A Million Dollars is Not Enough

I’ve already written about how Palestinians of all ages and genders in Gaza are nuts about Bollywood movies — and hence Indians — thanks to the “Zee Aflam” channel which streams Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Sharukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor & Co. 24-7.

But on Thursday I was shocked when Mohamed, a young Palestinian lecturer at Al Aqsa University in Gaza City, asked me if I had been to Sri Lanka and then proceeded to tell me about his deep concern for the human rights abuses of Tamils there.  “You really must go there and see for yourself,” he said. He had visited the island nation after attending a conference in New Delhi a few years ago.

Earlier Mohamed had asked me if I spoke Hindi, and I said no, that my family was from south India.  “Ah, are you Tamil?”  Even though I’m only half, I answered in the affirmative, surprised that he was familiar with Indian geography. Most Americans and Europeans I’ve met have never even heard the word, much less know where on the map Tamils hail from.

This conversation was all the more surprising because it took place in the besieged, blockaded Gaza Strip, land of the 37.4% unemployment rate, where 77% of households live below the poverty line and two-thirds of the population are refugees.  Another professor had just finished explaining how during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008/2009, Israel not only killed the living, but disturbed the dead — shelling the cemetery where his mother was buried.

We had also discussed the similarities and differences between Israeli apartheid and South African apartheid. In South Africa, blacks were allowed to travel on the same roads as whites, not so in the West Bank, where Israel prevents Palestinians from traveling on the same roads as Jewish settlers –which  now being challenged by the   Palestinian “Freedom Riders.”  Similar to the South African apartheid regime, Israel has corralled Palestinians into bantustans, however apartheid South Africa, unlike Israel, never bombed said bantustans or fired white phosphorous at civilians, burning them to death at temperatures of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Out small group concluded the conversation by agreeing that the growing movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is more critical now than ever.  Today India announced a donation of $1 million dollars to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides basic food and other basic services to 5 million Palestinian refugees.  While this money will no doubt be appreciated — especially in the wake of the U.S. cuts to UNESCO funding after Palestine gained a seat — people here in Gaza have repeatedly told me that they don’t want charity, they want solidarity, they don’t want aid, they want equality.

Just as India and Pakistan were the first countries to officially impose a trade embargo on South Africa in the 1950s, it is time for the developing world to yet again step up and act against apartheid — Israeli apartheid — when the west will not.

Gaza, Amitabh Bachchan and the Greatest Love Story Ever Known

Palestinians in Gaza love Indians.  They love Indian dancing, they love Indian music, they love Indian clothes.  Whenever I walk out of the house, someone inevitably asks “hiyya hindeyee?” Is she Indian?  “I knew it!” they say when the response is in the affirmative. “Bheb al Hind,” I love India.

Regular people here in Gaza know a lot about India — far more than the average American or European – which is really surprising given Israel’s closure of Gaza and its isolation from the world.  So why this love for India?

Is it because, nearly a decade before India’s independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi rejected the Zionist colonial endeavor in Palestine, writing on November 11, 1938:

What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.

Or is it the fact that India opposed the partition of British Mandate Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974, and did not extend full diplomatic relations to Israel until 1992?  Could it be that Yasser Arafat, whose visage can be seen on many a Gazan wall, billboard or door was warmly welcomed in India?

No, no, no and no.

But I had a sneaking suspicion I knew the answer after I recently showed a photo of my Indian-Canadian husband to a family I was visiting in a village in the southeastern part of the Strip a couple of weeks ago.

“Oh, handsome,” said 43-year-old Layla, gazing at the photo I had taken of Suresh on the subway.  Layla’s orange, lemon and olive trees had been bulldozed by the Israeli army about ten years ago when Israel created a “buffer zone” within the Strip. Her family had to vacate their farm home because the kids were terrified by the nightly Israeli army gunfire.  “I’ve seen him on the television.”

The kids came around and looked at the photo, “He was on the television, he was on the television,” declared 12-year-old Samaher, pointing at the small T.V.  “Raj Kapoor,” she added, naming the famous Bollywood actor from the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Tell him he’s invited to Gaza,” added Layla.

I was pretty sure that my husband had not been featured on Palestinian television in the month I had been away.  The mystery continued.

Then on Monday, I visited a Sammouni family for the Eid holiday in the Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza.  I had last visited that neighborhood in February 2009, in the aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead” when Israel had killed 48 members of a single extended family and turned the entire neighborhood into rubble.

I brought a big plate of sugary sweets and my wedding pictures.  They women went nuts. “It’s just like in the Indian films,” they cooed, “Amitabh Bachchan. Kareena Kapoor,” they added.

It all seemed to be coming together.  Amitabh Bachchan was largely responsible for my popularity, along with Kareena, Aishwarya, Hrithik Roshan and the whole gang.

Then yesterday, a woman I had met at a memorial event marking the 5-year anniversary of Israel’s shelling of a row of houses in Beit Hanoun, in the north of Gaza, invited me to a pre-wedding henna party.  We lay a wreath on the graves for the 19 killed – which included 14 from the same family — and then delivered Eid sweets to Bedouin families living near the buffer zone. Afterwards, we head to a modest home to see the bride.

I told the women at the party I had just gotten married five months ago.  A grandmother who appeared to be in her early seventies gave a short speech in Arabic which I interpreted as “Do you and your husband love each other a lot?”

“Of course,” I declared, thinking she must have found it odd that I came to Gaza so soon after getting married.

“What she means,” another woman translated, “is that Indian people, they have great love stories, she has seen it in the films, and she says that you and your husband, must have had a great love story too.”

Everyone leaned in, arms held out so as not to smudge the intricate lines of green henna drying on their hands.  I reflected on our time together . . . . was it an action romance adventure with mustached villains and elaborate choreographed dance scenes?

“Um, yes,” I said, wondering if they wanted more details.  They turned to more important questions.

“Do you know Kareena Kapoor?” one woman asked in Arabic.

“We love Indian films,” declared another.

“Dhoom 2 is my favorite,” added one recent college graduate.  “But I also love Jhoda Akbar.”

So Amitabh, Abhishek, Aishwarya, Amir, Hrithik, Kareena, Salman, Shahrukh, if you’re reading this, how about a shout out to 1.7 million of your biggest fans in the Gaza Strip?  Israel has forbidden pasta, tea, cement and freedom flotillas from entering Gaza, but it hasn’t stopped Bollywood. We watch you under the Israeli drones and the F-16s, after being shot at by the Israeli navy and army while fishing, picking olives or going to school.  You bring a sliver of joy to people living under the world’s longest occupation in the world’s largest prison, and for that we thank you.

Journey Across the Sinai

After many weeks of waiting, wondering, and doubting, I finally crossed into Gaza.  I flew back to Cairo shortly after the killing of 24 Copts protesting outside the Egyptian state television offices.  Curfew in Tahrir had been lifted  for the day, and I head straight to the Maspero to pick up my permission from the press office, which I had been told was ready.

I waited in the large, drab office, chock-full of 1950’s era desks and a couple of tired leather chairs, eyelids heavy from the long flight, while Mrs. H. retrieved the relevant paperwork.  It had taken a few weeks for them to run the routine security check, the normal amount of time, I was told.  Nonetheless, I gazed out the window at the Nile wondering if I had really, really, been approved and how one conducted a security check when one appeared to have forty desks but no computer, until suddenly I noticed a mounted machine gun to my right, and a very still soldier, gazing through the telescopic sight.  Sniper!

Of course! This had been where Sunday’s protest had occurred. Whereas in Egypt the building was referred to as the Maspero (the name I had become familiar with), the western press — from which I received my news while abroad — had called it the state television offices.  I had not made the connection that the building I had visited day after day in September, where I had made friends with the workers and eaten their cookies, was the building responsable for inciting people that night to “protect the army” from the protesters.

I stared at the soldier for an inappropriately longtime as my brain slowly made these connections until another soldier joined him. I looked away.  After a few minutes I left with my paperwork. Only then did I notice six large army trucks and dozens of soldiers in black uniforms milling about.

I met with Egyptian activists that night.  They all agreed that things were back to where they started, that the army thought that it could act as Mubarak did, with impunity, but they were not Mubarak.  They asked me a lot of questions about the Wall Street protests in the United States over beer and a dish that looked like humus, but was really “old cheese.”  Yes, that’s the official name “Gibne Qadeem” — blended up old cheese with vinegar.  I was a bit a sad to leave Cairo, city of dust and revolution, where I came knowing no one, but left a slew of new friends.  Alas, the country’s culinary innovations made it easier, and I took the first bus across the Sinai to Al-Arish and headed from there to the border.

The bus ride was largely uneventful. Indeed I slept most of the way, though the guy sitting next to me woke me up periodically to announce the good parts, like the bridge, the Suez Canal and particularly nice views of the Mediterranean.  He also told me I sleep a lot.

We passed two checkpoints and anyone suspected of looking foreign or Palestinian was asked to show their identification.  My bus companion, though Egyptian, happily handed over his identification each time “there’s a lot of Palestinians here that come through the tunnels” he explained.  Apparently, I look Egyptian while asleep, as I passed without problems.

In Al-Arish, I took a car to the Rafah border, about thirty minutes away.  “Do you want to go the legal way or the illegal way?” my driver asked referring to the tunnels. “The legal way,” I said. “I don’t think they will permit you,” he said shaking his head.  He then warned me that there would be many checkpoints that would be very difficult and wanted to know if he should admit we were going to the border.  “Yes, you can tell him the truth,” I said.  The driver, looked at me like I was very stupid but then shrugged.

We passed five more checkpoints, replete with sand colored tanks, without getting stopped.  Five checkpoints!  It seemed that this had never happened before. Occasionally, the driver would point out trucks filled with white boxes.  “They are going to the tunnels,” he said.

At the border, I met with someone from the press office who escorted me through in no time.  I got on the bus to the Palestinian side, and there it was, a big sign that “Welcome to Palestine.”