My brief days in Gaza usually begin early with sun salutations (something I learned in a Shivananda yoga ashram) to a soothing cacophony of roosters and car horns in a distance, on a terrace overlooking palm trees. The phone rings and my meetings for the day begin lining up before I finish sipping a warm cup of tea with maramia (sage). The days often end with swirling thoughts of the intense experiences, unusual roadside conversations, chaotic taxi rides, and memorable sunsets along the Gaza seashore. Time speeds up and slows down in unpredictable ways as if the hours in a day were not evenly distributed. Gaza is full of humor and smiles if only one is patient enough to linger and converse…
I set out early on Friday to meet the international convoy of Viva Palestina as they prepared to travel in buses to see devastated areas in Gaza, one year after the siege. We waited outside their hotels for the buses to arrive but it became clear that their Hamas minders had other plans. Egyptian authorities had become quite incensed with all the recent commotion caused by George Galloway and the convoy in the port of Al-Arish, where riot police had violent confrontations with the group. Word got out that many members of the convoy would be arrested upon arrival at Rafah crossing; Galloway had already been deported upon his arrival there the night before.
As I climbed aboard one bus with my camera to accompany many of the British and Turkish members of the convoy to the border, some of them mentioned in private their own discontent with Galloway’s leadership on this trip and how the violence could have been more easily averted; the buses sped their way towards Rafah with no stops along the way as our “guide” provided an abbreviated “disaster tour” of the devastated sites along the shore. I didn’t even bother taking out the lens cap from the video camera, preferring instead to speak with people seated next to me, as Turkish folk songs sung by someone who “borrowed” the mic from our guide blared over the crackling speaker above us.
Nearly all 500 members of the convoy left that day and I only heard today that in the end no one was detained by the Egyptians, but it was a long and trying journey for all having spent a month on the road for less than 48 hours in Gaza. I hitched a ride back to Gaza City with a young man who worked with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, a local NGO that supports farmers and their exports. In the taxi he mentioned his own discontent with life in Gaza, despite a professional job and good salary; he felt he would leave Gaza were it not for the blockade to pursue a better life abroad. When I asked him about the air raids by the Israeli F16’s the night before – he barely acknowledged it, saying such raids happened all the time and rarely concerned him. More and more it seemed to me that life under the siege in Gaza was most constrained by the economic blockade and travel restrictions, and less so by the uneven humanitarian or security situation.
I spent the afternoon having a home-cooked meal with the Palestinian English-French teacher couple I had befriended. They cooked Maklube, the traditional Palestinian “upside down dish” with rice, chicken and pine nuts baked in large pot. Over lunch I met an expatriate from Zimbabwe who works with the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) in Gaza and Ali, a young psychologist and cosmopolitan chain-smoking Palestinian who works with an international children’s NGO here. Ali and I really hit if off and he later showed me around the Khan Younis refugee camp where he grew up. I filmed the narrow streets and busy markets as we wound our way in his car, stopping in his home just outside the camp. He lives in a large joint household with two of his brothers and their families sharing alternate floors of the unfinished 3-story home.
Ali and I talked a great deal about the study I wanted to undertake with community centers in Gaza, focusing on media interventions with children to support their resilience despite the siege. Ali’s confidence and experience clearly showed as we discussed the methodology and logistics for such a study. As we walked up to his rooftop with cups of tea to catch a glimpse of the sunset overlooking his backyard, he joked about the university building that Hamas took over besides his home, that’s now destined to become a convenient target for future Israeli airstrikes. Ali gets a call from his brother who was again denied entry into Rafah today while traveling with his family from Denmark via Cairo; having been to Copenhagen to see his brother, Ali still preferred his life here. He joked about how it’s nearly impossible to have a girlfriend in Gaza without having to propose to them within two weeks of courting them. Ali happily remains single living with his extended family in Gaza!
The next morning I have a packed schedule to visit woman and children’s centers in the Jabalia refugee camp and Daraj. I interviewed staff at both centers about their experiences dealing with traumatized children; their responses were revealing – while children (and center staff) had experienced some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and in many cases lost loved ones in the recent war last year, most had recovered with the individual attention and creative workshops provided in these centers. I entered a cooking class conducted in the kitchen, to the smell of coriander, cooked tomatoes, green peppers and onions. While the young woman there shied away from the camera, the master chef allowed me to glimpse and sample the freshly baked pizza from her oven.
My friend Mond tells me we’re running late for the next meeting at an aid distribution center in Beit Hanoun, so we dash in another taxi to make it there in time. A common friend from the US had raised some funds for Gaza and purchased some materials like school bags and such to handout to children there; unfortunately she was unable to stay in Gaza for more than 2 days to ensure the aid was properly distributed. I was already somewhat uneasy with undertaking to verify this task, but had promised our friend to do so. As Mond and I took a long and winding taxi ride to the northern frontier of Gaza, where most of the devastation of the war had taken place, we lost our way several times only to be guided along by children riding donkey carts nearby the aid center.
By the time we arrived, the center was empty and the staff showed us lists of children who received the aid along with their photos smiling as they received each school bag. Mond was not entirely happy to miss the “ceremonial distribution” but I was elated to be relieved of this job, and proceed to interview the poor families there. As they gathered around to talk with us frankly, it became clear neither of them felt that the aid would solve anything substantial in their lives; they demanded an end to the blockade of Gaza which keeps up prices of everyday goods (despite those coming through the tunnels), and freedom to travel easily. While they were thankful for any support, they wanted outsiders to recognize their deteriorating conditions in Gaza not merely through a humanitarian lens but one for political and economic freedom. While we talked a young boy on his bicycle circled the crowd with a bandage on one eye. I smiled at him a few times wondering about his injury.
As dusk falls we leave the crowd and bid our farewell crossing the road to the other side noticing a vegetable stall with a bon-fire. There an older woman sitting by the road begins to cook for the evening; the boy with the bandaged eye lingers while the woman invites us over. She soon begins to cook roasted garlic, green peppers and tomatoes while warming fresh bread on the fire. The 9-year old Mustafa is shy but I manage to get him to eat with us. We talk to the boy’s father and are shocked to learn that his eyes were pierced by a 20-year old (who remains uncharged by the police) for reasons that were unclear to us. The poor father showes us Mustafa’s medical report and mentions how he plans to go with him to Jordan in a few days for eye surgery.
The operation was not possible in Gaza and due to the blockade it took many weeks to even get a permit for him to leave. The boy has been left untreated for nearly 2 months now and the operation itself would cost $5000, not to mention the air travel and hospital stay in Amman. As Mustafa’s grandmother feeds us warm bread, homemade cheese and sautéed tomatoes on the roadside, I began to feel an immense sense of sorrow for what had happened to the boy, who sat quietly next to me eating with hesitation while night fell. I plan to go back to Beit Hanoun in coming days to meet Mustafa again and show him how to use my handheld video camera; while Mustafa may never regain his vision fully from this operation, perhaps the camera could help him sense and share his world with others in new ways despite his shyness.
As we leave Mustafa to come back to Gaza City, I get a call from Fadi with DARG Team (http://www.myspace.com/dargteamgaza), a hip hop group based in Gaza, who ask me to come by their home-studio as they work on their latest recording. Walking into their room all I can see is smoke from 2-3 hookahs lined up to keep the band working through the late hours of the night. With my camera in hand I begin filming their latest set as they perform in the cramped room, singing a Gaza freedom piece they released on December 27th, one year after the siege. Their lyrics are powerful and the beats riveting, and their own stories of struggle to make it as artists in Gaza despite the conservative attitudes and the siege are just as inspiring. They lament about their recent 4-day wait outside the Rafah crossing waiting to get into Egypt to fly to Europe for a concert tour, contemplating using the tunnels to make their way out. They were prevented from going abroad, but remain committed to their work in Gaza, performing at schools, making music videos, and speaking on Hamas radio talk shows as artistic and political acts expressing their voices of freedom.
After being thoroughly intoxicated by the smoke of Sheesha tobacco, I finally make my way home past 2am to begin another day of meetings with staff at the University College of Applied Science and the UNICEF field office. The meetings are very productive, possibly leading to some fruitful collaboration in the future. I come home before another appointment with a psychosocial expert later that evening. As the sun sets I take a walk by the Gaza seashore a few blocks from my hotel, watching horses on the beach and young fisherman cast their nets; I sit down and respond to some of them in my broken Arabic as they gently enquire about my background. We stay there through dusk, while thoughts of meeting 9-year old Mustafa the night before occupy my mind unknowingly…