Hang on until day five))
(stripped in emotions)
So many things are flashing in my mind to be written, and as usual, I get distracted. I was excitingly telling my mother about my experience in Gaza when each time she stopped me saying: “ nobody tried to shoot you? “ “ The Hamas didn’t harass you?” “You were able to walk in the streets on your own?” “They allowed you to walk without a hijab?”
Well… Gaza is definitely not Paris. Just to make it clear.
The amounts of miseries one can spot are indescribable. But the amount of life that is there is just, what life is.
I have spent five days, trying my best to see people. My first visit was more of limited to exposure. I was held with too many emotions, and worries, and stigma of phrases in my head like the ones my mother was asking me about. This time I felt more open to seeing with no veils distracting the reality.
Each time, you are surrounded by people who are trying to tell you something, to show you the reality that they want you to see, from their own experience and lived life. There are those who want to show you that Gaza is just a safe place, and keep you away from any street or image that can show you poverty or misery. There are those who want to show you the destruction and insist on blaming the occupation as if the road to Gaza isn’t enough to show reality as raw as it is.
There is no way one cannot see the destruction, the effect of the continuous seize on this place. It is so visible; I believe it is stupid to try to show it.
I always try to see people when I travel for any reason. It is individuals who can tell you the story of their cities. And it is people who can show you what their life is. Not with words and forced images, but with behavior and human interaction.
(Walking Gaza in the Shoes of its women)
I was privileged to become friends with two beautiful ladies from Gaza, who coincidentally come from different societal level, one from Sheikh Radwan, and one from Rimal. One from the hard working middle class, and one from the historical elite level of the society. One in her twenties, and the other at the beginning of her thirties, divorced with three children who have been taken away from her by the applied Shar’i law that gives the man the custody of the children. She sees her children once a week, and she seems to have gone a long way in her own struggle as a mother, but adapting softly. Softness is the word that you can keep repeating when you see her. Such a calm, beautiful, sweet face. Tolerating or accepting reality doesn’t seem to be the issue in her case. She is trying just to move on with her life. She finished her university after divorce, started working and her children are growing, and she lives with her mother, who is a widow, with her sister who is also divorced with kids. The two sisters were married to their cousins, who are brothers, and both were divorced for different reasons. The other sister is one of the big models of women in her professional level.
The other lady is more of a tough character, yearning to be a woman, but so entangled with traditions that she firmly believes are pure religion. She reminds me of myself in a certain phase of my life. She is such an intelligent, impressive woman when it comes to her working efforts, and socially she is such a pleasure to see around. A real tough woman by all means. A “do not mess with me” character.
These two young women were my company for the five days on a social level. Our first encounter was on the beach. I was yearning to walk on the beach from the first visit. I was hesitant to do it, watching all the covered people on the beach. They were welcoming, and they found it an opportunity to get away from work and from usual constraints.
There is a large marina that sidelines with a busy area filled with hotels, restaurants and coffee shops on the parallel street. The dynamic of the different interactive modes of movement is breathtaking. All that you imagine of a society is there. I might have been the only non-veiled woman walking along, with a few exceptions I think. Somehow the presence of the masked, veiled women makes the regular veil just the norm. But as usual, the cover is not necessarily committed to the lower part of the clothing.
We walked along the marina, and in a crazy moment, we hired a boat … well, a quick round on a vessel. Of course, I was scared to hell. Or maybe excited to hell. But the women assured me that it was absolutely safe. My fears were different from the concerns they expected me to have. I was having images from what I thought was going on in the sea some years ago. The Israeli restrictions, the explosions on the fisherman boats and all this. I decided just to allow them to lead, minimizing my sense of worries. I just can’t describe how hilarious it was. Of course, it was somehow risky, I actually don’t like any sea adventure. Boats are not my favorite encounters. That boat was like being in water Land Park, and you do these incredibly offensive games. It was quick and really fast. I have to say it was awesome, hilarious, and a lot of fun, and seriously, safe. We were not allowed to get in without wearing life jackets. In the later day, I watched a swimming competition in that area. So in the worse case scenario, I was going to be able to swim back to the shore safely.
Then we walked along the beach. I was dying to take a photo where a veiled-masked woman would be in the background. Somehow there is something about such an image. I am not sure I am catching it yet but am there to me. We walked along the beach, took pictures, and later sat in a waffle shop to eat Nutella-covered waffles. The only difference between them and the ones I eat with my daughters every few days here in Jerusalem is the price. I was still taken by surprise with everything we did. I was like; “ o you have this? “ I felt ridiculous often of course. I was happily walking along through the two young ladies shoes. We stayed out until 11:00 pm. and then each went home. The energy and the movement in the streets were as vibrant as it was the hours before. People are all out. As usual, I have to meet someone famous, there was this well-known comedian who passed by, and all were gathered to talk to him. Of course I “convinced “ him that I was famous. Actually, just saying that I am from Jerusalem made me the center of the attention of the gathering as well. People have so much nostalgia to the other side of this land. And of course, they wish to leave Gaza and feel the freedom of a normal movement.
The topic of the city was the opening of Rafah border for the next two days. It was news that the borders were announced as open for some days, and all those waiting to such announcement were rushing to leave. Apparently, as usual, all is selective; you have to know someone to be able to go. Because the line is so long, the list of waiting for people is selected in advance. I heard lots of complaints about the hardship of leaving, the opportunities are so limited, each one tried to find someone who is well connected to get out, not to mention that this is also a costly issue, it ranges from two to three thousand dollars that are distributed by both officials or whoever on the Egyptian and Palestinian sides.
In the next day, I managed to squeeze my working schedule into a two hours break to visit the Hammam. Hammam al-Samra, a hundred and fifty years old Hammam in an old neighborhood in Th city of Gaza. A typical condensed area with many allies and a big market. It felt like old Syrian Hammam in TV series. I was still taken by surprise by everything I see. Before going to the Hammam, we stopped at a big supermarket, which turned out to be more like a department store. It was so impressive. I was surprised to see Israeli products on some shelves. I was impressed with the massive size of the place and the many different collections of everything. You will never find a store half size of this in all the west bank and Jerusalem. It is more like Dubai, Turkey, department stores.
The Hammam and the experience were of course no close to the five stars Hammam experience I had in Turkey. It has definitely more genuine sense of structure than the one in Ramallah. It was essential for one chief woman who would do all services. But the structure itself and the whole dynamic f the experience was genuine and modest. It was full of women, both young and old. It was surprisingly refreshing to see very old women, surviving such intensity of steam, and young girls not exceeding sixteen. Women were relaxingly enjoying the modest facilities, waiting with exchanged chats for their turn for a massage. A quick Moroccan massage by the strong hand woman, with very sweet and kind words. Women are not convenient in exposing their bodies to one another. You could feel the reserved exposure. The massage was on this edge where everyone can watch. It was fun and relaxing at the end.
Day 4 –
(culture and free thought association)
The third day was in Khan Younes. Of course, I didn’t have any clue of the difference in the geographical setting, Khan Younis is an hour drive from Gaza City. Somehow it was like the gap between Kabul and Heart. You could see two major big cities with different dynamics of people and movement. In Khan Younis, we spent most of the day in the Culture and Free Thought Association. It was another surprise for me. It was so impressive; I just couldn’t believe how determined these people are. There is something so young about Gaza. Young with this energy of insisting that they want to live. There were heartbreaking stories that make me just bow on the human power to survive. How death has become more of a companion rather than a fearful monster. How loss for them is nothing but a mere stumble in a long path of hope. The initiatives I was seeing were beyond my capability to reflect on. Maybe genuinely, need, lack of resources, real destruction, harshness is really the mother of all inventions. The creativity I saw was overwhelming.
I cannot even dare to say my opinion or give a perspective. There is so much power in each and every encounter I had. I went back to Gaza city with very powerful emotions. Filled with so much hope. That kind of hope I see when I exchange ideas with my children or see how they think about life and their own identity. I firmly believe that this young generation is a generation that can make a difference, with mentalities that are aware of their rights and actively link it with the surrounding world. They don’t take no for an answer. They don’t allow the restrictions to be their limit.
On the same night after our fantastic evening in the market and the marina, we sat for argileh in a restaurant in what is considered downtown Gaza. Women cannot actually have free outings with “argileh” in all places. I think they made an exception in this location seeing that half of us were not from Gaza. By that moment I was joined with my journalist colleague from Switzerland. On the table next to us, two young youth (a male and a female) were sitting. My friend asked them curiously, what are you related to each other. The girl looked at her and said proudly: “ we are not related, we are just friends.” “Friends!!” my friend answered with a surprise that she didn’t like. The girl continued “ yes we are friends, and I think if you didn’t have a boyfriend until now then you have missed a lot in your life. The girl turned out to be 17, still in school. The man, 19, in a college studying photography. They joined us, and it was so inspiring to listen to them. “ It is our duty as a generation to change the mess of our society. It is already hard enough to be under this non-stoppable destruction. We have no access to anything in this place. The minimum we could do is to decide to go out,” she said insisting. “ We are not doing anything wrong. My parents know that we are together. “ She continued. “ this society will not change until we realize that we are all made of the same clay. There is no difference between her and me. This is what we need to insist on. I don’t think we should have equal opportunities. Because each should have what he has. We are equal by creation. No one is entitled to claim that he owns the upper hand in the other,” he said. He parents called in the middle of the discussion, and my friend was jokingly saying, “let me talk to your mother .“ The girl handed her the phone easily.
It was again another inspiring example. This is a generation that knows its rights, its needs, and the restrictions and boundaries that surround them are definitely not their limits.
Earlier in the afternoon, I came back from Khan Younis to find my Swiss colleague surrounded with many people including a translator, with her in a black veil. She kind of had the look of that Afghani famous portrait of the girl with those keen eyes. She was covered with a black headscarf with her blue eyes zombie-like gazes. I was still carried away with all the energy I had in the center with the youth of Khan Younis and thought to myself: “ oh my goodness. She is another international who believes that coming here is fixed with the veil.” I actually took a step backward, and by chance I, was energized by a 28-year-old youth leader who happened to be disabled. He fascinated me with his speech ability, while his disability is mainly in speech. These people can never seize to amaze me I was thinking. We were starving, and I thought the Swiss journalist might have been hungry as well. When I decided to make an end to that interview session after an hour, I had the chance to look at her. It was the translator that made me feel that things were not necessarily going on well. He was translating things not accurately. Actually, not, not accurately but on his own interpretation, or more accurately, in accordance to what he decided was the information she needs to receive. Of course, he was deliberately taking charge, and he didn’t actually buy me, even when I politely said we needed to have a break. The way he turned offensive didn’t really match with my expectations. He said he take orders from the photographer. Of course, I was a bit louder than my super polite, helpful tone. Trying to be smoothly assertive, but he insisted. I felt as if he was stressed and fearful he will lose control of a situation he has full control on. We waited for THE PHOTOGRAPHER to arrive for maybe another half an hour. I was looking at my colleague, still not sure what of all this was her choice. The photographer came, and he seemed like a nice person, I actually see people as nice usually, and I was in the calm mood of seeing all Gaza cool and nice. We attentively agreed to meet at a particular time tomorrow morning, and it was convenient to know that his office was in the hotel we were staying. I thought to myself that Gaza is much greater than what I think. I was thinking it is best to take the journalist on a more of a real life experience where she can interact with the people themselves on a level different from the damage scenes that are the major part of her mission. The translator was insisting that he would take her to the shore to take pictures there. I asked that we thank him, and I will take her, and she will later decide what is missing for more locations. The gazing woman with a kind of numb looks was obediently doing whatever anyone was telling her. I was imagining her head pulled and pushed from each and every direction, and the buzzing alerts of hunger must have been jolting. We had a feast of seafood actually. I could see life coming back to her eyes. The woman was dead tired and hungry. Somehow, it was evident that the food recharged her. The first thing I found myself asking her was why was she covering her head. She must have been surprised to see me moving around with my regular Jerusalem no veil look. She innocently said: “ I didn’t want to, they made me to.” I was actually fuming. It was one of the men who was showing he around some areas with the assertion of the translator. “ Women here have to wear a veil.” “ You know it is Hamas rule here, and everyone has to wear a mask.” Everyone, of course, nodded with agreement. So she took her scarf and covered herself with it. Afterward, the man who asked her to do so said that it was the translator who told her to do so. This took us to another two days of a blame game of pathetic patriarchal creatures called men.
I was excited to start the next day in field interviews with displaced people and experiences related to the program that I work for. I was also happy to have changed three hotels in the course of three days, because the hotel I was supposed to be with all the stay was full, and of course it was hard to confirm because I had to wait for the permit by the Israelis. The Israelis, of course, made Gaza seems an out of the world adventure that cannot be achieved except by very limited “preferred” ones. And of course, there is no rule for this game. They can decide to or not give you a permit, and they can decide to or not make you enter even if you have a permit.
So we were down in the terrace watching the beautiful Gaza morning, with a real pleasant to watch swimming competition in front of us in the wharf. I was wondering if they have any swimming pools in Gaza, and then I thought, who needs a swimming pool when you have a sea. I went first to the reception to ask for the office, or the whereabouts of the photographer who I felt was something like a real hot shot in Gaza and the world. The receptionist looked at me with a strange look assuring me that there were no offices for anyone in the hotel. He asked if he might be staying in one of the rooms. I said that he couldn’t because he lives in Gaza. The man felt awkward, and he asked me to give him some time to double check. He came to me after ten minutes to confirm that the “famous” photographer whom he never heard of because he assumed he wasn’t knowledgeable enough with the stars of Gaza is not staying in the hotel and has no office there, but he is usually present in the area. (As in coming to drink something. I am not sure that an average Gaza citizen would want to pay 15 shekels for a cup of coffee that he can get for half a shekel elsewhere in Gaza). Information I knew about the prices when I had to pay the coffee bill as I was checking out the next day.
From the next hour on, a new Gaza experience started. With the photographer as the star …
I always have this doubt about how we Palestinians are represented outside, and I usually enjoy blaming our bad representation by the government.
I know that there are people who manage to do business on account of the misery and the tragedy of their own citizens, but honestly speaking, I haven’t really dealt with it face to face. I usually leave it to my assumptions … but as usual… imagination is nothing but a little part of reality.
So we got this hotshot international photographer. I usually try to contain my anger. I could be really cool for a very long time. But once I realize someone is getting me into this gas lighting situation I literally freak out. I was a bit of saved by the Swiss journalist who expressed her inconvenience before me, so I played calm for a while.
It started by him convincing me that we were scheduled for an hour later. I thought maybe he was right, after all the day before was so condensed, things were not clear. So I said, ok, let us calm down and start over again. It was ten or fifteen minutes before ten when we have this almost five minutes discussion proving to me I was wrong. We confirmed that he would be in the lobby at ten thirty. It passed fifteen minutes after ten thirty, and he wasn’t there. I called back, and he said arrogantly all that he told me before about what when we were supposed to meet and then said;” you stated that we meet here at ten thirty and leave at eleven.” This was when my gas light syndrome was igniting. “You cannot say that I said something different for something we just discussed an hour ago. There is a limit to what you can convince me of saying and not saying.” I have been severely about to take the advice of the journalist and leave without him when the other colleagues made up an excuse to go to the office to bring something and apparently they brought him with them.
Of course, for him, I cannot be but a low-level official that he really doesn’t want to count. Suddenly I was this pathetic giving order abusive character that he was building, and amusingly or with rage reporting\sms ing to my colleague in Jerusalem. I didn’t want to make a scene of internal team problems when we actually didn’t have. I was a bit of angry on my colleague who un-intentionally put is in this scenario. Back in Jerusalem or the West Bank, the heroic, poor, romantic vision of Gazans is overwhelming, and they are allowed all. Not that I have a problem with that. But when I see someone sucking me so apparently I just cannot permit it.
I have seen, and continue to see men with peacock attitude. The young man looked good with a nice hairdo. He should have an impressive portfolio as a photographer, which is great. But give me a break. We are in Gaza. Walking in the street and taking a photo of anything can tell a story and make you professional… my mobile photos are an example …
I didn’t want him to affect the series of the day, and I tried just to ignore. I was seeing the exchanges with my colleague; I was with no access to technology because there is no coverage for my mobile in Gaza. My experience with such situations wasn’t the first, and I was thinking this is minor so I tried to turn the page. But he didn’t. Of course, he couldn’t talk to me, I think I was wearing that energy of a monster. I know it, but I never see it. However, everyone sees it. He was behaving in a way. I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt. He has been paid an extremely ridiculous high wage for his work in these two days; maybe he really believed he was something special. Maybe he was special. It was only the experience that will prove that. I was finding myself pulling him to take a photo for a precise instant that was useful to the setting of our context. He was so dull. He is someone who can be used in marriages portrays. There was one instant when we wanted to take photos for a group of girls in a carpentry workshop. We found him getting everyone out closing the door and forcing them to pose remotely according to what he wanted. He has this possessive scary attitude I would say. I lived with a narcissist for thirteen years, so I can easily spot an evolving one when I see.
All the great impressions we had in that location went in the remote picture of flat faces. The carpenter master who was such a sweet, kind character appeared in the photo like a wanted criminal. Or a Daesh future fighter. There was the road painting, where of course one thing only stopped him and attracted his attention. His portrays!!!!!!
Of course, he became friendly with the driver, and he always needed breaks for PRAYER. I like this prayer excuses all the time. We would be sitting in interviews, and the outside not even bothering to interfere and then enter to take a shooting and then he needed to pray.
There was one moment when we were about to leave, actually exhausted from a number of interviews, and him waiting like in doctors waiting room with the driver, and I was approached by the director of the center who told me if it was ok to share for lunches since they only brought four (for their lunch break) and we were five, because the gentlemen were hungry. I said that we (the three women) really were not hungry since we had a big breakfast and having lunch will make us lose our energy, and we better save it for a fish dinner later. I insisted that they eat while we finish our briefing with the director. I then knew that he said complaining that I made him and the driver eat that reduced lunch because I was arrogant and I said I wanted to eat fish!!!!!
We went to the location we were supposed to go to, and which he confirmed that he knows very well. He insisted that he knew that place. He actually forced the driver to make a turn on a particular spot that was really scary. We were on a hill that is connected to the slaughterhouse with the view of the slums (supposedly Mawasy) from there. The smell of dead animals was so irritating with the wind of the desert, and so much flies was really annoying, and we felt anxious. He said: here you are this is Mawasy.” I was like if this is Mawasy how do we go down to people and talk to them. I was still trusting he was just honest somehow. This was when I was angry, and yet my anger was collective with the women with me. We kind of all shared the very same feelings. So we asked him just to stay away, and we will ask for ourselves. We stopped some people. He quickly rushed to take photos of the women who were working there. I didn’t understand why he was using his mobile camera for some pictures; I naively thought that the man was not using the camera since he is on a job mission for his personal photos!! To realize later that he was sending things to his Instagram for an application he was launching for Gaza daily life. It felt so abusive to see the Gaza he was selling out. It was every single offensive miserable scene that he was selling out … no wonder this man is a hot shot outside. He makes sure to send the world the Afghani side of Gaza.
We went to Mawasy, and I have to say that this is the most painful scene I have ever encountered in my life. I remember when I was in Nigeria, and my colleague was showing sympathy to the Palestinian refugees while passing through slums on the outskirts of Abuja. I thought to myself that being a refugee, in this case, is a five-star privilege. What I say in Mawasy from the human tragedy. I would say human failure is indescribable.
I was proud of our strong women power of community organizing in Mawasy. This was an incredible scene when we went down the road walking. I have to say I felt empowered with my female colleagues. I had even to make sure they were on each side of my shoulders when I approached anyone. We were warned that Mawasy is not a friendly environment. They are very patriarchal and isolated on top of their marginalization. I had to make a safe zone where we build trust with the surrounding. I was encountered with a woman at the beginning to be followed by a few minutes later with a man on a motorbike that was well shaved and turned out to be the Mukhtar. He was not actually happy, but he said welcome and apologized because he had things to do. When I felt the dialogue was taking a positive direction with the first woman and another woman was approaching I called my colleagues. I would always start by introducing myself, I am Nadia from Jerusalem, this is Shurouk from Gaza, and Sara from Switzerland. I think the mixture was a great recipe for trust building in the general atmosphere. It was less than ten minutes later that women from all directions were coming to join, and at some point, there was a woman who was actually rushing to us asking us to come to her house. It was not even close to our imagination that we would be called to the “house.” Of course, our cameraman was conveniently waiting in the car with the driver, taking safe photos of misery upon his own convenience. It was not hard to notice that he would jump on any image that has a miserable face and setting. I did still not understand his hideous intentions. He fits exactly that orientalist reflection to our reality as Arabs. He was taking photos as an orientalist, not as a Palestinian. It was sarcastic, that we the non-Gazans, the Swiss journalist who wanted to make any image that can bring some light to this dark reality, while he the man who lives in this situation wanted to emphasize the world see the mess only, and confirm a particular image the world wants or needs to see.
When we went to Khuza’a, one of the most affected areas in the last Israeli aggression, where ten of thousands of internally displaced people are staying in miserable, lacking simple human-specific sense after two years of waiting to return to their homes. Of course, our man was as dull as the whole day. We ended up in a situation where we stopped asking him to take pictures. He was just doing his own things. There was a moment when I had to take the car to take photos with the girls and IDP league representative of the area to the border regions where the wall pieces were moved. Of course, on every single opportunity he had with Sara alone, he made sure to warn her that the situation is very dangerous.
I guess, I made myself clear with the amount of stress and suffering I felt as a result of having the wrong person on this mission. I have to say that I am not even interested in seeing his photos that he took because he is a person with a lifeless attitude, and so was his pic. He feels superior because he seems to be internationally recognized. I heard later that he appeared on NY times. A good reason never to hire him if we at the office were smart enough. I think by this moment everyone who is reading realizes the amount of psychological pressure and abuses my colleagues and I were encountering. We spent the whole night until the early hours of the morning just expressing our madness and frustration from him. Somehow the good thing he did to us that he distracted our full attention to the miseries we were witnessing.
To break the taboos of stigma and fear of Gaza… we actually walked in the street (four women) at two A.M.
I think what this man did, or represents is an important part of our mess as a nation. How these people use and abuse the whole situation for their remaining interests. Like paradise sticking to every opportunity.
Luckily the world of human being is made of so many mixtures. As much as we are encountered by evilness and dumbness … we are also confronted by goodness and intelligence.
This experience of the last five days was one of the richest in my life. I walked around the streets, markets, and neighborhoods and was hosted by people in their houses. I haven’t felt for an instant a moment of fear. I never felt the need to wear less of more clothes. I never felt the need to speak in a quieter tone, or I wasn’t for an instant feeling the need of copying a conversation or a discussion in a mode that needed to be secretive or reserved.
In our different encounters in the workshops, meetings, lunches and dinners. I was relaxingly expressing and hearing the opinion of the people around me on the situation. The convenience or non-convenience of the situation. The anger on the authority whether Hamas or Fateh. People are no longer afraid to say what they feel. I was even able to hold a discussion on my liberal women idea of man and woman relations. My critical views on religion. My criticism of politics. I was most of the time not in consensus with the others, especially when it came to my views on religion. But I haven’t felt for a moment that I need to be more reserved in expressing my opinion.
I have seen Gazans just like regular people, with an extra load of misery. A life that the sea and its shore can be the breathing out space of seizure that is so obvious no one can miss seeing. That willingness to live. To live well. To live in the best way they can seem never to seize to amaze me.