Birds of a feather flock together: Meet the twin sisters pioneering wildlife exploration in Gaza
Every Friday and Saturday, as dawn breaks, Palestinian twins Many and Lara (46) fetch their cameras and field glasses and head out into the Gazan wilderness.
Virtually indistinguishable from each other as they wear the same clothes, drive the same car and work for the same company, the Sirdah twins passion for nature began in 2005 when they spotted a rare bird in their back garden. Using an old phone camera to capture the memory, they have since photographed any and every bird or plant that they have come across.
"We bought a digital camera in 2008 when we decided to spend more time dedicated to documenting Gaza's wildlife. In 2012, we were able to buy a Nikon camera, and subsequently set up social media accounts on Instagram and Facebook to show the world," Mandy, the director of personnel at Atfaluna Society for Dear Children told The New Arab.
In doing so, the twins became the first wildlife photographers in Gaza.
"What we want to do is reflect the beauty of Gaza. We need to tell the world that in Gaza there is stunning wildlife, not just war and rubble"
"What gives us pleasure the most is being able to photograph a rare bird during the two migration seasons in Spring and Autumn. When there are tropical birds or birds we just don't know about, we make sure to get more information from Palestinian experts in Gaza, the West Bank or historic Palestine. Often, they are surprised by what we find. We have been able to document a large number of unusual birds and plants," Mandy added.
The twins were the first photographers in Gaza who caught sight of the Pied Avocet, the Eurasian oystercatcher and the European nightjar. They have also photographed rare plants like the Oprys Umbilicate, Hyoscyamus Aureus and Caloptropis Procera.
With their catalogue growing and growing, they now have an extensive archive of Gaza's wildlife, with Palestinian universities now using their resources in their work. Now, having maintained their passion for more than a decade, Mandy and Lara now know almost all the birds and animals in the Gaza ecosystem.
"Many environmental experts and societies have used our pictures for educational and research purposes. In 2018, the University of Palestine issued the first guide of medical plants in Gaza, including 25 photos of our archive," Mandy beamed to The New Arab.
"We held the first exhibition of its kind for the Gaza's wildlife in the A.M. Qattan Foundation in 2018. Almost all environmental experts came," Lara, who is a sociologist at ASDC, told The New Arab.
The Ramallah-based organisation Lady of the Earth Foundation awarded the two wildlife enthusiasts the title of '2019's Most Important Photographers in Palestine', however, the Israeli authorities denied them to travel to receive the award.
"What we want to do is reflect the beauty of Gaza. We need to tell the world that in Gaza there is stunning wildlife, not just war and rubble," Lara noted.
"Any available time we can take off work we use to document Gaza's wildlife. Sometimes, our family resents us for this but we can't help but chase birds for days in order to take a picture of them," Lara laughed.
Yousef Ibrahim, director of Water and Environment Quality Authority, met with the twins three months ago to discuss the ways of saving and documenting Gaza's wildlife.
Yet, challenges remain. For Lara, one of the most distressing elements of the Israeli blockade is being unable to reach the eastern borders, which are full of various untapped wildlife. The blockade has also meant that most of their excursions are self-funded, with each tour costing between 70 to 120 shekels ($22 to $38).
Despite this, the twins remain resolute, and they have plans to release the most extensive encyclopaedia of Gaza's wildlife to date. The aim is for this document to be released in the next two years.
Dr Abed Al-Fatah Abed Rabo, a professor of environmental studies at the Islamic University of Gaza, told The New Arab that the Israeli occupation's shelling and the continued building of settlements has threatened the Gazan ecosystem, which is now at a critical point.
"Neither side make sufficient efforts to save the wildlife. Thank God, the Sirdah twins are a blessing from heaven," said Abed Rabo, who has joined Many and Lara on many a tour. "I eagerly await their encyclopedia. It would be their most important achievement to date and will allow experts, professors and students to access the beauty of Gaza at ease," Dr Abed Rabo added.
"Without protecting our wildlife, we will lose our life," he concluded.
Heba Salim is a Palestinian journalist, writer and translator based in the Gaza Strip