This September, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif is our guest blogger. He has written a number of war diaries describing the horrors of what life in Gaza has been like during the most recent siege. For those who missed them when they were published in the international press you can read them now here. We will be publishing one every week including a previously unpublished one.
Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in1973. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Birzeit and a masters’ degree from Bradford. He is the author of four novels: Shadows in the Memory (1997), The Tale of the Harvest Night (1999), Snowball (2000), and The Salty Grape of Paradise (2003 & 2006). He also published a collection of short stories entitled Everything is Normal. In June 2014, he launched his new publication, The Book Of Gaza, at The Mosaic Rooms. Listen to the podcast here.
Wednesday 23 July, 20014
This is Day 17. The chances of a truce are no better: the same talk everyday on the news, same discussions, same waiting. You simply have to wait and see when it will end. Sometimes you have the feeling that it’s not going to end. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s online: a pinprick, a flicker, and then you wonder if you saw it at all. Last night all talks of a truce failed. For 17 days we’ve heard the same set of statements, the same questions. Every day is better than the day still to come. This is how it is in Palestine; the past always looks better, sweeter. Because of this, Palestinians are more nostalgic than any other people. For nearly a century we have lived through a circle of violence, and each year it spirals deeper. We are always the losers. My Grandma, Eish, never saw a day go by without succumbing to a lament for her past. Then immediately after, she would lament for the day that awaited her, tomorrow. The more the war continues the greater this chorus of laments, the heavier the pain, the greater the loss.
Last evening, my sister-in-law, Huda, her son and three daughters, had to move to the place we’re staying, in Jabaliya Camp. They usually live to the south of Gaza City, in an area called Tal Al Hawa, its southernmost tip. For the last five days, tanks have bombarded the area. In one of these attacks, large chunks of debris from a house nearby flew in through the windows; half of another house inside of Huda’s house! My sister-in-law says they are used to this kind of thing. In every war that I can remember their house has been directly affected. In the 2008-9 war, half of the house collapsed when a rocket made a direct hit, entering the house horizontally through the lounge window. Her husband, Hatim, has refused to come with her to Jabaliya this time, however. He insists on staying, even though all his neighbours have left. Nobody remains on their street but him. Over the last couple of years he has developed a passion for keeping birds. He’s converted one room in his house into an aviary, in which he raises some 50 different kinds of birds, including hummingbirds, pigeons, and sparrows. He prefers to stay and take care of his birds – who else will look after them?
Now there are 14 of us all living in my father-in-law’s house, in Jabaliya. The house consists of just two rooms. This morning there is a long queue for the bathroom. Once inside you hear nothing but the calls of those queuing, encouraging you to finish as fast as you can. Over the last week most houses have started to face water shortages. As the electricity only comes on for few hours a day, and as those few hours are not necessary same hours that the water comes, it’s usually impossible to pump water back up into the water tanks on the roof of the house. To make matters worse, the water consumption for each house is usually that of several families squeezed into one: of the immediate family and extended families – of sisters’, brothers’, cousins’ families. Most of the people living in the eastern, northern, or coastal sides of Jabaliya, or in Beit Hannon and Beit Lahia, have had to move – under threat of shells and rockets – further into the centre of the Strip, to the Jabaliya Refugee Camp itself (already one its most densely populated areas). My own father spends most of his day watching the level in his water tank, obsessively. The other day he had to carry water in bottles from the neighbours’ tank. He himself is hosting two extra families inside his little house – that of my sister with her 12 family members, and that of his uncle, with his five family members – as well as the family of my brother, Ibrahim.
So I’m stood in the queue to use the bathroom – just as I will have to queue to buy bread from the bakery, later today. Usually it takes more than one hour to buy anything. You hate the queuing, but you have no choice. Life has to go on. If everyone stopped doing something they hated the whole wheel of life would stop. The people who seek refuge in the UNRWA school across the street from us, they have to queue, as well, to use the bathrooms, or to receive food. Queues are everywhere now. A few days ago we were living a normal life – waking up at 8am, washing our faces, brushing our teeth, having breakfast, starting our days and whatever our daily routines entailed. Now we have to abandon those routines and to live according to each and every moment. We have to improvise new habits amid the chaos. One of those new habits is queuing, queuing for everything. What good would it do to complain. Everyone has to complain internally. The situation is greater than your inconvenience, it’s more urgent than your discomfort. You are asked, like everybody else, to live up to the challenge. You are asked to be a soldier, a trooper, even if you’re not, to be a boy of the country, even if this makes you uncomfortable, even though you’re just a citizen with no power to be any more than that.
The refugees’ clothes hanging in the windows of the classrooms across the street make me think of tethered birds, dreaming of a chance fly away, to find more space. To get as far away as possible from the smell of Gaza, the stench of death.
Life is getting complicated. You wish that you were simpler and could accept things more easily. My little girl, Jaffa, was utterly terrified in the first week of the war. We couldn’t bring ourselves to explain what the sounds of the explosions were, but she could easily understand the fear written on each of our faces when we heard each one. After a week we started to tell her that these were the sounds of a door being closed quickly by Naem, her older brother. Jaffa, at 19 months old, accepted this logic and started to adapt to the situation. She even played with the idea. When hearing each explosion she now shouts “the dooooooor!”, and then calls out to Naem to stop slamming it. In Jaffa’s logic then, someone is slamming a door to keep us all imprisoned in this situation. Each door slam is a door slammed shut on the opportunity for peace. Each cry from Jaffa to her brother Naem to stop shutting the door is fruitless.
Yesterday morning, an F16 destroyed a house in this part of the neighbourhood. My old friend Naseem – now the British Palestinian – had came over from London just few days before the attacks started, to see his mother. She kept crying over the phone, wanting to see his new kids. Naseem left Gaza to study in London in 1996 and then stayed on. He left his restaurant in Hammersmith to pay a long-awaited visit to his mother. At 9 o’clock in the morning, while everyone was asleep, a rocket destroyed his house completely. Large pieces of masonry travelled an impossible distance, colliding with houses at the other end of the street. Some of them hit my fathers’ house. Naseem’s mother was killed. The explosion threw her body into the street. His two little girls were injured as well. One of them is currently in the Intensive Care Unit. Naseem himself was injured in his arm and neck. Last night we gathered to pay a tribute to this nice old lady of our street, Om Naseem. A few words and thoughts were shared. Afterwards Naseem explained to me that he had decided to move back to Gaza. He was going to sell his restaurant in Hammersmith and return to Gaza to be with his mother. Now, having seen death, having tasted it, the decision makes no sense to him.
Esa has to move from Beit Hanoon. He phoned me yesterday at 7:30 in the morning. When you receive a phone call at a time of war, you put your hand to your heart. You take what breath you can, before answering. His voice tells me all the neighbours left, or have died. He is alone with his wife and they are terrified. He wants to move out. He asks if he can use my flat in the Al Nasser quarter as it’s also been abandoned. After an hour he arrives to pick up the keys. The flat isn’t furnished – everything has been taken – so Esa sends his son to pick up furniture from friends in Jabaliya. In their white car, the son moves from house to house, collecting whatever will make their life easier. I manage to provide him with a Gaz cylinder through another friend, Faraj. In the night, Esa is finally happy – his voice over the phone tells me as much. Finally he is OK, his kids are OK. After seeing death on the streets around his house, having touched dead bodies to check for life, and having feared all day that he or his kids are next, he is finally sounding calm. “We made it, Atef!!! We are alive!!!”.
It is Day 17. It could be Day 27, or Day 37, or Day 70. No reason to think we are anywhere near the end of the game.