy and positioned it underneath the tree. “He knew that it was his,” Lina remembers laughing. “And I bear in mind we had been laughing about it a lot as a result of she was simply amazed. She’s like, ‘How did he know that it was his present?’”

Shireen Abu Akleh
Shireen Abu Akleh holds Filfel in 2019 [Courtesy of the Abu Akleh family]

‘These had been our traditions’

Lots of Lina’s recollections of Christmases with Abu Akleh are related to meals – one thing “Shireen cherished”. On Christmas Eve, the household would have dinner at a restaurant in Ramallah with carols or another festive leisure, after which the following morning Lina’s mom would begin to put together lunch – a “feast”.

There can be warak dawali – stuffed grape leaves – and Lina’s mom, who’s Armenian and whose mother and father as soon as had a bakery specialising in lahmajoun (a flatbread with meat) in Jerusalem’s Armenian quarter, would make dishes like soubeureg – a time-consuming layered pastry made with selfmade boiled dough “stuffed with cheese, parsley, and lots of butter”.

“She all the time cherished Armenian meals, particularly my mother’s,” Lina explains.

Abu Akleh would come to the kitchen to assist out. “However she would even be nibbling right here and there, tasting the meals. Like I can simply image her now strolling across the kitchen,” remembers Lina smiling, earlier than including that her aunt would make a gesture of rubbing her arms collectively to indicate she was “excited to eat”.

“These had been our traditions – nothing fancy – however it was nonetheless one thing we regarded ahead to,” says Lina of the household meals and photos taken in entrance of the tree.

Lina exhibits a photograph on her cellphone of a smiling Abu Akleh standing in entrance of the Christmas tree one 12 months as she holds Filfel who’s wearing a inexperienced and pink jumper with “Merry Christmas” and a sweet cane on it.

“I’m dreading it as a result of I can’t be waking as much as her Merry Christmas needs,” says Lina, earlier than repeating these phrases in Arabic within the melodic method that her aunt would say them – with an enormous smile on her face and her head tilted to 1 aspect.

Abu Aklehs' Christmas dinner
Christmas lunch at residence included a few of Abu Akleh’s favorite dishes reminiscent of her sister-in-law’s pudding, left, produced from amardeen, an apricot paste [Courtesy of the Abu Akleh family]

‘Discover the silver lining’

Lina smiles usually when she talks about her aunt, with whom she would converse or message every day. “We had a really shut connection,” she says.

Abu Akleh was a family title within the Arab world by which many grew up listening to her legendary sign-off. “It was the long-lasting sign-off that I feel generations grew up attempting to mimic,” explains Lina. As a toddler, she would take her aunt’s notebooks and run to sit down at her Lego desk and “report”, signing off together with her Barbie cellphone: “Lina Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera, Palestine.”

For Lina, her aunt was completed, poised and courageous. “I needed to be like Shireen. To me, she was my function mannequin.”

Regardless of her severe on-camera persona, Lina says her aunt was humorous – and “enjoyable to be round.”

Abu Akleh all the time had tales to share and even after a complete day of reporting and chatting with folks, she was all the time involved in listening to what Lina and her siblings had been as much as.

Lina not often noticed her aunt tense or offended and remembers her as “all the time smiling” and down-to-earth. “She would all the time discover the silver lining in each scenario and attempt to be optimistic.”

Nonetheless, Lina and her household frightened about Abu Akleh – when she was pushed by Israeli forces final 12 months whereas masking compelled expulsions of Palestinians and the crackdowns on protesters at Al-Aqsa Mosque, endured tear gasoline or was harassed by settlers.

However she all the time reassured them, “’No, we’re journalists, don’t fear,’ despite the fact that she knew deep down that in some unspecified time in the future they’re targets,” recounts Lina.

Throughout tense durations of the Israel-Palestine battle, seeing her aunt stay on tv would reassure Lina that she was secure.

“I by no means thought that she would get killed,” she says.

On the morning of Could 11, Lina’s father referred to as to inform her Abu Akleh had been injured. She referred to as her colleagues to get extra info and discovered she had been shot. Nonetheless, Lina didn’t suppose it was something too severe. “My mother was like, pray, pray. And she or he began lighting all these candles round the home.” Then, a few minutes later, Lina referred to as Abu Akleh’s colleague again to listen to them sobbing and screaming. “That’s once I knew,” she says.

Talking practically seven months after Abu Akleh’s dying, the shock continues to be uncooked. “I nonetheless really feel like I’m on this nightmare. And it’s simply not ending,” she acknowledges.

“She was so current in our lives that for us to lose her on this sudden and heinous method makes it so tough to understand.”

Preventing for justice

Israel has modified its narrative on the killing of Abu Akleh, initially blaming a Palestinian gunman, earlier than months later saying there’s a “excessive chance” the journalist was “by chance hit” by Israeli fireplace. The Israeli authorities have stated they won’t launch a legal investigation.

In September, Abu Akleh’s household submitted a grievance to the Worldwide Prison Court docket (ICC), whereas Lina and her father together with former colleagues got here to The Hague in December for Al Jazeera’s submission of a formal request to the ICC to research the killing.

However Lina, who has turn into the face of this marketing campaign for accountability, continues to be studying learn how to navigate a public struggle alongside her private grief. “It hasn’t been straightforward to totally sit with my emotions and mirror again on the previous six months and perceive how this tragedy has formed our lives,” she displays.

What retains her going is understanding that had it been one other member of the family, pal or colleague, Abu Akleh would have tirelessly fought for justice. “She was optimistic, all the time, that justice will prevail.”

Lina additionally desires to always remind the world who Abu Akleh was and “ensure her legacy continues to be remembered, her title is remembered, her reminiscence’s alive.”

Lina Abu Akleh, stands outside the State Department
Lina carries her aunt’s small gold hoop earrings wherever she goes. Carrying Abu Akleh’s earrings makes Lina ‘really feel like I’m near her’ [Olivier Douliery/AFP]

‘Take pleasure in life’

For Lina, conserving her aunt’s reminiscence alive can be about remembering her optimism.

Even now, she believes her aunt would need her to be having fun with her life – one thing Lina has struggled with. “I might really feel responsible if I’m doing one thing enjoyable,” she admits. Lina wore black as an indication of mourning for six months and nonetheless usually does. “It’s very tough. However I attempt to all the time bear in mind her phrases telling me … get pleasure from life.”

“All the pieces I do in life now jogs my memory of her,” she says, explaining how her aunt would have been the primary individual to textual content her after she arrived in The Hague. She cherished turning on her cellphone after a flight to search out texts from Abu Akleh, who was all the time excited to listen to what she was doing and inform her to ship photos. “She’s not a part of my journey,” Lina says.

“No matter how tough and demanding her job was, she was there, for each event, each milestone, each birthday, each celebration – she was current.”

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