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Atef Abu Saif: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip, Part II

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

© A.M. Qattan Foundation

Thursday, July 31

Last night was the calmest since the start of the war. We heard very few bombs, and saw only the occasional flash or surveillance balloon in the sky. Except for one enormous, deafening boom at the end of the night, nothing worried us. The focus of the onslaught might have moved to other areas of the Strip, Rafah perhaps.

We slept as we hadn’t slept in a month. The electricity came on just before 11 p.m., so we had the pleasure of watching TV for a few hours. We watched a movie, then all fell asleep together. We started the night scared, as always, imagining the shells hitting us directly, cutting us all to shreds. I was looking at my legs, as I had the night before, imagining them and the limbs of my children chopped up and mixed up, like meat. Amid these familiar thoughts, I fell asleep.

Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had Photoshopped them out of the picture.

When I wake up I don’t want to listen to the radio or phone a friend to ask about the latest developments. I want the morning to be like a normal morning, before the war. To start my day with a cup of coffee, to sip it in private for an hour. To look down from my window and watch the people in the street, to feel the pulse of the city around me.

I suggest to Hanna that we have a proper breakfast: hummus, foul, falafel. But after an hour of visiting all the restaurants in the neighborhood, my son Mostafa returns with the news that falafel can no longer be bought in Jabaliya camp. My father-in-law explains that this might be because falafel requires a lot of boiled oil, which in turn requires lots of gas. As there is still no clue when the war might end, everyone is saving every gas cylinder they have. Hanna suggests that the lack of parsley in the market might be another cause; parsley is essential for making good falafel.

My mother-in-law is watering her plants despite the shortage of water in the tanks. She keeps her plants in the living room in different pots arranged around the room. They make the house calmer, greener. There are 13 kinds of plants in this garden. Every morning she waters them and checks each leaf, remembers each one, and notices whenever a new leaf buds into life. She knows their length and their sheen. She always finds water for them.

A minute later she is complaining that our oldest child, Talal, is taking too much time in the shower. She finishes watering her plants and starts shouting at Talal to finish. From behind the door, he explains that he has only just started. She asks him to get out. It is enough to spend five minutes under the shower. Soon her plants are appreciating the water soaking into the soil around their roots.

I shave. The bathroom is very dark. The light coming from the little window is too feeble to shave in. I turn on the flashlight, and start shaving one-handed, shining the light at my jaw with the other hand. A Gaza TV journalist phones, making sure I will be ready in 30 minutes for an interview — they’re going to send me a taxi. After 10 minutes he calls to apologize that the taxi company has refused to send taxis to Jabaliya. They’re afraid their cars will be hit; Jabaliya is now a no-go zone.

I phone my friend Aed to ask about this. He confirms that he, too, has passed a very calm night, and he slept well. Aed has moved from his place on the north beach to his sister’s house in the quarter of Gaza City called Al Nasser. He asks me about Berri, the waiter at the Karawan Cafe — the most famous cafe waiter in Gaza. He is the best. “Is it open?” he asks, about the cafe. We decide to meet up and check. If not, we will look for another place to spend the morning. We have to recapture some normality, to reclaim some of the life we had before

In the evening, I meet Aed and suggest we try to find a restaurant somewhere that’s still serving falafel. But everywhere seems closed. Eventually, we try one called Akila, on Al-Wahda Street. It’s open and we both tuck in joyfully. Afterward we drive into the city, and try to take in the destruction on all sides. Broken glass seems to cover every square foot of the city. Few cars pass. Shops remain closed.

Many buildings have completely disappeared, as if a designer somewhere had Photoshopped them out of the picture — the designer being an F-16 pilot, a drone operator, a soldier in a tank.

Unfortunately the Karawan Cafe is closed, and Ranoosh Cafe likewise. There is no place to smoke a water pipe. Aed suggests that we take cold drinks and ice cream and go to our friend Salim’s house nearby. I find a shop, near Salim’s, where I can buy two bottles of cold water and two Cokes. The building opposite Salim’s has been completely destroyed. He hasn’t had water himself for two days. When we arrive he is working with other inhabitants in the building trying to fix the problem.

Salim’s building doesn’t have electricity; however, the building at the end of the street has its own generator. Salim and his neighbors have persuaded the occupants of the building on the end to run a line to theirs, just for a couple of hours, so they can pump water up to the tanks. But their attempts have so far failed as the line doesn’t seem to be connecting properly, or has some kind of break in it. Salim’s 70-year-old mother is fretting that the problem will never be fixed. It isn’t until 8 p.m. that the current is connected.

We eat ice cream, drink the Coke and smoke a water pipe, listening to the sound of the water tank slowly filling. We chat for a couple of hours, and then I leave him thinking about how to ration the water when the tank is full.

On my way back, I see people queuing in the hundreds to buy bread. Then the bombing starts up again and I rush back to Jabaliya. Hanna has been back to our flat to gather fresh clothes. The moment she got there, she tells me, an F-16 struck the building next to it — one surrounded by a small, beautiful orange orchard — destroying both.

Friday, Aug. 1

At the school next door to my father-in-law’s house, a United Nations organizer tells everyone that a three-day truce has been declared, starting from this morning, and the hope is that it will become permanent. He is not clear whether people should go back to their homes.

My kids are arguing with their mother about the usual: permission to go and play with their friends in the PlayStation shop near their grandfather’s house. In their eyes, there is no point in worrying. It is the longest break in the fighting so far, and people are starting to do all kinds of things once more.

On television, we hear of a Palestinian representative who has traveled to Cairo to negotiate the conditions of the cease-fire with the Egyptian government. My mother-in-law asks me, “Do you think they’ll come to an agreement?”

“I hope so,” I reply. She is not happy with my answer. She needs a definite answer. The war must end soon, she concludes, before it becomes a permanent component of our daily lives. When she hears the sound of the door closing behind the kids, she asks Hanna if she is sure it’s safe for them to go. Hanna is not convinced, I know, but says, “Of course.”

From the window of the living room I see hordes of people leaving the school opposite, heading north, west and east back toward their homes. Some have elected to stay, to “wait and see.” And many families have decided to divide in two; half going home to see if things are safe, to check on the house or the farm, the other half (including the children, of course) remaining in the school, should the first half fail to return.

It’s the same logic my friend Faraj is using when he distributes his family every night among different rooms of the house. His family of seven sleeps in three rooms. If a shell lands on one room, other members of the family will survive.

Yesterday, a farmer from the Sheikh Ejleen area, south of Gaza City, explained to me how he sneaked with his family back to the farm each morning at 6, to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, figs and grapes. The farmland is right beside the beach, and they work the fields in the early hours while the warships send missiles over their heads, toward the city. The grapes you get from Sheikh Ejleen are the best grapes you’re ever likely to taste.

Last night was one of the most violent of the war so far. Shells and rockets fell all through the small hours. Each night you become convinced the explosions are getting closer and closer, even if your rational brain knows they can’t always be. One of the rhythms of this war we’ve gotten used to is that particularly bad nights are usually followed by a truce, or an attempted truce. So it was a prerequisite that last night would be bad, being the eve of a three-day cease-fire.

It’s now 2 p.m. and my father-in-law is telling me the truce has just broken down. More than 70 people have been killed in Rafah. Hanna phones our oldest boys, Talal and Mostafa, on their cellphones asking them to return immediately.

“But the truce!” they argue.

“There is no truce.”

Saturday, Aug. 2

My throat hurts. It’s excruciatingly dry, and the discomfort has been joined by a pain in my chest and a weakness all over my body. When the sore throat started, Sarif, the pharmacist, told me it was probably sensitivity to all the concrete dust and smoke hanging in the city air.

Sarif is the owner of the Balsam Pharmacy. It is the oldest pharmacy in the camp, a business he inherited from his father. When I asked him two days ago, he assured me that my sore throat was normal given the amount of dust in the air, and told me not to worry. Hanna passed his pharmacy yesterday afternoon, and informed him that my pain was still as bad as ever. He gave her more medicine, which he promised would fix it. Yesterday morning, I could barely get out of bed, I felt so weak. So Hanna gave me the medicine in bed. Only at 3 p.m. did I get up and have something to eat.

My father-in-law informs me that the Israeli army might withdraw from one side of Beit Lahiya tonight. I had felt so sick during the night I wasn’t aware of what was happening. This is one of the miracles of falling sick in the time of war: Sleeping soundly and not noticing or caring about the world as it falls apart around you. That was how I passed last night, in pain but carefree.

But this afternoon I feel a bit more human. So there’s lots of news to catch up on.

My mother-in-law starts by lamenting the misfortune of her nieces, who had to spend the night on the street because of a drone attack. After the first rocket fell in the middle of the night, they fled into the street. They were lucky to be already awake when the first one struck; otherwise, they would not have been able to move fast enough to avoid the second, which hit the room they were in. They picked up their kids and ran. Now my mother-in-law’s brother is hosting some six families at his place, a total guest list of over 100! His house is beginning to resemble one of the United Nations schools.

The main mosque in the center of the camp was hit as well. The muezzin can no longer be heard. People avoid walking anywhere near the mosque now. In the old days, this was the only mosque in the camp. When I was a child I would pray there. It means many things to me; it’s central to my childhood memories and the person I was.

More than a hundred were killed in Rafah last night. This simple town on the border with Egypt, which has been quiet for most of the war, has suddenly become the center of a new wave of attacks. Israel has accused Palestinian soldiers there of capturing a soldier after a battle in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed. The Palestinians denied these accusations, so Israel broke the three-day truce and declared a whole new war on Rafah until the soldier was found. (It turned out he’d been killed in combat.)

Israel has been using local radio channels, hacking into the wavelength, to deliver its messages to Gazans. In the middle of listening to music at my friend Wafi’s house, we hear the broadcast cut short suddenly and the voice of an Israeli general threatening the people of Rafah. Any person walking in the street, any person driving a car will be hit. After the airwaves are given back to the station, we hear a flurry of new reports, including the head of a hospital in Rafah explaining that Israeli shells forced them to evacuate the hospital.

I can hear the sound of my kids playing cards with their grandmother in the next room. She has not felt calm for over a month. Nobody fears war more than she does. And yet she always manages to keep her composure. She is enjoying playing with the kids, despite the cries from little Jaffa.

It would seem that I have acquired a new job title: administrator of the Internet cafe. I spend more than an hour a day using the main, administrative computer in the cafe next to my father’s house. Power comes randomly — sometimes nothing for four days, sometimes only an hour in the middle of the day. I seem to have adjusted to this arbitrary pattern better than most, and have refined the timing of my arrival at the cafe through instinct and intuition.

Each day I’m there and ready, when it comes on, to check my emails, file my writing, and then, if I can, read the newspapers online. The manager of the cafe is very understanding and lets me use his main computer. In return I have to organize his online timetable for the use of other computers in the cafe.

For one shekel, customers can get online for 35 minutes. I have to go to the prepaid box and add their time. Some people prefer an open-ended slot. I simply need to double-click the box that marks that particular computer. I acquire little skills all the time. Customers shout out their requests to start or terminate a session from the front of the cafe, and I click the appropriate box accordingly, and carry on with my work. I have become an Internet cafe boy! The owner uses a huge generator. Most in the neighborhood bring their laptops, flashlights, cellphones to charge from there.

Hanna said that the first thing she wants to do when the war is finished is to go and see the damage in Beit Hanoun and Shujaya. The kids are screaming they want their iPads fixed. I just want to breathe clean air.

Sunday, Aug. 3

It’s an endless game. Nothing but a game. Last night, Israel announced the termination of its operations in some areas. But tonight four people from one family have been killed and others injured while asleep in a house that they fled to in my father’s district. Death followed them from Beit Hanoun, where they had lived peacefully for so many years, and tracked them down in Jabaliya. The rocket struck the very center of the house, bringing the whole block down with it. Concrete, shrapnel, bricks, great twists of iron, shards of glass — all collapsed into the same hole — announcing the end of this family.

The electricity comes on at about 1:30 a.m. Everyone in the house jumps from their beds. This is now a regular custom. All the kids plug in their cellphones to charge them. I plug in my laptop. My father-in-law checks to see if the water tank is empty. If it is, he has to turn the water pump on to fill the tank on the roof. Tonight is one of the few occasions when both the water supply and the electricity are working at the same time. Water is the only thing that can awaken my father-in-law from a deep slumber. It is his only obsession. In other times, when there was only water and no electricity, he would fill every spare bottle or pot with water so that we had reserves for when the tank was empty. For a couple of hours, he watches and checks on the tank’s levels. My mother-in-law starts washing all the clothes. Everybody tries to make the best of the electricity before it goes off again. We know we have two hours at most.

At the beginning of the war, in the first days of July, you thought this would be for only a few days more. After the first week passed, you told yourself one more week, just one more. Two weeks in, I told my wife Hanna, “Don’t worry, a few days, no more.” You keep shifting your guesses forward and before you know it you’re talking months, and war still looks young and lively. It’s not going anywhere. We may not have many days left, but the war has got plenty of life still in it.

Despite the Israeli army’s announcement that the people of Beit Lahiya and the Bedouin village should return to their homes, most of them don’t return.

Jabaliya has become impossibly overcrowded since displaced people from the northern parts of the Gaza Strip arrived. Every house in the camp is currently hosting three or four families. Thousands of people wander in the streets, their trauma palpable. Some have been blinded, some are having difficulty breathing, some look lost in a kind of trance, some tremble and shake with every step. All of them offer a picture of the catastrophe.

Another funeral passes in the street below. The bodies of three victims are carried on stretchers. You can see from the outline of the flags stretched over them that these aren’t bodies, these are body parts. Slogans are shouted angrily. Then the shouts are swallowed by silence, and all you can feel is pain behind the silence.

While playing in the living room, the kids have broken one of the pots their grandmother keeps her plants in. They were running after each other when one of them threw a pillow at the other and hit the pot. This is the most devastating thing that can happen, from their grandmother’s point of view. The children fall silent, as she moves sadly to fix her plant, which has been uprooted. I say, “It is very young. Not to worry. It’ll be O.K.” She does not reply. She is too busy undoing the wrong.

The hum of drones has returned, I can hear them hovering over our heads, choosing their next prey. It’s very hot. Jaffa is crying. My mother-in-law warns the kids not to touch her blessed plants. I write an essay that starts with the words “We are O.K. in Gaza.” But it’s a lie, we are never O.K. Nonetheless, hope is what you have even at the worst of times. It is the only thing that can’t be stripped from you. The moment you give it up you lose the most precious thing that nature and your humanity have endowed you with. Hope is your only weapon.

These diary entries were first published in the New York Times Times on 4 August, 2014.

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