Drones in the Shower, F-16s on the Street: On Leaving Gaza

I made the long journey out of Gaza last week.  I must say, though I will miss the dozens of people who invited me into their homes, shared their stories, cooked me lunch, put up with my bad Arabic, boiled me countless glasses of rosemary tea and served me thick black coffee in petite rimless cups, I could not get out of there fast enough.

Gaza is not a pleasant place to be.  The Israeli occupation smothers and suffocates, it makes one highly attuned to one’s surroundings in unnatural ways, or ways that were once natural but should no longer be.

I never thought I’d look so forward to coming to Cairo, a congested, polluted city that I had little love for before the revolution. After a long journey though the Rafah crossing, across the Sinai and back to my hotel off Tahrir Square, I jumped in the shower. And then the humming noise started.  I froze, soap bar in hand.

“The drones are really loud,” I said, to no one in particular. They must be quite close.  And then I realized, it was just a malfunctioning bathroom fan.

I continued on with my shower, washing my face. The water had a curious scent to it. It also felt gentle and silky. I continue to sniff it, curious. Why, it was the scent of clean water of course! I had grown used to the salty, contaminated water I had been bathing in for two months; water that caused my skin to itch, my hair to smell like an old towel, and to fall out at greater frequency than normal.

Later in the evening, I met up with a friend for a drink nearby. Oh the joys of electricity! Not that the streets around Tahrir have street lights in the American sense — but the stores are lit. And those lights, in turn, made it possible to see where one was stepping! Not so in Gaza, where one has the pleasure of walking around in pitch blackness after 5:30 p.m., listening to Israeli drones overhead.  Indeed, the latter half of my going away party took place by candlelight.

Back at the hotel, the shifts had changed and Sami the “bill boy” from two months earlier waited outside.

“Oh hello!” he exclaimed. “Your head is very small,” he said in English. “Before, big, now small.” He gestured with his hand for emphasis. Indeed, I had lost a lot of weight. I switched to Arabic and told him I had been in Gaza, and he made fun of my “Palestinian accent,” pronouncing the “j” as a “j” instead of a “g” as they do in Cairo.

The next morning I awoke to the strange-sounding Israeli F-16s outside my window. Many of them. I unearthed myself from under the covers. I was in Cairo.  The Israeli Air Force was not outside, only morning commuters. What a relief! I walked around the city which was filled with things to buy, all kinds of things, spare car parts, stuffed toy camels, circuit boards, Bedouin necklaces, digital cameras and steaming bowls of delicious kushari.

Back in New York City, I found that Gaza had also rendered me unnaturally attuned to the normal sounds of industrial life.

I stepped out of the subway from JFK airport onto the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan in deep conversation about something. A helicopter suddenly flew overhead. I couldn’t concentrate; IAF Apache helicopters meant death. I kept walking past store after store, admiring New York’s creative uses of electricity, knowing full well that Eyewitness News wasn’t going to assassinate anyone, but unable to not keep an eye on it.

So I’m back in the United States, enjoying the luxury of knowing a foreign government won’t shoot at me, kidnap me, limit my electricity or cause my water to be non-potable.  But in the midst of the decorated trees, sparkly lights and mistletoe, I can’t forget that two days after Christmas 2008, Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead”, its 22-day offensive in Gaza, that Palestinians simply call “the War.”

Thanksgiving in Gaza

It all started with a simple question from Jabar, a Palestinian farmer from Faraheen, during Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.

“Is there an American eid (holiday) where you slaughter an animal?” he asked Nathan, a colleague here in Gaza, a few weeks ago.

Thanksgiving and turkeys came to mind.

And so, I found myself celebrating “Thanksgiving,” Gazan-style, this afternoon in the small, southern Gazan village.

Layla and her daughters with the turkey in Faraheen

Nathan painstakingly put together a variety of ingredients over the past couple of weeks to make a proper meal: turkey, baked beans, sweet potatoes, biscuits and chocolate chip cookies! We had to nix the stuffing, gravy was too difficult, and pie, out of the question.

After six weeks of falafel (delicious as it is), I was really looking forward to Nathan’s Midwestern cuisine. But would it all come together given Gaza’s regular power outages, Israel’s recent shooting at farmers in the area and the lack of key ingredients due to the siege?

We rose early to accompany farmers in Faraheen to their land within Israel’s 300 meter  “buffer zone” – or “kill zone” – as Palestinians here frequently call it.

The week had not been a good one, and I was concerned that our belated Thanksgiving would turn into Black Friday.

On Wednesday, the Israeli army had shot live ammunition in the air when our group went with farmers to the buffer zone in nearby Khuza’a.

The day before, the Israeli army had called the Palestinian Office of Coordination and told them that they “wanted to shoot” us and twenty Palestinians while we were in northern Gaza nonviolently protesting the Israeli occupation, the buffer zone, and 63 years of dispossession in the buffer zone.  The Palestinian Authority frantically looked for the phone number of Saber Zanin, the organizer of the weekly Beit Hanoun protests and told him, “We are trying to ask the Israelis not to shoot you. They wanted to shoot you and kill you.”

And yesterday, 3 nautical miles of the coast of Gaza, an Israeli naval warship chased our small humanitarian boat, the Oliva, along with several Palestinian fishing boats, towards the shore for no apparent reason.

Today just couldn’t be good.  Would our Gazan Thanksgiving look more like the original Thanksgiving — a symbol of land seizure, dispossession and ethnic cleansing — than the delicious turkey-filled version I was hoping for?

I rose early, gulped down a cup of sugary tea and dry floury date cookies that Jabar’s wife Layla made before heading out to the buffer zone. The sky cleared and I heard Israeli drones overhead.

On the way to the buffer zone, we met 26-year-old Yusef Abu Rjeela, the farmer who want was hoping to sow wheat on his land.  We asked him what he wanted to do if the Israelis started shooting.

“Stay on the land,” he said. If the Israelis shot in the air, he didn’t want to run. And if they shot at us, well . . . .

We continued onward, and my cell phone rang.  It was Nathan. “I put the beans in the pressure cooker for 30 minutes and they’ve become bean soup!” he exclaimed. “Layla says I shouldn’t have soaked them and used the pressure cooker.”

“Stay calm,” I said. “Do you have more beans?” He did.  We continued on our way.

Five of us foreigners donned our yellow vests, and accompanied Yusef and another farmer as one sowed wheat and the other plowed the land.  The drones went away.

All seemed quiet on the eastern front.

An Israeli military tower stood in the distance. A white balloon equipped with an aerial surveillance camera flew overhead.  The former farmland was dry and brown from years of Israeli bulldozing and tank traffic.

After a while, we made bets on when the Israelis would start shooting. It was 11:25 a.m., and I put in for 11:45 a.m., another person for 11:50 a.m. Hussein, a Palestinian university student who came with us, didn’t think the Israelis would shoot at all.

At noon, the farmers had finished and we all started to walk back to the village. Yusef explained to us the lawsuit his family had filed against the state of Israel for murdering his younger brother the day after Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009.  His father, who had witnessed the murder, had gone to Israel to testify.

As we left the buffer zone, I congratulated Hussein on being right about the shooting. Then we heard it — Israeli army gunfire in the distance. The time: 12:05.

We promptly head back to Jabar’s house in the village. There, Nathan was immersed in a whirlwind of preparation.

“Get the baking soda out of the bag!” he directed.

“You mean baking powder?” I asked him, looking the plastic bag he had brought from Gaza City.

“No, soda.”  There was no baking soda. We were in for a biscuit disaster. Moreover, Layla and four of her five children were swirling around the kitchen, unsure of these strange American preparations.

Beans with sugar? In the oven? Nathan opened the ancient iron contraption, and held out a spoon for me.  I stuck my tongue out and slurped up the brown deliciousness.

“Is it good?” asked Layla, suspiciously. “Is Nathan a good cook? Can you cook better?”

Zacky ikthir,” I responded. Very tasty. “Not quite done,” I said to Nathan. “I can cook, but maybe Nathan is better than me,” I added to Layla. She didn’t seem convinced.

Nathan shooed everyone away, but we stayed in the kitchen, it was the warmest room in their small, cement block, metal sheet-roofed house.  And, I was clearly the only one cut out for the role of taster. Layla turned to more important questions.

“You’re a lawyer, can you sue Israel for me?” she asked. “All our problems come from Israel. When I was 14, they shot me in the hip. Then they bulldozed our olive trees and took our land. What can we do?”  I hadn’t realized that Layla’s limp stemmed from about 1980, when the Israeli army entered her school and shot her as she tried to help a wounded friend.

She turned away to take the turkey out of the pot.  The oven wasn’t big enough for a whole bird, which was only sold in pre-cut pieces. All in all, it was a delicious lunch, and no one got shot. And that, is something to be thankful for.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

While Picking Strawberries

Today was the first day of Eid, and I awoke to the Arabic dance beats of Nancy Ajram. The alleys around around my apartment where alive with the sounds of children playing late into the the night, but I didn’t mind the sleep interruption. At least it wasn’t drones. And I love Nancy.

In the afternoon, we went to a special Eid children’s fair at a park in Beit Hanoun, in the north of the Gaza Strip.  Fifty percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, and as we arrived, that statistic became quite clear. There were kids everywhere.  Playing, dancing, singing –riding horses — all in their brand new Eid clothes.  Poofy synthetic dahlia barrettes were all the the rage among the girls. Volunteers from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, which works with children traumatized by Israeli violence (among other things) were singing and clapping as dozens of kids shrieked with pleasure as we arrived.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Then there was a sort of homemade karaoke where Arabic songs were played over speakers and kids would sing along.  Everyone got a prize.

Afterwards, one person in our group wanted to stop at the morning tent in Beit Lahiya to pay respects to the family of the farmer killed by the Israeli Air Force on Thursday,  Nasr Ibrahim Alean.  Here in Gaza, its the custom for the family to receive people for three days after the death of a loved one.  I admit, I didn’t want to go. We had such a nice day with the kids, and I just wanted to go home. And wouldn’t we be bothering them anyway? They didn’t even know us.

Our car turned down a dirt road and we pulled up along a cement block house.  Men sat on plastic chairs outside under a tarp, and they warmly welcomed us in.  We asked where the women’s side was and I along with Silvia and Hama were led behind a plastic tarp to the area where the women family members had gathered in a circle.

We sat down, and I wondered if it would be in bad form to ask them what happened.  An attractive woman in a purple headscarf introduced herself as Nasr’s Aunt told us the story. Periodically others would join in.  Nasr, who was 23, was picking strawberries on Thursday, when an Israeli helicopter shot him in the leg.  As he lay on the ground bleeding, he called his brother, and told him he had been shot.  The helicopter fired again and blew his head off.

“His brother was to get married in two days,” said Nasr’s Aunt. “I had gone to the salon to get my eyebrows done, and then he was killed. He wasn’t in the resistance, he was just trying to work.”  She added that Palestinians just want freedom, they want their own state, but Israel had completely closed Gaza. “They don’t even want us to work. If it wasn’t for the United Nations, I don’t know what we would do.”

Other women echoed the Aunt’s sentiments, saying they just wanted freedom. They were so happy we had come, and offered us dates, insisting that we take three, when we reached for one. “The prophet Mohammed always ate in odd numbers,” they explained. But one is also an odd number, I thought. But it was too late, I had taken three.

After the dates, they served us bitter coffee, the tradition after a death, and brought out a photo album of Nasr. Someone mumbled that he was very handsome and indeed he was. We flipped through photos of him eating with friends, posing in a studio with hearts as the backdrop, and just hanging around.

An old woman in her seventies appeared and sat behind me. She wore a white headscarf and a traditional blue Palestinian dress with red and white embroidery down the front.  “They [the Israelis] don’t care about human rights,” she said. “There are no human rights here.”

A Long Day

I probably shouldn’t be complaining about my long day — the people on Freedom Waves are having a much longer one. Today was probably the wettest day in Gaza I’ve experienced in the three weeks I’ve been here and definitely the coldest.  It started pouring rain a couple of hours ago and all we could talk about was the people on the flotilla, how the must be freezing in Ashdod at the moment after being drenched in the waterfall of Israeli water canons.

I stayed up later than I should have last night, following the latest developments of the boats on Twitter.  I eventually went to sleep, dreaming of tweets saying the boats were safe, that they hadn’t been stopped, that it was okay to keep sleeping.  When I awoke, it was off to the big welcome hosted by the Palestine Fishing and Marine Sport Association.  Israel hadn’t stopped the boats yet and people were daring to hope. Only 80 nautical miles away!  The president of the Association, Mahfouz, wanted to know the exact speed they were going so he could calculate the arrival time.  The speed of the boats wasn’t being tweeted.  And would they really arrive?

After the press conference we boarded a boat and sailed around the harbor singing Palestinian songs like Unadikum while people waved Palestinian flags and held up signs in Arabic and English.  (For photos check out palsolidarity.org shortly).  If you don’t know Unadikum, the lyrics can be found here.

The water was extremely choppy, even inside the harbor, so I can only imagine what it was like for those on the mini-flotilla attacked out on the high seas.  Needless to say, they never made it.  They feel very close — Ashdod is only about 20 miles from Gaza, but an illegal blockade divides us. Israel claims Gaza is no longer occupied. If that’s true, then why is it every time I look up,

Photo by Hama Waqum

I see their drones, when I go out to sea I see their warships, when I pick olives in the north I see their tanks and jeeps, and when I walk east I feel their bullets pass my ear?

Photo by Hama Waqum

Israel Drops Missile on North Gaza Neighborhood, No One Cares

The Israeli Air Force fired a missile into a Beit Hanoun residential neighborhood in north Gaza early Sunday morning. The missile landed in a grove surrounded by homes, creating a crater the size of a tennis court and destroying over forty orange and olive trees. Chunks of shrapnel and oranges lay scattered about the grove

Local children and area residents interviewed appeared to be in shock.  Ayman Ismail Hamad explained that “[a]t 3 a.m. we heard a huge boom. It was so scary for the children and women here and they started to shout and cry – such a scary thing for them.  When we looked out to see what happened we found everything there totally destroyed . . . and the windows from the houses in this area – totally nothing. The [Israeli] F-16 didn’t leave anything behind.”

The owner of the farmland, Sufyan Musa Muhammad, reported losing approximately 40 orange and olive trees, not including the uprooted trees at the periphery of the crater, valued at approximately $200 a tree.  “It’s not just the price,” he added, gazing sadly at the upturned alien landscape.  “It’s that there’s no more fruit.”  According to Muhammad, no journalists had approached him regarding the Israeli missile attack, which went unreported.

Thirteen-year-old Amer Ayman Hamad, whose house is about 50 meters away from the impacted area said, “There was boom . . . I didn’t scream, I just woke up . . .  it was during the night we didn’t hear any plane except for the sound of the drones . . . after that I went to the bathroom.”

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack which terrorized local residents.  No one was injured.  Palestinians in the area believe that Israel used an F-16 to bomb the residential neighborhood due to the size of the crater and the thickness of the shrapnel.

When asked if he believed Israel should compensate him for his loss Muhammad replied, “I don’t want money from the Israelis. Whatever they do to us we are steadfast and strong and we won’t leave our land.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sleepless in Gaza: Living under the Drone

I was so exhausted yesterday I swore that nothing, nothing, would keep me from going to bed at a decent hour.  I ate my dinner, put on my pajamas, and crawled under my fluffy blue blanket. And then it started. A loud humming sound. It grew louder and louder, like the offspring of a killer bee and a Boeing 747 was flying toward my apartment building, and then pulled away, and then returned  again. I tried to ignore this sound. I pulled my blanket over my head and stuck my head under my pillow.  But they only grew in number; now there were many of them. I reached onto the floor from under my blanket for my ipad to see if the internet would provide any information on to what the hell was going on in Gaza; I checked Haaretz and Maan news, but no word on this strange sound.  I finally got out of bed.

“What the f!!k is that sound?” I asked my flatmates.

“Drones,” they replied.

“Is this normal?” I asked. They nodded.

I went back to bed and unsuccessfully tried to go back to sleep.  The sound of aircraft and loud noises overhead were not new to me. I grew up 15 minutes from an airport.  I spent the last 3 years in a section of Los Angeles where the police department regularly uses helicopters in police chases.  Last year, a fire started in the apartment next door to mine, burning through our shared roof and wall–I slept through the smoke alarm. Sleeping is one of my talents.  Last night, I could not sleep.

I tossed and turned, thinking of those kids in Beit Hanoun, close to the border, who I had picked olives with last week and how scared they must be. What do parents in Gaza tell their kids to allay their fears? Were my Pakistani and Yemeni counterparts having similar sleepless nights?

Anyway, I must have slept, because I awoke . . . to the sound of drones.  It was 6:30 a.m., and I again checked the internet. Israeli drones over Gaza were not newsworthy. I got up. I attempted to write. The sun rose overhead, but the drones did not leave. I had a meeting with some university students at noon; the drones were still there.

“We could hear them during class,” said one.  I asked them if this was normal.

“Oh yes, they’re here all the time. It was really bad during Ramadan,”  she added.

As I write these words I can still hear the drones above me.  I shouldn’t complain. A mother living alone with her four daughters in Khoza’a (south Gaza, near the border), where I got shot at on Friday reported hearing Israeli Apache helicopters and the booming of Israeli tanks all night yesterday.  Of course, this isn’t newsworthy.  Even Palestinians in Gaza think its normal. I was telling one of the university students who wants to be a journalist when she graduates that she should write about this stuff, how when Israelis suffer from shock it makes the front page but no one knows that Palestinian kids get shot at while playing or walking to school in Gaza.

She seemed to agree with me. “We in Gaza, we are shocked when they don’t shoot at us,” she said.