Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crossing the Chocolate Seas over Sinai on a Bulldozer …

Sitting in a relaxed coffee shop in Cairo sipping a latte over light Tango music one can hardly imagine being in Gaza the day before. I arrived in Cairo well past midnight after 11 hours traveling from Gaza City, with a mix of exhaustion and relief, but a part of me wanted to stay back indefinitely…

In the morning, before I barely had time to pack for my trip I took my video camera along for a WHO press conference at the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. The event brought together physicians and medical practitioners, providing their testimonies of the struggles to bring medical aid and equipment into Gaza during the crippling blockade by Israel and Egypt. A Palestinian woman spoke about her relative, a 17-year old girl, who thrice applied for a permit to seek treatment for cancer abroad – but was denied until the day AFTER she died. In any other country this would be headline news, but in Gaza dozens of such cases occur each month, with the huge backlog of patients seeking advanced treatment outside. While Gaza does have some excellent medical staff working under difficult circumstances, most hospitals are unable to acquire advanced equipment, training or supplies easily, having to wait many months for Israeli authorities to permit such essentials for “security” reasons.

An article in the Guardian gives more details:

As the press conference ended, I captured some individual interviews and dashed back to my hotel to catch a taxi for the hour-long ride along the sea to the Rafah Crossing in the south, when it was supposed to staffed by 2pm. I kept getting conflicting accounts from folks that the crossing maybe shut today due to the floods in Sinai, but I decided to try anyhow. There I met Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawahin, who directs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program; we had met the day before for a long discussion about the psychosocial situation and the tremendous work they do in Gaza. It was pure coincidence that he was leaving for a trip to Switzerland the same day. Apparently, we were the only two individuals granted special permission to leave, as the border is still officially closed by the Egyptians for general transit. Until the last minute the Palestinian guards kept telling us the Egyptian staff would not arrive; as I spoke with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on the phone, we suddenly got word that we may be let through.

I went through the barbed wire transit center with Dr. Tawahin, taking him along even though his entry was not officially confirmed yet. The entire crossing center was deserted – a surreal experience having been there during the rush on my way in the last time the crossing was open on January 5th. We were treated cordially and asked to wait nearly 3 hours before our passports and security clearance was confirmed by the Egyptians. I was told a few times that my case was all set and that I could go through sooner, but I insisted on waiting till Dr. Tawahin got his clearance too, knowing all too well how Palestinians are treated when attempting to leave Gaza. The Egyptians warned us that the floods in the Sinai would make it impossible to cross this evening, and suggested we stay back another night. I did not realize the extent of the situation (over 15 people were killed due to the massive flooding) and insisted on leaving to go to Cairo to make my appointment for dinner with the Indian consulate that evening.

I found a taxi willing to take us, dropping Dr. Tawahin in Al-Arish while going on towards Cairo across the Sinai. Now it was nearly 7pm and the taxi driver stopped short of the flooded areas near the town and helped me walk with my bags in the dark (with cell phones lighting our way) across a long dirt road along the flooded valley, with several bulldozers working to create mud reinforcements. Through the narrow streets of the village we arrived at the beach with the roaring waves of the "chocolate seas", and slowly crossed our way through the wet sand. With my khaki pants folded up and the wheels of my luggage covered in mud, we finally noticed another bulldozer full of people waiting to cross the massive channel of rushing muddy waters. The locals helped me up the forklift of the bulldozer with my bags, as I marveled at the ingenuity of the Egyptians in dealing with the floods. I photographed some of the workers carrying loads on their back from the muddy water, only later in Cairo to realize one of their t-shirts said "Boston" to my utter surprise, as if predicting my way home!

As the bulldozer roared its engine and began moving, I held on tight to the forklift along with several others, one holding a baby in his arms. We soon started to make our way across the muddy river at a slow gentle pace, the waters lit only by the high beams of the bulldozer. I could hardly believe what was happening as we crossed the river without sinking into the mud, and the euphoric mood of everyone clamoring on top of the bulldozer. It took no more than 20 minutes (now imagined only in slow-motion) to make our way to the shore, where a welcoming party of taxis and locals awaited passengers going to towns on the other side. By now my khaki pants and bags were partially covered in a mix of grease and mud, all of which seemed minor compared to the miracle on the chocolate sea we just encountered.

As I finally stepped off the bulldozer, a woman in burkha offered to help me with my bags; I politely declined the kind gesture, insisting on carrying everything on my own. As I found another taxi to take me on the long trip to Cairo, the same woman asked for my phone number! Geez, that’s never happened before. I was confused and didn’t have time to understand why, but smiled bidding goodbye to everyone behind as I continued my journey onwards.

The taxi weaved through the Sinai desert drenched in a cold foggy breeze, speeding through towards the “Mubarak peace bridge” over the Suez Canal. We were stopped by Egyptian security on the only major checkpoint along the way; the army officer cordially asked about my background and seeing my Indian passport said “Welcome to Egypt” with a big smile. The return journey from Gaza was much less tense for some reason, with the tensions of the past few weeks having subsided. Crossing the massive span of the bridge past 10pm all I could see was dim lit villages along the coast and a few ships making there way through. We soon arrived at a road-side restaurant for a quick meal, realizing I was not going to make it to Cairo in time for dinner. The warm cooked meal was one of the best I've had while traveling, as my taxi got a free car wash while we ate; Egyptian roadside hospitality? Back in Cairo past midnight it took nearly 45 minutes to find my hotel criss-crossing the busy one-way streets of downtown.

At the Australian Hotel I found Roger, the filmmaker whose video camera I had borrowed during my time in Gaza. He was delighted to see me after over two weeks, as he planned to leave for New York the next morning. I gave Roger all 18 video tapes I shot in Gaza, hoping we’ll have a chance to edit them into a feature-length piece in the next two months. Perhaps we’ll call it the “Fragmented Colors of Gaza”, capturing the many contrasting realities and voices of everyday people and places I encountered on this memorable trip.

On my last night here in Cairo I think I could use a Shisha al Bahreni (apple-flavored water pipe) and maybe even some belly-dancing :-)

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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Update on Mustafa's eye surgery in Gaza and contributing via MECA online ...

Dear friends,

I just wanted to provide a quick update on Mustafa's situation in Gaza. Yesterday we met with Dr. Mahmoud Ghonim, a local eye doctor, to discuss his treatment. We had many generous offers from doctors in Israel/Jordan offering pro-bono services.

Dr. Ghonim looked over Mustafa's medical report and indicted he had a scar in his cornea and a traumatic cataract. Initially, they had conducted a sutering of the cornea and lens aspiration which needed to heal before further treatment. Now 2 months later, Mustafa is ready for the next stage i.e. an implantation of interocular lens (IOL).

We learned that this is not an especially complicated procedure and in fact the Al-Nasser Eye Institute in Gaza City should be able to handle it, as well as the Jordanian military hospital setup here after the last war. So I hope we can get Mustafa treatment locally in Gaza in the coming weeks without the stress and expense of going abroad, as he has no formal approval to do so.

While Mustafa's surgery here may not end up costing much, any contributions provided would go towards his ongoing rehabilitation and education.

We are fortunate to have the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA), based in Berkeley and Gaza, agree to serve as fiscal sponsor for donations to Mustafa's cause.

You may provide contributions securely online via facebook or directly on the MECA website on behalf of "Mustafa Shaban Zaanin" (Gaza):

I will continue to post some updates on my blog while I'm still in Gaza till Jan 20th.
Thanks for all your support and I hope Mustafa will recover fully soon.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti and Gaza: Understanding Crisis and Resilience

The devastating events of the recent earthquake in Haiti linger in my mind as I write this note today. My hopes and prayers are with the people of Haiti and all who are trying to assist with emergency relief work there... it feels odd being in the serenity of Gaza amidst all this.

Walking back home at midnight after a spicy falafel and creamy gelato from my favorite street vendors, I feel a strange sense of familiarity in the dim-lit streets of Gaza City. I’ve come to feel more comfortable walking alone at night exploring the neighborhoods and getting to know the city better, even though I lose my way home regularly, getting back on track only moments later (through the familiar sights and sounds); oddly it feels far safer than most North American cities I’ve lived in, perhaps due to the constant security presence and the warmth of everyday people here.

Even with my video camera in hand, I simply smile at onlookers making eye contact gracefully, and introduce myself during the shoot to make them comfortable around me. I try to disarm any suspicions with my hilarious command of broken Arabic and their imagined curiosity of my bollywood roots. Shopkeepers, cooks, waiters, and men smoking sheesha while watching Real Madrid vs. Barcelona playing football on TV, often invite me into their street side cafes urging me to come back and visit the next day… so is the spirit and hospitality of this place.

Watching online coverage of the situation in Haiti, it’s hard to come to terms with the immense loss of life and chaos of the tireless relief efforts underway. Only a year ago, Gaza suffered a similar crisis with devastating bombings of major infrastructure and over 1400 killed (and over 5000 injured) by Israeli air-raids and shelling during 23-days of the war here. As I travel around this small strip of land by the sea, one can still see destroyed homes and crumbling buildings that once housed government ministries, schools, Red Crescent hospitals, and factories. I try to probe a bit deeper by meeting individuals who lost their homes and loved ones, and professionals who stayed on the job despite the danger to their lives, social workers who struggled to deal with traumatized families, and mothers who tried to explain to their children why this was happening to them. While many physical and emotional scars remain from the shock of this unprecedented war, Gazans on the whole have been incredibly resilient through it all for reasons I still struggle to understand.

I can only imagine how families in Haiti are struggling to find loved ones among the ruins of their homes, relief workers struggling to cope with the immense catastrophe, and government agencies finding ways to restore essential services. No comparison is possible between such catastrophes – each with its own unique loss and human narratives. One can only begin to capture and learn from each one, respecting the impact of these individual catastrophes among the societies living through them. Gaza is a small place with a population of only 1.5 million of which over a half are children. Everyone I spoke to here often vividly describe the first few minutes of the beginning of the war like an earthquake shattering everything around them. Many children remember the time accurately (11:30am on December 27, 2009) and shuddered with fear a year later expecting the same, asking their parents to let them stay home.

No place was safe in Gaza on that clear sunny day in late December; everything everywhere seemed to be targeted with no apparent rationale. Besides offices and homes even ambulances were destroyed and doctors and patients miraculously evacuated many hospitals with only minutes of notice. Many people mentioned the strange intuition of their own cats who first became aware of impending disaster, and continued to signal their anxiety during the war before each bombing. Later these same cats would place their paws on the anxious children to calm their fears. Such are the odd stories I would hear driving in taxis and in my visits to schools, community centers, and people’s homes in the Gaza Strip.

I met an old woman in Beit Hanoun, still sitting outside her destroyed home having lost much of her family, living in a tin shack with only goats and bare essentials to sustain her. Leaving her after the interview, I tried to kiss her hand to express my grief for her (I had forgotten that this is simply not appropriate in the Arab world); she gently pulled away trying not to make me feel too awkward about that moment, but gazed deeply at me as if I were her own. Many such stories are happening in Haiti each day as we speak, only to be revealed as relief workers and journalists begin to probe human narratives more deeply and help people rebuild their shattered lives.

Haiti is no stranger to many natural and man-made disasters, but this earthquake is the most powerful and devastating for over 200 years. It has already left a scar through the country in ways that may take generations to recover. Yet I believe Haitians are also just as resilient, and will find ways to cope despite the presumably short-lived international humanitarian assistance. Haitians will likely find local community-driven solutions and use the crisis to begin the process of healing and rebuild their county in ways we cannot imagine. Gaza is doing just that despite the economic and political blockade, the ongoing Israeli siege and internal infighting among its political factions.

Mond and I visited Mustafa, the 9-year old in Bait Hanoun again to the delight of his grandmother and friends. We spoke to his father about his eye surgery and tried to arrange a meeting with his local doctor to gain more details on his possible treatment abroad. I remembered to bring my small digital video camera and proceeded to show Mustafa how to use it. We were immediately surrounded by all the kids and elders in his neighborhood; its not easy teaching with everyone else giving their own instructions on where to shoot. Mustafa gradually warmed upto the challenge and started mastering the complex controls on this little device, learning to frame his shots, zoom and capture photos and videos of children playing marbles along the roadside. I showed a few other kids how to use the camera, but asked Mustafa to be their trainer from here onwards. He took on that responsibility easily despite his shyness.

The next day I took Mustafa along with me to one of my meetings at the Al-Qattan Center for the Child in Gaza City. He was quite shy to come alone with me without his father, so we let him accompany us on this trip. I met with some of the directors of the center and arranged to have a workshop there the following day. They took us around on a tour of the gleaming new center, completed in late 2005 after many years of delays due to the blockade. The center provides a rich library, educational programs, and outreach services to kids and parents in Gaza. It’s a rare place for children to come in Gaza, a miracle that it even exists. As Mustafa and I walked along modern multi-colored spaces in the naturally-lit center full of curious kids engaged in play, Mustafa took my lead in capturing video as our guide showed us around. Mustafa would often get distracted with children watching cartoons or making paper montages, while I continued to interview staff at the center. In the end, I was trying to get Mustafa to learn video techniques simply by working along with me, choosing bright locations and angles and keeping up a good pace of recording crucial moments. I think Mustafa would make for a good co-producer and budding cameraman as he gets better after his surgery.

Mustafa had to leave early for a doctor’s appointment to have his eye examined. I subsequently posted a “cause” on Facebook to highlight his condition and help raise some funds for his surgery abroad:

People can provide contributions securely online to the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) on behalf of "Mustafa Shaban Zaanin" (Gaza):

Though I wonder with all that’s happening in Haiti now and the crucial relief efforts needed, whether anyone would care to hear about Mustafa. I’ve already been in touch with many concerned donors and doctors in Israel and Jordan who’ve offered to assist, once we have more information on his plans for medical referral abroad. I’ve discussed that last night with someone at the WHO, who coordinates such cases with the Ministry of Health in Gaza. I hope we’ll make some progress on Mustafa’s situation in the coming days before I leave Gaza on January 20th. While we can’t possibly address the large humanitarian tragedies in places like Gaza and Haiti, I think if each one of us simply adopts the case of one individual over a sustained period, we can make a small difference perhaps. I believe such experiences and the relationships emerging are likely to transform us far more than the individuals affected in many cases.

As part of my efforts to help establish a youth media program in Gaza, I conducted a day-long workshop at the Al-Qattan Center two days ago and was surprised to see nearly 25 participants show up from various community centers, the Shariq Youth Forum and the Qattan Center itself. We talked about our shared experiences working with children using media and creative expression over the years, watching examples of films produced by children, and how to develop a curricula and evaluation for such a program across Gaza next summer. The most fascinating part of the workshop was a rich discussion and arguments among the various participants on the issue of “inclusion” i.e. addressing not only talented children but all needy kids in refugee camps with such workshops, and also on our role as facilitators to allow children to express violent trauma in their films vs. guiding them towards more creative imagination and aspirations beyond their everyday reality. I chose not to speak during this heated session, instead allowing the participants to unravel their arguments among each other. People constantly looked towards me to interject, and I simply waited till everyone had a chance to express their concerns. I felt this open participatory discussion was so very crucial and I was glad that everyone was able to respect diverse opinions.

This spirit was exactly what we ought to promote in our own workshops with kids. I then went on to describe a story I heard from my meeting with Dr. Eyad Al-Sarraj, a noted psychiatrist in Gaza, at his home the night before. Dr. Sarraj mentioned to me that when he worked in Gaza during the Intifada in the late 80’s he struggled with how to deal with his traumatized patients. He came to realize that the best approach was simply to let them speak as a way to express their pain, which already had a healing effect. He then suggested that the solution to their dilemmas resided within the patient and not the doctor; all he did was to facilitate the emergence and resolution of that individual solution as he worked with them closely over time. I indicated that we must adopt a similar approach with children in Gaza who may have suffered various levels of direct or indirect trauma, anxiety, or depression. To allow them to speak and express their anxieties first perhaps through their initial drawings, photos and stories of the war, and then gently guiding them to uncover hidden dreams, aspirations and imaginative narratives in their films. I also felt that we needed to work with all children, regardless of their aptitude or trauma in a common setting to have them leverage a supportive peer environment rather than being considered special cases for treatment, though some will clearly need greater attention and care based on evaluations from baseline surveys and ongoing monitoring.

After the session many trainers came up to me and insisted that we invest ourselves deeply in initiating such a program together in Gaza. I suggested we also establish a team of psychosocial experts to develop an assessment and evaluation strategy in parallel with implementing the program across the centers this summer. We plan to have a focused meeting with such experts from UNICEF, Gaza Mental Health Program, Save the Children and local community centers tomorrow to discuss this further and develop a working plan. I feel such long-term sustained programs that tie creative interventions with psychosocial support are direly needed in places like Gaza and Haiti.

Later that evening after a long and intense day, I met up with a friend at a seaside restaurant for dinner and we talked over the soothing sounds of the tide over sunset. As the chilly breeze swept into the outdoor patio and gas lamps turned on, I began to realize another reason why people in Gaza remain resilient despite such catastrophes they regularly experience. As the fisherman cast their nets and horses rode across the shore, the receding waves began calming the sounds of traffic and the tensions of impending war in the busy streets of Gaza. I suspect it may be a long while before the sea in Haiti can clam the tragic loss there…

Monday, January 11, 2010

Everyday is better than tomorrow …

It’s not easy to write when events around you move faster than you can capture them…

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 (, 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…

Friday, January 8, 2010

Strawberries and Viva Palestina

The past two days have been hectic in Gaza as I began to meet so many warm and wonderful individuals... from Dr. Tarazi who took me to his farm in Beit-Lahiya where we picked strawberries together and talked about the trauma victims he saw in the Shifa hospital during the siege last year, to a Palestinian couple in their home, French and English teachers, who talked about dealing with psychosocial support for kids in school but feel that the adults need it just as much.

Gaza is full of contrasts from fancy hotels along the beach in Gaza City built during the economic boom around the Oslo accords in the 90's to cramped refugee camps like Rafah, Jabalia, Bureij, and Khan Younis in the north and south, that still struggle with the demands of daily life under the effect of an unjust blockade.

I spent the day with the Viva Palestina humanitarian aid convoy of over 500 people that made it into Gaza after a month of traveling across Europe and the Middle East.

They encountered many difficult days of negotiations with Egyptian authorities and violent actions by riot police at their port in Al-Arish... nearly 55 people in the convoy were injured - I saw many with bandages but still smiled when they arrived in Gaza. The British MP George Galloway leading the convoy spoke eloquently at many press conferences, greeted warmly by Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister. I've been shooting video footage and interviews with members of the convoy all day to cover the day's hectic events. I made many friends in the convoy already, though they all leave tomorrow as required by the Egyptian authorities.

In the evening I finally managed to get my first meal of the day at a local seafood restaurant with Maurice, a filmmaker here on extended stay and some Scandinavian journalists - it was probably the best seafood I've had in a long time; seabass and calamari never tasted this good. Later that night I went to the Gaza Sporting Club as some of the Irish delegates on the convoy delivered soccer shirts and materials to the members of the club after a fun game of soccer together. While I spoke with one of them, we heard distinct sounds like thunder in a distance... apparently it's a frequent occurance - as my friend Mond quickly identified them as a F16's dropping a payload of bombs ... as I got back to my hotel in a taxi, the news reports were quickly confirmed, however no casualties reported yet.

Just read this report in the news now - seems more serious than I expected:

This morning I hope to tour some of the devastated areas from the siege last year... I'm not sure if I'm fully prepared to see what we'll witness but plan to take along my camera and capture some footage and stories from residents who survived.

But for now I'm content munching on the bright red strawberries I helped pick at the farm by the sea last night, before another long day...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fresh sea breeze and sounds of roosters in Gaza City ...

A quick update from my travels in Egypt this week. This will be the first of many notes I hope to post from Gaza in coming days...

Last night after nearly 12 hours driving through the Sinai, 13 checkpoints and 3 granola bars (and a cargo ship that held up the Suez bridge for 2 hours), I'm finally in Gaza City...

I may be one of the only internationals to get into Gaza on my own in these past few weeks of intensified security on the border. A large convoy of aid called Viva Palestina led by former British MP George Galloway from the UK has been held up in Al-Arish - I met with some of them on my way in but they were unable to pass so far.

This was my 2nd attempt in 24 hours, having been turned back by Egyptian security at the 1st checkpoint at 2am when I did not have all my papers in order. The next morning with 3 hours of sleep, I scrambled to get letters of support in Arabic from the Indian Embassy and the Foreign Ministry to make it back in time before the Gaza Rafah crossing officially closed on Jan 5th.

While I had been held-up at nearly every checkpoint for verification - sometimes for upto 2 hours... having an Indian Passport really helps - nearly everyone mentioned their favorite bollywood actors at the crossing ... geez :-)

I finally managed to get to Rafah last evening, where again they kept me back for 2-3 hours saying I was not on their official list (despite interventions from my Embassy) - I was ready to take out my sleeping bag and camp out there, but last minute negotiations by a young Palestinian on my behalf finally allowed me in and I was glad to have the Palestinian stamp on my passport going into Gaza.

I'm staying at the Marna House in Gaza City for the coming week... this morning after catching up on some much needed sleep, I woke up and finally did some yoga to the call of morning prayers and roosters - a very relaxing soundscape...

I'll be keeping busy capturing video footage and meeting with local organizations and individuals all week to initiate my work here - so hope to make this a productive trip...

I'll try my best to post regular updates on my experiences here, given there are so few outsiders who can access Gaza during these difficult days.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blue Moon in Cairo with Candle lights and Baklava ....

Happy New Year to everyone!

Thought I'd share some pics taken here in Cairo last night:

My friends Jegan and Kamila flew into Cairo yesterday as well - nice to have them here this week.

We spent the evening in Tahrir Square silently lighting candles commemorating the one year siege of Gaza; it then turned into a celebratory evening after midnight with accordian music, singing and dancing, while the security forces watched and turned all locals away... as usual they brought in the riot police on stand-by ...

I then proceeded to hand out Baklava to all the police officers thanking them for standing with us for the freedom of Gaza all these difficult days :-) Nearly all of them accepted the treats with a smile - I even hugged and kissed a few I had come to know over the past days... it was both a very touching and hilarious moment... the pictures say it all.

Later that we spent the night on the terrace of a hotel watching the "blue moon" and danced with locals to arabic and latin music - a good reprieve after so many intense days of protests. Turns out most of them were gay Egyptian young men (many actors, artists and writers) - quite amazing dancers... great vibe... needless to say I made more friends on the dance floor than I expected :-)

You can see the rest of Antony's pics from the past week's events in Cairo below:

It's been a memorable time so far... hard to believe it's 2010 already!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Images from the Gaza Freedom March and New Years in Cairo

Another quick update from the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo. We've had quite a few great protests and events all week... many of you asked for images.

Here are some taken by friends:

Starts with some from our successful sit-in at the UN offices, where I'm protesting with an Italian clown :-)

Today was a massive action in the middle of downtown Cairo with several hundred activists marching and blocking the streets near the prominent Egyptian Museum... discreetly converging en-masse when flags went up simultaneously - there was some violent actions by riot police with a dozen protesters beaten and injured; after 30 mins protestors took over a square nearby for several hours calling it the "Gaza Freedom Square".

A striking image from the action in Le Monde that someone sent me today:

Don't worry I missed much of this as I was with the Indian Embassy in Cairo all morning. They finally agreed to provide a supporting letter on my behalf for a Gaza permit to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry - though it may take upto a week to process it if approved, so lets see how it goes...

Tonight we plan to have a candle-light vigil and hand-out sweets to all the police and security folks who've been joining our Gaza freedom protests all week :-)

It's a "blue moon" new years eve today... apparently happens every 20 years or so..

Wishing everyone a peaceful and joyous New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why I stepped off the bus to Gaza today ...

I'm writing with a heavy heart after a difficult morning for many of us in Cairo today. With few hours of sleep I along with many others arrived at 7am to 33 Ramses Street near the Egyptian Museum, intending to finally hop on buses to Gaza, designated for the 100-person subgroup from the Gaza Freedom March (GFM).

Some details on the last-minute Egyptian proposal brokered through President Mubarak's wife:

Upon arrival with a large group of people amassed there we all boarded two buses, but in the ensuing discussions together it became clear that many of us were deeply torn about the conditions under which we were being provided limited entry into Gaza by the Egyptian govt., for a 3-day trip leaving behind over 1300 GFM members, many still besieged at the French Embassy (camping there with riot police over the past 3 days).

Subsequent press releases by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry also cast their decision in very problematic terms for our ongoing work (saying that they chose only the peaceful humanitarian delegates for this trip). This was noted by many Palestinian groups and put the GFM organizers under a very difficult situation, making it more of a token gesture and highly divisive for all the groups working in solidarity over the past few months and the recent days of protests and hunger-strikes in Cairo.

While the discussions last night led us to feel it was an important opening by the Egyptian govt. through our concerted actions (though done under very tight timelines and conditions), many including myself now felt that going into Gaza as a limited "humanitarian group", with no change in the political situation for the Palestinians and a significant easing of the blockade, would be unproductive for our long-term goals as an effective force for political change.

We also heard from some Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who felt we should not play into the hands of the Egyptian tactics but strive for continued pressure to end the blockade of Gaza, having all GFM delegates admitted to go there, and negotiate under better political terms.

So after much discussion and reflection, it was a painful and emotional decision to step off the bus finally as Egyptian riot police began surrounding both buses and all GFM members on the ground. Some people (roughly half) decided to stay on-board and proceed on to Gaza on their own accord, including Palestinians being reunited with their families and others seeking to deliver aid or take video footage while there.

In the heated chaos, I proposed to many GFM organizers and delegates a possible way to recast the trip on our terms as a "human rights and media advocacy" mission only, and having the humanitarian aid delivered separately by Red Crescent (undercutting the Egyptian tactics); however while many found that a good approach it was simply infeasible to gain consensus on a joint position quickly at that moment, with buses scheduled to leave within the hour.

By 9:45am GFM organizers released a statement (see below) indicating they would no longer support the deal, but left it upto the individuals to decide to go onto Gaza in the buses if they wished.

All this was picked up in a great article by Al-Jazeera moments ago:

I personally decided to come here in solidarity with the larger GFM group and to help establish a youth media program in Gaza with psychosocial assessment conducted with local partners like UNRWA and UNICEF over time. I realized this would simply not have been realistic in the current situation under which we were being asked to enter Gaza.

I'm back at my hotel in Cairo and plan to work here over the coming days to pressure my own Indian Embassy to advocate for my entry into Gaza next week; the Ambassador happens to be away in India so it's a long-shot, but feels like a more politically appropriate strategy for me to undertake.

I also hope we will continue our solidarity work with local Egyptians against their own govt.'s repressive policies and keep the larger GFM group unified in building on much we've already accomplished in the streets of Cairo.

Critical articles in the Egyptian press and in the New York Times testify to the effect of this work on local and mainstream media already:

Stay tuned and hope to see you all in the New Year.

Dear Gaza Freedom Marchers,

The GFM steering committee spent most of the night discussing the decision to accept the Egyptian proposal for a 100-person delegation to Gaza. Some of us felt that the restrictions demanded by the Egyptians were unfair and that due process (including full consultation with partners) was not followed. We all share a similar goal, we want to break the siege of Gaza. Allowing in a delegation of one hundred people into Gaza, while excluding everyone else for no apparent reason, seemed to many a strategy to divide us. Further deliberation has led us to believe that we made a mistake; we should not have been content with so little or contribute to whitewashing the misdeeds of the Egyptian government. Already most mainstream newspapers ran articles about GFM. Our message, even from Cairo, is reaching new audiences. We are determined to continue pressuring the authorities so that we all enter Gaza as we set out to do.

We apologize for the confusion and distress this may have caused. We are no longer sending a token delegation to Gaza. Let's renew the momentum we have created and show Egypt, Israel and our own governments that we will not be silent.

La lutte continue!

GFM Steering Committee