This Palestinian Writer's Diary From Gaza Should Be Required Reading

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Drone Eats With Me by Atef Abu Saif (Beacon, 2016): 


Sunday, 6 July 2014

When it comes, it brings with it a smell, a fragrance even. You learn to recognize it as a kid growing up in these narrow streets. You develop a knack for detecting it, tasting it in the air. You can almost see it. Like a witch’s familiar, it lurks in the shadows, follows you at a distance wherever you go. If you retain this skill, you can tell that it’s coming—hours, sometimes days, before it actually arrives. You don’t mistake it. برح . Harb. War.

I’m sitting in front of Abu Annas’s house with three of our friends—Tarik, Sohail, and Abdallah. Abu Annas has been a headmaster for fifteen years now at the camp’s Ahmad al-Shokairi High School, although I’ve known him since the First Intifada. He lives just a two-minute walk from my father’s place, in the same refugee camp I grew up in. The night is warm. Two shade trees stand in front of the house.

Abu Annas and Tarik are playing backgammon, from time to time breaking away from their game to contribute to the wider conversation. The sound of the dice rattling against the wooden board always mesmerizes me slightly. I’ve never played backgammon. I merely love the spectacle of dice bouncing along the wood and ricocheting off the back board. An aging blue Sony radio sits between us, playing a classic Fayza Ahmad song. “Oh Mother, the moon is at the door, lighting candles. Shall I lock the door or open it?” Abu Annas has kept the radio in good condition since the 1970s, still wrapped in a brown leather casing it came with.

All five of us around the table were born in wartime—as Gazans, you don’t get much choice about it. The crowded refugee camp we grew up in, known to Gazans as “Jabalia”—once a field of tents, then a forest of shacks, now a jungle of high-rise apartment blocks crammed tightly together—has been beset by wars for as long as we’ve all been alive. Since 1948—before that in fact, since the British mandate began in 1917—Gaza has barely gone ten years without a war; sometimes it’s as little as two between each one. So everyone carries their own memories of conflict: wars stand as markers in a Gazan’s life: there’s one planted firmly in your childhood, one or two more in your adolescence, and so on . . . they toll the passing of time as you grow older like rings in a tree trunk. Sadly, for many Gazans, one of these wars will also mark life’s end. Life is what we have in between these wars.

Tonight, another one is starting. SMS news updates interrupt the evening’s conversation, with innocent little pings, more and more and more frequently as the night progresses, as we flinch to read them, more and more nervously. The last sustained attack on the Strip was back in November 2012 and lasted for eight days. The one before that—dubbed “Cast Lead” by the Israelis—ran from December 2008 to January 2009 and lasted for twenty-three days. How many days will this one last? How will it compare to previous assaults? These are the questions I want us to be discussing, but for Abu Annas, at least, it isn’t even certain that war is coming. “It will only be a small incursion,” he says, “a limited one.”

Zohdi, Abu Annas’s second son, who is also my barber, prepares the shisha for all of us. When I see him I reach up out of habit and feel my hair and stubble: it’s only been three days since they were last trimmed. Zohdi’s shop is right beside Abu Annas’s house and seeing him appear in the doorway with a flash of steel in his hand makes me think I’m about to feel razor against skin. Then I see that it’s just the steel tongs for the charcoal.

Tarik, a veteran workers’ rights activist, leans over the shisha to blow on the coals, saying that all indicators point to war. Sohail is more skeptical about it. Sohail spent much of his early life in Israeli prisons, having been a local PLO leader in the camp, and served in Fatah’s secret militia during the ’80s. He insists that we are already in the holy month of Ramadan and that full-on war, at least, will have to be delayed until the end of the month, although a controlled “escalation of tension” may be a feature of the next few weeks. Abdallah, who holds a PhD in psychology, shares this reading.

Me?

Well, I tell them, I can smell it. I sense it drawing in. As it turns out, it has arrived already, before we even started this conversation.

At around 9 p.m. this evening, a drone attacked a group of people near Beit Hanoun, two miles north of Jabalia Camp. No one was injured. Half an hour later another drone fired on three people on the street in the western side of Gaza City. At the time, these were reported as one-offs, the way bad traffic accidents would be. Such things happen now and then—usually a lot more than half an hour apart, of course, but two drone strikes don’t make a war. This is what the radio calls an “escalation in tension.” Then the presenter goes back to his scheduled program on youth problems in Gaza. His guest for the discussion starts to discuss the despair that hangs over so many young people, especially with regard to their futures; how trapped they feel being unable to travel, study, or make a career outside of the Strip. Then suddenly, at about 11 p.m., the guest is cut off and a nationalist song starts playing. The mood on the radio changes completely.

A few minutes later, Abu Annas’s mobile pings with information on a third attack. “Two young men killed in attack in Bureij Camp.” We look at each other. This is no “escalation in tension.” A moment later, the war introduces itself properly. We hear an explosion, some way to the north, echoing across the city. Hearing a bomb in real life, for the first time in a couple of years, is like having a PTSD flashback. It jolts you to exactly where you were two years ago, five years ago, four decades ago, to the most recent, or very first time you heard one. As the noise of this new explosion subsides it’s replaced by the inevitable whir of a drone, sounding so close it could be right beside us. It’s like it wants to join us for the evening and has pulled up an invisible chair.

Because it’s Ramadan and we have to be awake for the suhoor—which at this time of year is around 3:30 a.m.—we spend most nights staying up, talking, smoking shisha and eating Ramadan specialties: sweets and pastries like awama, kenafeh, and baklava. Being the height of summer, it’s also far better to spend this time in front of the house, under a tree, than sweat it out indoors. When we first sat down tonight, scores of boys passed us singing Ramadan hymns and beating on plastic boxes, turning them into drums: nice hymns, the same ones I used to sing at their age. It’s a tradition that starts three days before Ramadan and runs all the way to Eid; I imagine it makes any Palestinian man—devout or not—warm with nostalgia to hear them.

But now the street is empty; the sound of the explosions has grown louder. Everyone prefers to be inside. Tarik suggests that we go too, but Abu Annas insists: “Don’t worry, it’s normal.” We know it’s normal, but we have to go. Hanna, my wife, rings me saying that the explosions are everywhere, I need to be with her. Her voice trembles: “The kids are sleeping.” I know she is afraid to be on her own right now.

Tarik drives me back quickly. I live in the Saftawi district, to the west of Jabalia Camp. All the inhabitants of the districts around the camp originate from inside it. Jabalia is the largest refugee camp in all of Palestine, home to over one hundred thousand Gazans in only 1.4 square kilometers. It’s probably most famous as the setting of countless confrontations between occupying Israeli forces and Palestinians, in particular during the First Intifada, which broke out in its narrow streets. Now, with its increased population, it has spawned new districts around its outskirts: places like Alami, Tel Azaatar, Salaheen, Beir al-Na’aja, and Saftawi. In many ways these all belong to the camp; they are its children.

Tarik is worried that a war in the summer, especially during Ramadan, will be hard on the people. Before dropping me off, he reminds me of our meeting tomorrow, two hours before sunset. Every evening, since the start of Ramadan, Tarik and I have driven out to a small farm his family owns to the west of Beit Lahia, where he grows fruit and vegetables. We spend the last two hours of sunlight there, before iftar (literally, the “breakfast”). The hardest hours of fasting are those last ones just before the iftar, so it’s good to have a distraction.

I smile at his reminder.

“What if this is war?” I ask.

“This can’t be war.”

Inside, I find Hanna perched on the edge of the sofa, listening to the news, rigid with worry. Even her eyes tell me, “This is war.” I make coffee and set out a few pieces of katayef for when the children wake. With Hanna, I begin the same conversation that every single adult in Gaza is having right now with someone else: What if this really is war? How long will it last? Will it be harder than the previous ones? Will we survive? Which of our loved ones is going to be lost?

Hanna shouts my name, saying I need to wake the kids up for the suhoor.

It is 3:30 a.m. Monday, 7 July 2014. A date to remember.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Last night, while my friends and I were watching the second semifinal between Netherlands and Argentina at my friend Ayman’s place in the Kasasib area of the camp, another group of men were doing the same in a small café on the beach of Khan Younis. Their café was called Sahar Al-Layali, which means “staying up all night.” Like us, they were smoking shisha, cheering for their favorite team, complaining about big players making obvious mistakes, putting their hands on their heads at near misses and close calls. They could hardly have been thinking about that gunship out there in the darkness, watching them, or the anger it stored, as they cheered and shouted at the match. They could hardly have imagined its maw, the gaping mouth of its gun turret, salivating with hunger for their souls.*

Six of them were killed instantly, another fourteen maimed. Their blood must have covered the sand all around the café, then slowly started to trickle down to the sea. The red charcoals from the top of their shisha pipes must have blown up into the night sky, then descended, still flaming, like falling stars. By the morning, three of the injured had joined the dead. They never lived to watch the final of the World Cup. None of their favorite players will ever hear about their death.

I wake at around 9 a.m. to the news that over thirty people were killed in the small hours of the night. The casualty rate grows steadily every day. More people are killed by single strikes in groups; in fives, sevens, nines. Individuals aren’t the targets, but residences, family houses. They’re bombed until there’s nothing left.

Around midday, a thunderous detonation shakes the house. It seems a car has been destroyed, very close to Saftawi Square, east of us. Three of the passengers were killed. The fourth is in a critical condition.

A few hours later, Hanna, the kids, and I decide on a way of making the most of the few hours of electricity we have left, as a family. We gather round the TV for a few hours to watch cartoons: SpongeBob SquarePants and Gumball. You need to forget about the world outside, or at least pretend you have the superpower of forgetfulness. About an hour later, an explosion rocks the building from the east, the flash lighting up the room a split second before the sound. A moment later, a thick cloud of sand is gliding across the lounge from the window behind us. An orange orchard it seems, a hundred meters away, has been attacked. The trees flew into the air then fell on top of each other, a jumble of broken boughs. When I inspect the damage later that evening, I see that several tons of sand seem to have been removed from underneath the orchard entirely. Part of it now coats the floor and furniture of our lounge.

It feels, right now, as if we are all living in a cloud of slow-moving sand: we inch forward through it, nervously, not seeing a yard in front of us, and when we come across a pile of orange trees, scattered at our feet like an assassin’s victims, we know that we are lucky. They were mistaken for us. Death is so close that it doesn’t see you anymore. It mistakes you for trees, and trees for you. You pray in thanks for this strange fog, this blindness.

Yasser asks me if I can go out and buy him an ice cream from a shop he knows has opened on Saftawi Square. “It’s closed,” I tell him.

“Will it open after iftar?” he asks.

I promised to take the kids to this shop; it’s a new branch of a chain of Jabalia ice cream stores run by the Abu Zatoun family—another promise I have to break. Yasser then asks, “But you’ll take us when the zanana† stops?”

“It’s a deal,” I say.

As I tuck him in later that night, I can tell he’s keeping his ears peeled for the moment when the whir of the drones stops. He falls asleep, the shop stays closed, the drone hovers.

* The victims of this attack were later reported to be Mohammed Khalid Qanann (twenty-five) and his brother Ibrahim Qanann (twenty-four), Mohammad Al-‘Aqad (twenty-four), Suleiman al-Astal (fifty-five), Hamdi Kamel Sawali, Ahmad Sawali, Ibrahim Sawali, Salim Sawali, Ahmed al-Astal, and Musa al-Astal (ages all unknown).

† Onomatopoeic word for “drone” peculiar to the Gazan dialect.

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Excerpted from The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary by Atef Abu Saif (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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