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.