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.”

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Ode to Electricity

This morning, I felt the urge to write an ode to electricity, or kahraba, as it is called in Gaza. I woke up, it was Sunday and I had the day off. No farming, no fishing, no protests, no meetings.  I had the day to myself and my laptop. I would take a shower, have a cup of tea and work on my novel.  And, as I was at the end of my underwear, I would do my laundry.

I got out of bed, picked my laptop up off the floor and entered the living room. There, my roommate sat in darkness.  Curses!   It was 10 a.m., which meant no electricity until 3 p.m.  And I had forgotten to charge my laptop. No shower, no tea, no work for me.  And it was so cold in my drafty apartment! Of course, that had nothing to do with the electricity, but it made me all the more miserable.

In reality, I had one hour of battery life on my laptop and so I started on Chapter 12.  But all I could think about was the electricity.

Oh kahraba, how I love thee, let me count the ways!

I knew it was unfair of me to complain. I lived in a building with a generator that turned on everyday from 6p.m. until midnight. Most Palestinians in Gaza were not so lucky.  They sat out their eight hours a day in darkness.  I had taken my electricity for granted, and now she was gone.

A love poem from Pablo Neruda came to mind:

Today I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

Since 2007, Israel has allowed at most 63 percent of the amount of industrial fuel needed to operate the power plant in Gaza. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem:

The fuel shortage directly reduces the generation of electricity in Gaza and impairs the water and sewage systems, which require fuel to operate the pumps.  Israel’s continued prohibition on import of spare parts for the electricity system causes additional malfunctions and deficiencies.

My laptop went dead. I paced around the apartment. I went up to the roof. It was too cold to work up there.  I went back down. I made some flashcards and attempted to memorize a new list of words: wheat, seed, greenhouse, important, equality, love, need, remember.  I looked at my watch. What if it didn’t come back on at 3 p.m.?

Oh electricity, Oh electricity!

Of all the things most lovely!

I sang, to the tune of “Oh Christmas tree.” Despite my cajoling it would not come on.  I imagined a world without water or electricity, a world that Israel had threatened the night before, if Hamas and the Palestinian Authority formed a unity government. Another layer of collective punishment on top of they years of layers before it.  How would people in Gaza survive?

I clicked on the water heater so it would start warming my shower the second the electricity went on. But what if it didn’t go on at 3? Sometimes, this happened. I called a friend in the West Bank, but we both ran out of credit. She suggested Skype. Alas, no electricity.

It was nearing 3 o’clock. My Welsh roommate had gone to her room and wrapped herself in her maroon fluffy blanket — underneath which she wore jeans and a puffy jacket. She was suffering and she’s from Wales! Cold, rainy, dreary, miserable Wales!

Oh electricity where are you? Don’t you know how much I need you? The clock struck 3 p.m., the lights went on and our refrigerator whirred to life.

“Yay,” I exclaimed.  Oh kahraba, I will never take you for granted again.

Terrorist Spaghetti

Its been awhile since I’ve reviewed the list of food and durable goods Israel permits into Gaza. I’ll get to it soon, but in the meantime, I think its interesting to just “notice” which products are Israeli, and which ones aren’t here in Gaza.

The first thing I noticed (after a long day traveling across the Sinai), is that our toilet is Israeli.  Our water heater as well.  All of the washing machines at the washing machine store down the street come from Israel, as does the one on our kitchen.  And, perhaps most surprising, I discovered a used bag of fertilizer at the olive grove near the buffer zone I had been at last week — also Israeli.

As I was conducting the science experiment that is taking a shower this morning (I never know what will happen after, will my skin burn, will my hair stink or turn brittle, will the lotion absorb into my skin or just slide around on the surface  until I just give up?), I realized the perverse irony in Israel’s list of permissible items: expensive capital goods which require water — and indeed pollute water — are allowed into Gaza, but equipment that treats water and sewage is forbidden (Israel damaged Gaza’s sewage treatment facilities during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09).  Odd, that Israel forbids pasta and lentils from entering Gaza, but fertilizer is okay.

Water Tank

Are they worried that Hamas’ armed wing will fling overcooked spaghetti over the border or could it be something else?

Almost-finished bag of fertilzer from Israel at Olive Grove Near Buffer Zone


Fire Water

I  took a much-needed shower after a day of harvesting olives near the buffer zone and my skin still burns.  My eyes itch as well.  I’m not quite sure what this is about. Gaza’s water contamination is well-documented — Israel damaged the sewage facilities here during “Operation Cast Lead” causing sewage to penetrate Gaza’s coastal aquifer.  There is a high level nitrates in the water here (nitrates come from waste  and cause “blue baby syndrome”) as well as high saline levels (tap water is undrinkable), but I haven’t heard anything about this weird itching and burning.

If anyone knows anything, let me know.

Link

I had forgotten how beautiful Gaza is. Or perhaps, I had never noticed.  The first time I came to Gaza was in the wake of Israel’s December 2008 Operation Caste Lead. It was winter then, and I was constantly jumping at the sound of Israeli F-16s dropping bombs on Gaza.  Buildings had become rubble, and the road from the border, in the south, to Gaza city, in the north, was littered with craters.  The people had become quiet and the children had distant, vacant stares.  The smell of white phosphorous lingered in many places, a scent that reminded me of lower Manhattan after September 11.

How had I missed the beauty of the Gazan cactus? Twisted, tangled, prickly green cactus, that grew tall like trees and formed mangled hedges sculpted into neat walls  delineate one person’s land from another’s or the road.  How could I have missed this wonderful cactus? I love cactus. I come from a land of cactus.

And then of course, there is the sea!  The Mediterranean is right there and it startled me with its beauty.  I stepped out onto the street yesterday morning, and there it was: sparkling blue with yellow sand.  Beach sand pervades all in Gaza, the streets, the sidewalks. Little mounds of it are everywhere.  But of course, the Mediterranean may as well be a mirage, as the people cannot play on the sand and swim in the sea.  Since imposing a naval blockade on Gaza in 2007, Israel has prevented the importation of sanitation equipment into Gaza, and so its waters are highly polluted.  According to a 2010 report by B’tselem, 95% of the water in the Gaza Strip is polluted.  http://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/20100823_gaza_water_crisis  This became apparent today when the smell of sewage slapped me in the face as I took a taxi along coastal road down south.  It hit me again on the way back, in some sandy area away from the coast.  Perhaps, we had passed one of those sewage cesspools I had read about.

And so, while 30 miles away, Israelis in Tel Aviv can spend this beautiful fall weekend splashing in the Mediterranean, here in Gaza, the sea tempts us with her beauty.