(*cooking fire on a patio, Gaza blackout, December 2008)
Sad Gaza, with its beauty tarnished, locked away, somehow frequently provides glimpses of joy, beauty, inspiration….
The coffee shop/restaurant with a generator, and thus one of the few places with power during blackouts, is busy with other laptop-users, friends gathered at the evening, families celebrating birthdays, men puffing on nargila (tobacco water pipe)… The staff are friendly and patient, allowing me hours of laptop use when home doesn’t permit. Most of the waiters have asked me how to immigrate to Canada, Sweden, anywhere else. Like the taxi drivers, the odd-job workers, most are educated, hold a higher degree, and cannot find work. All are proudly, defiantly, Palestinian, but some have started to crumble under an over two-year siege.
My favourite is the kitchen employee/janitor/Mr. Fixit, a tall young man, who swaggers amiably around tending to nargila coals, mopping floors, carrying crates, moving tables… and whistling with the most unique high-vibrato chirrup I’ve ever heard. He whistles oblivious to others, immersed in his work and his whistling art, pleasantly distracting me from more grave thoughts on the siege, medical cases,…I find myself laughing aloud each time he chirps past.
A waiter, with a serious demeanour, leans over and flips up the hair of a little girl, older-brother style though they are not siblings.
The perfectly-dressed manager of the shop, in casual suit jacket, always beams a hello, standing up to greet me and insists I stay as long as necessary. During Eid the shop was busy, filled with that portion of the population that do have money to spend, but nowhere to spend it and nothing to buy (the other 80% were wondering how they’d cook their UN food rations, without cooking gas).
Last week, at this coffee shop, I met with a friend, an academic who is also very involved in different civil society organizations and NGOs. We discussed how the siege affects education, his pet concern, then lapsed into general talk of the siege.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, confused,” he told me, although the nights are cool and relatively calm, compared to previous periods of sonic booms and bombing.
Some doctors and I further discussed the psychological effects of living locked down.
“People here in Gaza wouldn’t go to a psychiatrist. It’s a social thing, a stigma on seeking help for mental health. But everyone here is in the same situation, suffering under the same constraints of the siege. They can only tell doctors, like us, these kinds of things, and usually it is things like ‘I’m fed up, I can’t take this any longer.’
We hear a lot from our patients, and yet we still have our own stresses from the siege. We are overworked, we are so stressed, and there is no way of getting relief.
Some people become severely depressed, and many suffer from insomnia. People’s work and students’ study suffer, they can’t concentrate.
In other countries, when people are stressed, they go away, take a vacation. We don’t have that option; we can’t leave, and there’s no where to go in the Gaza Strip, it’s such a small within its closed borders.”
Outside the shop last night I came across the young boy from Khan Younis, in the south, who I’d met on a shared taxi some weeks ago. We’d exchanged alphabets, teaching each other. He stands outside this shop and mildly accosts passersby with chocolates and biscuits for sale.
Last night I visited a friend’s home, to meet his family. He brought in two neighbourhood youths, about 14 years old. “They are the marginalized kids,” he explained their poverty, and went on to cite Hassan’s musicality. “He’s very talented, singing, drumming, but has no where to show it off.” After a shy start, we got Hassan hand-drumming a mock-tabla and singing with gusto.
Mornings, I see Gaza’s harbour from the window of our shared apartment, many fishing boats out of use with Israel’s illegal restrictions on fishing in Gaza’s waters (under signed agreements, fishermen should be able to fish 20 miles out, but Israel has reduced this to a mere 6 miles and frequently targets fishermen even at the 4 mile limit).
On windy evenings, the sea waves enter our windows with their pleasantly raucous crashing.
Gaza’s coast, just minutes away, is always a relief to walk along, as long as I confine my thoughts to its beauty and the clouds, rather than thinking of the fishermen, sewage-polluted water, or the poor scraping by on UN hand-outs and what they can reel in from hand-held lines.