Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Leaving the Gaza Frontier and the Deep Chocolate Sea …

As I begin to write on (presumably) my last night at the Marna House in Gaza City, I wonder how my days will ever be the same without memories of the surging waves along the deep blue sea and candle-lit conversations in the warmth of people’s homes …

While I received confirmation letters from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the Indian Embassy to allow my exit to Cairo through Rafah crossing, no one knows whether my name will actually emerge at the border which is still officially closed. Many endless hours of waiting are the norm for most Palestinians seeking to cross, if they are fortunate to even receive an authorization to leave Gaza. I’m unsure if the delicious “Collage” desserts (a light form of Bakalava) I bought for friends tonight will assure my passage with the Egyptians tomorrow, but it’s worth a try if all else fails.

Yesterday I visited the Rafah refugee camp along the southern frontier to meet an UNRWA supported Woman’s center and learn about their programs with poor families and children living in the narrow alleys of the camp. As I heard from staff there, the biggest challenge in the community seems to be dealing with young boys working in the tunnels (or “Anfaq”) to sustain their families. Many of them are killed or imprisoned each year by regular bombings of the tunnels by Israeli F16s (a 14-year old died last week) and Egyptian raids on the other end. After visiting the center my taxi driver agreed to show me some of these tunnels along a dirt road facing imposing Egyptian security fences.

Walking along the muddy path in front of bombed-out homes from the war in January last year, I noticed an array of small tents each with a work crew living with minimal belongings there. I was able to gain entry into the first tent by a hospitable worker, but could not negotiate to use my video camera as they wished to keep their identities anonymous. I soon came upon an elaborate setup with an impressive shaft going over 50 meters deep into the muddy ground below, lined with wood paneling and two-way radios. Each tunnel often takes nearly two years to construct at an expense of over $100,000. The boy below signaled to prepare the next payload to lift up the shaft. The work crew insisted on having me use the pulley to lower myself in the tunnels for a brief visit. I declined their kind offer of underground transit into Egypt, though I may have to take them up if my crossing tomorrow at the border fails.

In the second tent, I was able to gesture to the busy crew with my camera turned on dangling from one hand, but I soon let them know I wished to film their massive undertaking. The lens could barely capture the breathtaking view from above as I tried to hold steady and not make an inadvertent free-fall dive into the shaft. The next payload of cooking oil in large green canisters quickly emerged up the pulley, as I pulled away to frame the shot. These tunnels as I later learned provide all the fuel for the Gaza strip, an unbelievable feat that relies on poor young boys risking their lives each day along a dangerous underground frontier. A new steel wall, 50 meters below ground, being built by Egypt along the frontier (with support from the US and Israel) may all but evaporate this thriving tunnel economy, tightening the continued blockade of Gaza. I can only imagine the ingenuity of these young boys, working around the new steel walls, by hoisting their green canisters on radar-evading hot-air balloons or shooting giant slingshots by moonlight…

Later that afternoon as we stopped along the sea on my way back to Gaza City, I asked a young Palestinian girl to help me interview some fisherman trying to haul their meager catch for the day. The fisherman talked about the challenges of working in the rough seas but also lamented the restrictions on their boats going more than a few kilometers out, before being attacked by Israeli navel ships. Many just came to feel the calming waves of on the coast to ease the tensions along the Gaza strip, and talked about future generations sharing the seas in peace with their Israeli neighbors. One of the talkative older fishermen, weaving a large net, joked that since his son got married they hadn’t caught any fish for days. As we turned to interview the handsome young man, sitting quietly in a distance looking out to sea, I asked about his wedding in Gaza. While it was prearranged I sensed deep love in his light green eyes as he shied away from revealing much about his wife; his father and brothers kept taunting him and interrupting our serene interview.

I conducted another workshop that day with young Palestinian journalists and videographers working as volunteers with the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem to document incidents in Gaza. The captive crowd of 12-15 participants watched some of the short films we produced with youth in the West Bank as we analyzed how best to construct issue-based film narratives suited to western media and audiences. We talked about how best to use hand-held camcorders vs. professional video cameras under the different circumstances of spontaneous events they often face in Gaza. They were keen to work with an Israeli human rights group to reach out to a critical audience for their films. A recent article in the New York Times captures this work quite well:

The storms came through last night with an expected downpour punctuated by flashes of lightning, my first such experience in Gaza. Sitting with a cosmopolitan Palestinian family in their apartment on the 9th floor of a seaside tower, we were plunged in darkness for a few hours continuing our endless conversations and laughter over candles and pizza. The mom dressed in jeans joked about the fancy cars now being driven by Hamas despite their austerity when elected three years ago. She also talked of her studies in Arabic literature in Cairo, love of bollywood films (yes again!), and travels in Europe and South Africa before the blockade over the past few years. As I spoke to one of her 17-year old daughters (who looks rather Indian) about her experience during the war, she calmly parted her long black hair to reveal a scar on her head grazed by a bullet from an Israeli sniper in the early days of the siege. Her survival was a miracle and she spoke about it so casually that I had to hold back tears, realizing how our laughter that evening was just as important among besieged families here. As the rain subsided and I made my way home, I was unprepared to witness the aftereffects of the storms the following days.

Waking up late today after a long night of work on an overdue paper, I got a call from a colleague that I must immediately go and head out to the beach with my camera. She said the entire sea had turned chocolate! I thought I was still dreaming not knowing how to make any sense of what I just heard. As I caught a taxi to head south on the beachfront road, I was stunned to see dark brown waves crashing against the shoreline. I thought perhaps I had the wrong color filter on my camera, trying to adjust the saturation to blues but the chocolate waves persisted as if from another imagined world.

I continued filming from the fast moving taxi, stopping occasionally to get a steady shot and find someone to help explain the bizarre occurrence. The spot where I had filmed fisherman on a bright blue coast just the day before, was now covered in muddy murky waves that seemed more imposing than before. As I continued down the road, I saw many farms and mud homes submerged in the muddy waters. Large crowds and camera crews from several news agencies began setting up below a bridge, with muddy water gushing into the sea. As we began interviewing people, we learned that this had not happened in over 15 years. Israeli dams in the valley above had either overflowed or were carelessly opened due to the storms; no one knew which was the case, but over a 100 people were evacuated from their homes last night and many farms and chicken pens remained submerged with dirty polluted waters. Many of the homes destroyed were built poorly given the lack of concrete and materials allowed into Gaza due to the blockade. As I finally perched my camera up above a hill, I watched as deep blue currents from the south slowly began to push the chocolate sea towards the Israeli city of Ashkalon far into the distance.

Gaza remains resilient despite the siege of its land and seas through the sustained spirit, humor and tenacity of its people. Living here the past two weeks has only taught me to strive for the patient calm and warmth I’ve seen in the eyes of fisherman, strawberry farmers, photo-journalists, physicians, waiters, school teachers, tunnel boys, taxi drivers, painters, policeman, hip hop performers, street vendors, and working professionals dressed in suits and heels – all seeking to breathe a little more beyond the thresholds of this tiny coastal strip by the Mediterranean.

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