Why I Stay in Gaza

“Are you still living there?” he asks.

“Where else should I live?” I answer.

It’s the same conversation I have every time I catch up with this one Palestinian friend in France. Same question, same answer. Life in Gaza is hard. Then it gets worse and we think it’s intolerable. Then it gets even worse.

According to the World Bank, youth unemployment in Gaza hit 58 percent in 2016, and nearly 80 percent of the territory’s two million residents received aid. The United Nations has warned that the place might collapse. Despite a reconciliation deal in the fall, tensions remain between Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, and Fatah, which leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. This month there was what looks like an assassination attempt on the Palestinian prime minister as he traveled to Gaza, and Fatah leaders are blaming Hamas.

Illustration by Michelle Thompson; Photograph by ymphotos/Shutterstock
Illustration by Michelle Thompson; Photograph by ymphotos/Shutterstock

“You must be tempted to leave,” my friend says.

When so many basic things are so fundamentally beyond your control, you sometimes do feel like giving up, saying goodbye to both country and past, and letting Palestine go. The problem is, Palestine won’t let you go.

My younger brother Ibrahim studied English literature hoping to become a teacher. It’s been nine years since he graduated, and he still has had no teaching job. He recently started working at a TV repair shop after trying reporting, translating and being a cashier in a supermarket. He spends most of the day fixing satellite dishes for customers in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where he and I and our other eight siblings grew up, and where most of our family still lives. “It’s better than nothing,” he says. Many people here say that.

I teach political science at Al Azhar University. My introductory course sometimes has 200 students. When I ask them what they want to do after graduation they say, “nothing.” When I meet former students years after they have graduated and ask them, “what did you end up doing?” they, too, say, “nothing.” Even the brightest ones wind up jobless, or at least careerless, scratching a living from dirt.

One of my current students is so smart — I know that in any other place he would have a great career in academia ahead of him. But for that he would have to do research and take posts abroad, and he can’t leave. “I am rotting in Gaza,” he says. He’s been trying to leave, legally, through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt for five years. But the border is closed much of the time — last year, it was opened for a total of just over 30 days — and his name never makes it onto the short list of those who get permission to go. (During the latest opening in late February, some 660 people reportedly made it through, most of them medical patients.)

The other exit is via Erez, into Israel, and then onward to Jordan. That’s an even harder way to go. Again, you need permits. Until recently you first needed a permit from Hamas. Then there’s the permit from Israel. And then the one from Jordan. My student has never been able to get even the first of those.

“Should I leave by boat?” he asks. He’s joking: The Israeli military patrols the sea off the Gaza Strip as closely as the land border. He knows he will have to bide his time and meanwhile, like the rest of us, makes accommodations with destiny.

Some things help with that. Like the beach. The view of the sea at sunset. Except that last year, for the first time in my life — I’m 45 — I didn’t swim. The waves are still beautiful from a distance, and so is the sight of fishermen uncertainly setting out to sea in the mornings. But now to go into the water is to bathe in raw feces. The sewage-treatment plants aren’t working properly, the result of Israel’s decade-long blockade of Gaza, decaying infrastructure and electricity shortages. Pollution is a health hazard along some 73 percent of the coastline. Abu Aseel, a neighbor and friend who owns a cafe on the promenade, says he has fewer and fewer customers.

All of this may seem like an old story, just more of the same. But things haven’t improved for so long that they can’t help but get worse. My paternal grandmother, Eisha, was expelled from Jaffa in 1948, during what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, and since then four generations of hers, of us, have lived as refugees in Jabaliya. The restrictions on Gaza have affected every generation here — even the dead.

My friend Donia Ismael, a poet, was visiting relatives in Egypt when her husband, the well-known activist Bassam Aqra, had a heart attack. She couldn’t return to Gaza fast enough; the border is closed in that direction, too. So she had to bid her husband farewell after he had died, by looking at his image on the screen of a mobile phone held up by one of their children.

I remember Bassam from when we were growing up: He was one of the best football players in our camp; he was our Maradona, our Messi, and our hero. Games were a big event. We would play in a small dirt yard behind the souk. It has since been overtaken by the market, along with our playgrounds and the orange orchards.

The other day I was driving through Remal, in the western part of the city, with my five kids. Suddenly my 5-year-old daughter, Jaffa — who is named after the city my grandmother Eisha came from — shouted: “Dad! Dad! Pizza! Pizza!” She was pointing to a shop on the other side of the street. She wasn’t hungry; it’s just that seeing a pizza drawn out on a storefront sign made her think of a cartoon she watches. I was thrilled to see her make a connection between the image and the word. It reminded me of a moment during the 2014 war with Israel when Jaffa, just 18 months old then, had tried out another new word for the first time. One night, she sat up on her mattress, and pointing to the dark sky said, “mooooooon.”

Children are different from us adults: They’re wired to find some joy in everything. I think Eisha would have smiled to see her great-granddaughter — despite the drones hovering above, despite the warships lined up on the horizon, despite the constant provocations of political leaders near and far — shout through a car window at a slice of pizza, thinking of a silly cartoon.

It’s Jaffa’s hope that makes me stay in Gaza. It belongs here, this hope, not elsewhere. It belongs to Palestine.

Atef Abu Saif is a political scientist and the author of The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary.

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