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.

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Under the Missilefire: Celebrating Eid in Gaza

Eid-al Adha began in Gaza at sundown. For those of you not familiar with Eid, it’s the Festival of Sacrifice, and marks the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all able-bodied Muslims should make once in their lifetimes. It’s one of the two most important holidays for Muslims, sort of akin to Christmas for Christians. Since everything would be closed tomorrow, we head to Gaza’s Old City to buy some vegetables.

I was excited to see what Eid was like in Gaza. The last Eid-al Adha I spent in Palestine was in February 2003 in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem.  At that time, Tulkarem had taken on an air that reminded me of Christmas back in the states, with families out buying presents for loved ones—until the Israeli army entered firing teargas as moms and kids ran to get away from the noxious fumes.

When we arrived to the Old City, the streets were packed with people seemingly there for some last-minute shopping.  The tradition here is to give family members gifts of clothes and candy. Though we walked through narrow streets lined small stalls, it became apparent few people actually appeared to be buying anything.  I first stopped off for a smoothie or a “cocktail” as they call it here. We were the only customers.  We then walked around the stalls filled with candies wrapped in colorful foil. No customers.  Then it was off to buy vegetables, but I got distracted by some deep-fried sweets I hadn’t eaten in 8 years. The sunset and we were the only customers. A bag of crispy dough drenched in sugar syrup cost 1 Israeli shekel ($.25).  A Welsh friend bought a bag, and I bought some larger crescent-shaped ones stuffed with walnuts.

Then, it was on to the vegetables!  We slid past the hordes, but again no one seemed to be buying. A very eager child asked me what I wanted.

“Filfil!” I blurted out. Bellpeppers.

He led me past the onions and carrots towards a pile of yellow and green peppers and thenstarted tossing them into a plastic bag, thinking that I had wanted a kilo, though  I had only asked for the price per kilo. He was so damn cute I bought the full kilo.

I started to eat my sweet as I walked back down to the main square, but then I stopped, feeling bad.  There’s definitely stuff available to buy in Gaza.  Food and goods are clearly making it through the tunnels—at a steep markup.  But nearly 40% of the population is unemployed, with little hope of finding employment.  Though Israel claims that it imposes its blockade of Gaza for security, Israel prevents all goods from leaving Gaza.  Gaza’s real per capita GDP in 2011 is 35% below it’s per capita GDP in 1993.  I’m curious to know how Israel’s strangulation of Gaza serves Israel’s security.

Anyway, upon returning home, I learned that Israel fired on Palestinians in East Gaza  City earlier today without warning, as farmers worked their land.  Apparently, the people were confused as to why the Israelis were shooting at them–something I could definitely relate to. One person was injured.  Since then, Israeli helicopters have been shelling Khan Yunis, in the south.

Doesn’t leave a lot to celebrate.

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On Shwarma and the Generosity of Palestinians

I’m constantly struck by the generosity of Palestinians here.  Yesterday, I went to buy a 9 shekel shwarma sandwich but only had a 100 shekel bill.  (9 shekels is about $2).  The kid behind the counter (he couldn’t be more than 18 or 19) had carefully pronounced each word in Arabic for me slowly.

“Ba-sil?” he asked.  Then held up some sliced onions.

“Aiwa.” I responded.

“Salata,” he then said slowly, a mix of lettuce and tomatoes in his tongs.  I realized this was going to go on forever.

I want everything, I said, in Arabic.

“Are you from xxxx,” he asked, naming a country.

“Yes,” I said.

“I knew it. I love xxxx.” He then pointed to the red spicy sauce, already dabbing some onto the flat tortilla-like bread.  “A little or alot?”

“Ikthir.” Alot.

It came time to pay and he said, no its on me, holding his hand to his chest and bowing lightly.

“No, I insist on paying,” I said.  (At least in my own head, my Arabic is not that eloquent, and I don’t know the word for insist.) I looked over at the older man standing inside the shop next to a bunch of plastic chairs.  But the kid just kept shaking his head, saying that it was on him and that I had come from faraway.  I started to feel really bad.  The statistics started flashing through my head: Gaza had the highest unemployment rate in the world.  45.2% of Gazans of working age are unemployed.  52% of children in Gaza suffer malnourishment, according to the a study by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

And here I was, a bit chunkier than usual (I had gained a few kilos before coming to Gaza), getting a free shwarma sandwich with everything on it AND extra spicy sauce!

Luckily the owner / the kid’s uncle came over. I held up my 100 shekel bill, and the man gave the kid a piercing look.  I walked by this place almost every day, and I had never seen a client.  I had actually wondered if it was safe to eat that shwarma, or if it had been roasting there since 2006.  The kid attempted to say something about not having change, about how I came here all the time (I didn’t) and the man just took the bill and went next door to get change.  I wasn’t sure how much the shwarma cost so after he gave me 90 in cash I started to walk away.

“Wait, wait.” he said, then pulled out a 1 shekel coin out of his pocket. I tried to say goodbye to the kid before leaving, but he just stared at the floor, embarrassed.

The food in Gaza is wonderful . . . if you can afford it.

This food here is really good. I mean seriously, delicious.  Although Israel bulldozed all of the olive trees (as well as houses) within the “buffer zone” —  300 meters from the border, Palestinians in Gaza have still found ingenious ways to survive, like planting wheat close to the buffer zone where trees once grew.  Because of Israel’s blockade, if its not grown here, it likely came from Egypt through the tunnels.  The first time I came to Gaza, I thought everyone was trying to cheat me.  Why was a bottle of water or a can of Coke so much more expensive than the West Bank  or in Israel?  The shelves were bare and I survived largely off power bars. And then I realized that was the cost of living in Gaza: it had all come through tunnels.

A family seven generously invited me to eat lunch with them today and then took me around the remains of their farmland.  Above is a photo of the delicious fish maclube we ate, as well as the most interesting iteration of a shwarma sandwich I’ve had to date.  The maclube, which means “upside down” in Arabic,  is a dish of rice with other vegetables and usually chicken.  The shwarma was layered into a wheat flatbread, stuffed with extra fil fil (chili) per my request, wrapped like a burrito,  flattened on pan and then sliced into hand-sized pieces.  That’s salsa on the side, though I’m pretty sure the Palestinians have a different name for it.

Shwarma Quesadilla with Salsa

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.”