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Book extract: Gaza

Saturday, January 24, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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It has been a while since I published a book extract. I developed
some concerns about the privacy of people who appear in the book and
haven't yet decided how best to handle them. But here is an extract I
wrote this week where I've chosen for the moment just to use random
names. Although most of the book will be about my time in Afghanistan,
these past two weeks I've been working on a couple of chapters about my
life in Gaza. Obviously events in Gaza over the past month have brought
these memories to the top of my mind, but I also decided that the
experiences I had and the people I met in Gaza had such a strong impact
in shaping the person I was when I arrived in Afghanistan that I needed
to tell some of that story to set the scene for what came after.

Enjoy, feel free to comment, but please do not reproduce anywhere without my permission. Thanks!

first friend in Gaza was a 36 year old Palestinian man. He worked with
me at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and I had met him there
once or twice in my first days. My first impression of him was of a
face that was a little too worn by life to be handsome but that, when
he smiled, which was often, burst radiantly into life. Khalid also had
the first pair of literally twinkling eyes that I had ever come across
and in time I learned to trust the goodness in that twinkle to get me
through whatever hellish dark thing we were dealing with in our work.

had introduced himself to me, warmly, on my first day in the office and
I had seen him coming and going from the office. He was a field
officer, which meant he spent most of his time out in the streets and
camps of Gaza gathering information about human rights developments. I
didn’t know much about the detail of our work yet, but I knew enough to
realise that he spent a lot of his time talking to very unhappy people
about very sad events. Despite this, when I saw him in the office he
was usually laughing and there was a warmth and ease about him that I
found both comforting and mysterious, under the circumstances.

I had been in the office for only a couple of days I was invited to the
leaving party for Sylvie, the young French woman who had been
volunteering with PCHR up until my arrival. I go along with a Spanish
woman who has also been invited and who works for the same British NGO
as me. The party is at Sylvie’s apartment, which is in a typical
apartment building in central Gaza city. Most of the other inhabitants
of the building are middle class Palestinian families and as we arrive
I wonder what they think of this party, with men and women mingling
together, music playing and alcohol being consumed. As I spend more
time in Gaza I’ll come to understand how tolerant most of the residents
are, and how inappropriate the Western stereotype of the intolerant,
fundamentalist Muslim is for this place.

For now I found myself in a crowd of mostly French speakers, trying to keep up with the flow of conversation and failing mostly. It had been a long time since I’d spoken French and even then I’d been a schoolgirl and hadn’t needed to know the vocabulary to talk about elections in Israel or, for that matter, about surfing in the Gaza Strip. I felt, suddenly, very silly and awkward. When I did manage to make sense of the conversation enough to attempt to contribute to the conversation it was in stilted and clumsy language that the others had to strain to understand and I felt I was making a disastrous impression.

All my life I had been impressed by the kind of people who go off to do humanitarian work in exotic and dangerous places like Gaza. Here I was in a room filled with those people and I wanted them to like me. More importantly, I wanted them to think that I was clever and funny. But it’s difficult to communicate just how clever and funny you are when you are struggling to speak the language, and I was floundering. In my excitement at understanding that one, particularly handsome, guy was talking about surfing I had piped up that I would love to have a go and had subsequently agreed to go surfing with him in the weekend.

Surfing in Gaza? Seriously, could I have come up with a more embarrassing way to spend time with people who I was trying to impress? Firstly, for modesty’s sake, I would have to be fully clothed in the water and I’ve never seen anyone look good wearing soaking wet long pants and a tunic top. Secondly, I couldn’t really surf. I’d played around on the long board of my surfer flatmates in Piha but never really got the hang of it.

Stung with regret at the dire outcome of my overly enthusiastic attempt to join in the conversation, I looked hopefully around the room for someone who spoke English. In the corner, sitting on a floor cushion under a large poster of Chairman Arafat, I spotted Khalid. He was with another of our colleagues from PCHR, Ibrahim, and as soon as he caught my eye he gestured for me to come over and join them.

Khalid and Ibrahim were drinking whiskey, which took me by surprise. I had a lot to learn about Gaza including the fact that most of my colleagues are atheists who are considerably less concerned about Muslim precepts than I am. I had a glass of wine already so I turned down their offer of a whisky and sit down beside them. Ibrahim asked how I like Gaza so far. I was formulating a diplomatic response when Khalid started laughing and told Khalid that the question is impossible to answer. He smiled at me and said, “Everyone will ask you this. Gazans are obsessed with whether or not our visitors are happy here, whether they like Gaza. You don’t have to answer. Tell us about your country instead.”

Relieved to be let off the hook this time, I told them a little about New Zealand and about my family and then asked them to tell me what they think about the results of the elections in Israel. Ibrahim said that some people were happy about Barak and the Labour Party winning the election but that as far as he was concerned the wolf you can see clearly is better than the one who hides in the coat of a sheep. As he says this he laughs but this time there is an edge in his laughter, like the tangy taste of rusted metal in a cool glass of water.

As I sit with them I feel my whole body relax. It’s not because I don’t care if they like me, but more because I sense already that they are ready to give me the benefit of the doubt. It is as though by coming here to work with them I have already put myself on the right foot and they are willing to take my commitment to their cause at face value. I sense that they won’t judge me on the wittiness of my conversation but by my character, which I hope will prove to be at least mostly good.

There is an immediate openness about the way they are engaging with me, as though life lived in Gaza has taught them to waste no time or energy on pretense. Years later, in Afghanistan, I would experience the opposite. Many people I meet there would approach me, or allow me to approach them, only very slowly and carefully, having learned from life in Afghanistan to trust very few. In Gaza, however, I was repeatedly surprised by the way that people would open their homes, their families and their histories to me.

I learned that Khalid had only recently married. This was unusual because most people in Gaza marry in their early twenties and by thirty-six he must have been one of the oldest bachelors left in Sajayiah refugee camp where he was born and raised. Certainly his mother and aunts were beginning to despair that he would never marry. But Khalid was waiting for the right woman. He was looking for love and for someone who could match him not only intellectually but also in his passion for justice, his energy for life and his expansive view of the world. Long after many others would have given in and settled for something less, in his mid-thirties, he had found this woman. Reem was a poet and a journalist who was outspoken about human rights problems in Gaza and who was unafraid to turn her critical eye on the Palestinian National Authority as much as on Israel.

When I met Khalid, however, he was alone. Reem had been born in a Palestinian refugee camp on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border and so was not given an ID card by the government of Israel. That meant that she every six months she had to leave Gaza and apply to Israel to renew her permit to live in the Gaza Strip. The irony of this situation astounded me. It was no surprise that Israel did not want Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands in Israel, but this system, which prevented those refugees from living with any kind of settled ease even in the Gaza Strip seemed perverse and cruel to me.

A few months before I arrived in Gaza, Reem, pregnant with their first child, had been forced to travel to Egypt to apply for a renewal of her visa/permit to live in Gaza. Because she was now married to a Palestinian refugee in Gaza with an Israeli identity card, she could now apply for an ID card of her own. The process however had been significantly delayed and she had been away for several months. As well as worrying that she might not be allowed back in before their baby was born, which would then place Khalid’s child in the same position of not being automatically entitled to an ID card, Khalid missed Reem terribly.

Up until their marriage Khalid had lived in the extended family home in the refugee camp. All his life he had shared a bedroom with brothers, cousins and uncles. When he and Reem married they decided to rent a small apartment in Gaza City. They had enjoyed the privacy and the opportunity to build their own home together, but since Reem had been away Khalid had found himself living alone for the first time in his 36 years. When he first explained this to me and invited me to come and visit anytime, I wondered whether that was really a good idea. Surely it would be a problem to have a single, foreign, woman visiting the apartment of a newly married man whose pregnant wife was stuck in Egypt? Khalid’s apartment was just around the corner from the apartment of my Arabic teacher so one evening the next week I convinced Ross, a Scottish artist who was doing art therapy with traumatised children in Khan Younis refugee camp and with whom I was sharing Arabic lessons, to stop in for a visit with Khalid.

Their apartment building was directly opposite the Arab Bank branch, where Ross and I had also gone together to open my bank account and where I would have to go regularly to withdraw my wages in cash. Gaza had no money machines and I had to pay cash for everything so I got into the habit of withdrawing big wads of cash at the beginning of each month and dividing it up into different tins in my room, one for rent, one for food, one for electricity, phone and water bills.

The first time I walked into the bank my heart sank because there were vast crowds of people at each teller jostling in no d
iscernible order for service. I wondered how I would ever manage to push my way to the front, having been raised on the precise etiquette of queuing. But I needn’t have worried because, it turns out, women are not expected to push and shove their way to the front. Foreign women, even more so, were obviously assumed to be far too delicate for the mob and I was quickly summonsed by one of the tellers to a spot off to the side of the main crowd. Ross followed after me and discovered his newest secret to getting fast service at the bank.

From then on we would always do our banking together, often before our Arabic lesson, and we were always waved immediately to the front for service. Both of us were vaguely uncomfortable with the arrangement. Although Palestinian women were also accorded special treatment, with customers and staff alike ensuring that they were rapidly moved to the front of the crowd, there was no question that our status as foreigners was getting us extra special, VIP treatment, and as at the Erez crossing it sat uncomfortably.

In contrast to the bank, which was a relatively slick, modern building with high glass windows and polished floors, Khalid and Reem’s apartment building looked only half finished. Like most buildings in Gaza city it was constructed from concrete and like many it was neither painted nor plastered. The building had five stories, the ground level was a kind of storage area and then there were four floors of apartments, with two apartments on each floor. The stairwell was also constructed out of unadorned concrete and the light switch on the ground floor was protruding from the wall with wires exposed. In any case, most of the time there was no electricity so I didn’t bother switching the light on anyway and generally carried a torch in my handbag. Reem and Khalid’s apartment was on the fourth floor, with one more level above them. Khalid answered our knocking with a broad smile and welcome, “Ahlan wa’ sahlan Marianna, so glad you came. Come in, t’fadalli, come in.”

We entered the apartment into a narrow hallway and walked past a formal sitting room and two bedrooms into a small sitting room, which was attached to the kitchen. A door from the sitting room opened out onto a small balcony where I saw another of our work colleagues was standing with a small cup of tea and a cigarette. He called his greetings to me and I introduced Ross to them both. This room was obviously also Khalid and Reem’s office, in the corner there was a small desk with a computer and a small printer set up. On the bookshelf I could see mostly only Arabic texts and some publications from PCHR. There was a cassette player on the shelf as well and a woman was singing in Arabic, I didn’t recognise her voice but there was a profound depth to the emotion and such intensity in her voice that I immediately asked Khalid who was playing. He told me the artist was Umm Kulthum, perhaps the greatest ever female singer in Arabic and persistently popular even fifty years after the peak of her career. The fact that I had never heard of Umm Kulthum, let alone recognised her voice on the tape, reminded me of how strangely invisible Arabic culture had been in my childhood and throughout my education.

I knew the music and histories of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, but I knew nothing at all about Umm Kulthum or Fairuz, Lebanon’s most famous female singer and another favorite in Gaza. This was only the beginning of my shocking ignorance about Arab culture. It had only been when I actually travelled through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt that I realised, in my twenties, that much of the food served in “Turkish” restaurants in New Zealand was in fact not Turkish food at all. Many of my favorite Turkish dishes were in fact Lebanese, and when I went looking for hummus, baba ganoush and falafel in Turkey I was met with bemused looks. Gaza, fortunately, was awash with hummus, falafel and baba ganoush and my colleagues had discovered quickly, and with glee, my bottomless appetite for their local cuisine.

Khalid set about making us tea, as we settled onto the low settee in the sitting room. Tea in Gaza is made by combining the tea-leaves with fresh mint and sugar in a small pot and bringing it all to the boil on the stove top. The mint can be replaced with fresh or dried marjoram, or with fennel or cardamom seeds. The sugar, however, is not optional. The tea is usually served in small glasses, little vessels of fragrant, sweet warmth that I found went very well with a cigarette.

When Khalid bought our tea out to us Ross asked him about a cartoon pinned on the wall. The image was of the back of a small figure, almost child-like, dressed in patched clothing with his head slightly lowered and his hands crossed behind his back.  The character, Khalid explained, was Hanzala, and he was indeed supposed to be a small boy. The figure represented the cartoonist himself, Naji al-Ali, a famous Palestinian political cartoonist. Naji al-Ali was born in the Northern Galilee in Palestine and grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Khalid explained that when he was young, Naji has been jailed several times for his political cartoons. The name Hanzala means “bitterness” in Arabic and in the cartoons that Khalid went on to show us his small, slightly bent figure stood as a witness to the scenes of oppression and suffering that al-Ali drew.  In 1987, outside a newspaper office in London, al-Ali was shot and killed by an unidentified assassin. Soon after his death the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) began and, Khalid told us, Hanzala became one of the symbols of that uprising.

Again I was reminded of my own ignorance, and of the general lack of knowledge in my home country about Arab culture generally or Palestinian history specifically. The sheer enormity and longevity of the injustices that had been perpetrated in Gaza threatened to overwhelm me and I began to wonder whether I had got myself in well out of my depth with this role.

One the day the following week I was in a meeting with Raji in which we were discussing different aspects of my work goals for the coming months. Much of what we had been discussing still seemed outrageous to me, could it really be true that I would be working on a report into fatal shootings of children in Gaza by the Israeli army in the past six months. Setting aside my struggle to believe that I was really doing what I had long dreamed of doing but never been sure that I could, I had decided to seize the moment to talk to Raji about my weekend.

In Gaza, as in most of the Muslim world, offices are open six days and the only day off is Friday. According to my contract with the British NGO I was entitled to a two-day weekend, but it was up to me to negotiate this with Raji. I might not have bothered had it not been for the other international workers I had already met in Gaza who insisted that for my own sanity I should insist on a two-day weekend. This would allow me, from time to time, to escape the Gaza Strip for a trip to Jerusalem or Ramallah in the West Bank. In time I would be very grateful for this advice.

Raji had several decades of negotiation experience on me, and he was playing hardball on the hours. I had to make and defend my case vigorously, arguing that I would work extra hours five days a week so that in the end I worked no less than if I was in the office six days doing normal hours. Raji argued that it wasn’t safe for me to stay late in the office alone, and that if I stayed late he would have to have one of the male office assistants stay there with me. I counter-argued that I could work the extra hours at home, and would only stay on late in the office if Raji or others were also there. Evenutally he agreed to a trial period during which I would work one and half to two additional hours every day and take Saturday as a day off. I had got what I wanted but in the process I had felt alternately guilty, angry and exhausted and by the time I walked out of the room I was on the
verge of tears.

As I stepped into the corridor outside Raji’s office, Khalid walked in the front door, he glanced at me and smiled. Raji called to me from in his office, summoning me back to work with him on a letter he was drafting to one of PCHR’s donors. Before I could pull myself together enough to go back into the room without crying Khalid pushed past me and spoke quickly to Raji. I heard Raji give his agreement to whatever Khalid had been asking and next thing I knew Khalid was walking me out the front door of the office calling back to the receptionist that there was a big riot in the north of the Gaza Strip and he needed to take me up there to show me. I balked. I was already exhausted, suffering the first round of severe waves of culture shock and about to burst into tears any moment. I was fairly certain that I would not hold up well in the face of a crowd of angry men. I started to protest to Khalid that I really couldn’t go with him but he simply shuffled me out the door.

As soon as we were in the stairwell and out of sight of the receptionist he turned to me with a smile and said “We aren’t going to the demonstration, I just wanted to get you out of there and away from Raji for a little while. Do you like coffee? Shall we go and have a coffee?” The relief I felt released the tense lock I had been holding on my tears and as I smiled and nodded I felt myself begin to cry. We got into one of the office cars and Khalid drove us a few blocks away to a building near the central hospital, Shifa. The building had floor to ceiling windows on two sides and although I couldn’t read the sign it was clear that this was the café. It was called Delice and was the only place in Gaza to get real expresso coffee and French pastries.

Khalid ordered us both coffee and some croissants to share and brought them over to the table where I was sitting.

“Raji can be tough”, he started, “but he is a very good man, a very strong advocate for Palestinian rights. He has had a hard time and sometimes it comes out in his harsh manner, but you can trust him.”

“This place is tough. It’s tough for us and we were born and raised here. We’ve been learning how to survive in Gaza since the day we were born. You have to learn much more quickly and I know it must be very hard for you. You are away from your home, your family, your friends. You’ve come to this place where the language is different, the food is different, the culture is different and you have to get used to all of that at the same time as you adjust to the harshness of life in Gaza. It must be very hard, so remember to look after yourself.”

“What is it that you do to take care of yourself? Do you play a musical instrument? Write poetry, make art?”

I hesitated, unsure of the answer, “I like to write”, I said. “Writing helps me sort through my thoughts and feelings when they are overwhelming”.

“Good”, he replied, “so you must keep writing. When it all becomes too much you must write. And you must come and visit me, I will take you to my family home in Sajayia and you can meet my mother and sisters. They will be your family while you are so far away from your own family.”

I was stunned. What I already knew about Khalid was that he was the eldest son in his family. He had not gone to university initially because he needed to work to earn money to ensure that all his brothers and sisters could go. Once he had helped pay for each of their educations the intifada was underway and there was no chance of him going to university then. Instead he worked as a journalist and as a stringer for international journalists, helping to make sure the real story got out of Gaza. He was arrested by the Israelis for his political activities and spent the years when he should have been in university in an Israeli prison, a political prisoner.

This history meant that he had never been able to get a visa to leave the Gaza Strip via Israel, and he knew the risk that if he left via Egypt he would not be allowed back in again by the Israeli’s who controlled all movement in and out of the giant prison that was the Gaza Strip. So he had never travelled. Yet he, of all my new colleagues at PCHR, was the one who had recognised the emotional toll that my culture shock was taking and who knew exactly where to take me and what to tell me to reassure me that I would come through this rocky beginning and find a way to live and work in Gaza."


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5 Responses to "Book extract: Gaza"

  1. Di says:

    Thank you! I loved reading this and I would very much like to know when your book is published.

  2. amy says:

    thank you for sharing this. you write beautifully. i love the details and the way you create a sense of place. there is such power in the combination of your personal experience of music, food, politics and people with the broader context.
    i have been following what has been happening in Gaza and am reminded how woeful my knowledge of that part of the world is. if you have any recommendations for books about the history and politics of the region they would be welcome. take care.

  3. John Mullis says:

    Loved your style and am looking forward to more. Much to identify with my own time in Albania. Thanks for the explanation about Hanzala – I have his ‘I blog for Gaza’ image on my website but never knew much about him. However have seen him appearing in the handbills for the Wellington Free Gaza marches recently. Thanks

  4. susanna says:

    Absolutely riveting. I can’t wait to read MORE about your Gaza experience. You have a great book in the making – and a great screenplay, I might add. And I ADORE Khalid. What a wonderful human being! Meeting him during that time in your life was a gift.

  5. a says:

    Uff I love your style, it flows so smoothly..this extract had me fascinated..I can’t wait for the book to come out!!
    I’ve seen a few posters of Hanzala hanging around the Kingdom, but didn’t know the full story, thanks for explaining..
    I like what Khalid said here: “We’ve been learning how to survive in Gaza since the day we were born. You have to learn much more quickly and I know it must be very hard for you” That’s what I always wonder about humanitarian workers that come from abroad…how do they adjust to a situation completely opposite to what they’ve experienced their whole life?
    Fab stuff,

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